Blog Action Day is looming – 15th of October for those of you not yet in the know. As a result, the question of poverty is very much in the forefront of my mind – and I’m seeing it more clearly than usual – all around me. I imagine some may find this post a little hard to handle. For that I make no apology. I write what I see, what I feel, what I wonder about. I write with the eyes of a writer and a storyteller…
As I sat today, at a streetside trattoria in a seaside suburb, I pondered two things – one, the ostentatious wealth and two, the abject poverty – which sat side by side.
Luigi’s Trattoria, one of my favourite places for a lazy Sunday nibble, is a laidback place – friendly, convivial and with good, hearty Italian fare. The gelateria next door does the most sublime Italian ice-cream. The nicest tables at Luigi’s are those that spill out onto the sunny pavement - but that means that the less wealthy inhabitants of Hout Bay (the suburb) walk on by and either gaze covetously at, or harass the diners. Hout Bay, you see, is the strangest of places, where wealth sits cheek by jowl with wretched poverty.
Because I’m a writer, stories fling themselves at me as I sit there. Every aspect of life in South African society tears at my soul. I see the thing as a four handed monster. On the one hand, sublime landscapes that tear at your soul with their evocative beauty, on the other, the unbelievable displays of wealth played out by those living in wedding cake houses and driving Jaguars, Bentleys and BMW SUVs that make you retch with their insensitivity and crassness. On the one hand the beautiful weather, the balmy spring days that warm body and soul, on the other, the dismal poverty of those who have nothing, who have been promised everything yet who remain in tin and wood shanties that flood in winter and reek all year round.
This is the nature of Hout Bay, which is, in effect, a microcosm of the macrocosm.
As I sit there sipping my Sauvignon Blanc, nibbling on my antipasto misto, a series of “characters” invades my own personal story.
The first is black guy, drunk and is masturbating as he shambles past the restaurant. He’s muttering to himself, his fly undone and is so far gone he’s largely oblivious to the world. One seeks, I guess, pleasure in any corner…
The second are a group of street urchins, their clothes torn, ready to harass the whiteys dining out, singing, dancing and berating, in the hope that if they keep it up for long enough a tourist will give them a buck or two.
The third is a guy of mixed race, sporting a faux American accent (you must remember that even in the “new” South Africa, race remains a fundamental part of the mix) . He’s already harassed Luigi and friend, rebuking them liberally before passing on to us, and saying “Yeah, if I was a whitey like you, I’d complain about the service.” Had I had the wit in that moment, I’d have asked for his story – but I was still reeling from the first guy.
The fourth are two children, mixed race, with a homemade petition pleading for money for their school. “Agh, please, merrem, marster,” they whine, “give us money for our school.” Because we know longer know where reality ends and trickery begins, we just say, “Sorry.” It seems a paltry response under any circumstances. You feel screwed whatever you do.
The fifth, another black man, is so drunk he can barely stand up straight. He slurs and staggers, mumbling incomprehensibly. The manager of the restaurant tells him to “go away”, but this doesn’t deter him, he just rants a bit more. “Go away! Go!” bellows the manager and the drunk staggers off, heading who knows where, to drown more of who knows what.
It’s not, I have to tell you, good for the digestion. For someone with an over-active imagination it’s not particularly uplifting either. I see stories in the eyes of these passerbys, just as I see stories in the eyes of those sitting around me – like the little toddler with blonde hair who is soaked in tomato sauce and relishing her meal with greedy gusto, the three Muslim guys who drip gold and treat the black waitress as though she is some servile beast, to the five tourists, who admire the weather, marvel at the locals, and think… what, one wonders…
I wondered, as I sat there, how many of you are faced with real poverty on a day to day basis? I wondered, how often you drove past people who sleep on the ground, sheltering under freeway bridges and in bushes, or who live in tin shanties that leak, that have neither plumbing nor electricity? I wonder, how often people beg from you, people who are destitute and without hope, people who look at you with eyes that are either blank or filled with dark resentment? I wonder how often you stare into the eyes of children and see, beyond the blankness, a glimmer of demons? I wonder how often you face real poverty, see it as a norm, as a daily fact of life, intertwined with crime and violence and drug abuse and… And I wonder how you feel about it, how it touches you, whether it tears at your soul – or whether, perhaps, it’s simply not part of your world, but something “out there”?