One hot Friday afternoon on campus at the University of Pretoria, Hatfield campus, I was walking towards the gate behind the Law Library building and I saw, standing in front of the gates with about 10 buckets and a small box, a Black woman who looked to be in her late 50s or early 60s. She looked trapped in a reality that only belonged to her while everyone walked passed her as if she did not exist. As if about to ask the world to open up and swallow her, she kept her gaze fixed at her feet and only looked up to see if any of the almost familiar strangers walking past her would help her. She reminded me of my mother, she had the same look on her face that my mother always has, a look of love, no so much for the people around her but more so for the people she is doing everything she is doing for, and determination. From where I was standing she seemed out of place but there was something in her demeanor that drew me towards her and I approached her.
I walked up to her and said, “dumela mama, a nka go thusa?” (Good day mama, can I help you?) Hoping she understood Setswana.
She looked up with a look of surprise and responded, “dumela ngwanaka, ne ke kopa o nthuse go ntsha di emere tse” (Good day my child, can you please help me take these buckets out)
I asked her how long she had been standing there and she told me that she had been standing there for almost 30 minutes and I was the first person to approach her. For almost 30 minutes she stood there under the hot Pretoria sun staring at the ground hoping that one of the souls walking past her would offer her help, and none of them did. I decided to help her and after asking at least two other students to help, we managed to get the bucket’s out of the revolving gates and she again stood on the outside.
“Is everything ok ma?” I asked
“Yes, I’m just thinking about how I’m going to carry all these buckets to the train station,” she responded.
“Let me help you ma, plus I have nowhere to go,” I said.
Trying to help as much as I could I decided to carry a majority of the load knowing that she had to carry all of them once I helped her get to the station. She informed me that she had left more buckets with one of the car guards and she had to go fetch them before she left. We got to the guard and he gave her about 7 more buckets and we had to figure out a way to carry all of them together. The trip to the station was going to take us a while so I decided to use this time to learn more about her and why she is carrying so many buckets.
“I come here every Friday to buy these buckets and other material from the café shops on campus and I go sell them somewhere else. They don’t bring in a lot of money but it’s enough to put food on the table for me and my children,” she said.
“How long have you been doing this?” I continued.
“I have been coming to this university every Friday for the past 5 or so years. I sometimes bring some of the young ones, but I mostly come here alone.”
“Why do you do this specifically? Have you tried applying for a job at one of these cafés you buy these things from?”
“I have but I’m too old to do anything. I have a big problem with my knees and I can’t stand for a long time and this is always a problem. But if I don’t do this my children go to sleep hungry and I can’t allow that to happen while I’m still alive.”
We walked past a lot of people for almost 10 minutes and none of them offered to help. I was carrying my backpack and 10 buckets (which was not an easy task considering the fact that I had all of my textbooks with me) and she was carrying the rest of the buckets, with most of them on her head, and the small box. We walked through Hatfield struggling with the weight, plus we had to walk slowly because of her feet, and no one, not even one soul, offered to help.
I’ve lived in poverty all my life and I know what it’s like to have people look down on you because of your social position and financial status, but I have never seen it done to anyone else in the way it was done to this lovely old lady. In a sea of young people, with some of coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, none of them, not even one, offered to help her. From the moment she stood at the gate to the moment we walked up towards platform B of the Hatfield train station, no one, not even the security guards at the station offered to help her. The security guards at the station were the worst because they spoke down at her for “having so many buckets with her” and asking her “where she was going to put all of them.”
The truth is that this was not the first time I had ever come across such a situation. Before this day I had come across two other senior citizens who were in almost similar situations and had no one offer to help out. One was a woman carrying what looked like a heavy load of boxes walking the opposite direction to where I was going. I offered to help and with a smile on her face (which I believe was just a mask to hide the fact that she was scared of me) she declined my offer and said “may the good Lord bless you for the offer my child.” The second was an old man carrying a leader walking in the same direction as me and when I offered to help he thanked me for the offer and declined it with a scared look on his face.
In all these cases, the people I offered to help were very grateful for the offer – with the old lady in Pretoria offering to even pay me for my help – but they only did so because I was the only one that actually offered to help. Our parents are afraid of us to the point where they can’t even ask help from us. The very same people who are willing to go to an institution to buy a lot of buckets in order to pay for the food we eat are afraid to ask help from us.
The next time you see someone struggling with something offer to help. Help because you want to help and not because you were instructed by Thato Rossouw to.