Winter Will Show You How Poor You Are

6:37 am. 10 degrees Celsius. Rissik street.

It is a grey skied May day in Johannesburg. I am on my way to work. I have 5 blocks to walk to get to the train station. I have on a polka dot jersey that my aunt Sheila surprised me with yesterday, a black and white striped scarf and a black coat. I’ve paired it with chinos and knee length dark brown boots that don’t show my thick red socks keeping me warm deep inside. My hair is in a curly bun still dripping a bit from this morning’s warm bath.

I’m walking fast to make sure I’m on the train in time to get to work by 7am. I sift through other humans rushing to get to work too. I run across robots that haven’t opened for me yet, trying not to get hit by any taxis. You can’t wait on robots when you’ve got a train to catch or trying not to get mugged in Joburg.

‘I am freezing,’ I realise. My fingers are pale and ice cold. I want to put them in my pockets but with the size of my chino pockets and my bag, it doesn’t seem to be working out for me. Winter is here. Argh. The thought reminds me of a funny thing I had heard some 2 weeks back. I was waiting in a queue to get a taxi on Rivonia road and the taxis there took forever to come.  The 3 ladies behind me in the queue start to complain which leads to helplessness and eventually to laughter. The one lady says: “Winter will show you just how poor you are. You don’t have a car, you don’t have warm trench coats or boots and you don’t have a man at home!” We laughed so hard then that the thought had me laughing again as I was running across the streets. How insane I must look to an onlooker.

I reach the corner where my old friend resides – Mcdonalds. My tongue gets bitter at the thought of a double espresso. ‘I’m a new woman,’ I say to myself and I swiftly walk away from my once-upon-a-crazy-year captor. Just after the McD, I reach what I always referred to in my head as the “homeless corner” – A block where homeless people sleep through the night. I think it is one of the few streets where they are allowed to sleep and won’t get arrested or chased away by police officers.

People are sleeping on the pavement, clothed only in plastic and some in those sacks that are used for packaging rice, mielie meal or charcoal. Some sacks are small, you can tell there might be younger people under them. The plastics bags are strategically placed over the head so that your own breathing is able to keep your face as warm as it can throughout the night. It is the only way I understand, in my head, the reasoning behind why it would be so tightly wrapped around the head up till the neck.

2 blocks further, I’ve made it to the train. I’m sneezing and still shivering. I can feel my body already being defeated by winter this year. All this I deduced in the 10 minutes I spent walking to the train. ‘How more the people sleeping out there?’ I think to myself, remembering the sight I just came from ‘All with only tattered shoes, plastics and sacks to cover. How must it be to go through a night out in the cold?’ I can’t bear to imagine it, my body picks up the stress and my leg begins to do that nervous twitch.

Even if you wanted to help – I mean – Of course you want to help but you have no means to. You’re just one person. You can’t help anything right now. You can’t save everyone. Just let it go.

But I can’t let it go. My heart won’t let me. I feel horrible. It’s time to get off the train and get to work. It’s going to be a long day. So, as I got out and started walking to my workplace, I have a glimpse of hope. It’s wonderful what a cold fresh breeze will blow into you mood sometimes. I think, ‘Okay, I have at least 10 close friends I know for sure could buy one blanket that could keep 10 people warmer, right? I have at least 10 relatives that I know wouldn’t struggle to donate a blanket. Surely that’s something? Right? How much are the kind of blankets I have in mind anyway?’ I Google: Pep stores grey blankets. They are a good size and are affordable, R55. We can do R55, guys. I feel better instantly.

4pm – home time. Further up the road in Rissik street, as you enter Braamfontein, I notice a building I think I am familiar with. Well, I was only ever there during the night but I am sure it is the one – The Methodist Church. During varsity, I remember us coming to this church every once or twice a month with the Remember and Give Committee of my university and we would prepare and hand out soup to the homeless. The bus would start at the church where the ladies would have the soup cooked and the bread ready and once done, we would go out to all different dilapidated buildings throughout Joburg to go hand out some soup.

We’d then hang out for the 30/45 minutes after serving the soup to have one-on-one’s with the people we would meet in these places, just simple chats. If you went often, you’d find familiar faces and you’d begin to know the guys on a deeper level. They’d even call you by your name after a while. It was always smiles and had a no-pressure feel about it. The people did not feel the pressure to tell us deep things about their lives and we didn’t probe into getting more from them. The deep, horrific and heart-breaking stories just brought themselves out in between the laughs and light chats. If I could think of people who needed blankets during this time, it would definitely be those men we met on those soup kitchen days for sure.

I think of 2 other charities I know for sure need blankets – one is near Pretoria and it is a children’s home in the toughest informal settlements I’ve gotten to see through my life. Those little angels definitely need blankets this winter.

Okay, fine, you’ve identified the people you could give the blankets to, but how do you convince people to donate blankets, Anna Taska?

This part, I don’t know. All I know is that, every time I walk past Rissik street, I get extremely stressed and it almost ruins my day right at its start. This feeling can’t just be because I like being a little sad. I cannot be the only person who feels this way. Other people must feel some kind of helplessness too when it comes to the people they can’t save. They has to be someone who thinks that giving someone a blanket will make one less child sick, one night less painful than usual. Just one less problem than the ones they have to deal with. Surely, if we have one less problem to worry about then that must mean a change has taken place, right? If I feel like this, then other people wouldn’t even need me to convince them to donate a tin of fish, beans, old blanket, socks or even R50 for one person to have one less problem, right? Because there must be some feeling each of us go through when we come across these things – no matter how different in description – that will lead us to the same conclusion.

I’m just a poor girl trying to get my money right in this life. But I rate, buying one blanket for one person and eliminating one problem out of the billions of problems we face on a daily is going to get something right for me. Whichever one of our needs it will get right is up to whoever reads this to deduce.

Enjoy your day. Keep warm. Feel. Give if you can.