Hummell 03 volunteered for Street Universe in order to make a difference
in the lives of some of the homeless kids living on the streets of Cape
Town, South Africa. What she didnt count on was the difference they
would make in hers...
While I was there, I was overwhelmed. Most of the time I
kept pushing through the confusion and frustration, suppressing any emotions
that would hinder my involvement with the kids. As I sit here now, reflectingas
I vowed I wouldupon my experience with the street kids of Cape Town,
South Africa, I am overwhelmed in a different way.
I miss Carmen, who taught me how to say good morning in Afrikaans
the first day I walked up to the Bree Street office. And my other Carmen,
who shared with me the letters from her boyfriend in prison, grabbing
me eagerly by the arm and taking me to visit her children in one of the
squatter areas near the city. Hendrick, who wore size-12 tennis shoes,
not a particularly good match for his 12-year-old body. Jackson, stabbed
at age 15 and too frightened to go back to the hospital where he was so
poorly treated. Oppie, with his beautiful albeit toothless smile, braving
the streets with only one leg. I even miss Colin, who had so much potential
but needed a way to channel his anger without resorting to drugs and crime.
I didnt see the kids this way at the beginning. When I first arrived
at Street Universe, a local organization providing opportunities and support
to the street kid population, I treated my involvement as community service,
and I looked at the kids as a social problem. I knew there were over 400
of them on the streets of Cape Town and surrounding suburbs, some as young
as four. Most Cape Townians ignored them. The police often beat them,
and didnt hesitate to arrest them. Life for them was rough, and
each day was about survival. While the kids were starving on the streets,
begging for food, I was hungry in a different wayeager to feed off
the satisfaction of making a difference in their lives.
My experiences, however, would push the limits of volunteer comfort. Suddenly
I was cradling a stabbed and frightened Jackson in my arms. Suddenly Colin
and Maanie were turning against me. Suddenly I was searching for a book
on juvenile justice for Carmens incarcerated boyfriend. They had
names. I recognized their faces as I walked the streets, and they recognized
mine. Suddenly, they were as much a part of my life as I was of theirs.
I can admit it now. In the early days, I remained in the background, observing
and waiting for directions. I hid in that upstairs room, doing administrative
work, writing proposals, typing out letters. I was helping, but it was
all on my own careful terms.
Soon, though, I forced myself to go downstairs, to get out on the streets
and spend time with the kids. I learned how important it was to hug them,
to listen to them, to make them feel important. The time spent with the
street kids began to shape my entire study abroad experience.
Eventually, I went down to Bree Street nearly every day, waking up early
so that I could spend as many hours as possible in the city before having
to return to campus for my afternoon classes. By talking to the kids,
I saw the way they dealt with their own lives, lives that have been incredibly
tough. For these kids, problems took the form of violence,
hunger, disease and incarceration. Yet, they survived. Their strength
and resilience in the midst of some of the most difficult situations taught
me a great deal about the power of the human spirit.
I realized this even on the very first day
I had a little map of the Cape Town streets, drawn by my program director.
After taking a jam-packed minibus into the city center, I finally made
my way to the Street Universe office at 82 Bree Street. I slowed down
and approached gingerly as I saw a cluster of kids lounging on the sidewalk
in front of the door. There were no adults in sight, nor was there any
sign of activity inside the building. As I debated whether or not to leave,
a young girl waved at me with a smile. Taking my hand and pulling me closer,
the girl I would come to know as the first Carmen explained
to me that two of the Street Universe staff members, Faizel and Cliffy,
would be along shortly to open up the office. She then proceeded to teach
me a few words of Afrikaans, which was the language most commonly spoken
by the kids.
As I sat there on the sidewalk, she described where she usually slept,
which groups of kids occupied various territories, who her boyfriend was,
and other things about her life on the streets. Much of those first days
at Street Universe remains a blur in my memory, but I still remember Carmens
Being a street kid means not having a roof over your head, not having
enough food in your stomach, and not having enough clothing to keep your
body warm. On top of all that, Oppie was missing a leg.
Time and again, Oppie would amaze me, hobbling around on his dirty crutch,
somehow managing to keep up with the others. Because his one shoe received
so much wear and tear, his toes would usually be sticking out, and the
sole would be worn thin. Yet he was cheerful, always smiling and eager
to share a story.
He was determined to sail, and signed up to be one of the handful of boys
to go down to Simons Town once a week to receive sailing instruction.
Joining in that program myself, I was struck by Oppies resilience
and success at tying knots and hoisting himself from one side of the boat
to the other, participating as a full crewmember. One day, it was too
windy to sail, and the group went over to nearby Boulders Beach to eat
lunch. The other boys stripped and splashed around between the oversized
rocks. Oppie was determined to keep up with them, despite his handicap,
getting help to be lifted up to the highest rock where they sat down to
Although it was a common practice for the kids to sniff glue and thinners
in the mornings, either to get high or simply to stay warm, Oppie rarely
did. Usually, he would cheerfully greet me those mornings in front of
the office, eager to go somewhere. Whenever Cliffy sent me to an area
of the city that I was unfamiliar with, Oppie would volunteer to be my
guide. I was usually the one trying to keep pace.
I never came face to face with Cape Town violence in its raw form, but
I dealt with some of its victims.
Jackson was about 15 years old, a kid I didnt see regularly, but
memorable for his mischievous smile and excellent ball-handling skills
in soccer. I heard one day, when I came into the office, that he had been
stabbed the night before in a fight over sleeping territory. He had been
taken to a hospital, where he was said to be in critical condition.
The next morning, however, I walked into the downstairs portion of the
building where the kids were allowed to hang out, sleep, or simply get
out of the rain, and there was Jackson, curled up in the corner with a
white sheet around him, asleep. Linzi and I brought him upstairs, and
when we asked him what he was doing there, he began to cry, begging us
not to take him back to the hospital. He had been stabbed in the lung
and was weak, so it was difficult to understand him, but we finally understood
that the nurses and doctors had been mean to him. When we
told him it was necessary to go back or he might die, he became agitated,
and his breathing sped up.
I didnt really know what to do or say, so I made him some milky,
sweet coffee and sat with him, trying to calm him down. As Linzi frantically
made calls to get him admitted into another hospital, I sat in a back
room with Jackson in my arms, not sure what to do except hold him close.
I pulled my lunch out of my purse and fed him little bites of banana,
telling him over and over that everything would be okay. The coffee seemed
to make him feel better, but his breathing was still uneven, and I was
Linzi was able to get him into the Groote Schur hospital, and someone
drove him there. Later we heard from the doctor that Jackson had developed
pneumonia in his lung. If we had not gotten him there when we did, the
doctor said, he likely would have died.
Shafik, Edmund, Outta and Agies (pronounced Ah-hees) were
stereotypical street kids, at least in the eyes of Cape Town residents
and tourists. They had staked out their territory in the heart of the
tourist center and survived by begging, watching cars or stealing.
Sometimes I would go with them to the nearby soup kitchen in the parish
hall of a church, where they could get the equivalent of 10-cent soup
and 5-cent bread. Agies would tell me about his hopes of becoming an artist
and getting off the streets. Outta would describe life in jail (he had
recently gotten out), and explain his crude tattoos.
Often, I would be lounging on the sidewalk with the kids, and receive
hostile looks from passers-by, as if they were thinking, What does
she think shes doing hanging out with those kids? I remember
the shock on a businessmans face when I was the one stationed to
watch his car. The kids had decided to put me to work and
were teaching me the ways of the often-ambiguous car parking business.
At times it was hard to draw the line in terms of male-female boundaries
with this mostly-male group of kids. As we all became more familiar with
one another, there were hugs that lasted a bit too long, hands that strayed
where they shouldnt. Ultimately, I think they began to realize that
I honestly just wanted to be friends.
My favorite times were sitting there with them, and although they often
talked amongst themselves in Afrikaans, they made a concerted effort to
include me in conversations. It was with this group that I felt most at
ease, and I would often seek them out in the morning even before checking
in at the office.
The second Carmen was about my age. She loved to dance, and was determined
to teach me some of her moves. I tried, but our impromptu dancing lessons
usually degenerated into me tripping over my own feet and her laughing
good-naturedly. Although she was young, she was all too familiar with
the harsh realities of street life. With two young children, and a boyfriend
in jail, day-to-day survival was a constant trial.
One day Carmen hailed me down as I was leaving the office. Her voice was
strained as she explained to me that the woman who took care of her two
children in the nearby squatter area was unwilling to care for them anymore.
Carmen insisted that I go with her and see the kids. Perhaps she thought
I might be able to help.
The squatter area was situated on an open field at the top of a hill just
above the city center. The makeshift shelters were like those of the townships,
with cardboard boxes, scrap-metal siding, and other bits of material,
all being used to protect the inhabitants from the winter Cape winds and
rain. When we arrived, the youngest baby was asleep, and the other girl
was playing nearby. Carmen argued in Afrikaans with the woman about the
children for a while. I stood in the background without purpose, not sure
what to do, and not wanting to stare. When we left, Carmen explained that
the woman had agreed to help a little while longer, until Carmen could
figure out a solution. But for a street kid like her, prospects were bleak.
Drugs, crime, and prostitution drag kids into a vacuum that perpetuates
their dependence on the systems of the streets. Carmen understood this
and knew she faced a major challenge to pull herself and her family out.
Sometimes, forgiveness is absolutely necessary in order to get on with
life. Colin and the other boys forced me to put this motto to the ultimate
Leading up to that day, I was already beginning to feel uneasy. At the
end of September, I wrote: Street Universe has been tough for me
lately. Im torn because I spend a lot of time there, but get easily
frustrated with everything. Its hard when I already feel emotionally
frazzled, and then try to be strong and tough with all the madness related
to the street kids.
The day began as Thursdays normally did: we piled into a small car and
headed down to Simons Town for the weekly sailing excursion. Thats
when everything started to go wrong. Reagan wouldnt stop rubbing
my shoulder and playing with my hair. The boys said some things about
me in Afrikaans, and Luke, the volunteer driver, refused to translate,
saying I didnt want to know. Even Oppie was high on thinners and
in a foul mood.
Once we arrived at the water and got out of the suffocating car, things
seemed to get better. The kids began their sailing lesson, and it seemed
that they were calming down. Oppie was sobering up, and beginning to be
his normal, cheerful self. I decided to chalk up the unpleasant car ride
to the kids morning regimen of thinners and glue. But it wasnt
Everything got worse on the way home. Maanie was rude, saying he didnt
want me to come sailing again. I didnt understand it. Maanie was
known for his smart mouth, but he had never acted like this
towards me before. I sat in the front seat, with Colin behind me. He kept
touching me, poking my arm, and, in a half-joking way, talking about wanting
to kill me. He made a pretense of strangling me, and though he was laughing
at the time, it was actually painful and frightening. Oppie tried to stick
up for me, but it was all too much. I felt trapped in that little car.
I thought the trip home would never end, and as I looked out the window
I wished I were anywhere else.
They dropped me off at the house on Church Street, where I immediately
burst into tears. I had felt so close to these kids. We had gone on numerous
sailing excursions, and I had always looked forward to the next. When
I drove, Maanie and Colin were the ones who always chose to go in my car
instead of Lukes. I couldnt understand why they suddenly were
acting like this. Part of me wanted never to see them again.
Despite the events of the previous day, I decided to go into the city
as usual Friday morning. Oppie pulled me aside, gave me a hug, and took
me across the street to share a chocolate bar. He told me not to be upset
about the others, and assured me that he would talk to them when they
surfaced. Later, I sat down with Maanie and told him what I was feeling.
His response was flippant, but afterward we seemed to be back on normal
I still hadnt seen Colin by the end of the day. That night, my whole
group of friends went out to dinner in the city, then partied downtown.
Heading to a new bar, we took a short cut down a sidestreet, and as we
walked along, dressed in our nice clothes, chatting with each other, I
caught sight of Colin coming toward us.
froze, and once he saw me he also stopped. My friends kept going, ignoring
him, as most do at night with street kids. We stood about 10 yards apart,
in a kind of standoff. When I saw him inhale his glue, I thought it was
starting all over again, but I held my ground as he came toward me. As
he reached me, he raised his hand as if he intended to hit me, but then
he gave me a big hug and said how excited he was about next weeks
sailing. Not a word about Thursday was spoken. I was so surprised and
relieved that I decided then and there to forget what had happened, and
to forgive him.
The incident helped me come to terms with the fact that my involvement
with the street kids, however meaningful for me, was for them only a small
moment in the context of their longer struggle. When I left in December,
they stayed on the streets. I suppose most of them are still there.
I continue to think about them and all of the experiences we shared. They
changed me. For them, however, my time on the streets of Cape Town is
a fleeting memory. I was one of the many individuals who come and go from
their lives. As I think about all that I did do, I am all the more reminded
of what I did not do, and cannot do.
I cant help Carmen find a job or help her with her children. I cant
go shoot the soccer ball with Agies. Oppie continues to crutch around
the streets, but Im not beside him. Their lives go on, and I did
not save them.
Rebecca Hummel is a graduating senior at Pomona College.