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Spring 2003
Volume 39, No. 3
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Sarah Dolinar

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Rebecca 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 didn’t 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, reflecting—as I vowed I would—upon 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 way—eager 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 Carmen’s 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.

Street Universe
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…

Carmen #1
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 Carmen’s voice.

Enver (“Oppie”)
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 Simon’s Town once a week to receive sailing instruction. Joining in that program myself, I was struck by Oppie’s 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 eat.

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.

Jackson
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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 frightened.

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.

The Greenmarket Crew
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 she’s doing hanging out with those kids?” I remember the shock on a businessman’s 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 shouldn’t. 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.

Carmen #2
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.

A Reality Check
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 test.

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. I’m torn because I spend a lot of time there, but get easily frustrated with everything. It’s 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 Simon’s Town for the weekly sailing excursion. That’s when everything started to go wrong. Reagan wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t over.

Everything got worse on the way home. Maanie was rude, saying he didn’t want me to come sailing again. I didn’t 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 Luke’s. I couldn’t understand why they suddenly were acting like this. Part of me wanted never to see them again.

Pushing Through
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 terms.

I still hadn’t 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.

I 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 week’s 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 can’t help Carmen find a job or help her with her children. I can’t go shoot the soccer ball with Agies. Oppie continues to crutch around the streets, but I’m not beside him. Their lives go on, and I did not save them.

—Rebecca Hummel is a graduating senior at Pomona College.