Thursday, February 24, 2011

My heart breaks....

In South Africa hitchhiking is widespread and accepted, mainly because many families don’t own a car.  Also, in many parts, public transportation is sparse and taxis hard to come by.  Wherever you drive there are people on the side of the road, often waving some money, indicating they are willing to share expenses, or a cardboard sign with the hoped-for destination handwritten on it.
 Where I live, in small-town Knysna on the Indian Ocean, there is a flourishing taxi business.  Taxis in South Africa come in two flavours.  There are the taxis that are the same as elsewhere in the world.  They are either in ranks, prowling the streets for fares, or can be summoned with a phone call.  More common are the minibus taxis.  These are privately owned and usually operate in some ways like public buses in that they have a more or less fixed route.  Where they differ is that they will stop anywhere on the route, usually without signaling, to pick up or let off passengers.  They also drive wherever they want in order to progress towards their destination, including the pavement (sidewalk) and the shoulder of the road.  And it is seldom that the number of passengers equals the number of seats – there are usually far more passengers than legally allowed.  However, without these minibuses, most of the labour force of South Africa would not get to work.
In Knysna, the minibus taxis only go to destinations if it is worthwhile for them.  That means many people don’t have an easy way of getting around.  So many people walk – sometimes long distances – every day.
Anytime I drive between the centre of the village and my home, I give a lift to anyone walking.  As I have a car with 7 seats, I am quite popular.  The other day, there was only one person walking, a well-dressed woman, and I stopped for her.
Usually there is not a lot of conversation on these 10 minute trips, sometimes due to language difference – I don’t speak Xhosa, the prevalent local language – or sometimes because there is not a lot of common ground.  But I always try to initiate an exchange.
Stylish African woman
After the usual pleasantries, I asked her how long she had been in Knysna.  Eighteen years, she said.  Where are you from?  From East London, she replied. 
East London is a town about 600 kms away. 
Did she have a family? I asked.  Three sons.  How old?  Eighteen, seventeen, and ten.  And your husband?  Does he work?
“I’m divorced!  For ten years.  I divorced him because he always drank too much.  Then he would beat us.  The boys and me.”
“That’s terrible.  Did you report him?”
“No.  The police don’t do anything, and anyway it would make things worse.  I just divorced him.”
“Does he support you and the kids?”
“No.  He’s with another woman now, with two kids.”
“His kids?”
“No, hers.  They live not far from me.  He beats her too.  He works only sometimes, for the fire department, and still gets drunk. Where does he get the money?  I am hungry and my kids are always hungry.”
“Do your kids see him?”
“No.  The older ones still remember what he did to them.  They don’t want to see him.  The young one was only three months when I divorced him.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes.
“When the young one sees a fire engine, he points and says his father is on it.  He’s never spoken to his father.”
“We are always hungry.  And it is so expensive to have three boys at school.  And taxis are expensive.”
“Do you have a man in your life?”
“No.  There are no good men.  They all are lazy and drink and beat their women.  I gave up men for God.  He listens.  I know he will provide.”
“Do you have a full-time job?”
“No.  Two days only.”
I shook my head, knowing that likely meant a weekly income of less than $40 – to feed and clothe four people.  Plus school supplies, books, etc., etc.
How do they do it? I wondered, glancing at the immaculately dressed woman, strong and proud.
How do they do it, the poor of the Third World?
And my heart broke - so many people who suffer poverty with more grace than we the privileged can muster.  So many people for whom the future must look endlessly bleak.

And for those of us who care, making a difference appears a Sisyphean task.  We know where to begin, but where is the end?

Stan - Thursday


  1. There is no end, Stan. But it is the beginning that really matters because that will determine how much light she will be able to glimpse at the end of the tunnel. Unless her abuser dies, she will never be completely without fear but she can be helped greatly by a community that means it when they say they will help.

    Once a woman makes the decision to do something to protect herself and her children, she moves into the most dangerous period of their connected lives. The chances of a woman being killed by her abuser increases significantly once she makes it clear that she is not going to take the abuse anymore. The availability of shelters to which she can go and be safe, not just feel safe, is the responsibility of the community and the community needs to be serious about protecting the abused.

    What makes it worse, the sons of abusers very often become abusers themselves and the daughters of abused women very often become abuse victims. The cycle of violence is vicious and difficult to stop.

    Society doesn't take domestic violence seriously. Women are deeply humiliated that the men in their lives have no respect for them as human beings. They don't seek help, medically or legally, because they are embarrassed.

    My daughter worked with abused women when she was in college and in law school. She found the work very depressing but she did have one wonderful story to tell. She was sitting in on a meeting between a woman and her attorney as they prepared for a divorce hearing. The woman had lived with her three children in her car, in a shelter, in a room in a welfare hotel, and, finally, in an apartment. She brought a letter from the principal of the school her children attended. The principal wrote that the children came to school clean, appropriately dressed for the weather, their homework done, and with a nutritious lunch. My daughter felt a guilty at the ease of her life. As she said, "I will never in my life accomplish what this woman has done."

    How does the lady in your car do it? She can do it because she has children and she will do whatever it takes to make their lives better. She can do it because she doesn't have a choice. She can do it because if she doesn't she will betray her children as their father did.

    It isn't just the third world. You can drive through the streets of an upscale town and know that behind the doors and windows of beautiful homes some will no have furniture and there will be no food in the refrigerator. People live completely false lives because they don't want to admit their desperation.

    Your gentlemanly act provided the woman with more than a ride. You gave her your attention, you listened. It is very possible that she would not have told of her circumstances to someone she knew. She needed an angel in the guise of a stranger to listen and acknowledge her plight.

    Blessings on you, Stan.

  2. Beth is so right, and this woman needs men in particular to disprove her theory that "there are no good men." Thank you for every effort you make for the vulnerable. Where else do we start or finish?

    But Stan, even the privileged have difficult times...

    The blue ribbon in your posting is clear. Know that we are with you through this. Many are and will be, for you touch lives. And I know you will keep on touching.

    Keep our love and regard with you, and the blessings Beth and all of us bestow.