Outside the supermarket where I’d stopped to buy bread, a young man somewhere in his twenties stepped up to me, asking for loose change. He wore recently-washed jeans, and the beginnings of a beard, and his eyes were swollen and tired.
I walked on by, telling him I didn’t have any coins but he stayed by my side, matching me stride for stride. “I am not a criminal. I am not a bad person. I am living on the streets. I am hungry.” These were the things he said, as he moved alongside me. Eventually I gave him one of the loaves of bread.
Whether he ate it, or sold it to someone else for tik money, I do not know, but as I drove away I was filled with a sense of insignificance. A loaf of bread, priced at R10 – a gesture of no value. Far better to contribute R300 a month, paid through a channel where I know what the money is used for, than to an arbitrary and lonely individual on the late-night street. Rather a bigger effort, concerted and planned, than a fifteen second gesture of no meaning. Far better if, instead of walking away, I’d stopped and spent an hour or two with that man, finding out why he was on the street, what had put him there, what his dreams were.
Surrounded as we are by the drought of poverty and need, it is true that every gift and contribution is like a drop of rain, but it must be a drop that falls in the right place, at the right time. I hadn’t, I told myself, performed any act of kindness to that young man.