“Mam, mam, give me a dollar, I want to buy some ‘ting’ to eat.”
Three pleads from three different men in a few steps, what the heck, I cry. I was about to ignore this plea but an eerie feeling spun me around.
I stopped in the direction of the mouldy odour and almost hit bam into BW. He grinned, exposing a set of chipped brown teeth and said: “teacher, mek dat two dollars.”
Horror? No, it was helplessness; no, grief. I don’t know which one but perhaps a mixture of all three curdled in my chest. I dared not speak fearing that if I opened my mouth these feelings would tumbled to the pavement in some repugnant bile.
“Wait, you don’t recognise me, teacher, but I know you good, your walk and all. Mek, it two dollars, straight.”
I could only look at him; no words would come; only one thought, I wish I were able to prevent him from taking his first snort of cocaine. Here was one of my students, tidy, mannerly and full of promise in the classroom, now dirty almost beyond recognition and ‘scavengering’ garbage cans in our capital.
With one jerk of his elbows, he pulled up his torn pants which now almost reached his exposed nipples. The multi-coloured knotty string whose duty was to hold them in place, like him was failing and I had already seen his pubic hairs that were matted into clumps by filth.
“Teacher, you didn’t see anything, right.” Indeed, I had noticed what little privacy he had left and much more. I saw a glimmer of the respectful teenager he once was and how powerful drugs can kill the hope, the productivity, and the potential of my small nation.
I thrusted the money into his hands. He scurried away to a nearby trash can, threw the lid nosily to the pavement and hauled out two plastic bottles and a half-eaten hamburger that displayed teeth marks trimmed by bright red lipstick. Apparently oblivious to this fact, he took a seat on the sidewalk and hungrily chomped on the burger. “De two dollar bill will buy some ting for lata,” he said, as I attempted to pass him. Immediately, I heard a menacing growl coming from an adjoining street.
The snarling dog which I expected didn’t appear instead a tall man, whose true age was erased by the ravages of a hard life on the streets, hurried towards us shouting threats and dragging a large bag of plastic bottles, some jutting out from the bursting seams. Judging from his frame, I believed he was once a broad-shouldered, sexy man but that day with dirty tattered clothes hanging on him like a sheet, he reminded me of a muddy scarecrow.
He confronted BW, waving his hands frantically and shouting violently: “I tell you, don’t tek up bottles from this area, these belong to me, here is mine.” He savagely dislodged the two bottles from my student’s hand and forced them into his left side pocket. He also snatched what remained of the burger and went away singing “Jesus, friend of little children …” alternated with a breathless string of expletives.
“Teacher, dat is what happen when you ‘tief’ de church money to buy dope,” BW said.
BW could still reason. He had a sense of right and wrong and so too did the nameless vagrant. My attitude towards persons in this condition changed that day. Perhaps, with help, some can be reformed, I thought.
I wish I were able to do something to help these street folk; for I saw a hint of promise. Perhaps, the message hit me because my former student was one of the many stars in this real life horror story. I also wish my country were able to put in place an aggressive programme to help them turn around their lives. I wonder if the true situation is that as a country we have given up on them?
Years have since passed and I have done nothing but think. Recently I read that the drug rehabilitation centre in my country may have to be closed for financial reasons. I ask myself: what if I had not give up, fearing that the task was too big for my ‘little’ help to matter.
I wish I were brave enough to have started a charity aimed at rehabilitating those who now roam our streets, numb to their odours and unconcerned about their hygiene, their safety and the world around them. Perhaps I am merely a dreamer, what do you think?