Every morning on the way to work, I pass one of those informal roadside stalls that dot the sidewalks of South Africa. Every morning, a woman brings a shopping trolley full of Nik-Naks and bananas and chocolate biscuits, carefully divided into plastic sandwich bags, and places them out on a plastic folding table.
And, lately, every morning I wave at her. I should have started doing it a long time ago, because we see one another most days. Every morning, she sees me reverse awkwardly out of our gate, wait at the stop street, and then drive past.
I never stop, and it struck me that maybe I should. Maybe, instead of stocking up on lunch at the supermarket, I should buy from her stall. Do something for a local entrepreneur who’s there rain or shine, winter and summer, except for the week’s leave she took a couple of months ago. The pavement across the road felt strangely empty without her there, and I was relieved when I saw her back at her post.
This afternoon, I finally got around to going to talk to her. To make up for all the times I haven’t bought lunch, I took a hundred Rand note along with me when I went for a walk around the suburb where we live.
The trigger was the usual one: I’d had an exceptionally bad day, spent some of it sobbing in a toilet cubicle at the office, excused myself from a meeting because it was too obvious that I had been crying and fled home, snot en trane all the way.
What do I do to cope in situations like these? Self-medicate of course, and since my usual choice – wine – is not an option, I went for the next best thing: giving money away. (I first became addicted to giving money away nearly three years ago, when I got my pension payout after quitting my job. Instant dopamine rush.)
I weighed up whether to buy R100 worth of snacks in advance for myself or lunch for others, and eventually settled on buying lunch for others on the grounds that it was logistically more feasible. I nearly abandoned the idea when I saw that the hawker was not alone, but with a group of friends under a tree. The thought of talking to a group of people who would probably wonder what this crazy mlungu wanted was appalling, but I gritted my teeth and went through with it.
“Are you the lady who runs the stall?” I asked. One of the women stood up and headed across the street. I followed her, explaining, “I wave at you every morning when I drive past.”
“What’s your name?”
“Gugu” Her voice was barely audible.
“I’m Sarah. Nice to meet you.”
I showed her the R100. “I want to buy R100 worth of stock,” I said. “To pay for other people’s lunches.” I was explaining it badly. “So they don’t have to pay when they come to buy from you.” She smiled uncertainly. “Will you do that?”
She nodded, took the money and headed back across the street, while I walked on.
I don’t know whether she’ll give her Nik-Naks and chocolate biscuits away to others who ask for them, or whether she’ll pocket the money, and it doesn’t really matter. I feel a strange obligation to her, to her consistent presence. She has a hard life, and I get to drive past and leave her in my wake every morning and every evening. In this sense, the payment was necessary.
This, then, is roadside retail therapy. I get to exchange money for the chance to feel better. Whether I’m purchasing the temporary amelioration of guilt or the illusion of bringing happiness to another – I’m not entirely sure which, and possibly it’s both – at least somebody else gets to benefit.
Let’s face it, I really don’t need any more pairs of shoes.