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Roadside Retail Therapy

17 Nov

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.


These are the things I have abandoned

16 Aug

This year, I have steadily abandoned more and more of the things I once thought I could not live without.

Last week, I pretty much let go of the last vestiges of what I used to consider essential to my sense of self. They are, in no particular order:

A home of my own. (What for? I’ll only sleep there, and my parents and grandmother are better off with having me around.)

A car of my own. (I can manage without owning one.)

A job. (I’ve been freelancing for more than 18 months and I can manage, despite being really bad at invoicing.)

A relationship. (Never again.)

Purpose. (There isn’t any. I can help people, but there’s no overarching narrative.)

The idea of a future. (Holding onto this was only making me miserable.)

It’s sad, but also quite zen, and I’m getting used to it. 

I’ll keep you posted. 



So… what now?

6 Dec

Today I handed back the Evoque after two years of driving Land Rovers. This is me this afternoon with Roland Reid, the man responsible for involving me in the Pulse of the City campaign:

Me with Roland Reid

I look happy, but obviously I’m really sad about no longer having the freedom to explore the city and beyond in a beautiful car which has cosseted me in a world of cream leather and a superb sound system for so long.

Driving along the William Nicol to the framers, again, to pick up the rest of the lipstick hearts for a big client job, I thought about the beggars and this project. Has my relationship to them changed? Yes, definitely. To be honest, I’m not as magnanimous as I was. I’m back to being anonymous, the chick in the Hyundai i20 – the one I used to drive until I sold it to my mother – not the woman in the hugely desirable luxury car, the one I had a responsibility to evangelize in social media. I’m back to feeling less guilty about looking like I have a lot of money when the truth is that I don’t. That part of this project where I give lots of money to beggars to compensate for driving such an expensive, flashy car, is over. I’ve given more to charity this year than in the previous ten years combined – more about that in a future post – and I have donor fatigue. I’m feeling under financial pressure, and I want to hold on again.

I think I’ve started something interesting here though. This project has catalyzed all sorts of conversations, and I want to continue having them. I’ve been talking about this kind of thing for ages – our emotional relationship with the city we live in and the cars we drive – but haven’t house the conversation anywhere specific.

This has the potential to evolve in all sorts of directions, and I’d like to keep it going should I continue to write about cars, which is the plan. Thank you to everyone who has got involved in some way – I look forward to wherever this road takes us, and what we find at the next red robot.

All in the timing

5 Dec


This is a beggar I did not give anything to – mainly because I couldn’t attract his attention. He’s genuinely disabled: his shirt is open at the back to accommodate his hunchback. I tried to attract his attention – I would have given him R50, but the lights turned green, and in Joburg you don’t dare delay anyone. I would have given so much more money during this campaign if it were not for the timing. It’s amazing how beggars don’t pay attention, so even when I try to flag them down, they don’t notice, and the opportunity is missed.

Eric is not impressed

5 Dec


William Nicol Dec 5

The other day I observed that the reception from beggars seemed the same whether I gave them R5 or R100. Today, heading back along the William Nicol from the framers, again, to deliver a large consignment of lipstick hearts, this man approached me. Confession: I had a R50 note but something about him made me hand him R5 instead. These decisions are frequently made in a fleeting moment, and were I to see him again, I’d be more generous.

He wasn’t very impressed – presumably the car I was driving created certain expectations.

Could you cope without a car?

4 Dec

Lourie talking to Kenneth

The biggest difference between motorists and beggars is that motorists are in cars and beggars are not. Well, duh, you say. Obviously.

But consider this: the issue is much bigger than one of functionality.

Having a car means you have choices, and that’s important. Yes, there are costs associated with it, but you enjoy a level of freedom and autonomy that isn’t possible without one. Continue reading

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