I was taking a last turn off the highway onto the Strand road towards the town, when from the corner of my eye I caught sight of them – a mother and her small boy on my lefthand side, next to the road. The sun was fading fast and there was some cold air drifting in from the ocean some five kilometres to the east. I was already late and in a hurry, my mind occupied by what lay ahead, but the passing glimpse of these two lonely travellers slowed me down for a while. It was clear that they had stopped for a brief moment to prepare themselves for the walk further into the cool night, homewards perhaps.
The mother, a well-dressed middelaged woman, had a concerned but a determined look on her face as she was bending down towards her son, helping him to put on some warmer clothes. Later I regretted it that I had not stopped or turned back, because although this was a moving scene of motherly care, it was also a disturbing one. As I was driving on all kinds of questions came to me: Who were they? Where were they going? Why were they walking? How far had they still to go? Was there a home somewhere nearby – perhaps on a farm or in a neighbour’s shelter? And then the more painful questions: How did they feel? What would the night with its darkness and strange shadows do to the little boy? And the mother who had to carry a burden of care and provision for a frail and frightened child – what was she feeling?
Eventually I realised that I had again been offered a picture of South Africa and of the vulnerable position in which so many people, especially the poor, find themselves. I also realised that I should try not to forget these images; that this was an important picture, which should remain with me, reminding me constantly of so many others who are desolate, lonely, homeless, vulnerable, often faceless – people in need of care, of shelter, of human concern and help.
We have a friend who is regularly confronted by beggars on his way to work, many are apparently crafty, perhaps wily, some quite intrusive and reeking of alcohol. Discussing the merits (or not) of many sad stories, he told us that he had made up his mind about how to deal with them. He just stops and gives them something when they ask. Because, this is his argument: “You do not know whose plea is false and whose genuine. So just in case their need is real, I give…God will take care of the rest”.
Although I know that questions of how to help the poor and the destitute in a way that will really make a difference are thorny issues in our society, I have found our friend’s approach helpful, more so when the disturbing memory of a lonely mother and child tends to fade…