At about 6.15pm on Friday evening Leah buzzed my home intercom. She was crying. An urgent, panicked cry that drew my attention away from the Seinfeld reruns I was watching on my laptop. The more I tried to tell her that I was busy, that I had no money or clothes to donate, the more she begged me to come to the gate to talk to her. Concerned but wary, I tentatively strolled outside with the intention of shooing her away. I was already running late for a friend’s birthday party and wanted to keep the encounter as brief as possible. I even grabbed my wallet as I walked out the door to speed things up.
As I caught sight of her I was struck by her smallness. She looked about 65 years old. Her hunched body was heaving with sobs. A toddler, who stood by her side in a dusty tracksuit, was trying unsuccessfully to grasp hold of Leah’s hand. I greeted them as I approached and asked Leah what was wrong.
She told me her daughter had recently died and introduced the child as her grandson, Mkela. She said she didn’t have the R200 she needed to pay her rent that month. She told me she had spent the day trying to make the money washing cars in Rondebosch, but nobody believed a “gogo” would do a decent job.
It was almost sunset and she didn’t have any money to travel back to Khayelitsha, where she had two more grandchildren waiting for her. She asked me if I had a towel to spare for her and Mkela to sleep on that night.
As she spoke I experienced a knee-jerk reaction to offer her money. I took a crisp R50 out of my wallet and offered it to her to cover the cost of transport and a meal for her grandchildren that evening. Pre-occupied with explaining her current predicament and wiping away her streaming tears, she looked at me quizzically as I tried to hand over the money.
I felt awkward standing there clutching onto my cash, willing her to take it and let me get on with my evening. I could have been more insistent on my donation and made explicit the fact that I really did not have time for this, but for the sake of courtesy I stood still. As her rambling continued, I focused my attention on the child, who I noticed was cradling an empty plastic Sprite bottle and smiling at me.
I interrupted Leah to ask when last Mkela had eaten and she said he hadn’t eaten since early that morning. I told her to wait while I fetched a box of biscuits from my kitchen to hand over. He beamed with delight as he got his little hands on one. I found his affinity for Nuttikrust endearing in a way that only biscuit lovers could understand.
As I watched Mkela take careful bites of his biscuit, I asked Leah more questions about her life. Who does she live with? Where are her friends? Who is looking after her other grandchildren? How is she going to get all the money for rent? What will she do if she doesn’t?
By now we had been standing outside chatting for about 20 minutes. I felt the need to help Leah and Mkela in a way that had nothing to do with money. I felt they deserved some kindness that day. I invited them into my home and they drank a glass of juice each as I emptied my fridge and grocery cupboard into shopping bags for them to take home. I put R500 in an envelope for Leah and wrote my phone number down, telling her to call me whenever she needs help.
As I saw them out, I thought about how programmed we’ve become to offer charity over kindness. While we may not always be in the position to be charitable, we always have the choice to be kind. To acknowledge the people who come to our doors and car windows as humans. To smile, ask them how they are and wish them a good day. To show concern if they aren’t okay and offer an ear to listen for a few minutes. This is kindness. We need more of it.