Dan and I left Cape Town a few days ago, but I want to write about my experience at the Arch Soup Kitchen at St. George's Cathedral. I have attached a link at the end of my post, if you are interested.
The soup kitchen is open from 9:00am to 1:30pm Monday to Friday. I couldn’t give you an exact figure for the amount of people who use this service on any given day or week. Mary, a volunteer who does accounting and other things for the church said one day last year she sat on the stage for four and a half hours and counted about 250 people. The majority of visitors are men, although there are quite a few women too. There are two cooks who make the soup and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays they also make stew with rice, which is very popular. A bowl of soup sells for R .40C and if you want soup and bread then you must pay R 1. This is about 6 cents Canadian for a bowl of soup and about 14 cents for soup and bread. Stew and rice costs R 1.50 which is about 22 cents. One of the major grocery chains, SPAR often donates bread, ciabatta loaves and other nice buns along with cakes and really whatever else they might otherwise toss. When bread is donated we give it out for free. So it would cost someone R.40 for bread and soup.
If someone comes in with no money then they can wipe down a table or collect the empty bowls and plates for their food. Sweetness, a woman who has been working there for 5 years, runs a tight ship. She has the perfect mix of kindness, firmness and humour. It’s a tough job because everyone that comes in is hungry and poor, but you have to have some boundaries.
On one grey morning last week, after an early morning thunderstorm, people filed into the church hall where we were waiting with boiling hot soup and nice big pieces of bread. In a span of about 15 minutes I did a quick head count, and of those who were seated at the tables and still in line I counted around 55 people. This was a particularly cold morning and really busy, but everyone was fairly patient and very friendly. These are the same men who a month earlier I had maybe seen on the street and probably ignored as I quickly passed them, either because of an uncomfortable feeling or because I didn’t want to be asked for money. Now, in the space of a church hall, over passing out hot soup, big fresh pieces of ciabatta and pizza bread I felt something change.
There are a wonderful group of about ten men who are known as “Moffies”. They are men who dress as women and for the most part identify as women. To be clear, “Moffie” is not a derogatory term, everyone who introduced themselves or their friends to me said “this is ---- and s/he’s a moffie”. As an example, my second day Marco (also known as Natta or Mamma Moffie) came out and said to me “Holly, I am a moffie, I am mamma moffie, I have 5 children and 12 grandchildren” then he yelled into the crowd of about 50 people “Moffie’s stand up!!” and about 7 people stood up smiling, he then proceeded to introduce me to each of them. I am only sharing this with you so you can begin to understand how diverse this crowd is.
In two weeks, I only saw one fight and it was between a man and a woman. I was worried for the man. I don’t know what the fight was about, as when things get heated people tend to speak a language other than English (Zulu, Xhosa or sometimes Afrikaans). Soon after it started someone from the crowd stood up and yelled in a soft voice “don’t fight! This is a church; you can’t fight inside of a church, take it outside”.
I was always a little amazed at how quiet it seemed inside the big room filled with such a diverse crowd. This is partly due to the TV that was introduced not long ago. From about 10:00 Bones (a man who helps out, but also lives on the street – someone I got to know and really came to like) puts on a movie and from 10:00 to 1:00 people eat, sleep, talk and watch movies. Many young men would say “I’ll take my soup to go, I am going to sit in the theatre.” I guess when your reality is soup and bread everyday; you have to make light of it somehow. Many people would also come in and say "I'll have the special of the day".
There is a young boy, probably about ten or eleven who we would see on the street all of the time. He would often ask for money and then say “just buy me some bread, I’m hungry”. One day Dan and I bought him a loaf of bread and a banana. We handed it over and then crossed the street. We watched him disappear and then about thirty seconds later he returned and sold it to an older man who was also asking for money. The whole transaction took less than a thirty seconds and the boy went back to begging in the same breath as the man dropped coins in his hand. I was a little shocked. I don’t know why he would have sold the food, maybe he wasn’t that hungry, maybe he was using drugs (it is common for people to tell you not to give street kids money because they buy glue to sniff and other drugs). The man ate the banana and walked away. A few days later this boy came into the soup kitchen. I told Sweetness my story; she figured he was buying drugs. She tried to ask him how old he was but he wasn’t in the mood for talking. He bought his soup, sat down, wrapped himself in a blanket and ate his bread. As I watched him sit there watching the movie and sipping his soup I really became aware that perhaps a lot of the grown men in here were just like him, 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I have no idea what his story is, I can only imagine, but I do know that he is likely in for a hard life; you can already see it on his face.
One other thing I want to tell you about is how my relationship changed with these people outside of the space of the soup kitchen. For example, one day Dan and I were sitting in the garden (a really nice area next to the church where people sit and eat lunch or stroll though) and there were a group of moffies dancing and singing and walking through. Most people looked uncomfortable and often stepped away as they passed them. They were wrapped in their blankets and some were still eating soup. As they walked passed us one recognized me and rushed over. I introduced Dan to them and they were excited that I was married and told him he was a lucky guy and then they said we must enjoy this beautiful day and they were off, singing and dancing. I tell you this because I was one of those people who would back away and hope that the group of men wouldn’t notice me. I too, was uncomfortable. That all changed the minute I walked in the door and served my first bowl of soup. It is really amazing. I wish I had more time to spend there as I have a great deal more to learn.
One of my favourite moments was on my last day. It was Friday so people were a little jazzed up and quite a few men were quite a bit drunk. One man was on his second bowl of soup and after I took his money out of his hands and set the soup in front of him he became very serious, looked at the soup, looked at the man next to him, looked at me and said “This soup gave me TB”. He then picked up his soup and walked away.
Now, I realize the reality of that isn’t funny, in any way, but I did laugh to myself. I couldn’t help it. I guess it was one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments.