Gone are them days
When we loved each other
Gone are them times
When we were together
No more smiling face
No more warm embrace
In my home I’m like a stranger.
—Gone are the Days, Lord Shorty
The silence in this part of town is dreadful at this hour. It is about 8 pm on Emancipation Day and at the bottom of George Street only haunted souls seek refuge in the shadow of buildings that look as broken as they do. The mother in her wisdom decides that my nephews, who have had a spectacular day filled with dancing, drumming for Aunty Kamla and generally just being their fabulous selves, need a first dose of another kind of reality. So we are going downtown to distribute food. I remember my days of doing this too. When the mother would make us pack baskets of food and take for children in the various homes around the country, especially during the holidays. We would sing and perform for children who had no mothers. Or absent ones. And mostly I remember something like jealousy for all the children who would be clamouring just for her hugs. The lesson I imagine we were supposed to learn is that we should never take for granted the blessings that we had. Even though we didn’t always get what we wanted, she insisted that we recognise that we were fortunate to have food and shelter and a good education and, most importantly, people who loved us.
The promise of better for the future is in this next generation, the children of my sisters. Who have so much, despite not having those contemporary trappings of affluence that parents are now bending over backwards to be able to afford for their children. For me as the number one auntie it is important that I help them hold on to their childhood for as long as possible. Insist that they enjoy life before they become too cynical. That they cultivate a desire for learning new things and be their best selves all the time. They are surrounded with so much love that maybe in a few years when they are surly teenagers they will accuse us like we accused our mother and her contemporaries of smothering us in their covering of love and almost manic protection. We take great pains to protect them from the big, cruel world. They live a sheltered life, where everyone loves them. They live a charmed life, where there is always enough, there is always someone who has an answer.
But every now and again it’s good to give them a good dose of reality. To remind them to be thankful for what they have. In case in the arrogance of youth they come to think that they are still entitled to things that they do not work for. Do not give thanks for. Do not recognise that someone else has to sacrifice to ensure that they have. It is a much steeper learning curve than I could have imagined. They are stunned by what they see. In these hours when they are home eating, or watching TV, or getting up to every imaginable mischief. And you might see vagrants in the day. But at night the spirits that walk the streets of our capital are a testimony to how many lonely souls inhabit this place. Earlier in the day we passed all these streets, kept moving to the sound of drums and the shuffle of our feet marching in time, picking up the polyrhythms, jumping with relief that we are still free. Like my father says, his mother could never even say the word enslavement, calling it instead “that thing” to describe what her mother had just narrowly escaped. Terrified that the colonial powers might change their minds and bring the shackles and the whips back. And I wonder what she would say now, of these shadows of men stretching out their hands to take this small offering of food from my niece and nephews on a big Emancipation Day when just hours ago we were dancing, happy to be free.
A tiny sliver of a man is pushing his cart up George Street. We slow down and my niece asks him if he wants something to eat. His hesitation lasts for a couple seconds, like he is trying to remember a time when he wasn’t having to accept a mystery box of food from young strangers. He says thanks as my niece hands over the box. And we move on. Not wanting to look back at the size of the load on his cart and where he finds the strength through his hunger to push the cart up the street. Further up the road we slow down again. There is a young man sitting on the pavement, and when Kayode asks him if he wants some food he puts his fingers in his ears and pulls his knees up to his chest. And Miles Davis is wailing out of the car’s speakers like a siren calling for some higher power, even as distant police sirens punctuate the long silences. Soon the boxes run out and when this happens the car is surrounded by three or four pairs of eyes, staring at us in a combination of distress and accusation. The children are bewildered by the outstretched hands that will get nothing from them this night. Kayode is apologetic and I am nervous that we are isolated on a street with desperate people. Who may or may not be in touch with their humanity.
Shanya has a tremor in her voice and for a moment I fear that this is too much of a baptism of fire for them. Yes they know that there is poverty in the world and people who have nothing. But that is for other places. In this land of plenty it is hard to believe that there is anyone who has nothing. Either by choice or by circumstance or by crack habit.
And I say to her that it is not for us to feel sorry for them, but to bring into sharp relief how fortunate we are to have the things we do. The miracle of plenty that is considered to be nothing. I think about the guava tree that gives a daily present of over 30 perfect, worm-free guavas. Forcing me to question why we describe hard times as guava season and not the season of possibility. And to compound this I go online and discover that the lowly guava is good for high blood pressure and good for your skin and good for fighting cancer. And it’s not just about food. Food is easy to find, here. I imagine that what we throw away daily is enough to feed those who we scorn for digging in dustbins, without realising that we are the depraved ones for throwing out good food. The real tragedy is people who have no one to love them. I can hardly imagine how long it’s been since anyone has reassured them, you are real. You are important. You are loved. Even those people who have not made it to the streets. Even the boys hardly living to be men are dying for someone to hold them. And tell them they are loved. They are human. They mean something to someone. If you don’t have this then food and money and life mean nothing. That is why it is so easy for them to take it. To give it up. This is what makes life worth living. This is what makes freedom something worth fighting for. This is how we find our humanity. In giving a bit of our excess love and light and joy to people who may have forgotten what that is like.