Home and homelessness: Sharing a Stoep in the Bo Kaap

On my second day living in the Bo Kaap, I came home at night and a man quite suddenly stood up near the front door of our stoep. This is of course not the ideal situation for a girl alone at night, and as instinct dictates I took one of those quick in breaths. It was Rashid. I knew a man slept on our stoep; I just wasn’t quite expecting to jump up at my arrival. Realising that he’d startled me, Rashid approached me, flailing his arms and saying “No no no I’m not a raper!” As if highly offended,  he shook his head and walked off down the road addressing the night at large about my stupidity.

In mine and Rashid’s three months sharing the stoep I have learnt only a few things about him.  He speaks in highly accented Afrikaans and English and talks to himself constantly. He also snores, and given that my room is right above the stoep I have become well acquainted with the symphony of Rashid’s nasal cavities. His snoring is so bad that the neighbours complained to us. I don’t get much in edge ways with Rashid  and I sadly miss much of what he is saying. I am also no psychologist but I don’t think it would be a push to say that he is mentally unstable. He fluctuates between long impassioned outbursts and endless muttering throughout the day. He tells me that there are pygmies living in the mountains and that they come down every day, spend it by the robots and then return. He also assures me that there are “only seven modern men”.

In some senses it feels like the stoep belongs to Rashid. He sleeps there most nights and has been for much longer than we have been living here. We don’t use it and even though it is technically not legal, can we deny the man one by two metres of shelter in a Cape Town winter? He doesn’t ask us for a thing. He is definitely over 60 years old. The most work he does is sweep at the corner café in exchange for a box of cigarettes but he absolutely assures me he does not drink. A family that lives two houses down from us gives him food. He has even acted as protector to us once. This in itself is a bit problematic but as in many moments like this, the situation is so complex and steeped in political, historical and economic factors that my middle class brain can’t handle it.

My mother obviously just about faints at the thought. As much as I may accuse her of over exaggerating and not accepting the ‘dynamics of South Africa’ and as much as I placate her by telling her how harmless Rashid is, I can’t help but think that there is a small chance that if one day I rubbed him up the wrong way he could pose a threat to me. He is physically larger than I am and the fact remains that I am a young woman and his sanity is questionable. And no matter how personalised I make this story, he is a homeless man who sleeps on our stoep.  I write ‘homeless man’ for want of a  much better phrase because to be fair, the stoep is his home even if he doesn’t rent it from us. The government and other organisations have systems in place, the police has a “Displaced People’s Unit” to ‘deal with’ the people on Cape Town’s streets who are without income and are not part of any community. “Street people”, “vagrants”, “the homeless” and for the less politically correct, “bergies” are among the spectrum of words used to describe the disenfranchised wanderers of the streets. However, how we as the so called ‘integrated citizens of society’ treat people who are without community, home and income is ultimately up to us.

A strange thing happened just before I finished writing this. A person who lives in our digs, who for the purpose of this article I shall name Mr S – and who incidentally happens to be an all-organic, planet-loving, heroic American gave Rashid food. We explicitly agreed not to do so. Regardless, having given him sandwiches in the past, Mr S did so again and Rashid reacted awfully to this, cursing said digsmate and telling him he didn’t need his charity. Rashid promptly left and hasn’t returned to our stoep since.

For the past two weeks I have opened the front door expecting to say hello to Rashid and have our brief daily conversation. Perhaps he has gone to a shelter as he mentioned he might. Or maybe he decided he had had enough of these ridiculous young adults and has found another stoep to make his home on. His situation is beyond my comprehension. What trauma or disaster occurred in Rashid’s life I cannot know. Who his family might have been, who his friends were and who he was before he became the man who snored on our stoep will unfortunately remain a mystery.

Written by Candace Gawler for a now-defunct section of Platform called ‘Reality’.

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