My first trip to Cape Town was in 2009. A friend and I needed to get visas from the American Embassy. We made it to Westlake with the help of a friend and when we were granted permission to enter USA we decided to find our way around Cape Town by using public transport. We took a taxi from Westlake and got off in Retreat. From Retreat train station we headed for the southern suburbs where we would get off in Rondebosch to meet a friend at the University of Cape Town.
This was my first encounter with Cape Town’s public transport system. When we used the taxi in Retreat people weren’t shocked that a white person (the friend I was travelling with) used public transport. Neither of us knew where we were going but fortunately I speak isiXhosa and Afrikaans and we managed to get where we were going with ease. The train trip was the most interesting.
It was quiet. It was a mid-morning train after the hustle and bustle of rush hour with people getting to work. I was confused by the silence. My encounters with public transport had also been peppered with the mirth of taxi conversations where anyone could spark a conversation or all the passengers would gang up on “udriver oqhuba ikaka” (a taxi driver who was driving recklessly) with the women screaming “Asincancisi driver!” (there’s no rush, we haven’t got babies at home waiting to be breastfed, there’s no rush. Drive carefully!). It was strange that people could sit next to each other as they did on the train, but there could be no conversation.
While trying to make sense of the silence it was suddenly broken by what sounded like a funeral dirge. The voice emerged from one of the adjoining carriages. When I found the source of the voice, it was a blind woman singing “We bless your name, oh mighty God...”. She was being led by a younger woman, possibly her daughter, who wasn’t blind. She held a cup in her hands, asking for alms as she walked down the aisle of the train. I was dumbstruck. There was something very disturbing about the image of the helplessness and almost futile attempt at doing something about their desperate situation. The woman and the girl walked slowly, singing their song, a plea to God to respond to their pitiful state. When they walked passed me with their cup I tried not to make eye contact with the daughter. I had glanced at her when she walked in our carriage and noticed the dishevelled nature of her clothes and when she walked passed the waft of bodies who hadn’t washed in days couldn’t be ignored. The daughter’s face was blank. She was expressionless and didn’t make an effort at looking at any of the commuters in the face. She kept her eyes straight ahead, walking slowly, so she wouldn’t rush past the person kind enough to respond to their song. Theirs had to be a heartbreaking story. The song they sang and their faces were enough to infer this.
When I moved to Cape Town last year I was caught off guard when the mother and daughter I had encountered in 2009 walked into my carriage again. I had forgotten about the 2009 encounter and when I saw them again I was angry. My life had changed since the last time I saw them: I had recently graduated, I had found my dream job and I had moved to a new city. Their life obviously hadn’t changed. I later discovered that there is another father and son pair who sing on the trains begging for money. The father is blind and sings a duet with his son who leads him down the aisle hoping that someone will drop a coin in their cup. I don’t know these people’s story. I haven’t spoken to them and I wouldn’t dare to as I wouldn’t know what to say without giving them false hope. So I’ve made up a story in my mind that these are people who remind me about how complex and pitiful the world is. I don’t know how they ended up in Cape Town begging on the train. But I can’t help but notice that since I’ve moved to Cape Town they’ve become a part of my train rides between town, home, school and shopping.
I still haven’t dropped a coin into their cup and I always avert my eyes when they walk past.