The minibus taxi packed with ten students and I arrived in Umfuleni (South Africa) after about an hour. We were met by a young black man and a white woman in her early thirties, the representatives from Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds houses for people in need. They divided us into two groups: four people to help put the roof boards up on one house and the rest to paint another house in the township.
“My name is Rasta,” the male leader told us, “Life. They call me many things in many different languages. But Rasta because of my hair.” He pointed to the short dreds sticking out of his head.
After a brief walk, we arrived at the house we had been designated to paint. Rasta handed out sticky labels so we could make name tags. His dark, piercing eyes zeroed in on each member of the group as he tried to pronounce our names. He produced particular laughter with his rendition of “Juan” and “Juanita.” The Dutch girl tapped her foot.
“I’m ready. When can we start to paint?” she asked.
Rasta regaled us with more stories, including the fact that although today was his birthday, no one in his area had wished him happy birthday or done anything special for him.
“Now I have some new friends here,” he said, “Maybe later, you buy me a cake. That would be so nice.” The students laughed.
Rasta then had us construct scaffolding from which to paint. We exchanged dubious looks as we tested its stability. He demonstrated the proper technique for painting the walls, stressing the importance of avoiding the doorways and window frames. He told us how one day while working, he had stepped in the paint by accident. He was so upset. He said to himself, you’re useless! He fired himself from the job.
“If you don’t paint like this, it’s useless,” he said, peering at us intently. “You understand? Useless!”
“Can we get the brushes?” the Dutch girl asked. “I’m ready to paint.”
We got to work, spreading out along the length of the house. The sun was scorching as we moved around the house, rubbing the paint-filled rollers up and down the wall. Splats of paint flew onto our arms, faces, shirts. I looked around. The instruction to wear old clothes didn’t seem to have been followed. I hoped the students clothes wouldn’t land up in the dustbin after this. Around 11a.m. Rasta sent one of the students to ask the homeowner when the food he was going to prepare for us would be ready. I accompanied him, and since the homeowner didn’t seem to understand the question, was forced to ask him more directly.
“You want to eat?” he asked. I was puzzled by his apparent surprise as I thought the meal had been planned by the homeowner’s family from the beginning.
I told him we would appreciate some food, and confirmed that the food would be ready in about half an hour.
We returned to the group and carried on painting, finally covering everything, including the finishing’s. It was already past 12p.m., and it didn’t seem as if food would appear anytime soon. Rasta went into the homeowner’s house to see what was happening. By the time he returned, the students had pulled out the food they had brought with them, sat down on the steps in the front of the house and began to eat. Tired and hungry, they couldn’t wait any longer.?
“How do you want the eggs?” Rasta asked, appearing in front of us again. Nobody responded. “You want scrambled or what? Me, I think scrambled, it’s quicker, but I think to ask you, if you want something else.” The students declined the food, telling him the homeowner could rather save it for another time.
“It’s not right,” Rasta said, “We’re painting for them and they don’t even offer us some water. Me, I’m going to eat there, I didn’t bring anything.” He headed back to the homeowner’s house.
“Can we take the paint off now?” the students asked when he returned.
Rasta got a bottle of turpentine, poured some onto his hands, then rubbed it onto his arms and started removing the paint with a cloth. The students crowded around him, holding out their hands for turpentine and attempting to take turns with the cloth.
“It isn’t enough,” said the Dutch girl, “Can we have another cloth?”
Rasta fetched an old pair of overalls and the students began rubbing the paint off each others’ arms. A few of them went to the tap and used the water as well.
“Guys, you’re not listening to me,” Rasta said, frowning. He demonstrated again how to pour the turpentine into their hands and then rub it over the places where they still had paint.
“Are you ready to go for a walk now?” the Dutch girl asked when everyone was reasonably clean. Rasta had suggested showing us around the area earlier in the morning.
“First you finish that,” he laughed, pointing to the apple in her hand. Seeing her confused expression as Rasta moved away, I tried to explain that a different sense of time existed here, and attempting to rush things would probably only bring frustration.
“Ja, but…” she scowled.
Suddenly a Swiss student from the other group appeared in front of us. She had lost the rest of her group and wandered around by herself, eventually landing up here. Rasta started to lecture her.
“You never never never do that,” he said. “These people,” he indicated the area around him, “you have nice camera, they can take….Then they gonna ask me what happened, but I didn’t know anything. No, that’s not right….”
The Swiss girl’s face dropped. I told her not to worry, but that Rasta was right, it wasn’t a good idea for her to walk around by herself. We decided to go on the walk, hoping we would find the site where the others were working on the way.
Young children with bright smiles ran after us as we moved slowly down the road. We stopped often so the students could take photos. We visited another house Habitat had built. There was nice furniture and pretty decorations inside. I was surprised to discover something so luxurious in the middle of a township. On the way back, the Dutch girl posed with a group of young men. One of them rested his hand on her backside. I told her she needed to be careful in this kind of situation. She nodded, but I wasn’t sure whether she understood the connotations of her easygoing behavior.
We went to work applying the second coat of paint to the house, yellow this time. Tired and hot, we worked quickly, eager to finish. It was soon almost 3 p.m., the time the minibus was scheduled to pick us up. Rasta explained he would give us a few minutes alone to see how we could organize buying him a cake. He pointed out that the shops nearby might not have it but there would a Shoprite near the entrance to the township where we could find it.
“Why do we have to buy him a cake?” the Dutch girl asked as he left. Nobody was eager to comply with Rasta’s none-too-subtle request, and I found out later that he had also asked one of the Colombian students if we were going to give him money. I felt bad for him that his special day hadn’t been acknowledged, but uneasy that he had felt it appropriate to project his expectations onto us. The students had volunteered their Saturday to come and help, and they had also paid for the transport to get here. In my mind, that seemed more than enough.
When the minibus appeared, I shook Rasta’s hand and thanked him, giving him my apologies that we couldn’t give him a cake, and wishing him a good rest of his birthday. He didn’t look pleased.
On the ride back, the second group told me the homeowners had sat inside the house eating and chatting while the students worked. They hadn’t said a word, not even offering them a glass of water. They said the houses in the area had been very nice and people walking around well-dressed. They wondered why we had been helping people who didn’t seem to need it. Also surprised at the turn of events, I didn’t have the answers. I wondered how Habitat for Humanity selected the recipients of the house building, and whether this service was really helping or just encouraging people to become ever more dependent, relying on handouts rather than appreciating a hand up in their own efforts to improve their situation. It made me sad that the students’ experience of the homeowners’ ungratefulness might well result in their not repeating such a humanitarian Endeavour in the future. There was an irony there that the possibility of future help could end up being pushed away by people’s own unwillingness to meet this generosity halfway. And I felt the pain of others who were genuine in their need and prepared to play their part in changing their own lives who may never be given such an opportunity.