On the way to the post office this morning I passed a man I pass almost everyday. He sits under one of the trees on the sidewalk and plays the guitar for tips. Eben befriended him early in the year, and through that connection, he always remembers me as well, and usually jumps up to give me a hug and remind me that I promised to buy a CD from him before the end of the year.
He is also HIV positive.
Today when I walked by him he wasn't playing, and he didn't jump up - he was quite clearly ill. I stopped to say hi on my way back and noticed that his eyes are almost completely yellow now, a sign of jaundice. He lifted his shirt to show me an oozing infection spreading over his stomach. This is an oportunistic infection - one that with a healthy immune system would not have made it past white blood cells. But this infection is rotting his skin and if left unchecked, will kill him.
To stay healthy he needs not only ARVs but also a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and grains - expensive commodities for someone who makes his money on the street at the mercy of those who walk by.
As usual, he asked me for money. This time I actually gave him a few rand hoping that he will buy vegetables, though I have no idea whether he will or not.
He asked me for a loan so that he could get an injection to kill the infection. I did not give it to him. I don't know whether I should have or not. I don't even know if he was telling the truth or not. I don't know if that should matter or not.
A side note - there is a very distinct difference between beggers on the street here and beggers in the United States. In the US, I usually know what to do - I know our systems are far from perfect, but there are shelters and soup kitchens, unemployment agencies, and so on that are in place. It does not work for everyone, but most people who find themselves on the street are able at some point to be reintegrated into the working economy. This is not to say that poverty is not very REAL in the United States - far from it. Poverty is real and alive and affecting thousands of people, something I saw everyday when I was working in Houston. It is something that needs fought with every ounce of strength that Americans have.
But here, poverty and homelessness are different than they are in the United States. Yes, there are a couple soup kitchens (in Grahamstown they are both run by a wonderful Rotarian) - but there is no shelter, or infastructure in place to absorb the people on the street and reintegrate them into the economy. And worse, there is no industry in Grahamstown. Few jobs. Especially if you are sick. Especially if you are dying - which an estimated 18-24% of the population is. That means that roughly one out of every 4 or 5 people of working age are facing similar dilemmas to the man I pass on the street every day - they are HIV positive. And in places like the township, unemployment reaches as high as 75 or 80%.
I vacillate between surges of hope and feelings of futility.