Wednesday, September 22, 2010
It was dark as we reversed into a parking bay at the back of Cape Town station onMonday night. We were both tired. My in-laws' train had been delayed by hours and was only arriving from Johannesburg around 8pm. The side road where we parked was eerily deserted, no one in sight anywhere. A bit like a movie setting. As I climbed out of the car, I noticed a man next to me, walking slowly along in the middle of the deserted road, using a single crutch and pulling one of those cases you see at the airport; you know, the ones with the handle and the little wheels. Hooked neatly over the case was a packpack. I remember thinking 'You shouldn't be in the road', before turning to follow my husband to the station entrance. As I turned, the man fell full length in the road, on to his back, with his hand reaching pitifully into the air, fingers strangely flexed. I started moving towards him, urging DH to come and help. He sternly warned me, reminding me of the scams and traps that happen all the time this way. He was right, I knew I turned again and started walking away. But I couldn't. Against my usual cowardice, against the wise advice, almost against my better judgement, I went over to the man and bent over him. "Can you hear me? " His eyes were wide open but seemed to be looking past me. "Are you alright?" Now there's a bright question! He didn't reply but his other hand seemed to be making strange movements. At that moment, a tall well built young black guy with trendy clothes and that strange hairstyle (like lots of tufts of hair neatly braided sticking out all over his head), approached us. Normally that would have struck terror into my heart. "Nigerian druglord" would have been ringing in my ears. But it did not cross my mind. He came over to see what was going on. We decided the guy on the road was probably having a seizure of some kind because he didn't respond to us although he was awake. We then noticed that his strange hand movements looked as though he was trying to write something. It seemed odd but we decided to try it. No sooner had the decision been made than another dark skinned man was suddenly at my elbow, holding out a pencil. We put the pencil and a noteboook into the prone man's hand and he started writing. By now there was a small crowd there Someone else read the words (I didn't have my glasses on) written there: "Diabetic. Sweet. Coke" Aha! A mute diabetic. Immediately everyone sprang into action - at last we had a handle on the problem. And were all trying to think how we could find fast what this man so desperately needed. Suddenly, again out of nowhere, emerged another man with a full to the brim polystyrene cup of Coke! One of the men tenderly lifted the patient's shoulders and ordered others to "Lift his legs. Gently now, hey!" and they moved him on to the pavement. Another put the backpack behind his back against the railings so he wouldn't hurt himself. Someone else put the cup of Coke to his lips and helped him to drink. The effect of the Coke was dramatic It worked instantly. The diabetic man indicated we should get something out of his case. A testing kit. He did all the drill, ascertained his "score" (5.5) which he seemed to think was fine. Another man at my shoulder confided in me that his son was diabetic so he knew all about this stuff. The next thing to decide was - where to from here. We asked if he would like to go to hospital: a security guard with a 2-way radio had also joined the party by now and offered to call an ambulance if we needed one. "No" indicated the patient. We asked him where he lived and he again wrote - An address and, in big lettters: "TAXI" Ok, then. I asked the circle of men, looking around at their concerned faces, if they would see him safely to the taxi. Yes, they nodded enthusiastically. I should say here that they were as tender with this damaged solitary crippled mute diabetic man as a mother with a new baby. It was incredibly moving. And I need to say this - any South Africans reading this will understand why - all these men were black or coloured. It was dark, it was isolated, I am white, and was defenseless. Many of the men were obviously poor. I am not. We shared something that night. It was just our humanity in the face of need. It bonded us. I saw the value of the group dynamic. Each one brought to the process something that the others couldn't have. Together we did what none of us could have done alone. And the man was made well and taken safely home. It was a deeply humbling and poignant experience. Unforgettable.