Postcards from the pandemic / Letters from lockdown: Maintaining community during social isolation14th May 2020
As the sounds of vuvuzelas and loud, joyful music – part of a now-global display of appreciation for essential workers – died down some time after 19:00 on Easter Monday 2020, I lit the flame under two large pots of curried vegetable and lentil soup. Prepared earlier in the afternoon, each pot of soup was destined to feed the staff at one of the two gatehouses that control entry and egress for Dainfern in the north of Johannesburg.
Once boiling, I left the two pots with two ladles at the top of the driveway for 19:30 collection. The next morning, the pots and ladles – empty and clean – were on the front doorstep. Susan Harwood, a Dainfern resident, has seen to it that a similar chain of events unfolds at two households each evening since 4 April.
By mid-April, at the suggestion of residents, a lunch roster was added.
As essential workers during the lockdown, security staff ‘are putting their lives on the line to keep us safe,’ Susan told me. Just as much as, if not more than, those of us confined to our homes, ‘they need to have their morale boosted and to keep healthy – mentally and physically – for their own sakes, their families’, and ours.’
As soon as she put the call out on the residents’ Facebook page and various WhatsApp groups, Susan was inundated with offers to cook. Residents Agnes and Alex Phillips, who provided a beef stew with a lemon loaf as dessert, were ‘taken by the number of residents who immediately offered to prepare meals.’ To them, ‘this spoke volumes’ about ‘the willingness of our community.’
While the slots in the cooking roster were filled with ease, Susan and other participants hoped for wider contributions. Part of the problem is the inadequate reach of their social media; those with limited online presence won’t have heard. Still, initiatives like these are done in the spirit of pulling more residents into the Dainfern community, the hope being that with time, and beyond the lockdown, more and more residents will feel compelled to join in and show their appreciation. ‘It’s a feel-good way to inspire others to think beyond themselves and to reach out to those either less fortunate or at least those who are working hard to keep us safe.’
And it does make people feel good. The opportunity to share a vegetable and lentil soup gave resident Colleen Teklenburg ‘a sense of purpose.’ Geetal Bhutada, who prepared curries on two occasions, often provided security staff with food and drinks prior to lockdown. She has ‘always been touched by the guards’ warm greetings and smile,’ and saw this as a way to continue to ‘demonstrate our gratitude and empathy’ through lockdown.
Photographs circulating on social media – of the prepared dishes, of security staff collecting the food, and of staff enjoying their meals – spread the goodwill and encourage others to participate.
Seeing the ‘happiness and gratitude’ gave Krithika Krishnan’s family pride. ‘It has also helped me bond with my child and teach him that, one, you’re never too small to make a difference and, two, you’re blessed enough to have food on your table.
Now make that table bigger.’ Vani Jolly involved her family in another way by baking cupcakes for the security staff in celebration of her mother’s birthday in India.
Although Susan and the community know that feeding security staff is in no way an attempt to fully address the many problems that the COVID-19 pandemic has entrenched, this programme shows appreciation, provides a nutritious meal and boosts morale. ‘Security is of paramount importance in this country and we need to look after our “guardian angels” in every possible way.’ As Lynne Roberts, who cooked a chicken soup and spaghetti bolognaise, puts it, ‘it’s because of these men and women that we all sleep so well in our beds.’
Susan doesn’t think any less of those who choose not to participate in this particular effort. After all, giving isn’t a zero-sum game, and she rightly notes that many efforts are successfully under way to address the needs of staff unable to work. Keegan Steyn, who grew up playing golf on the estate, raised – with the DHA and Golf Committee – over R70,000 to make sure that the caddies, whom he calls his ‘extended family’, are able to eat while the golf course is closed. With the help of Richard Miller, Dainfern security, and his father, Keegan delivers food packages purchased with those funds to caddies as far flung as Pretoria and Vereeniging.
Seton Kretzmar, the owner of Six33 restaurant in the Dainfern clubhouse, has guaranteed his staff an income through the end of April. But to mitigate against the uncertain timelines of the lockdown, he has secured a loan from the SAFT Employer Relief Fund and requested that residents – many of whom have built very close relationships with the restaurant employees – donate to a fund to be distributed among the staff.
Another project that Susan runs, Bags of Love, put together hygiene packs for 56 security staff, and collects and distributes food, winter clothing, and other necessities to those who need it, including survivors of sexual violence.
Providing meals has made security staff’s lives easier under the unique challenges that lockdown presents. I spoke to Patrick Nxumalo, a member of the staff, some hours after his lunch of boerie rolls, curry and rice, and swiss roll. He told me that knowing that there will be a meal gives him peace of mind especially when he works overnight: ‘When I knock off from the night shift, I pass by the shopping centre and you find that already there’s a long queue. It’s so long it even goes outside of the mall. If I stand in that queue, I get home later and don’t get enough time to rest before coming back to work. That’s a problem.’ Many residents, he said, drop off staples like mealie meal and sugar at the gatehouses, which the staff share, ‘so if you have failed to shop, you find that there’s at least something to eat in the house. We feel that our hard work is being appreciated. And that also helps during this lockdown,’ Patrick told me. And the meals add variety to the monotony of lockdown, bringing with them the presence of residents in the absence of their faces going in and out of the gates. When I asked him what his favourite meals were, he chuckled: ‘There’s one thing that I never had before that was nice: lasagne. And I’ve been really enjoying the beans cooked with meat.’ Additional meals are used to spread the goodwill beyond the gates. Every evening food is taken to the security staff outside Dainfern College, and then to the top of the road leading to Dainfern for the Broadacres Drive Association security staff to finish.
All efforts and donations are important at present. But it appears that taking the time to cook food oneself and share it with others is especially valuable in creating what resident Nasrin Sh. Mesgari calls ‘a sense of belonging and bonding.’ To Susan and the residents who have contributed, and to the security staff, it is these shows of gratitude and labours of love – however small in the grand scheme of things – that will see their community through these difficult times.