The Boekbedonnerd festival has just finished in Richmond, Northern Cape. I return home to Johannesburg with a heavy heart.
Every guest can get a brochure with a brief history of the town. Of Paul Street, located less than 500m to the south of the festival's headquarters, it says that "one can catch a little of the atmosphere that must have prevailed back in the 1850s when this was the bustling main street of the tiny village".
In truth, this is nothing more than a collection of small, dilapidated houses. Signs of hopeless poverty loom behind every window, every door, everywhere. Apart from asphalt and electric wires, nothing has changed here in 100 years.
With the brochure in my hand I pass by a woman who sits on the stairs and stares blankly into space. She's quietly singing a sad tune. As I walk away, her singing grows louder – the only sound in this empty street, apart from my footsteps.
Next, I see a couple of boys, no older than eight or 10. They look very hungry. They study me for half a minute as they approach. Then they begin pleading, at once, as if at a signal: "Meneer, meneer, gee my vyf rand asseblief! [Sir, sir, give me five rand please]."
I cross the pedestrian bridge –where a man and a woman in their thirties ask me for a couple of rands – and turn into Pienaar Street. The town's liquor shop has no shortage of customers.
Finally, I reach the clean and lively Dorp Street. Richmond's main road abounds with bookshops and guesthouses. Here, along a couple of blocks, is where the festival takes place. Dozens of neatly dressed, friendly white people saunter by, leaf through books, visit little art galleries or talk about intellectual matters. Every now and then the leisurely chat on the stoep is interrupted by beggars, young and old. They're treated as a regrettable but unavoidable nuisance.
"Nie vandag nie [not today]," festival guests invariably say, and the poor leave – only to reappear five minutes later. I have never seen so many people seeking alms in my life!
I hear that nearly 90% of the town's population is unemployed. On the day they receive their welfare payments a long queue stretches down Dorp Street. It's the only time they truly claim the street.
Local business people say that blacks and coloureds here are lazy and prefer to beg, drink and steal. But it can't be fair that, when a festival comes to town, only guests from other places and a few dozen locals can enjoy themselves.
This was my first visit to a South African book festival. And I'm sure that this appalling non-involvement of the majority of the local population isn't strictly a Richmond problem.
The only effort that I know came from Barbara Lindop and her friends. They organised a wire car contest for poor children and a reading of a children's book with illustrations by Gerard Sekoto.
"But we gave them sandwiches first," Lindop tells me.
"Many of these kids only get half a cup of mealies a day. Only after we fed them, their eyes lit up. Each of them received the book as a gift. I can only hope they didn't discard these on the way home."
There is no doubt that these individual efforts are not enough. The festival arranged for a concert by Luna Paige at their headquarters. Tickets cost "R100 a pop", as the organisers phrased it in their announcement. It might be dirt cheap for the guests of the festival, but surely prohibitive for most local people? Why wasn't the concert free and open to all, even the poor?
The English have a proverb: "Every dog has its day." In Russian, my language, we say: "One day, there will be a feast in their street, too!"
Will it ever hit Paul Street?