Slice of life: ‘Feeding the homeless saved me’

It is almost noon on a Sunday. A heat wave elevates temperatures to 38 degrees Celcius in Stellenbosch, the Western Cape’s spectacular vineyard town, a favoured destination for the rich. 

But here you will also find Simbirisiyo Mushanewana, 50, standing next to his Nissan Almera, parked under a tree that offers little respite from the heat. Sweat crawls down his face as he illustrates what he and his small team of volunteers are doing to ease the plight of Stellenbosch’s homeless population. 

From the boot of his Nissan comes the aroma of chicken and rice — a South African Sunday lunch tradition. The smell is so comforting, so rich, that it temporarily makes one forget about the heat. It also draws several of the homeless people to the vehicle. 

For Mushanewana, this is not just a charity meal served from a boot. That boot, that vehicle, will soon be a “training centre” for the indigent craving a better life, he declares. 

When Mushanewana — known as Sammie or Sam — founded Donations OnWheels (DO) three years ago, he had hit rock bottom. It was befriending some of the town’s homeless that changed his life — forever, he says. 

“Instead of giving up l said to myself, let my challenges be my breakthrough, let me use my challenges as fuel to keep my engine running,” he says. It was homeless people who pulled him through.

Sam once lived with his wife and four children in Kyamandi, an informal settlement just outside Stellenbosch. After 20 years of marriage, the couple separated. He was left with a Honda Brio, he says, and thoughts of suicide. 

“I lost everything, I was broke to the last point.” 

Back then, Sam’s vehicle had to become his home. It was also his only source of income. He used it as an Uber, navigating his way around the town with a dislocated kneecap, ferrying passengers. 

“I developed a terrible depression until I said to myself I really needed to do something more positive. [I couldn’t just] give up.”

Sam picked up a pen. He listed things that needed to change so that he could “go forward in life”. For him to heal, helping others would need to be prioritised. 

He needed to know people with new qualities, better qualities, people who had very few worldly possessions, people who did not have the luxury of work and who did not spend time on social media. Stellenbosch’s homeless population — tenacious survivors — had all of these qualities. 

Of his friends at the time, Sam says: “You know friends, they tell you to have one beer to take away stress. But remember after drinking, the next thing is a hangover, and the medication for a hangover is to have another beer, and in Africa, one means five.”

He had R120 in his pocket, he says. “I started buying three loaves of bread, a pack of 50 NikNaks and a plastic roll. l put [together] two pieces of bread and a small packet of NikNaks and tied it up. l made up to 26 parcels.”

“That was the beginning of my new adventure.”

Sam’s leg also needed to heal — and exercise was recommended for this. He parked his car 500 metres from where his new friends could be found on the streets, and walked the distance with a crutch. 

“l never stopped being with the homeless people, and every day of my life was making me feel l can do better, being with the homeless became my ‘hobby’.”

Sam’s emotional and physical life improved. He was earning an income — enough to feed his immediate family, his new family, and pay small debts. He started saving for a second car, and while doing this, was ferrying food donation parcels to those in need. 

A portion of the meal Donations on Wheels served many grateful homeless people in Stellenbosch on Sunday. Through personal trials in his own life Sammie Myshanewana started a feeding scheme and homeless upliftment initiative called Donations On Wheels. At least once a week or more if he can, Sammie & his small group of volunteers drive around different locations in Stellenbosch to offer a decent cooked meal to many of the number of people living on the steets in and around the university town. Photo by David Harrison

Just after he paid his seventh instalment on his second vehicle, the national state of disaster was announced on 26 March 2020. It was no deterrent to his work, says Sam. 

“l filled up my tank, drove to the farms all over in Cape Town in search of anything to sell, be it vegetables, tomatoes, onions or meat.”

Some of the food was also distributed to the homeless. There was no reason to waste anything. And finally, says Sam, he realised he had absolutely nothing to lose by cooking for the homeless. His money eventually religiously went three ways: Food, his children, and car instalments. 

He proudly holds up a fistful of receipts. He made deposits every day to pay off the vehicle. R20 here, R50 there. R100 on good days. 

“I’m not thinking about myself anymore,” says Sam. 

“One day the bank told me that l was debt-free, and that l had even overpaid them! My smile came back. And all this drama was in just three years. l am debt-free, l have healed completely and l have fully registered a charity organisation.” 

Roald November, who was born in Cloetesville, a town almost adjacent to Stellenbosch, is one of many who benefits from the food DO offers. He has been living on the street since his mother died of brain cancer eight years ago. 

The warm meal, November says, “to be honest, means a lot to me. It makes you feel as if you are back in your parents’ home”. 

Sam’s dream — his passion — is to offer more than food. 

“My wish is instead of just giving the homeless food, we should rather teach them survival skills such as unblocking a blocked drain — one doesn’t need to have a degree to do that — or paint, gardening, or tree-felling.” Most of the people he knows on the streets are interested in learning new skills, he says. 

The sun is still boiling. Sam is still handing out meals. The tree still offers little respite. It would be good to enrol at Stellenbosch University, he says. It is a hope. And as Sam knows, hope can carry you a long, long way. 

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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