When I started doing this series, I was aware I would hear a lot of stuff I didn’t expect or like, because it “goes with the territory” of street people’s lives.
However, I didn’t realise just how many preconceived notions I had about them that were wrong or how often I would be surprised. That the Juggler loves animals, was a revelation; that Egypt is the Pen Man’s most interesting country and he saves R50 a month for his grandchild was unexpected; that the Humpback wasn’t born misshapen, is happy and has a wife and child, was unforeseen.
And now, despite her Dickensian upbringing, I discover the Knitting Lady is a cheerful, compassionate animal-rescuing soul. Gosh. Who would have thought?
Positive despite trying times
The life story of Michelle Ackerman (43) does not start too pleasantly.
“My mother was hectic. She was an alcoholic. I was just a little girl and she beat me terribly.
She dragged me down the passage by my hair and banged my head against the wall. It was ongoing. At the end of standard three I was taken away from her. It was the happiest moment of my life.” We were having coffee at the canteen of the Hackle Brooke Conference Centre on the corner of Jan Smuts and Conrad Drive, where Michelle stands and knits.
She is softly spoken, but occasionally becomes quite animated.
“We used to hike in the middle of the night to the Free State; then Durban and then back to Johannesburg. By standard 4 I had been to 16 different schools.”
When she was “little”, Michelle ran away to an orphanage to ask for help.
“They took me home. My mother, who could be very convincing, told them I was badly behaved. Then she gave me the hiding of my life. In the end I pretended to pass out so she would stop.”
“How did your mother make money to feed you?”
“Prostitution. She would give me money to go and play.”
Later, Michelle ended up at Guild Cottage Children’s Home in Parktown. After a few months, she was offered the choice of staying with foster parents or going to her father in Port Elizabeth. She chose the sea. Michelle and her father, who worked at Spoornet, never got on; although he wasn’t “bad” to her. She got her matric, then came back to Johannesburg.
Years later, her mother committed suicide. “I was sad,” she says, “because I was a bit older, I understood she had problems.”
“What did you do when you got back to Johannesburg?”
“I waitressed at Bar Peter in Rocky Street and I met my husband. We have two beautiful girls. We started a bit late; they are only 5 and 8.”
“How did you end up working at the lights?”
“For a few years before the girls were born, we lived on the streets. We had nothing. I’d been walking and selling key rings, hats and credit-card holders; but it wasn’t working.
Eventually, I threw all my pride out and I stood with a cup and a board.
One day a woman gave me a pair of knitting needles and some wool. I did nothing with them. A while later another one did. When it happened a third time, I said, ‘Ok God, you want me to knit.’ I only knew one stitch and couldn’t cast-off properly, but I made scarves. And then somebody taught me more stitches.”
“Despite your situation, you seem quite religious. Do you ever feel life has given you a raw deal?”
She shakes her head. “I would never take back these last six years. I have got to know God better than I ever could otherwise. This is what I have to go through. I knit in order to sell and now I can make anything.” She smiles happily.
Michelle and family stay in a room off Louis Botha Avenue, which has neither electricity or running water. They rent it from an old-lady for R1 200 a month.
Her husband Willem does maintenance for their landlady and looks after the kids, when they aren’t being schooled by his mother. They have twenty cats and two dogs.
“Yes. You’d be amazed at all the homeless animals on the streets. I can’t walk past a kitten that has lost its mommy and is meowing and is just going to die.
But when we get a home for them, we do give them away. They get through 10kg of food in a week. But one lady drops off a bag of food here every month, which helps a lot.”
They have lived without electricity for two years. “We carry water in buckets and use Paraffin and candles.” When they bath, they boil water on a fire.
“Our landlady is old and forgets a lot.” With that Michelle starts crying. After a moment,
she wipes her eyes with a paper napkin and says, “I’m sorry.”
“What’s the matter?”
“The old lady is in arrears – she owes the council R250 000 and there has been a letter; a final notice and we are going to lose the house. She just says she has been over-charged. I don’t know what will happen to the animals, us...” She begins crying again; but soon composes herself.
“I’m sorry. I know God will take care of me. It’s just I get so scared. I seem to have spent
my whole life looking for somewhere to stay.”
She pauses and stares into the distance for a moment. Then speaking softly says, “I’ll never forget when we were living on the streets. One night we were ice-cold. Freezing. I just prayed, and I promise you, I was instantly warm. My husband said I must pray for him too as he was still cold…” she laughs.
“Tell me about a typical day.”
“I get up at 5.00am; if I don’t have food or transport, I go stand at Houghton Drive to earn money to get here. I’m only there from 6am to 7.30am,
and if I make R20, it’s a lot. A taxi costs R11.00 to get here.
“Certain days I hardly make enough to get home. Other times, someone gives me a hundred rand and that is a great day. We just live hand to mouth.
Luckily, me and my husband get on very well. We have been married twenty years; we have lived on the streets together and we have been through thick and thin.
“I go home at about 11.00 am. And then I knit some more. I have to, but I do enjoy it. For a beanie I charge R50 – the wool is about R20. There are people who give me wool and people at the lights give me orders. A beanie takes about a day.” She then adds, “My problem is I lost my glasses and can’t afford new ones. I can’t see by candle-light anymore to knit at home. Sometimes I don’t recognise drivers who have been good to me. They think
I’m ignoring them; but I can’t see them.”
“If you got a lot of money, what would you do with it?”
“Oh we have a plan. I want to teach knitting. I teach two little girls at the moment. When I met the one, she was knitting with chopsticks. I have given her needles and wool. Someone taught me; I must teach them.”
“My plan is all on paper. I am writing everything about knitting so I can teach. I even have a name for my business. My husband gave me the nickname
Sybil. Even the girls call me that. It is in two parts: Sybil’s Closet is knitting to order and Sybil’s Knitting Academy for teaching. But I don’t want to be stuck here so I would like a mobile camper; then we’ll always have a home and I can travel from town to town, to teach.”
Feedback from previous #TheStreetPeople
THE JUGGLER: His name is Kutlang, but he calls himself Snake. No sooner was the unicycle handed over to a very happy juggler, when Andrew McLean, founder of Cycle Lab and four times winner of the Giro del Capo, offered him a two-hour gig on Saturday mornings. The former South African cycling champion wants Snake to ride the new unicycle, juggle and entertain customers at their Mega-Store in Fourways.
THE PEN MAN: Jonathon Roos says this time of year is always terrible. Interesting that street business has cycles. However, since his interview appeared in the Saturday Star he says he has been doing very well. “It has been amazing – thank you.”
THE HUNCHBACK OF BOMPAS ROAD:
I took Zoroao a copy of his interview. As I got out of my car on the other side of the road to him; he scuttled across, wrapped his arms around me and with a huge smile said, “God Bless baba…” He hadn’t even seen the interview yet…It was actually a new experience to be hugged by a beggar in the street.
The Saturday Star