An Honest Living, Part 2

by | Oct 22, 2010 | Arts and Culture, Johannesburg, Melville and Surrounds | 6 comments

My shopping adventures continued this week. (Read about last week’s shopping adventures in An Honest Living, Part 1.)

Beadwork is a specialty craft in South Africa. Everywhere I go, I see men sitting on street corners bending wire into animals, trees, keychains, etc., and decorating the wire with beads. Seventh Street in Melville is a particular hotspot for these artists, perhaps because there is a bead shop at the corner of 7th Street and First Avenue.

Joe and I are going to D.C. for a visit next week and I have many gifts to buy. So I’ve developed a business relationship with Samuel and Silas, two brothers who sell their beadwork on the sidewalk in front of Nunos Restaurant. Samuel and Silas (I’ll call them S&S) are in their early 20s – they came to Joburg a few years ago from Zimbabwe and this is how they make their living.

In addition to selling ready-made pieces, S&S also take requests. I commissioned them to create a specific animal for a friend – I won’t say what animal because it will ruin the surprise. We negotiated a price, I gave them some money up-front to buy beads, and two days later S&S presented me with a finished product. They did a fantastic job and I already have some other projects in mind for them. I’m eyeing a life-size beaded goat for myself, but that will have to wait.

Silas at his sidewalk shop. The other S brother wasn’t there when I came to pick up my special animal. Joe used his blurring technique so I don’t give away the surprise.

My shopping for friends and family back home is complete – I’ve probably already bought more than will fit in my suitcase. But yesterday I had one more present to buy for someone on this side of the Atlantic.

Joe took me to the CNA Bookstore at Campus Square Mall, where I asked the manager for a copy of Maths Made Easy, Grade 10. At first he thought they didn’t have it, but he found one copy in the back. Someone had ordered it but never come to pick it up. I bought it for R190 – about $27.

Our next stop was the corner of First Avenue and Main Road, where we found Simon the car guard. He didn’t recognize me at first, but when I held up the book he remembered.

I don’t think he understood right away that I was giving it to him. “It’s too expensive!” he exclaimed. He clasped the book to his chest and a smile began to spread across his face. He started talking so fast that I could barely understand him, but I gathered that he wanted to do something for me in return.

“Can I take your picture and write a story about you?” I asked.

“Yes, please! You must write about me!” He was practically jumping up and down.

As Simon followed me across the street to the car, Joe saw him kiss the book.

Simon is 60 years old and his daughter (whose name I forgot to ask) is 12. Most South African schools don’t supply books for their students, which is why Simon needed the math book. He was the one who ordered it from PNA but hadn’t been able to retrieve it because he didn’t have the money.

In addition to studying math with his daughter, Simon is taking English courses at the University of South Africa (UNISA). He showed us his student ID. He loves to study but never had the chance to go to school when he was young. I couldn’t get all the details, but he spent most of his life doing farmwork for a family that paid him R30 (about $4.50) per month.

Now Simon works as a car guard to supplement the meager pension he receives from the government. He’s looking for additional work – his goal is to earn R1,000 (about $150) per month – but if he takes a legal job he’ll lose his pension. Joe and I promised to be on the look-out for work.

One of Simon’s immediate goals is to save R900 so he can take his English exam at UNISA. He’s completed the coursework but has to pay to take the exam.

Simon with his math book.

I’m collecting donations.


  1. Jen

    And now you (and Simon) have made me cry. I wonder how many people he asked about that book before you were wonderful and delivered?

    Sign me up for a donation. Seriously.

    • 2summers

      Yeah, either I was the 100th person he’d asked, or he somehow intuitively knew that I was the person meant to bring this book to him. I’ll have to ask the next time I see him. Will collect your donation in about one week!

  2. adminsmit

    love the trees on the familiar street in the back ground – thanks for visiting this amazing place of my youth. Is the Full Stop cafe still going? remember cruising into their sapce after a night out for something to eat and a game of backgammon. The owner had a yellow bus that he used to take exhausted, drunk patrons home!

    • 2summers

      Joe tells me that the Full Stop Cafe has moved to Parkhurst. Sad! Sounds like a cool place.

  3. Lu

    What a wonderful and inspiring story. I hope Simon and his daughter are both well 🙂


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