The month of Ramadaan is considered a time for the ummah to get in touch with their humanity and encourages Muslims to be more charitable. With this comes the endless amounts of charity and Zakah organisations which make sure that the “haves” are giving their money to the “have nots” in a meaningful way.
By Rafieka Williams
The dire need for assistance and the living conditions in Khayelitsha, was the motive behind choosing Masjid Allah Akbar in Khayelitsha for the Ahlan wa Sahlan programme, a partnership between Voice of the Cape and Gift of the Givers which assists people in need of food and other goods during the month of Ramadan. The community outreach programme was also present to hand out Qurans and other Islamic reading materials, while Ottomans Sports Club assisted with the meal for the evening and Pick ‘n Pay stepped in to help with the food parcels.
With the number of NGO’s organised and ready to assist the Masjid jama’ah, the amount of charitable giving seemed generous, but only for a moment. After the initial “Alhamdulillah” and assurance that a child wouldn’t go hungry that night, the shocking reality of where exactly this was taking place demanded reflection.
The masjid structure is not unlike any other informal settlement structure that is built in it’s surroundings – Khayelitsha is after all known for being one of the largest informal settlements in Cape Town. With wooden walls holding up an iron roof, the masjid itself is a small space that can accommodate just a few dozens of people inside. The ablution facilities is a small enclosure outside the main prayer space with minimal privacy or security, which ultimately is a constant reality for the people of Khayelitsha.
The idea of a masjid as a physical structure has always seemed to me like a safe haven for anyone – a place where there exists a radiant level of peace and calm. So it was humbling to see the women sitting outside in the cold still connected to the ibadah being led from inside. Women were placed outside in a marquee sitting on a thin layer of carpet, that was broken in some parts – the cold ground beneath them visible through the holes. These women had no sense of comfort except the clothes on their backs and the warmth of their bodies. The masjid speakers were competing with music playing from a tavern across the road while everyone strained their senses and huddled up under what little shelter was provided. In any other situation, one would cry foul. But there is something about being an invader in someone else’s space that requires a certain level of respect.
When you have to battle the elements and your basic human instincts are on high alert, that sense peace found in a masjid can often be lost under the bare and vulnerable conditions. This applies not only to one’s vulnerability to the elements but the core strength of your humanity beyond what you believe to be “goodwill.”
There were less adults than children, so there was very little room for order in the environment. At some point volunteers had to organise the way people were sitting. What was missing however was the sensitivity and patience that is required when speaking to people who don’t communicate in the same language as you. One could say there was a lack of empathy from those who were trying to help, a disconcerting truth that shows the value in meeting those who need your help on their terms and not your own.
In the way that aid organisations operate, evidence of their work is always necessary and the image of the poverty stricken mother and child is helpful to give the distant privileged world a reality check. It is the nature of the beast. Most people are too busy with the fast paced life that they’ve created to know who they are giving to, so images of poverty have to be shoved into the faces of those who need to purify the exorbitant amounts of wealth that they’ve acquired.
It was disturbing however to see the amount of people who had taken pictures of the women and children without asking their permission. As a journalist I know the ethical regulations when interacting with vulnerable people but this isn’t about journalism is it? This is about that very small bit of humanity that is lost in situations that are not familiar.
What was holding people who had come along to help and assist from actually speaking to the people they were trying to help, sharing in their experiences, understanding the lives of the people they so desperately wanted to help? Instead there was a sense of superiority that dictates relationships between giver and receiver permeating through the air. That same superiority that allows the cycle of dependency to continue. A cycle that keeps the disenfranchised where they are and allows for the giver to feel better when they sleep at night because their conscience is cleared. Yet what difference has the charity made if nothing changes in that person’s life?
I have always valued the lesson behind selflessness and the ability to reach a level of empathy that goes beyond just giving but understanding the experiences of the less fortunate. There is a fundamental difference between the act of giving and sharing because dependency is often enabled by giving instead of sharing. What I witnessed at the Khayelitsha leg of the Ahlan wa Sahlan programme was that there is most certainly a need to empower the less fortunate rather than just to feed them and it most certainly needs to be on a more consistent basis.
This begs the question – are we as Muslims in the Cape willing to share our physical comforts, our space, our time, our knowledge, our skills, our livelihoods? Because surely we cannot continue in the same way of “giving” that we have. If we moved from the ease and familiar act of sympathy, that knee jerk “hai shame” to empathy, perhaps Masjid Allah Akbar would be more than just another masjid in the middle of the township where we spent one evening far away from the comfort of our cozy homes to “give”.
Rafieka Williams is a multi-media journalist from Cape Town and the co-host of VOC’s Sunday Live show.