Helping Johannesburg's homeless is Sis Judy's priority FWD

Tom Boland (
Sun, 30 May 1999 10:14:29 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  [South Africa] Sunday Times - gauteng - 16 May 1999


     Sis Judy and her team of volunteers see themselves
     working in partnership with the destitute.

     One woman has become a legend among the many homeless
     people in Johannesburg's inner city, writes NICKI PADAYACHEE

JUDY Bassingthwaighte is as poor as a church mouse, but she doesn't mind.

As the head of Paballo ya Batho, the outreach division of the Central
Methodist Mission in Johannesburg's inner city, she is a legend among the
outcasts of society. They know her as Sis Judy and she touches their lives
every day.

The 31-year-old from Rehoboth, in Namibia, spends her days and nights
washing wounds and counselling, feeding and clothing the homeless.

She came to South Africa nine years ago to study nursery school teaching.

"I saw all these abandoned and neglected people lying on the streets," she
says. "I found so much misery in a city built on gold."

So she decided to do something about it and joined Paballo ya Batho, which
in Sotho means "caring for people".

Crucial to Bassingthwaighte's philosophy is asking the homeless what they
want, instead of assuming what they need. "It's easy to patronise the poor,
so we decided to meet homeless communities and let them participate in our
decisions and tell us what they wanted."

"Boy, did we open up a can of worms, but at least they had a platform upon
which they were acknowLedged and heard." Bassingthwaighte said.

What the communities said they wanted were jobs, skills to do those jobs,
housing and respect for their rights as people.

"These people have names. I encourage the volunteers to learn the names of
the homeless people to affirm their dignity," she says.

Bassingthwaighte's volunteers come from all over: from suburbs, townships,
the US, Europe and Asia. She even takes volunteers from the homeless
communities themselves, although they go "back to the streets after they
have helped us - it's very sad".

"The nice thing about all our volunteers is that they tell me when I'm
wrong or out of order," Bassingthwaighte said.

Besides the day-to-day counselling of people who are HIV-positive,
depressed or bereaved, the Paballo ya Batho team makes soup every Wednesday
evening for the hungry.

Bassingthwaighte encourages the volunteers to eat the food. "There is a
stigma attached to soup kitchens because the food is not always so good.
Quality is very important to us," she says.

"While the soup is being served medical volunteers tend to wounds," says
Bassingthwaighte, who regularly sits with the destitute, keeping them
company in the long queues. She also washes gangrenous limbs and attends to
stabbing victims.

For her it is all in a day's work.  One night she even took somebody
home. "I know it's something I shouldn't have done but I didn't have any
choice." You can't be hard and fast with your rules; I prefer regarding
them as guidelines," she says.

One of her homeless charges, nine-year-old Keke, now lives with her
permanently. "I found her in Fordsburg. She was living on the streets with
her grandmother, who once went to jail for three months and took Keke with

I learned that it is very arrogant to come into a community and think you
can remove a child. "Her grandmother couldn't give the child an education
so she asked me to take care of her."

She then set about adopting Keke.

Bassingthwaighte has also had to cope with people dying in front of her and
people threatening to kidnap her.

"This city is a dangerous place but I refuse to live my life in fear. The
Central Methodist Mission is like a lighthouse and people know they can
come here when they are in trouble. We have no alarm system or burglar
bars. We need to break down the barriers," she says.

"In this kind of work you don't see the immediate results of your efforts.
For me the reward comes when someone gets his or her self-worth back. "My
motto is: life wants to be lived - and I'm living it."

[photo] LOVE IS ALL AROUND: Big-hearted Judy Bassingthwaighte and her
adopted daughter, Keke, who lived on the streets of Fordsburg with her
homeless grandmother. Picture: KAREL PRINSLOO


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