Today is the international day against Drug Abuse. One of the things about doing public health at the University of Cape Town is the visceral encounter of people on the street. A walk between my flat in Mowbray means crossing the highway and walking past a small shopping center and then turning into the MedSchool. Homeless people begging for money are often on the way. As you know, drug use and homelessness often go together, which causal relationships between the two resisting simplistic models.
This is where qualitative research comes in. It is telling people’s stories, essentially. And then one may ask, but these are just stories, they are not numbers or statistics of risk. But they are not fiction either – they are important.
To come to my own story. Here I bring in my own experience rather than hovering in some theoretical territory I am not even adept at. I invited a total stranger, a young man who asked me for money on street, into my flat yesterday afternoon. Why did I do this? He seemed young, in his teens, but he said he was 22. He seemed harmless and he was (my flatmate was home, which meant I did not need to fear). He seemed hungry and rather than just giving him some food, I asked him if he would like to eat lunch with me. It was heart wrenching for me, because he was a young man, who comes from a neighborhood where he knows someone his age with Tuberculosis. I am doing a paper on Tuberculosis in young people, but I have never met anyone who is actually at risk of this disease in Cape Town, that is to say a young person who could potentially have the disease. Most of the students here are far removed from the conditions of overcrowding and inadequate nutrition that promote the disease in those latentely infected (it is thought at least 50% of adolescents are latently infected with TB, but those who develop disease a subset – our study looks at the actual outcomes of TB treatment).
He was glad to have had a Sunday lunch. He was carrying his Qu’aran, but of course I did not ask why he was not fasting (as a Roman Catholic, my own belief is to refrain from any condescending judgement).
I began the conversation by telling him on the street that I had no intention of giving him money, only food. For this reason, we took a Cape Town taxi together – a true adventure for me given my fear of being robbed – to town. There, I gave him the cab fare he needed to go to Mitchell’s Plein – a marginalized community intended as a ghetto for colored people during apartheid which has become synonymous with urban decay – crime, drugs, deprivation – in Cape Town. This is not a history lesson, look up apartheid.
I made a conscious choice to give him the equivalent of $1.25 for his cab fare. I did this, because I recall Andrew Scheibe, an epidemiologist and fellow queer researcher gave a talk on drug use and HIV in Cape Town during this fellowship, telling me that paternalistic solutions are not sustainable. Empowering the individual to make the choice is what matters. I told Zaheer that I hoped he continued his Islamic studies, which he hopes will lead to a career and to make sure he always has taxi fare to go home.
Thinking back, the experience was quite empowering for me, knowing that I am not dealing with zeros and ones in my data, but representations of the experiences of living (and some deceased) people.