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How we coaxed a smile from Solly

Our guard was as dedicated as he was thin and serious.

Children work on a bike in Tshepisong, a township in South Africa.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
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  • Sarah Groves

Solly is our security guard. He moved in the day after we did, and so my son, Sam, thought he belonged to us.

“I’ve met our guard,” Sam said, on Day 3 in our new home. “He’s very nice. He’s, um, light brown.”

I met Solly the next evening.  He was also very tall and very thin and very serious. Months later we would catch him smiling – when he thought no one was looking.

Solly hadn’t always been so thin. He’d been out of work for a year, supporting an extended family. “My wife says I must buy new clothes,” he said. “My church clothes are falling off me. But I told her, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll get fat again. Now I have a job.’ ”

This news kept our family buzzing through quite a few mealtimes. “Do you mean he hasn’t had enough money to buy himself food?”

“Do you mean he’s been slowly starving to death?”

“Can’t we do something to fatten him up?”

“I’m going to bake for him every day,” my daughter announced.

And so every evening my husband and children began delivering a foil-wrapped treat to Solly. They’d step out of our apartment and along the dirty corridors to the mesh entrance gate where Solly sat each night from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., guarding our block. When we gave him the first package, the corners of his mouth twitched. 

Just outside our gate, all down Jabu Ndlovu Street, as the day begins to fade, security guards take their places. The in-town villas of colonial farmers that once lined our formerly plush street have become offices. Every office has a security guard.

They’re cheerful; they’re chubby. And they sleep right through their shifts – from 6 to 6. No one expects a security guard to stay awake.

That’s why the whole street knew Solly. He not only stayed awake, he patrolled the block. He picked up litter. He waved his hands at cars that drove past without lights. He knocked on doors and asked residents to turn their music down. 

“I want to tell him there are more important things to worry about than litter,” my husband said. South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world. But for Solly, breaking a little rule was like breaking a big one.

Then one night, a car went through a red light on the corner of Jabu Ndlovu just as a motorbike came through the green one. Solly saw the crash. He saw the driver get out of his car. Then he saw him get back in his car and drive away. For two hours, Solly helped the rider, the police, and the ambulance personnel.

The next day, some residents complained: Solly wasn’t at the gate last night. Solly wasn’t doing his job. We need a proper security company, someone said. Not just Solly. 

A meeting was called. Solly stoically said he could always do gardening, or clean, or fix roofs. My husband said he’d go to the meeting. 

The creases around Solly’s mouth grew more pronounced.

After the whole story came out, Solly kept his job. Even after hearing he wouldn’t be let go, he kept his serious face. 

After a month of scrutinizing Solly, my children announced: He’s not getting any fatter. We started adding to his treats – pork sausages, boiled eggs, toasted cheese sandwiches. With every addition, his mouth turned up a bit more. But still his pale blue uniform hung from his shoulders.

Then my husband had an idea: Solly earned 3,000 rand (about $225) per month – the minimum wage for security guards here. But he lived in a township far from the city. His taxi ride to work each day cost him one-third of his salary. “I’ll ask Good-rides to get him a bike.”

Goodrides is a nonprofit group here that subsidizes bikes for people who need them – laborers who must wake up at 4 a.m. to walk to work, students who risk being mugged walking to university, or security guards who spend their fattening-up money on taxis. 

We asked Solly if he’d like a bike.

“Yes, please,” he said. “But nothing fancy. Just an old one.” We got him a used Sedona, a single speed. It was silver and black – serious, like Solly.

“A hundred and fifty rand,” my husband said, showing Solly the bike. Solly’s eyes twinkled. His wrinkles deepened. But he wouldn’t take it until he’d saved the money (about $11).

A few weeks later he fetched the bike. “My wife thinks I’m joking – a bike for this price,” he said. “I’ll ride home and surprise her.” I wondered if his wife would smile.

I didn’t see Solly leaving that day on his bike. But I did see him a week later. We were walking in the city when Sam suddenly shouted, “Look! There’s Solly on his new bicycle!” 

From far down the road he came, wind tousling his normally neat hair, yellow T-shirt flapping on his still thin torso. But as he sped around the corner, I saw on his face, dividing it in half, a smile.