Working through turbulent times

Ali Ngendakumana works at a petrol station in Bergvliet.

Ali Ngendakumana is a petrol attendant at Shell garage in Bergvliet.

His biggest fear working during the Covid-19 pandemic is the possibility of going home one day to infect his nine-month-old daughter, Amiliyah.

When he first heard petrol attendants would continue working during the national lockdown as essential service providers he was grateful because it meant he would still get paid, but he worries about the risk for his family.

“I make sure I sanitise and wash my hands as soon as I get into the house after my shift.

“Even when going to the shops, I don’t take her (Amiliyah) anymore. I don’t want to take the risk. At first, I wasn’t taking this seriously; everyone was making jokes; it was funny, but now I can see that it is serious.”

Ali lives in Delft and he is now very cautious when he catches the taxi that takes him to and from work. He wears a mask all the time.

Ali works the night shifts at the garage.

“It’s been very quiet. I don’t count, but I know I don’t help more than 20 customers a shift now. I’m very careful with them, I follow the rules, I clean myself after each customer. Even when we exchange money, I always sanitise before and after.”

Instead of cutting staff during lockdown, the petrol station reduced all the attendants’ hours so everyone could still work.

“I work from six at night to seven in the morning. I usually work three shifts (a week), but now I’m working two. I’m getting about R804 a week after deduction, before it was about R1400 because of the Sunday shift.”

He’s be pumping petrol and cleaning windshields for three years. Before that he worked in a restaurant. He’s glad he got out of the restaurant business before Covid-19 hit.

“I’m lucky that I left,” he says. “At least I’m still receiving something.”

Ali asked his landlord if he could pay half his rent this month. She hasn’t responded to his messages yet.

“I saw that she read the message on WhatsApp and didn’t reply. I’m going to try and call now. My wife doesn’t work so I’m the breadwinner. I’m not saying I don’t want to pay rent, but I can only afford half this month. I hope she understands.”

Ali says the president’s announcement last week about easing the lockdown is both good and bad.

“I live on one of the busiest streets in Delft, and when I go to work, you should see, the children are playing in the street, the street is full of people. I’ve even heard the police chasing people telling them to go home. They’re stubborn, and after next week, it’s only going to get worse.”

But easing some restrictions is necessary for the economy, he adds. “One of the guys who rents in the same yard as me, he’s a contractor, and he’s not working at all now.

“He has a wife and two kids. He had to speak to the landlord, and they agreed that he won’t (pay) rent this month. It’s very hard for a man to humble himself like that. We want to be providers for our families, but it’s tough now.”

Ali is originally from Burundi and says that when he speaks to his friends back home, things still seem to be normal there.

“There’s no virus there. They locked their borders early so people are still working. I think that’s what this president should have done. He should’ve closed them (borders) back in December. He closed them too late.”

Burundi currently has 15 confirmed Covid-19 cases.