Paying it Forward

Posted by Flux on 

11 February 2014


For many people the end of the month is a nail biting time. Making ends meet in the past few years has become a serious problem for millions of South Africans. The end of January is an especially unpleasant time, even for those who don’t have to count their pennies. The festive season brings about a universal rush of blood to the head. We all overspend, and for those who have them, we load our credit cards and then hold our breath when that heart stopping moment arrives: receiving your January credit card statement – the proof of your festive folly.

 For the less fortunate, denying your kids a bit of festive cheer is difficult, so the impact in January is doubly painful. Schools reopen, which brings another bout of unexpected spending, and the spiral of debt just grows deeper.

 At the end of last year, I noticed the resurgence of an old Italian tradition – caffe sospeso, literally translated in English as, suspended coffee. Perhaps it had something to do with the extremely cold winter in the northern hemisphere, but it was an old trend that was worth reviving. Here’s how it works: you find a coffee shop that buys into the concept of ‘suspended coffee’ and when you order yourself a coffee, you add a suspended coffee (or more) onto your bill. The coffee shop keeps a record of the number of suspended coffees donated and when someone, who cannot afford a coffee, asks if they are any suspended coffee’s available, they are then given a free coffee.

 The origins of this tradition are unclear but it seems that it started in Naples at the beginning of the 20th century, when the first coffee machines were invented. Back then coffee was not something everyone could afford, so the first people who were offered free/suspended coffee were the carriage drivers, after which the custom spread, providing free cups of coffee to the poor.

While coffee may not seem like an essential food item, it does nevertheless provide a hot beverage for the homeless sleeping on the street, or simply a pensioner who can’t afford life’s little luxuries. It’s a good concept that can easily be implemented and applied to other food industries. In Naples today the concept has spread to a few pizzerias, so you can now buy a suspended pizza for someone who needs a meal.

 74 year-old Ivan Esposito, a resident of Naples and a regular buyer of caffe sospeso, says of the custom, “I think of it as a gesture of civility, it’s not charity.” I couldn’t agree more. In South Africa, where our gini coefficient is as deep as it is wide, small gestures of civility as much needed.

 In previous columns I have written about new trends in which communities help each other out. It is a ripple effect of the current global recession (now termed, The Great Recession). However, many of those trends rely on social networks. They effectively help mobilize those who have, to help those who don’t, but bridging that gap via technology is always going to be problematic. The beauty of the caffe sospeso concept is that it was born long before the technology revolution, so it retains a practical means of implementation. It is one of those brilliant concepts that allow people to “donate” painlessly and effortlessly at the moment and point of purchase – a system any charity or NGO strives to have.

 With our growing coffee culture, creating a caffe sospeso movement in South Africa would be great, but imagine what we could achieve if we could extend the concept as the pizzerias in Naples have done and involve supermarkets and grocery stores. I can already hear the naysayers mumbling about how such a system would be open to abuse, so perhaps we start with baby steps: how about a loaf of bread from your local bakery or corner cafe, or a ready-made sandwich from wherever you buy your lunch? And if your empathy chip refuses to be kick-started at the thought of charity, then do as Signor Esposito does and see it as an act of civility; a random act of kindness.

 The term “paying it forward” has always referred to a beneficiary of a good deed, repaying the deed to someone else, rather than the origional benefactor. Asian religions would see this as cultivating “good karma”, but equally Christians should also be familiar with the phrase, “you reap what you sow”. For atheists, I would approach this as an act of active citizenry, something many South African’s feel we lack as a society.

 If you’ve already failed to keep your new year’s resolution, then adopt this as an alternative. It’s a resolution that will be much easier to keep, and one that is guaranteed to make you feel infinitely better.

By: Dion Chang

About Dion

Image credit:Kzenon/ Shutterstock

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