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BENDING THE RULES: THE GOOD NEIGHBOUR

What brave move did THINUS RAS make that jeopardised his family’s livelihood? SHIRLEY FAIRALL heard a commotion on social media and tracked him down…

Thinus (31) was born and schooled in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Midway through an engineering PhD at Stellenbosch, he realised he wanted to work with people and gave up engineering for cooking, selling his food at markets and then opening Ragamuffin Curry in Cape Town’s Kenilworth in December 2017. Thinus lives in Harfield Village with his wife Christy and their newborn baby, Maria

‘Even though I had no specific restaurant experience and only tasted a proper Indian curry five years ago, I always believed Ragamuffin Curry would do well in suburban Kenilworth. I was grateful when that proved true. For the first six months it was a hit with locals and we started to earn a reputation for good and innovative food.

I opened a restaurant because food reduces the distance between people, and I wanted to create ongoing and meaningful relationships with my customers. We’re called Ragamuffin because we try to do it a bit differently: I love bending the rules! For instance, we serve an oxtail rogan josh, and a pork and mango Malaysian-style curry: stuff you won’t find anywhere else. I see my job as growing the business and being the main creator of recipes which I then teach my guys to cook. When we introduce a new dish, we put it on special and if people react well and our system copes, we add it to the menu.

‘Food reduces the distance between people’, says Thinus. On Ragamuffin Curry’s wall hangs a gold icon entitled The Hospitality of Abraham to remind him what serving people truly means. ‘We’re not here simply to churn out food,’  he says |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

So there we were: having fun, experimenting, learning the neighbourhood and doing well when suddenly in June, our business disappeared almost overnight. I was troubled but, being new to the area, I wasn’t sure what to expect. July started off equally quietly and I was mystified until I got an anonymous phone call. The person said that a group of concerned citizens were boycotting the business because we were not ‘dealing’ with the homeless people outside our shop.

Our photographer Leentjie photographed Thinus and Christy on the day they brought newborn Maria to the restaurant for the first time, much to the delight of Alphonsine (extreme left) and Annie (left)  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

It seemed some locals had decided they’d rather support businesses that were chasing homeless people away. I was shocked, then really angry and very uncomfortable with the idea of asking people to move away. I knew I couldn’t be a hospitable host inside Ragamuffin Curry, then be different as soon as I stepped outside. If I treated some with kindness and some without, the kindness I hoped people were experiencing in the restaurant would be a hollow shell.

Wife Christy and Maria with (from left to right): local flower seller ‘Aunty Ann’,  and restaurant staff members Alphonsine, Sammie and Annie  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

But I also realised I couldn’t dismiss local concerns. I talked about it with other local business people but the real wake-up call came when a friend, a single woman in her 20s, admitted she was uncomfortable outside my shop at night. I realised that while we at the restaurant had come to know ‘our’ homeless guys, the customers didn’t know them. This could feel intimidating. There’s one guy who is particularly eccentric, which is the first thing others notice about him, but we know he’s actually very sweet. Different but sweet!

While July dragged and the effect of the ongoing boycott was being felt in the till, I was thinking. Very hard! It took me two weeks to decide what to do. I published our response on the Ragamuffin Curry Facebook page on 31 July [see below]. The gist of it was that I’d set up boundaries with the homeless guys and we were offering to escort customers to and from their cars because we now understood their need to feel safe. We were also clear that our first priority was to treat homeless people with kindness and love.

The statement Thinus made on Ragamuffin Curry’s Facebook page about homeless people near his restaurant 
Some of the spontaneous Facebook responses to Ragamuffin Curry’s statement above

The very next day, business started improving and we quickly got back on track. We’ve had one negative comment via someone else and hundreds of positive responses. To date, no one has asked us to escort them to or from their car. I’m almost disappointed!

So far, so good. Our customers know we’re paying attention and our homeless people know they need to respect our customers, just as we respect their right to cohabit with us. They don’t leave a mess or come into the restaurant begging because we feed them at the end of the night after closing time. We’re very watchful.

Life is colourful at Ragamuffin Curry

People ask me why I reacted as I did. I explain the word neighbour in the biblical command Love thy neighbour as thyself translates into my Afrikaans mother tongue as naaste, which means closest, i.e., ‘love your closest’. It’s such a simple and beautiful way of saying just love who there is to love. If I can reach out and touch someone, I can love them. While churches of various types have alienated me in the past I’ve persevered with Jesus and finally found His endless and sustaining grace, and it’s this that I’m trying to pass on.

rp ragamuffin w host or head waiter or waiter
Staff member Jean Claude meets Baby Maria for the first time  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

In the restaurant I have a famous Russian Orthodox icon called Hospitality of Abraham which shows three people – the implication being that they are the Holy Trinity – sitting at a table, sharing a meal. It’s there to remind us that we’re not here to simply churn out food. What we are doing – and who we are doing it to – is important. Hospitality is at the very heart of God, and serving and caring for people was always my motivator with this venture. If I exclude anyone – anyone! – Ragamuffin stops being a space of connection and it becomes just another business.

There’s an amazing book called The Ragamuffin Gospel that I had in my head when naming the restaurant. It stresses that Jesus came not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed, those who know they don’t have it all together. I think we tend to overestimate God’s wrath and underestimate His goodness, which is contrary to the message of Jesus. Actually, his goodness is something we can’t overestimate, and it gives us this wonderful chance to love, risk and live deeply.’

rp ragamuffin doormat
The doormat at the restaurant door that says it all  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Ragamuffin Curry is at 3 Mains Avenue, just off the corner of Main Road (next to Noyes Pharmacy), Kenilworth, Cape Town, phone 083 548 0708. They’re open daily from 11am to 9pm, and you can check out their Facebook page here. While you’re there, buy a U-turn voucher and the next time you see a vulnerable person at a traffic light in the area, give it to them!

Another pic that says it all: Thinus with his newborn   |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez
 
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