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Don’t let the bullies win

12 Nov

On Tuesday, as Americans went to vote, I sat in a coffee shop with a friend and our four children. It is an amazing space where children roam freely while parents sit and drink coffee.

As my friend and I chatted, a man (and he was a tall man) pointed at a young boy and shouted, “Whose child is this?” A granny responded and he loudly told us all about how this boy had hit his much-smaller toddler. He said that if it happened again, he would take discipline matters into his own hands and “give the boy a hiding”.

We sat there stunned.

Not content with his tirade, this tall man then went up to the much-smaller boy (who was no older than four years old), and repeated himself. This time standing over the boy, pointing at him and letting him know who was boss. “I will give you a hiding if you ever hit my daughter again”. 

And he stormed off, out of the coffee shop, leaving us all wide-eyed. And outraged. 

I must confess though that, despite feeling utterly indignant at the public bullying of a small child by a much-taller man, I did not say or do anything to intervene. The truth is that I was so shocked that I had no words. But that is not an excuse. I could have done or said something. And I didn’t.

The next morning, I woke up to the news that Donald Trump would be the 45th President of the United States. I hungrily consumed social media, attempting to absorb this extraordinary news. 

A man with no political experience. 

A man who has never held public office. 

A man who called Mexicans “rapists”, boasted of his sexual conquests, demeaned the military, started the Birther movement, set up and bankrupted several businesses, promised to build a wall to keep Mexicans out and vowed to deport all (criminal) immigrants.

A man who fibbed his way through the election campaign.

This man was the President-Elect.

Again, I was stunned. Indignant. 

Outraged.

But this time, I was not lost for words. 

I ranted on Facebook, overcoming my usual fear-of-confrontation. Unable to contain my disbelief, I was particularly incensed at suggestions that aligned Trump-as-President with “God’s will”.

I have many, many thoughts about the phenomenon of Trump-as-President (here are just a few).

Church leaders who endorsed Trump (especially those who are white and male), I have a question for you: Do  you know how many people are terrified about what Trump-as-President means for them? As you sit in your position of white, male privilege and long to “make America great again”, do you have any idea, at all, what that means for people who are different from you? The potential victims of Trump-the-Bully? 

The gay community, the immigrant community, those with sick relatives who rely on Obamacare, Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, women. 

Don’t tell them it’s “not that bad”, for it is. 

Take a moment to listen to those who feel vulnerable before you use your pulpit to celebrate the fulfilment of “God’s will”. 

As Van Jones said on CNN, “You have to hear the pain first, before you tell people it’s not alright to hurt”. 

Since Trump triumphed, there have been numerous reports that people of color are  being abused. Hispanic children have arrived at school to chants of “build the wall” from a group of white children. Children. At a university, a Groupme chat  added black students to chat about n****r lynching. Racist graffiti is found in universities and schools, as white people let others know who is no longer welcome in “Trump’s America”.  

This is the Trump effect. 

Potential victims include anyone who isn’t white/male/wealthy.

Anyone who isn’t like Trump.

The fear is real. The threat is real. Those (of us) who are privileged – who do not have to fear – cannot, and must not, capitulate. We must not “move on”. 

So many people are afraid. The colour of their skin, gender, faith or sexual orientation- the very essence of their identity – is being mocked and dismissed. They cannot be reassured, for the future is truly unknown. 

(We cannot even look at Trump’s political record to speculate about possible Presidential policies- for he does not have a political record.) 

We only have his rhetoric. Trump is a bully. And the fear is real.

I am ashamed of my silence on Tuesday as I watched a tall man bully a much-smaller boy (and his granny). I will not be silent, I will not allow myself to hide, as a President-elect bullies those he perceives as smaller than him. 

I am a card-carrying Christian but I cannot believe- as so many do – that “this must be God’s will” (it wasn’t God who was voting, it was American citizens). 

And I will not sit at my computer, blind to the huge-potential-hypocrisy of this blogpost.

For I am a Brit living in post-apartheid South Africa. I must confess my white privilege – for I am one of the powerful, the wealthy, the elite. I live in a nation that remains deeply divided along racial fault lines. A nation still in (slow) recovery from a political system that legalised and enforced separateness. A nation still in turmoil, whose scars are still raw.

I hate racism and yet I recognise the racist tendencies in my heart, I criticise those who only want to be around those who are “like them” and yet I confess my preference for my comfort zone. 
I long to be a bringer of change and yet I recoil at my oft-displayed unwillingness to engage in the painful task of dismantling this separateness. 

Today, we look back in horror at the evil of apartheid. We find it hard to believe that it was so widely accepted by those who were privileged. We find it hard to accept that Christians used the Bible to justify their belief in white supremacy and black inferiority. We balk at the premise that those in the Dutch Reformed Church truly  believed they were doing God’s will. 

And yet it was this belief – that they had exclusive access to truth – that justified the horrific behaviour that followed. 

Is history about to repeat itself? For this is the dangerous ground on which America now teeters. Has God blessed Trump to enforce the lies of white supremacy and black inferiority? Do Trump supporters want to Make America Great (Again) or rather Make America White (Again)? 

And yet. 

And yet, how easy it is to comment, and be outraged, at what is happening in the USA. It is much harder to engage with the injustices all around me. Much harder to stand up to the bullies standing next to me, as I discovered again on Tuesday. 

How easy it is to be brave from afar. 

How tempting to simply sit here, phone in hand and critique only on social media. 

How much harder to stand up to the much-taller bully in real life. 

And yet we must commit, again, to both. 

Let us not be silent in the face of oppression. 

We cannot allow the bullies to win. 

You can run…

28 Apr

I’ve always been a bit of a nomadic soul. For many, many years I moved house about once a year. I enjoy change. I get bored quite quickly. I like “new”.

So, whilst most of my friends and peers seem established – with a family, a mortgage and steady employment – I find myself two months into a three-month trip to South Africa. And with no home to return to.

My hubster and I decided to come out here to volunteer at a project and explore future possibilities in Durban – a place very close to my heart. I love South Africa – the people, the sunshine, the optimism and opportunities. I love it, and yet I find myself feeling strangely displaced. Not-quite-at-home.

It’s a feeling I am accustomed to.

I tend to gravitate towards the periphery, towards the outsiders. I often feel not-quite-at-home.

I am realising, however, that being-at-home is much more about the inside than the outside. Much more about feeling at peace and settled in myself than whether I live in Durban, London, Mumbai or Texas.

I can “move home” as many times as I choose, yet one thing remains constant – me. I can relocate anywhere in the world, but I cannot escape from “Becca”. I cannot hide from the flaws, doubts and insecurities; they refuse to stay in the garage with my belongings.

Being away from the life-I-got-used-to-in-London has taken me out of my comfort zone. In some ways, there are less distractions here – no internet in our home, no TV, fewer phone calls and text messages. This makes it harder to hide from myself.

So I find myself searching for definitive answers and, as yet, uncovering frustratingly little that is certain or absolute. I am desperate to know what is next – to find some comfort and security – and, yet, this is eluding me right now.

I am learning, once again, that maybe it’s not “what we do” that matters most anyway.

Maybe a better question is: “who am I?”. It requires more soul-searching and wrestling, but the discipline of facing ourselves – looking in the mirror – is far more important than “what we do”.

This is a hard lesson for me – I am, by nature, an activist, a doer. I like to be busy, to feel productive. I find it hard to just sit and “be”.

All the running, though, has made me tired.

So I am choosing, once again, to look in the mirror, to face the deeper questions and doubts, and ask again: “who am I?”.

It is, I think, only when we choose to move on from our futile attempts at hiding – from myself, from others and from this world – that we will find “home”.

Dear JJ

27 Nov

Dear JJ,

I can’t believe it’s over a year since you died. I think about you often.

This morning, I read a beautiful letter. It was written by my friend Chris Russell, following the tragic death of his almost-one-year-old nephew Tommy.  I read it in his book Ten Letters – and was particularly struck by these introductory words:

“As a way of dealing with grief, a friend of mine who is a psychologist suggested I write a letter to Tommy, expressing my thoughts and feelings”.

And so, as I read his letter (with tears in my eyes – for it is extraordinarily beautiful), I decided that I would write to you. One year on.

You see, JJ, I don’t feel like I have properly said goodbye yet. I couldn’t come to your funeral in South Africa. And I didn’t see you for over two years before then. I wanted to – so much. I wanted to visit you when you came off the streets and went into rehab – I was so proud of you and delighted that you were choosing a new way of life. And when the honeymoon period ended, and you ended up in prison – I really wanted to visit you there. I could have come actually, for I was visiting Durban when you were locked up – but I was advised not to, advised that it would be traumatising.

I really regret not coming then. Of course it would have been traumatic – but not seeing you, not taking that opportunity, has been worse. For I am left with the “what ifs” and an abiding sense of regret.

I didn’t – and this is probably my deepest regret – see you when you were dying. Oh – I wanted to come. Wanted to jump on a plane and visit you in hospital, and afterwards, when you were staying with your sister. But we didn’t have any money, we were totally broke at that point. So I didn’t come. I am sorry.

I wanted to see you with your brand new baby daughter, Thokzile – born only a few weeks before you died.

JJ, can you believe that I still haven’t met her? And she is over one year old now. I am hoping to remedy that very soon. She is a sign of hope, and – in her little body – I feel as though you live on. I want her to have a totally different life from you. And I plan to do all I can to make sure that happens! I am going to ask some of my friends to help me – to help me make sure that she goes to school, has a safe home and always knows – every single day – that she is loved.

You would be so proud of Thokzile’s mum (your girlfriend Thabsile), she is doing really well and working on the LIV village. Thokzile goes to the baby home each day so that Thabsile can work. They are both doing so well – and that makes me really happy.  I think that, if you could see it, you would be really happy too.

So, if I had seen you one more time, this is what I would have said to you, JJ:

“Don’t give up. Please don’t think that you have to live on the streets forever. That is not your destiny. Life away from the streets is hard (and not many people understand that). People usually think it is easy, and therefore better, but I know that the community you had there was so strong. They were your family, I get that now. But – and this is a big but – in the long run, you would have found a new family, a new community. Tich and Joan were always there for you – and they wanted to help you find a new life. Mike too, and myself. We all wanted you to truly thrive, not just survive. So choose life JJ, choose life.”

JJ, I tried to help you choose life and I feel like I failed. I am sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. At all. I thought I was helping but in the end, I just let you down, like so many others.

Do you know how utterly charming you were? Do you really get that? I still miss you, and smile when I remember your charm. Calling me “mama Becca”. Feeding me stories (how you loved your stories!) about this, that and the other… I was so sucked in. And then I felt like a fool, for a while. For believing everything you said when your very survival depended on your ability to win over people like me (those with soft hearts who always believe the best in people – the suckers!). And yet, now, I don’t regret it – for, and this is my hope, maybe you knew you were loved. That someone believed in you. And that there was someone you could call in a crisis.

Oh my goodness, do you remember the time you and Nicky got stabbed? Do you know how squeamish I am? How much I hate hospitals? And there I was, the only white girl in the whole hospital, sitting with you both in A&E for a whole day. No wonder people gave me weird looks – you looked so rough with that gash on your face, and there I was acting like your mum, as though it was totally normal. But inside I felt so sick, I hate hospitals so much. And then you asked me to stay in the cubicle with you while they injected you and sewed your face up – I felt as though I was going to faint, but I managed to hold it together! The thing I loved about that awful day was this – I think that, by the end of it, you and Nicky knew I was on your side. And that was all I wanted really.

JJ, this is turning into a really long letter! I guess there is so much that was left unsaid. And I haven’t known how to say goodbye, being so far away. I have had a thought though – I want to “create” something in honour of your short life, so that you will never be forgotten. And not only you but all the other kids who die on the streets in Durban too. What do you think we should do? I like the idea of a public memorial – a public space, a public art project – so that the community of Durban can no longer pretend that kids like you never existed. Do you think that would work? Maybe I could write about your life too? You lived a thousand lives in your two decades here on earth and I want everyone to know how amazing you were – how you embraced life in spite of all you suffered, how you loved even though you knew so much rejection, how you taught some of us so much about living.

I miss you JJ. I wish you were still with us.

But I know you are in a better place now. And you left your mark here in this world – you will never be forgotten.

Love you,

Mama Becca

Summer, do you have to go?

20 Sep

Yes, I know – the blog has been somewhat dormant over the summer months. I guess it’s the opposite of conventional hibernation. I took some time out to reflect on why I am writing here. I was busy (it was indeed a fun-filled summer). And I had a little holiday. But, I am back in the world of blog once more and I hope that my writing will appear more frequently than it has of late.

Books I have loved this summer include:

Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Won’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain) – this deserves its own blogpost (one is on its way). Absolutely brilliant.

Stone Arabia (Dana Spiotta) – original, intelligent fiction. Really makes you think about memory. Fascinating.

Ten Letters: To Be Delivered In The Event of My Death (Chris Russell) – there is so much goodness in this that I am reading it very slowly. Much to absorb and think about.

Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy – I read these earlier in the summer. I became obsessed. More than I ever have been over books. Utterly compelling, clever and creative. So sad that he died before he could write more books. I am now officially a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction (never thought I would utter those words!)

Blogs I have discovered:

Grief, 3 little girls, and God somewhere – http://deeperstory.com/author/guy/

Anecdotes of a manic mum – http://manic-mums.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/dear-alex-no-matter-what.html?spref=fb

Very powerful blog on depression (and absolutely brilliant writing) – http://tamaraoutloud.com/2012/09/14/the-longest-way-back-home/

Favourite summer moments:

Going to the Paralympics

 –

A little holiday in Greece:

Getting completely and utterly, totally obsessed with the Olympics

The launch of LIV UK – an extraordinary charity that is building children’s villages for South Africa’s 5.2 million orphans. I am thrilled that I will be working for LIV UK over the next few months.

Moments of redemption

21 Aug

This evening I experienced redemption. A moment of grace. Unseen scars, the sort that can reside for years within the heart, seemed to dissipate. And I am deeply grateful.

Four years ago, life became unrecognizable for me. Dreams shattered, hope destroyed. I had a vision, a dream, to work with street children and see their lives transformed. I wanted to create family for those without, a safe place for those always on the run. And somehow, in a few short months, it all fell apart. Somehow, despite many, many months of planning, praying and preparing, it went horribly wrong. And I was left bewildered, bemused, confused.

Somehow, by the grace of God, I find myself in a very different place four years later. The daily relentless struggle I used to experience – the conviction that I was a failure, the longing to hide away – did not remain forever (although, at times, it seemed like it might). Healing has been gradual, not immediate. A combination of faithful and faith-filled family and friends, an amazing husband, a made-to-talk-to-Becca counsellor, the wisdom of others, and many, many hours of processing on my own.  This journey has been shaped by occasionally progress and then seeming regression. The scars, once so bright, had – over time – faded. But they had not disappeared.

Today, right now, I feel pleased that I have these faded scars – the reminders that failure can be survived, that hope does emerge from the most hopeless places. I am at peace with these reminders, because tonight a few words were spoken that brought a deeper healing to the faded wounds. I am pleased because I have remembered that there is a plan and purpose bigger than myself. And, it would seem, I still have a part to play.

This time, however, it feels healthy and good and right. I have nothing to prove. I can risk again. I can give – not because I need to be liked or needed or a “success”, but simply because there is an opportunity to do so. I can dare to go to a place where I might meet “failure”, because I know such things can be survived.

And so, this evening, I feel grateful. Not only for this new opportunity, but also for the jagged, pain-to-hope story that has got me to this moment. I am grateful for my failure, for it has made me who I am today. It has brought me to a beautiful moment of deep redemption. And now, after all the struggles and doubts, I feel amazing. I feel free.

Us (not “them and us”)

12 Jun

This is an amazing film about the work of Umthombo.

Umthombo is an NGO that wants to challenge the negative stereotypes enshrouding street children. The images of glue-sniffing victims – once so popular – have been replaced by a new mantra: “surfers not street children”. (And we could replace the word “surfer” with a number of others: skateboarder, student, champion…)

The label “street child” has become a dirty word in South Africa. It has widened the gap between “them” and “us”. Street children are seen as “the other”. They are “not like my children”. They are “criminals”, “dangerous”, “to-be-avoided-at-all-costs”. They are, quite simply, “not like us”.

This short film, and the work of Umthombo, challenges these preconceived, socially constructed beliefs (lies). It reveals how lives can be transformed when determined, compassionate people scavenge amongst that-seen-as-rubbish by wider society, refusing to believe that any life is beyond redemption.

Yet this transformation comes at a price; it’s not easy working on the frontline.

I know – I used to work with Tom (founder of Umthombo) many years ago. Yet the cost – the tears, tiredness and traumatic days – is worth it. One changed life is worth it.

Umthombo needs our support. These kids need our support. After all, they are surfers. They are skateboarders. They are champions. Not street children.

Who am I? Where am I?

8 Jun

It’s been a long time since I put fingers to keys here. I am not sure why. I have been busy – yes. I have been away on a work trip – yes. I have been seeking, but not really finding, inspiration – yes. But these things have happened before and it hasn’t kept me away from the blog. This time it has.

And yet now, as I sit here, there is so much that I want to write and I don’t know where to begin. There is too much I’d like to say and yet I don’t know how to say it. The words were, for a while, inaccesssible; now they are competing for my attention. I don’t know which ones to choose first.

Maybe I will begin at the end and work backwards.

I am in the US at the moment on a work trip. I have been here for two weeks and I love it! I have met some incredible people – people who have chosen a different path and live on the periphery. People who keep me awake at night as I try to absorb the conversations we have had. People who are very “ordinary” and, in so being, somehow become extraordinary.

Last night, I was chatting with two of these people, two new friends. Both are academics – one a professor in post-modern philosophy, the other completing her masters in reconciliation, trauma and gender. I found that, as I talked about my days in academia – from 2003 until 2008, whilst I studied for my Ph D – a dormant part of me was resurrected again. A part of me that is usually shelved. part of Becca that tends to stay in a cupboard, in darkness, away from the light. Yet as we spoke – and we had much in common – this neglected part came into focus once again.

My Ph D was – at the time – the most important thing in my life. I saw it as a springboard to great things. Not academia but action. I spent five years thinking about street children in South Africa and the daily abuses of their human rights and, by the end, I couldn’t wait to get my hands dirty. So I went to the frontline, to the streets of South Africa, and dirtied my clean, library-sanitised hands, mind and body. I put the Ph D on a shelf and left the library for good.

When I came back from South Africa a few months later – deflated, exhausted and broken – I wondered why I had bothered. With the Ph D. With the move to SA. With the hours, weeks, years of thinking, planning and dreaming. It had all gone terribly wrong. I had failed. Completely and utterly.

My attempts, a few months later, to find a publisher for my Ph D were similarly impotent. They weren’t interested. I thought I had something to say, something to contribute, but these “experts” did not agree. And so I gave up.

Gave up being an academic. Gave up trying to work on the frontline.

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