Tag Archives: HIV/AIDS

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


Another untold story – real heroes

13 Feb

Here is an article I wrote for the Reject Apathy website about the incredible work of Tich & Joan Smith in building villages for orphans in SA – Preparing the Way for Hope

I love telling untold stories – this is one that must be told…

Hope beyond hope

19 Jan

This week, I had the privilege of chatting to my dear friend Joan Smith. Joan and her husband Tich are one of the most inspiring, fearless and faith-filled couples I have ever met. Ten years ago, in their native South Africa, they started going into one of the biggest townships in Durban – Amaoti. Joan made lots of peanut butter sandwiches and took them to hungry children. From these humble beginnings grew a feeding programme, a Back to School programme, a holiday club, a young leaders empowerment project, crisis support for families, and 27 creches. The charity that has enabled the incredibly expansion of their work – Lungisani Indlela (meaning ‘the right way’) – has helped literally hundreds and hundreds of children, teenagers and parents to find hope.

Amaoti – the township where the work of Lungisani Indlela has been focused – is really, really poor. The hillside is populated by shacks, densely nestling side by side. One-room shacks house entire families, often without even a mattress to sleep on. No cooking facilities (as we understand ‘kitchens’), no toilet, nowhere private to wash. This is extreme poverty. Into the darkness of overwhelming need, Tich & Joan have embodied hope and brought light, sacrificing much to respond to the vocational call to serve the poor. In 1990, Joan’s husband was murdered in a township. She subsequently met and married Tich, and they are an incredible couple. The pain of such loss should not be underestimated, yet this has not stopped Joan from going into Amaoti most days of the week for over 10 years. Fearless. Brave. Faithful.

Now Tich and Joan have an even bigger dream, one that is starting to find breath and life on another hillside not far from Amaoti. A village for orphans. South Africa has an orphan crisis. 18% of the population is now HIV+ (5.5 million people) and there are an estimated 3.3 million children orphaned as a direct result of this epidemic. That is a lot of children. Social services cannot cope, the government does not know how to respond to this catastrophe. Tich and Joan have a vision – hundreds of villages for these children across Africa. Each village housing children in small homes (six children) with a house mother who is there for the long haul. Each village with a school, a church, a business development centre. Each village with 100 homes, forming smaller clusters (mini-villages) within the larger village.

Last year, the first children and house mothers moved onto the first LIV village. 35 children now called the village their home, with more arriving daily. By the end of this year, 80 homes will be completed. Tich and Joan – unable to think small – recently purchased the farm next door to the village, with funding arriving miraculously at the 11th hour. These are people of faith!

So many lives will be changed through the dreams, hard work and commitment of this extraordinary couple. So many already have.

Busi was aged 17 when she fell pregnant. Her daughter was born and she went back to school, determined to overcome the obstacles and provide for her daughter. She passed all her exams and has given a place to study journalism at university. Her dream was becoming reality. On the way to university, she was killed in a car crash. Her daughter Bongi, aged 6 at the time, was orphaned, hope seemingly disappearing with her mum’s tragic death. Bongi was sponsored through Lungisani Indlela’s Back to School programme, working hard at school, determined to one day become a journalist herself – she had the same dream as her mum.

In December, Bongi graduated from school with six distinctions. She has since been awarded a full scholarship to study journalism at university for four years. Hope beyond hope has become real – embodied in the Back to School programme, embodied in Bongi’s determination to grasp education with both hands, embodied in Tich and Joan’s love and commitment to many, many children in Amaoti and now in the LIV village too. Tich and Joan have become the “hands and feet” of hope to many in South Africa. Such hope has to be embodied to become real. Embodied through house mothers, feeding programmes and holiday clubs. Embodied through the giving of time, expertise and money. Embodied through the sacrifices that will continue to bring hope to some of the 3.3 million orphans in South Africa today.

To find out more about Tich and Joan’s vision and plans, click here

A Christmas gift

23 Dec

In all the last minute rush to buy presents, it can be difficult to find time or space to think about those around the world living today/Christmas Eve/Christmas Day/Boxing Day in a poverty from which they cannot escape. Those with no presents/turkey/family/home. For whom Christmas Day is just another day, with no break in the monotony of poverty and injustice.

So, rather than feeling guilty, why don’t we do something to help them?

At the moment, I am chatting with a few friends about setting up an initiative in memory of my friend JJ, a long-term street kid who recently died from AIDS-related TB. I do not want JJ to be forgotten. I do not want other street kids to be ignored, forgotten or silenced any more. So we have been talking about what we could do to break the cycle of street life and street death.

JJ had a daughter, a little girl born just weeks before his death. I want to make sure that she does not end up on the streets, like her Dad and her grandmother. So one little thing we are going to do is set up a trust fund for her – to ensure she can go to school and be given the best possible chance in life.

If you would like to, you could make a donation to help us get the trust fund up and running this Christmas. Just £5 would make a real difference, £5o would make a massive difference.

If you would like to know more and/or make a donation, please email me on beccamcgowanuk@gmail.com or contact me on Facebook/Twitter. I’d love to hear from you. Let’s do something – just a little thing – to challenge injustice over Christmas 2011.

Happy Christmas!

JJ’s old bedroom

Perspective, part II

9 Dec

As we get that festive feeling – only 16 sleeps til Christmas – maybe it’s good to put it all in perspective. This is what I found out today.

This Christmas…

…1 billion people (yes, you read that right) do not have access to safe, clean drinking water

…34 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, 2.7 million of these were infected last year

…15 million children have been orphaned by AIDS-related diseases so far

…162 million people are trying to survive on less than $0.50 a day

…11 million children are estimated to live on the streets in India

…34,ooo children and 16,000 adults die every day of hunger or PREVENTABLE diseases

…the top 1% earners in Britain now earn 14.3% of national income, compared to 7.3% in 1970

…half the world’s children will go to bed hungry tonight

So, in light of these damning statistics, I support those who are trying to help us wake up to these realities. For too long in the West, we have been able to press the snooze button and carry on consuming – shopping more, eating more, caring (it would seem) less. As I wrote yesterday, times may well be a-changing. But I hope that meeting our own needs will not prevent us reaching out to others – a report out this week highlighted that we seem to be becoming more selfish and less altruistic as the purse strings tighten. Compassion is seemingly on the decline.

I also read today that it would cost an estimated $7-10 billion to halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS. In 2005, Britons spent $6 billion on alcohol and $3.2 billion on ice-cream. I hope that, this Christmas, our hunger and thirst spread outwards from ourselves so that we choose to invest in ending the spread of HIV/AIDS rather than another bottle of wine.

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