Tag Archives: poverty

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


Who am I? Where am I? Part II

11 Jun

What did the clever man think? He liked it.

And I liked that he liked it. It felt redemptive somehow. Redemptive – yet confusing.

What should I do with that which has been salvaged? Plucked out of the dark and brought into the light? For that is how it felt – as though part of me long locked away was being released, allowed to re-emerge. “The failure” may not, after all, be the end.

Can failures be rescued, re-imagined, resurrected? What can we do with the remnants?

In Mozambique, several years ago, I visited a rubbish dump known locally as the bocarria. There lived the scavengers, those who made a living from others’ waste. Those who were so poor, so desperate, that the unwanted remnants – discarded by fellow human beings – became their livelihood.

These entrepreneurial rescuers knew instinctively that worthless things may actually be deeply valuable. That life is often found amongst waste, that hope often dwells in unusual places – and can be buried within a smelly, forsaken mountain of shit.

Many of us in the West never get anywhere near the shit. We live complacent, comfortable, there-is-always-enough (or there-is-always-too-much) lives. We throw away that which is valuable – both literally and metaphorically – because it’s easier, more convenient, than salvaging from the rubbish. We put the rubbish in the bin automatically, and we lock our failures in the cupboard in the same way. We discard that which may, sometimes, need to be salvaged.

And so we miss out. On redemption. On hope-restoration. On real-life resurrection.

We miss out because salvaging is hard work and costly. Painful. It takes time. And it rubs your hands (and heart) raw.

I – like many – often make the easy choice: sanitized living – clean, safe and predictable. I prefer order to mess. Hygienic surfaces to those strewn with waste. And yet, occasionally, in the midst of my need-for-order, the unexpected occurs. Scavenging – whilst terrifying and confusing – becomes the best choice. And so I choose it. And there, if only for a brief moment, is the sweet aroma of redemption.

Power is expensive, but words are free

13 Feb

This is a really interesting article about how Cameron and the Conservatives are flailing. Interesting because it’s written by Tim Montgomerie, the man behind the Conservative Home website, whose strap-line is “the home of conservatism”. To spell it out then, if the editor of your most important pro-party political blog criticises you in a national newspaper, you are probably in trouble.

Where did the Tory party go wrong? Some would say they should never have been allowed to govern.

I, for one, did vote for them – inspired two years ago by their commitment to social justice, to the long-awaited political transformation this country needed, inspired by the new message and new faces bringing this message.

Last year, I spent quite a lot of time writing for, and working closely with, someone who is now one of the PM’s special advisers. I was “in there” for a while, or at least vicariously, and I loved it. I ended up writing this article for the Guardian in the wake of the riots, and for a while I felt close to the action. That all changed when I changed jobs a few months ago. And now, in retrospect, I am really, really glad.

Really glad I no longer have to defend ideals like the “Big Society” (I never understood what it meant – and I spent a month writing a policy paper about it!). Really glad I can distance myself from a party that is, I believe, failing – failing to do what it said it would do, failing to listen to the ordinary man and woman, failing to lead our country forward at a time of great economic instability.

For a while now, I’ve been pondering a similar thought to Tim Montgomerie  – how can people who have always known abundance ever truly understand poverty and need? How can the rich (and I mean truly rich) ever get what it is to go without, to make heart-breaking decisions and see your children suffering as a result – simply because you don’t have enough money? How far can human empathy spread?

The thing about poverty is – however compassionate and kind-hearted you might be, you can never truly understand the pain that poverty brings until you experience it yourself. The sleepness nights. The constant worry and anxiety, 24 hours a day hovering over you. The tension it brings into your relationships. The exclusion zone it creates as you watch your friends go out/buy new shoes/grab another coffee/buy healthy food for their children and know that you cannot join in.Poverty divides and isolates. It rarely unites.

Our leaders have failed to understand. If they understood surely they would not be pushing through these deeply unpopular changes to the NHS and our welfare system. Surely they would not be allowing the judiciary to lock up young people involved in riots – impressionable teenagers whose main crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Surely they would not be continuously pushing up the cost of public transport as the service received continues to decline. We have been failed. I feel duped. And it makes me angry. Angry because it feels like we – the general public – are not being listened to.

Yet words are free. I love words. I love it when words are conjoined and sculpted together in ways that give voice to those without power. It does not cost money to use our words to challenge those in power – whether here in the UK, or amongst those on the front-line of opposition in Syria, Russia or Zimbabwe, or globally amongst those campaigning to end human trafficking and the round up of kids living on the streets.

How will you use your voice today? And tomorrow? Let’s no longer allow the powerful – wherever we are in the world – to think they know what is best for those fighting to survive in the face of injustice, poverty and human greed.

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

True Austerity v. Fake Austerity this Christmas

15 Dec

Have you noticed how everyone is talking about “austerity” this festive season? Celebrities on Twitter, on TV, journalists in the papers are talking about their “back to basics” Christmas plans – which a cynic may say is more about nostalgia and guilt than genuine need. When multimillionaire celebrities talk about “cutting back”, I find myself feeling less generous than I should be at this time of year.

You see, I have known, and still know, people for whom austerity is not a lifestyle choice, but an absolute non-negotiable necessity. It is not “choosing brown paper with red ribbons” or “Tesco mince pies rather than Waitrose brandy butter”. It is not a choice but rather a means of survival.

Let me illustrate – one of my dear friends in South Africa recalled to me the Christmases of her childhood. We were in our early twenties at the time and I was just starting to realize how privileged I really was. She grew up in a loving yet poor family in a township, her family was close-knit but had little money. At Christmas there were no individual presents, not even as a young child. Instead, every year as Christmas approached, her Dad was given a packet of biscuits at work and this was the family’s (joint) Christmas present – a packet of biscuits shared amongst them. When she told me this, I struggled to hold back the tears. I had never before had to imagine a Christmas without all the trimmings – turkey, presents, crackers, cheese, stockings and so on. None of that –just a shared packet of biscuits. That is true austerity.

Poverty is not a glamorous thing. Sometimes I think we can be guilty of romanticising it. Poverty – not having enough to pay the bills, to buy enough food, to buy your child even one Christmas present – is ugly, separating the haves from the have-nots, marginalising people and creating feelings of inadequacy and “difference”. True austerity is a non-negotiable side effect of poverty, not a glamorous lifestyle choice.

Someone else was recently telling me how their parents could never afford to buy them what they asked for at Christmas – instead they always got the fake version of the real thing. Okay, it’s not the same as a packet of biscuits but it can still generate feelings of being second best, different from all your friends at school.

Fake austerity makes me angry.  don’t like seeing the wealthy pretend to identify with the poor, when many have no idea what it really means to not have enough, to lie awake at night worrying about money – week in, week out, year in, year out. When there isn’t enough money to pay the bills, buy your child a new, much-needed coat or heat your home at all, the last thing you want to hear is that the mega-rich are now “austere” too. I am all for cutting back, spending less so that you can give more away, and reaching out to those in true need this Christmas.

But, if we are fortunate enough to be able to live without worrying about money, let’s also be truly grateful for that at this time of year. After all, it is about a baby born to parents too poor to find an inn, who put their newborn in the trough usually inhabited by animal food. It is about a God who became poor, not a God who glamorises poverty.

37,000? That’s a lot of children

16 Nov

This morning, the Today programme featured a report on street children in Kabul, Afghanistan. There are currently an estimated 37,000 kids living and working on the streets in this city alone – yes, that is right, 37 thousand. They are trying to eke out an existence, trying to survive on the streets of a city – the capital city of a country that has been at war constantly for 10 years. I find these figures astonishing, hard to make real – some of these children will not know what it means for their homeland to be at peace, they have only lived through war. And how do we begin to get our heads round 37,000? These pictures, published by the BBC, give a much-needed insight into the daily reality of 37,000 too many children and young people in Kabul today.

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