Tag Archives: South Africa

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.

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.

Grief

29 Feb

Death feels so unfair. It is so final. It is also, as I am learning, sometimes so unexpected.

I am not sure that I could write about anything else today apart from my grief at the loss of Thoko. So young. So unexpected. So unfair. Grief feels like a roller-coaster, but one where you are blindfolded and have no idea where you are heading. One where the sound is turned up so high that you end up blocking it out, unable to cope with any more sensory overload. It is a roller-coaster that makes you feel nauseous at times, and consumed by hunger at others. It is not really “food hunger”, I know that, but instead a longing to have someone back – a hunger for the one you have lost. It is a roller-coaster of happy memories, regrets, missed opportunities and emotional turbulence.

I cannot imagine how my dear friends Tom and Mandi (Thoko’s “adopted” parents) feel right now. How intense their grief. How deep their loss. I’ve just been looking through some old photos – of the four of us. We were always together – Tom, Mands, Thoko and I, rarely apart during 1999-2000. Since then, they have become all too acquainted with bereavement – this is what happens when you work with streetkids. Yet such loss never becomes “normal”; it can never be ok.

I cannot imagine how we will recover from Thoko’s death. I know we will, for people do – all around the world, every day, every week, every year. Millions of people in the throes of grief get up one more day, head off to work, go to the shops. Do “normal” stuff while feeling so disconnected from normality. Wandering around in a daze, looking “there” from the outside but so “not there” inside. Emotionally and physically exhausted. Wrung dry.

In grief there is no logic, nothing anyone can say to make it better. There are no time constraints. No rules for grieving and saying goodbye. No “normal”.

Grief is to be experienced, a tunnel from which we will one day emerge. It cannot be circumvented. There is no fast-forward button. This is what makes it so painful. Yet so important. We miss the ones we have lost – that is why it hurts. We miss them and the ache does not go away.

I wish I had five minutes with Thoko, for I know what I would tell her. How loved she was. How beautiful and brave. How wanted and cherished. How the future without her would be a darker, sadder place. I would tell her that I love her – for now I can’t. Now it is too late.

And I would walk away, wondering who else I should find and tell of my love and respect, of how they are cherished and lovely and unique. For we don’t know how long we have on this earth. We don’t when “the last time” is. So maybe, I would tell myself, I should stop assuming immortality and start telling those I love that I want/need/appreciate/enjoy/treasure them. Stop being shy and start being more bold. I would rather regret this than regret never having said anything. Now that is the worst. It really is.

Death unexplained (gone too soon part II)

25 Feb

I heard today that a friend from South Africa died, suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving all who knew her reeling and disoriented. Thoko was only 17 years old. I met her when she was 3 years old – a cheeky, tiny little girl who spoke hardly any English. At the time, her mum was really unwell and unable to look after her, so good friends of mine (Tom and Mandi) were caring for her full-time. A few weeks later, Mandi and I moved into a flat together – with Thoko, who now spoke English fluently. She was adorable, all who met her seemed to fall for her smile, charms and dance moves instantly.

Mandi and I became “mum” to Thoko. She slept on a little mat by my bed. I woke her up in the mornings, got her dressed, took her to nursery school, picked her up at the end of the day. Once I forgot to pick her up – and felt terrible for days. I managed to teach her to have a lie-in at the weekends! She was beautiful.

She celebrated her first ever Christmas with my family in South Africa – she didn’t know what Christmas was until the age of four. She kept telling everyone what we had bought them, prefixing this with “It’s a secret but…”. She made us all laugh. Once, in a restaurant, Thoko and I told the waiter it was Mandi’s birthday. He bought out a pudding with a candle in it and made everyone sing “Happy Birthday”. It wasn’t Mandi’s birthday at all – we just thought it would be funny if everyone sang to her!

I remember taking Thoko to see the animals at Tala wildlife park, we went many times. I especially remember our trip to Tala with my good friends form England Liza and Beki, and another trip with Suzi. Happy memories.

Thoko never went back to her mum’s. Tom and Mandi took her in, she also lived with her aunt for years. She was loved. Deeply. And now she has gone.

Last time I was in Durban, I could have seen Thoko but I didn’t. I thought there would be another time, many more chances. That makes me feel unutterably sad – for now it is too late. I can’t remake that decision. But I can learn from my assumption. Life is uncertain. Love and show love to those you love while you can.

I  feel like death is all around me at the moment. I don’t know what this means. But I know it is excruciatingly sad. And mostly senseless. I do know, however, that it is making me reassess life. I am alive. I want to choose life. Not just survival, but life – in all its fulness. I want to live – because I can. I want to choose adventure and risk, embracing life – because I can. Not everyone can. But I can, right now, and I don’t want it to pass me by.

RIP Thoko. You were loved. Deeply. You will be missed. Always.

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