This morning, I heard that one of my dear friends – a young man called JJ – died. He was 24. He had full blown AIDS and his ever-weakening body was ravaged by TB. This is not one of those deaths that gets reported in the paper, marked by a full page obituary. There most likely will not be a funeral attended by hundreds of mourners. But there are some of us who will mourn the loss of JJ deeply, and for a long time.
JJ lived on the streets in South Africa. I met him there, in 2007, introduced by my friend Mike who had already fallen for JJ”s charms. He was, if you like labels, a “street kid”. The streets were his home, his comfort zone, and he found it very difficult to leave them. I was not the only one who had befriended JJ and tried to “help” him. He seemed to have this magical quality – a gift for drawing people in. He could cross cultures and languages with ease. He certainly put me at ease – the white Western girl who hung out with JJ and his friends at the bus shelter, despite the protestations of those around me. They thought JJ or one of his friends would hurt me, yet all I experienced was protection. I wanted to give them a safe place to live, another chance in life. Instead they let me in to their world and taught me some extraordinary things.
So, on this day where we mourn JJ’s passing, here are some of the things I learnt from my months with JJ and the boys:
1. “Success” can take various forms: In the eyes of dominant culture, these boys were failures – dropped out of school, unemployed, homeless. Yet they knew how to survive and were deeply entrepreneurial and smart. If I bought them new clothes – they sold them! Disheartening at first, until I realised this was a means of income for them. When they were in trouble with the authorities, they often talked their way out of it – by giving false names and completely-made-up justifications for their behaviour. When they ended up in court, they sometimes talked their way out of a conviction – against all the odds. Am I condoning such antics? No – but survival in such a hostile environment is not straightforward. And these boys knew how to survive. Would you?
2. “Success” can breed a different kind of poverty: after a few weeks working with street kids, I lost count of the number of urban myths, lies and bigotted statements I heard. In South African society, some people judge their “success” by the size of the gate around their property. They like to be separate from the poor (i.e. those who have failed). They like to be safe and self-contained. They have earned enough money to stay away from those in need. And with such separation comes ignorance. I was repeatedly told that these kids were “other”. I was warned to stay away – in case I also became somehow “contaminated”. I was told I was naive, ignorant, a dreamer. People tried to get me to hide behind their gates with them, to agree with their judgments, to give up on my idealism. Yet, as I looked at these people – these “success stories” with money and power – I saw afresh that they were poor too, for they lacked the joy/frustration/hope/dream that was my passion. They did not have the privilege of building relationships with kids whose lives were testament to their survival skills. They did not learn what made these kids smile, or ever hear them laugh. They were never taken to the place where these boys grew up – never introduced to their uncle/sister/brother, never invited into their homes to share a meal. They also never had the privilege of walking through the hard times – the arrests, the court cases, the stabbings and beatings. These too were a privilege, for somehow I knew these boys trusted me and wanted me to be part of their world, if only for a while. I looked at the “rich” people and realised that their poverty – a poverty of ignorance – is far harder to redress than a lack of food, clothing, or a home. It was far more ingrained. And far more divisive.
3. “Success” and failure are closely intertwined, and it’s not always obvious which is which: I went to SA with a dream. I longed to change the lives of these boys. In so many ways, I failed – I worked too hard and got ill; I was often naive and taken for a ride; I didn’t have a proper strategy; I tried to do it on my own. And I ended up with burnout and had to leave, only a few months after I had arrived. I thought I knew how to make this vision happen, and I didn’t. I came home feeling like the biggest failure, embarrassed and ashamed. And in this dark place – of fatigue, regret and collapsed dreams – I slowly learnt that failure is sometimes the best thing that can ever happen to us. It can define us, in good ways or bad – it’s our choice. I found the process of acceptance deeply painful- raw and traumatic. I felt like I had let these boys down. I felt like I had let my supporters down. From the outside it looked like failure all round – yet, as these boys had taught me, “success” isn’t always dressed up in the clothes we expect. I learnt (and am still learning) to accept failure rather than fear it. I learnt that sometimes the seed has to fall to the ground and die, in order to bear fruit. I learnt that appearances aren’t everything. The boys showed me that coming to terms with our own “failures” is, ultimately, one of the ways we can truly succeed in life.
I do not want to romanticise life on the streets, nor the complexity of working with streetkids. It is not glamorous, and is often more marked by frustration and tears than joy. Yet the moments of joy do come, and they are worth waiting for. JJ’s girlfriend – who also lived on the street – recently gave birth to a daughter. She is only a few weeks old. He saw her before he died and his face lit up, his joy radiated around the room. He had created a new life. And she is, by all accounts, beautiful. I hope and pray that she has an easier life than her Dad. I hope too that you might join me in working to ensure that this can happen – and that her Dad, dear old JJ, is never, ever forgotten.