When I first arrived on the Africa Mercy in January, the ship was already over halfway through its field service in Senegal. I’d joined the crew at the end of the orthopaedic surgeries, so all the little patients that had their bowlegs or windswept legs straightened, had already had their surgeries. The reconstructive surgery and ophthalmic surgery blocks were starting, and I was allocated a few more communication patients from there. All “my” patients were children, with the youngest being 18 months, and the oldest being eleven.
If we’ve ever spoken about the stuff I’ve written over the years, you’ll know that I often become the person I’m writing about “in my head”. I try to imagine myself into their experience or situation. This has seen me take on a whole lot of different characters, albeit for a short amount of time. It can also be quite exhausting. Perhaps that’s why I like to write in solitude… But not to worry folks, so far, it’s always been me (hopefully sometimes a slightly improved version) that has returned from “that” place.
I found writing real-life stories about children to be a little more challenging than writing about an adult – perhaps because I’m not a parent, it’s been a while since I’ve been a kid myself, and I haven’t really hung around that many children as an adult. I would rely on my observations of the patients, as well as interactions and interviews with the medical staff. I would of course also interview the caregiver or parent, and patient (if they could speak) too.
Our day crew translated for me and were very open to helping me understand various cultural nuances. Interviewing across a language barrier takes time, and I tried hard not to ask leading questions, as I really wanted to get to the truth of every individuals story. As the large majority of Senegal is Muslim, their faith was another factor to be considered.
The good news is that most often, it was just the first interview that was tough, and after I knew more of each personal story, I was able to ask more thought-through, relevant questions. Still, everyone had to be super patient with me: the translator, the parent, the doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, the kid (who often observed as I interviewed the parent), and sometimes even the photographer. And they were. Patience was in high levels of supply, all around me.
Nonetheless, writing about children is different to writing about adults, and I found myself really wanting to write about just one adult patient, perhaps even a woman, so that I could really relate to her. I had been allocated a patient in the April Women’s Health block and was looking forward to meeting her, but that was still months away.
At the beginning of March, I was talking to Chris in Admissions, who told me about a patient, around my age, who was scheduled to have cleft lip surgery. I started wondering what it would be like to have lived my life with a cleft lip – something which is a quick fix in a developed country. How would I have grown up? Would I have been teased or mocked? Would I still have the same friends? Gone to university? Ballet? Horseriding? Paragliding? Would people have wanted to speak to me? How would my family have been affected? Would I have ever been kissed? Would people outside my family have loved me?
I started the process of getting all the relevant permissions, when a second lady, also in her forties and with the same birth defect, was suggested to me by the Patient Screening team. I decided to write about both, and I’m so glad that I did, as I got to “live” the experience through two very different personalities.
When I first met both women, I felt the same confusing mix of emotions I have felt with every new deformity or disease or tumour or growth, or burn scars or burn contraction, that this new chapter of my life kept introducing me to. I don’t think I’ve spoken in any depth about this before, but I was constantly taken aback, as to what kind of health conditions people live with. Each silent “Oh my word” led to overwhelming compassion as I began to understand the burdens (social, physical, emotional) that some of these folks struggle with in their daily lives.
And each time an individual’s life was literally about to be changed for the better, I was reminded what a crazy and privileged position I was in. Even though I would not be directly involved in performing that medical miracle, it felt good to be a cog in the Mercy Ships machine.
I learned from both Awa and Aissatou, as well as from Dr Venter (who did their surgeries), that people adapt to living with their deformities in very different ways. They were both born with cleft lips, yet grew up to be like night and day. One is very introverted and initially struggled to make eye contact with me, whereas the other is a fun, bubbly extrovert. For both women, the operations made a huge difference: from a social acceptance point of view, as well as a personal health perspective.
I’ll share more about each of the women’s individual stories another time, but in the days after both their operations, I got to meet some members of their families. Families who thought that they would never see the day, that these women would be healed.
When Aissatou’s husband saw her again for the first time, he wept (then he couldn’t stop smiling). She wept. We all wept.
It was so special.
Awa was accompanied to the ship by her aunt, who took care of her gorgeous little baby while she was in surgery, and in recovery. A week later, when Awa was due for a check-up, her husband and brother also travelled to Dakar, to personally say thank you to Mercy Ships.
These are just two Mercy Ships moments that really brought home that doing one good thing for one person, has a ripple effect, and will touch the lives of people we may never meet or know.
In a time where nations are in such turmoil, the knowledge that we can contribute to making people a tad happier and lighten their load ever so slightly, makes me feel much more at peace with the world.
If I may, I’d like to challenge you. Right now, in whatever country you are in, imagine what it is like to be someone else, someone who has a little bit less than you do. Is there a way that you can help them right now?
Often, people do not even know that their need can be met, until that ship sails in.
Be that ship.
All photographs in this post were taken by John Seddon, photographer onboard the Africa Mercy.
Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Mercy Ships.
I wonder why it takes so long to develop a vaccine. I feel very misled by all those blockbusters where the heroes draw blood, rush to the lab in a race against time, find the antibodies and VOILA! a potion is conjured up and used to save lives. And all this before the two-hour movie is up.
I wonder if we’re going to need a COVID-19 vaccine to be able to travel again.
I wonder when we will be able to travel again.
I wonder what will happen to SAA.
I wonder if people are ashamed of the things they say on social media.
I wonder if they know how to delete.
I wonder if the taxi industry is embarrassed about ever mentioning the word shutdown or strike.
I wonder if passengers have really had to share masks.
I wonder what day of the week it is.
I wonder what all the pets think of having a captive audience.
I wonder what world leaders will be remembered as COVID-19 heroes.
I wonder who will play New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the movie.
I wonder who will play President Ramaphosa in the movie.
I wonder if Trevor Noah is losing his marbles in isolation.
I wonder if he was always so crude, or if that’s a new thing.
I wonder how on earth President Trump still makes it into my newsfeed.
I wonder if I’m overthinking things.
I wonder if our President realises how well leadership suits him.
I wonder how hard the virus will hit South Africa.
I wonder if people in need will ask for help.
I wonder when Vodacom will make data cheaper.
I wonder what tomorrow will bring.
I wonder if we can ever be prepared enough.
I wonder if it’s okay to clean the house on Good Friday.
I wonder if we will remember the true meaning of Easter this year.
Today I’m officially out of that fourteen day self-quarantine I put myself into after arriving back from Senegal. Now I’m looking forward to at least another two weeks of house arrest…possibly more. Boy, is it going to feel strange when today becomes yesterday, and we’re all allowed to move around freely again!
I’ve been thinking about small companies and SMMEs. After nearly thirteen years, I made my own little CC dormant at the end of the last financial year. Yes, it’s true that this decision was largely motivated by the fact that I felt it was time to do some volunteering. As you know, that ‘career’ change was short-lived. Nonetheless, I want to go back to it, if it’s in God’s plan for me. But the hope and desire to do so, is not the reason that I do not intend to re-start Gerbera, that was, in essence, a successful small business that paid its dues.
The decision to close shop was preceded by a somewhat scary year, during which I was often waiting for payment for work I’d just gone ahead and done. Because that is often what small companies do – they build relationships, and they deliver. The network of smaller companies I worked with also have an amazing work ethic, and are loyal. And they trusted me, not to expose them to unnecessary risk. I never used to worry about covering my third party costs, but those last few months were a little nerve-wracking. In the end everyone paid, and I could end the financial year on a clean slate, including paying my creditors, my VAT, my PAYE and UIF. I like to end things on a clean slate.
I almost wrote that I was grateful to those clients that paid me. And therein lies one off the biggest traps small companies fall into. We are grateful. We deliver a fantastic service – and we are the grateful ones. I wonder why? Is the gratitude expected of us? Or just some warped reaction to the perfectly reasonable expectation of being fully remunerated for your efforts? Please don’t misunderstand me, as I have always been grateful for the opportunities.
Over the past decade I’ve been part of a team that helped to build a number of small brands, and we’ve been part of some very cool enterprise development initiatives. You know who you are. Working with you was great fun!
Right now, I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of a small business, anywhere in the world. One that has extended any kind of credit, may be facing loss of income, the prospect of no payment at all. The saddest thing to me, is the fact that small companies can be quick to re-act, and fast to mobilise, when needed. And isn’t that a big contributor to sustainability and growth?
I can’t speak for any small business owners, but I will say this: “I’m really rooting for you!” My appetite for risk is gone, so I’ll focus on just the writing from now on. I’m so very proud of what Gerbera and team achieved. It was good. It was fun. It was real. It was one of my favourite parts of this last decade of yesterdays.
I hope that when all of this is over, we learn the lessons from the many, many yesterdays our country has experienced, not just the ones we are living in the here and now. And not just in business, but in life, and in caring about the wellbeing of every single one of our fellow countrymen.
I’m a big fan of Herman Mashaba’s… he wrotethis column published on News24 today. I don’t agree with everything, but I agree with a lot. I’ll end it off right here, as even unedited, Chrissi will never be able to say it quite like Herman does.
Not all Kumbaya or plain sailing, but definitely worth it
One week ago, today, I landed back in Johannesburg, after two short months onboard the Africa Mercy. I don’t want to romanticise my experience, as of course it wasn’t all “Kumbaya” or plain sailing – living in close confines with many others comes with its own set of challenges. Still, I definitely was not ready to leave Senegal when I did. And am sure that this sentiment is shared by many fellow crew members, who left that same week. But the world was changing. More rapidly than we realised.
While I was onboard, I felt a real sense of purpose. Somehow on this ship, many of the puzzle pieces of my heart and soul, were almost fitting into their right places. I’m definitely not ready to sweep that puzzle off the table and into a box yet, and I aim to pick up where we left off. And hopefully in the not too distant future.
As South Africa counts down the final hours to its 21-day lock-down, the ship and its remaining crew are getting ready to set sail, sometime soon. I saw a news piece on Aljazeera a few days back, saying that Mercy Ships was leaving Senegal, with its four-hundred nurses and doctors onboard, at a time when the country needs it most. I was taken aback at this uninformed and incorrect portrayal of the organisation (including the number of medical staff the journalist said were onboard), and thought I’d set the record straight…even if it is just to my friends who read my blog. The below is from the New Zealand Mercy Ships website:
Why can’t the Mercy Ships be deployed to help against Coronavirus Spread?
Although the Africa Mercy is a hospital ship, it is essentially a surgical specialist unit. The vessel is not suited to take care of patients with a highly contagious respiratory disease.
Mercy Ships relies on a volunteer staffing model using professional medical volunteers from around the world. The current unprecedented situation has presented a unique operational challenge as many of our medical volunteers have been asked to assist with the COVID-19 crisis in their home countries. In addition, the global air transport shutdown has resulted in our inability to continue to operate the hospital facility safely.
Mercy Ships is also evaluating how the organization, given certain operational limitations, can be utilized to assist in the global COVID-19 response.
Earlier today, I found myself wondering, if I should have stayed onboard. Then I considered the prospect of a twenty-one day lock down on land, versus setting sail on rough seas. I’m probably suffering from a bit of FOMO, although I do suspect that given the opportunity, some of those who remain onboard, would have flown home too. I’m quite sure the past ten-odd days have not been easy for them, as they pack up and do the work of many. I’m sure they are tired and I hope and pray that they have a chance to rest soon.
Meanwhile, back in Centurion, while I have a million-and-one things on my to-do list (like learn French; write my Mercy Ships stories; write for as many competitions as I can find; video-con with my mates; possibly edit a Masters for a friend; bake more banana bread; eat; read; sleep and so on), I’m struggling to find that same intuitive sense of purpose that I experienced for nearly eight weeks.
Nonetheless, I’m still aiming to make the next three weeks (and beyond) count, in whatever way may evolve. So many of us just go through the motions, perhaps doing what we love, but so busy self-editing, that we edit our own voices out of our own stories. I’m aiming to drop the self-editing even further, so, if it gets a little awkward, you’re welcome to step away.
In Senegal I discovered a different joy in writing. I was definitely challenged by the language barrier and the fact that I had to rely heavily on our awesome translators to get to the true essence of a story. In the end, I think we definitely got there! It was such an amazing team effort!
Many of my stories haven’t been written yet, but I thought I’d share a photograph of a special memory. You met six-year old Satou in one of my very first blogs – she came to the ship with windswept legs. The photograph below was taken not even an hour after her final casts had come off and her legs had been x-rayed and given the all-clear. I wonder what could be going on in that little head of hers, after the hectics months that lay behind her? After her op she spent months with Mercy Ships – in the hospital, in casts; at the Hope Center in casts and with a little zimmer-frame learning to walk again; in the physio tent, in casts. And then finally the casts came off, she could do her final weeks of rehab and then really start enjoying her new legs. She was discharged the day before I left.
Her journey was for sure not all Kumbaya or plain sailing. She probably didn’t understand a lot that was happening around her. Still it was definitely memorable, and worth it. Gone is that little girl, who could not run with the other kids!
And the same goes for a world in lock-down – it is definitely not going to be Kumbaya or plain sailing, but it will be memorable. And it will be worth it, if we do it, to the best of our abilities.
Stay @ home. Let’s flatten the curve.
All photographs in this post were taken by John Seddon, photographer onboard the Africa Mercy.
Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Mercy Ships.
After three flights (Dakar to Bamako, Bamako to Nairobi, Nairobi to Johannesburg) and half an hour from OR Tambo to the house I sold in December, I arrived, safe and sound, on Thursday afternoon. It felt strange walking back into my old home – especially as I had not expected to be back in South Africa until this December.
A week ago the organisation made the difficult decision to wind down the field service in Senegal (I shared the media release earlier this week) and things began happening very quickly. My actual decision to come back was made in a very short amount of time. Call it seven minutes… the time it took me to google a flight back to South Africa, after calling an old friend for advice, and whilst on the phone to a new friend from the SA embassy in Dakar. The airport was due to shut down its operations imminently, and when I saw there were only a few seats left on Kenya Airways at around R8000, and that the next two ticket prices were R23k and R235k respectively, I booked the flight that left in less than twenty-four hours.
I was travelling as far as Nairobi with three fellow crew members. In the Dakar Airport the majority of travellers were wearing masks, and everyone was maintaining a respectful distance. Not being alone was reassuring, and I was glad for the solidarity and company. One of my travel mates had a scare as her onwards flights from Nairobi had been cancelled. We decided to keep moving forward, and sort it out once there. I’m sure that when she finally got home, she must have been emotionally and physically exhausted.
So yes, I’m back. And who knows for how long – I imagine it will be months, and months. I will return to the ship once COVID-19 is no longer a threat, and the world resets to normal. And when the field service can begin again…
For now, I still have stories to write, and will do whatever writing is required to support the mission. It won’t be a full-time job, so I’m thinking of taking on a few short term projects to earn a little money. I’ll decide what I’m going to do next week.
In the meantime, I’m self-quarantining… I decided that three airports and three flights are too risky for me to see my family or catch up with old mates, even if they were not “hot spots”. I’m now being hosted by an incredibly gracious and supportive friend, who bought my house… At least we have company! And I get to cook and clean for a while again… and sleep in a ‘normal’ bed.
There is a slightly unsettling familiarity about being back here. I can’t believe that it’s actually only been two months that I’ve been away. I want to hold onto the memory of those two months on the ship in Senegal. Thank goodness I saved so many stories, thinking I’d have to stretch them out over the many months ahead, just in case I ran out of material.
For now, like everyone else, I’m going to responsibly adjust to the new normal. Tomorrow I’m having coffee and cake with the family, via Group FaceTime – mom and dad from about two kilometres away; Vera & Thorsten, from about five kilometres away; and Annette and Marcel, who are thousands of kilometres away in Switzerland.
And I’ll see what I can bake for the occasion. There are so many new things happening at the moment, that me actually trying to bake something doesn’t sound too far-fetched, does it?
Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Mercy Ships.
Last weekend I had a fabulously restful two nights and two days off ship. I spent it at the home of a lovely couple, Petra and Fred, from the Dakar German Embassy. They have been in the city for a year-and-a-half of their intended four and it’s been really interesting to see Dakar through their eyes. I also gained a little insight into what embassies do and have come to the conclusion that this would have been an interesting career path for me… if only I’d known or thought about pursuing it before.
For two whole nights I had an entire bedroom and bathroom to myself! It did feel a little too roomy initially, and I think I may have suffered a short bout of withdrawal from the Africa Mercy’s night noises, until I fell asleep…to be awoken hours later by singing birds! (I actually made a recording of my local early birds and Poppy purring before I left South Africa but decided not to torture myself by listening to those just yet.)
Saturday was a lovely lazy day spent on the terrace or by the pool, with some delicious home cooking thrown in… On Sunday we went to a church service at a monastery (Keur Moussa), which was mainly in French or Wolof, so I didn’t understand much. It was beautiful, peaceful and harmonious, and the murals inside the church and the wooden carvings were beautiful too. And after the service all the parishioners went straight to the little shop that sells local produce (dried fruit, fruit juices, nuts, fresh produce etc) made by the monastery. And, so did we!
We then set off to have some lunch at Le Simone, a little seaside resort, that is quite popular with tourists. I totally owned the tourist label and kept asking that we stop so that I could take photographs… of donkey carts, baobabs, street art… I continued owning the label when we got to the restaurant… and was especially thrilled to see a South African table.
I was dropped off back at the ship after a dinner of German sausages, gherkins and some fine red wine, and a promise that I would come visit again and prepare a meal for Petra and Fred – something with a slight South African twist…
Having this short break and some real alone time when my hosts were out on Saturday morning was very precious. and I came back to the ship refuelled, although to be honest, it did take me a day or two to get back into life onboard.
In spite of this being a relatively contained and comfortable environment, I still think that during my short time here my horizons are constantly being broadened. In some ways I almost feel as though my world before was smaller. Which seems like the strangest thing to say, being that I’ve always felt my life has been full and eventful. Perhaps this is something I will explore in more depth another time.
In terms of the last two work weeks, they have raced by and are a bit of a blur. I’m constantly amazed as to how much we manage to fit into a day here. My alarm goes off at just after six, and I make it to the 06H15 gym class, to shower and change, have breakfast and get to my desk often well before eight. Often, it’s possible to research and/or interviews people onboard the ship or on the dock, although this week I did go off ship on Tuesday and Thursday for two of Mercy Ships medical capacity building programmes and mentorship here in Dakar. It’s easy to pop downstairs to the hospital to visit patients, or chat to the nurses or the physios in the rehab tent. I definitely haven’t worked past six in the evening as well, so am enjoying the luxury of doing other stuff after hours (mostly reading or just hanging around and chatting). Today I even dyed my hair, as currently there is no hairdresser on board, but I hear that someone is on their way…
And as there is crew who have volunteered to work in the galley and in the dining room, we don’t have to prepare our own meals or wash our own dishes (although there is a crew galley if you wanted to cook etc.) The food is generally pretty good, we’ve even had prawns once!
As I’ve mentioned before there are also a host of meetings during the week, and this past Wednesday we had a community meeting specifically about COVID-19. I think there have been four cases in Dakar thus far, and I think that big get togethers have been cancelled – it’s all in the news and easily available via google.
Here on the ship the atmosphere is pretty calm onboard. Since I’ve been here there has been a chickenpox and an influenza outbreak which was well contained. Mercy Ships crisis management team is planning for all various scenarios and in the meantime, we are sticking to our already intense disinfecting / hand washing protocols and all the other guidelines the rest of the world are following. There are many of us who are now working especially hard at unlearning touching our T-zone…
I’m hoping COVID-19 doesn’t scupper too many travel plans, and that airlines won’t have to cancel too many flights, and in fact, that they survive. My next flight is booked for 3 June to Zurich, from Dakar, via Madrid. I’m holding off booking my Texas flight for a bit to see what happens with regards to international travel. I guess we’re all watching this space…
What are the chances of scrubbing up and walking into the OR on Africa Mercy and bumping into a close childhood friend, you’d lost touch with almost forty-five years ago? For general surgeon James Smellie and ophthalmic surgeon Richard Newsom (two of thirteen surgeons onboard the hospital ship this February) the stars above Dakar must have aligned to enable this event. “To meet up with an old school buddy in Senegal is just one of these amazing coincidences,” says Richard. “When I saw James in the OR, it was a complete shock to me. I had no idea he was here.”
The two surgeons, both of whom are Mercy Ships alumni, had gone to elementary school together in Cambridge. Their parents worked as doctors and colleagues in the same hospital in Cambridge, and the families knew each other well. When they went off to separate boarding schools, the two lost touch.
“While I was preparing to come to the ship this year I saw Richard’s name, so knew I could meet him again,” says James, “but I hadn’t seen him since 1976, until he walked into the operating theatre.”
The two had a lot of catching up and reminiscing to do, over just a few days, as James’ general surgery block was coming to an end. “I’ve really enjoyed my time onboard Africa Mercy,” says James. “It’s been a good time – including a nice reunion with an old friend as well as an eye-opener professionally. You’re never too senior to learn something!”
As the two talked about their lives and training, they realized that there had been some parallels and that they knew many of the same people. Yet, even though their professional development saw both study in South London and work in some of the same institutions, their paths never crossed. Until now.
“I remember James as being one of the really bright guys at school, and have always wondered what had become of him,” says Richard. “It’s an amazing coincidence and I’d certainly like to stay in touch, and not wait another 46 years to meet up again!”
Dr Smellie left Dakar on 15 February 2020, and Dr Newsom departed from Senegal en-route back to the United Kingdom on 19 February 2020. They will both be back onboard Africa Mercy for the next field service that begins in Monrovia, Liberia later this year.
About Mercy Ships
Mercy Ships uses hospital ships to deliver free, world-class healthcare services, capacity building, and sustainable development to those with little access in the developing world. Founded in 1978 by Don and Deyon Stephens, Mercy Ships has worked in more than 55 developing countries, providing services valued at more than $1.53 billion and treating more than 2.71 million direct beneficiaries. Our ships are crewed by volunteers from over 50 nations, with an average of over 1,000 volunteers each year. Professionals including surgeons, dentists, nurses, healthcare trainers, teachers, cooks, seamen, engineers, and agriculturalists donate their time and skills. With 16 national offices and our Africa Bureau, Mercy Ships seeks to transform individuals and serve nations one at a time.
Today is a ship holiday. We have a long weekend every six weeks, and this is my first, so I’m excited to have a little extra downtime. I decided to blog today, so that I can spend the weekend really relaxing, maybe visit some patients on deck 3, maybe go to the beach, maybe do some laundry, maybe read a book. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. I like the sound of that.
It’s been a short, but eventful, week that included some more of the usual heart-string tugging moments, a lecture on Wednesday night, and a post-cataract-op visit to a young seven-year old boy.
Every Wednesday evening on the Africa Mercy there is an hour-long medical presentation, during which one of the doctors on the ship talks about what it is that they do in the OR. This past Wednesday Mark Shrime, one of the maxillofacial surgeons onboard, presented some research findings from the Guinea field service.
In short (and to save you googling) maxillofacial surgery treats diseases, injuries, abnormalities and cancers of the mouth, jaws and face. If left untreated this is often a life-threatening condition for both adults and children. It often includes the removal of a lump or tumour, that has been untreated for many years and sometime has grown to an unimaginable size – as in the case of Sambany from Madagascar.
But back to the research… Mercy Ships is funding some research that amongst other things looks at how effective the organisation is; what the barriers of access to safe surgery are; and how they can be overcome. The entire presentation was fascinating, but what really stood out for me is that an unplanned expense of ten per cent of your annual income can result in financial ruin, regardless of where you live in the world (the terms he used were more eloquent, but I think this sums it up).
So, in our context here, having access to safe surgery is great, but there are still barriers – an example of an unplanned expense is having to pay for the transportation to the ship. A person can be given a date to come to the ship for surgery, but if they are, for example 600kms away, it is unlikely that they can afford to get themselves there, to take up the opportunity of free surgery.
Mercy Ships has been looking at various ways of funding the actual transport, from up-country locations, to the Ports at which the ship docks, to make it easier for the population to access the free surgery onboard. Sometimes there are patients that can afford to make the trip, but in such a poor part of the world, I can only imagine that it is never without some sacrifice.
Which is a great lead into my home visit story…
Yesterday Lara (photographer), Micah (videographer), Amadou (translator) and I went to visit a seven-year old boy (who had cataract surgery a few weeks back). We had visited him and his mom prior to his surgery (that was my first ever home visit). They are currently staying with family on the outskirts of Dakar. The little boy would normally stay with his grandmother in a village, a twelve-hour ferry trip away from the Port of Dakar. Mom works in another region of Senegal, also a substantial distance away. They have been in the capital for the past two months or so, and I can only imagine it’s been a real treat to be able to spend some good quality time together. Nonetheless, I would guess that an additional cost to the family is time away from home and work.
We’ve gotten to know the little boy and his mom quite well these past few weeks, with our language barrier being beautifully bridged by the many day crew who translate for us. Mom and her hubby have five children, two boys and three girls. The eldest son was also born with cataracts, but he was unfortunately too old to have surgery on the Africa Mercy, as it would not have made any difference to his eyesight.
As it’s customary to bring a gift, that the family can share with their community, with when we visit, we bought some rice and soap just after setting off. We also had a gift for the young boy. We wanted to bring him something that would stimulate his eye-brain communication, as kids who are born with cataracts haven’t experienced natural development of sight, so it can take them a little while to figure things out. I guess I’d been expecting a ‘miraculous’ result after the operation, so was a bit despondent initially and wanted to make sure we did everything we could, while we still had easy contact. The Eye Screening department were incredibly helpful, and gave me a boccia ball set, with little bells in it, that was in a Sight Box donated by an organisation affiliated to Rotary.
We weren’t sure what to expect, as we hadn’t seen him for a few weeks, but boy, were we hoping that he could see better than the last time we’d seen him at his first check-up. We weren’t disappointed, there was a definite improvement!
While Lara and Micah were getting footage and photos to document his journey, I found myself put in charge of distracting an extended family of children. I thought I’d try teach them how to play boccia ball, however, my experience of entertaining and playing with children is rather limited. Add the language barrier and the children’s energetic enthusiasm, and it wasn’t long before the wheels came off. Lara found me a little while later with a courtyard of children doing cartwheels and handstands, or running around with their shirts over their heads,. When Amadou joined us shortly after, we were able to successfully explain the game to mom and the kids, and to my amazement our young patient’s ball skills are pretty amazing.
After we had exhausted the kids, we started packing up all the equipment. Meanwhile Micah was in charge of getting the Mercy Ships vehicle out of the deep soft sand we’d managed to get it stuck in earlier… That little adventure just added to the post-home-visit high we were on in the car on the way back to the Africa Mercy.
A really special moment of this visit for me was when the family gifted me with a traditional Senegalese dress. I’ll be wearing it next Tuesday, when my friends come to the dock for the Celebration of Sight event (will see if I can get one of the photographers to take a good pic of us!). It is an event attended by all the little cataract patients and Mossane will be there too. We’ll be visiting her at home in the next few weeks and I’m sure there’ll be a good story there too!
I think I must have one of the best jobs onboard – apart from maybe being a doctor, or a nurse. I get to experience the whole journey with a handful of patients. I feel the depth of their appreciation, and see the potential impact on their lives. I get to know more about them and their circumstances. I get to hear all the thank you’s and “God bless Mercy Ships” during almost every patient interaction. I really need to find a way to effectively communicate and share this incredible gratitude with the rest of the Africa Mercy family.
If you’d like to, or are able to support me during my time with Mercy Ships, in any way, please visit my supporters page here.
Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Mercy Ships.
Dusty. This is a good way to describe Dakar. And dry. It’s Harmattan season here in West Africa, which is characterised by dry and dusty winds coming from the Sahara. The city has been wearing a cloak of dust, even before I arrived in mid-January. The visibility has also been quite poor, although, there have been a few days that saw the haze lift to reveal Gorée Island and silhouettes of tall buildings (some still under construction) in the city.
The dust and dry air aren’t great for contact-lenses, asthma sufferers or those with sensitive sinuses. Or those who suffer from dry skin, lips, scalps, or other dusty and dry climate ‘stuff’. In a way it’s a little like late winter (August) in Gauteng/NW, except that it isn’t. It doesn’t get very cold here at night – in fact I’ve been sleeping on top of my blanket most evenings (although that’s probably me just warming up the space between me and the ceiling quickly).
I also haven’t experienced the strong winds we have during season change back home, but I’ve heard that before I arrived a windstorm of note ripped through Dakar, resulting in a middle-of-the-night “all deck-hands report to your positions” tannoy announcement. Apparently, the storm left quite a lot of destruction in its wake, including uprooting a gazebo from the dock. The diving team found it during their routine clean-up of the ship’s underbelly, still fully assembled and well preserved in the salty sea.
There are a cluster of seven or eight tents on the dock in front of Africa Mercy. They include two waiting areas, a hand-washing/locker tent, an outpatient tent, eye screening, rehabilitation, and I forget what the other one is… The white tent-tops are a shade of dust. The top of the orange canopies on the lifeboats too. It covers everything that remains stationery and conceals the original colours of cars left parked for more than a few days.
If you walk through the port, into town, along the coastal road or through the markets, you’ll be treading on dust. It’s a soft kind of dust. The kind that lifts up in the lightest of winds. I’ve driven through the outskirts of Dakar in the early morning and have wondered if street sweepers have been through the streets – they looked so clean. But perhaps it’s the wind?
Often the general view is muted by this filter, but splashes of beautiful Senegalese fabrics, bags, clothing or art break the monotone. Or, it’s cracked by a beautiful smile, or the sound of a child laughing. Or by the bright scrubs the healthcare teams wear on a Friday. Or the neon casts the kids sport after their ortho surgeries. Or by the balloons above almost every bed in the wards, or those given to the kids as rewards for an extra hard work-out in the rehab tent.
This weekend I started reading Ships of Mercy, which tells the story of the Mercy Ships charity, from the birth of the dream through to 2012. I remember reading an article recently where Don Stephens was quoted as saying his inspiration for the charity was a son, a saint and a ship. In the book, he refers to meeting Mother Teresa about a year after the birth of his third child, who was both mentally and physically challenged. He had gone to Calcutta to see how her team cared for the severely handicapped in one of the world’s most impoverished cities (page 14). The below quote from the book really resonates with me:
“I’d heard that Mother Teresa had instilled in her followers a gift for focusing on each individual as if he or she were the only person in the world receiving such attention and concern. And that, I was about to discover, included me” (page 15)
Being seen and ‘known” is such an important part of being healthy. I think this is relevant for most, but perhaps even more so when you are suffering from a disfiguring ailment or burn scars, or a condition that no one can explain. People who are that ‘different’ are often outcast in society, so if/when they do get some sort of help, it’s often more than physical healing that needs to happen. This may be simplifying things to the extreme, but they also need to experience that “Mother Teresa focus” and someone wiping the dust off their bruised and battered self-esteems.
I think a lot of that dust gets blown off here, and every single patient is encouraged to shine.
Two of my new little friends were discharged this week. Fatimata, who had her cleft-lip fixed, and five-year-old Malick, who had his bowlegs straightened. Both of their moms couldn’t wait to go home, to introduce the “transformed” versions of their children to a society that used to mock them. In fact, Malick’s mom hasn’t told people back home that his legs are straight now… They’ve been gone from their village for well over two months and have kept it a secret. Just imagine that homecoming!
Speaking of homecomings… there is a lot of warmth, kindness and joy here, but of course I’m missing my family and friends and the feeling of being “known”. I’ve put in my leave for December this year, and will be coming to visit from Monrovia in Liberia, where the ship will be from August 2020. You heard it here first 😉
I’d planned to write something deep about the various ‘bubbles’ of reality that are currently part of my new life, but I want to back my bubbles up with some photographs, that I don’t have yet… Hopefully I’ll have what I want by next week, or the week after.
Before I look back on my week, I’ll start by answering some questions I’ve been asked by one, or more of you.
How long is Africa Mercy (AFM) in Senegal? AFM has been moored in the Port of Dakar since mid-August 2019 and will be here till sometime in June 2020. It’s the second time Mercy Ships has been to Senegal. The ship will sail to Las Palmas in June where she will be in the shipyard for a few weeks of maintenance to ensure she is fit and ready for the next field service. We’re not sure yet where exactly that will be, but I’ll let you know as soon as I know for sure.
Where are you when the ship is in the shipyard? Some of the crew stay onboard, or book accommodation if their budget allows. I’m not sure if the ship will come out of the water for this year’s maintenance. I think that changes things for people living on board as well and will find out more about that closer to the time. It won’t really affect me this year though, as I have to go to Texas for some training (called onboarding) that starts on 14 June 2020.
How come you’re going to Texas? The training lasts for about five weeks and is supposed to help prepare me for life on the ship and living in community. In terms of exactly what topics are covered, I’m not quite sure, but it will include insight into the Mercy Ship’s mission as well as faith foundations, personal and interpersonal development (one of mine is that I’d like to learn French).
Ideally this training should have happened before I started my time onboard, as it’s a requirement one has to fulfil if one has committed to more than a year with the ship. I think there may be some fun activities too, like learning how to fight a fire and other skills that can help me contribute to my AFM village.
As an aside, the ship has a dive team that ‘cleans the underbelly of the ship’ every two weeks, and I could kick myself for not doing my refresher dives to get current last December when I had the opportunity… Not all is lost though, as there is a dive centre in Dakar, and I’ve just emailed them to find out about getting my dive status to current. Exciting, right!?
Okay, let’s get started on my week…
Monday is the day where there are a lot of meetings. Each Monday starts with a 07h45 operations meeting in the International Lounge. We’re told about what’s happening in the week ahead, such as what operations are taking place in the hospital, if there are any media trips, or VIP visitors, feedback on any other operational ‘stuff’ – for example, we’re hoping to find out where the ship is in the next field service tomorrow… This will be breaking and long-awaited news!
There are two more Communication Department meetings on Monday’s – one where the team on board gets together to discuss the week ahead, and another later in the day in the form of video conference with Texas, during which we mainly discuss content, patient stories and deadlines.
Still with me?
Highlights this past week included some interactions with patients that I’m writing about. If you’re Facebook friends with me, you’ll probably have noticed that I shared two Mercy Ships posts – one about Satou (windswept legs) and another about Mossane (cataracts). I’ll only be sharing the stories that I’m personally involved in writing, so if you see me share something on Facebook, you’ll know it’s one of my little friends. I say ‘little’ friends as I am currently only writing about children – the youngest is one-and-a-half (Fatimata) and the oldest is 11 (Dieynaba). By the end of our field service here in Senegal I will have written a full-length story about all of ‘my’ patients, but the publication dates may fall later in the year. As soon as I’m allowed, I’ll publish my stories on my blog. I’m excited for you to read them.
Other highlights of my week included making a few new German friends, one of whom left the ship yesterday. Jörg worked in an IT capacity on board, and though I’m sure he was very generous with his Germany efficiency and directness, I think an incredibly interesting aspect to his story is that he’s about to set off on his bike ‘through Africa’. Okay, not quite through Africa, but across a few borders and to Ghana.
Through him I also met a German couple who works at the German Embassy Dakar (my first official land-based friends) as well as an independent film maker who is involved with another NGO that was started by two Lufthansa airhostesses here in Dakar (it’s a good story so have a look here if you’re curious: beta.sagehospital.org).
I also met the young Swiss lass who bakes our bread onboard and recently blessed us with some cheesecake (high up in the 101 on how to keep Chrissi happy). Turns out she is from a place not far from where my sister stays in Bern, Switzerland! And then, while queuing to pay for my loo roll and washing powder at the ship shop, I started chatting to a doctor, who is here for three months, and also comes from Bern. She’s also visited South Africa often, so there was a lot to talk about! Unfortunately, I had to dash, as we have to book specific times in the laundry, and if you snooze, you lose i.e. if you are late, someone may grab your machine, and you have to book another spot.
A few hours ago, while I was making a toastie in the dining room, I got chatting to two of our day-crew who work in the galley. The ship’s day-crew all hail from Senegal (mainly the capital) and don’t live onboard i.e. this is a day job for them. I’m not sure how many AFM employs, but they are really key to our being able to function properly here, as many work as translators in the hospital wards and admissions. The majority of them are post graduate students, either studying their masters or even PHDs – law, languages, diplomacy, history…intimidating stuff! One of them smilingly said to me that it’s a bit of a competition here, i.e. who can attain the highest level of education. I think there’s a good story there, and I’m hoping to write it soon.
My weekly health check? Apart from feeling like I’ve under performed on the education front, I do feel that this current chapter at the university of life is going to be a great one. I’m excited for the week ahead, and everything new that it will bring.
It feels as though this week went by in a flash, and so much has happened – more new people, new places, and a visit to the beach yesterday with a lovely Dutch family also volunteering on board. I also got bitten (by a mosquito?) in the crease of my right eye – I mean really?! Who would put Tabard or Peaceful Sleep that close to their eyes?
There are currently six South African’s onboard. One of them is plastic surgeon, Dr Tertius Venter, who is doing reconstructive surgery (for burn survivors and orofacial clefts). He has a fascinating story and also volunteers for other organisations. There is a lot of information available about him on the internet if you’d like to know more.
Unfortunately the hospital is off limits for the blog, so I can’t take you down there. However, there are a number of videos and story features on the Mercy Ships website that you can watch. If you’re keen to see more on the remarkable healthcarethat is happening on board, click on ‘remarkable healthcare’ a few words back.
Today I’ll be taking you on a picture tour of the ship, to give you an idea of the communal areas on board. I got up extra early for today’s blog, as I wanted to capture the areas without people in them. It’s not usually this quiet, but I thought it may be awkward if I pop someone on my blog, who’d rather not be there. It’s kind of a clumsy layout, but I’m sure that you’ll get some of the picture.
Let’s start with Madiba…
And finally, my weekly mental health check: I’m feeling more and more settled and at home, and less like a visitor. I’m also getting much better at performing the top-bunk entrance and exit manoeuvres, and have not hit my head on the fire sprinkler mounted to the ceiling this week. That’s real progress!
People have been asking what motivated my decision to come here, and I’m not sure there is a simple answer to this. My getting here feels part of a natural progression and after a week in the Port of Dakar*, I’m already feeling strangely settled. If pushed I would probably respond that I felt the need to be a part of something that is having a significant impact (on an individual basis) but is also working towards a sustainable impact on a broader level. Mercy Ships also do medical capacity building in the countries they serve – and I’m excited to learn more about this.
I found out about Mercy Ships about two years back, from a guy from New Zealand. He had just finished a year on board as an electrician and was doing a paragliding course in South Africa. I was visiting friends, and Nathan spoke about Mercy Ships at the B&Bs breakfast table. I was really fascinated, especially by the fact that I could use my skill as a writer to become involved in this level of humanitarian work. It took me another year to do some more committed research, and when I applied, it was for the role of writer in the communications department.
Last week’s blog may have painted a “Chrissi’s on a cruise” picture in your minds, but I know that most people are aware that this is a hospital ship, that mainly serves the countries in West Africa. The best way to describe the eight deck Africa Mercy is that she is a village on the water. And located on deck 3 is the fully-fledged hospital in which the volunteer surgeons and nursing staff come to work their magic – on board and on land. In my mind, all of us other volunteers, are here to support or enable the ship’s healthcare goals.
I first visited the hospital this past Monday and have since returned to the wards daily. A few more patient-related firsts included me familiarising myself with the admissions process, the first visit to the rehab tent on the dock, as well as a first patient home visit on Friday (the little guy is being admitted on Monday for his cataract op). The communications department utilises various programmes and tools to track stories, so I’ve also been getting on top of the technology. I’ve done my first load of washing on board, and I’ve met just about a gazillion people for the very first time this week too.
I imagine that while the surgeries are underway, the ship’s weekly rhythm is similar week-in and week-out – it is just the type of procedures that rotate. This past week the surgeries (that I’m aware of) have been plastic reconstructive (burn contractures) and eyes (mainly cataracts). I will soon be writing about two young cataract patients as well as an eleven-year old girl who fell into hot oil as a toddler. Her arm and hand were severely burned and disfigured. She was operated on mid-week and has been resting and sleeping since.
At the beginning of January there were also a number of orthopaedic surgeries, and I’ll be writing about a five-year-old girl who had windswept legs. She is currently wearing brightly coloured casts on both legs and has managed to wrap the entire communications team around her little finger. She was discharged from the hospital today, and will be staying at the Hope Centre, a Mercy Ships facility for patients who are from further afield, and cannot travel to and from the ship between appointments.
I’m still figuring out what I’m allowed to share on my blog, in terms of patient stories and photographs, especially before the organisation uses them. I’m hoping to share a photograph of the little girl who had her cataract operation. She was discharged wearing funky little pink sunglasses and will be back in a week for a check-up, and then again in six weeks for her Celebration of Sight Day. What this event looks like, I’m not sure yet, but I’m hoping that at that stage she will have substantial sight – apparently, if children are blind pretty much from birth, it takes their brains a little while to figure things out (this statement is my interpretation of a medical fact… so please don’t take it as gospel). At that stage I’ll also know what exactly I’m allowed to use for my blog. In the meantime, here’s a photograph of my nest… and up top one of Africa Mercy’s funnel.
There is really so much to talk and write about, and so much happening on and off board. I may just have material for thirty months, or so…
In terms of a quick emotional health check, I’m doing good. I’m calm, and a lot more familiar with the ins and outs, and what my role here entails. The cabin is still teeny tiny, but on Friday evening, after returning from my first patient home visit, I crawled into my little nest, and was lulled to sleep by the ship’s engine and occasional other squawks from the vac system.
It will still take some getting used. But in general, it is well with my soul.
*This week I learned that when I’m on the ship, I’m actually on Malta. Another first for me!
PS: If you have any specific questions about ship, the hospital, the volunteers, or anything else, please ask me in the comment section, or send me a WhatsApp. I’d be very happy to tailor write a blog just for you 🙂
After three flights (Joburg to Dubai, Dubai to Conakry, Conakry to Dakar) and three hours in traffic from airport to ship, I arrived on Friday night, safe and sound. It felt strange walking up Africa Mercy’s gangway – especially as I have seen it featured in many of the videos that I’ve watched these past few months.
After a quick welcome and photograph, I was given my ID card and shown to my cabin – which is a four berth, with a small bathroom and communal area. It’s pretty tiny and will take some getting used to but luckily, as I discovered on my tour this morning, there are a lot of places on the ship to find a little quiet time.
I took my time unpacking and making my nest, as I want to be sure I’ll find whatever I need to, quickly. Even small places can become bottomless pits of mystery when there is no order (yes, that is the German version of me speaking). The person who was here before me left a lot of hangers in the cupboard, and after hanging up my super-downsized wardrobe, I’m still left with many. I doubt I’ll be needing them, so will take these to the ship boutique next week (sounds grand doesn’t it. I’ll let you know more after my visit).
At the moment I’m sitting in the library, which I think may just become one of my favourite places – it’s so quiet and peaceful, you wouldn’t think there are about three-hundred odd volunteers milling around somewhere on board. The most ‘congestion’ I’ve experienced so far is in the dining room at mealtimes, but it’s early days. There is a café area, a Starbucks and a ship shop, all of which I’ll share more about once I use these facilities.
There is also a gym downstairs, as well as a pool on deck 8, which I’ll probably visit for an occasional dip when it gets really hot, even though the air-conditioned ship feels rather pleasant. I’m taking doxycycline as a malaria prophylaxis, and apparently it makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, so another reason not to sunbathe. If this is the only side-effect I have to contend with, I’ll be over the moon! It’s still early days, so for more on that developing story, you’ll have to journey with me a little while longer!
During my 24-hour journey I was able to reflect on ‘things’ in a different way than before. I know exactly where and what I’ve come from, and of course I’m sad to have left so much behind. The future holds a large element of the unknown and I think it’s only human to be a wee bit daunted. My Mercy Ships knowledge is based on the communication materials put out by the organisation, the research I’ve done and the conversations I’ve had with only a handful of crew members. Now it’s finally time to form opinions based on personal experience, and I’m looking forward to writing from this new perspective.
It’s an exciting time, but yesterday, when I couldn’t remember my mercyships.org email password, I had a moment of “What have I done!?” Then my password came back to me and I opened my emails to find a story lead from my new boss. The doubt disappeared.
Everything else may be new to me but writing…that I think I can do!
I began writing this short piece at a coffee shop on Friday January 3rd with the intention of producing something light-hearted about the cats. Or about the fact that, for the foreseeable future, I will not be experiencing life in quite the same way and that I will need to adjust my comfort levels.
My hands were poised above the keyboard, and then the phone rang.
ADT operator: “Ma’am, we’ve received an alarm activation at…”.
I thought perhaps it’s the cats but asked them to send a response vehicle out anyway.
Minutes later, the phone rang again.
My neighbour: “Chrissi. They’ve broken into your house. Where are you?”
“I’m on my way,” I say, as I hastily pack up my laptop and indicate to the waitress that I need to pay.
I send my city group a quick voice message, and debate calling my parents or sister. I decide not to, why stress them out? Off I go. I’m twenty minutes away, and that’s an awful lot of time to think about things, when you’re not sure what to expect.
I think of what could have been taken. I remember my pretty-darn-nearly-new iMac elegantly sitting on the dining room table. Other than that, I can’t think of a thing. Except that of course my whole life is packed up, ready for the next chapter, and could very easily be carted away – on wheels nogal.
I wonder about the randomness of these break-ins. Or not. Why now? Why just two weeks before I’m set to go? Maybe I should have mowed the lawn.
Then. Oh no (hysteria rising). My laptop! The precious book that I’ve been working. Oh no (hysteria ebbing). It’s next to me on the passenger seat. I decide to just breathe.
I pull up outside my property, and it looks like I’m hosting a party. The security guard from ADT accompanies me through the broken gate to the kitchen door, where it looks like someone was very angry with me. The security gate has been crowbarred off and out of the wall.
In we go, and it doesn’t look as bad as I expected. Two big pictures torn off walls, in the hopes of the discovery of a non-existent safe. I think they went upstairs, to the master bedroom, first. Unfortunately, they helped themselves to a box of jewellery I’d put together to take to my mom’s for safekeeping. Other than that, nothing has been taken. And my iMac is still lazily squatting on the dining room table. I guess I should count myself lucky.
There are so many things that I would change about South Africa, but the sense of community and the support I got, was pretty much ‘up there’.
ADT did a sterling job. Representatives from my community policing forum were right there, and nothing was too much trouble for them (including putting the word of a missing cat out). My closest neighbour was like a guardian angel, standing ready with a massive security chain and Thor’s hammer to put what he could back together again. He was out of the starting blocks, the second the police gave us the go-ahead, and restored a lot of my peace of mind. I owe him, big time.
I found Poppy in the laundry cupboard, but Manito was nowhere to be found. Perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but his going AWOL was worse for me, than anything else. Once the crowds had left, I cried myself a headache that he was missing. I cried myself another headache when he reappeared as jittery as I’d never seen him before. I cried myself another headache when he disappeared again, and again, and again. Eventually he stuck around, but I’m sad that two weeks into his being here, when things were going so well, his perfect little bubble was burst. Change has become far more traumatic than it needed to be.
Please, no more storms in the home run to boarding the Africa Mercy.
The alarm and the cat connection reminded me of a blog I’d written a few years back Living in Gauteng. I reread it, and had to smile at life, and how full mine has been in Poppy’s Palace. I’m sad to go, but at the same time anticipating incredible growth as well as a total re-evaluation of what’s really important.
The heat rising off the players and spectators inside the Mandeville Sports Centre makes the scorching 32-degrees outside seem like a cool summer’s breeze. Fifty minutes have passed since a heartfelt rendition of Nkosi Sikelele Africa. Forty-five since Impi declared the Lions war on its opponents, who wasted no time launching the first attack. Twenty-eight since the Eagles threw the first basket of 2019’s SuperSport Wheelchair basketball final, to take a lead they’d cling on to, all the way through to the fourth quarter.
In the final quarter the match continues to deliver nail-biting, wheels-in-the-air action. Heads swivel from side to side, as spectators try keep up with players propelling wheelchairs and chasing the ball, at rubber-burning speed, across the court. Baskets are followed by fouls, followed by penalties, followed by more falls, and fouls, followed by superbly executed penalty shots.
With about five minutes of play remaining, it feels like a lifetime since Kirloskar Lions’ head coach Lydia (Lids) Dumond mouthed “Relax. No pressure.” to her players on the field.
With just under three minutes, the Diesel Electric Services Eagles find themselves down to four men (due to foul play) and for the first time in this match the Lions lead by a mere point. The score is 46:45 and jubilant Lions’ fans can almost taste victory as they challenge their team to put the match to bed with an impassioned Siyolal siyolal’embheden, an extract of a Zulu pop song turned sporting anthem (which translates to “let’s go sleep on the bed”).
With two minutes and fifty-two seconds left on the clock, Eagles’ head coach, Anele Kledi, calls time out, and SuperSport’s live coverage of the event zooms in for a close up of the Lions’ team talk.
Lids’ final pre-match advice to the team was to not put pressure on themselves. That, and no unnecessary fouls. “Go out there, have fun. And let’s show them why the Lions have won this league, three times in a row.” Now, she crouches down in the middle of her pride, forgetting that she is wired for live television, and that an entire nation could be eavesdropping on her final battle prep. Her demeanour clearly communicates that she intends sending a team that’s on fire, back onto the court.
“They are four. We are five.” She holds out four fingers to drive home what the current advantage is, her tone and posture testimony to this petite thirty-six year old’s fighting spirit. “We pressurise the kak out of them now. We win the ball. Eight seconds. We do it again.”
Her short sharp instructions are reinforced by her hand gestures. “We win the ball. Eight seconds. WE DO IT EVERY TIME.” The pumped-up Lions clap hands before joining fists to close their circle and cry: “One. Two. Three. LIONS!”
What follows is a mix of masterfully executed set routines, with each basket scored celebrated to the beat of a frenzied Come on everybody let’s do the conga, accompanied by a small band of Jenga drummers and encouraging spectators. Everyone is sweating, either from physical or physiological exertion, or because they underestimated the heat and arrived under prepared.
As the score board shows 51:47 Lids finally smiles. It’s her first of the game and softens the tired, dark shadows under her eyes. Tension slowly evaporates as she relaxes her taut frame, clad in a white Kirloskar branded T-shirt, three quarter blue jeans and white trainers. The pragmatic brunette, with her long hair in a trademark side-parting, is even showing signs of enjoying herself.
This is what the African continent’s first female head coach of a men’s national team looks like, when things are going her way.
Anele, her counterpart (and often adversary in finals) stands on his side-line, his composure not revealing what must be an undesirable turn of events. It is only his sweat-beaded brow, revealed by the ever-present TV camera, that hints at his inner turmoil. His elbows rest on his crutches, hands on hips. He doesn’t lose his cool, but having come this close and losing the lead through fouls, must be a bitter pill to swallow.
The final whistle of the SuperSport Wheelchair Basketball Final, held on 26 October 2019, blows on a score of 55:51. The Lions are victorious for the fourth year running, and the sports centre erupts as celebrations raise temperatures by a further five degrees.
The prize giving and post-match interviews are concluded in a blink of an eye, and Lids and Anele embrace, commiserating over his loss and the costly fouls. There will be another stand-off between two of their teams, in two short weeks’ time. However, these two are not always on opposing sides of the court – they are the coaching duo tasked with taking Sasol’s AmaWheelaBoys through to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Both coaches have day jobs – Lids is a sergeant in the police force and Anele a financial officer at a bank. Coaching wheelchair basketball is just a hobby for them. Albeit one where players and coaches take competition very seriously, as well as having to sign contracts and commit to performance deliverables. It seems like an inordinate amount of commitment for a casual pastime. What keeps them motivated? And, in practice, what does it take, to coach an amateur sports teams that plays according to professional rules?
Coaches come to the sport in various ways. Some have themselves been players. Some have family members who play. Lids’ husband Cecil broke his back in a mining accident. A few years later she met him in a bar, they had a little too much to drink, and he kissed her. “Oh shit, what now!?” went through her mind, but she liked him. A lot. And pursued him, until he succumbed to her charms. And once a couple, she looked for hobbies they could pursue together, encouraging him to join the Lions, their local wheelchair basketball team.
It wasn’t long before Cecil was selected for the AmaWheelaBoys. Lids also moved through the ranks, starting as spectator, moral supporter and water girl. She eventually became the Lions assistant coach, then the Lions head coach, the North West Province’s head coach, and eventually in April 2018 was named the Sasol’s AmaWheelaBoys head coach.
Marius Koenig, the Kirloskar Lions chairman says that she always expressed curiosity and was researching the game long before she started completing her coaching accreditations. “We’re incredibly proud of her. I must admit, I’m afraid to lose Lydia as it will be difficult to replace her – not just from the coaching perspective but it’s obvious that the players trust and respect her so much. That in my mind is one of the most important things about a coach – they must have the respect of the player.”
In addition to commanding respect, another deliverable of fitting the coaching profile is contending with the constant presence of a TV camera, which can be especially daunting in a live game. “You get used to it, but I’m Afrikaans and I also usually swear a lot, so having a camera over my shoulder did make me nervous at first,” says Lids. “I don’t think SuperSport used my post-match interviews for the first year – not because I was swearing, but just because I went blank and couldn’t give strong answers. It’s easier today.”
She and Cecil usually watch the games when they are repeated on SuperSport, and in addition to tactics and game play, she also gets to see how she comes across on camera. “This sport, at this level in South Africa, would definitely not exist if it wasn’t for our sponsors,” says Lids. “It’s important that we acknowledge them as much as we can, and when I first started, I was a mess. I’m sure people must see the difference between then and now.”
Anele feels that having the camera nearby means you really have to watch your volume and your mouth. He says that it has actually improved his communication with players, both during and outside of games, as it has made him even more aware of how he addresses different situations. “If we are abusive to the players it doesn’t get through to them. It’s also more empowering to a player if one sees someone doing something wrong and encourages them to get it right next time, and off camera.”
A coach will still need more than respect, a good TV presence and the ability to communicate to go far. It’s vitally important that they know both their own and their players’ strengths and limitations. Anele has Cerebral Palsy Dysplasia, which affects his lower body. He is a self-confessed better coach than he has ever been a player and says, with a big grin: “I do the instructing much better than the actioning and have told my players to do as I say, and not as I ever did on the court!” His coaching style (he coaches Eagles, Gauteng Provincial Team, National Under 23s, and is assistant coach for the AmaWheelaBoys) is to nurture and develop individual strengths that will make a big difference for the team.
In wheelchair basketball the court and basket are exactly the same as in the running version. However, there are three major considerations that differentiate it from running basketball: the inability of the wheelchairs to move from side-to-side; the different disabilities, abilities and strengths of the individual players on court; and the challenge of propelling forward, while managing the ball with your free hand.
Wheelchairs are not able to move from side to side, therefore revealing the athletes travel direction and limits the element of surprise. Each chair is custom-made for its player to caters for their specific disability and to support their being as agile as possible. For example, someone who has no legs will require a very short seat, and someone who has legs, will require a long seat. The same applies to the height of the back of the chair, and all chairs have straps to secure their players.
Players are classified according to their disabilities and assigned points, between 0 and 4,5. Amputees are stronger than paraplegics. A broken back (with none or little core function) means you’re a low pointer (zero to 2,5), and if you suffered from polio or are an amputee, you are a high-pointer. A coach is allowed to field five players at a time, with a cumulative total of 14 points. This makes planning, and knowing your players stamina, an essential aspect of being a national coach.
Lids is known for pushing her players hard, demanding they be fit, know their chair skills and stick to a game plan. “My team knows that when we’re on court, they are there to do a job. If I say do this, you don’t give me a story or an excuse.” Her training sessions are much harder and more physical than the actual games usually are, but she says this prepares her team for different scenarios on court. “Many of our international opponents play high-paced, professional wheelchair basketball and regularly compete with other international teams. We don’t have that exposure in South Africa as it’s bloody expensive to travel. But my team knows that when they are on court, they are there to do a job. We are fast, and we defend. We are aggressive and loud and don’t play soft basketball.”
She hasn’t always been this feisty and nearly quit the team in April 2019 when South Africa lost to Great Britain (a team, that by the way is the current World Champion, has very tall players and plays professionally) by 104 points in Belgium. After that game Lids set the AmaWheelaBoys a target of achieving ten points for each period. And then, moving forward, to improve on just that.
Anele is very aware that basketball is a hobby for most of his players and training often comprises of just a few hours a week. “Basketball is a sport, rather than how we make a living, and if we try to emulate the international professionals, we’ll never catch up.” His goal is to work on his team’s strengths and make the most of training time, while encouraging individual athletes to develop their strengths and abilities on court.
AmaWheelaBoys player Jack Mokgosi is classified as a short 4.5. Tall high-pointers, with height and agility advantages, are usually selected for the team and Jack made the cut due his all-round skills. He credits his coaches for encouraging him to develop his wheelchair skills, stamina and speed as well as at shooting three-pointers. “Today my game is more than shooting and I will work on what my coaches need me to work on, in order to contribute to the team.”
Working as a unit is probably the most important foundation of any team sport, and a successful wheelchair basketball team is no different. Combining forward movement and ball control can leave a player vulnerable to attack, as the ball defender has a distinct mobility advantage. “A lot is required of players in order for the game to open up, and to move the chairs across the court,” says Anele. His organised approach to training transcribes into smoothly leveraged self-discipline and meticulous attention to detail (probably a result of his work as a financial officer). He makes notes after each game and is often tasked by Lids to introduce new shooting and lay up drills to the training programmes.
No-one seems to take issue with being trained by a woman, although Lids did feel that initially her capabilities were under scrutiny. “In the beginning, especially when I took over the National Team it was difficult. I think they thought, ag, it’s Lydia, she’s still learning, she doesn’t know.” They had to grow as a team and as she puts it “find one another”. It didn’t take long before her highly-intense yet approachable coaching style gained traction and people began lining up to play for the Lions.
Cecil Dumond, Sasol AmaWheelaBoys captain, mentor to younger players and husband to the coach, says that Lids’ style and approach is very different to previous coaches. “Lydia has more of an open relationship with the players, than previous coaches. In fact, both she and Anele are trying very different approaches, and at the moment it’s working.” Cecil continues saying that there is a thin line between being a coach and a friend, however, the previous approach of not mingling and investing in players, had not yielded the desired game results. This combined approach seems to work, as players want to play for their coaches.
There is a healthy self-belief apparent in the national players, which will most certainly contribute to future games. “It’s a great experience for us players to have switched to a woman coach,” says Shane Williams, Lions and AmaWheelaBoys player. “If you know the game, it’s not a big difference whether you’re male or female. Under Lydia as coach, we’re helping each other more and playing is a joy.”
In spite of the game bringing a lot of joy, this joy does come at a cost, including sacrificing a large part, if not most, of your free time. Weekends are dedicated to games; most teams train two to three nights during the week and a lot of holiday time is sacrificed for international training camps or big games. “As a police employee the government give you half of your leave days for sport – so if I go away for five days, they give two and I take three,” says Lids, who sadly had to miss a training opportunity with a visiting US coach in late October, as she had run out of annual leave. “I honestly never knew it would be so much work balancing the Lions, the National Team and my work commitments. The struggle is real!”
There’s no letting up, as the rest of 2019 and early 2020 is filled with back-to-back training camps and competitions, in preparation for Tokyo. On 16 November, a few hours after Lid’s North West team beat Anele’s Gauteng to scoop the coveted Vodacom Cup (and the R100 000 prize money), the AmaWheelaBoys hopped on a plane to Thailand for a tri-nations challenge.
The coaching duo are used to the travelling now, but their very first international coaching gig saw them embark on a plane, for the very first time ever, for a flight to Dubai. “I took Calmettes, sleeping tablets and alcohol for my nerves, and didn’t move AT ALL throughout that whole flight – not even to go to the toilet,” says Lids. Anele tells the story much the same way, however, mentions that sitting next to Lids eased some of his tension, as she was by far the more nervous one.
They’ve since become seasoned travellers and this event will see them playing New Zealand and Thailand’s National Teams and will serve as a final training camp before 2020’s Paralympic Qualifiers, that will take place at the Mandeville Sports Centre in March next year.
It is essential for the team to perform at the event in order to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. When asked what her goal right now is, Lids says she wants to prove a point. “All of our contracts state that if we go to the qualifiers and don’t qualify, then Wheelchair Basketball South Africa has the right to replace us. I want to go the Paralympics next year. And I want to compete, not just be there.”
Our two coaches are ambitious and have earned respect. They are cool on camera. They know when to turn the heat up on court and are committed to their training repertoires. They are keeping the joy in the game and work to their players strengths and weaknesses. What more can Anele and Lids do to prepare our AmaWheelaBoys for this massive event?
They both agree: Practice. Practice. And more practice. And if it’s up to Lids, pressure the kak out of the competition once they are there.
My soon-not-to-be home is also known as Poppy’s Palace. She adopted me as a kitten and has, for the last ten odd years, peacefully and unchallenged been the Queen here. Apart from ten days, a few years back, during which I kitten-sat little Maya for a friend.
To be honest, that did not go well. Maya was fine, but every evening I would have to fetch my sulking and miserable cat from under the carport and bring her back inside. Life went back to normal, once Maya went back home.
When I put my house up for sale in October one of my biggest concerns was Poppy i.e. I would either need to rehome her, or, first prize, whoever bought my house would fall in love with her too… Long story short, I won the prize! And Poppy gets to keep her Palace!
The only catch is that she won’t be the only feline roaming these quarters anymore. She certainly won’t be thrilled, but I’m hoping to make it easier for her, by having her new bro move in while I’m still here.
Anyway, I did some research and I’ll be ‘supervising’ introductions over the next few weeks. Hopefully by the time I leave in mid-January they will at least tolerate one another.
Manito is currently occupying the master bedroom, while Poppy and I live in the rest of the house. I’m sure right now Manito is feeling a tad stressed, while Poppy is downstairs, chilling on an armchair, oblivious…
I myself haven’t felt quite this relaxed in as long as I can remember. I’m also feeling quite inspired to write, so will be sharing this potentially antagonist experience here. Please feel free to offer any advice, I’d really like to make this relationship work!
Tomorrow in a month, I will be hopping on an aeroplane to Dakar, Senegal where I will begin serving as a writer on board the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest civilian hospital ship that is part of an incredible humanitarian initiative operating in West Africa.
“Mercy Ships is an over forty-year-old global humanitarian organisation that uses hospital ships to deliver free, world-class health care services, capacity building and sustainable development to those without access in the developing world: nearly 50% of people in Africa have no access to a hospital or doctor.”
I’ve committed to thirty months. This may seem like a strange length of time to press pause on “normal” life, but just like everything else about my decision to join the Mercy Ships crew, two-and-a-half years just felt right.
My life as a writer has been full of rich experiences and adventures, including meeting many interesting and inspiring people, visiting new places (often outside of my comfort zone) and gathering a lot of food for thought. I know that my time with Mercy Ships will be serving all of this up in abundance too. And, as of January, my “working life” will be all about shining a spotlight on the lives that are touched by the Mercy Ships message of hope and healing.
How can one not be excited at the prospect of being a part of that?
A Better Business Bureau accredited charity
Mercy Ships, a Better Business Bureau accredited charity, is fully funded by donations from private and corporate citizens around the world. Crew members also contribute a monthly crew fee, which goes towards room and board. Every year an incredible amount of people – from surgeons, dentists and nurses who perform the medical procedures; through to technicians, cooks, teachers, administrators and people like me – volunteer for Mercy Ships.
I have undertaken, as far as possible, to self-fund my stay on board, while still honouring my commitments back home. A large part of the experienceis living with less, and I was recently asked to prepare a budget within Mercy Ships’ suggested minimum budget guidelines.
Would you support me?
There are a number of overheads I will need to cover. These include monthly crew fees, my health insurance, immunisations, travel to and from the ship (including to and from Texas for training in June 2020) and personal expenses. My minimum monthly budget works out to around $700. Or $8,400 per year. Or an amount for thirty months that I’m too afraid to put in as a fundraising goal, so have only set my target for year one.
If you are able to contribute to lightening my financial load in any way, you’ll also be enabling me to focus a hundred percent of my creative energy on writing the Mercy Ships stories. Mercy Ships has facilitated setting up this fundraising page for me, or you can contact me directly if you’d like to contribute in another way: chrissi @ what-is-your-story.co.za … just remove the spaces before and after the @.
If you are not able to support me financially, I would really value your prayer and/or some moral support by hearing from you every once in a while.
I will be joining Africa Mercy halfway through her ten-month stay in Dakar. She will then be based in Monrovia, Liberia from August 2020 through to June 2021. The country for the year after has not yet been announced.
Once on board, and once I’ve found my feet, I’ll be updating my blog and writing a monthly newsletter to share my experience as well as sharing links to Mercy Ship stories.
I hope you’ll stay in touch and accompany me on my next chapter, on board the Africa Mercy.
There are in fact many things that I used to be … probably as many things as I still am and as I will be. The fact that I no longer fly, doesn’t make my life any less rich. The real friendships I’ve made through flying have survived my divorce from this pursuit, and I do love catching up with people on a mountain. I’m probably one of the best recovery drivers you’d be lucky enough to have, however getting my nose out of a book and looking at a GPS may be a challenge. My name is Chrissi, and I used to be…
I used to be the SAHPA Chairperson. I lasted one year, after which I walked away. With the wisdom of hindsight, I must admit that I really admire people who put themselves forward to serve on the committee, particularly people who serve for longer than a year.
It was without a doubt the worst year of my life (let’s name it “The Small Depression”) and one which I embarked on voluntarily despite being pre-warned by a prior chairperson that it had been an incredible tough tenure for him. As they say: pride comes before a fall. I didn’t realise at what cost the delivery of this voluntary position would come. I don’t really think that much can prepare you for the total onslaught of new experiences (few of which are pleasant) that accompany serving SAHPA. My personal life suffered. My business suffered. My health suffered.
That year started with a bang, when a few weeks in a judge in Cape Town ruled (on an almost decade long case) that tandem paragliding for reward was illegal. After a few visits to our lawyers, we were advised to ground tandem operations (unsuccessfully) until we had lodged our appeal. It was a confusing time for many – unfortunately I was the one in the firing line. I had no prior exposure to the land of law, never mind the reams of the law of the air. There were key individuals who tried hard to support me, however, I needed knowledge to make decisions, so was playing catch up a large part of the time. Add to that the different voices and many warnings against various individuals and their “dubious ulterior motives”, and it was all a stark reminder of why I had left the corporate world to pursue freelancing.
Things may have changed, but like I said, I used to be… Back then an imbalance or tension had always existed between commercial and private within the ARO (Aviation Recreation Organisation). At one stage it seemed that the only solution to ensuring that commercial tandems were legal (as many people’s livelihoods depended on being able to fly tandems) was to make our ARO the ATO (Aviation Training Organisation). I came so close to taking this step, when a casual remark by a CIA representative, about how much responsibility this entailed, stopped me in my tracks. I decided it was a good idea to understand exactly what he meant, and to my horror discovered that as a director (voluntary or not) of a non-profit, and as SAHPA Chairperson, I would ultimately be responsible for all activities that occurred under the ATO. This was the one thing that no one had whispered in my naïve ears, and it was quite a wakeup call. In addition to a few more sleepless nights, I tried my best, together with the committee, to come up with ways in which we could ensure that we met our duty of care as directors of the ARO. One of a number of initiatives that came out of that chaotic time, was the In the Loop newsletter – and I can’t say that a little part of me isn’t flattered that it has been resurrected as a communication tool.
Other things I struggled with during the “The Small Depression” was that I could not understand why many tandem operators across the country were not interested in creating a sustainable platform for their businesses. Other challenges included getting our MOP rewritten into an acceptable format, then getting it approved by the members and then by RAASA. My committee and a few stand-up members were instrumental in getting this process going, however, the MOP was only signed off by RAASA in the following year thanks to Jon and his committee.
In terms of people, there were some real diamonds who got me through, both from within the organisation, as well as from outside. To be honest, I didn’t really struggle with any of the personalities or characters in and around the sport, but I did observe a lot of unnecessary, sometimes ugly disputes.
I struggled with making the time to run my business, as well as trying to meet my minimum standards of quality (in both my “jobs”). I really prayed hard that there would be no major injuries or fatalities during my time as Chairperson. Unfortunately, this was not to be, and the sport claimed two PPG pilots, and a young PG pilot.
Did I make a difference? Was it possible to even make a difference in a year? I don’t think so, and I do not really know. What I do know is, if faced with the choice of being SAHPA Chairperson for a year versus jumping out of a balloon, the prospect of 365 consecutive roll overs wins hands down.
I used to fly. And overall, I must admit that I loved it. It was the place I could escape to, a place to feel free, to just be and to lose time without wasting it. I’m not talking about the time lost sitting on the mountain waiting for the wind to be just perfect (which it seldom is). I’m talking about the time between take-off and landing where I wasn’t really conscious of my surroundings other than my fellow pilots, Mother Nature and staying up for as long as I could. It was a time I would be free from “real life” problems like deadlines, load shedding, infrastructure decay, work challenges, politics, relationship issues, poverty, racism, land reclamation … It was a time during which I chose to enjoy the privilege of free flight.
While I was still an active pilot, I tried to fly as much as I could, however, I have always considered myself to be a bit of a hobbyist who attended as many competitions as possible to make use of the infrastructure, and to increase the circle of flying friends. I was fortunate to travel quite a bit, have flown at a number of beautiful sites and met some great people in near and faraway places. Paragliding opened up an entire new world to me, including one where injury and death was a relatively common occurrence.
Sometimes I would surprise myself (and probably a few others) with a great flight, and there was a time I was more confident, especially while I was very current. I believe a bit of talent and some intuition, rather than the clever use of any science, got me from place to place. There were times that I was perfectly content in the air, and times that I was extremely anxious – more so about the conditions I was in, than the fact that I needed to find lift. There were times I would thank God for the incredible experience, and other times that I would promise Him that I would do or give up anything if he would just guarantee my safe return to Earth.
I used to be a licenced member of SAHPA. I say used to, because I neglected to let the thing be the thing. My flying wasn’t about flying anymore and there were too many distractions. It had become about serving the community, helping to organise competitions, raise sponsorship, write things, organise charity events, do this … do that … and my crippling sense of duty literally crippled my love of the activity and I walked away.
Notwithstanding I have and cherish some amazing flying memories. Maybe those are enough to see me through to retirement. Maybe they are not. Only God knows.
Note: This was written for the SAHPA March 2019 newsletter ‘In the Loop’. It is an unusually sombre (for me) piece of writing, so if you’d like to read a bit more about fun and real flying there are three articles here that may be more appealing.
Every parent will tell you that his or her child is truly amazing. Many parents will tell you that they want to encourage their children to grow up to be creative individuals, free thinkers and successful at whatever they choose to do. All parents are known to brag about their little one’s latest achievement and most parents will go the extra mile to encourage the development of their kids from an early age.
While looking for a suitable birthday present for our two-year old son (who is of course truly amazing) we came across the established Swedish brand BRIO, that has been “sparking young minds since 1884”. We were so taken by their range of products, that we decided to become South African online resellers for these, and other ranges of wooden toys.
Our two-year old struggles to articulate the word Pinocchio, probably one of the most famous wooden toys to date, and like many wonderful nicknames that come out of early childhood, the unique name he has given this iconic toy is ‘Hakito’. We felt it was a fitting name for a store that sells quality wooden toys, plus it will be a good story to tell at his 21st birthday, when he takes over the family empire… or perhaps at his wedding.
An extract of Hakito’s story, written for company founder Waldo Minny.
It was showing obvious signs of aging and had grown pale and wan since the first time it had proudly perused the streets of Sophiatown from just under two-metres up. In spite of its appearance, and twenty years after its first outing, the trilby still exuded this self-same confidence when perched atop Terence’s head.
Its dark felt was no longer as soft as it had been on the first day it had experienced the thrill of the fresh, cold, winter-morning air on its crown. A deep inhalation of its well worn shape invoked the memories of a life well-lived. Its narrow brim, now faded and worn, had been imprinted with the tips of its owners’ fingers – constantly seeking, constantly worrying, constantly wanting assurances.
As if on cue, Terence smoothly took the trilby’s rim between thumb and forefinger, seeking its approval of what he was about to do. He was in fact seeking the assurance and approval of the original wearer, a man who had placed this self-same trilby on Terence’s youthful head, tweaked his chubby cheeks and promised him, that one day, with the help of this magic trilby, he would conquer the world.
He had seen the man only once, on the day that his life had changed forever. As he had stood on the dusty streets of Meadowlands, Terence had believed that man’s promise, and gratefully accepted his gift. His fierce determination to conquer the world had seen the trilby take on its own unique sense of being and place in his life.
Today, proud as a peacock and with the knowledge that it was a lifer, the twenty-year old’s jaunty attitude put paid to any thoughts that it was a has-been. It was a proud symbol of how one small action by a passer-by, could change the path of a young South African with seemingly no prospects.
Beth stared at her toes. There were still ten of them down there, all neatly parked in her pink flip-flops. Just like there were still ten people up ahead of her, haphazardly distributed in what resembled a queue. She tilted her head slightly, squinting at the clock on the peeling wall and decided she’d give it another ten minutes.
600 seconds, 599 seconds, 598, 597, 596… If her handbag hadn’t been stolen, she’d be having cocktails on the beach with that gorgeous Swede they’d met clubbing last night. Instead, she was trapped here in the police station, another victim of what she had heard termed a false island-sense of security. 488, 487, 486…
She didn’t mind the handbag, there wasn’t really much in it, apart from her passport. Even that wasn’t a crisis, as she was here for months to come. However, her host family had insisted she report it immediately. So here she was. 402 seconds, 401, 400…
On the up side, at least she was out of the sweltering heat, although the stifling veneer of law and order was certainly not her first choice of escape. She sighed and shifted her weight onto her left foot. 350 seconds, 349, 348… Using the lid of the pen she’d just used to fill in her statement, she bent her elbow behind her back to scratch her peeling skin. She looked at the people ahead and idly wondered what ill fate had brought them here too.
Twenty-seven-year-old Dibuseng Mokoena has worked for Stefanutti Stocks Mining Services for four years, most recently as the production manager at the Chilwavhusiku Colliery in Bronkhorstpruit. The colliery, that is owned by Black Royalty Minerals, became fully operational towards the end of 2017, and supplies coal to customers within South Africa, as well as serving the export market. The team running the site is a young team, comprising approximately sixty per cent of females, and overseen by contracts manager Graham Ralph, who is one of Mokoena’s mentors. She is currently also mentored by Marco Pasquali Stefanutti Stocks Mining Services’ contracts director responsible for tailings disposal and material handling.
Mokoena, who completed her Mining Engineering degree at Wits in 2014, joined Stefanutti Stocks as a site engineer halfway through 2015. The timing was perfect as in 2016 Ian Ferguson, managing director of the group’s Mining Services division, introduced a two-year internship programme for mining graduates. Since joining the programme she has worked as a site engineer at the Kangala mine, where she also worked shifts as a production foreman, a pit supervisor and a production manager, shadowing the contracts manager. Since November 2017 she has been the production manager at Chilwavhusiku Colliery, and part of the team that have worked on building a greenfield site into a successful open-pit coal mine.
What have some of your career highlights been thus far?
“After having cold-called and sent my CV to every potential employer across a number of provinces, being called for an interview and getting a job at Stefanutti Stocks was certainly one of the most exciting days of my life.
“Since then other highlights included getting my blasting ticket and being appointed as a production manager. Also, the process of winning over our client’s confi dence, when we moved from being a month behind on production to being ahead, and consistently exceeding Black Royalty Mineral’s targets ever since.
“Another highlight is working with and learning from Graham Ralph, who keeps encouraging me to think beyond what I have learned in my text books. Seeing the mine through his more experienced eyes has really brought it, and all of its components, to life.”
What is the most important aspect of your job?
“The planning process and then simplifying and clarifying the vision, so that everyone on the production team buys in. An important, and exciting aspect of my work is the interaction with people – I want to leave them better off than I have found them. This can mean leaving them with more knowledge or insight into our reason for doing things in a certain way, or better equipped to do their work more effi ciently. It’s also important to make sure that the right people are in the right positions and can contribute to our overall goal.
“A win for one is a win for all and within our site team we allow room for people to voice their ideas, and suggestions for how we can do things better. As a tight-knit team we also know that when challenged (by rain or when our client increases the targets) we can count on one another to execute the work.”
What is your favourite part of the day at work?
“Defi nitely the time we spend in the pit or at the viewpoint, where we can get a good snapshot of the operation to see if our production is going according to plan, if our people are taking care of our machines, and how everybody is interacting.”
Do you see your working within the construction industry as a unique occurrence?
“I think women in construction bring a breath of fresh air. Every individual is diff erent, and all families have their quirks. Here I am in a family that embraces me. Sometimes it does take a bit of adjusting to be comfortable, but I don’t have a problem with that. I am also very aware of perceptions, i.e. how people see one another, and how one should pitch oneself in a certain environment. I’ve been reading a lot of books on the subject.”
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?
“I attended a Women in Mining Counsel recently and a representative from SASOL shared an interesting anecdote about riding an elevator. Whatever fl oor you’re on, don’t forget to press the Ground Level for the elevator to go back down: wherever, and in whatever position you find yourself in during your career, you need to see who you can motivate or mentor – and I’d like to do that.
“In terms of position wise, the Dibuseng of three years ago would have said she wants to be a director, or the fi rst woman occupying a specific position in a company. Of course, I’d like to be a trail blazer, but while titles grow people, they can also constrain them.
“I’m not an inventor but I do have vision, and I’ve learned that if you give me something to make better, something that I can optimise – that is where I am most valuable. I also think that is why I gel with Graham, as this is his forte. The element of change that we have brought here on this site has made me realise that we have the ability to do so much to influence and improve operations.
“So, whatever position I will be in, in fi ve or ten years’ time, I will need to be able to infl uence change and to optimise it. I would like to be part a part of THAT team, call it the strategic planning team: the one that is driving change.”
My name is LoFo, which is short for Lost and Found. I was born in the Kruger National Park, and when I was about twelve months old I lost my mum to some poachers. I tried to protect her, but they beat me with their machetes, and then left me to die.
I was so frightened after losing my mom, that when some kind humans came to rescue me, I kept on running and hiding for five whole days. Eventually I was so exhausted, sad, and thirsty, that I hid between some branches and hoped no-one would find me. The trackers at the Kruger National Park didn’t give up, and when they found me with the help of some tourists, they took me to Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary, which is now my home.
I’m not really vain, but I’m so glad that they chose a good photograph of me to use with this letter to you, as I really wasn’t in very good shape after the poachers were done with my mom and me. There were three bad wounds on my back, two really bad, and a nasty one on my right ankle, that I got when I tripped over a log that cut deep into my leg. These wounds made me feel very sick and very weak. Even though the good Samaritans at my new home took care of me day and night, my wounds got infected, which was very bad.
My human mom, Petronel, says that my medical team consists of some of the kindest, most skilled healers in the world. And they fixed me as well as they could, but then I needed special Acticoat dressings, and my new family was struggling to find the money to pay for these. Then Stefanutti Stocks became one of my guardian angels, when they said they’d pay for my medical costs, rehabilitation and care for one year. Those very expensive dressings took care of the infection and I began to feel so much better! I started eating more and gaining weight and you won’t believe the fuss everyone made of me when I put on 9kg in August! I felt like a prince!
There was a little hiccup in my recovery when some of the bone on my back that had been chipped by the machete, got infected but my medical team operated and successfully removed the bone. After a few more magic dressings courtesy of my guardian angels, I started feeling like a brand new rhino calf, and as I grew stronger, I grew more confident too.
Let me tell you a little about my current home. I do know that once I’m hundred per cent well, I’ll go to live in the wild again, but I must say that I like it where I am. It is beautiful, and I feel safe and special. I’ve heard the humans talk of something called a website, but I’ve not seen it. I think it’s like a snapshot of my current home, maybe you’ll go and have a look? There is always a herd of lovely humans here. They call them caretakers, and they feed and clean us and take great care of our needs.
These days I spend most of my time with Twinkle grazing, playing and napping in the camp. Twinkle came to the sanctuary a few weeks after I did. She also lost her mom, and was attacked by the poachers – her injuries were similar to mine, but luckily she wasn’t hurt as badly.
Twinkle is very special to me, we understand one another’s stories, and I like to spend time with her. In the late afternoon, we go back to our night pen where we cuddle and keep each other warm and safe, till the sun comes up. I know that I am very lucky to have been ‘Found’ and not to have become another ‘Lost’ statistic of my species.
Right now life is good. Maybe one day Twinkle and I can even have a family of our own. I hope so.
(This was written for the Stefanutti Stocks (Pty) Ltd Sustainability Focus: Sizimisele Volume 3, October 2016. Since writing this both LoFo and Twinkle have been dehorned under the expert supervision of Petronel and her incredible support team at Care for the Wild. Please visit their website to read more about their efforts to save young rhinos here).
I have written a number of stories for the “If rings could talk …”section of Jewel-Art Africa. Rudi Cronje, the resident jeweller at Jewel-Art Africa, designs and crafts beautiful custom-made rings for his clients – and sometimes, as part of the crafting process, they gift their clients with a first person narrative, written from the perspective of the ring.
What has really struck me while writing these stories, is how unique the various journeys of each couple has been. Below is the story of Ivana’s ring. I hope you feel the love too.
Ivana’s ring: full circle
The proposal: Hawaii, late April 2015
As the sun rose over a remote black-sand beach in Hawaii, the early morning waves echoed its announcement of this new dawn. Two figures quietly observed this age old ritual, standing so close to one another, that they could easily have been mistaken for one. As he stepped from their embrace she immediately missed his warmth, the cool fear of the unknown threatening to infiltrate the magic of the moment. Witnessed only by Mother Nature, the Creator, and a dark cloud of uncertainty that hung over them, Andrew pulled a small black box from his pocket. “Ivana,” he gently said, presenting her with a beautiful, black diamond stone. “Will you be my wife?”
I was moving furniture on the Friday morning before the Monday evening flight, when I over-committed to a heavy couch. One loud pop and a burning sensation later, and I was unable to carry much more than a feather. How inconvenient, I thought, and decided to continue doing the things I normally do, albeit much more slowly.
By Sunday evening, I could hardly walk. The Transact Patch and over-the-counter drugs were not having the desired effect, and I became concerned as to how I was going to go on holiday if I couldn’t even stand up? In a panic I called a good friend, who took desperate me to the hospital A&E.
The staff were welcoming and so sweet. We completed the forms. We waited for a while, and I tried to keep the melodrama in check. I didn’t want to sit down, as it was a mission getting up again, so stayed upright.
We waited for a while longer, and I decided it was time to lie down. My friend, whom one could describe as somewhat of a back-injury expert, gave me some personal training on how to ‘alight’ from a bed when compromised. Knees over, roll over, that hand for support there, and up you go.
A physical examination, an injection in the buttock and two little pills later, I wobbled out of the A&E clutching a prescription and the number of a Wonder-Physio, who would make me flying fit. It was past midnight and there was slim chance of bumping into anyone that I know. This is good, as I had already boarded, and was by now floating above the clouds. Sleep claimed me the second before my head hit the pillow, and I was awake very early on Monday morning. There was a lot to do.
My trip to the physio did wonders, and I began to hope that my flight would not be the most torturous experience ever. I was slow but mobile and got a lot done, as one must the day before going on vacation.
By the time I was on my way to the airport my back was reminding me, that all is not well. Two little pills and an hour later and I was checked in, through passport control, and making friends in the departure lounge. I don’t remember ever having such a stress-free lead up to claiming my seat in an AirBus.
Well, this flight just reinforced how wonderful the economy experience is. I dipped in and out of a very contented and comfortable state, feeling safe, warm and cocooned. I do not know how this may have appeared to my fellow passengers, but I fear I may have been guilty of the exact behaviour I have previously been disdainful of. Never-mind, I got my seven hours and there is a slim chance of bumping into them again.
Annie grew up on a working farm in the Free State, with four brothers and a host of chores evenly distributed amongst the five children. Before she was knee-high to a grasshopper she was rolling up her sleeves and tackling more than her fair share of tasks. Her affinity for the mechanical quickly saw her becoming an expert in maintaining everything that was motorised – from the old, rusty farm tractor right through to the bright red crop sprayer.
Much to the dismay of her mother but to the delight of her brothers, her adventurous nature saw her learning to pilot said crop-sprayer. She became a regular crop-dusting pilot and people would travel from near and far to witness her nail-biting aerobatics. Fearless, skilled and hands-on Annie was always looking for the next adventure, and when Avex asked her to enhance its tooling division, with the promise of ample time in the air, she was all smiles, and of course answered with a resounding ‘yes’!
Annie’s enthusiasm is infectious and she is passionate about her job here with us! She’ll bring you the latest news from Avex, advice on best practices and make sure you’re the first to know about our amazing special offers. She has an uncanny habit of seeming to be in many places at the same time, so keep your eyes peeled for her broad and friendly smile!
Written for Tracy King, Wing Commander of Paperplane Communication and Design, for her client Avex Tools, to introduce their new brand mascot Annie.
I’m currently working on a magazine, and we usually try to work to a theme, to tie our stories together. To try and establish what the theme will be, I’ve been asking people I interview what their ‘one thing’ is. The ‘one thing ‘that motivates them, and the ‘one thing’ they feel is essential to their success.
To motivation, surprisingly (or not?) not many people have answered with ‘money’. Most people have told me that they are motivated by a specific person – a mother, a child, a partner. A few have answered God, others are motivated by growth, or visible progress.
The answers to ‘the one thing’ essential for success have been more diverse, also depending on where on their career path I’m catching them. I’ve had responses ranging from external (such as opportunity and environment) to factors such as wisdom, commitment, honesty, integrity, keeping things simple, staying focused, being bold, and so on.
Until yesterday, no-one had thrown my questions back at me, and I must say, that I was quite surprised. What does motivate me? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it could in part be my natural curiosity. I’m going to have to think about that one. And while I do, what’s your ‘one thing’?
As kids we had a little routine every Sunday post the church service. We would spend some of our pocket money on a treat at Checkers while my mom bought the Sunday newspaper. We’d then lounge around at home, snacking on our sugary purchases while reading the Sunday Times’ comics or with our noses buried deep in a book.
I would go hell for leather on my stash. My younger sister would make hers last for the day, whereas Vera, the first born, would stretch her supply for longer than I perceived humanly possible. I’m talking the kind of self control that sees the Easter Bunny’s bottom half still hanging around in August.
If one considers the degree of my sweet tooth, the fact that I still have all of my own teeth is a minor miracle. Fortunately my metabolism also dealt relatively well with the potential effect on my weight, although what the sugar did to my personality was quite another story. The youngest in the house (it’s always easiest to pick on them, isn’t it?) was often quite traumatised by my mood swings. Admittedly this memory of me as an ogre on a sugar-high or low, is one we can laugh at over lunch nowadays, but I’m sure at the time it could not have been pretty.
Speaking of meals, the many conversation topics covered over today’s family lunch, included the fact that Nephew A only experiences growth pains in his legs, and not in his upper body. This reminded me of another lunch time conversation, where both now teenage nephews confessed that as under tens they would fake an ache or growing pain in order to obtain what they described as a very tasty banana Panado from Vera. They would exchange a knowing wink as they passed one another in the passage – one clasping a banana Panado in his sweaty paw, the other armed with a compelling reason to be awarded one too.
I don’t think these Panados were around when I was a kid. In fact, I don’t remember medicine ever tasting that good that I would have faked an ailment for it. If I was going to fake it, my eye was on a much bigger prize – there had to be at least a day off school in it for me. And then there was of course always the option to self-medicate with treats. But I digress.
I recently wrote some copy for a superbly talented friend of mine, who owns a company called bite-size eatery. The name was inspired by her young nephew’s response to the baked edibles and food she prepared. Basically he would demolish the edibles in one go (sound familiar?), and she explained to him that food, especially food prepared with love and reverence, should be enjoyed slowly, one bite at a time. Wise words, even for us adults!
And there you have it – my pearl of wisdom.
Though I’m very happy to report that the chance of a delicious sugary purchase surviving for more than 48-hours is still very slim, as I grew older, a certain level of self-control and discernment did begin to develop.
Another confession. Not too many of today’s Easter Bunnies bottom halves made it past lunch. Mine is still untouched, but I very much doubt it will make it as far as August …
Do you remember when we used to go on those crazy rollercoaster rides, scream with delight and want to go on them again and again and again. And again? We would stand in queues as long as those on voting day, just to embark on a crazy sixty seconds worth of weightless terror, laced with boot-in-the-chest gravity forces.
We’d then breathlessly disembark, huge grins on our faces, feeling as though we had defied death. Adrenalin would pump through our bodies preparing us for the next big upside-down adventure. “Bring it on!” we’d breathlessly say, beating our chests to the rhythm of the shrieks and squeals echoing across the theme park. We even ventured into those horrendous haunted houses of horrors, where to be honest, I was never quite sure that my heart would survive.
I remember feeling amazingly alive at the time, and sleeping (albeit dehydrated, stiff, sunburnt and bruised) like a baby, on nights after days like that. I don’t remember ever feeling ill, or witnessing anyone that I rode with losing their candy-floss, toffee-apples or hot-dogs in the air. I’m sure it must have come close once or twice, but boy was it exhilarating!
At some stage conquering my fears became less of a priority, and scaring myself stopped being quite so much fun. It just happened. While I wasn’t quite ready to downgrade to the lazy river ride, I did begin feeling a little more squeamish with each loop. Then the pesky little stage-whisper in my head began planting the seeds of doubt. “What if … the wheels come off … or it stops when you’re suspended in mid-air … or even worse, what if the whole structure just collapses …”
Eventually I made the call. I didn’t want to be the first ‘young’ person to die of a heart attack while facing my Nemesis, so I started looking for other, more sensible things to challenge myself with. Every now and again, a flutter of bravery would find its way into my little heart, and I’d do something that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I managed two static-line skydiver rides and a balloon roll-over before that gene went dormant again.
Then, a few Decembers back, some of the family spent a day at the Valley of the Waves in Sun City. My two nephews and niece thought the 30-metre sheer drop slide was great fun, and kept encouraging me to join them. I ticked off the possible scenarios in my head: it looked well-maintained. Yes. There was a lot of activity and others were surviving. Check. There were repeat offenders present. Check. Eventually, wanting to maintain the ‘cool-aunt’ image, I weakened and agreed to this little adventure.
No biggie you may think, but as I stood on the edge of the precipice, I still wondered how I could walk away with my dignity intact. This, while standing amidst a small group of people whose average age I’d just brought up to about 12.
I decided I would cling onto my pride, and off over the edge I went. My sister and niece heard my screams from about a kilometre away, whilst my youngest nephew, who was waiting to receive me at the bottom, thought my show had been hilarious. And once I’d managed to extricate my bikini bottom from my throat, I must say that a tiny tinge of the old adrenalin began coursing through my veins … it was however never going to reach the fist-pumping, chest-beating, I-just-have-to-repeat-this level.
Way back I seemed to have the stomach for it. Now, when the next rollercoaster pulls in and people look at me expectantly, I hope I will say thanks, but no. I don’t want to be the one that arrives back after having re-served my breakfast. From now on I’ll join the queue for the much tamer river ride, or hop onto a sedate sun-set cruise … I’ll be the one wearing a hat, sunblock and carrying a bottle of water.
It was high time for me to escape for a while, so I Jet-Jane’d it out of there post voting on the third of August. I’m now safely ensconced in the Swiss mountains, occasionally dipping into a news channel to see how coalition talks are going. Of course we don’t do things simply in the republic – there’s always got to be a bit of “it’s complicated”. A coalition between any of the contenders should, in my mind, be very interesting.
But back to me… or as the title indicated, back to the cheese….
I’m lucky to have a family member who spends his summers in the Swiss mountains making traditional alpine cheese. My sister’s partner has been making cheese for the last thirteen years, so he knows his stuff. All the cheese-making action happens in this mountain hut that the cheese-maker and his peaceful herd of cows inhabit for about eight weeks during the summer. The cow barn forms part of the wooden structure which also includes a kitchen area (where the cheese cauldron lives), a cheese cellar, a pantry, a ‘Stube’ (sleeping/living room), and a dormitory style attic, to accommodate visitors.
As magnificent as the surroundings are up here, working life is definitely not as fairy-tale as it may seem to the uninitiated. I’ve watched parts of the production process over the past week, and can bear witness to the fact that a combination of muscle, a strict daily routine, patience at the cauldron and good alpine milk yields the desired cheese quality.
The day starts around five-thirty. The cows, after spending the night eating the delicious alpine grass, come in around seven-thirty. They are milked twice a day. First in the morning and again in the evening, after they have spent the day in the straw, chewing their cud, licking salt, sipping water, pooping (a lot) and generally going about their cow-chilling-in-the-barn business.
In the lead up to lunch the previous evening’s and that morning’s batches of milk are magic’d, over an open fire, into a beautiful wheel (or two) of cheese. The cauldron is cleaned, a quick bite to eat, some chores, the cheese is turned. After the evening’s milking, the cows wander off to eat more of that succulent alpine meadow that makes their milk so good and plentiful. Then, the stable is cleaned, more wood is chopped, more chores, dinner and finally some R&R before it starts all over again.
The days are full, yet time moves at a more leisurely pace up here. I admire this age-old Swiss custom, and that, in spite of the fact that we live in an era of processed foods, this organic production continues. It’s refreshing to witness something that doesn’t entail mass production, and where there is such an intense focus on quality. There is something almost hypnotic about the ringing cowbells, announcing the arrival, departure or presence of these gentle herbivores. They also don’t seem to have a care in the world, apart from sticking with their family, and sticking to their routine.
I feel like I should come up with some profound and philosophical insight into how this whole experience translates into my ‘real life’. Maybe along the lines of the best-selling Who moved my cheese by Spencer Johnson. But we’re not mice. We don’t all like the same cheese. Some of us don’t like cheese at all, and some poor folk are lactose intolerant. And why shift the focus to the moving, and not the making?
I’ve decided to liken the alpine cheese-making process to a labour of love, and its outcome as a gift or a blessing. I hope I bring a little of this peace back, focus on what’s important, and apply some of these principles to the cheese I magic up at home.
You could look at cheese-making from a capitalist perspective – but no-one’s getting rich up here. A socialist point of view – equal amounts of cheese for everyone? A modernist may say that its time to move on, no more touchy feely traditions. A traditionalist may fight for the status quo? Or maybe a coalition of some of the above?