Another 18 rolls…

When I moved into my little garden flat (aka Bruno’s Bungalow) six months ago, I arrived with a bag of eighteen toilet rolls, and jokingly told my landlord, that this was how long I’d be here: who knew when my ship would sail again.

Well, it’s been more than just those initial eighteen rolls, and today I marked the occasion of starting yet another new pack of white gold, by opening a box of pralines. News from the Africa Mercy is that she now hopes to be back in Senegal in April 2021 – how exactly life onboard would look for the communications team, I’m not sure yet. Watch this space.

When we (Andrea, the other writer on the team and I) left the ship, we were incredibly naïve in thinking that we’d be back onboard in a matter of a few weeks, possibly months. We left a lot of our personal stuff behind, packed and safely stashed in our boss’s office. I imagine my bag is still sitting there, patiently waiting for my return. There is stuff I wish I’d brought back with me (especially a green dress and two of my books). In fact, I wonder why I didn’t just take it all along on 18 March 2020 – I’m sure the airline would not have run out of space, if I’d arrived with another 23kg.

I believe that the 2020 phenomenon of panic buying began well before the arrival of the pandemic. I mastered it in early January when I bought enough of my favourite lotions and potions, shampoo and conditioner, hair colour, vitamins and supplements, contact lenses, sun and mosquito repellent…and who knows what else is in that yellow bag… Well, in my defence I was planning to be away for thirty months, or at least for a year, before I would return to SA. At least I got two months use out of my stash, although I did have enough of my wits about me to pack my contact lenses before leaving. In fact, we’re now in danger of my year’s supply of these running out.

While I was on the ship some lovely friends and family (thank you KJ&J, A&M and G) sent me some care packages. Unfortunately, they arrived in the Port of Dakar well after we had left, and after the ship had already sailed for the Canary Islands. They eventually found their way back to Mercy Ships Holland, and the lovely folks there are sending them to my sister in Switzerland. Perhaps she’ll bring some of my treats with her, when she visits in December. I can’t wait! It’s my nephews wedding, and it’s going to be the social highlight of our 2020! We’re just hoping and praying for no more COVID-19 hitches. Hoping and praying Annette and Marcel make it into the country. And hoping and praying that Kevin and especially Kate’s incredible planning and attention to detail pays off; that their nerves remain steely; and that their patience doesn’t run out.

I guess there has been a lot of hoping and praying going on, around the world. There definitely has been some crazy stuff going down this year. Who would have thought panic buyers would strip the shelves of toilet paper, and other essentials, for fear of running out. Who would have thought how incredibly few empty shelves I would come across during my Wednesday shopping excursions? Who would have thought that I would ever be moved to write a blog by a pack of dermatologically tested, bought on special, loo rolls? Or even buy pralines, to mark the occasion.

Who would have thought? Well, I won’t ponder on that for too long. It’s time to post this and move onto the next distraction.

To complain, or not to complain? That is the question.

 

It rained through the night last night, and oh, what a blissful night. Just rain on the roof. No midnight, post-curfew peacock squawks. No piercing four am peacock screams. No honking from the droves of peacocks that have taken siege of the banks along the extremely polluted Hennopsriver.

Have you ever heard the cry of a peacock? It sounds nothing like the bird looks. It is simply hideous. And it never ends. They are supposed to make a lot of noise during courtship, but man, the length of this mating season is matching the pandemic. With the amount of birds around this area, procreation should simply be terminated till further notice.

Peafowl consume insects, snakes, amphibians and rodents, but what happens when these birds themselves become the pest. Surely there must be a way of managing the fowl population. Apparently, peafowl eggs make a good omelette… or we could just rehome the majority of the males as most of the local residents in the suburbs are posturing studs. Couldn’t we?

I’ve always felt complaining is a very unattractive thing…probably because complaints are rarely delivered with a smile. Or possibly because complaints are hardly ever well-received: one complaint opens up a sea of grievances, and all of a sudden, a conversation becomes heavily laden, even ugly. Nobody likes a complainer. A clumsily delivered complaint is immediately associated with criticism; criticism often leads to self-defence, which often leads to conflict. Which I hate. It’s complicated, right?

These last few months have reminded me that I’m happiest in an environment where I’m able to control my surroundings, or at least have some semblance of control. I cannot control this noise, but perhaps if I share my observations, they may fall on the right ears? How do we fix this? I cannot believe that I am the only one struggling with the incessant noise. And if you feel I’m being a bit overdramatic, then I’d just like to add that there has not been even a three-minute intermission since I began writing this.

And while I’m getting things off my chest… this river. How? How did we let things get this bad? The few summer rains we’ve had have helped flush some of the sewage and stench down river, but never mind the floating poo and the putrid smell…the rubbish lining the vegetation along the banks is simply depressing. Clean water is essential to survival – of the creatures who live in the river, and the people who live alongside it, up and downstream from here. How did we let things get this bad? And please don’t answer that, I want a solution. How do we fix it? Can we fix it? Why haven’t we fixed it yet? Shame on us, for letting it get so bad, and accepting the status quo. And shame on me, for thinking, it’s just a total shot in the dark, that we’ll be able to clean this mess up. I so admire the folk all over the world who spend weekends cleaning up after humanity, but after having walked over the Hennopsriver this morning and seen the garbage rushing downstream, I must admit, I do not know how they keep at it.

The incredible thing is that the frogs, the ducks, the dragonflies, the birds, the bees, and yes, even those pesky peafowls are still managing to live it large along the river. How? How have they adapted to the slow demise of what used to be a life-force? Or is their never-ending extended breeding season a symptom of the side-effects of living alongside a toxic polluted water? How soon will our dogs start mewing and our cats barking? When will we start turning blue? When will our cars start corroding? When will our taxes be used for the really important things?

To complain, or not to complain? I say yes, go for it. Just get to the point, and get to it fast. No back story, no unnecessary interpretations or details. No one likes a whiner who just never shuts up – heck, I feel like taking a shotgun to the bellyaching peafowl population, and I’m a peace-loving global citizen. Just tell me what, if anything, is bothering you today? You never know who may be listening.

 

The long drive home

Ever been on holiday at the other end of the country, and then driven home to Gauteng, all in one go? It’s like the trip just never ends, and as you drive through the different landscapes, the mood and alertness levels vary.

When you’re driving up or down a mountain pass, and it’s rainy and misty, you’re on high alert, straining to see what may lie ahead. When you’re driving through the endless and desolate open Eastern Cape or Karoo flats decorated with flat-topped koppies, the journey can get a bit monotonous. The monotony is broken by another pass, or a green oasis – a farmhouse, or a small riverbed, that in spite of being bone dry still hosts a cluster of weeping willows, or other hardy alien survivors. Or, an obstacle in the road. Like in our case, a behemoth Eskom thing creeping up towards Graaff Reinet on the back of an abnormal flatbed.

You’ll eventually overtake this obstacle and make your way along the edges of Middelburg. You’ll see the tips of Noupoort Wind Farm, stop for a milkshake and driver change in Colesburg, and if you hang in there a while longer, you’ll be rewarded by a glimpse of the Gariep Dam. Not much further along, and you’ll head over the Orange River, that has travelled all the way from Lesotho to cross your path sort-of near Colesburg.

The Free State’s golden-October grasslands stretch endlessly, and once you’re through Bloemfontein (and you didn’t leave at the crack of dawn) you’ll be treated to a sunset on fire. You’ll journey into dusk and then a driver change, and into darkness… Eventually you’ll make it home, and listen to the familiar night noises, before hopefully spending a restful night in your own bed, recovering from the journey.

After holidaying and enjoying the freedom of open spaces, sea, sun and mountains, I always return to Gauteng with mixed feelings. This time around there’s a little more uncertainty in the mix, as my head and my heart process what our immediate future, amidst COVID-19, may look like.

I take COVID-19 very seriously – from a health, social and economic impact perspective.

You may disagree and think it’s no more than the flu and that shutdowns were a mistake.

I think we are in a more vulnerable position than, based on our behaviour, we appear to think we are.

You may think that this has all been blown way out of proportion, and precautions are for the birds.

There are so many divided opinions, worldwide, on how best to move forward and navigate life, under the shadow of COVID-19. It can get confusing and frustrating.

I believe we’re still on the long drive home. I’m not sure where exactly on route, but I do hope that we’ve passed the abnormal load that created traffic congestion approaching the Valley of Desolation. And that there are no more major obstacles in the way. The journey is at the point where my limbs are feeling the confines of the car; my mouth is dry from too much coffee; my tummy is rebelling against the three too many road-snacks; I’m desperate for a sip of ice-cold water; my eyes feel a bit gritty and sun-strained. I can’t set the aircon just right; and I’m weary.

So, we’ll stop to refuel, we’ll stretch a little, and then get back in the car, and navigate the roads, according to the rules, as best we can. Because eventually, we’ll make it home, and put our heads down on our pillows, listen to the familiar night noises, before hopefully spending a restful night, recovering from the journey.

And then, we’ll wake up to a new tomorrow. One day. Some day.

Soon?

I think it all depends on how we drive.

 

Week 36 random recap: rabbit feet and a cat burglar

There’s a lot of animal action around the neighbourhood at the moment. In particular in the wee hours of the night. It seems that the creatures have also emerged from lockdown and are using the property’s borders as a highway to move between appointments. Or perhaps it’s just that time of year, and I haven’t been as aware of them, as I have been this past week. They wake up the neighbourhood dogs, including Bruno, and then everyone joins the commotion – even the peacocks and the hadidas. Roll on summer!

Marinus is away this week, enjoying some of the travel privileges that come with SA’s level 2 lockdown. So, I’ve also been visiting and feeding Poppy and Manito next door. The other day I came across some rabbit hindlegs in his garden… Surely one of those soft little kitty noses that I’ve been kissing every morning and evening have not savaged a soft and sweet, recently born kit? Oh, I hope not. It’s probably the owls, or the big lion cat that’s been on the prowl. Or maybe the resident gymnogene or sparrow hawks I recently encountered while out with my walking buddy Linda…

With our load shedding being scheduled for 21h00 this week I’ve been going to bed relatively early. On Tuesday night, shortly after retiring, I heard a very, very loud noise. So loud in fact, that I thought it was entirely possible that the geyser had fallen through the roof next door. I decided to investigate and, using my Phone’s torch to guide me, I set off into the night. As I rounded the corner of the house and approached the carport, I saw a slight figure drop off the carport roof and into the garden next door. Guys… I can’t even begin to describe the places, in my body, that my heart went. Bruno, who had been barking earlier, was now with me and rushed straight towards the spot I’d seen the “cat burglar” disappear… I immediately mobilised forces – got my landlord out, who got the neighbour out, who got the armed response out, who arrived swiftly and swept the grounds with their torches, seeking the intruder.

A few moments into the excitement and the neighbour came out: “Is it possible, that it could have been a very big cat?”

I’m beginning to doubt myself… “Only if it was a really, really big lion cat,” I say.

“I only ask,” she says, “as a massive cat just passed by the bedroom. So big in fact, that I first thought the armed response had arrived with a dog.”

Okay. I’m beginning to feel a little foolish now. But in my defence, I’ve had enough break ins to err on the side of caution… but yes, we agree it must have been a very large, domestic cat, with a super long body. Come to think of it, I’m sure I’ve encountered this monster cat once before, earlier in lockdown, and prior to moving into Bruno’s Bungalow. Poppy and Manito had been acting kind of skittish. In fact, Manito came galloping through the kitchen door cat-flap late one night at such a pace, that we later located the actual flap in the lounge. Of course, I shot out of bed immediately assuming the worst… an intruder… and mobilised Marinus who emerged from his bedroom disgruntled and sleepy… Thank goodness for the broken cat-flap to back up my story.

The innocent faces of non-rabbit-eaters.

But back to the bunny feet… I’m going with the owls being the culprits here… Random google fact: “Owls can’t carry a whole rabbit, so they just take the head.” It’s kind of cool living in suburbia, and having all this animal action transpire around me. There’s also a lot of bird life in the area, including the below special “spookvoël” grey-headed bush shrike couple recently spotted and photographed by Marinus in his garden.

And there you have probably the most exciting parts of my thirty-sixth week of this year, thus far. Other highlights included some cool catch up with friends, lunch with my folks, lunch with my sis, a visit to the hairdresser, and a red-carpet worthy new hairstyle! Oh, and I booked some time away… but that’s for my random recaps of weeks 38 and 41.

Till soon. x

 

A random recap of week 35

It was Vera’s birthday on Friday, and it was such a treat to have a family get together and to physically be in the same eating venue (@Mami&Papi) as multiple other heartbeats. When I got home, I felt like a child coming down from a sugar high… that slightly directionless, “what to do now?” feeling after all the guests have left and the cake has been consumed…

Luckily Saturday mornings is my weekly “hard-core” cycle with Birgit, my landlady, so I could work off my three (yes, three, plus cream) pieces of delicious mom-made cake. Yesterday’s bike ride took us to the Voortrekker Monument, where we treated ourselves to a cappuccino after cycling the route that was once part of the park run. Peddling up the dreaded “uphill” was beautiful: we passed some gnu, the birds were tweeting, the vegetation was thick, the clouds were low, and a cool breeze was blowing up the hill. It was just magical.

On our way home we encountered at least three groups of motorcyclists riding to the Union Buildings to raise awareness for farm murders and racism. I stopped on a bridge to take in some of the solidarity passing on the highway below. I, like many, am incredibly disappointed, disillusioned and feeling despondent about the way our government has been handling, in particular, our country’s financial matters. And right now, any demonstration or indication of solidarity tends to leave a lump in my emotional throat. 

This week Herman Mashaba launched a new political party – Action SA. I’m thrilled to see a new warrior in the colosseum, as it’s high time for some fresh air to sweep through those putrid South African political corridors. I’m just not sure whether we’d manage to collect a comprehensive selection of presidential candidates for voters to elect a president from. But man, wouldn’t it be amazing, to play a part in appointing someone you felt could lead the country wisely. I’ve dipped into the Facebook posts about the party and read some of the comments: some are supportive and constructive, and others are just blech – cynicism can be so very ugly.

The presidential candidates in the States made me think of a blog I wrote a while back (how old is too old). How come presidential options in many countries are all beyond normal retirement age? I still don’t get how someone is allowed to run a country but would probably not even be considered for the position of leading a multinational corporate. Are young people not interested in leading a country? I mean, I sure as heck would not want that job, in any country, but if I did, we’d literally have no money left for the fat cats, as I’d be feeding, housing and trying to find ways to empower the poor…and fixing the infrastructure…and cleaning the rivers…and and and… I don’t know enough about the Democratic candidates for number 1 and number 2 in the US, still, I definitely know where my vote would go. I must admit I’m quite surprised when someone I know or interact with turns out to be a Trump supporter…that man is definitely not from my tribe.

And speaking of fake tans… the weather here has started improving enough for me to think about shedding a few layers. I decided to give my light blue legs some attention just in case I have the opportunity to venture outdoors in shorts. I discovered that hand sanitiser (the alcohol spray version) has an additional benefit of being able to remove the quick-setting, tell-tale fake-tan stains on your hands… So, if you don’t happen to have mittens with which to apply a healthy looking colour, now you know.

Other than visiting with my folks, a bit of writing for reward and daily doses of fresh air, Bruno has continued to entertain me this week; my French lessons are going well (although I’m about six years from fluent); and I have a hair-dressers appointment this coming week. Never thought that this would ever be as big a deal as it is right now.

Till soon. x

 

All Aissatou hoped for

When shy and reserved 45-year-old Aissatou heard a radio broadcast about Mercy Ships pending arrival in Senegal, she immediately told her husband Samba. She knew a surgery to mend her cleft lip would change many things in her life. “If they fix my lips, I will have health. With my mouth like this, dust and germs enter,” she said. “I will also be free in the society, because I will be like others.”

As a child growing up in a remote village, Aissatou had no access to a school. This meant that she was shielded from the unkind taunts of children…until she was a teenager. She remembers how people would either laugh or shrink away from her when she went out, and as a result she contracted more and more into herself.

As she matured there were no opportunities to have her cleft lip fixed, and she accepted that this was how she was meant to walk the earth. She was fortunate to meet a man who accepted her, exactly as she was. They got married and had children. Sadly, tragedy struck, and her first husband died. Thank God for Samba, who also loved her freely, exactly as she was. He became her pillar of support.

People in their village would say: “Aissatou, you are not like everyone.” or “You are a bad person. Go away.” It was very difficult for her, as even when people did speak to her, they would avert their gazes. Samba would be quick to jump to his wife’s defense, telling the villagers: “If I hear someone being disrespectful to Aissatou, I will not make it easy for them!”

When she was given a date for surgery onboard the Africa Mercy in Dakar, Aissatou and Samba were both over the moon. Unfortunately, they missed the Mercy Ships vehicle that transported patients to Dakar, so had to brave public transport to travel the eleven hours to the nation’s capital. Once in Dakar, Aissatou checked into the Hospital Patient Extension (HOPE) Center, in anticipation of being able to check into the ship’s hospital the next day. Samba stayed with friends in Rufisque, about an hour from Dakar. He intended to be close by, so that he could see her again as soon as possible.

Aissatou’s journey to healing took longer than expected, as her surgery date had to be moved twice. After examining her, the hospital admissions doctor felt her body was not quite strong enough to support her healing after the operation. She was given some medication and prescribed a nutritional diet which was prepared for her at the HOPE Center. The Mercy Ships medical volunteers and the day crew took good care of her and tried to keep her motivated and positive. Yet as the weeks went by, no matter how optimistic everyone else was about her situation, every delay added a little more doubt and fear that the day of her surgery may never come.

But it did! And praise God, her body was strong, and her wound healed well.

By the time Samba and Aissatou were reunited, a month-and-a-half had passed. And the very first time Samba saw his beautiful Aissatou without her disfiguring cleft lip, he was amazed and overjoyed. He could not stop smiling or take his eyes off her, saying “Mercy Ships has given us a victory! “Now they (the villagers) will be ashamed. She is fine now. She is like them.”

Aissatou was moved to tears by the reunion, saying “I’m so happy. But I can hardly speak. Thank you, Mercy Ships.”

There were so many people onboard the ship (and in other countries) invested in Aissatou’s story, and  it was wonderful to be able to write a story about an adult life being transformed. This is the unedited version of her story. The photographs used here were taken by John Seddon, a videographer and photographer from the United Kingdom.

 

New normal in Bruno’s Bungalow

I had the strangest dream… I was arrested. It was a false ID, but the arresting officer made a point of telling me that I looked dodgy… or more specifically that my mole made me look dodgy. After being made to feel terribly guilty for Mother Nature’s role in my arrest, he then handed me back my Mother’s handbag, my phone and washing basket (complete with neatly folded gym clothes) – without apology – and I was ushered off, and allowed to get back to going about my usual business.

Today’s usual looks somewhat different to what it did a few months back – before Covid-19; before the ship; before packing up Poppy’s Palace to embark on the next adventure. Eight months ago, I was serving Princess Poppy her breakfast and dinner, on demand. Today I’m sitting on a stoep, with Bruno, my landlord’s German Shepherd, keeping an eye on me.

The two creatures are vastly different, yet both have their uses for this human. Poppy needed food, warmth, the occasional conversation and tickle under her chin. Bruno sometimes takes me for walks or demands that I throw his Kong toy around the garden for him. He has developed a habit of throwing the well-chewed, gooey toy into my flat, through the open sliding door. On the surface, this is not unusual behaviour. I only question his motivation when I’m sitting outside, on the stoep, next to him… Regardless, he brings me a lot of joy, especially when I observe him running in circles, chasing flies or setting off after a hadida (it’s the small things in life…). 

I love that these creatures’ lives have continued uninterrupted, despite the doo-doo storm on their doorsteps. I love that the sun still sets each night and returns every morning. I like that, in spite of all the crazy, I’m beginning to feel a lot more like ME again. More so than I have for a while. I’ve felt like I had been sent back to the starting blocks, where it’s a bit confusing when there isn’t a “race” to run. Perhaps I’m just getting used to my new environment and the rules of engagement; perhaps it’s the changing season; or the new projects I’m working on… It could just be the greens I’ve been eating, in lieu of chocolate, chips and lockdown gin – who knows. But it’s a comforting feeling to have.

I’m sure it won’t be long until I’m feeling restless again. But for the next few minutes, I’ll just chill on the stoep of Bruno’s Bungalow, and ponder. Why was I carrying my Mother’s handbag? What was I doing with a washing basket when I got “dream arrested”… or even what dreaming about a false arrest means in the first place.

While I may be okay with everything not making total sense to me, I believe it’s super important to be intentional about looking after one’s own well-being and mental health. I’m sure this season is taking its toll on many, there has been an inordinate amount of stuff to deal with. I also think we often poo-poo getting someone to assist us when we’re stuck, struggling or just overwhelmed with what’s on our plate. There are so many good, noble and trustworthy resources out there, but dear friends, if you just want to talk, I’ll be happy to listen.

 

Double the trouble, twice the joy

It’s easy to tell the five-year-old twin’s apart once you have the opportunity to get to know their personalities – Ousseynou is outgoing and cheeky, while Assane is quiet and reserved. If you were seeing them for the very first time though, and you didn’t know that Ousseynou has a little scar on his forehead, you would not be able to tell the two apart.

They share more than just their good looks – they both developed an identical condition that saw their legs curving outward at the knee. As the twins grew older, their knees grew further apart. And as their deformity became more apparent, society began pushing them further away.

Ousseynou and Assane at the Port of Dakar with their mother before surgery.

The twin’s parents, Abdukka and Awa, accepted that this was Allah’s will. Nevertheless, it was a challenging time for the family. “It was hard for us. We knew that the neighbors were laughing about the twin’s appearance,” says Awa. “We could not hide Ousseynou and Assane away, so we all had to live with people treating them as inferior.”

Mame Sor, a nurse at the local clinic has known the twins since they were a year old. Unfortunately, when their condition became apparent, she was unable to identify or remedy it. However, she began to champion their cause and appointed herself as their guardian angel. She joined the twin’s parents in their prayers for healing and also never gave up hope that they would find a solution.

When Mame Sor heard about Mercy Ships coming to Senegal she shared this exciting news with Awa and arranged to collect the boys and their mother to drive them to the patient registration in Kaffrine. Days before the twins were due to see a surgeon, she drove Awa, the twins and their aunt the three-hundred-and-forty-three kilometers from Missira to Dakar. This was the furthest the twins had ever been away from home, but the closest they had ever been to finding healing.

It was also the first time any of them had seen a ship. Awa was a bit nervous about all of these new experiences, and even more so when the nurses came to take Ousseynou and then Assane to the operating theatres. She was relieved to have the twin’s aunt by her side. After the operation, when her boys were wheeled out sporting their respective blue and turquoise casts, she was all smiles! “When they came back to the ward after the surgery and their legs were straight in their casts, I was so, so very happy,” says Awa.

It’s a little outdoor physical therapy time for the twins!

During the weeks following the surgery the twins crept into the hearts of the volunteer and day crew on Africa Mercy. The rehab team put them through their paces. First gently as they wobbled around on newly straightened legs, still in casts and with the assistance of walkers. They were discharged to the hospital outpatient extension (HOPE Center) where they continued their rehabilitation along with the many other young orthopedic patients they befriended.

Once their casts came off, the physio sessions became a bit tougher. The goal was to improve their range of motion as well as their balance and strength. Eventually, the twins were moving faster and more confidently than they had been able to before. “Since I gave birth to Ousseynou and Assane, I have never seen them run,” says Awa. “The surgeries created this opportunity. It is something that comes only once in a lifetime.”

And when they turn seven, the twins will be able to start school, blend in with the other children. They will be standing tall and confidently on legs that were bowed before.

Awa is so proud of her boys. “I was living with doubt about their future, but the hard part of their life is over now,” says Awa. She feels that now that they have straight legs they have already succeeded. “I don’t know any soldiers, but I can see that my boys are strong, and I would love for them to serve their country!”

Ousseynou and Assane really crept into the hearts of the crew, and it was fun to watch how they would try to fool people into thinking they were the other twin. This is the unedited version of their story. The photographs used here were taken by Lara Arkinsal, a photographer from Australia.

A triumphant homecoming

Malick was a handsome baby. In fact, the other villagers would stop Youma, while they were out and about, to tell her how very good looking her little boy was. Then, when he was about three years old, his legs began to bow outwards, and slowly the admiring glances became filled with pity and scorn. The complements turned to repeated advice to visit doctors and have it fixed before it got worse. “We didn’t have money for that,” says Youma. “So, I stayed home, waiting for something to come from God.”

As he grew older Malick stopped venturing too far from home and would often return sooner than expected. Even his friends would mock him, taunting him and calling him “Malick, the bowlegged boy!” He didn’t like being teased, and sometimes would respond by saying“I will let you wrestle with God, who will judge us.”

Malick, at home before the surgery to correct his bowed legs.

In spite of his social strife, Malick was still growing up to become a conscientious young boy, who would pride himself on his cleanliness and neat appearance. He would go to the river daily and wash himself and his dirty clothes, before putting on a clean outfit. Often in the evenings his limbs would ache and Youma would massage the painful muscles in his legs. The winter would affect him quite badly, and Youma would have to encourage him to get out of bed in the chilly mornings.

In the year that Malick was to start going to school, Youma saw a television advertisement, about Mercy Ships. “At first I couldn’t understand what it was about,” says Youma, “but when someone explained to me that a ship is coming to Senegal and can offer surgery to my son, I decided to find out more.”

When it turned out that Mercy Ships could help Malick, going to school was put on hold for a year. “If Malick did not have this surgery, he would have become stuck,” says Youma. “And as he grows up, he would have become more and more useless.”

The majority of the villagers were very suspicious of this gift of free healthcare. In fact, now everyone was advising them not to go, saying “It’s not safe, you don’t know what will happen.” Or: “Perhaps they are only pretending to give free surgery and you will be kidnapped…” The fears and rumors ran rife, but Youma decided that she was prepared to take any risk to help Malick.

Mother and son travelled from Matam to Dakar in a Mercy Ships vehicle. They were not alone. There were three other children and their caretakers in the same car and, over the next few months, firm friendships would develop between them.

Once Malick was admitted to the hospital onboard the Africa Mercy, he met more children, who suffered from the same condition he did. And after his little legs were operated on, straightened and then put into casts to heal, he was showered with care and attention by the medical staff and the day crew. Many weeks passed and sometimes the healing process was tough for this brave little boy, but he was surrounded by love and support, and his mother was never far away.

Youma began to feel more and more vindicated in her decision to trust Mercy Ships. The two decided to keep Malick’s newly straightened legs a secret, wanting to save the surprise for their eventual return to their village. People back home would call to find how he was doing. They were also curious about the ship, and the conditions, they were living in. Youma would simply respond: “Sometimes I forget I am not in my house, as I am so well treated.”

Malick tackled rehabilitation and the exercises he was given by the physiotherapists with earnest determination. It wasn’t easy, but he would push on through and every day there would be some improvement in his strength and movement. Youma sings the rehabilitation teams praises, saying: “What they do here, we cannot do it, even if we try. Our children will get upset if we push them too much, and then we may stop.”

Finally, it was time for Malick to go home, and what a spectacular homecoming it was. He has become a minor celebrity in the village and his story of hope and healing will probably be told for decades to come. He is off to school soon, and when he grows up, he’d like to go to travel to France, to find work there…

This whole experience has brought mother and son even closer than they were before. “We achieved this dream together,” says Youma. “I was dreaming that he would be healed, and he trusted me.” Life is so different now, the two say it’s hard to believe that Malick ever had bowlegs.

When many said it was not possible, a mother believed that it was. And her son was healed.

This is the unedited version of Malick’s story. The photographs used here were taken by Lara Arkinsal, a photographer from Australia. The photograph of Malick on the tricycle is one of John Seddon’s (from the UK).

“I’m strong, I walk alone, and my legs are straight”

Six-year old Satou is a happy, sociable child who loves being around people. As much as she wanted to be an accepted part of her community, sadly her windswept legs often saw her being teased and rejected. “Satou is actually a happy child. She doesn’t like being sad,” says her mother Khady. “She is also strong-willed and determined and gets very upset when she feels that she is not respected.” Khady explains that the constant taunting made Satou feel ashamed and helpless, as though she was always the object of mockery – so much so that whenever she heard someone laughing, she immediately assumed that it was because of her.

Her little legs had begun to deform and bend when she was three. Her mother was dismayed and tried to find out what had happened to her daughter – had she fallen and injured herself while in someone else’s care? Was she suffering from some unknown illness? There was just no single event that Khady could pinpoint as being the cause of Satou’s disability. A visit to the traditional healer in their locality also resulted in a dead end. “In our society people assume witchcraft or disease, and they exclude such people,” says Khady. “I was worried about my daughter and wished that she could be like the other children in the village.”

Satou and her mom, Khady, before her surgery on the Africa Mercy.

Satou’s hardworking, god-fearing family was very disheartened. They work as subsistence farmers and are often barely able to make ends meet. Their livelihood depends on their annual harvest, and if it is poor, they struggle. “Life in the village where we live is hard, and every day we thank Allah for giving us food,” says Khady. “There was no money or means to spare to get Satou some help.”

Then, in late 2019, someone told Khady about the arrival of a Mercy Ship, and things began happening fast. After attending a patient screening event Khady was given a date for orthopedic surgery (to straighten Satou’s legs) onboard the Africa Mercy. “I have not dared to even dream that it is possible that my daughter’s legs can be straightened,” says Khady. “It feels as though the doors of heaven were being opened for her.”

When Satou was admitted to the hospital, it marked the beginning of a new chapter – one of physical and spiritual healing – in her life. In the hospital, and later in the HOPE Center, she was accepted and loved by the volunteers and other patients. She was able to mingle with many other children who, just like her, had been outcast because of a physical disability or deformity. Other children who, just like her, had undergone orthopedic surgery. Who, just like her, were in casts and learning to walk again on their newly straightened legs. She was in a community and surrounded by friends – to play with, to encourage and to laugh with.

Once they were at the HOPE Center Satou would keep asking her mother for her walker, so that she could walk more. Sometimes she would stand, without holding onto the walker, and clap her hands and try to dance. Eventually she abandoned the walker and began moving around on her own. “When we spoke with her father, Satou told him: ‘I’m strong, I walk alone, and my legs are straight’!” says Khady.

Satou came to the Africa Mercy with windswept legs, and after her operation spent months with Mercy Ships – in the hospital, in casts, at the Hope Center, in casts, in the physio tent, in casts. And then finally the casts could come off, and she could really enjoy her new legs! The day Satou’s casts came off and she had her final x-ray, is a day that Khady will never forget. She says that seeing her daughter’s straight legs is her best memory of their time on the ship. “I thought: how is it possible for people to have the capacity to straighten legs that are crossed? It was magical – the kind of thing one can only dream of.”

Khady says she does feel very sad for the other children with bent legs in her village, whose parents were pessimistic and reluctant to come to the ship. She is grateful and relieved that she took the leap of faith to trust that her daughter would be well taken care of. And she is looking forward to returning to her family, with her healed daughter: “When I go home with Satou, it will be a day full of happiness,” says Khady.

Soon Satou will be home and getting on with living her life to the fullest… Gone is that sad little girl, who could not run with the other kids. “As every mother does, I am praying for her to be like others, return to school and to be integrated into society. I believe that she will now have an easier life – one that is full and successful.”

I met Satou shortly after her operation, and she had pretty much charmed most of the volunteers. She has a very big personality! This is the unedited version of her story. The before photographs used here were taken by John Seddon from the UK and the after photograph was taken by Lara Arkinsal from Australia.

Writing for Audi Snÿman Interior Design

Over the past few months Audi Snÿman Interior Design commissioned me to write a few voice overs for some 3D fly-through animations. They were used for videos featuring some of the homes in Steyn City and Cornwall Hill, that Audi has designed the interiors for. The scripts were creatively challenging and it was a treat having a sneak preview of how the other half lives.

Some extracts from two of the scripts include:

Your family home inspires delight and defines the very essence of your beings, without needing a single word to express your stories. Its doors are always open. Its rich, luxurious and tasteful interiors speak of your warmth, saying “Sit at our table, and partake – you are close family, and you are welcome here.”

and

The interior design, undertaken by Audi Snÿman, combines sophistication with playfulness; comfort and luxury with practical function; and impact with warmth. The result is a 1 650m² home, with beautifully designed spaces that invite you to live, work and play in.

As one moves through the ground level of the house the theme of practical function and comfort and luxury is apparent: throughout its two offices, its indoor heated pool, the outside patios, fire pit and pool area…all the way through to the toy storage and workshop with an epoxy-coated floor and four-poster lift. This versatile space is truly a hobbyists dream.

Unfortunately, for privacy reasons, I’m unable to share the photos or full scripts, but they included some poetry (yes!), first and third person narratives, and a bit of a “Top Billing” style script. Writing them was pure escapism!

I also edited and wrote some articles and captions for Audi, that were used in the SA Home Owner magazine. I’ll update this post as more of them become available.

 

Bold and beautiful

The Sanctuary Makers

SA Home Owner LOVES…

 

 

The “things” in Zackaria’s eyes

When they were given a date for cataract surgery onboard the Africa Mercy, seven-year-old Zackaria asked his mother: “Is it possible to remove the white things in my eyes?” To which Binta replied “Yes my son. God-willing, that will be possible.”

Zackaria is the second youngest of five. He has three sisters, and a thirteen-year-old brother Elimane, who was also born with cataracts. After Zackaria was born Binta began seeing the same signs she had seen in her eldest. “I knew about Zackaria’s eyes when he was still very young, as I had the same experience with my first born. Elimane had an operation, but his surgery was not successful” says Binta. “I wept when I saw that my new baby was looking and moving, in the same way.”

She knew that she was in no way to blame for his poor eyesight, but the fact that both her boys had been born with cataracts caused a lot of stress, and she became quite ill. “It’s hard to move around if you close your eyes for just a few minutes. Imagine what it is like for a blind person.” she says. “It is the reason I kept crying.” Her mother stepped in and offered to take the two boys to live with her in Casamance, so that Binta could focus on getting well.

Zackaria and his mom at home, the week before his cataract surgery.

As Zackaria grew up, he was aware that he could not see like other children, but still wanted to live a full life, including playing with other children and even being ambitious enough to try and kick a football. Sometimes his grandfather would try to stop him playing, but a teacher encouraged him to let the boy play, so that he did not dwell on his disability. Zackaria would sometimes come home sporting scratches and bruises from his escapades, but even those could not dampen his inquisitive nature and zest for life.

While Binta was visiting Cassamance the family heard of the Africa Mercy’s pending arrival on a local television channel, but they did not know what treatments would be offered. One day Elimane came home and told his mother to take him and Zackaria to the hospital. “There are some people coming for free surgeries for the eyes,” he had said to her. Binta took her boys to where the patients were being selected. Sadly it was established that Elimane could not be operated on – he had been blind for too long, and the chances of a second surgery being successful were very slim.

For young Zackaria, however, there was hope for healing. He was given a date on which he would be admitted to the ship’s hospital and Binta was elated. “The family prayed for the ship to be blessed, and that the operation would be successful,” she says. And to ensure that they would be closer to the ship for the surgery and follow-up appointments, she moved in with relatives in Keur Massar, on the outskirts of Dakar.

Zackaria was incredibly excited about having, as he terms it, the “things in his eyes” removed. He was in a great hurry to see and began counting down the days to his surgery. Every day he would come and ask his mother, how many more days it was. Four more…three more…two more…one more… Finally, the day of the operation dawned.

When they were admitted to the hospital onboard the Africa Mercy, Binta knew that his surgery was becoming a reality. She says that while she was afraid, she also grew more confident: “It was hard, but I put things in God’s hands.”

Zackaria ‘reviews’ his patient chart with on of the day crew.

In a blink of an eye, his operation was over. Zackaria was discharged the day after surgery, and asked to come back a week later for a check-up and some eye tests. In young children, who have been blind for most of their lives, the brain needs to learn how to interpret the new electrical signals arriving from the eyes.  The doctor was really pleased with his progress thus far.

Six weeks post op and Zackaria was back for a final checkup and for the Celebration of Sight ceremony held on the dock. He was given some spectacles to help him focus, and had so much fun joining in the celebrations! “Now Zackaria can see better, he hardly stays still and is constantly moving about,” says Binta. “I am so happy. I never thought that Zackaria would have this opportunity for surgery. Even I was suffering from something that Mercy Ships has healed!”

If it was up to Binta to decide what Zackaria would become, she says that she would want him to be a surgeon. “To help people as people have helped him.”

As for Zackaria, his main ambition right now is to play outside until the sun sets… and to be a mason and build things. He’ll be off to school sometime soon, and then a whole new chapter of his life will begin.

Zackaria back at home after surgery, playing with his friends.

The above is the first patient I met when I joined the Africa Mercy in Dakar in January 2020. This is the unedited version of his story. The photographs used here were taken by Lara Arkinsal, a photographer from Australia.

A lifetime of change, in just twenty-six days

Eighteen-year-old Khady’s face lights up as she keeps a close eye on the movements of her first-born. Fatimata appears to be a well-rounded toddler and quite comfortable in her new environment. She babbles and gurgles happily as she tracks movement in the Africa Mercy’s hospital admissions room. Until it’s time for her pre-admission check-up.

The tears start. And who can blame Fatimata? The nurses are gentle and kind, and do their best to soothe her. But it’s cold on the scales, it’s no fun being measured, and it’s all so very new. The concerned expression that crossed her mother’s face demonstrates how in tune to her little one’s wellbeing Khady is. Thank goodness the discomfort is quickly over, and peace is once again restored.

Khady is the youngest child in a big family and one day she would also like to have a large family of her own. “At least another six children,” she says, looking over at Fatimata with a smile. She was very excited at the prospect of becoming a mother and when her daughter was born, it was love at first sight. Sadly, not everyone felt the same way about her little girl’s birth defect, and the villagers would often laugh at her baby’s cleft-lip. This resulted in Khady spending more and more time at home, alone with her daughter.

Her desire is for Fatimata to have the opportunities that were never afforded her. “I have not been to school, and I want to give my daughter the chance to go to school,” she says.  The potential teasing and unkind, thoughtless words that she may have had to endure, did not bode well for this dream.

Khady first heard about Mercy Ships coming to Senegal on a local radio station. She trusted the message of hope and healing that she had heard on the news and visited the nearest city center, where medical volunteers were busy with the patient selection process. Fatimata was given a date to see a surgeon on the ship.

A few weeks before the operation the two travelled over five-hundred kilometers from Matam to Dakar to check into the hospital outpatient extension, known as the HOPE Center. Sometimes babies with cleft-lips struggle to breastfeed, and therefore don’t get the nutrients they need. The medical staff felt that Fatimata was too small for surgery, so she was put on a feeding program to ensure she gained sufficient weight, to support her little body through the healing process.

Finally, she achieved her target weight, and together with all the other patients at the HOPE Center being admitted that day, they set off to the Port in a Mercy Ships vehicle. “When I arrived on the dock and saw the Africa Mercy in front of me, my greatest hope was to see my daughter healed, and for the surgery to be successful,” says Khady.

The surgery itself went as planned. Back in the ward Khady’s anxiety is written all over her face. Her toddler is fast asleep, and blissfully unaware of recent events. To give her little body an even further boost she is being fed via a nasogastric tube, which carries food and medicine straight into her stomach.

Twenty-four hours later, Fatimata is up and about, and moving at a pace that is hard to reconcile with the fact that she has just undergone reconstructive surgery. She is discharged back to the HOPE Center, with the instruction to return to the ship for a scheduled mid-week checkup.     

Seventy-two hours after being discharged from the ship’s hospital Fatimata and Khady return, in order for the nursing staff to check on her progress. Her stitches are healing well. She really doesn’t like having her face cleaned prior to the ointment being applied, and is almost inconsolable, until the appearance of a pink balloon cheers her up.

Khady is restless. It’s been a while since Fatimata has seen her father, and she is looking forward to the reunion and bringing her beloved daughter home. “I will always remember Mercy Ships and the people at the HOPE Center, especially those who became friends with Fatimata,” says Khady. “I’ll remember the environment and the compassion and love of those who took care of us.”

Finally, it’s time for Fatimata and Khady to begin their journey back home. It’s been twenty six days since they arrived at the HOPE Centre. Seven days since they first arrived on Africa Mercy. How Khady will explain the little scar above her lip to Fatimata is an unknown. A near certainty, however, is that as she grows older, the healing that took place during her short stay on the Africa Mercy will last a lifetime.

 

 

The above is the first patient story I wrote while onboard the Africa Mercy in Dakar in January 2020. This is the unedited version. The photographs used here were taken by John Seddon, a videographer and photographer from the UK (before photo), and Lara Arkinsal, a photographer from Australia (after photo).

 

 

Smelling the roses

These last few months I have become very conscious of passing time. Not just the lockdown. But the time that has passed, since I first began making memories. I live not far away from my childhood home and my morning walks and cycles take me down roads that I haven’t travelled on for a very long time. Without the usual distractions I’ve given a different kind of attention to the places I pass; the trees, the grass, the changing season; the birdlife and the blue, blue sky; neighbourhood noises and activities; the houses my friends lived in; the golf course where I caddied for my dad (a good few decades ago); the local running club clubhouse that one of my besties was a member of…

They’ve all changed, yet somehow, they have stayed the same. I have not tapped into those memories for quite some time, if ever. I think I’ve only ever had the time or head space, to think back or reflect on major lifechanging events, rather than stopping and smelling those very fragrant, wonderfully naive childhood roses. I wonder what will come to mind, one day, when this is all behind us, and I think back on this time.

During these past few months I’ve journeyed from an insatiable thirst for knowledge (and a desire to be informed, armed and ready) to information overload and noise fatigue. A lot has been said in our new public and shared spaces. Some of it made sense. Some was filled with doubt. Some of it was informed and factual. Some bordered on the ridiculous. Some was hilarious. Some was unkind. Some was unnecessary. A lot could have gone unsaid. But we’ve never been in this situation before, so it’s important to show grace, while we exercise discernment. 

A few years ago my sister Vera (who’s also homeschooled her very clever and good looking children) began facilitating dialogues. She facilitates diverse discussions in which uncomfortable and potentially divisive topics are discussed. She does this, and many other things including life coaching, under the umbrella of Think Thru. Talk Thru. where “considered thinking and talking is key”. Those last six words are taken directly from her website (www.tt-tt.co.za).

It’s a crazy, crazy time. Everyone’s experience of this pandemic is different and unique to their personal circumstances. I cannot compare my experience to that of others. Yet I know that we should not be using our words as spears, when there are enough other shots being fired at humanity already. 

There is some sanity in remembering who you were, before the “po” hit the fan. And while I bury my nose in my childhood roses, I’m reminded about how carefree my life as a child was. I’m enjoying tapping into that simpler mindset. And fine-tuning my expectations accordingly.

My life is playing out to a different rhythm than what I had expected. Which I’m mostly okay with. On other days not so much. Right now, I find comfort in the fact that the sun goes down tonight, and it will rise again tomorrow. And love – I’m surrounded by it.

While we are called to live apart in this place, in-between, I’d like you to know that I think of you. Not every day, but every now and again. And that I hope you’re doing okay. And that we’ll be able to sit across from each other again, someday soon.

 

p.s. if you’d like to read some blog posts that offer more practical thoughts and consider what’s really happening out there, please visit Vera’s website here . She’s written about many things relevant to our current circumstances, including many unexpected topics.

 

Be that ship

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.

Fatimata (the youngest patient I wrote about) being discharged.

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.

Agnes and I speak with Awa’s husband at the Assembly Point.

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.

Aissatou, before her surgery.

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.

Awa prepping for surgery.

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.

Aissatou and her husband, together again.

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.

Awa and her husband, brother, aunt and daughter

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

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.

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.

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.

I wonder why I feel so calm.

I wonder.

I wonder what you wonder, silently, in lockdown.

 

Yesterdays

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 wrote this 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!

Meet Fadel, one of the amazing day crew in Senegal, who speak multiple languages. He, and so many others, facilitated our communication with the patients. Here he is with Satou, who is from the Casamance region of Senegal and spoke only Mandinka.

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.

I’m here

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. 

Seeing Kilimanjaro rising above the clouds as we flew from Nairobi to Jo’burg was a little bit of a spiritual experience…

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.

Broadening my horizons

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…

Stay safe and healthy xxx

 

What are the odds?

What are the chances of scrubbing up and walking into the OR on the 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.”

Surgeons James Smellie and Richard Newsom, meet again (after 45 years) onboard the AFM!

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 the 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.

A lecture and a home visit

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.

His are the blue ones!

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 Dakar during Harmattan

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?

Binta with her son Zackaria (he had eye surgery on board Africa Mercy recently)

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.

Satou, a young orthopedic patient with windswept legs (you met her last week).
Satou, shortly after surgery (she’s still in casts at the moment wobbling around with her little zimmerframe).

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 😉

 

Settle in, this is a long one…

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.

If you’d like to, or are able to support me in any way, please visit my supporters page here.

 

Where does the time go?

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 healthcare that 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…

 

 

 

I’m not sure when late President Nelson Mandela visited Africa Mercy, but I love the photograph to the left of his, where Gracia Machel is looking back at his photograph. These photographs are on Deck 4, one level down from reception, and I see it every day after I ‘knock off’ from work.
This is the reception area. To the left of the TV is the door to the office I share with two Media Liaisons and Andrea, who has been doing all the writing work since the beginning of this field service in Senegal.
There are a lot of stairs in the ship… the blue ones are at the back of the ship (aft) and the red ones are at the front (forward)

 

This is one of the library rooms – I think you’ll get why I like it here.
This is the cafe area. On the right hand side of the counter you’ll see some pastries. Some of the volunteers raise money towards their crew fees by baking pastries, so there are treats available to buy most days, even when Starbucks is closed.
This is one side of the cafe area where a lot of volunteers have lunch or meetings, or make calls back home. There is a piano under the stairs, and I heard someone playing today. It was lovely!
This is the dining room, where we have three meals Monday to Friday, and breakfast and dinner on weekends. They put out lunch stuff for us to put away on Saturday and Sundays.
This is the buffet. For lunch and dinner there is always a cooked meal (meat, veg and starch) and salads available. For breakfast it’s a broad selection of hot and cold.
This is the International Lounge where the bigger get togethers take place, including Operations Meeting on a Monday morning, a medical lecture on Wednesdays and a church service on Sunday evenings.
This is an area called “Midships” which where a lot of people hang out and chill. There is also a TV and a small ‘internet cafe’ area. Remember the stairs going up from the cafe area? Well that’s where they lead. That corner is where I mostly have my breakfast… yes, it’s still dark outside 🙂

 

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!

A week of firsts

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.

My top-bunk nest, being guarded by my Mercy Sheep

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 🙂

I’m here

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!

 

Change

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.                    

 

Cool under pressure

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.

Head coach Lids with other members of the AmaWheelaBoys management team, including (from left to right) Lethabo Molobi (medical), Gerhard Smith (head of delegation) and assistant coach, Anele Kledi .

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!”

Anele and Lids on their first plane ride ever, with AmaWheelaBoys team captain Cecil Dumond, an already seasoned traveller.

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.

 

 

Poppy’s Palace

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!

Poppy chilling downstairs.
Manito, chilling in his old home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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gerberabm

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