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 of their bruised and battered self-esteems.

I think a lot of that dust gets blown of here, and every single patient is encouraged to shine.

Satou, a young orthopedic patient with windswept legs (you met her last week).
Satuo, 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Africa Mercy: My next chapter

Tomorrow in a month, I will be hopping on an aeroplane to Dakar, Senegal where I will begin serving as a writer on board the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest civilian hospital ship that is part of an incredible humanitarian initiative operating in West Africa.

 

“Mercy Ships is an over forty-year-old global humanitarian organisation that uses hospital ships to deliver free, world-class health care services, capacity building and sustainable development to those without access in the developing world: nearly 50% of people in Africa have no access to a hospital or doctor.”

More information on the wonderful work and the type of medical care that Mercy Ships and its volunteers provide, can be read or viewed here https://www.mercyships.org/all-stories/ and/or here https://www.youtube.com/user/mercyshipsvideos

Thirty months

I’ve committed to thirty months. This may seem like a strange length of time to press pause on “normal” life, but just like everything else about my decision to join the Mercy Ships crew, two-and-a-half years just felt right.

My life as a writer has been full of rich experiences and adventures, including meeting many interesting and inspiring people, visiting new places (often outside of my comfort zone) and gathering a lot of food for thought. I know that my time with Mercy Ships will be serving all of this up in abundance too. And, as of January, my “working life” will be all about shining a spotlight on the lives that are touched by the Mercy Ships message of hope and healing.

How can one not be excited at the prospect of being a part of that? 

A Better Business Bureau accredited charity

Mercy Ships, a Better Business Bureau accredited charity, is fully funded by donations from private and corporate citizens around the world. Crew members also contribute a monthly crew fee, which goes towards room and board. Every year an incredible amount of people – from surgeons, dentists and nurses who perform the medical procedures; through to technicians, cooks, teachers, administrators and people like me – volunteer for Mercy Ships.

I have undertaken, as far as possible, to self-fund my stay on board, while still honouring my commitments back home. A large part of the experience is living with less, and I was recently asked to prepare a budget within Mercy Ships’ suggested minimum budget guidelines. 

Would you support me?

There are a number of overheads I will need to cover. These include monthly crew fees, my health insurance, immunisations, travel to and from the ship (including to and from Texas for training in June 2020) and personal expenses. My minimum monthly budget works out to around $700. Or $8,400 per year. Or an amount for thirty months that I’m too afraid to put in as a fundraising goal, so have only set my target for year one.

If you are able to contribute to lightening my financial load in any way, you’ll also be enabling me to focus a hundred percent of my creative energy on writing the Mercy Ships stories. Mercy Ships has facilitated setting up this fundraising page for me, or you can contact me directly if you’d like to contribute in another way: chrissi @ what-is-your-story.co.za … just remove the spaces before and after the @.

If you are not able to support me financially, I would really value your prayer and/or some moral support by hearing from you every once in a while.

Africa Mercy

I will be joining Africa Mercy halfway through her ten-month stay in Dakar. She will then be based in Monrovia, Liberia from August 2020 through to June 2021. The country for the year after has not yet been announced.

Once on board, and once I’ve found my feet, I’ll be updating my blog and writing a monthly newsletter to share my experience as well as sharing links to Mercy Ship stories.

I hope you’ll stay in touch and accompany me on my next chapter, on board the Africa Mercy.

 

I used to be…

There are in fact many things that I used to be … probably as many things as I still am and as I will be. The fact that I no longer fly, doesn’t make my life any less rich. The real friendships I’ve made through flying have survived my divorce from this pursuit, and I do love catching up with people on a mountain. I’m probably one of the best recovery drivers you’d be lucky enough to have, however getting my nose out of a book and looking at a GPS may be a challenge. My name is Chrissi, and I used to be…

I used to be the SAHPA Chairperson. I lasted one year, after which I walked away. With the wisdom of hindsight, I must admit that I really admire people who put themselves forward to serve on the committee, particularly people who serve for longer than a year.

It was without a doubt the worst year of my life (let’s name it “The Small Depression”) and one which I embarked on voluntarily despite being pre-warned by a prior chairperson that it had been an incredible tough tenure for him. As they say: pride comes before a fall. I didn’t realise at what cost the delivery of this voluntary position would come. I don’t really think that much can prepare you for the total onslaught of new experiences (few of which are pleasant) that accompany serving SAHPA. My personal life suffered. My business suffered. My health suffered.

That year started with a bang, when a few weeks in a judge in Cape Town ruled (on an almost decade long case) that tandem paragliding for reward was illegal. After a few visits to our lawyers, we were advised to ground tandem operations (unsuccessfully) until we had lodged our appeal. It was a confusing time for many – unfortunately I was the one in the firing line. I had no prior exposure to the land of law, never mind the reams of the law of the air. There were key individuals who tried hard to support me, however, I needed knowledge to make decisions, so was playing catch up a large part of the time. Add to that the different voices and many warnings against various individuals and their “dubious ulterior motives”, and it was all a stark reminder of why I had left the corporate world to pursue freelancing.

Things may have changed, but like I said, I used to be… Back then an imbalance or tension had always existed between commercial and private within the ARO (Aviation Recreation Organisation). At one stage it seemed that the only solution to ensuring that commercial tandems were legal (as many people’s livelihoods depended on being able to fly tandems) was to make our ARO the ATO (Aviation Training Organisation). I came so close to taking this step, when a casual remark by a CIA representative, about how much responsibility this entailed, stopped me in my tracks. I decided it was a good idea to understand exactly what he meant, and to my horror discovered that as a director (voluntary or not) of a non-profit, and as SAHPA Chairperson, I would ultimately be responsible for all activities that occurred under the ATO. This was the one thing that no one had whispered in my naïve ears, and it was quite a wakeup call. In addition to a few more sleepless nights, I tried my best, together with the committee, to come up with ways in which we could ensure that we met our duty of care as directors of the ARO. One of a number of initiatives that came out of that chaotic time, was the In the Loop newsletter – and I can’t say that a little part of me isn’t flattered that it has been resurrected as a communication tool.

Other things I struggled with during the “The Small Depression” was that I could not understand why many tandem operators across the country were not interested in creating a sustainable platform for their businesses. Other challenges included getting our MOP rewritten into an acceptable format, then getting it approved by the members and then by RAASA. My committee and a few stand-up members were instrumental in getting this process going, however, the MOP was only signed off by RAASA in the following year thanks to Jon and his committee.

In terms of people, there were some real diamonds who got me through, both from within the organisation, as well as from outside. To be honest, I didn’t really struggle with any of the personalities or characters in and around the sport, but I did observe a lot of unnecessary, sometimes ugly disputes.

I struggled with making the time to run my business, as well as trying to meet my minimum standards of quality (in both my “jobs”). I really prayed hard that there would be no major injuries or fatalities during my time as Chairperson. Unfortunately, this was not to be, and the sport claimed two PPG pilots, and a young PG pilot.

Did I make a difference? Was it possible to even make a difference in a year? I don’t think so, and I do not really know. What I do know is, if faced with the choice of being SAHPA Chairperson for a year versus jumping out of a balloon, the prospect of 365 consecutive roll overs wins hands down.

I used to fly. And overall, I must admit that I loved it. It was the place I could escape to, a place to feel free, to just be and to lose time without wasting it. I’m not talking about the time lost sitting on the mountain waiting for the wind to be just perfect (which it seldom is). I’m talking about the time between take-off and landing where I wasn’t really conscious of my surroundings other than my fellow pilots, Mother Nature and staying up for as long as I could. It was a time I would be free from “real life” problems like deadlines, load shedding, infrastructure decay, work challenges, politics, relationship issues, poverty, racism, land reclamation … It was a time during which I chose to enjoy the privilege of free flight.

While I was still an active pilot, I tried to fly as much as I could, however, I have always considered myself to be a bit of a hobbyist who attended as many competitions as possible to make use of the infrastructure, and to increase the circle of flying friends. I was fortunate to travel quite a bit, have flown at a number of beautiful sites and met some great people in near and faraway places. Paragliding opened up an entire new world to me, including one where injury and death was a relatively common occurrence.

Sometimes I would surprise myself (and probably a few others) with a great flight, and there was a time I was more confident, especially while I was very current. I believe a bit of talent and some intuition, rather than the clever use of any science, got me from place to place. There were times that I was perfectly content in the air, and times that I was extremely anxious – more so about the conditions I was in, than the fact that I needed to find lift. There were times I would thank God for the incredible experience, and other times that I would promise Him that I would do or give up anything if he would just guarantee my safe return to Earth.

I used to be a licenced member of SAHPA. I say used to, because I neglected to let the thing be the thing. My flying wasn’t about flying anymore and there were too many distractions. It had become about serving the community, helping to organise competitions, raise sponsorship, write things, organise charity events, do this … do that … and my crippling sense of duty literally crippled my love of the activity and I walked away.

Notwithstanding I have and cherish some amazing flying memories. Maybe those are enough to see me through to retirement. Maybe they are not. Only God knows.

Note: This was written for the SAHPA March 2019 newsletter ‘In the Loop’. It is an unusually sombre (for me) piece of writing, so if you’d like to read a bit more about fun and real flying there are three articles here that may be more appealing.

 

 

 

Hakito’s Story

HAKITO BRAND COPY:

Every parent will tell you that his or her child is truly amazing. Many parents will tell you that they want to encourage their children to grow up to be creative individuals, free thinkers and successful at whatever they choose to do. All parents are known to brag about their little one’s latest achievement and most parents will go the extra mile to encourage the development of their kids from an early age.

While looking for a suitable birthday present for our two-year old son (who is of course truly amazing) we came across the established Swedish brand BRIO, that has been “sparking young minds since 1884”. We were so taken by their range of products, that we decided to become South African online resellers for these, and other ranges of wooden toys.

Our name

Our two-year old struggles to articulate the word Pinocchio, probably one of the most famous wooden toys to date, and like many wonderful nicknames that come out of early childhood, the unique name he has given this iconic toy is ‘Hakito’. We felt it was a fitting name for a store that sells quality wooden toys, plus it will be a good story to tell at his 21st birthday, when he takes over the family empire… or perhaps at his wedding.

An extract of Hakito’s story, written for company founder Waldo Minny.

Terence’s Trilby

CHARACTERISATION OF A HAT:

It was showing obvious signs of aging and had grown pale and wan since the first time it had proudly perused the streets of Sophiatown from just under two-metres up. In spite of its appearance, and twenty years after its first outing, the trilby still exuded this self-same confidence when perched atop Terence’s head.

Its dark felt was no longer as soft as it had been on the first day it had experienced the thrill of the fresh, cold, winter-morning air on its crown. A deep inhalation of its well worn shape invoked the memories of a life well-lived. Its narrow brim, now faded and worn, had been imprinted with the tips of its owners’ fingers – constantly seeking, constantly worrying, constantly wanting assurances.

As if on cue, Terence smoothly took the trilby’s rim between thumb and forefinger, seeking its approval of what he was about to do. He was in fact seeking the assurance and approval of the original wearer, a man who had placed this self-same trilby on Terence’s youthful head, tweaked his chubby cheeks and promised him, that one day, with the help of this magic trilby, he would conquer the world.

He had seen the man only once, on the day that his life had changed forever. As he had stood on the dusty streets of Meadowlands, Terence had believed that man’s promise, and gratefully accepted his gift. His fierce determination to conquer the world had seen the trilby take on its own unique sense of being and place in his life.

Today, proud as a peacock and with the knowledge that it was a lifer, the twenty-year old’s jaunty attitude put paid to any thoughts that it was a has-been. It was a proud symbol of how one small action by a passer-by, could change the path of a young South African with seemingly no prospects.

But its job was not done yet.

Ten

CREATIVE WRITING SAMPLE:

Beth stared at her toes. There were still ten of them down there, all neatly parked in her pink flip-flops. Just like there were still ten people up ahead of her, haphazardly distributed in what resembled a queue. She tilted her head slightly, squinting at the clock on the peeling wall and decided she’d give it another ten minutes.

600 seconds, 599 seconds, 598, 597, 596… If her handbag hadn’t been stolen, she’d be having cocktails on the beach with that gorgeous Swede they’d met clubbing last night. Instead, she was trapped here in the police station, another victim of what she had heard termed a false island-sense of security. 488, 487, 486…

She didn’t mind the handbag, there wasn’t really much in it, apart from her passport. Even that wasn’t a crisis, as she was here for months to come. However, her host family had insisted she report it immediately. So here she was. 402 seconds, 401, 400…

On the up side, at least she was out of the sweltering heat, although the stifling veneer of law and order was certainly not her first choice of escape. She sighed and shifted her weight onto her left foot. 350 seconds, 349, 348… Using the lid of the pen she’d just used to fill in her statement, she bent her elbow behind her back to scratch her peeling skin. She looked at the people ahead and idly wondered what ill fate had brought them here too.

Dibuseng Mokoena plans to drive change

Twenty-seven-year-old Dibuseng Mokoena has worked for Stefanutti Stocks Mining Services for four years, most recently as the production manager at the Chilwavhusiku Colliery in Bronkhorstpruit. The colliery, that is owned by Black Royalty Minerals, became fully operational towards the end of 2017, and supplies coal to customers within South Africa, as well as serving the export market. The team running the site is a young team, comprising approximately sixty per cent of females, and overseen by contracts manager Graham Ralph, who is one of Mokoena’s mentors. She is currently also mentored by Marco Pasquali Stefanutti Stocks Mining Services’ contracts director responsible for tailings disposal and material handling.

Mokoena, who completed her Mining Engineering degree at Wits in 2014, joined Stefanutti Stocks as a site engineer halfway through 2015. The timing was perfect as in 2016 Ian Ferguson, managing director of the group’s Mining Services division, introduced a two-year internship programme for mining graduates. Since joining the programme she has worked as a site engineer at the Kangala mine, where she also worked shifts as a production foreman, a pit supervisor and a production manager, shadowing the contracts manager. Since November 2017 she has been the production manager at Chilwavhusiku Colliery, and part of the team that have worked on building a greenfield site into a successful open-pit coal mine.

What have some of your career highlights been thus far?

“After having cold-called and sent my CV to every potential employer across a number of provinces, being called for an interview and getting a job at Stefanutti Stocks was certainly one of the most exciting days of my life. 

“Since then other highlights included getting my blasting ticket and being appointed as a production manager. Also, the process of winning over our client’s confi dence, when we moved from being a month behind on production to being ahead, and consistently exceeding Black Royalty Mineral’s targets ever since.

“Another highlight is working with and learning from Graham Ralph, who keeps encouraging me to think beyond what I have learned in my text books. Seeing the mine through his more experienced eyes has really brought it, and all of its components, to life.”

What is the most important aspect of your job?

“The planning process and then simplifying and clarifying the vision, so that everyone on the production team buys in. An important, and exciting aspect of my work is the interaction with people – I want to leave them better off than I have found them. This can mean leaving them with more knowledge or insight into our reason for doing things in a certain way, or better equipped to do their work more effi ciently. It’s also important to make sure that the right people are in the right positions and can contribute to our overall goal.

“A win for one is a win for all and within our site team we allow room for people to voice their ideas, and suggestions for how we can do things better. As a tight-knit team we also know that when challenged (by rain or when our client increases the targets) we can count on one another to execute the work.”

What is your favourite part of the day at work?

“Defi nitely the time we spend in the pit or at the viewpoint, where we can get a good snapshot of the operation to see if our production is going according to plan, if our people are taking care of our machines, and how everybody is interacting.”

Do you see your working within the construction industry as a unique occurrence?

“I think women in construction bring a breath of fresh air. Every individual is diff erent, and all families have their quirks. Here I am in a family that embraces me. Sometimes it does take a bit of adjusting to be comfortable, but I don’t have a problem with that. I am also very aware of perceptions, i.e. how people see one another, and how one should pitch oneself in a certain environment. I’ve been reading a lot of books on the subject.”

Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

“I attended a Women in Mining Counsel recently and a representative from SASOL shared an interesting anecdote about riding an elevator. Whatever fl oor you’re on, don’t forget to press the Ground Level for the elevator to go back down: wherever, and in whatever position you find yourself in during your career, you need to see who you can motivate or mentor – and I’d like to do that.

“In terms of position wise, the Dibuseng of three years ago would have said she wants to be a director, or the fi rst woman occupying a specific position in a company. Of course, I’d like to be a trail blazer, but while titles grow people, they can also constrain them.

“I’m not an inventor but I do have vision, and I’ve learned that if you give me something to make better, something that I can optimise – that is where I am most valuable. I also think that is why I gel with Graham, as this is his forte. The element of change that we have brought here on this site has made me realise that we have the ability to do so much to influence and improve operations.

“So, whatever position I will be in, in fi ve or ten years’ time, I will need to be able to infl uence change and to optimise it. I would like to be part a part of THAT team, call it the strategic planning team: the one that is driving change.”

Hello, my name is LoFo

Hello,

My name is LoFo, which is short for Lost and Found. I was born in the Kruger National Park, and when I was about twelve months old I lost my mum to some poachers. I tried to protect her, but they beat me with their machetes, and then left me to die.

I was so frightened after losing my mom, that when some kind humans came to rescue me, I kept on running and hiding for five whole days. Eventually I was so exhausted, sad, and thirsty, that I hid between some branches and hoped no-one would find me. The trackers at the Kruger National Park didn’t give up, and when they found me with the help of some tourists, they took me to Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary, which is now my home.

stefanutti-stocks-sizimisele-care-for-the-wildI’m not really vain, but I’m so glad that they chose a good photograph of me to use with this letter to you, as I really wasn’t in very good shape after the poachers were done with my mom and me. There were three bad wounds on my back, two really bad, and a nasty one on my right ankle, that I got when I tripped over a log that cut deep into my leg. These wounds made me feel very sick and very weak. Even though the good Samaritans at my new home took care of me day and night, my wounds got infected, which was very bad. 

My human mom, Petronel, says that my medical team consists of some of the kindest, most skilled healers in the world. And they fixed me as well as they could, but then I needed special Acticoat dressings, and my new family was struggling to find the money to pay for these. Then Stefanutti Stocks became one of my guardian angels, when they said they’d pay for my medical costs, rehabilitation and care for one year. Those very expensive dressings took care of the infection and I began to feel so much better! I started eating more and gaining weight and you won’t believe the fuss everyone made of me when I put on 9kg in August! I felt like a prince!

There was a little hiccup in my recovery when some of the bone on my back that had been chipped by the machete, got infected but my medical team operated and successfully removed the bone. After a few more magic dressings courtesy of my guardian angels, I started feeling like a brand new rhino calf, and as I grew stronger, I grew more confident too. 

Let me tell you a little about my current home. I do know that once I’m hundred per cent well, I’ll go to live in the wild again, but I must say that I like it where I am. It is beautiful, and I feel safe and special. I’ve heard the humans talk of something called a website, but I’ve not seen it. I think it’s like a snapshot of my current home, maybe you’ll go and have a look? There is always a herd of lovely humans here. They call them caretakers, and they feed and clean us and take great care of our needs.

These days I spend most of my time with Twinkle grazing, playing and napping in the camp. Twinkle came to the sanctuary a few weeks after I did. She also lost her mom, and was attacked by the poachers – her injuries were similar to mine, but luckily she wasn’t hurt as badly.

Twinkle is very special to me, we understand one another’s stories, and I like to spend time with her. In the late afternoon, we go back to our night pen where we cuddle and keep each other warm and safe, till the sun comes up. I know that I am very lucky to have been ‘Found’ and not to have become another ‘Lost’ statistic of my species.

Right now life is good. Maybe one day Twinkle and I can even have a family of our own. I hope so.

LoFo

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(This was written for the Stefanutti Stocks (Pty) Ltd Sustainability Focus: Sizimisele Volume 3, October 2016. Since writing this both LoFo and Twinkle have been dehorned under the expert supervision of Petronel and her incredible support team at Care for the Wild. Please visit their website to read more about their efforts to save young rhinos here).

 

More love stories for Jewel-Art Africa

I have written a number of stories for the “If rings could talk …” section of  Jewel-Art Africa. Rudi Cronje, the resident jeweller at Jewel-Art Africa, designs and crafts beautiful custom-made rings for his clients – and sometimes, as part of the crafting process, they gift their clients with a first person narrative, written from the perspective of the ring.

What has really struck me while writing these stories, is how unique the various journeys of each couple has been. Below is the story of Ivana’s ring. I hope you feel the love too.

 

Ivana’s ring: full circle

The proposal: Hawaii, late April 2015

As the sun rose over a remote black-sand beach in Hawaii, the early morning waves echoed its announcement of this new dawn.  Two figures quietly observed this age old ritual, standing so close to one another, that they could easily have been mistaken for one. As he stepped from their embrace she immediately missed his warmth, the cool fear of the unknown threatening to infiltrate the magic of the moment. Witnessed only by Mother Nature, the Creator, and a dark cloud of uncertainty that hung over them, Andrew pulled a small black box from his pocket. “Ivana,” he gently said, presenting her with a beautiful, black diamond stone. “Will you be my wife?”

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Flying High

I was moving furniture on the Friday morning before the Monday evening flight, when I over-committed to a heavy couch. One loud pop and a burning sensation later, and I was unable to carry much more than a feather. How inconvenient, I thought, and decided to continue doing the things I normally do, albeit much more slowly.

By Sunday evening, I could hardly walk. The Transact Patch and over-the-counter drugs were not having the desired effect, and I became concerned as to how I was going to go on holiday if I couldn’t even stand up? In a panic I called a good friend, who took desperate me to the hospital A&E.

The staff were welcoming and so sweet. We completed the forms. We waited for a while, and I tried to keep the melodrama in check. I didn’t want to sit down, as it was a mission getting up again, so stayed upright.

We waited for a while longer, and I decided it was time to lie down. My friend, whom one could describe as somewhat of a back-injury expert, gave me some personal training on how to ‘alight’ from a bed when compromised. Knees over, roll over, that hand for support there, and up you go.

A physical examination, an injection in the buttock and two little pills later, I wobbled out of the A&E clutching a prescription and the number of a Wonder-Physio, who would make me flying fit. It was past midnight and there was slim chance of bumping into anyone that I know. This is good, as I had already boarded, and was by now floating above the clouds. Sleep claimed me the second before my head hit the pillow, and I was awake very early on Monday morning. There was a lot to do.

My trip to the physio did wonders, and I began to hope that my flight would not be the most torturous experience ever. I was slow but mobile and got a lot done, as one must the day before going on vacation.

By the time I was on my way to the airport my back was reminding me, that all is not well. Two little pills and an hour later and I was checked in, through passport control, and making friends in the departure lounge. I don’t remember ever having such a stress-free lead up to claiming my seat in an AirBus.

If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you’ll now I’m a great fan of flying – “Escapism at Cloudbase” and “At least seven hours are necessary” if you’d like to recap 🙂

Well, this flight just reinforced how wonderful the economy experience is. I dipped in and out of a very contented and comfortable state, feeling safe, warm and cocooned. I do not know how this may have appeared to my fellow passengers, but I fear I may have been guilty of the exact behaviour I have previously been disdainful of. Never-mind, I got my seven hours and there is a slim chance of bumping into them again.

Introducing Annie

INTRODUCING ANNIE – BRAND MASCOT:

Annie grew up on a working farm in the Free State, with four brothers and a host of chores evenly distributed amongst the five children. Before she was knee-high to a grasshopper she was rolling up her sleeves and tackling more than her fair share of tasks. Her affinity for the mechanical quickly saw her becoming an expert in maintaining everything that was motorised – from the old, rusty farm tractor right through to the bright red crop sprayer.

Much to the dismay of her mother but to the delight of her brothers, her adventurous nature saw her learning to pilot said crop-sprayer. She became a regular crop-dusting pilot and people would travel from near and far to witness her nail-biting aerobatics. Fearless, skilled and hands-on Annie was always looking for the next adventure, and when Avex asked her to enhance its tooling division, with the promise of ample time in the air, she was all smiles, and of course answered with a resounding ‘yes’!

Annie’s enthusiasm is infectious and she is passionate about her job here with us! She’ll bring you the latest news from Avex, advice on best practices and make sure you’re the first to know about our amazing special offers. She has an uncanny habit of seeming to be in many places at the same time, so keep your eyes peeled for her broad and friendly smile!

Written for Tracy King, Wing Commander of Paperplane Communication and Design, for her client Avex Tools, to introduce their new brand mascot Annie.

One thing …

I’m currently working on a magazine, and we usually try to work to a theme, to tie our stories together. To try and establish what the theme will be, I’ve been asking people I interview what their ‘one thing’ is. The ‘one thing ‘that motivates them, and the ‘one thing’ they feel is essential to their success.

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To motivation, surprisingly (or not?) not many people have answered with ‘money’. Most people have told me that they are motivated by a specific person – a mother, a child, a partner. A few have answered God, others are motivated by growth, or visible progress.

The answers to ‘the one thing’ essential for success have been more diverse, also depending on where on their career path I’m catching them.  I’ve had responses ranging from external (such as opportunity and environment) to factors such as wisdom, commitment, honesty, integrity, keeping things simple, staying focused, being bold, and so on.

Until yesterday, no-one had thrown my questions back at me, and I must say, that I was quite surprised. What does motivate me? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it could in part be my natural curiosity. I’m going to have to think about that one. And while I do, what’s your ‘one thing’?

Confessions and sweet memories

As kids we had a little routine every Sunday post the church service. We would spend some of our pocket money on a treat at Checkers while my mom bought the Sunday newspaper. We’d then lounge around at home, snacking on our sugary purchases while reading the Sunday Times’ comics or with our noses buried deep in a book.

I would go hell for leather on my stash. My younger sister would make hers last for the day, whereas Vera, the first born, would stretch her supply for longer than I perceived humanly possible. I’m talking the kind of self control that sees the Easter Bunny’s bottom half still hanging around in August.

If one considers the degree of my sweet tooth, the fact that I still have all of my own teeth is a minor miracle. Fortunately my metabolism also dealt relatively well with the potential effect on my weight, although what the sugar did to my personality was quite another story. The youngest in the house (it’s always easiest to pick on them, isn’t it?) was often quite traumatised by my mood swings. Admittedly this memory of me as an ogre on a sugar-high or low, is one we can laugh at over lunch nowadays, but I’m sure at the time it could not have been pretty.

Speaking of meals, the many conversation topics covered over today’s family lunch, included the fact that Nephew A only experiences growth pains in his legs, and not in his upper body. This reminded me of another lunch time conversation, where both now teenage nephews confessed that as under tens they would fake an ache or growing pain in order to obtain what they described as a very tasty banana Panado from Vera. They would exchange a knowing wink as they passed one another in the passage – one clasping a banana Panado in his sweaty paw, the other armed with a compelling reason to be awarded one too.

I don’t think these Panados were around when I was a kid. In fact, I don’t remember medicine ever tasting that good that I would have faked an ailment for it.  If I was going to fake it, my eye was on a much bigger prize – there had to be at least a day off school in it for me. And then there was of course always the option to self-medicate with treats. But I digress.

I recently wrote some copy for a superbly talented friend of mine, who owns a company called bite-size eatery. The name was inspired by her young nephew’s response to the baked edibles and food she prepared. Basically he would demolish the edibles in one go (sound familiar?), and she explained to him that food, especially food prepared with love and reverence, should be enjoyed slowly, one bite at a time. Wise words, even for us adults!

And there you have it – my pearl of wisdom.

Though I’m very happy to report that the chance of a delicious sugary purchase surviving for more than 48-hours is still very slim, as I grew older, a certain level of self-control and discernment did begin to develop.

Another confession. Not too many of today’s Easter Bunnies bottom halves made it past lunch. Mine is still untouched, but I very much doubt it will make it as far as August …

Coasting along

Do you remember when we used to go on those crazy rollercoaster rides, scream with delight and want to go on them again and again and again. And again? We would stand in queues as long as those on voting day, just to embark on a crazy sixty seconds worth of weightless terror, laced with boot-in-the-chest gravity forces. 

We’d then breathlessly disembark, huge grins on our faces, feeling as though we had defied death. Adrenalin would pump through our bodies preparing us for the next big upside-down adventure. “Bring it on!” we’d breathlessly say, beating our chests to the rhythm of the shrieks and squeals echoing across the theme park. We even ventured into those horrendous haunted houses of horrors, where to be honest, I was never quite sure that my heart would survive.

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I remember feeling amazingly alive at the time, and sleeping (albeit dehydrated, stiff, sunburnt and bruised) like a baby, on nights after days like that. I don’t remember ever feeling ill, or witnessing anyone that I rode with losing their candy-floss, toffee-apples or hot-dogs in the air. I’m sure it must have come close once or twice, but boy was it exhilarating!

At some stage conquering my fears became less of a priority, and scaring myself stopped being quite so much fun. It just happened. While I wasn’t quite ready to downgrade to the lazy river ride, I did begin feeling a little more squeamish with each loop. Then the pesky little stage-whisper in my head began planting the seeds of doubt. “What if … the wheels come off … or it stops when you’re suspended in mid-air … or even worse, what if the whole structure just collapses …” 

Eventually I made the call. I didn’t want to be the first ‘young’ person to die of a heart attack while facing my Nemesis, so I started looking for other, more sensible things to challenge myself with. Every now and again, a flutter of bravery would find its way into my little heart, and I’d do something that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I managed two static-line skydiver rides and a balloon roll-over before that gene went dormant again. 

Then, a few Decembers back, some of the family spent a day at the Valley of the Waves in Sun City. My two nephews and niece thought the 30-metre sheer drop slide was great fun, and kept encouraging me to join them. I ticked off the possible scenarios in my head: it looked well-maintained. Yes. There was a lot of activity and others were surviving. Check. There were repeat offenders present. Check. Eventually, wanting to maintain the ‘cool-aunt’ image, I weakened and agreed to this little adventure. 

No biggie you may think, but as I stood on the edge of the precipice, I still wondered how I could walk away with my dignity intact. This, while standing amidst a small group of people whose average age I’d just brought up to about 12. 

I decided I would cling onto my pride, and off over the edge I went. My sister and niece heard my screams from about a kilometre away, whilst my youngest nephew, who was waiting to receive me at the bottom, thought my show had been hilarious. And once I’d managed to extricate my bikini bottom from my throat, I must say that a tiny tinge of the old adrenalin began coursing through my veins … it was however never going to reach the fist-pumping, chest-beating, I-just-have-to-repeat-this level.

Way back I seemed to have the stomach for it. Now, when the next rollercoaster pulls in and people look at me expectantly, I hope I will say thanks, but no. I don’t want to be the one that arrives back after having re-served my breakfast. From now on I’ll join the queue for the much tamer river ride, or hop onto a sedate sun-set cruise … I’ll be the one wearing a hat, sunblock and carrying a bottle of water.

 

Who made your cheese?

It was high time for me to escape for a while, so I Jet-Jane’d it out of there post voting on the third of August. I’m now safely ensconced in the Swiss mountains, occasionally dipping into a news channel to see how coalition talks are going. Of course we don’t do things simply in the republic – there’s always got to be a bit of “it’s complicated”. A coalition between any of the contenders should, in my mind, be very interesting.

But back to me… or as the title indicated, back to the cheese….

I’m lucky to have a family member who spends his summers in the Swiss mountains making traditional alpine cheese. My sister’s partner has been making cheese for the last thirteen years, so he knows his stuff. All the cheese-making action happens in this mountain hut that the cheese-maker and his peaceful herd of cows inhabit for about eight weeks during the summer. The cow barn forms part of the wooden structure which also includes a kitchen area (where the cheese cauldron lives), a cheese cellar, a pantry, a ‘Stube’ (sleeping/living room), and a dormitory style attic, to accommodate visitors.

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As magnificent as the surroundings are up here, working life is definitely not as fairy-tale as it may seem to the uninitiated. I’ve watched parts of the production process over the past week, and can bear witness to the fact that a combination of muscle, a strict daily routine, patience at the cauldron and good alpine milk yields the desired cheese quality.

The day starts around five-thirty. The cows, after spending the night eating the delicious alpine grass, come in around seven-thirty. They are milked twice a day. First in the morning and again in the evening, after they have spent the day in the straw, chewing their cud, licking salt, sipping water, pooping (a lot) and generally going about their cow-chilling-in-the-barn business.

In the lead up to lunch the previous evening’s and that morning’s batches of milk are magic’d, over an open fire, into a beautiful wheel (or two) of cheese. The cauldron is cleaned, a quick bite to eat, some chores, the cheese is turned. After the evening’s milking, the cows wander off to eat more of that succulent alpine meadow that makes their milk so good and plentiful. Then, the stable is cleaned, more wood is chopped, more chores, dinner and finally some R&R before it starts all over again.

The days are full, yet time moves at a more leisurely pace up here. I admire this age-old Swiss custom, and that, in spite of the fact that we live in an era of processed foods, this organic production continues. It’s refreshing to witness something that doesn’t entail mass production, and where there is such an intense focus on quality. There is something almost hypnotic about the ringing cowbells, announcing the arrival, departure or presence of these gentle herbivores. They also don’t seem to have a care in the world, apart from sticking with their family, and sticking to their routine.

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I feel like I should come up with some profound and philosophical insight into how this whole experience translates into my ‘real life’. Maybe along the lines of the best-selling Who moved my cheese by Spencer Johnson. But we’re not mice. We don’t all like the same cheese. Some of us don’t like cheese at all, and some poor folk are lactose intolerant. And why shift the focus to the moving, and not the making?

I’ve decided to liken the alpine cheese-making process to a labour of love, and its outcome as a gift or a blessing. I hope I bring a little of this peace back, focus on what’s important, and apply some of these principles to the cheese I magic up at home.

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You could look at cheese-making from a capitalist perspective – but no-one’s getting rich up here. A socialist point of view – equal amounts of cheese for everyone? A modernist may say that its time to move on, no more touchy feely traditions. A traditionalist may fight for the status quo? Or maybe a coalition of some of the above?

Today, you get to make the profound connections.

Weight control

She looked at the ever-widening berth of her once streamlined cat. That’s it! As of tomorrow, it’s nothing but diet pellets for her.

The next day at the cat food bowl.

Honestly?! Diet pellets? Is she trying to kill me? First she has me sterilised so that I don’t “grow the family even more”, and now that we’re reaping the weight consequences she wants me to eat that? She may not have wanted to “grow the family”, but why was I not consulted? It’s my body, and to be honest, at least one litter would have been nice. And I’m pretty! She tells me that all the time. I would have made beautiful kittens! And now this. Food for sterilised cats. I think I’m going to throw up. This stuff tastes like cardboard, and it’s not helping with the hair balls either. I mean, I spend up to 18 hours a day grooming, and now I have to suffer the indignity of foraging for greenery in the bitter cold to help shift these hairballs. It’s just not fair. Human, we need to talk.

 

Empty Promises, Pride, Prejudice and Fears

Today’s blog entry comes with a disclaimer, as it is highly probable that I have no idea what I am talking about. Let’s say it’s based on a knee-jerk reaction coupled with a little research and some wandering thoughts. If you decide to read on, just take it from whence it cometh. 

On Friday morning I woke up to hear that Great Britain would be BREXITing. The emphatic response and reactions to this news, from across the globe, made me think that this was real bad. Naturally I headed straight to Google to try and make up my own mind about things, and unsurprisingly I was not the first to hit the search engines with my questions. In fact, I was almost half a day behind the many (thousands?) of United Kingdom citizens who had searched “What is the EU” and “What is BREXIT” after the referendum event. Yes, you read right. After.

How does one vote on something, when one does not really know what one is voting for? I guess part of the explanation could be down to successful campaigning. Of course I wanted to know what compelling arguments made people tick the “Yes, we want out” box, and from what I can gather a large part of the Leave campaign came down to three things. Promises, Prejudice and Fear. 

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Informed Voter by Joe Heller, Green Bay Press Gazette

The Pro-Leavers knew exactly where to aim, and it seems at first glance that they aimed below the belt. The promise that the apparent 350-million Pounds a week that goes to the EU would be channeled into the National Health Insurance (NHS) has already been debunked. That shockingly empty promise is never going to be realised. It also seems that a large part of the motivation for the leave campaign was securing Britain from the influx of migrants and refugees.

You may be thinking that as a South African, I should rather be focusing on what’s happening in my own back yard, and why on earth I feel compelled to write this. You would have had to be hiding in a hole for the last century if you did not know about South Africa’s chequered, colonial and unpalatable past. Our struggles are far from over, however, prejudice and racism is not something unique to the country I live in. Radical racism seems to be raising its ugly head on a regular basis, in more places and countries than ever before. In my simple little mind, I’d like to think the majority of humans are after the same things. Liberty and Security. And yet, when we do have the privilege of having them, we guard them jealously, not  always willing to share. 

I believe that, no matter who we are, there is a little (or a lot) of prejudice in each one of our hearts – be it in the form of racism, classism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and so forth. It is a battle we humans fight daily, and one from which we do not always emerge from as the victor. In fact many just roll over and concede defeat without trying. Thanks to social media the spread of ‘evidence’ of this intolerance has been efficiently streamlined – straight from ‘prejudiced’ lips to the eyes and ears of millions, all just waiting for their turn to be the next ones to pass down judgement.  We have grown so hyper-sensitive that sometimes we are even spotting leopards behind bushes, where there are none. However, make no mistake, there are many spotted critters roaming our global streets. 

During my little BREXIT educational online outing I watched a segment of Last Week Tonight, which is an American show hosted by Englishman John Oliver. This particular segment was aired outside of the UK a week before the referendum,  however was only allowed in the UK after the referendum. If you can overlook the crudeness and cussing and silly song at the end, it’s interesting, left-wing, viewing. It also reveals a few prize leopards lurking in clear view (and if you’re into reading comments on social media, it’s open season if you scroll down). 

I needed to even the scales a little and find out more about the other side, so watched a few interviews with pro-leavers as well as a Q&A on ITV where both Nigel Farage and David Cameron participated in an audience Q&A. A few things sprung out at me – the Leavers felt that the influx of immigrants was a disaster for the UK, but ethnic minorities (UK citizens) seemed to feel marginalised by those promoting the exit. The remain side seemed reasonable, however it did appear that the hard-working class felt threatened by the prospect of remaining in the EU. I had to rewind when Nigel Farage told a woman who asked a question relating to sex-related crimes to calm down. I don’t know much about the man, but good luck ladies of the UK if he becomes one of your leaders. (Did you see how neatly I managed to pass down judgement there?)

Apparently many many experts warned that it would be an economic disaster to leave the EU. A fact that was poo-poo-ed by the Leave campaign. Forgive my paragliding comparison here, but I have often flown with people way more experienced than I – let’s call them the paragliding experts. On the few occasions that I have decided to fly my own line, and veered off the routes the experts have chosen, I have more often than not found myself on the ground…kicking myself for my stupidity. Obviously when I started out, I always hoped that somehow I would gleefully claim victory over the sky-gods – but alas, it’s just never panned out for me. 

A more relevant comparison is perhaps our government’s determination to steadfastly follow their own path. Despite expert advice and evidence to the contrary, they often put the ANC above what is best for our country, and inevitably there are casualties – more often than not, those casualties are the normal people on the ground. Isn’t it mostly the working class that suffers? I guess we still take the cake here in SA, in that the decision of one man last December saw the Rand crash to a record low… it took many millions of BREXIT referendum votes to do that to the Pound. 

Right now I feel a little sorry for the people of the United Kingdom – and as a proud nation I’m sure that’s the last thing they want from me. It must be quite scary to the person on the street coming to terms with the immediate consequences that surely must have left most of them reeling. I haven’t got a cooking clue what happens now, but I do hope that it somehow ends well for everyone involved.

We’re just over a month away from municipal elections, and though elections in South Africa may not feel as momentous as the BREXIT referendum to most people, it’s a pretty big deal right now in the history of our country. It’s probably the first time where voting communities are expressing strong opinions and displeasure at being fed a diet of empty promises or lip service. I truly hope we all know what we are voting for, because the consequences of not really knowing could change the course of our world.

Today’s blog entry comes with a disclaimer, as it is highly probable that I have no idea what I am talking about. Let’s say it’s based on a knee-jerk reaction coupled with a little research and some wandering thoughts. If you read on, I hope you took it from whence it cameth. 

Nothing but love

Last week there was a wedding in the United Kingdom. Alright, so there were probably numerous weddings around the world on that particular day, but this one was extra special. Here’s my version of this romantic tale…

A man, twice divorced, disillusioned, a little bitter, and who had vowed he would never walk down the aisle again during this lifetime, donned his bell bottoms last Tuesday, in preparation for the giant I-do leap. Resigned to his fate of having and holding, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for etcetera etcetera, he visited the restroom for a last peak at himself in the mirror as a single man. He slapped on some aftershave, took a deep breath, and prayed that everyone would forever hold their peace when asked. Yes, he was ready!

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His betrothed, now wife, is known for being able to keep her cool in a crisis, and as far as I am aware there was none. There were no foxes to be rescued, no felines to fix, no animals to heal, no horses to heed. Tuesday was all about tying the knot. She even wore heels! The groom getting stuck in the mud was a snag easily overcome, and the two managed to get to the Ceremony Room on time. They said I do, he kissed the bride, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’m far from being an expert on the matter of marriage, but that doesn’t stop me from being a great believer in the institution. Obviously one does need to be a little discerning about who one is going to meet at the church T-junction, but being an extreme romantic, I think everyone in love should get hitched. 

Two of my South African girl friends will be walking down the aisle this September. I must say that wedding planning definitely sounds stressful, in particular when (in addition to finalising the guest list, the venue, the seating, how to involve each family, the dress, the food, and and and) the negotiation of lobola forms part of the pre-union proceedings. I’m not familiar with all the intricacies involved in this custom, but I admire the deep level of respect for family and culture that is being observed. This, in spite of the process being drawn out, which must have been very frustrating for this couple.

What I have noticed in those relationships around me that seem to be working, is that the partners find one another interesting and fascinating, take the time to talk, love and respect each other, and have their spouses backs. And this last sentence pretty much sums up why I believe that the wedding in the UK last Tuesday is extra special.

Oh yes… if any of my other friends who’re in love are reading this, just thought I’d mention that I have more than two dresses that haven’t seen the light of day in a while… and that I love dancing, and champagne, and witnessing I do’s…

I have nothing

It’s the tail end of the week and I am pooped. Everything that I’d like to write about seems too upbeat and frivolous when one reviews the week that was in South Africa. Wait. Make that the week that was in the world. Hold on. Make that the week before… and the week before… and the one before that too. It’s been an incredibly tough year out there for some, and tonight I’d like to get few things off my blessed chest. 

To everyone who recently lost anyone, especially through an act of violence – my heart bleeds for you, and my thoughts are with you. I pray that one day soon you may find peace again.

To those who are struggling to make ends meet, I hope that someone will see your plight. And I hope that you’re not too proud to accept that help.

To the drug-pushers and the drug-users – if you were to swop lives for just one day, I wonder how that would pan out. 

To the trash-speaking woman in the video currently on the news. I understand that being the victim of a crime will make one feel vulnerable, ever so angry, and wanting to lash out. However, the smash-and-grabber just meant to steal what was on the seat. Material possessions can be replaced. Losing your cool? Your dignity? Sadly, you gave that away for free. And whilst your words throw a poor light on you, you certainly do not speak for me.

To the voices of hope and reason, that are sometimes so difficult to hear above the cacophony, please don’t be disheartened. Don’t stop talking and reminding us, that there are good things in the world, much progress and many achievements to be celebrated. 

Today it’s the tail end of this week and I have nothing… Nothing upbeat. Nothing frivolous. 

But I promise that I’ll be back, and it won’t be empty-handed.

Today’s Eureka moment

Earlier I was in the Vitamin aisle of a South African retailer, confronted with hundreds of choices… I went in to buy some Vitamin B, but the overwhelming selection of things-we-can-swallow-to-support-our-general-health that faced me, was simply astounding. 

I stood and stared and processed until I located what I was looking for. Another two to three minutes to compare which is the best-priced option, and, as I’m sure I must have at least three bottles of fatigue and stress in me, I settle for the three-for-the-price-of-two option.

Unable to tear myself away from the aisle that promises health and longevity just yet, I peruse the shelves a little longer. Suddenly it dawns on me. All the containers are sorted alphabetically! How did I not notice that before?! I check my new found theory, starting at A, through to G, H, I… While still digesting the revelation that there is order in what I assumed was vast chaos, I pick up a box of something-starting-with-a-V. 

A store attendant pops her face in front of mine – can she assist me? A bit taken aback I mutter something about my alphabetical discovery, and with a slightly odd look she explains that she’s in charge of this aisle, and that it really annoys her when people mess with the system. Not wanting to enrage her, I guiltily pop the box of something-starting-with-a-V in my basket, and casually stroll off in the direction of the tills.

Before I decided to admit to the world at large that a supposedly intelligent woman did not know that vitamins in stores are sorted alphabetically, I asked two of my MOST intelligent friends if they knew this? My female friend laughed at me outright, whereas my male friend was just as surprised as I had been! Granted, I have not spotted many males in the vitamin aisles… but my short survey filled me with enough confidence to spill the beans.

I seem to be capable of finding my way around a bookstore, or through an airport. Enough trips to the food markets have gotten me intuitively finding my way around them too. But clothing stores, in particular the large department stores, have me confused (and I do pray that I never manage to make sense of that vast chaos). Why are the undies hidden in the furthest corner? Is it because we all need underwear and as we make our way to the privates department we suddenly become bashful and filled with the desire to cover ourselves? And when faced with an entire store of options to cover ourselves, does science dictate that we will not leave empty handed? 

I just don’t know, as I have walked out of shops often, just because there has been too great a selection. Why do we need to have so many choices? Isn’t life complicated enough without the total onslaught of things-we-could-have, things-we-should-have, things-we-must-have… and please don’t tell me that they’ve parked the underwear in the corner for modesty’s sake – have you watched reality TV lately?

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Anyhoo… while I consider becoming a mall recluse versus the potential outcomes of my making sense of THAT chaos, I thoughtfully sip on a cup of herbal tea made of a root beginning with a V… it’s not really something I wanted or needed, but it has found its way into my recently decluttered home, and now it must be consumed. Please don’t judge me…

What are the chances!?!

Have you ever experienced an event or set of events, that are quite uncanny and your first thought is “What are the chances!?!” While you’re thinking about it, here are a few of my ‘strange coincidences’.

After I finished my degree I spent some time in Germany where I juggled a few jobs to pay my way. In addition to waitressing in an Irish pub I was working an early shift in a galvanising plant in North Rhine-Westphalia, where my task was to pop a plastic cork on the tip of each screwdriver, before it was hot dipped. It was here that I befriended a petite Eastern European woman who was seeking asylum in Germany. 

My shift buddy and I sat side-by-side, in our mandatory steel-capped work boots, puffing away, popping corks and putting the world to rights. She shared her fears for her future, and that of her two children who were back home with a relative. She expressed her hopes of finding a German husband, and told me how she yearned to be able to offer her children something that resembled long-term security. We were about the same age, but in terms of life experience, she was way more mature than I. We lost touch after I moved to Munich to start my short career as a hostess at Lufthansa.

That same year, I was on duty and our first leg had been to Dusseldorf airport. We had finished prepping the cabin for a flight to Kiev and ‘as usual’ I was all dollied up, shirt ironed, every hair in place and waiting for our passengers to board. There was a bit of a buzz as my purser told the crew that border control was deporting someone on our flight, and that they may be in handcuffs. Handcuffs…goodness, deportation sounded like something bad. 

I was fully expecting a tall, tattooed, toothless male in chains when my shift buddy, in cuffs, rounded the corner into the cabin ahead of a man in uniform. She immediately recognised me and threw herself towards me, sobbing… I was at a total loss for words. On my flight! What were the chances!?! The policeman firmly but kindly moved her along to the back of the plane, where they were seated away from the other passengers. I spoke with her as much as I was allowed to, but what could I say that would make a difference to her anguish?

Maybe five years later my fiancé and I had a terrible disagreement on our way to a wedding. So bad in fact, that we ended up sitting on opposite sides of the church. Of course I was right and he was wrong…

As the beautiful bride swept past me I dabbed at a tear – as you do when the bride looks breathtaking…or perhaps it was self pity. A little more dabbing as the two launched into their self-penned vows, and I thought “Wow! That! That! That is exactly what I wish for in a relationship!”. 

Sadly, that marriage did not last long. Similarly my fiancé and I didn’t either. Today, he and she (yes, that bride) are happily married with children. What were the chances!?! I can imagine you on the edge of your seats now, wanting a bit of drama… alas there was none. She and I became friends, and she is a truly amazing woman. 

Next weekend I’m attending a joint fiftieth birthday celebration. My friends, a couple with children, were not only born within hours of one another, but they were also.. wait for it… born in the exact same hospital! In other words they were within metres of one another, within ‘minutes’ of taking their first breaths… what are the chances! I can’t wait to celebrate this half century with them!

It took about a quarter of a century for my sister and her hubby (who celebrates his birthday today… Happy Happy Thorsten!) to connect. Both our families came over to South Africa from Germany on the very same ship, albeit a year apart. Imagine if we’d all been aboard the vessel in the same year – now that would have been quite something! But even a year apart, being on the same ship is still quite a remarkable thing.

Speaking of birthdays, there are a lot of folks I know having birthdays this month, and I’d like to wish a very Happy Birthday to all of them out there! May babies rock! And I’m a May baby too. What are the chances!?!

Same place, same time

This morning, just like every other day this week, I could not look him in the eye. It wasn’t as though he had done anything to me personally or had caused me even the slightest bit of harm. No, it was just the burden of expectation that hung thick in the air between us, leaving me heavy with guilt. The guilt of privilege? The guilt of good fortune? Whatever it was, I resented the feeling. I resented the fact that he, just by being there, was chipping away at my peace of mind.

The light changed to green just before he drew parallel to me, and I expelled the breathe of air I hadn’t even realised I had been holding. I was relieved to be able to move on, towards my freedom and away from the stifling and unwanted emotions I was feeling whilst seated in the comfort and warmth of my car. 

He had appeared about a week ago and had, on a daily basis, been assuming the same place at the traffic lights on my route to work. I’m not sure why his presence seemed to unsettle me so much, I have seen and passed more beggars and vagrants on our streets than I care to recall. He certainly looked the part – unkempt, probably unruly, and while I’m heaping stereotypes and generalisation on the pile, I was sure that he was a drunkard too. I found myself trying to imagine his story, the circumstances that had led to this person being just another South African statistic, standing by the side of the road. To my shame I did not conjure up a good backdrop for his journey, yet something didn’t quite fit… Shaking my head to get rid of these thoughts, I focused on the traffic, and the day ahead.

I saw her drive past, just like she had every day this week since I had arrived here. She did not make eye contact, but her distaste for this beggar on the side of the road was as palpable as if she had shouted the words out loud. 

Last night I had been late getting home – it had been a long journey, made even more difficult by the fact that  once again I was nearly empty handed. I’d woken up at three this morning, cold and unable to sleep as the burden of failure hung thick in the air of the make-shift shack I was sharing with others I’d met on the street. I felt heavy with guilt, not really understanding why, but the emotion weighed like a boot on my chest almost suffocating me. How long would this feeling last? 

Resentment had tasted like bile in my mouth, but once again, I had swallowed my pride and set out, hoping that the day might bring the slightest of reprieves. A smile? An act of kindness? Something, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant that would free me, even for a brief moment, from the indignity that was steadily chipping away at my humanity. Like every day for the past week I hoped that today would be different. I briefly wondered if it would get any easier, or if my emotions would eventually become so dulled that I no longer cared?

That evening after work, a few of us got together for drinks and to unwind. I casually mentioned that there were way too many impoverished people standing on the sides of our roads, and questioned whether it wasn’t time our government started caring for these individuals, and cleaning up our streets? The heated discussion that followed was bursting with many diverse viewpoints, preconceptions, blame-passing, stories of begging cartels, human rights abuses, dramatics, play acting and public nuisances that I started to feel a little dizzy… or perhaps it was that second glass of the Burgundy I was nursing? In the haze it did however dawn on me that while we were all pointing fingers at someone else, no one seemed to be able to pinpoint whose responsibility it was to do something about what we all did agree on was a sad state of affairs. I abandoned that train of thought at the restaurant, and sped home to my warm, comfortable bed to grab as many hours of quality rest as I could squeeze in.

I have had worse days than today, but at least tonight I would go ‘home’ with something to show for the 16 hours I have been away. I’d been struggling with dizziness all day – probably because I hadn’t eaten much and the water I’d just finished was only the second drink I’d had in as many days. Standing in the unforgiving midday winter sun, hands extended in the hope of being the recipient of a charitable gesture, can be exhausting at the best of times. 

On the street, I am an outsider briefly looking in on the life of others as they pass me by. People in a rush, people on the phone, people who look straight through you, people who shame you for being the loser that you so evidently must be. People who judge you for wearing the same clothes day in, day out. People who think you must be a retard, or at the very least a drunk. People who think you have no feelings. People who do not see the man you are… or were. People not willing to make eye contact with poverty.

I remembered a recent trip to New York where I had first come across the Red Cross slogan “the greatest tragedy is indifference”. Right now, as a victim of the enemy of indifference I was able to attest to this. My train of thought was interrupted as I noticed a scuffle across the intersection where the young man who performs the same little repetitive ritual as if on a loop, was having a scuffle with the ‘crazy’ lady who was moving in on his patch. I went across to see if I could diffuse the situation.

I’d woken up feeling rested and well. It looked like a cold start to the day, so I dressed warmly and made a second cup of coffee to drink on my way. I turned up the volume and the heat, and as I neared the traffic light I spotted him again. He was wearing the same shirt as yesterday, and I could just make out part of the wording on his shirt – …tragedy is in… – as the rest was covered by his grubby jumper. I wondered how he had landed up here. Panic set in when I suddenly realised that the traffic light had just turned orange, leaving me exposed and stationary right next to HIM. I turned to look at the man who was now standing next to my window, conscious of how incredibly awkward I felt.

Despite feeling like a hare in the lights I remembered my upbringing and smiled vaguely, hopefully not too encouragingly, and looked up. As we made eye contact I was struck by how unusual and kind his eyes were, and how incredibly weary they looked. Without thinking I wound down the window, smiled a little more encouragingly and handed him my three-quarter-full coffee mug saying “I’ll get the cup back from you tomorrow, same place, same time?” He nodded, seemingly at a loss for words, and off I went, a little breathless and taken aback at what had just transpired.

Now that was a surprise! I gratefully sipped the warm liquid and for a brief time was transported back to a time, not very long ago when I had coffee on demand, a fridge full of food, a house, a car, a warm bed… I had not realised how many times I would want to walk away, from this experiment but we had agreed that for one month only, I would taste life on the streets, immerse myself and cut all ties to my former life. 

I started looking forward to seeing him in the mornings, and we got into a habit of exchanging a few pleasantries as I passed a coffee, a banana or a sandwich out of the window. I now knew that he had a family he loved and was very proud of. As I got to know him a little bit better, my desire to flee from any encounter with him had disappeared and I was almost disappointed if I didn’t have the opportunity to engage with him a little. And every day as I drove off, one of us would utter “See you tomorrow – same place, same time”.

As she drove off, I thought of my family and how, when we had started looking for ways to make a real difference I had volunteered a month of my life, saying that come hell or high water, I would live on the street and not throw in the towel prematurely. I’m not sure my family believed that I had what it takes, as I had not really demonstrated commitment to many things in the past. After New York we had discussed that we needed to understand this side of South Africa in order to be able to address the challenges and have a chance of making a sustainable difference. For me, this had meant walking away from a life of luxury, warm drinks and a full belly. A life of being served, sleeping in a soft bed, a cupboard full of clothes to choose from… Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how difficult it would be to stay, when I knew what creature comforts were waiting me back home. 

As the month had gone by every day had grown more difficult but I had remained inspired and motivated by the real people of the streets, no matter how demeaned and desperate we found ourselves. Every day I felt an inner shift in my priorities as I became more and more desperate for the plight of my fellow countrymen standing on street corners across South Africa.

Today was to be my last day in this guise and when she uttered “Tomorrow? Same place, same time?” I knew that, though I would probably never see her again, the compassion she and a handful of others had extended me, had kept me going. I smiled back at her, knowing that there was great untapped potential in South Africa – the potential to overcome indifference, one of our country’s greatest enemies. A seed that had been sown in New York, was starting to blossom. I knew what I had to do.

It was strange how, over the past month, he had become such a large part of my morning, and how I now looked forward to seeing him every day. I hadn’t seen him for a few days and that morning in particular, I must admit that I was disappointed to miss him. His presence had motivated me to do what I was about to do, and today was a big day for me! I had a job interview to go to and my head was filled with thoughts on how I would do, as I really wanted this job. Was I qualified enough? Probably not. Did I have the relevant experience? Unlikely, but the job advertisement had indicated that they would consider candidates without experience too. 

I reported to reception and rode up the elevator to the fifth floor offices. As I was sitting on the plush sofa  waiting my turn, I sipped a coffee and found myself humming the upbeat elevator tune whilst looking at the framed photographs on the walls. They depicted a series of beautifully taken yet sad and moving street scenes showing the poorer side of city life. One in particular stood out – it was an advertisement for the American Red Cross, with what must have been their slogan, “Our greatest enemy is indifference”, in big bold letters under the image.

I was still quite amazed but unbelievably proud that I had stuck it through. The last month had changed me, and I was relieved to be moving on to the next step of my plan. My family had kept their side of the bargain – they were helping me to establish a foundation and I was excited at the infinite possibilities! I thought briefly of the young lady I had encountered daily and how to a large extent her kindness, once the ice had been broken, had been such a massive encouragement to me. I could see the impact that both she, and I, and so many others like her, could have using our capacity to reach out in kindness and compassion to the people on the ground, the forgotten citizens of a nation desperate for healing. 

As I went out to collect the next interviewee I stopped, and leaned back against the door frame waiting for her to look up. Our eyes met, as they had for the first time three short weeks ago. Our faces broke into broad smiles of recognition, and I simply said “I’ll see you tomorrow – same place, same time?”

“Same place, same time” was written for the Woman & Home short story writing competition (with the theme of “The Spirit of Revival”).

How old is too old?

This weekend I’ve been painting chairs again, and somehow this activity seems to turn my mind to politics. Go figure?!? Firstly, I doubt any royal or powerful behinds will be sitting on my dining room chairs any time soon. Secondly, I do hope that this will be my last post touching on politics for a while. It’s all getting a bit long in the tooth, and I say roll on municipal elections. Roll on 3 August 2016. Roll on change.

Our president is 74 years old. Zimbabwe’s president is 92. Tunisia’s president is 89. “The average age of the ten oldest African leaders is 78.5, compared to 52 for the world’s ten most-developed economies. Arguably, compared to other continents, Africa has a very small proportion of younger leaders between 35 and 55. Paradoxically, the continent has the youngest population in the world, with a median age of 19.5 years according to the U.N.” (read David E Kiwuwa’s entire article on CNN’s website here)

Google tells me that the average age of an American president is 54 years and 11-months, and that the youngest president to assume American office was Teddy Roosevelt, at 42. Obama is now 54. Trump is 69 years old. Hilary is 68. 

I believe that the average age of retirement in South Africa is somewhere between 60 – 63, and apparently ‘older’ people (over fifties?) struggle to find new jobs. This may be hear-say, but a number of friends and acquaintances have said that they are worried about leaving a job they are not happy in, largely due to the fact that they fear they are unemployable based on their age. 

So how old is too old? “For what?” you should say.

I finished painting the chairs before I came to any conclusions, but I must admit that I’m a bit confused. Never mind any of the many other reasons why someone may not be fit for the chair at the head of the table. How come it’s okay for someone, way-way past retirement age, to ‘run’ a country, anywhere in the world? 

On the upside, these thoughts do give me hope that I can still achieve many things in the years to come. And yes, I’m excited at the prospects.

Just this week I interviewed a businessman who is retiring after 45 years in the work place. He said: “It’s time to move on and let the younger generation take over.  I’ve taught them all I know, add that to what they have learned along the way, and they are far more experienced and capable than I am.”

Roll on a new generation of leadership. Roll on change. 

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