Today is 19 March

Today is the one-year anniversary of my return from Senegal. And so much has happened, since I got back here. In the world, and in my little old life too! And boy, am I ready for an aeroplane ride again. So much so, I would happily have one of those Astra Zeneca, in storage somewhere in South Africa… but that’s beside today’s point. We’ve all been experiencing a different kind of action (or lack thereof) than we’ve been used to.

However, I’m not complaining. This smaller world we’ve been living in, has definitely helped the process of making decisions easier.

I always work my way to a decision without sharing or discussing too much with those close to me. In fact, I mostly process alone, dropping a few breadcrumbs, or a turkey decoy, along the way. And then suddenly I know my decision, and I spring the surprise: This is my plan. And everyone is like: “where did that one come from? I thought she was doing this. Not that? I thought she felt this, not that. How? When?”

When I left South Africa to join Mercy Ships in January 2020, I was all in, and many were quite surprised at my decision. I left behind a pretty incredible life – family, friends, work, nature, lifestyle… I had decided it was time to do something different. Something purposeful, something in an environment that was true, and real, and meaningful, and authentic. I thought that I needed to leave here, to do that. I thought I needed to commit to a LONG time away, to do that. And, they do say that a change is like a holiday. Perhaps I felt a bit jaded in SA. Like I needed a holiday. Perhaps a change is really like one.

But I cannot lie – my ‘holiday’ was a tough one. I’m not only talking about being on the ship – my word, but the job satisfaction on that ship is on another level… I’m talking more about leaving behind a life where people know and see you. And opting for the totally unknown. I didn’t realise how much ‘being known and seen’ fuels me. I was intent on seeing and knowing those who are normally unseen. But to be honest, the ship, followed hot on the heels by the pandemic, resulted in me (for a few months) feeling quite displaced, and like a shadow of the real Chrissi. And for a while there, I did not think that going back to the ship was on the cards.

I’m not sure about all of you? Have you felt known, and seen and loved this past year? So many of us “wing it” quite well. We may just look as though we are taking it all in our stride. I think one (or two) of many things that this year has taught me, is the importance of boundaries. We can really only do so much, with what we have. And the importance of self-care. Again, we can only do so much with what we have. However, I realise that our journeys this past year all look very different.

Mine has taken me here:

On a personal level, I take such delight in having been able to spend more quality time with my family, and some close friends, this year, be it online, face-to-face, or mask-to-mask. I am so grateful for the wonderful family get-together, that was a wedding this past December. And that the party could include my sister and her other half, and that they were able to fly back home again. I am so incredibly grateful to all my beautiful friends (in South Africa and abroad) who know me and see me – you have no idea how valuable that is. Or perhaps you do.

I’m excited to be going back to the ship, with a place to come home to, at the end of that season. The timing of that, and what exactly it will look like amidst the pandemic, I’ll share as soon as I can. I am looking forward to seeing and knowing others and honouring their stories, while feeling confident in the fact that I too am known, and seen, and loved, back home.  It’s more important than I have ever realised before.

On a professional level: Is it a strange thing to have this much job satisfaction? And to take such pride in really striving to do things properly. It’s such an empowering environment when you feel you are adding real value through the work that you do. And I’ve stopped being apologetic, about being so terribly fussy about the detail.

I have so much right here. The grass is not always greener on the other side. And, if you think the grass is greener on the other side, try watering and fertilising your patch (I may as well lay it on thick, while we’re on cliches, right?)

A lot of irrigation has happened here since March 19, a year ago. 

This is me, saying thank you, for being part of this season.

Chrissi

 

 

Physiotherapist seeks to make a difference where it counts

Physiotherapist Michelle White from Eswatini spent two months at the end of 2020 working in the Tintswalo District Hospital’s rehabilitation department as a Tshemba Foundation volunteer. Michelle is no stranger to working as a community-based physiotherapist and has previously offered her services as a sports physio to community projects; has worked in Uganda; and has volunteered at Mercy Ships on the specialised surgery ship the Africa Mercy, both in Madagascar (as a physiotherapist) and in Senegal (as a clubfoot physiotherapist).

Michelle with the Mercy Ships Clubfoot Programme team in Dakar, Senegal. Photograph by John Seddon, volunteer photographer onboard the Africa Mercy in 2020.

In addition to working in a clinical environment Michelle has also worked as a Sustainable Health Financing Analyst. She has a Masters in International Public Health from the University of Sydney and says she chose this course to gain a better understanding of the public health sector: how its systems should deliver healthcare, what results in inefficiencies, and ultimately how these can be addressed. “After working in a public hospital in South Africa I realised that while we have amazing nurses, doctors and physios working in the public health sector, the system in which they work is very flawed,” says Michelle. “It is not so much the lack of skill or knowledge, than the system that results in inefficiencies.”

When asked why she feels medical professionals volunteer to work in places outside of their comfort zones, Michelle says she believes being exposed to cases and situations – which you wouldn’t normally experience in your normal context of work – offers an opportunity for growth. “It’s also a great opportunity to connect with other people who have a similar drive: to expand their knowledge and share their skills,” she says.

Michelle recognises the value of sharing her skills with people who may not be able to afford or access it under normal circumstances. “As a physio, in my comfort zone a patient would pay a fair bit of money to access my skills, whereas in a volunteering situation I am gifting it to patients for free.”

Q: Michelle, why do you volunteer?

“I do it because I get great fulfilment using my physio skills to help people in government hospitals, specifically here in South Africa. The people who are accessing government healthcare services often need rehabilitation services a lot more than people who can access private healthcare. And I say that because many people who access the public sector – about 84% of South Africans – are blue collar workers who perform manual labour. The work they perform also means that they are more likely to be injured. I feel I can make a much bigger impact and difference rehabilitating patients here, as opposed to patients who access private healthcare, who are often able to earn an income through passive means, or to whom a physical injury would not be as devastating as it would be to a manual labourer.”

Q: How did you hear about the Tshemba Foundation?

“I had finished volunteering with Mercy Ships and while looking for what next to do, a friend sent me the link…and I thought ‘Why Not!’”

Q: What did you expect when you came? What was the picture in your head?

“I expected the living conditions to be wonderful in terms of the bush and a beautiful lodge and was looking forward to living in the stillness of the bush.

“With regard to the work in the hospital, I had done a year of community service in a hospital in Mpumalanga previously, so felt I knew what to expect.

“With regard to the team, the resources and the types of patients I would see, I expected to see a lot of illness, and a lot of hopelessness in the patients with regard to their illness. I also expected a lot of frustration with the process and with team members. But, I also anticipated big wins and victories with regard to being able to assist patients, and also being able to connect with other members of the permanent staff, as well as bring new energy, AND have some fun.”

Michelle, having a little fun while doing something worthwhile on her #LEAVEOFPURPOSE

Q: What has been a highlight thus far?

“Being involved in Tintswalo’s clubfoot clinic was definitely a highlight – the team is very enthusiastic, and though they had undergone some basic training, they hadn’t yet had any long term mentorship. I was really able to use the experienced gained in my last field service with Mercy Ships here. I really enjoyed being able to spend time with them, and help them fine tune the skills they already had, as well as show them a few other techniques.

“I felt my contribution to the clubfoot clinic was well-received and we achieved a happy balance of being able to complement what they had already established. My input and advice was welcomed, which is very important when you’re volunteering. It also speaks to the willingness to learn and the humility of the physios I worked with.”

Q: Any low points?

“Outside of the clubfoot clinic I must be honest it took a while to get to the point where my opinion and clinical reasonings were heard and valued, and I didn’t feel like I was there just to substitute the existing team.

“It took me a while to integrate into the team, even though I was only there to help, but the team needs to figure you out first. So you do encounter barriers and resistance.

“Language is definitely a barrier too and I’d often have to rely on other physiotherapists for translation. Initially there was some resistance to this as well, which can be quite disheartening. After I’d been there for some time though, we shifted to seeing and diagnosing the patients together.

“I must admit that I did feel disappointment in some of the apathy and hopelessness I felt coming from some of the permanent staff, who didn’t really fight and advocate for the patients. Although having said that, there were doctors who fought for their patients to the nth degree, especially the doctors doing their community service.”

Q: What are the challenges you face or have faced, working in rural Mpumalanga?

“With regard to seeing patients in rural Mpumalanga one cannot forget that getting to the hospital for them is difficult and expensive.

“As a physio, if you want to rehabilitate a patient thoroughly, you would want to see them three times a week for a good session, but for many patients that is just not possible. So if you’re trying to rehabilitation a shoulder, or a fracture, or a spinal cord injury, your rehabilitation work is undone during the time before they come back.

“It’s a sad tension between the knowledge the patient needs to get back to work, and that I really need to see them more frequently. One has to encourage and educate them and their families (while faced with a language barrier), to self-manage at home, and that it is up to them to take care of their injury in the time that you do not see them.

“Other challenges I’ve encountered are traditional beliefs and the fear of the demonic.”

Q: Any stories you’ll definitely be sharing with friends and families for many years to come?

“The children are precious, but I’d probably share some of the breakthroughs with some of the therapists, as many initially put up boundaries and were suspicious about what motivated my being there. I too can be quick to jump to conclusions but my grace for the therapists grew as I learned about what the year has been like for them, their challenges with their children, and other burdens they carry from back home – it definitely struck a compassionate chord.

“I think the very fact that we’re able to come and volunteer means that we are from a privileged background. I don’t know what family responsibilities and financial requests my colleagues at the hospital may face, but I do know that volunteering is not an option for them.”

Q: Would you come back?

“If my time and circumstance allowed, I would.”

Q: Any advice for would-be volunteers?

“I would recommend that people come for at least three weeks to a month. The first bit is taken up by orientation, and in order to add value, come for longer.

“If you are thinking of volunteering, approach your role with humility. Have a conversation with your sectional head about what your role is going to be and find out where you can add value.

“Try not to implement changes, without understanding what it is you want to change. Systems in a hospital develop organically, and there is often a reason why they have developed: take your time to understand why and how they have developed.

“In this context take a slow and gentle pressure kind of approach, as people will take time to warm up to you.”

Thank you, Michelle, for your holistic and compassionate approach to healthcare, and thank you for volunteering through the Tshemba Foundation. To find out more, visit their website here 

Tshemba Foundation’s #LEAVEOFPURPOSE

In mid-December 2020 my volunteering journey led me to the wild and wonderful Hoedspruit, where the Tshemba Foundation’s volunteer programme places medical professionals (from SA and abroad) at Tintswalo Hospital, the Tintswalo Eye Clinic and/or the Hlokomela Women’s Clinic.

I came to know about Tshemba via a physiotherapist volunteer from Eswatini, whom I had met onboard the Africa Mercy. Michelle’s sense of purpose and ability to adapt easily to whatever environment she is in, are but two of her incredible qualities. I interviewed her as well as two other international volunteers, one of whom has volunteered at the refugee camps in Greece numerous times (I’ve recently read The Beekeeper of Aleppo, so had a picture in my head about what the journey of a refugee could look like). I do understand that the majority of medical volunteers do not do so for recognition, nonetheless, I’m filled with deep admiration and respect for those who are driven to fill a gap in healthcare, in locations outside of their comfort zones.

The founders of the Tshemba Foundation felt compelled to start something meaningful – something that would make a real difference to specifically the rural communities in the region. I believe their journey may have started with the upgrade of a small rural school (perhaps Kismet is at play in my life here…see my previous column) before growing into something bigger. They entered an MOU with the Mpumalanga Department of Health, and first focused on placing medical volunteers in the region. They went on to build the Hlokomela Clinic Women’s facility which caters for women’s health including HIV, cancer, and obstetrics. They then invested R12-million into building a new eye-clinic at Tintswalo. This also included purchasing all the equipment and instruments, and now volunteer ophthalmological teams regularly hold two to three day eye camps at the hospital, gifting their time to restore the eyesight of blind patients. And as a cataract operation alumni, who only suffered from blurred vision, I can vouch for just how incredible a new lens is!

Halala!

Volunteers are accommodated at the Tshemba Lodge, and I was treated to this wonderful sight while interviewing one of the founders. Naturally the interview came to an abrupt halt, so that I could give the lioness the attention she deserved.

There’s much more to the Tshemba Foundation’s philanthropic story and I really only managed to scratch the surface during my two-and-a-half day visit. But I do plan to go back, soon, and write more stories.

I know that any kind of volunteering is not a walk in the park – there are sacrifices, highs and lows, and pros and cons. Here in South Africa the rural hospitals face immense challenges with funding, infrastructure, inefficient systems, equipment, specialist capacity, staff morale… I spent a fair bit of time interviewing members of the hospital staff who work with volunteers or with the Tshemba Foundation. It reinforced the fact that volunteering often impacts more than the direct beneficiary, in this case the patient, of you gifting your time. 

I’d like to close with something Michelle mentioned when I interviewed her, at the end of her Tshemba Foundation #LEAVEOFPURPOSE: “I think the very fact that we’re able to come and volunteer means that we are from a privileged background. I don’t know what family responsibilities and financial requests my colleagues at the hospital may face, but I do know that volunteering is not an option for them.”

Is it an option for you?

And now I’m off to work, so that I can continue to feed my volunteering appetite.

Till soon, Chrissi xxx

 

Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by the Tshemba Foundation, Tintswalo Hospital, the Tintswalo Eye Clinic and/or the Hlokomela Women’s Clinic.

Sometimes timing is everything

If I hadn’t had to come back from Senegal last March, I wouldn’t have been able to work for general construction company PAMCO on a ‘make it inspiring, tell a story’ brief at Maserunyane High School in Limpopo. In fact, I quoted the project manager for my small contribution (to what was to become a massive transformation), months before I left. And mere weeks after my return, the overall project cost of R7-million was approved by the Tirisano Construction Fund, and voila, I was available. How’s that for good timing?

Last Friday the MD of PAMCO handed over the keys of this now unrecognisable rural school – including top-to-toe revamped classroom blocks, four flushing toilet blocks, elevated water tanks, an extended and revamped admin block, paving, shade structures between classroom blocks, a food garden/tunnels, a kitchen, exterior and interior school signage and posters, a beautiful wall paper, and so much more…

This is important for me today, because of the never-ending narrative of the hundreds of millions of Rands being wasted or stolen. Companies taking government for a ride. Government taking government for a ride. It’s a daily occurrence in South Africa. It’s always in the news. 

So here’s a little news about one of the feel-good stories no-one seems to talk about. Please watch the below snapshot (produced by Zaheer from One Way Up Productions) of Maserunyane’s transformation, to see what seven-million well managed and accounted for Rands can get you  This is what an ethical and experienced building contractor can get you. This is how R7-million benefits teachers, scholars and the community…those it was intended for.

Halala!!!

Ke a leboga for letting me play a small part here too. I’m so proud to be associated with the team that pulled off this seemingly incredible (improbable?) feat, with such ease and grace.

Come on South Africa. It’s really not that difficult.

Love, Chrissi

This photo of the new school hall was taken by Charles Wright. I worked with some of my favourite fellow creatives, Dalton, and the lovely Lientjie “to make it inspiring, tell a story” and you’ll see some of our work in the video above too.
Photo by Charles Wright. A view from the front of one the 13 classrooms that were transformed.
Photo by Charles Wright. A view from the back of one of the 13 classrooms that were transformed.
This is one of the posters featuring founder of Lighting Tomorrow Ghazala Khan (middle) and four Maserunyane High School based educational consultants and mentors from this “educational breakthrough programme that boosts South African youth with 21st century leadership skills”. Dalton photographed them in the same classroom as in Charles’ photograph above (about midway through renovations at the school).

Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Tirisano Construction Trust, PAMCO, or Maserunyane High School. 

 

Free Spirit

Music often streams in the background as I work, or read, or write, clean the house or do the dishes (yip, a bit of signature un-glamour right there for you). Sometimes, a song begins to play, grabs my attention and moves me to drop everything I’m doing. One moment, I am immersed in my task, and the next I’m gripped by a deep desire to write, or at the very least sway or dance around the room… I do hope this happens to you too, and I’m not now, in your eyes, that crazy lady who is visited by a free-agent feline, whenever he needs a quiet moment.

Streaming songs has introduced me to a whole range of new artists, many I’d probably never have come across if I was still sticking to previously mainstream ways to access their work. Enter “Free Spirit” by American singer and songwriter Khalid, and I just had to come here to share my thoughts.

This 22-year-old artist sure didn’t have me in mind when he wrote this song, but I’m not immune to the beautiful, melancholy rising and falling waves of a sweet voice. My knowledge of music is as limited as my knowledge of wine – basically, if it’s easy on the ears, and easy on the palate, I’m there.

Sometimes when music really moves me, I’ll do a little online research to find out more about the motivation or story behind the song. Not today. I think he’s singing about coming of age, but these words from “Free Spirit” just resonate with me:

“Free spirits, free spirits
Can you hear me calling?
Oh, it’s all or nothing
When you’re free spirits, free spirits
Can you hear it calling?
‘Cause I don’t wanna live no normal life, let go…”

Is it my desire to get out there and explore the world again? Am I seeking more than the current status quo? Right now it’s not important, as I don’t want to spoil this moment by overanalysing.

Whatever the magic ingredient in this song is, for the three-and-a-half minutes that I listened to it (and the ones that followed) my soul soared, along with the melody.

Art is just amazing, isn’t it?

till soon, 

Chrissi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another 18 holes

Over these last few months some days have felt like I’m an extra in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day (anyone under thirty google it). Wake up, do the day, sleep, repeat… And it’s not because the content of my days is the same, it’s more that the narrative of the world has felt stuck in this particular season.

This week America refreshed the story a little with the inauguration of President Biden on 20 January, and back here in South Africa, the passing of Jackson Mthembu, on 21 January, caused quite a shockwave. As I listened to the news reader’s composure crack while sharing this breaking news with the nation, I too was moved. And as I sat listening to the presenter and callers digest this major loss to the country, I stepped away from that deadline for a few minutes, to mourn with them.

Still, I was torn… Deadline? Or participate in paying some form of respect to a man I did not know. Work? Or join a collective state of mourning? Even if just for a while. And then I thought, what a ridiculous conundrum we find ourselves in, where we (I guess this is the royal we, as I truly can only speak for myself) are weighing up the urgency of our productivity, against spending some time reflecting on the life of a man, who breathed some fresh air into the politics of our nation. What a curious decision to get stuck on. And then I thought, how are his close friends and colleagues going to mourn, in the middle of this crazy time, where really, all we expect them to do is focus their energies on us, and to not miss a beat.

That afternoon, while walking around the periphery of the golf course with a friend, I shared some of my thoughts with her. She had also been thrown off her working game by the news that day, so could relate. Usually when we walk here, we have to look out for golfers, but fortunately this week the course has been undergoing maintenance, so the players were few and far between, and we could focus on our download.

It felt good to get things out of my system and restart a little lighter than before.

The game of golf, apart from other associated benefits, seems a great way to do this. I don’t play. Yet (!?). But my dad’s been a member here for over 45 years (I stand to be corrected, but nonetheless, it’s been a very respectable length of time). About two weeks ago I joined him and his fourball for about seven holes (only walking alongside them, heaven forbid I cramp their style with my yet-to-be-honed golfing skills). I so enjoyed swinging into refresh. And it was great seeing the easy camaraderie between the players.

I’m lucky to live alongside the golf course now. Easy access to nature within a secure environment. I feel safe in my home. And on a daily basis, I get to observe some of the world go by – on foot, or in golf carts – as they navigate these 18 holes. They come in all shapes and sizes, colourfully or conservatively attired, and at all levels of ability. They all have their own personal stories to tell, and crosses to bear. But they’ll return again, tomorrow, or in a week’s time. Their goals may be different. Some may be here to socialise. Some just want to get around the course without losing too many balls. Others want to improve their score, and their handicaps. Some will cheat. Some will research and analyse their game and the course. Some will have good games, and some bad. But they’ll be back to play another 18 holes.

And though we can’t really use Groundhog Day to predict the spring in Africa, let me know if you see your shadow, or not, on 2 February. Perhaps there’s something to celebrate. Perhaps we’ll get unstuck, and there’s a change in season ahead. And I have an extraordinary bottle of bubbly, ready to go!

Till soon, Chrissi xxx

Off to the bins

Last week a few folk asked me why I hadn’t included a photograph in my “dating profile”, so I thought I’d start off with that, just to set the scene…

You’re welcome! You know who you are 🙂

Twenty-twenty sure has dished out some hidings, hey? And many folks were happy to see the year and its COVID bride relegated to the bins. But of course, it wasn’t a clean break.

I myself am not yet fully in control of how I’m dealing with this pandemic, even ten months on. I go through waves. To be honest, mostly I’m calm, and focused on just getting on with life as best I can. Then I make the mistake of tuning into a broadcast while vaccination rollouts are being discussed, and I feel like I may just explode. Then I hear of someone I’ve known for years lying in ICU on a ventilator, and I get all emotional. Or someone, that I knew back in the day when I attended youth group, who has died. That really rattled me.

But we have to keep moving forward – mask clad, hygienically sanitised and socially distanced, because not only is that what we’re told we can do to help stop the spread, but because it makes sense. A friend sent this little meme below to a group I’m on, and it made me laugh out loud…perhaps it will make you laugh too.

I’m happy to report, as is evident from my dating profile pic above, that I am fully potty trained. This mask thing will for ever remain a contentious topic…isn’t it amazing, that a small piece of covering elicits a whole range of strong feelings and reactions.

Implosion” is my word of the week. And I’m going to use the definition that best fits my purposes, with thanks to vocabulary.com/dictionary/implode, accessed just a few minutes ago.

“When something implodes, it explodes inward — instead of outward. With extremely large buildings, it helps to implode them rather than explode them, because by falling inward they take up less space.

Why bother to have a word like implode when you already have explode? Well, imagine there is something deep beneath the sea, being subjected to the intense pressure there. If the pressure is high enough that the object bursts, it would collapse in rather than out. It would, in fact, implode. People also sometimes use implode to describe a person subjected to intense pressures who, emotionally at least, bursts inward: “All that stress just made Jess implode.”

It sounds, as though imploding is a lot less messy than exploding… I reckon we need to look around, not just for the mess, but to see if there aren’t some folks we know who could do with a little more support during these times of COVID.

And, not all our misfortunes are down to those crown-wearing virions. I mean, imagine having a major accident in 2020, followed by a number of surgeries and weeks in hospital. Followed by months and months of rehabilitation, only to find out that your bones are not knitting. And, you need another operation. Thus you’ll take a good few more months to get back to where you are today, and perhaps you’ll not. That’s hectic. It’s not my story to tell, but said strong person is a shining example of what coping graciously looks like. I’m rooting for him, and I wish him all of the best, from the bottom of my heart.

Till soon, Chrissi xxx

Predictable. Or not.

The bank that I’ve banked with all of my life decided that as a self-employed individual, I was too risky to bet on with a small bond. And, after banking with them since I was barely out of nappies, as well as journeying my entire adult life with them (house, car, personal, business, credit card, investments etc) I have to say that this was quite a bitter pill to swallow. It’s always felt like a neat way of managing my piggy bank…however, it seems a relatively healthy financial track record and good habits count for very little these days. Perhaps I’ve been a little too unpredictable for their taste lately.

I mentioned (to my mom) that I had seriously thought of voting with my feet, before deciding that the bank wouldn’t even feel the slightest draft if I stormed out the room. The wise woman responded that this is exactly why businesses and service providers can act as they do, they bank on the fact that it will be too much trouble for us to make the move. So…guess what I’ve done!?

I must say that I’m a tad nervous about this action. And no, I’ve not decided to stash cash under my bed. I mean…

It’s more about the perception of security and comfort of knowing that things are in place… the ability to put food in the fridge, the option of taking in fresh air daily, the possibility of visiting family and friends, access to healthcare, planning for retirement, and banking with an institution that’s been around for a while. I’m guessing all that is relatively predictable human behaviour as we teeter up and down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

And, until a few weeks ago, I had always felt a sense of being loved and belonging, and quite possibly the association with “Africa’s strongest banking brand” was good for my self-esteem…

Until they tried to stop me from becoming “the most that I can be”.

Indeed. It seems like an overly dramatic reaction, but our tendency to be oh so predictable makes it easy to for us to accept a status quo, become stuck in a rut or even entrapped, and at “their” mercy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m all for keeping “them” on their toes, and shaking things up a bit, even if all it does is make me feel like I’ve reclaimed a tiny portion of my independence.

Perhaps I’ll let you know how my new relationship pans out.

till soon xxx

(PS the notification from FNB popped up on my phone about an hour after posting this blog. I love the “try again” at the bottom, as I failed to unlock my phone first time around. Ah, life. It’s the little things…)

 

My online dating profile

To my dear friends, who encourage me to try and meet a good man and settle down, I’m so sorry to have gotten your attention under false pretences… Man, how I hate it when advertisers bait you with their fake news headings…

Anyway, I’m glad you’re here now, I hope you’ll stick around a while.

I had a visit from a good friend late last week, who mentioned that it’s a wonderful thing to arrive somewhere and be celebrated for who you are. And I want to say a massive thank you, to all my wonderful friends and family who think I’m interesting, and relevant, and just awesome! Right back at you. I do miss seeing your beautiful faces in person. It seems that we may be gathering on other virtual platforms going forward, as some of you are, or have, been migrating to different chat apps.

But back to me. I just emptied the contents of my recycling bin into the blue recycling bin downstairs, and as I walked away, I wondered what people would think if they saw my offerings. They could probably be forgiven for assuming that I’ve been drinking a little lots lately, what with the empty wine bottle, and bottle of gin – which in my defence took me about six months to empty, but before you say “yeah Chrissi, you protest a little much” I’ll get closer to my point…although I must admit that I am intrigued by the deductions the critics may make about my persona and habits, due to the fact that I do at least recycle.

If those same people were to go through my regular rubbish bin, this would paint an entirely new picture of me (I think). A lot of hair (I know, it’s gross, I’m shedding hair like a Persian cat), an empty bag of fruit chutney chips, a lot of vegetable and fruit peelings (no garden, can’t compost) and for the life of me, I cannot remember what else went into the black bin. I assure you, I am not going back to check for you.

If they looked at my empty car parking spots, they may think “She doesn’t own a car”. And they’d be right.

If they followed me upstairs they would see a selection of herbs and plants, and at least two pairs of trainers. “She grows stuff, and she must run,” they may think.

If they saw the ginger cat that’s become a regular caller at my door, they may think, “she has a cat”. And while this little creature brings me much joy, he’s not mine. Although, when he is here, he does act as though my little home is entirely his. His ability to just arrive and settle down so quickly, really does intrigue me.

If they saw the row of vitamins in the kitchen, they may think “She consumes vitamins” – but alas, she always forgets. It’s the bane of her life.

If they looked at yesterday’s google searches – intercranial pressure, smeg, pro bono, telemedicine, differentials and administer anaesthetic – who knows what they may think. You tell me.

If they walk into my study, and start flipping through the file that says “Private & Confidential” then for sure, we’d have a stand off. And if I have that level of sensitive and correct information on line, then yes, that makes me nervous, especially with the amount of data mining and privacy violations.

But just for fun, based on the above information and what we’ve learned about me today, what could my online dating profile look like:

Chrissi is a middle-aged (be nice!) raging alcoholic spinster with a cat. She runs off her hangover on a daily basis, and tries to nurse her battered body back to health with vitamins, and some healthy foods. She has no car. She is going bald, and spends her days searching for solutions to her medical challenges online.

I sure hope that doesn’t sound like me (to those who know me) and I’m guessing that the organisations ‘stealing’ our private information probably have more quality control processes in place, than I do. But I don’t think any of these platforms ever publicly promised us confidentiality, and our presumption of this is perhaps naïve.

Whereas I do seriously doubt the accuracy of some of the information they glean, I do worry a little about the kind of information they have access to, and share. Why, just the other day I was googling Gerbera Brand Management and would you know it’s a South African based company, with approximately a $6-million annual turnover, and about 18 staff. Well, I never…one can but dream. Send me a wire, and tell me what you think.

Till soon xxx

Another 18 rolls…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The long drive home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soon?

I think it all depends on how we drive.

 

Week 36 random recap: rabbit feet and a cat burglar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The innocent faces of non-rabbit-eaters.

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

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

Till soon. x

 

A random recap of week 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till soon. x

 

All Aissatou hoped for

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

New normal in Bruno’s Bungalow

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Double the trouble, twice the joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A triumphant homecoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, it was time for Diacko to go home, and what a spectacular homecoming it was. He has become a minor celebrity in the village and his story of hope and healing will probably be told for decades to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing for Audi Snÿman Interior Design

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

Some extracts from two of the scripts include:

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

and

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

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

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

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

 

Bold and beautiful

The Sanctuary Makers

SA Home Owner LOVES…

 

 

The “things” in Zackaria’s eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lifetime of change, in just twenty-six days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

Smelling the roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Be that ship

When I first arrived on the Africa Mercy in January, the ship was already over halfway through its field service in Senegal. I’d joined the crew at the end of the orthopaedic surgeries, so all the little patients that had their bowlegs or windswept legs straightened, had already had their surgeries. The reconstructive surgery and ophthalmic surgery blocks were starting, and I was allocated a few more communication patients from there. All “my” patients were children, with the youngest being 18 months, and the oldest being eleven.

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

If we’ve ever spoken about the stuff I’ve written over the years, you’ll know that I often become the person I’m writing about “in my head”. I try to imagine myself into their experience or situation. This has seen me take on a whole lot of different characters, albeit for a short amount of time. It can also be quite exhausting. Perhaps that’s why I like to write in solitude… But not to worry folks, so far, it’s always been me (hopefully sometimes a slightly improved version) that has returned from “that” place.

I found writing real-life stories about children to be a little more challenging than writing about an adult – perhaps because I’m not a parent, it’s been a while since I’ve been a kid myself, and I haven’t really hung around that many children as an adult. I would rely on my observations of the patients, as well as interactions and interviews with the medical staff. I would of course also interview the caregiver or parent, and patient (if they could speak) too.

Our day crew translated for me and were very open to helping me understand various cultural nuances. Interviewing across a language barrier takes time, and I tried hard not to ask leading questions, as I really wanted to get to the truth of every individuals story. As the large majority of Senegal is Muslim, their faith was another factor to be considered.

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

The good news is that most often, it was just the first interview that was tough, and after I knew more of each personal story, I was able to ask more thought-through, relevant questions. Still, everyone had to be super patient with me: the translator, the parent, the doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, the kid (who often observed as I interviewed the parent), and sometimes even the photographer. And they were. Patience was in high levels of supply, all around me.

Nonetheless, writing about children is different to writing about adults, and I found myself really wanting to write about just one adult patient, perhaps even a woman, so that I could really relate to her. I had been allocated a patient in the April Women’s Health block and was looking forward to meeting her, but that was still months away.

Aissatou, before her surgery.

At the beginning of March, I was talking to Chris in Admissions, who told me about a patient, around my age, who was scheduled to have cleft lip surgery. I started wondering what it would be like to have lived my life with a cleft lip – something which is a quick fix in a developed country. How would I have grown up? Would I have been teased or mocked? Would I still have the same friends? Gone to university? Ballet? Horseriding? Paragliding? Would people have wanted to speak to me? How would my family have been affected? Would I have ever been kissed? Would people outside my family have loved me?

I started the process of getting all the relevant permissions, when a second lady, also in her forties and with the same birth defect, was suggested to me by the Patient Screening team. I decided to write about both, and I’m so glad that I did, as I got to “live” the experience through two very different personalities.

When I first met both women, I felt the same confusing mix of emotions I have felt with every new deformity or disease or tumour or growth, or burn scars or burn contraction, that this new chapter of my life kept introducing me to. I don’t think I’ve spoken in any depth about this before, but I was constantly taken aback, as to what kind of health conditions people live with. Each silent “Oh my word” led to overwhelming compassion as I began to understand the burdens (social, physical, emotional) that some of these folks struggle with in their daily lives.

And each time an individual’s life was literally about to be changed for the better, I was reminded what a crazy and privileged position I was in. Even though I would not be directly involved in performing that medical miracle, it felt good to be a cog in the Mercy Ships machine.

Awa prepping for surgery.

I learned from both Awa and Aissatou, as well as from Dr Venter (who did their surgeries), that people adapt to living with their deformities in very different ways. They were both born with cleft lips, yet grew up to be like night and day. One is very introverted and initially struggled to make eye contact with me, whereas the other is a fun, bubbly extrovert. For both women, the operations made a huge difference: from a social acceptance point of view, as well as a personal health perspective.

I’ll share more about each of the women’s individual stories another time, but in the days after both their operations, I got to meet some members of their families. Families who thought that they would never see the day, that these women would be healed.

Aissatou and her husband, together again.

When Aissatou’s husband saw her again for the first time, he wept (then he couldn’t stop smiling). She wept. We all wept.

It was so special.

Awa was accompanied to the ship by her aunt, who took care of her gorgeous little baby while she was in surgery, and in recovery. A week later, when Awa was due for a check-up, her husband and brother also travelled to Dakar, to personally say thank you to Mercy Ships.

Awa and her husband, brother, aunt and daughter

These are just two Mercy Ships moments that really brought home that doing one good thing for one person, has a ripple effect, and will touch the lives of people we may never meet or know. 

In a time where nations are in such turmoil, the knowledge that we can contribute to making people a tad happier and lighten their load ever so slightly, makes me feel much more at peace with the world.

If I may, I’d like to challenge you. Right now, in whatever country you are in, imagine what it is like to be someone else, someone who has a little bit less than you do. Is there a way that you can help them right now?

Often, people do not even know that their need can be met, until that ship sails in.

Be that ship.

 

All photographs in this post were taken by John Seddon, photographer onboard the Africa Mercy. 

Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Mercy Ships.

 

I wonder

I wonder why it takes so long to develop a vaccine. I feel very misled by all those blockbusters where the heroes draw blood, rush to the lab in a race against time, find the antibodies and VOILA! a potion is conjured up and used to save lives. And all this before the two-hour movie is up.

I wonder.

I wonder if we’re going to need a COVID-19 vaccine to be able to travel again.

I wonder when we will be able to travel again.

I wonder what will happen to SAA.

I wonder if people are ashamed of the things they say on social media.

I wonder if they know how to delete.

I wonder.

I wonder if the taxi industry is embarrassed about ever mentioning the word shutdown or strike.

I wonder if passengers have really had to share masks.

I wonder what day of the week it is.

I wonder what all the pets think of having a captive audience.

I wonder what world leaders will be remembered as COVID-19 heroes.

I wonder who will play New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the movie.

I wonder who will play President Ramaphosa in the movie.

I wonder if Trevor Noah is losing his marbles in isolation.

I wonder if he was always so crude, or if that’s a new thing.

I wonder how on earth President Trump still makes it into my newsfeed.

I wonder if I’m overthinking things.

I wonder if our President realises how well leadership suits him.

I wonder how hard the virus will hit South Africa.

I wonder if people in need will ask for help.

I wonder when Vodacom will make data cheaper.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

I wonder if we can ever be prepared enough.

I wonder if it’s okay to clean the house on Good Friday.

I wonder if we will remember the true meaning of Easter this year.

I wonder why I feel so calm.

I wonder.

I wonder what you wonder, silently, in lockdown.

 

Yesterdays

Today I’m officially out of that fourteen day self-quarantine I put myself into after arriving back from Senegal. Now I’m looking forward to at least another two weeks of house arrest…possibly more. Boy, is it going to feel strange when today becomes yesterday, and we’re all allowed to move around freely again!

I’ve been thinking about small companies and SMMEs. After nearly thirteen years, I made my own little CC dormant at the end of the last financial year. Yes, it’s true that this decision was largely motivated by the fact that I felt it was time to do some volunteering. As you know, that ‘career’ change was short-lived. Nonetheless, I want to go back to it, if it’s in God’s plan for me. But the hope and desire to do so, is not the reason that I do not intend to re-start Gerbera, that was, in essence, a successful small business that paid its dues.

The decision to close shop was preceded by a somewhat scary year, during which I was often waiting for payment for work I’d just gone ahead and done. Because that is often what small companies do – they build relationships, and they deliver. The network of smaller companies I worked with also have an amazing work ethic, and are loyal. And they trusted me, not to expose them to unnecessary risk. I never used to worry about covering my third party costs, but those last few months were a little nerve-wracking. In the end everyone paid, and I could end the financial year on a clean slate, including paying my creditors, my VAT, my PAYE and UIF. I like to end things on a clean slate.

I almost wrote that I was grateful to those clients that paid me. And therein lies one off the biggest traps small companies fall into. We are grateful. We deliver a fantastic service – and we are the grateful ones. I wonder why? Is the gratitude expected of us? Or just some warped reaction to the perfectly reasonable expectation of being fully remunerated for your efforts? Please don’t misunderstand me, as I have always been grateful for the opportunities.  

Over the past decade I’ve been part of a team that helped to build a number of small brands, and we’ve been part of some very cool enterprise development initiatives. You know who you are. Working with you was great fun! 

Right now, I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of a small business, anywhere in the world. One that has extended any kind of credit, may be facing loss of income, the prospect of no payment at all. The saddest thing to me, is the fact that small companies can be quick to re-act, and fast to mobilise, when needed. And isn’t that a big contributor to sustainability and growth?

I can’t speak for any small business owners, but I will say this: “I’m really rooting for you!” My appetite for risk is gone, so I’ll focus on just the writing from now on. I’m so very proud of what Gerbera and team achieved. It was good. It was fun. It was real. It was one of my favourite parts of this last decade of yesterdays. 

 

I hope that when all of this is over,  we learn the lessons from the many, many yesterdays our country has experienced, not just the ones we are living in the here and now. And not just in business, but in life, and in caring about the wellbeing of every single one of our fellow countrymen.

I’m a big fan of Herman Mashaba’s… he wrote this column published on News24 today. I don’t agree with everything, but I agree with a lot. I’ll end it off right here, as even unedited, Chrissi will never be able to say it quite like Herman does.

 

Not all Kumbaya or plain sailing, but definitely worth it

One week ago, today, I landed back in Johannesburg, after two short months onboard the Africa Mercy. I don’t want to romanticise my experience, as of course it wasn’t all “Kumbaya” or plain sailing  living in close confines with many others comes with its own set of challenges. Still, I definitely was not ready to leave Senegal when I did. And am sure that this sentiment is shared by many fellow crew members, who left that same week. But the world was changing. More rapidly than we realised.

While I was onboard, I felt a real sense of purpose. Somehow on this ship, many of the puzzle pieces of my heart and soul, were almost fitting into their right places. I’m definitely not ready to sweep that puzzle off the table and into a box yet, and I aim to pick up where we left off. And hopefully in the not too distant future.

As South Africa counts down the final hours to its 21-day lock-down, the ship and its remaining crew are getting ready to set sail, sometime soon. I saw a news piece on Aljazeera a few days back, saying that Mercy Ships was leaving Senegal, with its four-hundred nurses and doctors onboard, at a time when the country needs it most. I was taken aback at this uninformed and incorrect portrayal of the organisation (including the number of medical staff the journalist said were onboard), and thought I’d set the record straight…even if it is just to my friends who read my blog. The below is from the New Zealand Mercy Ships website:

Why can’t the Mercy Ships be deployed to help against Coronavirus Spread? 

Although the Africa Mercy is a hospital ship, it is essentially a surgical specialist unit. The vessel is not suited to take care of patients with a highly contagious respiratory disease.

Mercy Ships relies on a volunteer staffing model using professional medical volunteers from around the world. The current unprecedented situation has presented a unique operational challenge as many of our medical volunteers have been asked to assist with the COVID-19 crisis in their home countries. In addition, the global air transport shutdown has resulted in our inability to continue to operate the hospital facility safely.

Mercy Ships is also evaluating how the organization, given certain operational limitations, can be utilized to assist in the global COVID-19 response.

Earlier today, I found myself wondering, if I should have stayed onboard. Then I considered the prospect of a twenty-one day lock down on land, versus setting sail on rough seas. I’m probably suffering from a bit of FOMO, although I do suspect that given the opportunity, some of those who remain onboard, would have flown home too. I’m quite sure the past ten-odd days have not been easy for them, as they pack up and do the work of many. I’m sure they are tired and I hope and pray that they have a chance to rest soon.

Meanwhile, back in Centurion, while I have a million-and-one things on my to-do list (like learn French; write my Mercy Ships stories; write for as many competitions as I can find; video-con with my mates; possibly edit a Masters for a friend; bake more banana bread; eat; read; sleep and so on), I’m struggling to find that same intuitive sense of purpose that I experienced for nearly eight weeks.

Nonetheless, I’m still aiming to make the next three weeks (and beyond) count, in whatever way may evolve. So many of us just go through the motions, perhaps doing what we love, but so busy self-editing, that we edit our own voices out of our own stories. I’m aiming to drop the self-editing even further, so, if it gets a little awkward, you’re welcome to step away.

In Senegal I discovered a different joy in writing. I was definitely challenged by the language barrier and the fact that I had to rely heavily on our awesome translators to get to the true essence of a story. In the end, I think we definitely got there! It was such an amazing team effort!

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

Many of my stories haven’t been written yet, but I thought I’d share a photograph of a special memory. You met six-year old Satou in one of my very first blogs – she came to the ship with windswept legs. The photograph below was taken not even an hour after her final casts had come off and her legs had been x-rayed and given the all-clear. I wonder what could be going on in that little head of hers, after the hectics months that lay behind her? After her op she spent months with Mercy Ships – in the hospital, in casts; at the Hope Center in casts and with a little zimmer-frame learning to walk again; in the physio tent, in casts. And then finally the casts came off, she could do her final weeks of rehab and then really start enjoying her new legs. She was discharged the day before I left.

Her journey was for sure not all Kumbaya or plain sailing. She probably didn’t understand a lot that was happening around her. Still it was definitely memorable, and worth it. Gone is that little girl, who could not run with the other kids!

And the same goes for a world in lock-down – it is definitely not going to be Kumbaya or plain sailing, but it will be memorable. And it will be worth it, if we do it, to the best of our abilities.

Stay @ home. Let’s flatten the curve.

All photographs in this post were taken by John Seddon, photographer onboard the Africa Mercy. 

Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Mercy Ships.

I’m here

After three flights (Dakar to Bamako, Bamako to Nairobi, Nairobi to Johannesburg) and half an hour from OR Tambo to the house I sold in December, I arrived, safe and sound, on Thursday afternoon. It felt strange walking back into my old home – especially as I had not expected to be back in South Africa until this December.

A week ago the organisation made the difficult decision to wind down the field service in Senegal (I shared the media release earlier this week) and things began happening very quickly. My actual decision to come back was made in a very short amount of time. Call it seven minutes… the time it took me to google a flight back to South Africa, after calling an old friend for advice, and whilst on the phone to a new friend from the SA embassy in Dakar. The airport was due to shut down its operations imminently, and when I saw there were only a few seats left on Kenya Airways at around R8000, and that the next two ticket prices were R23k and R235k respectively, I booked the flight that left in less than twenty-four hours.

I was travelling as far as Nairobi with three fellow crew members. In the Dakar Airport the majority of travellers were wearing masks, and everyone was maintaining a respectful distance. Not being alone was reassuring, and I was glad for the solidarity and company. One of my travel mates had a scare as her onwards flights from Nairobi had been cancelled. We decided to keep moving forward, and sort it out once there. I’m sure that when she finally got home, she must have been emotionally and physically exhausted. 

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

So yes, I’m back. And who knows for how long – I imagine it will be months, and months. I will return to the ship once COVID-19 is no longer a threat, and the world resets to normal. And when the field service can begin again…

For now, I still have stories to write, and will do whatever writing is required to support the mission. It won’t be a full-time job, so I’m thinking of taking on a few short term projects to earn a little money. I’ll decide what I’m going to do next week.

In the meantime, I’m self-quarantining… I decided that three airports and three flights are too risky for me to see my family or catch up with old mates, even if they were not “hot spots”. I’m now being hosted by an incredibly gracious and supportive friend, who bought my house… At least we have company! And I get to cook and clean for a while again… and sleep in a ‘normal’ bed.

There is a slightly unsettling familiarity about being back here. I can’t believe that it’s actually only been two months that I’ve been away. I want to hold onto the memory of those two months on the ship in Senegal. Thank goodness I saved so many stories, thinking I’d have to stretch them out over the many months ahead, just in case I ran out of material.

For now, like everyone else, I’m going to responsibly adjust to the new normal. Tomorrow I’m having coffee and cake with the family, via Group FaceTime – mom and dad from about two kilometres away; Vera & Thorsten, from about five kilometres away; and Annette and Marcel, who are thousands of kilometres away in Switzerland.

And I’ll see what I can bake for the occasion. There are so many new things happening at the moment, that me actually trying to bake something doesn’t sound too far-fetched, does it?

Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Mercy Ships.

Broadening my horizons

Last weekend I had a fabulously restful two nights and two days off ship. I spent it at the home of a lovely couple, Petra and Fred, from the Dakar German Embassy. They have been in the city for a year-and-a-half of their intended four and it’s been really interesting to see Dakar through their eyes. I also gained a little insight into what embassies do and have come to the conclusion that this would have been an interesting career path for me… if only I’d known or thought about pursuing it before.

For two whole nights I had an entire bedroom and bathroom to myself! It did feel a little too roomy initially, and I think I may have suffered a short bout of withdrawal from the Africa Mercy’s night noises, until I fell asleep…to be awoken hours later by singing birds! (I actually made a recording of my local early birds and Poppy purring before I left South Africa but decided not to torture myself by listening to those just yet.)

Saturday was a lovely lazy day spent on the terrace or by the pool, with some delicious home cooking thrown in… On Sunday we went to a church service at a monastery (Keur Moussa), which was mainly in French or Wolof, so I didn’t understand much. It was beautiful, peaceful and harmonious, and the murals inside the church and the wooden carvings were beautiful too. And after the service all the parishioners went straight to the little shop that sells local produce (dried fruit, fruit juices, nuts, fresh produce etc) made by the monastery. And, so did we!

           

We then set off to have some lunch at Le Simone, a little seaside resort, that is quite popular with tourists. I totally owned the tourist label and kept asking that we stop so that I could take photographs… of donkey carts, baobabs, street art… I continued owning the label when we got to the restaurant… and was especially thrilled to see a South African table.

     

I was dropped off back at the ship after a dinner of German sausages, gherkins and some fine red wine, and a promise that I would come visit again and prepare a meal for Petra and Fred – something with a slight South African twist…

Having this short break and some real alone time when my hosts were out on Saturday morning was very precious. and I came back to the ship refuelled, although to be honest, it did take me a day or two to get back into life onboard.

In spite of this being a relatively contained and comfortable environment, I still think that during my short time here my horizons are constantly being broadened. In some ways I almost feel as though my world before was smaller. Which seems like the strangest thing to say, being that I’ve always felt my life has been full and eventful. Perhaps this is something I will explore in more depth another time.

In terms of the last two work weeks, they have raced by and are a bit of a blur. I’m constantly amazed as to how much we manage to fit into a day here. My alarm goes off at just after six, and I make it to the 06H15 gym class, to shower and change, have breakfast and get to my desk often well before eight. Often, it’s possible to research and/or interviews people onboard the ship or on the dock, although this week I did go off ship on Tuesday and Thursday for two of Mercy Ships medical capacity building programmes and mentorship here in Dakar. It’s easy to pop downstairs to the hospital to visit patients, or chat to the nurses or the physios in the rehab tent. I definitely haven’t worked past six in the evening as well, so am enjoying the luxury of doing other stuff after hours (mostly reading or just hanging around and chatting). Today I even dyed my hair, as currently there is no hairdresser on board, but I hear that someone is on their way…

And as there is crew who have volunteered to work in the galley and in the dining room, we don’t have to prepare our own meals or wash our own dishes (although there is a crew galley if you wanted to cook etc.) The food is generally pretty good, we’ve even had prawns once!

As I’ve mentioned before there are also a host of meetings during the week, and this past Wednesday we had a community meeting specifically about COVID-19. I think there have been four cases in Dakar thus far, and I think that big get togethers have been cancelled – it’s all in the news and easily available via google.

Here on the ship the atmosphere is pretty calm onboard. Since I’ve been here there has been a chickenpox and an influenza outbreak which was well contained. Mercy Ships crisis management team is planning for all various scenarios and in the meantime, we are sticking to our already intense disinfecting / hand washing protocols and all the other guidelines the rest of the world are following. There are many of us who are now working especially hard at unlearning touching our T-zone…

I’m hoping COVID-19 doesn’t scupper too many travel plans, and that airlines won’t have to cancel too many flights, and in fact, that they survive. My next flight is booked for 3 June to Zurich, from Dakar, via Madrid. I’m holding off booking my Texas flight for a bit to see what happens with regards to international travel. I guess we’re all watching this space…

Stay safe and healthy xxx

 

What are the odds?

What are the chances of scrubbing up and walking into the OR on the Africa Mercy and bumping into a close childhood friend, you’d lost touch with almost forty-five years ago? For general surgeon James Smellie and ophthalmic surgeon Richard Newsom (two of thirteen surgeons onboard the hospital ship this February) the stars above Dakar must have aligned to enable this event. “To meet up with an old school buddy in Senegal is just one of these amazing coincidences,” says Richard. “When I saw James in the OR, it was a complete shock to me. I had no idea he was here.”

The two surgeons, both of whom are Mercy Ships alumni, had gone to elementary school together in Cambridge. Their parents worked as doctors and colleagues in the same hospital in Cambridge, and the families knew each other well. When they went off to separate boarding schools, the two lost touch.

“While I was preparing to come to the ship this year I saw Richard’s name, so knew I could meet him again,” says James, “but I hadn’t seen him since 1976, until he walked into the operating theatre.”

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

The two had a lot of catching up and reminiscing to do, over just a few days, as James’ general surgery block was coming to an end. “I’ve really enjoyed my time onboard the Africa Mercy,” says James. “It’s been a good time – including a nice reunion with an old friend as well as an eye-opener professionally. You’re never too senior to learn something!”

As the two talked about their lives and training, they realized that there had been some parallels and that they knew many of the same people. Yet, even though their professional development saw both study in South London and work in some of the same institutions, their paths never crossed. Until now.

“I remember James as being one of the really bright guys at school, and have always wondered what had become of him,” says Richard. “It’s an amazing coincidence and I’d certainly like to stay in touch, and not wait another 46 years to meet up again!”

Dr Smellie left Dakar on 15 February 2020, and Dr Newsom departed from Senegal en-route back to the United Kingdom on 19 February 2020. They will both be back onboard Africa Mercy for the next field service that begins in Monrovia, Liberia later this year.

About Mercy Ships

Mercy Ships uses hospital ships to deliver free, world-class healthcare services, capacity building, and sustainable development to those with little access in the developing world. Founded in 1978 by Don and Deyon Stephens, Mercy Ships has worked in more than 55 developing countries, providing services valued at more than $1.53 billion and treating more than 2.71 million direct beneficiaries. Our ships are crewed by volunteers from over 50 nations, with an average of over 1,000 volunteers each year. Professionals including surgeons, dentists, nurses, healthcare trainers, teachers, cooks, seamen, engineers, and agriculturalists donate their time and skills. With 16 national offices and our Africa Bureau, Mercy Ships seeks to transform individuals and serve nations one at a time.

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