Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Brutal name-calling on Christmas Eve...

I just returned from the local Superette owned by Asians - and (before today) supported by myself for the odd last-minute shopping. I left with a bad taste in the mouth and almost a broken noise... and a long time afterwards still a sense of amazement and lingering fury:

Imagine a isiXhosa-speaking youngster in a bright red soccer sweat shirt at the bread counter - as thin as a reed - with a cold drink under the arm. See, also a big, bold Chinese-speaking business owner in a suit with a stick... and throw in the accusation that he is trying to steal in the shop. In broken English both tried to make their cases: The Chinese gentleman with fury, the youngster with sheer embarrassment and smiles, and the entire scene of staring customers and shouting from the small community of Asian workers escalated quickly to the cacophony of sound at the counter next to me. At which point, the business man decided to hit the young man against the head and called him 'your bloody liar and thief' ... and right there I lost it!

I should probably NOT have done it, but I stepped in between the two and held up a flat hand: "Please stop it. Just... Don't!". (It was like being trapped in a movie strip...) He basically stepped right through me, as one would guess. I stumbled against the sweets counter and tried to stay upright with some dignity. But there was a brief moment of sheer disbelief before he continued to bully the man into the street and threw him onto an equally bewildered security guard. On his return, I told the suit that hitting is unacceptable and he tried to explain how the young man allegedly 'planned to steal from them'. I was furious. Lost. "Here, in this country, we don't hit our customers. You make a case with the police if you have a problem with someone".

I patiently waited outside the gates for *Zolile and called him over. Asked him about the incident and yes, there were tears and again, the embarrassment. Shock. He was bleeding. "Do you want to go to the police... I will be a witness of what happened"? ... and he said, "Yes, please"... but friends convinced him otherwise and he walked away with them. "Spend your money elsewhere, those are dangerous people *Zolile; and they will mark you..", I managed.

I do not know if he did or did not steal. I also do not know if he did or did not plan to steal. I *do* know that he was assaulted and humiliated. I do not know if I (too) am prejudice towards Southern people from the cultural group we engage mostly in our projects - and in simply assuming that the young man spoke the truth in my short talk with him, with the man from the East not being justified in his behaviour. Maybe I should not have judged. Then again: I *do* know violence cannot be tolerated where dialogue could have been used, and I also *do* believe that there are still laws in our country and processes (like I was reminded by the fellow customer at the cashiers). I also understand I could not possibly be welcome there anymore, and I also won't do last minute shopping ever again at the small supermarket in Kommetjie Road at Sunnydale in Cape Town.

There may be good relationships at a macro-level between the Chinese and South African governments. And this may be an isolated case of prejudice and fear between different cultures doing business on the same corner. But I am convinced this is not the first and not the last clash between people at this little store....

And so, my Christmas Eve starts with much on my mind: a young man with tears in his eyes, and a white bread and soup powder on my kitchen table, that I cannot touch yet...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dylon's Birthday before Christmas

I just received a call from a fellow Director who was on the telephone this afternoon with Berenice Bougaard, principal of Sunrise Educare Centre in an informal settlement, Vrygrond - South Africa. She called on behalf of one of their learners, Dylon (7 years old), who suffers from cancer and is terminally ill in a wheelchair. The prognosis is really not good and there is every chance this will be his last birthday and final Christmas.

I don't normally do appeals like this, but lately my heart has recently been drawn to the under-resourced primary schools and educare centres in our country. This particular centre is supported by the Alexandra Stark Memorial Foundation in France in terms of infrastructure, but this is an ad hoc appeal for a particular learner who is loosing the battle against cancer:
The request from Berenice was for a financial donation of R1000,00 ZAR (or 103.06 USD) to have a special birthday party for Dylon and his friends at the centre tomorrow (23 December) evening South African time.

Please let me know if you are willing to assist with a direct donation. We will not apply any funds received for any other purpose and the entire amount will be transferred directly to the centre via Uthango Social Investments. The nature and time frame of this appeal
(the event is tomorrow!) make South African donors the most appropriate in this instance, but we would appreciate any support from the global community for similar initiatives. Please contact us directly or visit our secure donation page with credit card facilities on Uthango's website...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Half-way there for Auntie Rosie...

Today, I was in Heinz Park, close to Mitchell's Plain, to deliver Christmas gifts and represent a company at a party for a local orphanage and safe house. I realised how relative 'safety' is some times...

It was incredibly hot in Cape Town and I was glad the bizarre and unfit-for-Africa 'Father Christmas' outfit (complete with white beard) remained behind. The ordeal would have surely led to an unfortunate collapse of a staff member, no doubt ... The children did not miss him one bit, as they started to sing 'Happy Birthday' to one of their own instead at the sight of the gifts!

It was an tiresome day with ambivalent feelings of wishing to be elsewhere when we were told the 'stories' of each child, indiscreetly, openly. I politely tried to divert "Auntie Rosie's" show-and-tell to the direction of the incomplete rooms of the home instead - a fruitless attempt to increase the privacy and dignity for the children listening to the traumatic version of their lives, shared with newcomers. The reality of everyday struggles was amplified by a visit of a drunk uncle demanding that his twelve-year old niece return home soon. Auntie Rosie met him at the closed gate to chase him away firmly (handing him some cake in the process). Dinah* was taken aside with a few encouraging words... She needs to know 'he is NOT her father and she should NOT let him walk all over her". I could not help but see how she collected herself, her anxiety, slowly and shifted herself into a faint, shy smile - for the guests. (In that moment, I asked her about school and her progress and started to think I may have a possible sponsor in mind to assist her next year with school fees).

And the small ones sat on the cement floor fixated on the icing and chips, and assisting each other with plates. There was no fighting or squabbling for the two hours that we were there and it was crystal clear that Auntie Rosie and her assistants rule supreme. (The backyard is filled with dangerous building rubble on the hot white sand, and yet, ideal for creating a small playground).

This very small informal settlement is close to Phillipi and Mitchell's Plain in Cape Town and has been described by the Education Department as follows:
Poverty takes on an ugly face at Heinz Park Primary where 99% of the parent body are unemployed and dependent on social grants. Social evils that often accompany poverty – abuse (both physical and sexual) of learners, learners with AIDS, tuberculosis, drug dependency, hunger and a host of learning barriers – are highly prevalent at Heinz Park and educators struggle on a daily basis to instil (sic) better values in the lives of their learners and to help them see that a sound education holds the key to improving the quality of their lives.
Our company ended up here this Christmas due to one of our corporate clients wanting to 'do something for Christmas'. (It really DOES boil down to the willingness of the leaders in a company to 'do something' and I was particularly glad for this call, as the staff members also participated. Corporate Social Investment is less about giving money, it is more about also making change happen in a world beyond the boardroom).

I see many townships annually, but Auntie Rosie's tears about her son dying of HIV/Aids last year and the physical state of the two bedroom home for 17 children - with some sleeping in the kitchen - will haunt me a bit longer than others. The most important need here is (again) one of infrastructure, and in this case it is the resources to complete the home - a slab for the half-completed building. This is the same building (without roof!) that will serve as the local Christmas venue for the families - "because we have so many rooms here already", she adds with a big smile. They are "half-way there" with the building and build further each month as they can afford it. A lot of things are half-way there... here.

There's much to do at Sinethemba but it is the desperation with this group of children that I have not seen this year, and that finally gets to me - keeping me up a few hours longer. Even the smiles of brothers Robbie* and Jeremy* did not seem to go further than the surface and a tearful gaze (for no apparent reason) of a nine-year old boy will linger in my mind. Nellie* fetches the puppy from the back to show us, and I wish she didn't. Three puppies died already. I want to take it home for more than one reason.

I battled with leaving the home later that day and finding two more boys hanging from their front gate - looking in on the party. Some times, I cannot stand my work...

Today, I hope that 2009 will be a better year for Sinethemba (meaning Hope) and that there will truly be a better outcome for each of the children - one that decreases the sense of loss that is so vivid. "Oh, it has been eight years", says Auntie Rosie, "eight years since I have been to the sea with my kids". I am speechless for a moment: "We will have to make a plan", I say, "but I can't promise". (I repeat my motos in my head: Never, ever-ever promise. Never create expectations. There are too many broken promises. Just do what you can when you can with what you have).

There are three women that stand in the void for these children. They stand in where humanity has failed them. They do what the rest of us cannot or will not do: They manage an orphanage and a safe house without any cash flow, without security, with a broken washing machine, without a decent roof on their house, with an outside kitchen, a few uncovered mattresses and three beds, with little support from government, with little compensation (if any) , without all the necessary skills and with not much prospect for change... And they wish on us blessings when we leave...

Ps: Let me share with you - I have never wanted to be 'a bleeding heart' or a fundraiser that appeal to others purely on the basis of dire poverty and need (with matching pictures of hungry children). I have always wanted to run with innovation, with sustainability, with indigenous solutions as the focus of grant-seeking actions. But there comes a time, like today, when your heart DOES start to bleed and you slip into that same desperation that you see around you. In this moment, you want to cry 'help' - toward others - in the same way as those that look toward you. The challenge would be to move beyond this moment - like the people I met today.

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