Friday, 2 November 2012

This is the story of the silent happiness

The office in Langa.
Crowded in the afternoons.
Staff & trolls running in and out to fetch stuff.

I overheard a conversation.
About a boy. 
The destiny of a child I never met, but could not help being captured by.
Someone whose story should be told to the world.
Here it is:

16 years ago a child was born.
A boy.
He grew up on a farm somewhere in the countryside outside of Cape Town.
Goats. Crops. Chores.
A lot to take care of to keep the farm going.
His guardians did not see it. They did not know it. They loved him.
His indigence to interact with other people.
The seasons changed.
The years passed.
The farm needed him. His family needed him. He needed more.

Fate saw to him ending up on Project Playground one day in October 2012.
In the middle of the troll-army.
The mess. The constant interaction. The laughter. The friends. The challenges. The neverending chattering.
He joined Photography-class.
The joy of this creative boy; no language houses words big enough to embrace it.
 A ray of light.
A second chance.
My turn now.
Waving to everyone around as he cannot contain his beatification.
Surrounded by troll-friends.
Creative stimuli.
People speak of him as the child with the light inside.
Crazy contagious.

16 years.
No school.
He keeps silent for he can hardly speak.
He does not know English.
He can merely master his mother tongue; Xhosa.

His guardians did not see it. They did not know it. They loved him.

I call you "The silent happiness".

Monday, 29 October 2012

Frozen in time

Time flies.

Seconds turn into minutes. Minutes turn into hours. Hours eventually turn into years.
The future becomes the present. The present becomes the past.
What was once now is but a memory of it.
Time is fair and simultaneously it shows no mercy.
Time does not care nor does it retaliate.
The strident voice of time calling the same words throughout history:
"Try evading me and I will capture you. Try capturing me and I will flee you. Leave me be".
Time just is.

Two years earlier
An NGO opened their doors to the people of a black South African township called Langa.
Their idea was to empower children, increasing their self-esteem through play and by doing so improving the prospects of the up-growing generation and of society as a whole.
Change is possible.
One big family.
Respect & justice.
The right to a childhood.
The two Swedish women who founded the organization named it Project Playground.

The day before
Everything must be ready for tomorrow.
Clean the toilets.
Put up the photo gallery.
Buy the missing supplies.
Clear the square.
Decorate the various fore- and backgrounds.
Dim twilight.
Set the tables.
Look through the program & rehearse again. And again.
Complete darkness. Stars.
Hang the welcome sign at the gate.
Fettle the whole area.
Close up the Big Hall.
Sleep. Dream now.

The afternoon
All the staff came early to attend the meeting.
Circle of chairs.
Words of gratitude, nostalgia and seriousness.
Words of where we've been, where we are and where we're going.
Everyone in suits and dresses.
High-heels and ties.
The guests will start arriving at 18:00 sharp.
Only a few hours away.

The evening
The air throughout the night was so over-brimmed with feeling, one could slice it up.
Even without one of those special "feeling-slicers" (which are so hard to come by), the attendants were served the emotion-desert of their lives.

Images tell more than a thousand words, hence:

The thoughts after
Some fractions time cannot touch.
As if there were some guardian out there who could perceive their true significance, and therefore protects them by never letting them fade out.
Moments frozen in history.
A stray night like this.

Project Playground's second anniversary.

Time flies.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

This is the story of crystal clarity

Something's up at PPG.
Something that has never happened before.
A lifechanger is taking place at the center.

[Life, part I]
It may occur, every once in a while, far too rarely, that people astonish.
The size of their hearts blast every expectation and lets no tunnel vision unbroadened. 
They literally blow your mind.
For what they have on the inside.

A team of opticians booked a flight to Cape Town not long ago.
Equipped to their teeth with lenses, optic machines and frames.
They had an objective. One star to follow. One common goal. Crystal clear.
Make people see.
Make trolls see.
Trolls who can never and will never afford to pay to see.
The eye-team aims to give a herd of trolls one of the five senses.
No chance of giving up until every single child has been examined.
Open your eyes.

One guy could hardly read and write.
Mentally disabled, was the conclusion of the board of education.
They shipped him off to a "special school".
He stayed there.
The eye-team found that this boy was nearly blind.
He could merely count his own fingers.
As they put the correct lenses in front of his eyes something happened.
Something that had never happened before.
He could see.
Full vision. Crystal clear.
As he red the letter-board tears filled up his eyes.
Pure, sincere and uncontrolled happiness.
This is what it feels like to see!

[Life, part II]
More than half of all trolls need glasses.
Without the eye-team, their vision would never have been considered or even thought of.

Your effort has blown minds.
You are a group of those people. 

The boy, who now is able to see, is 20 years old.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The weight of the world

A day of pain.
Weight on one's shoulders.
Wobbly to stand.
Tough not to fall when the wind starts challenging how much storm you can put up with.
The air feels a bit sticky and heavy to breathe.
Surrounded by poverty, drugs and injustice.
The echo of the loneliness leaves the eardrums bloody.
The smell of the tears of the people corroding both heart and mind.
The vision of a neverending struggle like a thick grey fog, closing in from every direction.
Make it stop hurting!
The dark temptation of just letting go. Give in. Give up.

Friday in Langa.
Around lunch time at the center.
The rain was pouring down as if this were its last chance to wet the earth.

A long staff meeting had just taken place.
A really good one.
At Fridays lunch always follows. One of those together-lunches. Bonding through food.
A circle of lunch-eating PPG employees.
A team of friends.
Smiles, more grins and chattering.
Hopes and ideas for the improvement of the future of the little ones.
A better life.
Beliefs. Dreams. Fight. Action.

In that moment the load was lifted.
Just like that.
That instant could not fit heaviness and despair.

The weight of the world.
Its ponderousness was overcome by a lunch in a township somewhere in Africa.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

That thing

As the car turned left from the highway at the sight of the "Langa" sign, I felt it flow through me.
As the trashy sidewalks leading up to the roundabout whooshed by outside my window, I could almost taste the purity of it.
As I glanced at the typical township kiosk to the left, I got the soft chills.
As I saw the people sitting down in the sun at the side of the road, just being, I heard it as if being shouted out loud.
As the bricked PPG-walls appeared behind the gates, the air filled up with it.
As the staff came to embrace me, one by one, with all their uncomplicated sincere joy, I was overwhelmed by it.
As I sat down in silence on the porch letting the dusty Langa-winds take a hold of mind, I perceived nothing but its peace and warmth.
As I hugged the smily Play on Wheels-trolls again, my veins would almost burst from the content of it.

This is it.
This must be it.
What else could it be?
The closest you can come to the core of it.
The true meaning of it.
As pure as its essence can get.

The L-word.

I'm back in Cape Town.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Dreams, engagement and a soccer tournament

The first PPG soccer tournament ever.
The 29th of June it took place.
Langa Stadium.
12 teams competing, on knock-out terms.Three age categories (under-11, under-13 and under-15) with four teams of each.
A full day event, with lunch-serving for the teams & the accomodators.

Forward planning
Everything was planned.
Since weeks and weeks.
The fixing of catering, the printing of registration lists, the calling of volunteers, the ordering of  banners, the go-through with the DJ, the writing of speeches, the designing of trophies, the information meetings with all involved parties, the structuring of tasks, the creation of press releases, the contact with sponsors, the setting-up of posters, and the rehearsals with the performing trolls.
And of course, all the recurring check-ups.

The buildup
The morning of the 29th came.
The very VERY early kind, pre-sunrise.
It rained.
The whole night it literally poured down.
Last pep-talk, go-through and loads of preparations.
Minor panic.
It stopped raining. 
Carry, fix, print, tape, cook, mount, call, search, check.
Run run run.

The deadline
At 9:00 AM the first match would start.
At 9:15 AM the first match started.

The day, in pictures

Small soccer-fans paying a visit

Everything clicked
The major sponsor amazingly flew in from Sweden to take part of the day.
It stopped raining.
All teams signed in.
The DJ rocked.
The spectators at the stand loved the games. 
The players and the artists (more than 400 persons) all got their lunch.
The opening ceremony was perfect.
The finals were well-played and cheered.
All finalists got new kits (socks, shorts and t-shirts).
Sunset. The lack of sunbeams devolved omnipotence to the icy Capetonian winds.
The prize-giving was emotional and the winning teams were thrilled.
Proud parents hugged their winners.
All staff and volunteers performed marvelously. As a team, they pulled everything through.
There was that feel-good feeling all around and a smile on people's faces.
Langa saw how sports bring us together.

Thoughts of the whole
As I sat in the audience, watching the opening ceremony, it hit me.
The hundreds of dancing trolls with angel-wings at the soccer field.
The marimba guys doing their magic.
The PPG-staff running around all over.
The hundreds of spectators at the stand.
The sponsoring banners along the street.
The table with the prizes.
The catering gazebo filled with braaied hot-dogs.
The engaged volunteers, all wearing the yellow South African soccer shirt.
The whole.

A dream.
All of the above. Everything. Every tiny little detail.
It sprung from someone having a dream.
A dream of a real soccer tournament in a township, sure.
Even more, a dream of building something that would make life better.
Give children a chance to grow up differently, feeling good about themselves.
The desire to wake the inner pursuit of happiness in the growing generation by simply shedding a light on their own extravagance.
The vision of a society where people treat each other with respect, equality and tolerance.
The knowing that I matter.
The belief that change is possible, and that it must start somewhere.
Why not with MY dream?

All of this.
Because of a dream.

Thursday, 28 June 2012


We had a PPG excursion today.
The peculiar kind.
The type which is nothing like you what you had expected.
The sort which makes so much more than an impression.
An imprint.

 Starting shot at 07:00.
We drove for nearly one and a half hour to get there.
The sky cleared up along the way and the stunning countryside unfolded around us.
Green fields. Green leaves. Green feelings.
Whooshing by outside the window.
Green green green.
The steep mountains sideswiped the heavy rainclouds still trying to beat the sunshine up there.
Last night was a persistent harsh storm.
The air was still chilly.

We arrived.
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Leave the cell phones.
No cameras allowed.
Guns & orange.
Escort in uniforms.
Bars & bricked walls.

Medium security. For those of you who are not familiar with the concept; it means that all the inmates at place have passed a psych-evaluation. It also includes that one can survey the walls from the inside and actually catch a glimpse of the mountains far away.

We were invited to celebrate a youth day with them.
Join them behind bars.

All these orange inmates.
Hundreds, gathered in the outside square, awaiting us.
Walls with barb-wire on top. Mud & puddles everywhere.
Some chairs and a home-made stage in the middle.
Standing right beside us now. All around us. No fences. No walls. Nothing between us.
Completely unexpected.
A slight twinge of fear.

They sang. They danced. They acted out poems.
We sang. We danced.
One stage.
One square.
One blue sky above us.
The same will to be at that very spot in that very moment.
Sudden unforgettable together-ness.

A PPG-employee, who has spent years in jail, held a speech.
He is a legend in bad circles. The old him, as he puts it.
His name was said out loud. He went up on stage. He took the mic.
Silence descended like an invisible veil over the whole crowd.
Everyone listened.

"You are my brothers. I was here".
He spoke about life on the outside. About the difference between fear and respect.
About education versus just "tagging along" thoughtlessly, not-knowing.
"Change is possible" he said.
"Look at me. I work in a NGO in Langa. We have more than 200 children coming to us every week. We make a difference in their lives".

Change is possible.

One could hear his voice crumble.
"Do not fear to do good".

Full of emotions. Brimful. Ready to blow-up.
Orange murderers dancing in gumboots.
Prayers of mercy to a common God.
Memories of cruel betrayals and vain wishes of forgiveness.
Tears shed for brutal, heartless mistakes and failures and sincere hopes of a second chance.
People for whom it is eternally too late.  
Entire lives spent in captivity.
The deep sadness and the concurrent mindless  joy. The raw reality. The beauty.
The unlikelihood of the experience.
The overwhelming realization that all people are somehow nothing but broken children.
The gratitude.
The children performing for the inmates.
The bottom and the summit.

They are people
We are people.
Everyone is just people.


Change is possible.

Behind those bars, I was captured.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Friendship at a bad night

Yesterday, after sunset.
Night in Langa.
Something bad happened.

One PPG-employee was on her way home.
A woman who has been through everything; poverty, unemployment, divorce, raising children all alone, assault, attempted murder and complete loneliness.

She was no one.
She had no one.
No one cared about her.

A pregnant woman asked her for help by the side of street.
Then she did something she knows you should never do, especially when it is dark.
She stopped to lend a hand.
This pregnant lady was part of a scam, teamed up with two other men who suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
They pushed a gun to her face.
They robbed her of everything she carried.
She founded from the fear.

Her little niece accompanied her to the police station.
This girl called some of her colleagues. 
A group of them dropped what they were doing and immediately went to see her.
Just to be there for her, support her, hug her.
They did not want her be alone on a night like this.
 She is one of them.

In truly ugly moments.
Real friends stand by your side.

She is someone.
People care, about her.

Friday, 22 June 2012

This is the [Midsummer] story about the long, harsh road to smiling

Heavy rain over Langa.
It had already darkened and the pallid lamp-light outside the big hall barely caused reflections in the little pool of water in the middle of the square.
Chilly air, the damp windy kind.

Then I set my eyes on her. Again.
A girl. She is around 10 years old.
Very bright, very good in English, very well-aware and very very skinny.

Last time I met her (in December) she was devastated.
Completely broken she embraced me, with those big tears falling down her cheeks she whispered "I am so hungry...".
As I held this tiny child, feeling the ribs on her back, she told me her lifetime story.
How she, her sister and her mom fled from Jo-burg to Langa.
How her mom cannot find a job and thus cannot give her kids food every day.
How they are lodgers at someone else's shack cause they cannot pay to have one of their own.
How she asks her teacher at school for food "under the table".
How her little sister cries when she thinks no one is watching.
Her voice crumbled as she started telling me about her mother.
"I am so worried about my mother. I am afraid her heart might stop beating. Because of the sadness she feels... For me and my sister. I am afraid she will die away from me and we will be all alone!"
This girl cried. She would not stop.
Desperation. Complete and utter desperation.
As I asked her if there is anything I can do for her she simply replied "Yes... Could you please talk to my mother? Tell her that everything will be alright... Please..."

We did. We spoke to her mother.

Six months later.
I spotted her at a distance.
I picked her up in the rain.

When I asked her how she is doing she simply said "I am OK now. My mom found a job".
The smile on her face.
It stretched all around the planet, from one side of the universe to the other.
Completion. Just like that.
Endlessness, somehow.
She looked at me without saying a word for a long time. 
"She is OK now. Me and my sister can have bread almost every day."

They have their own shack now.
She asked me to come visit her, at their new "house". Their place.

She loves maths, this little brainy troll.
Reflecting is her thing.
Actually, smiling is her thing.

It was wet.
It was gloomy.
It was humid and raw.
It was cold.

Then I met her.

Monday, 18 June 2012

This is the story of a strong heart

This story tells of  a woman.
She lives in a shack in Langa with her three kids.

Though I have no idea neither how her life begun, nor how it is going to end, one thing is certain; just knowing a piece in the middle, makes a difference.

Her tale is rough and shivery, brutal even.

She has a daughter with cerebral palsy. She is 11 and cannot move, not eat, not talk.
She has a son, called "Angel-face". He is 5 years old now and so damaged inside he every now and then looses contact with reality. Gone, just like that.
She has another daughter. A tiny little troll. She is a bit more than a year now.
She was poor. Very, very poor. Her severely disabled daughter can only drink "special nutritious milk" from the hospital due to her condition. It is expensive. Too expensive at times.
Her shack has holes in the roof. It rains both outside and inside in wintertime. Tape. Pieces of plastic. Whatever she can get her hands on to seal. Mold.
At night her kids are freezing. Her disabled daughter with weak immune defense starts coughing more and more and eventually gets pneumonia.
Emergency room. The doctors cannot fully explain how that little girl can still be alive.
A new winter ends and another one begins. The same story.

Somewhere, years ago, she met a man and fell in love. He was one of the bad ones. The aggressive, abusive kind, whenever there was some alcohol in the system. And he drank. Often and a lot.
He beat her bloody, in front of her children. Angel-face tried to stop him at times, screaming to let go off his mom. He abused him too.
He made her pregnant. He tried to kill her, stabbing her, when she was expecting his child. She survived, but the scars of that knife never go away.
She left him, but he still came around at night, threatening to kill her and all of her children.

Around this time she came in contact with PPG. She got a job at the center.
The way she approaches, handles and loves kids is amazing to see. She just "has it". They all, staff and trolls, fell in love with her. PPG became her family. She eventually started smiling.
The staff often went to see her. Trying to do whatever they could to lend her a helping hand.
Observing, suspicious eyes watching her getting "white visits" at her shack.
Gossip. Malarkey. Jealousy.

We embraced each other when I saw her again.
"Thank you... For coming back to us."
A sincere faint smile. Her eyes were filled with tears. A deeply touched gratitude.

The other day she told of the new lodgers (a woman and her child) she just took in at her shack. "They have nowhere to go", she explained. "I can share what I have with them, they have nothing".
She has nothing, but the will to share everything.

Yesterday she cried. A neighbor ballyragged, yelled.
She did not ask for permission to "borrow the common clothes-line".
The jealousy. Again. She is constantly bullied by the people in Langa. Treated like dirt, because she "is clearly privileged, since whites are seen at her shack".
She asked someone to come fetch her kids. "I do not want them to see me cry. They are sensitive".
All alone, she sat down inside, letting the tears fall from her broken heart.

Evening came.
It was time now. Time to pull herself together.
Time to get the kids. School tomorrow.
Time to see another day.

One cannot measure the dimension of the content of someone's heart.
One cannot judge the worth of the strength of someone's inside.

One can only wonder what this woman is made of.
The strongest heart I ever came across.

The end of her story is still unwritten.
It should be a "happily ever after".

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Support group

I experienced something yesterday afternoon.
Something that initially gave me one of those right-on-the-spot nasty kidney-kicks.
The same something ended by letting a shed of hope sweep right through me. 

A support group session.
A place where people who have disabilities in their close family can meet and discuss their feelings freely without being judged or laughed at. Disabilities are highly stigmatized in black townships here, they are seen as "curses". A consequence of this false-belief is the complete outcasting of families who have some member with a disability.

The meeting was not what saddened me. The opposite, really.
The look of the people was.

Roughly 20 persons attended, sitting in a circle with weighted hearts.
Their auras. Their body language. The perennial tiredness in their eyes. The quiet tone of their voices. Their battered skin.
"Life did this to me" written all over their faces.
You could actually see what a life of poverty, alienation from society, fighting to take care of disabled loved ones without assistance or help, loneliness and degradation do to a person.

Since the initiation of the support group sessions, the number of participants constantly grows.
Good news travel fast. They are almost quicker than the speed of light.
Rumor has it you do not have be completely alone in this world anymore.
People who want to listen, support or even just sit down next to you and not have the feeling of being an outcast. People who have each other.

All beginnings of something new must start by ending something old.
Like say, loneliness turned into brotherhood.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

A familiar return


The light in the sky is a bit more faint now, casting a yellowish color onto the trees.
The breeze is cooler when it hits my face.
The sun is already low and the air is "thinner" to breathe.

As I look out over the vast ocean I recognize the strong wind and the smell of algae.
The insane traffic and the downtown chaos all come back to me now.
The smiling people look the same. The coffee tastes the same.
Once again I find myself standing speechless glancing at the (somewhat flattened) mountains surrounding me.

Summer has ended. Autumn has come and gone.
Winter is now upon us.

Six months have passed.
Seems like yesterday. Was I ever really away?

I cannot help smiling.
I am back in Cape Town.