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.