I returned to Cape Town from the Free State a few weeks ago. Back to the mountain, the sea, the breathtaking beauty that is this city perched at the bottom of a continent where the next stop across the water is Antarctica. A poet friend told me that living in Cape Town gives you a whole new appreciation for gravity. Here we are dangling at the bottom of the world.
My days are full of words. I hear the most amazing things. Part of my research is about how to create listening spaces for young people. And this is one thing I have learned again and again…how to listen. How to listen to what is not being said: To hear the pain behind the small sigh, the despair when eyes don’t meet mine, the hope behind a blush. I meet with all sorts: teachers, youth politicians, wise old ANC lions, children, high school students, university students, poets, writers, artists, an imam, NGOs, and think tanks.
My first impression was that we are in mourning for the Mandela dream. People feel denial and anger about the betrayal of what they fought and hoped and voted for during the miracle in 1994, when the first free elections were held. So there is grief.
There is also terrible violence here: A rage like a volcano that erupts given the slightest provocation–murders, rapes, robberies, gangs, drugs.
What is terribly hard of course, are the disparities between rich and poor. The rich are fabulously wealthy, and the poor are truly hopeless. Sometimes only a highway separates communities (what used to be called townships) and a leafy gated suburb protected behind barbed wire. I have visited several communities and smelled the smells. No toilets, no running water, no electricity. Shacks. Some places are fairly clean; others had rats scuttling between the garbage on the streets in front of the shacks. People answer my questions in these places, trying not to stare at my hair, my shoes, my clothes, my camera, my tape recorder, my leather notebook, my pen, my sunglasses. All my possessions. My materials in this world where the losers have lost so very much.
“True wealth” is a term I heard during one of yesterday’s interviews. It is self-confidence, a sense of who you are, where you come from, where you are headed, and where you are. Being present. Interconnected with others and nature and the ancestors. A sense of community. This is what Africa can teach the rest of the world: An inherent dignity.
I am back where I was when I interviewed aids orphans in Kwa-Zulu Natal. I hear children talk of 11 people sleeping in 3 rooms. One student told me both her parents are seriously ill, so she must do the shopping and cooking for her siblings and nurse her parents and study for her exams. But even worse, there is an undercurrent of sexual abuse. One counsellor told me of a girl who is being raped by her father. These most vulnerable of the population know no protection.
Today I asked four 12-year olds what they liked most about school: “I feel safe here, Miss.” “At home the gangsters have guns and knives.” “I saw a man beaten in the head with a golf stick.” “We children can get in the way.”
So I am torn between heaven and hell. Words of courage and faith and trust swirl amongst the pain and fear. Walking along a pristine beach last week I realized I am standing in the gap between them all. In this deeply divided society where everyone has more thems than us, how to find the space in between, the place where an unexpected gift may be given at an unexpected time?
One answer is to do what you can do. Which is why I am throwing a party. Fourteen people are coming to a thank-you lunch on Saturday, my way of showing gratitude to new friends for the doors they have opened to me and my research. This could be the most diverse guest list this country has ever seen: all races and socio-economic backgrounds and ages. We will eat and drink and tell stories and laugh under the trees in the sunshine. And maybe a space for listening will open up and surprise us all with joy.