Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

11 May 2015

My TEDx AUCollege talk is online!

Filed under: Aids survival,PhD!,The Children's Voices,Words by Others — annedegraaf @ 12:30 pm

me at tedx in audienceWhat a great privilege it was to speak at TEDx AUCollege on 6 March 2015. To get an idea of what makes me tick, watch what I say about The Children’s Voices. Click here!

A big thank you to everyone who made this magic evening come together, and especially to my family who were there as support. (You can see them in the front row!)

16 March 2012


I’m home. I feel all mixed-up inside. I brought Cape Town back with me, it warms my heart as I stare at gray North European skies and put on yet another layer of clothes. No one knows my secret: I’m tan!! Well, my husband knows.

I hit the ground running, going into work for a week starting the day after I arrived, and working straight through the weekend. Then yesterday I heard myself telling our daughter that my emotions are all mixed up and bubbling. “My heart feels like a water balloon, rolling around and around, about to burst. I don’t know what to do.” She wisely asked (where does she get it from?), “What does your heart say?” And I suddenly knew what I had to do: geef het een plek (give it a place) and write down how I feel.

This blog came into being when I returned from another trip to Africa, much more battered than I am now. Putting down the truth and telling how I felt healed me then. The slow showing up to write every day for a half hour helped me breathe new life into a blocked writing habit. I don’t have that problem now. In fact, I’m all excited to be home and can’t wait to start teaching on Tuesday. I’m happy to see my colleagues and I love sleeping in my bed. The best part has been hanging out with my family and watching their eyes and memorizing their voices, now no longer skype distorted. No, I’m okay. But as a wise friend said to me on Wednesday, “You need to let it all settle.”

But it won’t. Memories lift me at the most surprising moments, like birds taking flight. Smiles on the street. The eyes of a 12-year-old I interviewed who said her dream is to get pregnant because then she will receive R200 (€20) per month. The smell of wood smoke and sewage inside a community. Air warm against my cheek while cool water caresses my ankles. Mountains rising across False Bay with a thousand shades of teal between the other side and me. The faces and voices of all those many interviews; their words still swirl though my heart.

It needs to be said that I have met children who have no hope. Struck down by poverty, orphaned, sexually abused–still they dared to tell me things like, “When I grow up I want to be a chartered accountant.” Where does that courage come from?

Oh, you want to know about my Thank-you Lunch! It was perfect. Three people didn’t show and one woman brought her two sons from the community, so we had just the right amount. We ate and laughed and at some point I moved my chair from one end of the table to the other. Then I asked the kids if they wanted milkshakes. Chocolate? Right. We ate some more. Beneath ancient trees sun dappled our long table full of roses and glasses. Who was there? Friends and family: a reverend, psychologist, student, anthropologist and her two little girls, a favorite little girl of mine who has the heart of a peacemaker, mentor and colleague, husbands, wives, think-tank program director, filmmaker, teacher-to-be and me. We did the usual de Graaf thing: ate and talked and laughed and told jokes and listened to stories. There was also a fair amount of exchanging phone numbers, so that was cool. I miss them, these friends and family.

I feel . . . mixed up. Sad and relieved. Sad that so many children seem left behind. “You can’t save them all.” No, but I can save one. And I’ll teach and write and use all the gifts I’ve received: listening and seeing, trying still to understand.

31 January 2012


Filed under: Aids survival,PhD: South Africa!,The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 3:41 pm

Am thinking in terms of shared complicities and collective futures. No innocents involved. All share responsibility. Any society that buys into victimization forfeits its own power, handing its ability to reinvent itself to the perpetrators. So, (take a leap with me here), does the language of human rights equal victimhood, thereby disempowering the very people it’s meant to strengthen?

Am thinking critique is every society’s best friend.

Listened to a group of students a few days ago who talked about ignorance as the number-one problem in South Africa. Other songs on the Top Ten: lack of wise leadership, corruption, material disparity, and people not realizing how to reach their potential.

”What would it take?” I asked (you never know). They said, mentorship programs, more access to sports to level the playing field, a new identity to replace their parents’ broken record about colonialization and apartheid legacies, investment in civil society, community support. Oh yeah.

Then they told me stories of seeing people, really seeing them: seeing their pain and dreams and how sharing in fear or joy melted the divisions. “A friend of mine was raped by her uncle and gave birth as a result when she was 13. She went back to school and the community helped her keep her child. Now she runs a peer mentorship program and center for HIV and rape counseling.”

I already knew from previous trips that the shoulders of young people here must grow to bear adult-sized burdens. “Child-headed households” is the fancy name for kids who have no one but each other—an older brother or sister raising younger siblings, scraping together school fees, putting shoes on the little ones so they’ll still be allowed into school, worrying about where the one meal every day will come from, walking the tightrope between gang protection and drug markets. The aloneness is because my generation has more or less died out due to AIDS. So either the gogos, or grandmothers must raise their grandchildren, or worse, the orphans look after each other. During a previous trip here, Mbeki’s denials of the pandemic literally cost lives. Now some HIV patients have access to drugs, and there is more information about healthy diets, and children as young as 8 sometimes hear about the absolute necessity of using condoms. But it remains a taboo subject, and when I ask about a student’s family, they still look away and talk of fathers who died of TB or mothers who died of malaria. Never mind that this area is malaria-free.

So what would it mean to not see these young people as victims?

Life feels very close here because death treads so near.

29 June 2010

What I wanted to tell you is,

Filed under: Aids survival,The Children's Voices,Thin and Thick Places,Write on — annedegraaf @ 5:33 pm

This is me in my happy place–on the Cape Town beach in South Africa. That’s Table Mountain in the background. I’m here with seven students from Webster University Leiden, and two other instructors. We’re actually getting credit for going to the World Cup! Our class is called “Sports, Politics and Reconciliation.” To read more about this great group and all our doings, go to the Webster Leiden online publication The CANAL.

What I didn’t write in The CANAL article, but wanted to put “out there” is what it feels like to be back here after three-and-a-half years–back in South Africa, that is, since the last time I was in Cape Town was 14 years ago. Sure didn’t see any of the mixed couples, black, colored and women cops, or golden babies from mixed parents back then. Now they’re everywhere.

Three-and-a-half years ago I was in Kwa-Zulu Natal, far from cosmopolitan Cape Town, interviewing Aids orphans for a Dutch publisher who sent me here to write a book. The result was my teen novel Dance upon the Sea, which has since won a prize.

For those of you who have followed this blog and read the entries under the category to the right “Aids survival,” you will know that I came home from that trip in not-too-good shape. My interviews with aids orphans here in South Africa and Zimbabwe revealed appalling hopelessness: children struggling to care  for their younger brothers and sisters, and often suffering from sexual abuse as the most vulnerable segment of this fractured population. I cried a lot when I came home, and could not write about it, until I received help from a woman who advised me to write the truth. “The world needs to hear that these children have no hope.” Writing this blog broke the block and enabled me to finish that book and move into this new season of writing, studying and teaching.

A close friend asked me last week how I felt about returning to South Africa. It was the first time I had thought about the contrast of then and now. Then I travelled on my own. Now I am with students and colleagues whom I trust and respect. Then I crisscrossed some of the most impoverished parts of the country, where an estimated 60% of the population is HIV-infected. One induna, or Zulu chief, told me then that he spends all day Saturdays going to funerals. “Eighty percent of my people are dying.” Indeed, my generation has faded away. You just don’t see that many people in their forties and fifties. Instead, their orphans raise each other, or rely on grandparents or friends. Now I’m staying in a guesthouse called Cape Oasis, which pretty much says it all. There’s a shopping mall bigger than anything I’ve ever seen in The Netherlands just down the road.

My wise daughter says it’s a good thing to replace our bad memories with good ones. And whereas that trip was about sickness, this one is about health. This is what I wrote in my journal (and the first seven words are something I suggested the students use in a writing exercise as they struggled to articulate their own conflicting emotions):

What I wanted to tell you is, Today we went to a township, on a township tour, actually. If there is such a thing. Have the same bottomless-pit feeling in my gut. Memories of my Aids babies came flooding back. Their tight muscles in the back, soft hair. My own feelings of abandonment and vulnerability a reflection of what I heard and saw and understood from each day’s interviews. Today a smell of wood smoke mixed with sweet sweat and sewage ushered us along the tight quarters. This time, though, a well child chose me. Three years old, the niece of the driver Pele. Wide eyes, no smile, hand linked in mine. She fell asleep on my lap, heavy and slack. I wondered if this healthy child was given to me to ease the pain of my memories of unhealthy ones.

What I wanted to tell you is, I was back in that place again and holding a well child on my lap this time, and still I felt numb, numb and hollow. “You’ll have a hard time letting her go,” Tom said to me in the van. “No, it’ll be all right,” I said. What I thought was, “It’s the dying children I have a hard time letting go of.” My two-year-old Aids babies, their tight muscles from the steroids, sweaty hair from the infection for which there are no drugs at this young age. Born to dying-from-Aids parents, they are doomed to die before they turn five. They are dead now.

What I wanted to tell you is, I am healed. The poverty did not shock, the smells did not repulse. I walked through and breathed through my nose this time, yet still could open my heart wide to their pain and misery, joy and hope.

What I wanted to tell you is, I am not alone. These men, my friends from Nigeria, India, Holland, America, and South Africa, surround me with a wagon train of wonder, encircling me in laughter.

What I wanted to tell you is, I am safe.

Flying down the length of Africa
Africa like my body
The length and breadth of her
Tall and graceful.
I am cut with desert
Wilderness stretches my horizon
Rift Valley shadows
Cast a cut scar
Across my countenance.
Africa, my Africa
My heart beats to
The rhythm of wildebeest
Crossing the Serengeti.
My eyes see into cheetah’s speed.
I smell your grass,
Fly above the acacias,
Taste dust on my dry lips
And laugh in love.
(Written 24 June on the Amsterdam-Cape Town KLM flight)

20 August 2008

True-life story of aids survival

Filed under: Aids survival,The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 12:14 pm

Fiction based on Fact. This is the cover of the teen novel I wrote for the Dutch market, Dance upon the Sea–A story of hope from South Africa. I am desperately seeking an English-language publisher for this book that has won an award in The Netherlands, and is being used by schools to raise aids awareness, and in classes addressing African studies, current events, issues of injustice, social studies and political science. I wrote a sports-hero story, and Dutch kids seem to be loving it. I get all sorts of interesting emails from them.

Anyway, my main character in the book, a boy named Promise, is based on several aids orphans I met in South Africa and Zimbabwe. I sort-of combined their voices into one. But there also really is a black South African surf champion, and his name is Kwezi Qika. Kwezi was my primary source of inspiration for Dance. I used his story as a foundation for mine: In an area of the world with 16 million aids orphans and groaning poverty, turned away from school and with little to hope for, 14-year-old Promise was a boy destined to fail. Yet Promise has a dream to become a surfer champion, and that dream will not let him go. Promise’s struggle to shoulder the responsibility of his little brother and sister—his father dead, his mother dying—is a story of aids survival from close up.

Here’s a video of Kwezi and Gary Kleynhans. Gary taught Kwezi to surf and swim when Kwezi was 12. In another life, Gary fought with the South African forces in Angola. Now he runs a surf school for street kids: aids orphans and kids whose parents are unemployed, so they can’t afford school fees and the children end up on the street.

What I love about this clip is the grin on Noble’s face when he says, “I see myself going far.” It’s what keeps me returning to places of conflict around the world: the children’s voices. Once these kids have a dream, there’s no stopping them. To check out Gary’s Extreme Surf School and how we can help, click here.

6 December 2007

Last Wednesday–Launching new teen novel about aids survival–in style!

Filed under: Aids survival,The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 11:45 am

dans-7a.jpgDans op de zee has just been published in Dutch! What better way to launch a book about surfing, than to invite kids to read the story, then learn how to surf? But where to go surfing in Holland when it’s winter? Leave it to the Dutch: there’s an indoor wave-sport complex in Zoetermeer. And on 28 November classes from De Stromen school in Alphen, came to hear me talk and tell me what they thought of the story. . . .dans-1a.jpg Then they showed me their posters designed for the Promise Poster Contest. . . .dans-6a.jpg And then . . . THEY LEARNED HOW TO SURF!!! dans-9a.jpg

For a description (in Dutch) and more great photos of this cool event, click here for the TEAR website.

4 December 2007

Last Tuesday–On nationwide television with Dutch Minister of Education Ronald Plasterk

Filed under: Aids survival,The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 8:07 pm

tv.jpgLast week was one of those weeks that felt like one long party. The kind during which you take a nap, wake up and dance some more. I found out on Monday that Tuesday afternoon I’d be on nationwide television, participating in a talk show with the Dutch Minister of Education Ronald Plasterk, as well as a criminal journalist and a fundraiser for a burn-victim foundation. Quite a mixed bag. Andries Knevel, the interviewer, has his own weekly show, Het Elfde Uur, and he has a bit of a reputation for making his guests squirm. The program went well, better than I could have hoped, considering it was in Dutch and I had to be smart and pretty, all at the same time.

The reason for my invitation was that December 1 was World Aids Day, and I have just had a children’s book about aids published in Dutch.

If you want to see the actual broadcast, then click here, then click on the Video button with the eye. My part of the interview starts about halfway during the show.

For the trivia buffs among us, watch out for the man sitting behind me. (I think he was hoping to sell a fishing net during the show.) And the woman sitting behind Mr. Knevel is none other than my publisher, Aukelien Wierenga. The man sitting behind Mr. Knevel is Matthijs van Pijkeren, my TEAR contact and go-to man.

For more (Dutch) info about Dans over de zee and the wwkidz series for teens, click on

Here’s a (rough) English translation of the interview–
Mr. Knevel introduced me by asking if I really had sold 5 million books. When I said yes, he asked were they all sold in The Netherlands? And I got to answer that my books have been translated into 50 languages. Then he added that we would be talking about my new teen novel, Dans over de zee, and about aids children in Africa, which I had visited often.

Then, halfway during the show, the interview really got underway:
AK: Mrs. de Graaf, you write children’s books, about extremely serious problems, am I right?
AdG: Yes.
AK: About aids in Africa . . .
AdG: Aids in Africa . . .
AK: You’ve been to Africa several times.
AdG: Yes, in the last 12 years, about 14 times . . . I’ve seen all of sub-Saharan Africa.
AK: While researching aids.
AdG: For aids, and also for child soldiers.
AK: And can you tell us something new about that? We’ve been having an awareness campaign all week. This week we’ve been raising funds, it’s aids week. Saturday is World Aids Day, I think.
AdG: 1 December.
AK: Yes, that’s Saturday. Is there, now, anything new to say?
AdG: Anything new to say? Yes, I think people need to become aware of the aids issue, and many parents want to protect their children from this. . . .
AK: There? Or here?
AdG: Here. In The Netherlands.
AK: Oh yeah?
AdG: Yes. I think a lot of people say, okay, that’s all so far away and I want to protect my children from this misery. But this is exactly why we’ve written this series of books, World Wide Kidz. It’s a tool for raising awareness among children in The Netherlands about children in developing countries.
AK: So if we want that, that our children become aware of the problems among children in Africa, in developing countries, or Africa. . . .
AdG: Developing countries.
AK: So, that’s what we think. That’s what you think.
AdG: Yes, I think it’s extremely important. The more children who engage in issues concerning others, the more compassion and understanding they learn, and the more tolerant our society will become in the future.
AK: Now you’ve also contributed to another book, called Positief, and in here you write about your latest trip to South Africa, and you say that afterwards you had a very hard time. That you really didn’t know how to cope, despite even all your other travel experiences.
AdG: That’s right. Yes.
AK: What was it that crippled you like this?
AdG: Well, I have seen a fair amount. I’ve even stayed in a refugee camp with Congolese refugees. But this time last year I went to Zimbabwe and South Africa to study the aids issue. I interviewed many aids orphans, child psychologists and people who work with aids orphans. I was prepared for a lot of things, but for me the most difficult thing was that here you have an aids orphan, a child who’s lost not just his father, but also his mother. He doesn’t even get the opportunity to process his grief, then he must take on the burden of responsibility for his little brothers and sisters. They have to come up with the school fees, otherwise they’re dismissed from school. And then on top of everything else, because they are such a vulnerable segment of the population, aids orphans are often sexually abused.
AK: They’re raped.
AdG: They’re raped. And I’ve met children, a little girl, she was 9 when she was raped–and now she’s 12–and infected with hiv, because of that rape.
AK: And that’s when you couldn’t find your way anymore?
AdG: You could say that. It was . . . too much. And I saw, literally, no hope for these children. The children have so much courage. They say . . . they always want to talk about football. They know everything about Ajax and Feijenoord. Every child has a dream. So this book is based on the true stories of children I met. But it’s all been combined into one composite character. And Promise–that’s his name–he has a dream of becoming a surfer.
AK: This is a book, it’s going to be presented to a school tomorrow, in The Netherlands, about a boy who has to care for his father and mother. His father is dead, his mother dies, he has to care for his siblings, his little sister gets raped, comes down with hiv, as well . . . and eventually he becomes a great surfer, but there’s a huge amount of sadness in this book. I’ve read it and I know a fair amount about aids, and it really touched me, this book.
AdG: Good.
AK: No, really.
AdG: But that’s the point. That’s really the point. I believe that people’s hearts open much wider for fiction than for a documentary. And look, people say there are 16 million aids orphans in Africa, but 16 million–that’s the population of The Netherlands. But that doesn’t say very much. Yet when you come face to face with a victim–with one child–the story or voice of one child, that’s what really touches you and then I think, that’s when you reach the point of being willing to do something.
AK: And that’s the point. This is a children’s book, it’s being offered to a school, and in The Netherlands schools should become more involved in raising the awareness of children about aids in Africa–and not in terms of numbers, but on a human level.
AdG: On a human level, and in terms of story, through the individual stories of children. I worked on this book together with Columbus Publishing, and three aid organizations in The Netherlands, Woord en Daad, Zoa Refugee Care and TEAR. TEAR was my sponsor. And in South Africa and Zimbabwe I stayed with several of TEAR’s partner organizations. And they’ve put together a lesson pack. . . .
AK: Right, here it comes. Go ahead. Because the minister of education’s here tonight.
AdG: Now? Is that all right? This lesson pack is hot off the press. And it’s for Dans over de zee. Every school can order one. It contains a board game, a poster contest, an internet quiz. . . .
AK: And this book?
AdG: And this book.
AK: It’s a beautiful book.
AdG: Thank you. Thank you very much.
AK: It really touches you, this story.
AdG: Thank you. I was able to process all my problems, and my being blocked, through writing it, so this book has also helped me.
AK: Okay, give this to the minister.
AdG: So I’d like to hand this over to you as a symbolic gesture.
Min (Minister of Education Ronald Plasterk): Thank you. I think it’s very good that you’ve done this.
AK: What is your reaction?
Min: Actually, I think it’s excellent that you do this, that you do this work. May I look inside?
AdG: Yes. Of course.
AK: May I ask just one more question of you?
AdG: Yes.
AK: I started to hate men . . . the more I learned about aids.
AdG: Hmm. . . .
AK: Because they use women, they abuse women, they use a lot of women, they want unsafe sex, they don’t want to use condoms, they even want dry sex–I really start to hate my gender.
AdG: Well, but it’s not so black and white. Listen, I don’t want you to think that this book is full of misery. . . .
AK: No, it’s an optimistic book.
AdG: It’s a story about hope, set against the background of aids survival. But it’s also part of the culture. There’s a culture, especially in the bush in some sub-Saharan countries, where people believe the myth that if you have sex with a virgin, then you’re cured of aids. So that’s why children are now being targeted. . . .
AK: Because young girls are virgins, and that’s why they’re raped by the whole neighborhood. . . .
AdG: A neighbor lady brings a meal by in the afternoons and her husband stops by at night to collect payment. That’s what I was told.
AK: Now, your reaction, and then we’ll go on to John van den Heuvel.
Min: It’s just terrible. I think there are entire villages where a third or a quarter of the population are infected with hiv/aids, and eventually die from it. It’s the plague, it’s just like when the black plague hit Europe.
AdG: Yes, that’s right. I interviewed a Zulu chief, and he has 500 families under him and he said that indeed, 70 percent of his people are dying. Our generation–people between the ages of 25-50–has more or less died out. Children raise themselves, teenagers raise the little ones, or the grandmothers do it. But the grandmothers are all from Nelson Mandela’s generation and have battled apartheid, while working three jobs in nice houses belonging to whites, and now they have to raise yet another generation, and earn the school fees for them, as well.
AK: Okay, thank you for coming.

31 October 2007

Article in Tear Fund Dutch magazine “Tegenberichten”

Filed under: Aids survival,The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 12:08 pm

in-the-zimbabwean-bush.jpgExactly a year ago today, I left for South Africa and Zimbabwe to research a teen novel on aids survival. What follows is the translation of a Dutch article that appeared in the NGO Tear Fund’s Dutch magazine, “Tegenberichten.” This was to mark the publishing of this teen novel, entitled Dance Upon the Sea. The Dutch title is Dans over de zee. A lot has happened this year. It amazes me that from the trip to the research to the writing (and rewriting) to the translating (thanks to Erik!) to the publishing (thanks to Aukelien!), we have gone one full year. Thank you, everyone, who has helped me on this path. Now let’s celebrate! You’ll find the cover of this new book at the end of the article. Stay tuned for more!
aids-orphans.jpgAnne de Graaf writes about aids orphans in South Africa:
“The children’s voices are the strength behind the story.”

Anne de Graaf (48), journalist and author of novels and children’s books, doesn’t shy away from the “difficult” subjects. After writing a children’s book about child solders, her latest book for children will appear (in The Netherlands) in November 2007. This one is about, as she describes it, aids survival in South Africa. The title is Dans over de zee (Dance Upon the Sea). The book is part of the educational series for children aged 10-14, called WWKidz. For inspiration and to research this book, Anne visited projects sponsored by Tear Fund (Tear Netherlands). It was no easy book to write, as Anne explains in this interview.

When the publisher went to Anne with the idea of her writing a teen novel about children and aids, Anne was not very enthusiastic. It is not an easy subject for any book, let alone one for children. But her curiosity won out over her reluctance. “I hadn’t been back in South Africa and Zimbabwe for some time,” the author said. “And Tear sent me to these countries in order to see, with the help of their partner organizations, what life there is like, and to talk with people.” In Zimbabwe she discovered a unique situation. “Under the dictatorship of Mugabe, aid organizations have been forced to leave the country. All work in the area of hiv/aids is being done by local organizations, churches and by local people themselves. They have no money and no resources, but in some places, they do have a fantastic network for helping aids orphans. I was deeply touched by what I saw. The churches work together in order to train people and care for children who have lost their parents to aids. For example, there was a youth group in a church where every teenager was responsible for two orphans. He or she made sure they went to school, and that they came home safely, etc.”

Although Africa is not unknown territory for the author, this trip became very confrontational. Anne: “What completely shocked and threw me was the fact that so very many aids orphans, boys and girls, were being sexually abused. Some estimates say as many as 85 percent of the orphans are being raped. They live in child-headed households and are completely unprotected, and so, vulnerable. There’s a rumor that sex with a virgin will cure you from aids, so that makes the children targets of sexual abuse. What happens is that a neighbor might bring some food over to the children and that night her husband comes along to claim payment.” The author tried to find stories that disproved this, but could not. “There are no actual statistics about this, but the scale and consequences of aids are enormous,” Anne said. “During my visit to KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, I met with a Zulu assistant-chief, a brave man who told me he spends every Saturday attending funerals. ‘My people are dying,’ he said. He tries to find homes for the children who have become orphans, so that they can have some sort of protection. But when a family has already taken in ten children, you can’t ask them to take any more.”

When Anne returned home at the end of 2006 to The Netherlands, she felt “broken, totally blocked.” Anne: “I couldn’t write, not about anything. And that says something because writing is my way of processing things. I couldn’t stop the tears. Finally I sought professional help in order to process the experiences. I really only wanted to write about hope, and had to discover that it was all right to also write about hopeless situations. I learned to take each shattered piece of what I had thought was this world, look at it as it really is, and describe what I saw honestly.” And that’s how eventually, the book Dans over de zee (Dance Upon the Sea) came into being.

Growing up in South Africa
The book she wrote addresses issues broader than just the consequences of hiv/aids. Dans over de zee (Dance Upon the Sea) is a story about growing up in South Africa. What is it like to grow up in a country where poverty, discrimination and hiv/aids are so prevalent? How can children cope? And what gives them hope? The reader sees life through the eyes of Promise, a young, talented, black surfer in South Africa. His “career” is suddenly interrupted by the responsibility of caring for his little brother and sister following the death of his mother. Anne: “It’s a book with information about how aids orphans live, described through the eyes of Promise, a teenager. The term “hiv/aids” isn’t even mentioned anywhere in the story. That’s how it is in reality, how it happened in Zimbabwe and South Africa, too. Hardly anyone ever talks about hiv/aids. Instead, people say someone died from pneumonia, malaria, or tuberculosis. But not from aids. There’s a huge taboo. So what I did in the book, is nothing more than write down what I heard people saying, or not saying.”

In Africa Anne interviewed many people. She listened to aid workers at Tear Fund and their partner organizations, community leaders, chiefs, fathers, mothers, grandparents and children. She found what the children had to say especially important. “The strength behind the story are the children’s voices. I cherish the hope that the next generation can do more than we are and that’s why I’m investing in them.” The enormous scope of the hiv/aids pandemic can easily overwhelm people in the West and leave them feeling helpless. “Don’t,” is Anne’s advice. “Just ask what you can do in a specific case. That might be something very small. The compassion that you feel, God will use.” And sometimes we have no idea of the ripple effect. She said, “In Tanzania I met a child psychologist from Uganda. He was a former child solder, but had won a scholarship once he was free. After he graduated he returned to help the next generation of child soldiers. So with 16 million aids orphans . . . whoever helps one child, may help a hundred.”

30 July 2007

God of All Comfort

47519_in_the_tunnel.jpg(What follows is a talk I gave at the Church of St John & St Philip in The Hague on 29 July 2007.)

A few years back a hugely popular series of books was written by a man called Jerry Jenkins. It was called the Left Behind series. It was really just one man’s take on how the world might end, and he fictionalized it. I met Jerry several times because we were both writing for the same publishing house then. And he used to make jokes about why was it that everyone was so interested in his Left Behind, and no one cared about his right behind?

A bad joke, I know, but my point is, this tremendously popular series struck a chord, especially in America, where a culture of fear has taken such deep root. Whenever you tap into people’s fears, you can find a huge following. And what was this fear? The fear of abandonment.

That’s what I want to talk about today, the apostles’ fear of abandonment, and our own.

I would like us to put ourselves in the place of the early Church during this passage that was just read (Acts 1:1-11). It’s hard, but imagine a great Teacher. Our Messiah. Our Rabbi, the man we dared to believe and follow. He turned our worlds upside down. You’re not fishing any more. I’m not collecting taxes. We’ve watched the miracles, seen with the blind, touched the lepers, listened to the children’s laughter. Then the soldiers. The crowd. The hatred. The mob violence. The despair. He is gone. We are abandoned. We are alone.

But wait. The women. The running to the tomb. Hope. No way. A road to Emmaus. The conversations. He appears. Again and again. “I am with you always.” The promises.

And now, in the first 11 verses of Acts 1, Jesus appears to the apostles for the last time. He promises, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” And He leaves. Again.

Left behind. Abandoned. Death. Despair. Doubt. The three d’s set up camp and the apostles flee to an upper room to hide. It is before the arrival of the promised Holy Spirit, before the miracles of sharing, community, love and forgiveness, before Paul’s Road to Damascus, before Peter fulfills his destiny, before John and his rich Revelation.

This is an in-between moment in the history of the Church. A pause. A waiting. A drawn breath. What is next? Who can know?

Hunted by the Pharisees. Probably Luke wrote the book of Acts. The doctor. The healer. The scientist with an eye for detail.

During this pause, with the ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection behind us, and the Church leading right up to today in front, we wait.

What is the overriding emotion? Abandonment. He left us. But he came back. But He left us again. The Ascension. Abandonment.

The thing about abandonment is, it reverberates through our hearts like echoes that will not cease. The two abandonments become ten thousand. What do I mean? It is the nature of abandonment to recur. Our lives are an ebb and flow, a low tide and high tide of relationships. There is a season for everything. But when first abandoned, the next time it happens, and the time after that, that first time will resurface as the pain only deepens, if not dealt with. So when our parents abandon us, and then a friend is not there for us, we feel like the friend let us down as badly as our parents did. When a friend dies and leaves us behind, and a lover abandons us, we feel a pain as sharp as when our friend stopped living. When our children move out, when a grandparent dies, when anyone at all we love leaves us, all the many abandonments of our past rear their ugly collective heads and the pain is all over us again.

So why did I cry so hard that last Sunday when Michael blessed us? And why did I feel like someone had kicked me in the gut when Rosie blessed us for the last time a week ago? Why do I hear myself saying to people, this is the downside of this church? The comings and goings, the saying goodbyes? Why do I make jokes about the part of the church we sit in now that Erik is no longer warden, links achter, the left behind part? It’s because of the abandonment. When this week Anastasia and I helped pack up Rosie’s kitchen and then we had to say goodbye, I recognized the pain in Rosie’s face—this has been even harder for her than for us—I realized at that moment. But the pain was still so real. Why is saying goodbye so awful here? Especially here?

We live in a Michael-less church. A Rosie-less Hague. My mind knows this is what happens. We’re cosmopolitan, we are a community of time-zone travelers, we go back and forth between Peru and Abu Dhabi and Caracas. Some of us move on every 3 years, some every 6 years. And some of us are left behind. I remember after I lived here about 11 years, I found myself avoiding non-Dutch people. I never even attended one American women’s Club meeting, but now I wasn’t inviting people over anymore who might be leaving in a year or two. The pain was too great every time they left. A friend said, make some Dutch friends, make them your core, and then it will be easier to make friends with people who come and go. But I know of people who have left our church because the pain of abandonment summoned by yet another goodbye after so many others—proved too overwhelming.

Why bring this up? Why not just try to pretend it doesn’t hurt and carry on? Because every time we deny our pain, it will wait until the next goodbye when it will redouble its efforts and a seemingly insignificant departure will feel like a tsunami of emotion, about to drown us. So let’s talk about the pain. Describe it. Tell the story, and you diffuse the destructive power of abandonment. Jesus holding our hands as we heal in our memories.

Some of you know one of my favorite verses is in Revelation, when John writes about the tree of life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations. Could it be that these leaves are our stories? That as we tell the stories of our pain and of our healing, of our death and our resurrection, stories of us individually, and stories of us as nations, as we tell the truth and shine the light on lies, that we will heal as individuals, and as nations?

So let’s tell the story of Ollie, our former youth pastor, chasing after the laptop thief and when the police asked him, why didn’t you grab him? Ollie said, “Sir, I am not a police agent, I am a priest.”

And let’s tell the story of Michael’s deep and great faith, as demonstrated in his undying support for the Aston Villa football team.

And let’s tell the story of Rosie’s challenge to us to become the people we were born to be, doing those things that give joy to our hearts because God plants the desires of our hearts.

And let’s tell the truth. What this abandonment pain is really about–is death. And grief. For the ultimate abandonment is death. And even a goodbye can summon emotions of grief over dying when that death was never given a chance to be described, never given a place, when the story has gone untold.

I recently read a handbook on bereavement counseling for children. It was written for communities in sub-Saharan Africa, where 15 million children are orphaned and living in what they call child-headed households. Children who have no one and must raise their little brothers and sisters. In this handbook it talks to parents who are dying of aids, and tells them how to prepare their children for losing their parents to aids. It stresses the need to tell children who are grieving, it is not your fault. And it highlights how important it is to simply listen to children tell how they feel, tell their stories, remember their parents and describe how they felt and smelled. The warmth of a mother’s touch can still be felt after death.

A friend of mine in Spain recently lost her sister, who died of cancer. Her sister’s name was Lola. This is now a Lola-less world. Lola danced flamenco for 20 years. It’s a vocation, this dance. She got together with the same girlfriends every week for decades and they would dance and drink and gossip and dance some more. Eventually the husbands wanted in on the fun and so they came to the lessons too, and they watched and clapped, and drank and smoked cigars. Lola worked in a hotel. Everyone knew her. She was full of life and laughter and love for her husband and two daughters and everyone she met. I sat beside her at a party in March, her head in a scarf because she was bald. I told her about the trip we made to Cuba and she told me how she didn’t like Cubans. We laughed at her grand-daughter. We talked politics. She touched my hand. By the first week of May she was gone. And when I saw her sister, my friend, in June, her sister told me how the whole family had gathered around Lola’s bed as she died. She told me how in Spain, when someone dies, you go around the house and turn over the paintings and photos with that person’s image. So my friend and her two motherless nieces did this. And what did they find? Letters written by Lola, tucked into the back of the frames, waiting to speak from the past and bring comfort into the present.

In the face of our personal pain, we can take comfort in the truths: God is with them, the Absent ones, in their departure. God is with us in our solitude.

God also helps us transcend time and space. Through God, these people who are no longer with us physically, remain close to us. How? Just as we are inexplicably, inextricably tied to Him. He binds us to other people who are bound to Him. Through prayer.

The word I want to share with us as a Church is this: Our God is the God of all comfort. In Proverbs 3:5 we read: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.

Let us take these words to heart. When faced with pain, what is the next step? You know what they say, denial is more than just a river in Egypt. So, admit to the pain. Enter into the grief. Tell the stories that keep our loved ones alive for us in our hearts. Most of all, Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.

When we connect with others’ and our own pain at a higher level and really connect, we empathize, and then we can pray, but when we connect at the lower level –trying to find similarities with our own unresolved experiences, or perceived experiences that we haven’t processed, looked at, examined, described, told the story of, grieved—this causes us pain. This is not good! Why? Because we are of no use to anyone. Neither to ourselves nor toward those who suffer.

Now this is tricky part. Other people’s pain is never the same as our pain…it may be similar, but it is not the same and everybody feels differently. We imagine, did you hear? We imagine that others feel the same as we do. But they don’t. Her mother dying is not the same as my father-in-law’s death. My child’s death is not the same as your child’s death. So, knowing that others’ pain is different than our own, frees us up from trying to find similarities. Now we may simply listen to their story.

And what else can we do? Trust in the Lord with all our hearts, and lean not on our own understanding. And what does this mean? I think it brings us right back to prayer again.

A poet friend of mine wrote,
Praying for someone is carrying them in your heart
And in your mind,
as God carries them.
Praying, carrying, moving them by way of love
And silent acknowledgment into the experiences that give meaning to our lives,
Through work, creativity, family, friendship, security, health, spirituality.
Joining God in the silent, unseen tide
(The shift in the air, the slight lifting of the light),
Of loving and caring an individual into the Good,
Of moving them–
In synchronization with the songs of the deep sea
And the spins of stars in distant galaxies,
With the angels of the unseen–
Into places of peace.

The sharp, sudden pangs of abandonment pain can be met in prayer. In honest prayer to our God of all comfort. “God, that hurt. Can you take that from me? I give it to you.” Ultimately, we can tell all our stories to God. In this way, we may rest in perfect confidence in Him.

And so we pray for ourselves, we pray for those who have gone before us. And we pray for those of us who remain. Let us remember the promises Jesus gave the apostles in that fear-filled upper room. “I have not given you a spirit of fear, but one of power and love and a sound mind.” For He will never forsake us, nor leave us as orphans. He is the God of all comfort. God in us enables us to comfort ourselves and others, as we listen, and as we pray.

Let us become a church of storytellers and story listeners, and the pain will lift.

31 May 2007

She Inhaled

Filed under: Aids survival,Cuba Libre,Words by Others,Write on — annedegraaf @ 1:47 pm

she-inhaled-blog.jpgThis photo was taken of me in Cuba last February. When in Cuba, do as the Cubans, right? I’m showing it today because this morning I sent off my teen novel on aids survival. My publisher called, I told her that every day I woke thinking, “This is the day!” And then there were always more scenes, more edits, more corrections, more tweaking to do.

She said, “Why don’t you send it to me by noon.”

I said, “Tomorrow?”

She said, “Today.”

So I turned off the phone, ran upstairs and spent the next 90 minutes doing all the writing I thought I still had to do. Then I sent it off. Still ahead: her corrections, corrections for cultural accuracy from South Africa, the translation into Dutch, editing, an info section on aids survival, but hey! Right here, right now, I’m finished. After all, when is a piece of art ever finished?

It is enough.

Here are some work rules that helped make me happy and focused. I stole them off a website of a friend who is a life coach and spiritual director. His name is Bruce Stanley and you can find him at
1. Finish the job you are doing in one go. (Compartmentalize large jobs into definable chunks.)
2. Give the task your full attention. Don’t switch attention to other things.
3. Keep your attention present and focused.
4. Start and stop the task with a quick stillness exercise.

What else helped me to finish? This quote:
“It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind. We can only do it for moments at first. . . . It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. . . .”—
C.S. Lewis

So celebrate with me! Hand out the cigars! I kept the wild animals at bay.

Now all I have to do is remember how to exhale.

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