Love is coming home

Love is coming home

Sometimes love is coming home. As I headed to Cape Town International Airport, I tried my best to fight the tears; a battle against myself which ultimately they won. My boyfriend wondered why I was crying, and I couldn’t explain myself. I was terrified to leave South Africa. Not because the United States scared me, but because I was afraid it would remind me that I missed it. Being a ‘foreign national’ isn’t always easy. The excitement of a new adventure quickly blends in with the struggle of existence in a foreign place. I will always be somewhat of an outsider here. I will always have to defend my competency and my intentions in the communities where I work. I will always have to answer the question to others and to myself “what are you doing here?” And respond to the sentiments that “you don’t belong here.” I will have to hide my Americanisms as much as possible so that I don’t get placed in the box of ‘ignorance, ‘arrogance,’ and ‘greed.’ Ignorant and greedy people exist everywhere, and so do those with altruism and understanding. I’m not sure why the comments get to me, why I try to hide from the person who I am, why I’m so ashamed to be American and even more ashamed to be white or why I cannot come to terms with my existence here.

After a 34 hour journey I landed in Los Angeles. It was as if someone had cut a hole in my chest so I could breathe. I hadn’t realized how suffocating South Africa could be on my being. As I walked through the airport on American soil (well concrete), I felt safe. I felt like I could be myself. I quickly came in contact with the faces of the friends and family who I had left behind. They were full of love and kindness. They were doing the best they could like most people in the world just to get by. They missed me and cared about my safety. As I walked pass the local school, two children who I used to work with at a local youth center came sprinting up to me and greeted me with a hug. One of the girls broke down crying in my arms, I hadn’t realized what our time together had meant to her and the other kids. To them it made a difference. I met up with my sister in Los Angeles and we took a drive along the California coast to our favorite surf spot, laughing with the windows down and soaking up the California sun. I stayed for hours in the ocean, appreciating the peaceful feeling which had overcome me. I was experiencing the very thing which I had feared; I was realizing that I missed it.

The week carried on in a similar way. My brother’s wedding brought the entire family together where we were able to be present and share the couples’ love and joy. The after-party continued with drinks and dancing, with even my 87 year-old grandmother joining in on the dance floor until late into the night. People traveled from all over the country to be home for the wedding. I’m not sure if there could be a greater experience of love.

The time has come to return to South Africa. It feels uncertain what that means for me. I will finish my PhD and the initiatives which I have started. I will live my passion which brought me there in the first place. I will advocate for children, I will work towards empowerment and healing. I will spend time with the people I love. Maybe this time I will do this as myself. I’ll own the fact that I am American and that my skin is white. After all it is what I was born into, simply circumstances and qualities which cannot be changed. What can be changed is what it represents, especially to myself. It could mean that I am a human being capable and worthy of love. Capable of flaws and mistakes, of ignorance, consciousness and of growth. I’ll live this love the best I can and maybe one day that love will bring me home.

I remember my existence

I remember my existence

“Oh lovely lady,” the melody rings into my ears. The sound of the children’s voices as they shake their plastic bottles full of rice, hoping their song will catch the attention of those passing by, and ultimately catch them a couple of coins. I hear their song as if I’m listening to it through the radio, as if I’m not really there, and already I miss it. “Where are you Zib?” My mind doesn’t seem to be present. I step onto the sand in a total daze. Taking a deep breath, my lungs fill with the fresh ocean air. Suddenly I remember my breath. I zip up my wet suit and dive into the waves with my board. My hands caress the ocean’s surface, I remember my body. I paddle vigorously through the white wash and into the back line. I can still hear the song of the children in my head. The children I had committed myself to getting off of the street. What was once an innocent engagement, a weekly picnic with soccer and surfing, became an overwhelming and complex challenge. The small wins came along the way. Two children were re-integrated into the school and a social worker was working on parenting skills with the mother. They could not handle the academics or the structure and the teachers could not handle their behavior. Alcohol became a barrier to their care at home and before long they were back on the street.

On the streets in my town, the older street youth use the children to break into houses and to carry weapons and drugs. They make them addicts to glue and tick. The justice system cannot touch them because they are children. Professionals in the field told me I was doing it all wrong, I’ve yet to see them get it right. The social workers are too spread thin with inadequate interventions and resources. Many of the locals do not want them in the neighborhood, so their solution is to beat them, to hold them against walls, to call them dirt, and accuse them of stealing, even if they didn’t. The tourists do not know better, that their contribution of change to the children further contributes to the problem, incentivizing the children to continue taking to the streets. But then again wouldn’t you? On the streets they make their own money, they call their own shots, and gain the protection of the elders. They are free in a sense from the vulnerability that came with being the children of abusive adults or a student at an abusive schools. They do not want the adults anymore, they can do it on their own. The more I engaged with the issue, the more I felt caught in its complex web. How do I free myself from being tangled in the helplessness? At what point does one raise up their hands and let go? At what point does my journey continue on a path that walks away from them?
A wave forcefully knocks me off of my board into the vastness of the ocean. I remember my existence.

We can be children again

We can be children again


Run away, run away if you can. The violence makes it impossible to be a child here. The gangsters, they use us, the adults abuse us. So we dream of the day we can run. The day we can be free. We can take off our shoes, we can skate down the streets, we can be safe. We can be children again.

Months of focus groups with children revealed that there is no more space for them here. This is an adult world, and by the adults the children’s world is run, sustained, controlled, and destroyed. They struggle to be their own heroes. Conflicted by their strength and their underlying vulnerabilities. Sustaining the self through fantasy. The fantasy of what they would like their world to be and the fantasy of the one they will create for themselves. But this creation remains stifled by the conquest of the adults. The imagined bullet proof fence at the school isn’t real. They realize that even the innocent get killed. So when they’ve had enough, the rebellious ones leave too soon. They take to the street only to realize their continued vulnerability as a child. Once again like the home they left behind, the adults abuse them, the gangsters use them until they eventually become one too. They leave their childhood quickly behind and graduate into the world of the adults, the one where they can abuse rather than be abused. And so it goes, how quickly we forget. They get back at the world, the world that decided not to make space for its children.

Choosing to Be

Choosing to Be

Sitting at a roadblock in my PhD. The theory. What theory should I choose to write from? What school of thought fits the experience and meaning children assign to their self-hood? The department says I must have a theory to work from, but the human experience cannot be boxed into a single theory. This contradicts the way I choose to perceive children. I first went with the ‘sociocultural-self’ theory, which at the surface seems to reflect my assumptions and observations of children engaging within their social and cultural environment. According to this theory the self is constructed within a certain culture, however the culture is simultaneously influenced by the individuals within it. Basically it speaks to the reciprocal nature of culture and self. As I began sitting through months of focus groups with children, it just could not fit. The theory fell short in grasping the deeper meaning-making processes surrounding our existence.

What if a person grew up in isolation? Would they not be capable of constructing meaning beyond their isolation? Would they not keep searching? What about the people who refuse to conform? What about the inner world that exists beyond the boundaries of our scientific notion of time and space? What about spirituality? Children are active, meaning-making, participating human beings. Yet, the resources which they draw to create this meaning could be heavily dependent on the environment. However the environment does not determine their self-hood. That’s where the existentialism comes into play. In existential psychology, all people are in transcendence. All people, even children, are a self in process. People can change when they actively choose to change. But what drives this will to change? Can we create meaning beyond what our context tells us?

I think of my childhood and my surrounding resources; middle class, white, privileged, safe neighborhood, healthy food, dance class, gymnastics class, tutoring, nuclear family, quality education, Catholicism, peer pressure, alcohol abuse, racism. Then I think of the prescription; prescribed gender roles, prescribed values, prescribed way of seeing the world, a prescribed identity, an identity lacking a being. Something in me kept me searching. The meaning to my self, my life, my purpose stretched beyond the immediate resources at my disposal. I couldn’t make sense of my life. I never stopped searching. Maybe that’s why I am an education junkie these days. A bachelor’s degree, an international teaching certificate, and honors degree, a masters, a PhD, one hundred jobs, ten countries, all attempts to find some kind of meaning out of it all, while fearing its nemesis; nothingness.

Sure nothingness can be viewed as meaning’s ultimate threat. Its presence can pull you into a rut pretty fast. Actually such a bad rut that you can’t seem to get out, that you can’t see the purpose or the light. A space in your psyche where you face nothingness’s ultimate accomplice; suicide. I think of the words of Friedrich Nietzsche “the thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” It is through the knowledge of suicide and death, that provides us with the realization that we are choosing our own being. We can chose to end our existence or we can chose to create what kind of existence we want to be. Is the meaning behind an event simply that which we assign to it?

Looking beyond my ridiculously cookie cutter American childhood to the adversity that I, and many other human beings, have faced in my life. I could remain a victim if I wanted to. I could find some prescribed pharmaceutical medication to numb myself pretty fast, rally the sympathy of others, and destine myself to a life of victim-hood. I could befriend ‘nothingness’ and ‘suicide’ or I could view it as an opportunity for self- growth, as a challenge to my spirit, as a platform for finding my voice. As I continue my conversations with children around their meaning assignations of the ‘self,’ I see that this victim status could be all too easy for most of us. These children, who have experienced hurt, violence, abuse, and oppression, are choosing growth.

I challenge you (and myself!) to create your being. I challenge you to take responsibility for your life, to own your choices and to own your mistakes. To choose to be the existence you would like to create for yourself. At the very least to choose to be.

WildFire

WildFire

Grey ash sprinkled over my hair as I watched with utter helplessness as the mountain burst into an uncontrollable fire. The town of Muizenberg was in a cloud of smoke. It was the third day of the fire and no amount of effort seemed to be able to tame its power. Day after day I witnessed it spread over the Southern Peninsula of Cape Town, devastating everything in its path. The trails where we once used to hike, the forests where beautiful plants grew and animals roamed were all met by the fire’s ruthless destruction. Smoke crept into my home accompanied with the lingering fear of its deadly threat. I was overwhelmed by conflicting feelings of sadness, loss, and total awe as my eyes hooked their gaze on the glow of the fire which broke through the darkness. Somehow beyond its destruction there was this haunting beauty.

My life seemed to be surrounded by this fire. I had begun collecting data for my doctoral dissertation and was conducting daily focus groups with children living in South Africa’s most violent townships. Their stories resembled the wild fire, filled with destruction, power and vulnerability. Yet beneath it all lied the haunting beauty; the remarkable nature of a child in search of meaning, a child striving to grow and to glow. Day after day I listened to their plight and like watching the flames spread its destruction over the forest, helplessness and sadness spread over my heart. How could the world cause such destruction to the psyche of these young children? Faced with gun shots, abuse, and neglect, life was survival and the environment was a perpetual threat. “we are not children, we may be young, but we have to take care of ourselves, we have to be brave, children get to play outside, children are protected, but not us.” Robbed of their childhood, they continue to face the fire like an adult trapped in the vulnerabilities of being a child. What could I possibly do to put out the fire so the children could have a nurturing environment to grow? I guess the first step is to begin to fight it.

Acceptance

Acceptance

Falling back in time, I stumbled across my journal from 2009, it was from six years ago, my first year in South Africa. I was only nineteen years old when I first arrived, faced with a country which challenged every ounce of my being. Six years later I find myself comfortably accustomed to my surrounding Cape Townian environment. Sometimes acceptance is the only way to cope. Sometimes I liked the me who struggled to accept. I like theme who wrote:

“Woke up early to jog and clear my mind. I heard a baby crying next to the train station. Sitting in a cardboard box was a tiny child. Next to her the mother was asleep curled up in her blanket. I walked under the station and on the other side was met by a small boy, no older than six, asking me for food. I only had ten rand for airtime, but I knew five rand was enough to get buy in case of emergency, so I used the other R5 to buy a ½ loaf of bread. On my way back to my house I found the boy rocking the crying baby. I handed him the bread and he thanked me with a smile. I spent the rest of the day running programs with youth in the township Masiphumelele. It was raining today and my body felt so cold. My friend Luba’s shack is flooded, along with many of the other local residents. When I made it back to Obs I took a hot shower and curled up under the blankets. I have a warm and dry place to sleep tonight but so many of my friends here do not. Im so sad because Im not sure why I do and they do not. I’m not sure why a child must sleep outside in a box. I don’t think I want these things if they can’t have it too.”

It’s challenging to find the balance between acceptance and apathy. When I struggle to let go of certain realities of the world, I become manic trying to fix them. This inevitably leads to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness because no matter how hard I try to change a situation, I can’t always fix it. I must then, to a certain degree, accept it. This acceptance doesn’t come easily. Especially at the times when something is clearly not right. A child should’ve been sleeping in a box outside six years ago and a child shouldn’t have to do it today. The children however continue to sleep outside and I continue to try to fix it. Some days I just accept it. I walk by a family undergoing homelessness, I try my best to make them feel as human as anyone else (because they are) and I carry on with my day. Other days I am apathetic to it. I walk by as if it is just an acceptable part of life. I don’t care to say hello, I don’t care to even think about it, some days it’s just too painful to care. Fair enough, life gets heavy.

Then I think of the situations where I simply could not accept. Take for example the children begging on the streets in my town. People warned me over and over again to just let it go. “It’s just how it is” “You’re wasting your time” “those kids are criminals” and “there is really nothing you can do.” I didn’t accept it. For a year I engaged with them in any way I could. I organised picnics, hikes, soccer, surfing, anything to build trust and to learn. I met with their parents, I met with the schools and social workers. No one had a solution, but I carried on. The children are all back in school now (after months of debates the principal reluctantly took them back). It’s only the beginning of the struggle, but I am glad I didn’t just accept that they were destined to nothing more than a life on the streets. I don’t see criminals when I see those kids, I see hope. Acceptance doesn’t have to mean a lack of care. I’d rather accept hope. The hope that the way I live each day may contribute towards changing the very things I refuse to accept.

Self-efficacy

Self-efficacy

The year flew by swiftly and before we knew it we were having our children’s Christmas party with ice cream at the beach followed by staff bowling and burgers. It was the first time bowling for majority of the youth mentors and marked a memorable evening to close out the year. , the organisation decided to close for a three week holiday taking into consideration the Waves for Change staff who usually return to their villages in the Eastern Cape for the Christmas season. Although a break was necessary, this left our participants with very little options for their summer recreation. Recognizing the children’s needs, I fell into my usual mode of preparing a program for the kids which I would facilitate over the holidays on my own. I explained my plans to a psychologist who we had been working with, who warned me that it was important to take a break. I knew I needed one too, I was tired.

So I followed the suggestion of Dr. Dawes, deciding that the only way I wDCIM100GOPROould not burn myself out over the holidays was to get out of Cape Town. My boyfriend and I spontaneously packed the car and headed towards the Western Cape’s stunning country side. We didn’t have an exact plan, just a tent, a cooler, a few pairs of clothes, and our puppy Lola, everything we needed for an adventure. We spent the next two weeks camping on farms, hiking in the mountains, tasting wine in the winelands, and swimming in dams and waterfalls. Every day was full of excitement and peace. Sheltered by the rolling hills of the country side, I let go of my usual worries and simply lived in each moment.

When we returned to Cape Town, I found a mysterious note on my door “Elizabeth, borrowed your board and wetsuit. Went surfing, will be back.” Signed Aviwe. “Aviwe?” I questioned. This was a teenage boy who lived in Khayelitshia, a township about 30 kilometres from my apartment. He had never been to my place before. I looked around and found the organization’s car window was open, with the surfboard and dripping wet wetsuit inside. I had forgotten my suit and board in the car while I was away! He must’ve spotted the car, hopped the fence and broke in so he could surf. My neighbors informed me that the boys were coming by every day, desperately looking for me in hopes of borrowing some surf boards. I was always out when they arrived, so they would explain to my roommates that I told them it was okay to come and use my boards. I finally spotted them one day as they snuck through the gate, and explained to them that it is not right to break into my apartment complex or to lie so they could use my boards. However if they wanted to surf I was happy to set up some times to meet them at the beach. So we made a plan and I had the opportunity to close my holiday surfing with some very happy kids. I could see their peaceful disposition while they were in the ocean. How could I be upset with them? They needed the surf as much as I needed my time away in nature.

Maybe breaking into my car was not the most ethical way to go about catching a wave, but I admired their level of self-efficacy. I was amazed by their ability to seek out something they were passionate about. Life in Khayelitshia was not exactly easy. Days for many of the kids were full of the challenges of life in poverty. They needed an escape through surfing and were determined to find a way to do it. Self-efficacy, a belief that they are capable and worthy.A belief in ones ability to succeed. This was a clear strength in all of those kids, but one in need of direction and definitely clearer boundaries. Maybe this is the type of mentoring we can provide? One which builds off of strengths rather than deficits. One that recognizes the growth-oriented nature of humanity and the immense capabilities of children. Let’s see what happens when we nurture these strengths. I look forward to watching them grow.