Archive for the category “People who make a difference”

Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa

In the months just before Nelson Mandela was released, I was working for World Vision in Lesotho and Botswana. Lesotho was in effect a ‘hostage state’ in South Africa, home to many of Mandela’s supporters who had been hounded out of South Africa because of their political views.

There was a strong feeling that things had to change and possibly were about to change, but never did I feel this more than when I went on a short trip to Johannesburg. As I drove into the city, I asked my friend why – if the white South Africans were relatively wealthy – did they all have outside toilets. He looked embarrassed. ‘They’re not outside toilets,’ he said, ‘They’re the maid’s quarters. The white South Africans do not want the maids living under the same roof.’

I was appalled. There must have been barely enough room for them to lie down.

One day I went out and just walked around on my own in what the people I was staying with considered was a ‘safe’ area. There were some nice coffee shops, and I was just walking along enjoying the sights when a smartly dressed, very elderly man approached me. He asked me what I was doing in Johannesburg and we chatted for a short while, and then he said:

“Can I ask a favour of you?”

“Of course,” I said.

It turned out that he wanted to buy me a coffee. He said that times were about to change and that he wanted to make a gesture, and to take a young white woman into a coffee shop and buy her a coffee would be that gesture. He said that he was asking me respectfully, and that he was of course old enough to be my grandfather.

We went into the coffee shop and there was immediately a collective intake of breath. There was an huge atmosphere of disapproval. The waitress (who incidentally was not white) slammed our coffees down in front of us so that the coffee spilled on to the table, she was muttering angrily.

It was very clear that we had broken the rules and everybody was unhappy about it. Looking back I am now wondering if there was an unwritten (or written?) rule that this was a whites only coffee shop, certainly all the customers were white. Maybe the man knew that if he went in with me they would not want to make a scene and kick him out, who knows.

I just know that multi-racial coffee was too much at that moment in time in December 1989.

The old man grinned, enjoying every minute of it. It turned out that he was quite a well known jazz musician. I should have known because he was wearing a very cool hat. I was uncomfortable because of all the glares, but then I realised that in that moment I was part of something important.

He paid for the coffee, and outside the coffee shop we shook hands and he wished me well in my life.

I had to fly back to Lesotho, and in the airport I saw Winnie Mandela, in full military regalia. The atmosphere was charged, apparently she had met with Walter Sisulu (who had just been released from prison that October, after 26 years in prison). There was a feeling of euphoria, a tangible excitement. When I asked if they thought that Mandela would be freed, people said that it was only a matter of time.

I was only a few weeks back in the UK when I was glued to the TV screen like millions of others, watching Mandela walk out of prison as a free man. Like many others who had gone to concerts to support the campaign for his freedom, and drunk in student bars named after him, and worn the badge saying ‘FREE NELSON MANDELA’, I wept.

Everything changed in South Africa, and I am certain that if I went back to that same coffee shop and had a ‘multi racial’ coffee, nobody would blink. The slavery and prejudice is over. There are still tough times, but apartheid is, thankfully, dead.

Now Nelson Mandela is in hospital, and it is exactly how it was with my mum. The lungs, and repeated hospitalisations. So I know what is going on, and that it is realistically just a matter of time.

But what a legacy that man is leaving. To have been an agent of such an important change, to have gone from a prisoner, seen as a terrorist, to the President of South Africa. To be loved by so many people. His family, his country who see him as a father, and by strangers like me – on the other side of the world, choked up because of a news report saying that he ‘deteriorated’ this morning.

I hope that he pulls through this time, but we have to face the fact that he is very frail now. The world will be a much poorer place without Nelson Mandela in it, but there is so much to celebrate about what he achieved.

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“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

– Nelson Mandela

Chatterbooks in Aylesbury

On Tuesday I went to Aylesbury library to have a reading session with some children who are members of the ‘Chatterbooks’ scheme. The scheme encourages reading in Primary age children and is a chance for them to talk about what they’ve read.

This visit was organised by the events organiser at the library, Ben Foster. He’d sent me some very funny emails offering a limo and champagne so I felt relaxed before I even got there.

The group were all enthusiastic, with one little girl in particular full of questions. We talked about how many possibilities language gives us. They all made up silly names for themselves and then I challenged them to tell me something about the characters who might have those names. One boy said that his character was very tiny when he was not feeling confident, but could be a giant when he was feeling brave. Every one of them came up with a strong idea and I think got the point that ideas are about putting things together and seeing if they make sense or if they create something new.

At one point they asked about my books for teenagers. I was trying to explain the plot of ‘Diary of a Parent Trainer’ and told them that the lead character was writing a manual about how to ‘operate’ grown ups. One little girl asked what the manual would be, and I said that it would be a complete user’s guide, so you had full instructions about operating your grown up.

“I REALLY need one of these!” she cried, clapping her hands together.

There were twin boys there, very bright and full of questions about writing. One of them shyly showed me an exercise book which was crammed full of his story, you could see he’d put in hours of work and it was impressive for somebody still at Primary school. I was glad I had talked to them about planning out stories and being selective as you write, I think he took it on board and I hope it will help him.

Then his twin brother asked me to sign a piece of paper and said: “Could you please write a message to me telling me to not let my brother give up writing, because he’s really good.”

I swallowed down the lump which was forming in my throat, and did exactly that.

Great visit, great kids, well done Chatterbooks.

Shared Lives

My first impression when I enter Angela’s house is of how wonderfully welcoming it is. I soon feel at home, thanks to her warm smile, and the offer of a cup of tea.

Angela is an Ategi Shared Lives Carer. She and her partner Tina share their home with Debbie and Linda, two ladies with learning difficulties who, until they moved in with Angela two years ago lived most of their lives in care homes.

Settled in the living room, I chat with Angela, Debbie and Linda about their life together.

First, we talk about the cats – Leo and Slinky. Linda tells me shyly that Slinky regularly sits on the warm bonnet of the car, and sleeps on top of the kitchen cabinet.

When I ask Angela how she came to be an Ategi Shared Lives Carer, she explains that she has a background in care work, having worked in residential homes.

“Several years ago,” she explains, “I was working as a cleaner at Aylesbury’s Young Offender’s Institute, but I wasn’t happy. I missed working as a carer. It was around then that I came across the ‘Ategi Shared Lives’ advert. It said something along the lines of: ‘Can you give a loving, caring home to someone?’”

It seemed to make perfect sense. With her three children having left home, Angela and Tina were living in a four bedroom house.

“We had the empty bedrooms,” continues Angela, “So I thought that maybe this was a chance for me to go back to doing what I have always enjoyed most. Caring for people.”

Encouraged by Tina, and by her friend Jen, Angela made contact with Ategi. She spoke to them on the phone, and they visited her home and had long conversations with her and Tina. There were various important processes to go through before Angela could be accepted as a potential Shared Lives carer – to make sure that everybody’s wellbeing was taken into consideration and that their home was suitable. Years ago, when she was working in a residential home, there was a sad incident which has haunted Angela ever since.

“Two elderly ladies, who were devoted and very close friends, had to be separated,” she explains, “It was heartbreaking. One was sent to another care home, and died just a week or so later.”

Remembering this, Angela told Ategi that she would be happy to accept two people who would be unhappy to be placed in separate homes from each other.

Vicki, from Ategi said: “I think I have just the people for you – they were made for you.”

The people to whom she was referring were Linda and Debbie. At this point in the visit, Tina arrives home from her shift as a prison warden at Aylesbury Young Offender’s Institute. She has twinkling eyes, grey spiky hair and a great big smile. She sits down beside Linda.

“She’s trouble! She’s always messing around!” Linda tells me, but with a smile.

I ask Tina how she finds family life with Debbie and Linda.

“It’s very rewarding,” she says, “Especially with a job like mine. I have a hard day at work but when I get home that all goes. We’ll have a laugh together. They’re quiet today because they are meeting somebody new, but normally they don’t stop talking!”

Before coming to live with Angela and Tina, Linda and Debbie were in residential care for almost all of their lives. Neither has many happy memories, or ever completely settled in any of the care homes they were in. Two years ago, Debbie and Linda did not talk much. Both women found it difficult to make eye contact and would prefer to hide away. They had met before in other care homes, and had been reunited at the latest one.

“They did not feel loved,” says Angela, “they did not feel part of something.”

Angela finds it easy to empathise with Linda and Debbie, as she herself was painfully shy as a child.

“I understood how they were feeling. But they’ve changed since they came to live with us. They dress differently, they act differently, it’s a joy to see.”

Angela, Tina, Debbie and Linda now live together like any other family. Cooking in the household is a joint effort. Linda is an excellent cook, and washes up as she goes along. Debbie is best at pastries, whereas Linda has a gift for making the lightest Yorkshire puddings. As Angela explains, Linda and Debbie nod in confirmation. They enjoy watching TV together in the evenings, Linda and Debbie love programmes with animals in them. They all enjoy Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. They’ll have meals out and day trips. They’ll argue about football. Linda supports Tottenham Hotspur. Like any family, they all have different timetables. Angela looks after her baby granddaughter Ellie on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Linda and Debbie go to their day centres a couple of days a week and Tina does her shifts at the prison. There are plenty of visitors, including Angela’s children and grandchildren. Angela’s daughter Becky brings Ellie to visit regularly, and Debbie and Linda love having a baby in the house. Linda’s family visit too – her twin sister Susan and sometimes her Auntie Mollie. Relatives and friends often join them for Sunday tea or a Sunday roast.

We talk about ‘respite’ care, when Angela has some time off from being a carer. This happens several times a year. Next week, Tina and Angela are going to visit Angela’s mum in Warrington for nine nights, and Linda and Debbie will stay with a short-term Ategi carer, who they know and trust. As the visit goes on, and after a second cup of tea and some cake, Linda and Debbie lose their initial shyness. We talk about the family sing-alongs, and Debbie gives me a rendition of ‘Doh a Deer’ from ‘The Sound of Music’.

“I love Drama,” she says, “I love to sing and act.”

Debbie goes to church every Sunday and has good friends there. She finds it uplifting, the singing and clapping. She loves the day centre she goes to as well. “I can reach out to people there,” she says, “I can have conversations.” Linda enjoys arts and crafts and shows me a scrapbook she made for Angela, which is filled with Christmas recipes she has carefully cut out and stuck in. She also shows me a special shoebox, which she has covered in beautiful patterned paper. Linda has been to Menorca with Angela and Tina twice, and judging from the photographs they all had a fantastic time. Debbie only went the first time, and decided that she did not enjoy the sun, or the water, so the second time she chose to have a short break with a carer instead. They will go away this year, but not to Menorca as – like most families these days – they can’t afford to go abroad every year.

“Debbie does a brilliant Frank Spencer impersonation,” says Angela. I look at Tina and she nods. Debbie smiles when they ask her if she’ll do one for me. “Go on,” coaxes Tina. Then she does it. The absolute best Frank Spencer impersonation I have ever heard in my entire life.

“Betty!” she says, “The cat’s done a whoopsie on the table!”

It is perfect. It is spot on. We are all helpless with laughter.

I ask Debbie how she feels about living with Angela and Tina, in a proper home.

“I am much happier living here,” she says, “in the other homes I did not feel loved, and people were mean to me. Now I have a family who love me, and I love them.”

As I prepare to leave, I think about something that was said at the beginning of the visit, when we were talking about the cats Leo and Slinky. Leo came from a family around the corner, but he decided that he was happier with Angela, Tina, Linda and Debbie. It turned out that this suited everybody concerned, so he was allowed to stay.

“He chose us,” said Angela, smiling, “just like we chose each other.”

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