Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Survival Skills

My grandmother was not only an angel, but she was more than a little fey. She predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the South African apartheid state, nearly to the day. And she also told me this (I put it on its own line so that you can mull over its brilliance):

The monetary system as we know it will collapse in 2012.

You read it here first.

Reading the papers and listening to the news, you’d think it really is happening. And perhaps it is. But seeing I can’t do anything to stop it happening, and economic talk about quantitive easing and debt crises makes me glaze over like the inimitable Charlie Brooker:

I can feel my entire mind … Entering shutdown mode. Protecting itself from boredom by willfully slipping into a coma. My eyes remain open, I occasionally even grunt, but my inner being has wandered several thousand miles away. Sometimes I’m rudely awoken by a cold strand of drool dripping on to my collarbone. If, as I regain consciousness, their explanation is still going, I wipe my chin clean and go back to sleep.

… I started to think about my chances of survival. What skills do I have that might help if we wake up next year and find that money is gone?

Here is my paltry list:

1. I can use needle and thread. I could cobble together clothes out of sheets and blankets.

2. I make a great salad. If there’s no electricity, my baking skills will go out of the window, though. Also, I don’t grow stuff well, so I would have to learn to forage.

3. I can walk really really long distances without getting tired.

4. I could tell stories around the campfire.

5. I have a good network of friends. A tribe is a helpful thing.

6. I’m not afraid of hard work or boring repetitive tasks. I could work in someone’s veggie garden in exchange for radishes.

See I told you it was a bit pathetic. Turns out I need to learn some serious skills in the next few months – woodwork, perhaps? Or a little light butchery.

What skills do you have that would serve you well if things bottomed-up? What skills do you lack?


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A 29th Story of AIDS

This is my mother’s story, so I’ll let her tell it in her own words. Meet Toni:

“I was driving through the village to my bridge class when I saw an old gogo (grandmother) with a baby on her back. The baby seemed to be slipping out of the blanket and looked as if it was going to fall, so I stopped my car. I ran across the road to tell her, but when I got to her, I realised she was not an old lady but a child.

I could see she was very sick. I asked her how old she was and she said, ‘Seventeen’. I asked her where her parents were and she said, ‘My parents are dead’. I asked her who she lived with and she said, ‘I live with my aunt. She does not like me.’

I began to cry. My heart just opened and I wept. She said, ‘Please don’t cry.’

Then I asked her where she was going and she said, ‘To the clinic.’ I drove her to the clinic, and then I told her I would come back and fetch her. I drove to my bridge class to tell them I wouldn’t be joining them and I told them why. They told me the only thing to do is to turn your back and walk away.

I knew I couldn’t do that, so I drove back to the clinic and saw Sambeka sitting, feeding her baby. She seemed to be smiling, but then I realised she was grimacing with pain. Every breath hurt her and she could hardly hold her four-month-old baby. Her arms were too weak. The clinic sisters seemed kind but overwhelmed. They told me Sambeka was the tip of the iceberg. They also told me not to cry in front of her. They were waiting for results of a blood test, so all they could give her was porridge to take home and formula for the baby. They said that she was too sick to walk.

I told her I would drive her. On the way, I stopped at home and gathered everything I could find – food, cooking utensils, money, blankets. Then I took her home – to a small, two-room RDP house (RDP stands for the goverment’s Reconstruction and Development Plan) where she lives with her aunt and her three children, who were all semi-naked. It is a twelve kilometre journey from the house to the clinic. Sambeka would have had to take a taxi (a minibus used for public transport), crammed with people and then walk part of the way. It must have been such a struggle for her to get there.

I went home and phoned my neighbour who is involved with AIDS organizations in the area. She told me about the Umngeni AIDS Centre and a young man called Tony Shelembe, who helps people with AIDS and counsels children bereaved by AIDS. I phoned Tony and arranged to meet him to find out what else could be done for Sambeka. He asked some details about her and where she lived, and before we met up, went to visit her. I also went shopping and bought clothes for all the children in the house, and more food.

I collected Tony and he told me he was taking me to see Dan le Cordeur*, a Catholic priest, who also volunteers for the Umngeni AIDS Centre (UAC). Dan said that the UAC has had to close down because donors don’t want to pay for administration. The eight UAC employees are now jobless, except for Tony. They have managed to find R700 (€70) a month to pay his salary.

Tony and I then went to see Sambeka. He told me he had already applied for a birth certificate for the baby and ID for her. While I was away, he was going to take her to the Howick Clinic (20km in the opposite direction) to try to get her on ARVs.

Sambeka is dying. Unless she can get on ARVs immediately, her baby will be orphaned, with only a reluctant great-aunt to look after him. I don’t know what to expect when I get back. She might be gone, she might already be on treatment.”

I have a photo of Sambeka, taken by Toni. I thought briefly about posting it but I decided I didn’t want to without her permission. She holds her baby son propped up on her lap so that the camera catches his little face as well as hers. The camera doesn’t show the lesions on her chest and around her mouth, but it does show the devastating hope in her eyes.

Sambeka does not want to die. She does not want to orphan her child. But unless Tony and the UAC can help her cut through South Africa’s red tape, get her to a clinic – no mean feat now that she’s so sick – and help her access those ARVs that she so desperately needs, she won’t make Christmas.

* If anyone would like to make a donation to keep the UAC above water so that it can help people with AIDS like Sambeka, I can provide you with Dan’s email address


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I Have Met South Africa’s Future President …

… and her name is A.

I’ll tell you about A in a minute. She’s worth waiting for.

I remember when we still lived in England and I was struggling to decide if I should enroll my precious three-year-old daughter in the posh girls’ school in a neighbouring village, where she’d learn to play the violin at four and mix with Surrey’s little rich girls, or if I should send to her to the far cheaper and much more convenient, but average, state school in our village. While I was sweating the decision – which luckily I didn’t have to make because we decided to move back to Germany – I spoke to my Dad, who wisely said, “If your child applies herself and works hard, she will do well no matter what school she goes to.” There is a lot of angst in England about going to the right school, which will get you into the right university, and finally into the right job. It’s less prevalent in Germany, but it’s slowly going that way as more private schools spring up and parents become anxious about getting their kids a place at university. It’s a great big spiral of middle-class angst, and one which I try, but sometimes fail, to not get caught up in.

Anyway, this wonderful A who I met a couple of weeks ago is proof of my Dad’s axiom. I had to interview her for an article, and the interview took place over the phone, because unfortunately my client wasn’t footing the bill to send me to Johannesburg to talk to her in person. During the course of two hours in her presence, I laughed, cried, was moved and inspired. I thought to myself, “If there are As in this world, then there is hope for my country.”

A was born in Soweto, outside Johannesburg. She is one of seven children, and has a twin sister. She knows who her father is, but the family have no relationship with him, and her mother raised all seven kids alone. Despite having various depressive episodes, and including spending some time in a mental institution, A’s mother was a committed parent. A says she “made parenting look easy”. She was deeply concerned that her children would complete their education, as she only had South African Standard 3 (fifth grade). While A was in high school, one of her brothers died and her twin sister fell pregnant and had a baby. A was the first person in her family to make it to Matric – South Africa’s final school year.

In the October of A’s Matric year, her mother fell ill. A had nine final exams to write, and between her first and her second exam, her mother died. Instead of collapsing, as I’m sure I would have, A gathered her strength and wrote all eight of her remaining Matric exams. I asked her how she managed that and she said, “I had to compartmentalise. I put my grief in one place, and my exams in another. I didn’t want to fail Matric and send a whole year down the drain.”

A says the proudest moment of her life was when she opened the newspaper that December to see her name amongst those who had passed Matric – and she had not only passed, but got good enough grades to go to university. Her greatest sorrow was that her Mum was not there to see it too. (This was the point where the hardened journalist did some silent weeping, and wrote very illegible notes. Good thing the interview was telephonic.)

In January, after completing her exams, A was sitting around at home with her brothers and sisters wondering what she was going to do with her life now that she had finished school. The post arrived, and with it a letter to say she had been awarded a bursary to CIDA, a university in Joburg that offers free education to students of previously disadvantaged backgrounds. CIDA is unique in that it is run by the students, who participate in every facet of the organization from administration to facilities management. Each student leaves CIDA after four years with a Bachelor of Business Administration, and the skills to join the business world.

During her time at CIDA, A worked part-time in a bank to pay for her travel costs into town and for her food. Her older brother also contributed to her costs. She took on a second course of study – an intensive IT course, where students were brought up to speed with computer software basics (Word, Excel and so on) and then could choose from one of three streams: the networking, ERP or programming. A chose ERP, effectively signing up for a second degree. She also managed during those very busy four years to set up a community outreach group at the college, cooking food for street kids, starting a couple of nursery schools and advising people on health issues such as HIV/AIDS. She says, “You know I thought I’d had it difficult in my life, but when I worked in this group, I had to tell myself, ‘Think again, sister!'”

After graduating, A was snapped up by a big software company, where she sailed through their Graduate Recruitment course and now coordinates the company’s alliance programme. She is also the breadwinner of her family.

Despite having had such meteoric success, A is not arrogant. She is understandably proud of her achievements, but she says, “I owe it all to my Mum”. She also believes that everyone in the family has something to offer: her older brother works in the informal sector making money for the family, others stay at home to cook and look after the children, while the two youngest go to school.

“You should hear me yelling at them, telling them to do their schoolwork! I sound just like my mother,” A laughs.

Despite supporting a large family and having a demanding job, A finds time to volunteer in her community. She has got her company to sponsor some Soweto schools in the First Lego League, where kids have to design a Lego robot and then programme it to do tasks, and she herself is mentoring a Lego League team of children from a Soweto orphanage. Some of these kids had never seen a computer before and in three months, A and her fellow volunteer have taught them to programme a robot!

A is only 25 years old, and her achievements are massive. She has fought poverty, lived through tragedy, got herself educated, found a great job, supports a family and finds time to help those less fortunate than herself. She has a sparkling sense of humour, a big laugh and a very soft heart.

I believe with those achievements, there is nothing in the world to stop her from becoming president of South Africa or running a major corporation one day. If she wants to.

She is an inspiration to me. Now, if I ever think I’m having a difficult day, I tell myself, ‘Think again, sister!'”