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What I wanted to tell you is,

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 AfricaAfrica like my bodyThe length and breadth of herTall and graceful.I am cut with desertWilderness stretches my horizonRift Valley shadowsCast a cut scarAcross my countenance.Africa, my AfricaMy heart beats toThe rhythm of wildebeestCrossing the Serengeti.My eyes see into cheetah’s speed.I smell your grass,Fly above the acacias,Taste dust on my dry lipsAnd laugh in love.(Written 24 June on the Amsterdam-Cape Town KLM flight)

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