Just under a year ago I was asked to join friends who had set up a social enterprise Crossing Countries, which aims to help disabled people volunteer abroad. I joined them from 1st – 8th August on the pilot trip. They had already been out for a week. This journal offers a few reflections on my time with them as a group and Durban, South Africa. The people mentioned in the journal are as follows, in no order: Jean, she has been involved in projects in South Africa for a number of years and started Crossing Countries to allow disabled people to enjoy volunteering abroad notably in South Africa. Judith, who also co-founded the project and asked me to become involved in the project, Beth and Agata are also co-founders, our driver Ntuthuko and finally our travel pal Lucky.
I have just finished work, the out office is on and the blackberry is off. I am feeling anxious about this trip for a few reasons. 1), we are spending a lot of time in townships so I’m wondering how accessible it is because I am heavy to lift and worry about people getting hurt doing it. 2), I haven’t spent a week with Judith before so am hoping we don’t kill each other after about 5 days, 3), Agata, Jean, Beth and Judith know each other well. I only know Judith well and I don’t want to make a bad impression or upset group dynamics. Off to the airport I go here’s hoping for smooth flights.
0700: Dubai. I upgraded to business class on the way here to see what it’s like and to get a good sleep because the seats fold back into beds. Sleep was ok. The couple beside me and I got stuck into a bottle of Glenfiddich which helped me to sleep a bit. Food was ok. I almost fell out my seat because there is so much legroom so it’s hard to reach into the pocket in the seat in front of you. I watched Mary Poppins twice, overkill perhaps. Dubai is very hot with constant heat, no relief from a breeze, it’s 35 degrees and the pilot said to not complain as it was 49 degrees last week. How people live and function in this heat I don’t know. In the terminal I was taken to a special handling area for disabled passenger and cordoned in like sheep. I tried to go to the toilet and was given evil stares by the staff because I left the zone. The toilet was interesting because they only had handrails on one side so it was a balancing act. How people with even poorer stability than me manage I don’t know. It takes ages to get anywhere in the airport and when I was picked up to go to the flight to Durban the guy was complaining to me that he was late and that my gate would close, it did not help me relax but we made it.
Later on, over Africa…Flight going well Emirates must put a drug into your food to make you watch Mary Poppins as I have watched it twice more since last night. I have just found the first season of the West Wing on the TV box sets; this should make the flight home good.
Durban…Made it to Durban and reunited with my wheelchair. Only lost the break cover on the left hand side in the hold so, journey not too bad. Took me a while to find Judith was so good to see her, it made the heat of Dubai worth it. We have a van to take us about in Durban which has space for two wheelchairs in the back. This is fantastic as Judith and I can sit together which never happens at home. We went out for dinner to this local Portuguese place, food not bad apart from, I ordered prawns which I didn’t realise came in their shells and so I got into a right mess with them.
Slept like a log last night although the bed was rock hard. This morning we went to Operation Bobbi Bear. This charity works with and rescues children from sexual abuse. They do great work. Every Saturday- which is today, children go to the charity and play outside under a tree. When we arrived they were happy to see us. After a few minutes they came up to Judith and me to see our chairs. We made kites with them out of bin bags such a simple thing gave them so much pleasure. When they were playing with them they looked so happy it was hard to think that they were there because such horrendous things happened to them. Later on at the hotel Ntuthoko, Lucky and I watched a game of football on TV. It was good because although it wasn’t of great quality it meant so much to the players; whereas here, especially in the top leagues it’s sometimes hard to tell if players really care. We went out for dinner to a sushi place. The service was very poor because when we tried to attract staff attention they ignored us and although we ordered all together people in our group had to wait a long time for some of their food. We will eat like kings this week in good places as its R17 to the £1. I almost died or felt like I had, as I thought a dollop of wasabi sauce was avocado so ate it in a single mouthful my eyes streamed and apparently I turned very red.
I was meant to go to church today but my jetlag caught up with me. So I sat in the hotel and read -the gloom also paid me a visit. I have 6 weeks left of employment and I have no idea what I am going to do next or anything. I am so scared as I was unemployed for 3 years till January this year and don’t want to go back there again. People tell me I am talented and I just want a chance to fulfil it. We had Nandos at the hotel which was great because it gave us a chance to chat. Agata went surfing before I arrived this is remarkable as she is blind. Judith also was in the sea for the first time in 20 years, I wish I had seen it.
Today we went on a protest. The protest was at a major architect’s conference. The protesters want the authorities to improve disabled access to buildings, a thing that we take for granted in Scotland. It’s appalling to think that others still have to campaign for it in the 21st century. We then went to the Open Air School in Durban for disabled children. I was very apprehensive before I went because generally I am not a fan of segregated education for disabled children because I had a bad experience as a child and only did exercises and physio at school. This school was very different to mine and focused on academic work. We met with a class of students who were about to leave the school some of whom were in there early 20s, they were articulate and asked questions about kilts. It costs R5000 a year to go there and it would be so liberating for a disabled young adult. I must see if I can donate money to help fund a student to go there but I don’t want to be too imperialistic about it. I shared with the students my experiences of standing for parliament changing the law and climbing Ben Nevis. I hope they all took something from it. All of us gave similar talks and made Jean cry with pride. I took part in a shot put lesson with real shot puts; luckily I didn’t drop it on my foot. Tonight’s dinner was a braai- a barbecue. We went to a place called Max’s where you choose your meat and they cook it for you. The steak was fab. The shower facilities aren’t great they have the one grab rail like in Dubai and the shower seat is very high. Judith bought a toilet frame which they have called Stanley and the air is heavy with innuendos. Lucky helped me shower tonight. I thanked him because I feel my body is a private thing so find it hard to ask for help but Lucky said I didn’t need to thank him as it’s what men do for each other, very moving.
Today is Jean’s birthday. We went on the Ghandi trail. We saw his house he lived in in South Africa. It was made even better because we met his granddaughter who was there filming a documentary. I learned that he started his equality work because he was told he asked to leave first class on a train. Later we went to see the place where Mandela cast his ballot in 1994. I was struck how both this act and Ghandi being asked to leave a train seem so trivial but symbolise so much. Later we had a Braai for Jean’s birthday. Lucky had organised a huge cake and went to buy meat with Ntuthoko they came back with 14 steaks, they certainly love meat here in SA.
Today we went to visit Gogo, a remarkable woman. She is a pensioner who looks after orphans on her pension. In her room she has a cot and a couple of bunk beds. The kids were smiley and so happy to see us. Before we went there we picked up food for her, the supermarket was packed with people as they get their benefits today. It truly is a hand to mouth existence for some people. We went to Victoria market today I picked up a great shirt it’s very orange. I felt bad haggling but its what you do. Tonight we went out for our final meal of the trip as we leave tomorrow, it was fab. I had seafood curry. This trip has gone by in a flash. I think I have bonded well with the group so all is good
Today is our last day in Africa. I am sad as I feel I have only just scratched the surface of this remarkable place. We went to an aquarium with lots of bright fish I had my hand eaten by those tiny fish you get in tanks in shopping centres over here for your feet. Bunny chow for lunch. It’s basically curry inside bread yummy. The airport check in it took us ages as we had tonnes of stuff. I covered my eyes as my wheelchair went through the baggage rollers. Hopefully it makes it one piece.
0545 Dubai I am back in the sheep pen after no sleep on the plane. The Mary Poppins drug was in the food again but only watched it once. I managed to fit in 8 episodes of the West Wing too. The airport is huge we went on a train from one terminal to the next. On the plane here I didn’t sleep. It was very weird being served breakfast at 0230.
1600…Back in Edinburgh
I watched 8 more episodes of the West Wing. My wheelchair is knackered the brake is bent and the arm plastic is broken. How to get it fixed I don’t know GRRR. This was a great trip I would go back in a heartbeat.
When I think back, there are a few significant memories that I treasure in my mind. I wasn’t surprised by poverty, low prices, lack of resources, difficulties with internet connection etc. These were things I expected and knew from my previous experience. I have never been to South Africa before but I based my expectations on books that I have read, mainly by Ryszard Kapuscinski. The three happiest moments during the trip, I consider: running on the beach every morning with Lucky at a raising sun, managing to stand on the surfing board and making kites and loop bracelets with children from Operation Bobbie Bear. I loved all the children that we’ve met on the trip. I was surprised how easy going and open they were to us – strangers. What I truly loved in Africa was the realisation how much of a difference you can make with doing so little. I’ve seen with my own eyes and felt with my own heart, that there’s nothing more rewarding in life that a smile of a child who has a heart heavy with painful past. I wish we, as a group, could do more and meet more children who would benefit from our games and play time.
I think what’s common to all visitors to Africa is that they always come back home with appreciation. I was no different. I came back to Edinburgh being grateful for everything I have: for the food I can buy, for my family, for my bed and house which although not my property, mine, because I live in it now. Although I knew and contemplated before about temporality of things in life, only the experience of traveling and staying in South Africa made it clear as a water drop to me: I should never take for granted my extraordinary fortune to have food, family, a roof above my head, education, and medical care. I should always be grateful to God for it and the least gratitude and appreciation I can show is to share some of the skills and qualities I gained through my fortunate situation, with others who need them too but are in the less fortunate situation. I hope, in South Africa, I made at least one person happier for a moment and taught them something useful, whether it be: how to make a kite or how to meet the challenge despite your disability.
More than ever I came home with an awareness of how we may all be different but we each have our own joys, sorrows, challenges, and each feeling is as wondrous, painful and scary to its holder. Some are written on our bodies and some are hidden deep in our minds and hearts. I believe, when we left Durban, the people we met no longer saw us as ‘the unusual group of disabled and non-disabled, black and white people,’ but as a group of friends who volunteered, who shared joyous and tough moments together and who created a legacy of memories that said… ‘Ignore what you expect…open your minds…choose experience’. I am proud we achieved this.
At home I have been told I was brave, courageous. The only moment I was brave was when I made the decision to follow my dream. The rest was about choices, the choice to have the experience of living, the choice to give up or carry on, and the choice to make a difference or let things remain unequal. I saw a real equality emerge in our team when we stepped outside our daily lives and into our South African adventure. We all had to learn new ways of being; we all had to ask for help; we all learnt to recognised each other’s strengths and weaknesses and to supported each other in different ways. I believe this to be true equality.
As I look back, I am amazed at myself and the Crossing Countries team. I have grown in ways I never expected; I have unlearnt and learnt myself and I know I never want to stop discovering and dreaming of a world and people without ‘normal’.
This pilot trip out to Durban has been an adventure. At times the journey was extremely difficult but that made it all the more rewarding experience. I found travelling hard and it took me time to recover from the journey. I questioned myself as to why I would put myself through this, but then what I was part of made it all worthwhile.
After arriving at our hotel in Durban we quickly realised that the facilities were not accessible as we had hoped for. This was frustrating, but in some ways needing more assistance from people quickly strengthened our relationship. It was also very funny, with many occasions of people being soaked by a badly behaved showerhead. We resolved some of our access issues with a visit to a local medical equipment store. We ended up with our good friend Stanley a portable toilet surround, named after Stanley from Dr Livingstone and Stanley, intrepid explorers.
One of my first trips out was to Dloko high school. After a very early rise and still feeling a bit rough from our journey, we took a trip into Umlazi to the school. As the sun started to warm the air we came out of the van to the sounds of the school choir, the melodies carrying far out into the rolling hills of the township. I was pushed in my manual wheelchair into the quad area, before I had time to comment that the ground was inaccessible, as if by magic I was lifted onto the grass. It was my first taste of the SA attitude of making things accessible no matter what. There was not a risk assessment in sight. I sat listening to the joyful songs of the choir and the warm welcome of the other students.
After this we went into the classrooms to talk to the students. They were quite shy at times but very interested in who and what we were doing. One of the girls asked me where we built shacks in Scotland. Umlazi Township is a mishmash of houses and shacks of varying quality. It was strange explaining to her that we didn’t build shacks that we had to buy land and apply for planning permission etc. She was so shocked that we didn’t just build. We also did a small presentation for the choir on Edinburgh and the fringe and answered questions. They were so excited as they were coming over to perform in the Fringe. It was a lot of fun and good to share all the great things about the city.
On one of our days off we hit the beach. We had been in touch with Roxy’s surf school, they were keen for us to come along and give it ago. They had a beach wheelchair for people who have mobility issues who can’t get out onto the sand. We had already come across QuadPara’s beach wheelchairs which are free for use on the Durban seafront but I had yet to actually see one up close and use it.
I was very excited but somewhat nervous as it has been 20 years since I was able to be on a sandy beach or in the sea. We put on some wetsuits then I transferred onto the beach wheelchair. It was a bit like a deck chair with three giant wheels and floats attached to make it buoyant. The push out to the shoreline was quite hard going but definitely not as bad as Edinburgh cobbles. I had forgotten what it was like to feel sand between your toes or what the sea feels like when waves hit the shore. I watched Agata and Beth have a go at surfing I was so proud of them, they were absolute sea goddesses. They made it look very easy even if it was extremely hard. I enjoyed yelling on encouragement from the sand. A photographer came to take pictures as Agata was the first blind person they had taught to surf. Then it was my turn.
I was pushed into the sea then we started to float out. We had to time it carefully to make it through the waves crashing over us. It was quite scary to begin with but I soon got used it. Once we were deep enough I was floated off the chair and into the sea. I had to be held up by one of the surfers as I found it hard to keep my balance because of the current. Jean said she was so happy to see me so happy. It was just an experience I never expected to have again which made it all the more special. When it came time for us to go back we had to float in on the waves. I ended up being barrelled by a wave which is every surfers dream. I was pleased not to have seen it before it crashed down on us; it certainly was an awesome experience.
On the second Saturday, we went back to Operation Bobbi bear. This was my first visit to the tree of empowerment. The charity arranges for sexually abused children to visit a field on a Saturday, where they get lunch and time to play. Volunteers come along to play and have fun with the kids. This session is thought of as just as important as the counselling as it tries to reclaim their childhood. At first the kids were somewhat wary of Mark and me because of our wheelchairs. It was more curiosity than anything else and after a while they didn’t notice the wheelchairs, and enjoyed playing with us. I made loom bands with some of the kids, teaching some of the older ones how to make them on their fingers. Mark, Jean, Beth and Agata helped them make kites out of plastic bags and straws. It was fun and sometimes really sad. You would forget the reason why these kids were here, then it would hit you what most of them had suffered on top of all the other challenges of township life. The world seems so unfair at times. Then you see all the people who want to change and help others and you realise society still tries.
We went to visit the Open Air School in Durban, which is a special needs school for children with disabilities. I had mixed feelings about special education schooling. On the one hand I don’t agree that segregating a child because they are disabled is good for the child or society, on the other, not all school environments are equipped to deal with special needs and the child does best in specialist education. I have been part of the main stream system, hospital schooling and special ed FE college and all had their good and bad points. Open Air School in Durban was one of the best that I have come across. The kids all have access to do the Matriculation curriculum and will sit exams like their peers in the mainstream state education system. The campus was alive with chatter, friendships and learning.
We met level 12 learners who had just sat their exams and were about to finish school. We gave a brief talk about what our backgrounds in education had been and how we had got to university. Then did a Q&A session, they were curious about our lives and how disabled people lived in society. They were really engaged and interested in our lives and what we were doing there. Their teacher had said that some of them were upset that they hadn’t done as well in their exams as they had hoped. One of the things that I learnt in Durban and Umlazi is that education is so vitally important. A decent future is dependent on it. The educators were so passionate about their jobs. They were also very keen for us to come back and volunteer for a longer period of time. I felt really privileged to be able to spend time there and also that I have had such an excellent education that I had to pay for or was not withheld from me because of my disability. The attitude of SA in Durban is summed up in the school motto, I can and I will.
One of the most exciting and sometimes scary things about this trip was we soon realised that anything could and would happen. None of the days quite ended up as we had originally planned. One of these experiences was we ended up on demonstration with QuadPara. We had been asked to go by Ari who is president of this organisation and also head of Rolling Inspirations a disability magazine. The demo was against a world architect’s conference being held in Durban. The SA government was looking to standardise access regulations with architects not taking into consideration the needs of disabled people. We came out in solidarity, equal access being such an important part of Crossing Countries ethos. Lots of people attended with varying mobility needs.
I met one lady who ran a shop near where we were staying in Blue waters and heard how hard it is for ordinary disabled residents of Durban to have access. For a lot of people it may not seem that important but if you can’t use public transport, toilets, shops or access state services you are excluded from the community. Whilst people struggle especially in the townships, there is more of a can do attitude to try and include.
On Sunday we went to Ma’s church in Umlazi. It was a community service to celebrate a mass baptism. I had never been in church with so many people before. It was packed, there must have been over one thousand people, and everyone was dressed up in their best. The women wore white, wearing some fantastic hats and the men in suits. There were all ages there, from small babies to old Gogo’s the atmosphere was one of community and celebration. It was certainly more uplifting than a lot of services in Scotland. People were so pleased we had come to worship there. One of the preachers had been to Scotland and came down into the congregation to welcome us and made us speak on a microphone to everyone. I was first, I can’t remember what I said but it seemed to go down well. It was such a strange feeling, if someone had told me before I went to South Africa that I would have been public speaking to such a large group I would have laughed. I realised that us going out on this pilot trip, being there and telling people why we had come, gave me confidence that I didn’t know I had. After the service lots of people came over to talk and we were treated to a delicious township meal of rice, salad, chicken and steamed bread. The warmth and welcome of the people was inspiring. They were ready to give so much, when having so little.
One of our final days out and a celebration of Jean’s birthday was the Inanda trail which looks at historical areas in KwaZulu Natal. We went to a replica of Ghandi’s house when he lived in SA. It was amazing to learn about his story, his time in SA and the changes he brought about. Whilst we were there, we met his granddaughter who still runs a local paper. She was there filming a documentary and took time to meet us and congratulated us on the work we were doing. We were all in a state of shock that we got to meet her. It was an added bonus to another fantastic day in SA.
This trip to Durban was amazing. It has forced me to push myself out of my comfort zone. At times it was overwhelming and made me quite ill but what I got in return outweighed the negative points. Nothing good in life comes easily. The people we met welcomed us with open arms. No one thought what we were trying to do was foolish or of little use. Their belief in us created a greater faith in ourselves, as individuals and as an organisation. To borrow from Open Air School, we can and we will continue to challenge boundaries and change lives, starting with our own.
Reflection can be a hard thing to do, particularly when reflecting on something that happened over two months ago. It has been over two months since Crossing Countries was in Africa, and so much has happened since then.
For example, I met with Jean a couple of days ago to start planning a work schedule (even when Crossing Countries are in Scotland there’s a lot of work to be done!) We looked through the website and made some changes, but paused for a second when looking through some photographs. For me, that was an incredibly important moment, because both of us were transported back those couple of months, and were lead into our memories of the most challenging and rewarding two weeks of our lives. Two weeks that I look back on with pride and a peaceful fondness: knowing we will be back within the year soothes any feeling of nostalgia.
The moment that has stayed closest with me is perhaps the most selfish experience I had while in Durban. It was holding a child for the first time, and being trusted to play with lots of children whom I had never met before. And it shocked me; the unconditional love these children had for a complete stranger, who wasn’t from their family or even nation. They trusted us and loved us and looked up to us with hope and expectation.
We did many things on our trip. Yes, we achieved our goal of giving disabled students overseas volunteering experience, and yes I learned a great deal about disability. This is something I wish to continue learning about, and helping to give opportunities to those students who may not have had such experiences before. But selfishly South Africa was, to me, about the children we volunteered with and how we managed, if just for a moment, to give them a chance to smile.
A few months before Crossing Countries fly to Africa, South Africa, Durban… the warmest country to challenge boundaries change lives (disabled).
I got a text message from Jean a founder of Crossing Countries organisation who I know a very long time as a friend and a mother to me, I call her Mah. She then asked me how would I feel if she ask me to be the first travelling pal for their journey of challenging boundaries changing lives as she knows I love people and challenging things in life, so why not bring it on.
…But when time was getting close to meet the team I was so worried thinking how I’m going to handle or work with the a group of disabled friends but through communication with the team on Facebook and text messages I got to know the individuals better, even I find myself in that position of knowing everyone was little worried. I have worked with social development projects/organisations but this one was different I told myself thinking…
Airport wow this was so amazing how quickly we bounded 5 minutes from the pick up at the Shaka international airport the laugh jokes and mmmh cuddling’s. Back to the beautiful hotel I never been into before wow (Blue Waters Hotel) and knowing that I will spend a week plus in it but that was just extra’s the amazing thing was meeting the brave people coming out of their comfort zone in their situation of disability but nothing can stop them.
This trip was so amazing because sometimes plans were quickly changed how the day should be like and everyone will do the best to easily fit on new arrangements. Honestly I loved working with the team assisting Mark who is in wheel chair to wash his body which is a treasure to him that he won’t easily reveal his body to anyone but he trusted me so much let me help which I even told him that maybe one day too I will be in the same situation he don’t need to thank me I’m doing what a proud brother can do. Agata who can’t see wow we were getting every well together because mostly like common things every morning I mean real early we will run on the beach sand and swim on our turning point of running it was fun but also bit scary since Agata could not see but I have learn quickly how to picture things and the day the her through the help of Jean explaining me everything about the team. Jude was so good with organising things, Beth the Durban (Zulu) woman always trying her best speaking Zulu language honestly she was very good listening and understand the Zulus when speak and eish trusting her to carry my little baby girl for the first time since she wasn’t familiar with holding kids. Jean always worried about planning places because she new South Africa before the rest of the time
I have been so lucky to work with team seeing them playing with the kids going to the schools in townships and the places we went to visit and help looking how the team grow each day and for me seeing myself extraordinary things some which I thought I wont be able to but the team left me with questions…