Durban Trip, 2018

Symbols and the Art of being Curious: The Crossing Countries’ Team of 2018

So, every trip we try to think of a different way of telling you about our adventures. We usually decide on a word that we can use as a lens to reflect on what we have done and seen. We struggled with a word this year as words are symbols that carry different meanings for different people. For example, …

What does inclusion mean to you? Do you have a better word?

Does it mean you are included, and you adjust to fit into an existing structure, or that the structure changes so that it fits you?

So, no word this year, but we did pick a sound track to our adventures ‘This is Me’ from The Greatest Showman. The lyrics are a call of self-approval and empowerment. They are at the core of Crossing Countries aims. Please listen to or read the lyrics, especially think of those about how we have learnt to be ashamed of our scars, how words can cut us down but by being proud of who we are and fighting to overcome barriers we can make a place for ourselves, where no apologies are needed, and we can be accepted for who we are.

What soundtrack would you pick for an adventure you have been on? What would the lyrics/tune be like for a Crossing Countries soundtrack?

About music, Suzi and Lucy taught the Mason Lincoln School Choir Ireland’s Call and Flower of Scotland and we learnt Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. National anthems and nationalism, as symbols, can be thought of as expressions of exclusivity and xenophobia. But, they can also be a way of expressing belonging, obligation and give a sense of value to your community, a move away from individualism and a way of sharing cultures between peoples and nations.

How does the national anthem you identify with make you feel, what does it make you think about? How would you change it?

From a national symbol to a symbol built to inspire the young learners of Mason Lincoln Special School. Njabulo Hlongwane, the art teacher, wanted to build a sculpture to be called ‘Steps to Success.’ With a little help from CC, it now stands in front of the learners as they hold their morning assemblies. The description and inspirational message of the sculpture are as follows…

Each element of these steps symbolises your journey to success.

The stones, inside a wire mesh gabion, make the foundation of these steps. The concrete that covers them reminds us that not all disabilities can be seen.

The stones are the individual physical and mental challenges that face everyone. They have been recycled, so they also represent the potential each of us have, to create new beginnings.

The wire mesh, of the gabion, suggests the possibility of being trapped by your challenges, while its holes promise gaps to escape through.

The circular wheels at the side of the sculpture represent wholeness and self, you can move them in the same way as you can control your destiny.

The smooth concrete steps, which make your climb easier, are supported by the foundations. This is the support you get and the work you do to make your success possible.

Once you start your climb up the concrete steps you pass boots and crutches on the way, discarded items, that no longer have any significance and cannot prevent you from being successful.

Finally, you reach the wheelchair on the last step, it is the international symbol of ALL disabled people. It is adorned with a crown representing the triumph and power of kings and queens. The crown is yellow, the colour of courage, wisdom and happiness.

The learners at Mason Lincoln gathered the stones, shaped the gabion wires and worked together on the Steps to Success Sculpture to remind future learners they can succeed and build worthwhile and meaningful lives.

Another art project CC was involved in at Mason Lincoln was painting plaques to decorate the outside of the art room with African symbols, whose meanings were: welcome, hope, strength, wisdom and enjoy yourselves. With globalisation sometimes, cultures get lost and subsumed, these plaques were not only to encourage the leaners but also to remind them of their heritage.

What would you create to symbolise your achievements or inspire others? If you were a symbol what would it look like?

Meanwhile, Steven was giving workshops to the visually impaired learners about the magnifiers and equipment he brought with him from RNIB. They were very popular and soon the Braille Unit was full of learners and teachers. Crossing Countries has spent a lot of time thinking about the value we can bring to our team and to the projects we volunteer at.  A recurring conversation concerns the value of what we do as volunteers. It is a complex and thorny issue. We do not want to be seen as another form of colonialism (volunteer or philanthropic). However, this is hard when faced with the ability to give equipment or facilitate a project by buying supplies without which the project would not happen.  We don’t want to be part of the symbolic and stereotypical images of African people often seen in the media, either starving and corrupt or happily singing and dancing. We are careful about the images we use. We hope they project a country and people as complex as the rest of the world and its people, but we have no control over how these images are interpreted. This year we were particularly pleased to be asked, by the organisations we worked at, to help with projects they wanted to do as we strive to make our work of mutual benefit. We visited Summerhill House, an after-school club and orphanage, where local kids can get support to do their homework and play until their parents get home from work. They asked us to run some rethinking disability workshops for their staff next year.

Can volunteering abroad be a skill sharing experience and bring value to both parties? Do you think financial donations foster dependency or facilitate empowerment?

Looking back at our previous trips there has been an organic growth towards art, creativity, recycling and in general, enabling creative innovation (I guess you could call that… facilitating thinking outside the box). There seems to be more flexibility within the art curriculum to use and share our skills in these creative disciplines. This year Jo spent time with the visually impaired learners introducing them to tactile art. Some of them had never had the opportunity before to express themselves through art, to make connections with others while also discovering things about themselves. Jean was over the moon when Thandjwie (the skills teacher) made a sock doll from a few sketches Jean had made of a pattern from the internet. The dolls will be made by the learners for the creche adjacent to the school. Jean also spent time researching different kinds of art, so the learners could define them and see examples. Both Jean and Jo were moved by these experiences. There is lots of talent in Mason Lincoln School but like with creatives around the world, finding a way to continue their practise and make a living from it, is a challenge.

Has there been a person or a piece of art that inspired you? What would your hidden artistic-self create?

We were all inspired by our visit to the Mandela Capture Site in Howick, where Nelson Mandela was arrested before he spent 27 years in confinement. On the same day we visited Abingdon Winery and Ardmore Ceramics. Ardmore was founded in 1985 by a Zimbabwean ceramicist, Fee Halstead, she went on to teach local people her art and Ardmore ceramics have been shown and sold all over the world. During the AIDS epidemic many of the artists died, which not only established the Ardmore Excellence Fund (which supports artists and their families touched by AIDS) but also a body of work about AIDS education.

Can art educate and shape society? Have you seen a piece of art or a creative performance that has changed your mind about a social issue?

Moving from art to craft, we went back to Ikwhezi Welfare Organisation where we spent time with Miriam and her colleagues, who make Zulu beadwork to sell and raise funds for the organisation. We visited the old age home and Jean spent some time again with an elderly lady who she has formed a connection with. Most of our time was spent with the kids with physical and learning disabilities who live at Ikwhezi. It feels so little that we do when we go there. Blowing bubbles, dancing, singing songs, it doesn’t seem enough, but the staff are always happy to see us as we bring new ideas and games to play with the kids.

Is it enough to show up and spend time? Has there been an instance in your life when talking about it wasn’t enough, when you were called to action?

Having fun with children, making them laugh and be able to be kids for how ever short a time is one of the things that Jackie, the founder of Bobbi Bear (an organisation that supports abused children and their families), is passionate about. Before we even got to Durban, she had said, could we organise a water fight for the kids who meet on a Saturday under the Tree of Empowerment in a field in Illovo. When we arrived, she asked, ‘Could we do something about the environment and plastics?’ So, one week it was a talk about how plastics harm the environment. Followed by Steven spending a morning blowing bubbles though a plastic bottle full of water and detergent covered with a sock, while the rest of the team made plastic bag bracelets and feed the kids. Another Saturday, after a hilarious evening of trying to fill 300 water balloons, we had a water fight demonstrated by Suzi and Mzukulu. The most fun was had from a plastic sheet spread on a slope squirted with water and detergent by Suzi and Jo, which made a slippery water slide.

Do children play different versions of the same game in different countries? What game reminds you of your childhood?

Oh, and Suzi and Lucy went diving with sharks, we went to a birthday party and church social in Umlazi and we numerous tasty food adventures. One of which was our leaving BBQ (Braii) prepared and cooked by Mzukulu. He is our driver/man on the ground, who is our linchpin in Durban and whose steadfast loyalty and unerring commitment to Crossing Countries and our teams is priceless.

Finally, a big thank you from Crossing Countries to the 2019 team, who made this trip memorable, fun, emotional and successful. A special mention to Toucan Dan, our inflatable friend, who kept an eye on our evening planning sessions from the pool.

You are born curious, stay curious friends…. till next year.