Diamonds and dust

I posted this piece in the wake of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in 2012. I thought, as today is Human Rights Day in South Africa, I would re-post:

Yesterday’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant was an extravagant spectacle to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the British throne. In March 1995, on this day (Human Rights Day) in South Africa, the Queen commemorated something similarly historic, with slightly less pomp and ceremony, in a dusty township in South Africa. The occasion was no less grand.

In May 1994, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was sworn in as President of the newly-democratic South Africa. I remember voting in those historic elections and feeling an overwhelming sense of being part of something special. In March 1995, the Queen and Prince Philip paid their first official visit to the newly-free country.

Photo courtesy of mirror.co.uk
Queen Elizabeth II with South African President Nelson Mandela on an official visit to the newly-democratic country in March 1995

At that time, I worked for a non-government organisation that received funding from the British government. Ours was selected as one of two beneficiary organisations in Cape Town that would receive a royal visit.

Planning began in earnest about four months ahead of the visit. The Queen’s time was limited, so we two beneficiaries set up a ‘visit site’ at the other organisation’s premises in Khayelitsha. Their premises proved bigger and more adaptable for the visit than our premises, which were mostly in church halls and community centres.

Khayelitsha is an area of the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa. The Xhosa name means ‘new home’ and it is reputed to be the biggest and fastest growing township in the country. Our organisation worked in that and other communities, to train unemployed people to start their own small businesses.

Being the project manager for the visit, I met three or four times with the royal team of Private Secretary to the Queen, press and police secretaries, as they made regular scoping trips to the country. We faxed letters to each other regularly. Information was paramount, planning was detailed, timing was precise. We learnt fun facts such as:

  • when the Queen drives through residential streets lined with people, she drives at 4mph
  • she always gets out of her car on the right-hand side
  • verified information is required about each person the Queen is due to meet
  • equally, the people who will meet the Queen get the information required for meeting her.

The day dawned: Tuesday 21 March 1995. Human Rights Day in South Africa. We all travelled together to the Khayelitsha venue to get ready for the visit. Everyone was dressed to the nines, ready with their own story to tell the Queen. We were excited; animated. The royal entourage arrived on the dot of their expected time and began to make their way through the itinerary we so painstakingly put together.

I remember seeing the Queen up close and personal and thinking she looked radiant. She had soft, smooth skin and shining blue eyes. She took an interest in each person she met, asked beautifully well-briefed questions and graciously listened to each person’s story. Prince Philip broke away from the entourage and typically adopted a more spontaneous approach. We got wonderful images of him, head back and laughing loudly as he chatted to my colleagues. The Queen, gentle and genial, proved photogenic as always.

I don’t think even the most strident of cynics would have criticised that visit to dusty Khayelitsha in 1995. I’m not an ardent royalist myself, but I was glad to be part of a visit that was truly special, relatively and appropriately ordinary and supremely intimate. And most importantly, it took place away from the glare of the media.

For us, months of planning bottlenecked into a 10-minute visit that will stay with each one of us always. The weather was never going to disappoint. It was windy that day, and the sun shone as it always does. Not only was it a royal seal of approval for the micro-enterprise development work that our organisation did, but, more broadly, it was one way of welcoming South Africa back into the international community.  No number of boats could have done that quite as perfectly.

Sunshine signing off for today!

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The fairest of them all

In cricket, when a batsman scores a century (100 runs) or half a century (50 runs), he takes off his helmet and waves his bat at the crowd. The crowd responds with uproarious applause and appreciation for the milestone. My sons said I should have done the same when I reached my significant milestone earlier in July.

We’ve just returned from a heady three weeks in Cape Town where we celebrated my younger son’s 21st birthday, closely followed by my half century. To say it was an outstanding holiday is to understate how special every single minute was; spending time with our family, in unseasonal sunshine in our home city. I loved spending time with my boys and getting to know them again, and celebrating significant birthdays in the style that means so much to the four of us: surrounded by family.

Through coincidence and design, all of my siblings were together in Cape Town for the celebrations and I am at a loss for words to describe what that meant to me. My husband’s family, who all live there, joined us too, which was also fabulously special. My darling, elderly parents sat among their growing dynasty and smiled in the glow of all of us who love and cherish them.

I remembered why Cape Town is known as the fairest Cape. Mid-winter just happened to look like this:

Table Mountain on a mid-winter's day July 2011

And this:

The view of Sea Point from Mouille Point

If I’d dreamt of an idyllic holiday, I don’t think I could have imagined it looking like this:

Sunset over the Strand

Or this:

Sunset over Table Bay: a view from Signal Hill

Or this:

Full moon over the Mother City

Or feeling like this:

Joy. Pure joy.

I’m now back in London, missing my family like crazy, but celebrating my runs on the board, and raring to get going again towards my century. I understand that 50 is the new 40, and, if that’s the case, now is when life really begins. I’m waving my bat at the crowd, and preparing to put my helmet back on.

Sunshine signing off for now!

Starter for Seven

In the past few weeks, I’ve been nominated twice for the Stylish Blogger Award. Am I stylish, as a blogger? Is my blog stylish? Heck, I doubt it, but I’ll take what I get!

Thank you so much to Todd Pack over at Todd Pack’s Messy Desk for his generous nomination; Todd is one heck of a writer, whose commentary on popular culture and his beloved south is not only brilliantly written and insightful, but it’s also really funny. The second nomination came from workingtechmom over at her blog called Ouch, Fired! Workingtechmom writes about family life and work life, the balance required, as well as the challenges and the demands of working and not working. Thank you both for nominating me.

As with most blogging awards, there’s a task involved and that is to tell you seven things about myself that you might not know. Here goes:

  1. I am something of a global phenomenon. I am the current reigning world champion sleeper-in-front-of-the-television. I have slept through more movies and television programmes than anyone else I know, and my sleeping has absolutely nothing to do with how good the movie is, how much I’m enjoying it or how much I want to watch it. If I’m tired, I will sleep. And I hate that I do that. I once tried to watch Finding Forrester with my elder son, when he was a teenager. I fell asleep before the titles rolled, and my son kept calling me to wake me up:
    “Watch this cool part, Mom! It’s really funny!”
    Each time he rewound the movie to cue it to the part he wanted me to see, I would fall asleep. He tried about five times with one particular scene, without success, and then asked me if he could just pretend he was watching the movie alone. Oh dear.
  2. I hate washing up potato peelers.
  3. This one is a bit awkward: I keep checking my letter box and I have now come to the conclusion that *my Royal wedding invitation has got lost in the post*. Does anyone know the Royal protocol to pass on this kind of embarrassing piece of information? I know they’ll be waiting to get my RSVP. What to do, what to do?
  4. I have a ridiculous fear of heights. I have managed to do things like go up in the cable car to the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, travel in a small gondola up to the top of Mount Titlis in the Swiss Alps and go up in the London Eye. When I can look ahead and avoid looking down, I can do it. If I look down, my stomach churns, my palms drip with sweat and I have to back away. And tell everyone else I know and love to back away too.
  5. I have started writing my book. My friend, Renee, over at Life in the Boomer Lane – a hugely talented, published writer who never ceases to make me laugh – has recently very generously shared her experiences regarding the process of writing a book. Everything she said made sense, especially the bit about how you need “to find your sentence” and then the book will flow from there. You will be pleased to know, Renee, that I have found my sentence. It made me cry, but I’m writing.
  6. I once suffered a bruised hip, playing rugby. Picture this: Muizenberg beach, Cape Town, a slow Sunday afternoon a few years ago. Our family and my husband’s brother and his family were enjoying a walk along the beach. Given that there were seven boys and three girls in the family group, we did what any similar group would do: decided to play a game of touch rugby on the beach. It would be rude not to. We split up into two teams. My team was gaining ground; we were dominating in both territory and possession. We were playing, if I may say so myself, spectacularly. I needed to give my team my all, so when one of my team mates threw me something of a hospital pass, I grabbed the ball and tried to make the best of the situation. I ran down my opponents and headed speedily towards the try-line. My legs ran too fast for my body, unfortunately, and I threw myself down – somewhat involuntarily – a short distance ahead of the try-line. It would have been an outstanding try if the beach hadn’t come up to meet me so quickly and dramatically and so far shy of the try-line. But I landed on the ball and that is how I bruised my hip.
  7. I have a new job. I have been hired as the publications and communications manager for a charity in London, and I started there last week. I am thrilled at this appointment, it will be a challenging and busy job, full of variety and possibility, and I am thrilled to be working in a small and active charity that really makes a positive difference in its sector.

As with similar awards, there is an obligation to pass this award on to fellow bloggers. I can honestly say that all of the blogs that I read are stylish and wonderful; they all make me think or laugh or cry or reflect and all of them keep me inspired and keep me reading and wanting to write better. If any of you would like to take up the mantle, please be my guest and go ahead. Just be careful not to bruise your hip.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Happy Feet

Next to laughter, dance is the best therapy. Every week I spend an hour dancing my troubles away. For that hour my stresses and disappointments and fears and anxieties disappear in the sweat and the swirl of the salsa and the cumbia and the bachata. The Zumba instructor tells us what to do. We just move.

I couldn’t wait for last night’s dance class. I got to the gym early in anticipation of the therapy session ahead. I wasn’t disappointed.

Our instructor taught us some new dances and used some new music. One song made my heart sing and the tears fly out from my eyes. In the stomping and shimmying, I heard the roar of the crowds, I felt the joy of victory and the sweet warmth of sunshine on my shoulder, the colour of the world in flags and smiles and hope and expectation and togetherness and the healing of a nation united. As I twirled I breathed in the excitement of the game and the despair of hopes dashed. And as my hips swayed to a familiar drumbeat, my heart leapt with imagining what it was like to be in my home country during the FIFA Soccer World Cup 2010.

We danced to this:

“Dancing faces you towards Heaven, whichever direction you turn.”
Terri Guillemets

Sunshine signing off for today!

Sunshine Overseas

Where I live right now is overseas.  When I hear anyone here talk about going overseas, I wonder why they would do that because they’re already here. In my vocabulary, the UK and Europe are overseas. Everywhere else in the world has a name.

(Please note that this is purely my perception and my take on this word.)

In my experience, the word overseas has always held a certain fascination and hint of glamour. I remember, as a child, hearing friends talk about going overseas on their school holidays. I would kind of melt into an envious heap, thinking,

“Ah, you’re so cool. You’re going overseas. AND you’re allowed to wear nylon socks with lace at the top.”

I have known and worked with people who have never travelled out of their home towns, let alone travelled abroad. Or overseas. One of my colleagues in Harare said he had no idea what overseas looked like. He then asked,

“Are there many tall buildings there?”

My younger son went overseas on a school history tour three years ago. The tour took them to the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany, and they travelled in March. The day he left, I took the day off work to spend with him before we took him to the airport that evening.

It was 36 degrees Celsius that day – a typically hot March day in Cape Town. He was flying to Prague, where temperatures were expected to be about 0 degrees Celsius. It was strange for him to think about feeling cold.

A delightful, older lady was working at our house that day and we enjoyed the opportunity to catch up with each other and share sighs at the hot weather. I told her my son was going overseas that evening. She looked at me, bemused.

“Is it very far?”

I said to her, “Yes, it’s very far. And it’s very very cold.”

She looked at me even more bemused. Her frown disappeared as the penny dropped.

“Ah. He’s going to Springbok.”
(Springbok is a small town in the Northern Cape in South Africa, renowned for diamonds, copper and beautiful springflowers, but also notoriously much colder – for South Africa – than most of the rest of the country.)

I smiled inside as I thought, “Yes, he might just as well be going to Springbok.”

At that time, I worked for a non-profit organisation that provided counselling services, and trained lay counsellors. The receptionist who worked there (I’ll call her N) was a cheerful and chirpy character and she and I used to laugh together plenty.

Our favourite was to try and beat each other to say TGIF to each other every Friday. It was our thing. If I got in first and said, “TGIF!” she’d look up and me and say, “Thanks, God.”

One day someone arrived at the office, and said she had an appointment at 10h00. N checked the counselling appointment book and saw no booking for 10h00. The consummate professional, she smiled at the new arrival, asked her to take a seat and proceeded to run through the offices and whip up a volunteer counsellor to see the awaiting client.

She found a counsellor who was available, made sure the counselling room was tidy, and told the client her counsellor was on her way. The counsellor came through, introduced herself and off the two of them went into the counselling room and shut the door behind them. Five minutes later, the two of them emerged with much hilarity; the appointment the client had come to the office for was a job interview with the Executive Director!

N and I laughed like drains as we imagined what went on in the counselling room, with the so-called client not able to talk about her job experience because she kept being asked how she was feeling. How funny.

One of my direct reports was the administration manager, G: divine, well-spoken, nattily-dressed, eloquent and the most gentlemanly gentleman you can imagine. He led a team of four staff members, and they had regular team meetings. Occasionally he would invite me to join them, and it was fun to be included.

One of the team was D, the handyman. He was a constantly recovering alcoholic who worked like a Trojan when he was present. But he often went missing. We all loved him, and he was a central character in our offices. However, he had no time for meetings.

The first time I was invited to join the team meeting, someone asked if D would be there. At that moment, D walked past the meeting room and G asked if he was going to join them.

D didn’t break stride. He flung his left arm in the air and said,

“Ag, daai’s ‘n klomp k*k!” (That’s just a crock of s**t!)

I guess he wasn’t going to join us.

The meeting began. G, ever formal and eloquent, welcomed everyone, made a special mention of the visitor (me) and asked if anyone would like to open the meeting by sharing something.

“Feel free to speak, if you have something to share,” he said.

N, along with many of us, often battled to understand what G was saying because he usually used really formal language and long words (thanks to his prior career in the diplomatic corps). She was leaning heavily on the desk, her elbow only just stopping her face from hitting the desk. She looked at G with incredulity, she frowned, she wrinkled her nose, and then said,

“About what?”

Moving on swiftly then.

G read an excerpt from a book of inspirational sayings, quoting Mother Theresa. It flew right over the head of everyone present, and N continued to look at G with that expression of WTF (Why The Funny-Sayings)?

G worked us through the agenda and, after about half an hour, was ready to draw the meeting to a close. He invited any closing comments. N stood up and cleared her throat, then clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth.

“I would like to say something please.”

G welcomed her to go ahead.

“I think we should always have Nomalanga with us at these meetings. [Nomalanga is my Xhosa name, and it means Sunshine. She meant me.] Because why? Because it’s so nice having her here; it feels like we have someone here from overseas.”

She sat down, G thanked her for her input and said he would give it some thought, and the meeting closed. I’m so glad I write a blog, because this was always so going to be in it.

Sunshine signing off for today, from overseas!