La vie est belle

When I last wrote there were 80,000 dead in the UK. Now there are 148,000 dead. 

What was I doing while 68,000 died in just over 2 months?  

Not much. And plenty. 

It’s now month 4 of lockdown #3. All restaurants, bars, libraries, museums, and indoor leisure facilities are closed. Schools finally re-opened after three months of closure and we have been given a date for our lifestyles to resume (26 April 2021), but the virus is refusing to be quashed. New infections in Scotland are hovering at 5-700 a day, many in school age children, and there’s this niggling worry in the back of most thinking-people’s minds that the virus might mutate again, or the South African or Brazilian variants might get a foothold, and our defences ie. the vaccines which are being rolled out in the UK at a phenomenal pace, will be breached, and we will all be sent straight back to jail, do not collect £200. Please no.

I have been creating into this abyss. Not words, they have felt strangely too small and discomforting. My impulse has been to create spaces in the world where we can safely be together. COVID defying outdoor landscapes full of colour and light and love. 

First I built @OutdoorPlaybarn, which has become a mainstay for many Glasgow toddler mums – myself included – through this interminable lockdown, and just last weekend I opened The Belle Tent Field, a series of bell tents and play tents surrounded by outdoor games and toys on the edge of Pollok Park, where children can mark their birthdays and experience the joy of celebration. 

And now, with some young souls I have met along the way, I am plotting the next thing: The Pony Club. We used to run a horse riding school. It was my mother-in-law’s business. After she died we kept it going, but eventually it was too much for us and so we transitioned into a DIY livery yard with just a handful of horses. The riding school had 5 stable blocks, and one particular block, nicknamed the ‘pony stables’ was soon squatted by a family of pigeons whose disgusting habits could have started another pandemic. But they are gone now. The stables have been decontaminated, the builders are stripping out wood, the walls are getting whitewashed, and we are moving in with big rugs and wooden tables and couches, and under the beautiful original wooden ceiling, something new is going to grow.

The Pony Club will be an indoor space, and it feels audacious to imagine us back inside together, but yesterday I acknowledged how much I missed that. Writing workshops. Art classes. Discussion groups. Crafternoons gathered around a wood-burning stove, exchanging ideas, sharing our creations, laughing. God, how I miss the casual laughter of a gaggle of close friends, rather than the anxious exchanges with just one other as you pad side by side through the park, trying not to breathe on each other. But I am no a fool. This pandemic has taught me the difference between idealism and optimism, between magical thinking and science, so The Pony Club has a big new window, 2 doors which will be left wide open (with screens to stop the pigeons coming back) and in Phase 2 – underfloor heating and an improved roof – there will be skylights that open. Ventilate, ventilate. Float away virus. Away from our bodies, away from our dreams, away from our little lives that mean so much to us. 

I should probably take pictures of the renovations, in the same way that I should probably be taking detailed notes of the pandemic, but it’s too hard to take snapshots of the murk. I try to write things down, to remember this time, this time we really lived through, this time that future generations will want to read about. Providing it doesn’t kill us all. Because there it is. The fear that we don’t dare speak aloud, but still we wonder. Other creatures have lost their habitats. Other creatures have gone extinct. Why not us? Will our intelligence save us? Is science enough? And to quell those fears, we put up some more bunting, write some songs, make some music, bake some cakes. Because while science is trying to save us, creativity is making the inbetween tolerable, sometimes even beautiful.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

Of mutants, past & present

News of the new variant, the mutant, has careered into our humdrum existences. Just as we were getting used to living entirely out of doors, never going to the theatre, never listening to live music, news from the “hiheejins” (as the Scots call the experts and politicians) is that “the English” have accidentally mutated the virus to make it even more transmissible, potentially through giving blood plasma containing COVID antibodies to someone whose immune system was so severely compromised that it only served to show the enemy how “healthy” people fight it, and the virus was then able to practice getting round those defences over and over again in someone who had no fight left in them.
Man vs nature. Nature wins again.

Unsurprisingly news of a mutant spike protein has sent my anxiety spiking. Never when you are awake though Fintry, only after you go to sleep. All day long, we hold it together with painting, PVA glue, stickers and Play dough, and then I begin to unravel with wine while you are in the bath, and once you are asleep, I am free to have a nice panic attack which loves to play out as COVID symptoms, which I am usually able to quell with a bit more white wine, a scroll through Facebook and a few deep sighs.

That said, I have had a good few days. I have been staying out of the supermarkets and have just invested in some good quality masks to replace those homemade masks festering in the car. 

I went to Shawlands this morning. It was raining. The snow has gone and Glasgow’s infamous grey skies are back – though there is talk of the snow returning. 

Shawlands was deserted, except for the old man and old woman in Sainsbury’s, both with their big noses hanging out of their masks. It’s clear that the message is still not clear enough: this is an airborne disease. You can wash your hands as much as you like, but you are mostly likely going to catch in from breathing it in. There is no way it would spread so easily if it was all about touch. But that was the message at the start. “Wash your hands,” stupid Boris said over and over. “Wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing happy birthday and you will be fine.” And then he ended up in ICU and we all held our breaths while he couldn’t breathe. 

The poetry of this pandemic plays out in my mind day after day. We are choking the planet with our carbon emissions, choking the birds and the fish with our microplastics, and now the planet is choking us back. The virus takes our breath away and we have to be pumped with pure oxygen to have any hope of surviving. 

I read an article describing what it was like to wear a C-PAP mask. “Like hanging your head out of the window of the car on the motorway, for hours on end.” I have done that for a few seconds. It’s awful. Dogs like it. Humans don’t. 

It was a good article – in The Times – written by a junior doctor, who was explaining how hard it is to be a doctor right now, not just because of the long hours and the personal fear of disease, but because you can’t make people better. There is no quick fix, just tending them, nursing them, helping them while their immune systems do or don’t overcome the illness. And in the worse case scenario, their immune systems overcome the person rather than the virus, and there is nothing to be done. 80,000 dead now in the UK. Close to 2 million in the world. In less than a year. 

When we were still allowed to go further than 5 miles from our council boundaries, we took a day trip to the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian. It’s in the grounds of old army barracks from the Second World War. Squat, drab, grey buildings that look straight out of a film set of a war movie, except they are the real thing.

One of the hangars has the discontinued Concorde on display. Such a beautiful plane, a film star of the skies. Interesting that her exterior lines are timeless but inside her décor feels dated. It gave me a buzz to see her and climb aboard. Gavin recounted when he travelled with her from Aswan to London with other journalists. I had heard him tell this story many times before. It was good to the first time, but got weaker with age. Like when you keep pouring water over the same coffee granules. 

I am not good with repetition. Gavin always tells me stories as if he has just met me. Sometimes it feels like he is not quite sure at which point I entered his life. Or rather, that he is certain that I entered after all the stories had been made. I am the wife of the epilogue. He will say I am talking nonsense and that me, and especially me and Fintry, the latest arrival, are the best part of his life. I don’t entirely believe him though. Sometimes I think he romanticizes us as much as he romanticizes that flight from Aswan to London. 

Anyway, I digress because I can, what freedom to write again and have time to write. Fintry is with Nanny Brodie in the outside barn with the roof. She goes there four mornings a week now and I can hang out in my office with the yellow floor and the view over the rhododendrons – which seem more like triffids, the more we stare at each other. 

What I want to write about is what I saw in the third hangar at the National Museum of Flight. Though I also want to point out that the best bit was in the second hangar: a homage to ordinary people’s personal relationship with flight – the hobbyists who have built planes to fulfil their own dreams of taking to the sky. One of my favourites was a guy from Ayrshire who had built a plane in his house, with the fuselage in the hallway and the wings in the rooms off either side (He had to take it outside eventually to fix it all together). He used the hot water in the bath to mould the wings and his son said his mother complained that the bath was never the same after that. (This is the plane – and you, Fintry – below)

But it was the third hangar that has been interrupting my thoughts at red traffic lights and other times of day when you find your mind drifting off. The third hangar is dedicated to the use of aircraft in the Second World War and the Cold War. A plane that was used to carry actual nuclear weapons stands quietly outside. Inside is a Spitfire, a Messerschmidt, and loads of other planes, photographs and films depicting how this beautiful form of travel, this mimicry of birds, souls and stars, has been used to kill, maim and destroy. 

As I wondered around, wearing my mask to protect me from the microscopic virus potentially floating around in the air, I couldn’t help but think how dated this exhibition was. Not just for the aesthetics of the aircraft and objects built in the 30s, 40s, 50 and 60s, but for the actual concept of going to war against fellow humans. 

Right now, scientists across the planet are involved in the greatest collaboration we have ever seen. Using the internet and shared data bases, medics, researchers and the military are actively pooling all their brain and computing power to try and find out what genetic strain of the virus is on the loose, to observe how and where it is mutating, to test treatments, develop vaccines and use logistics to deploy these vaccines and treatments to the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time. Across the planet, humans are working together to stop other humans from dying, and yet in hangar 3, all that was on display was human endeavour to kill other humans, and to my COVID-tuned eyes, these relics of war seemed not only deeply unfashionable, they seemed like acts of madness. 

And you can’t help wonder: has this virus been sent to cure us of our craziness?

What will I tell you?

I remember a thought I had in the early months of the pandemic. It was a Sunday in late May, lockdown was starting to ease, and I was stopped at a set of traffic lights on Glasgow’s Crow Road. While I waited, I glanced at the people in the car next to me and it struck me that I could probably guess exactly what they were doing because they would be doing the same as me, because that’s all there was to do: driving home from a country walk, via a supermarket.

It was oddly comforting. A bit like that feeling you get when you shut your front door of an evening, when all your family is safely at home and no one is going out again.  

No matter how fabulous, or clever, or jet set, or brilliant someone else was, right now they were in the same place as you. Stuck, waiting, co-ordinating their actions with everyone else in order to protect everyone else. There was such as sweetness to that thought – but it was also a thought that made me wonder how it would be possible to put words to lockdown? 

Mostly we read to try and understand an experience beyond our own. But to read about a worse lockdown experience that yours just seems to invite unnecessary heartache at a time when you are probably just managing to keep your heart afloat, and to read about a better lockdown experience seems an unnecessary exercise in fuelling jealousy and resentment, whereas to read your own humdrum echoed back at you is unbearable. Who needs to relive the dullness of one day through words when you can achieve the same by just going to sleep and waking up again?

So what to say about this extraordinary time of human history? What is worth documenting? And who are you documenting it for? As I write this I realise exactly who I need to write this for. Fintry Annie Bell. My daughter, who has lived through all of this, and because of her young age – 2 – won’t remember much of it, although I do wonder if any of this will feature in her list of earliest memories. 

So Fintry. What will I tell you? 

It started off a novelty – just like the virus itself. 

There was almost a relief to being told we had to stop whatever we were doing because we were so accustomed to doing so much, and I for one had forgotten how to not operate at warp speed. 

We were in South Africa when the first lockdown happened. We had been due to fly back to Glasgow a month later, and then go to Rome for a few days before jetting to New York to visit Uncle Clinton who was working on a big show on Broadway. I had a “one life, live it” mentality and my idea of “live it” meant doing as many and as varied things as often as possible. That’s not to say I didn’t value contemplation and reflection, I did, but I scheduled it for plane journeys, time at my writing desk and for walks in the hills. The idea of just spending days and days on end, at home, with no plans was anathema. 

Without COVID, my behaviour would never have changed. I would have forever carried on chasing a faint scent of something more glamorous and seductive that always seemed just beyond my reach, before dropping down dead in a silk kimono, orange lipstick and smelling of Vivienne Westwood perfume. 

Now I am wearing acrylic (supermarket clothes shopping), my perfume has been discontinued and can’t find my lipstick anywhere, even though considering I am at home all the time, it must be here somewhere. 

You don’t seem to be suffering from it though. By the age of one I had you doing an activity every day. I rolled my eyes at parents who overscheduled their child’s lives and then did exactly the same. Ballet on a Monday, swimming on a Tuesday, mum and baby group on a Wednesday, ballet again on a Thursday, and worried that I hadn’t found something to fill up Fridays. 

I have chatted with other mums about this now and we all laugh at how  agree that it was as if we were afraid to be alone with our children, that our mere presence wouldn’t be enough for them. Perhaps that’s exactly the capitalist myth. You are not enough, never enough. You need other things to fill in the spaces between you. And now we have realised that those spaces are actually part of the links that join us together. 

Spaces where you get to set the agenda, rather than having the agenda set for you. That is where your future motivation and direction will come from. The fertile ground of empty space, endless time and open-ended days. Like how I grew up, before the world became packed to the gills with things to do.

And then didn’t anymore.  

End of the race

There is a chasm between the actual world and the world of ideas, and the writer’s job is to build a bridge to connect the two. These bridges are bastards to make. Just as you think you’ve woven a sturdy section, a thought slips out and tumbles a thousand feet. Just as you tentatively take your first steps on a finished bridge, it sways dangerously and you have to go back to the beginning. Which is why I find myself here this morning, starting again.  

Yesterday I tried to write about a Consciousness Café that I co-facilitated in 2017 at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Consciousness Café is a dialogue café that I co-created with Keke Motseke and Anisha Panchia to bring South Africans together to talk about the issues that continue to divide us. Con Hill, as we affectionately call it in South Africa, is a place where transformation is in the walls, literally. During apartheid it was a political prison and its bricks were later used to build the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land that can hold even the government to account (and frequently does). Among its parapets are spaces where citizens are encouraged to play music, show art and have discussions. 

The topic at a Consciousness Café is decided by the people in attendance. Racism and racial justice usually find their way onto the agenda, and that day 65 people, from all race groups, chose to discuss: “How can we use privilege to influence change?”

The dialogue lasted four hours, the conversation built in heat and intensity, and one of the most powerful insights of the day was this: “If we expect ‘privilege’ to be responsible for the change we want to see, we are giving more power to old power structures, and not growing the power in ourselves.” As that idea arrived in the space, the room fell totally silent. A moment of collective realisation. 

How had we got to this point? We had begun the dialogue by asking ourselves what “privilege” was. We agreed the received definition of privilege is a rank endowed on you by your gender, skin colour, nationality, language, sexuality, material wealth, family connections, educational status. The more rank you have, the more you are able to move with ease through the world. 

We probed further: what was privilege really
We decided it was a kind of resource that society ascribed value and power to. 
And so we asked ourselves: what resources did we have in our individual lives, regardless of whether society valued them or not?  The answers from the room were wide and varied. Parents that loved us. Mental health. Physical health. An able body.  A quick mind. A sense of humour. A talent. A fiery temper. A knack for empathy. Culture. 

And what then followed was a tentative redefining of privilege. Not as something that exists beyond most of our reach, but something within all of our lives.  Personal resources that we normally didn’t value because society didn’t value them.

We had set out to ask “How could we use privilege to influence change?”, and now we found ourselves wondering whether trying to leverage those typical things of privilege: white skin, male gender, immense wealth, elite education to influence change, was part of the problem? Were we in fact re-empowering these structures, giving them the light and putting ourselves in the shade? Wouldn’t real change come when we recognised and harnessed the power within ourselves, a power that might look very different?

There was no doubt those four hours were transformational for all those who participated. But as I tried to write it down yesterday all I could hear were the trolls. I tried to reason with myself, saying that I was just documenting what had happened. That my job as a writer is to push a pin into the corkboard of our collective history in order to frame it, reflect it back to the world, and create a space for others to reflect. But over the past few years, the rise of identity politics has made me wary of putting my white fingers to the keyboard on any topic linked to racial justice. When the recent Black Lives Matter protests swept through the world, an Indian friend asked on Facebook why her white friends were not engaging with this topic. Where were our solidarity posts? Why were we silent? 

She was right. I had purposefully remained quiet. One aspect of this was personal. As mother to a breast-feeding toddler and wife to a man whose cancer seems to be trying to ebb back from remission, lockdown had been both beautiful (much-needed family time) and tough (my milk-bar was open 24/7). But that wasn’t the whole story. After five years co-facilitating racial justice conversations, I knew how quickly white allies can find themselves misunderstood, chastised for not getting involved enough (a luxury that black people don’t have) or berated for getting too involved and thus centring themselves. It’s a balancing act that requires constant consciousness that, as I argued in my essay Common As Muck, most white people, myself included, don’t have, because we really are just mere mortals trying to survive, protect and thrive, aren’t any better at this thing called life than anyone else, and to suggest we should be, is a weird legacy of the white supremacy myth. In short, it’s messy, I am shit, please stop shouting at me. 

Recently there was a discussion on the BBC Front Row radio programme in which the presenter asked where were the white writers writing about race? I raised my arm even though no one could see me. Which is apt. My non-fiction book, Lost Where We Belong, in which I tried to examine the unexplored prejudice within me, nurtured in my apartheid childhood, gained very little attention. 

When I started writing Lost Where We Belong, I really had believed in a kumba-ya future. I was a child of the Rainbow Nation, and had bought into its vision, hook, line and sinker. Ten years later, I am utterly disillusioned. It’s an ideal that is too far from reality to be useful. There is too much hurt, too much economic injustice, too much need for restitution and desire for revenge for us to all stand side by side and cheer together for longer than a football match.

And whereas previously I saw the battle for racial justice as a battle for equality, now I see it as a battle for power. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, it makes it a human thing. We are all motivated to survive, protect and thrive. The more power we have, the easier it is to survive, protect and thrive. Humans try to be altruistic, but people mostly don’t like to contemplate that uncomfortable point when we turn our backs and get into tribal formation.

“Yours is a book everyone should read, but they won’t,” my Afrikaans friend told me, after she had finished reading it.  I realise now how right she is. And I now think there is actually very little point in white writers writing about racial justice. Black people resent you for taking their air and white people mistrust you. Writers need readers, and if readers don’t see you as a credible narrator, it’s futile. But before I go, I decided that I would share that insight from that Consciousness Café because you know what, it isn’t tosh. 

“Check your privilege!” has become a war cry of the racial justice movement. It’s a political way of telling the establishment to “Shut up and listen!” but all it serves to do is make white folk ask “So, now what?”, and reminds those outside that perceived establishment of their lower rank. Disempowering all round really. 

Better calls to arms for everyone would be to “Check your Prejudice!” (because although everyone might not be able to be racist by the Frantz Fanon definition, everyone can definitely be prejudiced), and “Use Your Privilege!” – use the resources at your disposal, even if they are not the big ticket ones that the rest of the world fancies, to make the world a better place. Privilege is a resource. Find yours, leverage it and share it. It will make the world better. 

And with that, I sign out. Love. Respect. Try be kind.

I smell a bat

Greater horseshoe bat,

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live through one of those those pivotal points in human history. Those times, like Kristallnacht, that in the future we collectively remember as being when life moved from being ordinary to horrifying.

Is this where we are now? Is #coronavirus about to upend all of our lives, our global economy and our human psyche in ways we can’t quite comprehend, or is this another phase that will pass and normality will return again? 

From the pronouncements of the World Health Organisation (WHO), heads of governments and leading epidemiologists, it seems SARS-COV2 has the potential to disrupt the world as we know it. 

The death rate, as it is currently estimated at 2.7%, is twenty times higher than season flu and is compounded by the fact that it is much more infectious than previous coronavirus outbreaks (SARS, Mers). Whereas with SARS people were only infectious when they had a high fever, SARS-COV2 is more stealthlike. People without symptoms of COVID19 (the name of the disease, rather than the virus) seem to be able to transmit the virus, thus making it more difficult to contain. 

This is terrifying, but even more disturbing is a chain of events that led to this. For the past week I have been digging behind the media reports, reading scientific journals, following obscure links on Twitter and the investigations of other journalists, including Simone Gao, who presents Zooming In, produced by NTD ( an independent Chinese media company based in New York. Gao posed the question: could this virus have been leaked from a lab? ( and although there is no conclusive answer, the breadcrumb trail is unnerving.

In 2015, a group of scientists published in Nature Medicine that a SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronavirus pose threat for human emergence. How did they know? Because they “generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone “( 

Prior to this lab creation, coronaviruses could not move directly from bats to humans. 

The danger of this newly created pathogen was so severe, funding for further “gain of function” research, ie. research that involves experimentation that aims to increase the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogens – was shut down by the US government. ( This ban was later lifted by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in December 2017. (

However, the 2015 working group did not just include scientists from the US. One was from Switzerland, the other was Dr Shi from the Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Biosafety at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This lab, built in 2015, was and remains China’s only Biosafety Level 4 lab, ie. the only lab in China where diseases infectious to humans are permitted to be studied.   

When the Wuhan lab opened, Tim Trevan, the founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting in Damascus, Maryland, US, worried that it would be difficult for this lab to operate safely, given the hierarchical culture of China. He told Nature magazine in 2017: “An open culture is important to keeping BSL-4 labs safe.
“Diversity of viewpoint, flat structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important”, and questioned how easy this would be in China. (

In the interleaving years, the SARS virus did escape from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times, and five years later, here we are with a SARS-like bat coronavirus, that can jump from human to human on the loose: epicentre Wuhan. And we know too that the local government initially tried to suppress information about this virus, when on 3 January they accused Dr Li Wenliang, who first raised alarm about the novel virus and later died from it, of “spreading false rumours” and “seriously disrupting social order”. (

Since then the Wuhan lab has denied that it is to blame. Dr Shi has even sworn on her own life that the lab had nothing to do with it, and scientists around the world say that they too believe that this virus has evolved naturally, although also admit they can’t say for certain (

In February The Scripps Institute published a paper titled The Proximal Origin of SARS-COV2, in which they noted that since there have been “documented instances of the laboratory acquisition of SARS-CoV-1 by laboratory personnel working under BSL-2 containment. We must therefore consider the possibility of a deliberate or inadvertent release of SARS-CoV-2”, but go on to explain that although in theory it is possible the current virus adapted in cell culture, the genomic data of SARS-COV2 argues against it. (

So right now the narrative is that the Wuhan Seafood market is probably the epicentre, although of the initial 41 cases, 14 had no association with the market ( . In early February we heard that the virus probably made the leap via a pangolin, with the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou saying there was a 99% match between the human virus and that found in a pangolin. That was then retracted and the match was said to be closer to 91%, which as it turns out, is not much of a match at all. (

So what is the truth? What has happened to bring us to this fearful new world? Is it just a massive co-incidence that the only lab to study coronavirus in China happens to be in Wuhan? Did someone illegally sell infected wildlife delicacies from the back door of the laboratory to the Wuhan Seafood market – a little Chinese New Year treat? Was Wuhan set up to be the fall guy for something that was exported from elsewhere?

I am not a scientist, nor a conspiracy theorist, but I am a concerned global citizen and a mother, and by god, I smell a bat.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

A shady deal

I recently lost my paid writing work. Understandably I was a bit bummed by this, but I have done the sums and if I’m careful, I can afford to spend the next six months writing and not earning. 

So there it is in front of me, the writer’s dream: a vast stretch of uninterrupted time. 

Which as it turns, out, also happens to be the writer’s nightmare. 

At last you can try your hand at a novel you nod to yourself. 

And then as soon as you sit down at your laptop, a dark shadow taps you on the shoulder and starts cackling.  

So how to persevere? 

Well the dark shadow is right: I do not know how to write a novel. 

But it struck me yesterday that this is only a negative if I decide to write a novel. 

What if, instead, I decide to learn to write a novel, well the shadow can’t torment me because I don’t know what I am doing, because my ignorance is the de facto starting point. 

And it’s not like I am trying to do something totally foreign – like learn to play the saxophone. I’ve spent the past twenty-odd years making my living from research (aka learning) and writing, and have produced two books: one narrative non-fiction, one factual non-fiction, both of which required truck loads of discipline and tenacity. 

So what do you say, shadow self, shall we give it a go? 

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

Chapter 43

So many notebooks begun over the past year. Entries of just a few pages, and then the book abandoned, forgotten on a desk, under a bed, in a handbag. Little blasts of energy that have punctured through the veil of motherhood, attempts to capture and distil the fleeting thoughts and feelings of these first days of her life, all inevitably railroaded again by another set of teeth, another breastfeeding no-slumber party. 

It’s fine (kind of) if you try to do nothing else. If you dedicate yourself to the altar of motherhood and expecting nothing more from your day than to meet the needs of your baby/toddler. But every so often you get a peek through the window into that other life – the one where there is time and energy for something other than mothering – and you remember. 

You remember when thinking wasn’t a leisure activity.

When you would “quickly pop” to the supermarket instead of lingering in its aisles in a bid to drag out the half hour you have to yourself. 

You remember the long hours reading books on the couch. 

The silence. The cups of coffee. 

The casual decision to go out for dinner, or take a bath. 

Now there is no casual. Now you are the CEO of the most important company in the world. Your decisions are strategic, all made to make sure she grows and flourishes. You want to set the best example, be as present as you can for her, socialise her, introduce her to the best of the world – the worst can come later. The first three years are the most important they tell you. And so you commit to building the best foundation you can. To creating the best bedrock possible so when the storms of the future come, and they will, she will have resilience, patience, compassion, love programmed into the fibres of her being, to stand firm in its path.

Why are there so few women in senior management, the world wants to know?  Because we are already CEOs of our own self-created empires. 

“You will fail her,” the crowd says. “We all do. We all fail them.”

Yes, but there are a few ways I don’t want to fail her. 

I want her to know I am listening. That I won’t leave her to cry without comfort. 

I want to nourish her sense of fun and celebrate her creativity. 

I want her to know that she is seen by me, but that I also respect her need for privacy and independence. 

I want her to know that when the days are long, and it’s all too much, I am there for her and I want her to know unequivocally that she is safe with me, that home is a safe space. 

I guess I want for her the things that I wish for myself. Is that what we do? Parent ourselves through our children?

Today is my first day back at my writing desk in 17 months. It is a beautiful space. It has a wide wooden window overlooking the washing line, a flowerbed and the small enclosed garden that we created for her, where there is a swing and a slide and a hammock. My floor is painted pale blue cement, the walls are white, and in the corner is a bright orange wooden armchair with African wax print cushions that I made when she was tiny and I had no energy for words. 

My desk takes up most of the room. I bought it from a neighbour who lives on the edge of the village and who had come to despise the thing because her sons used it as a dumping ground. I had initially wanted something small so I could also fit a sleeper couch in the room but now I’m glad it’s huge and there’s no room for anyone else. Except the spider. He’s taken up residence in the second drawer on the right hand side with a bottle of glue and a two-prong adaptor. He’s not always there, but when he is, I shut the drawer quickly. We all need a room of our own.

The pictures on the walls and shelves are both familiar and foreign. 

A framed aeronautical map of Joburg given to me by a dear friend, resting against copies of the Secret Joburg book I co-authored but could never promote because it came out at the same time as the baby. 

An Artist’s Proof of ‘Check Mate’ by the Joburg artist Senzo Shabangu in which faceless overlords oversee a chess game being played with the iconic buildings of Joburg and a church, a bungalow and a thatched hut; alongside a poster that reads “Who is Responsible for Our Freedom?” that promoted our dialogue café at the Grahamstown Arts Festival’ across the room from an illustration that I tore out of a magazine and framed: a whitewashed map of South Africa, sketched over with an African face, and written the words “You still love her. How can you not? She’s in your blood and bones?”

Everything political. Everything from another life before I fell in love with a little girl who is totally of my blood and bones, and left me without the energy or desire for anything else.  

Until now?

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

Common as Muck

When Granddad Jack died I inherited two pairs of socks. A pair of woolly green hiking socks and a pair of long beige socks that he had bought when he had come to visit us in South Africa. The latter were part of the standard dress of the Boers – the Afrikaner farmers – usually twinned with khaki shorts, a khaki shirt and a comb tucked beside the knee. Granddad Jack had no need for a comb though. He had been bald since he was 21. When Granddad Smith died five years later, my mother reached into his cupboard and handed me his tweed flat cap – the typical accoutrement of a Yorkshire man – and a blue woolly jumper with the price tag still on. This was the sum of my inheritance.

“We’re common we are,” Granddad Jack once told me, as we sat across from each other in a pub in Bridlington, a seaside town in the north of England, eating fish and chips.

At the table next to us sat a working class family: mum, dad and two kids, dad’s arms thick with tattoos.

“We’re just like them, we are,” he said, tapping his fingers on the table. “There’s nowt wrong wi’ being common.”

It was an unsolicited thought. By then Granddad Jack had dementia and you never knew what would come out of this mouth. More often his stories were repeats, usually replayed within minutes of the last telling, but this he said to me only once and I remember it because it didn’t sit well.

The uncomfortable truth was that, unlike Jack, I had grown up in South Africa where, by virtue of my skin colour, I had been catapulted to the front of the queue. My dad worked in a beer bottle factory, my mum in a timber shop, and if I had grown up in England my thick northern accent and our working class status would have fixed me firmly in the lower rungs. But in 1980s South Africa, my skin trumped their jobs, and my white-girl accent and suburban life were a supposed zenith that everyone was marching towards. So when Jack said I was common I squirmed in my seat because it was both true and not true, and because I had begun to espouse politics that wanted it to be true for no one, while still hoping that I was a little bit special.

On the day Jack and I ate fish and chips I was on my way to Scotland to move in with a wrangly ex-foreign correspondent whom I had met through my work as a journalist, and whom I lusted after not just for his high cheekbones and pouty lips, but because he had been among the first reporters to interview Nelson Mandela after he left Robben Island. On that day in 1990 when the foreign press corps had given Mandela a standing ovation, I was at high school, close to a gold mine dump, in the east of Johannesburg, ignorant of the political wheels that had been gaining momentum and were about to turn the country of my childhood on its head. The stories my roving reporter told me later in the north of the world began to plug my teenage ignorance and make me realise how cut off I was, past and present, from the country I called home.

After a few years in Scotland, during which my ignorance blistered into a sense of personal shame, I became wracked with yearning for a country that was no longer there. The Welsh have a word that describes a melancholic longing for a place that never was, or that no longer exists. Hiraeth, they say. The Portuguese call it saudade. What was it that I was feeling? Nostalgia? A craving for a racist past?

Then fate intervened. In 2010 I was awarded a journalism fellowship from the philanthropic Open Society Foundation to return South Africa and write about what democracy had brought to the rural Xhosa tribal lands where Mandela had grown up. I harboured a hope that it would patch the holes in my head and heart, but as the day for my departure grew nearer, a deep gurning in my belly that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much I tried to reason with it, forced me to confront that there was something else lurking, something darker and more shadowy – something that I had never wanted to admit to myself.

White liberal media would have us believe the world is divided into nasty racists and the never-been-racist. And unless one is a signed-up member of the KKK, most of us pat ourselves on the back and feel smug that the racist is somebody else, definitely not us. The truth is less simple.

I had not been taught to hate black men, but by the way our society was structured, I was taught to fear them. Black men were not permitted in the house. Black men must drink from separate cups. Black men could not ride inside the car. And although I had gone to a mixed race university during Mandela’s presidency, lived with black and Indian friends and was sure that I had shrugged off the mantle of social conditioning, the increase in violent crime in the post-apartheid era – more often, though not always, committed by black men – had hardened that fear, and my so-called liberal consciousness had pushed it underground.

The three-month reporter’s journey that began in Mandela’s homeland of the old Transkei became a five-year journey into the darkness in my own heart, into contemplation of the nature of racism, and why it has such a powerful hold over us, even when we wish it didn’t. I came to see that my ignorance was a product of fear, and my fear was a product of racial prejudice, and I came to understand how prejudice can have little to do with hate, and a lot to do with protectionism and the myth of white supremacy, and how that myth had cast a spell over me.

It is not easy to write about a Damascene conversion. It seems it is even harder to read about it. I documented this journey in a book, Lost Where We BelongTrying to Escape Apartheid’s Shadows, which although had the backing of a respected London literary agent, was turned down for publication by major publishing houses because, as one editor put it: “The book has a moral weight to it that is inescapable and very affecting…[though]… the very honest truth is that I think it would simply be very hard to persuade a large enough audience to engage with it, even though I’m sure that those who did so would find it very powerful.”

It might not be en vogue to be a racist, but nor is it profitable, fashionable or palatable to publicly undo these knots in your white self.

Which is where this story really begins.

The Wozobona Cultural Centre is on Phiela Street in Orlando East in Soweto. The main building is a takeaway shop that sells snacks and cold drinks. Out back is a shaded eating area and a pretend bedroom where tourists on a township tour can poke their head into a “real” township bedroom, without actually having to go into anyone’s real bedroom. It is owned by Mr and Mrs Dlamini, parents of Busi, an articulate feminist and racial justice activist who, having grown up in apartheid South Africa, not only has first-hand experience of racism, but has the enviable ability to lob phrases like “internalised oppression” and “cultural appropriation” at people’s heads and make them understand what they mean and why they are worth thinking about.

I had met Busi through Keke Motseke and Anisha Panchia, two women who had started a pop-up dialogue café called Consciousness Café. After my five years of solo soul searching, I too had had the idea of setting up an “apartheid café” in which South Africans could come together to heal emotional scars, and Keke and Anisha – black and Indian respectively – had welcomed me as the white face of the Consciousness Café.

We began collaborating in 2015 when dark clouds were visibly gathering over the Rainbow Nation. For the first 21 years of our democracy we had attempted to do as Tata Mandela instructed: forgive, smile, dance. We collectively pretended that we had not been scarred by the shadows of apartheid. We boasted and lamented that the Born Frees – those born after 1994 – were not even interested in politics. And then, in March 2015, just over a year after Mandela’s death, the youth woke up. With the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student protests – protests that demanded the removal of colonial icons and that the government come good on its promise of free tertiary education – a new era was ushered in. It was like when a family patriarch dies and the quarrelling over inheritance can begin and the dark secrets finally come out.

In the case of South Africa, the family inheritance was land. Land that the 1913 Land Act had forbidden black people from owning, land that was taken during the urban Forced Removals that took place in the Fifties and Sixties, land that had been won in wars and bartered in shady deals with tribal chiefs. The black middle class may now outnumber the white, but for the majority of black South Africans – at least in economic terms – little has changed. Half of black households earn an average of R35,000 per annum (£2000), skilled mine workers are still underpaid relative to the value of the commodities they are extracting from the earth, and university education is still a high-price tag that most black families can ill afford. In the eyes of the students, the black majority government has not done enough to end the structural racism that favours foreign capital and continues to make second-class citizens of black South Africans.

The dark family secret, thus, was anger. A fury was brewing in the belly of the country. A rage that the Rainbow Nation had not permitted to be expressed.

Busi and I had spent the entire journey to Soweto from the leafy suburbs – where Busi and I were both living – arguing about whether dressing up in Bollywood costume for a fancy dress party was, or was not, cultural appropriation.

Busi argued that for a white person to dress in a sari was to unfairly appropriate a culture that does not belong to you. I argued that since Bollywood is a cultural export and one of the biggest moneymaking industries in the world, it is for sale, and for a fan of this film genre to dress up in a sari and celebrate the craziness of Bollywood, is cultural appreciation, not appropriation.

Eventually Busi conceded, though she would not budge with Johnny Clegg, the white South African singer-songwriter who spoke fluent Zulu and made all his music (and money) collaborating with black musicians.

According to Busi, Clegg’s unforgiveable mistake was the way he centred himself in the band.

“But he was the lead singer,” I argued. “It’s the nature of the frontman to be centred.”

Busi wasn’t having it. Clegg had done what the white man always does; steal your thing, make it their own, take it out into the world, and make themselves rich and famous.

I conceded that I understood where she was coming from, though I thought Clegg had also done something else that Busi did not value – he had built a bridge to black culture at a time when all the other bridges were burning and we were banned from engaging with each other at all. During the claustrophobic all-whiteness of 1980s South Africa, Clegg had been one of the few doorways into a multicultural, colourful Africa that had intrigued me from a distance. Clegg showed us we could be more than good little racists and that our country could be different from the one that stifled us with fear and prejudice.

It was Busi’s idea to hold a Consciousness Café in Soweto. Much of the public discourse around the post-apartheid, still-apartheid South Africa had been taking place in the liberal media and at the universities. Busi wanted to take that conversation to the township where she grew up, hoping to attract a less middle-class crowd to the discussion. She agreed to co-facilitate with Keke, while Anisha and I would be participants. As the room filled up, we soon realised that aside from the Rasta man, the rest of those gathered – four whites, one Indian, one mixed-race American and fourteen black faces – were firmly middle-class. There was even a Zulu princess.

Every Consciousness Café begins with the participants suggesting and voting on a topic. That afternoon the chosen topic was: “Why is there no space for black anger?”

The family secret.

To kick off a dialogue, participants are asked to flip the topic on its head and dream of a world where that topic isn’t a problem. The group were asked to imagine a South African where that anger wasn’t necessary.

People became immediately angry.

“Why am I not allowed to be angry about what white people did to my parents? Why must I forgive and forget when no one has even apologised?”

“I’m sick of my history being framed by the white man’s story,” said a historian. “Our history is framed by the wars of the white man. His attempt to conquer our country and how we lost. We need to reclaim the stories of the past outside of the white man’s memory, so we can reclaim our dignity.”

A young black woman who works for a German company operating in South Africa was soon close to tears.

“I will never make it to management in that company because they only employ German managers, and when I think that my grandmother had to wash white women’s panties and I still can’t make it to the top in my own country, it makes me want to burn it down. If I can’t have it, then why should someone else?”

The dialogue had begun.

Fifteen minutes in, I asked if I could say something. Busi nodded.

“Isn’t it that it’s difficult to find a space to channel black anger because the anger is towards a system that no longer “officially” exists? Usually when we express anger we express it towards someone who has treated us unfairly. But in this post-apartheid society, black people are no longer officially excluded, so how do you direct the anger? You can possibly direct it at a racist boss, but that’s probably not wise for your career, and because your boss is the system, he probably won’t hear it, so the anger has no place to go.”

And to explain what I meant, I tried to give my own example of how I had noticed how difficult it is to express frustration to someone who doesn’t want to hear it.

Ever since the student protests, a new narrative of “white privilege” had emerged. Black intellectuals had been writing articles in the liberal press and on Facebook forums demanding that white people “own their privilege”.

It was a new definition of privilege that included ‘not being automatically thought of as a thief/corrupt when you drive a luxury car’ and ‘not being paid less based on the colour of your skin’.

Prior to this, my definition of privilege had been private schools, yachts, overseas holidays, horse riding lessons and weekly trips to buy new clothes, none of which I – or many others – had experienced during our apartheid childhoods.

The white population of South Africa is a mishmash of religious and economic migrants, including Huguenots who fled Catholic ire, Jews who fled pogroms, Brits who fled the implosion of heavy industry in the north (my family), Lebanese and Cypriots who fled war, Czechs who fled the collapse of the Soviet Union and Portuguese who had fled the poorest country in Europe.

Over the past months I had noticed that whenever a white person tries to explain this through their lens, they get shot down. I wanted to make the point that we live in a country of multiple, complex truths that struggle to be heard, but my point drowned in a sea of anger. Around the room, eyes narrowed.

“How dare you talk about not being privileged!” a young black woman exclaimed. “You know nothing about what it was like growing up black! Your father might not have had money at the end of the week, but if he had gone into the bank, the manager would have given him a loan because he was white and considered good for it. But my black father could never get a loan, because he was black. And you might have been the first person in your family to go to university, and your dad might not have been easily able to afford it, but when he worked 16 hours a day to pay for it, it was because he had a job that paid enough to do that and when he was too tired to work those long shifts anymore and he remortgaged your house to pay for the rest, it’s because you had a house that could be remortgaged, while my father was not allowed to own a house or land.”

She was right. There was no way I could understand the indignity of growing up black in a country that skewed everything away from your favour. But from where I was standing, what she was talking about was oppression, not privilege. And if the intention of this new narrative was to get white South Africans to face up to the injustices of this land, then the word ‘privilege’ wasn’t up to the task. It was like being ordered to ‘count your blessings’. Okay, so now what?

But although I may have thought the word ‘oppression’ was the better descriptor, to be oppressed positions you as the victim and these middle-class black South Africans were done with being victims. They were taking back power and doing it the way humans do best: to deny the truth of someone else’s story. Edified and emboldened by the writings of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, the black voice had awoken and a new battle was beginning: the battle for the narrative.

Across the room, the historian crossed his legs, leaned forward, and jabbed his finger in the direction of my face.

“You’ve got some work to do,” he said.

My own eyes narrowed and I could hear my heart pumping in my ears.

There was only one other person who stuck his finger in my face and told me that my thoughts were not permitted: my oft drunk, fury-fuelled father.

The personal triggered the political and a deep rage boiled over.

I leant forward and jabbed my own finger into the space.

“How dare you presume from my skin colour that I haven’t been doing my work?” I sneered through gritted teeth. “That I haven’t been trying to undo the apartheid shit in me? You know nothing about me. Nothing.”

Busi interjected.

“Isn’t it interesting how when the black person shows anger, the white person starts to fear?” she said.

My anger went from simmer to nuclear.

Busi was supposed to be the facilitator, which meant she was supposed to be neutral. It was entirely legitimate for her to name a feeling she noticed in me, but it was her job to check that really was how I was feeling, and not label my feelings for me. She had also been triggered and was now turning on me.

“Afraid? No, no no,” I stammered. “I am not afraid. I am angry. I’m angry that you can’t hear me. You say you hate racism because it treated all black people the same, but you are doing exactly the same thing. You refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the white experience. All you see is my skin and it makes you deaf to my words.”

“I’m sorry,” said the historian.

I glanced at him and nodded an acceptance of his apology.

“I’m sorry I ever expected a white person to be any different,” he continued. “I am sorry I came here. I am sorry I put myself in the way of yet another conversation where a white person doesn’t get it and makes it all about themselves.”

I felt the blood drain out of my body.

My fury was gone, and in its place was hatred. Hatred of this moment. Hatred of being pinned to the wall. Hatred of not being heard because I am white. Hatred of this whole fucked-up, intractable country.

Over the years of trying to untangle the apartheid mess in me, again and again I had faced the most frustrating truth of all: our identities are not our own. Apartheid was like an old fashioned folk dance, everybody had a part, everybody knew their steps, and although new music was playing, few knew how to dance any other way. As a white person this means you were constantly cast in one of two roles:

  1. The powerful, capable white knight who is unrealistically expected to change the life of the person in your path. The white supremacy myth.
  2. The one who is hated, rejected and mistrusted with a glance. Guilty before proven innocent. The same way the racist white treats black.

Try to protest the first role and you were dismissed as mean, try to protest the second and you were derided with a new phrase: “white tears”.

Recently at Joburg airport, I had overheard a young white woman crying because someone told her she couldn’t call herself South African.

“I was born here. No one has the right to tell me what I can call myself,” she sobbed.

But in the face of continued land dispossession, black South Africans were taking back the one thing they owned outright: an African identity.

And mocking the tears.

Apartheid had dehumanised black people and denied them of their identity, and revenge was turning out to be the same dish, served cold, 21 years later.

Outside on the streets of Soweto, it was growing dark and every muscle in my body was urging me to stand up, walk through the door, stride out into the street and not look back. I wanted to be away from them, from their judgements, from their labelling, from this prison. Being white in South Africa was not a life, it was a life sentence.

Just like being black.

At last we were equals.

I sat in silence as the dialogue continued.

There was anger at apartheid’s land policy that had turned black men into migrant workers, disconnecting people from their fathers, families and selves.

“I never knew my father. I don’t even know who I am.”

There was surprise from the Zulu princess who could trace her lineage back into the history of the Nguni migrations and who admitted that only now was she beginning to understand the alienation that plagued other black South Africans.

And then, finally, as the darkness was solidifying outside, a quiet voice steered the conversation back to my outburst. Gigi is a mixed-race American: Amish mother, Puerto Rican father, who had grown up in a black neighbourhood in Los Angeles and married a Zulu. She is oft heard saying, “I ain’t never been white a day in my life ’til I came to live in South Africa.”

Gigi’s experience of becoming white overnight has given her an insight into the burden of the white skin, without the emotional connection.

“Girl, it’s hard, but you need to accept that for some people, you will always represent whiteness, and there is nothing you can do about it. You have to learn to separate the truth inside you, from the truth that is inside other people. When they throw anger at you, you need to learn that it’s not about you, but about the history your body represents. Try to take yourself out of it and see the oppression that they are angry with is the same oppression that you are angry with. And no one can run away from it. Not you. Not them.”

Her words were soothing, the wisdom of a mediator who can sit in the space between conflicting pain, but they also seemed to demand the impossible. How would I ever grow big enough shoulders to be able to carry the burden of whiteness without being crushed by it? It felt like a final task for the white supremacy myth: Think you’re special? Then deal with this. The problem was, as Grandad Jack knew all too well: “We’re common we are and there’s nowt wrong wi’ that.”

Unless you’re a white in South Africa.

The perfect baby scandal

Non-invasive pre-natal testing (NIPT) might be the new gold standard for Downs Syndrome screening, but as I found out while pregnant, when it comes to other genetic conditions, this £450 test can deliver more harm than good 

I was looking for certainty at a time when there is none. At 41, after enduring five difficult years in which my husband battled and survived two kinds of cancer, I was pregnant after just one round of IVF with sperm that we had frozen prior to his chemotherapy.

We were thrilled but cautious. Because of my advanced age we knew our baby was at a higher risk of Downs Syndrome and after the previous five years, we knew we did not have not have the emotional reserves to raise a child with intellectual disability. 

During the IVF process I had heard about the Harmony Test, one of the Non-Invasive Prenatal Tests (NIPT) offered by pharmaceutical companies like Roche through private laboratories and clinics, which are considered to be a more accurate and safer way to screen than the older methods of ultrasound and amniocentesis, the latter of which can cause miscarriage.   

This test is due to be brought onto the NHS in England for Downs Syndrome towards the end of 2018. 

The test was invented for Downs, but has since been extended to screen for other genetic abnormalities, including abnormalities in the sex chromosomes, and at eleven weeks pregnant, I paid £450 privately at Glasgow Centre for Reproductive Medicine (GCRM), an IVF clinic for the Harmony NIPT.

During the appointment I was asked to tick a box if I wanted to know the gender. 

I hesitated. I was not in a hurry to know the gender, it felt like peeking under the hood. 

“If you don’t tick the box, then they can’t test for abnormalities in the sex chromosomes,” said the nurse. 

She had just told me in a breezy voice that my baby’s nuchal fold and nasal bones looked normal on the accompanied ultrasound and so with a sigh and a shrug, I ticked the box.

As I left, she told me that if the test results were fine, I would receive an email, and if there was a problem, I would get a phone call. 

Ten days later the phone rang. 

Professor Alan Cameron is both a consultant obstetrician and maternal fetal medicine specialist at the private IVF clincic  and head of fetal medicine at the NHS Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. As the IVF clinic receptionist told me proudly over the phone, “He’s the guy who brought the Harmony Test to Scotland.”

In a kind voice, as I sat shivering in a towel, Professor Cameron told me that the test had come back as high risk for Turner Syndrome, a sex chromosomal disorder that only affects girls. Girls with Turner Syndrome are infertile, with many only diagnosed in adolescence when they fail to start puberty. He added that this genetic disorder is not hereditary and has nothing to do with maternal age

At no point in the phone call did he say the test might be wrong. What he did say was that the Harmony Test was just a screening test, not a diagnosis, and for this result to be confirmed, we would have to have either chorionic villus sampling (CVS), where a biopsy is done of the placenta by inserting a needle through the mother’s stomach, or an amniocentesis, where fluid is removed from the amniotic sac, also via needle, both of which have a risk of miscarriage. 

What he did ask me though, was why I chose to have the test. 

The words: “because I could,” flashed through my brain. Any pregnant woman is able to buy this test, at her own discretion, through a clinic. An obstetrician does not have to recommend her for it. If she has £450 spare, she can buy it, in the belief that she is doing the best thing for herself and her baby. Forewarned is forearmed, right?  

As I put down the phone, shattered, I thought this was a fait accompli. I believed I had paid for the best new pre-natal technology on the market.

And as I read through the list of Turner syndrome symptoms sent to me, by the Professor, via email, my spine slumped, what little first-trimester energy I had disappeared through my fingers, and I sobbed and sobbed as I read what sounded like a busy week on a hospital ward for ten patients. 

Girls with Turner Syndrome are shorter than their peers and require growth hormone to achieve adult height. They can have a hole in their heart. They can have misshapen kidneys which increase the frequency of UTI infections. They can have thick necks and lower ears and can be born with swollen feet. They are susceptible to ear infections, coeliac disease, underactive thyroid. They do not have intellectual disability, but often struggle with spatial reasoning and mathematics. They are often bullied. 

Life is hard enough, and bringing a child into the world that was staring down the lens of a life lived close to a hospital seemed cruel. I began to consider that termination was the kindest thing for our much-wanted baby.  The mother’s instinct to protect saw destruction as the greatest kindness. 

That afternoon, through unstoppable tears, I told my best friend over the phone. Her response stopped me in my tracks. 

“It could be wrong,” she said. 

“How can it?” I asked. “These tests are considered to the best new technology out there.”

“Don’t be so sure. Look into it before you make any more decisions,” she said. 

And so I did. And I was stunned. 

I began on the Internet. On baby forums I found woman after woman in the United States whose babies were considered high risk for Turners Syndrome, and for whom the test had been wrong. One woman said her doctor told her the test was so unreliable, you may as well flip a coin.  

I read about something called a Positive Predictive Value (PPV), which refers to the proportion of positive and negative results that are indeed true positives and true negatives – basically how precise the test is – and I found a Bayesian mathematical model that that estimated for a woman with a maternal age of 41, the NIPT for Turner Syndrome had a 59% chance of being wrong, and a 41% chance of being correct. 

Two days later, I called the Professor back to ask if my Internet scouring was pure fancy, or did it hold some truth?  

Was it true that the PPV for this test could around or below 40%?

“Yes, but we don’t know,” he said. 

Could this result could be false positive? 

“Yes,” he said. 

Why didn’t you tell me this when we spoke on the phone? Was it because you didn’t want to give me false hope? 

“Yes,” he said.

What I wouldn’t have given for a flicker of hope over these last two days when it felt like I was drowning, when I could barely stand up for longer than half an hour, when I lay in my husband’s arms and cried and cried, and began to pray for a miscarriage so that this would all be over. 

Three days later, the Professor performed a second ultrasound. Many babies with Turners have large growths on their neck – cystic hygromas – and heart defects. Most die in-utero, with an estimated only 1% of girls with Turners syndrome making it to birth. My baby had a perfect neck, a strong heartbeat – although a proper examination of the heart could only be done at 20 weeks – and measured correctly for her gestational age. But we were not out of the woods. It’s also true that some girls with Turners show no symptoms in-utero. If wanted to know for sure, my only choice was an invasive test with the accompanied risk of miscarriage. 

I was handed over to the midwife, who did her best to give us all the information we needed to make our decision, deploying that NHS non-directional style that does not offer any personal advice, opinion or steer. 

It seemed an irony that a laboratory was prepared to charge me £450 for a test that they had insufficient validation for, and a midwife with years of experience was not permitted to share that experience with me as I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. 

I stared deep into my soul and couldn’t find the answer, so I called my Yorkshire auntie. Her fury was quick and palpable. 

“You can’t terminate a baby because she might be short, flat-chested and can’t do maths. And besides, we are from strong Yorkshire stock. You know that. Don’t let them stick a needle into you. They have already treated you like a science experiment. Don’t let them do it again.”

She was right. I had paid £450 in a bid for certainty, and had inadvertenly bought myself a seat on a rollercoaster of doubt and fear. It was time for me to take back that power.  

And so I put away the tears and began a proper journalistic investigation.

I began with the email the Professor had forwarded from the lab. 

The first line read: “There is currently not enough data to make sensitivity and specificity claims for the individual sex chromosome conditions.”

What the hell did that actually mean?

I typed “sensitivity” and “specificity” into Google and found myself in a world of medical statistics. Slowly I deciphered that it meant that neither the pharmaceutical company that devised the test, nor the labs and clinics that sell it know how good it is in demonstrating whether someone really has the condition they are testing for. That simply do not know how likely the test is to bring back false positives. 

I called TDL Genetics, the laboratory who had tested my blood and asked them why they do not know this. 

“The test is primarily designed for Trisomy 13, 18 and 21, there is just a limited number of patients who have had the sex chromosome conditions to be able to give accurate results,” said clinical scientist, Elaine Holgado

“And how often do you follow-up to see if babies with your high risk score, do indeed have Turners?” I asked. 

“Because a lot of our patients are private, it’s not something that we always get the follow-up information because a lot of the follow-up testing happens in the NHS and there is no link between us, the private clinic and the hospitals,” she said. 

So they don’t. 

I asked why a friend, who had the Harmony Test the previous year, was not offered to test for sex chromosome abnormalities. 

“Because of the test’s limitations, some clinics don’t offer it at all, or only when there is clinical indications on the ultrasound. We do educate the clinicians to discuss with the patients, and most of the time everything is fine and it’s not an issue, so maybe they become too blasé with what they are offering until something like this happens. In your case, the pre-test counselling seems to have fallen short somewhat.”

At my next ultrasound appointment, I asked Professor Cameron why I wasn’t given proper counselling at GCRM before the test? 

 “There aren’t enough genetic counsellors in the UK. If you bought this this test in the US, you would be given four hours of genetic counselling beforehand, but that we don’t have the people in the UK.”

But we wouldn’t put planes in the sky if we didn’t have sufficient pilots, so why are we testing for genetic conditions, if we don’t have the staff to protect vulnerable people and keep us safe?

I asked him why the National Institute of Clinical and Health Excellence (NICE) wasn’t watching this, protecting patients from this situation, and he said it currently fell beyond their remit. So whose remit was it? The next day I called every regulator I could think of. Every press officer shook their head down the phone. By the end of the day I was in tears again. Could it be that nobody in the UK was regulating this? That nobody was making sure that pregnant women weren’t being treated like science experiments? 

A few days later, my suspicion was confirmed by Catherine Joynson, the assistant director of the Nuffield Council of Bioethics. 

In early 2017, the council had released a detailed report on the ethical worries around the brave new world of NIPT. 

“NIPT is not regulated. It has fallen between the cracks. I’m trying to get someone to notice it. I’ve written to the Care Quality Commission who’ve sort of ignored us, the health minister who has now lost his job in the reshuffle. The trouble is, with Brexit going on, these kinds of issues are just not a priority.”

What’s more, in their study, Nuffield couldn’t find any good scientific studies on testing for sex chromosome aneuploidies. 

“We think it’s important that people have reproductive autonomy but anecdotally we heard that these tests are being offered without upfront information. We heard from many women who’ve you’ve ended up in a situation where they have some results that are really scary and they are not sure what to do with them,” says Johnson. 

Which was how I felt. Turner syndrome, as I was to discover, was a broad church. While an internet search will list all sorts of conditions that make your heart grow cold, practising geneticists and endocrinologists will tell you that Turner Syndrome can actually be a very mild condition, with many families not even knowing they have it until the girls hit puberty and fail to get their period. 

My vexation was further inflamed by a 2015 meta-analysis study published in Ultrasound, Obstetrics and Gynecology Journal. The authors examined all the current studies on screening for sex chromosome aneuploidies by cfDNA testing – effectively the Harmony test – and concluded that: “It may be inappropriate to offer pregnant women screening for sex chromosome aneuploidies by cfDNA testing just because it is feasible. There are several reasons for this: first, the phenotype of these aneuploidies is generally mild; second, the test has a high failure rate and relatively low DR [detection rate] and high FPR [false positive rate]; third, fetal mosaicism accounts for up to 50% of these aneuploidies; and fourth, the test may uncover a previously unknown maternal aneuploidy; up to 90% of women with 47,XXX are not aware that they have a third X chromosome.”

With further digging, I was gobsmacked to find that Ariona, the Harmony Test’s inventor (before selling it to Roche) had said as much in their own 2007 study, and even went as far as to state: “The inclusion of general sex chromosome aneuploidy (SCA) assessment has not been studied extensively and may not fit into classic or well-recognized criteria for prenatal screening. As such, NIPT with evaluation of SCA may be best utilized in cases where a clinical indication such as an ultrasound finding or family history is present.”

So if the Harmony Test has not been tested in the general population, if it was invented to be used in a population where clinical indications are already present, then why is it being sold to any pregnant woman who can afford £450, at her discretion? And why is there no regulator making sure that vulnerable pregnant women are not at the mercy of a brave new world of genetic testing that we are psychologically ill prepared for? 

My story has a positive outcome. After presenting my research to Marco Gaudoin, head of the Glasgow Centre for Reproductive medicine, Dr Gaudoin did his own digging, and agreed that the level of false positives were unacceptable for this test, and has since decided that at his clinic “SCA screening is off the table.”
Professor Cameron will still offer it if any pregnant woman wants SCA screening as part of the NIPT, but they will need to see the professor first so he can counsel them accordingly.

Furthermore, Health Improvements Scotland, who regulates the private healthcare sector in Scotland, agreed that there was a gap in regulations and they would set out to rectify this. 

As for my baby. Fintry Annie Bell was born on 19 June 2018. Although on the small size at birth (but there are short genes in our family), she continues to have no symptoms of Turners. On the day after she was born, excited paediatricians gathered around us, pushing us to have the genetic test to find out whether she did in fact have the condition. We declined. They pushed. We declined again. Our priority in the days after her birth, and for the rest of her life, was to feed her, nurture her, love her. It’s well documented that anxiety is bad for breastfeeding, and so I declined anything that would put further stress between me and her. She is not a science experiment. We have agreed that – perhaps – when she is one year old we will do a test to see if her X chromosomes are different to those of other girls. In the meantime though, it doesn’t matter. She is healthy, beautiful, full of smiles, and hitting all her textbook milestones. And to think that I considered terminating my pregnancy.

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Lost Where We Belong: an extract

Cover LWWB

This week sees the publication of my narrative non-fiction book, Lost Where We Belong. Set over five years in South Africa, Lost Where We Belong is a narrative about belonging, racism, guilt and the struggle for self-identity – issues that exist both in South Africa, and all over the world today. This week’s Unpopular Essay is an extract from the book.

Chapter 6: You’ve got to have Faith

I am heading north, away from the dense sub-tropical humidity of the Pondoland coast, up to the grassy plains of the AmaXhosa. The road from Port St Johns up to Mthatha swings from left to right and back again, like a conductor’s baton leading a gentle symphony. This morning the rhythm of the road is soothing, and as I drive, hooting at errant cows and goats and flashing my lights to warn fellow drivers of the beasts ahead, my fear momentarily ebbs and I breathe in the easy companionship of the open road.

I arrive in Mthatha in the morning rush hour. The cows and goats are replaced by laughing school children and busy women balancing maize and sugar on their heads and babies on their backs. A jolly policeman points me in the direction of the Ncgobo road.

“Are you traveling alone?” he enquires, a little surprised.

“My husband’s coming tomorrow,” I lie.

Eish, he better keep an eye on you,” he says with a laugh.

“Don’t worry, he is,” I say wryly.

Ngcobo is eighty kilometres north of Mthatha along a narrow, rollercoaster type road that passes through grazing lands and forested hills. I drive with the window down, the soft air cooling my cheeks, smiling at the morning. An hour later, I arrive in the heart of the bustling market town. I park the car at the back of the petrol station and head out into the sea of humanity to find Faith. I have barely gone a few metres when a full-bodied turquoise figure sporting a wide smile, a stylish black bobbed wig and a matching blue headscarf appears out of the crowd.

“Your hair!” I exclaim, as we give each other a hug.

“You like it?” she asks.

“It looks fabulous,” I reply, feeling a kinship with the fact that Faith had put on her glad rags to go home. When I first moved to London, I used to love sporting all the latest fashions on my trips back to Benoni. It was a sign to myself, and to everyone else, that I had got the hell out of that Hicksville. I got the sense that Faith had returned to Ngcobo with the same intent.

We climb into the bakkie, chatting idly about our journeys as Faith directs me out of town, past the new suburbia of identikit social housing built in neat rows, too close together, leaving little room for plants and people to grow, and onto a dirt track. The track splits and Faith is not sure which fork to take. Within a few minutes we are already lost.

“Sorry,” says Faith. “I’m usually in the back of the bakkie. The driver always knows the way.”

“Not this driver,” I reply.

We reverse and try again, and are soon gathering speed down the best dirt road in the Transkei.

“Walter Sisulu built this road for us,” Faith says with a hint of pride.

We drive on into a wide open landscape under big skies. After half an hour, we come across a bunch of teenagers thumbing a lift. We stop to ask where they are going. Faith shakes her head, winds up the window and indicates for me to keep driving.

“You didn’t like them?” I ask.

Faith shakes her head. “Their village is at the far end of this valley. We can’t take them there. This good road doesn’t go all that way. It becomes bad later on.”

The journalist in me says nothing. It is a big job to fix decades of neglect. But I also notice gritted teeth, and an inner eyeroll. Why is it that the ANC fought for equality of all South Africans, and yet equality of public services seem to stop at the driveways of the new political elite?

After three quarters of an hour, we arrive in Kanye. The village is built on a gentle slope overlooked by ancient volcanoes, their slopes carpeted with long grass and dense forest. Down in the village, puffs of smoke whirl up from thatched huts while sheep and mongrel dogs laze in fenced-in kraals. As we pull up, an old man rides by on a brown horse. There is a heavy silence in the air, perhaps the silence of a village that is used to keeping its voice down.

Faith opens the gate to her mother-in-law’s homestead and directs me to park the bakkie outside her bedroom window. I edge forward, avoiding an old supermarket trolley lying on its side, three puppies, a dog, and a handful of chickens pecking at the ground.

“You have got an alarm on it, haven’t you?” Faith asks as I climb out from behind the wheel.

This is the first time she has suggested there is anything to worry about. I nod.

“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she says. “There’s only one man in the village I don’t trust. But it’ll be fine. We’ll ask him to look after the bakkie for us. If you want to stop a thief from stealing from you, ask him to help you.”

Eight-year-old Anna, 9-year old Kamva (who everyone calls Junior), 12-year-old Thembi and 74-year-old Aunice Hlakula are standing on the steps of the hut waiting for us. Mrs Hlakula is tiny, wrinkled and is keenly aware of her place in the village hierarchy. We have barely put down our bags before she instructs us to get back in the bakkie and go visit Mrs Hlakula, the other one, the really important one, the one that is a daughter-in-law to the late Walter Sisulu. Faith and I both wrinkle our noses, tired from our journey, but Mrs Hlakula is insistent. “Go visit Mrs Hlakula. Then you can be sure no one will steal the bakkie,” she says in Xhosa. So Mrs Hlakula and I take Mrs Hlakula’s advice and go and visit Mrs Hlakula.

It is late afternoon and the clouds have drawn in, cloaking the rich green with a sleepy grey. Ellen Hlakula lives in a pink bungalow at the highest point of the village. As I wait for Faith to open the gate to the homestead, it strikes me how closely this scene resembles a Scottish Highland crofting village, except here the houses are brightly coloured, rather than white washed. As we approach the front door, a young girl is standing outside, staring up to the hills, unsmiling, her eyes empty.

“Come in, come in,” Mrs Hlakula says, as she sees us approach. She is an elderly, rotund lady dressed in a blue and white wave-print dress and a red turban. She calls a young man to bring out a tray prepared with cups of coffee and slices of buttered bread.

We sit down and I thank her for inviting me into her home, commenting how beautiful the surrounding nature is. She nods, offers me coffee, and then gets straight to the point.

“What are you doing here?” she asks. Her face is now unsmiling. She stares me hard in the eyes.

I am unnerved. I am used to black women always being polite to me, always addressing me through a veneer of jolly kindness, but here in Mrs Hlakula’s home, there will be no pretend deference. I have not been summoned here to be welcomed, I am here to be observed and have my motives assessed. The mood is of mistrust and suspicion.

I repeat my well-rehearsed monologue about wanting to understand how democracy has changed life for people in the rural areas, and she replies with her own well-rehearsed speech about the success of their new local primary school, built by Walter Sisulu, the advent of pensions for old people, the excellent road into town, and the fact that all the houses in Kanye now have access to running water.

As she talks, I scan the room, taking in the rich peach walls, the wall unit, the comfortable lounge suite, the sepia photo of a white-haired Walter Sisulu in his trademark 1960s-style spectacles with his wife Albertina, smiling, her hair coiffed into a stylish Afro. In most of the homes I have visited so far, there has been no art on the walls, just black and white portraits of family members and ANC posters, but here, propped up behind a crystal punch bowl is a stylised painting of an African woman, with a triangular Afro and a beaded necklace. It reminds me of the kind of painting a white tourist would buy as a souvenir of their safari holiday. The idealized version of the African woman. Proud. Noble. The exotic queen. I grew up in a home decorated with these images. Regal, carved African heads and beaded Zulu weapons – spears and knobkerries – mounted on the wall. Ironically heralding the same culture that we were oppressing.

My turn to speak again. I press Mrs Hlakula. Surely there must be something that worries her. Something that keeps her awake at night. She nods.

“Our problem is the bottle stores,” she says. “There are so many bottle stores and they are disturbing our lives. Life is not all right because of alcohol. Our children are drinking and taking drugs, we are so worried about that. Even the girls are drinking. They start drinking age 12 and 14. They are drinking because they are bored. One day they beat the headman for no reason. They did it out of drunkenness.”

Mrs Hlakula rises and I follow her out onto the porch where the little girl is still standing, looking out to the hills.

“She is not right,” Mrs Hlakula explains, pointing at her head. “She is not my grandchild, but I am looking after her now. Both her parents are dead, and she has no one to look after her. It is a shame.”

I realize what I am witnessing here is Ubuntu, the African philosophy that believes that our humanity is intertwined and that we gain our humanity through caring for each other. In a true African village, there are no orphans. I am because you are. It could not be further from the philosophy of apartheid: I am, because you aren’t.

On the front steps a goat has curled up, soaking up the last of the warmth from the cement. We all laugh and I ask if I can take a picture.

“You can take a picture of the goat, but I do not want my house in the background,” Mrs Hlakula says.

I nod. Dignity was hard fought for and won by this family and Mrs Hlakula will not have it undermined by a white woman with unclear motives. I respectfully zoom in on the goat, and then we say our goodbyes and climb into the bakkie.

“She didn’t trust me, did she,” I say to Faith as I start the engine.

Faith just laughs.


That night Faith and I get undressed by candlelight, and climb into her marital bed, giggling. Faith has placed a yellow bucket in the corner of the room so we can pee in the night without having to traipse through the mielie field to the long drop. As she changes into her pyjamas she gives me a brief lesson in how it is done, sound effects and all. I am relieved to be sleeping so close to her. My paranoid fear of being woken in the middle of the night by a dark prowler with a fancy for white flesh is ebbing away, and instead I feel like a teenager at a slumber party, Faith in her pink satin pyjamas checking her mobile phone for messages, me in my nightie, both too excited to go to sleep.

We have barely been in bed two minutes, when Faith leaps up, shrieking.

“What?” I whisper, sitting bolt up right, the terror ebbing back.

“Did you hear that?” she whispers.


Outside the window a bird chirps.

“A snake!” she hisses.

“It’s a bird,” I say.

“Eish, I hate snakes,” she says, grabbing the candle and scouring the corners of the room. “If one comes you must protect me.”

“But… but… what do I know about snakes?” I ask.

“It doesn’t matter. You’re braver than me,” Faith says.

At this point I start laughing. It feels good to laugh. In fact, it feels great. It is as if that deep fear that has been swirling around in my belly is pouring out of my mouth and vanishing into the ether.

Faith however, is not amused. Climbing back into bed, she blows out the candle and announces: “Then we’ll just have to ask God to protect us both.”

Faith is the wife of a preacher. At the end of our first meeting in her home in Khayelitsha, we stood in a circle and held hands and Faith asked God to bless me. Tonight, as she says her prayers out loud, I take the opportunity to have my own quiet word. I am not religious in any denominational sense, but I have experienced enough amazing co-incidences and helping hands when you least expect it and most need it, to believe that there is something which connects us all together, something far greater and more mysterious than our small, rational brains could ever hope to comprehend. Take the fact that when I was sitting in Cape Town, wondering how the hell I was going to get myself invited to a rural village, the universe sent me Faith. I love the poetry in that. So tonight, I close my eyes and say quietly: “Thank you for Faith.”


The day starts early in Kanye. An enthusiastic cockerel wakes me up at 4am. And 5am. And 6am. I hope he tastes better than he sounds.

I stumble out of bed once the children are on their way to school. Faith is already in her mother-in-law’s kitchen, a standalone yellow bungalow, the inside walls painted a bright pink. The floor is scrubbed with cow manure, as is the custom, and a mishmash collection of metal pans, tea pots and plates are spread between an old wooden sideboard and a Scotch dresser. Nothing is very clean. Old Mrs Hlakula is too frail to do housework anymore so Faith is getting stuck in. I help by taking our pee bucket down to the long drop inside a tiny corrugated iron shack, exchanging a cheery “molo” with our nextdoor neighbour. Over the next couple of days, we meet every time I have to pay a visit. Greater society might not think we have much in common, but our bowels would disagree.

Back at the house, Faith asks me if I want to bathe. I nod and she winks and hands me another bucket, just big enough to crouch in, and pops on the kettle. Faith is clearly enjoying all of this. The image of me balancing precariously over her bucket trying to scrub my bum will probably keep her amused for years to come. While the kettle boils, we sit down and do what most women do in the kitchen: skinner (gossip). Faith fills me in on the internal politics of her family, and of who will and will not inherit the Kanye homestead. The hot gossip is that although Thembi, Junior and Anna are the orphaned children of Faith’s sister-in-law, meaning by tradition they should now be taken care of by the family’s eldest brother, the brother has refused because the children were fathered by a man from the Venda tribe. The Hlakulas are Xhosa.

“He is a racist,” Faith says disapprovingly, clicking her teeth.

“Really?” I say. “How can a black South African be a racist to another black South African?”

Faith shrugs. “He just is.”

I am bewildered. Of course South African race relations are more complex than the international headline of whites oppressing blacks. The Indians, blacks, Cape coloureds, and all the white sub-tribes, the Lebanese, Greeks, Portuguese, Jews, Afrikaners and English have all to some extent have harboured suspicion and dislike for each other, but I had no idea that the Xhosas looked down on the Vendas. Perhaps it should have been obvious that there would be prejudice between the nine black South African tribes. During the run-up to the 1994 elections, there had been bloody conflict between the Zulu IFP supporters and the mostly Xhosa ANC supporters. But much of that bloodshed was later revealed to have been stoked by rightwing third-party meddling trying to derail the march to democracy, and I think I had naively, wishfully, filed that conflict in the past and adopted a belief that all black South Africans were now happily living side by side in our rainbow nation. Faith’s confession smacked me around the head with my willful ignorance.

My inner monologue wakes up and goads. “Why are you so bloody ignorant? Why has it taken you so long to ask questions? Why have you swallowed this ratified post-apartheid South African story of white men bad, black men good? Why do you avoid the grey?”

I push back, shutting down the voice in my head. Faith has moved on to another topic.

“The people in this house are educated, but nothing goes right for them because of the witches,” she says. “The witches don’t want anybody to succeed. They want to see you suffering day and night.”

“What? Are there witches in this village?” I ask, now a bit bemused.

“There is one,” says Faith, scrubbing furiously at a pot. “Once she told me that I must be quiet when I pray, that I pray too loud, but she lives on the other side of the village so she couldn’t hear me. She could feel the power of the prayer.”

“Is she a sangoma (traditional healer)?” I ask.

“She is used by the devil,” Faith says firmly.

I laugh and openly roll my eyes.

“Would you ever go to a sangoma?” I ask.

Faith shakes her head. “My mother was a sangoma. When I was doing Grade 9, I lived away from home. My aunt passed away, and after that, at night, a bright light would come to my mother’s house, like a ghost. There’s no electricity in Tsolo, but when the ghost came it was like in the day, so bright. There was also a bad smell, like a dog had died. My mother tried to do some herbs. It didn’t work. Then my family paid R1500 to slaughter two sheep and still the ghost didn’t stop. I came home and I took all those things of the sangoma and burnt them in the name of Jesus Christ and it stopped. The sangomas just take money from people. I don’t waste any money on sangomas. To cure a headache they can charge you R1000 or a sheep or a car. They charge according to how much money you have.”

“What about the ancestors? Do you pray to the ancestors?” I ask.

“No. A dead person cannot pray for me. If he’s dead, he’s dead. Finished. Once when a family member dreamt that our ancestor was cold, we had to do a huge ceremony to make him warm. We had to buy a cow and have a big feast with brandy and African beer. Pah. If I dream an ancestor is cold I’ll buy a new blanket for my bed.”

We both laugh as the kettle for my bath boils. I head off to wash my nether bits, rural style, while a modern African woman continues with her own scrubbing.


Old Mrs Hlakula is sitting on the steps of the hut she shares with Anna, Thembi and Junior, warming her face in the morning sun. At night, these steps are lit with a muted green light bulb since, much to Faith’s irritation, old Mrs Hlakula does not like bright electric light. In fact, she does not like electricity at all. She still uses wood and paraffin for cooking, and thinks electricity is only really good for one thing: watching television. During my stay, we do not miss an episode of Oprah.

“It’s nice to see the rest of the world in there,” she says.

I join her on the step and she remembers the old days fondly. Old Mrs Hlakula’s father was Walter Sisulu’s brother. He died in 1957.

“It was nice before. Before things did not cost a lot of money. Now if you don’t have money, you have nothing,” she says. “People used to help each other. Now it’s hard to help each other. If you’ve got nothing now, you are not sure someone is going to help you. When my mother died, it was too hard for me.”

Faith finishes her chores and comes over.

“How is your head mama?” she asks.

Old Mrs Hlakula sighs a little.

“It’s your fault,” Faith says.

“Me? What did I do?” I ask.

“You brought that bottle of wine. You’ve given my mother-in-law a babelas (hangover),” she giggles.

Faith and I head off for a walk through the village. It is that quiet mid-morning hour, the sun is at half-mast, the children in class, and the adults, having just finished their morning chores are relaxing with a coffee in the sunshine. People smile and throw us a wave, and Faith giggles and says: “They think you are a millionaire.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Every time a black person sees a white person coming, he thinks to himself: there goes a millionaire.”

“I hope you don’t think that,” I say.

Faith shrugs.

We have not been walking long when an elderly man with a walking stick hobbles into our path. It is clear from his demeanour that this is not a chance meeting.

“Molo tata,” greets Faith.

“Molo tata,” I echo, trying out the customary Xhosa greeting for men older than you.

The old man gently chides Faith for not bringing me to visit him sooner, and then introduces himself to me.

Mr Khawulezile Hlakula is the elderly son of Walter Sisulu’s brother. He lived in South Africa’s major cities for 35 years, working in the goldmines of Johannesburg and as an asbestos foreman in Cape Town. Now back in the village he is one of the wise elders. We stand in the shade of a tree, next to the school fence, and talk. He starts with the usual musings on what has changed.

“Things are a little bit better, but we are crying about doctors,” he says. “Here at All Saints Hospital there is only one doctor. People sleep there three days to see the doctor. The very important thing is for people to get clinics. We’ve got this HIV and we need a nearby clinic. All Saints is too far from us. Those with HIV have no power to walk.”

“But what has improved?” I ask.

“We were the first to get electricity because Sisulu was born here and we say thank you for that, but we do not have toilets yet. We built these toilets ourselves. The municipality take a long time. This school, Sisulu built that with his own money.

We have water, but 15 houses share one tap. If each house can get a tap, then things will be better.”

“So what has democracy meant to you?” I ask.

“It means that we are free. All of us. And that we should be together and we should share everything. But it’s not going like that. He is rich, I am hungry, she has money, you don’t want to share, that’s the problem.”

Something had been niggling at the back of my mind for a few days. I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it, but as Mr Hlakula lamented the lack of sharing in South Africa, it hit me like a rock.

“Do you think we don’t understand democracy in South Africa?” I ask.

“It’s exactly like that. It confuses some people. The ruling government, they are ruling on their own, they don’t use the democracy. They use their own constitution. They put their favourite people in place, they don’t care of people who are hungry, they don’t care of people who are suffering. You’ve come here from Scotland. Ask people here. They will say you are the first lady who comes here and asks us what we feel, what we need. The government didn’t do that. There was not one single person here from government to ask, hey, what do you feel? What do you need?”

Mr Hlakula sighs. And then says something I never expected to hear from Walter Sisulu’s relative.

“You must say the white government before was good because that government was keeping the pressure on, you grew up under pressure. That government was very good, really, because we were not suffering from work at that time. Now you can say I am free, but you get nothing. There is no work, no money, no nothing. Now the young guys here have a Std 10 but they do nothing. They are drinking. It is our democracy that creates that. At that time when we were under pressure you would never see a young person go to the bottle store and buy a bottle of brandy. Now it is free for everyone to go get a brandy or beer to drink. Those things are going to spoil our children.”

Faith agrees with him. She adds that, in the villages, pension money – hidden in the backs of cupboards in unlocked huts – has become easy pickings for drunk, frustrated youths, thirsty for another beer; some teenagers living under their grandparents’ care have started stealing their child benefit grants to spend on alcohol. The children argue that the money belongs to them and because South Africa is now a democracy, they have “the right” to spend it as they choose. When the eldest of Faith’s charges started pilfering her child benefit grant from the old Mrs Hlakula, Faith shipped her to Cape Town to live under her roof and give her a stern lesson that rights also come with responsibilities.

Close to where we stand chatting is the Pachu General Dealer, Kanye’s local spaza shop and shebeen where groups of young men, aged between 18 and 25, mooch away the day. Mr Hlakula cautions me against approaching them, warning that they are not to be trusted and that if I want to speak to them, he will arrange a meeting for later that day. Though I appreciate his concern, I doubt they will speak their minds in front of one of the respected village elders, and so once Mr Hlakula is on his way, Faith and I head over in the pretence of buying a bottle of fizzy drink.

Heads turn as we walk inside. I order a bottle of orange fizz and Faith and I smile at each other as we hear giggles and comments start to be bandied about in Xhosa. It does not take long for one of the young men to approach us.

“Hello,” says a young handsome face, sporting fake diamond ear-rings, David Beckham-style. “We heard there was a white woman in the village. We heard you’ve come to find out what we need so you can help us.”

I cast a look at Faith. This was the story she had made up and we had already had a disagreement over it. She said that people would not want to talk to me if they knew it was just for a book or an article. That they needed to believe they were getting something in exchange for talking to me. I was annoyed because as I saw it, I would only end up looking bad when I did not deliver, but she told me not to worry about that. No one ever delivers anyway, so it would not be much of a change. I resented getting tossed on the heap with everyone else who was systematically letting South Africa down, but Faith had her story and she was sticking to it. I started the conversation by telling them that I did not have the power or money to change anything, the best I could do was get their voices heard. This seemed agreeable. After all, there was not much else going on in Kanye at 11 o’clock in the morning.

The Beckham-styled young man introduces himself as Singalakha Mnquma, an 18-year-old from Bisho, who is in Kanye for the weekend to attend a funeral. From the smell of his breath, he has already had a beer. I asked Singalakha what he is doing with his life.

“Nothing,” he says. “You go to school, you finish, then there’s nothing to do. You have no cash so you go to town and you find a drunk man, then you steal some cash from him. The only way to get any cash is to steal.”

Singalakha says this with a glint in his eye. I think he is playing up to me because I am white and because the stereotypical racist white point of view is, given a chance, all black people are thieves. But it is obvious from the depth in his eyes that Singalakha is a smart guy, that he is testing me, so I cock my head and raise my eyebrows.

“Oh really,” I reply, taking out my notebook and starting to write. “So all young people nowadays just steal. The old people are right. You’re all just a bunch of thieves?”

The other guys start to disagree. Now everybody wants to talk.

“Look around you,” says Singalakha, talking over everybody else. “There are more than 30 guys here who don’t know what to do. There is no point going to school. After we finish there are no jobs, so we are just sitting here. Democracy brings a lot of things, but I don’t know where they’ve ended up. It just brought grants for small kids, that’s the only thing I know about democracy. That’s a fact. There are no opportunities.”

Now Singalakha is talking seriously. Sipheshle Hlakula, 21, chips in. After school he spent one year studying to be an electrician in East London, but failed and now his parents can’t – or perhaps won’t, it’s not clear – pay for him to study further.

“Life was way easier for my father and grandfather. In those days there were job opportunities. The important thing is to have a job. All I want is to have a job. Democracy has made me unemployed.”

I find his words shocking. If being herded onto a back of a truck to go and work underground for a pittance in the gold mines of Johannesburg, sleeping in men-only hostels far away from your wife and children is being romanticised as good times, then South Africa should start to shudder at the fury and frustration boiling in these young men’s hearts.

“What about studying further?” I ask.

“We can’t afford university. You have to pay to register, and then only you can apply for bursaries. Our parents don’t even have the money to pay for the registration,” he says.

“What about student loans?” I ask.

“I don’t believe in loans, I believe in bursaries,” Singalakha says.

It was a bursary that helped me through university in South Africa. My dad worked in a factory, my mum in a shop, and their wages were not enough to pay for tertiary education. Rhodes University, however, awarded discounted tuition to students with top grades – for every A grade you got a R1000 deduction from the R4000 tuition bill – and so my father agreed that I could go, if I could get a 50% discount every year and if I got a job in the holidays to help pay towards the rest. I found out later that they also remortgaged the house. I was the first person in my family ever to go to university.

To hear Singalakha say that he believes in bursaries, not loans, unsettles me. It sounds like he believes someone else, not him, should be responsible for his education. And is he right? In Scotland university education is free. The government have assumed the responsibility for educating the youth and students only need take out loans to cover living expenses. In South Africa there is help for poor students through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), but the bursaries do not meet the full cost of education and many students end up dropping out because they cannot make up the shortfall – even with the help of part-time jobs.

I think back to the secondary school I visited close to Port St Johns. A school with no furniture and teachers who knock off early to pick up their pay cheques. I think of village life where single mothers get by on R250 child benefit grants. The reality of being black and poor is at the root of Singalakha’s thinking. He might sound like a socialist, a nihilist or a freeloader, depending on where you stand in the political spectrum, but perhaps his is just the voice of the pragmatist.

I look at these guys and feel their powerlessness.

“What gets you out of bed in the morning?” I ask. They shrug their shoulders.

“We do jobs for our families. We sit around. And we play football,” Sipheshle says. “We have a league with the guys from the other villages. We train Monday to Friday afternoons, and we have matches on Saturday and Sunday.”

“What do you guys think of the World Cup,” I ask. “Are you looking forward to it?”

Singalakha shakes his head. “2010 means nothing to us here. It’s the same as usual. I have a dream to meet David Beckham, but I won’t meet him because we’re stuck out here. They waste millions to build a stadium that will work for one or two days.”

“Are you not going to support South Africa?” I ask.

“If I had R50, I’d bet it on South Africa not winning a single match,” he says bitterly.


We head back to Faith’s kraal for lunch.

“You know, those boys are right,” she says. “Having a matric means nothing. During the apartheid times it was better because if you passed Std 7 you could be a nurse. Now to become a nurse you must pass matric and must go to the college for four years. Because of these people who were in prison, Mandela, Sisulu, everybody, they were highly educated so when they came back, they didn’t want any more Std 7. Maybe they even want to send the Boers back to school. Because, you know, they weren’t educated,” she laughs.

I look up to the distant hills. Coming from the city, all that space makes your soul feel free. Strange that for those boys, these same hills feel a trap, a noose around their necks.

“I’ve love to go for a hike into those hills,” I say. “Shall we do it?”

Faith clicks her teeth and shakes her head.

“Eish, why do you white people always want to go hiking?” she says.

“I don’t know,” I laugh. “Maybe it’s because we don’t have to walk far to collect water so we have lots of spare energy.”

“You know, I grew up among the Boers,” she muses. “They used to call us baboons. I used to wonder why, I hadn’t seen a picture of baboons and when I saw a picture I said: ‘why do they call us that’? Do you know why they called us baboons?”

It was my turn to shrug my shoulders. I think I knew the answer but I was too ashamed to say it out loud, too afraid of being chucked back into the pot I was trying to scramble out of. Why were black people called baboons? Because baboons had black faces, because they were uneducated, and because they would attack you and steal from you if you did not keep up your guard. That, I think, is the racist stereotype in a nutshell.

Back in the kraal, I start playing with the puppies while Faith starts plotting to kill one of Mrs Hlakula’s chickens for our dinner. I don’t have much of an appetite for one of those scraggy old hens, and ask if we can have samp (dried corn kernels) and beans instead, my favourite African dish. Faith turns up her nose in disgust.

“What do you mean you don’t like samp and beans?” I ask. “I thought all black people liked samp and beans.”

“It gives me a bad stomach,” Faith says. “And you white people, why do you love dogs so much?”

“Don’t you also like dogs? You’ve got four here” I say, tickling the puppy’s stomach.

“No, I hate dogs,” she says. “I like chickens. You can eat chickens.”

That night we gather around the television, watching soap operas. The next day is Saturday. During the week the kids are up at 5am to do their chores before school. Today everyone can sleep until 6am. As I stumble out of bed, Thembi is sitting washing clothes in a big bowl, Anna is sweeping the kitchen floor, Junior is off to fetch water, balancing a five litre drum in a wheel barrow, and old Mrs Hlakula is tidying the garden. Faith seems to have woken up on the wrong side of bed. We had planned today to attend the village funeral, but Faith wants to go to town instead. I notice my cue and give her R500 (£50) for her help so far. She scowls at me and tells me it is not enough. I am surprised and unsure what to do next, so I give her another R500. Perhaps I have underestimated the cost of living. She phones her husband and then tells me it is still not enough.

“How much were you expecting me to give you?” I ask.

“At least R1,500,” she says.

Anger and disappointment flash in quick succession through my mind. When we first met in Cape Town, we agreed that I would use the fellowship money to pay for Faith’s transport, mobile phone charges (both of which I had already paid) and to contribute towards food, but we did not put a number on it. Jimmy was charging me R250 per day for his translation services so it seemed unreasonable that Faith wanted R500 per day, the same price as an expensive guesthouse, to have me as a guest in her home.

I give Faith another R200. She takes the money begrudgingly.

“Do you want me to take you to town?” I ask.

“No,” she says, and walks out the room.

I consider staying and going to the funeral without her, but I feel unwanted, unwelcome. With a disappointed, heavy heart I pack the bakkie. Faith does not try to persuade me to stay. An hour later I reverse out of the kraal and drive slowly and reluctantly back down Walter Sisulu’s good road. As Kanye disappears into a cloud of billowing dust, I feel like I have pressed the ejecter button and been hurled from the warm, safe net of a family with all its routines and flung, unwanted, alone, back into the world. Back in Mthatha I check in to a bed and breakfast called the White House. The irony is not lost on me.

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