I smell a bat

Greater horseshoe bat, animalcorner.org

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 (https://www.ntd.com/support-us.html) an independent Chinese media company based in New York. Gao posed the question: could this virus have been leaked from a lab? (https://bit.ly/2uLilu5) 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 “(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26552008). 

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. (https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/who-we-are/nih-director/statements/statement-funding-pause-certain-types-gain-function-research). This ban was later lifted by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in December 2017. (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(18)30006-9/fulltext)

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. (https://www.nature.com/news/inside-the-chinese-lab-poised-to-study-world-s-most-dangerous-pathogens-1.21487)

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”. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/06/li-wenliang-coronavirus-whistleblower-doctor-profile)

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 (https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3051167/scientists-hit-back-rumours-engineered-coronavirus).

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. (http://virological.org/t/the-proximal-origin-of-sars-cov-2/398)

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 (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30183-5/fulltext) . 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. (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00548-w)

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

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

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.

Buy your copy of Lost Where We Belong on Amazon

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb


The alternative orgy (aka IVF)


It all began when girl crush got pregnant. We all have girl friends who are more crushes than pals: chicas loaded with sass, style and smarts, who are always that little bit out of reach. Girls whose calls we always take.

In April last year, my girl crush got pregnant. I hugged her and celebrated and then went home and sulked. As the weeks went on, I sat alone with two unfamiliar emotions: jealousy and broodiness.

I had spent most of my early 30s actively avoiding having children. When my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had to have his prostate removed to save his life, forever removing the possibility of us getting pregnant naturally, I felt sad but there were no waves of grief or need for a therapist. I’ve always subscribed to the Scots philosophy of “what’s for you, won’t go by you” and I soon accepted our childless future and started planning a trip to Rajasthan.

But as girl crush’s belly began to grow, I was overcome with unfamiliar cravings which I examined with caution. Was my sudden desire to procreate linked to a worry that girl crush would no longer call after baba was born? Or was it my deep subconscious screaming: “Even the coolest chick you know is having a baby! You are going to miss out on one of life’s greatest experiences!”

In the quiet of our marital bedroom, I broached the idea of IVF. Prior to my husband’s cancer treatment, we had frozen some swimmers who were safely in a deep freeze at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary. Should we get them out of the ice and give IVF a go? Would we regret it if we didn’t at least give it a try?

It was a conversation we chose not to have with family or friends. We figured there was no point soliciting anyone’s opinion except each other’s. We were going to be the ones to raise our baba. Our lives were going to be the ones that changed. No one else’s opinion mattered. Not even girl crush’s.

After months of deliberation we decided to give it one go. With the help of doctors we would throw a latticed bridge to the other world, and if baba said yes, so would we. If baba said: “shove off old people”, we would accept and book a holiday to Laos.

Boom. Bam. Laos lost. Thanks to the talented fertility team at the Glasgow Centre for Reproductive Medicine it worked first time.

Looking back, I know now that one of the reasons I had crossed children off my list was because I was afraid of IVF. I hate hospitals and after five years of living through cancer treatments, I didn’t want to walk down yet another sterile corridor. But as I was to discover a private IFV clinic is more like a boutique hotel than a hospital – it even has glossy magazines.

And one by one, all my other fears were dismantled too.

When I asked the nurse if there was any danger that the IVF drugs could give me cancer, she laughed out loud. “They are just synthetic versions of the normal hormones your body makes, and they leave your system with two days of you taking them.”

Another fear was of dying under general anaesthetic. I told my fear to an anaesthetist at a wedding. She also laughed out loud.

“They don’t use general anaesthetic when they retrieve the eggs, they use conscious sedation. It’s the same thing we use on babies.”

“So there is absolutely no danger of me dying?

“None at all,” she said. “It’s my favourite drug.”

What about the mood swings? I take 50mg of the anti-depressant sertraline daily and have done for 7 years. Thanks to a combination of medication and meditation, my mental health is strong, stable and balanced. I had heard horror stories of how IVF drugs put you out of whack and I was terrified of going back to the abyss.

“It doesn’t happen to everyone,” said the nurse.

And it didn’t happen to me. Because I have a low AMH – ie. I have very few eggs left – I was put on a drug-light protocol. I took synthetic progesterone for 10 days which, five days in, made me feel like I had PMT. I took it while on holiday in Venice and felt emotionless and detached from the most beautiful city in the world. It was crap, but the feeling passed as soon as I stopped taking them.

This was followed by an injection in the leg, and then daily injections in the belly to mature my eggs. Like most ordinary mortals, I was daunted by the thought of injecting myself, but this turned to out to be as terrifying as poking yourself in the tummy with a ballpoint pen, and had no side effects at all.

And when my time came for conscious sedation, I felt a cold creep up my arm, followed by a few moments where it felt I was pondering a thought just beyond my reach. I finally gave up trying to find the thought, opened my eyes and, bam, I was in the recovery room.

What followed was a tale of defeating the odds. Our doctor retrieved just four eggs, but only one of them fertilized. For five days, our single embryo was kept in an incubator outside my body, and I found myself waving at the clinic, every time I drove past, giving our wee one an encouraging wave. On Day 5, we arrived at the clinic and were met with a grinning embryologist who told us that our single embryo was a wee superstar, an A-grade blastocyst that had every chance in the world of making it. Minutes later, in an operating theatre, we watched with amazement on an ultrasound screen, as our embryo was inserted into my uterus through a catheter, arriving into my womb like a shooting star, our little pulse of white light.

We went home, pregnant with possibility, and I spent the next 48 hours laughing as much as I could since I had read research from Japan that said that women exposed to clowns after an IVF treatment have higher success rates. I watched half a series of Modern Family that I had saved for the occasion, though found equal humour in my husband’s face which seemed to be frozen into a state of shock and disbelief.  Ten days later, when my husband was on the other side of the world in a remote corner of Newfoundland, I was able to send him a text to tell him: “Yebo! Yes! Back of the Net!”

Until I braved IVF, I saw it as something that belonged to a shadow world, a world dominated by fear, doubt, anxiety and a sense of failure. But once on this journey, I found a world very different to the one I imagined. In it’s place were encouraging nurses, kind acupuncturists with all sorts of tricks up their sleeves, supportive online forums where women from around the world trade fertility tips (eat an avocado every day – I did) and talented embryologists who are gunning for you all the way.

To those of you who can’t get pregnant in the old-fashioned way, my message is this: screw it. Toss those feelings of fear, doubt and failure out the window. IVF is just another way to get pregnant, a much more collegiate way, in fact and if you’re quite social and like doing things in big groups and are not into orgies, you may even prefer it. It might take a whole village to raise a child, but it can take a receptionist, four nurses, an embryologist, a fertility specialist, a mum and a dad, and some glossy magazines, to make a baby. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb


Why I left the Big Blue


In my late teens I had a fantasy that I would get up and walk out of my life. I would open the door, turn left, turn right at the traffic lights, turn left at the dirt track that led up to the dam, and then keep on walking over the hills. I would carry nothing and never come back.

Like many young souls, in my early twenties I kind of did it. I moved to London, on a one-way plane ticket with £70 in my pocket and spent the next few years trying to build the life I wanted on my terms, but none of this really amounted to walking away without warning or a trace. I saved that until July last year.

I mostly work alone in the attic office above my kitchen. During my working day, my colleagues are friends and contacts who I interact with via a computer screen. The platform I mostly use to communicate with them is one that I am going to call the Big Blue. Like the sea, it is a place full of curious fish and a few monsters. In July last year, I climbed out of the Big Blue, and returned to dry land. I spent four weeks entirely on dry land. Four weeks drying out.

The first few days were weird as it became creepily apparent that I had got into a habit of summarising my thoughts and feelings into pithy one-liners that I would share daily with the world, and as the month rolled on, I found myself reflecting on how submerged – drowned even – I had become in Facebook.

Like many, I had first joined in 2004. Those were the days when its captain encouraged us to list our favourite movies and music next to our names, and I remembered how difficult I had found it. While others were sharing cult classics like Clockwork Orange and listed their fav musicians as Indie legend Jarvis Cocker, for me, Mary Poppins and Elton John sprang to my mind. Sure I liked Jarvis and I’d watched Clockwork Orange at a midnight showing at an arts festival, but they weren’t my favourites and I remember feeling the gap open up between what I actually liked and what I was supposed to like.  Instead I posted a quote that I had seen on a greetings card: “One day I hope to become the person by dog things I am”, and left it that.

As the years went by, the Big Blue became a kind of scrapbook for life. A place to stick holiday pics and gig tickets, a place that reflected your life back at you. Life is about becoming. It is normal to have dreams and desires and wishes, and it is especially normal about being excited when some of these dreams come true.

I went horse riding across Iceland.

I got published in a famous newspaper.

I met a sexy man and he proposed.

But of course, the Big Blue didn’t just reflect your life at you, it reflected your life at every one you were linked to, and it wasn’t long before one of the first monsters of the depths reared its head: the green monster, jealousy.

While it’s natural that people get excited by the exciting things that happen to them – and want to share that joy – it’s not always easy for people to hear about other people’s success, especially when their golden moment intercepts your day from hell. Researchers began to study the mindsets of people who spent too much time wallowing in the Big Blue, and it turned out that that sharing our highs was beginning to wreck havoc in other people’s psyches, making them feel alienated and worthless.

Society is a bit like a self-cleaning oven. When things get too murky, it starts to auto-correct to bring things back to the less murky middle, and one of its favourite tools for doing this is shame. As age old as jealousy, shame is a brilliant tool for stopping people from doing something we don’t like. And so it came to pass that those who felt hurt, and worthless and sad by the Big Blue, began to mock the other people in the Big Blue.

“Those who swim in its waters are not authentic,” they said.

“All they show us is glittering reflections of themselves.”

“The Big Blue is a place of fakery.”

“It is not real. You are not real.”

It didn’t matter that people had been brought up to dream, to have ambitions, and do their best and try to make something of their life. It didn’t matter that it was once normal – even expected – to share your joy and holiday snaps and special moments with friends. Almost overnight, you were not really happy if you were sharing your life freely with others. In fact, you were bad. A traitor to the collective wellbeing.

And so, slowly, incrementally, the rules of the Big Blue changed, and the new consensus became that if you truly cared about the wellbeing of others, if you were a kind, community-orientated good person, then you needed to censor what you shared. And when you did share, you needed to share things that really mattered to everybody – not just you. And so within a few clicks, everyone in the Big Blue became chuggers.

Do you remember them? Charity huggers? The people who would accost you in the High Street and guilt you into signing a form that took £3 every month from your bank account and gave it to a dog/child/tap in some place you have never been? All of a sudden, the Big Blue was awash with people caring about lives of people they have never met, just so their posts no longer offend the lives of the people they do know.

And by god, there was so much caring to do. There was an opportunity for outrage at every moment of the day, and being in the Big Blue started to feel like you were treading water in a turbulent sea, randomly grabbing at bits of flotsam and jetsam to stay afloat.

Sink with a Guardian article.

Surface with a piece from the New York Times.

Float for a while on the back of a refreshing blog.

Pulled under by a petition from Avaaz.

Your own life, the one you live in an actual body that requires actually feeding and washing and sleeping began to seem unreal as the Big Blue washed over you and demanded more and more of your attention, more and more of your care.

You might have once wanted to sail a yacht in the Mediterranean or ride horses across Mongolia, but now you dare not want these things. Or if you still did, you made a calculated decision not to share them with anybody. The new consensus from the Big Blue was that dreams were wrong, desire was wrong. The only thing that mattered was the anguish and suffering of people who you do not know. The only life worth living was a life of sacrifice.

When I began writing about this, I did some research into people who go missing. According to the charity Missing People, up to 80% of missing persons cases involve someone believed to suffer from mental health problems. In Japan, there is a phenomenon of johatsu, or “the evaporated people”.

Tormented by the shame of a lost job, failed marriage, or mounting debt, thousands of Japanese citizens have reportedly started leaving behind their formal identities and seeking refuge in the anonymous, off-the-grid world. The book features a collection of vignettes from people who have fled modern society in search of a more secretive, less shame-filled life. That word shame struck a chord with me.

Shame was what the Big Blue was making me feel every day. Shame that I was white.
Shame that I had a roof over my head. Shame that I dared to have big dreams. Guilt refers to what we have done to others. Shame is a feeling that we have about just being. You can get rid of guilt by doing – by making amends, fixing things. But you can’t fix shame in the same way.

No wonder I swam for the shore.

I began to realise that being immersed in the Big Blue was like being in an abusive relationship where someone else was in charge of my emotions. I started to see that I was adrift in a choppy sea of reactionary feelings, never sure when another wave would come along and sink me. In the place where I had once played Scrabble with friends, I now felt powerless and overwhelmed.

It’s been six months now since I started to rethink my relationship with Facebook. During those six months, I also stopped blogging. I needed time to rethink what I put into the world and why I put it there. Half a year later, I consciously avoid political conversations on the Facebook platform, I rarely repost articles and perhaps most crucially, I no longer feel any impetus to share my private life with the world. That’s not to say I have cut ties completely. I still enjoy connecting with friends in faraway places, but I consciously keep it as light as I would at a wedding before the wine is served.

Am I happier? Yes. Do I feel calmer and more in control of my life and my emotions? Yes. Do I feel more empowered? Yes. Does this matter? Yes.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

The readers’ wrath


A few years ago I visited Salinas in California, where John Steinbeck grew up. At the end of a quiet street with a burger bar and a few boarded-up shops, is the Steinbeck Museum.

Steinbeck first came to prominence in 1939 with his book Grapes of Wrath which documents the exploitation of displaced and destitute mid-western farmers at the hands of the wealthy land owners of California.

These were the early days of industrialised farming, and the small-scale farmers of the mid-west had been attacked on two fronts: by a devastating drought that turned their land into dust, and by the arrival of mechanised tools that they could ill afford.

Grapes of Wrath follows a family as they cut their losses and head west, only to find that beyond the desert is not a land of milk and honey, but a place where their poverty ensures that they are despised, ill-treated and exploited.

It is a damning portrait of America and when the book was published it was met with outrage. The Associated Farmers of California dismissed the novel as a “pack of lies” and “communist propaganda”, copies of the book were burned, and the FBI put Steinbeck under surveillance.

This summer, Lost Where I Belong: Trying to Escape Apartheid’s Shadow, will be published. The book has been praised for being confronting and challenging, and rejected for not being saleable enough, and so like Virginia Woolf who stared her own press (now Bloomsbury) because the publishers of her day thought her writing too feminine, I have decided to go it alone.

Thanks to Amazon and the like, self-publishing is no longer considered the vanity press it once was, and has been repackaged as “indie” publishing, and a way to circumvent the spinelessness of traditional publishers. But without the stamp of approval of a third party, I am left alone with this thought: how will this book be received by South Africans? And what would it feel like to have your writing rejected by your nation because it is out of step with the way the nation wants to see itself?

Twenty three years after Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”.

But far from celebrating his success, again America baulked. How dare this book that vilified their nation and portrayed the ruling class in such a vile light, be awarded such an important prize? How dare this book be lifted up high for the world to see?

Grapes of Wrath is a confronting book. It is a book that every South African should read as it drives home the point that land ownership matters, really matters. Drought may have pushed the mid-western farmers off their land, but in South Africa it was white immigrants who created laws that banned black people from owning land, and until that disenfranchisement is dealt with through some form of satisfactory compensation and restitution, South Africa will never find peace.

When I set out to write my book, I did not understand the land issue. My book is about an awakening to the realities of a country I ill-understood. The book is about a journey from ignorance to the beginnings of understanding, and there is no doubt that it will get South Africans hot under the collar. I know, because it already has. And those people were my friends.

The Steinbeck museum is book-ended by two poignant exhibits. The first, when you enter the museum, is a film about mechanised farming. The camera runs through jolly wheat fields, shows happy labourers picking fruit, and the clean and smooth processes of conveyor belts carrying shiny produce. It looks like a video that was produced by the Associated Farmers of California for their annual 4th of July picnic, and feels like an attempt to sow doubt in the the twisted mind of the Grapes of Wrath reader.

The last, just before you leave, is a green camper van (pictured above). After he won the 1962 Nobel Prize and America spat at his victory, Steinbeck was concerned that he had lost touch with his country and had the camper van built so he could take to the road with his dog Charley, and write about America. Travels with Charley is a writer’s book. It’s a book more about what it is to like to desire to write about your country, and fail and doubt and lose interest, than it is about 1960s America. Steinbeck never again wrote about socio-political issues.

Steinbeck is far from being the only writer to be publicly lambasted for daring to write about that which others did not want to acknowledge.

A Woman in Berlin, published shortly after WW2, documents the Russian occupation of Berlin and how all the women were raped, how the German men were incapable of protecting them, and how the women accepted the rape in order to survive. The book is written with a light-hearted, deft touch, and after its first publication, it was met with such public anger in Germany, the author refused the book to be published again until after her death, and then only anonymously.

Contemplating these books, on the eve of publication of my own work, made me ask myself: what is it that nations expect of writers? It is easy to get a handle on what individuals expect. I just have to think of myself, as I sit down with a book.

Writing can give me succour at a time of difficulty.

It can shed light of clarity on things I do not understand.

Good writing can point me to something that I have not noticed before.

It can entertain me, creating an escape route from myself.

It can critique the way things are, and remind me that they have not always been this way, that there are other ways.

Writing can be like a hall of mirrors, that reflects me back to me, sometimes stretched, sometimes magnified, sometimes exactly the way I am (which can be the worst reflection of all).

But what do nations want? What are the forces that guide a collective consciousness to revere or deride a book at a certain point in history, and then to change their mind, or not, decades later?

I don’t have an answer to that yet. Maybe you do?


Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

The vilifier is back


I took a break from Unpopular Essays for a few months because it can be exhausting writing essays that you know will stir up bile in others. Sometimes you just need to walk away so you can breathe again.

The trigger for my break was a piece I wrote in March, in which I reflected on two Consciousness Cafés that I had recently been part of – one that I had co-facilitated, with a mixed group of 70 South Africans on Human Rights Day, and one that I had facilitated alone with a small group of white South Africans who wanted to experiment with having a whites-only conversation about the legacy of apartheid.

As a facilitator, my job is to guide the group to find the deeper wisdom that is trying to emerge (none of us know what this wisdom will be when we begin), and what had struck me was, despite the fact that the cafés were held at opposite ends of South Africa with totally different groups of people, similar wisdom emerged from both groups.

The wisdom was that privilege, in whatever way we have it or define it (and it was agreed privilege was more than just wealth), is not something that we should destroy, but something that we should become aware of and use to the advantage of others, not just ourselves. Careful use of our personal privilege was the ticket to a fairer society for all.

I thought it was a powerful and insightful reflection, and I wrote a piece about it, and then asked my Consciousness Café colleague if I could share this essay on our Facebook page. The heartache came when she said no.

I immediately understood why she refused. As she saw it, this was not a perspective that would sit well with the black radicals. The growing narrative from the black radicals was that privilege was unjust, and white people, especially, should be stripped of their privilege. The way to a more fair society was through restitution and to some extent, revenge. To post an article that was counter to the black radical narrative on the Consciousness Café page would enrage them and potentially be bad PR for Consciousness Café.

My arms became heavy. I slunk down on the couch and felt that giving-up feeling.

This wasn’t the first time in history that the wisdom of the crowd was to be ignored or silenced. It happens all the time, every day, around the world. Shifts in consciousness begin on the fringe and it takes a long time for new collective wisdom to be born. In South Africa, the voice of the black radicals was relatively new, and it was claiming centre stage. And fair enough, grab the limelight while you can, but to silence a point of view because the current populists won’t like it is a mistake.

South Africa veers from “one solution” to another. Apartheid. The Rainbow Nation. The Frantz Fanon Approach. It is a society that abhors complexity and nuance – to its detriment.

Interestingly, in the few months I took away from the page, I received some amazing teaching from the world.

I went to India on a yoga retreat, and found myself, at the ashram, surrounded by 15 people who I couldn’t get along with, and who didn’t like me. This never happens. My husband always laughs that I could make friends in a toilet, but I had travelled all the way to India, hoping to find solace in the company of like-minded yogis, and had ended up the pariah.

I then went to a global WorldWork training event in Greece, and again, found myself in a group of 15 people who labelled me “the vilifier” and “the judge”. For the whole week, until a breakthrough on the last day, they detested me because I was pushing them to confront uncomfortable truths within themselves.

When I reflected later, I realised that the two experiences were connected but different. In India, I was disliked for no obvious reason, a personality clash. In Greece, I experienced being loathed for a reason. And I can say with confidence, I prefer the latter.

So I’m back. With a bit more chutzpah and insight. I am certain that at times, Unpopular Essays will upset friends, allies and enemies, but my aim is not to make you like me, but to give you something to think about.

How liberating. 


Follow me on Twitter @writerclb


The space within

I am struggling more and more with the South African story. With the current sentiment  that to be a conscious white, you must be a silent white. That unless you are a representative for the views of black people and acting as an ambassadors for “their” pain, you are a racist, or at least, deeply mistaken. I am feeling stymied and stifled and I feel my consciousness shrinking rather than expanding.

After a weekend of sitting with an anguished mind, I asked the universe to send me a wise man, and yesterday it, in did in the form of L, a fellow dialogue facilitator and a black man. We sat under a tree in the oldest garden in South Africa and he told me about his recent diagnosis of diabetes, and with his struggle with being labelled “ill” and feeling ill. He did not want either to be true, but both were, so in his wise, way, he leant forward towards those feelings,  while at the same time asking himself what he could do to get better. Both accepting and seeking a solution at the same time.

He then talked of other people he had recently met who had been sitting with diabetes for 15+years and how he was dismayed by their resignation to their fate. He then shook his head and wondered if it was a cultural thing, and went on to talk about a “victim mentality” which he feels is ingrained in the majority of black people’s consciousness.

“It’s hardwired into us,” he said.

He gave a metaphor. “If someone has R30 of airtime on their phone, they will spend R25 complaining about the problem, and only R5 trying to find a solution. But by the time they get to that R5, they are so exhausted by all the complaining, they have run out of energy and give up. The laws of attraction say that you get what you give, and black people frequently operate within a negative consciousness.”

I recognised what he was talking about. Someone has to fill in a form but they would rather spend 10 minutes complaining about having to do it, instead of just doing it. Why not just do it quick and celebrate that it is over? I do not see it as exclusive to Africa though. I have seen it plenty in Scotland. But L felt it was more prominent in the black consciousness.

“Our celebration comes before. Complaining is our way of making ourselves feel better about the fact that we have to do it at all,” says L.

I told him he should write about this, but he joked that he would be castrated for saying it. He added that whenever he suggested to black people that they lean into their pain, ask themselves what really lies under the pain around filling in that form, they go crazy. They reply that black people are always in pain and it’s stupid and wrong of him to suggest that they feel their pain even more deeply. Also, they will say, they know what causes the pain. The white man. The lack of opportunity. The poor living conditions. Things that others have caused and others have not fixed. The pain comes from outside. The problems are not in me. They are out there.

I realised something else as we sat under the tree.

L and I were talking about the structural challenges of co-running an organisation like Consciousness Café, and L asked me why I did this work. Didn’t I need to admit to myself that I was in it for profit?

“No,” I said. “It might be hard to believe but it’s not profit that motivates me, it’s belonging. I want to belong here. I want us to be able to see each other. It’s another form of selfishness yes, but that’s what is driving me.”

My Consciousness Café colleague and I had talked about this the previous weekend and she had told me that I had to accept that this would never happen: “If you expect the black movers and shakers of Joburg to accept you and not see you as privileged, you need to know now that this will never happen. Never. You need to accept that. And then you need to ask yourself again why you do this work.”

Speaking to L, I realised that my own desperation to belong was blocking my compassion. Not in the dialogue space, there my compassion flows with ease (perhaps from years of being a journalist who is naturally interested in the stories of others), but when it comes to the structural positioning of this work in society, and the relationship with others who do this work, some of whom have got out their guns and criticised me for trying. When it comes to those encounters, I realise my compassion is thin. My compassion dries up because it feels like they are screaming “YOU DO NOT BELONG!” while I am begging to belong.

It becomes all about me.

I thought I had learnt this lesson already. At my 40th birthday I told a crowded room that I had made peace with belonging. That I accepted that I had to find belonging in writing, in creativity, in my craft and in nature. That since I was not a nationalist, I had to stop looking for belonging under the South African sky.

I thought I was there, but I was just flirting with this new consciousness, it had not bedded in yet, and this fledgling consciousness had buckled and bent under the level of anger currently being directed at white people.

Yesterday, as I sat under the tree in the oldest garden in South Africa with L, he helped me lean into it, name it, see it, and as I did, I felt it lift off my chest.

I may wish to belong here, but the fact is, in the eyes of the majority of the people of this country, I do not truly belong. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me: “Where are you from?”

So once again I commit to letting go – or at least, lightening my hold – of my need to belong.

And as we create a little bit of space between ourselves and our deepest desire, our compassion grows and we can breathe again.

Follow me on Twitter@writerclb


When right feels so wrong


I have never been the kind of journalist who rushes to the scene of the car crash. I have always been the one to hang back, observing from a distance, more interested in what happens long after the moment of impact, than the mangled metal.

Which is probably why I haven’t put fingers to my keyboard in the past month. Right now the American presidency feels like a multi-car pile-up, and I am standing on the verge, watching while the first-responders – the lawyers, human rights activists, protestors and opposition politicians – are trying to help the victims.

Although I take heart that somebody seems to know what to do, I also find myself feeling as wary of the jaws of life, as the wreckage itself. It feels like we are veering from one knee-jerk reaction to another. No time to stop and think.

The other reason I haven’t been writing UnpopularEssays is because I am on a deadline. Together with a fellow journalist, I am writing the Secret Joburg book for Jonglez’ “local guides for local people” series, which involves hours and hours of digging around in obscure corners of the city, meeting the city’s champions and guardians, documenting the forgotten and quirky treasures.

Johannesburg has always been a contested place. With its near-perfect climate, its fertile soil and its dense underbelly of gold, it’s a city that has lured every kind of fortune hunter, from every religion, nation and race group, and it’s all of their treasures that I am attempting to capture.

Not wanting to leave anyone out, today I headed out far west, or rather, far right, to the towns of Roodepoort and Krugersdorp – the old bastions of the Boers. My guide was a lovely old amateur historian who showed me the first shop ever built on the Witwatersrand – it sold liquor – and took me, in the pouring rain, to a cemetery where women and children who died in a British concentration camp of the second Anglo Boer war lie in unmarked graves.

As our morning progressed, it became clear that my guide was a man with right-leaning politics, and we gently and politely disagreed with each other until he said: “I was going to say something, but I probably shouldn’t”.

“Go on, please say it,” I said.

“I was going to say you probably wouldn’t have voted for Trump,” he said.

“You’re right,” I said. “Would you have?”

“Definitely. Something has got to be done,” he said.

“About what?”

“Well for a start, America is a Christian country, and they can’t even teach God in their schools anymore,” he said.

I looked at him baffled out of the corner of my eye. This is a country where some schools teach Creationism. Since when has there been a blanket ban on religious education in America? I didn’t choose to debate the facts with him though, instead I asked him why this mattered. If you want your child to learn about the Lord, can you not teach them at home? Why is it up to the school and not the parents? And if you want it to be up to the school, then should you not opt to send them to a religious school?

He conceded that it was a point worth considering, but continued to say that teaching about Jesus in schools is what teaches morality and discipline. And the problem with the Muslims is that their religion doesn’t teach morality. In fact, it doesn’t teach them how to treat anyone but themselves.

I was trying to find the right way to ask how Trump’s Christianity was any different, but his conversation had already moved on to the Muslim refugees in Europe.

“What are they doing there?” he asked.

“They are running away from war,” I replied.

“Which war?” he asked.

“The war in Syria,” I replied.

“If they were running from war, there would be women and children among them. Where are the women in children?” he asked.

Eighteen months ago I wrote about the refugee crisis on the Greek island of Kos for the British newspaper, the Independent. Women and children, whole families, crowded the shoreline.

“I saw them with my own eyes,” I told him.

“But then why are we not being told the truth?” he asked.

“Maybe the more important question is why do we believe, without question, everything we are told? Why are we so keen to soak up facts that support our prejudice?” I probed.

I dropped the West Rand historian back at his house and drove away, feeling sad. He was a nice fellow. A kind fellow. A fellow who says he became an amateur historian in his retirement because he loves sorting the lies from the truth. And yet, he is also a man who openly harbours a blanket mistrust of black people and Muslims based on alternative facts.

It doesn’t add up.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb