Look for the helpers

Nothing in life is without it’s opposite. Wax and wane, ebb and flow, peaks and troughs. No joy without pain, expansion without contraction, light without dark. In South Africa, even in relatively settled times, those last two poles can feel very close together.

When we first moved back six years ago I struggled with the disparities. At the time, I wrote this:

The short stretch of road on my daily school run is like a microcosm of life here, where wealth and desperate poverty coexist. Moments after you pass an exclusive gated community cosseting the privileged minority, you’re left contemplating life behind the high walls of one of the country’s most notorious prisons.

Possibly as a coping mechanism, I’ve become an ostrich, my head buried deep in the sand. And like most people in our privileged pocket of suburbia, we’ll have our noses to the grindstone, building our life, when we hear of a tragedy that makes us despair.

After the senseless killings of Meghan Cremer and Uyinene Mrwetyana, who was raped and murdered in a post office, fear and outrage have reached a crescendo.

My news feed is awash not only with despair over the escalating violence against women, but there also seems to be a spike in the stay or go debate. It feels like people are leaving the country en masse. Political instability is one thing, but crime is usually the straw that breaks the camels back for those sitting on the fence.

We haven’t for a second regretted moving back home. Our hearts are here. But something that strikes me as South Africans grapple with what to do is how we attack each other’s decisions.

Anyone who writes about their love for this country (the lifestyle, the natural beauty, the strength and resilience of its people) gets lambasted by those who don’t. South Africans abroad, or those wanting to leave, are not great ambassadors for our country. Leaving can be heart-breaking, so it helps to have reasons to justify your decision, and there are reasons aplenty.

Usually, those writing about whether to stay or go are the ones with the freedom to actually leave, which just serves to alienate those who desperately want to go, but can’t. And so rather than have each other’s backs, we resort to mudslinging and the debate becomes quite divisive.

It is a fraught issue, but it’s one that plays out in a tiny percentage of South African households—the same households that can (partly at least) immunise themselves against crime and corruption and poor service delivery. Those most affected by the country’s travails have precious few choices.

I don’t know what it’s like to have my life ripped apart by a violent crime. But like most South Africans, I know someone, a lifelong friend, who does. Not long ago, on a sublimely beautiful spring morning, we spent time together drinking tea on her patio.

We spoke about renovations and gardens, we oohed and aahed over her new yellow pot, and we laughed about some of the things our children had done. But we also spoke about how she was coping after her attack and why bad things happen to good people. We wondered why some people are born into abject poverty and some experience the worst of humanity, while others are surrounded by love and good fortune.

How do we make peace with the darkness in the world and not let it swallow us? Do we block it out? Do we wrestle it?

‘Gratitude,’ my friend said to me. 

Her life took a very dark turn, and she says the person she was before died on the day she was nearly murdered. But on this sunny morning, over a soul restoring pot of tea, this woman with an indomitable spirit reminded herself, and me, that there is always somebody worse off, so we need to be thankful for all we have.

‘It’s what all the great teachers say,’ she told me.

‘We can’t dwell on the despair. It just adds to the darkness. We need to be grateful so we can find the joy in life. It’s our joy that adds to the light.’



‘You’re a writer, you need a furrowed brow.’

A friend said this to me after I told her about the beauty therapist who suggested I soften my frown lines with botox. I told the therapist (all 23 years of her) that if I wasn’t so anxious about injecting something (what, exactly?) between my eyes — perhaps.

As an interim arrangement, to stop the furrows getting deeper, she suggested I start using my eyes to express myself, not my whole face.

‘If you want to smile, smile with your eyes.’

She showed me how, and she was really good at it.

(By corollary, I should frown with my eyes, not my forehead).

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Making friends with my unquiet mind

We don’t talk much about anxiety, or depression, or mental health in general. And yet, in my privileged little pocket of suburbia, it seems to be endemic, whether it’s an edgy feeling lurking just below the surface (can’t survive without the 5pm glass of wine), or something more debilitating.

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Mighty Middle Kingdom

Mighty Middle Kingdom

I’ve written about the severe culture shock I experienced when I packed up my life and moved to Beijing with my husband. I hated it at first, probably because I knew so little about it; I arrived with very little knowledge and a truck load of misconceptions. Here’s some of what I learnt after three years of muddling through:

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