Writing Challenge: History – The Wrong Turn

criminal-lawThe Challenge: Show us how history is something we are part of, not some external event taking place in a palace, office, or war zone far away.


His name is not important – he wouldn’t want you to know him if you should meet him in the street – but he is a man, a grown adult of 40-odd years, and he wants a second chance. Or maybe it’s the fifth or fiftieth chance he is begging for. The number isn’t important; what counts is the desire to be somebody again.

My path crossed his by chance. The circumstances are not important – but it resulted in us having a serious conversation. He is a street artist, a sign-writer, a dreamer, a rebel and has spent many years in jail. Now he is a loner, a reject, an outcast, a hermit.

“Will you help me fix my life?”

The question caught me off-guard, but the plea in his eyes was so obvious that I agreed.

His life started wrong. His mother died (‘I was two – I can’t even remember her face’) and his father had no time for him. His grandmother was a ‘walker’. (In Afrikaans he describes her as a ‘Loper’ – a word with more than one meaning), who travelled from town to town, earning money in the only way she knew. The result was a string of fatherless children, who had to survive in any way possible. At the age of four, his father was ‘sold’ to a rich man as a little slave to play with the only child in the household. When he was sixteen, he escaped to seek his fortune in the bigger towns and cities of the Western Cape.

After his mother died, my new acquaintance became a conglomerate of many personalities. He didn’t like school, but was fascinated by the church, where he became an altar boy. This did not prevent him from stealing at all, and so he had a Jeckyll and Hyde existence – a pious criminal.

His rebellious nature prodded him towards life as a gang member, he joined the youths who protested against Apartheid…and he dreamt of becoming the President of the country one day. After being arrested for assault, he spent twelve years in jail.


Why am I writing this? To be part of a writing challenge? No…a thousand times no!

The object of sharing a bit of this man’s history, is that we are quick to judge. We look at a lined face and expect to find cruel eyes staring back. We look at the history and not at the heart. The words in court documents – history – condemning the wrong turns in a person’s life, end up directing our aversion, forcing people to stay the way they were.

A kind word and some understanding may very well be the answer to the many social ills we are so acutely aware of in South Africa – and the world out there as well. Must we continue to crucify everybody on the cross of the past? Or must we forgive, seven times seventy and even more, and get on with living in harmony?

Am I saying everybody deserves a second chance? Maybe. I also know there are many exceptions and that a naive approach is completely illogical. But…and this is important: let us not be so judgemental. Sit down with an outcast, a rebel, a wrong-doer. Listen. Look at the eyes. Hear the heart.

And then, sometimes and certainly rarely, you’ll find an individual with the genuine desire to take – maybe for the first time in his or her life – the right turn.

Me? I’m taking a chance. I’ll have regular meetings with him, listen to his story and try to offer advice. He’s an intelligent man, making me believe that by simply telling his story, knowing he is being listened to, will already have a healing effect. I know the risk of disappointment is there. But, at least, I’ll be able to say I tried.

Look around you. The man delivering a parcel. The beggar at the traffic light. The woman with the few notes clutched in an anxious hand, staring at the shelves in the supermarket. The youth outside the liquor store…

See the hopelessness in the eyes.

And then decide whether it isn’t time for you, too, to get one sad and rejected little starfish back in the ocean?

Just one.

55 thoughts on “Writing Challenge: History – The Wrong Turn

  1. thehappyhugger

    You used the word “rarely” which I would agree with. For me each person has to be assessed with the heart and not with history as you said, but not all have the good intentions, sadly.. 😥
    If you do feel that you have found the one who truly wants to change, then it is worth trying. I wish you and him well.

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Unfortunately, like you say, ‘rarely’ is the right word. But…hopefully the spirit of Rolbos will prevail, and who knows what can follow? Even limited success is better than no progress. Holding thumbs..

      1. corsandrawms

        Yes, the writing and the story were touching, a great read, prolific and inspiring-but to what end? Was it simply that a “great read”, an “inspiring tale”? Will it genuinely affect those that read it for more than the few minutes it took to read it? It is my hope that it will inspire action or some type of desire to make a difference. And yes, I firmly agree with those that responded to your writing it was touching. And, I know that I can make a difference. However, the question remains, “Will my actions reflect the difference I believe that I can make?”

      2. Amos van der Merwe Post author

        Valid question – to what end. My belief is this: if my writing has a positive influence on one single person somewhere in the world; if one word of kindness flows from it or if one act of compassion gets triggered by reading it – why, then writing it was worthwhile. And so, too, the act of reaching out always contains the seeds of possible disappointment, I know that too well. However, the alternative is to leave the world as it is and that would be sad. Thanks for reading…

  2. tommieblog

    Om hierdie skrywe net te ‘like’ is nie genoeg nie… maar ek het nie woorde om te sê hoe dit my laat voel nie. Sit met ‘n knop in die keel en ja, ek verstaan. Dankie Amos.

  3. carrico

    A ‘healing effect,’ also for the listener. Maybe my lot isn’t so bad after all.
    A frank, compassionate plea, just what I needed to hear. Dank u wel.

  4. awax1217

    Deepak Chopra has stated that every seven years our bodies have replaced every cell. In other words we are reborn on a continual base. No let no man cast a stone in a glass house for we all have done something we regret. Give a chance, sure, but be careful and go slow.

  5. Malcolm Greenhill

    A great post and well deserving of being Freshly Pressed. If every atom of my body was identical to that person I would have done exactly what he did. There, but for the grace of …whatever…go I.

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Indeed, Malcolm. It’s so easy to think we would have done differently, but reality – and hunger and injustice – dictate the course of our lives. This man has the potential to be a respected member of society. I believe it’s never too late: not for him, not for society and not for a second chance. But…then we have to understand his journey and that’s when I quite agree with you: there but for grace, go I. Thank you for reading and commenting. Much appreciated…

  6. bernasvibe

    This is such a beautiful write..I’m glad you shared your experience with the world..I could not agree more with your words! I feel the very same way..I feel each of us has a responsibility to do this! None of us were born alone on as island; so that isn’t what our Creator wished for us to exist AS. As I’ve journeyed through this Life Journey, those that have had less than I, have touched me in ways I could never have imagined..And I might add there was a time in my life I’d never have stopped to even speak to them..Ahhh how lifes’ experiences can change ones viewpoint on matters…We should give to all of those in need; a piece of ourselves..Sometimes just listening to someone intently is enough to spark up HOPE in them..And? It costs nothing at all. Except time..I’ve recently begun a very new official venture..I’m a mentor to a young lady who is trying to RISE up out of the barren concrete ; like a rose that grows from a crack in the cement. Herstory is too personal to print here , BUT, she’s inspired ME to do whatever I can possible to help her reach her goals. I cried after I recently met her for the first time & she’d told me herstory…She’s courageous and deserves the same fair shot at making it that those of us who were raised in a good, loving home did. I’ve prayed that the guidance she seeks from me is within me to give. I officially became her mentor yesterday and then many hours later I read your write..Confirmation that I’m indeed on the right path in my quest to give back. Kudos to WordPress for FP’ing this! Many kudos to you @Rolbos for sharing this. Stay UPlifted, stay blessed and hope to read more of your experience.

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Thank you so much for your comment. I wish you well, and hope you’ll be able – in whichever way – to let me know how your mentorship is progressing. While the personal facts about the man in my blog will remain his private domain, I plan to do a few follow-ups to keep my readers informed – not the sordid and painful stuff, but the message of hope. Mentors should encourage each other because there will be darker moments and times of despair. However, understanding, patience and perseverance are all we can offer, and in this a bit of encouragement helps. Good luck with your efforts. May it turn out well…

      1. bernasvibe

        I will for sure keep you posted with my mentorship..We are off to a very, very good start. And I’m following you now so I’ll be checking in on your follow-ups.

  7. vanecktharien

    The reality of an unforgiving society, but yes we all need another chance because we all have done or possibly will still do something that;s not right. I hope that you both will learn from this, each becoming a stronger person in the end. .

  8. ashleaannya

    This was an encouraging read. To me it shows “us” creating an even playing field with “others.” It is not our place to determine if they are deserving the chance because that would give us some moral or social superiority to the individual. It is a delicate balance between objectivity and subjectivity-a fine line I think. I enjoyed this very much. Cheers

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Thank you very much. Like I said in a previous comment: we all strive towards a better tomorrow. Only, we can’t get there if we don’t care about our fellowmen and women who share the space and time we live in. Be well…

  9. alexiaboland

    I loved this post. I found your mysterious writing style so engaging. What a wonderful way to highlight the way we engage and focus on others- especially those we judge without knowledge.

  10. GoosBall

    I liked the way you used the word ‘rarely’ .
    In my country (India) we have a saying which will translate into English as – You can’t change the public by mere speeches.
    meaning there are a few – rare – chances of change in real life.
    Very well written and Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed !

  11. Soul Walker

    Sometimes (though we are not always aware of it) we are inclined to not give another a second chance because of ourselves. Sometimes we think we can’t change and so why would someone else? And if the things we wish we could change happen to be more socially acceptable (though in our hearts we know better) it becomes even more difficult because others do not look down on us for our own faults.

    This is a great message. I am glad you were freshly pressed so that I could read it. Cheers.

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Thank you – your comment is painfully true: the biggest stumbling block isn’t necessarily the ‘other person’, but the reluctance caused by our own previous experiences and perceptions. The feeling: ‘I’m not equipped to deal with this’, needs to be overcome – and only after that can we be surprised by the rich vein of goodwill which still exists in society today.

  12. Mpho

    You got me. Most of us have turned so cynical and lost compassion. First time on your blog but I have to say, I think you are very wise; able to see a real heart beneath the unpleasant exterior

  13. Pingback: Playing God | Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me

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