The 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?