Tag Archives: south africa

Finding Sugar Man

Unexpected questions can open up new thoughts. A new perspective can open new answers and new findings can satisfy an old thirst.

Sugar ManA question from a stranger via Facebook this morning was less existential, more specific and artistic. “How would I explain why Rodriguez’s music made such an impression in South Africa and not the rest of the world?” A nice challenging question and it reminded me of the impression that Searching for Sugar Man left on me. The documentary connected dots from earlier in my life that appeared like the unrelated songs on a mixed tape before. Until you find out who made the tape and for whom. Then you can recognise a certain theme or a hidden message.

I confess that my early life was nothing special. I cannot claim that I took a position in either the left or right growing up in a political and racially divided South Africa. I grew up without television as it only arrived in the Republic in 1976. When my parents did buy our first black and white Sony, the content was heavily regulated by the governing National Party and SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). In addition, due to the apartheid policies at the time and within the framework of larger boycotts against South Africa (e.g. sport, for musicians to tour South Africa), the United Kingdom and Australia introduced a boycott of their programme sales to South Africa. Therefore, most kids and teenagers my age grew up in the late 1970’s and 1980’s on a diet of local TV shows and later programmes from America such as Knight Rider, Magnum PI, Miami Vice, etc.

After 5 years of limited hours broadcasting on one channel a second channel was introduced in 1981 that broadcasted in the main African languages. However, the SABC operated within a country where all aspects of life and every South African was dominated by narratives about race and subjected to a controlling bureaucracy that was pushing for control over all aspects of life. In addition, the close relation between state and church (Dutch Reformed Church) created a dictation from both politicians and pulpits on morally acceptable behaviour, choice of music, etc. and what was approved on racial grounds. For a white middle-class small town boy, what happened outside my small protected environment was a world far away and often filled by voices and news paper pictures of what seemed like very angry black people. Given that the SABC was by large state-controlled, it provided very little time to any voice that did not fit the ruling party’s agenda or to opposition politicians. Even when a subscription based TV service arrived in 1986, the state regulated that they were not allowed to broadcast news programs.

This was the context in which I grew up. Restricted, regulated and separated. Even though my recall of growing up and life up to the early nineties are filled with happiness and plenty of laughs, these wonder years were naïve times. Only with time a political consciousness grew and a realisation that my protected life was in contrast with those living with fear, poverty and limited opportunities.

A few alternative voices crept through the cracks during those times and oftenthey arrived in guises or unexpected places. Even though local religious leaders and the state expose pop music and rock and roll as from the devil as well as a threat to all that is morally good and holy, some of these voices arrived with soundtracks. A revisit to music available and broadcasted in South Africa during the 1980’s does not inspire any great political speeches. However, a few dare to challenge. The best example was the local band Bright Blue that released the beautiful “Weeping” in 1987. Even though it contained harmony parts of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and referred to the “State of the Emergency” at the time, those in power seemed blissfully unaware of this. In 1999 Weeping was voted best All Time Favourite South African song and in 2000 as (South African) Song of the Century.

South Africa was also experiencing more exposure to musicians and bands from abroad, even though boycotts did not allow them to tour and perform. Queen, Erasure, Genesis, U2, Talking Heads, Blondie, A-Ha, Paul Simon and others competed with those banning anything that appeared too sexual, liberal or had references to banned chemicals. I don’t know how much influence music had on the crumbling political situation, but it provided a voice to those disgruntled with apartheid or rebellious in the face of the dominant moral imperatives.

A few musicians however provided more poetic and intelligent lyrics that verbalised alternative narratives that resonated with the youth, due to their rebelliousness, due to the mystery of the artists and as they arrived in a void that formed where critique of the system was deemed evil. The two names that immediately come to mind are (Sixto) Rodriguez and Leonard Cohen. Their music explored themes of relationships, sexuality, power and oppression that did not fit the common commercial or repressed political lines. Where South African protest songs and artists where still few, their music provided a new discourse that challenged the establishment and raised questions about justice and equality, but also had a smack of hedonism and escapism. Their brave lyrics found a waiting consciousness that hungered for alternatives, for music that would match the awakening political mind of a young white South Africa or at least found part of the vinyl or tape collections of those that loved songs like “I Wonder”, “Sugar Man” or Cohen’s “Suzanne” and “Chelsea Hotel” as part of a rite of passage into young adulthood.

When asked about his lack of success after his two albums released, Rodriquez suggested, “I was ready for the world but I don’t think the world was ready for me“. He was wrong, at the foot of Africa there was a readiness that responded. Only recently he found out about it.

PS: For those not knowing “Weeping”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeecXiqNzWA

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Filed under Psychology Reflections, This thing called life

42/2012

I blame my teachers. Especially my maths teachers. Yes, the guilty should be named and charged. They have left me with a love for numbers for which I am eternally grateful. In a way, they saved me. Well not physically; that would have been weird. But their dedication and motivation opened a door to something I was good at. And at times I needed to be good at something.

We moved about quite a bit as a family when I was growing up. After 7 years in a small town called Harrismith in the Eastern Free State (South Africa), we moved about between towns for the next 6 years. I therefore attended 4 different primary schools. Needless to say, I often felt like an outsider as I had to make new friends, get use to a new school and teachers. In addition, I was not good at sport then – something that a young boy can usually fall back on. Then Mr Wright entered the scene when I was age 11. For the next 2 years he was my maths teacher at Willem Postma Primary School (Bloemfontein). With a patient and calm approach he made the world of numbers accessible. I can’t recall how good my marks were, but I found confidence in it. Mr Wright was an older teacher and he made time to teach us about life and history. I was mesmerised when he told us about Napoleon and wrote in chalk on the black board, “Able was I ere I saw Elba”.

And then we moved again. At least by age 13 I was of bigger build and as part of the next transformation I gave up a heavy burden I was carrying since age 2 and a 1/2. I stopped wearing glasses. Before, everywhere we moved, I was taunted. Often I was the only spectacled child in class. I  Harrismith 1970'sfelt like a kid in glass. As if everyone looked through me. Fragile. At that point I have broken so many pairs (all by accident, I promise!) our medical aid stopped paying for them. So, I stopped, I just quit. I t was a win-win situation. And it worked for me. No more outer burden that automatically uploaded silly nicknames. No more the outsider for looking different. No more looking from the outside through lenses to what everyone else saw.

I don’t know if this helped, but suddenly I was selected for the first rugby team. I was also picked as flank and no more hard labour position as prop. Freedom at last! Did I change so much over one summer holiday? Did I suddenly lost weight with the glasses and increased my running speed? Who knows, but I was in a better space and this continued when I went to Kroonstad High (or secondary) School. Here over the next 5 years I had teachers that I will always remember (for various reasons). Mrs van der Merwe who somehow moulded our Afrikaans cerebrals into an appreciation for the English language. Mr Rossouw who kept our Afrikaans roots solid with poetry and essays, while Mrs Rossouw created a melody from our voices in choir practice. My dad’s science laboratory often filled with smells and sparks (were they all intentional?) and Mrs “Krappie” de Villiers’ attempts to bring Biology alive to me. And Mr Fourie’s hotdog sales during break were as popular as his Technical Drawing classes. He also coached our rugby team at the start of high school and we were a pretty decent outfit despite the hotdogs!

And then Mrs Gerber, later Mrs Sim, who shaped our mathematical skills. Looking back at all my schooling, she must win the price for giving the most homework. And that is apart from her extra classes prior to major exams. In retrospect I am grateful to her. Not only did it provide me with something that I could be good at and motivated a dedication to what is important. I believe that it shaped my mind in a way of thinking that is interested in patterns, in what is sensible and meaningful. At the time it influenced the suggestion that I should go into engineering, but I could never exclude the humanities and working with people. It must be great to design a bridge, but building relationships between people is much more satisfying. Working with people who suffered head injuries, might have difficulty with memory and translating the numbers from neuropsychology into meaningful constructs for their daily lives tick my own meaning box.

I do acknowledge the limitations of numbers and don’t regard myself as a numerologist of some sorts. I did not believe the Mayan prophecy that the world would end on the 21st of December 2012, although my world dramatically changed in 2012. Still, there is something interesting about specific numbers in one’s history and possible numerical intervals. But should I read more into it? Someone said that the average age for a diagnosis of a glioma for a male is 42 (or between late 30’s and mid 40’s). I had my first seizure a month prior to my 42nd birthday. Half this number and it takes my back to my age of 21 when my brother died. My grandfather, whom I am named after, passed away at age 85 (21 times 4 plus 1). Should I read something into these numbers and the possible repetition of 21? Should I be weary of age 63 when the next 21 year cycle comes to an end?

I don’t think so.

For now, I am with Douglas Adams. Maybe the amazingly accurate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is 42. Nothing more. Just that. Where I am at.

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Filed under My Brain Tumour and I, Psychology Reflections, This thing called life

Chemo Again

There has been a break of 3 weeks since I completed my radiotherapy and first 6 weeks of chemotherapy. My chemical holiday! It was good to have the break and not do my daily 40 second walk to the oncology unit across the street. If I turned a blind eye for the events of the past 6 months (I missed my 6 month anniversary!) as well the bit of hair loss on the sides of my forehead (not too bad I must add), it almost felt like life returned to normal. I was driving, working too hard, meeting friends for birthday lunches and trying to sort out a few plans for the summer holidays and Christmas.

But, the day had come to start my second round of medication . This time the higher 400 mg gram dosage for 5 days on, three weeks off, 5 days on, three weeks off and so forth for 6 months. I feel a bit like a patient again. Luckily no nausea, but swallowing pills are still not my thing. And it is bringing back the fatigue, or I am just working too hard? I don’t know, but I am cutting open the Temodal packets and looking at the 4 tablets in my hand. Each of them, costing just slightly less than what we pay our cleaning lady per month (for 8 days per month, excluding extra time with our kids). I should be grateful for the treatment that I am receiving, make no mistake I am. Both for the meds and the medical aid that covers it. However, it still shocks me. Medication is obviously something does rank up there with costly luxuries, but it is should also sustain and save lives. I am aware that my fellow countrymen might have access through state hospitals or alternatively to generic options. But still. In a country where the life expectancy is 52, you should not pay R21918.20 for 20 tablets per month. Maybe I am mixing my causes, but it appears like the gulf between capitalism and humanity is cranked further apart by cost for things like this. Or is that just the cost of living?

I am feeling like a patient again, but not so much that I don’t want to fight on …

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Can Whales get Tumours?

Off the coast of South Africa, at least 37 species of whales and dolphins can be found. This fact blows me away. 37 species?  Most of these (especially the whales) are found in the about 500 kilometre stretch between Cape Town and the Garden Route. Tthe most famous are the southern right whales, humpback whales, and several coastal dolphin species. These are joined by African penguins and Cape fur seals, with the obvious big and small human shapes enjoying the seawater and surf.

A few blogs ago I mentioned a visit to a small town called Betty’s Bay (not far from Hermanus, the whale capital of South Africa). It was here that I experienced one of those amazing life affirming whale moments. I was standing outside on the stoep (our local word for porch) when I suddenly saw a black movement in the water. I just yelled, “Whale!” to get my family’s attention, grabbed my camera and run down towards the sea for a close-up shot. Now, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I leave you with 2 recommendations. (1) Familiarise yourself with the territory and (2) Footwear, footwear, footwear. Unbeknown to me was that the 50 meter between me and the shoreline included a gravel road (the easy bit), thick undergrowth of fijnbos and surprisingly a stream (due to a lot of recent rain). That was even before the rocks that provided the soundtrack to the experience and lifted a salty taste and smell into the air. This short, but tricky, distance was made complicated by my foot attire. The old faithful pair of Fatface flip-flops was getting slippery and muddy, making my rock scramble probably amusing to look at, but not fun when trying to run in a whale.

My guide in all this was Anneén standing on the stoep lookout. Shouting directions and pointing to where to scramble. I then realised that “nearer” does not translate into “better view”. Every now and then I would see water spurting out, a black back or bit of tail. It was a truly amazing experience that I tried to capture on camera. However, each photo appeared like an ocean still-life, with no evidence of whale. To make matters worse, when I returned home, I was informed that there were 2 whales … I did even not notice the second.

The next day in Hermanus, we had breakfast with the most amazing backdrop. Not only did we have a 180 degree ocean view, but we could see several whales (or bits of them) in the bay. Some swimming with new offspring; showing of their tails and playfulness. Luckily they were far enough away for me to even attempt to catch them on film!

Do whales get ill, do they get tumours?

I do not know. I have heard that they can get (oddly enough) dolphin pox and arthritis. Elsewhere I read that a whale stranding might be due to a boat injury or brain parasitism. However, the appearance of a very young whale on the beach with no sign of disease might be due to separation from its mother.

In the 1978 a book called “The Tumor in the Whale” was published. Rather than it being a collection of medical or marine scientific facts, it is about urban myths and legends. Its author Rodney Dale, a collector of mythical stories, referred to whale meat being sold in wartime England when other meats were scarce. The details of a “specific” person finding a tumour in his meat are quite gross (I would rather not repeat it ) and might be behind the rhyme, “Whale meat again; Don’t know where, don’t know when …” This is referred to as a ‘whale-tumor story’. In essence it’s a wild story with no truth behind it. The type of thing that happens to a friend of a friend of a friend.

A true whale story happened to us in 2008 while we were visiting my in-laws (we were still living in the UK at the time). Early one morning the local radio station reported that a whale beached nearby overnight. We took the kids and set off to witness this first hand. It was a truly amazing experience, obviously filled with sadness. The gentle giant looked healthy, almost as if sleeping. The only sign of injury or trauma was a small wound next to his right eye. Local fishery experts did not feel that it could have been the cause for its demise.

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From the outside, nothing else appeared out of place. Apart from it being a whale on the sand. And it not sleeping. It was still a memorable experience, to be able to touch a whale’s skin, to get a perspective on how small we are next to him/her and how these giants of the sea can be so vulnerable.

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Moments like these tend to draw us away from, out of ourselves. The moment that we encounter something different, unusual or beautiful. Events that place things in a new context or perspective. How we are small insignificant particles or how we can be instrumental in change and something bigger. These experiences can be quite mundane, like watching a gecko climbing up a wall. Someone walking past you smiling while listening to their iPod or the early morning sunrays reflecting off the dewdrops of vineyard leaves. It can be as life changing as the news that a healthy baby is coming. The beauty in these moments, even if they contain an element of sadness, touches something deep inside me. Feeling removed and connected with something so different. While knowing they must have their own moments of joy and suffering, their own experiences of anxiety or encounters with beauty.

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The 10 things I do not want to regret

It has been scary at times. And serious. I suppose when life enters any unknown territory, it can be or will be. Especially if the map states: “Brain Tumour”.

But all has not been serious. We’ve had our laughs (sometimes in-between tears), drank good wine with wonderful friends and appreciated beautiful moments that might have been lost before. It made us think about what is important in life. If you should read sentences that start with the words “Life expectancy …” that relates to you, you would probably do the same.

But let’s leave that type of serious talk for another day. The sun is shining in Stellenbosch, it feels almost warm, there are fluffy white clouds in the blue sky and we are edging towards spring. The season for new starts. So, some thoughts about priorities, or maybe I should say “The things I never want to regret”.

1.     Time with our 2 girls – when we were told that I have a serious illness, the thought that I may not see my girls (age 5 and 7) growing up or be there for them in future times, hit me the hardest. Of all my fears and insecurities that is the toughest demon to face. We cannot share the full account of my diagnosis with them, but try to use their language to create meanings that is helpful to them. An example is that “Daddy went to hospital for an operation as something was making him feel dizzy”.

Dad and his 2 girls

I came to appreciate the importance to steal moments that I did not in the past. Just, spending a few more seconds here and there, making them laugh, appreciating what they do and telling them that I love them regularly.

2.     Growing with Anneén – it so easy to take for granted that life will just continue in a certain way and that one day you will be that couple sitting on the stoep (porch). Suddenly there was a question mark, the certainty shadowed by doubt. I know that no one knows what challenges tomorrow will bring, but having gone through the last 3 months made it clearer that life needs to be lived with the ones we love, the need to grow together and to appreciate all of it more.

3.     Living a healthy life. I thought I was quite healthy this year. I ran two half marathons, enjoyed my work and was working hard, but in a balanced way. I never before had to take medication apart from the odd flu, cold or that dreadful chicken pox in 2006. Even my family tree reflects by large people living to a good old age and relatively few serious illnesses. All of a sudden, for some inexplicable reason, I was a patient, underwent surgery (twice!), was taking medication and supplements, and juicing vegetables and fruits. I need to and want to get back to embracing life, to exercise, to feel and eat healthy and to inspire others to do so.

4.     Being able to travel – at present I am content to stay local and get well. But I would love to see Barcelona, Rome and South America. But not only places abroad. I want to connect with more of South Africa again. Especially after 8 years away with only childhood memories of certain places we use to visit. I would love to show my girls wildlife and animals that are not kept in zoos, but that are roaming free.

5.     To be a better cook– I blame that old devil called laziness for this. Not only will taking on a more healthy approach to cooking be beneficial to my health, but I respect people

Lunch at Babylonstoren

who are able to think about fruit, vegetables, meat and spices and bring it together in a feast. I want to be one of them! Was wine on that list? Well, it is now!   

6.     To appreciate and enjoy the beauty of life – Life comes with its hardship (see “Brain Tumour” roadmap as example) and we suffer painful losses. But life and the world around us provide us with beauty, amazing stories and sensory input that are not possible on any other planet known to mankind. To breathe deeply, smell, listen carefully, touch softly and look closely may open up worlds within my world that I may miss. Carpe diem! That reminds me. I need to get to the sea more. We are so lucky to live close to the Atlantic and to be in the ocean remains one of my greatest pleasures and experiences of freedom.  

7.     To spend time with friends and positive people – It has been such a blessing to receive support and kindness from people both locally and abroad. I know this, and often spoke about it to clients and patients, but I don’t know how you deal with hardships on your own. Not that I think you won’t be able to manage some of it, but to truly get through it and to stay emotionally strong requires a team effort. Time with friends and small gestures has carried us when we could not carry ourselves or each other. 

8.     To see Leonard Cohen live – Is he ever going to come to Cape Town? Come on people, we have had all the other geriatrics!!

9.     To continue to love and enjoy what I do for a living – I have always value the importance of an occupation, to be able to love my work and having colleagues I can relate to. Whenever this was not happening in the past, I had to look at myself, evaluate my practice or ask questions about the set-up. I am very fortunate since returning to South Africa to be able to work at the set-up where I am, for the colleagues I have and to provide something to the lives of others remains a key priority for me.

10.     To drink good coffee and good wine …

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DON’T FEED THE FEARS!

In June 2010 we decided to return to South Africa after nearly 8 years in the UK. To do this, we decided to wrap our return within a positive approach. It was not a decision to be ignorant, but to not be bogged down by negativity. This was a choice, our choice. We had enough to deal with. To pack-up our lives and travel back, start-up new lives and to introduce our girls to the place(s) that we still called home. Our choice included avoiding News24, not to tolerate the doubters, sceptics and poisonous realists who did not understand our decision to head south. These were unwanted, unneeded. They would not understand the values that we embraced and our need to return home. We were not going to take their fears with us or be burdened by their demons.

Obviously we lived in South Africa before for more than 30 years , followed the news and were informed by friends and family over the years about the good, the bad and the ugly. We had a good idea about what awaits. This decision was also informed by my personal and professional belief that life’s real enemies and ghosts are often not the external ones, but the internal. I am conscious as I write this, that there are many who have been hurt or lost loved ones due to crime or has decided to move elsewhere due to fears about physical safety. I never judge these decisions, but cannot take their scars as mine. Just as in my professional capacity, I would “be” with those who bring their fears, tears and broken hearts and souls to me, travel with them to a place of healing but not take their pain or angst as my own.

On Friday past, this attitude was put to the test. We woke just after 3 a.m. to find that someone attempted to break into our garage. It was so unexpected. Over the last 2 months we have been consumed by my diagnosis of a brain tumour, the upcoming operation to remove it and the related fears that pounced upon us. In the light of the next morning we inspected the scene of the attempted crime, almost bemused by the intruder’s audacity. It was my wife who commented, “I thought I would be more scared”. I assume that after dealing with the depths of emotions and staring into the unknown, we were not going to become victims of either crime or fear. We are not going to feed the fears … not unnecessarily anyway …

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Whose Reality is it Anyway?

When our family return to South Africa after 8 years abroad, my wife and I enjoyed the return (among other things) to familiarity. The familiar was picked up by our senses, the sight of mountains, the sounds of African accents, the tastes of wines and foods that we have been without for so long and the feel of the sun on skin that the northern hemisphere cannot match. Our daughters (both under six at the time) enjoyed the change with us, especially as time with grandparents and family filled their waking hours with attention and fun.

It was however in their subtle comments and questions that we noticed how they were adjusting. Our familiar was their brave new world. It did not bring fear, but curiosity, amazement and occasionally puzzlement. After a few days in Johannesburg our youngest reflected proudly after a loud cough, “This is how I cough in Africa”

After criss-crossing the country southwards, stopping over at family and friends en route to our new home, we were frequently asked, “Is this also Africa?” For a young pair of eyes, there is surely a lot of it! Stopping at a farm stall in the Karoo, the bright December sun was beating down on the dry earth, a few rusty drums and a row of “Aalwyne” (cactus of the Aloe family). A small voice from the back of the car asked, “Is this where Dinosaurs live?”.

How reality can be different for those who might have different experience and perceptions from our own. The things that brought us home brought our kids into a world open for interpretation. What we took for granted challenged their understanding. It mostly brought smiles and laughs to our journeys, but at times the sad realisation that their friends and our old house in England was far far away.

These attempts at understanding reminded me of a visit to a nursing home that I was asked to do some years ago. I was due to assess a new resident in her early eighties who had significant memory problems and this at times caused her some distress in her confused state. She was sparkly, had a good sense of humour, but did not like being asked questions that tested her memory, orientation and concentration.

In such situations, I often make use of what the environment presents – family photographs being a personal favourite. I picked up a framed picture marking a recent family get together. There she was second to the left, a daughter at each end and son protectively next to her. With a big smile, she named her children. “And who is this?” I asked cheekily.“Oh that’s my mother”. Her smile did not waver.

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