There is always another story to mixed race adoptions.

There were 3 women sitting around a table.

One Black.
One Coloured.
One White.

Women who laugh quickly together, who affirm each other and love each and encourage other to be and to become.
I was the white woman.
Surrounded by friends who openly challenge me, confront things but also hold space for me when my heart is aching and broken.
We have wept together over broader social issues. We have listened to each other’s individual stories and heard the growth, the pain and the joys.
So what made this week any different? One of these life givers were about to board a plane and as I type this, I feel like something was birthed around that table which usually heralds celebration. It feels like we are still in the painful parts of the birthing story & in some ways labour has been paused. The conversation around the table was about Transracial Adoption in South Africa.

We are all mothers.

Figuring out how to be the mothers our children need as they grow and develop is part of the support and love that this friendship space gives.
The Department of Social Development recently put forward a proposal regarding how adoption in South Africa should be managed. Unofficially there have been multiple stories of resistance to adoption but also to transracial adoption within our South African context.

This is hard for me as a mother but also as a professional to sit with. T

This conversation is so layered and nuanced that to reduce it to only part of the story doesn’t serve any of us well and it definitely doesn’t serve the very children this proposal alleges it will protect.

Tonight I found the facebook post posted the day my son left by his interim (dedicated, committed and people who loved him) carers. His face is well hidden.
I know it’s him because of the date and the feet. I know his feet. I would know them anywhere.

My mama heart melted all over again – I often wonder if they look like his birth mother or birth father’s feet. They aren’t like mine or my husbands and yet when I look at my brother’s feet, I see similar feet emerging.

And then I flashed back to the conversation around the table.
One in which we spoke what drives adoption in this country.
One in which we spoke about the myths surrounding adoption. Of the many different reasons expectant mothers have for considering relinquishment of their children.
One in which we spoke about the number of expectant mothers who remain mothers to their biological children because of enough & appropriate support offered when exploring their options, ranging from abortion to foster care, adoption or keeping their babies. Empathic support that doesn’t allow stigma to interfere with their stories.
We also spoke of mothers who don’t have access or who find it hard or to access support or have tried and been pushed away for considering relinquishment and whose choice ends up being abandonment – whether safely or unsafely.
Nothing was as raw for me as the issue of relinquishment due to poverty.

In our country, poverty is delineated along racial lines.
Yes, we have poor white people too, but proportionally and historically nothing like any other population group.

I need to own and acknowledge that it’s because of people who look like me that this is indeed the case. This is deeply painful.

Not just for me, but when we encounter families of colour (whether Black, Coloured, Indian and Asian) for who this reminder is very real; that people who looked like me structured a country that is struggling to transform and find its new identity and now we seem to be taking children and babies too.

One of my BIGGEST joys is being my son’s mother.
And this story I am telling is not about his story – that remains and belongs to him. We remain custodians for and with him. This is my story and my response to a social story.
NOTHING nothing will ever change that. Always and forever this baby who is now a boy and will be a man, it’s the biggest privilege to be called mama by him.

And yet a painful thing for many people in the black community to see is me being his mother.
They don’t care how much I know about his origins or don’t know,
Or how we have a village looking after our family in this that isn’t white informed.
It’s a power dynamic that is encountered of white people taking on black children.
And this is loaded.
It’s loaded when I encounter it as a mother who recognises and loves her son and who knows I can’t do this without extra input in the spaces where I don’t have a story.
It’s loaded when I encounter it as a professional.
It’s loaded for people who know, love and support my family in all its entirety.
It’s loaded for people who don’t know me.
It’s a reminder of the many domestic workers’ children who were ‘unofficially’ or ‘officially’ adopted (regardless of love or intent) and still there was struggle because a racial category defined so much, if not all their story. Both theirs and their families.

I struggle with identity politics – in fact as I watch social media comments unfold I loathe it.
I loathe that it means we can’t say anything without fear of being misunderstood, or that we will never be enough for some and too much for others in whatever context we sit in.
I really do.

I also know that unless we can deconstruct and talk about race and what it means, not just for us, but for others we aren’t going to change this.
I am learning more and more that I need to be willing to grapple with this all else I am not being a mother to my son and I can’t, in integrity advocate for every child in a family. Including mixed race families like mine.
Until we can look to the past and own this pain as well as look to the future, we can’t define the work we need to be doing in the present. Work we are responsible for.
In the present.

And if we don’t define & grapple with the work we are doing in the present, then this wheel will keep turning and the only people getting crushed in the process are the mothers who are criminalized because they abandon their babies (regardless of the reason), the mothers who are stigmatized in hospital because of choices they are making for their children and the children who enter the system – who will, as Thuli Madonsela wrote, get stuck without real roots and with wings that are not rooted in belonging because that’s something that happens in family.

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GENUINELY WITH: Nyanga, cows, traffic lights and the working part of me

Today I got to climb back into my ‘professional’ skin again after a 4 month break from working in my field – the field where I am comfortable and things seem familiar.  I know I can run groups.  I know I am competent as a therapist.  I know I am able to work cross culturally –in fact I love working in teams and communities that are diverse. 

Today started with a drive to Nyanga, down Wetton Road.   Wetton Road which becomes Govan Mbeki Road is filled with of reminders of my first social work job ever.  I drove over the bridge where I did my first community research as a newly qualified social worker (Assessing a feeding project so that it could be grown into a new season).  I still smell peanut butter sandwiches on chunky brown bread when passing that piece of road.

Signage along Govan Mbeki Road indicates Brown’s Farm, Philippi, Gugulethu, Hanover Park and Mannenberg:  All communities that make up a part of the Cape Flats.  Mannenberg is the site of Ross Kemp’s documentary exploring gangs.  It’s also perhaps one of the most notorious communities in the Western Cape due to the high level of gangsterism.   Nyanga, my destination community, is just past Mannenberg.  In the background to all of these communities are beautiful mountains – in any given direction – not close by, but as a part of the horizon.

This morning I watched 3 HUGE cows enjoying the sights and sounds of the morning traffic from the traffic island.  Who knows how long they had been sitting on that traffic island next to the traffic lights? I saw packs of dogs scavenging, couples pushing shopping trolleys across a road, many micro-enterprises, refuse piled up against “informal” housing and mini-bus taxi’s everywhere.

The group of healthcare workers that I work with (or more specifically consult to twice a month) are part of an amazing healthcare center, in Nyanga. Our meeting room is on the 2nd floor.  From my seat this morning I could see the clouds rolling in over the mountain, groups of unemployed men (or gangs I asked myself?) chatting and others going about their daily activities – this all happening to the background sounds of taxi’s hooting and dogs barking.  My own internal process was assimilating all these things, whilst my professional person was listening, facilitating, summarising, reflecting and planning.  The group I have been tasked to work with has much to teach me, as much as I hope to be able to support and assist in containing & growing them.

Cape Town is often said to be a place on its own – not quiet Africa really.  This morning I could have been on any part of the continent.  Cape Town is only a place on its own when you not able or don’t see the fact that 20 minutes from the beautiful suburb where I live a stark contrast exists.  I know this because I have never had the traffic stopped on my side of the bridges, by a cow with an engorged udder and bloated stomach.  I know this because this morning the harsh face of inequality in Cape Town struck me again. 

It’s amazing knowing that I get to be a part of people living in, and doing amazing work in challenging circumstances.  It was good being back in a place that felt familiar and yet I know that I have much to learn about.  It was hard knowing that I get to climb into my own car, and drive away from the realities that the team I work with face daily and are still called to speak hope, life and resilience into others.  Nyanga was cited as the most dangerous township in South Africa in stats released in 2012 – see more here: (http://yazkam.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/nyanga-township-is-cape-towns-murder-hotspot/)

This past week I have had 2 conversations with women working in different communities and the question repeatedly asked wasHow did I get the life I did and some of my colleagues and friends theirs?

The places I missed while not living in Cape Town were these communities. The children and families whose realities I want to be a part of seeing shift live in these communities.  If we want our rape stats to change, we need focused intervention WITH these communities.  Not for them.  Not against them.  WITH THEM.  That means that while I look at professionally developing my work space in Cape Town, personally I need to work out what it means to be “with”Genuinely “with”.  If I don’t work that out, then the working part of me really won’t matter much in the bigger picture.  

 

Poverty Pornography (2012)

Poverty pornography….is a term I was introduced to during a community visit at OWCS. My role there is to support the director of OWCS, Ricky da Silva with regards to strategy, planning and staff support.  The more I thought about it, the more I liked this term.

Poverty Porn (PP) has a kind of a ring to it.  It’s also aggressive and in your face and has the dirty feel to it that shops with blue movies and brown bags hold.  It also speaks volumes about what we do in communities and with people when rather than engage with them out of a sense of dignity, we do for, do to, and don’t meet them heart to heart.  Compassion and Justice, Micah 6:8 doesn’t allow for poverty pornography.  PP for me speaks about when we use communities to ease our consciousness’; it’s when we go to make ourselves feel better about something, like poverty by painting a wall, but not bothering to see that actually the light fittings in a school are all broken.    It’s when in lieu of asking someone how their day has been, we rather pretend not to see them.

Poverty is ugly.  It’s not something we can pretty up –however much we want to.  It is a place where in the midst of the suffering joy and peace can be seen, but not when we refuse the intimacy of an experience.  Like a person who chases the celluloid or print porn images, poverty pornography will never allow our hearts to be truly moved, or the people we attempting to reach out to, to be truly seen or heard.

Poverty pornography in some ways allows for injustice and inequality to remain pervasive as it allows the illusion of making a difference without any sacrifice or discomfort to ourselves.  It doesn’t force us to recognise where we can speak up for justice, or practically do something to address injustice from a relational stance, rather than from a distance.  The only way we can truly address the issues of injustice and poverty in our communities is when we willing to have an intimate experience with a story that becomes shared story – so rather than us and them it becomes a “WE” story.  It is not up to policy, economics or social theorists to address this actually.  Jesus stated that the poor will always be with us.  This doesn’t absolve us of caring and challenging the structures that create the poor.

Over the past while I have been considering what Poverty Pornography looks like in my community and have recently been challenged, again, by what I can do in my world that will make a difference in this space.  It means that I need to consider what dignity, respect and humility looks like when strategizing around projects and needs.  It means that personally I can’t stand up and say “it’s Mugabe’s fault” or a the capitalist system or the old refrain of the colonialists left Africa poor without looking around me and seeing where I can stand up and make a difference.

Practically, it means that I need to consider what it means for me when:

  • I know a friend who is being paid a ridiculous wage and can’t afford her children’s school fees, and food and clothing when the cost of this would match what I pay to fly to CT for a weekend.
  • It means I need to consider when I buy my 4th bible because I want to read certain passages in a different translation and the person up the street is questioning a God who seemingly shows favouritism to a few and he isn’t one of them – what is my responsibility to him.
  • It means that I need to look at what it means to live simpler so that others can simply live – AM I willing to empty out space in my wardrobe when I get new stuff, so that someone else can benefit, or am I hoarding clothes for just in case?
  • I am challenged to ask how you are, look you in the eye and say have a great day, not because I want to rescue you, simply so that I see your personhood, and am willing to hear your story, rather than make you a non-person by not acknowledging you. You at the traffic light, walking past me in the street on my run, smelling or looking different to me.

Poverty pornography means I know things intellectually, but as long as it makes me look kind and caring and good – I can post on facebook how much money I gave away or how many needy children I “blessed”, but I don’t need to be challenged or uncomfortable with the injustice of life.  It doesn’t mean I need to give everything away and live in the street, it means I need to be conscious of what I have and the responsibility that comes with that.

I dare say that that more intimate our understanding of Micah 6:8 which reads as follows in the Message, the stronger our communities will be come.  When our understanding of our neighbour shifts from someone who is just like me, to someone who is near me, around me, in my face then maybe we can’t so easily engage in a distant theoretical understanding of poverty.

But He has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.  It is quiet simple:  DO what is fair and just to your neighbour, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.

(Musings over months – 20th September – Alexa Russell)

Ramblings in search of understanding (2010)

Ramblings in search of understanding….

The past 16 years in South Africa have seen much change in terms of who I am legally allowed to be friends with, share meals with and do life with. This having been said, there are HUGE gaps in so many areas still, huge gaps where we seek to figure out how to be a part of the solution in shifting communities, but can’t seem to unlock the doors to doing so. This past week a study was released to the public about the nature of violence in this country.  Nothing in there was unexpected, and nothing in there was staggering news.  I am amazed that we had to have a big study commissioned to make it official actually –surely there was and are other ways of finding the path to a different way of life?

10 days ago, I attended a breakfast where people shared on some of the trauma in our communities that was silenced during the early 90’s.  I say silenced as it was given a blip in the news, but nothing more.  Mandela’s release, the restructuring of a government in transition and how to manage our international relations were more pressing issues as we sought to see shifts and changes.  The TRC was one of the transition bodies put in place in an effort to allow people to tell their stories, and perhaps find some form of closure.  We knew things had been bad, but so many questions still run around in my head.  As an African who happens to be white, in my 30’s and passionate about seeing this continent, never mind our country be recognised for integrity and its growth potential being realised, how do we deal with the following issues below– and I am ignorant of many people’s stories.  I don’t claim to have the answers, or all the insights.  I am responsible and accountable for what I have heard and what I do know though.

Human beings have the amazing ability to build each other up or damage, break and destroy each other.  As South Africans we listened to the stories of Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Liberia, Burundi, Eritrea and the list goes on, in horror.  We stand up and say this is not okay – and it’s not –but how many of us in our 30’s who weren’t directly impacted by the political violence are aware of what our peers are living with – their parents saw, our parents may have seen?  Rwanda’s atrocities and human rights violations, sadly, are similar to some of the legacy we get to live with too.

I think about World War 2 and what we know about mass graves, about the wars fought across our continent and mass graves.  I don’t think until 2 weeks ago did I consider the reality of mass graves on our soil.  Listening to multiple stories of family members needing to identify their fathers, brothers, sisters and children in a pile, not one or two, but a pile of bodies that have been stacked, and not even refrigerated, or moved to a different section of the province in an effort to quickly clean up the streets, makes me want to weep.  Our soil has seen way to much blood shed over the 400 odd years of South African’s known and written history.  This is in the too recent future for it not to matter.  If women weren’t encouraged to go and identify male family members due to cultural constraints and the men in the family were in hiding, or under arrest, it means we have many people without any sense of where there family members were or are today.  It also means that as a nation we have seen power being abused in the most horrific way.  This to some people is due the fallout of the times, is a legacy of apartheid – all this rhetoric means nothing when you realise that communities are still living in a state of disconnect and heightened emotion; that physically these things are still trapped within their nervous systems– and that is why we don’t see shifts forward, despite changes.  How do you shift when you stuck, and the systems have changed, but your reality hasn’t?

The TRC allowed for some stories to be told, people were allowed to tell things within a certain framework…and it would be unrealistic to expect that an entire nation’s healing would be found through the opportunity to tell a story. Especially as the telling of a story doesn’t necessarily mean healing if there is no follow through to the telling – and your story wasn’t allowed to be told as it didn’t fall into the criteria of selection framework.  Noma-russia’s story was one of these.  Her mother was 8 months pregnant with her when she was raped by members of the SADF and police.  This was in the 60’s.  Noma-russia herself was raped twice during the struggle years.  This was only one story that didn’t get to be heard.  How many more stories of rape and associated gender violence have been silenced?  And if these stories are being silenced how do we help the perpetrators heal?  How do they get permission to heal?  In times of war and civil unrest, rape as a weapon is primal.  Nothing is new in using rape to wage war.  But if you were a rapist, were raped, were a part of that story, with the apartheid struggle, the IFP- ANC battle in some areas as the backdrop where do you get to know that your story matters too?  Especially if this turned into being a part of the culture of the struggle, rather than something that we are not okay with – no one wants to see a mom, a sister, a brother, a wife having to deal with rape.  Our bodies hold onto trauma, unless we work out how to release it – no new learning, no new ways of doing things, passing things on can happen whilst we in this stuck place – and again we say why is nothing shifting?

Change in any context is hard – whether its good or bad changes, we struggle.  SA had two known armed forces – the Umkhonto we Sizwe arm of the ANC and the SADF representing the government.   Once you are in the SADF you are property of the government –and when I listen to friends, to guys who did their 2 yrs, or 1 yr or were permanent force, there are stories that get told and much that is left unsaid. Added to this was the integration of the SADF and MK, or simply the dissolution of certain platoons and brigades, and so from having an identity you were suddenly a non-person –which is what much of the old government did to most of the people of this country, I get it.  I just question how and where do we position ourselves to take those skills, that identity shift needed that allows for a sense of internal power, and not power that is played out in violence, in abuse or in those skills being used in a self-seeking manner.  The same people who were seen as the enemy, the perpetrators, in some ways are also victims, and the so called victims were also perpetrators – we all need healing in that space.   It’s amazing to me how within 24 hours you went from being heroes to guilty and terrorists to heroes.  And yet, what do we do now with the chaos that is found in so many places where both the SADF and the MK guys have skills, determination and much to offer.  How do we offer something though when there is a judgement over our roles, or a lack of being able to connect simply as we have so much boxed?

Safety and security – we survived 2010, we have premiers whose homes are robbed and a former president’s whose house was invaded despite security.  We are told to call crime lines, to support policing initiatives, and at the same time polls are in place to find out whether a bribe has ever been solicited from you or you have offered a policeman a bribe?   How does that work?  During the silenced struggles, police weren’t perceived to be neutral, eyes and backs were turned on so-called black on black violence and then this was all supposed to change after 1994.  Now, I listen to stories and see headlines of police brutality; of the same people who are supposed to be protecting me, being the people who aren’t protecting other people simply because of class, or ethnic origin.  Who am I supposed to trust when that is happening? As a woman, who is single and often alone at night, do I believe that the police have my back, that if there is a road block, I can trust that righteousness and integrity will prevail?  I know that there are many good, committed people protecting us and serving our country.  What do I do with the knowledge though of people being brutalised by the people who swore to protect us all?

And then there is poverty -something which is inherently violent.  Not because it carries guns or knives or beatings, but because of the price it extracts from those living in it, with it, under it.  Children’s ability to dream get shattered; their ability to learn stifled and the day to day survival that kicks in – how is this difference to living through war or conflict.  Peaceful poverty may look different to contexts where there is violence too – but the reality again is our brains and bodies have to battle, daily.  So perhaps yes, we can look at the legacies left behind, but we also need to own our day to day realities that are not unique to us as South Africans, but not helped by our past either.

Our communities, whether rich or poor, integrated or not, young or old are all dealing with something actually.  Some of us are better at saying – Stop; wait a minute, what is this about? Some of us want to know what makes the past that impacts the present.  Some of us would rather just say it shouldn’t matter- as yet again, if it does matter then we need to work out how to manage it.

So, my search for understanding means I need to be willing to figure out how do we look at the past in order to redirect the path going forward?  How do I, as a white African be a part of seeing change on the soil that is mine too?  Not because my original family came from here 500 years ago, but because my identity, my culture, the rhythm in my veins, the things that make sense to me as much as the things that don’t are all inherently a part of this continent.

I believe we are wired to need a sense of purpose.  The people fighting the struggle, the guys in the SADF, the unknown faces of Africans –whether Black, White, Chinese, Coloured or Indian – all had a sense of purpose.  There was a need for a story so that there was a reason for this purpose.  If my purpose and need to be in a place where we seeking reconciliation, forgiveness and concrete pathways of hope and future orientation exist, then I need to be willing to be listening to the stories too that need this.   A people without a purpose, without a hope perish.  Does this mean then that if we are not being agents of hope, we too are accountable for some of what we see around us?  If we are not helping people find purpose, than are we not as guilty as those actively robbing people of their purpose?

Madiba said:

To be free is not merely to case off one’s chains, but to live in in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

As a Christian, I believe that we have been given the gift of freedom, as a human being, I believe that we are given choices and that we have much power in those choices.   So then to carry on with Madiba’s thought, my freedom (both fought for in this country, and spiritually) means I have a choice to help respect and enhance other’s freedom.

In some ways the career aka life path I have chosen in terms of career helps this – I get to sit and be in spaces where we get to witness people’s stories.  In that I have to speak up and speak out about things that aren’t okay, shouldn’t ever be allowed to be okay.  I also need to remember that sometimes we need to remember the past, not so that we can get stuck there, but so that we can use it to lay, or where necessary relay the foundations for the present and future.

Structural violence, poverty and ribbon wrapped cookies (2011)

Today was a day when my heart bled more than usual. And I cry easily.  I was driving to work and had put a box of treats in that I had been given: 3 heart shaped cookies beautifully wrapped with a ribbon and 2 meringues also wrapped up – in my car simply cos I didn’t want to eat them.  I prayed and asked God to show me who to give them too.  Anyway, I had to drive a different route to the  office as the road was blocked off. This meant I stopped at a 4 way stop where I saw a guy sitting on the other side of the intersection.  My light was red, and I called him over – he was in his late 20’s with his shoulders hunched over, a tall guy, who must have been well built at a point in his life, but is now lanky and gaunt.  He charged across the intersection to me (I had lifted the box) and when I looked up at him, saw tears streaming down his cheeks.  And so much sadness and pain.  When I asked him what the tears were about, was he hungry, he just said yes, Yes.  This had me in tears as I drove off.  I had bitten into half a gingerbread man (just wanted a taste) and decided I didn’t want it and tossed it in the bin 20 minutes earlier.  I drove in tears and then decided that on all levels this was wrong.  So I stopped the car and looked for my water bottle and apple and went back to find him.  I told him that I was sorry that he, as a young man was hungry like he was, but that he also needed to know that God had seen him.  That this morning I had asked the Lord who I needed to give that food too.  It also meant I took the R 20 in my purse out and told him to go buy food.  His tears had stopped and he looked like he was a little amazed, and maybe it was more about the look on my face than anything I did. I think it was because God had seen him.  And he knew that as I told him.  I asked God to show me.  He got food, heart shaped cookies and meringues wrapped in gold ribbon.  More than that God showed him to me to give them to him.  Then I spent the rest of the day with Isaiah 58 playing over and over and over again in my head.

I have spent the rest of the day perplexed.  I stopped to put petrol in my car yesterday in Parktown North.  On checking that they had fuel was told, yes- we aren’t allowed to run out.  The people in this area need their petrol.  I am pretty sure that the people in poorer communities weren’t prioritized in the same way.  Or the trucks needing fuel to get food into the poorer communities. When I asked the attendant what that was about, he just shook his head and chuckled.  This country.  This country.  This is our country – the one we esteem with the Boks and the Proteas; who hosted the SWC 2010 and had the eyes of the world on us. We built mega –stadiums but no shelters for the homeless and seemingly no government structures in our communities to address this, other than to move them out of sight.

This is about structural violence.  The violence we can’t see physically happen, but we see physically manifest.  We see it in the men under trees in parks,  in the guys’ whose fathers never come home, in the empty eyes of the guy at the traffic light who is not 18 anymore and therefore doesn’t have a home because according to the law he is too old to be in a children’s home.  How much sadness and depression and dis-empowerment should be allowed to be held in our communities and do we actually see these guys?  Not just a group of vagrants, but a group of men with dreams and hopes once, before things went pear.  Before their lives became about survival and the streets.  It’s always easier not to see them, because then they are a group and a stat rather than something we need to respond to.

I don’t have the answers.  At the moment I just seem to have more questions.  And my heart is sore.

My question is God, what do I do with this now