OSYS1.jpgNyanga, Cape Town – Tuesday morning, Lisa Cohen, our Clowns Without Borders project coordinator and co-facilitator, picks me up to drive into the townships. We will be meeting with the senior club and the planning coordinators for the youth program.

As we drive into the townships we quickly get lost. Not all streets are marked, and street names change often. Lisa pulls over and asks directions from a well-dressed young man on the sidewalk. He shakes his head, “You are very far from where you want to be.”

He offers to direct us if we can drop him near a taxi pick up. Lisa pauses, takes a deep breath, and says, “Yes, alright. Hop in.”

The young man introduces himself as Patrick. After Lisa and I tell him our names, Lisa asks, “Is Patrick your real name? Do you have a Xhosa name?”

“Yes,” he smiles, and says it slowly. I try, in vain, to repeat it. (I would share it with you here, but the string of sounds is too unfamiliar for me to recall.) Seeing my furrowed brow, he laughs, “Patrick will be easier for you to remember.”

Lisa asks him, “Where are you going?” It’s early morning, and from his formal clothes we guess he’s on his way to work.

“Gardens,” replies Patrick, referring to an upscale neighborhood in Cape Town.

“Oh,” smiles Lisa. “We just came from there.”

As the young man successfully directs us to the crèche where we will be working, he warns us, “You were very lucky you ran into me. You were driving through a tik neighborhood.” Lisa asks me if I know what “tik” is. I shake my head. Patrick explains, “It is a bit like what people in the U.S. call crystal meth.”

Before Lisa drops him at a filling station to catch a taxi, Patrick leaves us with a brochure for the NGO he works for in Cape Town. As he shuts the door, she says, “I was a bit nervous to let him in the car, but my gut said to trust him. We have angels watching over us. We’re lucky we got his help.” Then she cocks her head, “That happens a lot with this work. It’s as though something is watching over us and keeping us safe.” Then she flips the door locks and drives us back to the crèche.

Walking into the senior center, we are greeted by Nolathando (no-la-TAWN-doo), the group facilitator. She’s a short, grandmotherly woman with a mischievous smile and twinkling eyes. She greets Lisa warmly, as they know each other from a previous project. Nolathando will be our liason to the seniors for the duration of the project. We are hoping she joins the class as well.

“They are late,” Nolathando announces. “Their transport is not always on time.”

When the elders finally join us, they shuffle in and take seats at long tables. “First we have tea and porridge. Then you will explain your program.”

One of the women approaches Nolathondo and tells her something in Xhosa. “Ah,” she nods, “They would like to begin with a prayer.”

We stand, and one woman begins a call-and-response song in a deep, strong alto. The room swells with twenty voices as the elders join her call. The song rises for several minutes, switching leaders as the hymn progresses. I join the best I can, despite my linguistic limitations. When a grey haired woman dances, I join the others who  clap and sway. Near the end, the elders begin shaking hands with each member of the group. Occasionally a warm smile transforms a handshake to a hug. I think of my Catholic background where, during services, we would shake hands and “share the sign of peace.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to begin each day with a practice like this?

After porridge and tea, we describe our storytelling workshop to the elders. At the end of our presentation, Lisa asks the group if there are any questions. One woman inquires, “Can we tell a story that is not ours, but is a good story for people to learn from?” Lisa and I explain that, while all stories have merit, our workshop will focus on personal narrative. Several seniors look at us in confusion. I interject, “Let me show you what we will be doing in our class.” Then I stand to share one of my own stories.

As I stand, I’m overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy. What if they don’t like me? What if they think my story is stupid? What if they think I’m strange? Incompetent? Dull? Annoying?

What if no one signs up for the workshop?

But there is no turning back now.

I offer a silent prayer: “Dear God, please let my story be good enough. And if it sucks, please let them magically think it’s good so the elders still sign up.” Then I take a deep breath, and try to drop into my presence, vulnerability and authenticity.

As I speak, though, I find that I have nothing to worry about. The seniors are rapt. Perhaps they are being polite, but I swear that when my voice cracks with emotion, several elders nod and vocalize in empathy. With each nod and throaty rumble, my body relaxes and my heart opens. By the end, I am not grateful to be done, but grateful for the opportunity to share my story with the group that so generously shared their songs of prayer with me.

Two days later, Nolathando tells us that the workshop sign up is complete. Our class is full.

– Sandra Struthers
23 February, 2014