Category: South Africa

Bringing Work Home

Hillbrow Night Jono WoodI’m almost home when two men hustle into the idling blue Golf in my lane and speed off. It’s dark, but there’s no mistaking the lump they leave behind.

With no space to swerve around oncoming traffic, I stomp the brakes.

The lump is crouching, hands up over a wounded head. A cricket bat lies broken next to her. Two solid hunks of wood, covered in blood.

Eric is going to kill me. I park and get out.

“Let me please help you get out of the road?”

She looks up, eyes blank with shock. I take her elbow and steer her to the curb, where she slumps and cradles her head in her arms. Emergency services rings busy. I dial again, report an assault, and sit next to her to wait.

“Can I look at your wounds?” I suddenly see that she is a he, dressed as a she. She tells me she is from Eastern Cape.

“Please don’t touch the blood. I might be HIV positive,” she whispers.

A police car approaches and I jump into the middle of the road, waving my arms to flag them down. They blaze by.

Another prostitute pokes her head around the wall and approaches slowly. She has written the license number of the Golf in lipstick on her hand. Blood, a broken cricket bat, wounds, two eyewitnesses, and… a frustrated man at home.

Sometimes, at the end of his day (he was saying, a few hours ago before I left in a huff to go see a movie), he doesn’t want to talk about saving the world. Sometimes he just wants to put his feet up and watch TV. 


“Hi. I’m on Oxford. Something’s happened.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m here with a prostitute. I mean, wait. There was a hate crime. She – is a he. These guys broke a cricket bat beating her. Please bring the first aid kit? She’s bleeding and the police aren’t coming. I’m afraid she’s going to die on me.”

Five minutes later Eric has gloves on as he applies alcohol swabs, Bacitracin, and bandages. He crouches down with a stranger in the dark, at the end of his day.

A few minutes later a tow truck driver sees my car, stops, and calls a private ambulance that takes the wounded woman away. The cricket bat, left at the pavement, drips red onto Oxford Street. The second prostitute takes up her position on the corner.

As he walks to his car Eric yells over his shoulder, “Be careful! See you at home.” 

I get into my car and fixate on the steering wheel. I have just encountered a human being whose blood is worth nothing. I am complicit. I am helpless.

A police van pulls up and the officers lean out to the woman remaining.

“Heyyyy, MOFFIE! You fucking Moffie! Want to suck it, Moffie? Suck it for free?”

It’s too much. I get out and charge in.

“Hey! Fuck off!” They laugh and drive away. I turn to her. “Let me take you home.”

“I can’t. I’m working.”

“How much do you make?”

“Seven or eight hundred rand in the night.”

“Where do you stay?”


“Get in my car. Please. I’ll give you money.”

She raises her eyebrows.

“I don’t want anything. I just want to take you home so you don’t get hurt. Okay? Please.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on. What good does it do if you come back with a broken nose and no money?” I’m thinking, if she dies tonight it will be on my head.

She looks down. “You can’t give me the money. He will be suspicious of why I am back so early. I’m too afraid.” So, I won’t give her the money. I’ll give it to him. 

We drive a few kilometers from the leafy suburbs to the neon chaos of Africa’s worst neighborhood. I take deep breaths and clutch the wheel. She directs me to a dilapidated high rise.

People staring blankly outside on the stoop, men smoking, women hiking up their skirts for the men. Inside, tiled floor. Cockroaches crunching underfoot. She takes me upstairs and leaves me facing a large man dragging on a cigarette. He looks me up and down slowly.

I try speaking Pimp.

“Your property over there was going to get fucked up by the police tonight. The other one got hurt.”

I pull out the roll of bills. “She shouldn’t go out again.”

He takes the money and counts it. Turns his head sideways, eyelids half closed. “I have others if she’s not what you want. Or you can have two.”

“Oh no — no no. I have to go.” Backing away.

I turn at the door, gasping, run down the stairs, crunch crunch, into the bright night, fumble into the car, and accelerate through traffic lights to the man at home who holds me, unquestioning, while I sob. 


216128_7041024612_3296_n“Stay wonderful. We can be happy. Love can go anywhere. Wherever you are, my love is with you, and it’s good love.”

Your dad wrote these words to me before he died, and I believe they are still true. I have loved you for a long time. I fell for you when you curled up in my lap after my first weekend at a new dropzone and snoozed as he gave me a lift home.

Later, when he and I moved in together and I played more of a role in your weekend visits, we spent special time with our imaginary friends — Alice the flying dolphin and of course the toenail shark, who appeared in the bath to bite children whose nails weren’t trimmed.

You were at the skydiving club when his landing went wrong and he couldn’t get up to drive you back to your mom’s house. Nine years old, and there was nothing but to hold you and your sister tight while I still could, and hope that you would come looking for me someday.

Eventually, you did. 

The people who have stepped up to help both of us are former skydivers whose lives your dad touched through his instruction and presence. It is complicated that what he loved took him away, but somehow continues to pay the love back.

Your dad enjoyed jumping out of airplanes and flying fast parachutes, but skydiving was more than a selfish indulgence for him. Teaching and interacting with jumpers were his ways of making a difference in people’s lives. He believed in love; he believed in you; and he had a strong sense of his own path and the obligations that came with it.

He’s not here to hold you, and it’s not fair. Yet, more than ever, now is the time to begin a deeper understanding of who he was, and to learn from that wisdom. I want you to know unconditional love; to believe in yourself; and to develop strength in your convictions as you work hard to create an adventurous, fulfilling life.

From our conversation earlier today, I know there are times you’d rather be “stabbed with a butter knife” than finish high school. You’re 17, and I guess we’ve all been there. What would your dad say? He’d probably tell you he understands, but he also wrote to your uncle one time, “If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that there is no action without consequence.”

You can do this, and the rewards will be worth it. You will not be alone. 

Our actions, even the smallest ones, make ripples that we can never know the end of. When you cast a stone into the ocean, it seems to disappear, and the surface of the water continues to churn. But from the moment the stone leaves your hand, the entire universe has become a different place.

Act wisely, and the world will show you its magic.

I love you, for always.

Dust to Dust

1934099_19769534612_6418_nShe tells me she’s having a recurring dream about giving birth. She physically feels the contractions and the pain, pushing and breathing and yelling until she hears his first cries.

When she wakes, the sobs start low and growly. The dream vision of the birth is like the Big Bang, an explosion in her chest with the compressed mass of the human condition, pushing out and out. She gave birth, and she couldn’t protect him. Her son is dead.

Eight months later, Eric’s mother and I drive out to the skydiving club.

She rummages in her bag and gives me a slightly worn picture of him as a young boy to carry with me in my wingsuit pocket. At 19 years old in a collared button down shirt, he’s still scrawny, a gleam in his eye. He was 44 when he died, with the same smile.

She puts her hands on my shoulders and her forehead against mine (I am thinking: just like he used to do). She says, “He was my son. He came from my womb. His life started with me, and it ends with you.”

I walk to the plane with the handmade red pouch strapped to my left wrist. At boarding point, I sit with my head down. This is a solo mission. I look up once, opening my eyes to a view of our friend Raymond’s pants leg as he stands near me protectively. The embroidery reads, “Martin’s Funerals! 011-672-8104”. New sponsor. I start to crack, giggling hysterically.

On board, I sit near the pilot, close my eyes, breathe, and focus. I feel Eric’s presence. He is smiling, with a student. He is kissing me in the door.

Tears mark minutes until we get to altitude. I grab my soul and throw it over the threshold, then chase it out. The plane dives away and I begin to glide. The air feels dense. Everything is slow. He is off my left wingtip, he is underneath me, he is the air and the sky and the planet below.

I open my parachute and then the little pouch, feeling the rough ash with chunks of bone between my fingers. This magical dust. So many late night conversations, our deep trust, the way we rolled over together while sleeping, all condensed in the palm of my hand.

Pieces of him stream out to my left side, riding the relative wind.

I land where his blood marked the grass. Edith holds me and moans, “my baby, my baby”. I can’t tell if she is talking to me.

The sun is bright, the earth red, the breeze soft, the sky brilliant blue, the birds alive, the grass still growing. Everything in vivid color, heavy and bright, bleeding with his memory. 

I eat a banana, give our long-time packer a hug as he hands me my neatly closed container with the suit unzipped and ready to wear, and do what will come to define me. I give Edith a kiss on the cheek and get ready for the next jump.

Remembering Pam: A Friend in Kliptown

Last week I returned from South Africa, where we raised a record R11,000 for charity at the annual Johannesburg Skydiving Club and Raise the Sky tonto Boogie. The boogie is a rocking skydiving party, and for me also a time to celebrate my late partner, Eric “tonto” Stephenson. For the last seven years, I have driven into Soweto after the boogie to deliver skydivers’ donations of food and clothing to the Pastoral Centre Pre-school and Creche in Kliptown, a haven for vulnerable children. This special place was founded by Pam Mfaxa, who protected and nurtured the next generation of her community with the force of a warrior and the conviction of a saint. Pam passed away in January, suddenly and too early, but her legacy, like Eric’s, lives on. This year I made the familiar drive just the same. Alone in my car, I realized how strange it felt to be carrying on this work, these rituals, when the people who anchored them for so long are both gone. The sadness made me ask, what is more powerful than loss? What actually soothes loneliness? Turns out for me, it’s gratitude. For love. For deep and real friendship. For the way both of these extraordinary people changed my life and continue to inspire good. In gratitude and memory, here is the story of how I met Pam, and the very first time I went to Kliptown.


1393150_10151831565454613_1743989356_nKliptown, Soweto. February 2002.

Less than two months after I had packed up everything I owned and moved from San Francisco to South Africa, I was waiting to eat lunch at a community building in the middle of a slum. I was determined to build a meaningful life, one shaped outside the predictable forces of my Harvard cohort. I had recently started skydiving, which gave me the courage to make other jumps: as far away as possible from the vortex of startups, parties, after-work martinis, and hung-over brunches.

A group of us had just toured Kliptown’s Freedom Charter Square informal settlement, learning about how families subsisted in shacks with no electricity or running water, marking out territory by placing locks on the port-o-loos and fighting for access at the outdoor taps. Unemployment was high; HIV rates were high; the post-apartheid dream was deferred; privacy was non-existent.

As the name implied, this is where the Freedom Charter was officially adopted in 1955, the document that first enshrined the core ideals of a non-racial South Africa. “The People Shall Govern!” it declared, and “There Shall Be Houses, Security, and Comfort!” In this utopian vision that supposedly kicked off with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and his subsequent election to the presidency in 1994, “Slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches and social centres.”

So there we were, taking in the stench of untreated sewage and bearing witness to the piles of garbage that constituted the playing fields, a walking cliché of foreign white do-gooders engaging in ghetto voyeurism with young black men as guides.1395942_10151831565259613_25412023_n

At lunch, the men talked a lot about the importance of women, but none were actually present at the table. I got up on the pretense of finding a bathroom and didn’t have to go far before I heard laughter bursting from a tiny, cramped kitchen. There they were, the women. Chopping vegetables. Preparing food for us.

Pam and I found each other the moment I stuck my head into that overcrowded kitchen. With authority, she denied my offer to help with the meal, but something about my privileged indignation at the gender imbalance at lunch made her laugh. “African men don’t do much, but they do talk,” she chuckled. “If you really want to see this community in action, come back and stay the night. You are welcome at my place.”

I made my way back to the lunch table, looking around at our group: mostly white North American women in their 20’s; a guy with very white socks from Minnesota who had studied anthropology and, five months after arrival in South Africa, was throwing around township slang in a way that made him look even more ridiculous than the socks, if that was possible; and our cool “feminist” shepherds seemingly ignorant of their own ironies. I counted myself among the hypocrites, though I couldn’t pinpoint (or didn’t think through) exactly why.

Months later, once I had settled in to some kind of routine, I boarded a shared taxi from downtown Johannesburg to take Pam up on her offer.

Kliptown, June 2002.

I spent my first Youth Day in South Africa in and around the shacks of Kliptown.

Hector_pietersonJune 16th, 2002 was Youth Day for the politically conscious and Father’s Day for everyone else. Youth Day commemorates the beginning of the 1976 Soweto student uprisings against “Bantu Education”, a segregated system with Afrikaans (the language of the ruling National Party) as the required medium of instruction in the township. Riot police fired tear gas followed by live rounds, and a lethal bullet struck thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson. Fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubo picked up his limp body and carried him from the scene, running alongside his wailing sister. More than 400 people were reported dead during the uprisings, but photographer Sam Nzima captured this moment on film. The image, widely distributed in the international news, marked a turning point in the world’s understanding of the regime’s brutality.

I was seeking refuge with people who wouldn’t ignore history in favor of a trip to the mall. I was excited to spend time with Pam. My new friend had chosen a life dedicated to the youth of a country she had adopted – a country I was trying to call home.

Pam came from rural Swaziland to South Africa in the 80’s and lived through apartheid, transition, Mandela’s presidency, and more intimate trials than I could ever know. She stayed in one of the only concrete structures in town, where she graciously allowed me to sleep on the floor in the common area with her children, Zoleka and Nomaswazi (nicknamed Gogo). On Saturday we visited people in shacks of varying size and quality, talking about everything from child abuse to hand-crank telephones.

154824_459525554612_7947341_n One tiny shack had the ten residents’ laundry hanging out to dry in front. A large woman came charging out, ranting at the top of her lungs. She was drunk, her huge breasts sagging under a loose shirt. The stale smell of home-brewed beer lingered as she yelled about her troubles—no money, no food, too many children.

“God may come to others, but He doesn’t have time for me! He doesn’t have time!” she moaned.

Shaking her head, Pam said, “Eish, wena. It is your responsibility to make the first move, especially when it comes to God.”

Like a jilted lover, the woman scowled and would have none of it.

“You see? This is what we still struggle with,” said a woman standing nearby. “We finally have our freedom and she spends it on beer. Her children will be hungry tonight.”

The kids ran around me, giggling and taking turns jumping up to be held.

Saturday night was black, with a sliver of moon blurring through the haze of township smoke. With a group from the youth center, I set out into the damp darkness of a different Kliptown. We walked carefully on the dirt paths, narrow and flanked by barbed wire in places, stopping to talk with huddles of people gathered around tin buckets filled with glowing coals.

The groups warming their hands and smoking pungent-smelling joints were mostly men – men who as young boys choked under apartheid and the tyranny of Bantu Education designed to keep them servile and who spent their adolescence without access to basic rights, education, or meaningful work.

It was the textures and smells of that night combined with the joyful children of the day that woke me up inside. My inner revolutionary had been dozing a bit in the suburban comfort of Melville where I had found a place to live, and Pretoria, where I had found a mentor and an internship at a think tank.

Few whites see Kliptown in the dark; they would say it’s far too dangerous, and they may be right. Spend the day and take sunny images of smiling kids to impress your family and friends with your “African experience”. Spend a winter night and share your humanity in the bitter cold. It becomes impossible not to challenge the status quo.

Sunday dawned clear and freezing, heralded loudly by an overzealous rooster right outside Pam’s house. The kids from the youth center were running excitedly to the old Battery Center. The bare cement room was now a makeshift theatre with “United We Stand” and a picture of Hector Pieterson painted on the wall. Performers of all ages hammed it up for the audience, all people from the community. The kids did gumboot dancing, recited poetry, and sang about the new struggle: HIV/AIDS.

HIV was a mental sledgehammer: freedom was won by the previous generation, but life itself was hanging in the balance for this one.

I felt that my life was hanging in the balance, too.


Love and High-Risk Human Investments

photo 3Silindile is 13 years old now. Every year of her life feels like a gift, proof that despite some inevitable loss and darkness, life and goodness and hope can (must) triumph.

This morning I went to the annual meeting to discuss Silindi’s progress as her sponsor, along with two other trustees, at the St. Vincent School for the Deaf. For the first time in years (perhaps ever), there was no crisis looming. I did not find myself rushing to the hospital, visiting a social worker, or sleuthing out the location of a shack in a new part of Soweto. Today things were calm, and I reflected.

“Crisis” is the mode that has defined much of my relationship to this little girl: keep her alive. Pray that she hasn’t been abused. Contain the panic that she isn’t learning to read fast enough. Try to get her mother to engage more, or differently. Wrestle with the guilt that for selfish reasons, I’m not here to check in every week like I used 1

I first met Silindile when she was attending the Pastoral Centre Preschool and Creche in Kliptown, Soweto. I was on the board and trying to find sponsorship for the most needy children. Those who live in the Freedom Charter Square informal settlement sleep in crowded shacks without heat, electricity, or running water. Children have lost parents to AIDS, alcoholism, and the kind of poverty that breaks spirits and families. Imagine, then, what it means for a kid to make the list of those who are the worst off.

The late Pam Mfaxa, the principal of the crèche and one of my closest friends, first brought her to my attention. The staff thought she might be developmentally disabled because she was often unresponsive and had behavioral issues. The way she looked then, you could see right away that whoever was taking care of her was also struggling.

Because she didn’t react when called, the first question was whether she might have problems with her hearing. I tried to build trust, visiting often, and soon she would run out to greet me when she saw my car pull up. I went to meet her mother, a young woman from rural KwaZulu Natal who spoke almost no English and whose second child had been treated for malnutrition. I had a few meetings and arranged to take the family to a specialized Wits University clinic so that Silindile could have her hearing tested. The test results showed that she is profoundly deaf in both ears.

Sometime around this part of the journey, I abandoned my principle that I wasn’t going to get involved with individuals when it came to charity. Living in a place full of need, I had adopted this basic framework to stay sane: because I couldn’t help everyone, I would direct my resources to organizations that helped many.

Silindile was barely four years old, but she reached through my defenses. She latched on and wouldn’t let go. I later learned about attachment disorders possibly caused by her mother’s post-traumatic stress, and I don’t want to be naïve or overly simplistic in describing what happened. Regardless, it changed my life. Smiling, holding my hand, hugging me, and giving me a sign name before she had any formal use of language, I couldn’t turn away from the feeling of being called by this innocent soul, and I no longer cared about frameworks.

So I took up the challenge and went to battle. I walked into the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank and insisted that they take her in. The alternatives were not places I would send my own daughter. At the time St. Vincent had a boarding facility (now closed), and the school had classes through 12th grade. I saw a future for her there, a sense of security, and a place where her mother would be supported as the hearing parent of a deaf child. There was no room for the coming year, I was told – and no funding for a disadvantaged child. No matter.

The following year she was enrolled. I bought Silindi’s mom her first alarm clock to help her get her daughter ready for the school bus every day. I pleaded with the driver to wait when she still wasn’t there on time. It was a delicate dance. I didn’t want to play the white savior or to alienate Silindile’s mother, yet sometimes both seemed inevitable. I questioned my own motivations frequently.

There were critics, including a minister I deeply respected, who called me out on perpetuating a broken system by sending one kid to a good school while failing to lobby for systematic change that could help many others. I never denied the validity of this argument, but I also couldn’t deny the feeling that I was compelled to do something. Instead of making it an intellectual debate, I just… did.

On the evening of her first day of school, I got a call from St. Vincent’s. Silindi had missed the bus home and was left behind. A staff member had put her to sleep but they couldn’t keep her overnight and were worried for her to wake up among strangers. In a panic, I drove to the school and a somewhat hilarious scene ensued. It was dark, the doors were locked, and it’s a school for the deaf.

See the crazy white lady throw rocks at the window! See the crazy white lady jump up and down waving frantically! See someone finally come to the door, and watch as the crazy white lady dissolves into tears, feeling like a failure, scared for a little girl who isn’t hers, scared she can never make this work. See the crazy white lady enfold the little girl in her arms and carry her to the car with a rubber sheet in case the little girl wets the bed. See the conversation as she explains to her white South African partner that she has brought home a small black child from the township who is now sleeping in the guest bedroom, and that he has to hide in the morning in case she gets scared of him when she wakes up.

Eric peeked into the room that night and stood there for a while, watching a vulnerable fellow human being sleep. When he turned around, something had come over his face – a fierce softness. He was not, generally speaking, a soft man, at least on the outside. He had been to war, exchanged gunfire while working as a bodyguard, and once legendarily gnawed through a man’s collarbone to win a fight. He had only stopped carrying his Beretta everywhere when we started to date.

It is only now that I fully understand how important what happened that night 208081_7039769612_1861_nwas, and how it helped define what love feels like to me. We had argued about the way I went over the top sometimes with my work and volunteering. When it came right down to it, though, in that moment, he didn’t just tolerate my compulsion to act. He cared just as much as I did, in his own way. He was in.

When I got a full scholarship to attend graduate school at Princeton, we established a trust for Silindile because I wanted to more formally fundraise and make sure there was a structure for her continuing education. Eric stayed in South Africa to be present for his own daughters (he was older than me and had been married before). The distance strained our relationship.

We wrote long letters wrestling with how we could make it all work, and how to support his kids while also having at least one of our own. Maybe supporting Silindile seemed like a less complicated form of nurturing that we could do together. We fought, with each other and for each other. His voice on the telephone was my alarm clock almost every morning and he told me I was beautiful even when I hadn’t slept more than four hours in two days.

And then, he died.

He made a small human error on a high-performance parachute landing, and he was gone.

See the crazy white lady get the call on a Sunday morning. See her crumble to the floor and pound it until her fist swells. See her pull it together for the family, for her dead life partner. Life, interrupted. Life, gone from the dead lover behind mortuary glass. Love, suspended, a formless, directionless emotion with nowhere to go.

About a month later, I waited for a phone call from a Johannesburg radio station, Highveld Stereo. I thought I was doing an interview about Silindile in the context of charitable giving during the holidays. I was a wreck but I was trying hard to put one foot in front of the other. Once I was on the line, I got blindsided. One of our friends had written a letter to the station. Granting a Christmas Wish as part of an annual tradition, a representative from the multinational Aon told me that the company would pay for Silindile’s schooling until she graduated, in Eric’s memory. I found myself sobbing openly, my vulnerability pouring out through the radios of people driving to work that morning.

photo 2The supportive network I tried to build for Silindile and her mom and brother became part of my life and healing in ways I could never have anticipated. Some of the St. Vincent’s teachers and staff are like part of my family. Skydivers and friends all over the world donated to the trust. Everyone who touched Silindile’s life holds a piece of my personal history that sometimes feels slippery and often distant, especially in the life I’ve built in the US. I never realized as I was working for her future that I was also constructing a virtual village of my own.

Becoming a professional skydiver hasn’t distanced me from death. On the contrary, I have continued to bear witness to small human errors that take my friends away. The trade off is that skydiving pulled me out of my darkest grief through the physical act of opening my parachute in freefall, over and over and over again, saving my own life. Sometimes, when I fly, I feel that Eric is alongside. For the most part, these “visits” are short now. I had to stop holding on in some ways in order to survive, and to make space for change. But the love that we shared for Silindile remains and grows.

Supporting her brings me back. Back to Joburg. Back to the power of transformative love and high-risk investments in other human beings. A little girl whose growth was stunted from poverty is now, finally, within the height and weight range for her age group. I believe that she will someday leave school with a fighting chance to lead a life of peace and independence. There are still issues of housing and safety as she enters her teenage years, and I am still afraid of something terrible happening because I couldn’t prevent it. But that’s life, and I choose it every day.