"I want to exercise my right to die tomorrow"

On a daily basis, we see a fair number of mentally ill clients. Since starting my work with the SAHRC, I've read complaints that range from illegible markings on a napkin to eloquent quasi-slam poetry about the patriarchy of educational institutions. You never know where that person is coming from, or whether the complaint is real until you start searching between the lines.

Today when the secretary for the office wandered into my office at 8 am with a clipboard, I glazed over the client information to see in all caps, "I want to exercise my right to die tomorrow". The rest was a blank page. I tried not to look as shocked as I actually was. The secretary pointed her finger to her head and waved it in a circular motion, "something's not right up there with this one". Nevertheless, I walked into the intake room and asked how I could help. I spent the next hour trying to convince a homeless Rwandan man not to commit suicide after after hearing his life story, which included jarring details about him watching every member of his family be killed and his experience as a child soldier. 

He had no complaint that we could file. There was no way that we could help him in any legal sense. He was already granted asylum status to work and study in South Africa but now wanted his mind "to be free", which he believed was his right to decide when and how he would die. My immediate reaction was silence. We sat for a moment until I could gather myself and explain that his "right to die" wasn't actually a right in this country. He explained that it didn't matter if it was or wasn't a right, he just wanted to make sure that no one would stop him if he attempted to take his life because that was the only way he could be free from the demons in his mind.

In the last few years in both the US and South Africa, there has been a lot of controversy over the "right to die" and whether or not this was a protected right. Most recently in April of this year, a South African court granted the doctor who cared for a man dying of terminal prostate cancer the right of protection from prosecution after the man died. By granting the doctor protection for prosecution, had the man died with his help, this case may have paved the way for the addition of a right to death to the Constitution, but not just yet. While the man with cancer died of natural causes, the judge in the case decided in favor of the assisted suicide, despite the fact that the ruling was never carried out by the doctor himself. While South Africa may not have a "right to die" it does have a protected "right to human dignity" very broadly worded into its constitution. The right to dignity may one day soon include the right to decide the time and place of one's death, but so far, it is not completely set in stone.

After collecting his papers, I rushed back into the office to speak with one of our senior legal officers. "Can we recommend someone to a mental health facility? How do we go about doing that?", she walked back into the consultation room with me and immediately recognized the client. He had been into our office several times before and told the same story to others, requesting the right to die, and each time she had recommended he seek counseling.  This time, he refused to see any therapist or take any advice in that area. So we continued. We delved into his story further, he removed part of his shirt to show us the scars on his chest, he broke into tears. We waited. There was simply nothing more we could do but listen and continue to plead with him to continue living. He refused. He reiterated how there was nothing left in this life for him, and his freedom would only come when he rested in peace.

An hour later he gathered his things, thanked us for our time and walked with his head down to the door. Will he come back to this office to plead the same story, or will he actually go through with what he's been threatening for the last three years? I'm still unsure, and the thought weighs on me. He has a right to decide what he does with his own life, maybe I do agree that he should be allowed the dignity to decide when and how he dies, but did I do enough to try and prevent this? He came here pleading for help. He came here for solace. He came here to ask if we could help him die. Did we help him do that by not forcing him to seek psychological aid? Can we even do that?

My head is still swimming with questions about this case. I hate leaving something like this without knowing what will happen to him, but I hope he decides to keep trying and I don't read his name in the papers tomorrow.

Safety in Colors

Let's talk about race. Let's talk about what it means in South Africa, what it means in the US. Let's talk about why I feel safer in the white neighborhoods in this city and why that's wrong. Let's make this an open discussion to learn, debate, and understand, because right now, living in a city where I am part of the minority and therefore a target for crime because of the color of my skin, I want to know if this feeling is something others can relate to in other contexts and how race plays a role in that.

As a white, middle-class female, I have privileges that many others don't because of the institutionalized racism that plagues the US that we refuse to recognize in so many ways. I understand where that privilege comes from, the institutions that praise it, including the field that I hope to go into, and why that's wrong, but there are some feelings here that I can't shake and I am open to advice on how I can help change them. This is a difficult topic, and after seeing the news about the confederate flag and church burnings based on racial hatred plastered all over the internet, I think it's time to bring it up. I'm in a country where violence, oppression and racism are constant reminders of the apartheid regime that created this problem. I'm also from a country where racism is a continual reminder of my own family's history of slave ownership and the problems we face as a nation that clearly favors white over black. In both of these countries I am grouped with the people who oppressed the majority of each country for centuries, but I still feel safer in those communities despite my hatred for this fact, and I have a hard time breaking out of that bubble.

The last few weeks here have been a challenge to understand where I fit into this place, and how I can come to know this city without putting myself in danger because race here means safety in numbers, but it also means safety in colors. When you walk the city streets here after dark, you'll know when you've hit a bad area if you don't see another white person. The same for the train. If you get into a carriage where you're the only white person and it's getting dark, you've got a lot to worry about. That fear that I feel when I end up in these situations is what pushed many people in the US into committing hate crimes which they later justified in our very screwed up system of justice. I recognize this, and I hate the fear because I know it's wrong.  I know I shouldn't think that way, but I'm conditioned here to think that way out of a need for safety. 

If someone here starts a conversation with me on the train, my immediate reaction is to grab my bag until I see who they are. Yes, the color of their skin does play into whether I continue that conversation and how comfortable I am talking to them. That's not right. It's not ok. I try not to make judgements about those people, I try to continue the conversation, but what if they are trying to distract me to steal from me? What if they are going to follow me off the train to something much worse than rob me? I'm trained to go through this scenario not only because I'm a woman, but because I'm now a part the minority of oppressors, and I'm a part of the group of people who probably did deserve to be stolen from for what they did to the black and colored people in this country. But it still doesn't make my train of thought ok, and it doesn't make this feeling go away.

What this post is meant to be is an open question about how I can change the way I've been conditioned to act, and how I can learn to be a part of this society in a more functional manner that doesn't support racism. Thoughts, criticism, advice and conversation are openly welcomed on this feed and I hope to learn more about everyone who comments on this.

Sharks, Mountain Tops and Load Shedding.

Load Shedding, the next level of darkness. And you thought getting home on the train was scary? Try spiking crime rates, streetlights out, police lights on, people running for their homes, gun shots. Silence. Luckily, we made it to the house before all of this and are safe behind lock and key with bars on the windows that don’t require electricity.

South Africa sold a huge portion of their energy to neighboring countries with less to live off of, but their calculations must have been off because they now don’t have enough for themselves. Thus, rolling blackouts ensue every few days. Electric fences go out, alarms go off, streetlights fade and everyone stays at home in the dark for a good 2.5 hours until it returns.

So here we sit, computers ablaze, headlamps on, but all other electric devices out except for the neighbors directly next door who we can see watching TV. Jealousy levels are high. Stomachs are grumbling. With no oven, no microwave and no snacks in the house we wait for the electricity to come back with bated breath.

Beyond the excitement of load shedding, plenty of new adventures occurred this weekend. I’ve realized that Capetonians enjoy a more extreme version of hiking than we Americans. If you hike in Cape Town, be prepared to clamber up at least a few sets of ladders, potentially climb either inside or behind a waterfall, or scale a few pitches of climb that should probably have ropes attached to it. After 15.5 miles of hiking up a waterfall, over a beach atop a mountain, across a marsh and back down behind a waterfall on the Cliffside of table mountain, we checked Skeleton’s Gorge, Table Mountain and Lion’s head peak off our bucket lists. The 365 degree views were more than breathtaking, and simply can’t be captured accurately in photos.

The next day we headed out on a 2 hours drive to check off another item on the bucket list; great white cage diving. Ever since I started diving 14 years ago, I’ve wanted to see a great white. Because they can’t be captured and put in aquariums, and you definitely don’t want to meet one while wearing a wet suit, the only way to see these incredible animals is through a cage dive.

When I saw my first shark 12 years ago, I came up to the surface with a large red mark straight down my forehead from motioning “SHARK!” to everyone on our dive so many times. If you take your open palm and place your thumb on your forehead with a chopping motion, you’re letting everyone know there’s a shark somewhere close. There were so many on the dive, I’m pretty sure I bruised my forehead, but I was hooked. Since that point, I’d made it a goal to see the biggest of those sharks in person, and returning to South Africa gave me the chance.

While I know that cage diving isn’t the most sustainable of endeavors, at least it’s far more regulated than it was 10 years ago and provides an educational experience about the true nature of sharks for many who fear them. Today the ships are only allowed to use tuna heads and bones with no meat up to 25 kilograms in weight to “chum” or call for the sharks. They are still allowed to throw the juices from the fish into the ocean so that the sharks can smell it and come towards it, but there’s no feeding frenzy like they still do in some areas of the Philippines and Indonesia (see youtube). What’s most amazing about all of this is seeing the sheer size of one of these animals. They calmly swim to the surface, “sniffing” out the food, and swimming only about 3 feet from you in the cage, letting every inch of their 12-foot bodies glide past you. It’s incredible, terrifying, and mesmerizing all at the same time.

This weekend I finally saw my great white, saw 360-degree views of Cape Town, and drank a few very good bottles of local wine. I’d call it a win, and I believe there are plenty more weekends like this one to come ( :

Are you afraid of the dark?

Returning to Cape Town after 12 years, this city and I have changed a lot. The colors, smells and people bring back memories of diving with sharks, watching the springboks in a local pub, and wine tasting up and down the garden route. Now, I'll be staying just below the beautiful table mountain, working in the city center, and adventuring outside whenever possible. Twelve years ago, taking the metro was not an option, but on my first day here, this "new" form of public transportation provides a different look into what this town has become and how I've changed as a traveler.

Inside the carriages, small square stickers for witch doctors offering sexually explicit aid and "safe" abortion pills line the walls while colorful groups of locals chat in a mixed range of languages that vary from clicks to almost sing song melodies. We stand next to the doors just as the train takes off for town as one man jumps on at the last moment just as the platform ends, then yells out the open door to his friend, throwing his head back in the wind and slamming the doors shut. I finally feel like there's an adventure waiting for me here. 

Hours earlier, our recruitment office told us specifically "never take the train after dark". Not knowing exactly what this meant, I wandered with my boyfriend into the city center in the late afternoon and decided to walk to the waterfront to watch the sunset and tour the area. Not only were we instructed on the dangers of the train, but we were thoroughly warned before even entering the country to leave our iphones at home, never wear anything that looked expensive and not to take anything important with us when traveling in the city. I'd never felt so restricted by rules for safety in any other country before. While I've lived abroad for the last few years and gained some street sense, Cape Town is a whole different animal. You hear constantly about all of the crime and lack of safety in South Africa, but until you see the razorwire, barred windows, alarm warning signs, and electric fences that decorate almost every home in the city, it doesn't seem real. Honestly, if I'm smart about it, why should I be afraid of a little bit of darkness?

After the sun's last rays set over the ocean, we started back to the train station and noticed people walking at an intense pace to get back to the metro. Suddenly, the closer we got to the station, the bigger the eyes of the people got while they frantically ran towards the train. They told us that something wasn't right, and we should probably be running too. Once we got into the station, we searched for the right platform when two men saw us and asked, "where ya goin?" we told them our stop, and they said "hurry, we'll take you! you'll be safe with us!", Safe from what exactly, was I really in danger? They hurried us, running through the crowds to get to the train, looking behind them every few seconds with worried looks to check that we were still there. We hopped back onto the train and made it safely home, even in the dark, but if the locals acted this way, maybe there was something to this fear of the dark.

Now, my daily commute will be dictated by the hours of daylight that I can safely get to work on the train and back. As a single white female traveling in the city with semi-professional clothing, I've yet to run into any danger, but with only one day of work under my belt, who knows how many stories I'll come back with!