Processing and South Africa Part Two


It has been an embarrassingly long time since my last blog post. Things have been happening so quickly, and most of what has happened has felt totally out of my control… And to say that I have had an easy time processing it all, would be a lie. To be honest, I haven’t been totally ready to share all of these overwhelming emotions with you all and I’m not entirely sure that I am. But I’m processing…

St. Lucia was an amazing weekend spent in a new place with familiar friends. It was a weekend I hadn’t realized how badly I needed until I was there and with those people. We spent the days laughing, catching up, and having once in a lifetime adventures together. We had the opportunities to go on a safari drive in the Hluhluwe Game Reserve and to go kayaking with Hippos and Crocs sharing our river – amazing! Most of all, the weekend helped me reconnect with the girls from William Smith who I had anticipated seeing more often in South Africa and had been wanting to share this experience with more.

After returning from St. Lucia, I found myself ready to dive back into my academic career at UKZN Howard. I left my residence hall that Monday morning and attempted to go to my 10:30 class – Religion, Migration and Urbanization; however, the second I stepped foot toward the Shepstone Building I could tell that the vibe was a tense to say the least. There was a large crowd of students gathered outside of the building and my instincts recognized their energy as a strike and quickly turned my body around to head back to the safety of John Bews. Little did I know that this was the start to a totally crazy couple of weeks.

The rest of that week was spent showing up to empty lecture halls and hoping not to get in between the protesting students and the police. When lectures were held, the classes were barely filled and the professors often cautious. The general vibe was simply uncomfortable. A large group of students were rightly striking against the UKZN administration after losing their student housing due to “administrative issues” that were out of the “administration’s control”. Right… The strikes remained peaceful at first, but the energy tensed rapidly as students began to throw bricks at buildings and the police responded using paint ball guns and rubber bullets. It all felt so foreign but so close at the same time. I remember receiving Bisola’s call that she had heard gun shots and thinking “is this really happening? am i really in this place, right now?”. By the end of the week I found myself just welcoming the tranquility of knowing that classes were not being held, and that I didn’t have to walk on campus to see whether or not my success as a student would be jeopardized or not.

Once again, FlatFoot remained as a binding force in my time here. That Wednesday night (3/13), FlatFoot opened their 10th year with “Last Thoughts”. The Training Company was invited to the opening night gala where we celebrated the history of the amazing group and toasted their success with champagne and cupcakes. It was a perfect evening spent with people dear to my heart. “Last Thoughts” began with a piece set on the six dancers choreographed by Sifiso Kweyama, who is known as a “dancer’s choreographer”. The movement was described by as a friend as being “a mix of ballet and african dance”, which I felt adequately described it’s most basic elements. But what I was most struck by was the sheer strength of the company. Never had I seen such different body types come together and perform in such union with such strength. Watching the FlatFoot company gives me goosebumps as you can tell how much they truly enjoy what they do and our proud to do so. The second movement was choreographed by FlatFoot’s artistic director, Lliane Loots. The piece featured spoken word by Iain ewok Robinson and two break-dancers (B-Boy Kayzo & B-boy Bizzo) who worked with the 6 FlatFoot company members to create a piece that celebrated the strength of FlatFoot amongst the trials of time. I LOVED the piece. I even took Bisola and Tahmina that weekend to watch the show again. I get chills just remembering it… I am so proud and honored and humbled to be part of such an amazing group of people with such a rich history of perseverance and activism.

The next week of classes approached timidly as there was greater talk of the strikes continuing throughout the week. I had spent the weekend cramming for an Applied Anthropology exam only to show up on Monday morning and realize that there would be no test.

That Monday morning was actually a really difficult one… I showed up to Shepstone and was feeling ready to take my exam despite the warnings on my way to use caution in case of strikes. When I entered our classroom there were only a few students and then more trickled in as the time of our exam grew closer. But as the number of students increased, so did the tension in the room. The local students began frantically speaking in Zulu and hustling around the room. Eventually one said “I’m flipping scared. This sh*t isn’t funny”. So when I turned around and asked the girl sitting behind me what was going on, I felt I had good reason to begin understanding this situation better. Our professor was already five minutes late when we decided to get up and go wait in the hall. Only ten minutes later were there hundreds of students and police officers sprinting down the corridor disrupting the other lectures which had managed to meet. Having seen the protests during the previous week, I had felt slightly empowered and more courageous about sticking around to see what this was all about. But it was obvious that in this scenario, the language barrier can actually be terrifying.

I ended up heading back to John Bews and hiding away until the afternoon. Anita had called and warned us not to both going to morning lectures and told us that she would keep us posted if she heard anything more. Campus became crazy. It had become slightly normal to see the fully outfitted police officers around campus, but there is something absolutely shocking about hearing gun shots on a campus.. even if they are only rubber bullets! By that afternoon things had quieted down and the UKZN administration had not cancelled any classes… so I decided to be brave and back up to Shepstone to see if my Religion course was meeting….. Wrong move. Shepstone was a broken ghost town with lockers turned over, the floors flooded, and a generally eerie silence. I walked down to Anita’s office to recap everything with her, only to find that her offices and all others were literally chained shut. Of course, she and Sihle came and opened the doors for me as soon as I called, so I sat happily in Anita’s office feeling like I had been able to stay safe and brave all in one day… Or so I thought… Walking home from Anita’s office, I experienced Tear Gas for the first time. I was walking straight back to res when I noticed a large group of police officers frantically searching the area between me and my residence hall. Anxiously, I decided to hold back before crossing the street…. I figured it was better to be behind the police, than it was to be in between them and the protestors. But then I heard the pop and saw them start sprinting forward. Gathering up what little bravery I had left, I crossed the street. Then it hit me. Tear Gas isn’t something I ever imagined having to face in my life. It immediately disorients you as your eyes blur and you feel your lungs constrict… My friends have asked me what I was thinking in that moment and I have a hard time remembering anything other than panic and fear. Another local student grabbed my arm and hurried me down the stairs to my res and told me to go rinse my eyes out.. so I did. And the second I was sitting in my bed, I began to cry. This is so normal for people here, and I didn’t know how to exactly process it all. So I called my Mom on Skype.. I just needed someone to sit and let me feel what I was feeling. It was all so much.

I spent the next day in my room deciding I had been brave enough for one week, and by Wednesday the University announced that they were officially closing until after our Easter Break. A week and a half of classes cancelled…. now what. Most local students either began celebrating or quickly packed their bags to leave; but us international kids were left feeling slightly disappointed and aggravated as we also faced the reality that the University was planning to make up this “lost time” by adding time to the end of our semesters and therefore keeping us away from home even longer.

Wednesday night I headed to FlatFoot rehearsal with Sifiso Majola who is my choreographer. I was feeling tense and completely entangled in all that had been happening in the last weeks with the protests and the new realization that I had no idea when I could go home. I spent half of the rehearsal holding my breath and feeling like I didn’t want to be there. But when Majola passed us a ball and told us to throw it at each other in order to pick up our reaction time and trust, I felt myself breathe. I felt myself connecting with these people and sensed myself feeling more stable and in control. In FlatFoot, I am Abby. I am Abby, the girl from the United States – a dancer. A dancer who belongs. I left feeling at peace and energized to take advantage of this new found time off.

I woke up Thursday with incredible calf pain. Majola had us using our bodies in ways that mine had not been in a very long time so I assumed that I just had some pretty bad knots. Knowing, from past experience, that knots take stretching and massaging, I did just that and headed to the beach for the day. By that evening I had lost almost all flexibility in my left knee and was struggling to put weight on my left leg. By Friday morning, I couldn’t use my left leg. I spent Friday morning hopping around res, realizing that something might actually be wrong so I phoned Anita to find out what to do. Luckily, Sihle showed up then to say hello and noticed my gimpy self and told me that we were leaving right away for the clinic. And so we did. The doctor at the clinic did an exam of my calf and instructed me to get to a hospital as soon as possible to have an ultrasound done…. “I think you’ve definitely torn a muscle”…. Words no one ever looks forward to hearing.

So we were off on another adventure. Sihle and Anita hustled me into Anita’s car and we headed for Hospital #1 (having picked up Bekhani on the way). I found myself laughing at the situation… a laughter filled with both fear and disbelief. No luck at Hospital #1 though… the Ultrasound department wouldn’t be able to see me until Monday…. great! So we were off to Hospital #2 which was all the way across town in Pinetown. I could not have asked for a better support team to go through all of this with. Sihle and Anita helped me stay positive but showed me the love and comfort I needed so badly in this foreign place going through what seemed to be totally impossible. The radiologist who reviewed my ultrasound confirmed that I tore not only one, but two muscles in my left leg – my medial and lateral gastrocnemius… I felt the tears well up in my eyes. Most frustrating was the fact that he could do virtually nothing other than to tell me what I had torn and send me on my way with a recommendation to see a sports doctor… no painkillers… no crutches.. no support…. cue panic attack. Luckily Anita and Sihle helped me find a pair of crutches to rent and got me home and in bed where Bisola and Tahmina were ready to care for me.

I’m choosing not to go into any further detail about the darkness I felt in those next 24 hours. I am choosing to let go of pain that I felt from the betrayal of someone I had grown close to, and choosing to accept that this injury is only another piece of my journey. But what I can tell you is that I chose to care for myself and booked myself into a Bed and Breakfast in Durban North on Saturday night and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself. There comes a time when you must realize that you deserve good things and you have the power to give them to yourself.. and so I did. That night spent  away from the hectic life on campus was just what I needed to start my “South Africa Part Two”.

South Africa Part Two

During my night off campus, it became evident to me that I needed to refocus my experience here in South Africa. I had found myself falling into a dark place where I struggled to identify the good that had happened here in Durban, and was feeling like there was no longer a purpose of being here if I couldn’t do the one thing that had made me feel at home – dance. Nonetheless walk… But I realized that night, through letting almost complete strangers care for me, that I could be open to the goodness of the world and perhaps that is what I needed to focus on for the remainder of my time here… Not on my academics, or lack there of, but on the people and the capability of people to influence you in good ways so long as you let them.

But there is something so absolutely terrifying about letting someone in and giving a piece of yourself and your trust to someone that you barely know.. perhaps the question is how much of yourself to give? But as I was reminded by a dear friend yesterday evening, sometimes you just need to take a “leap of faith”. And sometimes you may land badly and tear a muscle, but there is a reason that we are meant to have the capability to heal – It is to remind ourselves that we are not actually infinite on our own, but are connected through one another to something so much bigger than our single being.

There is so much good that exists in this world, and it is almost terrifying to realize that it make take pain to realize that there is good. But good exists – and not outside of what you already know. It’s funny actually… in writing this post I am remembering all of the good things that have happened since I injured myself. I am remembering the faces of all of the people who have shown me kindness and support even though they barely know me: people in the Victoria Street Market, the doctor at Kings Stadium, and now my awesome PT angel -Joyce. I am someone who has always fought the “everything happens for a reason” card… but I am realizing now, in this moment, that everything does… It’s just up to you to receive it and interpret it in a particular way.

So here it is… plain and simple. South Africa Part Two is dedicated to myself and the recognition my strength and worth. It is focused on the goal of never allowing myself to take anything or anyone for granted.  I am rejecting the feeling that bad things follow me, and I am choosing to be open to the reception of everything good… because it does, in fact, exist…and I am so ready to welcome it with open arms! So many people have gone out of their way to show me love and guidance amidst all of the craziness of the past few weeks, and in this moment I am feeling grateful. I am feeling so grateful that I have so many people who have touched my healing process so far in such positive and loving ways. So come on South Africa Part Two… Challenge accepted – bring it on!


2 thoughts on “Processing and South Africa Part Two

  1. I don’t really have words
    for how proud I am of you… but, to “South Africa, Part 2”, seize it, Muffin! ❤

  2. Wow Abby, I just read all this and I’m finding it hard to process everything that you’ve described. You have said literally a mouthful.

    I am an extremely emotional person. Always have been, always will be. I’m often profoundly moved by the words and experiences of others…moved to tears even, which is the case with your latest blog. It made me cry, in two places in particular. First was your description of the events on campus involving the strike. More precisely, your experience with tear gas. How horrible. It’s crazy when you sit back and contemplate the fact that situations such as this one are commonplace for many people around the world, yet for people like us, Americans, it is such an “alien” sort of thing. I realised a long time ago (and perhaps it was on my first trip to SA) that here in the United States, we live in a sort of bubble, a sheltered little world. I know that there are many many people here in our country who suffer in indescribable ways, but for the most part, most of us, like you and I (if I can take the liberty in making such an assumption) live pretty sheltered, privileged lives. It never occurred to me before I saw it with my own eyes, that there was so much suffering in the world.

    I think one of the very first times I had any real sense of what that actually meant was when I was driving from the airport to my hotel in Cape Town, the very first time I visited South Africa. We drove past endless amounts of little shanty towns with their tiny little huts made from corrugated steel. I thought, wow, look at this. Here I am, about to embark on a three week journey in a new place, with more than enough money to do whatever I wanted to, whilst there are all these people right here, living in such dire conditions. As I finished that very thought, we drove past two small children, practically naked, and filthy beyond all imagining, on the side of one of the roads that bordered the highway we were driving on, playing with a dead dog, looking quite happy to do so I might add. This was not normal to me…

    Anyway, I think I digress. What I was getting at was that these strikes you were witnessing, the rock throwing, the police in their riot gear, the tear gas…those things are all pretty normal for most people who live in places like South Africa. It makes me sad to think that for most of them, they will never know any different life than the one they live. They will never get to experience the good fortune that you and I have been so lucky to have experienced. For them, there is none of the “fairness” that we so take for granted at Hobart and William Smith. They wont know about a life where it isn’t really necessary to be brave and be concerned about your own safety. I don’t blame you for coming unraveled and desperately needing to talk to your mom. You held up longer than most people would have dreamt to were they every put in a situation like the one you were faced with. I’m not sure I would have handled it as well as you. The fact that you managed not to freak out in the thick of things, in the heat of the moment is commendable.

    The other part of your piece that touched me emotionally was when you were speaking about trusting people you hardly know and trusting that there IS good in the world. I think as Americans, (and perhaps this is a broad generalisation, but I find there is truth to it for the most part, based on my own experiences) tend to be very guarded with themselves. We have all these walls and are usually afraid to lower them much at all to let anyone else in. The fact that you are already learning to do that at your age speaks volumes and volumes about what a mature young woman you have turned into. Most people do not have the power to do what you have done on an emotional level. They are too closed off to let anyone else in. Your situation demanded that you let people in and let people help you. You, in a sense, learnt the hard way. Total immersion hahaha. But sometimes that is the best way to do it. Your friend is absolutely right. Sometimes you DO just have to take a leap of faith. Sometimes you need to just dive into the deep end and see what happens. Clearly you did not drown, which speaks to the fact that you are much much stronger that you ever imagined yourself to be. You are growing by leaps and bounds and even I, having only “known” you for a few short weeks, can already see that. In the face of all that adversity, you have managed to see past all the negatives (and there are a fair number at this point) and focus on the good things. You have had experiences that most people will NEVER have, and that’s something to be ever so grateful for, which clearly you are. Take all of that in, use every moment as a learning experience, and you will only continue to grow. By the time your six months (plus a little since you’ll have to make up the missed time from the strikes hahaha) are up, you will never ever be the same again.

    You are going to have so much great material for when you write your memoirs Abby 🙂 I’m proud of you, as all of us are, and as you should be of yourself. You are doing AMAZING things young lady.

    How is your leg doing at this point by the way? What else did the doctors say? I take it your injury is one that will; heal on its own, judging from the fact that you are now doing PT?

    Oh and BRAVO for realising that you NEEDED a break and taking the initiative to give yourself just that. I’m not sure I would have had the sense of mind to book myself into a bed and breakfast for the night so I could regroup and get my head right. You are obviously quick on your feet (or your foot in your case lol). Good for you!

    I cannot wait for your next blog post. I really look forward to them. I’m sure you are going to continue to do the most amazing things.

    All the best,

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