I’m going back

Hello there – me again.

It’s been three years since you read about that time I went to South Africa and the title of this post really gives the game away so, if you possess no further interest whatsoever, feel free to opt out now. But, yeah. I’m going back.

Ever since I lifted my feet off the Cape Town airport runway to fly home that time, I’ve dreamt and talked and sung and written and harped the bit on about wanting to return. In those three months, South Africa really quickly became my second home and almost all of the things about it made my heart burst with delight and so, yeah, I’m going back.

I fly next Sunday – 7 days from now – after booking the flights two weeks ago. This time I’m only staying for 14 days – not 90 – and, while I’m THIS MUCH MEGA EXCITED to go back, SO MANY OF THE THINGS will have changed since 2013.

I don’t know what this trip will look like at all. Regardless, I’m probably going to write about it. (“OH JOY”, I hear you say.)

Since 2013, the American couple hosting me have had ANOTHER baby which is the best news ever. They’ll be popping back home to the USA a week into my trip – pretty sure this wasn’t prompted by the news of my return – presumably to ensure Trump isn’t elected president.  A few of my other old companions will, however, be knocking about the entire trip, so that’s splendid. My German heroine, Janina, is currently touring Zambia but she’ll be back on time for me to throw my arms around her and smile all day long. My Dutch heroine, Annette, also proved herself to be the heroine OF ALL HEROINES when she WhatsApped me last week to tell me she had booked us a couple of nights in Hermanus – which, yes, is the heavenly place where the whales live and where happiness, too, reigns uninterrupted during whale season between the months of September and November. (Yes, this heavily influenced the timing of this trip.)

I’m also going to prison.

But that’s all for now. The main purpose of this post was to help convince me that this is actually happening – because, if it’s published on the internet, it’s true…right? Also, this past year has been spent studying for a postgrad and writing a dissertation and attempting to adult with a real life actual job, and in amongst all that, it can be hard to retain creativity or write for joy – so it would be nice to get to tell stories again.

Thanks for reading. You’re a marvel if you’ve got this far. Have a restful Sunday – and maybe please spare a prayer/thought for this insane little trek back to South Africa. You made it possible/were hugely encouraging 3 years ago – so I’d be overjoyed to bring you with me again this time.




Train ride.

This morning as my little train shuttled out of Portadown station and headed speedily toward Belfast Botanic, I looked outside and was transported to someplace else.

Cue: dreamy spiel.

Craigavon lakes were transformed into row upon row of shacks.

The endless blur of green fields became the Cape Flats.

Suddenly, I imagined the little Black and Coloured faces shuffling along the road to their schools and workplaces. 

Tractors became beaten-up cars – which would long have been dispersed at scrapyards, with no hope of passing MOT tests, here – trundling along tarmac-crumbling roads. 

I could feel the heat of the sun hammering through the windows.

I looked around the train, and, seats which had previously been occupied by Northern Irish passengers, were now filled with a vast array of business people and construction workers and students and mothers with their children and teenage boys, sniggering. Up the aisle, I heard the sound of a Coloured voice, singing some inaudible words in an almost-melody. As the voice neared, I noticed it was being led by the hand of a young girl. The voice’s owner? The young girl’s blind mother. Or grandmother. It was always difficult to tell, as poverty had not been kind to their faces. The blind Coloured voice cupped her unheld hand, petitioning for a little money for her melody.

I turned my face away one too many times. Back into my book. I can’t even remember now what I was reading – a book on prison ministry – and the blind voice walked on with her daughter finding the path for her. 

Conversations in Afrikaans surrounded me. Blissful noises. 

I closed my eyes, leaned my head against the sun-beaten window, and continued to dream. I could hear and see it all. 

Then the call came for Great Victoria Street.

And I knew I wasn’t in South Africa, because their trains don’t have a helpful train journey commentator. (If they had, I wouldn’t have got lost that one time.)


What’s next?

I realise it’s been an absolute age.

I would apologise, but many of you are probably thankful for the break.

Seated in the upstairs window of Waterstones in Belfast, I’m attempting to ‘sort my life out’. It’s proving more difficult than I presumed it might be.

It’s been two and a half months since I stepped on a homeward-bound plane from South Africa – almost as long as I spent out there. For a little while, I thought people would be too distracted by my three months in South Africa to ask what was next. That little while lasted about ten minutes. As soon as we were driving up the road from Dublin airport, our Lewis was already making suggestions.

So I got a job saving sharks. And I even have a business card now. Sounds like I’ve landed, eh? The job is with Marine Conservation Northern Ireland (MCNI) – which won’t be a name you’re too familiar with, as the organisation was only founded a few years ago. I had emailed them in July 2012 (!!) in search of some work experience as I obviously just couldn’t be without saving marine life any longer. In January (2014) they responded with the offer of a job interview. They couldn’t decide which of three girls to hire, so they hired all three girls. Bearing in mind that the other two girls are studying/have a degree in Marine Biology, I’m a little aware I’m out of my depth where Latin names for fish are concerned – but mostly, I’m incredibly thankful. These people REALLY care about our coasts. And our sharks. And our skates and rays (which are pretty much the same thing – like stingrays – but that’s not very scientifically correct of me to say). It’s a little bit (a LOT) refreshing to spend time with these people. Last weekend, for example, five of us took a little trip across to Scotland, and then on to the Isle of Arran, to talk to our Scottish neighbours about what we can all achieve by putting our heads together and setting about establishing ‘the recovery of valuable indigenous species whose current decimated stock levels threaten their sustainability’. Those words in bold are, believe it or not, kind of our tagline at MCNI. Catchy, eh?

But yes, we spent the weekend on the very lovely Arran – I’d recommend a visit to you all – and were inspired by the Scots to get the campaign started against trawling and dredging and all things harmful and awful on our seas. (Trawling literally involves lots of rakes scraping along the ocean floor, taking starfish and habitat with them – like taking a ginormous rake to the village of Richhill and turning your head while the little homes crumble, basically.) Perhaps the loveliest part of the job, is that I can talk about whales ALL DAY LONG and no one minds. What was once just me harping on about a little topic I cared a little too much for, is now encouraged conversation content. Marvellous.

The job isn’t full time. It’s barely even part-time. As a result, it still doesn’t totally suffice as a response when people ask me what my ‘plan’ is. But I’ve never been one to take more than one day at a time. To all of those lovely clever friends of mine who graduated last June and are now employed full-time: Congratulations. You’re sorted.

I’m in Belfast today researching a post-grad in Journalism. My city of choice? London. Should be wee buns funding that.

On a South African note, I checked my phone the other day to find a reminder that read: ‘Deswin released from Hawequa’. It was a sobering moment. Deswin was the inmate who claimed me as his sister back in November, when we ran the second Restorative Justice programme in Hawequa Correctional Centre. And now Deswin is free. It brought me back to that day when I stood in awe as one inmate was driven off in a little white van to freedom.

I hope Deswin is happy. And I hope his freedom lasts a lifetime. I still owe a few prisoners a letter and I need to get on that. As I sit at my little window seat in Belfast, contemplating the next little step in life, I’m made very aware that I have significantly more options in life than Deswin. And I don’t know what to do with that. One thing I do know, is that SkyScanner are sending me regular price alerts for flights to Cape Town. And, between earning minimum wage saving sharks and dreaming up a way to survive in London for a year, I reckon a return to South Africa isn’t COMPLETELY out of the question.

God knows, though. So it’s okay.


The realness of these 90 days

I’ve been home three days now and it the entire expedition feels a little dream-like.

As though I should be concluding my little time with you on this blog with the words,

“Then Zara awoke and it had all been a dream. The End.”

But from the looks of this blog, all of those events actually happened, and all of those people actually exist. Besides, I’m not one to stop talking just so easily.

These past few days have been a collection of reunions with happy familiar faces, revisiting familiar places and realising that Christmas is actually still about to take place, regardless of what the weather was like in South Africa for the past three months – and the illusion of Summer created therein. After a solid 22 hours of making our way home from Cape Town between Wednesday and Thursday, I spent my Friday enjoying the Christmas Market in Belfast.

And then they went and bombed Belfast.

Such a swift welcome back to the homeland. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with the inmates at Malmesbury prison a few weeks ago, when I was teaching my lesson. I had told the men in my discussion group that there were bombs and hijackings happening in my country, and that this was what I was going home to. They quickly spoke up in alarm: “Your country is worse than our’s! We don’t use bombs!” I had rejected this claim strongly. Of course my country isn’t in as bad a state as your’s. You have poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence and attacks in the most extreme of forms and you boast shocking statistics. Northern Ireland is quite conservative and safe in comparison. It maybe just goes to show that we all have a very long way to go. Some of us have not yet reached a point at which we can understand and interpret our circumstances to the extent that enables us to know when to call it a day; that there is neither a need or a justification for violence. I may not have been alive long enough to know too much about Northern Ireland and its vulnerable self – and I thank my parents for refusing to educate me in all the wrong ways about my country’s history – but I can see as far as this: the people of Northern Ireland have a shocking lot less to riot about than those in South Africa. There does not exist a cause in Northern Ireland so great that it could ever justify car-hijackings and bombs.

(This isn’t to say that this behaviour is ever justifiable. I’m just saying that in the case of Northern Ireland, some people need to know when to give up; the lives they live are a lot more wealthy with human rights than those living elsewhere on this globe. There seems to be an absence of knowing when an individual has something to fight for, to wage war over.) – I, personally, don’t tend to believe that a ‘fleg’ is something that justifies war.

This morning I met especially jovial faces at church in Richhill. It was very wonderful to be back – even if it lacked the usual array of coloured skin and cultures that I’ve become accustomed to. If it wasn’t for these praying people, I would never have made it in South Africa – never mind actually making it to South Africa; their generosity was what funded my way there. It was very odd as I was met by hugs and “welcome home”s, and told, “The time just flew in, didn’t it?” Well, yes it did fly in. When people asked me how it went, I felt like telling them all that I’d be around in due time to visit them and give them a whole spiel – I’d start at day one if they really wanted. Truth is, there is such a great deal of things I just learnt. There is such a great deal of things I just lived through and stories that I need to retell, for fear of forgetting the initial impact they had on me – for fear of forgetting their realness.

Truth is, this probably won’t be my last post because the truth is, the realness and importance of my 90 days in South Africa are probably just beginning to sink in. So my apologies in advance – and feel free to sign out now.



Dubai – Dublin (A post-publication)

Travelling is uncomfortable.

After lying on Dubai’s unforgivingly cold marble floor to nab an hour and a half of sleep, I’m sitting at Gate A23. Dublin is just another 9 hours away. I haven’t been properly cold for a few months now, so it may take me a few days of hibernation before I settle back into life in Northern Ireland. I genuinely can’t imagine that Christmas is less than two weeks away – regardless of the amount of Christmas lights strewn around South Africa’s little towns. (The lit-up Christmas whales would have to be my all time favourite.)
So home it is.
When I got on to the plane in Cape Town – half a day ago – I wrote a list of things I wanted to remember about South Africa, for when I was no longer in South Africa. It turned out to be a good long list. And, chances are, it will get longer.
People say that Africa works its way into your heart. I went to Uganda 4 years ago with Fields of Life and the most marvellous group of people from Richhill Methodist, but it wasn’t until 3 months ago that South Africa tugged and tugged and unstitched some of the little seams of my heart, only to sew itself into the needlework. I didn’t really want to leave at all. (My mother didn’t, either. Just try to pull her away from sunshine and plummet her sunned face back into a Northern Irish Winter.)
But I’m very excited for the next leg of the journey. Right now, I am very excited for my own little bed back on Castle Avenue, but I mean the longer term journey, too. I met people in South Africa that I pray never to forget. (I kept the farewells brief and unemotional – “rip off that bandaid”, as the Americans are fond of saying. I daresay the emotions might come later and hit me like a big block of ice.) I saw and learnt things in South Africa that I pray never to forget. Allow me to share a little segment of my pre-written list of learnt things in South Africa from my earlier Emirates flight:
  • Have joy.
  • Don’t sit still.
  • Love more – always.
  • Cold weather is a blessing.
  • All the faces of new friends.
  • God puts dreams in our hearts because He plans to see them materialize.

One more Mandela

Today I brought the family to the Cape of Good Hope and we stood on what seems to be the edge of the world for a little while. 

For years I have sat at my Nana’s kitchen table and gazed, bewildered, at the world map on her wall. For years I have fixed my eyes on the label, ‘Cape of Good Hope’, and pondered what a place that must be. It is truly very beautiful. Nelson was the father of an incredibly breath-taking land.

Pitched up along the seafront street of Kalk Bay today were a number of chalkboards paying respects to Mandela. 



I think I might have expected the country to erupt or cease to exist when Mandela died. Instead, the reality was that it kept on going. I made a point of listening to the radio as we drove along the roads today, to try to catch something of what the people are feeling. President Zuma spoke, explaining that Mandela’s was a life ‘we must all emulate for the betterment of our country and Africa.’ Songs were played. Songs like ‘What a wonderful world’ – which all seemed to have claimed some new and higher significance in the wake of the country’s great hero.

Janina text me this evening to tell me about a memorial service being held in Cape Town – unfortunately the text came too late, and we were too far away to attend – and exclaimed that they were about to sing the national anthem. It must have been an incredible experience. To join with the nation and sing. And this nation can sing.

I don’t know enough to form some long and intelligent and fresh opinion or thesis on Mandela’s death. I didn’t live through apartheid. As long as I have been alive, Mandela has been a free man. (We are headed to Robben Island on Sunday – a trip that will be of greater value now, I hope. I do wonder what the atmosphere there will be like.) Even having lived in South Africa for 3 months now, I don’t feel as though I know enough about this country to comment or possibly predict what’s next. It is such a vast land. It is home to over 52 million people. (Northern Ireland homes 1.8 million.) Having talked to the inmates at Malmesbury prison last week about their country, I know that President Zuma is not best liked here and has proven to be yet another corrupt politician. So the Black governing party which Mandela envisioned has not become a reality as yet. While we may fill the news feeds of our social media sites up to the brim with Mandela quotes, there is no doubt that his words have not yet been manifested in the leadership and citizenship of this country. The concern lies in the extent to which South Africans will strive to live out Mandela’s words now that he is gone. The risk is that they will become excessively quoted words, once seen as visionary and within reach, and eventually the remnants of a dreamed up future for this nation.

These past two days we have been staying in a little thatched cottage in Noordhoek – just 30 minutes from the Cape of Good Hope. Tucked behind a remote-controlled gate, it doesn’t take a top pair of binoculars to see that one could very easily live here and remain very oblivious to the happenings of South Africa. It is a very white-washed – when I say ‘white-washed’, I mean White – gated community. Each time I’ve driven out of the gate, I’m met by a new pair of horses trotting along the country lanes, being driven by their smiling White owners. It maybe isn’t a surprise at all, then, that I didn’t find the expected upside-down and mourning community outside the gate today. Without the aid of instantaneous news and social media, one would have to drive for a few miles to learn of Mandela’s passing. It’s on a day like today that I so wish I could be in prison, hearing the reactions of the inmates to such an event as this.

Prison closes its doors to outside visitors such as the Andrew Murray centre on December 15th. This closure lasts right through until January 15th, as part of a procedure known as Operation Vala. Vala occurs annually, as this period is recognised as the Summer holiday in South Africa – I still can’t get my head around sunshine in December, but I’ll not go on about that. During this time, less staff are on duty due to holiday leave. This is also a volcanic time in prison. Tensions build as gangs recruit new members. Inmates get both depressed and frustrated by the distance and bars keeping them from celebrating Christmas with their families. Yesterday I went to Malmesbury prison, where lots of prayers were prayed over the men there for the upcoming months. There are 50 men who attend the session every Thursday. This just happens to be the prison where I had the privilege of teaching last week – I tried my best to convince Maxwell and the others that I couldn’t possibly be expected to stand and teach 50 men, in contrast to the usual 20 or so at the other prisons, but alas I failed. Last week, a few of the guys assured me that they would plan a surprise for my family coming into prison, and I knew they wouldn’t disappoint. Yesterday, my mum, dad, and brother all joined me in prison. Needless to say, the car journey to Malmesbury was not quite filled with the usual chat and banter. I did feel a little bit guilty in that I had been to prison countless times by this stage, whereas these three had never set foot ‘inside’, and had no idea what they were about to experience. The car journey home was anything but quiet.

The session ran overtime. The men sang with the strongest, most harmonious voices ever to erupt from an army of orange clad figures. Five of the inmates made their way to the front, and Marlon – a cheeky-smiled inmate who relentlessly requests that I bring him pens to write with – flashed me his familiar smirk. As they stood, the other 45 men sat still in anticipation. As one of the five moved to face the other four and found a beat with his hands, the quintet burst into song. Two songs sung, and they began a rendition of ‘Above all‘. There were harmonies in there that I could never have imagined – and I do like a good harmony. As their volume and energy increased – Marlon and his choral companions began to move and shake and dance to their melody – the seated inmates were utterly buzzing. One after the other, they hit the tables at which they sat, as their eyes lit up and the broadest smiles overtook their faces. The whole room was in absolute awe. The sounds that came from those men were something quite unreal. 

I stood there with my family by my side and I couldn’t quite believe it all. It was such a something to have two little worlds merging in the maximum security section of a prison at the bottom of Africa. After the singing, a few of the inmates were given the chance to share with the group. One man stood and spoke for about 25 minutes. He had been in my discussion group the week before when I taught. We had spoken about Habakkuk. I told them that they are the marvels that could be. That they are the wonders that the world will behold. This becomes a very real message when you’re telling it to inmates in South Africa. Mandela was a marvel who came through 27 years in prison. And to join in on this quotation business, Nelson once said: “In my country we go to prison first and then become president.” After the inmates shared, one of them stood and thanked my little family for taking time out of their holiday to come visit. They told us they’d prayed all week for my family’s safety. Then several of them came to the front of the room and stood beside my little family and prayed again. Surely this was one of the oddest and most contenting moments I might ever have. And I commend my little family for not attempting to flee the room out of sheer incomprehension of it all. (Perhaps the fact that they were standing in a barred and secured, maximumly secured building had something to do with it – escape is neither encouraged or made possible.)

When the session ended, I took Marlon’s address and told him I’d write. 

Today, I sit in my little borrowed thatched cottage, complete with spiral staircase and a window view of the paddock – complete with two horses and three wolves – from my bed. 

I record these things here because, just as I have voiced the crucial need to remember and apply Mandela’s words and visions, I must also remember the people and promises I have made during my 3 month stay in this land. Tonight I’ll sleep in pristine white sheets while my new friends sleep behind bars on thin mattresses. In a few weeks I’ll sit beside a twinkling tree, predicting what colour the Queen will wear as she gives her speech, while my new friends sit behind bars on thin mattresses. In January I’ll look for a job after morning danders with the dogs while my new friends sit idly behind bars on thin mattresses. 

But my new friends are not wasting away their time. And my last little day in prison yesterday only convinced me of that. They are building each other up. If such a revolution can occur within South Africa’s prison walls – and I have come to see that God really, truly, genuinely is working behind the bars of South Africa – then the hope with which Mandela spoke has not been extinguished. If even one more Mandela can come out of South Africa’s cells, with a heart and head for God and this nation, then surely we can move forward.

This place needs prayer. And one more Mandela to pick up where the last one signed off.