The best came last

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The biggest events came last during the Old Dominion University leg of our trip, in Norfolk, Virginia: the launch of the photo exhibition at the Goode Theatre (see pic above) and the Literary Festival talk, the main event on the book front.

Eric and I were nervous. These events would sum up what we had been up to for the past four years, and give an indication of how the university’s enduring support had born fruit. We scratched hard at our notebooks for hours beforehand in planning our speeches and put text and photos together for our presentations.

We needn’t have worried. It was all marvellous. A big crowd came to the exhibition launch, where Eric gave an address, describing how we had worked on several newspaper and magazine stories before the photo exhibition and book began, and what the project had meant to us over the past four years – this having been the longest project either of us has ever worked on. Vivienne and Thelma talked about Gapa, and raised the roof at the end with the Nevergiveups song.

We could hardly tear him away to go to the talk, because people kept wanting to talk to him.

That night, the lecture theatre was packed, with over 200 people, for the Literary Festival talk. Eric’s photos were thrown up on the huge wall at the front of the lecture theatre, as I described the thunderbolt moments that had made us realise a book wanted to be written, how the grandmothers’ stories give the rest of us a window into South African history and changing cultures, and why we put the book together as we did, with various writing styles giving windows into each women’s personality. I also read some excerpts. ‘Riveting’, was how one lecturer at ODU described it afterwards.

‘These stories are so powerful that they rub off on you,’ said a student.

‘I am amazed you had to work hard on the text, because it didn’t seem like you talking at all, it seemed like the grandmother herself. I could even hear her voice,’ another student, Dana, had previously said.

I think that one of the biggest challenges as a writer is the imaginative leap needed to shed your own thoughts and personality and hop deep inside someone else’s head, to see things in a completely fresh way. So thank you, Dana, for giving me the best possible compliment.

Other events followed: a reception at the ODU president’s home, talks with more student classes, including a filmmaking class. Perhaps the most memorable was on the very last evening, where we all gathered at Kathy Williamson’s house to eat Chinese take-aways and look back on what this Nevergiveups rollercoaster tour had meant to us all: grandmothers Thelma and Felicia, Gapa executive director Vivienne, journalists Eric and I, and Jen and Kathy. Kathy’s husband Perry, Eric’s wife Laurine and my husband Simon, were also there. We were people of extremely diverse backgrounds, but had extremely hard worked together for weeks on the tour, and been connected for years before that, as the Nevergiveups project gained a life of its own, our hands moulding it.

In her intro to the book, Sindiwe Magona writes that the grandmothers’ lives have become consumed by fulfilling “their duty: Sacred.”

“And the name of that duty is Love,” she concludes.

Kathy’s dining room was so thick with love born by our common purpose, and our hard-earned respect for one another, that none of us wanted to leave that night.

Thank you, dear Nevergiveups team, for the journey of a lifetime.

Five queens and a king

blog_8817 (1)Weare still being treated like five queens (Laurine, Thelma, Felicia, Vivienne
an d I) and a king (Eric) by everybody we meet.
When we ask why, Jen says it’s because she and her students have been busy with
this project and anticipating our visit for so long, that their friends and
colleagues are all filled with excitement.
‘Just come and feel the lurv,’ they told us months ago. Well, we’re all lurved up.
Yesterday, we cruised down the river with friends Jackie and Eric on their boat, passing the Norfolk navy base, biggest in the world, pelicans and dolphins. A gentle wind in our faces all afternoon, and big skies and water. We popped champagne and marvelled at how Zane, the dog’s boat, knew to scoot into the cockpit when waves approached.
It was Felicia’s first boat ride.
For lunch yesterday, another feast at the gracious Kathy Williamson’s house, where Vivienne, Felicia and Thelma are staying, and the two grandmothers gave us a modelling show wearing their new shoes, making us all laugh at their comic hand and foot gestures.
Yesterday morning, an exuberant African-American church service at Grove Baptist Church, with a moving sermon about changing your destiny – a relevant topic given frustration at the government shutdown and hard economic times, especially among African Americans, in the US. A church TV crew was filming. We were gobsmacked to get the DVD of the service at the door, as we left. This after countless handshakes and hugs, because we had been called to the front to be greeted as people left.
On Saturday, we visited non-profit organisation Norfolk Organising and heard the stories of local immigrants (there are 12 million in their position nationally) who are desperate to stay in the US because their families have been here most of their lives, but they are still ‘undocumented’, with no papers granting them residence or the right to work. Intelligent young people, top of their class at school, are taking up jobs as illegal cleaners and have little hope of because they cannot study at college – or risk being deported, at any moment, back to countries they no longer know. This is America’s ‘civil rights issue of our time,’ we were told. Obama is the fourth or fifth president to have promised immigration reform, but it hasn’t happened yet. December 2013 is the next deadline for action, or disappointment.
On Friday, Vivienne and I took part in a panel discussion about ‘Global and local Aids activism’ at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, and that evening another panellist, Bismarck Myrick, the former consular-general to South  Africa and ambassador to Lesotho, held a party for us at his house. I spoke to interesting people: a newspaper owner, a wise Quaker woman, some very nice neighbours, university lecturers. Manners, I once heard, is the art of making other people feel comfortable. AT the ambassador’s house, everybody had superb manners towards us visitors.
The previous day, we all spoke at a university class. The students were keen as can be to speak to the grandmothers, and after much discussion and many questions, one began crying as she described a family member dying of Aids, and another still struggling with HIV. Then other students began speaking up. Two more had lost family members and friends to Aids. They began offering each other advice about where to find support groups. It was deeply moving experience. They had never previously been so open, and their stories were prompted by those of the grandmothers, who had spared no punches in sharing both their vulnerability and strength.
I wish we had an hour or two to reflect on the richness of our experiences. That will have to wait, because the experiences are piling up.
And hooray – my darling husband, Simon, arrived last night. Makes such a difference. This place starts to feel like home.
Hope to blog again soon, and warmest regards and thoughts to all out there reading this blog,
from Jo on behalf of The Nevergiveups.

(Below is a pic of us as a group working through some of our issues. Hard work, leading to a far deeper appreciation of one another. Eric’s pics, of course, although Laurine took the one below using an app on his iPhone)

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You never can tell

blogpic IMG_4853I have learnt a powerful lesson this week, one that has taught me to dig into my own resources and find a level of perseverance I had not previously imagined possible.
It is this: Do the thing you love – the thing that the very fibres of your being demand of you  – and you might just tap into a force for good more powerful than you could have imagined.
After that, you never can tell what might happen. But it will probably be good; very good.
When we started writing about and taking pics of the grandmothers at Grandmothers Against Poverty and Aids four years ago, Eric and I suspected we were onto something important, but had no idea what it might become.
We heard some extraordinary stories from the grandmothers, which made the hair on the back of our necks stand up at their sheer power, and started working on this exhibition and book.
That took four years, most of this in our spare time, due to the enormous amount of collaboration in finalising it and the large and even agonising amount of legwork in getting it published. But, early on in the process, we had met Professors Jennifer Fish and Bette Dickerson, who were doing similar work, as academics. We started working together.
They had students, who were also extremely committed. All of them started working, too, on The Nevergiveups project by raising money, setting up websites, networking, motivating – and all of this work got us to the US.
Now, here we are. We have met so many extraordinary people, that Vivienne, a strong, powerful woman, simply wept when she took the stage tonight at Ingleside to thank them (the pic above shows her, and the grandmothers, shortly after she sat down)
We have talked to countless student classes, spent a morning with an organisation showing a profound level of care to vulnerable and desperate young women in Washington – there are many – that it gave us testimony to how good the human heart can be.
On Friday night, the South AFrican ambassador gave the keynote address at an event where our book and exhibition were launched at the Katzen gallery, and today he and his wife had us all to tea. They were warm, gracious and we had a great conversation.
We have met big-hearted and big-minded people who have filled our hearts with optimism.
Many of these people have no doubt that dreams can be achieved, and simply DO things, with a buoyancy and assurance that astonishes us. This seems quite an American approach. It’s worth experimenting with.
How wonderful.
Tomorrow, we go to Norfolk, Virginia, to give talks there. Who knows what will happen.
In all likelihood, it will be good. Very good.
None of this is about one of us as individuals, but the river of the work we are doing, that is sweeping us all along with it. Sindiwe Magona says, in The Nevergiveups book: ‘Do what you love doing, and do it to serve humanity.’
And then, we might add, you never can tell what good things might happen. Expect to be surprised.
What a wonderful lesson.

(Below is a pic of the Ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, taking a pic of grandmother Thelma Nkone posing next to a portrait of Mandela, in his house after tea today. All the pics, of course, are by Eric Miller)

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Nevergiveups are “like Mandela”, says ambassador

GapaRasool at Katzen

Everyone loves Nelson Mandela. Everyone admires Nelson Mandela.
“But if you look at the grandmothers at Gapa, you will see that Nelson Mandela may be exceptional in the world, but he is not exceptional in South Africa,” said South Africa’s ambassador to the US, Embrahim Rasool.
We were ecstatic that he could come and speak on Friday night at a gathering at American University in Washington to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the university’s Alternative Breaks programme, and the Nevergiveups tour to the USA.
Eric’s photo exhibition is on display at the university’s Katzen art centre, where the celebration was held, and The Nevergiveups book was launched at the event.
Students in the university’s AB programme were part of the huge network of people who have been working hard for months to bring us all to the USA. These students, too, are part of the Nevergiveups network.
Rasool previously worked with Grandmothers Against Poverty and Aids exec director Vivienne Budaza, and knows Eric well.
“Every day in South Africa, these grandmothers confront their demons and the challenges of society,” he said of Gapa grandmothers Thelma Nkone and Felicia Mfamana. “Every day, they find ways to survive, find faith and hope, and enough energy to tackle the challenges they face head-on … and that is what we are here to celebrate tonight.”
Eric “captures the soul of his subjects” in his images, and together we created a book “of the most eloquent and profound words,” he said.
He urged AU students to jog past the new statue of Nelson Mandela outside the South African embassy.
This statue shows Mandela as he left prison, his fist raised. It is opposite a statue of Winston Churchill, whose fingers are raised in a peace sign.
“But, as we keep telling the British ambassador, rock always beats the scissors,” said Rasool to uproarious laughter.
Below is a pic of grandmother Thelma Nkone, Gapa executive director Vivienne Budaza, and grandmother Felicia Mfamana (far right) with Nancy McCulloch, one of the many interesting people at the Ingleside Retirement Centre, where we are staying in Washington.

Clockwise -South Africans Thelma Nkone, Vivienne Budaza, Nancy McCulloch of Ingleside, and Felicia Mfamana

“Can’t put the book down”

KY8_7485loAn American lady pushes a slip of paper towards me. Later, she will tell me she is on a fixed income and probably cannot afford The Nevergiveups book. But the slip of paper gives me her address because, she says, she definitely wants it.
Her friends at the same table start slipping me their names and numbers, because they, too, want to buy the book. The orders keep rolling in.
We are at an event for seniors held by the City of Hyattsville, a particularly community-minded
suburb just outside central Washington, which sees itself as a separate town.
Some Hyattsville officials and about 60 local residents are here, and the audience is black and white, of various socio-economic strata. The grandmothers and Vivienne told their stories, then I read an excerpt from the book, about Beauty Skefile fighting not to be pushed away from her shack in Crossroads by the police under apartheid, and how she and her fellow Crossroads residents eventually won this battle.  ‘This is so much of our story, too,’ says one
of the seniors, and then they fall upon the book.  We have not brought enough copies.
Our enormous gratitude to Jen and Bette for networking us into these groups of big-minded and big-hearted Americans. Of course, it is grandmothers Thelma and Vivienne, and Gapa director Vivienne, who really steal people’s hearts.
Later, I speak to Hyattsville resident Elisa, who was ensuring that more copies got to her neighbours. “I am reading the book and can’t put it down,” she said.
She could not have said anything better.
We do still have a full of the full boxes that we lugged over to the States, to take
to other audiences, and the book is now also on Kalahari. Eric has just pointed out it’s just popped up on Amazon too. Hooray! I shall keep on scribbling our updates.
The pic above is Peter Starr ,Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University, just before we spoke at a department lunch. Below is grandmother Thelma Nkone and Prof Bette Dickerson. Thanks, dear friends, family and colleagues, for your queries and support, and we hope the SA weather is gentle as an American ‘fall’ right now.

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The Nevergiveups land in Washington

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Off the plane from Cape Town, and into a radio interview in Washington we went – well, almost. We did have a break of about two hours to drop off our baggage, before the five of us (grandmothers Felicia Mfamana and Thelma Nkone, Gapa director Vivienne Budaza, photographer Eric and I) trooped off for the 45-minute slot on WPFW radio, where we talked about the grandmothers’ lives, Gapa and the Nevergiveups photo exhibition and book.

The indefatiguable Prof Jen Fish and Dr Bette Dickerson have lined up an astonishing itinerary, and we are having a blast. Today we went for lunch at Bette’s department at American University, saw the photo exhibition at the Katzen gallery at the university, then gave a joint talk at Ingleside retirement centre, where we are staying. It must be one of Washington’s most prestigious retirement centres, full of diplomats, UN staff and others who have led rich and interesting lives. They were extremely warm and appreciative after hearing our presentation, and asked interesting, well-informed questions. “How is it that everybody here is so ideologically advanced?” I asked at dinner. “Ah,” said a charming woman across the table from me, without missing a beat, “that would be because we are all Democrats.”

One of the most heart-warming moments was that those who bought the book, asked the grandmothers to sign it. Here is a pic of Felicia signing the book, with Thelma in the background. Cheers for now, will post again soon, Jo-Anne.