Day 35: 29 December – Home is Where the Hurt is

December 29, 2008
As much as I do not want to see children living on the streets, the harsh reality is that the communities they often come from are also not always a viable option. I remember a few years ago when the local government went through a phase where they said they want to move away from “institutions” and only work at community development and family reunification. As wonderful as this ideal sounds, much work has to be done in the communities before we can begin shutting down institutions, or saying we no longer need them. In the current set up, they are in great demand. This did not stop the government from moving in the direction of shutting down institutions and making it extremely difficult for the existing ones to receive government funding; all of this with no real change happening in the communities.

As I said, I do not want to see children living on the streets, but if we are going to see that day come there is an enormous amount of work that needs to go into our communities. Today I saw a good example of that. I was on my way to town and I got a call on my cell phone from China. He said he was at Groote Schuur Hospital and asked if I could come there. I had not yet parked my car in town so I turned around and headed for the hospital. As I drove I wondered what had happened to him. I have known China for as long as I have lived here. He lived a large portion of his life in a shelter in town. He is an example of a kid that truly does not have “much” to go to at “home”. His mother passed away years ago, and he really does not have any relatives in Cape Town that are capable of taking care of him. I saw him become frustrated after years of staying in the shelter and at one point he ran away.

I found him in Cape Town spoke with him. As stubborn and naughty as he could be, he was unlike the other kids on the streets. He was not hardened like the others and did not use and hard drugs or glue. He stood out. I wondered how long that would last on the streets. I spoke to him about coming off the streets and as much as he wanted to, he expressed feelings of “stagnancy” at the place he had been staying, and wanted to move on to “greater” things. I told him I would look around. Most of the other homes said they would not take a child “straight from the streets” and he had to be referred from a shelter. I was not able to find anything for him, and he therefore had to go back to the place where he had been staying. One of the things that had frustrated him was many of the other kids went home for the weekends and holidays and he did not have anywhere to go. I spoke to the social worker and said that I would be his “guest family” if they would take him back. It was a deal.

Part of the deal was that he would be transferred to a more “home-like” environment as soon as possible. Time went on and he visited my house for some weekends and most holidays. He seemed to remain positive. Unfortunately, soon after that a new social worker came. She did not show much passion in finding a new place for China and also clashed with his stubbornness that others knew well. She also felt that he should not visit me as often because I was not his “family”. They made contact with some of his relatives in Eastern Cape and he went to stay there for a while. He apparently got into trouble there and ended up back in Cape Town. And to make a long story short, he has been in and out of homes and jail ever since. He still occasionally calls from time to time, but until today I had not seen him for about two years.

I arrived at Groote Schuur Hospital, walked down the long corridor, took the lift up to Level F and saw the sign for F8, where China said he was. As I walked in I noticed that there were not many patients in the beds. Just as I was walking up to reception to inquire about China I saw him laying on a bed waving at me. I walked over to his bed. A group of nurses gathered and looked at me in disbelief, that turned into smiles, as they asked, “Are you Ryan??”. I said yes. I found out later that he had told them that I was “family”. That explained the reactions they had when they saw me! I greeted China. He had on a blue hospital gown, an eye patch, a hair net looking thing, and his face was swollen quite a bit. He said he was discharged. Without even knowing why he was there I said, “Ok, let’s go!”.

He said his clothes were covered in blood. I looked at the plastic bag next to his bed and his wadded up shirt and jeans were inside…caked in blood! There was barely a speck of fabric that did not have blood on it! The nurses said there was nothing they could do and he would just have to put on those clothes. I decided to go check in my car for something. Fortunately, I had an old pair of jeans and a hoodie in the boot. I went back up to F8 and gave China the clothes. He put them on and we were on our way. On the way out he told me what had happened. The last time he got out of jail he decided that he had had enough of that lifestyle. He decided to go “home”. But he said that he was not exactly sure where that was. He went to live with his brother in an area called Philippi. This specific area of Philippi is one of the rougher areas and his older brother is a product of that environment: ROUGH! He drinks copious amounts of alcohol and is up to no good most of the time.

China felt it was better than the street, and he really did not have any other options. He very openly told me that he had not known how to make money, but he didn’t want to get “back into crime”, so he just decided to sell ganja on a small level. Yeah, I also found a bit of humor in that too, but understood what he meant by “crime”. So he has just been living with his brother, and selling ganja on a small level to make money to be able to eat and survive. The other night he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His next door neighbor’s house got broken into and some things were stolen and he was seen walking by. He said to me himself that even he is not “stupid enough” to break into his next door neighbor’s house, and on top of that he said he was through with that lifestyle. The neighbors did not believe him. So they grabbed him and locked him in a room. Then they took turns throwing beer bottles at him and beating him. He said he tried to reason with them, talk to them, but they would not listen. Guilty before proven innocent! They continued to beat him and pelt his face with beer bottles and then they left him there to bleed.

He walked away from the house, dripping in blood. Other community members came to his assistance. They called the ambulance which surprisingly came not too long after that. He slept alone in the hospital during Christmas and said his mind was “not really working properly” (probably from the shots to the head) until today, when he realized he could call me to come get him. And that he did. We left the Hospital and I got him some clean clothes, brought him to my house to get cleaned up (his head was encrusted in dry blood), got some food in his belly, and told him that we would “figure everything out” tomorrow. Honestly I don’t know what can be figured out. As I sit here and type he is sleeping on the couch behind me and I feel the same helpless feeling I felt about 6 years ago when I was trying to find another place for him to stay. And now he has missed more school, burned more bridges, and has even fewer places to go. But I told China that many people don’t understand the complexity of the situation of the kids living on and off the streets of Cape Town and I asked him if he would mind me sharing his story, and even show some of these pictures to you. He confidently said, “Do it Ryan! They need to see this!”.

Many of these kids make their “home” on the streets of Cape Town, and Cape Town has their hearts. Cape Town definitely does not have their best interests in mind however; like an abusive lover! For China, Cape Town has caused too much pain in his life and he doesn’t want any more of what the streets have to offer. But unfortunately for China…home is where the hurt is.

(The two pictures above are: China in 2003, & China and Me in 2002)

The doctor said he was lucky he didn’t lose sight in his right eye.

He has cuts on both hands from trying to block the blows to his face.

His entire head is full of knocks, bruises and stitched up gashes. This one in particular has puss oozing out for some reason.


Day 32: 26 December – The Password to Happiness

December 26, 2008

Today is the 16th day that I have lived in “real life” again. I have been doing allot of thinking lately! I guess going straight into the “Holiday Season”, after spending 16 days living on the streets will do that to a guy! Anyways, I have been thinking a lot about happiness. And not really “happiness” in the form of a shallow emotion that comes and goes. When I speak about “happiness” in this context I am talking about a deeper, more ongoing “reality” that an individual lives, or doesn’t live, in. I look around and see so many unhappy people. It really saddens me! I wonder if they realize that we are only given one life? And every day that they walk around with that disgruntled look on their face, looking at and treating others with disgust, is a precious day gone by…wasted.

One thing I have realized is that being “happy” comes easier, and more naturally, for some than it does for others. Some people really struggle being happy! It is a true battle for them. On the other hand, I look at myself, and I am not trying to brag, but I find it very easy to be happy and content on a day to day basis. I can actually enjoy the seemingly smallest of tasks, or things that others may not find excitement in because of my outlook; I seek out “happiness” in every situation. It might sound arrogant to speak about myself in this way but it is nothing that I can take credit for! We are all products of our upbringing and environment. I am no different. And I can see where this “outlook” started for me…with my family.

There are many people that had an influence on molding me, and my outlook on life; from my mother who continuously sent the message that “life is not always fair” to my great uncle who told me “adversity is what you will remember and learn the most from”, I can see how my little head and heart was being filled with positively, but a grounding sense of reality, from a young age. But there are two people who played an enormous role in my “outlook”. Two people who lived out “happiness” on an uncompromising, regular and consistent basis! Those two people are my grandparents on my mother’s side, Grandmom and Papa.

There is so much that we take for granted as young people. As we get older we start to look back at those things, take stock, and are able to give them the true value they deserve. I look back at the “things” that Grandmom and Papa gave me, the things that they instilled in me, both directly and indirectly, advertently and inadvertently, and I am so thankful for them and the role they have played in loving and shaping me! Though I know much of their “life lessons” were intentional, they may never know the things I picked up from them, merely by observing, and being in their presence, watching them love life with all their hearts and love each other with more than that.

You see, happiness is a choice, and no one has it perfect all the time, and I know that my grandparents had their own struggles for happiness at one point in their lives, but in my life time they made it seem effortless. They have a way of finding joy in the most mundane situation, and appreciating the most “ordinary” of things. Whether it was a long road trip stuck in a car, with Grandmom deliriously singing songs to keep us entertained, or a meal where Papa told us, “Now, we are not in a rush…”, as he savored every second of dinner conversation and every bite of his food. They both have an amazing passion for life, people, culture and traveling that is most definitely contagious!

We have traveled far and wide with them! And every trip was like a treasure hunt, squeezing every last drop of culture, fun and excitement that a destination had to offer; an even balance of doing the “touristy” things but also experiencing “life of the locals”…sometimes as the locals. Life lessons were never scarce on these trips! And maybe without even knowing it, or even appreciating it at the time, I took it all in!! Every drop of it! I soaked it up! And I learned so many things, but most importantly was the importance of enjoying life. Not merely living to “get by”, but finding beauty, humor and joy in every situation. Seeking out culture, life lessons, and wisdom in every person I come across. Looking for history, art, and magnificence in every place that I visit.

That is what Grandmom and Papa do every day, whether they are at home or traveling in some far off land! They have a standard, and that standard is love; love for each other, love for others, love for life…Grandmom used to always say that “LUUUUUUV” (said with her thick southern accent) is the “password”. So if we were on vacation and we went out of the place we were staying and she stayed behind, on our return, when we knocked at the door, she would come to the other side and ask for the password, knowing exactly who was on the other side. We would respond by saying “love”. And she would open the door and greet us with hugs, kisses and smiles. Now I realize that love is the password! It is not some silly thing that Grandmom used to do! Love is the key to happiness. It is the password!

So many people fight their whole lives to achieve “happiness”, and they are miserable the entire journey. They overlook opportunity after opportunity to love…life, themselves and others. They cannot find joy in the journey because they are too focused on where they are trying to get to. Others base their “happiness” on what, or how much, they have… their things. Never realizing that without a sense of true gratefulness and contentment with life, those “things” will only make the void bigger; because there will always be newer and better “things” out there. My grandparents taught me that it is important to dream and wish for bigger and better things for myself, but it is even more valuable to enjoy the “ride” on the way to achieving those things, savoring every second of the journey. They taught me the importance of finding the good, and “fun”, in every situation, no matter how dreary or “ordinary” that situation may be.

My grandparents taught me the importance of love. I do not know a couple that love each other more than they do! I equally do not know individuals that love life, and the people that are in their lives, more than they do. A perfect example was when they called me on Christmas Eve. I was talking to my grandmother and she said (like a true Southern Bell), “Oh wait, hold on a second Ryan (short pause)…Ok, I just had to wave at the UPS man. He just walked by. His name is…”. I actually don’t remember what she said his name was, but what I do know is she knows it. She made a point to know it, just like she made a point to wave and smile at him when he walked by! And that is one tiny example of spreading love and happiness that I learned from Grandmom; another example that she is not even aware that I even took note of. There are thousands, if not millions, of other examples in “happiness” I have learned from Grandmom and Papa!

I now know that if you put value in the right “things” in life (people, experience, culture, life itself…), happiness and contentment is inevitable! It is important to find humor in every situation; it is extremely important to laugh regularly! It is important to “eat slow” and savor every bit of the experience. It is just as important to find excitement and fun in the “journey” as it is at the “destination”; and really, on earth, no destination is “final”. It is important to soak up every single morsel that life has to offer. It is important to seek out lessons in life; they are all around us, but we are not always listening and learning! It is important to bring a smile and a hug into most situations. It is important to find value in the simplest of things. It is important to fight for happiness. But most importantly, it is important to love. Love is the password to happiness.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Day 29: 23 December – These Streets

December 23, 2008

Day 28: 22 December – All Men Stumble

December 22, 2008

I know i have been a bit lazy when it comes to writing the past week or so. Sorry for that! I think the laid back “holiday spirit” of Cape Town has taken over! But i still wanted to post something every now and then. So i thought i would post my “All Men Stumble” music video. Check it out:

Day 25: 19 December

December 19, 2008

Day 24: 18 December – Locked Up

December 18, 2008

I have had the same land line phone number for the past 8 years. So many random people know it, but mostly the kids…or the older guys that used to be kids. In the first few years i was here i would get about two to six calls a day from the streets; telling me someone had been stabbed, someone was in trouble, someone was arrested, but much of the time just calling to say “hi”. Many of the kids knew my number out of memory, and others walked around with it in their pocket. After all these years there are now a select few that still remember my number and call regularly. One thing that i have noticed is that most of the calls i get these days are not from the streets, but rather from different juvenile facilities.

The past two mornings i have received calls from Pollsmoor Prison Juvenile section. Pollsmoor is really the worst place a young person can end up in Cape Town. There are a group of guys there that all strolled in town but are now locked up for various reasons. They call fairly regularly. Usually about once a week. One of them that knows my number will tell the guys he is going to call me and a group of all my buddies from Cape Town will gather around the phone and take turns speaking. Yesterday was funny because it was the first time i had spoken to them since i had spent 16 days on the streets. They had heard about it and were all interested how it went, what i did, if i begged for money, if people gave it to me, where i slept, and so on. They all said they wish they could have seen it, and some of them said they went to court in town during my 16 days and heard about how i was doing from others that came by the court.

Today two of the guys brought their friends to the phone to speak to me. The one kid, who they call Whitey, got on the phone and said, “Is this Ryan?”.

“Yep. Is this Whitey?”

He laughed, “Yeah. I have heard allot about you. These guys are always talking about you.”

“That’s nice. I hope it’s not bad stuff!”

He laughed and confirmed that it was not. “They say you rap.”

“A little bit.”

Without missing a beat he said, “They say you make movies!”

I laughed, “Well, i have never made a movie but i have made a couple of music videos. Where do you come from?”


“Bellville South?”


“Do you know Louwellen?”

“Yeah, we live on the same street.”

We then chatted a bit about Louwellen, Bellville South and then i asked him about his case. Whitey is in for “armed robbery”, which he really did do, but he has still not been sentenced and has been in Pollsmoor for more than two years! There were a couple of things that stood out to me in talking to Whitey. One, was what a respectable young man he was over the phone. He spoke to me with respect and seemed to have a genuinely kind heart. This does not mean he should get off easy for the things that he has done, but also realising that these youngsters are often products of their environments is important; so if they are raised by the “streets” they will act like it, but if they have people to see the goo din them and nurture that, they will feed off of it. The other thing that stood out was something that i have seen time and time again. Whitey has sat two year in prison! TWO YEARS!! Think back on all that you have done in the past two years and imagine spending that time in jail. But not only in jail but only AWAITING being sentenced because the court messed up and there is a “problem with the evidence”.

This happens all too often in the South African “justice” system, most especially when it comes to minors! And i see it is one piece of the complex puzzle that holds these kids in this lifestyle. Because often they are arrested, and then much of the time they sit for prolonged periods of time, for different reasons (social workers can’t get a hold of guardians, missing evidence, can’t find others that are also in the case, etc.), only to become more frustrated, also getting more involved in gang activity, only to come out even more hardened than before. And a case like Whitey shows that it not only happens with kids from the streets, but also kids that commit crimes in the communities. This is an area where we need to see more focus.

Many people are happy when the “trouble making” youth are just locked up; out of sight out of mind! But i assure you, though they are out of sight for a time period, if they do not receive justice they deserve, coupled with true rehabilitation, they will return to society being worse than before. So even though they might be out of sight for now, we need to keep them in mind, and even make them our priorities, for the good of our future and theirs!

Day 22: 16 December – Happy Birthday Bones

December 16, 2008

Bones turned 28 yesterday. He has been on the streets, and in and out of jail, for as long as he can remember. During me 16 days we spoke and he said this would be the first birthday he would spend “outside”, that he could remember. He had his fingers crossed. I took him a cake to mark this momentous occasion. I walked up to the Parade actually expecting to hear that he had just been arrested the night before…or something like that. But that wasn’t the case. He was there. I gave him the cake and he seemed to be having a good birthday. It just really made me think…

Imagine turning 28 and not being able to remember spending a birthday outside of jail. He ran to the streets and began his “life of crime” at a very young age. At an age when he should have been protected from those things. At an age when he should have been guided and lead into good decisions. Instead, he partook in criminal activities that many grown adults shy away from; and that was before the age of 12! Now he is left with thousands of unwanted memories he cannot block out, gang tattoos that won’t come off, blood on his hands that he can’t wash off, and one birthday that he can proudly say he did not spend in jail. Let’s hope it gets better from here. Let’s hope we are able to make a greater impact on the “Bones” of the future…BEFORE their 28th birthday! Happy Birthday Bones!