**Please be warned that this piece could be a trigger for you if you have experienced any type of trauma.
It’s ironic that I start off my essay series for the month of January on Vulnerability, while I write in the quiet darkness of the early morning. I light a candle, brew some coffee and begin to spill words and emotion onto the page. It is quickly becoming my favorite time to write with fresh eyes in a quiet house, however it didn’t start out that way. It was daunting for me in the same way one would feel driving a car on a back country road on a rainy night with little visibility. If you have courageously started something new or made a gutsy brave decision you’ve tasted the tartness of vulnerability.
I’ve been reflecting on the topic of vulnerability for a few weeks now and all the many moments in my life where I have personally experienced the effects or repercussions of it. In my writing I’ve been brought to my knees, vulnerable and anxious just to begin stringing words together. I’m reminded of an inspiring quote by E.L Doctorow, that author Anne Lamott quotes in her book, Bird by Bird, that truly highlights the vulnerability of starting something new and beginning to write, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
The last few years I’ve delved into how my body has reacted over the years to traumatic events.Therapy has helped me catalog and decipher these traumas. It’s astonishing how the body and the brain sort through various emotions and fight to protect you during times of intense stress or fear. The “fight or flight” response of the body refers to a specific biochemical reaction that humans experience in response to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival. Our body’s sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline that causes changes to occur throughout the physical body. Blood rushes to the areas of the body that would help the body act. This adrenaline release can also cause heart palpitations and increased breathing. I have always been fascinated with how our bodies cope under stress, In my body, my initial reaction is to freeze, and following those first moments of inaction, I move into actively trying to fix the situation. These patterns are so engraved in the brain that it seems we go into autopilot. Interestingly, researchers have found that writers experience a similar mental shutdown while writing or working under stress. The brain senses danger and prepares to fight or flight. That’s why high stress can “make your mind go blank” at the worst possible moments.
This particularly distressing day in Cape Town, began in a very uneventful way. I had just arrived from Seattle a couple days earlier and after travelling 30 hours with a toddler and I was feeling fragile with the fogginess of jet lag. I picked up my cousins and their three children in Muizenberg with the intentions of having a relaxing day at Cape Point, a beatiful nature reserve within the Table Mountain National Park and a declared World Heritage Site. We brought sandwiches and snacks with the hope of having an outdoor picnic to savor the gorgeous views. Instead we were forced to stay inside the car while wild baboons freely roamed around in close proximity to us. It is common to encounter baboons in the Cape Peninsula, and most likely they are the Cape Chacma baboons. It’s common knowledge to the locals that you do not come close to these intelligent and fierce creatures. If you come into conflict with these aggressive animals you risk ending up with severe bite wounds from their sharp teeth. Over the years tourists and locals have not cautiously kept their distance from these beasts and therefore today much like many domesticated wild animals, baboons get uncomfortably close to humans in the hope to be fed.
They circled our car, hopped on the roofs of surrounding cars, smelling all around, clearly ravenous and on the prowl for food to devour. It was equal parts terrifying and comical when we witnessed a baboon sneak into a couple’s car just as the woman climbed out to stretch her body. As she bent down to lift her purse from her seat, a baboon jumped out of the car, closely brushing her forearm, nearly pushing her over and ran off with her purse. It scurried up the mountain before anyone could catch it. We were beside ourselves, screaming out warning signals as if somehow this couple could hear us. Moments later my brave cousin jumped out to check on this young woman. We later found out the couple were celebrating their honeymoon and decided to visit this national park today. My cousin drove down the street for a couple minutes to find a park ranger to help this terrified couple. In just a few minutes, with my nephew’s help, the park ranger was able to find the bag abandoned and tangled in bushes not too far from the incident. We all sighed a breath of relief. Anxious to leave the scene of the crime we decided to make our way down the mountain towards the beach. We breathed in some grateful salty breaths of air for a few moments admiring the crashing waves on the coastal beach before heading to a little farmstead on the border of Ocean View and Noordhoek.
We found a place of solace, within the farmstead, Imhoff Farm. In this quaint farm stall they sold freshly baked goods and organic products. Adjacent to the store was a quaint little coffee shop that advertised free range coffee. To finally relax from the eventful early afternoon, we ordered baked meringues and muffins from the bakery and sipped on lattes while the children played in the child-friendly courtyard.
After some time I suggested we leave to beat the afternoon traffic and we casually made our way over to the parking area. Before I was able to see the growing crowds of angry people, my cousin motioned to me with her stern eye contact and in an urgent yet calm manner she explained to me that we need to leave right away. We gathered the children and strapped them into the car and began heading towards the exit. We were the fourth car in line to exit when a group of people started smashing the first car with sticks and violently shook the car. That car managed to aggressively drive off unscathed, but worried about the safety of driving through the ambush, I decided to turn the car around and return to the parking area. In the next moments I began pacing around the car. Trying to remain calm, but with a quivering voice, I called my husband David and my Mother to warn them of our whereabouts incase things got worse.
The beads of sweat collected on the ridge of my nose. Damp and cool. My heart felt heavy, as if every heartbeat was slowly struggling to finish the race. Every breath filled my lungs with a gut stabbing pain, a heaviness over my chest. My thoughts became slower and my breathing heavier. I left my daughter, cousin and her children at the car and rushed over to the farm stall to purchase water, before the anticipated time of closing. I think I was desperately yearning to take control of some small aspect of this horrendous ordeal. My throat was dry and all I could think about was that if we were going to truly be stuck here for hours, until long past sunset, we would grow ravenously dehydrated. While I panicked and prayed, my cousin Nikki remained a pillar of strength and as time passed I became incrementally less hopeful that we would be able to escape this violent mob. While I started strategizing an escape plan, that would involve all 5 of us climbing over an impossibly tall fence, our children were innocently chasing one another around the parking lot, so blissfully unaware of the potential dangers.
For just over an hour we were technically held hostage in the parking lot while the residents of Ocean View protested in the street and illegally closed off the main road to traffic between the suburbs of Ocean View and Noordhoek. They were clearly enraged. After the first twenty minutes of protesting, the crowd gave an enthusiastic applause as they watched a garbage truck drop off a load of garbage into the street blocking all traffic. With no way to escape, we imagined being stuck there for hours, in imminent danger until the police authorities came to our rescue. It was clear that this crowd were setting up camp for the night and taking over the street. Eventually, to our surprise, we saw a few landrovers and cars exiting the parking lot through a recently opened private gate behind the farmstead. As the sun began to set, we lined up our cars like working ants and followed the lead driver through a sandy bumpy back road and drove out to safety.
Later on, my cousin informed me that the residents had many grievances and their discontent was directed towards the government and the police department. The residents of Ocean View have been dissatisfied with the way in which the police were handling the gang violence and consequential violent aftermath. It had come to a head after a few weeks of inaction by the police department. A child had been killed in the crossfire. An innocent young victim’s life was taken too soon. My cousin and I reflected on how vulnerable we felt as young Moms with small children trapped in a semi-violent situation out of our control. We felt so grateful that although emotionally we were affected by this experience, physically we were unharmed. Our privilege became clear to us. While living in Cape Town, my family lived in a very comfortable home in a relatively safe middle class neighborhood in the southern suburbs. In my early twenties I had spent time volunteering in low income neighborhoods, but never before had I been face-to-face with this kind of unrest. We tried to imagine the constant and daily fear gripping mothers as they leave for work before sunrise and return long after the sun has set. Hard working Mothers unsure of their children’s safety while they’re away at work. Uncertainty plaguing them during the day - "will my children be safe today?"
In an editorial in the Mail & Guardian titled, “Protests show that nothing has changed.” The journalist raises an important argument about service delivery protests in South Africa. He writes, “before we address the “violence” of protest, we must acknowledge, too the violence that underlies conditions leading to protest. And it is evident in how we respond to protest.. In a democratic society, protest can be as ubiquitous as it is necessary. Protest is the stop-start rhythm and meter of a searing discontent in South Africa. As much as protest is a language in itself, it is also the punctuation of another language: the complex, layered language that is South African urban life.” In some ways I disagree with the writer, having grown up in South Africa myself, I believe protests, specifically non-violent ones are proving that things are changing. South Africans, especially vulnerable populations are finding their voices and protests are a symbolic and active reflection of democracy in a country robbed of many freedoms for too long. The question remains whether the choir of shrill voices will be noticed, heard and affirmed long enough for change to take place.
I have immense respect for people I know working on the ground and living in community with the people of Ocean View and other vulnerable populations throughout the greater Cape Town region. I know an american couple, Sarah and Casey Prince, who are living in Ocean View and have been for a few years now. They are doing meaningful work to love and serve their neighborhood. Meet them here and read more about their work on their website, look listen, love. A dear friend and mentor and life coach to me for many years, Tracey Spilhaus volunteers some of her time at an elementary school in ocean view with Shine Literacy, a reading program to help children learn to read and improve their reading skills. On their website, their tagline reads “Words can change worlds.” I couldn’t agree more with that statement. This is vulnerable and courageous work and I deeply admire those who are bringers of hope shining light in dark scary places.
*Notes: I initially started writing this piece in my writing group, in response to a writing prompt and I have since added and edited the original piece. I also think it is a work in progress and I hope to continue working on it at my writing class later this month.