Mending hearts broken by the rat race

The heart of Strategic Narrative Embodiment (SNE)

There is a war going on – a war for your heart and your soul, for mine. A bit melodramatic?

I wake up in the morning with an unreasonable fear lodged in my chest. What ifI loose? Loose what, I ask myself?

  • The battle against boredom and overwork.
  • The fight to stay fit and healthy when all I want is another doughnut and a good long sit in the sun.
  • The struggle against loneliness, as I long to be with my family but despise them for crowding my headspace.
  • The strife I feel when trying to get friends to come over – do I even have friends?And then the fear that they won’t enjoy it here; so why bother?
  • The war against entropy, in my money matters, my house, my garden, my paperwork, when at the same time I would rather turn a blind eye and read another novel.

I am not one of those people caught up in the rat race: I refuse! I have been there and bought into all its frenzy, and I didn’t get the big house and the two cars, the housekeeper and the swimming pool.

In fact,my rat race brought my family and me to the brink of bankruptcy as we ploughed all our resources into ‘making it’ and failed.

Now that both my husband and I have jobs in education – with a good enough income to survive, but not to get rich, or even get ahead – ­we are much happier and have much more time for our kids, each other, the garden, the house, the friends, and the paperwork.


  • We long for action.
  • We yearn for significance.
  • We pine for the opportunity to express our innermost selves.
  • We wish with all our hearts that someone else would wash the dishes, do the garden, organise our papers.

We now have the time, but no motivation to do all the things on the list. So, and I will only speak for myself here, I sit around wishing for action, for someone to come visit, for some external impetus to get me off my buttto go, go, go! Of course the moment the impetus comes I resent it for stealing my peace and dictating my responses. When is sitting in the sun ‘being mindful’ mad when is it laziness? When is being present with my children healthy and when is it an excuse not to engage with something else?

How much more divided can I get?

This is the war that is destroying my heart and soul.

Inside the race, I feel controlled, diminished and taken advantage of. Outside it I feel useless, insignificant and without value.

Where is the third side of this coin?

That is the essence of my quest through war-torn territories: the search for the third side of the coin – not just in this current struggle, but in all struggles that seem so two dimensional, so binary, so colourless:

Does this mean we should take up more colourful and complex struggles like the one between the students and the government with the Universities and the parents and the whole of South Africa’s history in between?  The same one that colours all organisational and leadership interactions, whether we know it or not: the struggle between those who have and who can and those who have not and can’t – along with all the colours of our rainbow nation getting involved in the mess?

I think so.

This is the heart of the SNE lens: between the strategic plan and embodied reality, you find the narrative, the story, which can integrate opposites, transform ambiguities, dance with contradictions. Between the head that plans and the hands that act, lies this treacherous landscape of the heart, the landscape of stories. Stories long to heal the broken heart. They yearn to bridge the chasms between warring opposites and mend the rifts between binary dichotomies.

Join me on this quest to mend broken hearts – especially those broken by the race for more money, opportunity and power.

Meet me at the next Pig Catching session to help process the grief of your broken heart.

Date:     7 OCt 2016
Time:    7am for 7:15 to 10am Pig Catching
10:30-12:30 Research conversation or maybe we simply continue with the session. NOTE: We will start at 7:15 sharp to make the most of our time.
Facilitator: Petro Janse van Vuuren
Cost: R250
Venue: 305 Long Ave Ferndale
Dress: Comfortable clothes you can stretch and move in
Refreshments: Coffee, tea, muffins and fruit on arrival.
RSVP: by  Wed 5 Oct.

Other Pig Catching dates this year:
9 Dec
Please diarise!

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Bring your curiosity, your open minds and your questions.

About Pig Catching:

Pig catching is what coaches and facilitators do when we chase the moment of insight that brings shift and transformation in our clients.

Please note: No pigs get harmed, our pigs are purely metaphorical and they have wings.

Story Secrets for Speakers #6 – When the world is against me


You painted a picture of the possibility (Secret #1).  Then you lead your audience past their doubts and reservations about their own suitability (Secret #2), whether or not they can trust you (Secret #3), the practicality of the solution (Secret #4) and the people that would be on the journey with them (Secret #5). Nowthey look at their context and go: “Great plan, but life just doesn’t work that way”.  They look at their reality and say: “What if the solution or the people having to implement it fail?” I call this cosmic resistance.

Cosmic resistance is what happens when everything is lined up to go and your budget is cut, or a key player gets sick and unable to continue, or the equipment simply fails. Through no fault of yours, or the people trying to make the difference, it just fails. What then?

In stories this is that devastating moment where all seems lost. This is when Andy Dufresne, in Shawshank Redemption learns that his eye witness was murdered by the prison warden, when Brave Heart is betrayed by one of his own, when, in The Great Escape, the fleeing prisoners discover that their tunnel is a few feet short of the cover of the trees.

In situations like these stories provide only one response: Reframe.

Here are 3 story tools to help your audience of participants reframe their situation:

 1. Humour

The Blonde goes to the doctor complaining of aches all over her body. “Where does it hurt?” The doctor asks. Pointing to her left shoulder, then her nose and then her right calf she answers: “Here and here and here”. The doctor takes her hand gently examining it and says “My dear, your finger is broken.”

This is a reframe.

Humour is fantastic for helping your audience reframe their situation and see it in a fresh light. The right story at the right time can break cosmic resistance.

2. A true story

My husband hates it when the local minibus taxis stop directly after a traffic light it really gets him angry.  Taxis all across South Africa do this driving the other motorists insane causing hoots and honks at every intersection. The are the fiends of the roads.

Then I move to Johannesburg – the big scary crime ridden city fill of bad guys. As usual I am reliant on public transport because of my bad eyesight, and I need to make use of taxi’s. Can I make peace with having to drive with a fiend behind a wheel?

I get into my first taxi and as he pulls into the road he does it with gusto exactly in the fashion that most irritates my husband. “What is he doing? Can’t he use his eyes??” I can almost hear him saying.  Behind my taxi a 4 X 4 family van swerves out of the way and honks loudly. The taxi driver honks back, leans over to me and says: “It must be a friend”.

Fiend or friend, it is all a matter of perspective, and choice of attitude. What a beautiful reframe and one I have used many times to break through cosmic resistance.

3. An interactive exercise

Yet, as I have mentioned before, it is really only when the audience can apply what you offer to their own individual life stories that break through is really possible. The following is a story structure to help your audience do this. It comes from the world of Applied Improvisation.

Step 1. Reflect on an issue in your personal or professional life that you would really like to change. Complete the following sentence:

Concerning this issue, I really want  … (fill in what it is that you want to see happen).

But… (list one to 3 things that are in the way of you achieving this outcome – things that are blocking or frustrating your efforts).

Step 2. Cross out the ‘But’ and replace it with the word ‘and’. Now the obstacles become mere conditions for the solution, they are no longer blocks.

Step 3. Complete a final sentence:

So what if … (what alternatives can you think of that accepts the conditions for the solution.)

Anexample from a workshop participant:

As the event co-ordinator of a large networking evening, I really want my guests to feel at home and set the scene for a wonderful event. I also want to enjoy the event myself.

But  AND I am not a good speaker, my hands shake and I am afraid I will forget important information. I stress so much that the whole evening is a blur usually.

So what if I rehearse a short welcoming speech to set the scene and then get an MC to co-ordinate the rest of the event, so I can sit back and enjoy it.

When all is lost, it is time for a reframe. A story that beautifully illustrates this reframe is the recent Lego movie. All seems lost when Emmet, the main character fall into the void, the abyss. His friends believe he is dead and their cause seems lost. In fact, Emmet simply falls off the table where the humans build their lego models. He is picked up by the boy playing there and from this big picture perspective Emmet’s entire world is reframed. With this insight he returns to save the day.

Humour, stories and interactive exercises all help your audience to reframe their failures and see them from a fresh angle braking through cosmic resistance. Now there is just one more thing left to do…die. Read more in the final of the series: Story Secret 7.

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren

Researcher, Speaker and Coach

Need a speaking coach? Contact Petro

Interested in a course in facilitation and coaching? Click here

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Cosmic resistance – When the world is against me

Emmet from the Lego movieYou have lead your audience past four types of resistance: 1. their doubts and reservations about their own suitability (Personal resistance), whether or not they can trust you (Relational resistance), the practicality of the solution (Practical resistance) and the people that would be on the journey with them (Social resistance). Now they look at their context and go: “Great plan, but life just doesn’t work that way”.  They look at their reality and say: “What if the solution or the people having to implement it fail?” I call this cosmic resistance.

Cosmic resistance is what happens when everything is lined up to go and your budget is cut, or a key player gets sick and unable to continue, or the equipment simply fails. Through no fault of yours, or the people trying to make the difference, it just fails. What then?

Read more and find out  how the Lego movie helps answer the question…

Overcoming Practical resistance: What’s the plan?

The tool, the plan, the rules

Neo and his mentor from the MatrixEvery facilitator or speaker faces resistance. If you have done a good job of Painting a Picture of the Possibility , (Introduction), you can expect at least 5 types of resistance: personal, relational, practical, social and cosmic. Here we focus on the third kind: practical, also called contextual, resistance.

Apart from the personal and moral objections of that comes with the first kind of resistance and the doubts they may have about you as the mentor, the second kind, there is a very real practical resistance. How will I do what you ask? What are the steps \ the plan?  Can I see the path and see myself walking it?

Whatever your solution is: 3 steps to losing weight, 5 types of resistance and how to overcome them or 7 principles of effective leadership, your audience needs to know it will work for them.

Like Aslan in the Narnia series, Dumbledore for Harry Potter and Griet for Liewe Heksie, the guide in the hero’s story do three things to guide the hero so he or she can see the way forward… Read the reston the Playing Mantis blog and find out what Neo from The Matrix has to do with it.

Need a speaking coach? Contact Petro

Interested in a course in facilitation and coaching? Click here

Looking for a speaker or storyteller at your event? Contact Petro

How to avoid dropping the energy in the room

2014_CONV_logo_opt3The Role of the MC

This week I am preparing for the Professional Speaker’s Association of Southern Africa’s annual convention themed ‘Walking our Talk’.

I will be one of the MC’s for the Saturday 12 March together with Dineshrie Pillay and Siphiwe Moyo. My job is to help the participants digest some of the input so they are less overwhelmed. Our experience of past conventions were that it is like drinking from a fire hose: it is a fabulously exhilarating experience, yet very little goes in and so much is wasted. It happens, of course, because every single talk is delivered by a high energy, well seasoned professional speaker.

what to do?

Our solution was to create five moments of pause dotted throughout the programme so that people can move around and reflect on how their bodies, feelings and thoughts are responding to the input. As I described the intention at a meeting between all the MC’s and convener, the audio-visual wiz (also a professional speaker, Robin Pullen)  asked a very good question:

Wouldn’t reflective exercises cause the energy in the room to drop??

What a great question. It really made me think, thanks Robin. Here is my response:

There are more than just ‘up’ and ‘down’ energy in a room full of people. There is also ‘in’ and ‘out’ energy.

If ‘up’ energy is when people feel enthusiastic and motivated and eager, and ‘down’ energy is when people feel lethargic, slow and unresponsive, surly you want more of the first kind and less of the second. Now consider ‘in’ and ‘out’ energy.

‘Out’ energy would be the kind of energy that the speakers are exuding. They are speaking out gesturing outward and pouring their passion out as gift to the audience. The audience receives this with enthusiasm and energy until they are full. Now where does that energy go? It is washing past them and getting wasted – it is being dropped.

What if we could turn some of that energy inward?

In this way an audience member can begin to nourish his or her own thoughts and ideas with it, begin to manage it and put it away safely for absorption. This will mean they are already channelling some of the energy and making room for more input, helping to keep the energy buoyant.

I believe firmly that unless an audience member is able to connect the story in the room with his or her own story, the whole event and experience will remain locked in time for them when they go home. Sure, they will have a notebook full of stuff to use and do, but how much of it will they really implement?

My job at this convention will be to facilitate moments of intensified energy: energy being focussed inward to serve and nourish the work and life of each audience member.

So how do you avoid dropping the energy in the room?

By managing it’s flow in and out like breathing.


How to have a great chemistry session with a new coaching client

A Case study

When a new client really loves me, it makes me sweat, my teeth chatter and I very nearly wet my pants. I had a really great chemistry session this week with a new potential client. It terrified me

The background

This client is the HR Exec of a small but lucrative company in the insurance business. When she had been in the position for a short time, her boss told her in a feedback session that she should consider voice coaching. He thinks she can do with a stronger and more commanding presence and gave her a number for a coach that might help her. She did not want that coach, so she kept putting it off.

Then she saw a presentation of mine at an Organisation Development Conference and loved the energy I created. “This woman can help me”, she thought and immediately bought my book, Grow your Voice to Speak with Confidence, which was for sale at the conference, and emailed me for an appointment.

The appointment

Now we were having our chemistry session on the phone. We wanted to do it face to face, but there were labour issues at her company, so she could not leave the office. We wanted to skype, but we kept having breaks in our network signal, so she called on the company phone and we had our session on the phone. The fact that she did not cancel at any of these obstacles told me something of her commitment, so I wanted to know wherein the commitment lay.

After she told me her story, I asked: “What was it about the other coach that you did not like?”

“Oh, I don’t know, I never talked to him. There was just something in the way. I never made that first phone call.”

“ OK, I say, “What makes this different?”

“It was your talk, I really liked your energy and approach. I have to click with someone and trust them.”

“Thank you, I appreciate you saying that. What do you trust me to do?”

“I think you can tell me exactly what I need to work on and how to fix it.”

And that is where the terror hits me.

Immediately I am thinking: So, she was impressed with my ‘magic’ and she thinks I am going to wave a wand and fix her. Her commitment is to me, not to herself. This does not bode well.

“How do you think that will work?” I ask. She picks up on my fears: “Oh, I know I will have to put in the effort and do the work. I realise there is hard work involved, but I trust you to know what is wrong and help me fix it.”

My terror increases.

Now I am going to be held responsible when things go wrong. I begin to sweat.

“I have a feeling you already know what is wrong and what you need to do to fix it. Can we explore this possibility?”, I ask cautiously, clutching at straws. There is silence on the other end. My mouth is dry.

“You said earlier that breathing might be playing a role, but you don’t know.” I venture,  “And you have read my book and heard me talk about the importance of breathing for confident speaking. This may or may not be your issue and may or may not be a solution for you. You want me to tell you yes, it is one of your biggest problems, and here is how you fix it?”

“Can you?”

“I don’t know, “ I confess, “There is a story here that says: “Breathing is important for confident speaking. The question is, how does this ‘best practise’ story relate to your own personal issues or story regarding speaking? So, let’s find out. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the kind of situation you described earlier where you typically lose your confidence. You mentioned speaking to large groups of strangers as being the worst kind of audience for you. There they are in front of you and you have to ‘be present and commanding’. You hear the boss’s expectation in your head, you look at the people. Now, what is your breathing doing?”

“It is fast and weak”.

“How do you want tit to be?”

“Deep and calm.”

“Can you deepen the breath now?”


“Can you slow it down?”


“Ok, you can try counting too. See if that works for you. Breathe in for four counts and out for four. Counting takes your brain out of the limbic system that makes you panic and into the rational part of your brain.” I give her a few moments and then ask: “How do you feel now?”

“Much calmer. Much more confident.”

“So, Is breathing an issue for you?”


“How do you fix it?”

“Oh breathe more deeply and slowly. I’ll have to play with the idea of counting, it is new to me”

“If it does not work for you, drop it. Did you know, ” I go on, “that some people’s breath stops altogether? Others report that their breathing comes out it big heavy sighs. Not all go fast and weak like yours.”


“Each person’s story is unique. Tell me, can you use what you discovered now in your real life story  the next time you speak?”


“So, we have just had a rehearsal for your own future. How does that feel?”

“Great, empowering.”

“Who decided what the problem was?”

“I did.”

“Who decided how it should be fixed?”

“I did.”

“So, can we keep on working this way?”

“Sure, but it will be hard work.”

“For whom?”

“For me”

“You’re right, but then, you knew that coming into this. You said you knew you would have to work hard.”

“So I did.” I hear a smile in her tone, “ Send me the coaching engagement letter. I’m ready.”

I sigh a deep sigh of relief.

This is going to be a walk in the park for me. The commitment is now in the right place. My client has committed to doing the work. That means she is also taking the responsibility and ownership. I am off the hook and she is in for real success.




Story walking

“We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.”

– Martin Luther King

Miyere ole Miyandazi  walking

 Here is a story and article written for this blog by a fellow story teller, Howard Drakes:

It was dark when they arrived. The only light in these rolling hills, covered in seas of sugar cane, came from this lone house. The dogs announced this strange presence, but not in a welcoming way.

A ragtag bunch stood before a small gate. Tired. Weary from a long day. Unsure. Looking for a place to stay.

Two had been together for a few days now. The taller was used to walking, many thousand kilometres had passed this way. With a heavy backpack, the other was lost in life, but his curiosity would not go away. The last had joined this journey by chance that afternoon. His intentions, it would seem, were around escape, survival, and new horizons.

Two had thought that one would be the key to unlock the required support. The fates had chosen to write their collective story another way.

A man, suspicious, appeared as a shadow from inside the light. A story was told once again. But in this place, this night, the chance for connection had begun to fade.

Three walked off into the unknown, soon to be followed by a pair of headlights. It led them passed a complex of inviting buildings. Down, they descended to a tidal river, a long beach, and a distant town sparkling bright. 

While one tested the moving water, the shadow-man emerged from a four wheeled machine. Free now from security beams and bathed in a full moon’s light, he was transformed. Human again.

Story is invoked once more.

“I spent many years in East Africa, I know the Maasai. I wish you the best on your travels.”

Invitation. Understanding. Connection. Farewell.

And so, like a flower, life unfolds to reveal itself. Exactly when or how, this is beyond any ability to know.

But story’s spirit was and always is, and forever shall it grow.


Walking is primarily concerned with movement, but it is also about story. A journey’s beginning is built on story. Each pair of legs carries its history, a library of tales that bring it to the point of departure. The first step is confirmation of commitment to the writing of this new story, to exploring the others that it will uncover and inspire. Each freshly planted footprint is another paragraph in a living, unfolding narrative. And when tired legs arrive, stories are exchanged, even forgotten, and new ones made.

Past, present, future, become interconnected threads of a living journal in which what was, what is, and what will be play on one another. Walking, fuelled by the choices of yesterday, happens today, to create tomorrow. Story begins, finds the middle, and closes at the end.

Walking, like storytelling, is about invitation – a call to go on a journey. There is vulnerability in venturing into the unknown, not knowing if what lies around the next corner is a pleasant welcome or suspicion, fear, and even rejection – not all journeys find a willing home. But thoughts about the unknown must be balanced by belief, trust, and commitment – to the spark of the journey and to walking towards its desired end.

The literal journey is walking, story the figurative one.

Story, like walking, is as old as humankind. First it was oral, until it became written. It was written until it became audible. It was audible until it became visual. Today, being digital, story can be any and everything. It has the power of any time and every space. Whereas before we walked to experience the world, today we can touch all that was and is, while writing what will be, on the wings of story.

A wise man, whose rich and numerous years have authored countless colourful tales, offered this: “Everyone’s life is a book. Mine might be a thousand pages, yours only one hundred, but each and every life is a story that can fill a book.”

And so story becomes the bridge. Communication. It allows us to cross things that separate. Understanding. To meet with unknown worlds and experiences. Connection. To listen, to share, to know. Exchange…


This story was written in footsteps made and left in Zululand. For two months Howard and Miyere ole Miyandazi walked from Durban to Mbazwana, a town not far from the  border. Each day was determined only by the intention to walk, to arrive somewhere and meet people, to connect. In the process, many new stories were made and, as life would have it, a bigger one was captured. The tale of a journey from Nairobi to Cape Town on foot, of walking without paper passport or money, maps or planned routes, a mission to find if the kind human still exited in humankind. Read more…

Five types of resistance and how to break through

Introduction:  Paint a picture of the possibility

James and his bug friends flying on the giant peach

What made James in ‘James and the Giant Peach’ climb inside a giant peach, befriend life size bugs and steer across an ocean to go to New York? What made Cinderella get out of the ashes and off to the Prince’s ball? What made the frog turn into a prince?

The answer to all these questions is the same: they believed that it was possible. Of course, none of them started out believing it, they all needed someone to paint them a picture of the possibility. James lost hope when his cruel aunts destroyed the picture his deceased father had given him showing the big vibrant city of New York.  This dream needed reviving by the peculiar little man with the shiny green things. Cinderella was shattered and crying in the ashes when the Fairy Godmother found her. As for the frog: it was the arrival of the princess that sparked his hope.

Before the dream was planted, there was no resistance to change, only stuckness and possibly despair, or maybe just ignorance of what is possible. Yet, once a dream is planted, one type of resistance after another pops up to frustrate both the dreamer and the dream giver, the hero of the story and the story weaver, both you and your client. Read more on my company blog…

Need a speaking coach? Contact Petro

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The Rat Goes Home – a story about belonging

Where the story comes from

Sometimes I dream significant bits of story, but only once in a blue moon do I dream a complete story like this one. I can distinctly remember only three such occasions and this is the first time I write it down. In writing I fleshed out some of the images here and there, as things came to me, but the bulk of it especially after the ‘Ten years later’ mark was all dreamt in clear images, tastes and feelings.  The power of the new frame this story offers is still with me three days later as I write it down. I am still wallowing in its beauty and the peace it has given me.

The Rat Goes Home

They called her ‘The Rat’ from the first day she set foot in the orphanage. It was the street boys hanging like monkeys outside the gates  that gave it to her: “Hey look, today they brought in a rat!” shouted their leader, Big Daddy, a strongly built dark boy of about 12 “Hey Rat, look out  for the Cat!”, he mocked and they laughed.

She was a scrawny thing with sharp eyes, a narrow face and scruffy hair braided into a thin wispy tail in her neck, loose bit standing up and framing her face. She was six then and her father brought her. He must have been her father because he had the same scruffy hair, only his extended to a beard and his eyes were tired and sad. “I will fetch you tonight at seven  he said, and she finally let go of his hand and took the hand of Aunt Rosa, the head mistress of the orphanage.

He never did come back.

Aunt Rosa was kind and strict. She had invented a ritual for all the girls to help them make peace with their circumstances and except their lot. Whether they thought this was a kind thing to do or a horrid thing of her stricter side, did not matter, they had to do it anyway. Before bedtime every single night she would line them up and make them say as a group: “No father is coming for me and no mother is waiting for me at home. I am here, this is my family.””

The Rat had her own words: “My daddy won’t pick me up at seven and my mommy is not waiting for me at home, I am here, this is my family.”

Soon everyone said The Rat’s words and not Aunt Rosa’s.

This did not help to stop children from running away regularly, and The Rat was no exception. But she never ran away to go home. She ran away to walk the streets and play in the fields. Soon she made friends with the street boys – the gang of kids who had homes. But not good homes.

These kids knew about hunger. They would catch mice and grasshoppers to eat and they knew where to find berries and edible flowers. They knew how to steal too. But they also knew how to have fun: chasing dogs, climbing trees, teasing other children and making a general nuisance of themselves.

After some time with the boys, The Rat would end up going back to the orphanage and aunt Rosa would give her a scolding, send her to bed without food and make her say her lines a hundred times: “My daddy won’t pick me up at seven, and my mommy is not waiting for me at home…”

But next morning she would get an extra helping of porridge and a suffocating hug from aunt Rosa, grateful to have her back in one piece.

This constant running away did not help Aunt Rosa to be nice with the street boys – especially Big Daddy. Whenever she saw them outside the gates, she would come out and chase them off with a broom stick shouting insults at them. They took to calling her ‘The Witch’, but not to her face. Only once she actually managed to strike Big Daddy a blow, and he swore that from that day on he was bewitched, although no-one could tell the nature of the spell.

Inside the orphanage The Rat also made friends. The best of these was Cat, short for Cathy. Short for Catherine. Cat was known to bite and scratch especially if she felt some boy was getting too close – which wasn’t very close at all. She was shy and never spoke more than a few words. This was why she made a good friend to The Rat. She would listen and not boss her about. Cat liked The Rat in turn because The Rat, didn’t boss her about either and she often took Cat’s ideas and advice to heart.

Ten years passed.

Then came The Dame to the orphanage. The Dame ran a wash house in the city 3 and half hours’ drive away. She wanted able bodied young girls to cook, clean and wash for other people. She took any girls that were sixteen and ready for such work. The girl would get a featureless grey frock to wear, so as not to draw any attention. She would be given a bed and food and she would get her number. This number would serve as her designation, identifying what kind of work she is doing, what team she is in and what dormitory she belongs to.

Aunt Rosa was always glad for The Dame, because whenever she took a girl, there was room for another baby to enter the orphanage. She was glad too because there were many worse things for a young woman to become other than a washer woman. She knew that The Dame’s girls were not spoilt and had few luxuries, but she also knew they were kept safe and given basic sustenance –even though the work was gruelling and their hours were long.

Some time before the Dame came, Aunt Rosa called The Rat to her small study. She had sent many girls with the Dame before, but this one would take it harder than most.  It will be difficult for her to adapt to the rules and comply to the regulations of the wash house.

After hearing the news, The Rat looked like she was caught in a trap. She moved aimlessly about and tossed her head from side to side, making her braid swish. “Do I have to go?” Can I never come back? Why can’t I help out here?”

Aunt Rosa looked at her. She saw the slender young body now filling out at the hips and the breasts. The untidy brown hair in its ever present braid. Not a beauty queen, but definitely not ugly. Besides, bad boys like that Big Daddy didn’t care what kind of girl they hunted down…

She shuddered. “Better safe than sorry my dear,” she said. Now you have the rest of today and tomorrow to pack up and say your goodbyes. You will leave for the city in the morning day after tomorrow.”

Cat, a year younger than The Rat, didn’t like this a bit. She had been to the city before and had seen the grey clad girls walking with their heads down all over the place. Scurrying like mice from task to task, each with their number printed on their dresses just above the left breast.

“They’re not allowed to talk to anyone while they work. Or look anyone in the eye. You know?”

“So what, it’s all there is. Next year you can join me.”

“Oh no,” said Cat, “I will run away before that”

“You?” The Rat said in surprise, “you’ve never run away. That is why Aunt Rosa takes you into town when she goes there.”

“Yes, and that is why it will work and why they will never catch me. I will go far to a place no-one can find me.”

“Oh”, was all The Rat could answer. She believed Cat and she also believed that Cat would survive anything.

The next morning The Rat did not have to go to school. She did her chores, packed her things and hung about aimlessly. Everything inside her was upside down. In the late afternoon she heard Big Daddy and the boys calling her name. “Hey Rat, we hear you are leaving us. Come say goodbye.”

By now Big Daddy was twenty-two and leading his gang in looking after themselves, though no-one knew what that meant exactly. Lately when The Rat went out with them they would not go chasing dogs, they would just hang around on the side walk talking until Aunt Rosa would shout at them and call her back. She had given up on staying out with them so long that Aunt Rosa would get upset. She did not like to upset the head mistress anymore.

Now she looked at the boys and saw friends whom she had to say goodbye to. She hurried out and pulled Big Daddy’s cap down over his face and laughed.  He yanked her braid and they all laughed at her indignation. Then one pulled at her blouse and another at her skirt and before anyone knew what was happening she was on the ground and they were trying to keep her down, pulling at her clothes.

Suddenly a fist hit the one that was trying to settle on top of her. He toppled to one side groaning. Another wanted to take his place, but a heavily booted foot struck him in the stomach so that he doubled over. Big Daddy pulled her to her feet and brushed aside the other boys who were stunned and angry.

He walked her down the street and into the fields where they used to catch mice. He took her to a grassy spot between some trees and sat her down. Without a word he bent down and picked a purple sorrel (a little edible flower with a lemony taste). Holding it gently in one of his rough hands he walked a little further and picked another flower. One that The Rat did not know. It was a reddish brown colour and bell shaped. Ever so tenderly Big Daddy slid the purple flower into the bell of the rust coloured one. Then, with shy determination he knelt in front of her and offered it to her. “Taste it”, he said.

Delicately she picked up the gourmet offering and put it in her mouth. It tasted fresher than anything she had ever experienced.  It was crunchy, yet delicate and tender, slightly acidic, but with bitter-sweet flower flavour. “Everyone thinks we go hungry,” he said, “but sometimes, we eat like kings”.

He stood up and she rose beside him. His big bulk suddenly made her feel safer than she had ever felt before. His stubbly brown cheek was so close she could smell him. Ever so softly she brushed her cheek against his and felt a kind of tingle all over.  She wanted to kiss him.

He turn to her, took her hand abruptly and said. “Now let me take you home before the witch curses me forever.”

They returned without another word.

That night The Rat could not settle down. Aunt Rosa stayed with her as she paced the small sparse living room from end to end. “No Father is picking me up at seven, no mother is waiting for me at home.” She kept muttering, but it did not help her settle.

Eventually she sat down in a chair and fell asleep restlessly. Aunt Rosa watched her with eyes full of pity and sorrow. She knew it would be hard, but she did not anticipate her charge to be so upset. This girl who had both broken rules and created new ones, who was both feisty and fragile. She shook her head in resignation and went to bed herself.

The next morning, a little van came to pick up The Rat and her single bag. As she drove off, Cat was looking at her with love and pain in her eyes. Then the street boys shouted obscenities and insults to her. She heard Big Daddy shout: “Good Bye, Rat and good riddance!” She heard Aunt Rosa shout at the boys and she heard the familiar thwack of the broom against the gate. Then she cried.

As the van disappeared around a corner, Cat stormed out past Aunt Rosa in to the street. She walked right up to Big Daddy and slapped his face. “You idiot! She screamed. Is that the last thing you wanted her to remember? Good riddance? The last memory of her life here is that she meant nothing to no-one? Is that how you send her off? You selfish bastard! Now go away and think about something else you could have said that could have made her feel better about herself as she leaves everything she knows behind. Something that could have given her courage instead. Idiot!”

Big Daddy did not say a word and the other boys were equally stunned. The other children gathered around Aunt Rosa in fear and astonishment, they had never heard their cat talk this way or this much.

Now Cat wheeled about and walked straight to Aunt Rosa. The kids made a path in front of her. “And you, Aunt Rosa,  why should the last thing she remember be you hitting the only friend that ever looked out for her? Why do you think she would return to us safely every time she ran away? Would she not have like to think of this place as friendly, rather than full of conflict and fear? You were the only mother she ever knew. You find something nice to say to that boy right now!”

Flabbergasted Aunt Rosa looked from Cat to Big Daddy and back. “Thank you”, she said, but it was  not clear to whom she was speaking.

Then the street boys left in a hurry and Aunt Rosa herded everyone back inside. Cat went to her room and lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling.

That night, after midnight, when Aunt Rosa was still sitting at her writing desk, there was a tap on her window. Weary and uncertain she pulled open the curtain and saw the face of Big Daddy in the light from a street lamp. He gestured for her to open the window. She did, and agile as an eel, he slipped through into the study. She gasped and stood back, fearful.

Big Daddy began to talk. “I am going to get her back. But I need a car. I can drive, I just don’t have a car. I can buy one next month from my savings, but don’t have one now. I work at the restaurant, you know. Chef Robert calls me his Sue. Maybe he will let her be a waitress there. Maybe she could share my room…er…later, I mean, not now. Now she will have to come back here. But the car can wait, I mean the one I am saving for… Maybe I can pay a bit for her boarding? Is her bed still open? Maybe she won’t mind sharing with a baby…er…the baby you get in her place, I mean. Please can I borrow your car?”

Aunt Rosa looked at him. Her lips moved, but no sound came out. Her hands fluttered slightly, but made no clear gesture.

He looked at his watch “If I leave now, I can pick her up at seven.”

Then it was as if she found herself again, she picked up her keys from the table and gave it to him. She looked into his face and said: “I will be waiting for her here, at home”.





My Afrikaner identity

Let’s talk about adultery.

At a theatre workshop after introducing ourselves, we were asked to complete he sentence “I am…”  Someone said, “I am gay”, another “I am black”, still another I am “Christian”.  And me?  The best I could come up with was “I am Petro” (ny first name).  Yes I am heterosexual, female, white, Afrikaans, 32, a mother and visually disabled.  Yet, none of these things overpower the others to the extent that I could pick it as a primary identity classification.  The question annoyed me so that even now, years later I still feel my heart rate going up as I write about it.  Why this emotional reaction?  How then do I know myself and describe or live that self?  Why does my blood want to boil at a simple question of identity?

Be warned that what I say here is not new, or academically sound or even completely logical.  It is a rambling about my thoughts on the issue of identity.  I will start at one end and see where that leads me.  I am Afrikaans.  Other members of ‘die volk’ will say:  “I am an Afrikaner”, but personally I think that term is so politically loaded that I prefer simply saying I am Afrikaans.  Yet, for me, being Afrikaans is much more that speaking a particular language.  But, the ‘much more’ can not be defined in terms of something in itself, rather, it becomes meaningful as I live my life among non-Afrikaans speakers.  Among the liberal English academics where I work, I have learnt that I am more to the point than they are in meetings and discussions, yet, I am more blunt and unsophisticated in the way I relate to people on a personal level.  Yet, compared to my Afrikaans husband, I am very “English” in the way I try to be diplomatic and beat about the bush.  Truth be told, my darling man has been described as a real “Dutchman”.  The English folk who said this were ashamed of the derogatory nature of the term, yet I thought they were right.  He can be down right pigheaded and untactful in a way only an Afrikaans man (and maybe a Dutchman?) can..

Becoming the mother of a little boy also brought back a deep sense of what it means to be Afrikaans.  There is a reason why one’s first language is called your “mother tongue”.  I want my son to learn both English and Afrikaans, yet there is no way I could relate to him in any other language than my first.  I am often asked if I speak to him in English as well, and my answer is always the same.:  “only when there are English speaking people around.”  I think it is bad manners to speak in a language people do not understand in their presence.  But I feel insincere and false if I try to speak to him in English.  This is true even in situations where English people are around and so I often find myself breaking my own rule of speaking to him in English then.  What is it about this mother tongue thing?

Embedded in a language, I am sure, is the history of all who contributed to the formation of that language.  With the history come a value system and a certain perspective on the universe that cannot be transferred in another way as through the language.  Yet, after talking so much about the beauty and the deep connection I have to my mother tongue and how it goes beyond language in more ways than one, there is a major glitch. When I am with other Afrikaans speaking people, I discover how different I am from them.  When I am with my in-laws other parts of my identity become highlighted, such as my political persuasion.  I will never be comfortable in the company of people who talk about the old South Africa as though it was heaven on earth.  I will never again be comfortable in a Dutch reform church and as for “rys, vleis en aartapples” (rice, meat and potatoes) which is supposed to be a truly Afrikaans way of eating… I prefer a mix of all and everything that I find to be interesting, healthy or affordable at the time.

Since I have had my son, though, I have never felt more at home with them.  We agree on what manners he should learn, what stories he should be read and told and what songs we would like him to know.  We disagree on one issue and that is:  they find it very disturbing that we are on first name basis with him and that he does not know us as “mamma” and  “pappa”.  Of course, there are many of our English speaking friends that don’t get it either. We feel the same as with the question of identity.  Neither myself, nor my husband want our son to know us only in the role of parent.  We want him to know us as whole people.  No other term like our names can communicate the unique combination of identities that run through each of us.

We are all located on an intersection between many possible identities. These are in flux and they shift in importance from time to time, Sometimes you are with people who have a similar combination of identities to you, and you feel like you belong. Other times, often with the same group of people, you may find that one or more of the other identities feel left out.  We are always at home and lost at the same time.  Depending on what the conversation is about, or where you are in space or time and who you are with you may find your home, but it may only last for a moment or a while before you are at odds again.

In order to avoid the flux and the feeling of ‘being at odds’ we are often tempted into committing to just one of the identities. This means, instead of loving the one and only me, the unique combination of selves that is Petro, or James or Siphiwe, we look for love in a purer ideal demarcated by as few words as possible like ‘gay man’ or ‘jewish girl’. In my view, that amounts to adultery: loving some other ideal person that is not full of faults and history and memory and shade.  So here is the reason for my anger at the question of identity:  there is nothing that brings the blood of a good Calvinist, white Afrikaner to the boil like adultery..