“Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all” – Nelson Mandela
Last year I worked as a facilitator for Hilton Worldwide in the US. In an exercise we did prior to the 3-day conference, the project manager asked all 14 of us what we would be doing in life if we weren’t trainers/facilitators. My response was to say I would be working for Médecins Sans Frontières. I believe this is what inspired Andre Kotze, International US-based facilitator working for Impact International, to ask me to do this job. He agreed to cover all my expenses and accommodation but I wanted to do the job unpaid as a contribution.
So during November I spent 3 weeks working with Thembile Gcukumeni from the Xhosa tribe in the township of Gugulethu in Capetown. Thembile suffered a series of strokes in 2011 that left him severely incapacitated. I was asked to work with him, using my skills as a storyteller to enable him to express his struggle.
I have always wanted to return to Africa since I grew up in Ghana, West Africa and I have also wanted to give to a project. It came at the right time for me. Synchronicity. It is thanks to Kathryn and Frances at The Nichols Group that my return fare was covered.
Thembile told me his story over two days; of both growing up under Apartheid and of his slow recovery from his stroke. His recovery had been aided by becoming an artisan baker. Learning to bake with one arm at bakery school and making up to 50 loaves a day simply in his garage with a hand welded rocket oven. He joked that he became a baker by default. This recovery had been supported by Bread Rev, an artisan baker organisation run by Jeremy and Kim Barty encouraging many small businesses.
We would meet most days and work from 9 to 5. Thembile could talk ad infinitum. My job was to try to hone his struggle into five presentations of philosophies and stories. I also spent at least two hours a day working on his speech. I am not a speech therapist, however I have myriads of exercises that I use as an actor, many of which I bring from theatre school. These exercises were invaluable and within a week, Thembile’s diction, projection and intonation had improved 100%. We also worked on his breathing and because the stroke had affected his lungs and ribcage on his right hand side, these exercises also helped his posture and general physicality. Most Impact people have experienced my bizarre methods on the personal presence course. ‘Fish and chips’ and ‘A bloke’s back brake block broke’ became Thembile’s favourite diction exercises.
The local insurance company, Old Mutual, gave us a room in their building to work for free. Thembile would often travel from his township by public transport to Pinelands, the other side of Capetown. This was a struggle for him as his pace is slow. One morning when he arrived he said that he felt really depressed when walking to the station because everybody had ‘rushed past him like flies’. However, he kept his steady pace and arrived at the station 10 minutes earlier than he had anticipated. He felt a great joy. Why? Because he had 10 minutes to buy sweets and to chat to people at the station. There he met a friend from primary school who hadn’t seen him since his stroke. She looked sad and said how sorry she felt for him. He said, ‘Don’t be sad, I am happy. I have joy in my heart because I have changed my life.’ She then looked into his eyes and said ‘Ah yes, now I see. Your eyes are shining with radiance. You are happy within.’ This story emphasises his positivity. I could tell you many stories that are similar to this in his struggle to rehabilitate and to be able to share with others how such a struggle can be rewarding. His desire is to be a motivational speaker.
Towards the end of our time together, we did a dress rehearsal of the five presentations that we had worked on, for family and friends. This was arranged for a Sunday afternoon when everybody would be available. However, at 3pm when we should have started, only two people had arrived. They drifted in over the next hour chatting in a relaxed way, so we started an hour late. All through the presentation people were talking, horns were honking, babies were crying, his mother had an argument with the lady next door over the bougainvillea and his drunken brother cried all the way through with big tears rolling down his face. Towards the end, a neighbour decided that he wanted to tell his story so interrupted and in a slow and ponderous fashion started to speak. When I tried to stop him he ignored me and continued in a lengthy way without hesitation. A woman should not tell a Xhosa man to be quiet! Of course his story is important and I wish we could have honoured that but this was Thembile’s moment. This was all very African. It was chaotic, colourful and full of life! Flexibility was the key.
However, two days later we did a corporate presentation to various NGO organisations, the head of the South African Chamber of Baking, local journalists, the local pastor of the church, people from retirement homes, local bankers as well as small business leaders and managers. A real mix. This was delivered in the open sun in Thembile’s front yard beside his garage where the bakers were making the artisan bread. Everybody there had an opportunity to knead some dough (fold, tuck, turn) and make a cheese breadstick. Thembile also demonstrated his one-handed mixing and kneading art form. As he said, he was the only one-handed baker at bakery school. His sense of self-deprecating humour touched everyone’s hearts. By the end of the presentation, most people were in tears and profoundly moved. He spoke sincerely of how he had changed his life to thinking of others and he was happy to be able to serve the community in any way he could. He has been offered to apply for a peace scholarship at Hartford University, he has already given several talks to the Wheelchair Warriors, to the local church and colleges. He has become inspirational to the other people within his community because of his determination to cope with his adversity and using bread baking as a lifeline has made him a role model to his contemporaries and the youth in Gugulethu and beyond.
Adversity brings opportunity.
This project was not purely about one person but about what one person can do to change a community. The work I did with Thembile, and continue to do over Skype, will affect the larger community of Gugulethu in what we know as a ‘ripple effect’. It is well known that the apartheid government did not promote education. As a result of this I noticed a lack of confidence in the South African black population. It was particularly noticeable when I met Ugandans, Congolese and Mozambicans, all more confident and better educated. Education gives confidence and as we all know, confidence allows people to shine and be at their best.
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world - Nelson Mandela
Sarah Thurstan is the Owner and Managing Director of Performance Link Ltd. Established in 2001 she specialises in bespoke communication and personal development programmes and workshops.