Here’s something a little different tonight… I found out today that a magazine story I wrote last summer is a finalist for an Atlantic Journalism Award. It’s a story about a woman named Catherine Robar who is changing a little corner of the world in a South African community called Thembalethu. You can read it here.
The story behind the story is interesting in itself. Catherine and I went to high school together ages ago, but I hadn’t seen her in probably a decade until I ran into her a few years ago at a fundraiser where she was working and I was playing in a band (with the amazing Chelsea Nisbett!) We re-connected on Facebook, as old high-school friends do in the 21st century, and I was excited to learn about her work with the Themba Development Project–a charity she started from scratch.
South Africa is near to my heart because of our own story. Shortly after our oldest child Xander was born, I took parental leave and Shawna and I packed up our lives and spent two months living in Cape Town with our infant son. It was the trip of a lifetime, one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.
To this day, Cape Town is the most incredible place I’ve ever been. But I’ve never felt as overwhelmed by the gulf between rich and poor. In Cape Town you can drive half an hour from million-dollar condos overlooking the ocean (like those above) to a township where cows roam the streets and two million people live practically on top of each other, many in shacks constructed from scraps.
The hardest thing of all to get used to was the fences. Every home in Cape Town is surrounded by iron fences or stone walls topped with broken glass or barbed wire. The wealthy devote a lot of time and energy to keeping the poor out of reach.
There’s injustice everywhere in the world. It passes through my mind every day right here in Canada, when I read the paper or walk past the guy begging for change between the Starbucks and the store with $400 shirts in the window. But South Africa’s the place where it was most keenly apparent to me that our world is both incredibly beautiful and very messed up.
So when I heard about what Catherine was doing I was moved right away. The thing that impresses me most is that she’s not out to “fix” anything. Well-meaning Westerners often go into a situation with their own ideas, but Catherine began by just listening to people in Thembalethu. She started to help people grow food, and the project has blossomed into so much more. It’s giving people hope, a sense that they can actually control their own destiny. That’s a powerful thing in the face of abject poverty.
I’ve donated to the Themba Project, and I also knew I wanted to share Catherine’s story with as many people as I could. When the opportunity came to write about her for Halifax Magazine I was glad to take it, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how much feedback the story has generated.
But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Catherine’s an inspiring person living a big life. We need more people like her. It’s not a good story because of my writing, but because of who she is.