By Gabeba Gaidien
In December 2013 my colleagues and I launched a city-wide movement known as Cape Town EMBRACE (funded by the DG Murray Trust). The objective of the initiative is to set up a network of support for parents/caregivers of children in their first 1000 days of life. Our mission is to connect caring Capetonians to parent/caregiver communities that are marginalized in vulnerable parts of our city. In other words, we aim to create the village that raises the child by connecting people across our city’s racial, socio-economic and geographic divides.
The EMBRACE journey reveals the true power of human solidarity. At the same time, the most valuable lessons on our journey to date also indicate that while many people in our city have the best of intentions to serve others, we often confuse acts of solidarity with acts of charity. Yet, it is solidarity that we crave as a human race.
I was born into a household where I was loved and nurtured by a loving mother, doting grandmother and nurturing grandfather. My mother recalls the impact that the Apartheid system had on her father’s state of mind. My grandfather and his entire family were forcibly removed from Watson Road, Claremont by the Group Areas Act. This act of physical and emotional violence had an adverse effect on him in that he became an angry person with a cynical worldview. This however, changed the day that I was born when he saw me for the very first time at Peninsula Hospital. For the first time in years my grandfather had tears in his eyes and twenty-one years after the death of his first wife, he spoke her name again when he decided that I should be named in her honour.
This very story came to my mind when my colleague, Julie, and I visited a community health facility for pregnant women in one of the most vulnerable parts of our city. This is meant to be a place where women are nurtured and celebrated as they prepare to bring a new life into this world. The most striking part of our visit was the cold, clinical physical environment that greets the pregnant mums as they enter the facility. Black and white messaging about bottle-feeding in the most negative, instructive language as opposed to warm and encouraging affirmations of the power of a mother’s love. Hard wooden benches, cold tile floors and strong chemical odours in the air greet you. This defines the physical environment where vulnerable mothers wait for physically invasive examinations to determine if their unborn children are developing normally. I pondered their emotional wellbeing as they sat silently with blank stares clutching their patient records while waiting to be called by their appointment number.
I wanted to know their stories and so it had to start with their names. Nobody should just be a number. And so the conversations began. As the conversations evolved and the mothers felt more comfortable, they exuded real human emotion about their pregnancies. Many spoke of real fear, excitement, loneliness and anxiety about a journey into the unknown with minimal support.
For the first time I considered my mother’s pregnancy, about thirty two years ago, in a very different light. Surely she had similar cold and clinical experiences as a public health patient without the support of a loving partner. Yet she enjoyed the caring network of emotional support from her immediate family which served as her most important buffer during an emotionally draining pregnancy. This is what made the ultimate difference to both her and me (even as an unborn child). The fact that someone near and dear to us affirmed us, saw us, listened to us and loved us without judgement.
The most valuable lesson from the EMBRACE journey has surely been the power of empathy as the core ingredient of human solidarity. Empathy is at its most powerful when it comes with the ability to unlearn our own prejudices and assumptions about others and to listen in order to understand…to come to a new understanding about the other.
We live in one of the most unequal societies in the world. I cannot help but wonder if this is because we choose to hear about the other side of the highway without listening, we tend to talk about the other side of the highway while judging and yet we convince ourselves that we sympathize with the plight of those “in need” because we make donations in goods and money. Yet sympathy and material goods define an act of charity.
In order to change the power dynamics of our society, however, we need to look past the numbers in the waiting room and see the names and stories that define the human beings. We need to listen to their plight without judgement and we need to open ourselves to the possibility that this engagement is crucial to shape our own humanity. This is what my grandfather must have felt when he succumbed to the charms of a newborn baby who got him to express real human emotion for the first time in years.
The powerful ability to empathize is the difference between service delivery and serving humanity. The former is an act of charity and the latter an act of solidarity. Human solidarity is the only way to truly shape a safe and just society.
Contact Gabeba at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how you can join Cape Town EMBRACE.