Next time we’ll know better

2010-09-16 00:00

DEAR Mr President,

Your absence at the Umvoti Aids Centre’s Arbour Day Celebration shall not devastate us. It only saddens me that we were all completely hoodwinked into unabashedly planning for your visit. We toiled away at all hours of the night in giddy, child-like anticipation. We even painted a shovel gold. It hurts my heart to admit our recklessness. What did we think would happen if you were to arrive? Did we think that our struggles would change? Would inequity turn into righteousness? Would HIV/Aids turn into the common cold?

Arbour Day is an opportunity for those of us who sit in our offices working diligently away at this message we like to call “hope” to step out into the springtime sun and take a breath of fresh air. It’s a day we take off our fancy clothes and get to work. Our office comes to a halt, the copier rests and computer screens hibernate. Our bodies sweat and are reminded of what it feels like to work with the earth. It’s a chance to get our hands dirty once again. That seed of hope that we said we would plant was not just a metaphor. In planting dozens of fruit trees, the seed was real — pregnant with the bounty of a coming season. In a time of food parcels and grants it was an attempt at not just buying ourselves some fish, but learning the ways of the sea.

We must laugh at our folly. For a moment, we forgot about our mission. We, admittedly, lost our way. We donned black and white, set out white tablecloths and called in the cavalry for you. Like Cinderella, we turned our rags into gowns. But the pumpkins never turned into carriages. You, our Prince Charming, never arrived.

In truth, it was of grave importance that you did not come, that you weren’t entranced by our magnificence. It was a bitterly essential cutting down to size, a pruning, as it were.

Next year we shall be stronger, hardier, and bear more fruit. Your absence has erased our illusions and given us a new breath of life. We know now more than ever who we are working for, who we must rededicate ourselves to, and who we must stand accountable to. The people in the hills and valleys, and those in the crowded shacks and humble homes of Umvoti, they are our revered statespeople, the high priests of our country. It is their voices we must answer to and their presence we must heed. Our efforts have always been and must continue to be for the people — the forgotten ones, the ones left behind by poverty, sickness, and misfortune.

Mr President, we humbly accept the fact that you were not with us in the heat of the day, getting dusty from the stomps of a Zulu’s gida or dirty from the crash of a shovel going into earth. We still cordially invite you to our home and will feel honoured by your presence. We still wish that you will find our glass slipper.

Next time, though, we will be honest with ourselves, and with you. We will prepare for our people of Umvoti first, and hope that you may pick up a spade or pull up a stool alongside us. Wear not your Sunday best. We might wish that you don your overalls and gumboots. We shall be wearing the same.

Let us once again look among us and not outside of us, towards those in need and not to those in high places. May we once again wear clothes befitting us. May we put the silver away and once again eat with our hands.

• Justin McAmmond is the project manager at the Umvoti Aids Centre.

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