Salute to the human condition

2008-03-28 00:00

I hate to admit this, but let me do so, just in case there is anyone else out there who is like me. I have always felt hugely uncomfortable by spasticity of any kind. I don’t know exactly what it is about cerebral palsy which makes me want to run. It is, perhaps, something about the strangeness, the unpredictability, the jerkiness? No, I really have no idea.

I have usually managed to mask it, as one does, I suppose. But I have marvelled at those who have no such problems. Mine seems to be something similar to an instinctive reaction — as one might have to falling — you find yourself in the reaction long before you have the time to think about it.

And it is certainly not anything I am proud of. I would love to be nonchalant and easy with people who are affected in this way. But I’m not. I tense up. I put on. I am not sincere. I tend to avoid, if I possibly can.

It is, of course, a conceit. And it is born, obviously, of some unresolved aspect of myself, which lies waiting to expose me when everything passionate and rational about me wants it not to. In an echo of the 1652 Anglican prayer book, I do the very things I ought not to. The very thing I do not want to do.

It was under cover of the anonymity of the theatre, and the accompanying darkness, that I was alone with my reactions to cerebral palsy recently. And I was, I am pleased to say, taught a lesson I will never forget.

Part of South Africa’s preparations for the Fifa 2010 World Cup is about ensuring that there is a tangible legacy. Not just in the form of stadia, or roads, or better public transport. Part of the legacy we, as government, are wanting to achieve, is social. And one of the programmes which we, in the Western Cape, have funded, is called “Fair Play: Fair Life”. It is about using the elements of the game — elements of fairness; of playing by the rules; of respect; of making the right choices — and translating them into life, through the arts and games.

In a celebration of this programme, one of the performances was from the Filia School, a school in Goodwood, which describes itself as being “for the severely mentally handicapped”. I watched as the performers came on to the stage. One was pushed in a wheelchair, with a drum on his knees. The others all walked, some with difficulty, others apparently with ease. It took quite some time to get going, because the children needed to find their right places, behind the right drums. Microphones needed to be in the correct hands. The keyboard was played by a teacher. And you could feel, in the audience, in that darkened auditorium, an odd sense of sympathy and wonder.

They started to play. It was extraordinary beyond my wildest imaginings. The boy in the wheelchair, beating his lap drum with sticks held in both hands, in time. The others beating African hide drums, held between their knees, with precision and with vigour. Some sang, some danced — they did it all well, much better than most of us in the audience could. None of it was perfect. But all of it was utterly exultant.

Then, to end it all, and with much gesticulating from the others, a last member of the group was called on to stage. He came on. A boy of, perhaps, 15 or 16 years of age. The keyboard played the introduction, the backer drummers were playing their part. He lifted the microphone to his lips and sang, with an almost ethereal, haunting voice, “When autumn leaves begin to fall”. His voice was so uncluttered with vibrato, so essential, so utterly pure, entirely transfixing. I wept. Not tears of sorrow, or pity. I cried for the sheer joy of the moment. For the sheer wonder of it all. I wish you could have heard it for yourself.

For me, this is what the 2010 Fifa World Cup should be about. Yes, of course it is about soccer, and able people performing extraordinary feats on the field, and about redressing the past imbalances relating to soccer as opposed to rugby. But if that is all it is about, we would have short-changed ourselves and our people unforgivably. It is also about all of us who are never going to play in a world-class team. It needs to be about celebrating our humanity, in all its diverse and wondrous forms. Never before, (never!) have I had so sweet and so gentle a lesson in what it means to be human.

• Michael Worsnip is the director of the 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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