Happiness is about the little things: Linden's wheelchair woman

2015-08-24 08:51
Hercie Blaauw makes her way through busy Joburg traffic. (News24, YouTube)

Hercie Blaauw makes her way through busy Joburg traffic. (News24, YouTube)

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Johannesburg - Hercie Blaauw is a familiar sight in Johannesburg's Linden as she buzzes around the suburb's busy roads in her motorised wheelchair, two yellow flags flapping at the back to alert passing motorists.

With her hand on the lever that “drives” her wheelchair, she seems oblivious to the whooshing of the cars and taxis passing her as she moves at the grand speed of 6km/h on the road.

“It is much nicer now that they have re-tarred the roads,” she says of a recent roads upgrade in the area. “But some places are still difficult.”

She may look as though she is not paying attention, slumped slightly to the side in her wheelchair, but, she is actually carefully counting down the blocks she has travelled on her route to a full list of social engagements and errands.

There are the visits to a restaurant off the busy Northcliff Corner for its famous cheap breakfast; down to the Linden village to stock up on necessities; even all the way down the hill to the massive Cresta Shopping Centre.

And then of course there are the regular tea dates with friends who have the same inquiring mind that she does.

Physical battles

In addition to being born with cerebral palsy, she rattles off a few more of the physical issues she has learned to accept and work with: Perceptual problems with her eyes which means she may misjudge distance or battle to read flowery handwriting, a problem remembering faces of people she has just met, and, as a side effect of her palsy, she also startles easily.

“Please don't hoot to say hello,” she laughs. “I have the same startle reflex as a baby, so it gives me a terrible fright,” and she goes off into giggles.

“I can't remember faces, for example, and so if I see you tomorrow and I don't recognise you, you might think I am being rude. But please stop me and say hello if we are passing each other on the pavement.”

Many people without any of these disabilities are already fearful of heading out into Johannesburg traffic, but not Hercie.

A solution as simple as a knitting row counter opened a whole world of independence to her. Using this simple gadget, and after being taught how to count out how many blocks she must travel to get to the chemist or the library, she has overcome her memory problems. With a personalised map, she counts how many blocks she must travel before turning left, or right, to reach her destination.

The flags and the dayglo reflector jacket at the back of her wheelchair were added after Metro Police officers pulled her over one day and instead of fining her, gave her a stern lecture about being visible to other motorists and keeping herself safe.

To live as normally as possible

We are chatting in the afternoon sun in the reception office of the Linden landmark where she has lived for 21 years, Ry Ma In in Fifth Street. The centre was opened in November 1977 after successful fundraising and registration efforts by Springbok trampolinist Chantal Fourie who severed her neck vertebrae while training, according to the centre's blog.

Fourie would not accept that the only place for her to live out of her home was Tara and other psychiatric facilities, and homes for the aged. She led a campaign for a home for people like herself who wanted to function as normally as possible and raised enough with the help of the NG Kerk next door to open the centre's doors.

Eventually, another stand was purchased and the property extended to accommodate eight people.

In the courtyard, young people, all in wheelchairs, while away the time talking and laughing, pushing their wheelchairs this way and that subconsciously. A man has stopped to drop a few things into the recycling bins that contribute to the home's income.

That, along with its famous fetes where you have to be early to avoid the scrum for the good stuff donated over the year, a secondhand book and bric-a-brac shop that is open throughout the year, plus their grants or family support, keeps them going.

When making the appointment to visit Hercie, I was told she had a black eye because she had been assaulted, and would not want to be photographed. I finally plucked up the courage to ask: who would assault a disabled person?

“Because I was born this way, it is a step up for me,” she starts. “But for most people coming to live here, after an accident, it is a step down from what they are used to.”

Ry Ma In

For those who suddenly find themselves at Ry Ma In as a result of an accident, no longer able to control some of their limbs, having to relearn things, losing the independence they were so used to, can be devastating.

Many are neglected by friends and family, a spouse or partner may end a relationship because they also cannot cope, and isolation and withdrawal sets in. Sometimes, drugs or alcohol feel like the only reprieve from the emotional pain.

A few nights before we met, one such resident had picked an argument with another resident and Hercie had tried to intervene. In the scuffle between the three, all in wheelchairs, Hercie got a black eye for her troubles.

Ry Ma In does not tolerate this, even though the residents do understand why it happens, and have laid a charge of assault with the police.

Hercie speaks with absolute love and gratitude about her parents, mother Arenda and her late father Tikkie Blaau, originally from Namibia, who she says helped and supported her unconditionally.

From waking up at 04:00 to help her get ready, without the knowledge of disability available in the present day, to her mother waiting until late at the University of Johannesburg where she got five degrees and a teaching diploma - she says they never gave up on her.

She tried using her law degree, but found she battled to fill in all the forms required in legal motions, and sometimes struggled to read handwritten notes because of her perceptual problem, so she stopped.

She still gets a little lost sometimes - mostly when shops rearrange their shelves. That panics her a bit.

Her parents sent her to boarding school at one point, which she did not enjoy because she missed them, but she understood why it was necessary to prepare her for later life.

Secret to happiness

She now helps out by receiving the many visitors who drop off things for their shop or fete, and other fundraising activities. But, she sees her most important task as helping people to get up in the morning and to have some purpose.

The reason why she is always buzzing around Linden and its surrounds?

“It is just about getting out. It is not that it is horrible here, you sometimes just want to be in another world.”

Her secret to happiness and her infectious laugh?

''Happiness is not about the big things. It is about the little things, it is about being content with yourself. I have faults - I have a terrible temper,'' she says sheepishly.

“But you must be satisfied with who you are. You must feel satisfied with yourself. And you must find something to live for. Happiness is not about pursuing something big, it is about being yourself.”

And with that, Hercie does a seven-point turn to get from behind the desk in the office, turning down an offer of help, and motors down the driveway for a quick demo and farewells, with promises of a visit for tea.

Read more on:    johannesburg

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