He gives a damn

2009-02-09 00:00

“I want my tombstone to say: ‘Here lies Terence who lived and died giving a damn’.”

One day this will be a fitting epitaph for Terence Hocking, because his life story makes it clear that he gives a great deal more than just “a damn”.

Hocking is an orientation and mobility trainer who started out wanting to be a monk. As he recounted his life story I was struck — as I have been with others — by the way that the different phases of his life seemed to prepare him for the things that followed.

Born in Lichtenburg in 1965, he was the fourth child of five in a Catholic family. “My father worked for a cement company — I’m really not sure what he did — and my mother was a librarian. I went to Potchefstroom Boys’ High and then in 1985 went off to do my military service. It was two years plus two years of camps, so I elected to do four years to get it all over with. I cleared out in 1989.

“Because I wanted to be a monk, I became a novice in the Franciscan Monastery at Gingindlovu. I spent a year there, but wasn’t sure about it so took a year out to think. I had always been interested in working with people in a helping capacity, so I trained as an orientation and mobility trainer at the SA Guide Dog School in Johannesburg. It was a two-year course at what was then Wits Technikon. I never went back to the monastery.”

Hocking went on to study nursing and emerged in 1993 with a diploma in general nursing from H. F. Verwoerd, the academic hospital in Pretoria. “I worked in the casualty unit set up in the gardens of the Union Buildings for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in 1994. We had this huge tent all ready and waiting, expecting lots of trouble, but it was all so peaceful. The only injury was that of a nurse who tripped over a tent peg.”

Hocking then worked in Cape Town for 10 years in a variety of roles as a male nurse and a mobility instructor. He laughs as he remembers that this period included a stint at Men’s Clinic International, which specialises in male sexual health. “My friends used to love entertaining guests at parties by making them guess where I worked.”

This period was also the source of Hocking’s greatest regret. Generally animated, he becomes still as he says: “I don’t ever see myself getting married. I was engaged to a vet who now works for Vets without Borders. I should have made that relationship work. Neither of us is married now and we are still the best of friends. My ex-fiancée was, and still is, one of the most remarkable human beings I have met and I let her get away.”

After a spell working on his sister’s farm in Lichtenburg, helping to raise horses, Hocking moved to Pietermaritzburg to work at the KwaZulu-Natal Blind and Deaf Society. Quizzed about the “politically correct” terms for these disabilities, he said “visually impaired” is commonly used, although “blind” is still acceptable. “Deaf is also okay, as deaf people use it themselves. The term denotes a whole culture, not just a group of ‘differently abled’ people.”

He is currently based at Manguzi Hospital in northern KwaZulu-Natal, where he is, not unsurprisingly perhaps, living a simple life like a monk. He sleeps in a small reed hut that is part of a traditional homestead without sanitation or plumbing. There is one tap and cooking is done on an open fire. “I have a sense that it’s a calling. This work and this lifestyle aren’t for everyone.

“I was invited by the hospital to assess and train three blind people in the area. However, I found the need far greater than a mere three people. I have a list of close to 100 people who need orientation and mobility services, and that’s only in the areas closest to Manguzi. I haven’t yet surveyed the area bounded by the Mozambique and Swaziland borders and south to Mseleni. I live with a family whose head was blinded in a recent acid attack. I help with his rehabilitation, teaching him to negotiate his environment of thick dune forest growing in very soft sand.

“It’s a challenging setting in which to teach orientation and mobility. Blind people can go anywhere if they have training, but there are very few landmarks to use for orientation compared to an urban environment. The landscape keeps changing, for example, as sand shifts and trees are cut down. Access is mostly by foot and foot paths meander and crisscross. Even the canes that people use are different — they don’t have a point but a ski so they don’t get stuck in the sand.”

Hocking intends to spend about a year in the area working with both visually impaired people and health professionals. “I want to identify and assess as many visually impaired people as possible via the hospital and local clinics. We need to refer people whose impairment could be corrected by medical or surgical intervention, and find others who need further education, like schooling, tertiary education or job training. I plan also to educate local health-care professionals, such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists, to identify visually impaired people and work with them.”

Hocking draws no salary for his work and has only his basic needs met by church sponsorship. Canon Copiers has provided camping equipment and a backpack, which will help him get to otherwise inaccessible areas. “It’s so lovely I could live there forever. There is a particular joy about living so simply — it’s very refreshing. Many people in the family I live with aspire to live more complex and materialistic lives, but I keep telling them that they aren’t missing out on anything.

“I have never been as happy and stress free as I am at Manguzi. I never understood ubuntu until I moved there. It’s still a very traditional way of life, a very polite and respectful culture. I walk in the forest at night without fear. I feel something very special in Manguzi, something intangible. I think it’s going to define me somehow, but I’m not sure how.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Hocking plans to return to the monastic life when he leaves Manguzi. “I’d like to go to the Benedictine Abbey at Inkamana to test my vocation. I enjoyed the religious life; it was just the wrong time, in 1989. I went straight from the army, an institution with rigid discipline, into another institution. I should have done something else first. Now that it’s 20 years of life experience later, perhaps it’s the right time.”

What is orientation and mobility?

Orientation and mobility was established after World War 2, when the United States government recognised the need to help newly blinded soldiers. It set up a team at the Valley Forge Hospital in Pennsylvania to formulate techniques to allow blind people independent mobility. Thus orientation and mobility training was born and spread throughout the world.

This training allows blind and visually impaired people to negotiate their environment safely and independently using a long cane. Orientation and mobility instructors train visually impaired people to use one and depending on an individual’s needs and abilities, training can take up to three months. During this time, the visually impaired person will learn how to negotiate the indoor environment at home and at work before progressing to the outdoors. Outdoor training includes pavement travel, street crossing — including negotiating traffic lights — and locating various destinations such as work and shops, etc.

Another aspect of orientation and mobility training is sensory development which teaches visually impaired people to use sound and touch as part of orientation. For example, the sound of an air-conditioning unit can serve as a clue to a particular location and tactile skills help in identifying objects such as different denominations of money.

Orientation and mobility trainers also help to maximise the use of any residual vision that a visually impaired person may have, as many are not totally blind but have low vision of some kind. Some conditions may be helped by low vision devices such as digital magnifying aids.

— Terence Hocking and www.guidedog.org.za


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