Born to give: on the road with Imtiaz Sooliman

2017-12-03 06:00
Sooliman hands out stationery packs to schoolchildren

Sooliman hands out stationery packs to schoolchildren

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He speaks fast, works fast and drives even faster. Behind a steering wheel, Imtiaz Sooliman is more Lewis Hamilton than Mother Teresa.

Perhaps it had something to do with the approximately 900km which lay ahead of us: a round trip from Cape Town to Sutherland, and on to Knysna and Beaufort West.

At 05:00 on day one of our road trip, we meet Sooliman, the founder of 25-year-old humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers, on a cloudy and chilly Cape Town morning.

Clad in his trademark green shirt bearing his organisation’s logo, Sooliman appears exhausted. In the driver’s seat for the first few hundred kilometres was former journalist and now Gift of the Givers’ government and corporate manager, Badr Kazi, who appeared more awake than the rest of us – especially us journalists who had explored the thrills of Cape Town’s Long Street the night before.

We make ourselves comfortable in the rear seats of the organisation’s double-cab bakkie, anticipating a lazy road trip through the Western Cape’s winelands and breathtaking mountain passes, with two madalas in their mid-fifties behind the wheel.

It doesn’t take long for us to realise how wrong we are.

I soon discover why Sooliman carries three cellphones and a huge power bank with him. The man is forever on the phone to staff in the organisation’s offices in KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Syria and elsewhere around the world.

When he is not on the phone, he is texting. He sends dozens of messages a day on WhatsApp, using his right-hand index finger only, perhaps the hardest-working forefinger in the country.

“What do you do when you aren’t wearing that shirt? Do you play golf?” I ask, thinking he could give the finger a break.

“I don’t find time to do many things. I can’t remember the last time I was on holiday,” says the self-confessed “disaster tourist”, whose organisation has built a hospital in Syria; coordinated earthquake relief efforts in India, Nepal and Turkey; travelled to war-torn Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and Gaza; and done everything at home in South Africa, from drilling boreholes and building houses, to even – get this – rescuing bees.

Sooliman and his 100 permanent staff have supplied the desperate and destitute with tons of food aid and medication shipped or flown to disaster zones, and dispatched dozens of medical staff and rescue crews to treat them and dig them out of rubble. Aid supplies worth more than R2bn have left their warehouse in Bramley, Johannesburg, over the past 25 years.

“I have been to Washington, DC, and was told I would see the White House and I was, like, ‘What for?’” he recalls. On a rare day off, he was in New York. He spent the entire day in his hotel room and didn’t even look out of the window.

He says he has heard people talk about Disneyland, but asks himself: “Unless there is a disaster, why should I go there? I find relaxation very stressful. I deal with problems ... there is just no time for relaxation.”

In South Africa, Gift of the Givers has set up bursaries, built clinics, paid for poor patients’ expensive operations that government cannot afford, provided water to drought-stricken communities and helped rebuild the homes of those who have fallen victim to fire and flood.

“We are doing so much and continue to do much more,” says Sooliman.

“There are times when government departments call on us to intervene. We don’t do what we do for a name, but to serve people and preserve human dignity.”

Our conversation is interrupted by an incoming message alert on his phone which sets his index finger back to work.

I turn my focus to the road as now, past Paarl, we continue up the N1.

I am overwhelmed with unease. My adrenaline spikes and I feel my knees press tightly together. My leg extends and I reach for an imaginary brake while offering up a silent prayer, one eye shut, as we fly low along the tight curves of a mountain pass.

“Kazi knows what he is doing; relax, Poloko,” I mutter to myself, trying to focus on the view as Kazi draws his foot off the accelerator only a little.

Before we turn right into the R354 at Matjiesfontein towards Sutherland, it is Sooliman’s turn to drive. I feel a rush of relief, but it only lasts about two minutes.

The second madala proves me wrong too, and doesn’t warm to his nickname. “Hey! I’m not that old,” says the 55-year-old.

Sooliman takes driving to another level in the open Karoo. The bakkie hisses in protest and I hide my eyes, now bulging out of their sockets, behind my sunglasses.

Sooliman adjusts the rear-view mirror and I am sure it’s because he wants to see my panicked expression. My colleague, photographer Tebogo Letsie, confesses to having near heart failure.

After a few more silent prayers, we arrive at the showgrounds in drought-ravaged Sutherland.

A group of about 25 farmers are there, waiting. Three Gift of the Givers trucks are loaded with animal feed.

The farmers’ faces are brimful of excitement as they wait to greet Sooliman. Minutes later, we form a large circle, hold hands, and a farmer prays in Afrikaans, thanking God for the gift and asking Him to bless Gift of the Givers and to enable the organisation to help many others.

“We have to think of the animals that cannot verbalise their own difficulty in this severe drought,” says Sooliman.

“The gratitude is visible in the farmers’ eyes, the looks on their faces, the warmth of their handshakes and even in their silence. Their love for their animals is visibly manifest.”

Sooliman agrees that it is God’s work that is being done here.

In 1992, as a 30-year-old doctor, Sooliman visited Istanbul, Turkey, not expecting that his life would fundamentally change. He had planned to return home to Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, where he had been waiting for a post that would enable him to specialise as a physician.

“It was on August 6 1992 at 22:00 on a Thursday after prayer. A spiritual teacher looked me straight in the eyes and said: ‘My son, I’m not asking you; I’m instructing you to form an organisation. Its name will be Gift of the Givers and you will serve people of all races, of all religions, of all colours, of all classes, political affiliations and of any geographical location. You will serve them unconditionally,’” Sooliman says.

“He warned me that this was an instruction to me for my whole life and to always remember: ‘Whatever you do is done through you and not by you.’ He further told me to always protect the dignity of man and not to expect anything in return, not even a thank you.

“I asked him: ‘How will I know what to do?’

“He said: ‘You will know. It is a spiritual gift.’”

Minutes later, Sooliman is giving out stationery packs to needy children at the Roggeveld Primary School, where his foundation sponsors food that, for many of them, serves as their daily meal.

Shortly after that, Kazi takes the wheel again and we head out of town, stopping at a local store for water and cold drinks. Between the driver and passenger seats sits a brick-sized loaf of hot, freshly baked bread which we all nibble on.

We head towards Knysna, where hundreds of families were left homeless by devastating fires in June. Gift of the Givers fed hot meals to the more than 900 firefighters as they battled the flames for days.

“We have started building houses for families who lost everything in the fire. We are looking at building 60 houses at a cost of R180 000 each, with everyone from farmers to farm workers set to benefit,” says Sooliman.

A white-knuckled 400km later, we arrive in a rural area outside Sedgefield, where, standing outside their newly built two-bedroom home, Nicholas and Cheryl Liepner struggle to express their gratitude. Their four-bedroom house and three workshops were razed on June 7 and they lost everything.

Cheryl sobs and hugs Sooliman repeatedly as she battles to get the words out of her mouth.

His response is the same, I observe, as it was to those who thanked him so profusely in Sutherland. Sooliman simply smiles in response, adding: “Thank you.”

I ask him why.

“I don’t want people to feel obliged to thank me because it was not my money that helped them. With a smile I acknowledge everything,” he says.

“Ours is only to make sure that we help wherever we can with what we have, preserve human dignity and save lives without expecting anything in return. That is our mission and also an instruction.”

It is perhaps understandable, then, why Sooliman and his organisation took none of the credit after a two-year battle to secure the release of Stephen McGown, who had been held hostage for six years in Mali, and brought him home to his family. In any event, International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane offered them none in a statement issued following his release.

Six months ago, as Sooliman stood at a Knysna shopping centre distributing food parcels to those who had lost their homes, he overheard a distraught farmer asking for sugar. Grant Livesey already had some of the stuff, but needed far more. Sooliman was curious.

“He looked at me and said: ‘I don’t need it for myself, but for the bees.’ I came closer and asked him to tell me more.”

Millions of Cape honey bees were also killed in the fire, either burnt or killed by the smoke. Very few colonies managed to flee or were spared, but they had nothing to eat in their ravaged habitat.

A conservation beekeeper, Livesey was on a mission to save the remaining bees and needed sugar to mix with water to create a syrup that could keep them alive.

Livesey said about 340 hives were destroyed in the fires around Knysna, each containing about 60 000 bees, leaving the bee death toll at about 20 million – excluding wild swarms. At the same time, the bees were being eaten in increasing numbers by the drongo birds, which were also starving and battling for food.

Livesey explained that he and the other farmers had to buy bone meal to keep them off the remaining bees.

Soon, Sooliman was standing, terrified, over a wooden hive housing about 60 000 bees at the Honey Child bee farm.

“[Livesey] opened the box, and the queen bee – the single reproductive female in the hive – was sitting right there amid the swarm. And in that instant, I fell in love with the bees,” Sooliman recounts.

Livesey said it was very rare even for beekeepers to get a glimpse of the queen, and Sooliman realised it was meant to be.

Recalling the story after visiting the Leibmans nearby, Livesey said: “How do you open a frame and suddenly the queen bee is sitting right there?”

Sooliman left the encounter and went to the Qur’an, in which chapter 16 is called The Bee.

Five months later, Sooliman is back to check on the bees. The queen may not have come to greet him this time, but after Give of the Givers’ donation of R50 000 worth of sugar, pollen substitute and hive kits, the bees have begun to help the humans, producing honey to sell and pollinating crops.

After a whistle-stop tour of several housing projects in Knysna and around Sedgefield, we have dinner in nearby George, where Sooliman invites an old friend, who is also a search and rescue operations specialist, to join us.

Exhausted at 22:00, we fall into our beds to prepare ourselves for the 243km trip to Beaufort West the following day, where Gift of the Givers has been busy with a R6m borehole-drilling project for the town, whose dam had run dry the previous month.

There, we spend four hours experiencing the excitement of the drilling team as they hit water 80 metres underground – and standing in the fountain that shoots out of the ground as the drill bit shoots deep into the aquifer.

I ask Sooliman if he had ever dreamt of doing what he does today.

“I never saw it coming. All I wanted was to be a doctor, a very good doctor. But today I have achieved way more than that,” he says.

I have to ask: “Why do you drive so fast? I mean, you are some Michael Schumacher on steroids out there on the road.”

He chuckles. “Actually, we drove slowly because we had you guys. We work hard, far and wide; that’s why. Anyway, people out there know I do everything fast.”

Kazi adds a warning: “I was a racing driver at some point and knew exactly what I was doing with that bakkie. You guys shouldn’t try it at home, okay?”

They drop us off at the airport. Days later, Sooliman sends a WhatsApp message, no doubt created by that intrepid right index finger. “Don’t you guys want to join us for a drive again?” he asks.

“Give me some time to think about it, Doc.”

Read more on:    gift of the givers  |  imtiaz sooliman

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