Monday, July 13, 2009

A gentle lesson in humanity

I have just come back from Knysna, where the unit for which I work was sponsoring various 2010 related events, in the Knysna Oyster Festival. Now the Knysna Oyster Festival is, pretty much, a very white affair, with major events consisting of a half marathon and a cycle race. It was started to keep tourism going in Knysna during the winter months. And in that it has succeeded very well. The problem is, that tourism in Knysna has always been a very white thing - and so it remains - only now increased during the winter.

So, we sponsored a "Disabled Fun event" - so named, because the organisers of the festival wanted to brand it "where everyone is a winner". (Personally, I had qualms about the political correctness of the use of the word "disabled" - but then was informed that the organisers had been working with the "Disabled People's Association" - so who was I to complain?) And as it happens, the schmaltzy idea that "everyone is a winner" was the last thing on the contestants minds. They wanted to win - and that was that!

Around 250 people signed up for it (which I thought was really rather amazing!) and they came from all over the place. I was pleased to see that, like the other events we were sponsoring, (and unlike the Festival as a whole), the participants of this event were well mixed racially. They came in wheelchairs; they came in strange cycling machines, that you peddled with your arms; there were babies in specially designed prams; there were people on crutches; there were people without - and they all had various degrees of disability.

You could not fault the enthusiasm on the part of the participants - they ploughed into the streets and all seemed to finish long earlier than the organisers had anticipated. But what I loved most about the race, was the fact that the people of Knysna cheered them on. They waved - they clapped. It was a really magical moment.

Now, I hate to admit this, but let me do so, just in case there is anyone else out there who is like me. Well, here it is – 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 usually manage 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 Book of Common prayer - I do the very thing I ought not to. The very thing I do not want to do.

I remember a year or two ago, a similar event, this time on the stage. It was under cover the anonymity of the theatre and the accompanying darkness, that I was alone with my reactions to cerebral palsy. And I was, I am pleased to say, taught a lesson I will never forget.

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 onto the stage. One was pushed on to stage 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 kids 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. 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, fifteen or sixteen 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. Never before, (never!) had I been taught so sweet and so gentle a lesson, on what it means to be human.

For me, it is this kind of thing that the 2010 FIFA World Cup should be about. Yes, of course it is about soccer, and about able people performing extraordinary feats on the field. 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 - "disabled" or not. It needs to be about celebrating our humanity, in all its diverse and wondrous forms.

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