My friend Annette was talking to me about recognition. We were driving from Cape Town to McGregor – she has been living in Munich and we haven’t seen each other for a couple of years. This house is a new addition and she wanted to see “what you have been up to since I have been away.” Last year was a hard one for her – professionally and personally, in more or less equal measure. She had carved out this week on her own, before the boys came out for Easter because she needed some space to chill out and think. Annette has a decision to make and it’s not one that can be thought through in a crowd. “When everything was happening I wanted my boys to know that they were important and seen. That they have a place in my world where they are always recognised.” So, she created a ritual for them: each evening, each person shares something about themselves from the day: feeling or action. For e.g.: “My math test was bad, I felt sad.” or “I built a brilliant garage from lego”. After they have recognised themselves, they acknowledge something that another person did that day that contributed to the family world: “You helped me to clear my lego up”, “Mommy made delicious supper”.
She said it added immeasurably to their sense of self and place. And allowed them to acknowledge failures as well as successes in a non-judgemental forum. It wasn’t about making the awkwardness go away, nor about solving a problem or rewarding a success –but rather about bringing anything that might be hidden or unacknowledged into the light and shared. Which, in turn, had the effect of validation and inclusion. Crucial at a time when things were unsettled, and perhaps a little scary.
As she was describing this to me we slowed down for a red light and I saw a man walking along the row of cars. He had something in his hand and the motorists in front of me were all refusing to take it. Every traffic light has a crew working the intersection – and it can become exhausting parrying or saying no to the requests for purchase or support. But there was something about the man that had me open my window and take what he was offering. A torn-out page from a spiral notebook, with Application for Employment on it: beautifully written.
I smile and say “Thank You” and he introduces himself as George. He is desperate for work, he says. And he is from Malawi. These two bits of information tell me he knows South Africans like to hire Malawians because they are hard working, honest and well educated. But it also lets me know he has most probably walked here from his home. Few set off on a desperate trek like that if they have money for an airline ticket. Many make the dangerous journey drawn by the promise of an economically stable country. He is standing at the traffic light on a Saturday afternoon working for work. And that’s what made me open my window.
George’s clothes are the kind of clean that comes from washing in rivers: the white checks in his shirt show the traces of silt. His belongings are piled against the window of the bakery opposite and I can see a bedroll. There is every chance this young man is living rough. I take his note and say: “You’ve come a long way, that could not have been easy.” “Yes,” he says: “it was not easy, but I have done it.” I say I have no work to offer him – but I will pass his job application on to someone in McGregor. He replies: “Thank you my sister for trying”. We look each other in the eye, smile, clasp hands and I drive off.
It occurs to me as I turn the corner that our short interaction is exactly what Annette was describing: we acknowledged and recognised the other. When the Nans visit, we have a custom of our own. Over dinner, at the table – we take turns to identify the best, worst and funniest moments of our days. We learn more about each other in that hour than we do in the other 23. I am going to have a think about how to weave recognition into our ritual, to include acknowledgement of our contributions to each other’s day. How wonderful to go to sleep knowing that you have been seen and heard and appreciate. Can only make for sweeter dreams.