A solitary experience

African crafts

Last night we went to a fundraiser for those struggling to recover from the Christchurch earthquake. It was held at the home of friends who had opened their home to all comers. There were drinks and nibbles and for the first 30 minutes were able to catch up with old friends and meet new ones.

Then we were asked to find a seat or a perch and direct our attention to the foot of the stairs in the family area.

There stood South African Gertrude Fester, an imposing figure clad in a simple black dress, her hairline, neck and wrists adorned with traditional african beadwork.

Gertrude is a South African political activist and writer, and former Member of Parliament, who was imprisoned for over two years during  the apartheid regime, five months in solitary confinement. During this time she composed stories, plays and poetry and as she was given nothing to write with, she committed them to memory.

At the foot of the stairway and with little room either side she performed her play to a rapt audience. The only other sound heard was the quiet padding of dog Honey trying to find a spot to settle in.

Gertrude explained that writing her play and committing it to memory was one of her survival strategies during her solitary months. It was important to keep the mind active, she said, remembering the date, remembering things that happened on that date, going over and over phrases in foreign languages were examples of some of her mind games. She shared some of the horrors endured and the indignities forced upon prisoners to break their spirit.

I felt very privileged being there, very humbled in the power of her expression, in awe of her strength and tenacity and her sheer determination. This will not break me, they will not break me. I will survive, I will tell my story.

We all need willpower to succeed in all we set out to achieve.  It’s a force to be reckoned with, and as shown in the recent stories coming out of Christchurch, is an essential ingredient for survival.

(You can google Gertrude Fester and read her story for yourselves.)


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