GOING IN: ONCE UPON A TIME IN SOUTH AFRICA
By Michael Kearns
The world premiere of GOING IN: ONCE UPON A TIME IN SOUTH AFRICA took place on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2007, at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, California. Written and performed by Michael Kearns, the spoken word memoir also featured the photography of Mollie Lowery and Tia Kearns.
GOING IN chronicles a month that Kearns and his daughter spent in Johannesberg, working at an orphanage. It tackles many of the themes that pervade Kearns’ work but filter them through a kaleidoscopic new filter.
Simple to produce, GOING IN is available to tour and play a variety of venues, including (but not limited to) theatres, universities, libraries, and meeting rooms. For further information, contact Mr. Kearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below are excerpts from GOING IN as well as a sampling of photographs by Ms. Kearns that are included in the presentation.
Once upon a time in South Africa, three Americans—my friend Mollie Lowery, my daughter Tia and I—decide to visit Johanessburg, going in to investigate, discover, be surprised and be of service. The cultural landscape—driven by fear, cloaked in shame, distinguished by suffering—is frustrating, seductive, broken, and heroic. I’d like to share a few stories.
Once upon a time, I am reading a goodnight story to the boys in the flat below. Midway into the story, David says, “When are you leaving?” (David is the one who watched his mother murder his father.) “When I finish the story ,” I say, assuming that he meant when was I leaving to go upstairs. “No,” he says, “When are you leaving?” Beat. I realize where this is headed. “When are you leaving?” he repeats. “October?” “No,” I say, “August.” Another beat. “August,” he repeats. “August what?” The other boys are uncharacteristically taciturn. “August 8th,” I answer. “August 8th,” he repeats to himself, deliberately, as if instructing himself not to get too close. For the rest of my time there, David remains determinedly detached from me.
“The red dragon” is how the kids downstairs refer to HIV/AIDS. While they “know” why they must take their medication, their HIV-status is not being integrated into their day-to-day existence. If they are describing the HIV in their bodies as a fire-breathing secret that could eat them alive, how will they survive the perils of adolescence? To confront the issues that these HIV-positive kids—on the brink of becoming teenagers—are coping with, is a relatively new phenomenon, especially for South Africa where most infected children, before the advent of ARVs, didn’t live to see their first or second birthday. While I realize that the culture is a quagmire of duplicity, as a man who has been infected for nearly twenty years, I also know how integrating the disease—emotionally and spiritually—has enhanced my life, and perhaps my lifespan. By unleashing the red dragon, I have discovered an abundance of energy coupled with a real sense of peacefulness. These youngsters deserve to be empowered, not further debilitated, by what’s happening in the hearts and souls of their little bodies.
As I watch Tia with the children and babies—holding them, feeding them, soothing them, playing with them, reading to them—I cannot help but think of Wendy and the Lost Boys from Peter Pan. What she is doing, spectacularly, is mothering. She who was abandoned by her own mother. Even though she remains a 12-year old on the verge of turning 13, the degree of her maturity, empathy and humanity soars to new levels as each day flies by. She is my hero.
Today, on James Baldwin’s birthday, a small group of us are in the trenches of Soweto. Before we began visiting various families, we see how Cotlands’ Home Health Care operates in this impoverished township. We visit the grannies first, working diligently at their sewing machines. These are HIV-affected grandmothers who make children’s pajamas that are available for purchase. But, according to one of the grandmas, it is much more than that. “We need to be here,” she says, glancing at the women, busy at their whirring machines. She is beautiful in the way that tragedy emphasizes a heroine’s luminosity. “My ten-year old daughter left in 1998,” she says. “I tested positive when she was born.” She grasps one hand around the small sewing machine, holding on. She is dressed in pink, in a sea of pink and blue striped pajamas. “My daughter left on Good Friday,” she says. “Left” needs no defining. Our small team then sneaks into a meeting room that holds nearly fifty women, many of whom have babies and toddlers in tow. There is a mysterious demonstration taking place in which a blindfolded woman is clumsily attempting to put teensy panties on a white Bratz doll, wearing goggle-like glasses. The instructor is speaking Zulu so I can only understand a few English words being bandied about: “sober” is one of them and “dark” is another. I am nonplussed. Maybe it’s about changing diapers if there’s no electricity? She is fumbling with the doll as the women begin to snicker. I look around and all I see are the ear-to-ear grins of these women, some of whom are giggling along with their children. The young lady with the doll fumbles, starts over and fumbles again, eliciting howls of laughter. At some point, the instructor rubs Vaseline all over the goggle-like mask. Now I’m completely confused and the ladies are completely hysterical. When we get out of the class, the teacher comes up to me and says, “I bet you are wondering what we’re doing.” “Uh,” I say, “Yeah, I was.” “Learning to put on a condom—in the dark or after having too much to drink.” Oh, I get it now. Condom. Vaseline. Dark. We move on to visit our first family of the day. She became a paraplegic, resultant from a mistake made during childbirth. She is unable to walk. She is HIV-positive. Her baby is HIV-positive. Her husband is HIV-positive. I carry in a small refrigerator so that they can keep their ARVs cold. Thankfully, the shack they live in—measuring approximately 12’ X 18’ with a dirt floor—has electricity. So does her husband’s smile; one of the biggest and brightest I’ve ever seen. Breaking the stereotype, he is a man “who does everything for the family,” according to the doctor who I’m accompanying on this journey. “He is a saint.” The second shanty we visit on our Home Health Care journey is only slightly larger than the first but it houses eleven people. Two single beds, no electricity. By the time we get to the third home, a pattern begins to emerge: no matter what the size of the place, it is in presentable condition. Beds are made, the small number of possessions are neatly put in their place, there are splashes of color; a sense of dignity pervades in spite of what appears to be impossibly grim living conditions. A grandma greets me, saying “Papa!” She is caring for her 12-year old grandson, infected with both HIV and TB. Both parents died of AIDS. Elvis sings from a rickety transistor radio, “Are you lonesome tonight? Do you miss me tonight? Are you sorry we drifted apart?” Pointing to the young boy, the grandmother says, “His mother left when he was only five months old.” Left. The grandson comes out onto the street and waves goodbye as we leave for the next stop. Leave. Leaving. Left. I lose track of how many houses we visit when I feel a turbulence in my stomach that I’ve only seen people experience in movies; a visceral response so deep in my guts, an ache so violent, that I think I am going to throw up. It passes, leaving my insides empty, void, unable to feel any more. The heat is excruciating and I am so thirsty, my lips are dry and cracked. I remember seeing a half-broken mirror hanging in one of the shacks, looking at my hair in the dusky reflection, and thinking, “I need color.” Before I shut down completely, we visit a two-room shed. If you’ve ever smelled death, you’ll agree with me that it has a distinct smell, the way cinnamon or rain has a distinct smell. I smell death. A small boy is in one of the rooms with his grandmother, changing out of his school uniform, like a toy soldier. His mother is in the adjacent room, swaddled in blankets, dying. Virtually paralyzed, she wants to say hello even though she barely has the stamina to lift her head. I hold her hand, warm to the touch. Breathe, I tell myself, breathe. When it’s time to leave, after presenting the family with their groceries, I blow the mommy a silent kiss. She catches it, giving me a half-smile and the thumbs-up sign.