Monday, 5 August 2013

We are family. We are one.

The girls on my Hands team will know this one. It's an introduction song that goes like this:

Stand in a circle and hold hands. And sing, "This is Marliss, next to Michelle. This is Michelle, next to Judy. This is Judy, next to Kayley. We are family, we are one." And repeat.


We first sang it at a Care Point with the care workers, and it went more like this: "This is Michelle, next to Lindiwe. This is Lindiwe, next to Siphwe. This is Siphwe, next to 'an unpronounceable name to our English tongues we didn't catch..." We are family, we are one."

And I was immediately uncomfortable. Singing the words "We are family, we are one" felt weirdly cultish. And to sing it with people I'd never met, and might never meet again, just felt wrong to my western brain.

So I hated the song.

But it was also an ear worm. In a quiet moment, particularly on one of our many long car rides, one of us would start singing it, loudly and off key. And we'd laugh, and we'd all join in.

It didn't take long - like maybe a day - for our team to start to feel like a family. And the more we sang it, the more it felt natural. And lovely.

And I started to believe it.

So often, I think when we travel, we're making comparisons and looking for differences from home. I certainly do. "This place sure is flatter/warmer/colder/beachier/wetter/nicer/uglier than home," is part of my inner dialogue when I travel. And it's easy to make the same comparisons about the people that you meet as well. That's where culture shock comes in.

But the "We are family" song made us look for similarities, rather than differences. Lindiwe has a gorgeous smile, just like Michelle from Bragg Creek. Beautiful Jackie, from Kenya, likes colorful fabrics as much as I do. And we all like having our nails painted.

And the more we noted our similarities and our common purpose, the more I liked - no, loved - these ladies I had just met, and might never see again.

It's an African tradition to refer to people with a family name, even if they have no familial affiliation. So everyone is Ma Jane or Sis Jaclyn or Gogo (grandmother) Daphne. It's a sign of affection and respect.

But for someone like me with a very small family, and a narrow definition of the word, I found this uncomfortable. But it grew on me, and it makes me see the close ties we all share, and the necessity of each person to make a community work. Each person here is important, connected and integral to the success of the larger group. It's not cultish, it's practical.

And it's a tragedy for all when anything bad happens to any individual.

I saw this interdependence in the animal world as well. The hyena relies on the leopard for scraps of meat, the impalas eat the short grass after the wildebeest eat the tall. It's a delicate ecosystem - and we are part of a delicate ecosystem too.

I got to be quite close with Jackie, she-of-colorful-fabrics, and she told me how she had gone to England to help out her niece with her first child. I asked her what she thought of England, and mentioned that it was one of my favorite places on the planet.

Jackie was quiet for a moment, and said, "Yes, it was nice. But I could never live there."

I laughed and said, "Is it because of the weather?"

She said, "No. It's because no one knows their neighbours. It was isolating. It felt wrong."

And she's absolutely right. I think at home we are far too concerned with our privacy, our safety, our own concerns, our own stuff. We cocoon ourselves in little bubbles, we live in big houses that we have no need to leave, except to go and buy more stuff. And where I'm from, we avoid leaving those houses to inure ourselves from the weather. We don't need our neighbours because we think we are self-sufficient. We want to be left alone.

While I don't think we all need to sell our big houses and move to a commune, when I get back, I want to learn how to be a better community member - a Sis and a Ma (not a Gogo yet). I want to connect more, because I see how important it is. For an introvert like me - especially someone who works from home and so values my own time and space - that's going to be tough. But just because I'm an introvert, it doesn't mean I don't love being with people. I just need a little quiet in order to refuel.

I've been intensely social on this trip - and interestingly enough, that has been refueling too. I've made so many new families: my Hands family - both at the Hands hub and in the communities we worked in, my hosts in California and London, the Besters here in South Africa, the Linkner family I shared my safari with, and the fabulous people at Motswari Game Preserve. While there may be plenty of endangered species out there, good people are in no short supply.

I've met so many of them on this trip.

We are family. We are one.


  1. This is such a lovely story...a true story. i know its lovely because i have been in the journey that you just described and i totally feel the same courtesy of (sis) Jacky.

  2. Thanks for that, (sis) Mary! I hope your journey was as life changing as mine!

  3. To my sister Marliss. I will never leave you alone or let you feel alone from now on. You are my family, like every one on Team Two (best team ever). Even if you didn't want us at first, you got us!!! :) I didn't know whether to laugh or cry during the blog. I think I did a bit of both. For good reasons. I love people anyway but to feel so attached to all of you in such a short time is divine. You know I'll be visiting you in Edmonton shortly and totally invading your space like always :)


  4. Yes, and we really ARE family...we are one. I will sing that song with you any time you want. I have seen how much you have grown on this journey and you have helped me grow along with you.

    I am so excited that you will be back home shortly. Looking forward to all your stories.

    Big Love,