Together we can reach the top of the castle.

A person’s problem looms large but it is only a part of that person. We need to enlist and unleash the rest. You cannot mobilize on a deficiency any more than you can build on quicksand
Edgar Cahn
Author of “No More Throwaway People” & founder of the Timebanking movement.

Our work with our Sister City Bulawayo in Zimbabwe seemed to me to be based on a premise that we with the money and therefore the power, somehow had the right to dictate to those with less wealth and therefore less power, what was good for them. We expected nothing in return but a large dollop of gratitude. Right from the start I felt in my guts that this approach was wrong, that it was patronising and wasteful of the resources I could see were in abundance in the two communities in receipt of our largesse namely Homiel in Belarus, and Bulawayo.

I ended up on the receiving end of decisions regarding what was good for me, made by the largely well-meaning who held power over me after I became ill. I knew to my cost how it led me to be even more disconnected from any of my strengths as I became nothing but a bundle of needs to be met, and symptoms to be managed.

I knew at least that my early thinking that this was a wasteful and ultimately damaging view.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.
Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

How did I learn to challenge the belief that compassion meant sympathy and was often more about the ego of the giver than the welfare of the recipient?

In the 1990s I was extremely privileged to be asked to arrange a visit to Aberdeen by a group of pupils from the King George VI Memorial school in Bulawayo. This was a special school in very many ways. It was for children and young people living with disabilities. They were in the UK to take part in a specially adapted Adventure holiday in Devon and they wanted to take some time to visit us in their Sister City.

My colleague who ran our Bulawayo Trust organised for the group to stay with young people with Learning Disabilities at the Rudolf Steiner School on the outskirts of Aberdeen and they helped me with the programme. It was my first experience working with the LD community and I noted that involving the took us down more creative and unexpected routes than I would have come up with by myself. They had the idea of showing the group one of our “indigenous crafts” and so introduced the group and me to a traditional “bucket mill” making wooden buckets out of wood turned using a water wheel.

I loved this group from the start. They were all highly motivated and determined. What I learned from the most however was that each pupil had a skill or ability that could be of use to one of the other pupils. Thus Thandiwe who was a wheelchair user due to having brittle bones disease had been taught sign language. She was the interpreter to the deaf pupil Umpumelelo who in turn, being able-bodied, helped Thandiwe get around in her wheelchair. I loved this assets-based approach that stressed the fact that we all, irrespective of what else is going on, have something important to give, if only the conditions were in place to allow us to do so. This became an important part of my own “journey” out of the passivity of becoming disabled myself, in my case having long-term mental health issues due to trauma

We took the group to Crathes Castle. We had a Scottish Tourist Guide showing us around and she, albeit in a kindly manner, announced that there was “no way” the disabled kids would be able to get up the spiral stairs. I mean there was even a trip stair designed to make the English invaders fall over and so give the Scots upstairs more time to either get out or get ready to fight. These kids were fighters too. As soon as their ability to get to the top of the castle was in doubt, their determination to do it increased a hundred fold. They helped one another up. Some had to go backwards up the stairs on their bottoms. It took a long time but of course, they did it. They all signed their names triumphantly in the Visitors’ Book right at the top of the castle. This small episode said so much about the ethos of the school and the extent to which it had been embraced by its pupils.

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They visited the Town Hall where my office was situated and we invited them to join us at a civic reception. Here they all are with my two guest contributors Nqobile and Mandisi right in the centre looking rather like the King and Queen on their thrones. I can tell it must have been raining as my hair is frizzy but it brings back so many memories to see them here with the guys with Learning Disability who accommodated them and helped me with the programme. My colleague Doug is in the photo, as are other members of our Aberdeen Bulawayo Trust which Doug administered. The group from left to right are Thandiwe, Lynda Fincham, Umpumelelo, Mandisi, Nqobile, Leanne, and Rosemary Drayton.

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Nqobile was born had severe cerebral palsy but he was one of the most determined young people I had ever met. There had been few expectations of him when he was born but they hadn’t counted on the sheer force of motivation in him as he grew up. I could tell he was a highly intelligent young man but that people’s assumptions regarding his difficulties with speech and so forth, somehow blinded them to this fact. I found communication with Nqobile very easy right from the start. I took on a challenge to find a way to get him some training in a specialist college. He was and still is the only African ever to get a place at Beaumont College in Lancashire. It took a lot of negotiation but together, we did it. Thanks to the seed of an idea planted after talking to Dominic Makuvachuma from Mind, also from Zimbabwe, I managed to track Nqobile down via Linked in so I am now able to give you Nqobile’s thoughts and reflections on the impact that visit had on him:

Over to you, my Zimbabwean younger brother:

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No Mountain too high!!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
The success story of a young man privileged to live with cerebral palsy.                                       
Before I left school in 1993, I was chosen to be one of six pupils to be part of the Calvert Trust Tour to England, Scotland and Devon, for three weeks. We participated in a range of sporting activities designed for people with disabilities. We also visited Bulawayo’s twin city Aberdeen and Number 10 Downing Street. Aberdeen City Council welcomed us by a reception and tour around the city with other young people with disabilities. And we were met by the wife of the former British Prime Minister John Major, behind the world’s famous door.

While I was in Aberdeen God opened an opportunity for me to have a chat with the twinning officer and I shared my vision of pursuing I.T. at Beaumont College and she expressed her interest to try to assist me to help me. I have learnt that when God puts a vision in a person He provides the right people to help to achieve it. After three months when I got back home, after three years of attempting to be enrolled at college and seeking for financial assistant, God used Miss Alison Cameron to negotiate with college authorities and College agreed. And the college offered a short course for three months and tuition fees came down from 25 000 to 4,200 pounds just for me.                                                                                  
Upon my return to Bulawayo in May 1996 I worked for the City Council of Bulawayo on a 2 year contract in human resources section as clerical assistance and assisting in training staff to use PCs. From 2001 to 2004, I started a printing business; I designed business cards, letterheads etc. from 2004 to date, I have been doing digital photos slide shows using Proshow Producer, sophisticated video editing program which allows editing video and mixing photos with sound track, all in many different formats.                                                      
It was interesting to share with other young people from Aberdeen their experiences.

Nqobile

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I am so proud of Nqobile. He has things he wants to achieve. He now lives independently, but I know he’d love to be able to drive. He has already had one lesson. If anyone can do it, he can. He does motivational speeches throughout Southern Africa. I am delighted I played a very small part in his journey.

Another of the group to whom I became very close was Mandisi Sibanda who also has cerebral palsy. She also had a great sense of humour. She was obsessed with British comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo and was always coming out with “Oh Rene” with exactly the right French accent. One day I was worried that her mobility level had declined. In fact she was pretending to be Herr Flick of the Gestapo so was mimicking his limp. She was also really into Mars Bars. I will allow my younger sister from Bulawayo to talk about this in her own words. She is never short of a few words….

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My name is Mandisi Sibanda. I was born on11 May 1978 with a disability called cerebral palsy. l started school at the age of 4 years old at King George Vl Memorial School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. By that time I wasn’t able to walk and l was using a wheel chair.
The day l shall never forget is when we were from a walk at Ascot shopping center. I recognised my mum from a distance. My mum had come to visit me. By then she was teaching in Victoria falls. I jumped from the wheelchair and l said mum l can walk and it was a big surprise for mum to see me walking. She prayed hoped for that and it was possible with the prayers and physiotherapy l got from KG VI.                                                         
I did my primary and secondary schooling at KG VI. l want to give thanks to Miss Rosemary Drayton who was our physiotherapist. And Mrs Lynda Fincham our headmistress by then who accompanied us on our trip to England and Scotland in April 1993 That was our journey of our lifetime.                                                                                          
That was the time when we met the beautiful Alison Cameron who was then the Twinning Officer between Aberdeen and Bulawayo. I really value her friendship and sisterly love she gave us. I remember the Mars Bars.                                                                                                               
I had a lot of experiences from KG VI we were always out on trips to places of interest. I was very much inspired by the trip overseas. I became a disability activist and motivational speaker for people with disabilities. I would still love to travel all around and my role model is Alison Cameron my big sis.                                                                                                    
After my schooling l did an Information Technology Computer course and l worked as a self advocate for people with disabilities with a local NGO and l used travel around Zimbabwe motivating people with disabilities which mainly focused on Children and Young People with disabilities.                                                                                                                                       
I was raised by a single parent and she is now in her old age. I am very ambitious still want to see the world and l do believe in dreams come true.

I would love to meet Alison again.

Mandisi Sibanda

 

I see that this wonderful school celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. I can see from more recent photographs that at the centre, they continue to create the conditions for young people with disabilities to live life to the full, to unlock skills, and foster the kind of determination which each member of the group had in spades. Their motto is “Still not giving up”.  I try to live my life according to their example.

“Be curious and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at” Professor Stephen Hawking. RIP

 

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A Half Dead Mouse. I try my hand at Highland witchcraft.

I am walking slowly up a spiral staircase in the pseudo baronial Old Town House Aberdeen which has on the walls, portraits of Lord Provosts past. Their eyes seem to swivel disapprovingly in my direction as I go by. They are not a particularly attractive bunch…

I was to discover many of the living ones were none too pleasant either. But I wasn’t even there yet. I was 23. It was my first “real” job. I was their first ever “Twinning Officer” which was forever being mistaken by locals for a brand of herbal tea.  I was going to be in charge of Aberdeen’s town twinning activities which were many as our local elected members loved their “fact-finding missions”. I have yet to find out what facts they were looking for given some of the things they used to get up to on these overseas trips.

This was all to come however. I was still only half way up the stairs a crisp suit, my first one, that Mum had bought for me in John Lewis sale.

I felt inadequate and scared as I spiralled upwards round the statue of Queen Victoria. I was to imagine many times over the next few years that if I threw myself off the staircase I would end up impaled on her crown and bleed all over the geraniums at her feet.

Turned out they had forgotten I was coming so there was no place for me to sit. I said “I don’t mind, as long as I have a desk”. The response was “Desk? Who said anything about a desk?”. That should have been a hint that things were not as they ought to be.  I was given a space in an office later deemed too good for me. They later made up for the splendour by ensuring I had rubbish furniture. There were depressing oil paintings in there of sad orphans on loan from the Aberdeen Art Gallery Reserve Collection. It was very clear to me why they were on reserve….

On my first meeting with my new manager, a Scottish version of Sir Humphrey Appleby,  I was told two important facts – one that the Lord Provost (our equivalent of Mayor) was “a bastard on a good day”, and two, that Aberdeen had agreed to Twin with a “Russian” City. I summoned the courage to make two points.

1. This City, Homiel, was NOT in Russia. It was in the then Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic

2. I followed up this shock news with, “have you looked on a map?”.

Homiel was the centre of a region heavily contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl four years before. As was their wont, a bunch of our whisky-laden Councillors had met their vodka-laden counterparts while seeking facts together aka some jolly in France. They had been seen coming, as they had undoubtedly been bragging about oil revenue and the £28 million Common Good Fund otherwise known as Robert the Bruce’s Sporran. The historic and binding deal was sealed, making our Cities friends for life, through thick and thin, dictatorship and plutonium.

Regarding my manager’s first point about the “Leadership Style” of the Lord Provost,  I quickly realised that he lived up to his reputation. He could be ignorant, mean-spirited, gruff, and downright nasty. On day one with no warning, he summoned me to lunch in the restaurant where our elected Members got their daily free meals. They were all ears awaiting the initiation ceremony – a young lassie about to be served up on a plate. More palatable than the lukewarm mince and tatties nae doot. I had not been told a thing about an upcoming visit by a Japanese delegation and when the summons came, I had appealed to my boss for help. His response was to run in the opposite direction like a daddy long legs possessed.  Feeling extremely unsure of myself I joined the Lord Provost. He didn’t say much but got to his feet and shouted “fa’s ‘at” (translation “who’s that?”) at one of his political opponents. The guest in question was a well-known business leader and so was “ahead of himself” right away, which was a clear fail in the Lord Provost’s eyes.

Then his attention turned to me. I sat there clearly being played with, dismissed as an idiot as I could not answer any of his questions, which he had clearly anticipated. When I watch my cat play with a half dead mouse am reminded of many such experiences at the hands of our elected members. I wasn’t to know at that stage that their issue was usually rooted in a firm sense of their own inadequacy made up for as far as they could, in power games, pomposity and a fondness for ceremonial robes. Early on, the Lord Provost had decided I was not up to the job. It helped this semi-literate ex railway shunter to reduce those he feared to zero.

I now understand with hindsight, that I had been propelled into a toxic working environment where to be declared “ahead of yourself” or worse, “clever”, was not a compliment. I was considerably younger than anyone else in my position. I was very raw material and raw material needs to be coaxed lovingly into the finished article rather than trampled on.  I translated the messages I was getting re my lack of suitability for the job, my being “above myself”, into “must try harder”. I now know this was the last thing the powers that be wanted. It was to be an early lesson that if one values self-preservation above all else, the key is to achieve a kind of nameless, faceless mediocrity that attracts no attention, either positive or negative.  This has been true throughout what passes for my working life. The mediocre are able to climb unnoticed up the ranks. The result is those at the top of the ladder are often subconsciously acutely aware of their own inadequacy, and seek to make up for it by protecting themselves with a brittle narcissism.

The other “not good enough” message I absorbed came from the stitch-up that had happened around my recruitment. I was offered the role but was deemed too young and green to be given the advertised salary for my post. I was offered the position on a lower rate and advised I would have training and support to enable me to grow into the role. This was speaking my language. I had never wanted position as an end in itself and would far rather have worked my way up the ladder on merit. I was also not at all confident in my own abilities and so I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

The first seeds of suspicion were planted when I came across a “Confidential” letter in which senior officials were congratulating one another at their success in getting me to accept a low salary and for the savings they had made as a result. There was no mention of the training and support that I had been offered, and indeed, my then boss was to deny emphatically that these promises were ever made.

I also found out that the elected members had not been informed of this deal so they expected me to put up with the abuse that they believed the higher grades merited. I was handed on a plate to the Lord Provost who commenced a campaign to bully me out of existence.

We went early on to Belarus via Moscow. He was so delighted to be making his first visit to the Socialist Paradise that was just about still the USSR. I can imagine his shock when he was to find at Sheremetyevo airport that he was treated with equal disdain to the rest of humanity shuffling through customs being quizzed about possible weapons-grade plutonium or birdseed in our luggage. It was of course MY fault. He dragged me by the arm across the concourse in search of this anticipated but non-existent VIP treatment. He was a long-standing Communist and discovering the reality of the dying embers of the USSR was too much for him.

On my return, he used every possible opportunity to denigrate me, belittle my work and even my language skills despite his own abilities in English being rather limited.
I was to discover that I may be plagued with anxiety, even terror at times and a crippling lack of self-belief but when against a wall, something in me seems to kick in. I turn and I face head on whatever it is and whoever it is.

I had an ally in the form of the Council’s Public Relations Officer. She was profoundly disliked as not only was she a well-known figure in Aberdeen from her previous TV career, she had also married into a high-profile local family who owned a number of important businesses and amenities in the City. Margaret was being put through the same mincer as I was. She was older than me and became a friend and mentor. We resorted to black humour for survival. We even tried witchcraft. We would sit in the Press Gallery during Council meetings willing the Lord Provost to keel over, in the way he would have wanted, in full throttle rant in the Council chamber. Our plan was to sprint down the spiral staircase and over the road to Oddbins for a bottle of Dom Perignon so that we could toast his departure.

I soon unleashed my talent for creative disruption.  One day I came in early and stuck a big Room 101 poster on the grand wood-paneled door to the Lord Provost’s suite of offices. The trouble was, the inhabitants of our baronial building had not read Orwell and the TV programme was yet to exist so it was lost on them. It made me feel considerably better however.

I then sought a practical plan of action. I sensed that it needed some public acclaim for HIM, to make him understand my worth. I spotted an International Relations’ award and KNEW this largely meaningless gong would impress Comrade R in the style of winning a Stakhanovite medal, or the Order of Lenin. I entered and won an award for my work in Belarus and Zimbabwe “Best Contribution to World Harmony” at a ceremony at the Savoy and he had to go with me to London to accept it on behalf of the City. He had broken his leg so I was in effect his carer, which was a profound change in the dynamics between us.

There was what I now know is a power shift happening and this was to become a theme throughout the fragments of my life.

When we got back from London, I was called into the newly-arrived Chief Executive Donald McDonald, the Stalin of Stornoway, of whom very much more anon. McDonald was blithering that “something has happened to the Lord Provost”. He had apparently been to see him and demanded that I be given an assistant and a serious pay rise. I left McDonald’s office to a hearty “your days as a trainee are over”. Later that day, the Lord Provost publicly apologised to me. He said he had been unfair and that he hadn’t been aware of my status as “trainee”.

Shortly after that, my nemesis retired from office. The last time I saw him was on the street. I was in formerly “his” car, the chauffeur-driven Civic Daimler, having been at the airport seeing off a VIP. He was at the bus stop in the Aberdeen rain.

I waved at him. He waved back. A week later he was dead.