Thursday, January 22, 2015

First Chapter of Contagious Hope

Chapter One

I stand still, cocooned with indecision as people swirl past. The drifts of humanity tell me I’m in a different place; one with foreign languages, strange accents, and dark skins. Dozens of black faces surround me, some with big smiles and white teeth, and others framed with cornrows, braids, and beads. All of them talk loudly, some seemingly shouting to someone on the far side of the arrivals hall. A woman in flamboyant emerald and orange jostles me and I clutch my bags protectively. I was warned to be careful at the airport. Apparently, thieves loiter here, preying on unsuspecting tourists. But I’m not a tourist, I remind myself, taking a deep breath and straightening my spine. I’m on a mission to help the local people, not fear them.

 I spin in a tight circle, absorbing the glass walls and modern curves of the airport. It’s far more first-world than I expected and I’m impressed. A row of men form a loose barrier to the left, holding up signs with names on them. That’s what I’m looking for. The person from the mission house who is picking me up must be over there. The crowd parts as I struggle forward, suitcase dragging behind me, bag clutched firmly under my arm. A mechanical voice drones in the background. “This is a safety conscious airport. Please do not leave your
bags unattended.”
The row of men becomes a line of individuals representing hotels and taxi companies. I read the signs from left to right, ignoring the hands that hold them and the faces above, looking only for my name. For something that is familiar and safe. Savannah James. I spot it towards the middle and raise my eyes to the bearer. He turns out to be a well-built young guy with a big grin and unruly hair the colour of chocolate toffee. Relief washes over me as I angle myself towards him, pulling my suitcase behind me.
“Hi,” I say, stopping next to him. “I’m Savannah.”
His grin broadens as he sticks out a hand. “Kia ora, Savannah. My name’s Blake Baxter. Pleased to meet you.”
I laugh out loud. “I didn’t know South Africans could speak Maori.”
“They can’t,” Blake replies. “I was born and bred in the thriving metropolis of Timaru.”
“No!” I’m surprised by this unexpected appearance of a fellow Kiwi. “I’m from Christchurch but also lived in Auckland for a few years. We often drive down to Timaru at Christmas for the carnival.” I look at him. “But you don’t sound like a New Zealander.”
“My dad’s American and I’ve just spent a year in the States so my accent’s a bit of a mixture.” He takes my suitcase and gestures for me to follow him. “I’m here for a couple of months to volunteer at Mercy House. Already done one of
them – and then I’m heading back to New Zealand.”
I walk next to him as he manoeuvres my suitcase towards the exit. “Thanks for coming to pick me up.”
“Your first trip to South Africa?”
“Yeah, I haven’t been farther than Australia before.”
We plunge into a wall of heat outside the terminal building and my skin dehydrates instantly, tightening across my bones. If it’s this hot at 10am, what will the noon day heat be like? Blake turns to look at me. “You okay? The mission van is a fair walk from here.”
“Yes, that’s no problem.” I match my stride to his and we weave through a crowd heading in the opposite direction. An unfamiliar odour lingers in the air, a mixture of hot tarmac and sweat, reminding me again that this is not home.
The van turns out to be a scruffy banger of indeterminate age. Blake loads my bags into the back and locks the door before opening the passenger side for me. “Lock your door,” he instructs as he climbs into the driver’s seat. “Hijackings are common in Johannesburg and while I don’t think they’d target this decrepit old thing, it’s best to be safe.” He sets the GPS and soon we are out on the highway. It’s like Auckland only much busier with roads and bridges spiralling in all directions.
“So what do you know about Mercy House?” Blake asks as he accelerates.
I don’t answer at first, alarmed by the speed he’s travelling at. Then I see the signs along the roadside. So the
speed limit in South Africa is 120 kilometres per hour.
Blake laughs as he follows my eyes. “You have to keep up or the other drivers get angry. In fact, most of them travel at 140. You’ll get used to it.”
“I hope so.”
“And going back to my question …”
I pull my thoughts to order. “I’ve seen the Youtube presentation of the mission house – along with the information pack and photos they sent me. I know Hillbrow is a dangerous area but I’m excited to be here.”
“It’s a real eye opener but you’ll see for yourself. I won’t try and explain.” He gestures to the skyline in the distance, the skyscrapers and towers silhouetted against a smattering of smog. “Hillbrow is next to the CBD and used to be a sought-after residential and shopping area. Much of it is comprised of blocks of flats that used to be inhabited by a mixture of yuppies and older folk. These days many are occupied by squatters.”
“And Mercy House is in one of those?”
“It is indeed.”
Blake is silent for a moment as he looks for a gap in the traffic and changes lanes. I gaze across the buildings that line the highway, boxy concrete structures with residential homes set beyond them. Everything is bigger than I’m used to and I suddenly feel lost and alone. When Grandpa told me stories of Africa, they were of dusty roads, mud huts, and brown streams. He spoke of mission churches with whitewashed walls and fields planted with stunted corn. The landscape before me does not look like a mission field but I know it is. I think again of Grandpa and the promise I made him before leaving New Zealand; of the secret he entrusted into my care.
Blake swings to the left and exits the highway. “I need to pick up a parcel for Bob and Lily who head up Mercy House. It will only take a few minutes.” He heads into suburbia and I get a closer look at the houses. “It’s so different from New Zealand,” I say, noting the high walls, electric gates, and armed security signage. It’s as though these people are imprisoning themselves in an effort to keep safe: each home an isolated box with tightly-controlled access. I think of my parents’ home with the lawn that rolls down to the street and neat flowerbeds that border the driveway. Of how they chat to neighbours across the low dividing walls. I can’t see that happening in this street.
Blake stops at a traffic light and I’m so busy staring at the view to the right that I jump when a hand knocks on the car window. “Don’t worry,” he says touching my arm. “It’s just a street vendor trying to get your attention. They sell everything you can imagine. They’re all over the city and often set up shop at the traffic lights.”
I shake my head to the man who has an array of ladies’ scarves over his arm and watch as he moves on to another vehicle. “I’m sorry. He gave me such a fright.”
Blake points across the intersection. “Have a look over
I follow the direction of his finger and see table-loads of goods with signs in fluorescent pink and yellow. “iPad covers, iPhone accessories, kitchenware, towels,” as well as the advertised goods, plastic-ware in bright jewel colours lines the roadside. Laundry bins, vegetable racks, buckets and storage containers. “Is this legal?” I ask.
“I’ve no idea but this is just a small set up. In some places it’s like a giant market.”
I fall silent for the remainder of the journey, watching, observing as the effects of jetlag and a strange new culture overwhelm me. I’ve always considered myself a strong character but this is more than I’ve had to handle on my own before. I’m excited but also a little intimidated.
Thirty minutes later, Blake steers the van into central Johannesburg. “The CBD is off to the left,” he points as he takes a right turn. “And Hillbrow is not too far away. Some areas are worse than others but Mercy House is in the main shopping area which is not too bad.”
I lean forward in my seat as impressions flash past me. The area deteriorates by the block and I see stately old buildings clad with peeling posters, and streets strewn with litter. Cellular phone shops abound and old pallets are set up as impromptu fruit and vegetable stands. Coils of barbed wire hang loosely over walls and washing hangs from dingy balconies. There doesn’t seem to be a white face among the crowds milling around and I turn to Blake. “Are we in Hillbrow yet?”
“Just on the outskirts.” He flashes a smile at me. “It’s built on the ridge of a hill and isn’t flat like the centre of Johannesburg.”
“This is so different from New Zealand.” I realise I’m repeating myself, but I can’t help myself.
“It is,” Blake agrees. “Do you see the tower over there?”
I look towards a slender structure that soars high above the other buildings. “Is that in Hillbrow?”
“Yes, it’s commonly called the Hillbrow Tower although I think it has another name too. It’s 90 storeys high.”
“It’s a bit like the Sky Tower in Auckland.”
“Yes, it is. Unfortunately it’s closed to the public.” He points to another part of the cityscape. “That’s Ponte City aka the Vodacom Tower.”
I follow his finger to a tall circular structure. “Is that offices or flats?”
“It used to be flats. It’s hollow on the inside and was sought after for the views it offers across the city.”
“Do you know how tall it is?”
“Over 50 storeys I believe. Unfortunately, it fell into the hands of gangsters and was unsafe for years.”
“What a shame.”
“It was. I’ve been told it was in such a bad state that
the debris and litter in the inner core reached five storeys high.
It has been tidied up since then.”
I scan the buildings close by as the road rises and the structures around us grow in height. By comparison, the streets seem to grow darker as he drives deeper into Hillbrow. “It looks like it used to be quite different.” I point at a multi-storey building next to us. “There’s a lovely example of architecture but it’s lost under that garish paint job and all the handwritten signage. And the litter …” I look at a mound of black garbage bags, ripped on all sides with the contents spilling into the gutter. “It’s just disgusting.”
Blake smiles. “It’s quite a culture shock but these are the people we’re here to help. We work on their hearts and when those change, the external behaviour follows.”
I lean back, absorbing the wisdom of his words.
Mercy House turns out to be larger than I anticipated from the video footage. A brown brick building that rears five storeys up, it’s cleaner than its neighbours and the sidewalk in front of it looks freshly swept and free of litter. Blake swings left into a driveway that leads underground and swipes a card through an access point that raises the metal grille. “The first rule of living in Hillbrow is keep everything securely locked,” Blake says as he pulls into the underground garage and parks the van.
The lift from the basement is an old-fashioned one with a hinged wooden door and a metal safety trellis. Blake carries my bags for me and pulls the trellis across before punching the brass button for the ground floor. With a shudder, the cage starts to move and I’m encased by the odour of old wood and polish.
Blake chuckles softly, an easy sound that resonates with the excitement in my heart. I’m here, I’m finally in Africa and it is just as different and exotic as I’d imagined it would be.

Click here to buy Contagious Hope on Kindle for 99 cents.

Click here to buy Fragrant Hope, the sequel to Contagious Hope for 99 cents on Kindle.

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