Jan Risher

Jan Risher

On July 4, my South African friends were sending me messages asking if I could help get them on “America’s Got Talent.”

Days later, their messages took an abrupt turn. Unaware of what was going on there, I thought they were referring to COVID-19 issues. Little did I know, rioters and looters were tearing their region apart. Anarchy spread through their region like wildfire. They were not asking for money — there is nothing to buy. Instead, they were asking for someone to care — for any help possible.

Long ago a friend told me, “Sometimes you just need to listen. You don’t have to try and solve every problem.”

She was right.

However, at other times, even when I don’t know what to do or how to help, I believe it my responsibility to care — and that it is morally wrong not to try to help.

On Thursday, I received the following message from one of my friends in South Africa. He said, “We safe for now, but I’m afraid hunger is the worst enemy.”

He is not exaggerating.

Since their mayday messages started arriving, I’ve learned just how dire the situation in South Africa is — especially in my friends’ city of Durban.

In 2017, I met a South African performing group at a storytelling festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. In the past four years, I’ve watched the trajectory of their lives fluctuate like a kid on a trampoline.

I met them while they were riding high.

From a rural township outside Durban, a city on the coast of South Africa, they were on an all-expense-paid trip to Scotland to perform in a festival. They got back home and their stars continued to rise.

Then, COVID hit.

They were unable to perform — which meant all money and sources of support for them and their families dried up.

On a number of occasions since we met, I’ve done what I could to help the group. We’ve been in contact, if not weekly, at least monthly. I’ve learned about their lives in South Africa — much about the basic level of hunger to which they are accustomed. I remember their astonishment in Scotland at the abundance of food. The pandemic took them back to their pre-performing days of almost constant hunger.

Even so, I knew my American friends and I could not sustain them through the pandemic. So, I suggested they start a garden to grow food. Several friends chipped in and the group was able to start growing their garden almost a year ago.

Since then, they have eaten many meals from their homegrown vegetables. At this point, they are more grateful for the small garden than ever before, but the limited quantity of vegetables is not nearly enough to address the catastrophic problems at hand.

In the past 10 days, stores and food pantries have been looted. Many buildings have been burned and/or vandalized. Shipping companies have suspended operations on the ports of Durban. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have seen a mother drop her two-year-old baby from the rooftop of a burning building to a crowd of people who caught the child.

Chaos reigns.

If you’re wondering what brought this crisis to a head, here’s a bit of context: On July 7, former South African president Jacob Zuma voluntarily surrendered into police custody after he was sentenced to 15-months for contempt of court following his not guilty plea in May to 16 counts of corruption, racketeering, fraud, and money laundering, accepting a total of 783 illegal payments.

Shortly thereafter, things in Durban began to heat up. Durban is a part of Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, which is where most violence and looting have been concentrated.

All that said, there is no good reason for this violence and destruction. Before I understood what was happening, I asked my young friend about the gardens. In the midst of the bedlam, he took a short video of the cabbage and a spinach growing and sent it to me.

On Wednesday, I posted on social media about the situation in Durban. Friends of friends have since begun to make connections to boots-on-the-ground organizations in and near South Africa — organizations are trying to help, but the situation is still in crisis and the solution is not clear.

However, this I know —sometimes the answer is not money. Sometimes the answer is about caring. Please pass this along to anyone you believe might care. Someone will have the contacts to help.

Email Jan Risher at janrisher@gmail.com.