NGO encourages people to talk to strangers

The StrangerKind team are, from left, Sue-Anne Boyes and Mzwa Makhana from Johannesberg, founder Madi van Schalkwyk from Tulbach and Michelle Nothling from Bloemfontein

Non-governmental organisation A Stranger Kind, which aims to encourage open conversation, had its first in-person event at Workshop 17 at the Watershed yesterday, Monday March 21, which marked Humans Rights Day.

The event, called ASK, allows people to connect with each other, and encourages curiosity.

Founder Madi van Schalkwyk, from Tulbagh, thought the event was fitting for Human Rights Day, because “when you hear someone’s story, you are more likely to have compassion for the person and more eager to advocate for them”.

“People walk away from the experience more empathetic and educated, and they go and educate others. It is a natural way to engage and understand what others go through.“

The event at Worskhop 17 at the Watershed at the Waterfront.

Volunteers from all over the city, fondly called “strangers”, offer to share their stories in an attempt to engage others. Visitors to the free event are able to choose a topic from a list available on the day. During one-on-one conversations, the strangers briefly share experiences relating to the topic, and for the remainder of 45 minutes, you get to ask them anything about it.

While the in-person events are mainly taking place in Cape Town and Johannesburg, ASK events are also held online, involving a national network of over 80 trained volunteers.

Ms Van Schalkwyk, who is a graphic designer, said she had always had an interest in people’s lives and human behaviour. “I’ve also seen how a story can benefit someone.”

She started the organisation about four years ago, trying to be more representative of topics and people they reach.

She said the one-on-one conversations encourage openness and personal experience that people won’t get from seminars.

She said the volunteers come from different organisations across the city. “We reach out to organisations on topics that we think are relevant and they come and speak for us. It’s part of creating the authenticity and they are here because they can add value to someone else’s life.”

Gerrit du Plessis, right, from Vredenberg, survived a number of health challenges. On the left is his girlfriend, Anite van der Merwe, from Goodwood.

Some of the strangers at the event at the Watershed included Gerrit du Plessis, a brain tumour survivor from Vredenberg who learnt to see the positive in every situation.

Mr Du Plessis was diagnosed with a brain tumour the size of his fist on the right side of his head in 1996, and had multiple operations to remove it. “My last scan was in 2020 and I was finally in the clear. Apart from the balance on my left side – I think I’m pretty normal,” he said.

After the tumour was removed, Mr Du Plessis was hospitalised again in 2011 due to a blood clot in his leg as a result of a Protein C deficiency.

After surviving this, tragedy struck again when his father died. “He died in my arms and it was haunting me. I had nightmares and I went to see a therapist, who told me: ‘Try to see the positive’, and I thought ’how can I when I lost my father?’”

He said he realised that the positive was that he got to experience the last moments with his father.

Mr Du Plessis started looking for the positive in situations, which helped him heal and work through his depression.

“In 2017, I was diagnosed with a heart problem, and the physician was puzzled as to why I was so calm despite everything I went through. I said: ’Feeling sorry for myself is not going to change anything and I’m handling it’.”

He also met someone after being alone for nine years, and is in a loving relationship, and still keeps a positive attitude.

“I tell my story to inspire people. No matter what happens, there’s always a positive side. Everyday we make decisions on our happiness and that affects our lives.”

Delcarmi Domingos, from Hanover Park, overcame many obstacles, including having her children trafficked.

Another “stranger” was Delcarmi Domingos from Hanover Park, whose ex-husband trafficked her three children, who were 1, 6 and 13 at the time, to Angola, in 2012.

“My life went to shambles.I left my 2-month-old baby with my mother and due to depression, I spiralled out of control.”

She said she started drinking, smoking, doing drugs, shoplifting and prostitution, among other things. “You name an evil – I did it. I had no hope. Went I went down, my whole family went down with me because I was a bread winner. I felt that I wasn’t good enough…”

After five years, Ms Domingos decided to piece her life together and went into restitution. With help and strong faith, she forgave her ex-husband, apologised to everyone who she wronged and worked on getting her children back.

“I was offered a job opportunity where I met an Angolan couple who helped me with paperwork and procedure and in 2018, after being split from them for seven years, I got on a plane to Angola and went to get my children.”

She said her children have been back in her care for five years and have been doing well. “My ex husband, we just pray for him.”

She said sharing her story was part of her healing process. “The more I share, the more input I get and the more I get to encourage people who are going through these hardships.

“I want to encourage someone to never give up. I am here to represent women as fighters.”

Other strangers included a young cancer survivor who looked death in the face; a pastor who mediates gang conflicts; and an HIV+ recovering drug addict changing lives on the Cape Flats.

Stranger Kind will host an online event on Wednesday April 6, from 5pm to 7pm.

For more information, email or 082 926 1012, or follow them on social media @astrangerkind