How (not) to Save a Life

Here’s a life conundrum: If a young girl in a bad community decides she would rather stay at home, surrounded by an unstable family life instead of going to school, what would the logical solution be? Most people would agree she has to go back to her education because getting a proper qualification is the ticket to a life of opportunity, right? Wrong. At least, not in this case.

To me, this is more than just a rhetorical question. The young girl’s name is Tarryn and the bad community she lives in is called Lavender Hill. Her unstable home life runs the gamut of alcoholism, poverty and gang violence. The difference between her and the majority of her peers in the same situation, however, is me. I am mentoring her.


‘”Mentoring looks good on you, Esther & Tarryn”

By this time you might be harbouring suspicions of my having some kind of Messiah complex. You know the type: a (usually) white lady trudging up the townships, wearing a headscarf and probably some beads, carrying bucket loads of food and other materials which she joyfully hands out to the stereo-typically sad African babies gazing at her in grateful, snotty and open-mouthed admiration. ‘Look how wonderful I am’, she seems to think, ‘I am Saving Africa.’

The good news is that my relationship with Tarryn doesn’t involve hand-outs of any kind. Other than the commitment of giving her my time in the form of seeing her once a week for a minimum of 2 years, I am not obligated to buy her food when she is hungry, take her to the doctor when she is sick or give her a home when she has nowhere to go. Neither am I expected to intervene and take her back to school should she decide to drop out, become a drug addict or sell her body for money.


“Let me fix you”

I understand that this might sound like I’m demeaning the work of others who do this type of intervention. To clarify, I just believe it’s not as effective in the long run. You also might think that I’m not fulfilling much of a role in her life as it is, but you’d be wrong. The reason why I can say that with confidence is because I’ve come to understand that fixing the external problems in Tarryn’s life is not going to have much of an impact in the grand scheme of things. It’s like that saying, ‘you can take the girl out of the city/ghetto/farm but you can’t take the city/ghetto/farm out of the girl’. It’s easy to satisfy my conscience by swooping into my mentee’s life, raising my magic wand and ‘fixing’ her situation by either talking to her teachers, getting her enrolled in a better school or making sure she gets three meals a day.

But the thing is, Tarryn not going to school or being hungry isn’t the problem. The problem is Tarryn’s personal belief in her own abilities to save/feed/clothe herself. The fact is that the longer I mitigate the situation for her, the longer she will believe that she is incapable of doing these things for herself. This is where mentoring enters the picture. As an older, unrelated person stepping into her life and offering an objective perspective, I can slowly start to change Tarryn’s mind about herself. By staying committed and, above all, consistent in my weekly meetings with her, I am showing Tarryn that she is valuable and worthy of investment. It is only a matter of time before Tarryn starts seeing herself in the same way.

I’m not claiming to be any kind of miracle worker. I know she’s going to try and fail and try again and she’ll have a hard time of it. One week she’ll profess to want a better life for herself, the next she’ll stay away from school and get high with her friends. What I’ve learned is not to hinge my own value as a mentor based on her performance. There’s already a lot of institutions out there and even family and friends who do that. No, my value as a mentor is measured by how much she starts seeing herself as someone who is worthy of love and belonging. To me, that is priceless.

By Esther Hamman

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