I was born in 1952 in Bullawayo in Zimbabwe. My mother and father were born in Yorkshire and were part of the “colonize the colonies campaign” by the British Government after the Second World War. They always, very proudly said, that they paid for their own passage. My parents, Jack and Robina Downes, were both extremely good looking, adventurous and fascinating people. My father arrived in Bullawayo first, with nothing. My mother followed, at eight and a half months pregnant with me. Hence I always stated I was imported into Africa. I am African, I love Africa.
My Mom and Dad had three more children, all boys. Kieth, John and Brian. There is something to be said for being the older sister to three boys. We lived in a very poor and rough area but despite this my parents instilled in us a sense of beauty, poetry and responsibility. Both my parents were activists for change in their own way, unfortunately when I was 10 years old, my father died of a gastric ulcer. My mother was left, a 36 year old widow having never really worked, with no insurance, nothing in the bank and four small children. The welfare system, in colonial Africa, was nothing like the British or European Systems. She was therefore forced to work for a minimum wage day and night, leaving me at 10 years old in charge of my brothers at night time. I am very proud of my mother. She always said “if you have two pennies in your pocket, jangle them like they are two half crowns” One of her other sayings was “always use what you have and if you can’t help anybody don’t hurt them”. My brothers and I had a very difficult childhood. The week my father died, one of his friends came to comfort us as a family and that’s where my life of being sexually abused as a child started. I never told my mother. She unfortunately read about all my abuse in a news paper article when she was 70 years old.
Unfortunately my mom had to go to another town to work. I had left school at 14 years old and because of the abuse I had become very rebellious and saw no reason for an education as I believed I had no value to anybody. So at 17 years of age, my Mom went to work in Salisbury and I was left to look after my brothers. It was a privilege that I will always be grateful for. I then met the darling of my life, Allan. Allan was a young cadet policeman, so when he married me I came with three children. We had our first son Lyndon, who is now an attorney in London. (My son the lawyer, I love it) We then had Alia, who was born while I was six months pregnant. In third world Africa her chances of survival were pretty grim. This wonderful strong young woman is now 32 years old and at this moment in time presenting us with our third grandchild. We then left Zimbabwe. We like my mother and father before me, arrived in South Africa with nothing, just a suit case each.
The next seven years were amongst the worst of my life, but the highlight of those years was my youngest son Byron. I always refer to Byron as my interesting child. This kid is far too much like his mother for his own good.
I love South Africa because South Africa gave us our fourth child and second daughter Sindisiwe. Her story is a book in itself. Allan and I adopted her when she was a month old and this beautiful, intelligent fourteen year old is spoilt rotten by her sister and bothers but she claims she is not a brat.
In Zimbabwe we had apartheid, which I could never understand, so I was never popular being white and poor and always hanging around with the only people who cared for me, who were black.
Allan and I had, in the early days, a very challenging and interesting marriage. There he was following his ancestors’ path of law makers, his father and grandfathers were all military and police. I was from adventurous activists and quite often put him the compromising position of having to deal with his superiors because his wife was in the black areas, long blond hair, no shoes and a banner. In South Africa the writing on the benches and buildings- “for whites only” and “for blacks only” offended my very being. Let us remember that the only people who fed me and my brothers when we were hungry and kept me safe from the human predators, were black people.
After my first seven years of hell in South Africa I met a young Zulu man called Henry Shozi, who had just left school. What an amazing young man. He taught me so much about the Zulu and Xhosa cultures. He eventually died in my arms five years later. I was outraged at the treatment this young man got from the medical authorities in 1987. The facilities for treating HIV all over the world were abysmal. I then began a grass roots activism campaign for HIV/AIDS. This again presented challenges for my family, because of the stigmas around the disease and I was again as popular as I was in Zimbabwe. I have always campaigned for rights for woman and children. Allan has always come to my rescue when people wanted to arrest me and put me in jail.
In 1990, I was called to Lower Illovo, to assist a 32 year old woman called Happiness Jabu Hadebe. The Government clinic that had called me told me that they could do nothing to help her medically or otherwise and then gave me a written letter, stating that she had contracted HIV and was now AIDS. Her nine month old baby had died the day before. She had a six year old son and had nowhere to live, no food, no money and no way to get to the hospital to claim her baby daughters body back to bury her. When I went and asked for money to help her I was told by Government and Society in general “why should we help, she slept around and got AIDS and her baby is dead anyway” My answer to these people was, “when your husband, child or relative dies I don’t wont to see you having any kind of fancy funeral, just throw your relative over the back fence because that is what you are expecting Happiness to do” Then began another campaign for the dignity of orphans, which found me in 1994 sitting under a tree in Lower Illovo crying my eyes out because during all the work that I was doing I had noticed that nine year old children were positive. In those days, at that time and in that poverty, there was no way that if a child had contracted HIV/AIDS from their mother that they would have lived to see 9 years of age. It occurred to me that these orphaned and vulnerable children were positive because they had been raped or sodimised.
Our law at the time had the Cautionary rules for women and children very firmly in place making it impossible for them to report a rape, never mind to get a conviction. This was the start of two more campaigns. One to smash Cautionary Rule from our law, which I am proud to say, was dropped from our law in 1997. South African women now stand before the courts with the same rights as a man. The other one was due to the fact that I found out that in 1990 Government hospitals had the Post Exposure Prophylaxis HIV medication available for their doctors and nurses. At this time if a doctor or a nurse stabbed themselves with a needle from an infected patient they got the drug within two hours. This drug if given in the right time frame cut their chances of contracting HIV by 80%. I now wanted and demanded this drug for the raped children. This was difficult, I was working out of the boot of my car and my only funder was Allan. It was at this stage that the Tree Clinic ladies, who had now grown to 300 and were fully developed in claiming their rights, came into their own, and together we all hit Government to demand Post Exposure Prophylaxis for rape victims. This was achieved. My home was packed to capacity with abandoned and abused children which I could only rely on God to provide for.
While I was crying under the tree, Ladyfair Sibiya entered my life, and said to me you are white in a black area are you not scared? I told her I was not scared, I was just very desperately sad. We spoke for hours. I told her I had no money but I had lots of knowledge in HIV and if she would like to bring her friends, I could teach them. The next Wednesday she arrived at the tree with 30 women and the Tree Clinic was born.
I trained Happiness Hadebe to be a positive living ambassador. When woman were getting killed and driven from their communities, if it could be seen that they were AIDS. Happiness stood up with me and risked her life every time she did it to tell people that she was living with the disease and how it affected her and to teach what she had learnt on wellness management and positive living. Another positive living ambassador that was trained at the Tree, was Phumzile Mthetwa. The three of us literally kicked everybody’s rear end. We gate crashed Government meetings and Parliament. Unfortunately the wheels turned too slowly in our Government and these two brave outstanding and beautiful women, who gave their lives literally for other HIV infected people, died in my arms. The Tree Clinic evolved into a democracy development programme, HIV/AIDS wellness management – in fact anything to do with woman.
The women and the children under the tree were reporting the most horrendous rape cases to me. The law was against them, and the very systems designed to protect them abused them so much that at times I would rather have given the child back to the sexual predator – at least he gave them sweets. I had to find a way for any language speaking child to report their abuse, so that I had time to rob people of their hard earned money to get the prophylactic drug for them.
I came up with Bobbi Bear and the Edu-Toy programme to present in schools so that the children would know how important it was to report sexual abuse because of the HIV/AIDS infection risk and also because the manufacturer of PEP stated that the drug had to be administered within 72 hours.
Around this time my best friend, Robyn Friend, was killed in a car accident. While I was working with nothing and challenging every status quo I possibly could, Robyn, called Bobbi by her friends supported me from Zimbabwe. I decided to celebrate her life and named my bear after her.
Every project that I develop in Bobbi Bear is named after somebody that has inspired me. I have had a life of abuse, horror, death, laughter, love, bravery in other people and inspiration. My life has been an adventure because of the people that the almighty has placed around me. I have lived and if I die tomorrow I have done and achieved things that are written about in books.
At this point I will mention Jack and Glenda Crilly, who always loved me even when I was unlovable. Aunty Glenda thank you for always being the wind beneath my wings.
I would like to thank Kim Longinotto, Mary Milton and all at Rise Films, Channel Four and Paul Talyor for capturing the passion, dedication and sacrifice of the main characters Eureka, Mildred,Thuli and Sdudla in the film “Rough Aunties”, and for the love and sensitivity given to Bobbi Bear. Michelle Groenstein and Leigh Blake – thank you for being the wind beneath the wings of Bobbi Bear.
I am Jackie’s hands and am typing this letter as she is dyslexic and typing this story for Jackie was difficult for both of us. I remember how she was my knight is shining amour at a time when nobody else would help me with a child and I will always love, admire, respect and learn from her. I salute you Jackie - Love always Kerri