Storytelling at the Circle of Life Tea with Aviva Pelham

This morning, I headed through to Kelvin Grove, an exclusive social and sports club in Newlands, to attend the annual Circle of Life Tea, a special event organised by the Children’s Hospital Trust. The Trust is the fundraising arm of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, and was created 23 years ago, at a time when the Hospital was in dire financial straits.

The Circle of Life tea, the Remembrance Day parade and all the various events and gatherings in the course of each year bring together like-minded individuals from different walks of life, whose lives have been and are still being touched by the Hospital in some way – whether they are patrons, donors, supporters or friends of the Hospital. Over time, these gatherings foster a wonderful feeling of being part of a community. And my favourite part – I always come away having learned something new or having met someone interesting!

The beautifully decorated ballroom at Kelvin Grove

In past years (Southern Sun Cullinan Hotel in 2013, Vergelegen Wine Estate in 2014, Kelvin Grove in 2015 and again in 2016), I had attended these gatherings with Glynnis and Max Schutte, who publish our Pinelands Muse, a wonderful community magazine that magically appears in our postbox at the end of every month. This time, though, I was on my own, as my friends were working on a tight deadline: the proofs of the June magazine had to be submitted to the printers that day.

On arriving at the venue, I picked up my handy name tag from the Welcome Table, and handed over my donation of chips and sweeties. As May is “Burns Awareness Month”, the Trust had requested all guests to bring small packets of sweets or chips for the young patients in the Burns Unit at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. It was explained that these are handed out to the kids when their dressings are changed, for instance; as this is often agonizingly painful, any little distraction can help.

Large round tables had been set up in the spacious ballroom. As always, the table settings were gorgeous: around a large vase with beautiful indigenous flowers were plates filled with scones and jam, little sweet and savoury tarts, and all kinds of nibblies – topped off with small truffles of melt-in-your-mouth dark chocolate. Well, those didn’t last long at all!

A Museum of Childhood

Pauline Solomons, Fundraising and Legacy Coordinator of the Trust, noticing that I was looking a little lost, guided me towards one of the tables and introduced me to the friendly people already sitting there.

We immediately got chatting, and I discovered that there is a Museum of Childhood in Milner Road, right opposite the Rondebosch Common, and just around the corner from the Red Cross Hospital. I had no idea! It looks like an amazing place to visit – have a look at their Facebook page. They are planning to devote one room of the museum to the Red Cross Hospital; I am curious to see what it will look like when it’s ready.

As the room began to fill up, I joined the queue at the coffee and tea table, and waited my turn.

Wouter: Ward Photographer

I had a chat with Wouter van Warmelo, a retired Royal Air Force photographer living in Cape Town, whom I met a few years ago at one of the Children’s Hospital Trust events.

Wouter started a unique photography project in September 2009, which sees him walking around the wards of the Red Cross Hospital every week, taking the most amazing portraits of the young patients, often with their parents, family members, or nursing staff, with the permission of the parents. By May 2016, he had taken 11,500 photos – and no doubt he’s taken a good few more since then. Orms Photo Lab in town prints them out, and the next week, Wouter brings the prints to the Hospital to hand them out to the families. Have a read through this article about him, and have a look at these two beautiful videos about the work he does: Brave Little Hearts and Labour of Love.

Wouter showed me his own copy of a very special cookbook, called Giving Back Childhood, which had been created to mark the 60th anniversary of the Red Cross Hospital:

“In Giving Back Childhood, celebrities from the world of sport, music, media, academia, business, politics, literature, food and entertainment, as well as unsung heroes at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, share some of their own personal memories of food and childhood, as well as the recipes that are the on-going connection to those memories.” (

Between its pages, he had tucked photographs that he had taken of many of the people who had contributed to the book. It was fascinating. The cookbook was on sale in the foyer during the event.

Georgina Harwood: Skydiving Grandmother!

As I stood in the tea queue, someone tapped me on the shoulder – it was retired Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Sterne of the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) regiment! I hadn’t seen him in many months. He invited me over to sit at his table, so I said goodbye to my new acquaintances.

We were soon joined by Trunell Morom (retired SA Navy Captain) and Pat Greyling, Staff Sergeant of the Cape Town Highlanders regiment. I hadn’t seen them in months either, so it was a very happy reunion indeed. Since the spectacular Cape Town Military Tattoo 2015, there has not been another military tattoo held in Cape Town, and it seems unlikely that there will be another one here, primarily because of the budget cuts in the SANDF and especially in the Defence Reserves. I have missed seeing all the friendly faces from the Reserves, and particularly have missed the uplifting feeling of camaraderie and fellowship that develops when people are part of a big event like the Tattoo.

Group photo with Georgina Harwood, an amazing sprightly 102-year-old lady

Much to my delight, I found myself sitting next to a sprightly elderly lady called Georgina Harwood, and her son Jim. I had met Georgina in May 2015, when she was a guest speaker at the Circle of Life tea, also held at Kelvin Grove. She had awed us all with her tale of celebrating her 100th birthday with a tandem skydive!! (see: Grandmother skydives to celebrate her 100th birthday). And then, to top it all, after plummeting through the skies and landing safely on the ground, she went shark-cage diving! At 100 years old!

I told her that I remembered her telling us this story – and she replied that she was now 102, and intending to celebrate her 105th birthday with another tandem skydive!! What an extraordinary lady she is; I felt so privileged to sit next to her and to be able to chat with her. She has so many stories to tell… how the world has changed in the last 100 years… I really enjoyed listening to her talk about her travels, and about growing up in Cape Town, and witnessing the construction of the Red Cross hospital, which celebrated its 60th Anniversary last year.

She had often walked or driven past the vacant area of land opposite Rondebosch Common, where the Hospital now stands. She saw it being built, bit by bit, and remarked that she was very glad the money donated by the returning servicemen was not being spent on erecting more statues, but that it had been used instead to create a living memorial that benefited many generations of children and that would continue to do so for many more years.

I was struck by her sense of humour, her graciousness, and her curiosity about life. No doubt, being ‘young in spirit’ has kept her looking so radiant.

Liz Linsell: Head of the Circle of Life Legacy Programme

Liz Linsell, head of the Circle of Life Legacy Programme

Our Master of Ceremonies was Liz Linsell.

She welcomed us, and spoke about the creation of the Children’s Hospital Trust, the fundraising arm of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.

She said the Trust relied on charitable donations, many of which came from members of the public who made provision in their Last Will and Testament, nominating the Trust as a residue beneficiary; this means that heirs are provided for first, and any residue is then left to the Trust. The legacy programme that is run by the Trust is called the Circle of Life legacy programme.

They do excellent work; it is thanks to the generosity of patrons and donors, that the Hospital has been renovated and expanded, and that wards were upgraded and better and more advanced medical technologies implemented.

Roux Martinez: Head of the Burns Unit

Next at the podium was Dr Roux Martinez, the head of the Burns Unit at the Red Cross. (Have a read: Hope rises with Dr Martinez and the Phoenix Burns Project). (This video tells you about the work done by the Burns Unit: Video).

“The Specialist C2 Burns Unit at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital is the only specialised burns unit treating children under the age of 13 with burn injuries in the Western Cape. It is also a referral centre for patients with severe burns from all over South Africa, due to a lack of similar facilities in South Africa and southern Africa. As the only dedicated paediatric burns specialist unit in Africa, more than 3500 children with serious burns are treated at the Hospital every year. 85% of the patients are younger than six and 98% are from disadvantaged communities.” (

Dr Martinez spoke passionately about her work at the hospital, and cited the alarmingly numbers of children under the age of 13 who arrive at the hospital with serious burns. Burns are a disease of poverty, she declared. They happen when parents cook over open fires, in over-crowded conditions, when pots with hot liquids fall over, or children fall into the pots when they’re playing, or when parents are at work and leave children unsupervised. Especially in the townships, open flames – fires and candles – are used for lighting and heating; paraffin stoves and candles easily fall over, and ignite shack fires, which spread extremely fast.

However, a staggering 76% of burns are caused by simple kettles. She said, both jokingly and seriously:

“When a young mother enters a maternity hospital to give birth, she should bring along her kettle and leave it behind at the hospital.”

Over the years, she said, she had worked with over 11,000 patients! Unexpectedly, though, she emphasised that her work was not depressing:

“When you are working with an adult female patient, and they want to put on lipstick, then you know that they have turned around and are getting better. With children, seeing that twinkle in the eyes tells you that they’re going to be fine!”

Dr Roux Martinez of the Burns Unit

She showed us several dramatic ‘before and after’ photos of over a dozen youngsters who exemplified each of these qualities; I confess that I found it very difficult to look at some of the images, because they were so disturbing.

She emphasised how, every single day, they encountered the most positive human qualities, even in the face of traumatic and devastating injuries: hope, courage, love, joy, determination, perseverance, and the indomitable spirit of children who defy the odds and who make it.

Humour plays a huge role in recovery, as does the sense of community and of being cared for by a team of professionals. In addition to doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, there are also physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dieticians and nutritionists, even psychologists, so that patients and their primary caregivers and family members are treated holistically. From time to time, the Trust pays for flights, such as when young patients long to see their family members from another part of the country, or when the children themselves wanted to visit their homes far away, as part of their journey of recovery.

New technologies also play an important part. For instance, she explained that children who were afraid of physiotherapy because they knew it would hurt them to move, responded really positively when they could play games on an x-box; they tended to forget about their pain and stiffness when they became fully involved in playing. Ex-patients frequently returned to the Hospital to inspire and support current patients, or to raise funds for the Hospital in creative ways.

She also remarked on how hard it was for scarred children to be reintegrated into the school system; they were often teased or treated poorly by their classmates. A new form of treatment involves using lasers to work with scars, encouraging the formation of new collagen and making the scarred skin beautifully soft again. Not only was this modality not painful, but it was hugely helpful in accelerating healing.

The Story of Mujahid, the Warrior

View from up top

Next, we were shown a video (see here) about a brave young man called Mujahid, who was badly burnt 10 years ago, during an accident in the home.

His mother rushed him to the Red Cross, where the medical team immediately sprang into action. Although his condition was very serious, and it was touch-and-go whether he would make it, he survived and got better. His mother said that she knew he would, because his name “Mujahid” means “warrior”. She stayed by his side in hospital throughout, and constantly motivated him. Her ‘tough love’ is what pulled him through and he was discharged much sooner than the 6 months initially anticipated by his doctors.

He is now a fit and healthy young man who loves playing rugby – he is a member of the under-15 Western Province rugby team. And he is a frequent visitor at the Hospital, where he inspires the younger patients and encourages them to persevere with their physiotherapy and other treatments.

Aviva Pelham: Entertainer and Singer

And then it was time for our main speaker at the Morning Tea to take the microphone.

Aviva Pelham: Entertainer and singer

Aviva Pelham is a well-known entertainer and singer, having performed on-stage in operas, operettas, oratorios, cabarets and musicals for over 40 years – not only throughout South Africa, but also in Paris, London and Israel, among other places. In addition to singing, she also directs, lectures and teaches; she is a motivational speaker and mentor, and conducts workshops in the townships to coach diverse groups.

In 2016, she directed “A Night to Remember”, which also featured the SA Navy Band, the Zip Zap Circus and comedian Nik Rabinowitz, among others; this event raised funds for the music therapy project at the Red Cross Hospital. Aviva also sponsored a souvenir CD of this event, titled “Viva the Children”. She told us about her interest in the field of music therapy and the importance of music in healing, both emotionally and physically.

In recent years, Aviva created a one-woman show, “Santa’s Story”, which revolves around her mother’s incredible life. At our morning tea, she wove together various episodes of Santa’s life story, which were illustrated with old photographs projected onto a screen behind her.

It was an extraordinary and moving tale that had us all spell-bound.

Santa Erder was born into a Jewish family in Germany, in the years leading up to World War II. When Hitler came to power, and the family realised their lives were in danger, they fled to Spain. But they could not stay there for very long either, as the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) began, so they fled north to France. Life was very, very hard, as they were poor, not allowed to work, and the Second World War was raging all around them. By then, Santa was a young woman, and her family were keen for her to find a husband. Through mutual friends, she befriended and began to correspond with a young Jewish man called Jack Pelham who lived in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. When he asked her to marry him, she traveled on her own all the way to Southern Rhodesia, where they met and got married. Some time later, her entire family, left behind in Germany – she had hoped they would be able to join her at some stage – was sent to the death camps. She was the only survivor.

During their long marriage, Santa and Jack had three daughters (all of whom inherited her beautiful singing voice – Aviva was the youngest daughter), and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. When Santa was around 90 years old, she decided to record her life story by writing her autobiography. This formed the basis for the stage play, which is directed by Janice Honeyman, with Aviva narrating the story and performing all the musical numbers herself. The play will be presented for its 4th season in Cape Town later in 2017, followed by a tour of Australia. It has already had sold-out seasons in Helsinki, London, Cologne and Hurth, Santa’s birthplace (see Aviva’s website).

Aviva concluded her presentation by singing for us “The Impossible Dream”. What a wonderful voice!

Weaving together the Stories…

As I returned to my car at the end of this delightful morning, it struck me that these events organised by the Children’s Hospital Trust weave together various stories: the founding of the Red Cross War Memorial Hospital as a living memorial by the veterans of World War II, the stories of the dedicated people who were involved in the Hospital’s growth and development over the years, the stories of its patients and their families, and the stories of donors, supporters and friends. They are stories of courage in the face of adversity, resilience in fighting the odds, compassion and healing for those in pain, as well as stories of survival and hope.

One cannot help but feel inspired and uplifted!


2 thoughts on “Storytelling at the Circle of Life Tea with Aviva Pelham

    • Hello Otto,
      It is lovely to read your comment. I have really missed all the interactions. My blog(s) have been on hold for a while now, unfortunately. Life has just gotten too busy to blog. I hope I’ll get back to it sometime. Keep well, Otto!

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