Telling empowering stories, South Africans want to hear

Thursday, 21 September 2023 20:35

Book Review: Sipping Dom Perignon Through A Straw.

By Jacob Mawela.

There are no second acts in America lives. The author of The Great Gatsby, viz, F. Scott Fitzgerald, once noted. The American writer's observation could easily be apt, appertaining to the life of Namibian-born South African global humanitarian and disability rights advocate, Eddie Ndopu.

Born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (a rare disorder which results in progressive muscle wasting and a common genetic cause of infant death) and informed he wouldn't live beyond the age of five – Ndopu, the progeny of an absent father – a Namibian journalist - and mother, an exiled South African nurse, Ndopu, aged 32 at the time of this review, looms large as the inspirational protagonist in the recently-released paperback enticingly titled, Sipping Dom Perignon Through A Straw.

Along with the tome's colourful cover, readers would mistake the contents on its pages to be those expounding on the champagne tinged biography of a universally renown rap artist. Far be it the case with the easy ready typified by brief chapters which segue from one soul-uplifting segment onto another.

"Ah, sipping Dom Perignon through a straw. Now that's cool." A tall and slender man, a stranger and fellow passenger aboard a flight from Switzerland en route to South Africa, remarked upon spotting Ndopu savouring the tipple in the most unusual of manners. The wheelchair-bound influencer was headed back home from participating at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos – some couple of years after becoming the first disabled Black man to graduate from Oxford University's Masters in Public Policy program.

The very embodiment of defiance who went from being one of only a handful of disabled kids in Namibia to be enrolled in the country's mainstream education system in the late 90s – along the way becoming an exception to a United Nations statistic which reported that only a fraction of children with disabilities in developing nations are able to reach their first year of schooling due to a range of factors – Ndopu's own development had been, up to that point at Davos in 2020, a whirlwind ride which accelerated after being admitted onto the inaugural class of the Johannesburg-based African Leadership Academy in 2008.

Having initially embarked upon his upward academic sojourns at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada before ancient Oxford beckoned thanks to an ALA facilitated scholarship – outer space then became the limit (at the time of his book launch, he harboured an ambition of becoming the first disabled person to travel to space) the figure dubbed Africa’s Stephen Hawking by an Egyptian cab driver in England, was to destined to realize heights of achievements which, inter alia, included being appointed, in 2019, by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, as one of eminent advocates for the organization’s Sustainable Development Goals, as well as sharing forum stages with A-listers such as erstwhile US president, Barack Obama.

Yet Sipping Dom Perignon Through A Straw isn’t a narrated journey of self-indulgence in celebrity status Ndopu had come to realize thus far in his young life – but rather a sobering behind-the-scenes account of his existence in the self-engrossed world of ableism. A realm which, to his at times shocking discovery, is populated by 'uprights' (his description of able-bodied persons) mostly devoid of empathy for circumstances confronting those of his condition on a daily basis.

Written entirely using my one good finger – to paraphrase Ndopu's claim of authorship - American Academy Award winner, Forest Whitaker, describes both the book and author as 'essential reading . . . a masterful writer poised for even more great success.'

Narrated more like a novel than episodes within one's biography, Ndopu’s account recounts many travails encountered from the moment he accepted a year-long scholarship to 900-year old Oxford University – experiences he describe as akin to a Sisyphean poser drawn from Greek mythology in which he is constantly "rolling a boulder up a mountain only for it to be sent back down so I could roll it back up again, repeating the process again and again and again and again . . ."

From having to initiate the fundraising #OxfordEddiecated in order to plug a 20 000 pounds Sterling gap in his quest to take his place at Oxford, to yet again – once at the revered institution – fundraise to meet a staggering 60 000 pounds debt to an agency providing him with caregivers, Ndopu's experiences in England were put into perspective owing to the global prime-time airing of an Al Jazeera documentary on him which rendered fellow alumni who viewed it to express newfound appreciation of the tribulations he had to contend with.

In contrast to what able-bodied humans take for granted, Ndopu's circumstances require of him to be turned every two hours whilst asleep so as to deter bedsores and necessitating a paid caregiver to perform the task; be assigned a dedicated notes taker sat alongside him whilst attending lectures due to a lack of muscle power in his hands; provided with a hoist to transfer him between his wheelchair and bed; regularly disrobed and bathed whilst having his private parts exposed to various caregivers and having to be fed came meal times, et cetera.

Amidst such rigours he contended with whilst at Oxford's Somerville College, an incident of momentary fulfilment occurred whilst Ndopu was out on a dinner date: "Did you know that Stephen Hawking is speaking at the Oxford Union tonight?" Zarifa, his Yemeni fellow student and date enquired. What then transpired was a surreal-esque encounter in which the two wheelchair-bound Oxonians (Hawking having been born in the city and educated at the varsity and Ndopu then en route to garnering a Master’s degree at the institution) momentarily locked eyes – registering a lasting impression upon the young South African.

Also a queer community activist, Ndopu once dismissed a caregiver who dared express homophobic remarks whilst caring for him.

Sipping Dom Perignon Through A Straw is published by John Murray and distributed in South Africa through Jonathan Ball Publishers. It retails for R415 and is available at bookstores nationwide.