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An Inspiration

An inspirational address by the late Xilombe Tlakula

We continue to mourn the loss of old boy Xilombe Tlakula, but he remains a great inspiration to all Hiltonians.

We were very fortunate to have had Xilombe Tlakula address the school about his inspirational story. This remarkable young man registered his own non-profit organisation called Limitless, featured on Supersport, spoke at several schools and was the guest speaker at the Cordwalles Speech Day at the end of  2016 amongst other exceptional things.

Xilombe’s Inspiring Address

Good morning staff and boys,

Today, I have been given the opportunity to talk to you all about my life, now, since I’ve only been around for 18 years, this really shouldn’t be long at all, so bear with me for a moment.

For many of us, all our lives, we have grown up feeling average. Regardless of what it is we do, we feel that familiar hollow feeling. Most sitting in this room went to fantastic prep schools, some got the grades, some made the teams, some achieved culturally … Yet, still the emptiness within persists.

I’ve experienced this emptiness all my life. I’d never really got the best grades, nor have I ever been an amazing sportsman, my short stint in choir was mediocre at best and to this day, my best pick up line is to ask, “Have you ever kissed a hot one-armed guy… well now is your chance”. So you can’t really blame me for feeling underwhelmed by myself.

At every step it’s like I’ve had this voice telling me, “Don’t trust yourself, you’re not capable.” This constant negative feedback loop in my head.

“Don’t put your hand up in class to answer that question – you’re wrong.”

“Don’t put any effort into your sports practice – you’re not athletic.”

“Don’t share that idea with anyone – it’s weird.”

“Keep your ideas to yourself, blend in and shut up.”

Grade 9 outward bound. Luckily most of us know the story, so I’ll spare all the fine details, but for those who don’t know the story exactly, a boulder fell from about 15 metres above me whilst we were hiking in the berg. I moved as far as I could to the left as quickly as I could. But this was not enough. It hit me, almost severing my arm completely on impact but luckily for the people below me, my immense strength deflected the rock harmlessly away. You’re welcome Angus.

In that moment time seemed to stretch ahead of me like a long dark alleyway. There was no light at the end of the tunnel or flashing images of my life. My group continued their hike to find a signal, whilst Mr. Steenkamp remained with me, keeping me comfortable by making me tea, playing Bob Marley and joking that at least now I wouldn’t have to work so hard in rowing. I occasionally prodded my unresponsive arm to test if I could still feel anything, but the nerve endings had been severed on impact and it was as good as dead.

The jagged harshness of my surroundings seemed appropriate, harsh surroundings for a harsh, jagged death. My thoughts were murky, and in between bouts of sleep, I was presented with the very real prospect of death. I lay contemplating the terrifying idea of dying before losing my virginity, but even more worrying than that was, thinking, hell, what if I don’t die?

Hours later I was in hospital, and after pleading with the surgeon that I wasn’t willing to pay an arm and a leg in hospital fees, she put me under, agreeing only to take the arm. The period spent in hospital felt like an eternity. in the space of my 2 week stay I felt like I had aged the equivalent of 2 years. One morning I remember waking up with absolutely no recollection of how I landed up in hospital and what had happened to my arm, I became hysterical and needed to be sedated before they calmly explained the situation to me, and the sobering reality kicked back in. Though this time was undoubtedly one of the darkest times of my life, I was buoyed by each familiar face, and some not so familiar, who came to visit me. It felt like when I was on the brink of giving up, a visit from a friend, a dorm mate, a schoolmate, a teacher, a parent, or a complete stranger would lift me up, even if just for a moment.

Days later I lay in my bed at home. Early in the morning, I felt the same jarring emptiness within. But this time the emptiness was punctuated by intense anger. I felt angry. I felt angry at myself for not dying. I felt angry at the universe, God, at everything that this had to happen to me.

How could this happen to me!? Me? What had I done to deserve this?

I had done nothing to deserve this. I deserved to come back to school, I deserved to finish the year and go on holiday, and not worry about anything and blow off any chores and responsibilities. I deserved to come back the following year, and the year after, to continue feeling the hollowness and continue just getting by… But there I lay. 3AM. Alone, in tears. With seemingly every single door that had been open before slammed shut.

That day and every moment since has taught me more than I had learned in the 15 years prior. The principle lesson I learned was, the world, life, owes you, me and everyone else, absolutely nothing. You are not owed life. And even when you do get to live you aren’t owed the privilege of a long one. And even if you get a long life, you are not owed anything in it. My sense of privilege and entitlement was stripped the moment life took something that I thought I deserved, a part of myself. Suddenly I realised the simple things I took for granted. Simply opening a pack of chips had become a moment sobering acknowledgment to the fact that I had taken EVERYTHING, literally everything for granted. I learned slowly to appreciate things, even not relating to my arm. I was alive. I could see. I could get therapy. I had lots of friends.

It always amuses when I hear people say, “You’re so strong” and when they note how well I’ve coped. I wonder, would they be saying this if they had seen me try take my own life? Would they be saying this if they saw me at each moment I broke down in tears because I couldn’t tie my laces, because I couldn’t bathe myself? Because my girlfriend was beating me at FIFA? Okay last one was a joke. But would they? That’s the second most important thing I learned… the fact that it’s never all you. Every achievement of yours, is not yours. The achievement belongs to the people who got you there along the way.

I am not standing here because I’m “strong”, I’m standing here because of my mom, my dad, my family, my friends. Because of you.

I had sunk to the lowest depths I had ever experienced. Each day was a battle against myself. Wake up, struggle to motivate myself to get out of bed, struggle to get dressed, struggle to tie my laces, struggle to walk around in public because each glance and stare felt like people were not only see the fact that I was missing an arm, but every insecurity I’d ever experienced in my life. The fact that I was missing an arm became a symbol for everything else I felt I was missing. It became my lack of confidence, my lack of self-belief…

Yet at some point, somewhere in the depths of my despair, I began to feel sick. Sick of life. Sick of feeling like I wasn’t worth anything. Sick of feeling like I couldn’t achieve anything in my life. Sick of being told how I was going to have to live and so so sick of losing all those FIFA games. And so I decided that the 14th August 2013 took my arm. and that was all it was going to take.

I had lost my arm, but finally I felt whole.

Now this not to say that life is perfect and that I’ve suddenly become the hero of my own film and I now wake up each morning and conquer each moment singlehandedly. But I don’t need to feel that way because the fact is, I don’t. If I’m 100% honest with you all, I was very against doing this speech and pleaded with Mr. Kingsley just yesterday to postpone it. A part of me was afraid of appearing as though I were capitalising on a moment that I felt, I really should be over by now.

Each moment before the start of this journey felt hollow in some way, like I was letting myself, or others or my circumstances hold me back. And oddly, it’s taken me losing the tag of “able bodied” to realise that the I’m the only one that gets to decide whether or not I am able. It’s taken perceived limitations forced onto me for me to realise that there are no limits for any of us.

Knowing this was not enough, I needed to show people. Which has lead me to stages like this. Near the end of last year, I began the process of starting an NGO, non-governmental organisation, the logo of which is projected behind me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do necessarily or how I was going to do it but I knew I needed a way to show people who felt limited that they, that we, are Limitless. This was the most meaningful and tangible way for me to help others feel whole, finally.

The process has started at St. Christopher’s School in Maritzburg where I presented my very first speech in 2014. St. Christopher’s is a special needs school and they have presented Limitless with a list of their needs, which include a jungle gym that is wheel-chair accessible, to something one would generally take for granted, like wheel chair accessible toilets. Having spent time speaking to the head physic at the school, it suddenly struck me that I needed to do more. I felt guilty sitting in the presence of a boy with cerebral palsy who put more effort into merely walking than I had put into just about anything in my life so far.

Ask yourself… Is this really all I’ve got to offer, to myself, to the world when people who supposedly are less able than I, are surpassing me? I’m not talking about, disabilities necessarily now, I’m talking about life. Because like I said, you aren’t owed any of the privileges you experience, so, what will you do with them?

Everyone in this room wants something. We all have something we’re aiming for. Big, small, ambitious or unimportant, we all want something. We work towards that goal but never get anywhere or start just to give up later. Once again you’re told “you aren’t good enough” “you’re just average” “Someone else is better” – by yourself, your friends, your mom, your dad, your circumstances.

I’ve done this hundreds of times. I still do this.

I think that’s normal, we get into a situation, it becomes a bit challenging and suddenly we get filled with self-doubt, we don’t know if we have it in us to make it past the challenge that faces us. We build up this idea that the math’s test is too hard, that hockey is too difficult, that we aren’t smart enough, we aren’t fast enough, that no one likes us and half a dozen other excuses to try convince ourselves that we’re dreaming a bit too big, a bit too hard.

Limitless has started small but there will come a day where this foundation shows all of us that the only thing that disables, is you. Not a boulder in the berg. Not cerebral palsy. Not your lack of confidence or self-belief. Only you.

My father once said to me, “You cannot lead without having lost” and now having lost, this is the direction I am going; I hope you will follow me in supporting this foundation, because as I have said nothing is ever all you, and I can’t do it alone. But even if you don’t, and you’ve hated or disagreed with everything I’ve had to say today, I want you please to take this with you:

No moment defines you, you define your moments. It took a boulder and 5 hours of pain for me to discover my dreams. So what are yours?

Xilombe Tlakula

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