Saturday, June 30, 2007

Just an Update

It's been a fairly uneventful week, although I was busier this week than ever before. Here's a recap of what's been happening:

1. On Monday, I started overseeing a group of 10 high school kids from Global Leadership Adventures. GLA takes kids from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Africa to the developing world so they can see how other parts of the world operate. The kids are all considered high achievers, and many come from affluent households. They spend mornings in class learning about global issues, from human rights to health issues, economics to entertainment. Their afternoons are spent on community service projects. GLA has high expectations for these kids and really pushes them to learn and grow.

JL Zwane was lucky to get 10 students from the programme. They spend about 3 hours with the Centre 4 days during the week. Our big project is to paint the Stormont Madebela school that I've written about previously. To say it really needs a paint job is like saying I need hair plugs - it's that bad. We're battling weather, so we only had one good painting day. But, it's amazing how much 12-13 people can get done, and it looks better already.

Besides painting, the kids will be doing a beading project, leading an art class for local kids, and helping with a soccer tournament. They all like interacting with the local youth, so the agenda is a good mix of hard work and play. I never knew how exhausting leading a youth group can be, though. I have a lot more respect for people who do that everyday, like teachers.

2. Speaking of teachers, the strike appears to be over. The unions have started to sign off on the government's final offer of 7.5%. School won't start for another two weeks, because it's now school holiday, and districts are scrambling to figure out how to make up the lost time. I have a feeling they'll just write it off.

3. The snow in Johannesburg was much more of a problem than I originally thought. Keep in mind they only got about an inch. But, it shut down the airport for at least one day. They just didn't have any way to move the snow off the runways, so planes couldn't take off or land. Planes flew up there from Cape Town only to turn around and come back (how did they have enough fuel for that?).

4. Edwin took off on Wednesday to go to Mexico and the U.S. (Dallas). Spiwo is also gone for a few days, leaving me in charge of the Centre. I don't really have to do anything different, but it feels a little strange to be responsible for things.

5. Spiwo and I had a meeting with the South Africa country manager for Glaxo SmithKline this week. GSK is the largest seller of HIV medications in the world and it would be great to partner with them in some way. We're submitting a proposal and I'll let you know if anything develops.

6. The garden is growing. It seems to be going a little slowly, but it has been cold lately. I think we'll have something to eat in 4-6 weeks.

I've been here three months as of today. The time has gone by quick and slow at the same time. I miss home, and Cindy's been a real rock in dealing with things back there (including dog ear infections, of all things). But, I can feel that I'm making a difference here, and my own personal sacrifices, as large or small as they may be, are certainly worth it.

I'm off to Stellenbosch this afternoon to accompany Siyaya on a performance for the full GLA group. It'll be fun to see how the full group interacts with a real African performance group with a very strong HIV/AIDS education message.

More to come.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Snow in South Africa

Johannesburg got about an inch of snow last night, the first "major snowfall" since 1981. Snow may sound strange for South Africa, but Jo-burg sits at about 5,500 feet and it can go below freezing a few times during the winter. I remember snow falling a couple hundred miles north of the city when we were there in 1996. Schools actually let out early so kids could go play in it.

I was listening to talk radio this morning and had some good laughs hearing people talk about waking up their kids at 4:00 am to see it snow and make snowmen. People were also arguing about whether it was snow or not. One person would say it was "really tiny pellets of ice." Another would say it was fluffy. Like there's a big difference when it's sitting on your lawn.

The announcers were asking for driving tips and suggestions on how to clean off cars. One lady said that the snow doubled the weight of the car and caused it to use lots more petrol (gasoline). She also said they had to use cardboard to scrape off the snow. I was really tempted to call and ask her if she'd ever used a broom before.

Another guy called in to make sure people were using special oil in their cars because it was so cold. It was 28 degrees! Not exactly a Minnesota winter.

There's also snow in the mountains around Cape Town. It's pretty to see the white peaks in the distance. It probably won't last long because it doesn't stay as cold here. It's just a little reminder of home.

Houses and Hostels and Shacks (oh my) Part 3

These are from the company hostels, Coke's in this case.

These are from an older hostel, a two-story building. The stairs for the upper floor is inside the common area, to the right of the woman in the picture. She is doing her laundry in her area's common area. The wood pile is firewood for use by shack dwellers or shop owners in the market about a block away.

Houses and Hostels and Shacks (oh my) Part 2

Here are some hostel pictures. These are from the older government buildings.

To the left is a common area, and below is one of the short hallays. The rest are from one of the rooms.

Houses and Hostels and Shacks (oh my)

It has been a very tough week, weather-wise. A cold front moved in on Sunday night, and you'd have thought we were having a hurricane on Monday. The wind was stronger than I've ever felt and the rain was coming in sideways for most of the day. News reports are saying that over 500 people in Guguletu lost their homes from flooding and wind damage. I don't know where they go, since there really aren't shelters for situations like this. People are most likely living with family and friends until they can rebuild.

It's not surprising that this happens given the state of the buildings here. I'm going to post some pictures to give you a feel for the different types of homes in the townships. Because I can only add 5 pictures per posting it will take 2 or 3 to show them all.

Shacks are entry-level housing. Most people who arrive in Guguletu or any of the surrounding areas either buy an existing shack or scrounge materials to make their own. The difficulty is finding a place to put it - you'll find shacks just about everywhere, from edges of swamps to sidewalks along the main roads. People who own houses have them in their front and back yards. You'll even find them under bridges and along railroad tracks. As I've described before, most are made from discarded (or "borrowed") wood or zinc panels. They come in all shapes and sizes but most are 10 to 12 feet wide and 8 to 10 feet deep.

The insides are a catch-as-catch-can affair. You'll see just about everything in them, from almost nothing to very well-designed living areas. The picture below is typical, though. This man's shack is a little larger than normal, big enough to have two "rooms" separated by a curtain. You can see his bed to the right and his TV on the left. Behind me is their kitchen and eating area, which are about the same size as the bed area. Everything in this shack was probably pulled from a trash bin, including the track lighting over his head. It's a bit ironic that most of the shacks use fluorescent bulbs like the one on the left side of the picture, as these are 10 times the cost of incandescents. But, they also save on electricity costs. You can see that the walls are bare, which is typical. He had one window in his shack, and one door. Doors are scrounged separately from the walls, so they never quite fit and never close right. They do have locks, though, or at least some way to secure the building when people are gone or sleeping.

Hostels are the next big housing option. They're better than shacks in that they're solid, made of brick or blocks. However, most people in hostels have smaller living spaces than shack dwellers. They usually have a single room, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet, and these may be shared by as many as 6-8 people. I was at one hostel where 9 people were crammed into a 10x10 room. They had a small chest freezer in that room, and every night they would move it into the hallway so people could sleep on the floor. Then, in the morning, they'd move it back again for safekeeping.

Besides their rooms, people in hostels share a common area, maybe 20 feet by 12 feet. The rooms are down short hallways off the common area, one hallway to the left and one to the right. The common area is supposed to be a kitchen and dining area. But, for reasons of security everyone keeps their food and cooking equipment in their rooms, so the common areas are just used as places to sit and play cards or talk. The layout is common space in the middle

There are three kinds of hostels in the townships. The first are the oldest, built by the apartheid government to house men who worked for the municipalities, mines, or other large institutions. The idea was that men would live here 11 months a year, going back to their homelands only over Christmas and New Year's holidays. Women and families were never supposed to live in these hostels. Well, after a number of years the women did come to the hostels and they became incredibly overcrowded. It was not unusual to have 3 or 4 families living in one room. Not 3 or 4 people, but 3 or 4 families, each with 3-4 people (two adults and two kids, for example). I'm amazed anyone had kids with that arrangement. Everything happened in the rooms, including bathing in some cases (using a plastic washtub), cooking, clothes washing, etc. I'm learning that privacy is not assumed here, that exposing yourself is part of life. This is not to say people aren't modest, because they are, but when you have to get dressed you just get it done.

The second style of hostel is slightly improved from the first. Several years ago the government tried to make improvements on the basic hostel by creating more of an apartment feel. A single family will now have their own space with a bathroom. The government also built a second story on the buildings so that more people can be accommodated. Of course, this led to problems because the construction wasn't the best. Roofs leak and plumbing backs up, meaning that many people have constant water and sewage problems. Walls are cracking from settling and some people are scared that the building is going to fall in on them someday.

The third type of hostel is company-owned. Firms like Coca-Cola, Bokomo (the big cereal maker here), and Bonita (dairy products) built hostels for their workers. These buildings are really nice compared to the others. They're painted inside, have decent stainless steel counters in the common areas, and have larger rooms than the government hostels. Many have hot water (assuming the heaters work). The companies who owned these regularly came to inspect them and make improvements as needed. Most companies no longer maintain their buildings, but the residents are good about keeping them up.

The ideal is to have a proper house. These are generally cinder block homes, with 3 or 4 rooms. They have bathrooms and showers, hot water, and appliances. Most houses have several people living in them, but there is much more space for people to spread out. Some house owners will also build shacks for their older children to stay in, which gives them some privacy and the parents more space to live in. Shacks may be rented out for R150 or R200 a month, which brings in needed money for the homeowner.

All of these housing options co-exist in the townships. You'll see houses on one side of a street and hostels on the other, with shacks all around.

I always wonder what people would do if a developer came in and build high-rise apartments in Guguletu, like those in the Bronx or Chicago. Inside one square block of apartments you could house all of the people now living in shacks or hostels covering 8 or 10 square blocks. I'll have to ask why no one's done that yet. Then again, you don't see high-rise apartments anywhere in Cape Town, save three buildings on the edge of the city center.

More to come.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Today's Home Visits

I went on two home visits with Yvonne, Nomokwazi, and a new friend, Nolothando, this afternoon. We went to an area called Lower Crossroads, about 10-15 minutes drive from the Centre. It's outside of JL Zwane's usual catchment area. However, Nolothando lives in the area and she would like to start supporting children in the way that Yvonne does it. Yvonne is contacting churches in the area to have them back Nolothando's efforts, and it looks good that something positive will happen.

The first home we visited belongs to a 20-year old woman. Her 14-year old brother lives with her. Their father died in 1994, and their mother died this past March. They share a one-room cinder block house about 15 feet x 20 feet. They have almost nothing in the house, just two twin beds, a desk that they use to store food and kitchen gear, and a TV. There's one bare light bulb hanging in the middle of the room. You can smell the soaked-in odor of paraffin from a stove (for cooking and heat), and you can't help but notice the black specks on the walls where mold is growing. The toilet is outside (like most places around here) and they get water from a central tap down the road.

Since their mother died, their only source of sustainable income is the R200 per month they get from renting two shacks in their front yard. The woman only completed Standard 5 (7th grade) so her chances of finding a decent-paying job are almost zero. Needless to say, they have little to eat and are constantly scrounging. When Yvonne asked about how she gets money to buy food, the woman didn't answer, she just started to cry. In the car afterwards, Yvonne and the other women explained that this is the typical reaction when a woman doesn't want to admit to using sex to survive (literally known as survival sex). She does not consider herself a prostitute by any means. She is simply allowing men to help support her and her brother and offering her body in return. Women who do this know it is not "right" but they feel trapped by a lack of any other means of support.

I knew that this goes on in the townships but it was my first time meeting someone dependent on it. It's really difficult to know that women have to rely upon this and not be able to do anything to help avoid or prevent it. And by the way, it's not just women who depend on survival sex. It happens with men, girls and boys, too. It's just not talked about, as if it will go away if we just ignore it. But it won't, and we shouldn't.

The other house I visited belongs to a young woman as well. She had lived with her father, who died recently. Her mother hasn't been in the picture since the father divorced her years ago. She is living with her sister and three other adults or older teenagers. The house is also cinder block and is larger than the first one. It's in a little better shape, but not much. They added on to the house at some point, with wood walls and newspaper circulars for wallpaper. It's colorful, but dreadful at the same time. The house has a full-sized bed and a couch for five adults, so I'm sure someone sleeps on the floor.

The primary woman and her sister recently had babies, thinking that they would then qualify for government assistance (R190 per child per month). Unfortunately, they hadn't considered that you need an identity card (kind of like our state ID cards) to get assistance. These two women don't have identity cards because their paperwork has been lost and they cannot get birth certificates. (Apparently, lost paperwork is somewhat common here, especially when people move from province to province. There isn't any common computer system across the country for personal documentation and if the original gets lost, it's gone forever.)

So, now there are two young women with babies and no money to take care of them. They had a social worker who came regularly with food parcels, but those stopped a while back. This will be one of the first families Nolothando works on because their situation is really dire.

So, when you go to sleep tonight imagine if your bed and your dresser are the only things you own in a house the size of your bedroom. And you share it with 4 or 5 other people. And you don't have painted walls or curtains or a closet. And your roof leaks. And you have only water and two slices of white bread to look forward to for breakfast. That's reality for hundreds of thousands of people in one of the most beautiful and affluent cities in all of Africa.

And imagine what you'd think if you heard a government minister spent over R1,000,000 ($140,000) remodeling his office conference room. No joke.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bungalow in Barcelona, plus Learning Xhosa

I finally got a picture of the infamous bungalow. It's sitting in a part of the township called Barcelona. As you can probably guess, it's nothing like the old Spanish city. It's one of the poorest areas around, basically a shantytown. No paved roads, no brick houses, no flush toilets, only central taps for water. But, people here have a roof over their heads, even if it leaks in the rain. There are lots of kids around, and it wouldn't surprise me if the average household was about 4-5 people in a 10 foot by 10 foot shack.

The bungalow, which is the orange-ish building, used to be twice as big as you see it here. The panels are made of pressed asbestos and are pretty brittle. When the guys disassembled and moved the panels, some of them broke and couldn't be used. When they put it back together, they doubled up some of the panels for better draft and leak control. So, it's now smaller but better constructed. There are still some gaps between the roof and the walls, but I asked if it leaks when it rains hard and was told no.

(There is no concern here about lung damage from asbestos. I think people are so worried about day-to-day survival that they don't worry about future possibilities. Plus, the average person here only lives to their mid-50s, so asbestos-induced cancers are even lower on the list of concerns.)

The woman in the picture is a cleaner at the Centre part-time. I think her name is Nomosi. I've heard Yvonne say it a couple times but it's never really been clear. I'll correct it in a future posting if I got it wrong.

The bungalow does not have electricity yet, so Nomosi uses a lamp for light (you can see it on her bedside table). She doesn't have a heater yet so it gets pretty cold at night. She doesn't like using the lamp or a paraffin heater because it's hard on her lungs (paraffin is like kerosene, and it can burn with a sooty smoke if you don't have a good wick. Asthma is a huge problem in the shacks because of that soot). It's also a big safety concern - over 1000 people die in South Africa every year from burns suffered in house fires.

So, the bungalow story is over, more or less. We are going to work on getting Nomosi electricity so that she can get a stove and an electric light. That should be a breeze compared to what's gone on so far.

Xhosa lessons
I've been taking weekly Xhosa lessons for almost a month. It's a tough language to learn, not just because of the sounds but also because the grammar is very different. I probably know about 50-60 words and a few other phrases, enough to have very short conversations with people. It's fun to surprise people at the clinic or the Centre when I can respond to something they say. If things continue like they are I should be half-way good by the time I leave.

Here's a few words you can use on your friends:
Hello = Molo (moh-loh)
How are you = Kunjani (kuhn-jahn-ee)
I'm fine = Ndiphilile (di-pee-lee-lay)
Thanks = Enkosi (en-koh-see or en-kohs)
See you (good-bye) = Sobonana (soh-boh-nah-nah, not like banana)
Yes = Ewe (a-way with long As)
No = Hayi (hi but hold the I for an extra beat)

There are a lot of English and Afrikaans derivatives in the language. Ifona is phone, iskoli is school, etc. There's no gender distinction as in Spanish or Italian, but there are different pronouns depending on the verb. For example, lakho and yakho both mean "your" but are used with specific nouns. Igama, which means first name, goes with lakho and ifana, which means last name, goes with yakho. There are 15 noun groups that I'll eventually have to learn, each with their own rules about pronouns, plurals, and various other subtleties.

Xhosa also just adds prefixes or suffixes to word roots depending on how you're using the word. "Phila" is the word root for "life" or "well." "Ndiphilile" means "I am well." (Ndi = I) "Andiphilanga" means "I'm not well." "Usaphila" means "Are you still well?" (U = you, sa = still). It all kind of makes sense after a while, as you learn to add or subtract prefixes depending on the word and how it's being used.

This was today's sunset. Tomorrow is the shortest day of the year, so it's all downhill from here.

More to come.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Winds of Hope

Today started out as a lovely winter day, with bright sun and decent morning temperatures (60). About noon, the wind kicked up and it's now a blustery day, more in line with the winter here. The clouds are coming in and I expect it will rain before the day is over.

I think part of that wind, though, is hope blowing over the mountains. I've said it before, but I'm amazed at people's convictions when it comes to their faith. Even in the face of absolute adversity people believe that God will provide and, with a little help from ordinary people, it usually happens.

This week's case in point is a woman that Yvonne found out about on Monday. This woman, whose name I haven't learned yet (I forgot to ask - shame on me) has HIV and is moderately far along. She is hardly able to walk because of pains in her feet. She can barely take care of her basic hygiene needs let alone cooking and taking care of her family. She has three kids, a girl about 14, a boy about 10, and a girl just 1 year old. They are all living in a proper house (meaning it's brick and mortar, not a shack), which is a huge advantage. Her sister also helps out.

Having a house is nice, but they have literally nothing else. Yvonne and Nonke, Rev. Spiwo's 18-year old daughter, went to the house for the first time this past Tuesday. They found the woman alone and sleeping on cardboard on the floor. And wet cardboard, at that. I haven't seen or heard of anything that bad before, even in the shacks I've been to. The kids didn't have it much better - they at least had a thin foam mat to sleep on (yes, all three kids on one sleeping bag sized mat). Yvonne said it was so dire that she had to leave the house. For Yvonne to do that, it must have been very, very bad. Nonke stayed with the woman for a few minutes longer, talking and praying with her. When they came back to the Centre they had already decided something had to be done and made a plan to get some blankets and food back to the house. They wanted to find a bed, but no one had any ideas for getting the R999 it would take.

By the time Wednesday came, a bed had mysteriously materialized. The Centre is remodeling a room above its garage, which was previously used as an apartment by a couple guys. They had moved the beds out and one of these had been left behind. So, it was quickly commandeered by Yvonne and Nonke and they took it to the house Wednesday afternoon. I went with them, and everything they had told me was true. In a four-room house, there was a beaten-up table. That's it. There was a refrigerator, too, but it belongs to the woman who rents a shack behind the house (it got moved into the house during the recent rains and will go back to the shack when it stops raining). We took the bed inside and you'd have thought it was the only one in South Africa. Everyone was in a great mood and we all left feeling really good.

Today, about 10 people went back to the house for a prayer meeting. As I've described before, it was 90 minutes of songs, prayers, Bible readings, and more songs. (I was asked to give the Benediction again, and this time I actually did it right thanks to an Internet search I did a couple weeks ago. Who knew that there were so many ways to say an ending prayer?) The overwhelming theme of all of the prayers, etc. was to keep hope and faith. I think people with HIV/AIDS know that it will ultimately kill them, and very few people hold out unrealistic hope for a cure. However, they are very serious about hoping for a long life free from pain and anguish for them and their families. There are many people around JL Zwane to give testament to that, including some that have been in the support group for as long as 11 years.

Today was also about helping this woman and her sister know that others were supporting her, that they were not alone. That's a theme I've heard before, that people just want to know they are still loved and part of the collective family. I think we were able to demonstrate that just fine.

Unrealistic hope does happen, though. I heard a story last week about a woman who came to clinic wanting an HIV test. The story starts about a month ago, when she came in the first time for a test. Although she had tested positive at a different clinic just a couple weeks before, she was convinced that she would be negative because she had been praying extra hard and her minister had implied it would help cure her. She knew the Bible stories about od curing "incurable diseases" and she expected it would happen to her. Of course, she tested positive again. She went away unconvinced that she would not be cured. A couple weeks go by, and she is back again for a test. She said that, again, she knew she would be negative. This time, though, it was because she had made a "sacrifice" and God would reward her for it. Well, she was tested, with another positive result. The nursing sister actually had her read the test so she could see for herself that it was positive. They talked for a while, and it came out that her sacrifice was a R20,000 donation to her church. This woman works as a domestic, and probably only makes that much money in a year. So, she not only has no cure, now she owes someone a lot of money that she'll be lucky to pay off. The nursing sister said she left the clinic still hoping for a cure, thinking about what she could do to make that happen.

This story begs a lot of questions: Why the minister accept the money without asking questions? Why is he implying that HIV can be cured? Why can't this woman accept that she has an incurable condition and start to live with it instead of trying to live without it? There are no answers, of course, only opportunities to educate people and make whatever improvements we can.

As I predicted at the start of this post, it's now raining. I guess it's true that if you don't like the weather here, just wait 45 minutes.

More to come.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

South Africa On Strike. Plus, A Little Boy Needs Prayers

South Africa is in the grips of a national government worker strike, the first of its kind since apartheid ended in 1994. There have been smaller actions but nothing to this degree. On June 1st, about 10 unions that represent various groups of government workers (national and provincial, but not municipal) "downed tools" and stayed home. These unions total about 1,100,000 people across all 9 provinces. They are fighting for a 12% wage increase plus improvements in health benefits and other perqs. Government initially offered 6%, then moved to 6 1/2% about a week ago. Although the unions have since lowered their target to 10%, it is not a unanimous position and some unions are still pushing 12%.

Teachers are the most vocal group in the strike and the largest segment, about 300,000 people. Health care workers are the next largest (a couple hundred thousand) followed by general laborers and skilled workers.

Besides being vocal, teachers have also been the most violent so far, at least according to news reports. Some teachers disrupted a testing session with high school students last week, tearing up exams and answer books and even assaulting one student. (This is mid-year exam time for students, who must take tests both for graduation and for university entrance applications.) The striking teachers have been threatening those teachers who are still going to school, those that feel students need an education.

Health care workers have also been in the news a lot. Health care is classified by Government as an essential service, so health care workers are not to participate in strike actions. If they do it is illegal and they can be arrested. Of course, not everyone follows the rules so many hospitals and clinics around the country have been operating with skeleton staffs, cutting back services and closing wards. Some hospitals in the Kwazulu-Natal province have brought in Army medics and nurses to provide care, and doctors are cleaning floors and doing orderly duty.

At Brown's Farm clinic, everyone has been coming to work even with threats floating around. It's getting a bit more real, though. I wasn't working there today, but everyone left very early because some of the community leaders told the staff that protesters were coming. They were even told to take alternate routes home so that they wouldn't be targeted. Zethu told me to skip coming tomorrow just to be safe. A couple people told me that I'd be at risk because I'm not a known member of the community and would be thought to be a doctor or something. I'm fine with staying away, because I have a rule about making myself a victim. I do feel bad for Tami and Ntombikayise, though, because they've had to do a day's work in a could hours and I know they could use the help.

When you consider the reasons for the strike, it's hard not to sympathize with the workers. Most really are underpaid. Experienced teachers make about R8,000 a month ($1,100), and labourers are probably around R6,000 ($850). And that's before taxes and deductions, which run around 25-30%. Now, 10-12% won't make a huge difference, but an extra R800 buys a lot of groceries here, and will help keep up with inflation (now at about 6.5%).

The negotiations are on hold for a day and will resume Friday. Negotiation facilitators have recommended a settlement at 7 1/4% but no one is agreeing to that. I hope they reach an settlement soon, because I think if it goes into next week it's going to get very ugly. Some of the unions not striking went out on a sympathy strike today, and if that continues the country will come to a screeching halt very quickly. Needless to say, South Africa cannot afford to be unproductive for any length of time, even a day.

Prayer request: One of the workers at the Centre, Xolani Gwangwa, has a sweet 2-year old boy named Sinako (snah-koh). Last Saturday evening he pulled a kettle of boiling water off a table and onto his face and neck. He was burned pretty badly, enough so that he had to have grafts on his cheeks and chin this afternoon. I saw him tonight at the hospital and he looks good. Fortunately, he should come through with only moderate scarring or less. But in any case, he has a long recovery ahead. I know Xolani and his wife would appreciate any support people give them.

I've learned a lot about education this week. I'll pull my notes together and write about that soon. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Igardi Uxolo (The Peace Garden)

We've started a little garden in a bare piece of yard behind the JL Zwane Hospice building. This building is behind the main Zwane Centre and acts as a meeting place for the caregivers as well as a place for patients to come once a week. The hospice programme is run by a social worker and two nurses, plus 16 caregivers who visit each patient in their home as often as daily. About 90% of the patients are dying from HIV/AIDS and the rest are dealing with cancer. The caregivers help their patients with daily hygiene, food preparation and other tasks, but most importantly they just make the patients feel like people.

There used to be a garden on this plot but it hasn't been used for a while. So, Maxwell cut out the definition and raked out the stones and trash. Yesterday we drove about 20km to a nursery and got the trays of plants plus some fertilizer and manure (the soil is very sandy and needs a lot of help). I could have used my SUV as it's been raining all week and we had to go down about 2km of dirt road to get the plants. My white Corolla definitely needs a wash. We got turnips, lettuce, spinach, beets, and onions. We'll also try planing seeds for broad beans and sweet peas. These are all winter plants for the Western Cape and should handle the cool weather and rain.

Maxwell, the guy in the photo, and one of the guys from the HIV support group started planting today. They have about half the plot done and the rest should be finished Monday. I hope to be eating fresh veggies in a few weeks.

By the way, "uxolo" is the Xhosa word for peace. It also means "excuse me" and "sorry." I end up saying it a lot as I butcher people's names. It's not an easy word to say because the X is a click. It's made by putting your tongue against your molars and pulling back quickly, like the sound you make when calling to a horse. Keep practicing!

I also had a nice surprise this morning. It was raining when I drove into the Centre and stopped right when I got there. Spiwo was walking in and pointed up to the sky, and there was a full rainbow. I think it's the first time I've ever seen a full rainbow like this. Apparently they get them here a lot, because everyone was making fun of me staring at it. Alas, the gold is all in Johannesburg so I'm not retiring.

More to come.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


Last Saturday was really nice, so I decided to take a drive to Simon's Town and the Boulders Penguin Colony. Most people have a hard time believing that penguins are in Africa, but Cape Town has thousands of them in a couple different places. On previous visits I've seen hundreds on this one beach alone. The breed was known as Jackass Penguins because they bray just like donkeys. They're now called African penguins because it's a little more politically correct.

It's easy to be mesmerized by these little waddlers. Boulders is set up with a nice viewing area right on some active walk-ways between the ocean and the nesting area. You can also take a 10-minute walk down a path to a secluded beach where, if lucky, you can swim and get really, really close to the penguins (like a foot away or less). So, it's easy to just watch the little guys (the gals are nesting) walk back and forth, back and forth, tipping a little from side to side as they go.

The sunset is from my apartment last Saturday.

A sad note: Sindiswa, the woman whose feet I helped clean and trim about a month ago, died this week. I don't have any details, but I'm fairly sure it was from her brain cancer. The funeral will be next week.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Fear of Success

Rev. Spiwo held a small panel session during services today, around a theme of fear of success. Apparently, a woman from the congregation approached him last week about a business she was thinking of starting (selling electricity cards). She was really torn about it, because she didn't want her neighbors to think she was doing well (i.e., had money). Spiwo was taken aback by that, by the woman's fear that she might actually succeed in her venture. He spoke with others in the community and came to find out that this is a common feeling. Sometimes it's just about security (extra money invites assault, robbery, or worse) and other times it's about curses. Yes, curses.

Traditional spirituality is still very pervasive in the Xhosa culture. According to people I've talked with, about 80% of Xhosa people still consult with sangomas (also known as witch doctors or traditional healers). They see these healers not just on health issues but about ways to improve their lives, love matters, finances, and other day-to-day items. Part of the fear of success is the belief that success will bring about curses, that others will vex you because you have done well. It's supported by anecdotes of people in the community, like people that bought a new car only to get in a major accident. One of the guys at the Centre, Thebo, has done well and built his parents a house. Shortly thereafter he developed a rare fungal infection in the skin around his ankle, something never seen before by most people. Some believe that he was cursed because of his success. Fortunately, he doesn't believe that.

When Spiwo and I talked about this concept earlier in the week, I told him that that idea would be almost unheard of in the U.S, at least with the people who I know and grew up with. I told him that Americans are always striving to develop and gain knowledge, to try new things in order to move ahead. While we may not like making mistakes and failing in our attempts at improving ourselves, it is success, be it personal, financial, spiritual, or emotional, that keep us motivated.

This fear of success is just another of the cultural blocks to mass change in the Black settlements, the first being the lack of self-worth or ability to imagine oneself in a different (better) place. That's why Spiwo is trying to engage people who have broken free of the cultural biases to work in the townships, to drive their BMWs and Benzes through the streets, to show people that it is possible to move up and out. The people, especially the youth, need role models to say "I did it, and you can, too." I hope that it will happen.

By the way, electricity cards are just like phone cards, except they buy electricity. Many of the shacks have little boxes with a keypad that are tied into the electrical panel. When you want electricity, you punch in a code and that gives you whatever amount of time you purchased. It's similar to the meters still used in England, where you put in Pound coin or two and you get some power. The boxes are only in homes that have signed up for electricity, of course. Many shack owners simply run a wire from another house or (illegally) from an overhead light pole. It's not uncommon after a storm to see live electrical wires laying in the streets, and more than a few people are shocked each year.

A couple miscellaneous notes:
- Zindzi, the 19-year old woman who lost her mother a few weeks ago, is now permanently employed with the City of Cape Town. She was hired on as a temp worker a couple weeks ago and she passed the "tests" to go permanent. This is a big deal for her and her sister, and should allow them to stay in their house and make a go of it. As you can imagine, she was smiling ear to ear when I saw her this morning.

- I made brownies (from scratch!) today for the cooks at the Centre. It will either be a huge win or a big downer, depending on how they taste. I'll let you know what happens.

- I forgot to mention two of my favorite foods yesterday that I'm enjoying here. Both sweet potatoes and dates are available all the time here. I have a big sweet potato for dinner 4-5 times a week. I only buy dates a couple times a month but it's a real treat to have them virtually anytime and not just around Christmas.

More to come.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Week's Catch-up

This posting is a mish-mash of various things: Project Bungalow update, the national labor strike, Stormont Madabela school, and food quirks.

Project Bungalow

I think I've said it before: If you think you know how things will work out here, just wait a couple minutes for them to change. Last week, I mentioned that we found a new group of guys to move the bungalow. Well, that was done this week. What I didn't know is that it was moved to someone else's place. The story is this:

Nomasomi has been a virtual no-show at Zwane for the last three weeks. According to Yvonne, she also hasn't spent any time with her daughter in the last month or so. The daughter has been having some real problems with school and the people she is staying with. She's been beaten up twice in the past month for her transport money (she takes taxis or buses to school), and she's also been without food for 2-3 days a time. I had thought Nomasomi was going to take her in and really build a relationship with her, but that hasn't happened. Yvonne thinks Nomasomi is also drinking, which creates a whole 'nother problem with parenting and safety.

So, Yvonne decided that the shack should go to someone else until Nomasomi can pull it together. The woman who lined up the men (she's a cleaner at the Centre and the lead guy was her cousin) is now living in the bungalow in Barcelona, an informal settlement on the edges of Guguletu. I only found out about this on Thursday this week when Nomasomi finally came to Zwane to talk to me. Yvonne took it on herself to proclaim the bungalow a community shack, that would be used as short-term housing for people trying to get on their feet. She was also concerned that Nomasomi would take the shack and then sell it to make money.

I think I'm now in a bind. I made a promise to Nomasomi that she would get a shack for her and her daughter. By moving the shack to a different place and allowing someone else to live there, I look like I skipped out on my promise (even though I had nothing to do with it). Yvonne's frustrated because she was trying to do the right thing but now has upset people on her case. She told me that we can move the other woman out and give the shack to Nomasomi, but I'd feel like a heel for doing that to someone who I see at the Centre everyday.

I honestly don't know what to do. Nomasomi's supposed to come to the Centre next week so that Yvonne and I can talk to her together. Hopefully we can come to some agreement, such as having Nomasomi move in with the other woman (the bungalow is large enough to house two people with an inside wall separating their spaces). I'll let you know what happens.

National Strike

Today (June 1) the unions representing over 1,000,000 national and provincial government workers called a strike (euphemistically called “downing tools”). They have been trying to negotiate a new contract for the last nine months and have not been able to get one. They are asking for a 12% pay increase while government is offering 6%. Neither side is budging, even though the government is saying they have reached an agreement with the unions.

The unions represent a broad range of skilled and unskilled workers. Teachers make up the largest portion, followed by health workers, office staff, and laborers. Teachers are especially underpaid – a teacher with 20 years of experience and a college degree makes only about R10,000 a month, or about $17,000 per year. No one in the government sector exactly gets rich (except the politicians, of course).

No one knows how long the strike will last or if other unions will call for sympathy strikes. There is talk about municipal workers going out next week, but no plans have been announced. That would be really bad, as most services would stop (no trash collection, no license bureau, etc.).

The workers marched in the bigger cities today, with relative calm. Time will tell if the marches get angrier.

Stormont Madubela school

I visited this school a couple weeks ago. Unilever (the big conglomerate) had about 30 people in-country for a meeting and cultural visit. They came to Zwane as part of their tour to see what life in the townships was like. Part of the group delivered a few food parcels (full of Unilever products, naturally) and some went to Stormont Madubela to work on an improvement project.

(I commend Unilever for doing things like this. However, in my opinion, drive-by do-gooding doesn't really work. The group was with us for about 3 hours, and many of them really didn't engage much. I can't blame them – it's really hard to get a sense for the environment and needs when you're only at one place for s short time. Companies really need to make a long-term commitment to action and dedicate the resources to doing projects from beginning to end. End of soap box.)

Stormont Madubela is located in KTC, an informal settlement next to Guguletu. KTC is mostly shacks, and people are very poor. The school has about 300 students in about 12 classrooms. The buildings are actually converted shipping containers, all of which have seen better days. Most classrooms did not have blackboards, or if they did they were so worn as to be useless. Some of the rooms had holes in the ceilings, so when it rained the kids got even more jammed in trying to stay dry. Teachers have very limited space for their materials and papers. Many of the kids lack proper clothing – I saw more than a few with no shoes, and even though the school has uniforms about a third of the children weren't wearing them. School fees are R15-20 per year and even those are tough for many families to pay.

I have to believe there's a way to partner schools like this with schools in the U.S. All of these schools could benefit from books, games, sporting equipment (balls, etc.), supplies (pencils, tablets, workbooks, art stuff, etc.), you name it. I would love it if someone could hook me up with a school that could work with Stormont Madebela on a long-term improvement project. If you have any ideas, let me know.

When we left the school's choir sang us three songs, the last of which was the national anthem. I have never heard it sound so good. Many of us were close to or shedding tears. Kids have a way of breaking through their poverty and showing us humanity. I wonder when we lose the ability to do that?

Food Quirks

Just for fun, here's a few things I've found this week:

1. You can't get vegetable shortening here. I'm trying to make some brownies for the clinic staff and can't find any shortening to use. I'm changing to a butter-based recipe. Now I just have to convert the oven temperature to Celsius...

2. For the first time I looked in the meat case at the store. I was happy to discover that lamb is incredibly cheap. I paid $3 for a half-pound of lamb chops. Since beef is not very good here, I'm happy to have a red meat option. Chicken and fish get pretty boring. You can also get ground (minced) chicken but not turkey. In fact, you won't find turkey here at all. I remember when Cindy and I lived in Johannesburg she had to go to a specialty butcher to find a turkey breast for Thanksgiving. Even then I think we had to settle for some other bird. Ostrich, maybe. Which is very good, by the way.

3. They sell a smooth cottage cheese here that is to die for. The dairy must just blend the curds until it's smooth. It's slightly softer than cream cheese and has a tangier taste but not as much as sour cream. You can get it with chives, sweet chilis, garlic, or other additives. Another great protein alternative.

4. I found pancake mix in the store today! It's actually called flapjack mix, because pancakes are really crepes. Most of you don't know that I could live on pancakes, so I'm excited to try them this weekend. My only dilemma now is finding a decent syrup.

5. One of the cooks at the Centre made a special lunch yesterday. She made samp with chicken, spinich, carrot and onion. Samp is whole corn kernels that have been slightly softened. You treat it like beans, overnight soak and long simmer. The spinach was something unlike anything I'd ever seen, with long, thick stems and long crinkly leaves. That must be what Popeye ate and not what we have in salads.

More to come.