Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Power of Purpose

Last week I wrote about Marvin and his desire to start a silk-screening business. When I saw him a month ago I didn't think he'd be able to do anything - he was sick then, very weak and struggling. It was a few days later when I gave him a little money to get his screens made, and a few days after that when I paid for some fabric and supplies. Well, Marvin came to the Centre on Monday with his first finished work, and it was really good. He made a traditional Xhosa woman's outfit, with a skirt, shawl and head wrap. The fabric was a bright orange, and he screened on black patterns including a vase/urn and a woman in traditional dress. He was planning to take them to a local tailor to have the edges finished and some bunting put around the skirt. He also planned to show them to the HIV support group to drum up some help (he wants this project to be huge and helpful to as many people as possible).

When I saw Marvin on Tuesday, he said the tailor had been impressed with his work and that he might be able to generate some orders. Marvin was chuffed (excited), as you can imagine. I saw him again today, sitting outside copying designs off of the church facade so he could create some new screens. He looked strong and happy, quite a turnaround from a month ago. He is now a man with a mission, a purpose. He can see his way out of his difficult situation, and at the same time he can see a way to help other people succeed and improve. He has put together a plan for moving ahead, one that requires about R25,000. I think we can scale that back and take in chunks, and I'm hoping to give him some support for one of those chunks. If anyone wants to join me, let me know.

By the way, he is making me a Xhosa outfit, too. When I get it I'll post a picture. Maybe I'll even do a dance.

I met two other amazing people this week. The fact that they were both 14 is beyond belief.

1. Jerome lives with his 10 year-old brother just a couple blocks from the Centre. His mother is alive but is currently in hospital (I don't know why, except that it's HIV-related). His brother is HIV-positive and is not doing well right now. Jerome was already known around the Centre because he plays in a marimba group with one of the youth leaders. When Yvonne found out about his mother's situation, and the fact that the two kids were now on their own, she asked for help in getting them some food. No problem with me. I picked up some groceries and we gave them to Jerome this week. You could tell it took a load off his mind, because he was able to smile again.

Yesterday I got another lesson about having a purpose, courtesy of Jerome. Siyaya was practicing, like they do most days. The difference was they had a drummer. They've been struggling to find a permanent drummer for the past couple months, so most days you don't hear any percussion, just voices. Well, this new drummer sounded great, like he had been there since the beginning. Edwin popped in my office and asked if I knew who the drummer was. When I said no, he smiled and said "it's Jerome!" "Jerome, the boy Jerome?" I asked. "Yes!" came the reply. Apparently he was able to transfer his marimba skills to the drums, and he was sitting in with the group. I'm not sure he'll ultimately be able to do it full time (he's still in school), but having the opportunity to play with a professional group is great experience. Jerome has a purpose, and he's making the most of it.

2. Yaniso lives in Phillipi, near the clinic. His teacher called Yvonne and said he needed help, so she met with him earlier in the week. He was essentially abandoned by his mother a couple weeks ago, which was not the first time. Apparently, he, his mother and his grandmother used to live together but the two women had many arguments. His grandmother left a while back, and his mother decided to take off last week. She left him with nothing: no food, no money, only one change of clothes.

Yvonne bought him some clothes, including a new school uniform, and some food and hygiene basics. I bought him some other items to get him set for a couple weeks. His mother is supposed to be coming back soon and hopefully Yvonne will be able to meet with her to see what's happening.

Yaniso is inspiring. With all he's going through, he's keeping positive and hopeful. He is a bright boy, with a natural friendliness that is beyond his years. I think he will go far, assuming he has an opportunity to. As long as Yvonne is involved, he will.

I also saw Mogise this week. He is back home, out on bail. He was charged with housebreaking and theft. He said there's no cause for his arrest and he's confident it will be thrown out. We'll see. His sister found a job last week, so there are now two people working. If it stays that way, my time with them will be short-lived. And I'm very okay with that. There are plenty of other people who need help.

More to come.

Parting Shots: Malungeni, Day 5

Friday was a day of relaxation, as we got ready to head home. I had a chance to wander around the village a bit more, and then read a book for much of the day. It was a treat to just sit and enjoy the quiet and idyllic nature of rural life. Until I thought about the severe poverty. Then I felt guilty because I got to leave for better climes.

My morning walk took me almost to the edge of the village. It was early, about 8:00, but already things were happening. Kids were walking to school, the local shop was opening for business, and farmers were leading their animals to the fields. No one seemed to mind a stranger taking pictures, and I took my time capturing memories.

I waved to everyone I saw and everyone waved back. The kids in the picture above laughed at first, but when they saw my camera they immediately posed for a shot. Then they ran away, just like kids do.

I wandered up to people I hadn't met just to say hello, and had a couple nice conversations. The woman in this picture is Spiwo's first cousin (their fathers were brothers). She was making breakfast, corn meal porridge. She told me about her family and how she has four children, none of them hers, living with her. The children are all orphans from others in her family. She also told me that 75% of the villagers were related to each other, which I could understand because there are only a handful of surnames in the town.

On my way back to the house I was reminded of a line from a bad Tom Selleck movie from around 1984 (High Road to China, I think): "The oxen are slow, but the Earth is patient." This picture says it all. It's a man and his son working a team of oxen to plow his small field. His wife (or maybe his mother, it was hard to tell) and a small girl were also there. In the US, he'd have a small tractor pulling a plow rig, making it a 10 minute job. In Malungeni, he had four oxen pulling a single blade plow that he had to physically keep in line. Considering the fields were really wet, he has having to man-handle the plow something awful to keep it where he wanted it. And of course the oxen weren't exactly easy to steer (nice pun, I know).

I was mesmerized watching him, all the time wondering how it's possible in 2007 that people would still be dependent on such antiquated equipment. But then, I see women every day in Guguletu and Phillipi washing clothes in tubs, scrubbing the pants and shirts with brushes or just against themselves. I see people in homes cooking over wood fires or oil stoves because they can't afford or don't have electricity. I see men using horse-driven carts to haul scrap metal down city streets because they don't drive and can't hire a truck. It's as if Malungeni, Guguletu and all the predominantly black areas are caught in a time warp, where the 1800s intersects with the 21st century. Where an Internet cafe can sit next to a woman selling meat cooked over a wood fire. Where a proper house with a satellite dish sits in front of a shack with no electricity, heat or water. It's the juxtapositions that make understanding life here both intellectually fascinating and emotionally hard.

I also noticed something Spiwo had mentioned to me. There are no cemeteries in Malungeni. People are buried on their homestead. This man was working his field while overseen by a close relative. There's no doubt that the relative was nourishing the farmer, both physically and spiritually.

Spiwo and I headed to the airport in the afternoon. We left directly from Mththa, heading to Cape Town via Johannesburg. I had a little chuckle looking at the flight schedule - there are only two flights in and out of the airport per day, but they them posted on a sign board about 4 feet square, like they were planning to have 100 flights a day next week. There was an airport bar, though, and a cafe (that didn't serve any food - go figure). We had a nice ride in a medium-sized prop plane before landing in the first world again and picking up our jet for the journey home.

Saturday morning I had a long, hot shower. And I only felt a little guilty.

More to come.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Bad, The Ugly, and The Good: Malungeni, Day 4

Thursday was a day of contrasts, from absolute sadness to joyful elation.

Imagine the worst gravel road you've ever driven on. Add potholes and rocks the size of your fist (or larger). Then, for good measure, have it rain. Now, imagine 20 miles of this, sick in an ambulance, heading to a place you don't want to go to. You've just experienced a trip to the local hospital for Malungeni and the surrounding villages.

(During the ride I was amazed to see many children walking to school barefoot. Now, there was a steady drizzle or light rain and the temperature was only about 55 F. The water in the puddles and on the grass on the roadsides had to be cold. But, it's likely that these children did not own shoes, or that they had to share with someone else in the family. Spiwo told me once that he didn't get his first pair of shoes until grade 6 (age 12), and Xolani was 15 before he had his own pair. I cannot imagine sitting in school all day with cold feet, but that's another aspect of reality in Malungeni.)

Canzibe Hospital is a government hospital. It was built in the 1960s and was probably somewhat up-to-date back then. Unfortunately, almost nothing has changed in the place since then, except over 40 years of use and deterioration. It is probably the worst health care facility I've ever seen, including hospitals in about 10 other countries.

The hospital campus houses the hospital proper, a tuberculosis (TB) ward (separated from the mail hospital for infection control), an outpatient clinic, and an HIV clinic. There are also separate buildings for physical therapy (PT) and rehab, and a dormitory for staff (since most of them live quite a distance away and don't have transportation). None of the buildings are connected, so if a patient needs to move from the hospital to PT they must travel outside down an unpaved path (kind of like the road), rain or shine, hot or cold. It had been raining for two weeks straight before we arrived and every piece of ground was mud. I cannot imagine having to maneuver the paths in a wheelchair.

We started our tour by meeting the hospital manager and a couple members of her staff. I'm not sure who they thought we were, but we were treated like honoured guests. (I don't know why. We showed up unannounced and explained that we just wanted to look around. Was it the foreign accent?) She assigned the nursing director to take us around and encouraged us to ask questions. I didn't take any pictures, more out of respect for the patients than anything. I now wish I had.

We started in the TB ward. This building has 8 patient rooms:
- 1 for children that holds about 6 cribs
- 3 for women, including 1 room for acutely ill people (8 beds) and 2 rooms for people who are "better" and soon to be discharged (8 beds each)
- 3 for men, with the same configuration and bed counts as the women
- 1 isolation room for people with multi-drug resistant (MDR) or extensively drug resistant (XDR) TB (6 beds)
Of the 60 total beds, 46 were occupied. There were only 2 children and no isolation cases, and most of the adults were in the "getting better" wards.

The wards are nothing more than large open rooms with beds positioned about 3 feet from each other. The two post-acute wards are separated only by a short wall, maybe 5 feet high. There are no curtains between the beds, so privacy is non-existent. There's no TV or radio, save a single TV set under the door as you enter the building. If you're lucky enough to feel good, you can sit in the hallway and watch a fuzzy showing of a soap opera or the news. If you don't feel good, you're stuck in your bed with only your thoughts to keep you company. All of the equipment in the wards is old and probably original. It is in such bad shape that much of it has Condemned written in it. I wondered if that label was really more applicable to the patients.

One other interesting thing was that all of the windows were wide open. Again, it was cold and rainy that morning. The wards were filled with sick people, many with suppressed immune systems (I'll estimate that at least half of the patients also have HIV), bundled up to their eyeballs to avoid the chills. I'm assuming they needed the airflow for odor control, but it couldn't have been helping the treatment too much.

We also got to see the kitchen. The TB ward has its own so that no food or equipment is passed back to the main hospital. It was horrible. Most of the equipment doesn't work. There were two stoves that were non-functional, and the one that did work only had 4 working burners out of 6. The sick was small and in a rotting cabinet. The pantry was small and pretty bare. People were just finishing breakfast when we were there - it was a plate of gray-tan porridge. Oliver Twist would have passed.

Before we moved on we were asked to wash our hands to avoid contaminating the other areas. Great idea. Of course, we couldn't dry them since there were no towels. One of the nurses jokingly said, "We air dry our hands here." It doesn't say much for infection control when you either can't get the germs off or they end up on your pants legs.

Next stop: the main hospital building. This houses the casualty department (i.e., the ER), x-ray, the lab, and the pharmacy. There is also an outpatient clinic for people with TB and a dental room. Casualty was small, 4 rooms, but fairly well stocked with equipment. There were two doctors there, both from outside South Africa (I was told that the longest a South African doctor has ever stayed there is 11 days. Yes, days.) It also has a small outpatient surgery area where they do circumcisions and some minor gynecological procedures (yes, abortion is legal here).

The x-ray department is the most state-of-the-art area due to the recent delivery of new stationary and portable x-ray equipment. It was all labeled "A Gift from the People of Japan" which tells me the government didn't buy it. All of the x-rays can be digitally scanned for storage and reading. The x-ray technician was very proud of his equipment and explained in great detail how he lays people down and takes their pictures. Unfortunately, if you need an x-ray after 5:00 pm or on the weekends you're out of luck. The department is closed. You can come back in the morning or on Monday.

The lab was also fairly modern. They can do basic chemistries (glucose, electrolytes, pregnancy) and some microscopy. The rest they send out and wait about a week for the results. They have a brand new machine that will more than double their capabilities, but it has not yet been calibrated and validated. The manager was confident that it would happen very soon.

The pharmacy was small, about 8 feet by 12 feet. There were two people there, a full-time pharmacist and a volunteer from the Netherlands who was working there for a few months. They had everything we have at Brown's Farm CHC, just less of it. They had taken over an old church building on the campus for storage so they may have had plenty of inventory. Unfortunately, patients have to wait outside for their medications, and there is no space available for counseling. I'm sure compliance is poor, as it is at Brown's Farm (even with our attempts at education. Well, at least I try).

After we finished there we headed for the hospital wards. Their small building houses the main surgical suite, the main kitchen, and six wards:
- men's medical (6 beds)
- men's surgical (6 beds)
- women's medical (6 beds)
- women's surgical (6 beds)
- pediatrics (6 beds)
- maternity (3 beds)

The medical and surgical wards were as spartan as the TB wards. Most of the patients looked as if they didn't want to be there, in a bad way. The pediatrics ward was a little bit better, only because the mothers got to be with their children so the kids were calm. But it was the maternity ward that got me.

The unit is split into two areas. One is the labor and delivery unit, and the other is the ward for mothers who have problem pregnancies. The ward is colourful, only because the beds actually have salmon-coloured bedspreeds. One of the nurses said it was the only ward that the government cares about, since women and children are a big focus for the health department right now. The labor and delivery area has three beds that serve as the pre- and post-delivery area and three beds in the birthing room. Only one of the birthing beds is actually the right model, but they make do with the ones that aren't.

The birthing procedure is very different in the government hospitals. Mothers usually arrive in labour. Hopefully they had some kind of antenatal (pre-natal) care, but in half the cases there was none. They are quickly tested for HIV so that drugs can be given if necessary to protect the baby. They wait until they're ready to give birth and are then moved into the birthing room. Many women deliver standing up or squatting, so the beds are shorter and higher than normal. after the baby is delivered, mother and baby are moved together into the post-delivery area. They stay there for 6 to 8 hours, during which time they are taught to breast feed (if they can - HIV-positive women are discouraged from doing so). If everything is okay at that point, they are sent home. There's no mandatory 24-hour stay, no baskets of goodies or balloon bouquets. It's time to put the baby in a carrier and walk back to the village.

The unit delivers about 8-10 births a day, so it's not unusual for all of the beds to be full. In fact, if women come in September or October, the busy time of the year, some of them will be delivering in the hallway. Needless to say, it's not an ideal set up.

The other thing that got me about the maternity unit was the horrible bathroom conditions. The doors on the toilet rooms were broken and hanging on one hinge. The toilets lacked seats (which is pretty common here) and toilet paper was usually absent. The shower facilities were so dirty and moldy that I wouldn't risk using them. I don't know what these women would think about the single-room birthing suites that most U.S. hospitals have. They'd probably want to move in permanently.

The last stop on our tour was the HIV clinic. This comprises two trailers, each about the size of a big semi truck trailer and configured into three small treatment rooms. The waiting area is outside between the two trailers. The clinic sees about 30-50 patients a day, more on the days medications are passed out. They have 190 patients on anti-HIV medications, which is a good number but probably only 20% of what they should have. Most patients are not seeking care, some because they're scared, some because they don't know to, and some because they believe in traditional medicines. Thus, the infection keeps being passed on and people keep dying by the scores.

In short, I'm glad I saw Canzibe but I was more glad I could leave. It is truly a depressing place, one where most people just go to die. There are two other hospitals serving the villages around Mthatha, and the situation is no better at them. The nurses are demoralized, there is a constant staff shortage and supplies are very difficult to come by. I asked when last a health department official was there and the nursing director told me no one has ever been there. If they came they might know how bad it is and be compelled to do something about it.

Or, it's more likely they'd just ignore it like they have at other hospitals. There was a major scandal at a hospital not far from Mthatha where the rate of infant deaths was exceedingly high. The person who reported it was fired, and the deputy minister of health was let go after she went there unannounced to investigate. There is no political will here to fix the problems with the public health facilities, and people will continue to die as a result.

After another long, bumpy ride we arrived back at the house. It was now time to head into Mthatha and make sure everything was lined up for the food parcels. Spiwo still hadn't found a truck, so that was top on the list. He wanted to first stop at a hardware store and check on windows for the new church, so we went to a local supplier. There in the parking lot was a truck for hire, just like it was waiting for us. The only concern was that it was an open bed truck and it was raining. But, we made a plan and bought a plastic sheet to cover everything. It was all set.

After checking on the windows we went to the food store. As we drove in the parking lot, Spiwo spotted another truck for hire, this one with an enclosed bed. It was available, and actually cheaper than the other. We worked out an arrangement with the first truck and they left. So everything worked out there. Not quite the same story inside. To Spiwo's shock, nothing had been pulled yet. The manager on duty didn't even know about our order. They got it figured out, though, and we left feeling okay that it was going to work. Back to the ranch.

A few hours later, the truck arrived. We had ordered 72 of the following:
- 12.5 kg (27 pounds) of flour
- 12.5kg of samp (a form of whole-kernel corn used like beans)
- 12.5 kg of mealie meal (corn meal)
- 10 kg (22 pounds) of sugar
- 12.5 kg of rice
- 5 kg (11 pounds) of beans
- six-pack of long-life milk (the kind that comes in a box)
It was a ton of food. Actually, six tons. These parcels would feed a typical family for 2 to 4 weeks, which was a long time when a food supply was not guaranteed.

Using a fire brigade line, we had the truck unloaded in about 20 minutes. By the time we were done people were starting to queue up for the 4:00 start time. There was a sense of celebration in the air, even with the drizzle. At 4:00 Spiwo started reading names, and a group of local boys would make a pile of the various items (the had it all choreographed so that the pile would be exactly the same in every case). It was then up to the recipient to figure out how to get it home.

It was actually fun to watch. A large number of wheelbarrows had miraculously materialized, and most people loaded up their items and walked off. Others brought along a group of friends or family and simply divided the load. A number of women carried items on their heads, just like you see in National Geographic. I tried doing this with the bag of samp, helping a woman who lived about 200 yards up the road. It took all of my balancing ability to not fall over. She carried two items on her head, and even managed to pick up her baby halfway up the road. I was in awe.

After 40 minutes, it was all over. Only three parcels were left over, from people who didn't come. Their food would go to others in need.

We had a guest for dinner that night. Spiwo had met Francis a few years ago. He's a magistrate in the Eastern Cape, similar to what we'd call a district attorney. He was born into a very poor, dysfunctional family. His mother left when he was a young boy and he never knew her. His father was around but not a large part of his life. He was raised by his grandmother, along with a couple other children. His grandmother had a fruit stand outside the courthouse in their city, and Francis used to help her before and after school. He said he used to watch the men in their robes and wonder what it would be like to be one of them. His grandmother constantly encouraged him and made sure he finished school. He struggled to get accepted to university, but with a tenacious spirit he managed to get in and be accepted to the law track.

His first day at work came before he actually graduated. He only went to ask for a job. It so happened that there was a crisis in the court that day and no prosecutors were on duty. The woman in the office asked him if he was really a lawyer, and when he showed her his transcripts she said to "go home and get your robe and report for work." He was trying cases that afternoon. In the very same courthouse outside which he once sold fruit. In the very same robes that his idols wore. He was ultimately promoted to magistrate and now manages the district that Mthatha is in.

His story was very inspirational. Spiwo is trying to being him to Cape Town to speak at church. I would be happy to hear his story again.

After dinner it was time again for reading and sleeping.

Next up: Finishing up and heading home.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Schools and Strategies: Malungeni, Day 3

Wednesday was tour day. I hadn't planned on going as far as we did, but I'm glad it worked out this way.

We started the day by visiting the local primary school. It's a public school, fully supported by government. The building is fairly new and in decent shape. It has four classrooms, plus one room that serves as a classroom/office/teacher prep room. It's set on a large piece of land, so the kids have room to play during their break periods. The school is for children in grades R (kindergarten) through 9; high school is a distance away. There is a uniform, blue sweaters over white shirts and either blue skirts or slacks, and most of the kids had one on (I'm assuming those that didn't couldn't afford them).

Class sizes were about 30-35. Three grades are combined into one room. Grade R was by itself, then grades 1 to 3, 4 to 6 and 7 to 9 were put together. There's a single teacher for each grade combination, making it almost like an old one-room schoolhouse.

I was impressed with the desks and equipment in the classrooms, and the presence of books and workbooks. I haven't seen this at the other schools I've been to. However, even though it sounds ideal it has its issues:
1. Truancy is very high. A lot of kids drop out after grade 8 or 9, most because they either don't see the point in finishing or because they have family responsibilities that keep them home. I also saw children just hanging around every day, with no excuse for not being in school.
2. Teacher attendance is hit or miss. There are apparently days when the only people in school are the children. Spiwo and others think this is because the teachers are not educated well enough to handle the higher grades and more complex subjects. (Under the apartheid regime, blacks were taught in separate schools that lacked basic materials and used lesser-trained teachers. Blacks were only educated to grade 8, which was enough to give them skills to be a labourer in the mines or factories. Teachers obviously went on to higher education, but again it was not to the level of the white students. Now that the curricula are standardized and the blacks are being held to the white standards, the teachers are finding it difficult to handle the higher grades because they never went through them.) They are also paid quite poorly, so many stay home because they can.

As you can imagine, these problems are creating real barriers to the kids' abilities to move up and out of their rural existence. There's also a lack of technology and lessons on its applications. The kids have never seen computers, let alone use one. And the Internet is just something they've maybe read about (I helped a teenage student at the Centre yesterday who had never heard of the Internet. He would definitely be lost in an American school). And again, no one seems to be standing up for them and forcing teachers or the government to make it right.

From there, we made a plan to visit Xolani's home village, which is about an hour's drive away. First, though, we went to visit the school where Spiwo's sister (his real sister) works. (By the way, Spiwo often talks about being a family of 7 kids and now only having one sister still alive. His family has been hurt by HIV/AIDS as well as other illnesses and accidents. As you can imagine, he is very close to his remaining sister.) Wassie teaches at the Tsolo Special School in the town of Tsolo. The school is for children who are "intellectually challenged." This doesn't mean retarded necessarily, but encompasses all kids who can't learn at normal speeds or who don't do well with the formal national curriculum. There are some physically handicapped children there, as well. The school doesn't have grades. Children are grouped by age and functional ability. It's a boarding school, and kids come from long distances.

The school was started by Thozama Gozo about 10 years ago. She had a daughter who was not performing in school and Mrs. Gozo knew something had to be done. She started the school in a rented space, but due to a lack of funds it soon landed in her house. She had about 20 children then, sleeping in four bedrooms along with her biological children. Eventually she was able to move it to a private building. About 3 years ago the government found out what she was doing and came through with funds to build a proper school on a large campus. The students now number 240 and the school is maxed out. The age range is from 6 to 21 - even though she isn't supposed to keep them after 19, she said since there's no place for them to go she ends up keeping them longer.

The school's objectives are to teach the children normal subjects as far as they can go and to train them on a marketable skill. Most of the kids learn needlework (sewing), art, or beadwork. She is starting a woodworking program right now, with a focus on cabinetry. She tries to customize programs, though. She has a couple students who are sports prodigies, so these kids spend their time improving their skills with the goal of joining a semi-pro team and earning a living that way.

Because there aren't homes for learning disabled adults, Mrs. Goza is now planning for a group home nearby the school campus. When the children reach 21, they can move to the group home and get a job. She still has a lot of work to do, but if the school is any indication I think she'll have the home running in no time.

From Tsolo we went to Xolani's village, Elucwecwe, outside the city of Ngcobo (I can't print a pronunciation guide for these, because the "c"s are click sounds. El-you-tswe-tswe and Ntso-boh would be close). Elucwecwe is a picturesque village, situated in green rolling hills. As with all things rural, though, the beauty comes with a price. This village is not electrified, and most homes do not have running water. There are taps, but they only work part of the time and people are forced to walk to the river for water. As in Malungeni, the homes are mostly rondevals with some square side buildings thrown in. Heat and cooking is done over fires - one of Xolani's family's rondevals has a fire circle in the middle of the room where they make a wood fire. Seeing this and smelling the ever-present smoke and soot and you quickly realize why asthma is the one of the biggest health problems in the rural areas.

We actually went to two homesteads in Elucwecwe, because Xolani had a split childhood. It's a very interesting story:

Xolani's mother was not married to his father. His father was the village chief and already had a wife and family when he met Xolani's mother. She was the daughter of a white, Jewish shopkeeper in the area, who married a local black woman. This makes Xolani's mother both coloured and part-Jewish, two things Xolani didn't know about until he was in his teens. (Xolani's sisters actually have the facial features of a European lineage and a lighter skin colour. They probably would have been classified as Coloured in the apartheid era.) His father, the chief, was very wealthy with lots of animals and a large homestead (the two rondevals pictured left are just part of his buildings. Look at their size in relation to the car, and then look at the mother's, above). Food was never an issue. The chief had 6 children with his wife, the last of whom was born in 1964. He then had 5 children with Xolani's mother; Xolani is the youngest, born in 1976. All of the children lived with their father, while Xolani's mother lived on the other side of the hill (it's not very far as the crow flies, but it's a long distance relationship-wise). Her homestead is the one pictured above.

It was only when the chief died in 1987 that Xolani and his siblings drifted back to their mother. For a long time growing up Xolani and his siblings felt that their mother had abandoned them since she played no real role in their young lives. It was only when they moved to her small homestead that they discovered the sacrifice she made in trying to give them a better life. He told me that "for a long time we thought our mother did not love us, then as we grew older we understood she did what was best for us."

Xolani's three sisters still live in Elucwecwe; his brother passed away in 2006. One of his sisters is a traditional healer (she's in the middle in this picture), and the others are working as wives and mothers. Xolani recently found out he has a half-brother from his mother's first marriage, although he doesn't talk a lot about him.

Xolani is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He is always smiling, and is usually at the centre of a conversation about soccer or other sports. Even though he only completed the eighth grade, he is an astute businessman with a small taxi business in Gugulethu. He had a difficult time with school, not because he isn't smart but because the demands of the household got in the way. For most of his school years he could only attend classes every other day. This is for two reasons:
1. He and his brother had to take turns caring for the animals
2. He and his brother had to take turns wearing the school uniform and shoes
I can only imagine how far he could have gone with a high school diploma and college education. Maybe some day he'll be able to do that.

When we got back to the house, we joined a meeting Spiwo was having with some of Malungeni's local leaders, including the village chief and the school principal. The subject of the meeting was a proposal the chief is making to an international volunteer program to bring people to Malungeni. They would help with several income-generating projects in the village, as well as with the school and another pre-school program that's run from the community centre. It was an interesting discussion, with Spiwo driving home the point that the community must take charge and drive progress. He is very worried that the people will not work with the volunteers and the programs will just fall flat. The meeting finished with everyone agreeing the proposal needed to move forward and that the chief would drive things. We ended up finishing the proposal on Friday and bringing it back to Cape Town for faxing.

The chief's story is also dramatic. He is a young man, maybe 30 years old. He inherited the post upon the death of his father a few months ago. His father was apparently well respected and had his hands on the pulse of the community. He had a vision for moving Malungeni forward and was usually able to rally the people to support that vision. His son, the new chief, is quiet, almost withdrawn, as if he doesn't really want the post. Spiwo thinks that he may not get the support his father had because then he will fail and the chiefdom will be available for someone else to assume. Considering the chief gets the spoils from contributions to the community, it's a job worth having and several people would vie for it. The next few months will be key, especially this proposal which will bring a couple hundred Americans and lots of skills to the community. I hope he can make it work.

After a nice dinner it was time for reading and sleeping. I didn't work out all week, and got 8 hours of solid sleep every night. I haven't done that in many, many years and it felt great.

Next up: Don't Get Sick in Malungeni - A Visit to the Local Hospital (don't panic Mom, it was just a tour)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fun and Heartbreak: Malungeni, Day 2

Tuesday morning came with a surprise: no hot water. Spiwo said that the electricity would be at a minimum until he added more to the meter. I didn't think that meant the geyser (pronounced geezer, it's the South African name for a water heater) was shut off. I haven't had to take a cold shower since Boy Scout camp in 1976, and I didn't like it any better than then. Then again, I couldn't complain because I HAD WATER. No one in Malungeni has running water, except when their rooftop rain collection systems are full. Given the choice of a cold shower and trekking a couple kilometers to the river, I'll take cold water any day.

This was the day to relax, since there wasn't much happening. We did have to go into Mthatha to make arrangements for the food parcel distribution on Thursday, but other than that it was easy living. So we started the day by driving around the village to get acquainted with the surroundings.

Spiwo and I first went to the site of the new church that he's building (with the support of some US-based churches). It's an impressive brick building that will have a main hall and round entry area where they can have a pre-school or Sunday school. Spiwo was a little concerned about how the roof was put on. Originally it was supposed to rest on the brick walls like a normal roof would do. However, the builder didn't think that would work so he constructed a frame out of beams and built the roof on that. That created a sizable gap between the top of the walls and the roof that will have to be bricked in. The builder thinks this will take about 18,000 more bricks at a cost of about R30,000 ($4,300) plus labour. Financing that is going to be tricky, but Spiwo seems to have a way in mind. In any case, there's several months of work left to be done before the church is ready for its dedication.

I also had the chance to look closer at the homes. Historically, Xhosa people have lived in round houses called rondevals. Most are about 20 feet in diameter and are made of bricks with plaster overcoats. There are still some in the village that were made from sticks laid horizontally with mud placed in-between. These don't hold up nearly as well as the brick ones, though. The bricks were traditionally made of mud from regular soil and dried in the sun. Sometime back the people learned to add cement to the mud and it made for a much stronger brick. Now the homes are expected to last for decades. (There are brickyards along the river just outside Mthatha. The men take the thick soil from the river banks and press their bricks, allowing them to dry in the sun. The bricks have a deep red color. Sadly, while the bricks are pretty the river banks are being destroyed by all the excavation. Erosion will probably occur soon, and the brick makers will need to move elsewhere.)

The older rondevals have thatched roofs made of grass cut from the local fields. Newer ones, or those with roofs that need replacing, have corrugated zinc roofs. (Note the two in the picture above - one has a thatch roof and the other a zinc roof.) The zinc allows the homeowner to collect the rain using gutters and pipes to shunt the water to huge holding tanks. One tank probably has enough water for a month, given that they homes don't have showers or toilets (or washing machines, or dishwashers, or any other modern appliance). Accompanying the rondevals are small rectangular, one- or two-room structrures. Sometimes they act as a bridge between two rondevals, and other times they sit on their own.

The great thing about the villages I saw is that people take the time to paint their homes. This is very different than Cape Town, where many of the homes' exteriors are faded, peeling, or just run down. Every home is a different colour - orange, turquoise, yellow, white, blue - so they create quite a nice picture when seen from afar. Almost nice enough for a postcard. And, there are very few power lines to obstruct the view.

Because, of course, not all villages have electricity. Malungeni is lucky. They had power lines installed about 4 years ago. Now, assuming they can afford the power, every house has light at night. I noticed a couple TV antennae, but only a couple. I never heard music coming from any of the homes, so I'm guessing most people don't have radios, either. It was very peaceful walking the roads, with only the sheep and goats making noise.

Most everyone in Malungeni has land. They are granted property by the village chief. He decides who gets land and how much they receive. Most people appear to have a plot that's about 20 yards by 50 yards, maybe a little bigger. Some have considerable more. In any case, the plots are large enough to have a vegetable garden and keep some animals. People with the smaller plots usually have chickens, goats, and/or sheep. The folks with the larger plots can also add cows (steers, really) and horses. Again, this is assuming people can afford them. Chickens, bought as chicks, cost about R2 ($0.30) each. Sheep and goats run about R700 ($100) each. Cows are about R5000 ($750), as are horses. Feeding is not too expensive, since nearly everyone takes their animals to communal pastures to graze. Because of the limited grazing area and the number of animals, the fields are seriously overgrazed. But, since there's no alternative, people keep on using them.

The fact that people have land and can grow some food makes it quite different than Cape Town. Here, having land is not guaranteed. If you do have it, you have a very small plot with just your house. You can't grow anything on it, and you certainly can't keep a cow there. Sure, you can sell your plot and house to make money, but chances are you will never get a title deed again in your life. Some people do raise goats in the township, but only because they can wander through the trash heaps on the side of the road and get their food. If it were me, I'd rather be in the rural area where I have a chance at survival.

(Spiwo has talked with people who have a differing viewpoint. The best, or worst, reason to be in Cape Town came from a young man who moved here from the Eastern Cape a few years ago. He said, "When you live in a rural area and have nothing, you have nothing. When you live in Cape Town and have nothing, at least you know you can find a rubbish bin that has pizza in it." That just about says it all.)

After the church, Spiwo took me to meet his mother. She lives just up the road from the bunkhouse. She has two rondevals and a large house on her property. We found her in bed, not because she was sick but because it was cold and rainy outside and she wanted to be warm. She is a very pleasant woman, with a friendly manner and a great smile. Spiwo has been trying to get her to move somewhere better but she doesn't want to go.

After that we headed into Mthatha. Thebo came along with Spiwo and I just to have something to do. Since Spiwo had about an hour's worth of errands to run, he dropped Thebo and I at the shopping mall to look around. That took about 5 minutes, so we headed outside to walk around the town. Mthatha is a decent sized city, relative to the area, but it's still small, about the size of downtown St. Paul. For being a big city there are surprisingly few big city stores there, certainly not any chains that exist in Cape Town. Most of the shops are independant, family-owned stores, many originating our of Durban (which is only a few hundred kilometers away). To say that the assortment of products is eclectic wouldn't describe it. A store can have clothes, bikes, stereos and stoves, all in a space the size of my living room. They're more like surplus stores than proper shops, with everything crammed into small spaces.

I also saw something I haven't seen in Cape Town: a row of men with wheelbarrows waiting to help people with their purchases. Most people arrive in Mthatha by taxi, minibuses that hold 12-15 people. When they finish shopping, they need to haul their packages back to the taxi rank to catch a ride home. The wheelbarrow men are available for hire, for a few Rand, to be the mule and cart. The taxi drivers pile everything on top of the vans - we saw more than one with 25kg bags of mealie (corn) meal and flour with mattresses stacked on top of that. And they still drove at breakneck speeds down the rural roads. Yikes!

When Spiwo picked us up we headed over to the store to sort out the food for the parcels. We arranged to have the items pulled and ready for us on Thursday. Spiwo was a little worried about finding a truck to haul the goods to Malungeni, but he "had people working on it" so everything seemed to be under control. We headed back home to have a leisurely afternoon.

When we arrived we found that Xolani, the Centre's driver, and Niwo, the man who handles fumigation at the Centre, had arrived from Cape Town. They drove, taking about 15 hours to reach Malungeni. Niwo is going to teach the house's caretaker the proper ways to handle pest control. Xolani came to help with the food parcel program (and to drive Niwo). So, we have a pretty active house now. Xolani has offered to drive around tomorrow, which should be a very interesting day.

Next up: Schools, reunions and future plans.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Driving to the Past: Malungeni, Part 1

"And where are we off to today, Mr. Peabody?"

"We're going to Malungeni, South Africa, circa 1907, Sherman."

"But Mr. Peabody, the Wayback Machine still says we're in 2007!"

"Sherman, sometimes times moves very slowly."

(with apologies to Jay Ward)

I had one of the most interesting trips of my life this past week. I accompanied Rev. Spiwo to his home village, Malungeni (maal-uhn-GAY-nee). This is a small village, no more than 5,000 people, located in the heart of the rural portion of the Eastern Cape. It's about 1200 kilometers (800 miles) from Cape Town and takes 15 hours or so at posted speeds. Flying, it takes about 3-4 hours via Johannesburg or 2 hours to East London and then a 3-hour drive. Needless to say, it's an out-of-the-way destination. (I didn't do a good job with the map, but Malungeni sits at the tip of the black line coming up from the white box. It's about 18 miles from Mthatha and 4 miles before a little town called Mgqaleni. It's about 30 miles inland from the sea.)

(Malungeni is in an area that some still refer to as the Transkei, which means beyond the Kei River. The Transkei was a Black homeland (also called a Bantustan) during the days of apartheid. That meant it was nominally separate from South Africa, with its own government. Mthatha, then spelled Umtata, was its capitol. The Transkei was one area where Xhosa people were sent from Cape Town and other cities. In 1994, after apartheid ended, the homelands were disbanded and incorporated back into South Africa. Transkei was merged with the Ciskei bantustan to create the Eastern Cape.)

In some ways Malungeni reminded me of Cumberland, Wisconsin where my dad spent his early years. They are (or were) both farming communities, with huge open expanses of land and a population where everyone was seemingly related to everyone else. Today, though, that's where the similarities end. Through the next couple postings I hope to portray both the idyllic facade of Malungeni and its impoverished core. To say they have challenges is the understatement of the century.

My experience starts on Monday afternoon at Cape Town airport. I haven't traveled on a domestic airline in South Africa yet, so I'm using all of my US assumptions to get prepared. I have my passport and boarding pass in hand, and all of my liquids are neatly packed in small bottles inside the required one-quart clear zip-top bag. I also have on my easy-to-untie shoes and clean, hole-free socks. Imagine my surprise when:
- my ID wasn't checked
- I didn't have to show my liquids
- I could keep my shoes on
It was like traveling 15 years ago! It was fun again!

For being in a large city, Cape Town airport, at least the domestic terminal, is definitely a small-town operation. The terminal is about twice as big as I remember it from 12 years ago but the news agent shop and bookstore looks exactly the same. We flew on a cheap, no frills airline. We got hand-written boarding passes, and they checked our names off a paper list. The terminal is small, so there are almost no seats at the gates and you either walk outside or take a bus to your plane. Boarding takes about 10 minutes because everyone tends to be on time and they know how to queue up (must be the British influence). What's really nice is the airline opens up the tail staircase of the plane, so you can board from the front or the back.

For being a no-frills airline, the service wasn't too bad. It certainly wasn't any worse than the US-based so-called full service airlines. The only difference was that you had to pay for your sodas and nuts. At least, you were supposed to. I had a Coke not knowing you had to pay and the flight attendant never asked me to. She did charge the people next to me, though. Go figure.

We took the East London route, so we picked up our car and headed for Mthatha. We had to first stop at the grocery store since we were on the self-catering program for the week. It was pretty comical, two grown men wandering around the store asking each other what we should get. We ended up with cereal, peanut butter, bread, eggs, and chicken. And some apples, just in case we had a craving for nutrition. We also picked up some sandwiches and sodas for the drive to Mthatha.

Next stop: the local KFC to pick up Thebo. He used to live in Cape Town and I knew him from the Centre. He's now living in a village outside of East London (King William's Town) and Spiwo invited him to spend the week with us. Thebo is in his mid-twenties and is currently unemployed. He's living with his parents while he tries to find work. He's also on the hunt for a wife, which is proving difficult in a village where nearly all the women are already spoken for.

Thebo hitch-hiked to East London, a process that took him about 90 minutes to travel the 80 or so kilometers. I asked if hitching is safe, and he and Spiwo agreed it is very safe. It's a very popular form of travel, since there may not be taxis between some of the cities. Spiwo said most people carry their taxi fare just in case the driver asks for payment, and will share some of it to help defray petrol costs even if the driver doesn't ask for any. I noticed a lot of people hitching rides throughout the week, and they have a unique system for getting a ride. Everyone holds a small card with a two-letter code for where they're going. They all started with X and then had a letter corresponding to a city. XA is East London, XC is Mthatha, etc. Thebo said it usually doesn't take more than a half hour to get a lift, which is considerably shorter than waiting for a taxi.

I drove the first leg to Butterworth, a small city about a third of the way to Mthatha. (Spiwo joked that he hoped I'd stay on the left side of the road and not let my US experience confuse me.) We stopped to see Spiwo's sister there (who is really his cousin - the lines of relation are very blurry here and the descriptions can be tricky. I've learned that sisters, brothers and cousins are often used in a communal sense, and people will describe true relations by who they are. For example, a male first cousin is introduced as the son of my father's brother. Or a great uncle is the brother of my father's father. It's confusing until you get the hang of it) and then he took over driving.

During the drive I learned about witchcraft and the hold it still has on many people in the rural areas. I don't mean witchcraft in the Wizard of Oz sense, it's more akin to voodoo. Many people still believe that certain other people have the power to curse them and create problems in their lives. Spiwo told me that when tragedies happen you'll often hear people say "So-and-so cursed me and made this happen." They will even point to people and accuse them. HIV/AIDS is definitely one of the things that people are blaming on witchcraft, especially when it runs in a family. Spiwo said he's been at community meetings where someone will stand up and say "The person who is causing this problem needs to stop now" as if someone in the room was to blame. He said he believes it is a way for people to avoid personal responsibility and acceptance of their own culpability in their problems, and until people are willing to accept their role things will never change.

These beliefs are not just in the rural areas, either. Plenty of people in the townships still consult sangomas and traditional healers, even people who attend church at JL Zwane. I don't know how they reconcile their Christian faith with their traditional beliefs, but apparently there's room for both.

(I also found the discussion a little ironic. Here's a Christian minister telling me that believing in supernatural is not right, that no one person/entity can be responsible for creating strife or curing problems. Isn't that what people believed 2,000 years ago and still believe today?)

During the trip we drove through the area where Nelson Mandela grew up, and the home town of Thabo Mbeki, the current president. Mandela has a large holding in the area and still comes back on a regular basis. His house is now a museum.

We got to Malungeni late Monday evening. We drove past the new church that Spiwo is building (more on that in the next posting), and then drove to the house we were staying in. The house is on Spiwo's grandparent's property. It is large enough to be a conference center, which is what he wants to ultimately do with it. It has a main house, three small dorms, a large garage for storage, and another dorm currently under construction. All told, the place can hold up to 20 people very comfortably. It would serve as a great base for the week's activities.

Coming up next: Tuesday and my travels around Malungeni and Mthatha.

Yes, I'm Still Here

I spent the past few days in Malungeni (maal-uhn-gay-ni), a rural village in the Eastern Cape. It's about 13 hours drive from Cape Town, outside the city of Mthatha (um-ta-ta). It's Rev. Spiwo's home town. He tries to keep very active there, bringing the people opportunities to take a step up and improve their lot in life. I have a LOT of things to write about, so I'll be posting separate installments on my time there. I will try to have them all done this week (because I don't trust my memory) so check back.

Since getting back really late on Friday (or early on Saturday, depending on your preference) I've been catching up on the goings-on in Gugulethu and elsewhere. Here's the updates for this week:

1. Rosie's family
I saw Nokubonga yesterday. She sent me a SMS (cell phone e-mail) asking for help with food, so we went shopping yesterday. She told me that Amanda, Rosie's 15 year-old daughter, is now living with an aunt in Phillipi, about a couple miles from the house. This is where her brother has been staying since Rosie got sick months ago. The baby, Lisa, is now living in Plettenburg Bay, about 1000 kilometers away, with other family.

It looks like everyone's fears have become reality, that the house is now in someone else's control and the kids got the short end of the bargain. Because Bonga and I don't communicate well (her English is not too good and my isiXhosa is worse) I wasn't able to get the full details on what's happening. I've asked Johanna to get someone to visit her and see what's up. I hope to know more by Tuesday.

2. Mogise
I got a call from his brother on Wednesday that Mogise was taken to jail. I had a bad connection so I didn't get all the information on why. I know that he was out on bail for allegedly assaulting someone, and an ex-girlfriend was all alleging a crime against him. This is a bad situation for him, since he's been sick and trying to shake his tik addiction. I'm going to try and see his sister tomorrow and get the details.

3. TAC murals
The third HIV/AIDS mural was unveiled yesterday. TAC had a march through the streets of Khayelitsha as before, although it was quite a bit longer this time and through some residential areas. Lots of people came out of their homes to watch us march by, with placards held high and songs being sung. This mural is a little different from the second one but has the same valuable information in it. I was cheered as the funder, so I'm passing along a shout to everyone who helped make these a reality (especially Brad, Anne, Coral and Al).

4. Orphans
This isn't an update really, but a reminder that the problem of orphaned and abandoned children is real and growing. This 14 year-old boy came to the Centre last week, barefoot and in dirty clothes, looking for some food and help. His mother had apparently left him in their shack (see picture) with no provisions and no money. According to Yvonne, and after speaking with him, there's been some tension at home for some time between his mother and grandmother. His grandmother moved out a while back and his mother has now taken to leaving home for days or weeks at a time, unannounced. This boy learned about JL Zwane from his teacher, who has been helping him with some food and a stove. Yvonne bought him new school clothes and some food items to hold him until she can speak with his mother and figure out what to do. Hopefully, that will be this week.

If we were to look for these children, instead of waiting for them to find us, we'd probably identify hundreds, if not thousands in similar situations or worse. This is the biggest challenge for me, knowing it's happening but having limited abilities to fix it. I've noticed that Americans love to take a "let's just fix it" attitude, which is why we all continue to progress as a nation and community. It's not the same here. I can't, for the life of me, figure out why people in the shacks and substandard housing don't rise up and demand better living conditions. (You'll read more about this in my Malungeni postings.) They are the majority in the country and could make a real impact if they were organized and vocal. But, most are willing to just sit back and take it. It may be that their current situation is so much better than what they had before that they don't want to rock the boat. Or, it could be that they were so beaten down by the regime of the past that they don't know they have a choice.

I believe the day is coming where someone rallies the people and demands a change. It may be as soon as 2008-2009, when the next presidential election cycle is in full swing. Or it could be in 2011, when people start looking at all the stadia and construction done for the 2010 soccer world cup, with costs of hundreds of billions of Rand, that are now sitting empty while their shacks and roads continue to deteriorate. Or, it could be in 2014, the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid, when the young adults who never knew the old ways look around and ask why they're living in a third-world city in a first-world country. Or, it could be tomorrow. But it's coming.

More to come.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Play Ball!

Today was the start of my baseball coaching career. I was having serious flashbacks to 40 years ago when I was learning to play. But, it's amazing how the lessons come flooding back (aided, like many things, by the Internet and coaching Web sites).

I'm helping a local teacher named Maxwell with the program. He was able to round up about 20 kids, 19 of whom have never seen baseball before. The ages ranged from around 8 to about 13, so we had kids of all sizes and coordinations. I was surprised to see that about a third of the group were girls - I didn't know if the kids would see baseball as a boys' sport or not. (Football, or soccer, is definitely a boys' sport, as are cricket and rugby. Girls play netball, a game like basketball. Title XIX has not made it to South Africa yet.) Maxwell got some gloves, balls, bats and helmets from a local non-profit group so about half the kids can play. They're really good about sharing equipment so that everyone gets a turn.

The big downside is the practice area. The school yard only has a big square of sand to use. It was okay for today, but I can't imagine how we're going to practice hitting or running there. We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. (I used that phrase with someone a couple weeks ago. They looked at me like I was from outer space. I had to draw them a picture to show what I meant. You don't want to know the looks I get when I call something a craps shoot.)

Today was all about fundamentals. We all stood in a circle and worked on throwing and catching. It was hard taking boys who had played cricket and teaching them a new throwing method. Cricket requires the pitchers to wind up and throw with a funny side-arm motion that moves the whole upper body. I had to have the kids just stand still and swing their arms so they could get a feel for using just their arm. And then adding the wrist snap was another step. However, most of the kids caught on within 1 or 2 throws and some were throwing right on target with power by the end of the hour. With practice they should be tossing 20 and 30 yard throws easily.

Then it was on to catching. These kids have never used a glove before, and they did what most kids do. They tried to catch everything with their hands palm up. Even if the ball was at chest level or higher, risking a bounce into their face. After a few throws and my holding their hand in the right position they started to catch on (no pun intended). Again, some of the kids were naturals and were snagging balls like nothing.

Then we worked on ground balls. This was the fun part. I explained how you had to go down on one knee and use your body with the glove to keep the ball in front of you. Well, the kids took me literally and went down on one knee, even if the ball was to their left or right. I had to explain that they could take a side step first and then drop. I also had a couple just bend over and the balls would squirt through their legs. By the end they were helping each other, plus teasing each other as kids do.

We closed out the day with some round robin throwing and catching. The kids all said they had fun and I think they really did. Next week will be more of the same, and then the following week we're going to work on hitting. THAT should be interesting.

If anyone knows someone coming this way, please ask them to bring a glove and ball. Bats would also be great but airplane security will be an issue with those (unless they can be checked).

A couple other updates for the week:

1. The local power company, Eskom, has a very interesting way of managing power spikes. They just turn off sections of the city. Seriously. They call it "load shedding" and they schedule portions of the city and suburbs for outages. Tonight they have two sets of shedding scheduled, with about 10-12 portions of the city each time. Each phase is for 2 hours. I can't imagine being in a place like Gugulethu or Phillipi with no electricity. Having no overhead lights or inside lights is just plain dangerous in places where people are regularly assaulted or worse. Plus, students are studying for their major end-of-year and graduation exams and will have to miss a night of work. Crazy.

2. A ways back I wrote about Noloyiso, the 16 year-old girl who is raising her 8 year-old brother. (I've since found out her name is actually Noluyolo. Yvonne had it a little mixed up.) They live in a beat-up, leaky and unsecure shack in a rough section of Gugulethu. About 2 months ago a group of Americans promised to build her a new place.. Then they backed out, saying they didn't feel safe in her area. As you can imagine, she was crestfallen.

Well, a group of people from the local church that was working with the Americans have stepped up and are going to make the shack a reality. They were at her place this past Saturday to take measurements and look at what needed to be done. They have several master craftsmen in their congregation and don't expect any real problems.

Of course, nothing is as easy as it seems. The law of unintended consequences says that building a new shack in the current location will result in Noluyolo being robbed or having her shack damaged because people will think she's rich or is too good for the community. So, we're now looking to see if we can find a new location for her shack, possibly a house with a responsible adult and a secure back yard. I'll keep you updated as this moves ahead.

(And a word on the safety issue. I'm biased, and I know that. But I cannot imagine a large group of people thinking they wouldn't be safe in Noluyolo's area. I've been there several times, with and without black people and have not had any problems. If they were concerned they should have said so before making a promise. This is common in Gugulethu - many visitors come and make promises and are never heard from again. Spiwo says lack of trust is the hardest thing to overcome because most people have had bad experiences.)

3. Mogise
Yvonne and I brought food to his sister last Thursday. She was very warm and friendly. Her only comment was "Please don't forget us." Like that could happen. As we were leaving I saw Mogise walking up the street. He wasn't smiling. I'm due to go back again on Friday and we'll see how things are.

Lastly, I saw this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson this week:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

I think it encapsulates my recent experiences pretty well. I've been and am fortunate to have intelligent friends (and family). I can find beauty in most things, even in the shacks of Gugulethu (such as the pop art-like nature of colors in the scraps that form the shacks). I've helped create a garden patch that's now feeding people. And I know I've made at least a couple people breathe easier knowing they'll eat tomorrow. I guess I've succeeded, many times over.

More to come.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

One Good Thing Today

In my haste to write about my meeting with Mogise, I forgot to write about my good moment of the day.

Marvin is a member of the support group. He's been sick lately, but is showing signs of improvement. He is skilled in making silk screen prints of traditional Xhosa patterns, which he has sewn into clothing. I've seen his work and it's quite good. Marvin has rounded up about 20 other people from the support group who want to learn his craft, and he wants to teach them so that they have a skill. His only problem? No money to get new screens made and buy some fabric to start with.

He had applied for a grant from the Department of Cultural Development in Cape Town. After months of filing papers and waiting for responses, he decided to go there today to get a status update. He was very disappointed to learn that he was not going to be funded. He could not get anyone to tell him why, just that his application was not accepted.

Marvin came to me this morning to ask for my help in contacting their office and getting more facts so that he can reapply. I said I would do that. I asked how much he was looking for. He told me he'd need about R25,000 to get a real business started, but what he really needed was R300 to get his screens done and get the starting fabric. That was too easy. I gave him the money and he was very quiet for at least a minute. He then said he was starting tomorrow and would have something to show me soon. I told him I'd buy his first print, and he said he'd make me something special.

Whatever it is, it will certainly be that.

More to come.

Con Men 1, Tony 0

Today I saw examples of manipulation and courage, all courtesy of my "friend" Mogise and his sister.

As I mentioned in yesterday's posting, I had set up a meeting with Mogise's sister (Leticia) and brother for this afternoon. When she set this up, even though she was just a little intoxicated, I could tell something was up but had no idea if it was a need for more money, different items or what. I had arranged with Johanna to go with me, because language can be a real barrier and, often, a pretend barrier when people don't want me to understand something.

This morning I got a call from Mogise telling me not to come to the house, that his sister was still drunk from the weekend. He and his brother would come to the Centre at 3:00 to meet with me. I thought that was a little odd, but I don't know the family that well and it certainly could have been possible. So, Johanna and I were waiting at 3:00. Mogise came, alone. When I asked where his brother was, he said we must go to his aunt's house. Johanna and I were now very confused, but off we went. When we arrived at the aunt's house, he first told Johanna that no one was home and we should leave. Well, Johanna's been around the block once or twice and she suspected something was up. We waited for a minute and the aunt eventually came to the door. This is where things started to go wrong for Mogise.

The aunt was very confused as to why we were there. Johanna explained how we came to be at her house (the full story, about my buying food and the shenanigans of two weeks ago and the meeting today) and said we were as confused as she was. Mogise then had his turn, and he said he brought us there so that the aunt could explain what his house situation was, basically about the supposedly drunk sister. The aunt said she didn't know what was going on at the house and couldn't comment. She seemed a little perturbed that she was brought into the problem. Johanna quickly stood up and said we were going to the house, that she was going to see what was happening with her own eyes. And off we went.

When we got to the house, the sister had just laid down for a nap after doing spring cleaning all day. She was very sober. The brother was gone trying to find money to buy food. Johanna told her that Mogise had changed our meetings plans, which she knew nothing about. She said he hadn't been there all day and she didn't know what he was doing. Then she got into the reasons for the meeting. (I acknowledge that the following is all hearsay, but if you were there you'd believe it too).

She explained that Mogise is using tik, or methamphetamine. He deals in it as well, from their house where two small children live. He is taking the food I buy and selling it to raise money to buy his tik, and most of the cash I've given him for paraffin and electricity is also going up in smoke (literally). She said "Many days when you bring food we only eat with our eyes. We never get to eat with our mouths. We are all still hungry and our cupboard is bare." She showed me what they have, and I know from what I've brought them over the past two weeks that it should have been more. She said she has even cursed at the people who come to buy their food, asking them how they can be taking that food from a hungry family.

She was also very concerned for her brother (Mogise), as he is not well and is not getting better. He doesn't bathe, and his clothes are constantly dirty. He goes days without eating and has had diarrhea for weeks. (All of which are signs of meth use. People cannot focus on basic needs and live only to find their next fix. They have chronic malnutrition because they don't eat or just eat junk food, with poor skin and weight loss. They also tend to lose their teeth from poor hygiene and the acidic nature of the drug.) She is especially concerned because he has HIV (and probably TB) and she doesn't want him to die.

As you can guess, this was extremely disappointing, to say the least. Mogise tried to claim that the food I bought was his and not the family's, but I told him that from the first bag I bought I was supporting the household, not him. Johanna read him the riot act, too. (I didn't know until today that she is a distant cousin of the family, so she feels even more obligated and within her rights to correct the situation.) We agreed with the sister that any future assistance would be food. No more cash. We will buy the groceries and bring them to her. If they need electricity, we'll buy it and punch it in the box. If Mogise ever steals food to sell for tik again, then we will cut off any support he currently receives at the Centre. And my taxi service is closed, too. The sister was satisfied with that; Mogise was quiet.

Johanna and I are worried about the sister. She made the comment that she is the only woman in the house, and she's nervous about all the strangers coming around for drugs. Johanna is going to speak with the neighborhood leader and the local councilor (government official) to have them watch the house and contact the police if there's any trouble.

So, I have another great example that things are not always what they seem. I'm trying to evaluate the past few weeks to see what I could have done differently. I'm now thinking that I need to have a local partner for every situation I deal with and every request I get. I want to believe that people are generally act honestly and with integrity, but, sadly, that just isn't holding true. It could also be that some people here have experienced "white people" coming and just throwing money at problems with no follow-up or long-term involvement. They just expect to get the cash to use as they see fit, not thinking that the giver will ask questions or cut off the support if it's not spent wisely. Johanna told me a while back that she doesn't think Mogise ever expects me to say no and he's taking advantage. Well, now he knows better.

More to come.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Today's Posting

(It's pretty bad when I have to think for more than a minute for a title to a posting. I'm not feeling exceptionally creative today, thus a generic title.)

I've been working a lot at the clinic lately, so I haven't had much to write about. But, my schedule is getting back to normal, so I should have lots more to comment on in future. Here are a few things that have happened recently:

1. Mogise update
Well, after the stern talking to he got, he's back to his old tricks. Last week was food parcel week, with Spar delivering their usual 60 bags to the Centre. I took one aside and gave it to Mogise, who had come to see me that day. He had been to his doctor and had lots of news. He thinks he's going to get a disability grant, although I'm not holding my breath that it'll happen anytime soon. He also had a letter from his doctor that he was glad to show me. His doctor wrote that "Mogise had previously been in prison for 3-4 weeks and was now sick at home. Whomever reads this letter should please help him with food and clothing until he gets better." I'm paraphrasing a lot but that was the gist of it. He also made sure to show me his bail slip, just in case I needed to know he was free.

It was quite comical and sad at the same time. I told Mogise that I didn't need to see a letter from his doctor, I have seen him and been to his house and know his situation. I didn't know about the jail time (for biting someone) but it really didn't matter. He also disclosed some issues with his ex-girlfriend that could cause him problems down the line. Needless to say, he has a lot of challenges right now. However, it doesn't excuse the fact he's back to pushing for more money and more help.

Last Friday he showed up at my office again expecting a ride home. I explained again that he shouldn't do that, that I'm not there everyday and he shouldn't assume someone will drive him home. I did it, and on the way he told me he needed money to pay a plumber to fix their toilet. When we arrived home his brother also asked me to help, so I gave them the cash. I confirmed that I would pick them up for church on Sunday (which they asked me to do a couple days earlier) and left.

On Sunday, no one was ready for church. I spoke briefly to his sister, who asked for a couple cleaning supplies for the house. I told them I'd be back after services and we'd pop by the store. Mogise and I went to the store, and this time it was relatively controlled. At least, until we got in the car to head home. Then he needed money for vegetables and paraffin. I explained, again, about the limit and he claimed to understand. I dropped him at home and left.

On Monday, I stopped by their house with some medicinal porridge for Mogise. He's really battling with GI system problems and is not tolerating the food the rest of the family is eating. the porridge should help him get some nutrients and maybe gain some weight. When I arrived, the sister asked to have a meeting with me to discuss their situation. I think she may have been drinking a little, along with a couple of the other family members. In any case, we set a time for tomorrow (Wednesday) and we'll see what happens. I will be bringing Johanna with me, because she can communicate with them in ways I can't.

2. Howard
Howard is a member of the support group who I've gotten to know over the past month or so. He's 40, although you'd swear he's at least 50. He's a very nice man, humble and quiet. He would very much like to work now that his HIV is under control, but he has a hard time getting work because he stutters pretty badly. I've been helping him with money for electricity and vegetables once in a while and he's very appreciative.

(An aside: I'm not sure why I like helping Howard and don't like Mogise. I think it's how they carry themselves. Howard participates in the group, he's courteous, and he follows rules. Mogise doesn't do any of those things. I'm trying hard to set that aside and consider the situation, but it's hard.)

Howard came to me yesterday regarding a friend of his. This man is also HIV-positive and unemployed. He lives in a shack behind his parents home not far from Howard's small room (behind his grandmother's house). At least, he did until a fire destroyed it a couple weeks ago. The shack just caught fire, and no one knows why. He apparently lost everything in the blaze and is now sleeping on the floor of his parent's dining room. Howard asked me if I could help him in any way, and I said I'd consider it.

We visited his friend today and it's clear he lost everything. The shack was gone, just a few zinc panels and lots of charred wood left. And a lot of empty bottles for brands of whiskey I'd never seen before. Anyway, I spent a few minutes talking to the friend and his parents, who are both pensioners and of limited income, and he has few prospects to get his shack rebuilt. So, I'm going back into the shack buying business. This time, though, we will be buying a pre-built unit without any of the hassles of tear-down and moving (new readers: check out the posts from April and May). He'd also like money to replace his bed, TV, and other possessions but those will be for someone else to work on.

3. Porridge
I mentioned the medicinal porridge in the entry about Mogise, above. I got this from the clinic. In line with efficiencies of government institutions, we've been sitting on porridge that "outdated" in January 2007 (it doesn't expire, really, it's just past its "best if used by" date). Why it wasn't given to people back then I don't know, but I do know that we have dozens of patients who come through that could benefit from it. When I saw what we had, I took it (with permission) to the Centre to use with the HIV support group members or other people who need the nutrition. In one day we've already given out 12 packets of the 40 I have, and the rest should be gone within the month. It's easy when you try.

4. Letters to Santa
I hate starting Christmas early, but this one is for a good cause. One of the high school kids I was overseeing in July and August runs a program for disadvantaged youth at her high school. She goes to the Post Office and gets their letters to Santa, and then she and her friends fulfill the kids' wishes. They support hundreds of kids every year with donations from her classmates and community folks. This year, she offered to include some of the kids from our after-school program and the primary school where we painted. So, today the kids started writing letters to Santa. I think some of them have no clue as to why they're writing these, but their principal is very persuasive. I hope to send as many as 150 back to the US and have stuff to give out in early December. I'll let you know how this works out.

5. The great TV experiment
My satellite TV connection went out this past weekend. Something happened to the dish's alignment, and I couldn't get any signal. I can get the free stations with a plain old antenna, so I decided to cancel my satellite service today. I'm a little nervous - I haven't had only three stations to watch since I was in high school. I think it will be good though. The three stations I can get maybe show an hour a night of TV worth watching. So, I should be able to get started on the couple dozen books I brought (I have an electronic book that holds hundreds) and listen to the couple hundred CDs I downloaded before I came.

A little history on TV in South Africa: TV was not introduced here until 1975. Yes, 1975. The government didn't want television here because they were afraid people might learn the truth about the world's views on apartheid. They started with one government-controlled station and grew to three stations in the 1980s. The first prime-time show broadcast was The Waltons. No kidding!

In roughly 1996, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) reorganized the stations by language. SABC1 is now mostly African language programming. SABC2 is about half Afrikaans and half African language. SABC3 is all English. Most of the shows on SABC1 are locally produced, while SABC2 and 3 carry mostly overseas programs (like last year's Survivor, which I'm watching now). A new free station, eTV, launched in 2000. This is also exclusively English, and runs mostly US shows with some local programming. All stations also carry a lot of sports, since South Africans are sports nuts, but sadly they're sports I don't really watch (rugby, cricket, and soccer).

As I said, not much is "must see TV" and it's more for background noise than anything.

More to come.