Thursday, November 22, 2007

All Along the Watchtower

This was so funny (odd, not ha ha) that I had to write about it before I forgot it.

Yvonne and I were delivering food parcels with two people from Minneapolis today. Aaron is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota. He is bringing some students here next May and is here doing some scouting for people to participate in his class discussions. Rebecca, his friend and a teacher, came along to see Cape Town and the townships to bring back stories for her sixth grade class. We went to the first house, the aunt of Shepherd and Loyiso (the two boys who are living on their own in Barcelona). We walked in and this scene immediately greeted us: Three women sitting quietly on their couches, listening while two young white men in white shirts and dark ties talked with them. Yes, the Mormons are in Guguletu. The four of us were quite shocked, as were the two guys. The auntie talked to Yvonne in isiXhosa, saying she was very confused and didn't know what was happening with these guys. She almost pleaded for us to stay, but Yvonne politely gave our regards and we quickly left.

It was a very surreal moment. I knew that Mormon missionaries came to South Africa, but I never expected to see them in the townships. That was pretty stupid of me since the majority of South Africans live in townships or rural areas. I feel a little bad that we didn't stop to say hello to our fellow countrymen (they didn't utter a sound while we were there, and we just basically dropped the food parcels and left). It might have been nice to see where they're staying and catch up on news from home. If they're around, though, chances are I'll see them again somewhere.

I also had another run-in with the man who won't take no for an answer. Today he brought his grandfather to the Centre. He wanted his grandfather to explain how bad things were at home because I wouldn't listen to him. He also wanted me to give money to his grandfather, as if I thought it wouldn't just be given to him when they left. I explained again how I understood their situation, that I knew they were struggling. I also told them, again, that I was focusing my efforts on people who did not have any income, didn't have any adults to help them, and didn't have any way to support themselves: Children and orphans. I told them I knew they had some income (his mother gets an old-age pension and his wife is working part-time) so things were better for them than for many others. I explained that I have dropped support for other people so that I could help more children. At one point, Sylvia, a woman who volunteers at the Centre and who knows a lot of the people in the area, interrupted us and told him that he didn't need any help because his wife works and he should stop bothering me. He didn't like that very much but he couldn't deny it.

When he continued to press me, I got a little angry. I told him the answer was no and I didn't expect to see him again asking for money. The requests got smaller and smaller (R200 to R100 to R50 to R20), until I said I had work to do and got up and left them. They then left, again unhappy and empty-handed.

I don't know how to handle the situation any differently. He has been called out by both Yvonne and Sylvia, and I've explained my position at least three times. I truly feel bad for him and his family, but they have means to live where many others don't. As the amounts got smaller, I saw that some of his pleading was to keep his dignity intact, that as the (presumed) head of the household he was trying to look good by bringing money home. I didn't think I could let that sway me or there'd be no end to the requests. I also feel bad for judging him, but I'm fairly certain that a portion of whatever I was to give him would go towards alcohol, which doesn't help his situation any. I'm sticking to my guns with this one. And watching my back as I go.

(Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Since there is no turkey to found in South Africa, I had to settle for half a BBQ chicken from the grocery store. Not even close to the same effect.)

More to come.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Living the Dash

It's been a relatively slow and unexciting week. I say relatively, because it was filled with things that were very new and different just 8 months ago but are now so commonplace as to be almost boring. I know, it's very strange typing that let alone thinking it.

Yvonne and I met a new child-headed household last week. We "found" them after two women came to the Centre to report them. These women live across the street from the kids' house and often give them small amounts of food, whatever they can afford that day. They knew that they couldn't carry on like that, so they came to us to get help.

There are four children in the house. The head, Yolanda, is a 17 year-old girl in grade 11. She has a 14 year-old sister and an 8 year-old brother. There's also an 8 year-old boy who is their cousin - his mother is their 31 year-old sister. Their mother died from HIV last year, and the 31 year-old sister left home about 7 years ago and has not been back (her son has lived with the grandmother, the other kids' mother, almost since birth). Yvonne, Johanna and I went to the house to see their situation and find out what they needed. We had to wait a few minutes while Yolanda was located. When she came in, she started out smiling but within seconds was sobbing, saying that she couldn't take the pressure anymore. She was thinking about leaving or committing suicide, it was so much. Johanna did a great job of soothing her and listening, giving her hope and encouragement that things were going to get better.

Yolanda helped make a list of items they needed. Besides food (they had almost nothing in the house), there were things like washcloths (they all shared one), deodorant (sharing), soap (sharing), toothpaste, toothbrushes, you name it. It was probably the most I've ever bought for any one group at one time, but it was like stocking a house for the first time. When we came back Yolanda was cleaning the house and had a smile again. I think she could see for the first time that she wasn't alone, that other people would help look after her and her siblings.

During Johanna's discussion with Yolanda, she mentioned that the kids in the house behind them were also in trouble. They live with an uncle, but he drinks and can be quite abusive. He's not working, so they also have almost nothing at home. Yolanda tries to share what little she has, and I'm sure some of what we bought went there. Fine by me.

We're due to go back in the next couple days, and I hope things will still be somewhat positive.

There was also a funeral this week, the first in quite some time. Jerome, the new drummer in Siyaya, lost his mother about two weeks ago to HIV/AIDS. She was hospitalized for a long time, better than 6 weeks, and finally succumbed. The funeral was very nice, very musical. Siyaya did about 4 songs, and Jerome played with them. He also plays in a marimba group (a marimba is like a xylophone but sounds almost like Jamaican steel drums), so they also played some songs with Jerome. He said afterwards that it was like his mother was there listening to him, and it gave him comfort to do it.

Because Spiwo was officiating, it was a short service, only an hour. Even the graveside service was shorter than usual. (That was good because the sun is very strong now and my pate cannot handle more than 10 minutes. Darn Minnesota skin.) It was all just as poignant as usual, though. It's hard not to be when almost everyone we bury is 40 or under.

I had my first real experience with ungratefulness this past week. A man came to see me last week to ask for money to buy food. He had caught me outside of church the Sunday before, and because I was in a hurry I gave him R100 and told him to come back so we could talk more. He came back on Monday and asked for R300 more. I told him I didn't have that much and gave him another R100. He pushed it across the desk at me and said "That's not enough. I can't live on that." I was really taken aback at this. No one has ever done that before. They take what is offered with gratitude because they know that I'm trying to help and if they don't take what's offered they get nothing. Not this guy. I upped the amount to R200 and he took it and left.

He came back on Wednesday, this time asking for R500. His son has some kind of skin infection on his scalp and he wanted to take him to a private doctor for treatment. The R500 would apparently pay for a week's worth of treatment. I asked a lot of questions about why he needed a private doctor when he could get free care at a government clinic (like Brown's Farm), and tried to find out what would happen after the week was up. He didn't have any good answers. I refused his request and told him he should take his son to Brown's Farm where a good doctor would see him and prescribe a good treatment. Fortunately, Zethu was at the Centre and I had her come and speak to him. She told him to bring his son in, too. He left, empty-handed and unhappy.

On Thursday Zethu told me that they had had trouble with this guy before. He was part of the support group but was asked to leave because of his behavior and alcohol use. She told me to be careful with him and not give him money.

Well, he was back on Friday asking for money again. And again, I said no. And again he left unhappy.

Today, he was back. He still wants money for the doctor. He has not taken his son to Brown's Farm yet. I also learned that his mother gets an old age pension (R800 a month) so the family has some income to live on. He tried to argue that I don't know his situation and that I must come to his house so that I can understand it. I said, I know your situation because it's the same as many people I talk to. I tried to explain that I am supporting many children who have no money, no old age pension, no social grants to live on. He tried to use his son as leverage, at one point saying he was going to give me his son to look after. I said no, your son has a father and money in the home, and I am not going to take care of him. I did give him R100 to cover taxi fare and some small incidentals, at which point Yvonne took notice and told him in no uncertain terms that he is not to ask for money from me, that I am supporting children and orphans who have nothing. That didn't make him happy, but he better understood my points. I don't think it's the last I'll see of him, and I'll keep posting about future interactions.

I also had a couple of small interactions with Mogise and his family. His brother called me on Tuesday to say that the old man came and fixed their drains again, and that he'd be back on Wednesday morning for the money. I said, "Well, did you expect me to pay for that? Because I didn't agree to it." There was a pause on the phone while Livingstone collected his thoughts and he said we'd have to talk about it. I agreed, and left it. I didn't get another call until yesterday when Mogise phoned. He asked if I was coming around. I said no, I hadn't planned on it. He said that he had nothing to eat and wanted to know if I was bringing anything. I said no, that now that his sister and brother were both working that I wasn't going to support them any longer. He informed me that his sister is not working any longer - "I thought she told you." No, she didn't. He also said the plumber was still after them for his money, so apparently that hasn't been sorted out yet. Then Mogise asked if I could get the kitchen staff to box up his meal (he could still come and get the HIV support group meal) and give it to one of the neighbor boys. I said no, that if he wanted his meal he had to come and get it, and that he should start coming to the support group meetings.

This is exactly what frustrates me about that family and their situation. Mogise makes almost no moves to improve his lot in life. He wants to live like a king but takes no responsibility for making it happen. His family, some very nice people, are not holding him accountable and are not cutting off the other people leeching from them. They must stand up and work as a group to get back on track or they will be struggling for a long, long time.

This week I'm helping a lecturer from the University of Minnesota meet some people in preparation for a three-week "study abroad" class he's doing here next May. He has a friend with him, too. It's been nice catching up with people who share the same accent and know the same culture as me. They even brought me six Nut Goodies! (I told him my fee for a tour was one, and they brought a bagful.) That, plus coordinating a program for St. Thomas, planning some year-end functions, working on Siyaya's US tour, and writing letters for Spiwo and Zethu is keeping me busy. That's good, but it means I actually have to work at home, something I swore I wouldn't do here. Oh well, it's not much and it makes time fly by.

The title for this posting comes from a conversation I had recently with a woman from New York, Linda Mayo-Perez. She runs a cemetery in Queens, a very nice one from the way she tells it. She made the comment that tombstones have our birth dates and death dates on them, but what everyone talks about and reflects on is the little dash between them. What we do in the time that dash defines makes up our lives and our persons. That really struck a chord with me. So, I've decided to start living the dash. I want to make more conscious decisions about what I do and why. It's not about 12-hour days and 100,000 air miles for the sake of showing how much I can get done. It has to be about making (and taking) time to enjoy life and make a difference. That's my resolution for 2008 and beyond.

More to come.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tough Decisions

This past week I've had to make two difficult decisions, which I know will have great impact on the people affected. The first is kind of complicated, the second is just sad.

Mogise is the subject of the first decision. Over the past month I've thought a lot about the support they've been getting. In spite of all the food and money they've received, the family, and especially Mogise, have not really moved ahead. They have not tried to improve their situation, even though two in the house are now reportedly working. Mogise, especially, wants all the trappings of a rich life without lifting a finger to get it. When I bring them food, they always ask for more, as if what they get is either not enough or not good enough (and I buy a mix of things they need to survive, plus a few extras). They also continually ask for money for electricity, or paraffin, or plumbing, or something else. I don't know where they spend the money they earn, but it's not going towards their household needs (I don't want to think it's going towards drugs and alcohol, but I know it is from first-hand experience).

So, after agonizing over the situation last week, I had a long talk with Yvonne about it. I told her I thought it was time to stop supporting them. She's been there enough to know what's happening, and she agreed it was the best thing. She's known the family for many years, and has dealt with other problems in the past. I also spoke with Johanna, since she is a distant cousin, and she also agreed that it was time. Where Yvonne said it might be good to meet with them and explain why my support is stopping, Johanna said it wasn't necessary, that I didn't owe them an explanation. A couple of the women at the Nyanga centre who know them also thought it was a good idea to stop, and I trust their opinions because they have the ear to the ground even more than Yvonne and Joanne.

So, I'm not going there this week. I expect that by Thursday I'll get a call or that Mogise will come to the Centre. If so, I'll tell him then. He and his family can still get support from the Centre (like a daily meal if he ever comes for it), but not from me personally.

This was probably the most difficult decision I've made since being here. I know full well that the family has limited income and will struggle to find sufficient food. They told me they are not paying their rent, and having to spend more on food and electricity means they will get further behind, increasing the risk that they'll lose their house. Their plumbing problems are still there, with no attempts being made to fix it. I could easily spend a few thousand rand over the next three months, but they would be in exactly the same situation that they are in now (after being supported for four months).

On a positive note, Mogise finally went to the clinic to get his HIV status evaluated and start the process for a disability grant. That only took three months of prodding. Now he has to carry through on the application process, which will be his next big test.

The second decision happened just today, and involves Maxwell from the hospice program. I've written about Maxwell before – he's the guy who asks for money just about every week, for everything from taxi fares to food to electricity to birthday presents. It's not a lot of money at one time, but over the months it's added up to about R3000. Maxwell has a job and gets paid, unlike all of the other people I'm supporting or “lending” money to.

In August and October Maxwell and I had a talk and I told him I would not lend him money any more. I explained that I was supporting many people now, all of whom were not working, and I couldn't afford to carry him from paycheck to paycheck. Both times he said he understood and that he would not ask any more. And both times, he came asking and I caved in. (It's tough to say no when the reason is that the baby has no food.) Well, last week we had the same discussion again, and I told him I was serious this time. Again, I got the promise that it was the last time.

When I got a note from him today asking for R150 for food and electricity, I decided enough was enough. I didn't go to him like I normally would have done, just to see what would happen. He came to my office late in the afternoon and asked if I saw his note. I said I did, and the answer was no. I explained why, as I had done before. He said he understood and that today would really be the last time. I said no, last week was the last time, just like you agreed to then. He pushed, I held fast. Finally, after about 10 minutes, he left my office, unhappy and unsure what to do next.

Now, in the larger context of things, R150 is not much. But what I've been learning is that it's easy for people to stop taking responsibility for their own actions when they know someone is willing to be a backstop for them. Almost all of the other people I'm working with are doing something to improve their own situation. One is working a day or two a week as her health allows. Another is trying to start a business. A third person is in school trying to build his future. I can't continue to give money to someone who will not manage his own situation. And, who somehow has money for cigarettes and liquor (I'm not judging, just wondering about priorities).

So, life continues to be a balance of challenges and opportunities, successes and failures. We'll see what tomorrow brings.

I had a great experience last week which helped balance some of the negative ones. I was host to a group of 24 Americans on a trip set up by the Plowshares Institute out of Connecticut. Plowshares does work with conflict transformation, consulting with governments around the world to deal with past problems and bring new solutions to conflicts. Bob Evans, the founder of Plowshares, also coordinates trips to the developing world so that people can see what is happening for themselves. They've been to Cuba, Indonesia, China, and South Africa in the past.

I set up a three-hour experience for them that included some discussions with Yvonne and Johanna, field trips to people's homes, and time with Spiwo and Edwin. The people they met with on the field trips were all HIV-positive, unemployed, and have considerable challenges just surviving. But, they all have great stories of hope and encouragement and really are good role models for how to deal with real life. After all that we had an excellent lunch at the Centre and they left with their heads spinning.

This morning I met with a couple of the people to follow up on some things related to Siyaya's planned US tour next year. They told me that everyone really enjoyed the visit and they felt it was a highlight of the trip. The group also collected some money for the Centre – we were one of only two organizations they have money to, and it was because they could tell we were actually making a difference. That made me feel good.

I also had a strange experience yesterday. It is initiation time again, when young men venture off into the bush (or the empty fields around the townships) for their ritual circumcision and isolation experience. One of Yvonne's sons is included in this season's class, and she's been running around like mad making all the arrangements.

It came out late last week that one of her son's friends had gone to initiation school but no one in his family was supporting him through the process. Family members are supposed to be bringing food and providing moral support, but no one had come to see this boy in nine days. He was very hungry and bordering on dehydration when Yvonne found out. About that same time, her ex-husband (and her son's father) Zacharias decided to help the boy, providing him with food and moving him into his son's hut where he'd be safer. Because Yvonne cannot see her son or his friend (part of the ritual, she's not even supposed to see the huts or they risk not becoming real men) she asked me to go and talk to them to see if they were okay.

So, yesterday I was led to her son's hut and I spent a little time with them. This is really, really rare, than a white man, a foreigner, is allowed to participate in the initiation ritual in any way. I met the young men, who were covered from head to toe in white make-up (which was either dried mud or thick calamine lotion). They are not allowed to have contact with anyone, so to shake hands the hold one end of a long stick and I grabbed the other end. We chatted for a few minutes, and I could see that things were better because they were eating and appeared happy. Then the fireworks started.

Before we got to the field, we had tried to find the unsupported boy's mother to get a sense for that the situation was. Yvonne couldn't find her, but she did find the mother's brother (the boy's uncle). She brought him with us so that we could find the right field. He came with me to the hut and talked to the boys and me about what was happening. Yvonne's ex-husband had been away from the site, and when he came back he started to argue with the uncle about why he wasn't around. He told me “I don't know this guy, don't know where he's been, now he comes here and acts like he's involved.” Then he told the uncle, “Why didn't you come when he told you he was going to initiation school? I'm not working but I took it upon myself to help him because he has nothing.” The uncle claimed not to know the boy was there, but the boy said that he told the uncle he was going. And round and round it went. It never got heated, because that would have been bad form during the initiation time, but it certainly got pointed. The uncle knew he was in the wrong, even though he didn't want to admit it and didn't have any way to fix it (he's unemployed, too).

Needless to say, tensions were high. But, it eventually cooled down and I walked out with Zacharias. I told him I would help where I can and we agreed to talk later. It turns out the boy has even less than nothing, so he will need simple basics in order to leave the camp. Another name added to the ever-growing list of needy children

More to come.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Happy Guy Fawkes Day

It may sound strange, but last week was boring. No really. Nothing big happened – no new orphans, no urgent calls for help, no one in hospital, no funerals. This is the first week I actually had to think about topics for the blog. Am I becoming jaded, blind to what is happening around me? Am I starting to accept as normal those things that six months ago I would have thought remarkable? Dear God, I hope not.

1. We got new plants for the garden last week. Gone are the spinach and lettuce, in are the tomatoes and green peppers. I'm a little concerned about the tomatoes, since it will now only rain once a week or less. The guys are watering, so hopefully they'll have enough moisture to actually make a fruit.

(And no, I will not say to-mah-to. If Webster had wanted it pronounced that way he'd have put an h in the word.)

2. I had my first day all alone in the pharmacy last Tuesday. Kayise left ill on Monday, most likely from food poisoning. She literally ran out of the pharmacy mid-sentence, and spent the afternoon in the treatment room full of anti-nausea medication. I knew she'd be out on Tuesday, so I was expecting Tami and I to deal with things. Well, he decided to skip work. So, it was just me. And, if I do say it myself, things went swimmingly. Fortunately it was light for a Tuesday (normally the busiest day of the week) and everyone was in a good mood. No one complained if they had to wait a few minutes extra, and I only had one person look really confused when I spoke with her. Another patient helped translate, and she left satisfied. It was a real confidence booster for me, and even though I hope to not have a repeat performance it's good to know I could handle it.

3. The Nyanga centre is starting to take shape. This is a sister project of JL Zwane, not really linked to it but based on it. Yvonne and Johanna are getting it started, and there are 4-5 women who are coming everyday to carry out the programs. They've given it the name Mercy Ministries. They intend to do a lot of community outreach (like Yvonne does), have an after-school meal program for kids, and start an HIV support group for people in their area (New Cross Roads). Their only limitation is funding – they have none. I've been buying supplies for the food program (right now just soup ingredients, cookies, juice, and basic staples like flour and sugar), and they supplement those with vegetables they get from a local farmer (he gives them a pickup truck load every week, which the both use and distribute to needy families around them). We're trying to figure out ways to get contributions, and if they stick with it I'm sure they will one.

4. I also learned more about township house plumbing systems than I ever wanted to know. Think about where you live: Chances are, your sinks and toilets connect to a drain line in your house or apartment that is directly connected to the municipal sewer line. Well, in Mogise's house they have it a little different. Since the floors are concrete and the walls are brick, with no stud walls, there's no place to run pipes. So, the sink and toilet drains come through the exterior wall and open up into small square drain boxes set in the ground next to the house. These drains are connected to a pipe in the backyard, which is connected to the sewer pipe coming in from the street. The vent pipe, which in your house would come up through your walls and out your roof, sits in the middle of the backyard, coming up at a slant so that it sits wide open at a 45-degree angle about 6 inches out of the ground. Needless to say, they have blockages in their system quite regularly, either from kids putting stuff down the vent pipe or from normal, run of the mill drainage. That causes the drainage to back up through the drains in the yard, and the vent pipe, until their back yard is a pool of sewage (at least it doesn't come back into the house). You can use your imagination on what it looks and smells like. And there is a family living in a shack in the yard, which complicates things just a little.

Now, normally this wouldn't be a problem. You'd hire a plumber to come and unblock the line, which should take maybe 10 minutes. Or, you go to an equipment rental place and get a snake and clean it out yourself. Not here. Two weeks ago Mogise's brother Livingstone hired a guy to clean out the drains. All he had were rigid cast-iron rods that ended up putting a few little holes in the pipe. Livingstone had to dig out the main pipe and uncouple the line from the house, getting covered in sewage in the meantime. Only then could the hired guy use his rods to relieve the blockage. He pulled out a few pieces of metal that someone had put down the vent, along with some food wrappers and other assorted effluvium. The drains worked like new again.

For one week. They are now blocked again. Which wouldn't be so bad, except that the entire family has had some, um, gastrointestinal distress lately (probably spread by the cesspool in their back yard). Last week Johanna and I put some caustic soda (which I think is potassium hydroxide, or lye) in the vent, enough to unblock about 20 kitchen drains. I'm hoping that it worked but am not holding my breath. Ultimately, their pipes need to be replaced, which will be expensive and time consuming. I'll let you know if that ever happens.

5. On a more positive, less odious note, Halloween was last week. It is not widely celebrated here. You can find decorations in the stores, and even some bagged candy (which they sell year-round). But, my sense is that it's a white person's holiday and there was no sign of it in the townships. I had a little fun anyway and bought lollipops for the after-school program kids. I'm sure they had no idea why they got them, but were happy all the same.

6. Marvin is moving ahead with his plans to make traditional Xhosa clothing. He's also gotten an order for some chair backs and armrest covers, so things are really looking up for him. He's taking some space in the Nyanga centre so he doesn't have to work on his bed at home, and I'm hoping some other people from the HIV support group do sign on to work with him. Once he gets his first pieces back I'll post a picture.

7. I learned one aspect of what having a teenage daughter must be like. Noluyolo, the 16 year-old raising her brother, was in need of some toiletries last week. She made me a list and off to the store I went. The deodorant, toothpaste and soap were easy, as were the feminine hygiene items. What threw me were the body spray and hair oil. She gave me specific brands to buy, which was helpful, but only if I could actually find the items in the store. Imagine me, a middle-aged white guy with only half a head of hair, wandering the aisles looking for Dark and Lovely hair oil conditioner and Exclamation body spray. I was a little scared to ask for help, so I just wandered around until I figured out what was what. Then it was a matter of quantity: Just how much body spray does a girl use in a month? One can? Ten? I figured two was a safe bet. Fortunately, the check-out girl didn't seem to care what I was buying and I escaped without too much embarrassment.

That's it for today. Happy Guy Fawkes Day to all. (If you don't know what this is, it's a British holiday. In 1605 Guy Fawkes and a group of English Roman Catholics attempted to blow up Parliament to protest Protestant rule. Someone sent a warning letter to Lord Monteagle and the plot was foiled just before Guy Fawkes tried to light the fuse. Now, every November 5th Britons burn Guy Fawkes in effigy and light fireworks. I think it's just another excuse to blow stuff up and scare the dogs.)

More to come.