Saturday, December 15, 2007

Meat, Meat and More Meat

It's holiday time, which means everyone is having year-end parties. That's meant big lunches or dinners, just like in the US. The biggest difference, though, is on what's served. I haven't had a single Christmas cookie yet, but I've had more meat in the past week than I've had in the previous six months.

Meat is somewhat of a luxury for many people in the townships. It's not overly expensive, but when you don't have money for basic necessities meat is seen as a once-in-a-while food. Most families are lucky to have meat once or twice a week, and then it's mostly chicken. The grocery stores in the townships have huge freezer cases of frozen chicken, usually in 2 kg "braai packs." That's 4 1/2 pounds of chicken cut up into pieces for grilling or frying. They cost about R25 ($3.50), so it's affordable for many people, at least once a week. You can also buy live chickens on the side of the road, or freshly killed chickens at the local open markets for between R20 ($3) and R40 ($6), depending on size.

Grocery stores do not sell much red meat. They will have some basic cuts, like chops or ribs, and sausages and boerwors (thin sausages usually made of beef - boerwor translates to farmer sausage). Beef, pork and lamb/mutton all cost about the same, roughly R15-20 ($2-3) a pound for basic cuts and R25 ($3.50) a pound for better cuts.

You can also buy unexpected items that probably wouldn't sell well in Minneapolis. Packages of chicken necks are a big seller, and the Centre serves them quite often to the support group people. (I remember eating these as a kid - it took a lot of work to get the meat off but it was tasty.) The most bizarre is packaged chicken skin. I was told it makes great soup stock, which I can understand. It just looks very odd when you see it in the store.

Because meat is pricey compared to staple items, it's a big hit when served at year-end parties. I went to three parties this week - the Nyanga centre went out on Monday, the Centre had a closing lunch on Wednesday, and the clinic had its year-end lunch on Thursday. At each party we had a mix of small steaks, pork chops, and chicken, along with regular sausage and boerwors. The Nyanga group went to a local butchery called Mzoli's where you pick the meat you want and then have it grilled on site. They have a couple tables inside, but most people sit in a tent at the side of the building. It's quite a meeting place. Apparently, if you want to be seen in Guguletu it's the place to be. The meat is served in a big pile on a tray, and you just reach in and grab what you want (literally - Xhosa people traditionally eat most things with their hands. Yvonne told me once that they don't feel satisfied unless they personally handle their food. I've had a good laugh on a couple occasions when everyone around me has just a spoon to eat with and I'm diplomatically given a fork and knife). You can bring salads or other accompaniments. You can also bring your own drinks, alcoholic or otherwise. Guys will back their cars up against the tent and crank up the music, so it's definitely like a big party.

(In the first picture, Yvonne is the woman with her back to you. Next to her is her friend Kathy. Nomandla is the woman partially hidden behind Yvonne. In the second picture, from left to right is Charlie, Buyo, and Johanna. Nomandla, Charlie, Buyo and Johanna work at the Nyanga centre, now called Mercy Ministries. The tray in the middle of the table was a big pile of meat just 10 minutes earlier.)

At the Centre's lunch, it was similar. Spiwo bought the meat at a butchery just up the street and had them grill it and deliver it. The cooks made stiff pap (like polenta) and a nice tomato sauce for on top. Most of the staff were there, including all of Siyaya. I haven't seen people eat like that since college (oh, to be that young again!). It looked like a lot of food at the start but there wasn't a crumb left at the end.

The clinic's lunch was more sedate. We ate in the conference room, with tablecloths and decorations. The women all brought different salads, and someone brought a good lasagna. Of course, the big draw was the grilled meat, which went fast. I'm learning quickly that you have to get in early if you want to be assured of getting something.

Besides parties, I saw Mogise this week. I brought him an Open Arms parcel since he didn't show up to get one. He's been diagnosed with TB (which everyone suspected), but still hasn't received his CD4 count. It's the same old story of the clinic losing his paperwork and not treating him well. The good news is that he can get a social grant, if he can first get his ID papers sorted out. He needs to go to Social Services to do that but hasn't gone. I hope he can do that in the next week so that he can get the money he needs. And, that he'll get started on treatment so he can get better. I'd like to see him still alive when I leave in two months.

On a personal note, it's two days and counting before I head home for Christmas. I'll be away for about two weeks and am really looking forward to being with my wife and family. It will be very interesting to see if my dogs remember me. I know Abby's taken my spot on the bed, so she's due for a rude awakening on Tuesday night. And, I hope I can remember how to drive on the left and to stop at stop signs again. Yikes!

More to come.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Ready for a Break

To those of you who were wondering, yes, I'm still here. I haven't posted anything in about 2 1/2 weeks, not because there's nothing happening but because I was lazy. So, here's a short recap of what's been happening since the last posting.

1. Mogise
Things came to a head two weeks ago when Mogise called me to come to his house. I decided I had to formally close the relationship, so I agreed to meet him later that morning. I took Johanna with me to help translate if necessary. When we arrived, all of the family was there, including his aunt (his mother's sister). There was a long discussion in Xhosa between Johanna and the family first, at which point she was accused of telling me to stop supporting them. Then the aunt said God had led her to the house that day, that something was wrong and she needed to be there. She thanked me for what I had done and with great subtlety suggested I needed to continue. (The skeptic in me said Mogise called her after I told him I would come. She has not been to the house within the past 6 months that I know of, even after Mogise took Johanne and me to her house a couple months ago. And, it was pouring down rain that morning, so I don't think she would have normally picked that day to walk over a mile to Mogise's house.) Mogise then asked for some time alone with me to "explain things." I agreed, and everyone stepped out while we chatted.

He started by saying he knew that I had spent a lot of money on them, and that he knew it was more than I expected. Before he could go on with the stories, I stopped him and told him directly why I was moving on. I explained that he and his family had taken advantage of my generosity (with my tacit approval, of course - I know I helped create the problem), that he had lied to me on several occasions, including the last time I saw him when I gave him R50 for transport to Nyanga and back and the very next day he claimed he didn't have any money. I asked him where their money went - they are not paying their rent, I bought most (if not all) of their food and paid for their electricity and paraffin, and the brother is working but they never seem to have money. He couldn't tell me. I said I was disappointed that he had not followed through on our agreement that he would go to the clinic and get his HIV and TB sorted out and get his social grant application submitted. And, I closed by saying that I thought they needed to take back responsibility for their situation and not depend on me or anyone else to bail them out whenever they needed something (like food, electricity, bail, drain cleaning, clothes, blankets, or anything else).

I did make clear that I was speaking only personally. I explained that he could still come to the Centre, join the support group, get a daily meal, and be on the list for food parcels. I can't take that away from him and it would be wrong to do so.

I haven't seen or heard from Mogise or his family since that day almost three weeks ago. He has not come to the Centre, even though we've had two parcels since then. I will probably bring him one of the big parcels this coming week because he should have gotten one (and probably didn't know about it because neither he nor his family are using the Centre). If there's more to report, I'll do it in the next posting.

(Spiwo and I had an interesting discussion about this last week. I mentioned that I was having a hard time supporting people who, although challenged, didn't take responsibility for improving their situation even though they had the means to do so. He told me that we should talk about my definition of "means" and how I think it applies here. We moved onto a different topic before we could do that, but his comment forced me to go back and re-examine my perceptions and biases around who deserves help and who doesn't. I'm still not 100% ready to define my position, so I'll hold that to another posting. But it raises a question for all of us: Who would we help if given the chance, and, more importantly, who wouldn't we help?)

2. Yolanda
Yolanda is the 17 year-old girl raising her three siblings along with a cousin. Yvonne and I brought them another food parcel two weeks ago. It was amazing to see how her attitude has changed. She was smiling, if not happy, and didn't seem to have a care in the world. (Which is untrue, but she was hiding it very well.) We chatted for a few minutes and then left, Yvonne and I more encouraged that she'll make it through her challenges.

3. Loniso (whose name is really Wandiso, I think - the accents are tough sometimes)
Wandiso is the 14 year-old living in a shack in Phillipi. He comes to church every Sunday so I seem him regularly. I usually end up taking him home from church, so we've had a chance to talk a bit. I am very impressed by his maturity and smarts. He is the most down-to-earth kid I've met here, and if you didn't know it you'd swear he came from a stable, non-impoverished family. Of course, that's anything but the truth.

Last week when he came to church he told Johanna and I the latest twist in his family story. His mother had left town the week before to find work (I knew that, since I met her in Phillipi that day, along with Wandiso's great aunt. They seemed like nice people at the time). He had been on his own for the week, until Saturday came. His great aunt showed up with a "gentleman friend" and told Wandiso to find another place to sleep that night. He told us the "boyfriend" actually took him to his place to stay with his roommate, another grown man. Wandiso did stay there, even though he didn't know the guy. He was very worried that he would lose his shack to his great aunt and have no place to stay. (Johanna thinks, and I agree, that the great aunt sees that there's now food in the house and she wants to take over. Even if it means that the boy is cast out to fend for himself.)

Johanna and I took Wandiso home to check on things. The great aunt had left, and it was unclear if she'd be back. Johanna spoke to the neighbor and asked if she would take him in just in case he was kicked out that night again. She agreed, and we felt better that he wouldn't be placed with a complete stranger again. Wandiso was to report if anything bad happened.

We saw him again after the food parcel distribution (see below) and the aunt had not been back since the weekend. Johanna thought she'd probably returned to her shack so that she wouldn't have to watch over the boy and to keep her "freedom." Time will tell.

4. Food parcels
This week was Open Arms' big food parcel distribution in honor of World AIDS Day and the upcoming Festive Season. (You don't see or hear "Merry Christmas" here because of all the religions practiced in Cape Town. Besides the Christians, there are Muslims, Hindu, Jewish, and probably others. So, people and businesses opt for the non-specific "Happy Festive Season." Political correctness wins out every time. Although I did see Father Christmas sitting for photos in the mall today. Thank God for capitalism.) These parcels are paid for by contributions from Open Arms' supporters and volunteers. It was a rousing success, albeit with a little drama mixed in.

We did the distribution on Tuesday 4 December. At the start of the day, everything was going according to plan. Kent, Open Arms' program director and his partner David came down to coordinate things. We'd already gotten the buckets and bags for the 300 parcels, and Kent and David had been to Makro (a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club) to make sure our order was being prepared correctly. So, it was All Systems Go at 9:00.

As with past distributions, the big unknowns are Makro's preparedness and transportation. The process at Makro went very smoothly and all of the food (over 9000 kilograms, or better than 10 tons!) was checked out and ready for loading by about 10:30. We had plenty of help, so it all came down to: The Truck.

We hired a guy from Guguletu who had a huge flat-bed truck. He was a little late, but he made it by the time we were ready to load so it wasn't a problem. We got everything on the truck fine, and by 11:15 we were ready to head to the Centre. That's when David noticed a flattened left rear tire. It looked okay, although the tires were in pretty rough shape to start with. I thought it would be okay, and others agreed, so off we went. I headed back to the Centre to get the buckets and bags set up while Kent and David went with the truck.

About halfway back to the Centre, I got the phone call. "The outside tire's come off and the inside tire is gone, too." The truck was parked on the side of a back road, with 10 tons of food and 300 frozen chickens in the blazing sun (did I mention it was 85 degrees?). We had no back-up truck, no pick-ups we could call to do shuttle loads, nothing. It looked bad. Frantic calls were made between about 6 different people to cobble together a plan. We went back to Makro and asked them for the names of some local truck drivers. Fortunately, they had a guy they often worked with, Anthony. Spiwo called and he agreed to send two trucks to help us out. Day saved.

Not so fast. The trucks didn't come and didn't come. Every time Spiwo or I called Anthony told us exactly what we wanted to hear. "Just 10 more minutes and we'll be there." Of course, 10 minutes turned in to 2 hours by the time the trucks actually appeared. It was now about 2:00 and we were supposed to start handing out parcels at 3:00. I knew we had at least 2 hours' of work off-loading the trucks and assembling the parcels, which meant starting the distributions closer to 5:00. It looked like a long night.

Then a great thing happened. We had about 25 people at the Centre when the trucks arrived, including all of Siyaya, some of the support group members, and friends and family members. Everyone took a position and away we went. We off-loaded the trucks with a fire brigade line, throwing bags of flour and mealie meal across the room to where the buckets were staged. We put everything else on the church stage and people made teams to take the items to the buckets. Everyone picked an item so there wouldn't be any confusion and nothing got missed. It looked like absolute chaos with so many people wandering around the space. But it was friendly and upbeat, and in the end every bucket was filled with no mistakes.

We started handing out the parcels at about 4:30. We had about 8 lists of people totaling more than 300 people, so we knew some people would miss out. We went through the support group, Yvonne's orphans, and most of the hospice patients. We also gave a parcel to the Centre staff, as well as members of the church congregation known to be in really dire need. When everything was done, we had about 5 extra parcels to set aside for people we missed. We locked the doors at 6:30 and went home, exhausted but very happy.

I'd like to thank a few people who were instrumental to the process: Kent and David, Xolani Gwangwa and his nephews and cousins, Spiwo and Zethu, Nomosizi (from the hospice), all of Siyaya, Johanna, Yvonne, Linda Helfet, and the other folks whose names I didn't get on the day. We couldn't have done it without you.

(By the way, Open Arms will be doing another food parcel distribution in April around the Easter holiday. If you want to sponsor a parcel, go to to learn more. Each parcel is $40 and I can guarantee you'll buy more than just food with it. You'll be buying hope for a family in real need.)

5. My brother's visit
My brother Jim came down for 5 days last week. Yes, it's a long way to come for 5 days but he's a bit crazy that way. We had a great time touring the countryside and working in the townships. We did the winelands, Cape Point, the penguins, the aquarium, the craft market, and too much food in the first three days. We came to the Centre with me on Monday and was able to interact with some of the staff, including the group at Nyanga. We also visited a couple homes so he could get a first-hand look at how people were living.

On Tuesday (food parcel day) he helped load the truck. When all of the food had to be moved from the broken-down truck to the new ones, he stayed to help do that. He then got to ride on the back of the truck as it went to the Centre. He told me afterwards that the driver got lost and they ended up in a not-so-nice part of Guguletu before someone showed them the right way to go. He then was with me as we assembled the parcels and gave them out.

He got to see a lot of things in 5 days, some unplanned. I hope he'll come back someday doing what most white South African's haven't done: meeting and learning from people who have great stories to tell.

Other than that, it's been a pretty typical couple weeks. I'm getting ready to head back home for Christmas and then for the last two months here. I'm excited to see my family and friends, but not so excited for the cold and snow (Minneapolis has actually had a normal winter so far instead of warm and dry days of the past few years. As I write this it's 1 degree there and 80 here. Yikes!). I'm starting to take orders from people at the Centre, so I expect to take full suitcases back with me.

Oh, and I can't forget that it was World AIDS Day last weekend (1 December). HIV/AIDS is still a major health crisis in the world. While South Africa has the highest percentage of cases (about 12% of the total population, and as high as 30% in some of the townships), India has the greatest number of people infected at nearly 6 million. China, Eastern Europe and Russia are also problem spots with high growth rates expected over the next several years. Most people who would benefit from treatment don't get it, either because they don't know how sick they are, don't know they're infected, or don't want to start treatment. Education and prevention are still the two things that will reverse the trends, and knowing your status is key to not spreading it. If you don't know your status, go find out. If you don't know how or where to go, ask your doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or local health department. If you need more information on the virus and how to protect yourself, call your local health department or an AIDS hotline in your area. It is up to all of us to solve this problem, for our sakes and our children's future.

More to come.

(One aside: it's been a strange night in Sea Point. First, there was a motorcycle parade, complete with cops on bikes. Now, a bagpipe group is marching past. Now all we need are the clowns.)