Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Final Entry

I arrived back home last Wednesday (March 5th). I never expected it would take a week to recover, but I'm only now feeling like I'm really here. I've had a couple "I need to go back" moments since being home, and I have to remind myself that it's finished. At least, for now.

A lot of people have asked me along the way "how have you changed?" I honestly don't know, and probably won't for a few weeks yet. I can say that I'm more cognizant of what I have and what I need. It's sad how much junk I've purchased over the years just for the sake of buying it. For example, I cleaned out a spare bedroom (that acts as a big collection point for all kinds of things) the other day. I ended up tossing five cordless phone systems. Five! We've only been in our house for 10 years, and in that time we've bought and thrown aside five perfectly good phones just because others looked better. I also counted six computers that were sitting unused (granted, some are old technology but they'd still work for something). That's really sad. I really need to stop spending money on bright and shiny things and start helping people in my own community.

I start my new job next week. I'll be in pharmacy management again, doing similar things to my old job. It'll be on a smaller scale, with regular hours and no travel. That will be a big change for me - I was used to 60-hour weeks and up to 50% travel. I hope to enroll in some language classes, take guitar lessons, and maybe even fulfill a long-standing dream of getting a pilot's license. But then, I could take a few months to relax and see what life brings. We'll see.

A couple follow-ups from Guguletu:
1. Marvin came back from Botswana last Monday, the day before I left. He was in tough shape. He had lost weight and was probably under 120 pounds, if at that. He was so weak he could barely walk. He hadn't eaten in three days because he had no appetite - he had food with him but just couldn't stomach it. He moved in with a family member, who promised to look after him.

I saw Marvin again on Tuesday and he was looking a little more perky. He had been to the clinic, and his doctor was making arrangements to have him hospitalized for a couple weeks so that he could regain his strength. Marvin was also looking at ways to move to Johannesburg so that he'd be closer to his son. I think he'll probably do that within the next couple months. I just hope he's able to recover and get healthy. It would be very sad to lose a good friend.

2. Nancy is still positive about getting a new house. I didn't see her before I left because she was only returning from the Eastern Cape on Wednesday morning. I did wire her money for a new house, and I have no doubt she will continue to look for one. Unless she needs the money for food, that is.

3. Maxwell was busy planting new vegetables in our garden last week. The green peppers from the previously planting were still doing well. He was going to put in some carrots, spinach, and other summer vegetables. I hope he sticks with it and that someone can fund the winter planting in September.

4. Siyaya is still planning to come to the US in June-July 2008. If you live in Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, or Pensacola and want more details, please write to me. It will be a fantastic show and you will not be disappointed.

That's all I have. Sincere thanks to everyone who supported my adventure, who read my blog and write to me (or who just read it), and everyone who prayed for me to return safely. I have no regrets about going and would do it all over again. I hope others have the chance to take some time and do something they've dreamed about.

No more to come.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Most Excellent Day

I had a great day today.

1. I got a nice acknowledgment during church this morning. I heard them talking about me, and saw that they took a special collection. Well, it was for me! The congregation gave over R600 to thank me for spending "my year of living dangerously" with them. This was probably one of the most meaningful things I've seen, as I know many people don't have extra money to give. They also gave me a nice gift for my wife to thank her for saying "yes" when I said I wanted to come.

After services, the church leaders held a tea for me. The orphan children all came and thanked me for what I had done for them. They said I was an inspiration, that they now knew that people cared and that they had a future. Noluyolo gave me a big hug and started crying. That was hard - I really hope she can make it out. A few of the other leaders thanked me for my humility and help, which felt really good.

I jokingly told them that I was sad because I just figured out how to sing in Xhosa and now it's time to go. Not too many people laughed - something was lost in the translation, I'm sure.

2. This afternoon, my baseball team had a couple scrimmages against a very good under-12 team. It was great for the kids to see "real" baseball - the other team didn't hold back at all. They pitched hard, stole bases and even bunted once. But my kids stuck in there, even scoring a run and closing one defensive inning with three solid outs (the other innings ended because of too many runs scored by the opponents). I told them I was leaving when we got back to their school and they all clapped for me. I think they'll keep going and I'm excited to see how far they've gotten when I come back.

3. I'm off now to wrap up my day with a big plate of sushi. Or maybe a pizza.

More to come.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Three Days and Counting...

This will probably be my last blog entry. I canceled my Internet service, so I'm now using Internet cafes. That makes spending hours writing a little tough. Plus, I don't think I'll much more to say since I'm officially done at the Centre and the clinic. That's not to say I won't be doing anything, but just not too much. I'm sure I'll have much more to write once I've been able to assimilate everything I've seen and heard. A lot of people have asked how this year has changed me, and I can honestly say "I don't know." I'll comment on that once I've gotten back to my "normal" life and started to sense a change in my thinking, biases and perspectives. Some of you may see it before I do - feel free to point it out.

I'll be leaving a bit of money behind when I leave, about R20,000. Nearly all of that was donated by family, friends and people I hardly know. I'm leaving it with Spiwo with instructions on where to spend it, mostly with the vulnerable children and a couple very needy families. Some of it will also help kick-start the food pantry Zethu is hoping to start this year. Rest assured it will all go to people who deparately need it. And, a big Thank You to everyone who did contribute along the way. It really made me feel that my work here was important and that people were behind me 100%.

My last few days were quiet and anticlimactic. I worked two days at the clinic and Tami wasn't there for either one. I talked to him on Thursday and it never crossed his mind that it was my last day. But, that's very much in line with the lack of thanks I got from him. The rest of the staff either forgot or didn't care much as they didn't say anything either. Spiwo said that they won't understand what I did until I'm gone - that may be true but it doesn't give one warm fuzzies.

I finished at the Centre yesterday and it was much of the same. I think many people really didn't know I was leaving. I told a couple people on Wednesday and they were shocked. In truth, I liked it that way better than having a big celebration, but a small acknowledgment would have been nice, too. I gave each of the cooks a scarf as thanks for taking care of me. They were very appreciative and I think they will really miss me.

I didn't see many other people. I have to be in Guguletu on Monday to drop off some things, so I'll make a few calls then.

On a fun note, we've set up some baseball games with a local team, the Phillipi Angels, for tomorrow. It should be lots of fun for the kids, and the coaches, too. I'll be sure to write about that later.

More to come.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

One Week to Go...

It's been another busy week. Part of it's due to me starting to say good-bye to people, which I'll have a lot more of this week.

The week started with more action on Nancy's house. (I found out that Nancy's real name is Nonkulelo. Another case of using an English name for me and a Xhosa name for everyone else.) As you may have read, she'd found a big house to buy but the price was prohibitive at R10,000. Well, she and Howard kept looking and found another place, smaller but still twice the size of her current place. This one also had an electric box. The price? Only R4,500. I went to see it last Monday and, although it was in tough shape, it would have been a big improvement on her current one. She and Howard were going to see “The Committee” that evening to get approval to buy it.

[1 March: They didn't get this one, either. Apparently the guy selling it is actually the brother og the owner. They called the actual owner, who said it was only R4,000. Someone was keeping R500 as a commission. In any event, the seller said it was already taken. So, it's back to square one. Since I'm leaving before Nancy comes back I gave her R3,000 and she'll keep looking. I'm fairly certain the money will go towards something other than a bungelow, but it's her call. It's tough to weigh food now against a house later.]

In the meantime, insult got added to injury. Nancy's younger brother, who lives in the Eastern Cape, was killed over the weekend. I heard it was a stabbing but I don't know how reliable that is. That put Nancy in a difficult situation, as she now had to travel to the Eastern Cape but had no money to do so. I loaned her the money to go, since she really needed to be there. She sent me a cell phone text message on Friday saying that they didn't know when the funeral would be because no one has any money to pay the undertaker. Nancy's mother was putting a lot of pressure on her because she's “working,” not understanding how little she makes and how fleeting it is. I know her message was a subtle request for help. I haven't responded yet, because I really don't know what to do. I've already committed to helping her with a bungalow, and I don't have another R4,000 or R5,000 to fund a funeral. (Okay, so I have it, but I'm trying hard to draw a line and prioritize where I support people. They could have a pauper's funeral, which would only cost R1,500 or so. But there's some stigma and bad karma wrapped up in that and people try to avoid it. I'm also trying, in my own way, to help people recognize that support is not always open-ended.) I'll speak with Howard tomorrow and see what he knows about it.

I also got a surprise call from Mogise on Monday. (Mogise is the guy I was buying food for a few months ago, who I stopped supporting when it kept escalating.) He wanted to see how I was and tell me it was his birthday on the 21st. He said he'd be fully 30, which seemed like a milestone. I told him I would stop and see him this week.

I was really dreading that visit. I wasn't sure what I'd find, since he'd been quite ill the last time I saw him in December. I also wasn't sure if I'd be pressured into giving him or his family money. Well, I went on Thursday, after stopping to buy a cake. I got a big shock when a seemingly healthy Mogise greeted me at the door. He's been on treatment for TB for a couple months now and he looks 100% better. He's getting out of the house again, and it looks like he's put on some weight. His brother, Livingstone, said he's eating all the time, which is a great sign. Livingstone is still the only one working, but their sister (Leticia) is selling cigarettes on the sidewalk and earns a few rand every day. (A lot of street vendors sell individual cigarettes here, usually for R1.20 each. A pack of 20 goes for about R20, so the vendors make about R5 per pack. And people can support their habit without a bid cash outlay.) We ended up having a nice visit, and I told I'd come back before I left to get a photo of them. I did give them some money, but I felt much better about it than when I stopped last year.

The baseball team held another practice on Thursday. We did batting and base running, and again the kids amazed me with their natural talent. Some of the kids were cracking balls 150 feet or more. There was one boy, 9 or 10 years old, who connected on every pitch (underhand, but still...). I'm hoping we can have a game next weekend with one of the more developed teams so they can see what it's all about for real.

Wednesday night brought a new group of visitors to the Centre. This group is from Arm in Arm in Africa, an organization affiliated with St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis. About half of the 18 had been to JL Zwane before, some as many as 9 times. I didn't spend much time with them until Friday when we did a tour around Gugulethu and stopped at some homes. We also went to Mzoli's for dinner (the place where you order a big pile of meat and eat with your hands – kind of like Famous Dave's without the salads or beans). They were good fun. They'll be heading off to Malungeni (Spiwo's home village) on Monday to spend a few days and distribute some emergency food parcels.

One of their stops on Friday was Brown's Farm Clinic. Zethu called me and asked if I was coming with them, as she needed to see me. So, I stopped there at the appointed time. She told me she was having some trouble with her laptop and could I look at it. So, I played with it until the group came a few minutes later. Zethu asked me to take them into the conference room, so I led the group down the hall. While we were waiting for Zethu, a few of the clinic staff came in to join us. I commented to one of the visitors that she was pulling out all the stops for them, as it the staff usually didn't get introduced. Well, they were there because it was a surprise going-away tribute for me! Zethu read a letter from Dr. Rob Martell, the Health Department head for our region, thanking me for coming to South Africa and working at the clinic. Then, Zethu gave me a beautiful carving of two giraffes. Our doctor thanked me for helping her (even though she doesn't really make mistakes), and Tami said thank you from the pharmacy. It was very sweet, totally unexpected. It will make my last couple days there more memorable.

Today (Sunday) was the annual fund raising service. Each of the 17 community zones come forward and offer the money they've raised over the past few weeks. Everyone sings and dances as they come up, with the occasional shout and mock battle with another zone. A lot of people also dress in traditional outfits, so it's very colourful. I got in on the act by wearing a Xhosa outfit Marvin made for me a while back. Sadly, I had to work the money table so I didn't get any photos, including of me. I'll have to get one from one of the visitors.

The congregation raised over R248,000, R18,000 more than last year. Given the economy right now, Spiwo was very pleased with the results.

I now have about 10 days left. It's really more like a week, since Thursday will be my last day at the clinic and Friday at the Centre. I found out today that Spiwo will be gone from Tuesday and will not be back by the time I leave. No doubt we'll have a long talk tomorrow about how things went. I was going to say a few words at the service next week, but we'll have to see how that plays out.

People are also finding out that I'm leaving soon. One of the women I've supported recently came to my office last week and asked if she could leave her bank account details so that I can send her money when I'm back home. I had to explain to her that I wasn't going to do that, that I would leave money with JL Zwane to distribute as they saw fit. She didn't like that answer because then she would have to ask them, and they're much tougher than I was. I've felt for a while that some people believe I'm just here to give away money, that they can come to me whenever they feel stretched. The reality is starting to sink in that I was only a stop-gap measure, that they still have to take responsibility and continue to look for ways to improve their situations. But, people survived before I got here and they will figure out a way to survive once I'm gone.

More to come.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Stealing a Dream

It's been a slow week. That's to say, it was just like they're supposed to be. Three days at the clinic, with nothing eventful happening. Two days at the Centre, with no visitors and no "emergencies" to deal with. I actually got tasks done on my projects and had time to rest a bit on Friday. I'm sure the remaining two weeks will be busier, if only because we have visitors this coming week (a big group from Minneapolis) and I need to start saying good-bye to folks.

This post's title comes from some follow-up events from last week's posting about Nancy. She's the woman living in Barcelona who wants desperately to move out of there. Well, she managed to find a place that she really loved. We took a drive to see it last Sunday. It's still in Barcelona, but just on the edge, about 50 yards from one of Guguletu's streets. It has its own toilet (well, an outhouse that sits within what's fenced off as her yard) and an electricity box (no more paying a neighbor and running an illegal wire to her shack). The house itself has five rooms, albeit with cardboard walls and exterior walls that aren't exactly plumb. It also has a number, which means she can get onto a waiting list for a proper house (which might become available in 2020, since the City is still working on the 1997 list).

The problem? The owner wants R10,000. That's about R9,999 more than Nancy can afford and R7,000 more than I was offering. So, on Monday I had to break the news to her that I wouldn't sponsor the full amount. As you can guess, she was disappointed. But, as we talked about the house's size (especially for just two people) and price, and my limited funds (especially now that I've planning to leave), she understood that it was probably not a good idea. She told me she was very worried that she wouldn't find anything now, or if she did it would be too late for me to help. I said that I had committed to help her, and I was fully prepared to do that. So, she agreed to keep looking.

I felt truly sad about the situation. She could have lived like a queen in that big house, and had room for Howard to stay, too (they are apparently dating now). But, the money is a big deal, even if it's a small amount in dollar terms. Nancy recognized that I could help 3 or 4 people for that amount, people just like her.

The good news? I got a call this afternoon that she found a place for R3000. It's one room, but it also has its own electricity box. I don't know where it is but we have plans to see it tomorrow. I'm hoping this one works out.

It's now roughly two weeks until L-Day (leaving day). I have nearly everything ready, just some last-minute items mementos to buy. We'll see how quickly the days go.

And, in case you're interested, I think I have my flea problem under control now. I have some special soap that I use twice a day and it seems to have killed the fleas I had on me. I also washed all my "intimates" and hopefully that will prevent a reinfestation. Of course, I say that knowing that I got six more bites today but I haven't been able to figure out if it's from my shoes or socks. Oh well, the end is in sight.

More to come.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Just for Fun

Here's something you don't hear everyday: I have fleas. Yes, I seem to have picked a kinda bad case of fleas, either from the wind off the ocean or in the sand around Gugulethu. I have about 40 bites on my lower legs and get a few new ones each day. Fortunately, they don't itch and aren't painful. They just look disgusting. I'm waiting for someone at the health club to say something.

The only remedy I can find at the clinic is some oil-based lotion they use for lice. I'm going to try that tomorrow and see if it helps. Otherwise, I'll have to suffer through until I can freeze them off at home.

More to come.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Barcelona to Belfast and Back

Wow, what a week I've had. It was one of the most demanding, yet fulfilling that I've had yet.

It all began last Sunday with a trip to Barcelona. The informal settlement, not the Spanish city. Barcelona sits on the edge of Guguletu. It's one of the poorest areas around, full of decrepit shacks and battle-weary people. It's nothing like the beautiful city it's named after (in honor of the 1992 Olympics). Howard, one of the people I've gotten to know well, asked me to meet with his friend Nancy and see how I could help her. So, we took a trip to her house to see what was what.

The picture below is of Nancy and her 3 year-old son standing in front of their house. It is about the size of my bathroom, if not slightly smaller. There's just enough room for a bed, a refrigerator and a chair. She absolutely hates living there - it is full of drugs and crime and she has to walk about 200 yards for water and over half a kilometer to the main road for a taxi. She pays R150 a month for the privilage of staying there, plus about R50-100 for electricity (she only has one lightbulb, a kettle and fridge, no TV or radio). She only took in her son recently - he stayed with her sister for some unknown reason. So, she also has to pay fees for a creche (day care) while she works. Or tries to work.

Nancy's job is selling newspapers. She is covering for someone's maternity leave, so she'll be done in March. She works on commission, bringing home anywhere from R0 to R25 a day for 11 hours' work (working the street at an intersection, in the blazing sun and high temperatures). Most days she spends more on taxi fare than she brings home. Nancy would really like to find something else, but without skills or an education her prospects are extremely limited.

We had a long conversation about what she wants to do about her situation. She is desperate to move out of Barcelona, or at least to a better location within the settlement. But, to do that she would need to pay "The Committee" about R1,000 to get a better plot. (As I understand it, even though Barcelona is an open area, meaning no one owns their plots, people must answer to an organizing committee if they want to move there, get a better shack or find a different plot. These people have no legal authority, but it's how the system works. Equal access to corruption, just one of the benefits of the new South African democracy.) So, she is wanting to look in Gugulethu or somewhere close by for an empty shack or a plot to put up a new one. She would also need money to buy a new or existing shack, plus some help with rent.

I agreed to help her with her plans, but only after she finds a spot to live. She will also need to figure out how she's going to pay her rent once I'm gone. She's now looking for the plot and I'm sure we'll talk again this coming week about the other issues.

Since she also had no food in the house, we went shopping. I'm continually amazed (even though I shouldn't be) with peoples' practical and honest nature when offered an blank check for food. We wandered the aisles of Pick 'N Pay and she picked out only the basics. I had to prompt her on some things I knew she needed but she didn't comfortable asking for (like toothpaste, soap, toilet paper, etc.). She also bought a couple things for her hair - it took her about 10 minutes because she was being judicious in her selections. After paying, it was back to Barcelona to unload and head home.

Later in the week I saw Nancy and Howard again. There's a game being played that I don't like. Nancy spent Thursday looking for a plot without success. She's going to keep trying, though. She needed to buy some electricity and a couple other items, so I arranged to give Howard some money on Friday. Which I did. Then Howard came back and asked for more, that Nancy had to buy shoes or something. I didn't have any reason to distrust him, so I gave him more. Friday evening I got a call from Nancy. "How much money did you give Howard?" she asked. When I told her, she said that she only got about 75% of it. So, now I need to ask Howard what's happening. I give him money regularly, so there's no reason for him to go behind my back. We'll see what's what on Monday.

The next big event last week was the two days I spent with people from Belfast, Ireland. Twelve people from Stormont came to Cape Town to follow up on some projects they're funding and look for new projects to support. It was a refreshing change from all of the other groups I've worked with. First, they weren't Americans, so they had a different view on political correctness and were willing to sit back and see how things developed. Second, they came from a place that had violent political (albeit religion-based) clashes. This gave them a different perspective on the battles during the Apartheid era and the violence that often erupted. Third, they were older, probably averaging in the 40s. This gave them a different world view and a more practical perspective on the solutions (or lack thereof) to all of the social problems facing South Africa.

I set up my normal "tour" schedule for them, which quickly grew as their interest and willingness to see the difficulties grew. Two especially stick out:
- we went to see a home for disabled children in Nyanga. Now, this is nothing like what you'd envision as a "home for disabled children." It's literally someone's house that's been outfitted to take care of 14 kids with mental and physical handicaps. Most of these kids live there full-time, and a couple go home at night. Most were abandoned on their doorstep - some parents dropped them off in the morning and said they'd come back after work. Which they didn't. The children are well cared for and loved, but they could definitely use more and better equipment and educational and stimulating toys.

It was a very emotional time for the Irish folks. I usually provide little commentary in advance so that I don't take away from anyone's experiences. So, they were a little unprepared for what they saw. It led to some great conversations about what it would take to make it better, as well as why these situations exist in the first place. They ended up donating some money to make improvements, which I'm starting on next week.

- We also had a chance to go to Indlovini ("elephant"), an informal settlement in Khayelitsha. JL Zwane has started to support a musician, Ongs, from there and Spiwo has gotten to know him very well. He thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the group, and he was right.

Ongs lives in a shack in the middle of a sand dune. His one-roomed house is made of wooden slats with cardboard on the inside for insulation. Looking at the cracks and gaps in the walls, I'm sure it is both hot in the summer and cold and wet in the winter. It also leans forward at a 5-10 degree angle, just enough to look like it's trying to leap out of the sand and run away. He does not have water or a toilet nearby (they're about 300 yards in front of his house) nor electricity.

Ongs is an amazing guitar player and blues singer. Last December he won the Nedbank Music Challenge, a national performance competition. He won a car, which he turned down because he wants money to buy a real house. This really confused the competition's producers - they hadn't considered that the winner wouldn't have a place to park his car, let alone a road to his house or even a driving license. Ongs is still hopeful that he'll get a cash prize - I have no doubt he will.

He usually performs with a friend, Wandile, who plays bass or rhythm guitar to Ongs' lead. Wandile lives in a house that doubles as a pub, complete with pool table. Ongs and Wandile recently received a financial gift to buy electric guitars, amps and cords. They keep them at Wandile's because they can't play them at Ongs' house. They've been practicing hard and hope to get a gig together in March. They will blow the roof off, I'm sure.

We all were treated to an impromptu concert at Ongs' house. I really wish I had had my camera to record it. It was one of the most surreal experiences I've had here - standing in the middle of a sand dune, in front of a broken-down shack, listening to a live performance of Chicago-style blues by two guys who've lived in poverty all their lives. Let BB King or Muddy Waters try that.

We also visited two schools during our tour. About half of the group were teachers, so I thought it might be interesting for them to compare a public school with a private school. Well, I cheated a little. We went to Mkhanyiseli Primary School, a public school where I know the principal and deputy principal (it's also the place I coach baseball). We got to visit the classrooms and see how well outfitted they are (this is a newer school and it is in great shape). We also spent a little time with the principal talking about her challenges and how well her students are doing.

Then we went to Stormont Madubela Primary, a private school. I've written about this school before. It's the one comprised of shipping containers, where two-thirds of the kids can't afford the R15 ($2) annual fee. (We had to go there when I heard the group's village was named Stormont.) We got there at lunchtime, so the adults got to spend a fair amount of time with the kids, playing ball and just talking. I have hope that the group will support some type of program for this school.

At the closing discussion on Tuesday, the group talked a bit about how God is present in the townships. He talked about where He is, and how people could consider Him to be a just God given all of the disparities people here live with each and every day. (There are plenty of examples even in the established churches here - the Presbyterians, for example, have failed to work out an equitable system of stipends for its African congregations. Pastors in these churches get one-fifth the amount the pastors of the white parishes. And no one within the Presbytery seems to think it's a problem.) The group's pastor, an Irishman who was raised in South Africa, said he sees God in the people who are trying to help. He said that regardless of what I think or say, I am a pastor to the people I interact with and that I'm here because of God's intervention. I just thought it was KLM who brought me. But I see his point. In this community, people see hope and salvation in anyone who comes to their aid, especially when it's unexpected and random. I guess that's me in many cases, so okay, I'm doing God's work for them. (Or to them, as they often say.)

It was also the start of baseball practice this week. I managed to get this photo of the kids after practice. They are holding gloves and bats - half of these came from a local sponsor and the rest came from my cousin Shannon and her husband Chris plus my aunt Coral and uncle Al. We now have nearly enough gloves for every kid and enough balls so that they can play catch in groups of 2-3 instead of 8-10. Maxwell, the teacher/coach, and I are really hoping we can play a short game next week so the kids can practice base running and just have fun. (By the way, it's hard to tell but they practice in a sand lot, literally an open patch of sand at their school. They all play barefoot so that they don't ruin their school shoes (these kids don't have extra pairs of Nikes at home). It was about 90 on Wednesday, and that sand must have been about 1000 degrees, but they didn't seem to care. Probably because they don't know any different.)

The rest of my week was spent at the clinic, which is back to normal from the holidays. There was a little drama in the pharmacy but it's nothing to address here. Ntombikayise asked when I was leaving and was surprised to hear that I have three weeks left. I think she's going to miss me, partly because it's much less hectic when I'm there (an extra body will do that). I'm not so sure about Tami.

More to come.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Power from the People

First off, I'm happy to report that things are resolved with T-Mobile regarding my stolen cell phone. They turned out to be very reasonable and I am very satisfied with the result. It's good to see that companies can be responsive to their customers. I really did like their service and am happy to be able to stay with them. Now on to other things.

Marvin left for Botswana yesterday. He is taking his son to live with his brother, who is a lawyer in Gaberone. I don't know if or when Marvin expects to see his son again. It will be several months in any case. I just hope that his health improves and he can finally kick his TB infection. He still wants to get his printing business going but he will need to much healthier to do that.

Electricity has become a national emergency across South Africa. Eskom, the peristatal electricity company, is having major problems meeting the demand for power. This is mostly due to the fact that the government has not funded any new power stations since at least the early '90s, even though their own reports and commissions called for new plants as far back as 10 years ago. Since 1997, the population has grown to 48 million from 41 million, and industrial growth has been 6-10% per year but power producing capacity has not grown at all. Those figures, combined with scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, has left the country about 5,000 megawatt hours (or maybe gigawatt hours, whichever is largest) short of the demand.

Eskom's solution to the problem is to have scheduled blackouts nearly every day. These happen across the country. My area is subject to power outages from noon to 2:30pm and 8:00pm to 10:30pm daily. Others have morning times and some have late-night times. We've been fortunate in Sea Point that they have rarely been implemented. Other parts of town, though, especially the black and coloured areas, seem to have them 4-5 days a week. It creates utter chaos on the roads, because people haven't quite figured out how to handle non-working stoplights. They turn from semi-controlled intersections (since a lot of people run the reds anyway) to a free-for-all. It's almost as good as aerobic exercise – the heart beats really fast when you see trucks coming at you with no sign of stopping.

Industry is also being affected. The gold and other mines actually suspended operations for a couple days last week, losing over R60 million per day. Eskom has capped usage for all large companies and is only now allowing them to ramp up to only 80-90% of their previous peak demand. There is no indication of how long this will last or what the real impact will be to employment, government revenues and the economy as a whole (whatever it is, it won't be good).

Last night there was some kind of problem at a substation and most of Cape Town was without power for up to 7 hours (mine was out for 6) between 8:15 and 3:30. It was very eerie looking out my window and seeing Main Road dark. One benefit: I could see hundreds of stars that were normally hidden by the light pollution. It was actually pretty seeing them over the ocean. But, the restaurant owners certainly were not happy to be plunged into darkness with rooms full of people and food half-cooked.

Government officials are saying that South Africa will be subject to blackouts for the next 7 years. They are looking at all kinds of ways to alleviate the problem, from rate increases to subsidies on solar water heaters (hot water heaters being a major power use) to outright rationing. (One government minister said people should just go to bed earlier. Kind of tough in the winter when it gets dark at 5:00.) They are also discussing implementing multiple time zones so that peak times can be stretched out and demand lowered. The 2010 Soccer World Cup is also impacted, since presumably there won't be enough power for all of the games and the hundreds of thousands of tourists expected to attend. Of course, no one in government has lost their job from the debacle and the buck keeps getting passed from one person to another. President Mbeki did apologize last week for the problem but it seemed a bit hollow.

It's going to be very difficult this coming winter if the current outages continue. And, a very difficult next 10 years for the survival of the nation.

I also learned some new information on funeral traditions. This is one thing even Rev. Spiwo didn't know until recently. Apparently, it has to do with addressing the corpse before the funeral. Although most people in South Africa are Christian, many of the blacks still follow some of the traditional customs very closely. A large part of their customs are centered on ancestry and dealing with those who went before you. This includes curses and bad luck (“one of the ancestors must have done wrong and now I am suffering revenge” or “I was cursed and now one of the ancestors is harming me”). Spiwo was telling me that it is common for families to speak with the corpse before the funeral, especially if it is being moved across the country (like to the Eastern Cape). The family members will say something like:

“Brother, we are taking you home to rest. We hope you will not cause any trouble during the trip or while we bury you.”

Spiwo explained it's like straddling a line. If things work on the right side, keep on working with the right side. But if things stop working on the right side, fall back to the left side. Or, follow the right side but hedge your bets by leaning a little to the left side. Kind of reminds me of U.S. politics right now, at least what I see and hear on CNN.

It's now 30 days to d-day (departure day). Some people are starting to wonder aloud what they will do when I'm gone, especially those who see me regularly for food or transport money. I've also been making more “loans” lately, most of which will probably never be repaid (but that's okay). I hope to still have many more stories to tell, so stay tuned.

More to come.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tough Decisions, No. 2

Well, summer came this week. It's been hot most of the week, with temperatures in the 90s. Thankfully the humidity is relatively low, and we get some nice breezes. It does cool off at night (into the 60s) so sleeping is fine. Of course, none of the office at the Centre are air conditioned so it gets a little tough to work in the afternoon. Especially after lunch. They should have nap time just like we did in kindergarten. At least the clinic pharmacy is air conditioned, even if it is kept at igloo levels.

We had 12 students from Bethel University (Minneapolis) at the Centre this week. They spent two days learning about our programs and visiting children. The other two days they were out doing service projects, like working in a community garden or spending time at a home for disabled children. They also spent three nights in Gugulethu with people in our congregation. From all reports they had a great experience. It was fun to hear about their experiences and how they will take it home to family and friends.

They did have one difficult visit. Yvonne and I took them to meet and talk with children in three households. The first two, Priscilla's foster home and Noloyulo, went fine, as they usually do. Then we went to see Yolanda. She is the 18 year-old taking care of two siblings and a cousin. After exchanging hellos, I asked her to talk about her challenges. She took a breath and then the tears came. She only lost her mother six months ago and is still figuring out how to cope. Yvonne and I, having been through this a few times, let her cry and regain her composure. The Bethel students, though, didn't know what to do. They ended up sitting quietly, too. Yolanda left the room for a couple minutes to wipe her eyes and collect herself, and when she came back she was back to her old self. (We found out later that she had not passed 10th grade last year and has to repeat it this year. That was adding to her stress, as it is a real possibility that she will not finish high school and be stuck in low-paying jobs, if she can even find one.)

We talked about this when we returned to the Centre. The students said it was very difficult to watch her cry and not know what to do. Their leader, Leon, asked what they would have done if that same scenario had happened at home. They agreed that they would have gotten up and hugged Yolanda and tried to take some of the pain away. When Leon asked why no one did that, people talked about not knowing if it was appropriate. It was interesting, in that we all set aside our normal ways of compassion and empathy even though we felt we should have done something. I think if it were to happen again the students would risk a cultural faux pas and give her a hug. I think I will, too.

I saw another difficult situation play out this week. Marvin, my friend who does the silk screening, has been diagnosed with TB for the third time. He started treatment last week and has been having some problems. Besides being weak from the TB and HIV, the new drugs have been causing him some side effects. He's not eating well and is having difficulty taking care of his house. The fact he has a 10 year-old son staying with him makes it worse, because he can't handle the cooking and washing and schoolwork.

Marvin has a brother in Botswana, a lawyer who has a good job. He has offered to take Marvin's son for an unlimited time so that Marvin can get healthy and try to get his business back on track. The decision has really torn at him – he wants to take care of his son very much but knows that the boy's quality of life will really suffer for the next several months. So, Marvin decided to take his brother's offer. He'll be taking his son to Botswana next week. I haven't asked his son how he feels. Chances are, he won't say too much. Kids get moved around a lot here as people get or lose jobs, get sick or healthy. (I also just found out that Ntombikayise, our technician in the pharmacy, took her 18 month-old boy to live with her sister in the Eastern Cape. She misses him a lot but she didn't have a choice because of the costs and lack of child care if he's sick. She is hoping to bring him back in March but there's no guarantee of that.)

I really feel for Marvin. But, he thinks it's the best decision for his son and I tend to agree. Marvin will need at least a couple months to regain his strength and he'll have a hard enough time caring just for himself. Hopefully they can be reunited again very soon.

More to come. (And five more weeks to go...)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Fluffy the puppy, RIP

I got word late yesterday that Fluffy did not survive his accident. The man who hit him took him to the vet yesterday. The vet said the operation to fix his foot would cost R1,500 and he would still have a problem walking. Lydia could not afford that. So, Fluffy died a few hours later.

The man who hit Fluffy told Lydia that he will buy her another dog. I don't know if that will really happen or not. If it does, hopefully they will tie this one in the yard.

More to come.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tony Zappa, Veterinarian

It's been a very busy, physically exhausting week at the Centre. As I mentioned before, we have 12 students from the University of St. Thomas with us. They came last week for 2 days and were back this week for 3 days. They have been a real treat, some of the most mature college students I've met. They were all hand-selected for the trip, so we got the cream of the crop and it shows. They've spent 3 nights in Gugulethu, staying in the homes of 6 JL Zwane parisioners. It's worked out to be a great experience for both sides. They've been sharing meals and stories, learning about real, everyday life in the townships and America. I'm a little jealous that I haven't done that.

One of the things these students did was raise money for a special food parcel drive. They raised $8,000 with the plan to feed 200 families. So, yesterday we spent the full day making this happen. We started the day at Makro, basically watching the cashier check out our items. Makro did a great job this time - they had everything pulled for us and on carts, ready to wheel out the door. About an hour and R42,000 later we were ready to go.

Too bad the truck wasn't.

I just don't understand how truck companies survive here. I set an appointment for 10:00 and confirmed it again on Monday. Apparently, our driver showed up at 8:45. He couldn't find us (since Makro didn't open until 9:00 and we weren't there yet!) so he decided to take someone else's order. When it came time for our delivery, there was no truck to be found. I called the company owner, and it was the same old song and dance as in December. "We'll be there just now" (translated: we're a couple minutes away) was the mantra of the morning. Unfortunately, it took 90 minutes of "just now" before our truck arrived. I was a little smarter this time and built in a time buffer, but it still would have been great to have that time back. At least this guy knew how to quickly load a truck. We had everything on board in less than 30 minutes and were on our way.

Back at the Centre, it was controlled chaos as usual. We did the usual fire brigade to offload, and it was fun to watch young adults who had never thrown a bag of flour figure out how to do it without killing themselves. Siyaya and other staff helped fill the buckets, and we were done in record time. We ended up making 180 parcels, due to some hidden costs and exchange rate hedging.

After a good lunch it was distribution time. Unlike December's program, this one was focused on people in the hospice program and a special list of "grannies" that Spiwo developed. The grannies are home-bound women who are still raising children and grandchildren, many of who are struggling with HIV/AIDS. Also different was that fact that no one came to get their parcels. We had to deliver every one. In the end it was good, though, because the students were able to ride along and meet many more people and see many more homes than I originally planned. They all came back with a good perspective of what reality is like for people in Gugulethu, but also how little it takes for people to survive, and quite happily with gratitude, at that.

My muscles were really creaking this morning, even more than in December. I didn't feel so bad, though, when I saw the bigger 20 year-old guys walking slowly and stiffly. We all agreed that the Centre should have a masseuse on call for parcel days.

The students head back to Minnesota on Saturday. I hope they can all come again and spend more time.

I had a sad experience this afternoon. I took a food parcel to Lydia. She is really struggling, partly because last month about 6 or 7 of her family moved into her mother's house unexpectedly. They now have about 10 people there, and no one is working. They are trying to survive on an old age pension and a couple child-care grants. Needless to say, it's not a happy situation. But that's not the sad event of today.

Lydia got a puppy for Christmas. I don't know the breed, but it will grow to the size and look of a small beige German Shepherd. I'm not sure if it's officially hers or Neo's (her son). But, Fluffy is a welcome addition to the family and they've already fallen in love with it. Today the dog was playing outside, unleashed of course, and it ran in front of a car. Fortunately, the car was able to brake in time. Unfortunately, the puppy's back left paw got caught under a tire. All of the skin and muscle on the top of the foot is gone, and from around the ankle as well. It looks really bad.

There are no emergency vets here, so Lydia asked me to look at it. When she took the bandages off, my first thought was that foot needed to come off. The tendons and ankle bone are clearly visible, and the skin around the toes is gone. The foot was still sandy and dirty, and infection is a real possibility. I told her that I didn't think the puppy had a good chance, but if we could clean and dress the wound it might help until she can get to a vet tomorrow morning. About this time the man who hit Fluffy came back to the house. He had been to a pharmacy and bought some medical soap, antibiotic ointment and a bandage. So, we took Fluffy outside and carefully cleaned out his foot. I cleaned, he screamed. It was very sad. I got out as much sand as I could, and then proceeded to lather on the ointment. It smelled disgusting, so it must be good (how's that for a pharmacist's recommendation?). I wrapped it as best I could, trying to keep the skin flaps together and covering the open spots. At one point I considered putting in some stitches, but Lydia didn't have a needle and thread. That was probably a good thing, for both Fluffy and me.

The man is going to take Fluffy to the vet in the morning. I hope he's still alive and that the foot can be saved. I have a bad feeling, though, and if there's any chance of a bad result it would be best to put it down now. A crippled dog would not fare well in the rough and tumble world of township canines.

There are two somewhat remarkable things about this situation, to me:
1. How one hurt dog can raise emotions that become buried after seeing despair every single day. I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't felt that much sadness in quite a while, even though I see and talk to people in sad and dire situations all the time. Maybe it's because Fluffy didn't have way to help itself and was totally reliant on us humans to survive. Maybe it's because Fluffy is barely three months old and totally innocent to the ways of the world. Maybe it's because I've been here too long and stopped really seeing the despair and innocence in people's eyes. It's shaken me up a little, and I'll have to come to grips with that.

2. How people living in the most desperate of situations can still have the capacity to love and care for a pet. These are people who often don't know where their next meal will come from, yet they take a portion to feed their dogs and cats. And no, we shouldn't deny them the opportunity to pass their love and caring onto an animal if they so choose. It may be difficult, but the unconditional love and affection they get in return may be the only comfort they receive all day.

More to come.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Back to Normal

Well, after the events of last week I'm happy to say this week was fairly normal. The T-Mobile saga is still continuing, with additional international roaming charges still showing up (I guess there's a delay because of how networks bill each other. And they're supposed to be technology companies?). But, we're moving on.

Of course, by normal I mean that the poverty and illnesses still continue. I spoke with two people yesterday, two I'm fairly close to (and won't name for confidentiality reasons), and they are both battling significant diseases on top of their HIV/AIDS. One is dealing with breast cancer and is due to have surgery on Monday next week (14 January). She's lost some weight since I saw her before Christmas, and she's feeling very run-down. She's very worried for her children, who have their own challenges. I'm hoping she comes through the surgery well and gets good news on the tumor.

The second person just found out that he has TB. For the third time. He looks very thin and weak, which would be expected since he hasn't really eaten in several days. He should get the results of sensitivity tests next week to show which medications will be needed. I'm hoping he can take the basic regimen again, because it's only 6 months long. If he ends up with drug-resistant TB it will be at least 9 months, and could be as long as 12. He's also worried about his son, a bright 10 year-old. He asked if I thought his son should go to stay with his mother (the child's grandmother - his mother died from HIV a few years ago) for a month or two so that he can get stronger. I really didn't have a good answer - sure, it would be good, but sending the boy to a different part of town where he doesn't know anyone could create all kinds of new problems. I've learned the law of unintended consequences is multiplied in Gugulethu, and it's very, very hard to predict what could result from seemingly simple decisions.

I've also had to reopen the bank over the past couple days. It seems people have been waiting for me, including my pal Maxwell (from the hospice). I don't mind, really, it's just that some folks have come to depend on me to a level I'm uncomfortable with. I honestly don't know what they'll do when I'm gone for good - if you believe their stories they will not have food or clothes for days to weeks at a time. I know that's an exaggeration, and that people will survive just like they did before I came. But it is stopping some people and making them think.

The Centre has been hosting some students from the University of St. Thomas (Minneapolis) this week. They are spending two weeks in Cape Town as part of a theology class. Their objectives are to study how God exists in South Africa, how people have dealt with religious issues during and after apartheid and how AIDS has impacted the work of the Church. Their days run from 8am to 8pm or later, with all kinds of reading and movies and lectures. I'm very glad I'm not in the class! They spent two days around the Centre learning what we do and hearing Spiwo's thoughts on "Where is God" in the context of the townships and South Africa's history. (Actually, he spoke more about "Who is God." This seems to be the basis for many of the world's disagreements these days. I have to admit wrestling with this question myself on many occasions, and I still haven't found an answer.) The students also saw the clinic and spent some time touring the township. Next week they stay with township families for three days, which should give them a unique perspective on real life here. They also raised money for food parcels, so we're having another food parcel day on Tuesday. Let's hope we don't have any truck issues this time!

The clinic is slowly starting to get busy with people returning from holiday. Most people returned last weekend and the rest will probably come back this weekend. So far it's been okay, and I'm hoping this coming week won;t be too out-of-control.

More to come.

Friday, January 04, 2008

I'm Baaaack!

Boy, was that a fast two weeks! I had a great time at home, even if it did snow every other day the whole time. I shoveled more snow in two weeks than I did all of last year. Okay, maybe not, but it sure felt like it. The cool weather was a refreshing change from summer heat - I'm not sure which is worse, an unheated apartment in the winter or an uncooled one in the summer. My wife recognized me at the airport, which was a good sign (my hair was a bit longer than usual, but that didn't seem to matter). The dogs weren't sure what to make of me for the first couple days, but they eventually settled into the old routines of tug-o-war and treats.

Re-entry into America wasn't as bad this time as it was when we moved back from Johannesburg. I don't think I was gone long enough. It is amazing, though, at just how many options we have for food, clothes, and a whole lot of stuff we buy but don't really need. I walked through the malls with new eyes, regularly saying to myself "That looks nice but I don't need it." That's a big change for me - in the past if I saw a nice shirt, I'd buy it. Even if I had one kinda like it already. Now I just think I'll wear the old one and move on.

At the grocery store, it was almost paralyzing at times. I'm used to having just a few yoghurt choices. I must have stood in Cub's dairy aisle for five minutes trying to pick from the 30 brands they have. Fruit on top or on the bottom? Fat free, low fat, or regular? Low calorie or with sugar? Custard-style or normal? Yikes!

I did some price comparisons on clothes and food. South Africa is actually cheaper on most basic items, which surprised me. For example, coloured t-shirts: they were $5 at Target and are only $3.50 at Woolworths (the upscale store). I can get them for under $3 elsewhere if I bother to look around. The same is true for slacks, shirts, and non-name brand items (Levis are outrageously expensive, but store brands aren't). Most food items are cheaper here, including milk, bread, meat, and most canned goods. Of course, non-commodity items are much cheaper in the U.S. Electronics, books, and cars are all much cheaper. And the U.S. stores have broader selections than South Africa, with higher quality. The biggest economic difference is salaries, which are 1/3 to 1/2 the amount here. So, even with the low cost of basic items, it's an expensive place to live if paid locally in Rand.

I spent a couple hours at the Centre today catching up on some e-mails and getting the new gossip. Not much had happened while I was gone, except one key passing. Mama Bopape's husband, who was struggling with a whole host of conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure and TB, apparently had a stroke and died on December 26th. He had been having a very difficult time with his health since about June 2007. I visited him in August and he was pretty weak and very thin. In November he had a spell of very low blood sugar and was hospitalized for a couple days. I saw him not long before I left and he was doing much better. We had a nice conversation, and he seemed to be more mobile than in the past few months. I spoke with Mama Nqo today and she said he was continuing to improve, but suddenly changed just before Christmas and never recovered. To add insult to injury, his sister also died last week (on the 31st), very unexpectedly although she had had HIV for a long time. Needless to say, there was a lot of sadness in the house. Funeral services are tomorrow and I expect there will be a lot of crying.

I also had a little excitement when I got back to my apartment. A friend from Minneapolis and his partner had been using the second bedroom in my apartment while I was away, starting about 4 days after I left. When I got back, I was surprised to see my bedroom in disarray. The closets were open, clothes were all over the floor, and items had been taken off my bookcase. When I asked my friend if he saw that, he said "Yes, and I thought it was a little funny. But, we thought that maybe you left in a hurry and didn't pick it up."

As you've no doubt guessed, I had a burglary. They must have had keys, as there were no signs of forced entry and the windows were all closed and locked from the inside. How they would have had keys I don't know, since I had both sets with me in Minneapolis. And my keys rarely left my pocket while I was here, except when I'd occasionally leave them in my backpack at the Centre (and no one could see them). It's possible someone took them and had copies made, but I think it's more likely that a previous tenant's keys got swiped or copied or that the security guards had a set. I did a quick inventory, and except for R1000 and my GPS device, nothing else appeared to be missing. I got away lucky.

Or so I thought.

Today, Cindy called me to say our cell phone account had been put on hold because the balance was extremely high. Like $7,100 high. She asked if I had my US cell phone, which I did because I used it while I was in Minneapolis. But, I forgot about my Blackberry (for those of you not up on technology, it's a small device you use to get e-mail when away from home, and it can also act as a cell phone). Sure enough, it's gone. In the two weeks I was away, someone made over 78 hours of cell phone calls from my Blackberry, each one at about $1.50 a minute. That's over 3 full days of phone calls. I managed to get some of it discounted, but it was still an expensive lesson.

A word to the wise: check your cell phone contract for you liability if your phone is lost or stolen. T-Mobile told me today that the customer is liable as long as the phone is not reported missing. Being 10,000 miles away from your phone for two weeks is no excuse. If you go away and don't take your phone, leave it with a friend or take the SIM card out of it so it's unusable.

It really could have been worse. If they truly had keys, they could have come when I was sleeping or any day when I was working. They didn't get my computer (I took it home with me), and they didn't steal the TV, stereo, DVD player, or a number of small items I had. Heck, they could have come back on several different days and cleaned out everything. When Cindy and I lived in Johannesburg we'd hear about whole houses being emptied, including carpets and curtains and woodwork. I now have new locks and no one else has keys, so I feel pretty safe and secure.

I have some busy days coming up. I know Yvonne is looking forward to having me back, so there should be some good stories there. There are two college groups coming in January, one from the University of St. Thomas and another from Bethel University (both, coincidentally, from the Twin Cities). And, a third group is coming in early February, this one from Belfast. All that plus covering at least one week's vacation for Tami at the clinic in addition to my normal schedule. My last two months (8 1/2 weeks but who's counting?) should go very fast.

More to come.