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.