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.

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