Sunday, May 30, 2010

Looking over the edge

Returning to the project for a third time brings up lots of mixed emotions. I feel more at home and comfortable here than ever, which has probably led to my laziness at updating the blog. Other than more personal development and issues, there is really not much new to tell you all about what I’m doing here.

Which is why I took a trip last weekend. Weekend traveling is a great way to take a break from the project. In the past years I've taken trips to Swaziland and Mozambique, so when the opportunity to travel within South Africa arose I was excited at the prospect of seeing more of the country.

Going on the photography trip to Drakensburg, the highest mountain range in South Africa, combined learning more about taking photos from guide Emil and some rather intense day-long hikes and climbs.

On our final day going to the summit we woke up at 4 a.m. and climbed the highest portion of the mountain in the dark (some of us without headlamps). The views were well worth the many early mornings, and climbing the mountain gave such a sense of accomplishment.

The group we went with got along really well and we all had a great time. We camped one night at the base of the mountain, which was just my style.

Hiking and being outside was such an exhilarating experience, I recommend climbing a mountain to anyone.

There's nothing like standing on the edge.

I don't measure a man's success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits the bottom. - General George S. Patton

My dearest Brier,

When you sent me out to find you a family to donate your money to, I figured I would be looking for a family with lots of children, or one very special child. You always had such a great connection to the children here and I knew you would smile knowing your money had made one of the kids here happy, like you always did with your lollies.

However, today I had a reaction not unlike yours at many of the houses we visited both together and separately last year. It was one that brought me to tears, with the type of expressions I envy in you. Your willingness to show what you’re feeling so easily is a quality I both envy and admire. However, Mussi (who had suffered from a stroke) and his family have touched me to display feelings more characteristic of you than of me.

The last time I saw his mother and girlfriend I was happy to see they were in good spirits. The mother even happily declared that she still was full of hope for her son’s recovery.

But sadly, he passed away this week from an apparent stroke. I immediately knew that this would be a situation that would touch you deeply. Three weeks ago I was taken aback by his girlfriends’ tenderness and loyalty – questioning myself as to whether I would be able to have such courage. His mother, who had attended counseling, seemed to be doing less well.

They don’t seem like the type of family I pictured for you, but their hope and sense of pride are qualities I know you would admire as much as I do.

Mpho, who I know you trust almost as much as me has explained that we must buy the two women food so when neighbours and loved ones come to donate money to them, they have something to give in return. So this is what used your money for. I hope you approve of this family. I truly think they would have touched you as much as they touched me.

In memory of what you did here, your love of making children smile just to have them smile when I find it such a small deed, when in reality it is all that matters. In an attempt to have as big of a giving, caring spirit as you do, Mpho delivered the food to the family and they were so grateful. I wish I could have pictures but I’m sure you’ll understand that it wasn’t my place to photograph them in their time of grieving.

Your money went to good use, and I wanted to let you know.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return. "
~ Leonard da Vinci

Slapped by reality

Every once in a while there is a moment here that delivers a slap in the face. It usually happens when I least expect it, which makes it all the more traumatic.

Since my first visit, Nompumilelo has been a constant shining light of energy and a youthful vibrancy by very few I had come across, especially in Canada. She constantly expressed her wish to be a dentist and to volunteer with African Impact in her community. Pumi, we called her, would go so far as to meet us to help build bricks and paint the church in 2008.

She just graduated school, a feat not easily completed here with such a high dropout rate, particularly among grades 10 and 11.

I drove past a seven-month pregnant Pumi yesterday.

It brings back questions I've received while teaching HIV education. "Why are you not pregnant?" they would ask me, "Why do you not have a baby?"

I know I am to remember that culturally a baby could be very welcome by Pumi's family, especially because the father, also a friend of mine, is taking responsibility for the baby, as far as I can see.

But it still delivers a pang of what may be grief for what Pumi has lost, or guilt that I have never had to deal with what she must be going through.

Or maybe it's relief that it never happened to me.

A little bit of optimism...

I often mention that being in Africa is about rolling with the punches and taking the hits as they come, but sometimes things just magically fall into place, like they did last Friday.

On Thursday we had a meeting with a teacher from the primary school about a special HIV day they were going to have - the next day. It turned out that we did our presentation to about 500 students!

Now, this is how things happen here. Magically, all of a sudden the students have a morning off of class to learn from invited guests.

The police were coming to speak about rape and underage drinking, and nurses and others from the clinic were coming to speak about HIV and teen pregnancy.

We had less than 24 hours to prepare a presentation, so we got to work and came up with an awesome presentation that we were all happy with, complete with scenarios, information and posters.

We decided to speak about healthy living and regular testing; two subjects that are often overlooked when it comes to HIV education.

Everything came together in a strange way like it usually doesn't here. Perhaps I shouldn't always be so pessimistic...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bump in the road

"I run to cope with things," I told one of the volunteers today. I didn't realize how profound the statement was until it had left my lips and had already been said.

On a daily basis, the car drives up the drive after the project and within five minutes I've hit the road, running. It's a great way to unwind and reflect on everything and anything.

We had a long discussion about how being here was an escape. Maybe it's away from reality, or an issue at home. But at the end of the day everyone here is searching for or running from something.

One volunteer has had his heart broken, another wishes to find inspiration, and one is coping with the loss of her best friend. Another was crushed by not being hired for her dream job. I encountered a volunteer last year whose husband had slept with her neighbour. She had promptly destroyed that neighbour's garden, keyed her husband's car, and took off on a year-long trip volunteering around the world.

People's issues are overwhelmingly surrounding relationships.

But here, no one expects anything from you back home, one volunteer and I agreed. You're "in Africa", whatever that means, and you can disappear.

When I run here, all alone with the monkeys, bucks and hippos, I can disappear even from the place I have already disappeared to. It's an amazing feeling of complete solace and bliss.

Unfortunately right now my leg hurts and I think I have a shin splint.

I'm going to run anyways.



I have spoken in the past about my passion for teaching HIV education at the primary school here, and this first week I was able to reacquaint myself with the program I helped put together in 2008.

However, an ongoing trend of the ups and downs of development work has become apparent - even more so than when I returned last year.

Out of the 17 students in our class given to us by the teacher in charge of the program (although we have requested to only have classes of 10), only eight passed the HIV education test given to them at the end of the week.

It's discouraging because not only are the students struggling with the concepts being taught to them, they are also attempting to overcome a steep learning curve by having the program taught in English.

I will be returning on Monday with Sma, one of our Zulu translators, to try to decipher which students are failing the class because of their poor English skills, or whether they just do not understand the concepts being taught to them.

It brings about questions for me that surround an issue that was in the headlines when I left Canada over a week ago. When Dalton McGuinty pulled the new proposal for teaching sex education in schools, I was outraged.

I am a firm believer that sex education taught at a young age will produce a culture of dialogue around issues of great importance, like sexually transmitted infections and relationships in general. Silencing education for primary school students stunts any progress we have made in being more conscious of what dialogue around an issue can positively accomplish.

Sex education has been a hot topic in the house since the South African student's test results came back. Some of those in the volunteer house never received sex education, and some were given a watered-down version of an anatomy lesson. It seems no one is satisfied with their own education around the subject. For as many problems as we have with the world's teaching (or lack thereof) of sex, we have no answers; or at least we can't seem to agree on any solutions.

It's a harsh reminder of development initiatives and the burnout that can happen around certain projects.

Hopefully we can revive a program that once had the students jumping out of their seats to answer questions and participate in games, and had an impeccable success rate.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Black or white

So begins another chapter of my tumultuous relationship with race in South Africa.

Even as I stepped off the plane, speaking my first words of Zulu since leaving last year, I was gawked at. I probably deserve it, because I judge right back.

I find myself resentful of whites here, as I always have. Even at the ticket counter, the white South African lies to me that the plane I'd like to get on is full. The black worker at the counter would later tell me that 21 people were on a flight that could hold 50. "You could have been there already!" he exclaims. He seems angry that I was been lied to, and asks if I can point out the man who lied to me two hours earlier, but he's gone.

I get a porter to carry my bags, they're always very friendly and although the Johannesburg airport is notorious for theft, I know the airport well enough to know who to stay away from and who is trustworthy. The porter laughs loudly when I speak in Zulu to him. He says something to the effect of whites not knowing black languages, and applauds me for my flawless accent (he lies, but I tell him I'll pass his compliment on to my teachers).

I struggle when people ask me if I'm afraid to come here. Afraid of the blacks is really what they mean. They don't expect me to be attacked by a white South African when in fact all of my bad experiences in town have been with extremely forward whites, not blacks.

But a glimmer of hope. Two workers from South African airways joke with me that I should be learning Afrikaans from the "coloured" South Africans, as it's different and fun. They get along - a symbol of Mandela's new South Africa, symbolized by the nation's rainbow flag. But it's a pipe dream, so far as I can see. It makes me sad.

I shouldn't judge. White South Africans have also sacrificed and done a lot to help the peace process here, and although I may see them as a symbol of oppression and apartheid, such thoughts need to be pushed aside if real development is to occur.

But I do have hope that one day it will be better. For now though, I sit remembering the racism of visits past, and it clouds my optimism for the "rainbow nation."

Some of my favourite Nelson Mandela quotes:

"Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement."

"If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness."

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

"After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Walk like you know where you're going

Everyone I have spoken to so far that has been traveling agrees - if you walk like you know where you're going, people won't bother you because you don't look like an easy target. When you look like you're in control, if you can create the illusion of being in-the-know, you sweep by everyone with ease. To master this ability is like art.

"My first day back on the road was a little tough. This trip was supposed to be taken with someone else, and being by myself is something I haven't experienced in a long time.

"For now though, I'm in Amsterdam with Emily. Yesterday she showed me around the city. I'm feeling somewhat melancholy that I should be leaving Europe so soon, since this was supposed to be just that: a trip to Europe. Change happens, as I wrote in a previous blog, and I must adapt. This trip is about enjoying every minute and not wishing my life away. Stop to smell the roses while you can, right?"

It's important, my mom always taught me, to live like this. Not hoping for tomorrow, when I'll be back in South Africa, but to live in this moment, in a beautiful cafe in rainy Amsterdam.

And to pretend that I belong. This trip is about pushing my boundaries in a different way than I have before. It's about fooling people into believing that I am confident when I am not.

Emily and I rode bikes around Amsterdam last night. For anyone who knows me, they know I am scared of bikes. For some reason I feel more comfortable on the back of a 17-hand, unpredictable Warmblood stallion than I do on the seat of a bike.

But I fooled everyone (except Emily who knew how scared I was). We rode through the red light district, through the town square. It was one of the most beautiful and exhilarating experiences of my life, and I'll never forget it.

If you walk (or ride) like you know where you're going, no one will know you are scared to death of bikes and the porters won't bother you in the Johannesburg airport. No one will know that you are walking in the opposite direction, that you're scared to death, or that it's your first joint.

They'll think you fit right in, that you were born to walk with confidence.

Something a little different

I am going to explain what it is I plan on doing here, since I have been blogging about my trips to South Africa for long enough that it seems a little pointless to bore you with the same old jazz all the time.

I was given the idea of creating more blogs as "profiles" of people that I meet on my trip, which I plan on doing. I think it's a great way to have you all get to know the people that I meet.

As always, this is a journey of self-discovery, and so I'm going to take a little bit of a more personal route. I will attempt to include parts from the journal that I keep. I hope this will help you get to know me a little better, and I'm sure this will be a little more candid than my last blogs.