Tuesday, December 21, 2010

12/7: So my flimsy door hasn’t taken too well to the rainy season. Several months ago, after a particularly heavy rain, the wood expanded so much that after I yanked it open the wood split half way up the side. Ever since then the life of the door to my hut has been a bit touch and go. Today it took a turn for the worse when what seemed to be monsoon rains threatened to seep its soon to be moldy fangs into my few prized possessions. I covered my floor with buckets and pots to keep the streams of water from my thatched roof at bay and had a complicated series of rags set up to concentrate the encroaching water from under my door to a designated area. All of this maneuvering amounted to a moderate amount of success but unfortunately when I woke up the next morning I couldn’t open my door. I eventually resorted to a sort of good cop, bad cop scenario where I would attempt to wiggle the door loose gently then pull it as hard as I could. Nothing worked. I was sitting in the pool of water, which my rags so effectively created, soaked in sweat, no closer to ever getting out of my hut. The bottom half of my door hasn’t been flush with the door jamb for quite some time so I was able to squeeze my fingers in the gap and throw my body weight backwards in one last ditch effort to not be held captive in my hut like some modern day Rapunzel. The door flung open as I took several huge leaps backward from the momentum and with it came the door handle. My Peace Corps supervisor should be coming to approve my new housing on Monday and after that burglar bars need to be put on the window and door of my new room. So realistically I need to deal with this surly door for just a few more weeks, that’s nothing in African time. I’ve since duct taped the latch closed and I slip my PC Emergency card through the door jamb at night so that I don’t get stuck inside again. As I write this a few days later, the door issue continues to be a daily comical endeavor.
12/9: Today I went to a belated World AIDS Day event. Before it started a teacher sought out advice from Tshengie and me concerning a young girl on our hot meal program. She’s worried about Zihle, who happens to be my very favorite child on our feeding scheme, and yes I play favorites. She’s around 8 years old and has a developmental delay along with what I have guessed is mild cerebral palsy, not to mention one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. She has seven siblings who have all been orphaned by AIDS. They currently live with her grandmother who neither feeds them nor bathes them properly. The teacher explained that Zihle fainted Monday at school and was taken to the clinic. The nurse asked when she had last eaten and she said on Friday afternoon on our meal program. The teacher was concerned as to what Zihle and her siblings would do when Zamimpilo closes for four weeks during the holidays. One of her sisters saw me at the event and her teacher had to peel her off of me when I was summoned to the head table. These kids are so starved for attention (among other things) and it just breaks my heart to imagine them suffering. It’s humiliating enough to go to school dirty, without shoes and a functional zipper on your dress which is three sizes too small let alone to do that hungry and without parents. These are some of the most resilient children I’ve ever met, if anyone deserves a break it’s them.

12/10: Today I went to a fellow PCV’s pledge drive event for her org. I thought the idea of enlisting local businesses to help sustain her NGO was a fantastic idea. Unfortunately, the local businessmen didn’t seem to agree and it wasn’t well attended. On the positive side, that left me and the few other attendees with an absurd amount of food. I sat amongst dozens of empty chairs shoveling food into my mouth for the better part of the afternoon. It was wonderful.

Another highlight was talking to two of my co-workers who had just come back from a conference in Cape Town. Naturally, a fancy training such as this was organized by the holier-than-thou Isibindi, nothing that the lowly staff of peon Zamimpilo would be invited to. The week before I was approached by Siyah, one of the staff members elected to go to the conference. He requested I walk him through every single step of riding on an airplane, including exactly what one looks like. I was so excited to hear how the plane ride went, along with the training. They were both so excited, no detail was spared.

12/11: I had a relaxing day with my shadow who seemed to have been slipped some sort of stimulant because she was quite literally throwing her body against walls. It was quite bizarre. Eventually she wore herself out by running around in circles and when I turned around, concerned at the sudden lack of commotion, I saw her curled up in a little ball on the floor, asleep.

12/12: So today I was tricked into going to church…again. This is the second time a local pastor has used the vague ‘community event’ ploy to hook me into going to what is, in reality, a church service with people fainting, speaking in tongues and performing exorcisms. It lasts four hours on average. He wasn’t entirely wrong when he claimed that this was a Christmas event because he did hand out a few food parcels…one of which he awkwardly gave to me in addition to a gigantic bag of cookies. So I stood there with the haggard old women and children in rags to smile for the camera. I was also asked to give a speech. It was written in the program as, ‘speeches of VIPs.’ I am never going to some community event mumbo jumbo again.

12/13: Today my Peace Corps supervisor flew from the capitol to approve my new housing. Even though his flight was delayed several hours it was a veritable Alena, Tshengie, Matseke love fest; all of us mutually enjoying our jobs and each other’s company. If I was a fly on the wall I probably would have vomited by the sheer cheesiness factor but as a participant I embraced it.

12/14: So I was up before dawn to scrub my new room. Today was also the teddy bear distribution event so I couldn’t stay long. It was comical to have two pressing events in one day when there are weeks that go by without something so burning, let alone two items on the agenda. My new host family didn’t seem to share my sense of urgency and after the first round of tea was finished and the popular soap opera watched, I put my foot down when the young girl was sent to get fried dough from a neighbor for the second round of tea. Sadly this was taken with much disappointment but I had a wheelbarrow calling my name. I carried one of large boxes filled with teddy bears on my head until Sindi took one look at me and basically told me to hand it over to the pro. I gladly traded her for the wheelbarrow full of boxes.
Even though our MC, Mpostol, was belligerently drunk, I still consider our event a huge success. The kids just loved getting the bears. I never saw one without its rightful owner and many were fed lunch and had lively conversations with their fellow bear friends. There was lots of cuddling. It was wonderful to give 150 children what will probably be their only Christmas gift.

The chaos, though suppressed for the duration of the event, came to a head soon after. My go go gave Tshengie a non-negotiable ultimatum which involved me leaving the following day. This made the laundry list of necessities needing to be fixed/purchased, which is what the approval of my housing is hinged upon, quite literally impossible to accomplish. In addition to trying to have a civil discussion with Tshengie concerning this matter, I had hoards of caregivers bombarding me with guilt-riddled pleas for the extra teddy bears. “This will be my child’s only Christmas gift, please!” “I have a list of orphans who are suffering, they have nothing.” Woman after woman came into the tiny office until I was swimming in begging co-workers. I could barely come up for air before Tshengie attempted to recruit me to fight some of her fires with her. I told her that I wasn’t doing too well on my own over here. In reality I was drowning. I had 14 teddy bears and grown women were stuffing them in their blouses and refusing to fork them over. I was on the brink of tears in the corner of a tiny office being suffocated by prayers for leniency having to play the bad guy. After I put my foot down, I left the room and was immediately surrounded by smiling children holding their bears. As I walked outside I was flooded with happiness, the children’s joy was seeping out of their pores. And yes, though sometimes my job is difficult, today was a good day.

12/15: Today was moving day. I went over to my go go’s house early in the morning to give her my thank you gifts for hosting me for almost a year. She’s been so unpredictable I didn’t know how she would react but I didn’t expect disbelief. Once reality sunk in she moved from denial to full on hysterics. She was begging me to stay in between heaving sobs. I reminded her that this was, in fact, her idea and that just a few days ago she marched over to Zamimpilo to insist I leave this very day. I assured her that I would visit and how much I enjoyed spending time with her and Zindle. I was so overwhelmed that my body seemed to shut down so at that moment I felt nothing. I was numb to Zindle’s look of panic and of my go go’s repeated apologies and pleas. I piled my things into my new room which boasts a missing window pane, door handle and functional electricity, amongst other things. My numbness continues.

I was given no time to process, instead I jumped head first into bonding with my new host family. I absolutely adore the four children I live with: Mpo (6), Thobile (9), Pendu (11) and Lindo (13) and was later grateful for the distraction. They’re clearly starved for attention and I would pretend to not notice when they non-chalantly grazed my white skin or foreign ponytail. Mpo was the least sneaky. He would frequently walk up to me and start rubbing the skin between my thumb and fore-finger in the same soothing way I sub-consciously rubbed the back of my grandmother’s ears when I was his age.

12/16: After an exhausting few days, I was more than a bit wary of going to ceremony of which I knew absolutely nothing including how many days it could last. After I made sure it was less than 24 hours, I agreed. And I’m so glad I did. It was a coming of age ceremony. I’ve been to a similar ceremony for a young woman in the Ndebele tribe and also for one who was also a sangoma (witch doctor) which meant that the rituals were a bit different. This was a traditional Zulu ceremony for a young woman who was ready for adulthood. The songs and dance were beautiful and everyone was so happy. I filled my memory card with colorful pictures of women in beaded skirts and men with staffs and animal skin headdresses. It was quite the party.

12/17: So in a series of unfortunate events, it took me three times longer to reach Angie’s village than the usual two hours, due mainly to the fact that I forgot my bank card at home and had to turn back though before that fateful event, I had yet another traumatic experience at the post office that also put me behind schedule. I stumbled upon a fellow PCV that led me in the wrong direction and after lugging around three heavy bags for six hours I couldn’t even fathom walking uphill for another hour at dusk. I begged one of my friends to meet me halfway as I was passed left and right by toddlers carrying buckets of water on their heads. Once there, I drank two liters of water and made a beeline for the dinner everyone had been patiently waiting to start. After inhaling far more than my share, I was courteously asked to take a breather so everyone else could eat. It was also suggested that next time I don’t eat straight out of the pan. I would like to say that I then graciously stepped aside so the rest of the meal could be prepared but instead I regressed to a sort of caveman like mumbling before shoveling the majority of that remaining side dish into my mouth. Somehow I was forgiven and the rest of the night was filled with Christmas music and good wine.

12/18: Luck was on my side as I seemed to step into every single taxi just as it was ready to pull away. The effortless journey to visit my fellow PCV friends was met with an even more relaxing day in their company.

12/19: I hitched a ride with an Afrikaner man almost all the way home. It was so strange to be in a real car again that two hours into the journey my travel companion politely suggested I roll my window up after my voice cracked from yelling over the wind. Despite my attempts at getting back quicker, I missed the entirety of my co-worker’s sister’s funeral. The ceremony was finished but I was just in time for the food and clean up. No one seemed to mind I was late. It’s African time after all. The cause of death insisted upon by the family is cancer. Unfortunately, her sister was treated at the local ‘hospital’ an hour away that boasts five doctors of which nobody can remember ever seeing. It is unlikely that a nurse in this rural area could diagnose a disease as complex as cancer without any of the modern testing tools at their disposal. I’m very close to my co-worker, Sonto, she even announces to random strangers that she’s my best friend and it broke my heart to see her so devastated. I saw her take her sister to the local hospital several times and once helped to carry her out of the bush taxi we all happened to be on together. She had lost about 75 pounds. She was also a witch doctor. I wonder how many healthy years she would have had with her children if she would have taken ARVs instead of muthi.

12/20: Today, after a day of chaotic food parcel distribution, I was escorted back home by a slew of young girls I recognized from our hot meal program. They silently watched me open the door of my new home and get settled. Mutually excited to have some company, the six of us enjoyed a solid hour of South African card games before we moved on to jump rope. The game was that the first person jumping rope would pick a category then each girl would say 3 local schools for example then jump out in time for the next girl to jump in. I was shocked how quickly I was able to dust the cobwebs off my skipping skills. Though jumping out was my amusing Achilles’ heel this game entertained us for another solid hour. Then, out of nowhere, they bombarded me with pleas to teach them English. I assured them that there was no need to grovel, I love to teach. So I asked them a series of open ended questions while they all sat on my bed with their hands waving wildly in the air. It was then requested that they practice their writing skills. Someone found a pencil I had left on the ground and they were prepared to share the one writing utensil with old magazine print as paper. I gave them each proper pens and lined paper and I pretended to ignore their squeals of delight. I asked them if they could go anywhere on holiday where would they want to go and why. One girl wrote, “I want to holiday visit at America because I want to see white person and I want to see money and I want to learn to be a doctor.”

12/21: Today I went on a staff appreciation event to a nearby town to have a BBQ. The funding, of course, was from Isibindi. I never quite understood why we needed to travel an hour and a half to reach a location to have a BBQ and I found it humorous that we spent the entire morning waiting while a select few ran errands in town. The afternoon was relaxing and enjoyable but I started to get concerned when the day was winding down and people started hitchhiking back. When only half our group was left I started to panic. We had a mound of stuff and I had visions of me trying to hitch a ride with a BBQ pit, multiple pots and a pop-up tent. The taxi finally came but I arrived home after dark and since all activity ceases after the sun goes down my new host family thought I might have died. Mental note: get new host family’s phone numbers.

Monday, December 6, 2010

11/14-11/19: This week I was in Durban, a beach town, for Life Skills Training. Since this isn’t my first rodeo, I came prepared with transport money for my counterpart who, as expected, hadn’t the foggiest idea these bush taxi things cost money to ride in. Once there, my counterpart immediately met up with her brother and sister who proceeded to sleep in her hotel room and eat from the buffet.

I quickly discovered that the translation was going to be sporadic at best. I immediately searched out my Peace Corps supervisor and explained that my counterpart can’t speak English. He said that I should have brought someone that spoke English. I responded by saying that I live in such a rural post that the only one that would understand a workshop in English would be my supervisor who has already received training by Peace Corps.

Unfortunately, I could hear the rumblings of an ‘I told you so’ already brewing in Nondweni. For the days leading up to the workshop, everyone seemed to be vying for the much coveted slot as my partner in crime in girls’ empowerment. Campaigns were staged; elections were held. It can’t be said that the vote cast too much light on the debacle because apparently everyone just voted for themselves…and literally everyone ran. All of this was in my absence. Of course the goal was not to build up their skills so they can strengthen the female leaders of tomorrow. No, it was made clear early on that this particular hotel was famous for its luxurious buffets. There were also rumors of a pool but that could not be confirmed nor denied. Women who aren’t literate in their home language made convincing arguments as to why this spot should be theirs. I got roped into the chaos in the final stage which involved carefully calculated smear campaigns and puppy-eyed guilt trips. I told them that as entertaining as this charade has been, I told Peace Corps that I was bringing Sindi two months ago, so that ship sailed weeks ago.

Back to Life Skills Training, I had high expectations coming off of permagarden training which had a contracted expert to facilitate. Sadly, LST seemed to be thrown together by two fellow PCVs, with none of the content being innovative or original. Luckily, I quickly readjusted my expectations (what’s a PCV if they’re not flexible, right?) and fully enjoyed myself after taking LST for what it was, a free vacation with friends I haven’t seen in a while.

Unfortunately, my vacation was marred by the knowledge that Madagascar, my destination after LST, was in a state of chaos after an attempted coup. Okay, chaos is very relative especially in the developing world and I thought since the State Department hadn’t given Madagascar a travel advisory let alone a travel warning, I should still be allowed to go. A week filled with emails and phone calls ensued with the issue reaching PC Headquarters in DC. The final decision was I could go, sure, but if I did I would be administratively separated or in other words dishonorably discharged.

So I took a few days to wallow in the fact that the plane ticket I bought six months before and the countdown I had going for weeks was not going to happen. Instead, I was slated to go to a weeklong training to plan the next training which included working on Thanksgiving Day.

Also of note, I made sure to add my highly-contagious ringworm to the guest list at my pity party. At this point, I’d had it for about a month with ‘satellites’ starting to pop up right and left. (As I write this three weeks later, there’s no change. I’m convinced I’ll have to be quarantined by US Border Patrol with the rabid dogs and spoiled fruit for an indefinite period of time for any number of diseases I have/will have).

11/20-11/28: This week, in place of a relaxing beach/jungle vacation, was devoted to planning the training for the in-coming group of PCVs. The language facilitators were also invited and the first three days were entirely focused on their roles and responsibilities. You might be surprised that that could possibly take 24 hours but I’ll give you one of many examples as to how that was made possible. A line was read about how the language facilitators cannot date trainees. A discussion ensued that lasted an hour and a half. Hypothetical scenarios were entertained. Role plays were re-enacted. Every possible angle was considered then questions started to repeat themselves. These answers to the same questions led to follow up questions which had also already been answered until I felt like I was in the twilight zone.

I was looking forward to Thursday and Friday when my presence was actually needed. So early on Thanksgiving morning we started training by brainstorming possible language topics to be covered at the next training. I raise my hand, “Is it possible to use previous trainings’ topics as a guide. If a topic slips our minds now, it would be difficult to squeeze in later.” This idea seemed to come as quite a surprise to the trainer. “Let’s just do it this way.” And that’s how we planned the entire eight and a half week training, by suggesting ideas for sessions off the tops of our heads. After some begging we were able to see the previous year’s schedule. There were about a dozen crucial lessons that were not on the already packed schedule. I was interested to discover that if you take out the time it takes to herd 40 people around, transport delays and guest speaker tardiness, training days are already pre-planned to run late. So if those issues are added in, what trainees assume are eight hour days, are pre-planned to be ten, but which end up being twelve. This formula is why Pre-Service Training frequently drives people to gouge their own eyes out.

The handful of PCVs involved in training were released early on this national holiday. A few of us were able to go to the Ambassador’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Packing for a vacation in the jungle, I didn’t necessarily come prepared with appropriate attire. Luckily, a fellow PCV brought two dresses so I was able to borrow her back up. The Ambassador’s compound is surrounded by twenty foot concrete walls which are topped with electric fencing. It’s a fortress. It’s so large that there are signs directing you to the various guest homes and activities inside.

We were, somewhat awkwardly, an hour early but the Ambassador graciously entertained us before the other guests arrived. He seemed very approachable and genuinely interested in our work. Next to arrive were nine Marines who guard the Embassy. I played croquet with some of them on one of the front lawns as bocce ball was going on on the lawn beside us. I’m very proud to announce that Kristen and I, as Team Peace Corps, placed in second amongst some very competitive, ruthless Marines who would knock your ball to Timbuktu without a second thought. Other Embassy staff and their families were there along with the Ambassador’s personal family and family friends from the States.

The President’s seal was on everything from the napkins to the glassware. The food was amazing. The best part came later when everyone offered their thanks. This was done casually, not one-by-one around the table, but everyone went none the less. It quickly became emotional as each toast was lifted in honor of someone in such an honest, heartfelt way. Maybe it was because everyone present was away from their country and family on a day in tribute to both but it was incredibly moving to see time and again people humbling themselves to share their thanks with a roomful of strangers.

11/29-11/6: When I got out of the taxi after being gone for two weeks I saw this little dot running full speed ahead from maybe a mile away. As the dot came closer I realized it had both arms spread wide. When it was closer still I recognized it to be Zindle and it looked like she was ready to pass out by the time she reached me. She was so happy she latched on to me, hanging from one of my many bags and wouldn’t let go. When I finally peeled her off me she insisted on dragging one of my bags through the dirt down the path 50 feet or so to our house.
I received the same Prodigal Son reaction at my organization the next day. Every woman sized me up, with debates ensuing on whether I got a bit bigger while I was away, they hoped I did.

Wednesday was World AIDS Day and I tried in vain to plan an event with the children on the feeding scheme. Instead, I was summoned to a community affair where the head table was flanked by banners advertising the South African Police Service’s dog service and negotiation techniques. It was a bit bizarre to say the least but the dancing was amazing. There was a group of about 30 teenage boys and a few girls who were dressed in animal skins and danced to a beat made by eight huge bass drums which were also made out of the skins. The boys lifted their arms as high as possible to hit the drums with such a unison force that it was some of the loudest music I’ve ever heard. Everyone was on their feet screaming in excitement. I could barely contain myself enough to take pictures, especially since I had a few children hanging on me to get a better look. Try to picture the loudest drums you’ve ever heard, paired with half naked dancers stomping to the beat and three hundred people egging them on. It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve experienced thus far.

The rest of the week involved minor episodes including me almost getting mauled by a dog and trying to referee the latest whodunit in respect to the most recent case of missing food. There were more attempts to try to teach this wonderful AIDS stigma lesson I worked hard on and a potential puppet show to follow, none of which got a very warm reception by the staff. I also learned that the kids get out of school a lot earlier than they’re suppose to so I decided to save my World AIDS Day activities for January when more of them will come. Another fun fact I discovered is that my organization closes down for an entire month (12/15-1/15) in honor of Christ’s birth. Lucky for my org, I’m going to be as busy as a bee, as Tshengie says, with a whole slew of enriching activities to plan and funding to pull from thin air.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

10/30-10/31: I was so excited to go to my first Zulu wedding today. I arrived at the house of the friend who invited me and she was nowhere to be found. There are about fifty people living on her family compound which was a bit intimidating to navigate but luckily I quickly found the woman who befriended me during the witch doctor’s coming of age ceremony which was at this woman’s house as well. She was thrilled to see me again and immediately began brainstorming potential ensembles and hair dos for the big event. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do a full wash so instead she put shampoo on my dry hair as a make shift styling product. She took a large chunk of hair out to hang in the front then slicked it back in a tight greasy ponytail. Next, she colored my eyebrows black and put brown face powder on me as a finishing touch. She then dressed me and sent me on my way. Ma Mcineka appeared out of nowhere just as soon as I was finished with my beauty treatments and we walked over to the wedding together.

My friend, again, left me to my own devices almost as soon as we got there. I attempted to make friends right away out of necessity and boredom more than anything else. Sadly, after the novelty of me being a foreigner wore off (which it did rather quickly when they found out I’m not friends with Beyonce or Rhianna) so did their interest in me. After several more circles of the compound I realized that they didn’t necessarily lose interest in me, they just don’t seem to be a very talkative bunch. Each hut I entered, I discovered a small group of people the same age and gender all of whom were sitting together mostly in silence. I grew less panicked that they were ambivalent about my legitimacy in being there and joined them in their silence. I realized after multiple hours of this that we were waiting for the bridal party. The wedding was slated to begin mid-morning and the bridal party was in the adjacent province.

As it started to get late I asked if they were even going to have the wedding today at all. Apparently I had missed the memo that the wedding was now planned for the following day. Everyone, meaning about a hundred people, are now sleeping over for tomorrow’s big event. I was a bit confused because everyone seemed to have brought an overnight bag so I’m still not quite sure what the original plan was. Regardless, I had felt I had invested so much time in witnessing this wedding that I was going to sleep there as well, out of principle. Since there was nothing else to do, I had eaten myself into a food coma had was ready for bed at 6:00. Regrettably I was the only one with such a plan. Weddings are code for men of all ages to get belligerently drunk and for women to be attentive to their beck and call. This might not sway too far from their daily lives except for the excess of alcohol consumed. As you graciously hand out the requested biscuits you are peeling men off you. By early the next day I had stopped replying to any man’s attempt at communication with me, friendly or otherwise.

Halfway through the night nobody has yet gone to bed. I’ve been assigned to sleep in a double bed with my friend and her two children. At midnight there were still fifteen drunk people in our shack. At some point they left and I gratefully snuggled up in my corner of the bed. Ma Mcineka’s husband came in soon afterwards and was not prepared to see a malungu in his bed. I feigned sleep hoping I wouldn’t get booted out of one of the few beds to a straw mat on the floor in some strange room. Luckily, he eventually left to sleep with his friends and after a few hours of sleep I woke up before dawn to what turned out to be twelve hours of hard labor. I helped the women prepare for the wedding, cooking, cleaning, arranging while I avoided the men like the plague. The actual ceremony was really interesting and involved a lot of rituals. First, the bride and her family walked over to the bridal tent while singing songs and carrying the bridal chest. The chest is suppose to signify all her possessions which she is now bringing to her new family. During this time the bride is covered completely by a blanket. There is singing from the groom’s family then from everyone. It’s really lively and circles start forming around people stomping loudly to the music. Just like in the States, the actual ceremony is quite short. After that, the groom and one of his friends (a brother maybe?) dressed up in animal skins and danced some more. Then everyone in the large bridal party is given a blanket, pillow and straw mat which they individually take out of the packaging and curl up in. Then the eating begins.

I finally was able to sneak away after an hour of goodbyes. It was a wonderful day but I was so exhausted and ready to sleep in my own bed. I started walking home with a group of girls ready to take the next bush taxi back home. After an hour and a half of walking up hill against the wind I was wondering if a taxi would ever come. This wedding was in the adjacent village and is a little less than an hour away by taxi. We were still so, so far when one finally came. I was so relieved but felt guilty leaving the girls to walk several more hours in the cold by themselves.

When I got home I was planning on tweaking the grant for my girls’ empowerment sleep away camp and calling it a night. I was getting sick from the slave labor on no sleep and was so disappointed that the ‘fine-tuning’ took five hours. With a trash bin full of used tissues and eyes pried open with toothpicks I turned it in.
It feels so great to have written a $20,000 grant in such pain-staking detail for 88 young women in grades 8-10 and 12 adults. I’m so proud of our programming and what a camp like this can do to change a young woman’s feelings about what she deserves out of life. I also know that what I called slave labor is what women here do every day. I hope to teach these 88 girls that there are other options.

11/1: I woke up still recovering from the flu bug I got from being worn down when I remembered I was scheduled to go on home visits in a far corner of my village. But when I ambled over to the taxi rank I was informed that the taxi going to this section of my village was not going there today, ‘try again tomorrow’ they said. I honestly wasn’t too disappointed but when I turned to leave a woman called me back. I’ve seen her there before, she’s always darting around the taxis serving them food and drinks. She summoned me back to ask if there were any openings at my organization. Sadly, there isn’t, and even the staff on the payroll haven’t been paid in months. She was clearly disappointed. I asked her why she asked because it looked to me as though she’s one of the lucky few that already has a job in this village. We ended up talking for almost an hour and she confided in me all of the sacrifices she makes in working with a dozen young men. Not only is her job description basically to be at their beck and call but they feel entitled to much more than the occasional cup of tea. I told her that what she was telling me was against the law and if she went to the police they would go to jail. She said she knew but that in addition to them perhaps spending a night or two in jail (and a pat on the back from their buddies) she would lose her job and she’s the sole breadwinner in her large family. She said that life here isn’t fair, she goes to church every Sunday, she’s always praying, she’s such a good Christian she says, I should trust her on that, she’s done everything right and for what? This was not a rhetorical question; she was looking for answers. I told her that the price she’s paying to provide for her family is more than unfair and that I wish I had the answers as to why a good Christian who was one of a very small number to pass their high school exams, has drawn such a lot in life. Just then the men started snapping and calling after her and I turned and walked away.

11/2: I felt this renewed sense of purpose today as I was reflecting on my service thus far. I know this is where I should be and there’s so much to do. I don’t want to be too cheesy but I’ve noticed that I’ve written a lot about my struggles and cultural mishaps but there’s a lot of joy here too.

11/3: Today I helped forty orphans and vulnerable children paint for the first time. A few art supplies were donated by the Dutch church who built our building. It was so wonderful. They didn’t know what to do with the paint at first but after a quick tutorial it was all smiles. There were far too many kids for one table worth of paint but the kids painting didn’t want to leave. I started to run out of paper and had to limit the children to two paintings each. The paintings were for a World AIDS Day art competition that is being organized by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer. I will exchange the art created today with another PCV who will display it at her organization. Then all submissions will be sent to the organizer who will pick winners and prizes will be divvied up.

Tshengie came in to observe the event about halfway through. She looked sort of confused and a little annoyed when she asked what the point of this was. Of course I’ve discussed this event with her several times (along with its aims and objectives) but these meetings must have slipped her mind. I told her that the idea is for the children to relax, have fun and express themselves artistically. That statement was returned with a blank stare. I wasn’t hurt. I understand that children’s role in this culture is to help adults and this help usually involves chores like cooking and cleaning. The thought of doing something not out of utility is not a luxury people have here.

I saw how excited the kids were today and I plan on doing art therapy on a weekly basis, I can’t wait!

Friday, October 29, 2010

10/13: Because of my overwhelming schedule I was considering cutting out my weekly training workshops due to lack of attendance. Just as I started talking myself out of feeling guilty about this being my final workshop, every single caregiver shows up. About half of the in-home hospice workers who attended walked an hour or more both ways…in the rain…up and down hills to get there. All my suppressed guilt resurfaced in an instant when I saw how enthralled the packed house was in the lesson and how diligent their note taking was. Today’s lesson covered opportunistic infections. The main topic was TB, of which South Africa has the highest prevalence, and even more importantly the DOTS program. This internationally recognized program focuses on trained community health workers going to clients’ homes who suffer from TB and observing them taking their meds every day. There are myriad reasons why people here die from this disease, which is both entirely preventable and curable, but one of the most common is lack of drug adherence. If you take your medication appropriately you will be asymptomatic for the last four of the six month duration TB drugs are prescribed. This means many people stop taking their medication early because they think they’re cured. So here’s the exciting part: the DOTS program can save people’s lives. If someone cares enough to go to a client’s house every day for six months to watch them take their medication, even if they think witch craft will cure them faster, so that they won’t forget and they won’t quit early, that is one life saved. And there are a lot of people here infected with TB, just think of the possibilities.

Also worthy of mentioning is the topic of dehydration and diarrhea. Ready for the clincher: I facilitated a discussion on oral rehydration salts, which includes clean, boiled water, salt and sugar. This miracle concoction will help people who are severely dehydrated recover far quicker than mere water could.

I was so excited that everyone was present to hear about wound cleaning and hand washing, about when to refer clients to the doctor and when they should just rest at home. I actually could barely stand it and would just burst out, “this could save people’s lives!!” more times than I’d like to admit. Even after a crash course in public health, or perhaps because of, everyone seemed hungry for more. No rest for the weary.

10/14: So I arrived at my organization today to see the entire structure under four inches of water. All of my co-workers were in bare feet with their skirts hiked up, whisking away the water with straw brooms. I whisked with them with my long underwear rolled up and my skirt tied in a knot at the knees for four hours before the damage was under control. The most frustrating part wasn’t that the morning was lost to physical labor but why it was lost in the first place. As I mentioned earlier, our new building was built by a high school Dutch youth group. I’m not sure if they’re unaware of the necessity of a level foundation over there in that law-less nation but here in the middle of the bush everyone seems pretty well versed in the logistics of the rainy season and the cause and effect relationship rain has on the lack of a drainage system.

Another stressor has been all of the recent complications that have come out of my attempt at funding the girls’ empowerment sleep away camp. Two out of the four members of the planning team are on vacation and unable to be contacted. They assumed that since the grant application was written and the activities loosely planned that it was perfectly reasonable to visit their boyfriend and daughters, respectively. On the contrary, I’m trying to dodge the rain seeping into my hut as I struggle to pull out a miracle in respect to a low cost venue and transport. It’s now looking pretty grim.

10/15: The mother bear project has also turned into a bit of a logistical nightmare. Due to our endless lack of funding, we can’t have an event to celebrate this donation. The easiest and most sensible way to donate 150 teddy bears would be to gather all the children in one place and announce their names through someone’s karaoke machine. Unfortunately, that ostensibly flawless idea runs into the immediate roadblock of the need for food to feed all these children after they receive their bear. As I’ve learned long ago, food is a nonnegotiable. With that said, I turned to the less-than-desirable idea to hand deliver each bear to everyone in the greater-Nondweni area. I, o f course, would need to be witness to each encounter to take the photos as required by the funder and to not play favorites. So I made a make-shift schedule that basically sold my soul for the next three weeks and I’m really excited about it. No, seriously I am.

10/16: A neighbor of a family in a surrounding village asked for help from Zamimpilo a few weeks ago. A few members of my org went and reported back the dire conditions that this child-headed household was living in. Overwhelmed, they passed the buck to the superhero team of Isibindi rock stars who flew in to save the day with their shiny umbrellas and nice new coats, who has coats?! They described such a bleak situation only a malungu could help. So I came prepared with the only triage tools at my disposal: teddy bears, shoes worn as part of the school uniform, shoes donated from my church back home and a few packs of peanut m&ms that I regretfully sacrificed from one of my care packages.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned about the gravity of the situation, we even had a summit meeting on the issue with the Isibindi task force days before the big day. Maybe because I’ve been immersed in abject poverty for almost a year now that I thought I’d seen the worst or perhaps that I live through some of the worst every day. As soon as I think I’ve found the worst of the worst, the bottom drops out and you come to redefine the definition of cruel and unusual punishment and the desperate acts people succumb to when there’s no one to turn to, nowhere to go, no hope in sight.
Not only were these children, and children they were, living in filth, on one dirty mattress, smelly with ratty hair, but the oldest, Fezeka, had no more life in her. She was so ashamed of her situation that she covered her face for the entirety of my four hours with her. I saw a young woman who had sacrificed far more than anybody should ever have to surrender, her pride, her body, her soul, in a feeble attempt at survival for herself and her brothers.

Looking at these children shivering in their tattered clothes, no shoes, under the roof strewn with gaping holes, I tried to sweep up some of the physical evidence of poverty. I straightened up their shack, swept their floor, smoothed the blankets into crisp lines, threw out the bath water. I gave Fezeka the shoes, teddy bears and candy. This time I was the one covering my face in shame for clearly this was a situation that called for more than a few packets of m&ms. All life had so plainly been sucked out of her long ago that she barely acknowledged this paltry offering.
The government gives grants to child-headed households but like so often happens with the cards stacked against you at birth, this grant seems forever out of this family’s reach. Because Fezeka was born at home and doesn’t have a birth certificate or state ID and since both her parents are dead (they also didn’t have IDs) it is nearly impossible for her to receive one at this point. No ID no grant. Fortunately, there’s a light at the end of this bleak, bleak tunnel. Once hoards of hoops are jumped threw and lots of bureaucratic red tape cut, it is possible, in theory, for the 15 year old, who has an ID, to receive the grant…maybe in one or two years if everything goes according to plan. Let the mounds of paperwork begin.
10/17: Today I woke up to a slew of dead chicks on my compound. The corpses were watched over all morning by their siblings who were clearly devastated. I even tried to shoo them away from the limbs and squished heads but it was like a bad car accident. I could almost see them shamefully sneaking peeks of the destruction on their tip toes, making sure no one was looking as they scurried over to the scene of the crime. Thankfully my go go took care of the burial process because if I stared at the damage much longer I was sure I was going to throw up.

10/18: So today was my first of three weeks’ worth of home visits. I was forewarned that this trek would involve fording no less than three rivers, the prospect of which was exciting to me if for no other reason other than to reenact the Oregon Trail computer game. It took two bush taxis an hour and a half to reach our meeting point. It was then that I realized if I wanted to walk back I probably should turn back now. The home visits were a bit of a bust. There seemed to be a miscommunication with the in-home hospice worker I was accompanying. There was no real plan on the teddy bear delivery, we sort of just roamed around from house to house looking for small children, most of whom were in school. She lived so far away I could only catch taxis at specific times of day, so I had to start well before children are let off school. It worked out that children received a little token they’ll cherish for years to come but I’m not convinced they were given to the ones most in need or that this system in the best use of my time. Can’t win’em all.
10/19: Today I was stopped by Musa, the community social worker, on my way to work. He said that I needed to leave my go go’s house as soon as possible. I said that I knew the situation. I knew that I was living in the ancestral home which is typically reserved for ceremonies and the fact that I’m disturbing the spirits of generations of Hadebes is upsetting my go go. A witch doctor blamed the aforementioned statement on why my go go’s son hasn’t gotten a job. In my defense as supposed spirit meddler and bad luck bringer, she knew I was moving into the ancestral home when I came. She knew she would have to do her ceremonies and sacrifices elsewhere if she wanted to host me. She agreed to the terms. The real reason, of course, is that she wants money, a lot of money. I’ve talked so much about this that there’s no need to be redundant, just know that she thought she won the lottery by hosting me. Boy was I a disappointment.

But Musa seemed insistent that I understood the urgency of the situation. I immediately relayed the message to Tshengie who somehow already knew. I swear that woman knows what I’m going to do before I do it. Anyway, after much flip flopping it seems that my go go has made her decision. The traumatic part is that she pulled an unrelated party into the mess and this person felt the need to pick sides and apparently he’s not in my corner. I also found out today that she’s been soliciting votes for a popularity contest in which the competitors are myself and her. She’s been playing dirty and in an effort to pull out the big guns she spread a rumor that I promised her rent money and now I’m refusing to pay up. I’m now getting creamed in the polls.

In all seriousness, Musa promised her that I would be out of my house tomorrow. This decision was made without my consent or informing my organization who is responsible for my housing. Since it’s Wednesday, I was in a workshop all day teaching the in-home hospice workers about STIs and condoms and had no idea what was happening outside my make-shift classroom. I was called into the reception area while I was in the middle of showing them worst-case-scenario STI pictures to scare them straight about the importance of condoms (and no I have no shame about doing such a thing, with a 40% HIV infection rate I’d run around naked if it meant people would actually wear the one thing that could save their life). Anyway, I quickly realized that I walked in on a meeting where everyone was talking about me as if I wasn’t there. They had decided that I would, in fact, move out tomorrow morning and that I would move in with Sindi, the chairperson who has stolen all our money, and who lives in the township. Again, just as was the case with Sonto, this housing arrangement breaks all three of the Peace Corps rules: 1: you can’t live with a co-worker 2: you can’t live in the bedroom of the family’s home 3: you can’t live in the township (government housing or shacks that were built one right on top of the next during apartheid when they forced all the Black people to move off the fertile farmland and onto the rocky hillside).

I explained as best I could to Tshengie that even though I have the vocabulary of a first grader, I am not a child, and it’s upsetting to me that my co-workers made such an important decision without even consulting me. It’s disappointing to see them seemingly not respect me as a fellow woman but rather has an outside entity an ‘it’ that is as fragile as a flower and has a brain the size of a pea.
Seeing this was not working I tried a different approach. I rationalized, to a different perhaps more empathetic audience, (okay the guy has begged to pay my bride price since I got here, don’t judge me I was desperate!) that Peace Corps needs to approve my housing before I move and this rule is for my safety, all of which is true. So I shamelessly pulled the damsel in distress card which bought me some more time in my current house to figure things out.

10/20: Though my go go’s disappointment in her lack of cash return on our housing deal has been a long time coming, I have to say what happened today blew me away. Tshengie and Mpostol came to talk to my go go today after work. They had a long talk in which my go go rattled off a laundry list of complaints about her foreign house guest. Though there are too many to mention here some of the most hurtful involved attacking my character. She not only told my supervisors that I neglect her grandchild but that I do so perpetually drunk and because I’m constantly sleeping around with random men in the community. She gave an exhaustive list of men I had allegedly had sex with and I was shocked at how specific her evidence was. In addition to naming names, she cited examples such as the time a few weeks ago when I came out of the pit latrine and screamed when a wild dog was bounding after me. This demonstrated, in her mind, that I was having a good time with a man in my hut. I honestly was in shock when she went on to explain to my supervisors that I also travel to the surrounding villages and nearby towns to sleep with strangers. She continued to create lies surrounding my alcohol problem and my never-ending issue of leaving Zindle and her friends to fend for themselves. After going on for over an hour, she ended by saying that even though this woman is clearly a hopeless case; I’ve somehow found it in my heart to continue to house her. It was all I could do to hold off the tears until I closed the door.

10/21: I became physically sick when I found out that these lies have been spread like a virus far past our barbed wire fence. I asked some of the Caregivers at my org and they all said that those rumors are old news. When I asked for a status update from my friends who promised to do some preliminary housing searches for me they all said that they couldn’t find anyone who was interested in hosting someone with such a glaring scarlet letter.

I am completely devastated that someone I considered a part of my family would betray me so catastrophically. There is nothing I’ve worked harder to do than to earn people’s trust as a white person in post-apartheid South Africa. With my reputation ruined, I fear that people will start looking right through me, as if they don’t see me, my newfound stigma like some contagious disease they don’t want to catch. I can already feel everyone’s eyes on me, looking for clues to see if it’s really true.

What is more heartbreaking is that my go go stands to gain nothing from this smear campaign other than the knowledge or satisfaction of knowing she, alone, destroyed me. It’s so cruel and hurtful, so vindictive that even though I know there’s nothing I continue to search for clues as to why I deserve such a punishment.
I could pack up and go, move to another village, it’s within Peace Corps policy but I’ve done nothing wrong. I have faith that the truth will prevail, that people will eventually come around. I’m also not fighting this battle alone; every single person at my organization is in my corner 100%. In a lot of ways I’ve never felt so loved. Because I didn’t come here to win a popularity contest, I plan on staying, make them wonder why I’m still smiling. My conscience is clear. I have no time to waste on petty gossip; my actions will tell the story. In the meantime, I have work to do.

10/22: My go go explained to me that she went to see a witch today who proceeded to tell her that a jealous person in the community has cast a spell on her. This jealous person wants the foreigner to stay with them so the spell was cast so that I would move out of my go go’s house and into hers. Since I adore my home-stay family the only way for this to happen was for my go go to drive me away. Now that she’s aware of the curse, the witch absolved the hex and my go go now would like me to stay. I honestly don’t know what to think but she did bake me jeqe (bread) and braided my hair as apparent atonement for her sins.

10/23: Today I went to New Castle which is a few towns over to see one of my good friends. Even though my attempt at soliciting donations for Camp GLOW was a bit of a bust, it was so wonderful to be around such positive people.

10/24: Zindle does this thing where she hides in the same corner of my hut, usually when I’m in the pit latrine, then pops out ready to scare me. What’s so funny about this is that my sisters and I used to always hide in the same spot for my Grandmother when we were little; I guess some things about childhood are universal. Today she was hiding in her usual spot but she didn’t jump out when I came in, instead she sat there curled up in a little ball crying. My go go is not always as affectionate a caregiver as can be but in her defense she didn’t sign up for a second round of parenting. Regardless, I rock Zindle in my arms until she calms down then lay her down so that I can make her some hot tea. When I turn around to suggest watching an episode of Glee (we both have seen one episode and immediately fell in love) she was already asleep. I hope nobody asks me to take this child back with me to the States because it’ll be awfully hard for me to turn them down.

10/25: So today I fell in love with Tshengie all over again. Not only do I love how she talks about herself in the third person, how she’s always describing herself as ‘nice and cool’ but she’s so passionate about the work we do. She might have the attention span of a small dog, distracted by the slightest disruption but she’s really just pulled in too many directions and doesn’t know how to delegate. She uses her personal money to go to trainings and lends out even more money to her co-workers who are struggling. I really hope she’s proud of me.

10/26: I had so much nervous energy from too many cups of tea that I left work early so I could go run around the block a few times. I’m so excited that Camp GLOW is coming together I can barely stand it. And it’s perfect timing because our grant is due next week.

10/27: Today was the last of the series of workshops I wrote the curriculum for and co-facilitated. The topic for the day was how to form a support group. Even though it got a lukewarm reception at best perhaps just one trainee was inspired to start her own group. I’ll probably never know because of the silence and denial that is so ingrained in this culture concerning the AIDS epidemic but I’d like to think one of those lovely ladies might have felt empowered to mobilize a group of people going through a similar life change.

10/28: Today I found out that my grandmother passed away the night before. I can’t find anything else worth mentioning.

10/29: I love the rituals of death and dying. I take comfort in the predictability and constancy of families from near and far congregating together to devote a few days to honoring someone’s legacy. I love that the clothing you wear can be an outward display of your loss. I love how after everyone has stuffed themselves to the gills with a plethora of casserole dishes the story-telling inevitably begins. This is my favorite part. I love filling in the gaps of someone’s life story. I love learning about their quirks, their skeletons, their life before I was born. But I will miss this ceremony: the stories, the clothes, the family. I tried to have my own private service but I found myself yearning for the people that knew her best. I’m so homesick and sad that I will miss the public celebration of her life. I have typed and erased a dozen sentences to put a positive spin on the sadness and loneliness of being away during a loss. There isn’t any.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

10/2-10/6: So I have spent the better part of ten months explaining the fact that even though my skin is white in color, I only receive a small stipend and am in effect a volunteer. All progress on this tidbit of cultural exchange was lost after I took a member of my organization to a Peace Corps training this week. Since PEPFAR has far more money than they know what to do with, PC decided to hold our training at a hotel and conference center akin to that of the Four Seasons. Not only were amenities such as a pool, sauna, beach volleyball and kayaking down the adjacent river some of the many that were offered, they also provided three palatial feasts a day that involved multiple rooms and presented some of the best food I’ve ever had. And if the slightest inkling of hunger happened to creep up on you between the banquets, delicate works of art covered in sugar and fresh fruit were displayed with morning and afternoon tea. Although this decadence was a welcome reprieve from my diet of rice and boiled chicken and my bucket baths where after much internal coercion I jump in shaking like a leaf, I can’t help but think how contrary to the goals of Peace Corps such a lavish training is. It’s also upsetting to realize the likelihood my counterpart believes in my hypocrisy. After insisting for almost a year that I don’t have piles of money I can just FedEx here to solve the world’s problems, rather I have something much better to give, my skills!, I’m now afraid all that work has been lost. What message does it send to rural villagers travelling halfway across the country to see such in-your-face wealth and to know they will soon be back working for $1-$2 a day? Perhaps it’s an opportunity they might never again experience, something they will always treasure, rather than something to be resented. I hope it’s the former.

Regardless of the necessity of such extravagant amenities, the actual training was absolutely wonderful and I would honestly do it again next week if I could. An American staff member of Peace Corps Tanzania came to educate about half of my training class on a new small-scale farming technique proven to increase your yields as much as tenfold.

Nobody likes a handout. Men feel a certain pride in caring for their families, going back to the days of the hunter/gathers. If this role is taken away from them by means of government grants which instead of providing support based on income status, gives money for the amount of children you have. So in a rural village that has a 90% unemployment rate the only way of income is through childbirth. I have never seen a clearer example of a government rewarding bad behavior. So the men who were once occupied all day in the work force now have plenty of time to make bad choices that include but aren’t limited to drinking obscene amounts of alcohol and committing gender-based crime.

I believe in bringing back the honor of the breadwinner; empowering the people of my community to take control of their own lives. I think part of the answer lies in improving their small-scale farming. Though this new technique of double digging for better root growth, re-routing water for drought and flood prevention and crop formation isn’t a miracle cure, it is, though, a start in food security. And with 70% of families in South Africa being food insecure throughout the year, these are skills I could teach that could literally change people’s lives. One of my co-workers told me of a community garden that was started by elderly women in the area. I think that’s the perfect place to start.

10/11: Today I found out that my go go is no longer interested in housing me during a staff meeting in Zulu. This topic was brought up as an issue needing to be addressed as if I was not in the room. As if I hadn’t spent every day of the past eight months with people I considered my second family. The problem was seemingly resolved after a two minute discussion which ended in all three of the Peace Corps housing rules being broken: PCVs cannot stay in the same house as the family, in a township and/or with a co-worker. When this was mentioned, several members of the organization walked out on the meeting in disgust at my demands.

Even though I was well aware of the various issues my go go had with me staying on her compound, mainly that I wasn’t paying rent and that I was staying in the hut where she typically performed her ceremonies, I never actually thought I’d have to move. I’m so heartbroken. I know in my heart of hearts that I couldn’t have possibly given her or Zindle more of my time or energy and I also know that that’s not what she was looking for. I thought our bond was stronger than the lust for money and her intentions purer but after a lifetime of poverty the draw of wealth is infectious. In the end, her disappointment in my lack of delivery was palpable and I can’t help but think I’ve failed her.

In my most busy month to date, I now have to add ‘convince new host family to house me for free for a year and a half’ to my list of things to do. Wish me luck.

Friday, October 1, 2010

9/21: Busi asked me how many new Zulu words I learned last week in her absence as she prepared for a funeral and I answered honestly, 15. “15?! You are lazy! Why are you so lazy?! You must study more!” I almost started crying as I tried to justify my priorities in immersing myself in the workshops for the caregivers. She was unimpressed. “You must try harder.” I continued in vain to try to articulate that, in fact, this organization and this community is all I ever think about, then I go to bed and dream about it but she had already walked away.

9/22: I had my second real contact with an Afrikaaner today and it was hilarious. She came to our new building which was funded by a Dutch church because the other half of our new building is a church as well. She would talk in English and the caregivers would just stare blankly back at her nodding and repeating, "Yes, yes." She then would insert a slow and condescending 'yebo' (yes) every once in a while for cultural integration purposes. I think I laughed for an hour straight watching everyone take turns imitating her afterwards. I then made sure to remind everyone that contrary to appearances, I’m not actually a White person and do not wish to be associated with that mess of a White lady but in fact am Zulu like them. Everyone agreed.

So I was about to slide into bed at my usual 9:00pm deadline when I completely forgot to document the true joy that happened today: my HIV/AIDS and ARVs workshop!! Not only did several more ladies come but Mpostol was just as dynamic of a facilitator as ever. He, once again, was a no-show for our train the trainer day yesterday but I also realized recently that he’s not really on strike in solidarity with the public sector but the Chairperson at my organization stole his monthly stipend…on accident if you can believe it and he can’t afford the bush taxi commute with no money coming in. The theft is a whole other story but the Cliff notes version is that she meant to steal the money for the food parcels we give out monthly to starving families but she didn’t realize that since the public sector was on strike we didn’t get that money and only Mpostol’s stipend was in the bank account, which for some reason is given in six month lump sums. At any rate, he made it today and early enough for me to go over everything I wanted to articulate to him yesterday. Everyone was participating and taking diligent notes…and learning!!! I was a part of the learning process; it was wonderful. My cheeks hurt I was smiling so much in the corner of the room. It was also reassuring to know that since the high majority of these women are HIV positive themselves, they can now better understand what’s happening and what will happen with their bodies in a very non-threatening environment.

9/23: After walking for over an hour uphill to the ‘local’ junior high I realized that the bag of eggs I purchased from a lady three days ago was still in my bag. How did this dawn on me well into my epic journey, you might ask. Well, one of them broke and quickly covered the entire bottom of my bag and started dripping down my leg as I continued to trek up the dirt path. See, I still had a half hour to go and another school to visit after that so I had no time to do a quick bag switcheroo let alone a head to toe Salmonella sanitation. I talked to the principals of both the junior high and high school about Camp GLOW and they were both really excited about it, which of course made me excited as well. Though I have to admit it was difficult to keep a straight face when talking to the principal of the high school, which of course was located on seemingly the opposite side of the earth from the junior high.

Heritage Day is tomorrow and it’s a public holiday where everyone dresses in traditional clothing and celebrates their culture. Well, since schools are closed tomorrow the high school celebrated today. The principal wore a sleeveless skin tight leopard print shirt, huge bedazzled earrings that rested on his shoulders, a rainbow scarf draped gracefully around his neck and pants with colorful patches of fringe going every which way. Next to me was a student wearing a lacy, transparent bra and lots of beads, including a beaded square that was conveniently placed below her waist, and nothing else. This wouldn’t have fazed me in the slightest if it wasn’t for the formality of the school setting. It was quite the contradiction though we proceeded to talk about the importance of girls’ empowerment for almost an hour. Other young girls in nothing but beads and lacy bras also came in and out to give their two cents, definitely a successful meeting.

Post script: Yes, I’m well aware of how thoroughly I’ve documented my absent-mindedness and yes, I’m also looking into investing in a more competent shadow than Zindle, to make sure that when, not if, I forget my own name, they’ll be there to remind me.

9/24: So as mentioned earlier, today is Heritage Day. As the reliable friend that it is, my radio explained to me in detail all the wonderful activities to be had during this special holiday in Durban the lovely beach town and provincial capital. I was convinced. As if I needed another reason to go other than my radio told me to, one of my fellow Peace Corps friends was celebrating his 31st birthday there and invited everyone to join in on the festivities. Angie and I decided to be travel buddies and planned to meet in our shopping town so we could catch the same bush taxi to Durban. Well I got there rather early, due to my false sense of security and wayward decision making facilitating my hitch hiking with random strangers. In my defense, they were clean cut and spoke impeccable English. (Criminals never have good fashion sense let alone are fluent in other languages). Anyway, I held down the fort for us, clearly blocking two spaces in the taxi while I read, “Prodigal Summer” by: Barbara Kingsolver, which is an amazing book by the way. Two hours later, Angie was still MIA and the taxi was almost full. I started obsessively calling her but I couldn’t communicate because I somehow put a hands-free setting on my phone that I was unable to alter. Thus began my shameless stall tactics. First was a mosey to the ATM, followed by a bathroom stop at the swamp of stagnant sewage that is designated for defecation. The taxi driver was not amused and waved me over from 100 yards away. I hurriedly explained my dilemma, far from sympathetic, he quickly had two more passengers filling our spots. I then repeated my routine in the next taxi, marking my territory and Angie’s as I watched the first taxi leave. I tried not to think about how long this new taxi would take to fill up in mid-morning but it eventually did and Angie eventually came. This is Africa after all, everything eventually works out, just maybe a little later than expected. Because of the plague that is large-group indecision, we never got around to the Heritage Day activities but we did go to a delightful Italian restaurant at 8:30pm (my bedtime!) This was followed by an absolutely packed, posh night club where I felt a bit out of place with my ratty hair, head scarf and ankle-length skirt. I tried to act normal, which is not so easy with hairy arm pits and forgotten social skills. The flashing lights made me dizzy and I wished I never agreed to be reminded of how the other half lives.

9/25: My friends and I stayed at a hostel in the high-end district of Durban and chanced upon a charming market with amazing little booths, many of which sold food that looked like art. It was dreary and rainy all day though I kept my bathing suit on just in case. (This subtle hint to the gods went unnoticed). As soon as it became clear that the weather wasn’t going to get better and the market was closing up shop we continued our shopping extravaganza at a different location. Though I didn’t do many of the things I set out to do this weekend in Durban (celebrate Heritage Day, vegetate on the beach) I did get one thing crossed off: have gigantic, gluttonous meal in honor of fellow PCV’s birth. With that said, I’m leaving Durban quite satisfied.

9/26: I left Durban’s sunny, cloudless sky to spend the day baking in a cramped bush taxi with no air circulation. The funny part is there are windows on these bush taxis but as soon as the engine’s turned on, you can hear the click, click, click of them all closing at once. I’m at a loss to the rationale behind this unnecessary suffering but at about hour five I begged someone to open a window just a crack as we wound up and down hills at lightning speed. I eventually stumbled out of the taxi in a mess of heat exhaustion and dehydration and quite literally peeled off my clothes, rang out the sweat, and went to bed.

9/27: Today I woke up with a head cold not helped by the plunge in temperature. I put on my standard three layers on top and bottom to work at my unheated, un-insulated wind tunnel of an organization. It took me quite awhile to question why I dragged my half-dead body to work on a freezing Monday only to vegetate with a mound of tissues and a pounding headache. Was I saving up my sick days to go to an afternoon Cubs game? The light bulb went on so I left so as to not further infect a population with an already weak immune system, not to mention my general sanity. Also of note, I made a genuine search for possible Nyquil purchase anywhere in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal to be shipped to the hut sending distress calls via smoke signal. I would currently give both pinky toes for one dose of that wonderful drug. What function do pinky toes present anyway; what asset or assistance do they provide? It seems like more than a fair trade for anyone interested in a few extra toes. Will keep you posted on my findings.

9/28: I had one of the most delightful conversations with my sister today, I just couldn’t stop smiling for hours after, it was quite awkward really.
9/29: I’ve talked to several people recently who don’t seem to have the foggiest idea what I’m doing over here in the boondocks. Buzz words like ‘capacity building’ and ‘investing in human capitol’ don’t clarify things? Assuming that’s clear as mud I’ll go ahead and elaborate. So today was my third workshop in a seemingly endless series of workshops to train the in-home hospice care workers at my organization. I developed the curriculum and have attempted to train the know-it-all facilitator to well, facilitate them. Today’s topic was psycho-social support: asking open-ended questions, reflecting feelings, paraphrasing and how to overcome the awkwardness of talking to a terminally-ill client complete with role plays. Also on the docket in this two-fur was memory boxes. I heard about this wonderful idea through our partner organization, Isibindi, but since these two organizations, though housed in the same facility, don’t speak, I added that in. Memory boxes are usually used as a tool for dying parents to continue their legacy to their children. Typical items include letters to their children, photos and important documents that the soon-to-be orphans will not misplace like a birth/death certificate. Unfortunately, the attendance to my lovely workshops has been abhorrent, which is ironic seeing as though all the Caregivers begged me for this. But I continue on, dragging the facilitator in the room by the elbow while explaining, “We could teach someone, something that could completely change their life. What if someone sat here today and took her newfound active listening skills to a client who has no one? Who’s ostracized because of her status and the one person not scared to catch HIV from her is one of these amazing women huddled in the corner scared to go near the over-enthusiastic white girl who’s had three cups of tea before 10:00? It’s possible, right?” Right?

9/30: So today I went into town and I had four large packages waiting for me at the infamous Post Office. One was from my family but the remaining three were filled to the gills with hand-knit teddy bears from the Mother Bear Project. After I eventually got them all to the taxi rank I was using one of them as a seat as someone approached me. This woman, Thembe, came to Zamimpilo half a dozen times asking me for help with a project she was doing for a one year training program to be a nurse or social worker’s assistant. I saw her at the rank and her hands were shaking. I asked her what was wrong and she said that her mother just died that morning. She said that she’s the oldest and that she has so many siblings and they’re all orphans now. It seemed as though things just started to sink in as she sat on one of my make-shift chairs. She didn’t know how they were going to make it. I was shocked to see her crying in public. This went so much against the Zulu culture it almost made me feel uncomfortable, a pseudo-Zulu. I felt so sad for her then. Here she was, one of the few women who make it into one of these programs and was on her way to bigger and better things when the matriarch of her family dies and by cultural obligation she needs to take over. She was so close. Rarely can people even taste the freedom she must have tasted in knowing she might soon get out of poverty. I tried to lift her spirits but she was devastated both for the loss of her mother and for the life she could have lived.

When I got home I was so excited to present my first teddy bear to Zindle, I thought it was only fair, she is an AIDS orphan after all. I could tell she was excited but she didn’t show the amount of emotion I expected. I was a bit disappointed to be honest, it was somewhat anti-climactic. Then I watched for the rest of the afternoon as she dragged that teddy bear everywhere and when she wanted both her hands free she tied it to her back as the women here do with their children. I even caught her nodding her head saying, “Uh-huh, yebo (yes)” on my front stoop while she was having a conversation with her new found friend.

10/1: If I realized I would be hit from all sides with one frustrating thing after another I would have stayed in bed. The list is too long and depressing to mention. Many items on the list stem from the life-long persecution of Black South Africans and subsequent inability to live comfortable lives. This leads many to beg, borrow and steal. Because they grew up with white men and women constantly putting them down, they are very critical of me, perhaps as a sort of sub-conscious revenge. I accept this as a form of collateral damage of their suffering. I trust that I’m doing the best I can and I have faith that they will see that one day too. I think it’s just hard for them to fathom a malungu that doesn’t own a Porshe, they all do in the movies after all. And they assume that I could (and should) channel some of my billions to their need for a car, new house, shoes, cute t-shirt, stipends for the in-home hospice workers etc, etc. Many, most especially my home-stay family, are growing impatient with my ‘fa├žade’ as a Volunteer and are ready to be bankrolled into the next millennia. Little do they know they’ll be waiting awhile; I’m counting my pennies just as much as they are haha.

I have to say that even on days like today where I feel so worn down, there are so many things that I love about this place that I never want to leave. I would just maybe request the ant colony to stop blanketing all my belongings and perhaps the alleviation of the petty theft going on at my org and the apathy towards all projects I implement. Okay, okay it’s not perfect but I still love it. : )

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Monday, September 20, 2010

9/3: Today is day one of two days devoted to planning Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). Clearly, it will take more than two days to plan a week long sleep-away camp but it’s a start. Angie and Leah are sleeping over at my place so we can get as much work done as possible. I think I discussed the idea of Camp GLOW earlier but it’s one of Peace Corps’s initiatives for gender and development. The plan is to take 20 female leaders in grades 8-10 from each of our communities and empower them to look past their challenges and embrace another option. The option being presented to them is success, education, family planning and confidence. Self reliance, independence, joy. If you take away every educational opportunity planned during the week you will have what I hope will be an amazing camp experience. I look back on my camp experiences as some of my fondest childhood memories. I would love to bring these young women that feeling of joy and camaraderie too. I think we can do that and much, much more. I want to teach them about their rights to their bodies and their rights to fight back. There’s a whole world out there and lots of scholarships waiting to help you experience it. I was ready with plenty of ideas for potential workshops but we ended up discussing how much (or little) people were willing to put into this project. The tense planning meeting resulted in me doubting how the different personalities and visions of my two best friends and I could ever be meshed into a functional camp. I then realized that not only was it not about me but that any help is important in a project this large. Unfortunately, we never quite got around to the actual camp. We have another sleep over planning session slated for next Friday so I’m hoping that one will be more productive.

9/4: So earlier this week my go go requested her electric cord back. She strung a cord outside from her house to mine which has one plug attached to the end for my electricity. She suggested that I take this down, buy myself another cord, and have a young boy install it. “Very cheap, Lindelwa.” I told her what might be easier is if she tells me how many meters of cord she needs and I go buy her that amount instead of uninstalling and reinstalling my existing electricity. This seemed to satisfy her. A few days later she said she needed my bed. I asked her what I would sleep on and she said it’s not her problem. After going back and forth for quite some time I was able to deduce that the girlfriend of one of her sons that passed away has also just passed. She left a child who will be coming to stay with us so she needs the bed. This would be more than reasonable if there wasn’t already a bed that was unused in my go go’s house. If this wasn’t shocking enough, the following day she said that she needs rent from me as well. In an indirect culture I’ve been trying to see what I did to upset her. This could be her way of telling me she’s angry at me for something completely unrelated to our housing agreement. Ironically, our relationship has been great, which made this whole debacle even more hurtful. Zindle is over at my house every day and does all but sleep here. My go go and I drink tea at my house every day and spend a good amount of time chatting on a daily basis. Is she now just my landlord? I thought I was part of the family. I can buy a new cord, bed and monthly rent but when I asked her why she was doing this she said, “You aren’t a part of the family, I don’t love you.” To make matters worse, last night there was a drunk man at my door who wouldn’t go away. I locked my flimsy door but my burglar gate wasn’t locked because Angie had just come back in. He was shaking the door handle and yelling. I finally called my go go’s cell phone and she said she knows what’s happening. Her window’s open, she’s been watching this whole time. I tried to articulate as clearly as possible that this incident is upsetting and I would like her to help get this man to leave. Not only did she not help me but she was yelling at me for forgetting to lock my burglar bars. She finally did help me but I felt so hurt that I almost had to beg her to do so. She could hear my tone of voice and those of my friends; she knew we were rattled by this. And she stood by and watched it happen? This whole week has made me feel so betrayed by the woman I devoted so much of my time to and who always treated me as one of her own. Later on she made sure I knew how hurt Zindle and her friends were that she couldn’t spend all day yesterday and today with my friends and I. I tried to explain that four five year olds does not make for a conducive work environment. Well, apparently I wasn’t convincing enough because Zindle and her friends banged on my door on 20 minute intervals all day. When my friends left, I was so exhausted by the blatant disregard of my boundaries that the next time the girls banged on my door I spouted off as many angry phrases as I could muster and locked the door. Zindle sat on my front stoop and cried for an hour. After stumbling back into my house in a haze of guilt and sheer weariness I attempted to compile all my Christian music into one playlist which somehow resulted in half of it being deleted in the process. This brings us to my breaking point where I cried until I had no more tears left to shed.

9/5: Today all I wanted to do was hole up in my hut and wallow in my own misery while dreaming of quesadillas and milkshakes but alas I had a coming of age ceremony for a sangoma (witch doctor) to attend so I had to cut my pity party short. This ceremony was in the next village over so I needed to take a short bush taxi ride to get there. I was given the directions from Tshengie to get on the taxi and ask to be taken to the Majola family compound. There find someone to take you to the Mcineka compound. So I was going in pretty blind here. I waited so long for a taxi to arrive that I thought perhaps they’d joined the strike as they’d been threatening to do since its inception so I hitchhiked with people that said they knew where this family lived. Well they didn’t. I sat in the back of a pickup truck for an hour on top of a crate of beer bottles. Though the truck bed was caked in dirt I would have much preferred the floor if it wouldn’t have been so socially unacceptable. After being dropped off in the middle of a market (definitely not the Majola compound) I asked the crowd of people in the taxi heading back to my village if they knew this family’s location before getting in. I felt more confident that I was going to get there this time. Sure enough I was dropped off in the right location. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anyone just roaming around ready to take me from this compound to the Mcinekas’. I then stood on the side of the dirt road in a mixture of confusion and panic for what felt like hours before I saw a few women in the distance who I proceeded to run to with flailing arms as if I was being rescued from a deserted island. After I caught my breath I was able to ask for directions and was assured I could follow them because they were going to the same party. Relieved that I wasn’t going to die alone, my starved body being ravaged by wild dogs, I followed them to what turned out to be quite the experience. As I walked into the compound which was composed of seven or eight mud homes with thatched roofs, several horses, chickens, goats and cows and more people than I could count, I was bombarded with a herd of children. I immediately had three holding each hand and half a dozen stragglers dragging behind me while holding a piece of my skirt. My guides didn’t want anything to do with this bizarre celebrity and quickly made themselves scarce. I was trying to find the one woman I knew amongst the masses and stumbled upon a woman who proceeded to pry my entourage off of me in time to once again, “make me pretty.” As I’ve now come to expect, she poured boiling water over my head then dumped half a bottle of shampoo over it then came an equally scalding rinse session. After that, moisturizer was rubbed through my hair, followed by lots and lots of baby oil. Next came the blow dryer where she combed out my waves to create a ring of frizz. The final touch was a bright pink infant sized elastic headband with a large bow in the front. My audience of bathing women and snotty nosed children loved it. The next step in the beautification process was clothing. This mystery friend of mine dressed me in a child sized shirt that did not quite cover my stomach…at all. She then scurried into yet another room to find a pair of heels that she had never worn. I couldn’t tell if they were too small or if I was just too used to shoes with items such as support, cushion and breathable material. I was then paraded amid the hordes of people to oohs and aahs. I even was able to go into the hut designated for the three patriarchs of the extended family, all of whom are sangomas themselves. I entered with my new friend after taking off my shoes and bending at a 90 degree angle. We were then asked to sit where we faced perpendicular to them in an effort to never make eye contact. I peered my head as far as I dared to try to get a sense of the place. There were shelves filled with traditional medicine and all sorts of herbs and animal hides hanging from the ceiling. As we left I started to think that the woman I’m suppose to meet here either does not actually live here, is sick, or perhaps sacrificed herself to the pack of wild dogs I was envisioning succumbing to earlier.

Next on the docket was the main event. All the sangomas that had been milling about earlier had gathered in a clearing on the compound. We were up high enough that there was nothing but hills and deep ravines in any direction. In essence it felt like we were at the edge of the world.

Each sangoma, both male and female, wore a waist-length beaded headdress, black beaded skirt, white shirt and tin disks around their ankles so they jingled when they danced. They waved horses’ tails as they danced to the drums covered in raw hide while one man sang songs from so deep in his soul I felt I was intruding. The mood turned celebratory as the young woman stepped into the circle. Every young woman has a coming of age ceremony, whether she’s a witch doctor or not. This is a time when a girl becomes a woman and she’s now ready to be married. This isn’t signified by menstruation but rather by the maturity of the individual. The ages of the women in this ceremony are usually 15-19.

Everyone who could safety pinned money onto her headdress while her fellow sangomas danced and sung in a semi-circle around her. This ended when everyone was exhausted, hungry and out of money. Unlike everyone else, I had already been force fed two meals of rice and boiled chicken swimming in oil so I was not looking forward to a third heaping portion. I somehow choked it down with the help of some water of questionable quality and the herd of children that hadn’t left my side since I came. I finally stumbled upon my host who insisted that I sleep there overnight. I didn’t think it was too bad of an idea and when I called my go go to confirm my decision she said she didn’t care what I did and repeated that she doesn’t love me. I suddenly was reminded of our strained relationship and I felt the immediate need to get home and try to make amends. This about face was met with confusion and frustration. I allotted multiple hours for goodbyes, the majority of which I spent convincing my entourage that I made the right decision. At the end of the day, the woman, Bongisile, who befriended me and didn’t leave my side, even while bathing, insisted I keep all the articles of clothing that she let me borrow. This included the infant head band, child sized t-shirt with classy midriff and heels that she’d never worn. I pleaded with her to keep the shoes. I only stopped begging when I realized how hurt she was at my refusal of her gift. I thought this revelation was a bit too late but she quickly recovered once I grudgingly accepted. I left with such a full heart I had all but forgotten the frustrations of the previous week.

9/6: My Peace Corps supervisor gave me pretty sound advice, in my opinion, concerning my housing situation. He suggested that I take myself out of the equation entirely and request that my go go talk to Tshengie directly. This will enable our relationship to remain intact while she hammers out her need for furniture and money. Tshengie visited her today after work. They talked for about an hour, at one point laughing at other points fighting. When I asked for a translation she said she was too tired to talk about it but everything’s fine. When I asked her the following day she elaborated by saying, “don’t worry, everything’s fine.” Gotcha.

9/7: Today it was all hands on deck when we were notified that one of our funders, the Department of Social Development, is requesting proof to back up our statistics. Not only do we make up numbers but the forms are all in English so none of the caregivers have the slightest idea what they’re making up numbers for. Let’s just say reporting is an opportunity for growth for us. I don’t doubt they’re doing the work, well most of them, but their literacy level in their home language, let alone a second language, prevents them from accurately reporting. I proposed the idea of typing the lists that are requested of us so that each month we could just add our new clients and delete the ones who’ve passed away instead of the mad scramble that happens when everyone remembers that, in fact, the end of the month is here again. This was deemed a ridiculous suggestion and everyone went back to organizing their million scrap sheets of paper onto one sheet of paper that after turned in will have to be re-created from scratch the next month…and the next month.

9/8: So as much as I want to be fluent in Zulu, the last thing I want to do after an exhausting day of stumbling through this new language, is to study more Zulu. So I’ve hit a plateau. But today I pushed through and studied all day, much to the entertainment of my co-workers.

9/9: So we’ve been in our new building for a week or so and the concept of indoor plumbing has still eluded my co-workers. I gave a lesson in flush toilets that involved instructing the men to lift the seat up when standing, counting to three as they hold down the lever to flush and how to clean such a foreign object. This was received with only mild interest. I was not expecting a conga line in gratitude for this new knowledge but I was hoping that perhaps some of my suggestions on how to use a flush toilet would be put into practice. The short answer to that is, though the men have thankfully since decided to lift the seat up, other ideas of mine have been disregarded. The idea, for example, to wash their dishes in our new sink has led them to wash the dishes in buckets…in the sink. I was hoping by giving them some tips the two older women who cook hot meals for the orphans and vulnerable children would have a much easier time doing so. But in reality, indoor plumbing has turned out to be scary, intimidating, confusing and not all that it’s cracked up to be. Is bigger, faster and easier always better?

9/10-11: Today started sleepover number two of Camp GLOW planning. Unfortunately, I can’t say this meeting was much more productive. On a positive note, the PCV host cooked a chili that was composed almost solely of American ingredients, which warmed my soul on such a blustery day.

9/12: I locked myself in my room and read almost an entire book in one day; it was amazing!

9/13: I’m heartened by all the progress at the Camp GLOW meeting today. We have a skeleton of the grant done, which was possible by enlisting an agenda with Western-style time limits on each topic. What can I say; it worked. I was designated Project Manager which was particularly special coming from my closest friends. I was also able to release my white knuckle grip on the planning when someone else requested the section of the grant where the majority of the creative liberty could be taken.

9/14: So the trainer for the caregivers’ training did not show up for train the trainer day for our first in a series of workshops slated for completion at the end of the year. Busi, my back up trainer was MIA as well, as were the materials she promised she’d translate. Instead, I decided to peel vegetables and gossip.

9/15: Training went so well today. The caregivers learned about what it means to be a home based carer. Though they could say things like, a caregiver provides palliative care, when pressed for examples or a definition of palliative care nobody knew. Mpostol is also a very charismatic trainer and made sure everyone participated. Though only two out of the thirteen pages of curriculum were accomplished, and about half of the caregivers showed up I was still really excited to see them starting to grasp their role in the fight of HIV/AIDS.

9/16: Today we had a meeting with the church we share our new building with. Members of Zamimpilo feel it’s unnecessary for members of the church to have keys to our doors and offices. (The building has no shared space and was designed to function as two separate entities). They’re concerned that we have parts of computers that if put together properly one could eventually get it to operate (assuming that the thousands of viruses riddling the hard drives were somehow eradicated) and therefore could be at risk of getting stolen. Right now they’re behaving as important looking dust collectors but the consensus is that broken, green screened computers would catch the potential funder’s eye.
The meeting was scheduled for 9:00 so I didn’t peer into our new ‘board room’ which is just an empty room that we drag plastic chairs into when our ‘dining hall’ for the orphans isn’t being used until after 10:00. (The dining hall is also empty save for a few plastic chairs). People started petering in soon after that and we quickly had everyone settled in one room. Naturally, the agreements signed between the two parties last year needed to be copied before the meeting could begin and this was not something that necessarily could/should be done beforehand. So each of the three agreements were taken one by one to get a few copies. It was promptly agreed upon that everyone needed a copy of each document. This back and forth charade took another hour. Next up was the declaration of the need to find an attendance register. A search party was assembled and came back triumphant about 20 minutes later. We then passed around some hymnals, sang a few Psalms and prayed many a prayer. Another attendance register was mandated. It is now three hours past our original start time. Now that everyone was good and tired from all that productivity tea was passed around to all. I had to go to what would invariably be an equally productive meeting at the Department of Agriculture. This was upsetting to everyone as my whiteness gave the meeting more validity. They were just getting started they exclaimed! Well it’s now well into the afternoon and I assured them that I didn’t doubt they would come away from this battle of the minds with an action plan filled with concessions and compromises, sacrifices and small gains. I could tell that the momentum for the meeting had waned as the realization surfaced that it would no longer be possible to shamelessly stare at the malungu for hours on end. I could hear them picking up their things and planning their next meeting as I walked out the door. Onward and upward to the Department of Agriculture. There are a series of entrances to the D of A, all of which lead directly into someone’s personal office. I walked into someone on the phone then when I tried door number 2, I found three people in a meeting. The only person that seemed flustered at this seeming intrusion of privacy was me. One of them walked me to the office I was looking for where I interrupted another meeting with my more important White agenda. I explained that I heard the D of A was giving away free seeds and tools as a part of their One Home One Garden program and that I would like some. I went on to say that I’m going to a training with a co-worker where we’ll learn different gardening techniques and then train the community members. I didn’t get a chance to delve into my color-coded evaluation chart or my assessment tools. He said that though it’s true that the D of A has a large storage room stacked with more crates than he could count with both tools and seeds, my village wasn’t one of the four neediest in the catchment area so he couldn’t give me any supplies. I wouldn’t want to take tools and seeds from the people most in need…would I, he asked me. Well, in fact, if the crates have been sitting there for months, I argued, I wouldn’t be taking anything from anybody. I asked him how long they had been there and if there was a chance we could take a few things if the tools and seeds are going unclaimed? Not possible. Of course not.

I then took a deep breath as I entered the always traumatic Post Office. I had three packages stuffed to the brim with American shoes and toys awaiting my retrieval thanks to my church back home. The postal lady snickered when she asked if I had a car to haul these parcels, knowing full well I didn’t, taking great joy as I carried them one by one on my head to the taxi rank. (It is legitimately easier to carry almost anything on your head). After asking one of the fruit ladies in the market to watch my package; I went to fetch the next one…and back again. Next came arguably the most entertaining part, which would be getting all three boxes on a bush taxi where your knees are already jutting into the seat in front of you. Lucky for me I was sandwiched in between two morbidly obese women. These women composed three Alenas each. So there were seven Alenas and three gigantic boxes on a seat made for maybe two and a half Alenas, no boxes. The door could not be opened from the inside; the driver had to get out to open it. I somehow survived the ride and plopped the boxes onto the side of the road. I didn’t expect my arms to feel like Jell-O but I had been bracing them against near disaster for over an hour now. I then got Mpostol who was not only irritated at getting torn away from his favorite Chuck Norris film but was shocked I was requesting some assistance in the heavy lifting department. I then pleaded, against all cultural norms, for some empathy. He finally agreed and took the lightest one. Happy to be down a third of the work, I made my second trek back to the side of the road with a bounce in my step. I waited to peer into the contents for several more days.

9/17: Today we celebrated the opening of our new building. Before the event started I was concerned I didn’t quite decipher the chicken scratch agenda properly, was there really no singing planned, I asked, quite alarmed. I was quickly assured there would be plenty of singing. In fact, there was about two hours waiting for everyone to arrive fashionably late, six hours of singing and about ten minutes of speeches. I was pleasantly surprised that I knew at least some of the words to all of the songs and correlating hand movements. I not only sang, but sang as loud as my voice would allow inserting as many Hallelujahs as the best of them while joining the conga line soaked in sweat. (We crammed way too many people into our ‘dining hall’ for said party). Leah came because our organizations are partners (in theory) and it was really great to show everyone off. She then pulled me aside and said, “I know how frustrated you get with the bureaucracy and the corruption and the varying work ethic. But the people here love you. You’ve touched people and they adore you.” After she finished her lengthy Kodak moment and I was near tears, I told her that I adore them far more.

9/18: Leah slept over and we watched rom coms all day with as many American delicacies as I could muster. When Zindle joined the party we played Pixar’s Up and she cried during the scene where the couple grows old together, how cute is that?!

9/19: I had several visitors today who needed help with homework or were just looking to chat though I was exhausted after I tried to keep up with a teen for an hour in a half in Zulu after I played some card game with no apparent rules with seven neighbor kids. Next a girl came over looking for help with her assignment. She’s 20 and in 11th grade, which is not only not unique but typical. She gave me her rubric, written in English, which she clearly didn’t understand. She then handed me a job description cut out from a newspaper which was part of the assignment and which she couldn’t read to do homework that was completely over her head. Good thing they extended summer vacation for World Cup and the teachers went on strike for another month, are slated to strike again, with another two weeks of vacation fast approaching.

9/20: Is it gross that despite the fact that I have two separate ant hills inside my hut with the packaging of my food covered in ants I still walk around unfazed with bare feet?