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.