March 22, 2008

Kicking up my heels

My parents are visiting for the next two weeks and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to show them around Mthatha and farther a field in South Africa. It’ll take my away from my computer and Internet access, though, so don’t look for any posts here until early April.

In the meantime, catch up on all those long, weighty posts you only skimmed the first time around!

Charlie’s Angels

I continue to meet twice a week with a group of seven high-school students for our interminable reading of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Their attendance has been pretty good, which means they must be finding something of worth in our meetings, but I still wonder just how much they actually understand. They don’t seem to show that much enthusiasm for the unfolding story, even as I try to build up to each new revelation, and I can only think it’s because the plot just isn’t clicking for them. For a while, some of them even thought the story was non-fiction.

In any event, these students never fail to brighten my week and I look forward to my meetings with them. Here’s some brief snapshots of who they are.


Lindiwe was one of the first people in this group I really became aware of last year, mainly because of her son Kamvalethu (“our future”), who is about a year and a half old. Lindiwe is 17 or 19 (our health records say 19 but she says 17) and in grade-10. She’s lovely and friendly but just doesn’t seem to be all that curious about the world. She goes to school, does her work (I think), reads “Charlie” all right but never seems to get interested or excited about any of it. Her name means “the one we’ve waited for” and she is always late, a fact I frequently harp on by saying “silinda uLindiwe” – “we are waiting for the one we’re waiting for.” I think this is hilarious. No one else does.

Ayabonga is 17 in grade-10 and has a 3-year old daughter who is cared for by Ayabonga’s mother. She and Lindiwe are best friends and when I was first getting to know Lindiwe, Ayabonga always intimidated me. She didn’t smile or talk a lot and was this strong, powerful presence next to the willowy Lindiwe. When I saw that Ayabonga was going to be in this group, I was a bit worried how it would work out because I was convinced she would be nothing but a disruptive presence.

Now that I’m actually getting to know her, I am happy to report I was completely wrong. In fact, Ayabonga is rapidly turning into one of my favourites. Her English is fairly poor but it’s good enough to make fun of me – she now frequently imitates my “silinda uLindiwe” in a way that is actually quite funny – and good enough to ask me for help on her homework, which she does more consistently than anyone else. I’m grateful she seems to be taking her education seriously and is quite regular in her attendance. But whenever I ask her a comprehension question about “Charlie” she just stares at me completely confused. She has a long way to go.

She also loves my iPod and I now make sure to bring it on Wednesdays just so she can listen. In fact, she gets on so well with me now she just walks in and rips the ear buds out of my ears so she can listen too.

Nonhlazo (“lucky”), who also goes by Victoria, breaks my heart. She’s 18, in grade-10, and has an energetic 2-year old who is an absolute bundle of joy. Her English is solid and she’s an all-around good person with a wonderful smile. But her attendance at school leaves a lot to be desired and I’ve caught her several times around Itipini during the school day. I try to reinforce for her the importance of school but some of it gets lost in translation and the rest of the message obviously doesn’t sink in. I realize she has some significant responsibilities and her mother isn’t as helpful in the raising of her son as other mothers are. But I see her son wandering around Itipini by himself sometimes and she’s nowhere to be found and not in school either. I see so much wonderful potential in her that is not being drawn out and built up the way it needs to be. I try to check in on her frequently but she can be tough to find.

Noncedo is the only student of this group in grade-12 so this is a big year for her as she’ll have to take a high-stakes exam in November that determines whether or not she gets a diploma. She was a bit late in coming to us asking for help with school fees but since then she has shown impressive dedication to school and really seems determined to pass that test. In fact, she’s blossomed into one of the most eager students. She always seems to show the most grasp of the story and is always asking if we can read another chapter. She lives with both parents, is 18, and doesn’t have any children. She seems so normal! She also pays more attention to her appearance than any other person I’ve ever met in Itipini and I’m quite frequently stunned at the kind and variety of outfits she pulls out.


Mthunsikazi is another “normal” student. In fact, AMM doesn’t pay any of her school fees for her as her family has it all sorted out. She just hangs out with the other girls at school and came along one day and I was happy to welcome her. She’s only 15 and in grade-10 and also doesn’t have any children. She is very quiet and struggles the most with the English so it’s easy for her to fade into the background of the group. I’ve been trying to draw her out more lately but it’s tough because there’s a definite language barrier and I haven’t quite built up a rapport with her yet.

Luleka has the capacity to be a brilliant student. Her English is good, her family background is strong, and she doesn’t have any children. But I think she’s content just to meet the standards of the school she’s in, which might not be all that high, rather than push herself. I try to push her with “Charlie” but she’ll shrink back and let other people answer questions I ask her. I’ve been trying to get her to open up a bit more lately but she can be incredibly withdrawn at times. Even though her attendance is good, she always seems like she wants to be somewhere else. We just don’t have enough vocabulary in common for me to draw her out and learn more about her.

That being said, as they were leaving on Wednesday, she turned to me, made sure to make eye contact, and said very softly but meaningfully, “Have a good Easter, Jesse.” It made me feel so good I almost forgot to wish her a happy Easter as well.

Nonzuzo is far and away the best English-speaker in this group. She will zoom through paragraph after paragraph of “Charlie” with amazing ease. Lately she’s been drifting away from the group, pleading sickness quite often, and I hope it’s not because she thinks the book is too easy for her or that she’s so far ahead of the other students she doesn’t need to come. I haven’t quite figured out how to make the group important for her.

Some other tidbits I’d rather not associate with a particular person but you might find interesting. One is an AIDS orphan. Another had an abortion last year. One has run away from home at least once. I am so different from all of them I wonder how I ever ended up here and why they even want anything to do with me.

After our pool party last month.

The Three Musketeers

If you’re a particularly attentive student of the pictures on this blog, you’ll recognize these three from numerous previous posts. They are all sons of women who work in the kitchen. Because they’re too young for the pre-school, they are always around in the morning before the pre-school breaks for lunch and it is still quiet and calm around the Project area. I call these three “abahlobo bam bancinci” – “my little friends” – and it’s hard to tell who is more excited when we see each other, me or them.
Left to right: Talent, Bongamusa, and Simnikiwe. Not a great picture of Bongamusa but two out of three ain’t bad.
Later on, Simnikiwe was pretty happy. Must have been a pretty good lunch that day.

The Glamour of the Missionary

For several years before moving here, it was impossible for me to read about the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa and not say to myself, “I want to be there. I want to help.” Now I am and I am – more or less – helping. But not always in the way I thought.

For instance, a big part of my job that I have yet to write about is pill counting. All of the pills we hand out come to us in gigantic, industrial size containers of several thousand pills. We have the thankless task of counting them out into little pill bags, 8, 15, 28, 30, 60 at a time. There is absolutely nothing glamourous about this and it is hard to see the connection between this work and one’s desire to alleviate suffering.

I often have to remind myself that it is important. In this picture, I’m counting an antibiotic known here as cozole that is given to HIV/TB patients as a prophylactic. Because their bodies are so susceptible to disease, they take this drug to fight infections from the moment they begin, rather than when they begin to manifest in symptoms when it might be too late.

It’s not as rewarding as starting a library, it’s not as fun as playing the guitar, it’s not as nerve-wracking as testing someone for HIV, and it involves almost no interaction with the patients. (In fact, interaction is awful – it makes you lose track of your count!) But it’s important nonetheless.

March 18, 2008

Preach it

My experience in Itipini certainly confirms the truth of this new report from Amnesty International.

I'd also like to echo the sentiments of this government minister.

Being Needed

When I first arrived in Itipini, I was quite clear about my frustration at not being able to do anything. I felt helpless and didn’t know how to contribute. But gradually that began to change. I figured out how to give pills to TB patients; I started bandaging a few wounds; I got better at finding patients’ medical records; I learned where the hospitals are so I could drive patients there; I learned what pills HIV patients need on a regular basis and started handing those out. Before I even realized it, I was actually doing quite a bit in the clinic.

This lesson hit home for me the other day when I realized I was helping five different patients simultaneously. There was one who wanted her TB pills; one looking for the nutritional supplement we give HIV patients; one whose ankle was on ice because of a recent fall; one who wanted to drop off her results from a recent blood test; and one who had just been discharged from the hospital following knee surgery and wanted to show me the record of his time there. Somehow all these balls stayed in the air at once and everyone got what they needed. I even impressed myself at the conversation I had – in Xhosa – with the knee-surgery patient about how his knee was feeling and when he needed to return for a review. My goal in coming here was to help people and slowly I am figuring out just how that is done here. An important lesson of my time here is that you can’t just show up and expect to be useful right away. It is immensely gratifying not only to want to help someone but also to know how to help them in their particular context.

The other day while I had stepped out of the clinic for a minute – dealing with yet another request – a patient I know well stopped by. She has a chronically sore wrist and grossly swollen feet. She’s often a little tipsy and she’s always loud, demanding, and cuts the other patients in line. When I returned, she was her usual aggressive self and pounced on me when I walked in the door. I immediately smelled the alcohol on her breath and started directing her towards the door as we don’t serve drunk patients. But she got right in my face and unleashed a torrent of Xhosa at the top of her lungs. I didn’t catch nearly all of it but I did catch a few key words “go,” “Mqanduli” (a town nearby), “tomorrow,” and “Brufen” (a pain pill we give out). She was also pointing to her wrist dramatically. I asked when she was coming back and she said she didn’t know and launched into her spiel about Brufen again. Realizing she wasn’t going anywhere without the pills, I calmly wiped her spittle off my face, got her the pills – better to treat a drunk patient in 30 seconds than spend 30 aggravating minutes trying to get her out of the clinic, I reasoned – and sent her on her merry way. The point of the story is that when I first arrived I wouldn’t have been able to do this. I wouldn’t have understood her, I wouldn’t have been familiar with her history to know about her wrist, and I wouldn’t have known where we keep the Brufen. Something that would have taken me at least five minutes and someone else’s help to figure out last August took me 30 seconds today. I even got a round of applause from the other patients when she left because they were happy to see her go as well.

There’s a flip side to this as well. The people in the community are now quite comfortable with me and aware that I can help them. In fact, they probably have an inflated sense of what I can do. Everywhere I turn, people need something and they expect me to provide it. In addition to all the things I’ve already mentioned, there are many more: a blanket for their baby; money for a million reasons; to be added to the list of people to whom we give food every day; more supplies for the pre-school; more colouring books for the library; for me to fill their gin bottle with medicine; for me to weigh them; a ride into town or to the hospital; and on and on and on. Two of my most well-worn phrases are “linda apha” – “wait here” – and “hayi ngoko” – “not now” – which I find myself using when I’ve got several requests coming my way all at once. When I leave Itipini, there’s only more neediness: everyone wants money for something, as I’ve written about before, and they’re not shy about coming up to me and asking for it.

It’s reached the point where I assume at the beginning of every conversation that there’s going to be a request for something during its course. I am always on the lookout for what it is so I can anticipate the request, decide if I can help, and get to work providing it so I’m ready for the next request that is surely just around the corner. I feel like the vast majority of people I encounter on a daily basis look at me instrumentally, i.e. they see me as a means to achieving their end. I don’t blame them and I’d probably do the same thing if I was in their position but it is incredibly exhausting. Some times it seems like no one cares about me for me; they care about me because of what I can do for them. It would also help if everyone were a bit more consistently grateful for the help. It doesn’t help my mood any to bend over backward to help someone, only to have them take the help for granted and walk out without saying thanks.

I guess this is a natural part of any service-oriented type job, at home or overseas. When you work in a community project that is dedicated in part to meeting needs, its no wonder that people expect you to, well, meet their needs. And it is gratifying to effectively meet a need and know you’ve made a small but positive difference. And there’s even relief occasionally: sometimes during the day, I’ll go hide out in the kitchen where I know the ladies who work there won’t overwhelm me with requests and will just let me sit and practice my Xhosa.

But wouldn’t it be nice if when someone asked me how I am, they really listened to the answer instead of blowing through my answer to their request?

Taking A Break

March 15, 2008

The Woman at the Well

This young woman was waiting for water at the tap next to the clinic on Friday.

An Unfolding Tragedy

When I arrived in Itipini, one of the first families I became aware of was the family whose shack is just up the hill behind the clinic. There were at least 5 children in the family, none older than about 8 or 9, at least one of whom has already tested positive for HIV. The husband and wife together ran a “spaza shop” or little store that sells a variety of small food items. In addition, attached to the shack is a shebeen, or bar, and we can often hear loud music pumped from the house, powered by an old car battery. It was in this shebeen that I was first offered (and declined) the homebrew they drink here that features battery acid as a major ingredient to give it an extra “kick.” (Some day I’m going to write a long post about alcohol in Itipini.)

The reason this family stood out to me was that the second-youngest child was easily one of the most photogenic in Itipini.
(Right, so maybe I didn’t catch her at the best of moments on that last one. All of them are totally candid, though.)

She’s also a budding prima donna – yes, they exist even in shantytowns – and spends most of her time completely ignoring me except when I sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and replace “whole world” with her name. Then she does this little dance but keeps walking as soon as I stop.

I learned more about the family when I realized one of our TB patients was the father/husband. He also had HIV and was extremely weak. His wife, also HIV-positive and a past TB patient, had to come for his pills every day even though it’s only 30 feet from the clinic to their shack. His CD4 count was very low, low enough to qualify for anti-retrovirals but he refused to begin the treatment, citing some myths about the drugs and claiming they wouldn’t actually heal him. His story has a predictable ending and he died in late January. He was 32.

The mother in this family has always stood out for me. For one thing, her first name is “NoFirst” (kind of a paradoxical name, isn’t it?). I’m not sure where that came from but it certainly sticks out. For another thing, I’ve never once seen her laughing or joking with the other women who wait outside the clinic. In fact, I’ve rarely ever seen her smile.
She just works and works and works and works. One morning I was in Itipini early and watched as she made trip after trip from the tap to her shack with a 5-gallon bucket full of water on her head. NoFirst was also the patient who helped me with a breakthrough moment last year, when I realized I might have a chance of understanding Xhosa and might be making headway in my efforts to build relationships here.

Now she stands out even more. Apparently it is traditional for Xhosa widows to wear green so lately she has stood out from the ragged clothes most people wear here.
I also continue to be amazed at how hard she works in the wake of her husband’s death. She just has not let up. But then again, what other choice does she have? She’s got a lot of mouths to feed.

Last week, she tested positive for TB again and has begun another round of treatment. (Incidentally, I learned from her government ID then that her first name is “Xoliswa” – roughly “the peaceful one” – and I’ve been calling her that since. But she silences me and says, “NoFirst!” before breaking into a rare smile.) I want to think positive thoughts about this family but the TB diagnosis was a reminder of her mortality and generally poor health. She tested positive for HIV several years ago and a decline, though mild, is evident. I can’t help but think that at some point, perhaps in the not too distant future, she’ll join her husband and leave behind a lot of young children. I live in hope, though, and have been making sure she takes her medications. She’s not eligible for ARVs yet but when the time comes I hope she takes it more seriously than her husband did.

Great Canadian Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, opens his book “A Race Against Time” by writing that he has spent his last several years on the job “watching people die.” I once heard Lewis speak and found him inspirational and I think the work he has done is just fantastic. But I’d like to quibble with this for a moment. It’s true that he has traveled extensively in sub-Saharan Africa, often paying return visits to certain programs. I have no doubt he has seen people die on those visits and met people who were dead by the time he returned. But I think what is ultimately more heart-breaking is to become familiar with a family, to begin to understand some of the relationships that bind them together, to form memories relating to specific instances with those family members, and, over time, see some of those family members decline and ultimately die.

I'm sure you've heard about “AIDS orphans,” children who’ve lost their parents to HIV. But what do we call those young children who aren’t orphans yet but someday (soon) will be?

An Early Easter

Here’s an example of the kind of unexpected frustrations and aggravations – and good memories – that crop up all the time in Itipini because of the language barrier.

After we cleaned up the clinic on Friday afternoon, I went into the kitchen to wish our kitchen staff a good weekend. This is usually a simple matter of a few short phrases thanking them for their work and concluding by saying, “sobanana ngomvulo” – “see you Monday.” But this time that last phrase set off a commotion. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word of it as the six or so women in the kitchen probably speak a dozen words of English among them. But I gathered after a bit that they thought Monday was a holiday and I should have said “sobanana ngwolesibini” – “see you Tuesday.” This was a bit of a problem – the women were clearly looking forward to a day off but we need them around to distribute and cook food on Monday.

A typically stilted and disjointed conversation ensued, involving as it always does two- or three-word phrases and lots of hand motions on my behalf and a steady steam of incomprehensible mush from the women. (I thought understanding one Xhosa speaker was tough but I learned on Friday that six women, all speaking simultaneously, and all animated by the belief that they were being robbed of a holiday is much, much harder.) The conversation certainly stretched the limits of my mainly medical vocabulary but I think I got my message through that the Easter holiday isn’t until the following Monday.

But I guess I’ll find out for sure on Monday.

March 13, 2008

"Mom... hey Mom, I want to listen too!"

A Bit of an Uplift

I was preparing yet another tale of life in Itipini – yes, it involved HIV, TB, and suffering children, how’d you guess? – when I thought, “wait a second, how I have made it all this way without once telling the story of Mbongeni?”

Mbongeni is a South African success story. About a year and a half ago, he was weak and thin and dying. He’s HIV-positive and had been diagnosed with multi-drug resistant TB. He is the quintessential sub-Saharan African suffering patient.

But before I arrived in Itipini, he got his act together. He got on anti-retroviral drugs and his CD4 count is rising. He started going to his doctor’s appointments and consistently taking the drug cocktail that fights MDR. He’s been taking a big pile of pills every day for the last year at least and will for the rest of his life.

But the benefits are enormous. He is much stronger now, so strong in fact that every morning he takes his pushcart (a heavily modified grocery cart) into town and makes money by helping people with their groceries. In fact, he is so business-like that he only comes into the clinic once a week to get his MDR pills, as opposed to daily, because he wants to head into town before we open. One time I had forgot to prepare his drugs for him and as I rushed to do it I felt so guilty that I was making him miss valuable work time. Unusually for Itipini, he is married (well, I’m not sure if it’s actually marriage but he lives with only one woman) and the two of them are obviously in love. In a place where sexual violence and single mothers are too common, this is unspeakably touching. He is now helping her get on ARVs, no doubt buoyed by his own success.

All this would make for a good story all by itself. But what makes Mbongeni stand out for me is his unique and wonderful combination of character traits. First, he speaks not a word of English but when he makes his once-a-week trip to the clinic he is clear and direct about what he wants and does not waste any time. In addition to the pills, at various times throughout the month he’ll need the multi-vitamin cocktail we give to HIV patients, the prophylactic antibiotic we give to HIV patients with TB, an ointment for sore joints, and, for reasons that defy my explanation, mouthwash. He and I have developed over time a series of signals and shared vocabulary for what he needs. My favourite is the mouthwash. He just squeezes his eyes shut, puffs out his cheeks, and starts miming swishing. Some day I’ll figure out how to take a picture of it. I love it.

Second, in keeping with his business-like attitude towards his health, Mbongeni does not generally miss a doctor’s appointment. Often when he has one, he dresses up in his one suit coat and tie that, truth be told, is pretty ratty and limp. But he wears it with pride and heads off to each appointment with his head held high. On days when he’s not headed to the doctor, he wears this broad-brimmed straw hat that, I must admit, I find myself coveting some days.

On the way to the doctor with his wife – I call this one “Itipini Gothic”

I see more of Mbongeni around town than I do in Itipini. Sometimes he is pushing something around in his cart but more often he is sitting with other men, all of them looking for work. Whenever I see him, I shout his name and wave and he always gives me a gigantic smile and a huge thumbs-up that often involves his entire arm, which I can’t seem to capture on the camera. But I’ve got the memory of it and that’ll do for now.

Right. Now back to work on the other stories.

March 12, 2008

Too Late

Last week, I thought I had a story that would make a good, solid, uplifting post about how South Africans are working to overcome HIV. But I tarried in writing it and now the end of the story has changed and is much more depressing.

Nomtheto is 28 years old and last November was carried into the clinic pretty weak, emaciated, and generally in poor health. Of course, she’s HIV-positive so we did our best to fortify her with dietary supplements and vitamins and drew her blood to see if she was eligible for anti-retroviral drugs. The trouble with the clinic is that people have to come in to see us for us to get progress reports on their health. Over the course of the next few weeks, she never returned and we wondered what had become of her. Not for the last time, I was convinced she had died.

In January, a relative came in and asked us to help bring Nomtheto to the clinic. I went to get her and she was even weaker and thinner than before. But when I read her medical records, which patients keep at home, I found she qualified for ARVs (her CD4 count was 46 – you qualify at 200 and a healthy person’s is over 500 and sometimes over a 1000). To my very great surprise, I found she had even begun the initial steps of the very long and convoluted process that lead to ARV treatment. (My surprise was that a person with a CD4 count of 46 who could barely stand up was making it to the clinic for her appointments. As I’ve noted before, transportation is an overlooked but crucial part of health care infrastructure. Nomtheto lives a good half-hour walk, for a healthy person, away from the ARV clinic.) All she needed was a treatment support partner and she could carry on with the process. But when we explained this to her mother, who came to the clinic with her that day, the mother said she didn’t want to be the support person because it meant too much waiting in line.

We didn’t hear from Nomtheto again for a long time and this time I was convinced for sure she had died. But last Monday, a dying, wheezing truck, belching with smoke pulled up in front of the clinic and Nomtheto was carried out. To my very great surprise, she was alive and, in news that shocked me, she had been given ARVs two weeks earlier. (Evidently the mother re-discovered her mothering instinct as she was the treatment support partner.) The owner of the truck was a friend or family member who had been driving Nomtheto to all her appointments and they hadn’t missed one. I was so happy to see a patient who had successfully navigated the hurdles and been given ARVs (this is the first patient whose care I’ve been involved with who’s gotten the drugs) that I took a picture of the pill bottles just to prove they existed. Mentally, I began composing this post, ready to extol the virtues of ARVs and dedicated South Africans who took an active interest in their own health.

There was just one problem. Nomtheto looked worse than she ever had before. Her head was shaved (that’s somewhat common here), she was as thin as could be, and with her deeply sunken eyes Jenny described her as a “concentration camp survivor.” But Jenny has frequently mentioned people who’ve been carried into the clinic nearly dead only to get on ARVs and be walking around a little while later. I was still excited by the ARV news and took a picture of Nomtheto so in a few months I could take another of her after she had gained weight and was back to her old self.
Jenny was rightly concerned about her health and referred her to the hospital. We put her back in the truck and off they sputtered. A few minutes later, they phoned to say the truck had predictably died and they were only partway there. I went to pick them up and we drove the rest of the way. Nomtheto had to be carried but she was as light as any adult I’ve ever had to pick up and I laid her on the back seat and off we drove.

At the hospital, it was a mob scene, as I am used to by now, that is always at least a little bit discomfiting. Unlike on a similar, earlier trip, I didn’t use my skin colour or knowledge of big medical terms to secure Nomtheto favourable treatment. I made her comfortable, made sure her mother got in the right line to check her in, and then left. There were so many other people who were suffering so much and I was feeling pretty positive about Nomtheto’s health that I thought it would be fine if she had to wait to be seen. We found out the next day from her sister that Nomtheto had been admitted and was being treated. I assumed her poor health was due to side effects from the ARVs and once she got over those she’d start improving. This is where I expected I would conclude this post.

But on Monday another sister came in the clinic. I casually asked how Nomtheto was, expecting her to say she was at home and improving. But I couldn’t understand her initial response and an embarrassing Xhosa conversation ensued, in which I was asking questions assuming she was alive and the sister was answering knowing that wasn’t the case. Eventually the sister looked at me and said in very good English, “she died.” (I find times like these so frustrating. If your English is so good and my Xhosa so bad why didn’t you just speak English right from the get-go?)

A long while ago, I promised a post about the ARV system in South Africa and what I’ve seen of how it works. I haven’t delivered on that promise yet mostly because my anger and frustration about the topic come across better in person, when I can animate it with hand gestures and facial expressions. But consider this the first stab at that post. The system worked – Nomtheto got her pills – but it was too little, too late.

March 11, 2008

Want More Itipini?

I should have posted this a long time ago but it only occurred to me recently. In addition to this blog, I also send out a monthly e-mail newsletter with content that I strive to make different to what I post here. So if you’re just yearning for more from Itipini, send me an e-mail at jessezink – at – gmail – dot – com and it’ll be no trouble at all to add you.

P.S. I'm having some trouble posting pictures which means one or two more substantive posts I've already got written are going to have a wait until the computer sorts itself out.

Hard at Work

For those of you familiar with it, note the Bement-appropriate uniform, doing more or less the same thing I did then.

Come Here Often?

Here’s how you know you’ve been here a while. I was anxious to get on the Internet on Sunday (have to check those Iditarod updates!) but realized, only too late, that all the Internet cafes in town are closed on Sundays. As I glumly walked around the mall pondering my options and wondering if Jeff King had finally passed Lance Mackey on the Yukon River, I bumped into the owner of the one of the cafes, who, because I am a frequent customer of his, I know rather well. He was coming to do a little catch-up work and happily let me plug my computer in and surf away.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned for sure in my time here, it is that I will never, ever take a free, fast, reliable, and readily-accessible Internet connection for granted.

March 9, 2008

Being rich

One of the defining facts of life here is that I have more money than the vast majority of people I encounter on a daily basis. Even by my standards, my $500 monthly stipend is the most I’ve ever earned in my life, though that says more about my career choices to date than the amount I earn. People see my white skin and seem to assume that I’m made of money. At least that’s the conclusion I draw from the fact that virtually everyone seems to ask me for money.

This is not a new experience for me but what is new is how frequent the requests are and how I’m supposed to be the one to save the day. When a panhandler in Chicago asked me for money, I could always say no and reason some rich businessman had more money to help out than I did. But here the line is pretty clear, I’ve got money and they definitely don’t. They need it but so do I. But do I need as much as I have? And do they really need the money?

Some requests are easy to deal with. When I am walking around Itipini, stumbling men will invariably ask for “just two rand, boss, I’m hungry” while standing just outside a shebeen, or bar. It’s nice when life presents us with such morally clear choices – I say no and keep walking. On the flip side, Mkuseli, our after-school program director, asked me for money so his wife could go to college to study to become a social worker. Even though this is a lot more than two rand, I was happy to do so because I know his wife and she is a talented and hard-working woman. While the family has the resources to pay for their needs, something like this was out of reach unless they got some significant assistance. Very occasionally, women in Itipini will ask me to help them buy some groceries for a special occasion and I’m generally happy to help because I know the women and trust them to do what they say they will.

It’s the vast grey area in between that causes so much consternation. The young men who help with my groceries or watch my car will often ask for more money than what I tip them because they’re “so hungry.” I’ve already paid them what I think is right but what harm does a little more do to my wallet? And they did work for it after all. There’s all kinds of street children – intensely dirty, wearing ripped clothes, sadly forlorn – who are always asking for money “for bread, boss, I’m hungry.” I hate to see children look so pathetic and I’m sure they’re hungry but will the money go to bread? Or does it go for another high?

Lots of communities urge you to give money to charitable organizations instead of supporting begging; in the abstract I’m inclined to agree this a good idea. But I give my entire workday to a charitable organization that is in part dedicated to alleviating hunger and it hasn’t helped me feel any better about ignoring a request for money. The children in particular here can be immensely persistent in their begging and it is extraordinarily difficult to say no to a child who trails after you, saying, “boss! boss? hey boss, bread, boss, I’m hungry, boss?” and then just stands next to your window and stares at you as you get in your car. No charity is ever going to help every street child and there’s no way to avoid them all the time.

The other thing about the wealth differential is that it adds a new level to a conversation. I now expect most serious conversations to include some sort of request for money, though it is often carefully veiled. Even Mkuseli, when he first approached me, began by talking about how his wife couldn’t find a job and wanted to go to school but didn’t have the money and “if only we had the money…”. It wasn’t that hard to put the dots together. When a street peddler offers to sell me something and I turn him down, that doesn’t end the transaction. He’ll just say, “please then just give me some rand, I’m hungry.” Even though it looks like he has a job, he’s not all that far removed from begging. When someone wants to talk to me, I now assume that it is not because they want to know how I am or what I did last night but because they want my help and money. This makes conversations incredibly exhausting because I’m always listening and waiting for the request that is sure to come and gauging whether or not to say yes and how I’ll say no if I have to.

These split-second situational ethics are challenging but need to be resolved. Some people come up with blanket rules – “I’ll never support begging” – but that doesn’t seem quite fair because each situation is different and, if these people considered the issue honestly, they’d realize that they make exceptions all the time. I often end up thinking, “Gee, it’s a shame this person is reduced to begging and there should really be a better support system in place so they don’t have to do this but there isn’t, though I am here to help create one so maybe I’d better save my money for that.” It’s a complicated rationalization, all made while I keep walking past the beggar, that generally ends with me not giving any money but feeling good that I’ve considered the “bigger picture” here. The trouble is when you’re begging, your “picture” is no bigger than the hole in your stomach.

It is also tremendously easy to blame those who ask for their own state. Some young men using our gym in Itipini a while back asked me for money and my initial reaction was to yell, “if you have time to work out, don’t you have time to work?” before realizing there might not be work to be had and working out might just be a way to kill time. I try to avoid this trap because it doesn’t help anyone but I find myself using it as a mental justification for saying no every now and again: “well, if only he’d stayed in school and worked hard, he wouldn’t be in this situation.” Yes, but what if he made a few bad decisions along the way? Should we punish him for the rest of his life for them? And isn’t renewal and re-birth a central idea of my faith? I’m here to help with that renewal and setting him back on a right path but the benefits of that path are in the far distance and the hunger is now.

In the Baptismal Covenant we pledge to respect the “dignity of every human being” and it’s worth remembering (though difficult) that even the dirty beggars who make our stomachs turn have a dignity as well. But sometimes people just won’t take no for answer and the only way to show them you’re not going to give them money is to ignore them. Indeed, if I start talking to someone, they’ll take that as a good sign and beg more persistently. It feels awful – and completely not in keeping with the Baptismal Covenant – to ignore “the least of these.”

This is clearly an important concern of missionaries around the world and my fellow missionaries and friends have been writing about it – Matt in Grahamstown, who only wrote about it in an e-mail (I thought about just stealing his thoughts and posting them as my own they’re so good), Sarah, also in Grahamstown, and Harry in Jerusalem.

(Here’s an interesting coda: yesterday, after this post was written, I was at the beach, having a picnic, and a young man offered to watch my car, to which I happily agreed. At the end of the day, he came asking for money and I gave him the leftover food from our picnic, two egg salad sandwiches. He looked heartbroken and said, “please, boss, just five rand for…” and trailed off. Usually, this line would finish with “for bread” but he was holding bread in his hand. He realized what had happened and started looking flustered and said, “at least one rand for…” but couldn’t finish the sentence. I said what I had given him was worth more than 5 rand – that’s true – and he’d better start eating, which he did, with a somewhat glum look on his face, as I drove away.)


The 3-year old daughter of one of my 17-year old high school students. Her name means "beautiful."

Spreading the iPod... ear bud at a time.

March 5, 2008

A Dilemma

I've heard it said that when you sing, you pray twice. I've always interpreted this to mean that both the words you sing and the fact that you are singing are prayful.

For the last several weeks, I've been going to Xhosa-language church services. It's gotten to the point where I can sing along (sort of) on some of the hymns and choruses. But I don't know what any of the words mean. If I don't know what I'm singing, am I praying once or twice?

March 1, 2008

Some (More) Thoughts on Education

Education is said to be the key to improving living conditions in the developing world. That’s why we spend so much time trying to remove barriers to education and universal primary education is a Millennium Development Goal. I’ve already mentioned the crumbling education infrastructure and overcrowded classrooms I see when I’ve visited schools here but I’m convinced that children can learn despite those conditions. But some recent events have raised doubts for me about the sort of education children receive in those classrooms.

A few weeks back, two girls in grade 6 or 7 asked for help with their homework. They speak little English and had trouble even asking me in English for the help. The assignment was to write, in English, two paragraphs each on what coal and oil were and then to write a few more paragraphs on how they used energy in their own homes. The students weren’t provided any books or resources to answer the first question so I drove them to the library in the nearby township. The books I first saw were the World Book Encyclopedia, 1980, which had a dense, 12-page entry on coal. (Seeing the World Book was a comforting sight as a more up-to-date version was a fixture in my elementary school libraries.) Even if it weren’t entirely in English, I wondered how useful a nearly 30-year old entry on the topic was. But the librarian turned out to be quite helpful (once she stopped texting on her cell phone) and set them up with a much newer book, in English, on energy. They dutifully set about copying the entries on coal and oil so as to get their two paragraphs for the assignment. Given the language barrier, I wonder how much of what they copied they actually understood.

The second question, about how they use energy in their own lives, proved to be a bit trickier, given that these girls LIVE IN SHACKS IN A DUMP WITHOUT ELECTRICITY OR RUNNING WATER! We muddled through something about the lights in the grocery store and the radios that people sometimes run off of car batteries in Itipini but I was left thinking the question was rather inappropriate for the audience.

A week or so later, one of my high-school students showed me her history textbook. Given what I heard and seen about under-resourced schools, I was pleasantly surprised by the book. It was brand-new, published in 2007 by Oxford University Press, and was about African history from the 1950s to the present. It looked fascinating and I wanted to borrow it for a while but I couldn’t help but notice it is entirely in English. These high-school students struggle mightily to pronounce and comprehend “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” How are they supposed to make head or tail of a much thicker, more complicated history textbook?

A little while later, a few high-school students asked for help on an assignment about the water cycle (why does the Classics major always get asked for help with science?) Again, the assignment was entirely in English. The first part consisted of labeling the parts of the cycle (evapouration, condensation, etc.) and proved to be pretty easy. Of course, the students didn’t have resources to learn it themselves and I found myself given an impromptu lesson on how water goes round and round. But the next questions, which I guess were to test the critical thinking skills of the students, were baffling. I did pretty well in school and I have a couple of university degrees but I could not comprehend what the students were being asked to do. The English question prompts just did not make any sense. It struck me as something written by a non-native English speaker, which I imagine it was.

It is obvious that students need to know English to graduate from the South African school system. But at least here the grounding in English they are getting is insufficient, whether because of the quality of the education or the lack of reinforcement the teaching receives in the home. Yet somehow some students keep being promoted even though it is questionable how much they are learning. In the face of this, is it any wonder that loads of people drop out after grade 5 or 6 or 7, likely when the need for English becomes acute? Would you go to school if all the work was in a language you barely understood? I know that experience might leave me thinking there were better ways to spend my time.

One of my daily mantras around Itipini is, “Wahamba esikolweni namhlange?” (“Did you go to school today?”) I ask this of virtually every child I see after school lets out. I’ve even had fun playing truant officer and busting some students playing hooky. I do my best to give a “fatherly” lecture about the importance of going to school. (I can’t decide which is funnier – that I’m giving this lecture in the first place or that I’m giving it in fractured Xhosa.) I am possessed of the fervent belief that if we could just get children in school, they’ll get on the right track. I still hold this belief but these type of stories make my fervour decrease a little bit more each day. I’ll be here putting children in school but who is going to be there making sure the school meets their needs?

Choir Director

Way back in the mists of time, when I was preparing to depart for South Africa, I wrote that one of my goals was to learn more about South African music. I anticipated that I’d be doing this as an observer, i.e. by watching and listening to South Africans sing and seeing if they are all as good as Ladysmith Black Mambazo would indicate. In the back of my mind, I admitted it might be possible – indeed, even beneficial – to learn a few South African songs in the process. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I might one day find myself directing a South African choir. Yet that is exactly what I found myself doing on Friday afternoon.

Part of the after-school program is the Itipini Community Choir. They practice a few times a week and occasionally perform around town and for visitors. Through the generosity of some donors, they’ve even recorded a CD, which sounds quite good. A long while back, I had taught the choir director, Mkuseli, a few songs I’ve picked up over the years, mainly as a camp counselor, that don’t involve English that is all that complicated and are vaguely spiritual. We had a great time singing way back when but never really got our act together to sing with anyone else.

But on Friday I happened to be around as choir practice was beginning and Mkuseli, who is rapidly becoming my partner in crime (or I his; I’m not sure how the relational arrow works), asked me to teach the choir a couple of the songs. While I try to eschew stereotypes as a general rule, I’ve resolved that pretty well every South African is a better singer than me. I’ve seen how they raise children here and they start teaching them to sing very early in life. So Mkuseli’s offer was pretty intimidating but I stepped up and we began to sing.

We worked first on a Jamaican tune, “Never a Baby Like Jesus,” that I had learned two Christmases ago at a church in North Bay, Ontario. (A Jamaican song, learned in Canada, taught to a group of South Africans – globalization at work.) The repetitive parts they got fairly well but there is some rapid English which came out mostly as a garbled mumble, much like, I imagine, my attempts to sing in Xhosa. My efforts to correct them largely fell flat as I don’t think they understood any of my English and my Xhosa music vocabulary is non-existent. This song works great with a lot of men to sing a deep bass part. Unfortunately, the choir could also be called the single mothers club so we did what we could and I told them all to bring their children’s fathers back with them next time. They definitely did not understand that. (Incidentally, I swear the babies cry in harmony.)

We moved next to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” These two songs can be sung simultaneously and they quickly picked up the idea and belted out both tunes beautifully. Indeed, the 8 or 10 choir members sounded louder than the 150 campers and staff with whom I used to sing these songs at summer camp. There are a couple of other songs that can be sung simultaneously with these two and I told them we’d try those once they got more of their friends to show up for practice.

One thing I’ve always thought is neat about music directors is how they can close their fingers together all at once and everyone stops singing. I tried that several times on Friday but no one paid me any mind. I guess I’ve still got a little learning to do.

Iinkhukhu Kakulu!

My one-line job description on a form somewhere in the Mission Personnel Office in New York City says something like, “assist in the running of the Project as needed.” Nearly every day, it seems, I learn that means something new. On Wednesday, we got a call that the grocery store where we purchase all the food we distribute at Itipini had a donation to make so I went to fetch it.

It turns out the store had about 160-kg of chicken that had somehow been damaged but was still quite edible. I loaded it into the back of our truck and drove back to Itipini, where it was immediately put to good use.

Along with their afternoon snack, the pre-school children also got to take home a bag of chicken parts.

The after-school program cooked up a bunch of it for themselves, producing what I am sure is the best recent attendance. The feet and heads, parts that normally don’t make it into our pre-packaged parcels in grocery stores, are happily gnawed on here.

I gave a bag each to my high-school English students, who also ate some of the food the after-school program cooked.
(Note the ear buds from my ever-popular iPod. My next task is to figure out how to share the music with more than one person at a time.) One of my student’s children joined us that day and I kept him happy with a chicken foot and a piece of bread the whole class.

The rest of it ended up in the hands of various other well-deserving types. At times like this, I am grateful we have the Community Project employees who work in the kitchen and distribute all the food. Since they live in the community and speak the language, they have a much better sense of who needs what. I just step back and let them hand it out.

The title of this post is part of my Xhosa learning process. When I returned, it is what I told the kitchen women I had in the truck and why I needed their help unloading. It turns out it translates better as “big chicken” then as “lots of chicken.” They thought it was pretty funny, though.