July 30, 2008

"Inside a prison hellhole"

A slice of life in Mthatha, home of South Africa's most over-crowded prison, according to today's paper:

THE full horror of the country’s most overcrowded prison can be revealed in this shocking photograph showing what warders say are 300 men crammed into a cell built for only 15. Inside Mthatha Medium Prison, which is more than 400 percent overcrowded, inmates are so squashed they are forced to sleep sitting up.

Charlotte’s Web

The second term has begun in Mthatha and my English class is meeting again. Thanks for all your input to my request for book ideas a few weeks back. We are now reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and so far, so good. They knew that a web had something to do with a spider and seem pretty clear on how pigs live so that’s good. I’ve been struck by how genuinely good the book is and how satisfying it is to read White.

Exodus 8:21

A common trope, I think, among expatriates in Africa is some encounter with larger-than-life bugs. My fellow missionary John had a couple good stories about that. Maybe I’m just imagining this but it was a reassuring thought as I endured a long night recently.

It began on a Tuesday when I was woken-up in the middle of the night by a dive-bombing something or other that I managed to kill without too much fuss. I then tucked myself into my mosquito night, unused since some hot summer nights in February.

Things got out of control on Wednesday night, however, when I returned from dinner to an overwhelming buzzing throughout my rondavel and kitchen. There must have been about three dozen inch-long, flying insects all over the place, on my bed, the curtains, the floor, my desk, and everywhere. They were an interesting creature, with their legs towards the front of their body so they had a big, thick tail that seemed to move in sections, and four small wings. Helpfully, they weren’t all that good at flying and seemed to prefer to crawl mostly, which made them easy to snuff out. I used the sharp edge of a cup and cut a bunch of them in two pieces, after which the head would keep crawling for a little while.

As I was cleaning up carcasses, I noticed what I thought was a brown cloth lying near my surge protector. Not remembering it from earlier, I looked closer and saw it was thousands of ants swarming all over the place. I swept those up and got them outside but not before getting a few on me and finding they were the kind with teeth.

I got myself in bed, hoping for a quiet night but kept being startled by the discovery of more of my flying friends and, quite literally, ants in my pants. I drifted off but was woken only an hour or two later by the buzzing of another two dozen or so critters, this time concentrated on my mosquito net. (I thought I had the kind that was treated with insecticide!) I tried to fall back asleep but they were too loud so I set about offing them as well, noticing another cloth-sized swarm of ants in the corner. This time, I also noticed several carcasses of the flying things in the swarm. Deciding the enemy of my enemy is my friend, I decided to worry about the ants in the morning. The flying guys were persistent and managed to get in my covers and inside my mosquito net in my enthusiasm to get at them. Then I thought one had fallen in my eye and it just kept going downhill from there. It was a long night. I was not in a good mood the next morning.
A flying visitor on my pillow, shortly before his untimely demise

My ally the ants, after my surge protector had been removed to a safe distance

A small portion of my mosquito net around 1:30 in the morning

I stocked up on all those poisonous substances I usually avoid the next day and set about ensuring they’d never return. So far, so good, though at what cost to my brain cells it’s unclear. I showed Jenny the pictures and she thought they were a worm or something hatching into a flying critter, which would explain their aviation ineptitude. I hope this is a one-off thing and once they’re all transformed they’ll fly far, far away.

All of it made me long for Alaska where it was too cold for insects to be much of a problem.

July 28, 2008


After a while in Itipini, some things just come to seem so commonplace and everyday I forgot that perhaps I should write about them and share them with a broader audience.

One such example is the deep-seated reluctance many young people have to getting tested for HIV, even though there are numerous advertisements and campaigns to make sure every South African knows his or her status. Objectively, there’s a number of benefits to knowing if you’re positive, the prime one being that you can get regular CD4 tests and eventually go on anti-retroviral treatment when you qualify. Hopefully, it will also change your sexual behaviour to prevent further transmission. And if you’re negative, hopefully you’ll breath a sigh of relief and be more cautious in the future.

As I’ve been in Itipini longer and gotten to know many people quite well, I’ve become more comfortable in conversations about these sorts of issues. The idea of talking with someone about sex makes my safe-church-trained self recoil, particularly if those people are high-school students who are coming to me expecting an English class and not sex ed. But I also want to be able to talk about what is the most pressing issue facing their generation. Gradually, and with no overriding plan or strategy, I’ve managed to have several very good conversations about HIV and the importance of being tested. I haven’t yet addressed the topic corporately with my English class but in some ways the individual approach might be more effective and certainly makes me feel more comfortable.

I have yet to succeed in getting anyone to have a test and each time the prime objection is the same - “ndinoyika” - I am afraid. Despite all the efforts at education, they would still rather not know than know. I patiently try to explain the benefits of knowing your status but so far it has not changed anyone’s mind, though there are signs that some people’s resistance is breaking down (after months and months!). It’s frustrating to me that the high school students are regular about coming to the clinic for their every 12-week birth control injections - obviously, they’re putting themselves at risk - but won’t take a few extra minutes to get tested. The three students who were mothers were likely tested when they give birth and so are negative but that was 18-months ago in the most recent case. A couple of them still breast feed, which means if they’ve been infected since giving birth they could be transmitting the virus to their healthy children.

After the “I am afraid” answer, a common second reason given by young women I’ve spoken with for not getting tested is that they only have one partner. This is heartening that they understand that being faithful to a partner is important to prevent HIV transmission but it doesn’t guarantee anything if their partner is unfaithful to them.

I’m not suggesting that I talk about this all the time or even that I seek out conversations about this. But when it comes up, I don’t always let it pass by anymore and do my best within the limits of our common vocabulary to stress the importance of testing. It is a long and uphill slog.

And to think that a primary message of the Gospel is “be not afraid.”

Hard at Work

When I got my new computer, a fellow Mac user suggested I use the Photo Booth program with the children at Itipini. Here are some results. The stretch feature was particular popular.

July 24, 2008


It is probably criminal that I have made it this far and not dedicated a post to Jenny McConnachie, who has been an Episcopal missionary since time immemorial, holds all the pieces of the Itipini Community Project together, and is a person for whom adjectives like loving, terrific, or kind-hearted seem hopelessly insufficient because she is so much more than that. In this picture, we’re at the finish line of that silly race we ran in February.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how each week in Itipini just seems to be the same as the one before. That’s been a bit trying for me at times until I remember that Jenny has been doing this for 15 years (or so; she’s a bit fuzzy on just how long it’s been), day in and day out dealing with the same smelly, dirty, occasionally ungracious people that have overwhelmed me in just one year. It’s remarkable, but again that’s one of those insufficient adjectives.

There’s not a lot I can put in words to describe how terrific it’s been for me to work alongside Jenny here and learn from her. You’ll just have to come meet her for yourself.

July 21, 2008

The Journey is the Destination, Or Everything I Need to Know about Horse-Riding I Learned by Watching the Rohirrim Charge Minas Tirith

The initial idea was to spend part of our two-week vacation with Nthantisi, one of the pre-school teachers, at her village home near the town of Matatiele, about four hours northwest of Mthatha. She was only going for a week and when I checked the map and saw how close Matatiele is to Lesotho, I decided to spend the second week of the vacation in the mountains. Lesotho, so the tour books say, is the country with the world’s highest lowest point. Nothing is below 1000m. Everyone I spoke to said Lesotho was a gorgeous and spectacular country and wished me well on my trip. Then they would pause and say, “But it’s winter - it’s going to be cold up that high.” Despite my background in some cold climes, all these warnings nearly put me off the trip but I decided a) I wasn’t spending my vacation in Mthatha and b) how cold could cold really be in Africa?

Turns out, though, that Nthantisi had to change her plans so she’d be spending the first week of the vacation in Mthatha and then the second week in Matatiele. We decided I’d spend the first week in Lesotho and then come south and meet her sometime in the second week.

The car I use is not really cut out for the mountains of Lesotho and I wasn’t in the mood for paying for all that gas anyway so I decided to travel by mini-bus taxis. These are the backbone of transportation in Africa and though people expressed horror when I told them of my plans, hundreds of thousands of them transport millions of people safely every day. True, there are a few crashes and deaths, as with private vehicles, but I liked my odds. This seemed like as good an opportunity as any for some sustained experience with taxis and a true test of one of my favourite sayings, “the journey is the destination.”

Given the positive response to the report of my Uganda trip, I’ve attempted something similar. So pull out your atlas and follow me as I travel almost the complete circumference of Lesotho. You might not want to read it all in one go.

Day 1 - Monday, 30 June 2008
Right off the bat, I make a rookie mistake. I want to be on the first taxi out of Mthatha to Matatiele so I arrive at the taxi rank at 7:30, thinking that since I’ve developed this stereotype of Africans as early risers, they’ll be at the taxi rank early too. It is a clear and cold morning and the taxi drivers huddle around their taxis surrounded by plumes of exhaust. I tell them where I am going, they point me to the right taxi, and ask, “Why are you here so early? It’s cold - people won’t be here for a long time.” Since taxis go when they are full and I am the first one there, I have a long wait ahead of me. Not for the first time, I realize I am learning a lot about patience by living in Africa. Around 11:15, 16 of us are finally on our way to Matatiele.

The drive to Matatiele gives me my first taste of the mountains. Even as we climb up into them, there continue to be steeper and taller mountains in the distance and it is exciting to know those are my destination. In Matatiele, I am quickly able to find a ride going to Qacha’s Nek, the town just over the border in Lesotho. The ride is in a bakkie, the small trucks that are used for everything around here. It is smaller than, say, a Ford Ranger, is old, and is weighed down with about a dozen people in the back, three - including me - up front, and all our stuff strapped to the roof. The road to Qacha’s Nek is a steep climb on a dirt road and we do pretty much the whole thing in first and second gear. The bakkie makes an interesting whistling noise every time it enters second gear. The woman up front with me gives me a blank stare when I say, “Molo,” (hello in Xhosa). I remember I am in Sotho country now, a language only distantly related to Xhosa, and say instead, “Dumela” (hello in Sotho), the only word of the language I know.

We reach the border around 4:30 and everyone gets out as the bakkie driver is going back to Matatiele. It is the first time I have crossed a border on foot but it is without hassle. We exit through the swanky and relatively-new-looking South African post, walk through a little no-man’s land, and enter Lesotho at the tumble-down border post that needs a new paint job and some structural reinforcement. My American passport attracts a lot of attention and the supervisor comes out just to see what the commotion is about. But I get my stamp and cross into Qacha’s Nek.

Qacha’s Nek is the middle of the country, on the southern border. I am to learn that it is “in the sticks” and is the end of the paved road from Maseru, the capital. But for now it is a pleasant and very small town and reminds me of a slightly larger version of Unalakleet, Alaska. According to Lonely Planet, all the evergreens here are redwoods and they are impressively tall but not as tall as the mountains that just loom over everything. There’s a nice, clean, and cheap bed and breakfast (that doesn’t serve breakfast but whatever). There are two beds in my room and I take the covers off the other bed and add them to my own just in case it gets cold. I am plenty warm but they sure know how to make blankets here. The weight of the combined covers is like sleeping in a straight-jacket.

Day 2 - Tuesday, Canada Day
Notwithstanding my experience yesterday, I am up early again to catch a taxi towards Maseru. Not for the first time on this trip, I get to watch the sun rise over the mountains from the taxi rank. It is a cold morning and I enjoy seeing my breath for the first time in a long while.

One of many sunrises I will see from a taxi park on this trip.

I find a plush taxi going to Maseru and we set out around 7:30. This is about the only taxi plying the road between Qacha’s Nek and Quthing at this time of day so we stop frequently to pick people up and let them off. Gradually, the taxi fills up and I get squeezed in tighter and tighter with the young mother and her two young children next to me. Eventually, one ends up on my lap and it reminds me of my first bus ride in Uganda. But my leg falls asleep much more quickly and pretty soon I have to kick the poor child of my lap.

This portion of the drive is my first introduction to true Lesotho mountains and they are absolutely stunning. We spend some time in the Senqu River valley (this becomes the Orange River in South Africa) and the whole drive is fantastic. We pass a number of small villages and I struck by many differences to those I’ve seen in South Africa. The overriding difference is that it seems so much poorer. Many of the huts are made out of stones and I think about how the wind must just whistle through them all the time. All the villages are centred on agriculture and I am impressed at how much land is under cultivation for the size of the villages, particularly as I watch the team of oxen plow the land. I am also shocked, I must confess, to see so many men actually working and working hard. I am used to men sitting around and drinking.

After Quthing, the terrain becomes more rolling and the villages larger. We pass through several larger towns as we approach the population heartland of the country. We also begin to see more police and get pulled over five times at road blocks. Our driver evidentially doesn’t have his paperwork in order because he has to spend so much time convincing the police to let us carry on. But it means a break for us to stretch our legs.

I get off the taxi at Matsekuoa, a tiny junction town where I could catch a taxi to Malealea Lodge, an old trading post now converted to a tourist lodge in the attractively-named Paradise Valley. I wait at this junction for two hours, at first enjoying the break and the sun, then getting a bit bored, then getting really bored and entertaining the assembled crowds with my juggling of oranges, before finally sitting down to wait. As I’m sitting, a police truck with eight of Lesotho’s finest on board pulls over. They immediately surmise I am going to Malealea Lodge - clever detective work - and offer me a ride as they’re going there as well. (I don’t ask what business eight cops have at the lodge I’m hoping to spend the night in.) I climb in the bed with three others and we do our best to huddle out of the wind. A few stops and a few more hitchhikers later (we are now about a dozen or so in this truck) we begin a climb up a dirt road to Gates of Paradise Pass, 2001 meters according to the sign. There’s an old sign here that says, “Wayfarer, pause and look upon a pathway of Paradise.” It’s breath-taking, though that just may have been a particularly cold burst of air that hit me as we crossed the pass. The valley lives up to the sign, dotted here and there with little villages, farm land, and rivers. I realize that Lesotho is such a spectacular country that on my second day in the country I have run out of adjectives to describe it.

Aptly named.
Some of Lesotho's finest who picked me up.

Malealea Lodge is a great place and feels very remote. Fortunately for their bottom line, we’re not that far from the main highway and they attract a lot of tour buses. Indeed, I am the only solo-traveling backpacker there. But the place is big enough for all of us and they even have a price range that caters to people like me with some very comfortable accommodation. The man at the desk sits down with me for quite a while and tells me not only what they have on offer but also what else I should see in the country. I begin to question if I should go to Nthantisi’s at all or just spend the second week in Lesotho.

The stars are gorgeous at night, as you might expect, but I wrap myself up in my sleeping bag pretty early. Have I mentioned it gets cold in the winter in Lesotho?

Day 3 - Wednesday, 2 July 2008
The highlight of any trip to Lesotho is supposed to be a pony trek through the mountains and I am eager to do this but not the day after spending two days crammed in taxis. So I get a guide and hike through part of the valley to a waterfall. It is the first waterfall I’ll see on this trip and it looks great but I later realize it pales in comparison to others.

The hike to the waterfall is the highlight and takes us through Malealea village. We pass men and boys tending their flocks of sheep and goats and cows. There are men and women bringing in the old corn stalks from the field for fodder for the animals. Not for the last time on this trip, the song “Bringing in the Sheaves” springs into mind but as I only know those four words and barely know the tune, I don’t get very far. Some women are de-cobbing corn kernels that will eventually go the mill at the lodge to be turned into corn meal. Though I’m careful not to romanticize the poverty or difficulty of the life, it is encouraging to see an example of what seems to be a thriving rural life, particularly after hearing so many stories of the death of rural life in Alaska and the Transkei.

Scenes from a walk around Malealea.

On the way back, we stop at “Musi’s Donga,” a small farm built on reclaimed land. Soil erosion is a big problem here (as it is in the Transkei), and there are lots of eroded areas that interrupt fields and reduce the amount of farming land. A donga is an attempt to reclaim that land by building terraces and dams with rocks to prevent the soil from washing away. This is a particularly impressive example and I get a thorough tour from the son of the man who started it all. The amount of land they’ve reclaimed and the work it must have required to haul all those rocks is impressive.

My guide Lucky had invited me to his soccer practice in the late afternoon so I go check it out. The team is practicing for a tournament and they are quite good. At the other end of the field is one guy practicing his corner kicks and a lot of younger boys who seem more interested in catching the ball than kicking it. Given all you hear about soccer in the developing world, these guys are actually not all that great. When they invite me to join them, I oblige but make sure to hide my soccer talent by missing any ball that comes my way. I don’t have to try very hard.

In the evening, I prepare for my pony trek. I’ve decided to take the four-day pony trek, one of the longest on offer, that will take me into some remote villages in the mountains that tower on the far side of Paradise Valley. You’re supposed to bring along all your own food on the trek and I had none with me aside from the backpacker’s mandatory jar of peanut butter. The only thing on offer in the village is a small spaza shop (convenience store, kind of) and I manage to find what I think is enough sustenance for four days, mainly rice, baked beans, and oranges. I stock up and begin to pack my saddle bags. I feel adventuresome and try to push down any trepidation that comes from never having ridden a horse before. “I’ve seen the Magnificent 7,” I tell myself. “That should count for something.”

Day 4 - Thursday, 3 July 2008
I am ready and raring to go at 8:30 but delay follows delay and we don’t set out until 10, me, my guide, Matelfi, and our horses. (A word on the animals - traditionally, the “steeds” of Lesotho are called ponies because they are shorter than horses. But they were bred initially from horses, I think; the altitude and the weather has stunted their growth. A pony to me is what you ride at the fair and not an animal that nonchalantly climbs mountain passes the way these guys will.) Riding a horse turns out to be easier than I thought, particularly one as docile as mine. I figure he knows the route better than me so I sit back and enjoy the ride.

All the literature about pony-trekking in Lesotho concentrates on the steep and rocky ascents and descents the ponies manage while the rider hangs on for dear life. As advertised, we begin to descend to our first river valley forty-five minutes or so after setting out and, predictably, it is steep and rocky. I like to think I handled myself as calmly as the pony did but there were a few terrifying switchbacks.

After climbing out of the river valley, we pass through yet another village and are greeted with smiles and laughs from the children. As they will be throughout this trip, the huts are made of stone or mud and are a uniform brown throughout. The cornfields are mostly cleared so there is an overwhelming sense of colour sameness on this trip.

Soon after lunch, and another death-defying descent into and climb out of a river valley, we cross a fairly major-looking dirt road and I am a bit stunned to find it is a road that goes to Maseru. There’s a fairly large village here and some impressive-looking local government offices. As we cross the road, a bus from Maseru rumbles by and my sense of the remoteness of our location is shattered.

In the afternoon, we continue along this road, through the many villages that surround it and I get to practice my limited Sotho by greeting everyone we pass. As the daylight fades, however, the road dead-ends and we begin to climb and climb and climb towards an impossibly-distant and steep pass. On our way up, we pass shepherds and their flocks headed towards lower elevations for the night and a few other pony riders, trotting along much faster than us and bareback to boot.

As we cross the pass, a new - and much more remote - village comes into sight, a short descent away. We dismount here and I’m walking like John Wayne, sore from the waist to the knees, but I’ve survived my first day on horseback. There are some children hanging around and I am tempted to play with them but there’s too much to do and too little daylight remaining. I insist on carrying my own water from the spring and it nearly does me in, even though it’s only a few gallons of water abut 50 yards (uphill, mind you). The rondavel is warm and comfortable; I only wish I could have cooked a better dinner. I fill myself up but a lot of my dinner goes to the dogs hanging around. As it’s dark and the village is quiet, I head to bed early.
A common sight on my four-day trek: a steep pass and my guide's back.

Day 5 - Friday, American Independence Day
Last year on the Fourth of July, I ran street races in Nome, Alaska, ate too much free ice cream from the Fire Department, joined in a jam session on the public square, and bar-b-qued salmon in the evening. This year, I am up by 7 and we are back on the trail soon after 8.

The trail leads through the village and soon we are past the huts and climbing again, this time to another pass that doesn’t seem quite as impossibly steep as yesterday but is still impressive. When we cross over it, there are no signs of any human habitation, just an open expanse of somewhat marshy ground stretching to the next pass in the distance. We pass a few boys and young men driving donkeys or ponies the other way towards the mill but mostly we are alone. As with virtually all the other people we see on this trip, they are wearing the traditional blankets as a sort-of overcoat. Matelfi rides ahead and I am left to contemplate the stark remoteness of the area and its overwhelming beauty.

Towards mid-day, we begin another steep descent to a river, pausing this time so Matelfi can point out a unique spiral aloe that grows in this part of the world. We cross the river and break for lunch, peanut-butter, bread, and the ubiquitous orange for me. I am already tiring of my food and it is the second day of the trip.

The pretty neat spiral aloe.

After lunch, we climb away from the river, headed towards another pass. In the distance is a very small village but that has been the only sign of life since this morning. That changes when we cross the day’s final pass and see a sizable village stretching out below us. The well-tended fields climb up the hill towards us, in the middle-ground are the huts, and in the far distance are a series of sharp cliffs that indicate there’s a river at their base. It is a spectacular scene.

After descending through the fields and huts, we arrive at our evening’s accommodation, a similarly pleasant rondavel. As we have plenty of daylight remaining, Matelfi takes me first to the nearby waterfall. Apparently, it is a 100-plus meters tall and one of the most remote in the country. The cliffs around the river are so steep we can’t reach the waterfall’s base but we get a good view from up high.

Later, I wander through the village in the dying light of the day and pick up a large coterie of children. I also meet some men headed home, including this one who wanted to be sure to show that he had been working today.

The rondavels we stay in are owned by local villagers and tonight’s host is a woman named Georgina, who wants to learn all about me. I turn the questions back on her and learn that it is a day’s journey to get to Maseru, leaving before dawn. She’s lived in this village for more than 25 years and hasn’t been to Maseru in nearly two years, though someone from her family goes once a month.

It’s another quiet evening and bad dinner and I head to bed early. Happily, I am less sore now than I was yesterday at this time.

Day 6 - Saturday, 5 July 2008
The sun is shining and there isn’t a cloud in the sky this morning but it is cold and the wind is whipping fiercely. I put on my gloves, my winter hat (purchased just before I left Mthatha for exactly this eventuality), and all the layers I have, a long-sleeve t-shirt, a fleece jacket, and a warm sweater. (The last two items had been donated to Itipini just as we closed for the break. When I realized they fit me and were warm, I “borrowed” them for the trip since it was too late to get them in the hands of any of the intended recipients.)

Despite the layers, it is cold all day and our trail takes us up and up and up. With each pass that we cross, we don’t seem to descend much at all. Most of the day is spent skirting valleys below, headed for another pass in the distance. We see little sign of human habitation most of the day and we break ice in the streams we cross. Despite the season, the amount of green we see is striking. My gloves (actually glove liners from my Alaska days) are insufficient and Matelfi - gloveless - looks cold too. At one point, he insists we get off and walk the horses, not because they can’t handle it but to get the blood moving in our extremities again. It is great advice, as my feet are particularly cold.

In all the time with my thoughts on horseback, I found myself creating a list of movies with great horse-riding scenes. The one that sticks in my head is the charge of the Riders of Rohan on the armies of Mordor before Minas Tirith in The Return of the King. Matelfi had given me a small stick in the morning to give my pony little whacks to keep moving but I found a better use for it was to slash at the tall grass we passed through a la Theoden, Eomer, et al. A couple of times I nearly fall off, a few other times I confuse the poor horse, and eventually I drop my stick altogether and the distraction ends.

Having head east for the first two days, we are now headed vaguely north and west. As near as I can tell, we are right in the middle of the mountain range I first saw from Gates of Paradise Pass and some snow-covered peaks loom especially close and tall.

Our final pass of the day is the highest and we hunch low as we climb. It is another vast open and empty valley before us. As we traverse it, I realize it is more a plateau for the end we are headed towards is more or less a sharp drop-off. Near the edge, we break for a late lunch (neither of us had wanted to stop before) and Matelfi immediately begins to make a fire. There is almost no vegetation of any consequence at this elevation and searching for fuel reminds me of the challenge of starting a fire on the tundra in Alaska. But we manage and I singe my gloves on the flames.

The endless plateau

Looking over the cliff edge, we can see a village in the valley stretching out below and a waterfall on another side. The waterfall looks great but my fingers are so cold (this is before the fire got going) as to have lost any dexterity and I am afraid I’ll drop the camera off the edge if I take it out. In the far, far distance, I can make out Malealea Lodge (notable because of the grove of trees that surrounds it, not cut down for firewood).

The remainder of the day is a steep descent to the village. This is probably the steepest descent over the loosest rock we’ve had and it’s remarkable how the horses choose their path and even when they stumble or slip right themselves quickly. For the entire trip, I felt completely safe on my horse.

We arrive in the village and meet some other folks who are either on one-night treks or doing the same route we’ve done in reverse. We hike to the base of the waterfall from here, along a narrow path on the side of a hill. It’s clouded over in the afternoon and as we sit at the base of the waterfall, it begins to snow, quite heavily actually, and we make our way back through the squall.

The toilets along the way have all been outhouses, mostly made of corrugated tin and quite small. The outhouse tonight, I am pleased to find, is made of stone and quite large. I take a picture and file it away for my lifelong study of comparative outhouses.

Day 7 - Sunday, 6 July 2008
It really snowed overnight because the mountains that towered over our village last night are now quite white at the peak. We didn’t get any snow that stayed at our elevation but I’m thankful we are headed even lower today, rather than back on to yesterday’s high plateau.We are joined byanother solo traveller, finishing his one-night outing. Since he ended up helping me out so much, I should note his name is Jamie and he works for Clowns Without Borders. It is nice to have company and we chat a while but mostly just enjoy our winding path along the floor of a broad canyon/valley. High above us, we can see the smooth rock eroded away by the river many millions of years ago. As we climb out of the canyon, I can see in the distance the path we took on Thursday and Malealea even closer now. Predictably, as we approach the lodge, the horses begin to canter and trot and I find it all a bit uncomfortable and hard to control but we make it back it one piece. We are back at Malealea before 2 and it feels good to step off the horse for the last time.

He rides again...for the first time.

My plan had been to spend the night at Malealea before heading into Maseru the next morning and then onwards. But Jamie is going into town for the evening and offers me a ride. Maseru is essentially the only place in the country with Internet cafes and ATM machines and I am eager for both. It is only an hour or so from Malealea and when we get out of the car in Maseru, we both comment how warm it is at this lower elevation. I am still wearing all the layers I have pretty well constantly been wearing for the last four days and immediately begin to sweat.

In relatively short order, I locate the Anglican cathedral, which has a dormitory on property. After ascertaining that they have space for me, I have only one question: do you have hot showers? They do and I have a long one before heading in to explore Maseru for the evening.

Day 8 - Monday, 7 July 2008
Aside from my stop in Heathrow on the way to South Africa, Lesotho is the first kingdom I have ever visited and I am eager to see the palace. But when I check the map of Maseru to locate it, I realize I walked past it yesterday afternoon - it is right below the cathedral - and yet I hadn’t noticed it. (I did notice the impressive-looking Reserve Bank of Lesotho. I wondered what all those employees did when the currency here, the loti, is interchangeable with and pegged to the value to the South African rand.) This morning, I set out to find it again and when I do it powerfully reminds me of a retirement home, with a gently sloping lawn, three stories or so with glass sliding-doors here and there. I can’t even be bothered to take a picture. It is an anti-climactic moment.

After doing a little more business in Maseru, I head north again, this time on a small bus carrying way more people than the rated capacity posted in big letters at the front. Taxi drivers are generally known for playing music very loudly and this one is no different but he is playing American jazz instead of the usual techno dance music. It sounds out-of-place and odd on the bus’s gigantic subwoofer that is as de rigeur here as elsewhere in the world.

I make my way via Maputsoe to Leribe and am dropped off in the taxi rank around noon. So far, I’ve been passing around the outer-rim of the country and today’s journey in particular has so far been through the heavily-settled and well-traveled parts of the country. But in Leribe, I get on a taxi to Katse, a tiny community in the middle of the country and, depending on how you measure it, the site of Africa’s tallest dam. The Katse Dam was completed about 10 years and is the centre-piece of the Lesotho Highlands Water Development Project that diverts water from Lesotho to Johannesburg and creates hydro power for Lesotho along the way.

The drive there is truly spectacular. (I know I’ve said that before but, like I said, it’s easy to run out of adjectives in this country.) It turns out that Highlands in the project’s title refers not to the fact that Lesotho is generally a high country but that the dam is in the highlands of Lesotho. Before being allowed to climb a high pass into the area, we have to pass a checkpoint where our taxi is inspected. Remarkably it passes. The road is superbly-engineered and takes us up to an elevation where snow and ice cover the road and the waterfalls on the side are frozen. From there, Katse Lake comes into view and we follow its length for some time, through tiny village after tiny village until reaching Katse and the end of the tar road. It is only 122-kilometers from Leribe but it takes nearly four hours, so steep and twisty is the road.

There is a very poor-looking village perched on the hill above the taxi rank in Katse. Since entering the highlands area, I’ve seen high-tension power lines everywhere but there doesn’t seem to be any electricity in this village. My destination is the Katse Lodge, which Lonely Planet had said had a hostel. To get there, I follow the tar road until it gets to a manned gate. I am convinced I am headed the wrong way - what sort of hostel has a gate? - and tell the guards that but they point me further down the paved road, which winds among some trees, very nice houses with SUVs in the driveways, and paved roads, which even have street signs and stop signs. It turns out this is the community purpose-built for employees of the dam and rich South Africans wanting a mountain vacation. At the end of the road is Katse Lodge, which, whatever Lonely Planet says, is no hostel. In fact, it is quite ritzy and quite expensive. They do have a hostel but it is all booked (by a short-term Baptist mission group from Ohio I later learn) so I am forced into the main hotel. I manage to bargain the price down to about $35 a night but it is still about three times what I anticipated paying. To top it off, they don’t have a self-catering kitchen, which any good hostel has, so all the groceries I bought in Maseru and lugged here, intent on finally cooking myself a good dinner, are meaningless. Instead, I head back to the taxi rank where I find a few women running a small restaurant and have my dinner there. I get a free Sotho lesson too.

Day 9 - Tuesday, 8 July 2008
The Lesotho Highlands folks offer tours of the dam twice a day so I make the forty-minute walk out to the visitors center after breakfast. I am the only one there and the tour guide - a pleasant-looking but foul-tempered young woman - is stunned to find I don’t have a car and says she can’t give me the tour without one. I am content to walk and tell her so but she stalks out. I am about to leave when she returns with the keys to a company vehicle and a driver. I get the most perfunctory tour ever but even that can’t take away from the impressiveness of the dam. We get inside, see the control room, and stroll along the top of the dam. I am effusive with my thanks and my guide says, “Pleasure” in a sing-song voice that tells me it was anything but.

Katse Dam

In the afternoon, I hike up a nearby hill that commands a great view of the lake and dam and snow-capped peaks in the distance. It is steeper than I anticipated and I attract laughs from the shepherds I pass. It is also incredibly windy up top and I practically get blown back down the far side to another village where I have lunch in a small restaurant. The wind stays constant all afternoon and evening but the sun is bright and warm.Sunset over Katse Lake

Day 10 - Wednesday, 9 July 2008
The first taxi back to Leribe leaves at 6:30 in the morning and surprisingly it is on time. I get to watch the sun rise and the constellations fade as we head to Leribe. From there, I get a ride to Butha-Buthe and then on to Mokhotlong, the farthest-east town in Lesotho. Butha-Buthe to Mokhotlong is a long journey, probably four hours, and our taxi is crammed with mattresses and other goods purchased in the larger Butha-Buthe. Fortunately, I get a seat up front, which gives me (marginally) more room and a great view. The taxi driver can’t seem to get his radio to work and asks me to look at it. I think I see what is wrong but act like I don’t so the ride passes in blessed quiet.

Soon after we leave Butha-Buthe, we begin to climb (surprising, I know) into the Drakensberg escarpment that forms Lesotho’s eastern border with South Africa. We may have to reach down to first gear a time or two but we eventually cross a pass at 3222-meters (10,000-plus feet) and don’t seem to descend much after that. It is almost completely deserted at this height, with only scrub brush and few signs of human habitation. We pass a huge diamond mine at one point with a small and, frankly, miserable-looking village nearby. We also pass one of Africa’s few downhill ski slopes. It is not very steep or very long but has a legitimate chairlift and lodge at the foot. It looks kind of pathetic.

Mokhotlong is described as having a “wild west” (actually east) feel and that is mildly true. When we get out of the taxi around 4, the sun is sinking quickly and the wind is blowing bitingly hard. My ensuing search for lodging for the evening is frustrating and comical and lasts much too long. I’ll spare you the details but I end up walking up and down Mokhotlong’s one paved road far too many times and eventually find a small guest room in the offices of a local NGO just as the sun is setting and the wind getting particularly strong.

Day 11 - Thursday, 10 July 2008
I arrive at the taxi rank at 10 past 6 and though it is still cold and dark, there is already a crowd of people waiting. I watch upside-down Orion fade in the east as the sun rises. We don’t leave until 7:15 and when we do it is as a convoy of three four-wheel drive mini-bus taxis. The road immediately turns to dirt and begins to climb. Evidentially, the drivers think this is some sort of contest as they drag race their way to the top of Sani Pass, overtaking each other on the narrow dirt roads and generally driving recklessly. This is the only time I have found myself questioning a driver’s judgment on this trip but, in retrospect, it is a fun ride. I am crammed in the last row and the young woman next to me insists on loudly cheering our taxi on every time we pass another. The side window won’t stay closed so we endure a steady stream of icy air the whole way.Our four-wheel drive taxi.

Sani Pass border post.

Sani Pass is a high, mostly-empty plain and the drivers floor it to get to the border post first. We win and are rewarded with a chance to get our passports stamped first. Then the fun begins. The South African side of Sani Pass is the hands-down winner for steepest road on this trip and most switchbacks per mile. Of course, its unpaved and water/ice flows across the road. I don’t know whose idea it was to put a road here but it makes for an exciting ride. The taxi drivers wisely slow down for which I am grateful. I’m also grateful for the cushioning of my fellow passengers as we bump and swerve downhill. My seatmate, with no race to cheer on now, lapses into general screaming at the ride. It is a great experience.

The view coming down Sani Pass

My screaming seatmate

We are through the South African post at the bottom of the pass and in Underberg fairly quickly. This is a fairly well-off area of South Africa and it is an incredible contrast to the poor villages just up the hill. But I’m not thinking about that. I’ve learned at the taxi rank in Underberg there are no taxis to Kokstad, a junction town that will allow me either to head north to Nthantisi’s or south to Mthatha. I’ll have to hitchhike or, as they say here, hike.

When people hike here, they make signs that have a cryptic combination of letters indicating their destination. As I don’t know the code for Kokstad, I write out the full name on my sign and add, for good measure, a “please” below. Within about three minutes, I am picked up by a Nestle representative, who buys milk from the farms in the region. My sign obviously said Kokstad and I thought he said he was going all the way there but as we pull away, he mentions he is not going all the way but a few kilometers short. During the drive, he mentions it a few more times and each time the distance from Kokstad gets longer, first 10 kilometers, than “15 or 20,” before he eventually drops me off by a sign that says “Kokstad 35 km.” He turns down a dirt road to a farm and I am left alone on the highway. This is farm country and there is nothing around. No town, no houses, and certainly no cars, just big fields. My driver had been friendly and I learned a lot about the milk business en route but this seems like a crummy thing to do to a hitchhiker whose sign had explicitly said “Kokstad,” not “the middle of nowhere.” In the next 45 minutes, a mere 19 cars pass me by (I counted), and it is finally the twentieth who picks me up and takes me all the way to Kokstad.
By this point, I am tired and have a backpack full of dirty laundry. I also have a long list of things to do in Mthatha before I take off on my break and the time remaining until that break now seems much shorter. I have no energy for what will be an intense second-language experience at Nthantisi’s and reason I can go there sometime in the next year. As it is, she doesn’t answer her phone when I call her. I find a taxi headed for Mthatha and a few hours later and I am back at the same taxi rank in which I began my trip.

When I see Nthantisi at work on Monday, she says, “What happened? Did you get lost in Lesotho?”

“Pretty much,” I reply.

July 20, 2008

Getting Checked

It is always unsettling to be brought face-to-face with your own prejudices, particularly when they are deep-seated and unexpected.

I went to the eye doctor and dentist this past week for my annual visits. But I must confess that before I went I had to wrestle with whether it made sense to wait until my break in August for the appointments or to have them now. Because of my peripatetic ways, I have no family doctors to return to who’ve been looking after me forever so it would be a new person seeing me here or there. And it made sense to have the appointments now and not during valuable and limited vacation time. But I still paused longer than usual before heading into their respective offices on consecutive mornings.

I think the reason I considered waiting is that on some level I thought if I waited I would be seen by an American- or Canadian-trained doctor, surely better than whatever an African-trained doctor could do for me. It’s hard to avoid the thought that on some level - not a conscious one - I also wanted to be seen by a white doctor, not a black one. To be clear, I never actively thought, “well, I’m not going to a black doctor” but I did notice a more-than-normal resistance to the idea of getting my teeth cleaned or my eyes checked.

I overcame this hurdle and logic overcame my subconscious. Having my appointments here made so much more sense on so many levels - in addition to the ones I’ve already noted, it was cheaper here; I’ve encountered African-trained doctors here and they are all excellent; and I went to the places Jenny goes to and she looks fine.

Even so, I still had a bit of hesitation as I waited in the dentist’s office to get my teeth cleaned. (Plus, the dentist was a young woman and the age and gender overlays in a profession in which I have only ever known old men complicated matters further.) When I walked into the room I found myself almost consciously saying to myself, “she’s perfectly well-trained and will do a fine job.” As it turned out, she did an excellent job, was notably friendly, even though she was speaking in a second language to me, and complimented me about my teeth, which I appreciate. I left feeling the same way I always do when I leave the dentist - chastised about not flossing enough and relieved I don’t have to put up with the experience for another year.

Have you ever read the book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell? Sometimes you don’t even know you’re thinking what you’re thinking. It’s disconcerting. I’m glad I had in this situation the distance from myself to realize my subconscious was being stupid.

There’s another post about being a white person in an overwhelmingly black community but that’ll have to wait.

P.S. I wrote this piece about a week ago and have hemmed and hawed since then about whether or not to post it. I hope you won’t judge me for it.

Coming Off That Mountain… Again

You might recall a post from January in which I compared the experience of returning to Itipini from a vacation to coming down from the mountaintop. While I had had a great time in Uganda, a couple people in Itipini had died and news of those deaths had been disheartening to hear after such a great experience.

I had a similar experience this week as we re-opened the clinic after two weeks away, two weeks in which I had a great trip to Lesotho. On Monday morning, news of a few deaths over the break filtered into the clinic.

The first was a young man named Fezile, who always had a great smile and insisted on calling me “Mr. Jesse.” He was Pakama’s brother and also had HIV and TB. I must admit that despite my guarded optimism in that last post about Pakama, part of me was prepared for the fact that we might return to Itipini to find she had died. Fezile always seemed the stronger one in that family and I had little indication he was nearing death. So it was shocking to find he had died on Saturday, just two days before we re-opened.

(It was a bit awkward this week when I went to Pakama’s house to make sure she made it to a few crucial doctor’s appointments on consecutive days. Everyone is sitting around mourning Fezile and I did my best to pay my respects in Xhosa. But then I turned business-like and made sure she knew when we had to leave and why we had to go. Pakama and Fezile’s mother is remarkable, not only devoting herself entirely to the care of her sick children but also now making funeral arrangements for one of them.)

The second was an older man named Bushman, also an HIV and TB patient. He was pretty gruff and could be demanding at times but he had worked a special place in our hearts. The last time I saw him, there were no obvious indications that he was about to die. He was regular with his medication and seemed to be doing as well as could be expected. His death was a completely out-of-the-blue piece of news.

I doubt there would have been anything we could have done to save either of them had we been open and I don’t regret the vacation. But it is always a sobering reminder to realize that while I was gallivanting around Lesotho, people in Itipini did not get the same vacation and carried on their lives as usual or, in this case, ended those lives.

In some good news, Nobathembu, the woman I wrote about a while back with a low CD4 count and several obstacles to getting on ARVs, came into the clinic on Friday to show off the ARVs she had just picked up from the dispensary that morning. It took a while to sort things out for her but once she got going, she moved through the system pretty quickly and took the process very seriously. Her health is still greatly compromised but she has overcome a major hurdle to improving it. We were celebrating in the clinic and Jenny said, “well, you did pester her about it a lot, Jesse.” I prefer “remind frequently” but if it’s what it takes...

July 19, 2008


Here’s a post from my fellow missionary Harry in Jerusalem that I wish I had written, from the parts about picking up hitchhikers, which I also frequently do with equally interesting results, to the ideas about challenge and risk, which I think is at the core of the mission experience.

Check ‘er out.

P.S. Actually, I have to say a little more. I, of course, have been indoctrinated with stories of how dangerous it can be to pick up hitchhiker yet I do it all the time here. What I’ve realized is that in a country as car-happy as the U.S. hitchhikers are a bit weird because the cultural standard is to own a car (or two or five or whatever). It takes a conscious and counter-cultural decision to forgo car ownership. I can think of only a couple of fully-employed people I’ve known who have made the decision not to own a car and that decision is notable and makes them seem vaguely, well, odd and praiseworthy in the I’m-glad-I’m-not-doing-that sense. (No offense, guys.)

Here almost no one owns a car and not many more even have licenses. (I think I read somewhere less than a quarter of the South African population knows how to drive.) Hitchhiking and taxi riding is just something people have to do. The people I pick up are frequently people who work hard - nurses, day labourers, etc. - and they just happen not to own a car. It’s not weird and it’s not unusual. It’s just the way it is when there’s a lot less money flowing around in an economy.

Also, I gender profile when I decide whom to pick up. I figure women are better bets than men. And I can’t help but racial profile.

How It Flies

I am in full-on countdown mode to my departure from Mthatha (for a little while) in August. When I realize how close August is and I check the date on this post, I am dumbfounded at how quickly time has passed and I think it illuminates something about the different rhythm of life here and its general lack of structure.

When I was in school, there was a particular rhythm marked by the term structure. Each term also has its own rhythm beginning slowly in each of the classes, leading into papers and mid-terms, before culminating in the mad dash to and through exams and into Christmas or summer.

When I worked in Alaska, the academic structure to my life was gone but there was a discernible rhythm nonetheless, marked by seasons of the year that had greater or fewer news stories to cover. Dog-sled race season in the winter was intense, compounded by the regular meetings of the legislature. After the slow summer months, the fall had its own unique events to cover and anticipate or feel relief at the conclusion of depending on one’s perspective.

Throughout my life, there’s been a constant rhythm of northern hemisphere seasons, more or less intense depending on my location but dependable nonetheless. The changing of the weather is another sort of rhythm I have come to depend on.

What I’ve realized is that yet more thing I’ve been cut off from in my decision to move here is that steady rhythm of life that has helped me mark the passage of time. For one thing, the seasons are all messed up here and they are marked by different weather patterns anyway - for instance, winter is marked by its lack of precipitation rather than its presence in white, fluffy form. So that has really thrown me for a loop. I also don’t have an academic rhythm to latch into. What I’ve realized is that there is no seasonal rhythm to work in Itipini. The days of the weeks have a rhythm - dependably busy on Tuesdays and dependably slow on Thursdays, for instance - but there is no obvious connection between the flow of weeks and months. February is more or less like September and November like April.

A volunteer who was here in January for a few weeks has returned for a few weeks more and as we were catching up and recalling events from that time, it was startling to realize they were six months ago. It was also startling to talk to my parents last weekend as they were enjoying a hot summer weekend at a family cottage on a lake while I was freezing through another cold winter night. (That sentence was a blatant plea for sympathy, sorry.) I hadn’t really realized people might be enjoying a summer somewhere.

I am sure if I stayed in South Africa for several years, I might get into the rhythm of life here, particularly the seasonal rhythm. But I think one of the great gifts in life is having something to look forward to - whether it is the end of the term or the end of the Iditarod - and I wonder what people have here. They seasons can’t be that great - it’s freezing in the winter with no insulation or heating and it’s boiling in the summer without air conditioning. Maybe a couple weeks in the spring or fall are pleasant. As for work - if there’s work - I imagine it is just one day after another, each day hoping and praying there will be enough money to get something to eat or buy some new clothes. There’s no vacation to anticipate, no promotion, no goal to save money for because there’s not even enough money for daily needs. I have only been bereft of my usual rhythm for a year and it’s throwing me for a loop. What sort of dependable rhythm do people have here and does it provide enough to anticipate as mine did for me?

So anyway, time flies. Who knew? I must be having fun.

July 15, 2008

They Just Can’t Win

Already suffering from the mounting costs for food, the spiraling price of oil disproportionately affects Africans as well. So says the New York Times.


I know I write a lot of content for this blog. I do so because I enjoy it, there’s plenty of material to keep me going, and I see it as an integral part of my job.

But I hope I have never given the impression that this blog is a complete or near-complete account of a missionary’s experience. It is definitively not. There is so much that happens here and that I think about that never gets recorded here because I don’t have the energy to write everything down, because the thoughts are too unformed to see the light of day, or because I don’t want to overwhelm you with content. (I don’t try to censor myself, however, or not write about things that are difficult for me. I want that part to be as unvarnished as possible.)

Inspired by (i.e. stealing from) my fellow missionary Kate, here are some topics I’ll probably never get to writing about.

  • The picnic I took some people from Itipini on where they got to see zebras and wildebeest for the first time in their life, even though they are five minutes outside of town.
  • The interactions I have with the nurses at the government clinic that sort of oversees us and how in my time here they’ve gone from hostile towards me to treating me like their long-lost son.
  • The bottle store (liquor store) where I begin every day, picking up a few of our staff and particularly the women who run the bottle store and the clientele with whom I interact, in Xhosa, of course.
  • The nine-year old deaf and mute girl in Itipini who is just crying out for attention and for whom it seems impossible to make any meaningful improvements in her life, so great are the obstacles and barriers to her care.
  • How close everyone stands to you in lines at the grocery store so you don’t have any personal space. And how I think everyone is always trying to cut me in line.
  • The frustration I sometimes I develop at my co-workers for their work ethic and seeming willingness to take frequent and lengthy breaks.
  • How my driving habits and skills and general approach to automobile safety, which I’ve always prided myself on, have sunk to record lows here, in keeping with the general cavalier approach to driving in this country. On the other hand, I’m a great stick-shift driver now… when shifting with my left hand.
  • How, occasionally, my standards of personal hygiene drop a little below what I’m used to because, I reason, there’s no way I’m ever going to smell worse than some of the patients we see so what’s a little slippage in the frequency of my showers?
  • The confusion I feel on the subject of teen pregnancy because I can see both how much it harms the futures of the mothers in terms of education and work but also how much joy and spark the children so conceived bring into so many lives, including my own.
Of course, now that I’ve made this list it might spark longer posts about these topics… but not yet.


Some of you have e-mailed me about the continuing tragedy of Zimbabwe. It is a story that dominates the news here and there are Zimbabwean immigrants/refugees living in Mthatha, as there are all over South Africa. Fortunately, Mthatha appears to have been spared the xenophobic violence that hit other parts of the country. The “quiet diplomacy” of President Thabo Mbeki is roundly criticized by everyone I’ve ever heard talk about him, from the opinion and editorial pages to the members of my Bible study, and has made him an even lamer duck than he was before.

I don’t have much to say about the topic that you can’t read someplace else but let me point out something that interested me. The Sunday Times I bought this week cost me 12.50 South African rand (just less than $2). If I had bought it in Namibia, it would have been 16.90 Namibian dollars. In Zimbabwe, because of the staggering inflation there, it would have cost me 50-billion (with a b) Zimbabwean dollars. Yikes!

July 13, 2008

The Kingdom in the Sky

I’ve just returned from 11 days in Lesotho, the mountainous country north of Mthatha, entirely surrounded by South Africa but, in many ways, a completely different world. (“But Jesse,” I hear you say. “How did you keep posting to your blog all that time?” Turns out Blogger lets you schedule posts for the future and I wrote a bunch right before I left so you wouldn’t miss out.)

It is an amazing place and can lay claim to having the highest lowest point (think about it) of any country in the world. That’s why people call it the Kingdom in the Sky but I took to thinking of it as the Land Where You Run Out Of Adjectives To Describe Its Beauty because after so many spectacular and overwhelming vistas, I just didn’t know what to think or write or say anymore.

I have about eight gazillion pictures of mountains and valleys and rivers and waterfalls to sort through and when I do I’ll post some of them, along with a more detailed account of my trip, including some of my encounters negotiating the country via public transport and whatever free rides I was able to get. Let me just say that my new favourite way to cross mountain passes is squashed in a mini-bus taxi with 16 other of my closest (and newest) Basotho friends.

I was able to take the trip because the clinic has been closed these last two weeks for the schools’ winter vacation, traditionally a time Itipini closes and people go back to their rural homes. Now, however, I’m gearing up for the return to work and one last month before my break begins in mid-August. It’s going to be a busy few weeks, I think, and I’ll, of course, let you know about it as it enfolds.

July 11, 2008

The Wild West comes to Itipini

July 10, 2008


For a long time, I’ve been meaning to write about my impressions of the South African effort to get AIDS patients onto anti-retroviral drugs. When these thoughts first began stewing, probably back in October, I wanted to be intensely critical of the system and the ways in which I had seen people die instead of taking the pills that could save their life. Now, however, my opinions have shifted dramatically on the subject and I’m happily able to be a bit more positive on the subject.

First, let me emphasize the power of ARVs. There are many people who have been on death’s door, begun to take the pills, and regained an incredible amount of their previous strength. Their CD4 counts begin to climb and they are able to return to many of the normal routines of their previous lives. Yes, it is true ARVs do not work for everyone. It is also true that it’s not clear how long the ARVs will work for some people. But even if it adds a few years to their life, that is a few years in which they are able to help support their family and raise their children. And who knows what new developments in medicine will have come along if and when the ARVs begin to fail? The advent of these drugs (long-delayed in South Africa by political opposition) is an undeniably positive development and we urge any and all who qualify to begin the process of getting on the treatment as soon as possible.

We are not a clinic that can distribute ARVs. We’re not a government clinic and don’t have the resources to handle the program even if we could. The government clinic about a 15-minute (healthy person) walk away distributes ARVs to our section of town.

My main objections to the system earlier centred on the time it took for a patient to go through the many steps necessary before he or she could begin the treatment. Prospective patients need a whole battery of tests (more blood work, a chest x-ray, sputum tests), need to prove they can count pills correctly over time, and must endure extensive counseling with the nurses at the ARV clinic before they can even be given the pills. All of this is done by an over-burdened and under-staffed clinic. I understand there are many good reasons for each of these steps, particularly given the extent to which the patient’s life is about to be changed for good and the importance of staying consistent with one’s regimen. Still, it can take a healthy and capable patient who shows up for all her appointments on time a month or two before they get the pills.

That’s fine for a person whose health has not yet been seriously compromised by HIV. However, early on I saw too many people who were incredibly sick die before they were given the pills. The process was just too long and they were too weak to last. I still know people who have died needlessly like this and it makes me helpless to know that they could have lived. But I’ve also seen some of the ways in which HIV patients do not take care of themselves in the way they need to, primarily with regular CD4 counts, and thereby the delay the beginning of the ARV process for too long.

What has really transformed my opinion of the ARV program, however, has been a surge in the number of people in Itipini who are taking the drugs. As recently as February I found myself speaking quite negatively about ARVs to a volunteer and dismissing its relevance to people in Itipini. Since then, however, an overwhelming number of people (ok, maybe only ten or a dozen but relatively that is a huge number) have alerted us that they are starting the ARV process. They are all at various stages along the way but all of them seem upbeat and in good spirits about it. They are good about showing up for their appointments and getting the necessary tests. All of them are pretty healthy, which means they can all walk up to the clinic unaided. In fact, because they are under no obligation to tell us how they’re doing, some people have just strolled in after a few weeks’ absence and matter-of-factly displayed their new pills to us.

(I might add that what has also helped turn my opinion around is getting to know the capable nurses and other staff at the ARV clinic. I have developed a good working relationship with them in these last few months and it has been enlightening for me to see how they are good people, working within a constrained system, but doing good work nonetheless. In my early months, I was all too ready to rail against them - internally - as incompetents who just “let people die!”)

This, in turn, has spurred us to be even more serious than we already were about making sure HIV patients get regular CD4 counts and urging those who don’t know their status get tested. Because while there are a handful more success stories out there now than when I first arrived, many people still are slack about CD4 counts or miss appointments or find some excuse why they don’t need to take care of themselves.

My hope - and we have been thinking about ways to facilitate this - is that the growing number of people who are on ARVs will be open and talkative about their experiences with HIV and ARVs. Then, not only will people with HIV be more willing to get CD4 counts but people who are too afraid right now to learn their status will be willing to get tested because they know it is not a certain death sentence.

Several years ago, I heard the argument advanced that it makes no sense to spend money on treatment of HIV, because it is an entirely preventable disease and the people who have it are to blame for contracting it. (Tell that to the woman with the unfaithful husband.) Instead, all the money available should be spent on researching a cure and preventing transmission. That is a fine argument to make in the ivory tower of higher education by people with no experience of the disease but it immediately wilts on contact with the real world and especially real people whose lives have been saved because of the millions of taxpayer dollars (primarily Western taxpayers) injected into treatment programs. Because patients are on ARVs for the rest of their lives, the cost of treatment programs will continue to rise as more and more patients are added to the rolls. It’s money well spent.

July 7, 2008

Being a guy

Astute readers will have no doubt realized long ago that many of the people I write about are women. Many of the people I see on a daily basis are female and my experience of Itipini is coloured by this fact. At least two people have asked, “where are all the men?” and it is an excellent question, one that gets to the heart of a lot of the issues confronting this society. I won’t be pretend to be able to answer it fully but let me begin to sketch out an answer. The ideas in this post are based on my own experience but also conversations with others and some reading I have done in my time here.

I should first say that there are many women in Itipini whom I deeply admire for their commitment to their families, the hard work they put in every single day, and their numerous sacrifices. Unfortunately, the list of men I admire is much shorter; indeed, I’m hard-pressed to come up with more than a name or two right now. I find it very easy to get extremely aggravated very quickly when I interact with men here. Many women have opened their lives to me here but I regret I don’t know enough men well enough (because my frustration gets in the way of the relationship) to know as much about their lives. Changing this is one of my goals for my second year.

A good starting point is to acknowledge is that the role of men in Xhosa society has changed dramatically in the last few generations. No longer is it possible to aspire to be a patriarch of a large family, with a kraal with several rondavels, and a herd of cows. Rural life is evapourating (as it is all over the world) and the experience of apartheid and the need for male labour in the mines near Johannesburg drained the region of its men. Nelson Mandela describes the vibrant village life he witnessed as a child in his autobiography. I doubt that children growing up today have that same experience.

(The jobs women do have not changed much at all - babies still need to be tended, food prepared, water hauled, and clothes cleaned.)

As one possible future for men has dissolved, at least one other has risen to take its place. This has been facilitated by the rise of a common culture, disseminated through everyone’s television screens. It centres on men being providers for their family, and manly men, and tough men. Children here love watching American wrestling shows, for instance. (Yes, there are even television screens in Itipini, run off car batteries.)

The trouble is that at the same time this future has become the goal, the actual means of achieving it have become harder to achieve. Jobs are scarcer. The education needed to get those jobs is more expensive and more limited. Even when people do get education, they often can’t find jobs with their new qualifications. A number of things - I would include the democratic transition and contemporary capitalism on that list - have combined to hold up an aspiration on one hand but also put it just out of reach. (It’s amazing how the Frankfurt School critiques of capitalism I read in school ring true here.)

The result is that young men look for other ways to assert their masculinity. One alternative is crime and statistics make it clear that far too many young men are choosing this option. (South Africa has the second-highest murder rate in the world after Colombia, I believe.) Crime is rampant in this country and has apparently exploded since 1994. Boys want to grow up to be tsotsis (thugs) and it’s hard to see how going to school furthers that aim. (And if your teacher doesn’t show up to school or you don’t have the necessary supplies, why would you make a priority of education, particularly if your parents aren’t educated?)

Underlying all this is the ready availability of alcohol. A liter of cheap, Xhosa beer costs approximately 50-cents and people down those like water it seems. I always see men sitting around in front of the shebeens (unlicensed bars) all day, while the woman work around them. If there’s nothing to work for, why not spend your day drinking? A few weeks ago, I was trying to sort out care for a sick woman and asked my friend Noxolo, “Where all the men? Why can’t they help with this situation?” She said, “The men don’t want to help. They just want to sit in the shebeens all day.” I walked into a shack the other day where a (drunk) man had just been stabbed in the chest in a fight (it was safe). There were about a half-dozen men sitting around watching a grainy TV, smoking something, and drinking… at about 11 in the morning. This was how they were going to spend their whole day.

About the only other way men can assert their masculinity is through sex. Combine this with HIV and the result is mass tragedy. I recommended the book Three-Letter Plague a while back (and still do) and this passage from it has stayed with me since:

“When there is nothing else to do, when, for instance, one cannot give expression to one’s manhood by becoming a household patriarch or careerist, the whole of manhood becomes endowed in sexual performance. It is made to do too much work; it is a source of anxiety.”
Women here have told me that men refuse to wear condoms because - in addition to the age-old, “you don’t really love me if you make me wear a condom” - some say, “You don’t eat a sweet with the wrapper on.” But since sex is also the vector by which HIV is transmitted, the one source of power remaining to men is also what is resulting in the sickness and death of their generation.

On my drive in to Itipini, I see a few young men pushing carts into town, hoping to make a few rand (for beer) that way. They are only 18 or 20 and I wonder how they would reply if they were asked - as I was at that age - “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” I realize future-thinking is a luxury of the financially secure but it is hard for me to see how the path they are on is a positive one. They have little education and few employable skills. Having something to look forward to, I’ve realized, is a great gift. What do they have?

Women keep on keepin’ on it seems. As men spiral into nothingness, women still keep the household running by whatever means they can. In so doing, they are building up their own skills and their own reservoir of power. Men don’t realize it now but they’re going to look up some day and realize any social status they once had has completely dissipated.

July 3, 2008

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