December 27, 2008

“It’s beginning to feel NOT AT ALL like Christmas”

Spending Christmas away from your home poses some obvious challenges. The first, clearly, is the whole idea of being away from family from the holiday but after several consecutive Christmases away that’s not such a huge thing anymore. The real challenge is figuring out what to do to mark the day in an appropriately Christmasy way. That can be challenging for several reasons, like a) not having any presents to open because the mail takes so long to get here or b) not wanting to cook a gigantic meal just for the sake of it or c) not realizing it is Christmas because it is just so warm and sunny all the time. And let me tell you, that last point is inexplicably difficult to wrap your head around.

In any event, I had a truly fantastic Christmas this year. Let me tell you about it.

First, my fellow missionary Matt and I went to church in the morning. Apparently, the service starts at 8 on Christmas Day and not 8:30 so we missed the first half-hour (there’s the small matter of a language barrier; the worst thing is when you think you understand something so clearly and end up being wrong) but that didn’t matter. The service was terrifically joyous and celebratory. As many traditional English Christmas carols have been translated into Xhosa, we were able to belt out such favourites as “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” just with different words.

Afterwards, we went over to my good friend Noxolo’s home in Itipini. She had invited us over for the Christmas meal she was cooking and I jumped at the opportunity. It was the first time I had ever been in Itipini and not been working in some way; I was just there because a friend had invited me and I had accepted. This may not sound like much to you but it was revolutionary for me. We sang lots of Christmas carols in both languages, ate a Xhosa meal, and danced to the music from the nearby shebeens (unlicensed bars). Our time with her family simply exceeds description. The combination of circumstances and events made me the happiest I have been in a very long time.

Naturally, we attracted a lot of attention, including from some people who thought I was around to hand out Christmas presents or open the clinic so a steady stream of visitors came by, in various states of intoxication. But I wasn’t going to let anything spoil my mood so I wished everyone a merry Christmas and sent them on their way.

Noxolo’s daughters, Esihle and Sinawo, who, to be blunt, can be bratty and spoiled at times, were delightful and spent the entire time on my lap.
Most of Noxolo’s family - left to right, Noxolo; her brother Mxolisi; and her sister Lulekwa. The parents are long gone and none of them are older than me and yet have so much responsibility.
It was also Lulekwa’s birthday. She is home on leave (for two weeks) from her job way up north in the mines. This is the first time she’s seen her son since about March.
The kitchen Lulekwa and Noxolo cooked Christmas dinner in.
All the gang - and assorted other passers-by - outside Noxolo’s shack afterwards. It is one of the nicest places in Itipini.
We couldn’t stay overly long at Noxolo’s as we had to get moving to Joe and Anna’s, my Mennonite missionary friends in Mthatha. We had another dinner there - the centrepiece was a warthog roast - met their colleague from Botswana, and played with the children. This felt like a “traditional” Christmas; there was wrapping paper and new toys all over the place. Joe brought out his mandolin and I had my guitar and we sang and played music long into the night.
And that was that.

(This is a two-part post about Christmas. Make sure to read the previous one as well to learn about what else I’ve been up to.)

On the Coast

I’ve been to the stretch of Indian Ocean coast in this region several times before. It is called the Wild Coast and is wonderful. My fellow missionary Matt and I used our time off around Christmas to explore a stretch of Coast a bit further away. It was much less populated, much rockier and rougher (no beaches to laze the day away on), and much harder to get to, involving some serious hiking to get anywhere neat.

But the rewards were great. Our goals were Waterfall Bluff, one of the few places in the world where a waterfall falls directly into the ocean, and Cathedral Rock, which, as you will see in the pictures below, is aptly named.

We spent a few days hiking around the area, dodging cows, sweating through the absolutely hottest and most humid weather I have ever experienced here, swimming upstream from the falls in some great pools and hopefully not getting any bacterial infections, holding on for dear life through some fierce windstorms that took down a few wind turbines in the area, chasing the monkeys away from our food, belting out carols on Christmas Eve (and what was surely the first-ever rendition of “North to Alaska” on the shore of the Indian Ocean) and generally reading and relaxing.

The pictures, of course, don’t do any kind of justice to the magnificence of the area.

I’m not actually sure which is Cathedral Rock but they are both cool.
Our favourite swimming hole.
There’s a Far Side caption here somewhere.
Shipwrecks are a common theme on this stretch of Coast. This one is from 2004.

December 20, 2008

Christmas comes but once a year

We’ve closed up shop in Itipini for two weeks for the “festive season” (as they call it here). Unlike last year, I won’t be gallivanting around a foreign country for the break. I’ve got some Mthatha-based Christmas plans and I might even post about them over the break. But for the most part, don’t expect much on here in the next two weeks. I’ve posted quite a lot today so keep on scrolling down because there are lots of pictures and stories. Hopefully that will sate your appetite until the new year.

"You listen to him..."

I think I was inadvertently paid one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received the other day in the clinic.

We have a rather obstinate tuberculosis patient currently. While he is regular in his treatment, he was refusing on Thursday to pay a visit to the nearby government clinic - our “mother ship” clinic under which we formally operate - so he could formally switch his treatment to the next phase and receive a prescription for the different medicine he would need. For someone who has been as regular as he has, this is a formality but a necessary one. Nonetheless, he wouldn’t go, citing the long lines there and, I think, the long walk. (All this was going on in Xhosa so I didn’t catch everything.)

As we were arguing, Nobathembu, a patient well-known to me and sitting in line waiting to be seen on this particular day, butted in. You might recall I wrote about her once and the challenges she had getting on ARVs. Even though her CD4 count was very low, she refused to get started on the preparatory process for a lot of the same reasons this TB patient was citing. Eventually, after I badgered her every time I saw her, she got going on the process and got the ARVs. She is still sick but I think is moving in the right direction.

Anyway, she butted in to say, in effect, “You listen to Jesse…”. I didn’t get everything she was saying but what I grasped went something like: “I was once really sick and Jesse wanted me to go to the other clinic all the time and I didn’t but then I did and now I am better.” (I may have imagined some of that but I think that English is faithful to her intent.)

It had absolutely no effect on our ornery TB patient and I eventually had to drag him up there myself (where we ran into a new problem, centering on his lost medical records but that’s for another day). Regardless, I was still touched that Nobathembu would point to my intervention in her life as significant. Not only is it nice to - once in a while - have an effect on somebody, it is particularly nice when they acknowledge that effect.

Having a party

In celebration of Christmas and the end of the school year, I organized a Games Day for the students in the after-school program.

I did so with a fair degree of apprehension given the more or less complete failure of any of my previous attempts to control large groups of children in Itipini. There are several factors at work, notably the language barrier but primarily everyone’s pushing and shoving to be first all the time. Everyone is so used to not having enough that when they see something they want - even if it’s only a chance to compete in a race - they do their best to be first so they’ll get “it” (whatever it may be) before it runs out or the opportunity passes. In the past, no matter how much I explain “there is enough for everybody,” the pushing and shoving doesn’t stop. When working with people who experience such deprivation on a daily basis, it’s hard to get them to understand the idea of “enough.”

Despite my fear that the event would turn into complete chaos, I went ahead with the idea anyway… and quickly ran into another problem: what games should we play? Now, I wasn’t once nicknamed “Dr. Game” for nothing; my gazillion years of camp counseling and my genetic inheritance have given me a goodly number of activities to pull out of my sleeve at the drop of a hat. But I immediately ruled out a few of my favourites. I love the game I know as “Shoe Scramble.” Everyone takes off their shoes and piles them about 50 yards from the start line. They race barefoot down to the pile, pull out their shoes, put them on, and then race back to the start/finish line. The problem in Itipini: NONE OF THE CHILDREN WEAR SHOES! Similarly, there’s a great game called “Shoe Factory” where everyone takes off their shoes and crawls around trying to pull off other people’s socks without losing theirs. I ruled that out for similar reasons: no shoes or socks.

I settled on some old favourites like egg toss and the game where you race with a potato between your legs. But I worried about these as well. The egg toss, in particular, is a blatant waste of food and I wasn’t sure how the children would respond to that when they were probably pretty hungry.

As soon as we started, my apprehension immediately dissolved and it was a marvelous time all around. The children were well-behaved and listened as well as could be expected. Between Mkuseli and I, we were able to explain all the games in ways they understood. Everyone participated fully and really got into the idea of racing and winning and cheering on their friends. I even got some of the “cool” older boys to race, which I counted a real accomplishment. We had about two hours of sustained activity, which was more than I expected.

Without further ado, then, the pictures of a great event under a beautiful blue sky on a scorchingly hot day.

The three-legged race was new to them but they took to it quickly, with the usual tumbles and spills.
The sack race was a lot of fun, once we overcame a modest hiccough. I had collected a dozen sacks from the grocery store on Monday and thought I explained to Coach when I set them aside what they were for. But when I went looking for them on Wednesday, they were gone. When I asked what happened, he said he had burned them. But we came up with a few at the last minute and just had to have more heats.
The guy second from left in this picture is really working.

This potato game might take some explaining. It is a relay race between two chairs. The person sits on the chair, picks up the potato between their legs (WITHOUT using their hands), hops to the other chair, drops the potato, where their teammate picks it up and races back. There were a lot of dropped potatoes but also a lot of smiles.
The egg toss was the final event. I could immediately tell that children here aren’t raised to be baseball players. On the first toss, when the kids were literally inches from each other two or three teams dropped their eggs. But some of them got the idea and the winning teams were respectably far apart.I borrowed an idea and the winners got to break their egg on my head, which proved to be exactly the motivation they needed to be serious about the game and want to win. But the winners evidentially didn’t know how to crack an egg and so just whipped it at my head from a very close range. It hurt! See what I put myself through for these kids. And, let me add, it was hot enough to fry an egg - in my hair. It took forever to get out.
We finished with meat pies, a real treat around here and gift bags from the Rotary Club.
Good times - if you look closely, you can see the egg yolk in my hair.

Garden Envy

I am having a serious problem with obeying the 10th Commandment of late. I am seriously envying the after-school garden in Itipini.

Here’s why. The beet on the left in this picture came from my garden. The one on the right came from the after-school garden.
On Thursday, I showed up with a perfectly-respectable bundle of spinach for our cooks to prepare for the pre-school children.

That happened to be the same day that Mkuseli had the children harvest pretty much everything in the garden in a pre-Christmas break push to clear the garden and give the food to the HIV patients in Itipini. He piled up prodigious quantities of beets, spinach, and lettuce.
The reality, of course, is that I can barely deal with all that I am producing in my own garden so anything bigger would be way too much. But I wouldn’t mind a little more sunshine or slightly richer soil so my plants would be a little bigger.

Khayelitsha - A New Home

Since February, my expansive front yard has been a construction zone, first building a new rondavel and then re-thatching the old rondavels. Now, however, everything is done and the best part of it all - besides that I can rehang my hammock - is that I have a new home.
It is, I must say, an exceptional place to live. I hemmed and hawed for quite some time about whether to move out of my old rondavel. The major stumbling block was that my old rondavel had a respectably high shower head and the shower head in the new place is pretty low. (You might not think this is a big deal but when you are as tall as I am, major decisions can center on factors such as these.) What finally convinced me to move was the wonderfully large new kitchen, which more than makes up for the height of the shower head.

Yet one more reason to come visit me - you get to see my new place.

Hanging Out

December 16, 2008

In School

I’ve written about the challenges facing Itipini children who attend school but I’ve never posted any pictures of it. Here, at last, are some.
As you can see, it is a grim place. Here’s a picture of the grade one classroom.
Notice anything missing? How about tables and chairs?

Here’s the sign that’s outside the school.
See that picture in the left-hand corner of nicely-dressed children, sitting at desks, raising their hands? Wouldn’t it be nice if all the children at this school had desks to sit at from which to raise their hands?

If you were a student here - especially one in grade one - what kind of value would you put on education if your government was only putting this much value in its schools? And if you were a teacher and had these kind of non-existent resources with which to work, would you be inspired to do a good job?

I once asked, in relation to writing about the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education:

What if all that effort and money we expend in getting the children into a school puts them in a sub-standard or failing school where the quality of education leaves a lot to be desired? As a statistic, that child is in primary school but is it doing him any good?
So how do we change this situation?

Means and Ends

Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital is the premier public health-care facility in the region and from the outside it looks really impressive. When you go in the main entrance, you enter a large atrium with an information desk and pleasant potted plants. On the far side are two escalators, leading up to the various wards and clinics.
Here’s the problem. In all the many times I’ve entered that atrium, I can count on one hand the number of times both escalators have been working. At least one always seems to be broken. Sometimes that means it is just shut off and the escalator turns into a staircase. Other times, as it has been recently, one is completely blocked off and the innards are exposed. This escalator has not been working for at least six weeks.

A broken escalator isn’t exactly the end of the world. After all, the escalators only go up to the second floor. From there, you have to a find a staircase to take you the right floor or hop on one of the elevators that usually are working, unless there’s been a power cut. (None of the staircases go all the way from the ground floor to the top floor. Frequently I climb one to find it stops a floor or two short of where I want to be so I have to find another one to take me all the way.) The only time I’ve been seriously put out by the broken escalators was the other day when I was in a hurry to get downstairs but the down escalator was broken and none of the nearby staircases went down, only up. I was contemplating running down the up escalator until, with some searching, I found a hidden staircase that went down.

Broken escalators might actually be a good thing, given how foreign they can be to some of the patients in this hospital. I was escorting a mother and her very sick baby into the hospital the other day and she was visibly intimidated by the escalator and nearly dropped her baby getting on and off.

It’s experiences like these that make me wonder whose idea it was to put in the escalator in the first place. I would bet that when the hospital was being designed, the escalators were seen as a way to signal that this was an advanced and up-to-date institution (never mind that there are never any paper towels in the dispensers). This, in turn, gets me thinking about means and ends and how easy it can be to confuse the two.

The intended goal is to get people from one floor to another and the chosen means is the escalator. But there are lots of other ways to reach that goal, like elevators or staircases. But I wonder if the escalator doesn’t become a means to another end, showing off how advanced the hospital is. And in a larger sense, the escalator almost becomes an end in itself.

But the hospital evidentially doesn’t have the wherewithal to keep the escalators functioning. There’s no shame in that, just an acknowledgment that there is less technical expertise and spare parts available in Mthatha than there is in, say, New York City. Perhaps it would have made sense to put in stairs in the first place.

I wonder about this confusion about means and ends in other ways. Mkuseli, our after-school youth director, takes great pride in making sure the after-school garden is well-tended and fruitful. I often see him out there watering or weeding while the children are in school. I’m all for taking pride in your work but the primary goal of the garden is not to produce a whole ton of spinach or lettuce; it’s to teach the children about gardening and keep them busy after school. If he does all the work, there’s nothing left for them to do. But he must think we measure him by how much the garden produces and works away at it. In fact, I’d prefer he spend less time out there. I just haven’t figured out a polite way to say it yet.

Based on the events - funerals, graduations, and so on - that I’ve been to here, it seems that Xhosa people stand on ceremony far more than I am used to. And the ceremony and formalities they use are largely adopted from European culture - the idea of a “vote of thanks,” of public speakers who are exceedingly polite and formal, and on and on. They take their formality to such a point of ridiculousness that it aggravates me and it is my own culture that they are borrowing from. The end in this case is, say, the burial of a dead person or the graduation of a student. But the means used to achieve that end are so flowery and so over-the-top and so foreign to the culture. But the means are seen as an intrinsically good thing; they must be, or else they wouldn’t be so widespread. I find them annoying in that they get in the way of the true end.

The end that everyone here should be directing their efforts towards is to improve the quality of life for all people. I think that effort is often hampered by the use of illogical means that are largely foreign, adopted for no particular reason, and become ends in themselves. It is so frustrating to see.

December 13, 2008


Another year comes to an end

Pre-school graduation was on Friday, a typically chaotic, disorganized, joyous occasion. Now I can use those adjectives and you can think you know what they mean, but I realized during the three-plus hour ceremony (no joke) that it would be impossible to describe to an outside observer just how chaotic, disorganized, and joyous it was. It literally is beyond my capacity for words.

But the basic motivating force is this: there aren’t a lot of big parties in Itipini so when there are everyone wants a piece of the spotlight and insists on having a role. That creates chaos and, unfortunately, takes most of the spotlight off the graduates.

In lieu of more description, here are some of the pictures I took. (You can read about last year’s pre-school graduation for more description of how the event works.)

A bit long for some of the younger students.