Of Brad and Neville …

My volunteer assignment with the fabulous gang at Sophumelela Centre ends in four weeks.  Doesn’t bear thinking about.  Where does time go?  You always think you have time, and then you don’t.  I have so many half started blogs desperate for me to finish and share them to give you more insights to the characters and characteristics of this interesting, frustrating country … but it turns out I’m much more easily distracted and lazier than I thought I was.  Not sure that’s the sort of learning experience I wanted from this adventure, but there it is.

I posted the following on Facebook during the week.  It got lots of lovely feedback which is nice, but for me the important message that keeps running through my head, and why Neville, and Vusi (the car guard at the beach front) and a Mzolzi (the guy who washes my car) exist enough for me to know their names and talk about them is because of some wise counsel my good friend Brad H gave me before I left.

I asked him what advice he had for me (he grew up here) and he said something like “Don’t let the beggars become invisible to you, look them all in the eye, connect with them” and I’ve tried to do that.  It’s hard, there are so many.  I don’t always give them money, but I do try to look them in the eye and give them a genuine and considerate “no” or “not today”.

So, whilst I now understand that I’m basically a pretty lazy person, I’ve also learned that its not hard to acknowledge a fellow human being, to actually say hello and make eye contact, and that for those doing it tough, giving them a few cents, or a few seconds of time, towards their daily existence makes almost no difference to my day but can be significant for them.   Some choose to live rough, some are there through circumstances of their own making and some have no choice.  Its really not up to me to judge, but it is up to me how I treat them, and I think I’ve moved a long way for the better on that one.

+ + + + + + +

Today (29 October) is my friend the homeless traffic light beggar’s birthday. He’s 25.

I gave him a bag of oranges, apples and a watch. The watch seems hopelessly inappropriate for someone who’s trying to survive and who says to me at least once a week “oh you’ve saved me again Aunty, it’s been so slow” when I hand him R2 or R5 (20 or 50 cents).

In the glimpses of his life I catch in our less-than-minute conversations two or three times a week, and in his excited build up to his birthday over the last few weeks, he said he’d really like a watch. I asked him somewhat incredulously why he wanted one (surely all he needs is the sun coming up and going down) and he said “I’d just like to know where I am in my day, my week, my life”. Seems he needs something to help him place himself.

He had mentioned if he had one it needed to be digital because he couldn’t read hands on a clock. Not knowing how to read time at 25 suggests no, or little schooling and/or no one at home who could or did care.

I do know he’s been homeless and begging for 8 years. That’s a long, hard life whether by choice or misadventure.

Today I learned he plans to get off the streets when his dad “gets back”, turns out he’s in prison, and has been for a while.

I don’t know enough about his life to comment on anything. I do know he was heartbreakingly excited and thankful for his gifts. I do know he’s always polite and always genuinely pleased to see me.

And today I remembered to ask his name. Happy birthday Neville.

I wished for him that his next 25 years would go in the direction he’d like them to, and that some of his dreams and plans come true.

There are too many “Neville’s” in our world doing it seriously tough. Be kind when/where you can?

Happy birthday Neville.

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15 weeks and counting …

How can it be four weeks since I returned to South Africa?  Seriously, where has that time gone?  I know I’ve been busy trying to whittle down my to do list before my assignment winds up, meetings and catch ups, art classes, gym, long weekend trips to National Parks etc … but those four weeks have gone way too quickly for my liking.

It also means there’s only 15 weeks left until my assignment finally comes to an end.  I say finally, because it hasn’t been the straightforward 104 weekends (2 years) I set out on in June 2013.   There were 21 weekends taken out when I was home following Mum’s death, and another six used up on my recent trip home to renew my volunteer visa.  Renewing the visa allowed me to add back 19 weekends which in the final scheme of things boils down to only 15 weekends left to explore this beautiful country, and 15 weeks to wind up my assignment and try and sort out all the ideas and plans I’ve started and decide which ones will survive and which ones need to be consigned to the “for the next person” box.

Anyway, here I am back in a chillier East London than I left, and have slipped right back into my flat, my work chair (after a fantastically warm and noisy welcome back) and into my South African adventure.

I promised myself this time I would post something at least every fortnight because there’s so much to tell and share … and yet here I am four weeks later and forcing myself to devote whatever hours it takes this morning to get it finished.  Even without the noise of my Australian life to distract me, it seems there’s quite enough distraction in my South African life to keep me from writing, or giving me weak excuses at the very least.

When I started writing this two weeks ago, we’d had several days of heavy rain in the preceding week.  I love rainy days here.  Everything gets a freshen up.  And in a grimy, salt-kissed, fairly dusty, dirty city like East London that’s a very good thing.  Of course in a city (and country) where litter is dropped where you finish with it, and household rubbish is put on the kerb in shopping bags, boxes, flimsy garbage bags that the homeless dig through (although on the whole they do pick through delicately and tie them up again) that means there are lots of blocked drains, backed up gutters, and cascading intersections that add a whole new level of crazy to the already chaotic roads.  It’s not the extra driving adrenalin that makes rainy days noticeable, it’s the flushing out of all sorts of practical, creative, ingenious and fashionable plastic bag wear.

Unlike our developed society where we run through downpours and sustained rainy weather with only an umbrella for protection because we can dry our shoes or clothes at work or home, the full raincoat enjoys a strong following in South Africa because people walk everywhere, often long distances, and an umbrella alone just isn’t going to cut it, and many don’t have the luxury of somewhere or some way to dry their clothes when they get to work or back home.  We could all do well to take a leaf out of their books and dress for the conditions and save a bit on running all those clothes dryers and excessively hot air-conditioned offices.

Those without a raincoat still keep themselves dry by peeling off a couple of garbage bags and fashioning them into a range of watertight-ish attire.  There’s the two-bag body suit.  Hole in the centre of the top one for the head and pulled over the arms, seam of second bag split so you can step in and hold onto the bag “skirt” with your hands that are pinned to your side by the bag on top.  Genius!

Or for a quickish trip across the road or up town, the garbage bag cape, head on one corner of the bag.  If you’re loading and unloading trucks, then make doubly sure you’re protecting your clothes by wearing a few bags as an apron (when it’s dry, street cleaners very effectively carry their supply of garbage bags around their waste tucked into belts, keeps the hands free to sweep and rake!).

Plastic fashion isn’t limited to garbage bags, any sort of industrial plastic can be pulled into service.  There’s a homeless lady near my home who disappears into what looks like the plastic cover from a new mattress whenever it rains and creates a sort of clear, steamy tent.  If the weather settles in she just walks around under the tent.

The real gems though are the plastic shopping bags (called packets here) fashioned into rain hats to protect hair.  I think that’s because the hair is filled with so much straightening and frizz-calming product that you get it wet at your peril.  There are hats that would do exclusive milliners proud, seriously.  The handles tie around into a fetching knot or bow, depending on size of head and bag, they are often mushroomed out to provide a little extra “verandah” coverage for whoever is under them.  And I saw one the other day where the handles were actually tucked under the chin to keep the whole thing in place.

However you look at it, creativity driven from the necessity to keep dry is a wonder and source of delight for me.

I’ve moved offices on my return, from my arctic office that was a dream in summer but misery in winter, to the front of the building and what was originally a verandah/sun room that is hot in winter and I expect will be nightmarish in summer … but that’s months away.

With a different room, comes a different view and lots of main street noise and movement.  Distracting to say the least for a people-watcher like me and a wonderful window onto all that is vibrant and different about this country – and seedy and distressing about our run-down and challenged suburb.

Body language has become my pet observation of late.  Conversations are often noisy.   However the decibels aren’t always a good indicator of whether someone’s sharing a friendly chat or a major disagreement.  And for that matter, nor is the use of arms and stance … but it makes for fascinating theatre some times.

More often than not, I’m pretty sure the conversations are about as interesting as a blow-by-blow description of painting a fence, inch by inch, hour by hour.  But throw in a few rigid, bent arm, open handed gesticulations and you’d think he was describing the last moments of an intensely fought battle of some sort.   There’s rarely fluidity to the arm movement, rather the whole arm, bent and rigid, moves as one unit from the shoulder to make the point.

When it does get heated, the upper torso generally comes into play, but still fairly wooden with the whole body thrusting forward in line with the rigid, bent arm.  You can tell its really serious when pointed fingers come into play, rarely pointed in faces, but repeatedly pointed down at the feet to drive the point home.  Oh, and it gets loud(er).

Pretty much everyone loves a chat here, but particularly the local Africans.  Its like a verbal proof of existence.  People don’t just give a passing salutation, more often than not they expect to engage for a few solid minutes.  Its often difficult to get away even though the conversation seems to be about weather or the traffic conditions rather than points of substance or importance, but culturally its rude to walk away when someone’s speaking … so you can image when you’re getting the blow-by-blow discussion of painting the fence that its not always easy to maintain a stance of interest.  I’ve seen people facing the other way, legs astride ready to take the next step but stationery and looking back because the other hasn’t finished their riveting story, or halfway across the road and the speaker decides there’s just “one more thing” they want to add, and you’re caught between escape and bad manners.

And in general, South Africans are a body hug or tap, and the multi-grip handshake kind of nation.  Being a huggy type of person myself, it’s taken me a while to realise no-one is actually coming in to share an affectionate friendly hug.  More than once I’ve found myself delivering my standard Aussie hug, backed up with a bit of warmth and affection, and been met with wooden, standoffish resistance and superficial arm contact around the shoulder.  And the multi-grip handshake isn’t getting any easier either.  Years of habitual eye contact, smile and firm grip means that time and time again I’ve tried to release my hand too early and there’s a general fumbling and mishitting of thumbs and fingers that follows.  I am determined to have it mastered before I leave, both the hug and the shake.

There’s so much about this country that’s so complex and perplexing.  I was talking with my colleague Mzu (our Technical Assistance team pharmacy assistant) recently and the subject of the work ethic of some of his countrymen came up.  One of our projects mentors public health centre staff, from nurses down to data entry staff.  There are many stories of a lack of interest in what they do, lack of professionalism or care for patients.  For many, turning up to work is simply the means to the pay packet at the end of the month.  They have little or no interest in the work they are doing, or why they are doing it.  It is a constant frustration for our staff to mentor and train over and over again because their lack of interest means they simply don’t try to retain what they’ve been told, health centre staff turnover is so high.

Mzu’s role is to help clinics improve their drug and medicinal stocktaking, ordering and storage.  He was sharing his frustrations about the challenges of working with people who don’t try or care, and even more difficult because they are adults, not children.  They do know better.  We talked about clinic staff with nothing to do because they have failed to order their drugs and supplies in a timely manner, if at all, and then not being able to see or manage patients because they have nothing to give them.  This just beggars belief for me – and Mzu and our teams – that you can care so little about your fellow human, about the responsibilities of your job, or have any desire to help improve the health of others.

There are of course diligent, committed workers in many centres, but sadly our teams come across many more that just don’t care or see why they should.

We talked about the role of the supervisor and why poor performing staff are still employed.  Mzu thinks many supervisors are stretched beyond their capability or reasonable work load, and for some reporting on failures in the system is all about not shining the spot light on themselves, rather than helping to highlight poorly performing staff and bring about change.

Mzu lamented a system that didn’t remove people who have no interest in learning or doing their job well so it could be given to one of the hundreds of thousands of others desperate to work to help their families.  That people don’t appreciate the privilege of having a paid job and understand there is a responsibility that goes with it is a disappointment to many of our staff … they are not alone.

For all that gloom and despondency there’s also great stories of upliftment and pride.  One of our Orphan and Vulnerable Children carers, Noxie (she was our maternity relief tea-lady and has now been appointed to one of our community carer roles) is coordinating a support group community garden.  They’re having great success building people’s skills and understanding of permaculture principles and building up soil for small but healthy organic crops.  A lady living across the road, not a member of the support group, has been impressed and interested by what the group has been doing, and when they are not their she keeps an eye on the garden and waters, weeds or wards of scavengers.  She’s keen to learn more about plant production and how she can get involved and perhaps grow and sell some of her own.  Its these little things that help to build stronger more connected, communicating communities working on solutions together.  It gives us all hope.

(Photos:  I’m waaaay behind on sharing photos.  These go back to Lisa’s visit in January.  Hopefully I’ll share some of our adventures and discoveries over the next weeks)
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The power and influence of optimism … (and a long time between posts!)

Molweni (hello, many) Gunjani (how are you?).  [mole-way-nee, goo-n-jar-knee.  Or that’s my Australian pronunciation, gets a laugh whenever I say it either because I’m mangling it, or because I’m giving it a go.  Jury is still out on which it is],

No promises this time, but let’s see if this is the start of a new wave of observations of life and work in this interesting, colourful, often frustrating, sometimes challenging country.

The four-way-stop is a great traffic management device.  It’s got a lot going for it.  Perhaps it exists in other countries, but I haven’t seen it in Australia.  Essentially, cars arrive at an intersection with everyone on a stop sign.  Your role is to simply pay attention to who was there before you, let them go first and then take your turn.

For a country where driving while in animated conversation on your mobile phone, coming to a complete stop without warning or moving off the road, making a conscious decision to drive through amber and red lights, exceeding the speed limit at crazily dangerous speeds and overtaking regardless of circumstances is more the norm than the exception, the four-way-stop works surprisingly well.  Where chaos rules elsewhere on the road, the four-way-stop seems to enjoy a respected code of conduct.  Sure, every now and then some clown pushes in, but on the whole it works without fuss, aggression or misadventure.

The system really comes into its own when traffic lights are not working.  It’s being put to the test with regular monotony at the moment with the country enjoying regular load shedding (deliberate power cuts lasting up to two hours per “grid”).  In Australia, if the traffic lights (known as robots here) are out it’s generally the biggest or pushiest that gets through the intersection first, or while merging.  Here, lights being out actually calms everything down, and although queues form immediately, things continue to move without any (or I haven’t seen it anyway) signs of road rage or frustration, things just fall into a well drilled pattern.  Along with paying for plastic bags, the four-way-stop is a something we could adopt in Australia.

Load shedding is currently occurring on a daily basis, and if you’re really lucky (??) you can be without power at the office for a couple of hours, and then without power at home for a couple of hours more.  I don’t think anyone would really mind if they could plan for it properly.  The national power supplier lets people know well in advance that load shedding will occur and kindly publishes nation-wide schedules.  They just don’t keep to the schedules – ever.

It’s a frustration for Joe Citizen, and for industry and the economy in general, but for small businesses that don’t have generators and are completely reliant on computers for security, stock control/payment it means shutting their doors, and there’s no hope of compensation for lost revenue or spoiled food.  And no end in sight.

There are nearly 53 million people in South Africa, living in 11 provinces.  Power is supplied through 11 base load stations (those are the big, important ones) and lots of smaller stations generating power by wind, hydro electricity, gas turbine, nuclear, diesel, coal.   You’d think that should cover it.

Of the listed base load stations two are under construction and up to 10 years (!!) behind schedule!!  One coal powered station cooling tower collapsed, a gas turbine that runs on diesel couldn’t get enough diesel to keep it going, prolonged wet weather dampened the coal so much it wouldn’t fire up (so they claim), and in some areas the water storage/hydro schemes can’t operate at full capacity due to low water levels.  There’s a million reasons given for how they got into this mess … most of which unfortunately stems from poor decision making (often at government level) over many years, resulting in complete degradation of major, critical infrastructure.  When there is not enough electricity available to meet the demand they “interrupt” supply to certain areas to save power.

The national supplier is a master of understatement “If unbalances on the power is not managed this could lead to the risk of collapse of the entire power network … it could take more than a week to restore power to the entire country.   This could be disastrous for South Africa.”  Good idea to avoid total collapse then I’d say … so power shedding is here to stay.  Sufferable in summer, won’t be much fun in winter.

These sorts of frustrations around deteriorating infrastructure and inefficiencies in service delivery are par for the course sadly.  A source of wearisome acceptance and a tendency (warning:  gross generalisation ahead) for people to lean towards pessimism;  opening conversations with the latest awful story they’ve heard or the things that are wrong with their day, workplace, country and countrymen, service providers etc.  A glass nearly drained, rather than a glass half full.  It’s actually a challenge not to wind down into that spiral as well.  I didn’t realise until I came here the power and influence of optimism;  the sense of purpose and energy that comes from a smiling and engaged salutation or introduction to set the tone for whatever follows.

I understand why people are worn down and out, but I do wonder what would happen if everyone started conversations with tales of what’s working around the country – there are things that are.  If I could wave my magic wand I’d create a small force for good made up of people and stories of the positive and encouraging, rather than the many reasons things don’t or won’t work.  A very simplistic and “Pollyanna” approach … but surely if the pervading attitude is pessimism and resignation, that just increases the demoralising and demotivation?  An unhappy, unproductive cycle.

This is the sort of thing AVI talked about before we were deployed:  the need to be accepting of ways of working and the approaches to life and living in the countries we were going to.  I am reminded almost daily how lucky we are in Australia, and how very few of us really appreciate or understand that.  We whinge just as loudly (whinging versus pessimism), but we whinge most loudly about what we have, not so much about what we don’t.  We have good (?) government and democracy (meaning not corrupt, you can be voted out if you do a bad job and replaced with a different shade of grey), good infrastructure and communications, reliable power, good working conditions, social security.  Sure, there’s room for improvement in lots of areas but we have got some of the best of these things, and we do have choice, and we can affect change with community action.  Choice, likelihood of meaningful change, or improvement to quality of life for most of the population aren’t as easy to come by here.

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And then there were 45 …

I walked to work yesterday for the first time in months, and apart from some more barber/braiding shops (apparently you can’t have too many) a new handbag shop (!) and the local money lender’s office getting a fresh coat of paint, nothing has changed.  The gutters are still blocked or full of rubbish, there are still rats sunning themselves in and out of roadside culverts, and the taxis are still beeping away endlessly.

The same regulars are still there, the ladies setting up their instant stalls on the side of the road with a friendly “molo” (hello) or nod, the streams of students and workers walking from one end of the city to the other to get to work or school and the giant homeless man with the dreadful ulcerated leg is still under the awning outside the shebeen (pub) wrapped in his mangy blanket, though he seems to be shirtless these days, still gibbering away – and I’m still wondering how best to help him.  I’ve given him some coins before, but am feeling I need to give some bread or fruit.  I don’t feel threatened by him, but still wonder if I’m brave enough to do something more than just handing over a few coins.  Think there may be a bit of neighbourly consultation going on to plan my next move.

Sitting at the airport a few weeks ago, travelling to Johannesburg to meet up with AVI volunteers and office colleagues from Johannesburg, Namibia and Botswana for the annual in-country debrief and social, I was way ahead of schedule so I settled in for a good session of people watching.

There were four or five guys pouncing on passengers as soon as they came through security, encouraging them to have their shoes, handbag – whatever – shined to as-new condition. When you consider some of the locations I’ve seen people trying to scrape together a living, these guys are working in luxury. They mightn’t be earning much but they’re out of the weather with toilets and refreshments nearby, and a huge room full of seats when things are quiet.

One of the guys in the departure lounge was an EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters – a political party) supporter or official. He was easy to spot because he was wearing his red beret and red jacket. Wearing your political party colours – and uniforms of any kind really – are a big thing here. Once the election was over, most people put their campaigning gear away to save it for “best” for next time.

Not the EFF. They want people to know they’re out and about. It’s not so much a matter of pride, it’s more an arrogance. Those that are now members of parliament turn up in red overalls and hard hats or maids outfits because they campaigned that if they were elected they were “going to work”. I admire the simplicity of their visual marketing campaign. For the less educated or easily swayed, these guys are walking their talk. On the other hand, their leader constantly heckles (inappropriately … if there is such a thing in parliaments these days) in Parliament and makes media statements like “We won’t listen to the ANC, we don’t have to listen to the ANC, we don’t have to work with the ANC” to just about everything he’s asked – which is problematic since the ANC is the ruling party with a hefty majority. It’s great to have an opposition, but it would be so much better for this newish democracy to have an opposition that is having conversations and debates that inform and educate the masses, not encourage them to simply obstruct any possible progress by refusing to be part of a solution unless it’s their solution.

The EFF man at the airport’s beret is worthy of further scrutiny. It had the obligatory logo, positioned above the left eye, and a thin black trim that ended in two short black tapes at the back. It was centered on his head, with a little bit of “phoof” in its crown looking for all the world like a ruddy, upturned chamber pot.

The cleaner was sporting a peaked cap, a sort of sci-fi version of a Greek fisherman’s cap, with the brim pulled down so she could barely see, and the crown pulled into a point to give it attitude. She was stalking around the waiting room like she owned the bins (well I suppose she did!).

It occurred to me as I was sitting there that South Africa, or maybe just East London, is the home of the jaunty hat … or more correctly the Home of the Hat as a Cranial Adornment. Observations in Johannesburg and Cape Town have borne this theory out. East London is jaunty hat Heaven. There’s Rastafarian dreads turban-bags (sort of roll your dreads into a bun and stuff it into a bag that ends up looking like a kind of turban), teensy sailor hat-ettes with mini brims – really just a head warmer not a sun catcher, baggy cricket hats with wide brims, the beanie perched on top of a head and firmed into a Christmas tree peak, or the classic winter beanie complete with pom-pom, right through to the sort of skullcap beanie seemingly suctioned on, or tipped right back off the head so its just hanging on with good luck.

Of course, the ubiquitous baseball cap is represented – the ugly flat-brimmed-worn-cocked-sideways ones, or the slightly squarer Red Army types, and there’s Fedoras, and Trilbys,

And the beret: worn in a classically French style, slouched over one side or as with the EFF official, sitting a bit surprised on the top of the head, and there’s plenty of deer stalker English fashions, and the ear-warming lumberjack earmuff types suitable for arctic conditions but worn all year round.

For the girls its full blown Melbourne cup affairs for formal and not so formal occasions, or traditionally beaded scarves tied simply behind the head a-la sixties, and my personal favourite of the child’s skivvy, wrapped around long hair, with the hair length tucked into the body of the top, and then the neck of the skivvy and the arms twisted into a fetching turban … and of course there’s a plethora of scarves as turbans or pulled tight on the skull with ends of scarf twined and wrapped around head …

Or just hair as is .. only it’s not “as is” they spend hours and who knows how much money having hair braided. Weaves (fake hair) added, intricate patterns created across the skull … or simply refresh your current wig in whatever fashion takes your fancy and run with that. It’s a weekly delight to arrive at work to see who has changed their hairstyle over the weekend.

In the three months I’ve know our receptionist Ncumisa (pronounced Tchumisa … the Tchu sound is like sucking something out of your front teeth) she has changed her hair several times. From long hair kept in a messy sort of French knot, to short, heavily straightened and lacquered hair in a dusky shade of red, then thinly braided extensions in a brighter shade of dusky red either rustling around her shoulders or in a loose pony tail, and now it’s just above shoulder-length and heavily straightened. She’s not alone of course; all the other ladies chop and change hair regularly. Lovely Zanele was sporting a short wig with luxurious soft, almost Shirley Temple type curls – the opposite of African tight curls … she’s such a lovely gentle person that it suited her well, but it did make you look twice because something wasn’t quite right. She’s returned to close cropped natural tight fuzz hair. I asked her if she was happy with it and she said with obvious relief “oh yes” … makes you wonder why they do it really.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve passed the half way mark in my assignment. Sure, I spent a sizeable chunk of the first year back in Australia, but here I am with only 45 weekends left and a whole assignment still – yes still – to achieve. But I love a deadline, and I’m still enjoying the whole adventure so it’s bound to come together before too long! Thanks to those that are keen to hear about our projects other than the lovely kids at Hope Schools and to those interested to hear more about the fundraising environment over here. I’ll try and paint those pictures for you in the next few blogs.

(don’t forget you might need to click on the photos to get them to open in a larger screen)
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Of exuberant and interactive theatre …

So here I am, back after what’s been an unexpectedly long break. For myriad reasons I haven’t managed to connect the typing part of my brain to the writing part of my brain, consequently the dearth of posts. Fair warning though, there’s a rash of posts itching their way to the surface. There’s a veritable word-jam of notes and observations forming themselves into a mountain of sentences impatiently waiting for release onto the page. Hope they’re worth the wait!?

Saying South Africa’s weather if fickle is of course a gross generalisation.  However, the generalisation becomes a lot more accurate when you refer to the Eastern Cape, and most specifically East London.

Here we are in winter – by definition the coldest season of the year between spring and autumn.  Two weeks ago it was 31 degrees.  The next day it plummeted to 15 with high winds.  For the next week or so it hovered around 12 – 16 degrees, and again this week back to 31.  Sure, 12-16 isn’t really cold by world winter standards, but when you consider that houses and offices here aren’t insulated, many buildings are tiled or have polished boards and in our office anyway, the doors and windows are pretty much always open warding off diseases like TB it makes the cold a lot colder.

The weather seems fickle to me, but the locals will tell you it’s normal –  you get the berg winds (the name for a hot dry wind blowing from the mountainous interior to the coast) which are always followed by the arrival of a cold front often fast moving and nearly always rolling up from Cape Town.   So, after you endure a day or two of blustery hot winds, the gauge plummets and in rolls the cold, clearly visible as a heavy band of cloud just off the coast.

Ridiculously warm days are fine, but not haphazardly in what is defined by those in the meteorological know as winter.  The pattern seems to be five or so days of misery with your outside coat on inside, fingerless gloves and a blanket over your knees in your icebox of an office and it’s nigh on impossible to find clothing made with natural fibres and we all know there ain’t no warmth in layers of nylons and acrylics then switching dramatically to one or two days of blowy, dry, very hot weather where the icebox becomes a haven.  No wonder so many people are constantly fighting colds.

The last two weekends have been spent at Grahamstown, two hours south-west of East London at the National Arts Festival. I saw 13 shows – a mixture of theatre, dance, musicals, singers, orchestras etc. – over three days and four nights, none of them were duds, some were outstanding, and all of them were entertaining in their own way. With temporary grandstand seating inside just about every hall and reasonably sized room Grahamstown turns into one giant performance space. The spaces that are too small for audiences host paintings, installations, sculpture or ceramics and at the Village Green you can wander through giant temporary halls filled with local crafts, arts and food – as well as the ubiquitous imported not-so-great stuff there’s an extraordinary display and range of cultural diversity and skills from across Africa as a whole, and South Africa in particular.

All shows runs for about an hour, so if you’re unlucky enough to find yourself in a dud production you don’t have to suffer long, but if you are suffering there’s no escape because the seating is set up in such a way, and the spaces are often so intimate, that if you were to leave you’d have to exit via the stage … and who wants to risk the glare of mediocre performers and then announce your departure with a blast of embarrassing sun because very few of the doors are covered by any sort of masking.

The other performance gem is the locals taking tickets at the door all start chattering away at the top of their voices outside while the performance is going on. The moment when the heroine is wringing your emotions telling you her friend’s dad drinks and beats her is diminished somewhat when there’s laughter and loud chatter from outside – but that’s the Grahamstown experience!

An unexpected benefits is how reasonably priced tickets are.   Coupled with a healthy exchange rate the average hour of theatre/dance/song/music costs between AUD$9 and $13, and even performances by some of South Africa’s jazz heavies only cost AUD$16 … so for most people even those in domestic or labouring jobs, if they saved hard for several months they could certainly treat themselves to a performance or two.

AVI colleague Kathryn came down from Johannesburg on the first weekend, and last weekend I took my neighbour Sisanda with me. She’s a mid-20s learner teacher who doesn’t have much to spend on treats, and I had some spare tickets and accommodation so invited her along.

Attending my first primarily-African-audience sold-out performances was certainly entertaining and an education, and even Sisanda was rolling her eyes and laughing or astounded at some of the behavior.

We were treated to fantastic performances by South African jazz singer Lira and the legendary jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela. We were in seats 1 and 2 of the second last row, so we had a great view of the audience as well as the shows. The first thing of note is that at least 1/3 of the audience arrived after the lights were down … and they kept streaming in, some of them half way through the show! It wouldn’t have been too bad if the sweet, old (and they were old, sorry!) volunteer ushers had torches, but no – patrons arriving late, in the dark, with ticket printing that even someone with excellent vision would have to squint to see seat details, and no torches – you’ve got a recipe for either disaster or high comedy.

Based on the reactions many people in the audience have little experience of attending performances with ticketed seating. So not only do they arrive late, but when directed to “Seat 21, you need to keep going along this row until you get to 21”, they adopt that attitude and body language that bends the arm, cocks the elbow slightly behind the hip, drops the hand at the wrist, sticks out the bum, drops the chin and peers over non-existent glasses with a look that says “You expect me to find that seat all the way in there, when there’s a seat right here?”. It’s not just the body language, there’s a real sense of entitlement particularly in what are referred to as the “born frees” (those born post apartheid), a real sense of “I’m entitled to come to the theatre just like you, and no one is going to tell me where or how to sit” … but it all works itself out.

And then there are the mobile phones. Despite the universal theatre request that patrons turn off their phones and that the taking of digital images of any kind is strictly forbidden there are people taking calls throughout the performances, and taking photos (complete with floodlighting flashes) and recording the show. And in a theatre first for me – probably because they know their African audience – at the Hugh Masekela show, five minutes before show time, they actually asked everyone to stand up and move into the centre filling all the vacant seats so late comers could just go to the seats on the end. Great idea … didn’t make the finding of rows in the dark any easier, or the conversations any quieter … but a great idea.

Even these headline-stars shows are only just over an hour long, but it seems the bladders of many in the audience, particularly men, are extremely small. They were up and down the whole way through the performance and being at the start of the row, we also spent a lot of time getting up and down to let them in and out which gives you plenty of time to examine the range of dress codes and body shapes – particularly the ample-buttocked mega-hipped-and-bosomed variety – and there’s more than two of them in any crowd. And if they’re not leaving or returning from the theatre, they’re calling out as if the performer is their best friend waiting for them to say hello and that really they’re all just having a jam session in their lounge room.

All that aside, as is evident in all sorts of musical pursuits in this country, when people feel the music they have got to get up and move, and both performers played brilliantly to that penchant. By the end of both shows, they had the whole audience (little not-African me included) up moving everything they had, every which way, hooting and hollering, hands and fingers pointing and waving in the air – loving every minute of their special night out. Having said that, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, I wouldn’t want to sit through a full length production under such exuberant, interactive conditions, but it was great while it lasted.

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One starfish at a time …

This morning started with the most amazing sunrise. A deep red glow bled out into the inky then smoky sky and stars, and evolved into the most vibrant kaleidoscope of oranges, pinks, ambers and tangerines – such energy and promise for the day ahead.

At our usual swimming spot a small group of locals was conducting a traditional ceremony of some sort, perhaps a baptism, perhaps an initiation for sangomas (a general term to describe all types of South African traditional healers). Water: still or waves, fresh or salt, holds particular significance for indigenous communities. Spirits – both good and bad – live there. These guys were all decked out in colourful traditional costume – beautiful printed materials, beads, animal-skin hats and skirts, with the odd leopard skin nylon tank top thrown in for good measure!

You know you’re in Africa because the colour, flamboyant fashion, music, movement and natural harmonies are all part of the natural order of things. While editing some photos I took at Hope Schools last week I discovered one of a Little Sparklers kids (playing at Hope Prep until his bus arrived) wearing the most amazing pointy-toed shoes. He was maybe 4 or 5 years old. I’ve included the image at the end of the post because it just makes me smile to think of someone so small wearing something so impractical for the business of being a kid! And right beside his classmate with no shoes at all.

There are lots of things that reinforce you’re in Africa. If it’s not everyone talking at a nearly-shouting volume in their everyday conversations, it’s the decibels their music is played at. The next major wellbeing issue for this country will be millions of people suffering industrial deafness. At a family fun day at Johnson & Johnson (they are a major Hope Schools sponsor) a huge truck rolled up, and unfolded into a wall of speakers capable of pumping out unknown megawatts of sound. Whatever it was cranked up to for the few hours I was in front of it was enough to send me home with throbbing ear drums.

What the music brings out is of course the dancers and singers. We were treated to clap-along natural-rhythm dancing from kids as little as 3-up to the oldies (with the obligatory show-off teenagers in between). They were threatening a karaoke competition which didn’t eventuate, but I’m sure we would have been blown away by that too. Everyone that walked past me – no matter their age – was belting out every word to every song. I am often moved to tears by the beautiful harmonies behind the songs of praise at our morning devotions. They just open their mouths and out comes a voice that finds its natural place amongst the others and creates a wave of music that does, seriously, transport you. I’m sure they’re out there, but I haven’t heard a toneless African voice yet.

A curious phenomena is that everyone “strikes a pose” for a photo. From 3 to 30 year olds, male and female, there seems to be some unwritten rule that says you must look like a runway model, cock your head and look up through your eyes like a sultry siren (disturbing when a 9 year old does it!), or become “de man” and cross your arms, spread your legs, rock back and radiate attitude like you own it.

And then there are the hairy stories that confirm you’re in a developing country and in a place where circumstances and environment drive a very different existence. Two mothers of Hope Prep children who happen to work at the same funeral parlour, have been caught stealing to help their families survive. The boss has been going to their shacks, threatening them, beating them, taking whatever meagre possessions they have in compensation for his loss. The women came to school more terrified that we might ask their children to leave because they couldn’t pay the 37% of school fees we ask parents/caregivers to pay, more concerned at the prospect of their children not having access to our small class sizes, good nutrition and safe environment than they were for their own safety or for the terrifying environment their children are being exposed to.

The last few weeks have been frantic with planning and implementation of a range of fundraising initiatives for Hope Schools. It is a constant tension between Hope and the other Sophumelela enterprises because Hope claims the lion’s share of fundraising “noise” and energy. It’s not all that surprising given it’s the largest enterprise, and it’s dealing with the lives of vulnerable children giving them access to an education that so many children (and their parents) around the world just take for granted. The final whammy is of course that these kids are either orphaned, infected or directly affected (their parent or caregiver is infected or dying) by HIV/AIDS – and are in this situation through no fault of their own.

The downside of a fairly strong profile for Hope is how to build the profile and pull-power of Sophumelela’s other enterprises so they can attract equally critical funding to continue our work in the townships and informal settlements improving the health of clients, identifying and supporting at risk orphaned and vulnerable children, and mentoring and assisting public health centres so they can improve their distribution and management of medications and patient processing.

There’s no avoiding that Hope is hogging the fundraising limelight at the moment, because they are critcially tied to a major deadline at the end of July. Through months of correspondence, proposals and background work, our team of building professionals, back room negotiators and allies, and chief Hope Champion – Alan have successfully secured a huge donation that will cover at least three quarters of the building costs of two new classrooms for Hope Prep. Without them Grade 5 has nowhere to move to next year, and they may have to leave Hope and take their chances finding a place in the already overcrowded, under-resourced Government schools (some classes have 60 or more children in them!)

The pressure is on, because the donation comes with the proviso that we show our own commitment and drive and really get some momentum behind our building plans and dreams, and raise the balance of the building costs for the classrooms ourselves – R400 000 – by 31 July. One of the biggest challenges is getting all our local team and advisors fired up to join in, to grasp the sense of urgency and energy needed from each of them to really drive the campaign.

Around 50% of our children have no idea where their next meal, clothes or shelter will come from. 40% live in shacks – four pieces of tin, dirt floor, two walls shared with neighbours. 20% of them are living with HIV/AIDS. 45% are living with someone other than their birth family. At Hope they receive two cooked meals and two snacks a day. That’s important to help their Anti-retroviral medications work well, and of course for their general health and wellbeing. They come to a caring, nurturing school where we do our best to give them a first class, first world education in the hope of changing their futures and – just maybe – break the cycle of poverty and deprivation they’ve been born into.

There is so much need around the world, Australia isn’t excluded, but on the ground here is where I see the nearly crippling need, and what can – and is – being done to change and impact people’s lives and their ability to care for themselves and others.

The pending major donation makes this an exciting time for Hope Schools and Sophumelela. But equally daunting. It highlights how much still needs to be done and just how huge the need is. Again and again we turn to the story of the boy and the starfish. When faced with a beach of stranded starfish, a boy who was throwing them back one at a time was asked why he was bothering, because he couldn’t hope to make a difference. Picking up a starfish he threw it back and said “I made a difference to that one”.

If you’d like to help Hope build their two new classrooms and for a relatively small investment on your part make a measurable difference to young East London, Eastern Cape, South African lives for generations to come, send me a message through the blog and I’ll give you details on how you can donate. This week I’ll also be launching a super short timeframe

crowd funding campaign and hoping all of you on Facebook will share it around the world and encourage a wave of lots-of-small-donations-financial-support for our little school.

I can’t guarantee I won’t ask for your financial help again, in fact I’m almost sure I will before my assignment is up, but I can guarantee whatever you can give whether its large or small (and thank you to those that have already given to my personal appeal, I’m trying to raise – hopefully exceed – AUD$5,000 – approx. R50 000), will go into nails, bricks, cement, wages for labourers to build the walls – not into administration or NGO salaries. It will also go into smiles, safety, laughter, play, learning – and brighter futures for some seriously challenged young people for generations to come.

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Of Hobbits and monkeys …

It’s nearing the end of Election Day, and another public holiday, the last in what seems like wall-to-wall public holidays since Easter.  Don’t get me wrong, a bonus day off here and there is always welcome but three long weekends in a row, and now a day off in the middle of the week, and things are getting a little frayed on the work front.

I feel like I haven’t touched the sides of my assignment since I got back.  I returned convinced I would find a way to not “do the doing” and would instead take the time needed for plotting out a basic fundraising strategy and donor communication plan, so we can start populating tips, tools, how-to’s for after I’ve gone – the capacity building bit of why I’m here.  Within days I was up to my ears in alligators dividing my time 3 days a week at Sophumelela Centre (parent organisation and employer) and the other 1 1/2 days at Hope Schools (the needy baby of the SCI family).

Everything went swimmingly for the first week or two, actually making a start on the detail of my job assignment.  Since then I’ve been distracted by award presentations, preparing and writing grant applications and proposals and stepping in as Personal Assistant to the Acting Head of Hope Schools – Alan, a wonderfully dedicated and compassionate man who is giving up his retirement (former Headmaster of an independent boy’s school) to volunteer his time to steer Hope Education (Little Sparklers Educare and Hope Preparatory) in the right direction – working with Alan is like trying to keep lightning in a jar – full of energy, spontaneous combustion, life affirming and life-zapping all at the same time.  Exhilarating, sometimes frustrating and exhausting, but when things come together they really do come together.

One of the leads we were following in October was a church connection in Australia (nothing to do with me) where a retired builder, his church and some other retired-type building mates were considering what support they could give to our major building campaign for Hope Schools.  We prepared an impressive array of plans, costings, motivations (the local term for justification/rationale for your project) and off they floated into the mists of good intentions, until this week when the would-be-benefactor reappeared, asking for an update on our building plans and fundraising, and personally committed R1.9million (AUD$190K) towards the first class-room block.  We still need to raise the remaining R400K to allow building work to get underway by 31 July to ensure the classrooms are ready for our Grade 5’s to move up to Grade 6 next year, but there’s no doubting it’s a project-saving happenstance (miracle?) and not a minute too soon since we have officially run out of space.

It was such a tenuous lead, as so many of the leads I’ve worked on are, but the conviction and passion that we put into following up the leads, and then asking everyone to pray for a favourable outcome seems to pay dividends in the end.  I’ve always had a good feeling that we will find funds for SCI’s projects, Hope Schools in particular, but I thought they’d be much more orthodox approaches to business and major corporates.  It’s taking a lot of rethinking from my point-of-view, and a not-insignificant struggle to rationalise the strength and conviction of faith and prayer versus taking a clinical business approach to operations and communications to would be donors and supporters.  This week in particular I have worked hard to keep my own counsel on whether the communications around the magnificent Australian donation have been a good or a bad thing.  It’s an odd space to be in, believe me.

It will be a very poor mid-term report to AVI for me I’m afraid.  Lots of doing, not much capacity building, planning or future proofing!   But at a dear friend’s suggestion, I’ve stopped worrying too much about it impacting on the time I should be spending on my primary assignment because maybe this is just how it’s meant to be for now.  Anyway, I wouldn’t miss the hurley burley madness of it all for quids, and thankfully the lovely Melissa (GM) understands completely that the tug-o-war exists because of the projects and issues they’re asking me to get involved with.

Last Thursday was the Workers Day public holiday (celebrated in different forms around the world) so I took the Friday off and headed to Hogsback, a sleepy village in the Amathole Range about 1.5 hours drive inland, for an extended weekend.

Hogsback is to the Amathole Range (1800-1900 metres above sea level) what Mt Canobolas is to the Great Dividing Range – the end.  It’s named after a three peak ridge at the end of the mountains that resemble a hog’s back, or the  standy-up bristles on a native hog’s head.  It’s also a geological term describing this particular formation and the inspiration for red-clay hogs made by the local residents ekeing out a living by throwing themselves at every visitor that walks or drives past trying to sell them a hand-made original that looks exactly the same as the guy’s down the road … so much for diversity!

Hogsback is also said to be where JRR Tolkein got his original inspiration for The Hobbit (still my all-time favourite book).  With its amazing millennium-old forests, waterfalls, flowers and mountains, and “old man’s beard” lichen growing on most trees (apparently an indication of purity of air) you wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a Hobbit or two.  Hogsback is surrounded by one of only two Afromontne forests (Old African Forest) left in the world.

I had no idea Tolkein was South African (born in Bloemfontein).  He visited Hogsback as a child.  His nanny also came from Hogbsback and is said to have told him scary stories of the giant flying snake which according to Xhosa legend, lives in the bowels of Hog Three Mountain and which, from time to time, manifests itself as a tornado.

You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Mt Wilson and the Blue Mountains, except for the monkeys!  Warm days, crisp nights for open fires and autumn colours everywhere in the Oaks, Liquid Ambers and old orchards.

The majesty of a massive Oak tree right beside your cottage is somewhat diminished by the rifle-shot crack of acorns falling on the roof (particularly in the dead of night), dislodged by birds, monkeys or the occasional breeze.  I spent an enchanting half hour as the sun set watching the antics of some resident monkeys, with their soft padding as they ran along the roof and launched themselves into a tree … far too quick for me to get good photos.

They seemed to be chasing the last rays of sunlight, travelling through the canopy or scurrying along the ground.  All shapes and sizes, the larger ones first, down to tidgy baby ones.  The locals think of them much like we view resident possums – a noisy, messy pest – but possums don’t come out and frolic during the day.  In the dappled light of a mountain afternoon of autumn colours, it just seemed like some kind of wonderful to me.  Turns out they were Somango Monkeys – apparently quite rare, but there’s a troop of 20 or so in the area, and I saw them.

There was lots of lovely hiking to be had, but poorly signposted or ambiguous signage made many of the walks more a frustration or anxiety than a pleasure, and one trek ended in a barbed wire fence with no indication whether to negotiate it or not, and no discernable trail on the other side so it brought 40 or so minutes of trekking to a standstill.  Since I was hiking alone, I decided it was better to err on the side of caution rather than pushing through an attack of the fraidy cats, an easy state to get yourself into when walking on your own in giant, ancient forest having not seen another living soul for some time.  On more than one occasion, I just kept taking deep calming breaths, reassured myself I’d started early and had all day to find my way out, and just turned around, or forged on searching for signs of a track and tried to enjoy the deep forest walking, mountain streams – and treacherous, slippery wooden boardwalks.   At least bringing my hiking boots from Australia was justified.

The Hogsback weekend was the result of the Thursday Workers Day public holiday.  The same week (!!) started with a Monday public holiday for Freedom Day, celebrating “freedom” and the first post-apartheid elections held on that day 20 years ago.  Not as big a celebration as I was expecting, and certainly with the elections just around the corner they had a much more political flavour than usual I suspect.  And just prior to that was of course ANZAC Day.  It was an odd sensation wearing a spring of rosemary on my lapel in a country where its significance means nothing.  I spent a bit of time trying to explain to my colleagues what it was all about, and getting polite but blank stares.  I was relating this tale of cultural isolation to a friend from morning beach walks who said the way to approach it would have been to simply say it’s a day for honouring our ancestors and they would have got it straight away.  I’ll save that for next year, but it doesn’t quite convey the associated qualities of mateship, courage and sacrifice.

 Oh, and for those that have been keeping track, my long weekend in Hogsback ended with another flat tyre.  One more and I’ll have the complete set!

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