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)
Cape Town Jan 15
Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, under Table Mountain, Cape Town Jan 15
Stunning Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, Cape Town
Nella and Lisa on top of Table Mountain, Cape Town Jan 15
Hout Bay, Western Cape, Jan 15
Kleinmond Jan 15