Friday, March 30, 2012

In Her Shoes

This morning, we had a few hours free and the boys were invited to play field hockey with Michael and David, two boys who live here in Hands Village. They are the same age as my boys and it's been so great to have them here. It took a few days but they've all become good friends and found their roles in rebuilding a huge tree fort up the hill. Michael and David play field hockey every week so they invited Aidan and Easton along for an open slot of lessons and then a scrimmage. They loaned our boys some sticks but we had to head into Nelspruit to pick up some shin pads for our guys. I was sitting in the mall in Nelspruit, a beautiful modern mall in which you could easily convince yourself that you were back in North America. As someone with a long history of working in retail, it has all the trappings and conventions of a corporate retailer environment carefully crafted to infuse you with the desire to acquire. I'm not going to lie. I don't enjoy malls at the best of times and this one no more than most, but it was somewhat a comfortable space to be in. After weeks of culture shock and learning different languages and customs and experiencing life in different communities, the mall felt comforting. I know my role in a mall...wander and look, inquire and acquire. I know my role on both sides of the retailing entity so I'm not going to gloss it over. Being in the mall made me feel homesick or more accurately, "work sick". It is no secret that I miss the women I work with. They're pretty spectacular. I have loved going to work every day for the past few years and it's because of them. I have said over and over that they are the only reason I haven't choked a middle aged woman bearing three beige paint chips explaining to me in a patronizing tone that they are NOT beige but creamy espresso, sand harbour and caramel macchiato. The very idea of losing my job (or freedom for that matter, if convicted) scares me to death. Life without "Aunty Cheri" and "Gdawg", Liz and Corinne, Jinnette and Jamers? No truck girls? No Janet singing in Spanish? Not really life. I mean, I'd survive, but I've experienced the fun and shallowness, craziness and cattiness, depths and loveliness of working with women. (I think they think I'm okay too...I mean, at least they put on a good show of it...which has really made me a better person.) So, when I divulge what I did while waiting in the mall, please keep in mind that this is what I'm missing. I didn't mean to be a creepy mall person but I did end up one. Innocently walking around "Mr. Price Home" for some time, lovingly touching the dinnerware, rearranging some mugs on a display so that all the handles faced the same way, I found myself missing work. Not that Mr. Price has anything on P1, but I do admit to refolding one (or six) stacks of napkins and shuffling the colours from light to dark, left to right. I can't help myself! This is why I don't go to malls! I'm compulsive! So, when the sales girl approached me for the third time and then stood within a three foot radius of me for the rest of my time in the store, I KNOW what she was doing. I have been that stalker, the pre-emptive strike between a shoplifter and her prey. I tried my best to explain that I worked in a similar store but she looked confused at my explanation and subtly summoned the security guard that works at the entrance of every store. Now, I didn't want to end up in South African jail, pleading insanity or at minimum, obsessive compulsive disorder, so I made my way towards the exit, but not before picking up a cushion off the floor, fluffing it and arranging it neatly back onto the window display. I gave a quick "mystery shopper" like evaluation of their attentiveness and made my way back out into the mall, and safer venues, to continue waiting for Jason and the boys to reappear with the shin pads so we could make our escape. I happened upon a small bench made out of a tree trunk where I plunked myself down a safe distance from the watchful eye of the Mr. Price Home security guy. I was in front of one of those stores I'd never enter - a really fancy shoe store. The window displayed several stiletto heeled shoes in varying degrees of animal prints and studs. I may have to give up my female citizenship when I admit that there's no way I'd be able to totter my way around in those shoes but, there is something in them that held my attention. Earlier in the day, we had watched several career women, pushing around a grocery cart in similar types of shoes. I think these shoes are made for African women's anatomy. They saunter slowly even in flip flops or bedroom slippers that they wear around but in stilettos? Their whole being embodies the shoe and it becomes an elaborate dance involving a shopping cart, purse and the whole of the vegetable aisle. I admire their ability and acknowledge my own limitations. White girls can't wear stilettos. I'm not painting us all incompetent but as a whole? We just don't have it. Sorry girls. So, sitting outside this shoe store where a pair of shoes costs as much as a month's accommodations here, I watched a gorgeous young woman in a black dress with a thin red belt contemplate a pair of red stilettos. She walked by the window slowly and then went in, picked them up. She looked at her phone as if wondering if she had time to try them on. The salesgirl caught the motion and quickly came over with a box of the shoes, conveniently in her size. She tried them on. They were gorgeous on her. They were the same red as her simple little belt and we all know the allure of a good outfit when it all comes together...well, she couldn't resist. She actually put her shoes, that were beautiful in their own right, into the box and walked to the till, five inches taller, in her stunning new red stilettos. While this little visual played out, on the opposite side of the mall, crouched behind a cart wielding mops and garbage can, a wet floor sign and several spray bottles, was a young woman in blue overalls. She had been stubbornly working on what I assume was a piece of gum fixed to the floor when she was captivated, as I was, by the woman in the shoe store. I can't explain it clearly enough but on my right, on the floor, scraping gum, was a beautiful woman - watching another woman, equally as beautiful, spend as much on a pair of shoes that the first woman probably earned in a month or more. I didn't know who to turn my attention to. I kept looking back and forth, watching it all play out in front of me. I know I don't read minds but it didn't take much imagination or empathy to feel what either woman was feeling. The elation of a good purchase of shoes...I can't begrudge a woman that. It was just an illustration to me of what we see in South Africa every day. I don't mean to paint the woman working as poor or deprived. I just see her as an example of the women we see here, those who work hard at thankless things, invisible mostly, not worthy of notice on first glance. These two women? Maybe not so very different but my assumption would be that they live very different lives. South Africa is that. Shining, clean malls and handmade wooden market stalls. Overcrowded taxi vans careening through the hills and Mercedes Benz shining at the stop lights. It is KFC and roadside chicken dust. It is wineries and fermented amarula drinks. I lean to loving the dirty, dusty side of South Africa. I felt a level of comfort being in the mall, recognizing the language of retail, the lingo of sales...but I am becoming more and more at home in dusty walkways between houses, in crowded cement buildings filled with Siswati or Tshonga, around the fire at a feeding point, serving pap to long lines of children whose names leave me tongue tied. I can make judgements about people, and their choices and their living situations just as quickly here as I can at home. I catch myself doing it all the time...but I am learning. More and more every day...I realize you don't know someone, really, really, know someone, until you've walked in their shoes. Most days, I'm just following in South Africa's dusty footprints...and learning every step of the way.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Precious Water and Free Flowing Tears

I spent today in a community in the Clau Clau region of South Africa. I went along with a mixed group of people, mostly to introduce an international donor to the care workers that his foundation was supporting there. I've been to this community before so it's always nice to return and see familiar faces and test my memory for names and the Siswati language. We arrived in the yard that houses the care point for the care workers to meet and record their home visits to over eighty children per week. There are 390 orphaned and vulnerable children in this small community that are in desperate need of care. Today, we heard from the care workers who have to decide who amongst these children are the most vulnerable. They choose who is eligible for the essential services such as home care visits, school and a food security. I can't imagine the difficult decisions these volunteers have to face every day...such desperate needs and such limits to their resources. What is limitless is their heart, their passion for the work. If you haven't figured out through my writing so far, these are the heroes of Africa. Africans who in the midst of some very hard life struggles themselves, give so much to others. I'm constantly humbled and then humbled again. Carly Wegner, Dan (who you'll remember as my office buddy) and I went on a few home visits with two care workers today. Nomsa and Nora. In the heat, with umbrellas for shade, these women walk us up the hills and through the dusty streets and goat trails to the homes of orphaned and vulnerable children that they serve. It's just past one o'clock, when children are dismissed from school. The first yard we enter is empty and the house is locked up. At least, the one door is locked. The rest of the house is all just tin slats nailed along a frame. You wouldn't know if anyone was home if they didn't want you to. The door is the only access to the outside/inside of the house. We wait in the yard under the shade of the only tree and after just a few minutes, a small boy approaches shyly. His name is James. He's handsome in his school uniform of white collared shirt and navy pants. His clothes are amazingly clean and well kept - especially given the state of the house he lives in. He speaks quietly but his English is pretty good. He tells us he stays with his mother and two sisters but we learn from the care workers that his mother is very sick. She has finished TB meds and is now on anti retro viral medications. She has to go once a month to the nearest clinic, about 3 hours walk one way, from their home. A taxi would be about R15 (less than $2) but because they have no identification papers, no birth certificates - they don't have access to government child support and therefore have no income. James tells us about his school and his favorite subject, English. Dan tells him about his own family, I tell him about my boys and we chat a little bit about football teams. His favorite are the Kaiser Chiefs. I tell him I like the Pirates better because they have nicer uniforms. You can tell he is not buying it. He's 13 which surprises Carly and I. Only in grade four, he's smaller than Easton, who's 10. We chat for a little while with him and then his eldest sister arrives and opens up the house. She pulls out two huge drums that she tells James to bring to the road for water. The drums are bigger than he is. Dan grabs one and I grab one and we carry them down to the roadside to join the barrels, drums, wash buckets and pails of everyone else in the community. The community has been without access to water for weeks, almost three, and today, the water truck has been rumbling through the streets dispensing water into any kind of container that has been commissioned for the task. It would be impossible to haul the full drums back up the path to the house but we find out that once full, the drums are left with all the other containers. The people just come and bring buckets to the water every day and haul what they need for the task at hand and use it. Imagine sharing on a community scale something as precious as water. After we haul the drums for them, we cross the road and pass the house of Nora. She points to a girl on the path hauling two large wash buckets up to the road and introduces us to her. It is her niece, who now lives with her, as Nora's sister passed away a few years ago. The young girl drops one of the buckets and continues with one up to the road. I grabbed the other and followed a short distance behind her. She sees me when she turns to come back for that one and she gives me a relieved smile and "Siyabonga sesi." Thank you sister. I love that expression. We walk back together and I carry on with the care workers, while she goes on to the house and whatever other chores await a waterless household. We walk for a while up a small track through the grass to a house high on a hill. It's what they call an RDP house. Rural Development Plan housing. A house that is accessible for those who have identification papers and can show a need to have government assisted housing. The family living here has a mother and six children. Five girls and the youngest, a boy. His name, in Siswati, means "Jesus gave him to me". Fitting for a male child long awaited after five girls! The house has a large water storage tank beside the house with a tap that runs into the house. It's a luxury compared to what we've been witness to - but a luxury is something that by now I should know doesn't mean is affordable. The tank must be filled by truck and the water trucks charge a fee to drive up and deliver the water to these homes. Therefore, the tank is empty. The family can't afford the luxury of water. Sitting in the shade of a shack that may well have housed a family, it's hot and all this talk of water has me thirsting for some. I have about half of the water bottle that I brought with me for the day. I contemplate if I should drink it while it's still just lukewarm or if I should save it for later in the day, knowing it will be hot enough to make tea with by that time. I drink a bit of it - acutely aware of the resource I have at my disposal. We sit with this mother as she tells us the challenges facing her family. Lack of water. Lack of food. Lack of money. Her garden is large and it is what is sustaining them but it needs water to thrive too. She is also worried because after this season, she has no more seeds to plant. She is small and so lovely, laughing hard at a joke that Dan makes after having it translated. She has a beautiful smile and seems surprised by her own laughter. She's genuinely grateful that someone would come and hear her story and listen to her. As we leave, she thanks each of us and again, I am thanked as her sister. We head back to the care point and by this time, many of the children have arrived for their meal. The care workers have been cooking pap and "soup" all morning and the men we came with this morning from the base are now dishing out food to the kids. I love watching people serve others. It's not to our credit, we didn't make the food or prepare the plates or cups for the kids...but there is something about giving a plate of food to a child when you know it may be all they eat today, that connects you to them. It's emotional work as much as it is physical. It's difficult and rewarding, pleasant and wrenching. I watched the face of the man who was dishing out the soup, which basically was a thick gravy with chunks of potatoes in it, to the children. He would look each child in the eye and smile and nod and I could tell that he was feeling all that I have felt when in that position. The children are beautiful and well behaved, they don't compare portions or ask for more. Most are shy but more than not, they say "Siyabonga" or "Thank you" and nod to you. Some raise their eyebrows in the secret language of children that tells you more than you ever asked them to share with you - it reveals something to look a child in the eye and have them acknowledge that you have seen them. Really seen them. We sat with the children for a while as they ate and visited. I held a little girl named Amanda, of all things. It's possible that that is just what our English brains translated her name to. She is tiny, maybe 3. She's afraid of us but she doesn't resist when I pick her up. I begin to sing to her and she puts her hands in her mouth and is quiet but she seems to enjoy it. I sing a few verses of a song I picked up in a movie long ago. I sang it repeatedly to my boys in the early hours of morning when they would wake and just want to be held till sleep came back to them. I don't know all the words but the ones I do, I just sing over and over and she seems to like them. "If I ever find you, my joy will fill the air. Say it loud so I can hear you. I'm so happy to be near you." I sing her "You are my Sunshine" and then she begins to cry quietly again. I set her down on the tire next to me and figure I've exhausted my repertoire and I can't be certain it's not my singing that makes her cry anyway! I just sit with her, huge tears rolling quietly down her chocolate brown cheeks, streams of water shining paths on her dusty face. It's time to go and I shake her hand and say "Siyabonga sesi" and leave her there, watching us go. She doesn't seem relieved by our leaving either but it's time to go and I have to walk away with her sitting there. I love going into the communities and being with the care workers. This little one shows me the vulnerability of the children of her community. There are others just as vulnerable as she is. She's one of the lucky ones. Fed, visited and cared for by a volunteer who comes and makes sure she's been taken care of as well as possible. Lucky enough to have tears to shed in a village devoid of water. I don't think I'll ever understand this complicated country where children hunger and thirst for things that adults like me take so for granted. I probably will never understand my own self in it all either. I just pray that I keep the lessons close that I'm learning.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Praying for Enough.

One afternoon this week, the boys and Jason went along with Tyler to a community in Clau Clau...just a short drive from where we stay. The care workers in this community are a well oiled machine - they are providing the three essential services that are the markers of holistic care: home visits, access to education and food security for the children. Jason and the boys helped out at the care point where the children come after school to play and get help with homework and to receive a meal cooked for them by the care workers. After a while spent there, they went and visited the home of seven girls living together with their eldest sister as the head of household. The eldest two girls had been playing at the care point with Easton and Aidan and were happy to have them come visit. Of all the girls living in the home, only one was employed. She worked for the local bus company and her wages had to support herself and the six others. It was not nearly enough. After sitting them for a while and visiting, just before they turned to leave, Jason was asked to pray for this family. He had asked the eldest girl several times what her name was but he could not make his mouth say it or his brain remember it. Finally he asked her what her name meant and she told him. It meant "Enough" - which was exactly the right thing to pray for.

Starving Artists

Since we travelled to Oshoek a few weeks ago, I can't get the words out about two particular families we met with. I am weighed down by the stories and have tried many times to get past the choking feeling when I think of them and begin to process all we saw and heard and felt. I'm on my fourth or fifth attempt to write what I saw. I can only communicate pieces of a story so complicated it would take novels to tell. Here is just a glimpse of what I saw. The first was a family that we travelled a long distance over rough roads that back home would loosely be called trails. We drove as far as we could up into the hillside and then walked for the last bit through the woods and a large open meadow to their home. It was a beautiful setting and when we first approached the home, it was like walking back in time. A collection of small square buildings facing into a courtyard, all surrounded by a low mud fence. There was a large garden area with only the early beginnings of pumpkins and maize growing, though it was already well into the growing season. Rains have been few in the area and it's been unseasonably cool causing things to grow more slowly. There was a goat pen with no goats in it just behind the garden and no visible sign of a water source nearby. Entering the courtyard, we saw a few school aged children sitting. None of them were wearing school uniforms and it was early enough after school that it seemed unlikely that they had attended school that day at all. Upon closer look, the buildings were in various states of disrepair, seemingly left for a long period of time from the looks of the crumblings walls and hanging doors. As the care workers introduced us to the kids, they told us that there were seven children in the home living with their gogo or grandmother. She had had two children who had both passed away, leaving their own children, in her care. The gogo was in her room bathing and she yelled out to us to wait for her. She was worried she would miss us if she continued bathing. A young girl of about eight went and helped her dress and come into the courtyard with us. We were all seated on various rocks and stumps and wooden stools that were hastily brought for us. The gogo sat on a reed mat, similar to ones we've seen in every visit, in the doorway of one of the rooms. She greeted us all saying, "Happy New Year" with a huge toothless smile. She was very happy to see us and have us visit. She told us that she was always expecting people from Hands at Work to come visit as she had been visited a long while before by Hands at Work volunteers who accompanied their care workers. She told us that once, she had been on the main road in a taxi and seen a Hands at Work vehicle go by. She was so sure that they were going to her home that she left the taxi and walked back home from the main road, only to find no one had come. I felt so bad for her...we'd just driven from the main road and it was a long and arduous drive, never mind walking! And she was old! Add to that the idea that she had spent what little money she had on a taxi probably en route to the market which was two towns away - for the hope of a visit from someone who showed her care. My heart was already being wrung out by this family and their circumstances. They were visibly in dire need. Their shelter was not enough to protect them from the elements, they showed us where the rains leaked in through the tin roof. Each small room was open to the courtyard but not to each other so that if any of the children or the gogo sleeping in one room needed assistance from someone in the next room, they had to enter each others' rooms from the outside. It hardly seemed safe enough without the added fact that none of the doors I looked at seemed to be hinged properly or have a working lock. They were removed enough from neighbours and others that it may have offered them some protection but on the other hand, if someone were to come to harm them, they would be powerless to probably alert the neighbouring homes and whatever help their occupants could offer, if any.
One of the boys in the home was about fifteen. He was really cute - the kind of guy that back home would be popular based on his gorgeous short braided hair and big smile. He was fairly quiet but friendly. On the wall of his room were three amazing drawings: two of football stadiums that were hosts of the World Cup in 2010 and one a coat of arms of some sort. We asked him if he had every been to the stadiums to which he answered no. He had drawn them from memory having probably just seen them once or twice. They were detailed and amazing. The coat of arms was elaborate and colourful. Beside his bed, he had some sketchings drawn on any scrap piece of paper that he could get his hands on. Perhaps the most innovative piece of art that I saw was a guitar that he had fashioned out of two pieces of cardboard, shaped by ripping the cardboard into the shape of the body of the guitar. It was affixed by rusty nails between two pieces of roughly hewn boards that made up the body and allowed for the hollow hole of the guitar body. A long piece of rough wood made up the neck and head of the guitar. Each string was an elastic band fastened at the top and bottom with more nails. The bridge of the guitar was hand drawn and the head of the guitar had tuning keys made out of nails. You could strum the elastic strings and make sounds. We coaxed him out of his room with it to show the others and he smiled and strummed a small bit. Clearly, the hills of Oshoek hide some incredible talents. At the end of our time with this family, one of the care workers had asked the gogo how she fed all the children and what they lived off. She told us that they were out of mealies or pap, which is the staple food of African homes. It is ground maize meal that is boiled and made to a thick, mashed potato consistency. It's not nutritious but it is filling and keeps children from going to bed with an empty stomach. The gogo explained that they had no food and that they would have to ask a neighbour for some mealies to sustain them. She said that they would be going to bed hungry. I was watching Easton and one of the girls interact and heard the care worker say that the gogo was asking if we had brought them something to eat. I felt like I was going to throw up in discomfort, knowing that we had not brought food for the family. One of the care workers explained that we were just visitors, that we had nothing to offer them but ourselves. We were there to encourage them and visit with them and learn their stories so that others could learn about the needs of the communities that the care workers were trying to meet. Before you read this next part, let me assure you that there is not a thing you are thinking that did not go through my mind at this point. I was almost physically sick. I've been in situations where I have been asked for food and where I've known there were great needs. When I heard the words that all we had to offer was ourselves? I wanted to rip my hair out. I wanted to yell that that was a cop out. I wanted to laugh and cry. I felt sick with myself if that was all I had to give. I can't communicate how hard it was to not run from that family. To make matters more complicated, we had food. We had lunches from that day that I know all of us would have gladly given. The care workers had surprised us with lunch made from their own meagre resources - we hadn't known this was going to happen so all of us had at least a peanut butter sandwich or an apple or a granola bar along for the day. Those lunch things were sitting in the truck at the base of the hill. I wanted to run and grab them and bring them. I wanted one of those miraculous things to occur in which an apple became twenty and the family ate till they were full and had apples left over. But, the only miraculous thing that afternoon was that I held my emotions in check until we walked to the bottom of the hill after we had said our goodbyes. I don't remember much but I do remember thinking that there was nothing good about this situation. At the bottom of the hill, before we got in our vehicles, several of us asked if we could give them our lunch food. We put Levy, our team leader, into a really difficult position. I could see the compassion for the family on his face, I knew he wanted to provide a meal for them as badly as we did, but he asked us a very important question: "If we feed them tonight, what does that mean tomorrow?" I found myself wanting to stamp my foot and make Levy march back up the hill with our offering. I understand though that most of the motivation was emotional on my part, I can't speak for anyone else. I do know others looked as grim as I felt. We all had our reasons for wanting to give to this family. I wanted to feel better about their situation. I wanted to feel like I'd contributed or fixed something for them. Maybe a sandwich would have. An apple would have been a gesture of hope. A granola bar enough to get them a good night's sleep. But, I know too, that what Hands at Work and the work we are part of is NOT about is coming in to save the day. Weeks later...I have a little more clarity but I'm not going to say this decision sits well with me. I'm actually glad it doesn't. I wonder if I had given them my lunch and the boys' lunches and Jason's lunch...if I would even still be thinking about this family now. As we drove away, Levy told me that after our next visit, if I still felt strongly that it was not an emotional response, that he would consider giving them the food. I was certain I wouldn't change my mind. I reluctantly got into the truck and tried to contain what I was feeling. The next home we went to was that of two young girls, 15 and 11, who had recently lost their last parent. Newly orphaned. Joining the thousands each day that bury their last parent and return home at night without them. Small girls becoming the head of their households, young boys becoming the men of the family at ridiculously young ages. These girls are now living alone with their younger brothers in the home that their parents had built for them. An aunty was coming during the day to care for the girls and make sure that they were getting enough water and food every day. As we arrived at their home, and stood waiting by the truck for the others to join us, I looked up on the hillside at a small home above us. There, along the path, was the gogo we had just left, with the two youngest children, going to the neighbour to ask for mealies. I watched as they trekked across what looked like a goat or cattle path with an empty bucket swinging in one of the children's hands. As we sat at the home of the family we were visiting, I kept looking up to the hills to see if I could catch a glimpse of them returning. Not long after, I watched the gogo, with the bucket on her head, trekking back home with what was probably just enough mealies for a few meals. I admit, I felt a little better, knowing that the neighbour had provided for them and that they had something to eat that night. I turned my attention to the family we were with and heard and saw and felt for the story they were living in. I know that night and since, I have wrestled with the thought of "the right thing to do". I don't have any clearer of a picture now than I did then. What I am sure of is that not giving someone what I had - it felt wrong. It still feels wrong. It still hurts to think about it even though I don't clearly know what would have been best in that situation. I only know what would have made me feel better - and that certainly doesn't mean it was for the best. In some ways, I am grateful to be haunted by this family's situation. I wouldn't want to forget how it felt to stand in their midst and have no solutions for them. I am learning I don't have a solution, I knew I didn't coming here, but now I KNOW I don't. I don't think we can eradicate poverty, but we can alleviate suffering. I'm just wondering if we did that for that widow and those orphans in their distress - as we say we are here to do.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Visitors in the Village

This was the scene outside the girls' bathroom in Hands Village last night. Eight Canadians and two Englishmen, an Englishwoman and a small American/Canadian gathered around with cameras, flashlights and the heavy artillery: a Tupperware container and a wooden spatula.
The reason? This little gaffer (not so little...)
A big BIG hairy baboon spider. He surprised all of us who have been here over the past month and a half in blissfull denial of his very existence. Now we know. And knowledge is power, right? Ahem.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Wild Weekend

The weekend of the 10th, we finished our orientation period here at Hands. The girls we've been paired up with for the orientation are being sent off in different directions in the next few weeks so we decided we'd take a day and hit Kruger Park together. Kruger Park is world renown for its amazing collection of the Big 5 plus thousands more animals, birds and bugs. We set out early in the morning, arrived in the park just as it opened and spent 12 glorious hours searching for animals. We had an extraordinary day actually...many times you can go to the park and just see a few different animals. We saw four of the Big 5 - African water buffalo, two black rhinos, elephants galore and a leopard! We also saw crocs and kudu, giraffe and impala, and of course, my personal faves, the hippos. I could sit by the water and watch hippos all day. They're so intriguing to me! These big chubby beach ladies that just float around as if weightless, eyes and ears above the water, watching, watching, watching. They remind me of a big group of plus sized women that haul their young to the beach and plant themselves there for the day, watching each others' kids, catching up on the gossip and floating in the water oblivious to the younger, slimmer animals around them garnering all the attention. They're not flashy and don't often stroll the beach trolling for looks - mostly they stay near the water, watch their children closely and heaven help you if you infringe on their beach blanket. Then it's all bets are off and out come the jaws of doom...huge mouths seemingly full of molars ready to snap on anyone or anything that gets in their space. These are the kinds of women I want to hang at the beach with. Let the bikini babes like the tall, slender African darters stand and spread their wings to dry on the edge of the beach and capture the attention of the muscle of the waterways, those svelte crocodile skin wearing, uh, crocs. Give me a group of ladies who are unashamed of their sizeable ankles, who are there to relax and cool off with the kids, regardless of the company around them. Those are the ones I want to share a beach with.
We had an amazing day, complete with hiring a grill for about $2.25 to cook our breakfast in the park. By 8:30 am, with already some great sightings under our belts, we pulled into a park area where you can picnic. We had brought eggs and sausages and bread and made ourselves a nice breakfast before travelling on deeper into the park.
We continued on until lunch time where we stopped in yet another area along the Lower Sabie river where we spotted huge groups of elephants crossing the road and heading to the river. We watched them for a long time, showering themselves in dirt and drinking from the river. We stopped on the road as a huge elephant came out and stood in front of us and waited as each member of his herd crossed, from the very youngest little elephant to the old gogo of the group with her wrinkles on wrinkles and ripped ears. When his whole herd safely crossed, he then crossed and brought up the rear of the parade as they made their way down a trail to the river. As they crossed the dunes to the river, it was like a scene out of a movie; big elephants, little elephants, all walking in single file, some with trunks held high, others trunks lowered...making their way to the water together. We'd been in the park long enough that when someone was stopped on the side of the road to observe animals, we'd glide past elephants and impala like they were old news. It was incredible how quickly you get accustomed to seeing these unbelievable animals in their natural habitat! At one point, we parked in a pull out under a tree full of baboons for about 20 mins. We watched them parade above and around us with the windows closed nearly all the way, having heard stories of the aggressive nature of the curious baboons. After 20 mins, we were so hot and stifled, we pulled away from probably the most entertaining bunch of animals of the day but we just couldn't take the heat any longer! Our friend, Bentley, circled around and we made our way to a small recreational area with a gorgeous outdoor pool. It cost us about $2.00 each to get in and it was deserted. We all just jumped in, happy to have the chance to cool off and float around. Looking over the edge of the pool, we were along the Sabie river. Below us were African water buffallo and of course, more elephants. We swam and played for about an hour and a half and then decided to make our way towards the gate, still a few hours drive back. We ran into the Chongs, another Canadian family, along the road and they followed us to a large rocky plateau. We were able to get out on the rock and from it, you had a 360 degree view of the lowlands of Kruger Park. It was beautiful. It really felt like we were standing on Pride Rock from the movie The Lion King. We ran around there and took photos and just stretched our legs for a while and then piled back into our vehicles to head home. Just as we were about to leave the gates, just a few miles shy of it, we saw a beautiful young giraffe cross the road in front of us. She (or he...but with those eyelashes? I'm going to say "she".) met up with another giraffe on the side of the road, who we would never have seen, her camouflaging spots working perfectly. We sat for a few minutes, watching them eye each other and us and then we headed home. It was an awesome day. The photos don't do it justice. There's something so vast and uncontainable about an elephant in the wild...or a wildebeest or an impala, that it's hard to capture it in a photo. There's a smell and sound about the long grasses and greenery mixed with the dung piles and mud and water that is impossible to explain but I don't doubt that for us, the boys...our travelling's not something we'll forget anytime in the near future. Hopefully the photos will allow us to conjure up the greatness of a day spent this way.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Just wanted to write a quick apology for the lack of photos on the blog right now! I'm working on it...I just think my computer + dial up + my lack of patience = no photos. So, I'll work on the computer and dial up issues. Patience? I can only do so much! I do have high expectations of your patience though! Stay tuned! (please?)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Office Space

With our orientation phase of life here in South Africa officially over, I'm now keeping office hours here at the Hands offices. While that may sound like an upgrade, let me assure you that it is only in the mornings that I am remotely productive. This morning, day 2, I arrive with my coworker, Jen, and we share an office with Carolyn (who I might add is second in command, some may argue...but this is only to brag about the lovely company I get to keep while working.) Mornings, that is. After lunch, it all goes downhill.
At lunchtime, you'll have to understand, is when Jen leaves work to go home and care for her boys. She has three great little guys... Marley, Sonny and Micah. So fun having them around. It's a boys' world around here: frogs and lizards, monkeys and a dog, riding in the back of whatever bakkie is travelling down the hill and up again. Bicycling full speed down the hill to wait for a bakkie to take them up again.
After lunch, I share the office with Jen's husband, Dan. Now, I have been working with over thirty women for the past three years, but that is not the reason why I find working with Dan so difficult. Let me describe to you the "work" that goes on in this office. Begin with Dan's eldest boy coming down to do "community service". He's just small. This is a little work project that Dan has dreamed up to counter some naughtiness that Marley inflicted on a babysitter the night before. Now, as Marley came down and was given tools by Dan to go dig weeds in the garden, the black clouds began to accumulate overhead. Dan sends Marley out in the beginnings of a "shower" and gets him started. No sooner does Dan resume his seat in the office and it's suddenly raining so hard that we can hardly hear a thing. I am trying not to lift my eyes in judgement at him for subjecting his wee son to this type of punishment but when I can hardly think straight for the sound of rain on the roof, Dan looks at me and says, "To be fair, it sounds a lot worse in here than it really is." We look out the window that I've closed partially to keep out the driving rain, and he says, "See? Hardly a drizzle." Then he proceeds to go out and "check" on Marley who is now sitting in the midst of a mud puddle stealthily weeding like the good boy that he is. Might I take the time to mention that this little guy has a cast on one hand? Oh, yes. It gets better. Then another coworker comes in demanding to know why Dan is subjecting his child to the rain - only she is referring to Sonny, who has come down the hill full speed on his bicycle to watch his brother take his punishment like a man. I mean, to encourage and support Marley in his time of need.
Finally, Dan summons me outside to peek at Marley who is diligently weeding the garden as the sun finally comes out. Dan parades around like a proud father and pulls Marc and Lynn away from their work saving the world to also observe the beauty of parenthood that he exemplifies for all of us.
Keep in mind that we do actually have work to do. So, I, with all the self discipline I can muster, get back to work, which I'm now suspecting might actually be the work that Dan is supposed to be doing. He finally releases Marley to go home and wash up and comes back to his desk and then proceeds to begin an argument with my fellow Canadian, Alicia, and I about the correct spelling of the word "organization". He pulls out the whole Queen's English tripe and blah blah blah and then amuses himself by finding other words to throw our way. Finally, after an amusing story about burning lunch in the community and how if he wore a suit and tie, he'd throw his tie over his shoulder to show how hard he was working, he calls it a day. At least, he leaves the office. I think you're getting the image of what I'm dealing with here? Who said Africa would be easy? His redeeming quality, apart from his charming wife and sweet little boys who are really great to be around...he has wonderful taste in music. I hear that "Moves like Jagger" is his favorite all time song right after the theme song from Titanic.

Mountain High, Valley Low

This morning, Legogate is hidden by mist and rain. Every morning, since we climbed it, I wake up in the mornings, look up at the mountain and see the marker at the top where we were. This morning, I can barely visualize the foothills. That’s a bit how life after our Oshoek visit feels. I know that the community based organizations can make such a difference. The volunteers in Oshoek are so new – they are just beginning the climb. Halfway up Legogate, we reached a flat meadow overlooking the valley and I was already tired. Climbing with a group of 20-somethings and my boys, I was definitely the slowest of the group. Part of me – most of me - wanted to stop at the meadow, wait it out, and enjoy the view. I looked at the steep rock climb ahead of us and I wasn’t really sure I could even physically do it. Still, I didn’t want to look at the summit every day and say, “I almost made it”. So, I climbed. I found scaling rocks and climbing to be much easier than walking the steep incline winding through the bush. Each handhold and foothold that felt secure was exhilarating. When footholds were less secure, someone would reach back and offer a hand or carry my bag until I found the next one. While it was humbling to climb with others stronger and far more agile than I, it also gave me motivation and support when I need it. Once we hit the summit, it was the most amazing view – 360 degrees taking in Kruger Park, Masoyi, Nelspruit, all the way to Mozambique. I would have enjoyed the view from the meadow having never known this vista, but this was reward in itself.
This morning , I have to remind myself that the summit is still there. In the quiet drip of rain, I feel like the skies are mimicking the tears and heaviness I feel about Oshoek – obscuring the rewards of last week. I don’t mind – there’s something real and appropriate about the heaviness. Just like the exhilaration of the mountaintop, I don’t want to miss the tears and heartbreaks of the valley.

Trophies for Moshe

On Tuesday, we visited a home set back on a hillside meadow. It was surrounded by a single strand of barbed wire fencing that we climbed under and walked through the long grasses until we reached the yard. Lining the home were small gardens bordered with inverted empty glass bottles,. There were geraniums planted and other flowers giving the impression that there was a mother or gogo in the home that took pride in its appearance. The dirt yard was well kept and swept of debris.
The one side of the home was open to a large room that was evidently a kitchen with a woodstove in the corner and there, behind the stove, sat a young man on the floor. At the stove, stood his brother, who welcomed the men to the house as they approached the door. Our group entered through the side door with the care workers and into a living room. We pulled in extra chairs as the brothers made their way slowly into the room. The young man who sat behind the wood stove had to be helped to his feet and to shuffle slowly towards the room. We offered him a chair but he said he didn’t want to sit on it because he would fall off. One of the care workers offered him a chair with sides but he still seemed unsure of sitting in it. His brother and one of our guys helped him into the chair where he sat looking down into his lap. His brother sat off to one side on a smaller chair. The boy we’d come to see was named Moshe* and his brother’s name was Siyabonga, which means “thank you” in Siswati. Siyabonga described to us the family situation – they were just two boys living with their mother. She worked as a cook at the local primary school. Moshe was about 23 and Siyabonga was 19 and had just graduated school. He wasn’t able to go and look for work because he was needed in the home to care for Moshe. Moshe suffered from some form of seizures that left him with limited mobility. As we spoke with him through the care workers, it seemed that Moshe had very little expectancy for what life would bring him. He sat behind the woodstove all day and probably slept there as well. He listened to the radio but to whatever happened to be on, he had no interest in specific programs or types of music. When Jason asked him what he liked to do if he could do anything, he said, “Nothing”. He was disinterested in us and didn’t seem too engaged in our visit. Siyabonga on the other hand, was quite personable although he seemed to have an air of discouragement about him that he had graduated school but now was relegated to caring for his elder brother. Maybe I read too much into it. I’m not sure what type of job he would have liked to do but it seemed that his role was cut out for him in caring for Moshe.
I noticed that there were football pictures on the wall, cut from magazines. I asked Moshe if he liked football and it was the only time he noticeably engaged when he replied, “No, but Siyabonga likes football.” I asked Siyabonga a bit about it and he talked in English fairly well about how he liked it. On the side, there were some small trophies along a shelf. I walked over to them and asked him to tell me about them. The first was a small trophy commemorating good nutrition and it was in their mother’s name from the primary school where she cooked. The second trophy was in Siyabonga’s name for completing primary school, the third from his secondary school graduation. The fourth trophy was a football trophy with his name on it. I asked him if he had won the award and he said no, that he had just been given the trophy for being on the team. He seemed a little sheepish about it and I laughed and told him that our boys were given the same kinds of trophy in Canada just for participating in a sport. There were no trophies for Moshe.
We didn’t stay too long and as we left, some of the men helped Siyabonga take Moshe back to his place beside the stove. It felt sad to me that we were maybe his only visitors and yet, he seemed more content and happy to sit in his place, on the floor, away from others. In some way, it should have been a comfort, I guess, that the place he has found contentment is the place where he spends most of his time. I just wished that he could hope for something more.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sampling South Africa

Just to show that it’s not all work, work, work around here, we have actually ventured out the last two weekends and enjoyed the beauty that spreads out in every direction we turn! Last weekend, we woke up early in order to beat the heat of the day and hike up Legogate. Legogate means Lion’s Head and from the Hands village on Peebles Road, we wake up daily to a view of the head of the lion. It looms above us and is the backdrop for all that we do here. When the weather rolls in, it comes in over the head of the lion and drops in on us quickly. Clear skies one moment and then a rolling mist shrouds Legogate and we’re all running for cover before the skies open up on us. The moon rises from behind the mountain and every night, at least one of us here in the village, comments on its arrival in its unusually mesmerizing fashion. It creeps over the hill shyly and then seemingly launches itself on its nightly path through the star filled skies. Usually, dinner on the deck involves this nightly ritual of the moon peeking over to see if we’re ready for an evening’s respite from the sun’s heat. As the evening cools, our tiredness wanes and we feel energized enough to make it through the last few hours until bedtime. Saturday morning, a group of us started out on a morning hike up to the summit. The first hurdle was a scramble up a long, skinny face of rocks that ran along the perimeter of a fenced property. The narrowness of the face was not a challenge in and of itself, but the fact that the fence was electrified to keep out intruders, both human and animal, was enough to make you consider each hand and foothold carefully. Somehow, each step seemed to want to pull me towards the fence, much like standing on a ledge makes you feel as if you’re being magnetically drawn over. We all made it to the top without any shocks, other than those my poor underused muscles were making in protest. We’d only just begun. The hardest part of the trail for me was a long, steep, uphill climb through long grass and low brush. My spirit was willing but my lungs were weak. Each breath burned in taunting reminders of the dusty elliptical machine standing lonely in my basement – testament to its underuse and idleness. As we reached the third of several plateaus, a beautiful vista spread out before us and I seriously considered resting there until the group climbed to the summit and returned. I figured I could get a nice nap in on the grass and wake refreshed and tanned by the time they would be descending. I looked up at the summit, seemingly no closer, and argued the value of accomplishment. I couldn’t bring myself to stay behind so I continued on with the group and soon we came to the base of the actual rock mountain. I wasn’t surprised to find that I was able to climb and scale the wall with less effort than I was exerting in reaching it. I enjoyed the climbing parts, each handhold and foothold felt like an accomplishment in itself and I liked the camaraderie of climbing in a group. When handholds and footholds were far between or not stable, there was always a hand extended to grab on to or to take your pack. The climbing part went all too quickly and suddenly, we were standing on top of the Lion’s Head. The view was amazing - 360 degree panorama of the Mpumulanga Province and onwards straight to Mozambique. We could see Swaziland in the distance and the landscapes of both the lowlands and the surrounding escarpment. It was gorgeous. We all celebrated the climb with photos and exploring the head of the lion, which was maybe 500 feet long in all directions. It wasn’t terribly big but it afforded us all room to spread out and enjoy breakfast and even coffee, thanks to one of the more clever climbers among us. The boys tested their limits, and mine, clamouring to the very edge of each rock and looking at the long drop down. The wind was extremely high and gusty and at one point, I wondered if Easton would be blown away on us. We stayed on the summit for about an hour, just basking in the morning sun and the views around us. We spotted the Hands Village from where we had come, spread below us in miniature, along with the farm property and the community of Masoyi. Once we decided to descend, we made one small detour, skirting along the base of the rock until we came out on a shelf of rock, under a large overhanging rock. It felt cave like and cool. Our friend, Bentley, showed us some cave paintings that were there of giraffe and people and small dog like animals. No one knows if they are old or authentic but they were beautiful in their simplicity.
We continued on down the mountainside back through the plateaus where the sun was in full strength and the wind provided little reprieve. We climbed back through the low brush and shady parts with care and headed back to the Hands Village with a great sense of accomplishment, just as our friends and neighbours were finishing breakfast.

We had an early lunch and then our friend, Jayme, met up with us and the girls and we headed out in two cars for the beautiful Blyde River Canyon. We drove through Hazyview and headed out towards Graskop, a small town at the entrance to the canyon area. On our way, we drove through plantations of trees that grow all around the region. They are long and straight and harvested for building wood. As we drove, windows down, the scents and vistas reminded us of northern Saskatchewan or northern BC where the landscapes are filled in by mountains and trees. It was a beautiful drive. Through Graskop, as we entered the canyon area, the landscape changed to rocky plateaus and rolling hills. Every now and then, you would catch a glimpse of a canyon outcropping that showed the heights we had climbed to on the escarpment. The scenery of Africa seemed to drop away below us and we seemed to be skirting the edge of the world. We continued to an area where we could stop and take advantage of a view point. We arrived at the Three Rondawels area and followed the path to the edge. It was breathtaking in its vastness. The Grand Canyon is larger but no more impressive. Where the Grand Canyon boasts a larger area, the Blyde River Canyon is even more beautiful because it is green and lush right to the bottom where the river flows in miniature. The rocks and outcroppings are topped in Africa’s red dirt but also in greys and blues and greens with foliage, rocks and scrub. It was amazing. I teetered between sheer awe and fear. I’m not typically afraid of heights but this was high enough and with few enough barriers to break a fall that I became really uncomfortable. I turned into the mother hen and begged the boys to back up until they were completely frazzled at my lack of adventure, or at least my unwillingness for them to fully enjoy theirs.

We left with our group intact and headed back to Graskop where we stopped at Harrie’s Pannekoek House. We sat down in a simple courtyard with an umbrella table made of two polished slabs of wood. The walls around were whitewashed and simple and it only enhanced the beauty of the meal we were about to have. We all ordered various pannekoeks and as each arrived, they looked better and better. Jayme and I had coffees which came in a large silver French press and made the meal perfect! The boys were in heaven with pannekoek stuffed with cinnamon, sugar and with caramel and fresh whipped cream on the side. Jason had his stuffed with black cherries in a liqueur sauce while I didn’t hesitate to order the dark chocolate mousse stuffed pannekoek with fresh whipped cream. We all left happily stuffed with something out of the ordinary! We headed back to the village where we arrived just after dark and fell promptly asleep.
Sunday morning, we went to Touz Hill Church in White River with Bentley and the girls. We packed our swimming stuff along with us and made a quick stop after church at Pik-N-Pay for braai (bbq) supplies and then headed back towards Sabie and on to Mac Mac pools. To date, I think this is one of the best places in the world to bring your kids...or just yourself! We followed similar landscape as the day before as we headed up towards the escarpment area again. We turned off road onto a small gravel path leading up into what was seemingly a large spread of a farmer’s field. We wound our way up to a small booth and parking lot in a grove of trees and paid R10 each to enter, or just over a dollar. We parked and then found a picnic spot to unload our stuff, changed into bathing suits and then headed to the first pool. Mac Mac pools are natural rock pools fed by springs. The water is clear and crisp and cold and it was the perfect way to spend the day. The first pool we jumped into was surrounded by a large shelf of rocks with about 4 inches of water on them. It dropped off to be about a 10 or 12 foot deep pool that was clear enough to see all the way to the bottom. On one end of the pool was about a 15 ft waterfall that we jumped over and swam into a small cave behind. The water coming off the falls was warm after having made its way from an upper pool by way of smaller pools and warm rocks for about a quarter mile. It was beautiful. We made our way up to the upper pool that was a long, shallow pool of only about two feet of water and a nice sandy bottom. It was the perfect kiddie pool with a small waterfall at the head of it and a lovely rock wall to sit and dangle your feet off of. We decided to break for lunch after a few hours of swimming and exploring. We cooked boerworst (an Afrikaans farmer sausage) and had drinks and fruit and chips and then went back for more swimming. While others played rugby and Frisbee, Easton and I decided to hike down the falls and rocks and explore each and every pool along the way. Some were narrow and deep, others wider and shallow with small waterfalls. We picked our way along the tops of rocks and through the pools; it was really a lot of fun. We found a favourite pool halfway down the stream, with what looked like a natural waterslide. Easton tested it out but we were disappointed to find, it wasn’t really slippery. It did make a refreshing place to sit though with water rushing past you on both sides. The pool below it was about 4 feet deep and cool and clear, surrounded by large boulders which we jumped off of. The lower end of the pool was surrounded by a natural rock wall over which the water flowed and it too, made a great sitting place. We climbed over and down the falls until we were stopped in our tracks by a 4 ft snake slithering just a few feet in front of us. We froze and watched it slither its way onto dry rocks and out of the water, towards the grass. I stood for a long time just watching where it had gone, not moving for fear of it returning. I snapped a few photos of it to show to Bentley, the local snake guru, who assured us it was a harmless grass snake. I felt reassured until I showed Faith, a high school girl who lives with us at the village, and she said that all bright green snakes were bad and to avoid it. Ugh. I took her advice as well.
I did go back in the pools after that but kept a pretty wary eye about me! I expected snakes in the surrounding fields and rocks but when the thought entered my head earlier in the day about the possibility of water snakes, I scolded myself for being over cautious. Being right does nothing to ease my fears, let me tell you.

As the sun began to fade, we decided it was time to return to the village. Once again, we arrived home exhausted but also exhilarated. These two days were the perfect way to end a long week and begin a new one. It brought us a different type of exhaustion, one that was all physical while our mental and emotional states were restored and rested. The area we are staying in is challenging in its extremes – heat and cold, rocks and wetlands, mountains and valleys – but it is also breathtakingly beautiful in all these different settings. We went to bed all feeling incredibly lucky to have been able to take in what must be just a sampling of what this small corner of South Africa has to offer.

Oshoek Day 2

Our first day in Oshoek ended with us heading to the homes of various care workers to spend the night. We all felt that the homes we had visited that day were witness to the love and care of the workers making a difference in their communities. We went away feeling really encouraged that in such a short time, these careworkers were helping improve the lives of those in their community who were vulnerable. We spent a short evening in the company of an incredibly lovely woman named Mavis, her daughter, Bongekile, her son, Phumlani and grandson, Khulekani. Phumlani and Khulekani are 13 and 11 - which was great for Aidan and Easton to have someone their age in the home. These boys were due home at the same time as us and when they arrived, they quickly went out and collected enough firewood for the evening and morning before starting their homework. Aidan and Easton and Jason "helped" them with their homework for a short while I made dinner. The kitchen was definitely the heart of this home with it's welcoming wood stove and oven and a small cat warming himself on the floor beside it. We began to prepare our dinner and I invited them all to eat with us but Mavis told me that they only eat once a day. Suddenly our small dinner of chicken and rice seemed incredibly grand. We ate fairly quietly, did the dishes and then were invited to watch television with the family. The home was very nice and clean and well kept...we were given Mavis' bed and Bongekile's bed for our families while they bunked in together in another room. We felt incredibly welcomed and at home. After watching the news, mostly to ascertain that Cyclone Irina was moving away from us and not directly towards us as was the earlier possibility, we gathered around the table with the family, standing, holding hands, as they sang an evening song and said their prayer for the night. It was really a beautiful thing to be part of, even though it was in Siswati and we didn't understand much of it. We snuggled into our beds and listened to the wind pick up outside, thankful to be in such a secure home with a good roof.
In the morning, we awoke early. Easton and I dressed quickly and made our way outside to the outhouse. A cool mist was enveloping everything, even the chickens in the yard seemed to glisten with is. The wind was cool and we were grateful to have been warned that Oshoek could be a very, very cold place. We both through on extra layers and made our way to the kitchen where the fire was already warming the room. The boys had already left for school which began at 7 am. We all had a simple breakfast of toast and coffee or tea and then packed some sandwiches for our lunch and a few apples. Filling our water bottles, we said goodbye to Bongekile, who we now called "Coco" as we learned she is called by her family. She's a gorgeous girl with a great laugh and and soft spoken but really friendly. She had taken her first term of nursing school, loved it, excelled at it but had to drop out because it was so expensive. She has a dream of becoming a nurse and she would be a great one with her demeanour.
Bentley honked the horn for us outside and we piled in the back of the bakkie with Mavis along and headed for the care centre. We arrived to find several care workers already waiting and joined them inside. It was decided that we would travel as a large group rather than smaller ones and cover as much ground as we could by vehicles.
The first house we came to was the home of a young woman, maybe in her early twenties though it's hard to tell. She was sat in a chair by the door and as we entered the home, we could tell that she had some form of disability that had left her left side partially paralyzed. We gathered in the room, the great mob of us, and were introduced to her, her younger brothers, and an uncle who had been summoned from family in Swaziland to come and care for the girl and her brothers. Our interpreter, Fortunate, asked the young woman if she was willing to share her story. She nodded quietly and then began to speak in her own language to Fortunate who relayed the story to us. When the young woman was a girl, she had both her parents alive and her brother as well. There was some form of car accident, or she was hit by a car, it was unclear...and she ended up in the hospital on a breathing tube for an extended period of time. Her parents were alive and took care of her so she regained the ability to walk and talk again. She recovered to the degree that we saw her, with limited mobility on her one side. In the following years, both of her parents became sick and passed away, leaving her and her brothers alone. During this time, a man kept coming around to the house and raped her. She didn't call the police and didn't have money to even take transport to report it. She ended up pregnant and now has a daughter as a result of the rape. Unimaginable. At some point during these years, the relatives of these young kids decided that they needed a care giver and sent an uncle from Swaziland to care for them. When we arrived the uncle was working and staying in another town and dropped in from time to time to bring them food and some money. In the past year, a young man from the community expressed an interest in marrying the young woman. She knew his family and he started coming around regularly. He, too, like the man before him, raped her on several occasions. Again, she felt helpless to involve the police or the courts. Finally, the parents of the offender actually helped her to press charges against him. It was inexplicable but thankfully, they did and the offender is now behind bars and the young woman feels safe and protected again. As she shared her story, I was just trying not to physically cringe at the idea of some man taking advantage of this young woman. She seemed weak and so vulnerable and the idea of someone using her in that way made my stomach churn. I tried hard not to change my facial expressions from that of sympathy to that of anger although inside I was fuming. I became acutely aware of Easton and Aidan hearing this story and watched them as they looked into their laps, at their knees, absorbed in their knuckles...anywhere but at this young woman. I leaned into Easton and asked him if he understood what she had said and he had. I asked if he had any questions but he told me it just made him feel really bad for her. We stayed for quite a while with this young family while Levi asked them if they ever were visited by people from their church or family. They said that the uncle was the only one who ever came by other than the care workers. Every day, faithfully, the care workers come and sit with this young woman in her home filled with old dishes and furniture from a family long passed away. She sits near the door although her experience tells her the only ones who visit will be someone who takes advantage of her - until the care workers changed all that for her. Every day. She knows someone is coming. Her brothers know someone is coming. Someone who cares. Who asks nothing of them. Who takes nothing from them. Who gives them encouragement and love when anyone else that has walked through their dark doorway has taken, taken and taken. Before we left, Levy asked this young woman her favorite song. She didn't know the name. She hummed it and soon the care workers picked up the tune and we all sang it together. We filled the room with song and she smiled and sang along. It was really beautiful. The song seemingly pushed the words of her story out of the dark and into the light, taking away their power to hold her down, and as we left, she was smiling for all of us.

Our Stay in Oshoek - Day 1

After a beautiful weekend around the Mpumalanga province, Monday morning came early. Aidan had had a bad stomach ache in the night and came looking for Gravol and water. Jason went out into the kitchen and found some Sprite for Aidan with which he washed down the Gravol and finally fell back to sleep. After some time, I finally fell back asleep but then awoke what seemed like moments later to my alarm clock. We had a meeting with all the volunteers here and we took some time to hear about what is going on in other African countries. For example, we heard about Nigeria where children live above garbage and sewage for much of the year, where in the wet season, the children walk on pieced together boardwalks to schools that flood and have no walls to keep out the driving rain. Sanitation is non-existent in these communities and the children just step out of the school room and go to the bathroom wherever they find to squat or stand. Many of the parents of the children that Hands is seeing are sex trade workers. Care workers often have to go and pick up the kids and walk them to school or they don’t get to school. Space is at a premium and often whole families live in shanties that are smaller than most of our pantries or linen closets. Now imagine that that family has a parent that is a sex trade worker. These children are seeing things and being exposed to things they shouldn’t be seeing. It seems so hopeless. Land is at a premium and where would a group of care workers secure land that would be accessible for these children so that they can reach out and care for them and help them to have a safe place, food to eat and an adult to watch out for them if they are alone. But there is hope...there are care workers who have use their own precious land for a care centre. There are care workers that help in overcrowded schools to make sure that kids are learning and getting an education when there are few teachers and so very many kids. And there is hope that as word of these who are giving so much from so little is spread, that others will catch the vision of what a home based care worker does and volunteer as well, or lend support or provide a place for them to meet.
After spending an hour or so learning about different countries and the needs and challenges, we hopped into a car with a Zambian man named Levy. We headed to a community called Oshoek, about 2.5 hours away, right on the Swaziland border. Levy has been working with a group of volunteers in Oshoek, encouraging them and supporting them as they started doing home based care visits. When we arrived in Oshoek, I was surprised by the landscape and area the most. The hills and valleys give way to mountain ranges and it as if we had woken up in the Alps or somewhere in Ireland. It’s green and lush, rolling hills and fertile lands as far as the eye can see. Homes are spread far apart and give the impression of small acreages or farms dotting the landscape. Cattle roam freely, even on the main roads. We are greeted at the small cement block building that houses the home based care office here in Oshoek. It’s two small rooms owned by a local church but rented to the volunteers as a base of operations. It’s close to the local primary school and to a medical clinic, as well as at a crossroads where school buses drop off and collect high school students. Every day, about 15 volunteers come to the centre at eight am. They meet together, sing, pray and plan out their visits for the day. Children are usually in school in the mornings so the workers often visit a few elderly patients or homes with small ones in the mornings. In the afternoons, the care workers go out and visit children that have returned from school. They check that kids living alone have something to eat, are making their way to school and getting their work done, and that no one is taking advantage of them. It’s a huge job anywhere, but in Oshoek, there are minimal resources for these workers that would aid them in their work. Food is scarce and children are vulnerable. The distances that they cover daily on foot took us up steep hills and rocky canyons, over fields and gullies. We drove in a 4x4 and it was a rough ride. The care workers take a taxi on the main road and then walk the remaining miles up and down the hillsides, in the heat, the cold, the rain. Every single day. These are not young women in breathable, wicking outerwear and climbing shoes...these are mothers and grandmothers,carrying babies on their backs and wearing whatever pair of shoes or boots they own.
This is definitely not an approved mode of transport - but, the bakkie, already filled with care workers and volunteers, gave Jason and Easton the opportunity to travel on the back for a short distance. The really frightening thing about this photo is that Bentley, snapped the photo with his camera held above the roof while driving! I try not to squelch the adventure and opportunities that come our way here but I quickly kiboshed this one out of sheer motherly instinct. The first visit we did was to the home of a young girl named Nicky*. She and her brother were orphaned when she was just 6 years old. Now, ten years later, she and her brother have been on their own, built their own home with sticks and mud, and found a way to survive on the small grant that orphans are given if they have proper identification papers, which these two did. When we visited, Nicky’s brother had just left a few days prior to go stay in a city about an hour away to try and find a paying job. In Oshoek, there just aren’t any jobs. No industry. No town centre. No shops. No jobs. It’s understandable that her brother, not in school any longer, would go on and try to make a life for himself and for Nicky by finding paid work. The hard part is that it leaves Nicky on her own and very vulnerable. It hit one of the girls on our team really hard that a girl in her late teens would be as vulnerable as a small orphaned child. It seemed that once a child was old enough to take care of themselves, it would get easier. But, as Levy pointed out, here’s a pretty girl without money who goes to school every day and back again on her own. Her closest neighbour is up the hill at least 500 m. She hauls her own water from a spigot that she motions to out of sight of the house over the next hill. Again, she does all this alone now and anyone watching her or knowing her story, would know she’s vulnerable. How long does a girl on her own turn down the offer to “help” of someone offering her soap or toothpaste or water, a ride or medicine. She’s vulnerable because she’s on her own but also because her needs are so great, they cloud her own need for safety. Thankfully, we find out that the care workers check on her every single day so that greatly reduces her vulnerability, not to mention her loneliness or despair at being all alone – morning, noon, and night.
That’s the heart of the work – telling the community that those that are vulnerable have protectors, advocates and those who will stand up for them when they need it most. The care workers, like many of their neighbours, are not able to financially support those around them, nor provide food or supplies for them on any kind of consistent basis. These care workers are just starting their work in Oshoek and it was really humbling to hear their passion for the work. They are all heart. They soaked up any observations we made, they put into practice the things they were learning and they eagerly leaned in on any teaching opportunity that Levy presented them with. If hearts could feed a community, Oshoek would be feasting.
This is the house that Nicky and her brother built together. It's simple construction - logs and sticks filled with cow manure and mud. It's a beautiful visual of the resiliency of these two children, orphaned at 6 and 8, and their ability to survive and work together to build a life for themselves.
The second home we visited was a family of a brother who was 17, and his two younger sisters. This family was living in dire circumstances in a tin shanty with very little in the way of protection from the elements or anyone who wished to harm them. Oshoek is mountainous and cold. Even while we were there, the winds were chilly and the morning mists enveloped everything with a cold grasp that lasted well into the afternoon when the sun finally founds its strength. This small family was suffering and in a downward spiral. Care workers learned of their needs and although they had no resources to help them physically, they did know a social worker that would help them prepare an application for a RDP (Rural Development Plan) house. These are homes that the government pays to build in an effort to build up rural communities with sufficient housing to replace insufficient. Considering that the shanty these kids lived in is still right next door and also, now inhabited by someone else in dire straits, the home they now have is an amazing upgrade. Their old "home" seemed unfit as a storage shed, nevermind as a dwelling place. The new home is solid. It is made of cement and cinder block with a sturdy tin roof and glass windows. The doors lock and there is a woodburning stove for warmth and for cooking. The kids were proud of their home and even though they did not know we were coming, the house was spotless and well cared for. You could tell they knew how fortunate they had been. It was nice to see the care workers pride as well in having helped this young family move away from the vulnerable place they were in to a house they could now call home and grow and develop in.
The last home of the day was the one that I watched Easton transform in.(more to come on this in a future blog) The home was a simple farm type home with a fence all around. There was a young woman with her two young children, a baby sleeping in the home and a 5 or 6 year old girl. She also was caring for her young nephew, a boy of about 8. Two years ago, Levy had arrived at this home to find this young woman near death, living in the garage of the home. The house does not belong to her, it is a compassionate neighbour that allows them the use of the home. At the time of Levy’s first visit here, the young woman seemed to be on death’s doorstep. She was very ill, unable to get up and of course, unable to care for herself or her very young children and nephew. Levy found that the nephew was cooking and caring for the children while also looking after his aunty, bringing her water and medications that she needed. He was six years old. Six. Who of us would let our six year old be responsible for making a fire, boiling water and cooking on it, even with our best supervision. Imagine this little guy doing it all on his own.
On this visit, this serious little man is the ripe old age of 8. He’s handsome in his ripped shorts, polo shirt and high top shoes with no laces and very little toes left on them. He’s not sure what to make of our group as we arrive but he remembers Levy as Levy begins to talk to him. Levy reminds him that when he last came by, the boy’s aunty was so very sick and ready to die but that the boy was her care giver and he saved her. Levy encourages the boy, telling him that he is the hero of the family story. We all watched as this serious little man became a grinning boy again, sheepishly accepting the praise that Levy was pouring on him. He stood straighter and his face brightened as Levy recounted the boy’s actions in caring for his aunty and his cousins and making sure all that needed to be done around the house was done.
Today, this family is still vulnerable. The house is not their own although the owner has allowed them to stay on while he has left the area for work. The aunty is still sick although she is on medication and feeling good at the moment. There is still too little food and not enough security to know if this family is going to thrive or even just survive, but what we do know, is that there is a small boy sleeping in Oshoek knowing that he contributes to his family’s well being with greater strength than men triple his age or older. That is the hope of Oshoek, that the next generation takes on the role of care giver and provider and gives all that they have to ensure the survival and viability of their own families as well as those around them.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Knowing my own weakness

Around here, we don't like to use the "h" word - "homeschool". We are fully aware of the stigma surrounding certain "h" kids concerning their sense of fashion regarding knee high sport socks and brown loafers, highwaisted pants and pocket protectors. We're not even going to mention the cliche of introverted navel gazing children that can name all the presidents of the United States and their mottos or the solar system in Latin or even worse, the extroverted version that participates in adult conversations with condescending arrogance at his elders apparent lack of intelligence in regards to the gestational period of the guinea fowl. So, when we decided to venture out to Africa, we could well have planned it over the summer break, but what would the fun in that be? And so the questions began about the boys' educational needs and what would it mean to be out of school for so long. Thankfully, we are fortunate to have very supportive teachers (Shout out to Ecole Lakeview!) and a principal who believes that travel is education in itself. Aidan's teacher has given him a lot of leeway in researching and journalling along the way and reporting back to the classroom via a class blog that has been established. How cool is that? So, Aidan has taken on the role of roving reporter and generally is self motivated and has been faithfully journalling and blogging. (We know who he takes after...ahem.) Easton, my dear youngest, was handed a math book the size of an encyclopedia with chapters for him to work on "at his own pace". Now, I love Easton's teacher (Bonjour, Monsieur Martel!) but that was a critical error in instruction. Easton's "own pace" means that he's scribbled two pages of illegible math work into the textbook since we've arrived. I know I'm not the person to analyze mathematical equations with any form of accuracy, but I'm pretty sure that Easton has figured out that his grade five math textbook would be beyond my comprehension even if it were in English - which it's not - it's en Francais. (Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Martel!) Not for the first time, have I wondered the lack of common sense shown by Jason and myself in enrolling our children into a french school knowing full well that our grasp of the language is so rudimentary. Not only have we equipped our boys with a second language with which to plot against us, now we have rendered ourselves useless to tutor our boys in their schoolwork. Ah well, for now, we just coach Easton to make it legible, keep it neat, put in time and effort...all the basics. We've always said we'll save up for therapy instead of college for the boys so at this point, it looks like that may be our best investment return.
In the realm of education, Africa is a great teacher. We don't have to be on top of it all for the boys are learning all sorts of things that don't fall in line with the Saskatoon School Board's accepted curriculum. They're seeing all sorts of examples of biology and entymology all around us in addition to all the various realms of sociological lessons they've been learning in the communities. This weeks' highlight was a science lesson on the "Spitting Cobra". This little guy was creeping around the driveway yesterday when our friend, Bentley, took the shovel and put him to rest. Incredibly beautiful, a dead snake is. This one when startled will rise up, flare out his head and spit venom in your eyes. We were assured that if you stand still upon meeting one and close your eyes, it will back down and scurry off. Remind me that as I run screaming in the opposite direction abandoning my offspring to fend for themselves. I have no delusions about my courage in the face of danger - I've walked between a brown bear and her cub and outran her. There will be no standing and closing my eyes. At best, I won't push my children in said snake's reach while fleeing the scene. Regardless, I have other good qualities. Math and self sacrifice just don't make the top ten. However, I was the reigning leg wrestling champion of Pier One 2012 Inaugural Leg Wrestling Match. I've made myself a sash and tiara and wear it proudly.