Sunday, March 23, 2008


Today is Easter Sunday and usually we are at home with family. If it is a year where we are with Vig family we would be spending the day walking the family dogs down the roads and around the walking paths and man made ponds near my parents home after church and before a mid afternoon Easter lunch. Lunch is preceded by a ‘little lunch’ consisting of cheese, crackers, mixed nuts, potato chips and soda while we prepare the main courses. We eat well and play well, filling our time after our meal with more grazing from the ‘little lunch’ spread while we section off into pinochle teams. A few rounds of Grandpa and Kevin trading victories in a fierce bidding wars we then move on to more games. Loaded Questions, What’s Wild, Phase 10 and more.

Should Easter be in Iowa with the Harty family, our weekends are quite similar. Instead of walking the dog (Loki seems to prefer sporadic sprints from person to person and a foray to the creek behind the house) we spend our time getting lost on the way to church (my fault, though my young cousins could improve their navigator skills a bit!) followed by an afternoon of catching up over wine and cold beer as we prepare for an evening feast. A few games of hearts will break out with frequent and fantastic accusations of games past in which the queen of spades was unfairly dumped on someone the entire weekend. Post dinner entertainment is always provided by our innately talented and always delightful cousins performing a recently created and perhaps once rehearsed stage number. Choreographed to one of the latest top 20 hits and delivered with conviction and star power, Casey Casem would be proud. I look forward to it every time.

This year’s Easter is a tad different. A morning spent over coffee and strawberry pancakes coupled with good books and a plan homemade pizza as our main course for dinner (Safiri chose a freshly caught gecko for his entrĂ©e) take the place of ham, potatoes, lefse, pie, squash buns, bars, cookies and cheese platters. We miss the tastes of home, but enjoy the tastes of Africa. Gone are the chocolate bunnies, green shredded plastic, new sundresses, pressed khakis and pastel decorations. Found are the comforts of hymns from the next door church in the morning, quickly replaced by the subtle yet steady thumping of African house music streaming from multiple locations around the village. School holiday now in full swing, kids are free to continue their sandlot soccer matches in the street from dawn till dusk. Dodging broken glass and rusty chain link/barbed wire fencing in bare feet to chase a homemade plastic bag soccer ball for eight hours a day. Local shops are closed, though our yard is apparently still open for grazing by the neighborhood goats. People are with family and friend and they wave as they pass us on our front porch with our books and special holiday treat, a two liter bottle of 7up. We smile. To us it feels like any other day in South Africa. Villagers did not go to church today because it was a special day, they went because the go every Sunday and more each week. The pastor at the church my family attends back home once referred to the existence of religious submarines; people who surface at church only twice a year on Christmas and Easter but otherwise stay submerged. Those people do not exist here. Our neighbors did not get together with family just for the holiday. People either live with their extended family, see them every weekend, every month or every quarter, whenever jobs and available money allow for leave and/or travel. The same bogobe, merogo and chicken are served as the main meal, only larger portions denote a celebration of holiday. That seems to be the guideline for measuring the importance of events here, proportion. Whether it is Easter Sunday, the funeral we attended for a grade 6 boy on Friday morning, the wedding on the far side of town or monthly pension day sales. Life is pretty much the same, just more of it. Two helpings of bogobe for each at the table, adding the one tie in a wardrobe to the daily frayed, off-white shirt and plaid blazer, polish on the shoes, lipstick, hair extensions, nail polish, glassware replacing plastic, coke and biscuit appetizers, etc. These are not huge changes and difficult to see at first. After eight months here, we are seeing them more clearly and recognizing the significance of small changes. They are not extravagant in price, the way we like to associate positive change with higher cost back home. Instead they are extravagant in the detail of simplicity. People here (at least still in the villages) do not need to impress anyone so much with cost or brand or status, but work to make it known their efforts are to show their family, friends and guests that their presence is important and they value that presence in their lives, a presence they strive to acknowledge every day. Life is short here and people spend it doing what they love with those they love.

It seems that the story of the religious submarines can be extended to include other categories we are often concerned with back home: social submarines, familial, academic, political, activist, environmental, the list goes on. Obviously we cannot shed our submarine tendencies on every issue and every group that we follow or belong to, but there are some that can be given up much more easily than others and some that people sink into without ever knowing that they do it. Spend a few months in a village in rural Africa and it is easy to see what has been just above the surface in life if we only stopped to come up for air once in a while. Makes you want to sell the submarine and buy a sailboat.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Camp Fire

My grandfather once told me a story about when he led my uncle and a group of his friends on a Boy Scout camping trip. This was before the days of GPS, Kevlar canoes, gore-tex jackets, thinsulate boots, Nalgene bottles and Clif bars. These were the good old days of military issue canvas tents, heavy aluminum cots, and green polyester sleeping bags with a red plaid interior stuffed with cotton. Wool was the gore-tex/thinsulate/dry-fit rolled into one. Instead of vacuum sealed space age trail mix in lightweight packs, scouts were toting 60 pound aluminum exterior framed packs filled with canned goods and perhaps a small amount of frozen food to be cooked the first night out from base. No reports were printed out along with a Google Earth shot to help plan ahead for the week. No burning a quick MP3 CD for the ride or charging the IPod for the hike. Simply bid the city goodbye, load up in a yellow school bus towing a trailer, and do not forget the deck of cards.

On this particular trip, the boys were gathered around the fire after using it to cook up their meal in the full set of pots and pans brought along more to add weight to the boy’s packs I think, than as a cooking essential. They talked of their day’s activities as they burned paper plates, napkins, and packaging in their fire pit, causing the occasional purple or green flame to leap up amid the orange before disappearing into a crumple of grey ash. As they sorted, cleaned and packed up their epicurean tools, my grandfather grabbed a can of unopened baked beans and sat down with all the boys around the fire. “What do you think would happen if we tossed this in there?” he mused. I can see my uncle and his friends exchanging sideways glances of smirks and half smiles of fear and intrigue. Receiving a few ‘let’s find out’ and ‘not sure’ responses he casually tossed the can into the flames. Being prepared, as all good scouts are, the boys and my grandfather leapt behind trees and bushes to hide from an impending explosion. It never came. Despite the anxious looks and quick ducking whenever a branch crackled and broke, nothing happened. Everyone finished packing up the makeshift kitchen, faced downwind when using the nearest bush and retired to their heavy canvas tents with their stiff cots. That’s when it happened. A loud explosion erupted from beneath the embers of the dying fire that had everyone sitting up in bed. One piece long johns with only one working button on the backside flap scrambled from tents and fumbled with large flashlights powered by half a dozen size C batteries. To the amazement an amusement of all, the baked beans had not only exploded and nearly put out the entire fire, but flaming hot beans had shot out like shrapnel burning dime sized holes through the heavy canvas tents and nearby foliage. Even sleeping bags inside bore marks where bean had melted into the cotton/polyester blend. Luckily no one was standing next to the fire at the time and everyone could laugh about the story, also understanding not to include this part of the week when relating tales to mothers back home.
I’ve always enjoyed those types of stories from my grandfather and always learn some life lesson from the telling. Those types of trips and others like them taken by my father have always been a fun filled way to guide my life. Perhaps it is what drove me to seek out remote parts of Africa instead of the comforts of Western Europe when traveling. These stories have always come in handy when on the road and the other day I learned what happens when you forget to heed the moral of the story.

Like camping expeditions 30 years ago, here we have no other way to dispose of our trash than to burn it in a large pit we dig in the back yard. Not the most environmentally friendly thing to do with plastic bottles and packaging, but better than strewing it across the lawn and leaving it to the wind. Hopefully someday soon communities will organize more efficient and effective ways of waste management here. Until then it is a box of matches and some dried grass for kindling before the rainbow of colored flames erupt from the components of our trash bags. The other night I was out after dark disposing of the last couple days of accumulated waste. We burn after dark because often times kids like to come put out our fires during the day to see what we are throwing away, wanting to take anything that looks valuable or interesting. It is only trash, but still, I am not excited about people digging through our stuff, even what we are throwing out. With a full moon beginning to rise I did not need to bring a flashlight with me. One match got the bag going and I sat adding a few scraps of old paper to the fire to make sure the entire bag was consumed. A few times I had been standing near the fire when an old milk carton or plastic bottle had popped and sent a few sparks up in the air, so I was now on the lookout for such things. Having tossed in all my extra paper and seen that the plastic had burned up sufficiently I stood back to watch some bright green flames move over a candy wrapper. No sooner had I taken a step back than a huge explosion sent me reeling back twenty yards, covering my face and expunging a few choice words. I whipped back around to look at the fire, feeling my face and body at the same time to make sure nothing was smoldering. I was fine. Jessica came quickly from the front side of the house asking if I was alright, wondering what had just happened. She had been washing dishes at the kitchen sink and came running when she saw the explosion through the window. Assuring her I was fine, we made our way back towards the trash pit to ascertain what had just happened.

A large, flaming mass of melted plastic and paper had been propelled onto a nearby pile of brush which was now growing into a mound of flames. I quickly scraped a thick line around the pile with my sandal to make sure the fire would not spread to the entire yard. We stamped out a couple more pieces of burning debris in the vicinity and then turned our attention to inspecting the blast site. At first we could not think of what could have caused such a big bang. Milk carton? 7up bottle? Glass jar? None of these were the culprit. Then Jess spotted globs of white foam scattered around. “What is that?” she asked and then she said it as I spotted it. “Did you put your shaving cream can to burn in the trash pit?!” Indeed I had. Picking up the charred remains of my Edge shaving cream I noticed the bottom of the can had blown out and what had remained of the shaving cream had been shot out like silly string all over the ground. I began to laugh as my grandfather’s story flooded back into my mind. There were no holes in canvas tents or sleeping bags, only small white spots of shaving gel that looked like remnants of snow in a March thaw on the ground. I tossed the now exploded can back into the fire, knowing the fireworks were over for the night and we made our way back into the house, joking that it was good I still had eyebrows. It was not quite as amusing as deliberately throwing a can of baked beans into the fire, but I could not help but laugh out loud. As I went to bed that night I ran my hands through my hair and the front of my bangs felt crinkly, like I had extra hair gel stuck there. It took me two seconds of wondering to realize that I had not escaped my night completely unscathed. My hair was a bit singed but not gone, or even noticeably different in the mirror the next morning. I smiled as I drifted off to sleep with the inevitable words of my grandfather ringing in my head. “If you play with fire, your gonna…” I know, grandpa, no need to rub it in.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ga-Seleka Home Based Care

With the New Year, came changes in my work life---all for the better. As many of you know, I have been struggling to find my way in an NGO facing internal struggles. Ga Seleka Home Based Community Care is currently being housed out of the local clinic’s garage. Amidst filing cases and one table, I spent most of my first three months working on improving my Setswana and trying to find a place where I could make a contribution. Peace Corps had pegged those months from observation; a time to determine areas we could work on within our NGO’s and the community at large.

The NGO oversees two parts; a team of 27 home based health care workers visit ill patients in Seleka, and thirteen surrounding villages, known here as “Seleka Trusts”. As we have an in-resident chief in the village, he is responsible for all of these villages. The second part of the NGO, a drop in center, is located not five minutes from the clinic. Here, we serve about 115 orphans and vulnerable children. They receive two meals per day, one in the morning before breakfast, and one in the afternoon before heading home for the evening. These meals are sustaining children that may be going home to grannies caring for five others. Or, maybe they at the young age of 15 are watching over siblings, making sure they do their homework, wash their clothes, and have a bed to sleep in at night. Either way, the nourishment and care these children receive from the drop in center is essential in their daily lives. A group of ten female carers work here, cooking, washing clothes, bathing young children, and organizing activities. Paul and I have been truly honored to become a part of their lives.

After Christmas break, we worked out a schedule where I would be at the drop in center 2-3 days a week, and the other days I would be helping out at the schools. Paul is currently spending one full day at the drop in center and many afternoons. One of the activities we have taken on is a Tuesday afternoon ‘Life Skills’ lesson. Working with Sello, a young man from a national organization called Love Life, we have now covered teenage pregnancy, nutrition, and puberty with the children. Normally, our days start with working with two carers and Sello, determining what information will be covered in our presentations and who will present what. I have come to look forward to these times as a time and place where the carers feel comfortable asking us health questions. Some issues that we consider common place, as we’re learned them in school, from family, church groups, etc. are not understood here. In our first presentation, one of the carers turned to us and asked “Boipelo, what is menopause?” Paul and I silently exchanged a glance realizing that she, an educated woman in her early 40’s, had never been taught what menopause is.

These days are not just an opportunity for us to teach. It is also an opportunity to be learners. During our nutrition lesson, we were discussing why it is important not to eat too many sweets. I mentioned that eating too many sweets, dizimba (a version of Cheetos here), and cold drink could make you feel sick, cause weight gain, rot your teeth……one of the carers interrupted me and said, “but Boipelo, here we want to become fat.” Of course, I had forgotten that in Tswana culture it is a sign of beauty for a woman to be round. She is then considered healthy, and well cared for by her husband. We quickly changed our tune, asking the carers if they knew about obesity. Yes, and decided that no, they indeed did not want to be obese. They later conveyed this message to the children by emphasizing that by becoming obese, you would be as big as a balloon; not being able to walk or even get out of a chair. This generated giggles from the children, and a realization by Boipelo and Thato that they had just received another lesson in Tswana culture.

At the schools, Paul and I spent one week working on a photo fundraiser. Between both Seleka Higher Primary School (grades 5-7) and Baphoting Lower Primary School (grades R-4) we took 452 photos. These photos look nothing like a school photo in the US. Children here are taught a different definition of what’s ‘cool’, and a photo is a prime time to show that they’ve learned their lesson well. Most of the boys wanted to cross their arms, definitely not smile, perhaps flex their well tone muscles, and certainly not stand up straight. Girls would prefer to wear sunglasses, again no smiles, with hips thrust out, generating laughs from all their classmates still in line waiting their turn.

Photos here are special. A family may have one small album containing every photo they’ve had taken in their lives. The day of handing out the photos was worth ever ounce of work that had gone into the fundraiser. From grade R, all the way up to the 7th graders, we could hear their squeals, laughter, and running from room to room to show friends. We were thrilled that out of the fundraiser, Baphoting made R1700 (around $250.00) and Seleka made R600 (almost $100.00). Baphoting will be putting the money towards purchasing their own digital camera, so that when we leave they will be able to continue an annual photo fundraiser. Seleka’s money is going toward buckets to help with their school lunch program. Who knew that our digital camera, a gift from dear friends and family, could be a tool to bring such joy to our community? Without even knowing it, you all have added a special photo to the family photo album of the majority of Seleka children. Thank you!


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