a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Monday, December 7, 2009

music, art, and sustainable work

When does a new culture start to feel normal? We drive on the left side of the road and I'm used to getting into the left side as a passenger. I know which side we need to be on, I don't get confused, but it doesn't feel normal. I can pay in Rand but I still don't know just how much I'm paying. I don't right away know if I'm getting a good deal or not, I have to convert to dollars. I know that 40 degrees Celsius is stinkin' hot but other than that I need to convert to Fahrenheit in order to know what the temperature is. I still can't estimate quickly how long it will take to go a certain number of kilometers. Anywhere there are other people, we will hear a number of foreign languages or English with any number of foreign accents being spoken and I often cannot understand anything that's said at all.

Everything is still very foreign. Although we are aware of what to expect, it is all still foreign. And both Stephen and I are weary of foreign. We long for familiar. Even when we go out exploring on the weekend, though we generally stay in comfortable places and eat out, it's not familiar. I feel like a gypsy.

Stephen and I are working very hard to understand this culture. But what we are finding is that there really is not just one culture to which we must assimilate. South Africa encompasses several cultures in fact. After all, there are 11 official language recognized by the government. And the history of how these cultures have interacted in this country informs on the current relations and practices Stephen and I are experiencing today. And that may be the most challenging aspect of our experience here. We both have read South African history from numerous sources, so we knew before coming here that we would encounter exactly what we have, but that doesn't necessarily make the challenges easier to negotiate. One thing we know for sure is that we are glad we have each other for support. Stephen and I both want our work to be meaningful here. We want what we spend our time on to be sustainable. But knowing just exactly what that looks like will take some time.

A few years ago, with the dream of Africa in our minds, Stephen and I read Nine Hills to Nombonkaha by Sarah Erdman which chronicles the two years she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). One of the things that I took away from that book was that only near the end of her two-year service did she truly discover a useful contribution to the village in which she was stationed. I believe it takes a fair amount of listening and observing before the true needs of a community reveal themselves. That doesn't mean I'm not going to be working the whole two years, but it does mean that I can expect to modify my goals and activities along the way. It would be foolish, even arrogant for me to just decide in abstraction to do something at this moment and bullishly pursue that goal for the next two years. Currently I find myself flooded with information that could very well indicate the need for a tremendous amount of work. Certainly not something achieved in one or two years time. If our stay here is only the two years we committed to and not more, how can I make the most of my time? Where do I channel my energies? How will I use the limited resources available to me most effectively? And once I figure that out how will I be able to convey my goals to others who may not share them or understand them?

I am wrestling with those questions now. And I am also trying to negotiate the limitations of my Lupus condition. In June of this year I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). SLE is an autoimmune disease that is treatable but at this time not curable. My case is not a severe one (in as far as my organs have not been damaged) and my main symptoms are pain from inflammation in my joints and muscles, and fatigue. I am currently in what is known as a "flare" which I have been in since about January of this year. Since June I have been getting better, having less pain, able to get better quality sleep, but I am not in "remission" yet. As I have only known my diagnosis for about 6 months I don't yet know the nature of the disease for me, and it is something I have to figure out for myself because Lupus patients vary widely. What does seem to affect me quite definitively is stress. Everyone who has moved or started a new job knows the stress of transition. Though I have moved many times, this move has definitely been the most dramatic. And not without stress. At times, it does seem as though I'm heading into remission, but there have been many days recently where I feel most certainly smack dab in the middle of a flare. So as much as my heart and mind would love to dive into work here, my body is telling me I have to pace myself or even reevaluate the direction I'm going. I am so thankful that we brought my new digital piano with us. On the days that I've practiced, I can tell a decrease in pain and better sleep. And the same is true for the day I took out my painting supplies and started working on a couple of canvases. Art renews me, I know that more than ever now that I am living with Lupus. Maybe this, more than anything else, will determine what I do in South Africa.

This weekend Stephen and I spent back in the peaceful Drakensberg Mountains again. I made reservations in a different location where we stayed in a chalet that felt right up in the mountains. From our huge picture windows we could look out and only see the mountains, numerous birds, and even a wild hare. In the morning, we took an hour hike up the path from the camp, stopping at the end of the paved section. Along the way, I especially noticed the unique flora next to the path. There were many different beautiful small colorful wild flowers. The mountains themselves are covered in grasses not trees and we learned that the reason for this ecology is that many years ago the practice of burning the grasses was done by the San people to attract wildlife with the intensive spring regrowth.

The impetus of this trip to the "Berg" so soon after the last one was the Drakensberg Boys' Choir Music Festival. On Friday night we listened to the world renowned Drakenberg Boys' Choir perform Christmas music in many languages and styles and on Saturday we attended the Soweto String Quartet Concert. The choir concert brought back fond memories of my time as a member of the Whitworth Choir. I enjoyed the vocal harmonies. Stephen especially enjoyed the traditional South African music of the Soweto String Quartet. It was a musical weekend.

On the 3+ hour drive home we stopped to give a ride to a young woman and her baby. Once we stopped another woman appeared from somewhere wanting a ride as well. Hitch-hiking is a way of life for many South Africans. They signal the need for a ride by pointing their first finger at the road; they do not stick out their thumb the way American hitchhikers do. The higher their arm is in the air, the longer the distance they need to go. People travel long distances for work in this country, staying in the town or village during the week, then traveling the long distance back home again each weekend. I was glad we could offer the two women a ride. Stephen and I have resources (a car) because we each were born into a middle class American family. We feel compelled to share these resources whenever possible, knowing that it is more the history of injustices than anything else that we are the ones with the resources and not these South African women hitchhiking on the side of the road.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

picture safari in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi

South Africa is a beautiful country brimming with magnificent wildlife! Over the weekend, Stephen and I took a picture safari through the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park, driving our own car. We spotted all of the "Big Five" animals (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino) except the leopard. The best time to catch a glimpse of one of the numerous leopards in the park is at the 5am opening time. Stephen and I chose instead to sleep in this time. Hopefully on another excursion, we will stay closer or even in the park and get up early enough to finally see a leopard. :) Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is world renowned for its "Operation Rhino" that saved the "white rhino" from extinction. And we saw many rhinos up close throughout the day. The big cats are generally what people are most keen to see, and several other visitors took the time to stop and tell us where cats were that day in the park. The first lion we saw was lying next to the dead giraffe it had just made a meal of. Its back was to us so we couldn't see its face but just the idea that we were a car's length away from a wild lion was pretty thrilling. Then later in the day we saw six lions lying under a tree quite a distance from us. We could see their outlines and the occasional swish of the tail. Sadly the zoom on our camera is not that powerful and we forgot our binoculars at home!
So we saw some lions, but I generally get more excited about giraffes or elephants or even warthogs! :) We got some great warthog pictures. :) The elephants are more elusive in Hluluwe-iMfolozi than they were in the parks in Tanzania. But they also seemed much bigger. On our way toward the lion pride, we were following two other cars when suddenly both were driving in reverse. Up ahead a huge elephant was in the road walking toward us. One of the rules I read as we entered the park was to give the elephants plenty of space and there was an illustration of an elephant pushing over a vehicle! :) So we were all backing up, out of his way. Once he was satisfied we were far enough back from the path he wanted to take, the elephant turned and walked away from us. We were to the left side of a fork in the road while a car with a trailer was to the right. The shortcut the elephant took put him on that right hand road and he apparently didn't like how close the car and trailer were to him because he walked toward them until they too backed up sufficiently. He then turned around and walked down the road.

It's still springtime here so we saw lots of babies: baby giraffe, baby zebra, baby warthogs, baby impalas. We actually saw a little giraffe family: mama, daddy, and baby. The dad seemed to purposely draw our attention away from the baby because as we sat taking pictures, he walked right into the road in front of our car. And then when he started walking down the road, in the opposite direction of the baby, we followed. It was an effective strategy.

We stayed two nights in a comfortable guest house/bed and breakfast near the park. King size bed with soft sheets, air conditioning, hot shower with lots of water pressure, and a tasty breakfast each morning. Luxury. On Sunday we took a boat tour at St. Lucia, seeing hippos, crocodiles, and numerous birds. It was a most pleasant weekend excursion!

We are slowly getting used to the different terminology here.We don't standing in a "line" here we stand in the "queue". You can "forward" your calls to another number but it's called "diverting". If you need to put something in the "trunk" of your car you open the "boot" and to look at the engine you open the "bonnet". The hot water heater is a "geyser". Restrooms are "toilets". At Wimpy Burgers you get "chips" with a meal not "french fries". If you want water at any restaurant you order either "tap" "still" or "sparkling". Ordering "ice water" will just get you looks of confusion. "You want just ice in a glass???"

And there are definitely different rules of the road. One has to constantly watch out for goats, cows, donkeys and people walking on both sides of the road, something I'm not used to and not sure if I ever will be. Where driving in the US used to be something I could do on autopilot, now I have to be on high alert. Even as a passenger I feel compelled to stay alert, while Stephen drives, to help avoid accidents. There is a driving courtesy in South Africa that I've noticed. In the states, for the most part, it is the passing car's responsibility to get around a slower moving vehicle. On the roads here, however, the slow car watches for those who want or need to pass and take to the shoulder, allowing better sight and more space for the passing car to get around quickly. An informal rule of the road is speedy cars have the right of way. Even cars coming in the opposite direction will take to shoulder driving so that passing cars have the space they need. For the passing car it is customary to thank the vehicle that just allowed you to pass by turning on your caution lights briefly. The car horn is used more to be helpful here where as in the states we tend to use our horn to reprimand drivers who have made things unsafe, or simply to express anger and annoyance. On Sunday a car was driving in reverse from the on ramp back on to the freeway. In accordance with informal South African practices and not US practices, Stephen simply swerved around this car instead of laying on the horn at the danger it was causing.

On Friday of last week, I visited the mission school again, observed in grade 2, spoke with the principal, said hello to some of the teachers I had met before, and collected some materials for planning. The principal was very welcoming and said that they are always desperate for teachers, it's so difficult to get teachers and then to keep them. When I told her that Stephen and I plan to be here for two years she said, "That's wonderful. An answer to prayer."

At work Stephen is helping to build a program. He is creating organization charts, planning to put systems in place, and managing the nine research staff. Yesterday, with the one of the team having left for the rest of the year, Stephen was called to troubleshoot a computer problem for the pharmacy drug dispensing program at the hospital. Both Friday and Monday he moved transmitter receivers for better signal and hopefully more reliable internet. And every week he participates in six conference calls to the states.
Life is starting to have a rhythm. During the week Stephen and I are adjusting to living and working in rural Tugela Ferry while on the weekends we explore and enjoy the plentiful natural riches of South Africa. Though technically we are residents of Tugela Ferry, nearly every weekend we get to act like tourists on holiday. And for the moment, this routine makes all that we are adjusting to more manageable.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Three Weeks and Counting

Ah, a lovely weekend in the Drakensberg Mountains! The locals call it the "Berg" but I prefer to use its full name. :) It's such an amazing place! So peaceful and calm, a perfect retreat for Stephen and me. We went shopping at KwaZulu Weavers and bought a beautiful wool area rug for our living room. The woman who helped us always remembers Stephen. We ate lunch at The Waffle Hut, in the same building as KwaZulu Weavers, and it was the best food and coffee I've had in three weeks! They know how to make a really good latte at the Waffle Hut. Across from KwaZulu Weavers there is a new Garden Centre at which we bought some great succulents. Stephen thought a miniature pole fence would look nice as a border for the succulent bed so we purchased one of those too. We are slowly planning our yard and today I planted our little succulent bed next to the park home. After the KwaZulu Weavers stop, we drove toward our backpackers' lodge and on the way discovered another shopping area. I love wire molded bead work and we met an artisan from Zimbabwe who had a little shop there. Really beautiful work. We bought a large rhino! Of course!

At the Inkosana Lodge, we stayed over night in a little rondavel right in the middle of the Drakensberg Mountains. It is our favorite little place that we stayed at in February of this year. From our door we can see the mountains all around. In the morning we sat in chairs outside, read, journaled, enjoying the sun and sounds of nature. Though a short getaway, it was exactly what we needed. This past week was especially trying for both of us. Maybe now we are experiencing the true W-curve and what I described before was merely jet-lag.

Last weekend we were without a car, it was supposed to be ready Friday but wasn't, so we spent the whole weekend in Tugela Ferry. We walked to the few shops in town and purchased a rake and a hoe for my garden tools. All along the sidewalks women were selling their produce: tomatoes, corn, onions, sweet potatoes. Both women and men were selling shoes and clothes. Everything was laid out on the ground: no racks or tables on which to display their wares. In the afternoon we went out to lunch at a restaurant called "Agape". The sign advertises "coffee break" but again there was no coffee. We each ordered a plate of chicken and rice and it was tasty. From Agape we walked down to the Community Gardens. This land is tribal land and the gardens are shared by the community. Different individuals or groups plant and tend to the crops in the gardens. It's all fenced to keep the goats and cows out so for Stephen and me it makes for a pleasant walk. Our friends, who told us about the gardens, walk or take a morning run there also.

On Sunday we attended a Zulu church up in the mountains. The music is call and response for the most part here and women generally lead. There were some young women leading the church music that day. The pastor is an Afrikaans man who gives his sermon in English while a teacher from the mission school translates into Zulu in between phrases or sentences. But the lay pastor, who read from the Bible before the sermon, read and spoke in Zulu, so a woman translated that into English for us. Stephen and I were introduced and asked to speak. Stephen explained that we are here working with the hospital and the care centre. I simply asked for their help in learning the Zulu language. A few from the crowd said, "Yebo." "Yes."

Both Stephen and I feel such a sense of urgency in learning enough Zulu to communicate a little. English will not get you very far in the community here. When I visited the mission school, the school children, 7th graders, spoke to each other in Zulu. And even when they spoke English with the teacher, it was quite broken. I feel my effectiveness as a teacher here, as a teacher of English in this rural area, depends heavily on my proficiency in Zulu. Stephen has hopes of building into this community, having Zulu friends, so understanding and speaking the language seems a prerequisite to that. We plan to start taking lessons soon.

Over the weekend, I told several people from the Mission school that I would be there on Wednesday to observe and work in the library again. The woman who translated for us during church is a 2nd grade teacher at the school and I asked her if I could come to her class on Wednesday. Now that the older grades are writing exams, I can only observe in the younger grades, which is where I will have the most fun anyway. One of the teachers, the one who introduced me to the rest of the staff, has suggested that I become the librarian for school: organize the library and eventually start teaching classes there. Her vision is for someone to inspire a love for books in the students, so as to improve their English, and thereby enable them to perform well on the exams, all administered in English. So my plan was to go on Wednesday and see how I felt about things after that. However, things didn't quite go to plan.

Our car was supposed to be done on Tuesday so we could pick it up and drive to PMB to do the grocery shopping we were unable to do on the weekend. But the car wasn't done until Wednesday. So Stephen and I caught a ride into Greytown with one of the research study coordinators, picked up our car and proceeded to the bank to open a savings account. The first time Stephen went to open an account they told him it couldn't be done. But other Americans have been able to open accounts in South Africa. After a little asking around, Stephen was assured it could be done, he just needed the proper documentation, letters signed by the director here explaining his work and providing proof of residence. So we sat in a long queue in Greytown with the required documentation. After about an hour, we were at the window and the woman helping us said that our file would be held in Pietermaritzburg. To which Stephen asked if we shouldn't just take it with us to PMB since that's where we were going that afternoon. It seemed like maybe a more efficient way to do things. So we left the Greytown bank, still without an open account, and drove to PMB.

Incidentally, on the drive to PMB we saw a lizard, at least three feet long, slowly crossing the road! That would have been a great picture! But we were driving too fast and I didn't have my camera at the ready. Darn!

The bank in PMB is in the mall and in order to get in you first go through one glass door, it locks behind you, and then you go through the next glass door. The queue at this bank was much shorter and we were with a banker fairly quickly. However she was frowning from the start and said, "We've had problems with this before. I'll double check for you, but I'm fairly certain you cannot open an account." So she got on the phone with presumably her supervisor. From what we could gather, although we had the right documentation, it wasn't on one page. It was on three and that just wouldn't work. It all had to be on one. We sat at her desk for maybe 10 minutes while she seemed to give every excuse possible to the person she was talking to, who oddly enough seemed more inclined to let us open an account, when Stephen became exasperated and said, "It's a shame. There is a terrible TB epidemic in this country. Americans come here to do research, to try to help. It's just a shame." And we got up and walked out, our useless documentation in hand.

Another thing scheduled for Tuesday was the installation of a washing machine, in another park home, for me to use. This did not happen either. Nor did it happen on Wednesday. I have been washing clothes by hand for the three weeks we've been in South Africa. And to complicate things, it rained all last week. So nothing was drying. I had only so much space to hang things on our two drying racks instead of being able to use the fence outside. Wednesday morning it was grey but windy and I thought I could venture to put some clothes on the line, thinking that they would dry faster outside in the wind. But it rained in the evening and by the time we got home from PMB on Wednesday night, they were completely soaked. Even the clothes inside did not dry during the day, because of the humidity in the air, and poor Stephen had to wear damp clothes to work on Thursday.

On Thursday morning, Halleluia, my washing machine was hooked up. But still, the weather was cold and rainy. I could wash all the clothes I wanted but there was no place to dry them. :( Stephen bought us a little space heater on Wednesday in PMB, (We were freezing in the night, even with two quilts on the bed!), so I used that to speed up the drying process, slightly. Our leaking toilet was never attended to by a plumber so I spread out the puddy that was already there and that seemed to seal the leak. Stephen rewired the ceiling fan in our extra room himself so that it was functional rather than wait for the maintenance man again. We are discovering that we need to use our ingenuity here in South Africa.

Also during the week a bit of additional drama developed around the situation with the girl whom I've hired to clean for me. On that Tuesday, the first day she worked for me, she brought her "sister" along with her. The "sister" spoke fairly good English so I asked her several questions. Then I went inside leaving both of them outside. Soon this "sister" came to my door and said, "Can I come in and sit down? It's cold outside." All the while the girl I hired is outside washing my shoes. I think if it had been me, I would have felt more comfortable staying outside talking to my sister than talking to a complete stranger. There was just something about the "sister's" presumption and familiarity with me that set me on guard. I was relieved when the following Monday the girl I have given a job to came by herself. Then later in the week three women walk by the park homes and into my gate. I recognize one and when she asks me if I remember her and when tells me her name I remember: she is the "sister". She asks whether the girl had come on Monday and whether I had any problems. When I say no, she says, "This girl, she is not a good person. I will just say...she steals. So what are you going to do about her? Can you give my neighbor here (standing beside her) a job? She is poor. She is seven months pregnant and she doesn't know what she is going to do about the baby." Well! This time I do not hesitate, I know how to answer. "No, I don't have any more jobs." If anyone is a thief, I'm more inclined to believe it is this "sister" rather than the one she's trying to burn. "So you aren't her sister then?" "No, she's just a person." "And your last name isn't S----?" "No, it's T----." She leaves me her contact number just in case I have friends who might need someone to clean for them, and I write it down, to play along. I want nothing more to do with this girl. But she has put doubts in my mind. I know I cannot trust her but I don't know really any more about the girl I hired. I have only my intuition to guide me. Although it's pretty reliable, I decide that it would be a good idea to ask my friend, who speaks Zulu, to come by next Monday to ask some questions for me.

Over the weekend I begin to think that my altruistic behavior may not be the wisest thing at this point in time and maybe it would be better if I just told this girl I don't need anyone to clean for me any more. On Monday, when she arrives she tells me in broken English that her mother has died and the funeral was on Saturday. My Zulu speaking friend confirms this and that was the reason she was late in arriving for work. The funeral was in a town far from here and she was just coming back from there. She tells me she is now alone in the world, no mother, no father, no grandmother. I don't tell her I don't need anyone to clean for me and when she says, "See you Monday." I say, "See you Monday."

It was a rough week. But the Drakensberg Mountains helped a great deal and both Stephen and I feel recharged, if only part way. We are already planning next weekend. Maybe the coast, or a game park.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A different life

It is Tuesday and we are having a cool day. A welcome reprieve from the hot temperatures of the weekend. On Sunday afternoon the temperature was 40C (104F) in Pietermaritzburg (PMB for short) and although the outside temperature was 36C when we drove back into Tugela Ferry, the thermometer in our park home (having been shut up all day) read 40C as well! Today it is only 22C (70F) and I think I might need a jacket. :)

So driving on the other side of the car and other side of the road wasn't too bad. The narrow windy road just out of Tugela Ferry is about a 60kph (37mph) road on average though. A couple of the curves have suggested speed of 20kph (12mph)! There were goats and cattle in the road to swerve around and people to watch out for on both sides. It's nice to have the automatic transmission, which we just lucked out in getting; most vehicles here are manual. Evidence of the huge rain and hail storm from Friday night (causing our power to go off briefly twice) was in the lake nearly covering the only road through town on Saturday morning and the numerous piles of dirt and rocks washed from the hillside into the roadway.

On the drive to PMB, we stopped at a "Tea Room" just a few kilometers on the other side of Greytown because it sounded so inviting. But the only coffee was instant with "fresh milk" and I don't think there was any tea at all. Just one example of how terms do not have the same meaning here as they do in the states (or even Europe for that matter)! :)

We actually did back to back trips to PMB (too many hours in the car!) and Sunday was the first time we've driven into Tugela Ferry in the light of day! And it's quite a view. We climb down a fair bit to this village where we live.

That evening, I was looking out my kitchen window when I heard some goats bleating (is that the sound goats make?) and as I watched them, a black one was repeatedly butting a brown & white one. It seemed like the black one was trying to get the brown & white one up off the ground but something was preventing that from happening. I wondered if the brown & white one was sick or hurt so I told Stephen we should go take a look. When we walked out there we saw that the brown & white goat was caught by her horns in the wire fence. She must have tried to get through but when only her head fit she pulled back catching her horns on the wire. Stephen and I stretched the wire fence over her horns and freed her. We saved a goat! And she had quite a big belly too so we saved more than one!

Well, we didn't find the right compost bin over the weekend but I needed to do something about the bowlful of kitchen "refuse" (garbage) under my sink! My new "Gardening in South Africa Throughout the Year" book recommends putting rough organic material right in the soil for "clayey" soil which is definitely what we have. So that's what I did Monday morning. And this morning I planted tomato seeds into trays. So I've already begun working on my vegetable garden! Thrilling! And good exercise too. Great for "the core"! And no gym or personal trainer needed! Ha.

Today is also the day I told the young woman (who asked me for a job cleaning last week) to come back. Stephen and I talked about it and we both asked our new friends here what they thought, but I still hadn't totally decided what I was going to do. Since I asked her to return, we decided I should pay her something, even if only for transport (who knows how long of a walk it was for her) but I also had a task ready: mud-caked shoes to scrub. I thought I could at least have her do that, pay her a full day's wage, and it would be just a one time thing. But when she arrived, intuition told me that giving her a regular job cleaning for me would be a good thing to do. She brought her sister along, who spoke English well, I imagine to translate for her. So I'm going to have this girl come by once a week to clean the floors and the bathroom. Maybe we will be able to practice our language skills on each other; I'll work on Zulu and she can work on English.

Tomorrow I am going to visit the private school here. One of the teachers, whom I spoke with last night at a birthday party/dinner with Stephen's colleagues, is coming to "fetch" me in the morning. She will introduce me to the principal and hopefully I will observe in some of the classrooms. The school year is almost over; next week the high school students start "writing their exams" for the end of the year, and the following week grades 3-8 start their exams. December 10th is the last day of school and then they go on "holiday", summer break, until 20 January 2010 (that's how they write the date here).

Today Stephen went into Greytown for the TB clinic. Yesterday patients came to the hospital here in Tugela Ferry to have tests run. And today those patients and the research team all went to Greytown for clinic. Stephen mostly observed this time and looked on as many patients consulted with the four doctors. Most of the patients were young men and women and about 90% of them are infected with HIV/AIDS on top of the multi-resistant (MDR) TB. So they have a life-long disease (HIV/AIDS) for which they must take multiple drugs that cause multiple side effects. Then in addition to that they have a difficult-to-cure type of tuberculosis, more drugs and more side effects. One of the common side effects is hearing loss. Stephen saw a chest x-ray where the TB had eaten holes out of the lungs. With treatment the holes will close and become healthy again. He also saw lymph node scars on a patient's neck. The lymph nodes become infected and cause sores that ooze. Treatment helps those sores to heal but the scars remain. Stephen said he didn't see the doctors take a break all day from 10am to 4:30pm. Some of the patients are part of the research study but many are not. The doctors and research staff provide care to them all. After clinic was over for the day, the nurses of the hospital in Greytown provided tea, quiche, and cake for the Tugela Ferry staff. English teatime, a tradition left over from colonial rule.

We are living a different life here already. Saving goats from wire fences, driving 3 1/2 hours (round trip) for groceries, hiring someone to clean our house more to provide a job for that person than because we need the service, witnessing profound disease.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The W-Curve: Cultural Immersion

When I was earning my Master in Teaching, I decided to spend “Jan-term” (one course for the whole month of January) on a study tour in Thailand. In preparation for the trip, our professor took us through some cultural immersion training. There were two pieces from that training that have stayed with me. The first was that there are skills to negotiating a new culture and two crucial skills on the list are “to understand your own culture” and “to know your own limitations”. The second piece I remember from this training was a pattern that people go through whenever they experience a new culture, whether it be as obvious as Zulu language and traditions or the structure and practices (i.e. culture) of a new job. Our professor named this pattern the “W-curve”. The “W-curve” begins when you first enter a new culture. You are excited and energized. The language you don’t understand, the strange sights, sounds, and smells all seem interesting and just part of the adventure you set out to experience. But soon things start to feel less adventurous and more annoying, strange, even uncomfortable. You are no longer amused by the sound of the language but frustrated that you can’t understand it. The different smells just stink. And you long for something familiar like your favorite music and a good cup of coffee! This is the first slope of the W. And it is the danger zone. Some people never start the upslope and become so miserable they simple can’t stand it any longer, “fall off the W-curve”, and go home. But if you survive the first slope and stay in the country, slowly your frustrations become less and aspects of the new culture start feeling more normal. You start to understand some of the language and can communicate with the locals. The layout of the grocery store starts to make sense. The uniqueness of the new culture is interesting to you once again. This stage is the up slope of the W. And that is where you stay, more or less, until you return home. The second half of the W is what you experience upon reentering your own culture. The new culture is now the familiar one and you go through a similar process to adjust back to your old culture again.

Before my trip to Thailand and my first trip to Africa, I was worried I might fall off the W-curve. Thailand was difficult at first but I worked hard and ended up loving it. Tanzania was easier but I did feel myself going through the W-curve. I didn’t even think about the W-Curve this trip (move!) to South Africa. At least not until I started feeling myself sliding down the W! A little Maria Callas and a strong whole milk latte please! :)

We are meeting lots of people this week. And I’m feeling my limitations as an introvert. Trees are being planted around our home (all by hand, mind you, with shovels and pickaxes) so there are men working in our yard nearly all day. Monday we toured the Philanjalo Care Centre and Church of Scotland Hospital grounds meeting people everywhere we went. Too many names to remember even if they were familiar. But they are not, they are Zulu or Afrikaans. There is very little schema in my brain to attach these new names to. Not like a John or Donna or Joe or Audra or Stephen or Sabrina. All names to which I have memories and stories attached. We met a Mseni and a Sma, an Elzeth and a Philelani. Stephen wrote the names down, asking for the spellings. And there has been lots of hand shaking. Zulus shake your hand three times: first is like how any business professional would shake hands in America, the second is a twist of the fingers up, pivoting at the thumb not quite closing the fingers, and then the third is back to the first way again. I shook so many hands this way that when I met an American, I nearly shook her hand that way too.

Monday night we ate dinner with two other couples. Tuesday afternoon the founder of the Philanjalo Care Centre and his wife visited us in our new home. Tuesday night we attended a small group. Thursday we were invited to another dinner at which there would have been a mix of new acquaintances and more strangers to meet (the dinner has been postponed for next week - Phew!).

I was feeling overwhelmed by this flurry of interpersonal activity. But thanks to my professor and his cultural training, I know that I need to acknowledge my introverted nature and give myself some time alone to recharge. Which is exactly what I’ve done the past two days. Stephen set up my digital piano the other night, (Yes, we brought it on the plane with us in a hard music case!) and I played for hours that night and the following morning. And today I feel more balanced. The morning is absolutely beautiful. It’s spring time in South Africa and the air carries the smell of warm soil on it. I can stand in front of my kitchen window and feel the cool breeze as I look across the Care Centre rooftops to the Acacia tree covered rocky hill. Mornings in Tugela Ferry are definitely worth getting up for! By 5:00am it’s perfectly light.

Stephen has been in meetings this week. It’s a dynamic time in Tugela Ferry and he is excited to be part of the improvements in clinical care and research. This morning he left early to observe the capture of a sputum sample from a pediatric patient. As his position was newly created for him, the list of his roles and responsibilities are quite general, with the details to be worked out over time. Like most people here, he will be enlisted for any number of tasks outside his job description. But so far he understands his job to be one of organization, gap minding, quality assurance, personnel management. Nearly all of the staff he will manage are Zulu, some have degrees, some do not. But all have the opportunity for on-the-job training and advancement. In this sense Stephen will contribute to “Capacity Building” in Tugela Ferry and even the country of South Africa as many employees are from other areas. They live here during the week and travel home on some weekends.

So one week in Tugela Ferry, South Africa. While we certainly have many comforts - hot showers (now) and plenty of water in general, air conditioners, stove/oven, refrigerator/freezer (with the smart design of the freezer on the bottom), internet and cell phones...we have also experienced “African time”. The leaking toilet has yet to be fixed though the plumber looked at it on Monday. Both the front and back cement steps were scheduled to be broken down and rebuilt as they were too high, preventing the doors from opening properly; one was done the other has not been touched. But my biggest frustration is the internet, or more accurately lack of internet. I mentioned this to an Afrikaans woman the other night as she drove me home from small group. She’s been here for 21 years and her response to me was, “When I first came here we would go for a whole week without either water or electricity and sometimes both.”

Most of our interaction with people here so far has been through the organizations Stephen is working with. But we each have had brief interactions with residents of Tugela Ferry, total strangers.

At the post office the other day, Stephen stepped into the line where he could register our car (the post office handles many more duties than just sending and receiving mail here) and an apparently drunk man looked at Stephen and looked at the "queue" of old women, one in a wheelchair, waiting in another queue where they could receive their pension checks and proceeded to yell, “Whites only line!?” It might seem as if there was a special line and Stephen (though half Japanese) does nevertheless look white. Though a misunderstanding in this case, with Apartheid ending in 1994, unfair treatment of black people is all too recent.

My own interaction was far more pleasant. This afternoon I was sitting on our back steps scrubbing caked on mud off of Stephen’s shoes, when a young woman walked up to me and said something that I couldn’t understand. I think she was talking in a mix of Zulu and English because I caught the words “job” and “cleaning”. She pointed to my scrub brush, having noticed me scrubbing, so I think she was hoping she could get a job cleaning for me. I really did not know what to do or say. I don’t need to hire anyone to clean for me (if I can’t keep 400sqft clean I’m in trouble!) but maybe it would be a good thing for me to employ her. I don’t know. So I bought myself some time and asked her to come back Tuesday next week. By then I can talk with Stephen and our new friends through the hospital and Care Centre to get some input on what they think is best. Those who have lived here for a few years will know common practice at least: whether I should give her a job, what I should pay her.

This weekend we are driving the 1hr 45 minutes to Pietermaritzburg and to do more shopping. Rugs for the floors – we have some carpeting but it’s harder than the laminate, a wash tub – I’ve been promised a washing machine but it has not yet been installed so I’ll need to wash some clothes by hand, a variety of cleaning supplies and tools – with no screens on the windows and plenty of loose soil, cleaning is a full-time job! And a compost bin – for my garden. I’ll be driving, my first time driving on the "wrong" side of the road and the "wrong" side of the car!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

First days in Africa

We are here: in South Africa! Having only been in this country (halfway around the world from our former home) a few days, what we mostly feel is jetlag. But thankfully our travel from the states was smooth and without incident: no lost luggage (all nine pieces of it), no flight delays, no misunderstandings at customs. Quite remarkable actually; I’ve heard far worse from those traveling just state to state! My sister Audra and her husband Joe, who kindly let us live with them for the week between moving out of our apartment and flying to our new home in South Africa, dropped us off at the Portland airport at 4:30am. From Portland we flew to Atlanta, Georgia where we boarded our 15 hour direct flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. When Stephen and I have flown to Africa in the past, we first flew to Amsterdam or London or Paris and then down to Tanzania or South Africa. So I wasn’t sure how such a long flight would be. But to my relief and surprise, it was the most pleasant international flight I’ve even taken. The four movies helped the time go by faster too. 

Once in Johannesburg we bought new South African cell phones in the airport and then picked up our rental car. Loaded full with luggage, we drove the rented SUV to a nearby hotel and checked in. Then bright and early Thursday morning (we lost half a day) we drove to Tugela Ferry. South Africa’s freeways are quite nice with “Engen” stops (a combination of “petrol”, “Wimpy Burgers”, convenience store, and restrooms) at . South African maps and signage are not as clear as I would have liked, though, and we took several wrong turns, eating up daylight hours. By 6:30 we were driving in the dark, the dense fog turned dusk into dark night a little earlier than normal. Tugela Ferry is at the bottom of a fairly steep mountain, but knowing we were behind schedule, Stephen careened down the narrow road that was sporadically lined with guard rail. Only after we had arrived at the Tugela Ferry bridge and reread the directions did we notice “take this road slowly looking out for cattle, goats and donkeys”!

We’ve been told that Tugela Ferry is hot and dry, but our first night here we walked through mud to get to our mobile home and needed more blankets on our bed. It was a nice welcome to the country. 

Friday morning was another day of travel. The drive to Pietermaritzburg was stunning. Wide expansive rolling hills, farmland and timber land. And Jacaranda trees, with their brilliant purple blooms, line the road. In Pietermaritzburg we returned the rental car and met the owner of the car we bought (while still in Seattle). As luck would have it this American friend of ours and his wife are taking a furlough back in the states so we were able to purchase their car. We drove him back to his town, dropped him off and headed to a coastal guest house for the evening. A mini-vacation already! We had a beautiful view of the Indian Ocean and spouting whales from our room. A walk along the beach was the beginning of our day the following morning. South Africa is a paradise!


This morning we are back in our new home in Tugela Ferry, our 400sqft mobile home! Despite how small that sounds, we really are quite comfortable. We have everything we need, if just in miniature. A bonus we didn’t expect was that we have three air-conditioners and two ceiling fans. In this small area, it will be quite easy to stay cool. Halleluiah! Everything is brand new. But even so, we had no hot water the first night and I had to don my “pioneer woman” spirit and boil water for a sort of substitute bath in place of a shower.  And just to make sure we knew we were in Africa, there was a calf bawling just outside our fence and goats wandering about. Driving out of Tugela Ferry that first morning, we saw all the cattle and goats we were warned about in the driving directions!

Stephen’s first day at work is Monday. My job for the next little bit will be to set up our house and plan the yard into vegetable and flower gardens. Not a bad life!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

preparation and anticipation


It's October 1st, the beginning of my favorite month of the year in the Pacific Northwest. But instead of buying pumpkins to set out on my deck, I'm planning for the adventure my husband and I are about to embark on in South Africa.

Nine months after we made the decision to move to Africa to live and work, Stephen has been offered a job. Most of our furniture, books, appliances, and clothes have been stored or given away. My car is sold. I've taken my name off the substitute teacher list in the school district where I worked last year. Stephen has given notice at PATH and his final day is October 9th. We've had medical and dental check ups and have already been immunized from previous trips to Africa.

So...we are on schedule with the logistics of moving half way around the world.

But the interesting part is what we will experience when we get there. We know that our new residence will be a 400 sqft mobile home. That's a 1/3 of the living space of our current condo. Stephen will take a 58% pay cut while I'll take a 100% pay cut! :) We will live in a rural town where the nearest grocery store is 40 kilometers (that's 25 miles ;) ) away. Here in Seattle, we live within walking distance of two grocery stores, not to mention countless restaurants! The currency is the Rand. Zulu is the language (in Tugela Ferry; South Africa has 11 official languages). ... Clearly, we have a lot of adapting to do!

But this is a dream come true for us. One that we've been thinking about and working towards for several years.
About six years ago I decided to change careers. At the time I was teaching private piano lessons to about 30 children, teenagers, and adults. I loved teaching music to my piano students. I enjoyed the relationships that developed over time with them and their family. And I was proud of what I had achieved. But as the years went by, I had a growing sense of wanting to do something more. I really wanted to work with those kids whose parents couldn't afford piano lessons. So one morning in the shower, (water often inspires my best ideas) I made the decision to earn a Master in Teaching (MIT) degree so that I could work with poor children. At my request, my first student teaching placement was in a Title 1 school. And for the two subsequent contracted positions, I chose to work in schools where 60 percent of the children qualified for free or reduced lunch. Also, during my MIT program, I traveled to Thailand where I taught English in a public elementary school. No teaching experience has been more life-affirming and joy-filled than the time I spent in Chiang Mai. So with the Thailand experience (a taste of life in a country and culture vastly different from my own) combined with a strong desire to work with less privileged children, Africa seemed more within my reality than ever before. In 2007, Stephen and I spent 5 weeks in Tanzania and Ethiopia. In preparation for that trip and our more recent South Africa/Zambia trip, I read some of the history of Africa as a whole and specifically South African history. My first hand experience and my reading revealed the juxtaposition of a land rich in natural beauty yet full of poor, suffering people having limited access to clean water let alone quality education. For me, Africa seems the ideal life of meaningful work set in the middle of some of God's most wondrous creations.

For Stephen, the dream of Africa began with a short trip to Haiti with some youth group kids. The hard life of grinding poverty that he witnessed made a sharp and lasting impression on him. Stephen's deep compassion for people has been a running theme throughout his life, from sleeping in a chair next to the hospital bed of a dying high school classmate, to using an engineering degree to work on the development of mechanical heart technology, to volunteering his time to nurture high school kids. Even though he started his career working on rockets (quite a distance from patient care) by the time Stephen visited Haiti he had managed to navigate a path into mechanical heart implantation and patient care working at Sacred Heart Medical Center. Upon returning from his trip, Stephen was struck by the economic injustice of Americans accessing fantastic health care while those born in developing countries were dying from lack of basic care. He felt compelled to use his intelligence and skills to bring justice to the poorest people in the world. First he volunteered with an orphan care organization doing work in South Africa. Then he started a non-profit organization in an effort to make life-saving drugs available to people living with HIV/AIDS in rural South Africa. The work he did with Two Tunics was life-affirming and he knew he wanted to do it full-time, not jus
t in his free time while still working at the hospital. With the knowledge of the immense need for basic primary health care in Haiti, South Africa and so many other places in the world, Stephen decided to pursue a Master in Public Health degree. He completed his degree at the University of Washington in December 2008 and it was then that we realized now was the perfect time to make our dream a reality: find a job in Africa and move there.

In February we traveled to South Africa to see what life might be like there and compare that experience with our other experiences in Thailand, Haiti, Tanzania, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda. South Africa's
Drakensberg Mountains are unrivaled in their welcoming expanse. And just as Stephen felt alive and at peace during his four previous trips, I too felt a strong sense of peace and contentment.

So now here we are. It was a journey to get this far. And yet we hope this is the beginning of maybe the biggest journey of our lives. So many dreams and hopes could be fulfilled. But like rhinos, we can only see about 30 ft in front of us, metaphorically speaking. We don't know what the next month will hold, what experiences we will have in the next year. But like rhinos, who despite their limited sight seem to charge into life intrepidly, Stephen and I hope to approach the awaiting challenges with boldness.