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, September 13, 2010

a life lived fully...




Stephen and I have been in Portland for five months now; the same amount of time we spent in South Africa. These months in the states have zoomed; while at times our months in South Africa felt so very long.

Since we sold both our used vehicles before moving to Africa, we had to purchase a new car upon our return. And we rented an apartment with a loft, something I've always thought sounded cool. Our move to South Africa was supposed to be semi-permanent so setting up residence in the states again meant new furnishings: a new bedroom set from IKEA and a living room recliner in color "saddle" which looks incredibly similar to the savanna grasses of the Tarangire in Tanzania. That both of these new additions were soft was a high priority. South African furniture was so uncomfortable.

In some ways, our life in South Africa seemed like one mini-trip after the next, and it seems we've brought that spirit of exploration back with us to Oregon: we have driven to the coast, the mountains, and the high desert.

One of the many dreams I had for our move to South Africa was to plant a garden. Though I composted and bought gardening tools, the African sun and fire ants in our yard were huge deterrents to my spending much time outside. A small flower garden was all I managed. Since it was spring when we arrived in Portland, heading into yet another summer (eternal summer for us! ha!), I planted a small garden in pots on our deck. We've been enjoying delicious tomatoes for the last couple of weeks.

I complained constantly about the food when we were in South Africa. My spoiled American palate protested the over sweetness of normal savory foods and the diminished variety in the grocery store. So eating out in the states again has been a treat. A treat we indulge in frequently, often patronizing one of the many McMenamin's restaurants, theaters, and hotels.

We are living a healthier lifestyle here in Portland than we were in South Africa: more places to walk on a daily basis, more selection of nutritious food, and of course better health care. Stephen walks the 1.8 miles to and from his job everyday. And I walk to one of the numerous coffee shops and grocery stores nearby our apartment a few days a week. :)

I also enjoy the sense of independence I feel here as opposed to Tugela Ferry. I can jump in my car and drive to the store or across several states. In Tugela Ferry I rarely drove more than a mile alone. Our new car is very reliable (unlike the old Subaru that overheated often or the car we borrowed that broke down though only a year old), streets and highways are maintained (as opposed to the pothole filled roads of South Africa), and generally other drivers know and obey the rules of the road (many drivers in South Africa do not have licenses because they have failed to pass the test for one).

And as for the weather in Portland, to me it is ideal; a few high temperature days mixed in with mostly cool days with some rain. Tugela Ferry has anything but ideal weather: torrential rains that took out the power and flooded the roads to blasting heat of 40 degrees Celsius (over 100 degrees F).

Yet for all the ways Portland is more comfortable and pleasant, Africa is still on both of our minds.

Stephen and I decided to abort our adventure in South Africa because it seems that I was only getting worse the longer we stayed. Almost immediately upon arrival in a rich world country (Amsterdam, The Netherlands), my lupus flare began to subside. And through the spring and into the summer that has been the trend: decreased pain and increased strength. When my severe Lupus flare hit a year ago it was excruciating to move, so I moved as little as possible. I went from spending an hour and a half at the gym usually running and doing strength training, to almost no physical activity or even stretches. After a couple of months not only was I still in lots of pain but now I was also very weak.

At my first appointment with my new rheumatologist in Portland, I complained that my knee popped painfully whenever I bent it. Instead of writing it off as just another symptom of my disease she saw it as a problem that could be dealt with through physical therapy. Then when my physical therapist gave me exercises to rebuild my muscles and they worked, that was like a shot of hope! Suddenly I saw things differently. Lupus didn't have to rule my life!

Moving to Africa was a dream realized but because I was in so much pain, I couldn't even enjoy the reality of it. Not being able to stay was hugely disappointing. I had so hoped to find out what teaching in Africa over many years would be like. And I had so looked forward to learning another language and gaining an understanding of another culture. When we left South Africa both Stephen and I thought returning to Africa to live was probably out of the question. We basically accepted that we would have to live in the states for me. Stephen would travel out of the country to do his international health work. But throughout the summer we've learned some things that give us hope that we may not have to accept those limitations.

This whole summer I've dedicated myself to improving my health. Lupus is a chronic disease and while it can't be cured it can be managed. Managing my lupus symptoms means getting regular exercise, eating a good diet, and managing my stress. One way to manage stress that I've discovered this summer is painting. I took some lessons when I was in junior high and I've painted a few things throughout the years since then, but never have I put in the kind of time and energy that I have this summer. And my work is different now. It's been fun discovering what I can do with paint on canvas. I'm painting in acrylic for the moment but someday I might try oil. Every medium is different though so for now I'm quite content to stick with one and practice a lot. I'm excited about painting. I think it is a significant contributing factor in why I have gone into remission.

Stephen has his first international trip for his new job in September. He's visiting Mozambique, a new African country to add to his list. :) Mozambique is  very poor. On the Human Development Index that measures life expectancy, education, literacy rates, standards of living...Mozambique ranks 172 out of 182 countries. South Africa is 129th.

While Stephen gets to visit Africa, I'm painting scenes from our travels through Africa. And we both hope for another opportunity to once again live somewhere on that vast and beautiful continent.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

out of africa


Stephen and I have been in the states for two weeks now. We have left one continent and moved back to
another one. And the transition has been strange. Even though we only spent 5 months living in South Africa (it seemed so long while we were there but now that we are back it seems short) we nevertheless kind of got used to a few things. Amsterdam was our reentry point to the first world and after living in the African bush for several months, the advanced technology almost felt space age. Our hotel was really a trip. Check-in was computerized and we could pay with our credit card. We even programmed our own room key cards! In South Africa we stayed in many different Bed and Breakfasts, nearly always paid cash and received hand written receipts. In Amsterdam, our hotel room at Citizen M was a Jetson's room! The first thing we noticed were the cylindrical doors for the shower and toilet (oh by the way we have to get used to asking for "the restrooms" again instead of "the toilets") and the overhead lights that changed to all the colors of the spectrum. The water for the shower turned on and off with the closing and opening of the shower doors. And the alarm we set not only had elephant trumpets but turned on all the lights in the room when it went off. Speaking of the alarm, it actually didn't wake me up for 10 minutes because I was sleeping so soundly. For most people that might not be that uncommon but for me it's almost a small miracle. And which made Amsterdam my new favorite city!

We had two 10+ hour flights to travel from Johannesburg to Portland, fortunately broken up by an overnight layover in Amsterdam. The flight out of Johannesburg took off after midnight. Both Stephen and I were tired from the long day but even more than that tired from 5 months of learning and negotiating a new culture. Once on the plane, Stephen relaxed from his hyper-vigilant state and promptly became sick. What we both needed was sleep so instead of touring a museum in Amsterdam, during our layover, we rested at our hotel.

Remarkably, all our luggage and the piano arrived safely in Portland. (Though we nearly didn't even get the piano on the plane out of Johannesburg. Stephen had to do some smooth talking to get them to allow the over-sized and way overweight digital piano.) The taxi ride from the Portland airport felt extremely slow and law-abiding. And when we took a walk later in the day, it was almost a shock how cars waited for us to cross the street and at quite a distance back from us too.

One of the first differences Stephen made note of when we arrived in South Africa was the small space bubble people had. When walking on the street or in the mall, I always felt like people were going to run right into me and then at that last minute they stepped sideways almost brushing against me. It was hard to get used to. People drove with this small space bubble too. A car passing people walking would zoom by with only a few inches to spare. Terribly dangerous in my view, but common practice in South Africa. But then, I think many people driving the roads in South Africa don't have driver's licenses. We learned in our last week that passing a driver's test is next to impossible. People fail multiple times before earning a license. One man took the test 50 times, failing all 50. So the South African equivalent of our DMV awarded him an honorary license, I guess for his persistence.

On our second day in the states, Stephen and I walked to the grocery store. For the first 30 minutes we just walked around sort of dazed! So many different cheeses! And baked chips! And salsa! And organic coffees! I bought Greek yogurt, Simply Orange orange juice, and chocolate milk. :) It just seems like all the food here tastes delicious! We are gaining weight by the minute. For about the last month in South Africa, I was almost living on sparkling water.

Of course with the time change we were exhausted by 6:30 in the evening and wide awake at 4:30am for a few days. Sunrise is so late!  In Tugela Ferry sunrise was about 4:30-5:00 so at 7am when the sun STILL wasn't up in Portland, it just felt so dark and odd. The angle of the sun is very different too. In Tugela Ferry the sun was so intense. And here in Portland even in full sun, the air can be cool. In Tugela Ferry I could already be sweating at 9am.

Our brief time in South Africa, though not as long of an adventure as we were expecting, was still a huge adventure. Living in a place sure is different from visiting. We were able to get beneath the surface a bit and see the country and its people in a little more 3-dimensional way. South Africa is a beautiful country but the people living there are facing many tough challenges. Shortage of medical staff and poor delivery of healthcare. Shortage of teachers and a newly adopted national curriculum not yet supported with resources and training. Infrastructure neglect manifest in pot hole filled roads and rolling blackouts. Extreme poverty of the majority juxtaposed against the wealth of the few, and the crime spawned. Corruption, at national and local levels.
So it's nice being home. Even though we are now in a new city and a new state, there is so much that is familiar. And now more appreciated than before we left. Like the speed of the internet! I can click on my Google Chrome and bam! it opens just like that! Amazing. And the cell phone connections sound so clear! And there aren't any goats or cows in the roadways. And ice water! And a clothes dryer! Our clothes are actually soft now and I don't have to slap the biting ants climbing up my legs while I hang the clothes on the fence to dry. And no more sleeping under a treated mosquito net that made Stephen's skin itch. And so many breakfast choices at a restaurant: shrimp scramble, crunchy French toast, raspberry pancakes, salmon hash...


Stephen started his new job today. He feels hopeful about the organization and the work he will do. Medical Teams International works in 30 countries around the world, 10 of which are in Africa. So it may not be too long before Stephen is back on the African continent. And I'll have more stories to tell about his adventures. :)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

new direction in the journey

Things often do not turn out as we plan them. I think for me that is the norm, rather than the exception. Stephen and I certainly did not plan to leave South Africa for at least two years and we hoped much longer than that. We also did not plan for me to get Lupus. And that in the end is the reason we have to end this adventure in South Africa.

It has been a hard decision, one we struggled with for months. But Tugela Ferry has proven to be too harsh of a place for me live at this particular moment in my life. There are places in South Africa that offer better climate, peaceful environments, and more living conveniences. But they are all too far away from Tugela Ferry for a reasonable commute to work. And really, Tugela Ferry is third world conditions. Hard enough for the healthy and strong to handle, but actually quite extreme for me with Lupus.

And while I've loved working with my grade 3 students, for various reasons doing so has dramatically increased my inflammation and pain. My flare has gotten worse since school started in January.

So for now at least, Stephen and I have accepted that our home base must be in the states where I can get the medical care I need and where good self care (good quality sleep, regular exercise, consistent nutritious diet, more readily available stress management tools) is immensely easier.

Once we made this decision and started to pursue this new course in our journey, things suddenly fell into place smoothly. Stephen applied for and has been offered a job with a well respected international health organization based in the states. The American doctor we purchased our vehicle from decided to return earlier than expected to South Africa and has bought the car back. And even that package that we thought was lost for good in customs was delivered to us, on my birthday no less! Stephen said it feels like God is smiling on us.

Though Stephen and I felt so drawn to Africa, to live and work amongst the poor, to relieve their suffering and improve their quality of life, it seems that that is not what is in store for us. At least not in this way. Evidently, there is another direction for our lives. There is no question that this experience, despite being shorter than we were hoping for, has been immeasurably valuable to us. And only God knows how our newly acquired knowledge and skills will be put to use in the future. Even though we were only here for a brief time, we both feel that we have maybe done a little good, maybe achieved just a bit of what we hoped to do.

Today was my last day at the school. Last week we finished the English dictionaries and I completed my final assessments. All the children made progress which I was happy about. Today I just gave gifts, took pictures, and said good bye.

Also today Stephen's staff threw us a surprise going away party. A big "braai" or barbecue. They have all expressed their sadness that Stephen is leaving. And they hope that we will return someday.

Our adventure in South Africa is coming to an end. But we still feel like we are on a safari, a journey, and we still think of ourselves as a crash of rhinos. One major difference being that our address will no longer be an exotic one. :) Although, Stephen's new position will involve up to 40% of international travel. So there will likely be plenty for me to report on the places he visits. And I hope to find a niche in the states where I can use my new passion for teaching students whose first language is not English.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

the work begins

So I believe the answer to my question "how long does it take to get used to a new culture?" is years. Stephen and I have been living in South Africa for over three months and it doesn't feel anything like "home". And we don't expect it to anytime soon. But we are no longer weary of the otherness of this new culture.

The last week of January seemed to mark the beginning of some real work for both Stephen and me. And that has felt good. The new school year started and I have begun working with students. Last week I individually assessed the class of third grade students and from those assessments I formed four small groups to meet with. I'm working four days a week but only a few hours each day, as dictated by my Lupus. I spent hours and hours planning and preparing materials that would be effective with children learning English as a second language. Since I have no Zulu and cannot check for understand in their home language, I designed lessons that allow me to know that the children understand. I am using pictures and lots of repetition.

Something that impressed me from the first day was how tenacious the children were. As part of the assessment, I asked each child letter names and sounds. Instead of giving me just the letter sound, the students general gave me a word that started with that sound. They would sit in their seat thinking for almost a minute sometimes and I was sure they were going to say, "I don't know", but almost without fail, child after child would say, "Joseph", "celebrate", "university", "April". Many of the students gave unique responses from their classmates for the various letters, but they all said, "zebra" for Z. :) Incidentally, the English and Zulus call the letter Z "Zed".

When I observed at the school in November and December, I noticed how it seemed the children did not understand much of what I was saying. I decided the best way to address this language barrier was in small groups. That way the children could ask questions freely and I could answer them quickly. In a large group, if children ask all the questions they want to at once it creates chaos. In an English first language classroom I can explain to the children how we need to do things and why. With these Zulu children, English is their second language and their proficiency is sketchy. I didn't want classroom management to be a barrier to their learning English from me. Their home room teacher has been most gracious in allowing me to teach in this way. It is a method that is novel in this school where everything is taught lecture style, as far as I can tell. But in this class of third graders the range of English proficiency is wide, from students who do not know letter names and sounds to students who can read early second grade level books. So designing one lesson that meets the needs of all of them is extremely challenging. But when I split them up into groups, planning becomes much easier. And the children are challenged at just the right level, not too hard nor too easy.

At the start of each English class, I stand at the front of the room and say, "Good morning grade 3." In response they all stand up and say in unison, "Good morning Mrs. H------," and then sit down. That always makes me smile. I have learned all of the children's names but I still have to work at the pronunciation. The "x" in Zulu is a click like the sound you make out of the side of your mouth to encourage a horse. I have a student whose name is Noxolo. Another click is represented by the "c". This sound is made at the front of your mouth and is kind of like the sound you make that means "tsk tsk". I have a student whose name is Nongcebo. And then there is the "hl" sound. You have to blow air past your tongue to make this sound. I have a student named Nobuhle. So I'm practicing my Zulu just by pronouncing their names. I must say them with a strange American accent too because whenever I say a name, the children always repeat it exactly as I've said it and then giggle.

This week I worked with the newly formed groups and I can tell that the students already enjoy this method. Sebenzile said, "Don't go," on Wednesday. I work with each group every other day and it was not her group's turn that day. But she wanted me to make it her group's turn. On a different day, I finished with a group of all girls and said, "Okay, we can go back to class now." But not one of them got up at first. Instead they put their heads on the little table where we do our group work, in an effort not to leave. I happy to know they are enjoying themselves, learning should be fun.

(I've been so busy working at the school that I haven't been taking photos. Hopefully I'll have some for the next post. Instead I've included some photos of the village and the Tugela River and the one lane bridge.)

Unlike me, Stephen has been working in his job for the past three months. But every job has its learning curve and Stephen feels now that he has begun to put his unique skills and experience to good use in this new position. TB is a huge public health problem that needs collaborative focused efforts. Since tuberculosis is an air borne disease, anyone can become infected so potentially everyone is at risk. Some of the research Stephen is working on is: better detection in children, treatment of MDR-TB in the community instead of in hospitals, intensive case finding within the community (that's going into the community and finding people who are sick with TB or HIV rather than waiting for them to come to the hospital), and better data capture at the hospital so the information is usable. This past month Stephen processed 162 CV's, interviewed 24 candidates and hired 5 people. Stephen is practicing his Zulu too, pronouncing names. He works with Sister Qali. The "Q" is a click like the sound of a bottle cork.

Life in Africa is never easy. Last week the water in our park home was down to a trickle. It was when Stephen asked someone about it, that we learned the water line for half of the village was broken and for the past week the hospital had been out of water. We have two holding tanks with water, but they were slowly becoming empty. Our not having enough water pressure to run a shower is an inconvenience, not having water for a hospital is downright horrible. But, such is life in Africa: no water for a week, frequent phone line and power outages. And yet I can't help asking if there aren't ways to work on anticipating these kinds of problems. Maybe it's only my American mindset, but I have a hard time accepting that things couldn't improve. Couldn't thinking be shifted to proactive planning instead of reactive responses? There are certainly lack of resources. But wouldn't some creative problem solving find a way to make use of the limited resources?

I think the answer is yes, but also no. Stephen and I read an inspirational and yet sobering true story about a man who lived in Msinga (Tugela Ferry is a village in the Msinga subdistrict) in the 1980's. He introduced some better farming practices and a cattle co-op to Msinga, an over grazed area (one of the consequences of Apartheid when many black South Africans were squeezed into a small amount of "homelands"). His methods were good; he'd proven their success. But so many factors worked against him, and today there is little to show for his lifetime of effort.

Just to update on some previous posts. In December I told the girl who was coming to our park home once a week that I didn't need anyone to clean for me any more. It was the holidays and people are often off in December so the first Monday of January she returned. "Is my work finished?" I had to tell her yes. I feel badly because I know how high unemployment is here, around 80%, but I just didn't feel comfortable with the situation. I have to find other ways to help people in this community than hiring a stranger to clean for me.

Also, my succulent garden is doing marvelously. I call these flowers "rock flowers" but that is not their name at all. I like the colour (English spelling) that they add to our yard. Stephen can see them from his office window, too.

January is the beginning of summer for the southern hemisphere, so when Stephen and I went to the Pilanesberg National Game Park we saw tons of little babies: baby giraffes, baby zebras, baby wildebeest, baby giraffes, a baby rhino. The baby warthogs were really the cutest to me. And we saw several mama warthogs with four little babies. So fun! We have some video of the baby warthogs play fighting that's just too adorable. Sadly, I can't post it with our slow internet. The Game Reserves of South Africa are really something. I never get tired of seeing African animals in the wild. I could go on safari every weekend.

At school the other day, one of the teachers said that February is the hottest month in South Africa, and it's proving to be true so far. Stephen and I drove to Pietermaritzberg for some shopping yesterday and our car kept running so hot, in the 100+ degree temperature, that we were forced to turn the air conditioning off. Wait for the engine to cool. Then turn the air conditioning back on. But at least we have a car with air conditioning. While driving home yesterday we saw several livestock trucks, but instead of being full of animals, they were full of people. Wall to wall people standing on a truck bed with sides but no roof. Our discomfort seems petty in view of how much those people had to endure.

We are starting our 4th month in South Africa and in such a short time have learned so much. It has already been a full adventure and we are looking forward to the way this year will unfold.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A new year

Happy 2010! Last year, I gave a little foreshadowing of the possibility of our living in Africa and now I'm writing from South Africa. It still seems hard to believe that Stephen and I are living in an African country.

So we are back in Tugela Ferry after a two week holiday, a road trip across South Africa. We left the third world (sort of) and spent time in the first world (sort of). Although, the faulty plumbing in half of the hotels we stayed in reminded us that we hadn't really escaped the third world after all. But it was still a nice break. And we saw lots of new landscape, traveling through five of the nine provinces and putting 4370 kilometers on our car. That's about 2700 miles which is like traveling from Seattle to Miami by air.
Our first stop was the Oribi Gorge where we watched guys bungee jump and walked on the swinging bridge. Also at one of the view points, Stephen spotted a bright green snake and he called me over to look at it too. Later, I consulted our wildlife of South Africa guidebook and discovered it must have been a Green Mamba. "Rarely bites but venom can cause death by paralysis"! On the other hand, it says they are "shy and rarely seen" so Stephen got to see a rare sight.

From the Oribi Gorge we drove through the Eastern Cape toward the Garden Route along the southern coast. The beaches of South Africa are just gorgeous. We walked on several during our trip. On the beach in Plettenberg Bay there were tons of jellyfish washed ashore and shellfish were evidently making a meal of them. The sand was fine and soft so we walked, well Stephen ran some of the time :), for an hour or more, carefully avoiding the jellyfish.

After the Garden Route we drove to Wine Country, staying several nights including Christmas in Stellenbosch. We did some wine tasting at Neethlingshof Estates and enjoyed some good food and coffee at various restaurants. While staying in Stellenbosch we drove into Cape Town for the day. The tours to Robben Island were totally booked so we didn't get to visit the prison where Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner for 27 years. (We have been to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, though. And last year in February there was an excellent Nelson Mandela exhibit.) We also did not take the cable car up to Table Mountain because of the huge cloud, called the "Tablecloth", which would have blocked the view of the city anyway. Obviously we aren't big on tourist sites. :)

We did visit several of the National Parks however. We saw penguins at Boulder Beach then drove further down the coast to The Cape of Good Hope. Baboon warnings are everywhere. They have learned to associate people with food and as a result are more dangerous. They have fangs after all. I've seen them, up close and personal, when one jumped into our safari truck through the open window while in Tanzania. So I roll up my windows when we passed them on the roadways, content to view them from a distance.

For two nights we stayed at a Rest Camp in the Karoo National Park, northeast of Cape Town but still in the Western Cape province. On our drive, despite it being midday when the animals are generally resting, we spotted several animals we had not seen on our other safaris in South Africa. We saw two species of zebra, for example, and learned that there are at least 5 different species throughout Africa! The Burchell's Zebra has no stripes on it's legs while the Mountain Zebra does. Interesting no? We also had to slow down for a large tortoise crossing the road.

When we weren't out enjoying the wildlife and natural beauty of South Africa, Stephen and I were reading about the current conditions for people in this country. During our holiday, I read an excellent book, published in 2009, called "After Mandela" by Alec Russell. I appreciated the author's multi-perspective reporting and sophisticated analysis of the numerous issues facing this country just 15 years out from Apartheid. Stephen read two books of commentary. One of the books was a collection of articles including an article about the song we all know as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" which was composed by a man from the Msinga district. Tugela Ferry is in the Msinga district. His second book addressed the situation white South Africans face post-apartheid. Many have chosen to leave. This book was about those who have stayed.

Stephen is now back at work. And that work is research on multi-drug resistant (MDR) and and extensively drug resistant (XDR) tuberculosis. What this means is that regular tuberculosis has mutated to resist normal treatment. This can happen in a patient who doesn't have the adequate support to complete the drug treatment or some other mismanagement or misuse of the drugs. But once TB has mutated it can be transmitted in its mutated form, which is how most people are getting MDR or XDR here now. Treatment for MDR and XDR is a two year course of drugs instead of the normal 6-8 month treatment. The side effects are more severe and the drugs are more expensive. All barriers to effective treatment. The transmission of these strains was happening in the hospital. With this knowledge Stephen and the team of researchers he's working with are conducting studies in more effective treatment options. For example treating patients in their homes in the community rather than having them come to the hospital. Sending injection nurses out to patients helps prevent further spread of infection and also helps to prevent patients from defaulting on their course of treatment.

The schools are on summer holiday until late January, so I am not working yet. The summer break has actually been shortened this year and the winter break lengthened because of the 2010 Soccer World Cup that South Africa is hosting June 11-July 11.

Our holiday was an excellent break. I'm happy to report that my Lupus symptoms have calmed down some. From our holiday reading, both Stephen and I gained some insight and perspective that will help us approach the challenges here appropriately. And just the rest itself was nice. So it's a brand new year; for Stephen and me, 2010 will be a year like no other.