A Passion for Peace

Responsibility, respect and a loving connection with all beings and for this Earth we share.

Yaebo, Life is Lekker

Fueled on an egg and a banana, I spent 12 hours getting that family in crisis medical care, food and an emergency grant sorted out. It was quite a bureaucratic push (thank goodness for the nice director at the social security agency), and there were a lot of stumbling blocks (like hospital chains of referral after hours of waiting so no one would have to actually serve these families). It’s tough to be a teenage mom anywhere. It’s astronomically harder to be in rural RSA with no income and no education, and when you finally get your positive children to the hospital, instead of trying to treat them, after a day of pushing (me) and waiting (all of us), the doctor says, “She’s positive and pregnant again. And these other kids’ growth has been stunted by not getting TB or AIDS treatment. What’s the point?” I wanted to hit that Indian doctor in the face. Is it race? Class? Education? The general rule is: whites are upper and middle class, they hire black nannies and workers, and Indians are middle class and generally in the service professions or own small shops, and they hire black workers. Blacks who work hard shake their heads and say to me, “I shouldn’t say this, but it’s the Blacks. Theft, laziness, selfishness, jealousy—it’s a big problem to get people to work together. We say the right things in church and forget it outside.” The typical analogy I hear is whenever someone lifts himself up and sticks out his head (be it better job, school, responsibility), everyone tries to chop it off and bring him back down. (Photo: one of our kids playing)

One theory is starting in 1994 with all the talk of people’s people gained a feeling of entitlement without responsibility behind it. Another is that getting through high school is seen as such a prize, people don’t see the point when so many get through school and can’t find jobs. Still, in India or the US instead of not working or constantly griping about low pay, I think people would be more inclined to go back for more school or professional training than sitting around in desperation begging neighbors for food (granted the system here is hard to navigate and usually costs money to get yourself to the right office and may take a couple days of waiting once there, there IS a system of free medical care and need-based grants!).

Still, I find many Zulu do work very hard, are quite strong community leaders and very inspiring. My translator (who has officially dubbed me “a reliable driver”) went off to help his sister last week when she was robbed. They suspect it was an inside job, and since the police aren’t investigating, he gathered a group to collect muthi (traditional medicine) and meet with a medicine man so that the muthi would essentially act like a truth serum: you smuggle it into the suspect’s house and its presence makes him want to confess.However, when they went to gather the muthi the first time, a group of five men all saw a big green car perched atop an impossible-to-reach cliff. They did a double-take and it was gone. Then they thought, maybe it was a snake, because one of the men in their group is a twin and the son of a twin, and snakes are scared of twins (because two can overpower them), which is actually considered good luck. Plus, they smoke and grow a lot of weed. Maybe I should've started with that. (Photo: sunset view from the reserve, the mesa on the right is Giant's Castle)

This weekend I went to the beach, which was beautiful and massively hot, and with families who oriented their day around feeding an army of children. A bike ride netted me not one but two flat tires, and so an upper body workout instead pushing the bike back along the beach and lifting it up over rocky outcroppings. A couple hours in a bookstore (a bookstore! you have no idea how exciting this was! and how poor I am so I mostly browsed and didn't buy), an evening theater comedy (thanks to a friend of a friend's sister), and then home. For 5 hours. Then picked up our volunteer pre-school teachers and drove them to another town to training, where they trained me for half a day and I spent the night at one of their houses in the countryside where I followed a terrier named Chester through fields and flowers and around a river feeling like I was in a Jane Austen novel. Although oddly they never mention picking off ticks when you get home.

The next day I ran a conflict resolution workshop with the management staff there, which was so rewarding ("I can't believe I've gotten to this age and never thought about preparing not just my side of an argument, but from the other person's side!"). I want to do more of that! Because I need more work to do! Ruminating on being a professor and establishing an NGO-like program from the uni where I teach, research and train students to be free labor to help run it...which could mean getting a PhD in... education? NGO management? conflict resolution? child development? Clearly, I need to ruminate more. And to look for a job that pays something in a few months so my wonderfully supportive parents don't have heart attacks.

Posted byValerie at 6:41 PM 0 comments  

Nissan Karma

Do cars talk? Did my old Nissans put in a bad word for me? Or does this truck (which I have totally learned to drive, by the way, reversing down single-tracked rocky road-less hillsides no less) just enjoy breaking down when it’s 95 degrees Fahrenheit while I’m driving women home after church (where I even sang along to transliterated Zulu hymns)? Or when I go to our neighbor’s dairy to pick up fresh milk that’s apt to spoil? Or right outside the gate after traveling around the rural communities for hours and totally burning my white white skin?

Saturday I finally got a break (from driving, politics and church), and went on an amazing hike to a world heritage site and state park called Giants Castle. I went on a hike with a friend to see 2000+ year-old Bushmen cave paintings, picnic atop a mountain near the Lesuti border, avoid a poisonous black adder, spot a baboon eating his way up a hillside, drink from and swim and slide and generally frolic in the Bushmen’s River on the way back down, and sip a glass of wine on the park’s restaurant patio as the stars came out. This weekend we’re going to bring the fancy telescope home and break out the star chart and see what we can pick out. In addition to driving on the other side of the road than I’m used to, the constellations in the Southern Hemisphere are mirror images of what I’m used to too. I think you can tell a lot about people by whether they make a comment about driving on the “other” side of the road or the “wrong” side of the road. Hey, I have no judgment when people here tell me to turn left at the robot (aka traffic light). It makes me giggle on the inside. (Photos: 2000-ish-year-old Bushmen paintings, right are medicine men with animal heads and human bodies, one on the right has bubbles on his body)

Maybe it’s all that giggling the mosquitoes find so attractive. I’m continually impressed by their ingenuity in covering me in welts. Maybe they’re in cahoots with the Nissan. Well, it’s not gonna work. I woke up Thursday morning and took an extra-long bike ride in the mist with the Oklahoma “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” song swimming through my head. I even got someone in a government department to call me back unprompted this week—I was on such a high. That day I left the Zulu to in charge of something themselves which resulted in yelling, name-calling and threats to quit. Now we need multiple meetings to sort it out and smooth it all over. Why is it so hard to assume the best in people? Or in cars? Go, Nissan go! I have faith in the Zulu and in you! (Photo: Giant's Castle park)

Today we found a family in crisis: two-year-old twins without birth certificates, but with TB (no birth certificates generally means no social welfare grants). One little girl was full of sores and so listless she could barely keep her eyes open, and both were in shirts only, no bottoms. The father said there is no food and he wants seeds to start a vegetable garden and they are quite far off the beaten path (45 min drive on rural “roads”) winding up and around and through the Drackenbergs. Luckily we made a great contact at the social welfare agency last week, and when I called today she said she’d help them get an emergency grant on Monday. I even finished the last minute presentation for India today so it looks like I get the weekend off (hooray!—or maybe I should start translating that book for the other NGO…) and Monday at 7 am I’m off to pick up the family in crisis to take the mother and children to hospital (people outside the US don’t say “to the hospital”), and the father to social welfare.

Posted byValerie at 8:23 PM 0 comments  

Zebras Neigh, and Zulu Love to say, “Okay!”

I thought driving through a second coming of Noah’s ark-style flood-inducing rains in a U-Haul through the armpit of Texas (aka Amarilla) was difficult. Today I drove a small manual Nissan pick-up to meet with another NGO, LETCEE, who’s working with us in a town an hour and a half away. It might’ve taken me a smidge longer than that to get there, due to: avoiding avoid potholes in fog I could only see five meters ahead in, shaking my head at and passing both an overloaded taxi van and an eighteen-wheeler who passed me and promptly slowed to half my previous speed as they huffed up the Drackenbergs, all the while battling with my newly-acquired poor manual driving skills on my way back trying hard not to stall or stop because before I left the car’s battery went dead, had to be jumped twice and a friendly LETCEE employee drove me around town to pump the battery back up, and another employee followed us.

Sunday morning after hours of translating Zulu (which makes about as much sense to me as typing random letters), I drove my self-educated Zulu translator/interpreter to a Catholic church in one of the communities the Trust serves in an effort to build community, do outreach, get feedback, etc., while he told me which gear to shift into and when to use the clutch or accelerator (I’d had a slow start because I hadn’t been introduced to the choke), I asked what he’d done the day before, because when I called it sounded like he was at a party.

“Oh, no, no party. I was gambling. There were horse races in Cape Town.”
“Horse races? Do you have a TV?”
“Oh, no, no. I have two wives and eleven children. When you’re young you think you know so much, and you don’t listen. If I could go back and do it over, I would plan and do it all different. We’re so many, and that’s why we barely get by, so I was at this place where we get tapes of old races and we watch them and bet on them. I think I lost 200 Rand ($25). I’m bad, I don’t usually go to church. I have to go into town after church today and gamble more.”
“Races in Cape Town—have you been to Cape Town? Have you been outside Zulu-Natal (the state we’re in)?”“Yes, of course outside, I have been to Johannesburg (four hours northeast). Not Cape Town (six hours southwest).”
“Did you like Jo’burg?”
“No, I’m not used to cities. Maybe then I would like it. The boss took us to Durban last year and we went to the ocean. That was good.”

Actually, the boss took some senior management on their first trip to the sea (two hours south) and forgot to tell them to bring bathing suits, so the men ended up splashing in the waves in their underwear. Someday I’ll ask my interpreter why he’s missing three fingers and so many teeth.
Conversations with Zulu usually end with some sentiment about “this crazy world” as they are continually full of amazement that I “came from so far to help.” It seems to be a good selling point. I came from US/UK (often they say UK, because UK or US don’t really have much meaning except as faraway two-letter lands full of white people), so surely they can get a committee together to find a place for a new crèche, go with me to have their handicapped children evaluated to try to get them into school, or come together on a weekend to build a playground and food garden at the Resource Centre where the NGO PEISA and the local women they’re teaching (and we’re employing) do weekly psychomotor training with the children.

As a side note, I think the Catholic church is genius with its rising and swaying, sitting and listening, kneeling and praying (keep moving = staying awake), calm candles, beautiful melodies, comforting tunes, and the whole song and dance of a typical service—even with an assistant priest in a church too poor to afford to build a toilet or fencing with chipped paint and so musty and dusty inside I almost passed out until I moved near an open window. And wow, can these Zulu women sing. (Will try to upload when I get better internet sometime) (Photos: the reserve on the left, one of the communities we serve on the right, Ezindikini)

Meanwhile, life on the reserve is fantastic. I’m working my butt off (besides long days and weekend work here, I’m still working for Childline India via email) and loving every minute of it (the work is great, the volume could decrease...). I’ve gotten into a routine where I wake with the sun by six to do yoga, ride my bike or hitch a ride to the office to start the workday at seven, break at one for a management lunch (last Friday was our first brie, and this week we had bobotie minus the bread), and head home around six to do a little more yoga/exercise (my shoulders are more thankful by the day), cook, watch Friends (stolen from a friend in India) and crash. The zebras, eland and antelope are getting less finicky when I bike by, I saw a one-week-old water buffalo babe enter the herd, and one morning there was a rhino traffic jam as three of the fattest bums waddled on and off the road, with a jiggle even Atlanta and LA KFC-over-eaters couldn’t rival. (By the way, KFC seems to be gaining on McDonald’s in worldwide popularity. That man’s white beard and red and white stripes are everywhere from South Africa to Dubai to Cambodia.) (Photo: Water buffalo classic pose that makes me think 'whatchoo lookin at?')

Speaking of exercise, buying a bicycle was such a good decision. I don’t think I’m ever as happy as when I am on a bicycle in nature taking a break from (hopefully!) positively impactful community building and conflict resolution work with families and children.

And speaking of happy, I had not one but six bottles of champagne and flowers brought over for my housewarming dinner party last weekend. The theme was Greek: salad, fresh from our garden (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, chives, feta, lemon, pepper and olive oil), roasted potatoes (onion, garlic, salt, pepper, oregano and lemon), my version of moussaka (eggplant, our own venison, onion, coriander, cinnamon, anise, parsley and melted mozzerella), and grilled bananas (cinnamon, ginger and carob) with walnuts and yogurt for dessert.

People here keep asking how I’m doing with such a big change, going from eighteen million neighbors to six (plus a few cats and horses); from sharing a room plus another five flatmates to my own apartment with a veranda overlooking the mountains; from eating out daily due to minimal cooking capabilities and eagerness to escape the apartment to a happily home-cooked fresh-from-our-farm dinner alone (or occasionally with a kind coworker); from Maruti Suzuki taxis and playing Frogger with my life crossing a street to slaloming, slipping, skidding and sliding down an unpaved muddy mountain road in a pick-up I am surely slowly winning over. That battery dying thing was just payback for my rough shifting. I think we’re even now. I figure it’s like a friend said: you gotta be a turtle and carry your home with you wherever you are. I wouldn’t trade one (possibly permanently deafening) traffic-ful night or one moths-that-sound-like-helicopters and toad-ful night for anything.

I love my life. And I’m so glad you’re in it, and care enough to read this.

Posted byValerie at 10:49 AM 2 comments  

In India I’m Madam, In Thailand I’m Miss, In Cambodia I’m a Lady

In Thailand if you stopped in the middle of a road, cars would line up behind you and wait without honking. In Cambodia if you are naïve enough to pause across the street from a vendor, an entire family will run over and present you with freshly cut fruit, bamboo flutes, woven bracelets, postcards, and any tschochke you would never need while calling out: “Lady! You buy something!” In the whole of Cambodia there are no set prices. You bargain everything from entry visas to bus fares, and there’s generally a two-tier system, which we called the Khmer price and the Whitey Tax. Since Cambodia uses US dollars (and their riel as change instead of coins), most Whitey Tax prices start at $1. Where a Whitey Tax meal costs $3, the same Khmer meal is twenty-five cents. The ‘they-need-the-money’ argument is certainly valid: there’s a complete lack of infrastructure (a friend: “they sweep garbage to the side like snow”) and industry outside of some sweat shops (check the Made In ___ label on that Gap top). And there’s the fact that Pol Pot’s regime murdered a third of the country’s population with a focus on the most educated, and that he came into power when people were mad at the previous democratic government for allowing the US to build bases there during the Vietnam War. We settled on rewarding less annoying behavior and buying from enterprising selling swarms of children with whom we had conversations like this:

“You know the capital of Burkina Faso?”
“I tell you, you buy!”
“Can you point to Burkina Faso on a map?”
Guilty smile. “No. You know the capital of Madagascar? I tell you, you buy!”

And just when feeling like not a person but a purse was starting to overwhelm, suddenly we were riding old beaters of bicycles for less than $1 a day through the Korean Friendship forest and into Angkor Wat, a surreal human feat I can only imagine rivals the pyramids in its impressive scale, attention to detail, and quad-religious symbolism (Hinduism, Buddhism, animism and ancestor worship). The temples of the largest pre-industrial civilization are amazingly well preserved, and as a UN World Heritage site, there’s a concerted effort to repair them. Pick a country, and it’s sponsored a restoration project (the Indians, French, Chinese and Japanese seemed very on top of it, while at the US site a few laborers were lounging in hammocks; I wonder who’s rebudgeted). Biking and hiking and wandering around temples and the rice patty-ful countryside (careful to remain on roads: there are landmines about!), we snacked jack fruit chips, unripe mango, massively sticky rice and beans cooked inside a chute of bamboo, and wowed locals with Laughing Cow cheese and gnawing on raw carrots. Khmer cuisine was similar to Thai, only with less spice and more msg. Though in all fairness, I only tried it once during our daily dinner dance of trying to find a restaurant that understood “I am allergic to msg.” Cambodians don’t understand the idea of allergies. In Khmer, you say, “I don’t know how to eat msg,” but attempts at cultural sensitivity fail when you don’t know the term for what you don’t know how to eat. And eating yogurt, fruit and hard-boiled egg is preferable to making yourself throw up an msg-laden meal.

Back in Bangkok I paid $15 and spent a day a the Indian embassy to make sure I could get back into the country for just enough time to say some goodbyes, meet with my boss and pack before landing in the fanciest airport ever, aka Dubai (oil money, like drug money, will buy you some niiice things), and finally in Durban. Describing Angkor Wat is like trying to type out a rainbow bursting through a sunset over elands and zebra grazing on an African savanna...oh wait, that’s my next entry. Stay tuned.

Posted byValerie at 11:18 AM 0 comments