07 September 2009
And that's about where I'm at right now. I'm doing okay. It's amazing how quickly I'm reacclimating to America. I suppose that makes sense because my last three weeks in South Africa were spent in Cape Town and Pretoria. In my guesthouse by the Peace Corps Office, I got pretty far away from what it was like to take bucket baths and fumble for the candles when the electricity went out.
I find myself translating what things cost in dollars into Rand. Sometimes it's pretty pathetic. I don't know why I do it. Habit, maybe. I did really like paying with a different currency. But, for example, a nice "cheap" out-to-dinner meal with a friend in America might cost what, $15 with tip, right? Well, that's 120 Rand. That could pay for two nice meals in Pretoria! Or a week's worth of groceries and toiletries!
When my plane was first landing in D.C., I was so amazed at how lush everything was. The bright green color of the grass and trees was a nice welcome home after living the closest to a desert that I've ever lived in my life! But when we "de-planed" (I love that term : ) the muggy August air wrapped tightly around me. It didn't help that my luggage was so full that I had to wear a t-shirt, sweater, hoodie and my South African winter coat through my 30-hour excursion back home. (And 30 hours not showering plus four layers of clothes in August, eish!, it was something!)
I took my 'welcome home tour' and visited friends in Boston, Ann Arbor, Detroit and Cincinnati. It was nice to see everyone who had been so supportive of me - and to pass out souvenirs! Since I had expected to be in South Africa longer, I spent my last week going between completing my medical paperwork and furiously buying gifts! Of course, I ran out of money. And then I found out that Peace Corps pro-rates your monthly stipend and takes money back from you for the month you leave. Wow. It's not like we made that much anyway. Oh well. I got some nice gifts for most of my friends and family.
I'm moving along with trying to work with D.C. on a policy for survivors of sexual assault and rape - along with other physical crimes. I started a companion blog (since I'm not tech-savvy enough to create a website) for this effort at: http://firstresponseaction.blogspot.com/. You can also email me at email@example.com. The Peace Corps staff person I'm supposed to start this conversation with was on vacation until this past Tuesday. He'd been gone for two weeks, so I gave him this week to catch up on emails. I'll start again next week. I want him to be happy when we talk : ) I'll keep you posted.
In love and laughter,
07 August 2009
I am medically separating from Peace Corps South Africa. In about five hours from now, I will be on a plane bound for the US.
I didn't say it before, but I've thought a lot about it these last several weeks, and I feel it's more productive (than not) to share what happened that caused me to move from Mafikeng.
More than a month ago, I was sexually assaulted at my site. Peace Corps pulled me out in fear for my safety, but it's been all downhill from there. The assault has had cultural ramifications for me and I don't feel safe when I'm not around Americans I know will protect me.
I'll definitely be sharing more in the future regarding this issue because I found out through this process that Peace Corps has NO global policy on sexual assault or rape. For an organization that operates worldwide and in some pretty unstable countries, I think this is appalling. I am planning to devote time when I return to working with Peace Corps, PCVs, RPCVs, etc. on this.
But, for the very short term, I'm just focusing on going home.
Visions of hot showers, unlimited Internet and indoor flush toilets flash through my mind. People ask me what I want to do when I get home. All I can think of is just hugging my parents. A lot. And seeing my family and friends who have been so steady for me through this ordeal. I don't care which food I eat first, now I just want to see my family. (And if we share that quality time over Donatos pizza or Skyline Chili, that's even better : )
Looking ahead, it seems like I have a lot to catch up with at home. My NY Times e-mail updates have been talking a lot about this new healthcare reform process and Sotomayor, so I'll have to get up-to-date with my current events.
I'm also excited to hear really silly news again on a daily basis. Like I saw the other day on Yahoo that Paula Abdul is quitting American Idol. I'm so used to hearing about workers striking, more HIV, more raping, young boys dying from botched circumcisions and the like that I'm not sure I'll know what to do with fluffy news again.
I'm nervous about the American economy since I thought when I'd be back in spring 2011, the economy would be in a different place. But, my Peace Corps experience turned out to be very different than I'd hoped and it's not safe or healthy for me to be here anymore. I will have to play the hand I've been dealt.
I suppose, in general, that this blog as my Peace Corps experience is finished. But I hope to keep this as my life experiences blog, which will include working with PC in DC on a global sexual assault and rape policy. If you are interested in helping or if you're an RPCV or current PCV and would like to help this cause, please comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I've never done anything like this before, but I can only imagine that with the US government, it may take awhile and may be complicated beyond my wildest dreams. But if I can prevent what happened to me from happening to anyone else, that is what I will do. If Obama wants to double Peace Corps, we have to get some basics in place first.
Thanks to everyone who has followed my experiences thus far. Even though my Peace Corps chapter is finishing, there's still much more to come : )
And thank you to my Peace Corps friends. I will miss you all incredibly, but am so excited to hear upates about the work you are doing!
03 August 2009
The pictures mostly speak for themselves, so there’s not much more I have to add to this one. I went with other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), some of whom are in Pretoria because they’ve been med-evac’d from their countries. Only three of us in the group photo are actually PCVs in South Africa. The others are scattered in various African countries north of us and the person in the Panama Jack hat is the visiting medical officer from Paraguay.
I love that this baby giraffe has a cloak and a little log cabin.
What an eccentric giraffe to be wearing a cloak! Next comes black nail polish.
Cheetah through the fence - they are so beautiful!
Video with a lioness walking towards us (we think she's pregnant).
Sorry it's a bit Blair Witch with the camera movement, they backed up the car while I was shooting this. Oh - and the background is sort of silly. Enjoy!
As for me...more later. Still homeless. Still trying to figure it all out.
28 July 2009
I volunteered for the conference for each of the four days. It was faciniating to hear the findings of the leading scientists in the field of HIV/AIDS research. Having been on the ground, so-to-speak, for the last six months in the country with the highest HIV incidences in the world, there were some glaring gaps in what the West is doing and then how that's going to work in the rest of the world. All of the session's PowerPoints are online as well as the overview Rapporteur reports. It was a very interesting experience and I'm so glad I got to be part of it while I am in South Africa.
I extended a couple more days to do some sightseeing (pictures below). Since I'm a fan of lists, here are some highlights of my trip to Cape Town, South Africa:
- Saw those African penguins! They're actually called Jackass Penguins for the donkey noise they make when mating. Hmm.
- Got sprayed with lots of frigid Atlantic waters when I did a tour around Cape Point. It's the height of winter here, but luckily the temperature was in the low 20s C, which is around 70F, so not too bad for winter. My friends in Michigan would laugh that this is what people in Cape Town call winter!
- Discovered chocolate chai latte! Who knew that existed?! I had it every morning I was in Cape Town except for one. The guy at the shoppe probably thought I was crazy. I tried to do a silly "hello again" in a funny voice with a little courtsey to be sort of funny that I was coming back again for the tasty chocolate chai, but he didn't really find it funny, so I didn't do it again.
- Met lots of fasinating volunteers at the conference representing the diverse history of South Africa. It was nice to have a week break from people yelling "lekgoa!" at me b/c of my white skin. There's only so much racism one can tolerate.
- Got to walk around at night! Seriously, we (PC volunteers) can't do that in most of South Africa due to safety, so this was a treat not to have to disappear w/ the sunset.
- Climbed the mountain at the Cape of Good Hope! My calves were screaming at me for a couple of days about that. For awhile, it's almost a straight incline, so it's a killer for the calves.
- Walked all around Table Mountain. It's so funny to think you can just walk all around on the top of a mountain. There are all these stone paths marked out too, very cool.
- Ate sushi! My long lost love! I found a place that had half off rolls! Super-great prawn and calamari sushi for half price, who can beat that?!
16 July 2009
I should put the disclaimer that all of the information I'm about to write about is from personal experience, reading books about HIV/AIDS in South Africa, talking with South Africans and Peace Corps sources. There are certainly people who know more about all of this than me. I just think it's interesting to take a look at some factors as to why South Africa has the highest incidence rates of HIV than any other country worldwide and how it differs from AIDS in the U.S.
Learners, youth and everyone hear a lot more about AIDS than in the U.S. It's everywhere. AIDS messaging is on the radio, TV, on posters in community buildings, in churches, etc. I've spoken with some South Africans who say that the constant messaging is fatiguing and that people tune out the messages about safe sex. It becomes background noise at a point. I read a story about a young girl who was diagnosed at 19 and she said she learned about HIV in school but thought it would never happen to her, that she tuned out the information because it was like, yah, yah, heard that before.
Multiple partners are really common and some have dubbed this concurrent partnering the HIV Superhighway. And, along with this comes cheating too. My friend said she read in a South African magazine that only 6% of relationships in South Africa are faithful. Six percet! Now I don't know who they polled, but wow! That's just crazy. And lots of this cheating is unprotected sex where the cheating partner goes back to the original relationship and then they have unprotected sex, thus continuing the superhighway.
Stigma. While stigma tends to be huge in any area, in rural villages of South Africa where everyone knows everyone's name and surname and where they live, etc., there's little confidentiality. Someone could get tested at the local clinic, but (and it's sometimes a big but) how far is the clinic? 5K, 10K, another village even? There's no quick, easy or reliable transport to get there. Sure, these big taxis called kumbis exist, but they cost money.
The person working at the clinic likely knows that person coming to get tested too. The registers where patients sign-in for testing is in plain sight to be viewed by anyone. In communities this small, it's difficult for anyone to keep anything a secret. Now, of course, not every village pushes out their HIV+ community members, some will even protect those among them who are 'different' from the rest. I've even heard of a village where there was a young biological boy living as a girl and the community protected her. I think that's pretty powerful for small community culture.
ARVs (or Anti-Retrovirals) are supposed to be provided at no cost to the public to people who are HIV+. However, the ARVs that are used here are ones that the U.S. hasn't used for years. The most recent development for an ARV used in South Africa is 1994, I believe. Med-adherence is also a big factor. Those HBCs I mentioned earlier have care workers who are supposed to go visit their clients and make sure they are taking their meds. There are lots of potential issues with HBCs, including no funding, fatigued staff, lack of transport to remote areas as well as many others. But I have a feeling I shouldn't discuss those on this blog since I'm working under Peace Corps. Let's just say there's theory ... and there's practice.
"We don't need to worry about HIV anymore, right? There's a pill." Not even kidding, this is what my former host mother said to me. I was aghast. Coming in as an outsider, looking at how South Africa's HIV rates are raging but people in the country seem to be immune to the panic that people outside South Africa are feeling. I'm not sure how frequently these words are uttered by other South Africans, but it scares me.
Before moving to South Africa, I worked for Caracole, an HIV+ transitional living community in Cincinnati (check them out, maybe even make a donation!) so I could get more experience with HIV/AIDS. I learned a lot about the HIV med system (those ARVs I mentioned earlier). Because HIV is such a clever virus, it's constantly mutating and if a person just took one pill, HIV would find a way around it and become stronger. That's why when a person goes on ARVs, they take a therapy of three pills so it's more difficult for HIV to mutate.
Poverty. Living in and visiting impoverished communities has given me a whole new perspective on poverty, but this post isn't about that. It's about lack of access to necessary resources. Most villages in South Africa seem to have electricity (so people can heat meat and kill viruses) and some source of water (which people can boil to kill parasites and use to clean themselves) but often times, access to nutritional food is lacking. Mealies or mealie pap which is basically corn, cornmeal or something similar is very common. People eat pap up to three times a day. You can tell which meal it is by the way it's cooked (thinner for breakfast, like porridge, or thicker for dinner).
When people have HIV/AIDS, nutrition is vital. People in rural areas have a limited diet of pap, maybe some meat and maybe some veggies. Oh, and also, all the mini-shoppes in the villages have chips and lots of soda. I would love to see a study done on how much soda is consumed here. It's crazy. Which brings me to sugar. Thanks to English influence, most people observe tea time. To make the tea taste good (b/c flavored tea is fancy and hard to come by) people will seriously sugar-up their tea. Like 4-6 heaping teaspoons. And for dinner? Rather than spices for flavor, a lot of families use salt. Eish, so much salt! I dare to even put a measurement on how much. My training village host mother made me eggs once and seriously all I could taste was the salt! So, beyond HIV/AIDS, illnesses like diabetes and hypertension are becoming increasingly common.
Those are some of the big factors. There are others like men just not wanting to wear condoms and women not being empowered enough to negotiate safe sex. And re-infection, where two HIV+ partners have sex and think it doesn't matter because they're both +. But it does matter, but they can re-infect each other with different strains. I suppose in some kind of a closing, the HIV/AIDS scene in South Africa is very complicated with many systems involved. This is just scratching the surface.
On a personal note, I'm still without a site, but my Peace Corps supervisor is back and I'll be meeting with her when I get back from Cape Town week after next. (Yay!) I really want to go cage-diving with the great whites, but I think back to this IMAX show I saw as a kid where my mom and I rooted for the shark... There might be some weird foreshadowing in that, so I'll keep my distance : )
10 July 2009
So, yes, I'm currently homeless in South Africa. If I think about it too much I start to get a little anxious, so I just try not to think about it that hard : )
Rather than stay in Pretoria through this site change, our Peace Corps Country Director has me visiting volunteers to help with their work. It's nice to be productive during this transition period. With a change of scenery, I'm already feeling better about moving to a new site, wherever that may be.
Being temporarily homeless, I was thinking about the people in South Africa who are homeless homeless, like squatter-camp homeless, not like my current couch-surfing homelessness. I'm lucky that I'm under the auspices of Peace Corps so that I can still get money for food and transportation, but there are so many others who are without a solid roof - or they're living in a shanty spot.
The South African government has these housing sites called RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) where they build low-cost housing for people who are homeless in South Africa. From what I've heard from South Africans, often times the houses are built first without hooking up water or any electricity, so really it's only like one step up from being actually homeless.
There are lots of opinions on how effective these housing projects actually are - especially considering the corruption that seems to surround these RDP sites. Some people will buy them and then rent the rooms at a spiked cost.
Recently, I was visiting a fellow volunteer friend and near her village is a site of these RDP housing developments. The 'houses' have only two rooms and often times multiple people live in these houses. Most sites have pit toilets (outhouses if you're from the country) and there are normally taps or boreholes nearby where people can get water.
I took a video to show you what it looks like. At the beginning of the video, you can kind of hear the beginning of Higher Love by Steve Winwood (from the late 80s/90s) playing on the radio. I thought it was quite the appropriate song to play as I took the video of these RDP houses since Winwood sings "things look so bad everywhere; in this whole world, what is fair?" (The full lyrics are linked in case you're interested. It's a really great song, especially for soundtracks.)
RDP Housing Site in Rural North West Province, South Africa
It's such a different reality to see these types of housing developments and then see the richness of other areas in the country. The gap between the haves and have-nots in South Africa is among the highest in the world, if not the highest.
So, for now I'm couch-surfing. But I have some leads on new sites and will hopefully have an update soon.