Until Next Time Africa

I have officially spent two months and eleven days in South Africa, though at time it feels much longer and much shorter. I have learned a lot about healthcare working with the Treatment Action Campaign and SACLA, but I think I learned even more about myself ….

You know you are meant to be doing health promotion and education when you find yourself take pictures of condom signs in clinics, courthouses, and on the streets. And you get way too excited when you find an HIV pamphlet in a random backpackers in a very rural area of the Eastern Cape, South Africa.

I also learned that I would rather be in a rural setting than a city any day. I felt claustrophobic in Cape Town often, but even more so I felt my healthcare “calling” more directed towards a rural population rather than in an urbanized setting.

I also got many questions answered about the healthcare system, like what they are doing to decrease the stress on fatigued clinics….

There are over 400 ART support groups (HIV treatment support groups) already started in Khayelitsha with more being started every day. These decrease monthly stress on clinics. Say you have ten support groups each with thirty attendees, that equals 300 HIV positive individuals who can get their medication in the community rather than waiting in queues all day at the clinic once a month. Instead, these individuals only need to visit the clinic once or twice a year, depending on the support group.

They have transferred over from taking three pills a day for their anti-retro virus medication to just taking one pill a day, which increases adherence to the medication regimen.

They have decided that instead of HIV positive patients needing to visit the clinic once a month for a check up, they only need to see their doctor once a year.

But it also brought up more and more questions to be answered…

I am constantly wondering where the funding comes from for these organizations. Whether they are government run or instead receive funding from private investors.

I wonder how we can increase the amount of people reached through education. Perhaps it needs to be encouraged in the schools or maybe we just need to find another avenue other than workshops to spread information.

I wonder if there are just too many acting Non-governmental or non-profit organizations operating in this area, or areas like Khayelitsha. Some people say the people are feeling workshop overload and organization overload. And even more so, these organizations need to communicate better about their missions and models of education in order to effectively work together in the community.

I got to experience so many things I do not think I ever would outside of Cape Town…

Firstly, I WENT BUNGY JUMPING! And off the highest commercial bridge at that. I even went snorkeling with whales and sharks. I have hiked the mountains all around Cape Town. I have had High Tea at one of the world’s most famous restaurants. I have met people from all around the world. I saw penguins. And elephants. And lions. And so, so much more and I am sure you all have been diligently reading my previous blogs and know everything I have done anyway.

I have thought about all the things I have not done and what else I want to see and honestly, I am only disappointed that I did not get to see a giraffe.

This past week has been one of the best from my entire trip. I spent it with great friends, drinking good South African wine, and taking in all that Cape Town has to offer. I am sitting in the Amsterdam airport waiting for my flight home and I never realized how much I considered Cape Town home. I am already missing the constant Xhosa singing heard at the subway, at lunch, walking down the street, while you care for someone, and literally every other time of the day. I will miss being laughed at with my attempt to communicate in Xhosa.

I know I will be back in Africa; I want to spend time in Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ghana…. And everywhere in between. I want to get out into the rural areas of Africa, untouched by modernization and Western influences (as much as possible). I have dreamed about going to Africa for so many years, and after spending three months in South Africa it only made me yearn for more.

So long Cape Town, you have treated me well. And Africa… you have not seen the last of me.

 

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Insights into Home-Based Healthcare

Over the last two weeks I had the opportunity to shadow Carers at the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA). This experience was very rewarding because the Carers that I worked with were so enthusiastically willing to teach me about their work and answer my incessant questions. After only working with them for a very short time I have already attended a diabetes workshops, an ART support group facilitation workshop, done numerous home-based health visits, and visited a wellness center.

SACLA is a home-based healthcare organization. This organization runs alongside the hospitals and treats clients who are designated “class three”, meaning that they are either bed ridden or cannot get to the hospital for some reason. The Carers at SACLA visit these clients and deliver their medication, administer check ups, and facilitate support groups for ARV treatment. The Carers are not trained in nursing or other medical degrees, however they come with an inherent skill for healthcare and gain more skills throughout workshops that other organizations invite SACLA to attend. While this may seem like bad healthcare practice to someone who is not living in these conditions, what must be understood is that there are limited resources in these communities. There are half a million people in Khayelitsha with a variety of diseases and an incredible rate of TB and HIV. These Carers are providing an amazing service and filling a niche in the healthcare system, they do not prescribe medications but rather offer home based support and education. Their success is due to the networks they have within their own communities on a personal and professional level. It is so empowering to see how well received this organization is in the community and the connections they make.

In my days working with these Carers I went on home visits around Site B, Khayelitsha to meet with different clients and give them health checkups while delivering their medication. I also visited a Wellness center, of sorts, in which elders from the community gather at during the day for social reasons as well as healthcare reasons and the security of having someone else take care of them rather than being alone. SACLA comes once or twice a week and gives them exercises to do, however this is hard in the winter due to the weather and its complications with arthritis. SACLA also offers the resource of health professionals to allow these elders the opportunity to ask questions about their health.

I have seen that through these informal educational sessions that Carers focus on debunking myths around diseases and other health problems. I have learned that there are so many mistruths within in the community about diabetes, ulcers, and other diseases. Some of the questions the Carers were asked were that if you have diabetes you can never eat sugar again, or that if you have relations with someone who is diabetic you can get diabetes, or that if you pee in a pineapple the woods you will be cured. I also had questions asked about ulcers like if you decrease fiber intake you will decrease chance of ulcers.

Increasing education in these informal settings is empowering to those who are attending the meeting or workshop, however there are still hundreds of others who are naive to their own health. I have been thinking about how to get the people who don’t attend the workshops to gain the information we are trying to spread. Sometimes providing incentives like food, transportation vouchers, or t-shirts gets people to the workshops. But most often those that are attending, are those who do not need convincing.

Living and working in South Africa has provided me with two key ideas towards increasing the education rate. One: Community pressures and two: self-empowerment. Just the same with micro financing, healthcare education should operate on a community pressures model. These communities are tight-knit and most often people have connections to another person in the community that needs encouraging. If we were able to employ this to health workshops, we could then target those who are unwilling to attend by incentives and community pressures and perhaps they would be more likely to attend the workshops that way. Secondly, the idea behind creating a better healthcare outlook for people in these communities should revolve around the self-empowerment of being in control of your own health. If we can get across the idea that if someone learns basic healthcare practices and facts, they will be more likely to be healthier because they will be less reliant on clinics and hospitals and more on themselves.

We find that individuals who are HIV positive who are attending outside ART support groups in the community, they are 15% more likely to adhere to their medications (MSF study). If we employ the same concepts of community pressures for attendance and self-empowerment over healthcare hopefully it will result in increased health status.

Throughout these last two weeks I have incessantly asked those I worked with question after question, and with each answer I could think up ten more questions. There is so much to learn about the nuances of health here in Khayelitsha, let alone in sub-Saharan Africa.

Life on the wild, Wild Coast

It has been just over a week since my vacation on the Wild Coast and I am still dreaming about it. My adventure involves whales and dolphins, surfing and sun, traditional Xhosa meals and conversations, and amazing new people. My trip focuses on the Sardine Run, which essentially is the migration of little Sardines up the east coast of South Africa in which larger mammals such as dolphins, whales, sharks and other animal life follow the sardines. This is one of the biggest large animal migrations in the world and would save its reputation as one of the most incredible trips of your life.

The start of my trip, on Saturday, July 12th, a group of about ten interns and two VAC guides flew two hours to Durban in the Eastern Cape in the area of KwaZulu Natal and drove down to Port St. Johns. The distance from Durban to Port St. Johns is not that far, however the roads in this area are full of potholes and are incredibly windy and so it took us just over five hours. The region in which we would spend our week is extremely rural and extremely poor (more on the people later).

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Our first four nights were to be spent at the Jungle Monkey Backpackers. That night we met Steve from Animal Ocean who was to be our guide on the water. He explained how we would get out from the mouth of the river to the ocean, what we would be looking for in the water, and a little bit about his experience. Steve is an amazing skipper and very knowledgeable about the water and the animals we were going to see. Our group would be separated into two and there would be a morning group and an afternoon group each day. We would all get three chances to get out on the water.

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Unfortunately, when my group headed out to meet Steve at 7:45am the next morning the ocean was way too rough. There were about seven other boats waiting and watching the waves, waiting for the perfect break in the crashes to make it out to see. We ended up waiting for about forty minutes and decided to call it a day. We would have waited all day for the waters to calm down because the wind at sea was wild as well. Instead the entire crew of VAC interns decided to stand up paddleboard and lay on the beach all day. I am thankful to say that I survived stand up paddle boarding in the most shark-attacked beach in the world. The reason why there are so many sharks in this river mouth was a bit over my head, but it was do to the fact that this river allows a constant stream of water flowing from the ocean to the river and allows for a steady supply of fish. Additionally, in the river the visibility is very bad and thus sharks will try a taste of anything they see be it a fish or someone’s leg.

That night we drove up to this amazing waterfall that was about 250 meters tall, standing on the top made my stomach do flips. We had sundowners on top of the waterfall and chatted with our ocean guides. At the backpackers later, we got to watch some local girls sing and dance in traditional Xhosa.

The next day our group headed out in the morning again. This time the water was higher and it was much easier for us to get out. The swells were huge once we got into clear water. Unfortunately I got extremely seasick and spent most of the day over the side of the boat. However, despite being sick I was able to see so many animals. We were able to spot hundreds of Gannets (birds that follow the dolphins to try and get the fish). We saw dolphins frolicking and whales breaching. There is so much life on the water it is a shame that so many people are never able to get out on the water to experience it. We were not able to snorkel much with the animals because the swells were pretty wild and we had a little bit of bad timing.

The next day our group was not scheduled to go out until the afternoon, so we spent the morning walking out to the lighthouse and doubling up on seasickness pills. We all were so excited to hear the morning crew that got to see whales in the water and snorkel with lots of dolphins. However, when we got out on the water the wind started to pick up. We got out to sea but turned back after an hour because the waters were getting too rough. We were all incredibly disappointed. This was to be our last chance to go snorkeling and the waters were not cooperating. We all were a lot bitter that afternoon and could not get it out of our heads that we would not be able to go on the water.

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We went out for sundowners on the airstrip of Port St. Johns that night. It was a very solemn mood due to the disappointment from earlier and the fact that we would be leaving for Coffee Bay the next day, leaving this gorgeous area. The sunset was phenomenal and we sat drinking our ciders reflecting about the part of the world we were in and being incredibly thankful for this experience. However, unknown to us, our VAC guides were busy scheming with Steve about how we can get out on the water for one more day. There are only five skippers that operate out of the area, and four of them were already booked. It seemed luck smiled down on us, because the last skipper, who was scheduled to leave the next day, decided to take us out and postpone going home a day. Needless to say, we were thrilled.

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The next morning we went out, armed with seasickness pills and the hope that we could see some animals. That day will be forever engrained in my mind. We were cruising around looking for gannets and whales when we got a call from Steve on another boat telling us to hurry over 10k’s North of where we were to see something incredible. Though this is the sad part, it is part of the cycle of life. When we got to the boat we learned that there was a day or two old baby whale that was being attacked by sharks. We immediately got in the water, after a safety briefing, so we could see the whale. We all were incredibly nervous about being in the water with sharks so close, and all decided to hang on to the boat for safety. After a few minutes, we saw it. This baby whale, maybe a meter and a half long, slowly swimming towards us. It must have been about four feet underneath me. As it swam by we could see that the tail was still wrinkly from just being born, and we could also see the scratches and shark bites on its body. It was so sad to see this whale, separated from its mom, so confused and swimming around in circles.

Just then I looked down, and I saw this massive shark. It must have been about 3 meters long, lurking beneath the boats and waiting to attack. It was so exhilarating being in the water with sharks and the whale. We were able to watch the whale pass by five or six times. This sight is something few will ever see and is something I will always remember. That afternoon we saw some more dolphins and drove along side a whale for about five minutes. We were so close I felt like I could reach out and touch it. That afternoon, after coming back from this life changing experience we quickly packed up and headed out to Coffee Bay to stay at the Coffee Shack. One of my favorite backpackers I have stayed at in South Africa.

On Thursday, we took the whole crew and did a three-hour hike along the Wild Coast to “Hole in the Wall”. After a long hike on a hot day with not enough water, we treated ourselves by swimming in the Indian Ocean, which was perfect temperature.

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On Friday we had a beach day. We all went surfing, which is a lot harder than it looks but so much fun, played beach volleyball, and I even found someone to play Frisbee with me! This day was one of my favorites because after living in Alaska and Montana I have been deprived of the beach all my life, I could not get enough of the water and the sand that day.

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That night we were able to walk up to one of the Villages in Coffee Bay and have a traditional meal, see some dancing, and have the opportunity to ask the family questions about their lifestyle. We tried African beer, which tasted like the starting of bread to me, and ate maize and pap (a traditional meal). We were able to learn about their lifestyle, the hardships, and the culture. It was incredible to me to learn about this culture more. I work with Xhosa people in Cape Town however they live a slightly more modern life than the rural Xhosa people.

One of the biggest indicators of their poverty is the accessibility of jobs in the area. Many men have to travel to larger cities to find work and are unable to return to visit their families for four to six months at a time. However, these people are full of pride and family connection and live happy lives. I could not see why not when they were surrounded by beautify terrain and more or less carried on their lives in the way they pleased.

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The next day we woke up early to drive the nine hours back to Durban to spend our last night. We wanted to be able to make it back in time to watch the Super Rugby Quarterfinals between the Durban Sharks and the New Zealand Highlanders. This game was full of more bonding, so much laughter, and a lot of rugby. We spent our last day on the beach of Durban tanning, sleeping, and eating ice cream. We could hardly believe that our weeklong trip was already over.

This proved to be my favorite week in South Africa by a long shot, and I am so incredibly grateful that I was able to get out of the city and into the rural parts of South Africa to learn how people lived and see what their lifestyle entailed. This made me just want to come back to Africa even more, so that I can experience more of this rural African life.

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The People of Khayelitsha

This one is a tad long and a bit ranty…. Apologies in advance.

Last week I met a man, Ziwe, who will stick in my mind forever as a true activist of change and of hope. I had seen him around the office a few times; he had always been friendly and would ask us how our days were though I did not know him well. The other day Ziwe noticed that we had finished our tasks and decided to show us around Khayelitsha. He knew that no matter how long we worked at TAC, we needed to meet the people in order to understand our work, and with that he took our hands and led us out of the office and into the community.

Though I had desperately wanted, until last week, we had not been able to explore much of Khayelitsha because of the safety factor and our co-workers were too busy to take us around. We were able to get an in-depth tour of one of the Police Stations in Khayelitsha. Even though I was able to see how the system works and understand some of their laws, there are still huge disconnects between the people of Khayelitsha and its police. Understanding the separation between the police and other figures of authority and security yield many insights into the history of South Africa.

After visiting the Station, we were led into the community and walked around the neighborhoods. Khayelitsha is the largest township in Cape Town and thus has many sub-districts. Being able to walk through these neighborhoods to see how people live and what their life looks like was a very important experience to me. All through this community tour, Ziwe greeted everyone like brother and sister. While this is a very African custom, Ziwe was more so doing it because of his nature. He knows everyone in this area, and everyone seems to have a smile on their face when they see him.
Ziwe has been part of the Intercultural Youth Exchange for a few years and has made it his mission to provide activities for youth in communities. These activities include education, sports, poetry, and other events that help to get kids off the streets and engaged in the community. He began this work after realizing that so many youth were naïve and ignorant as to what was happening around them and he wanted to create more opportunities and a better life for youth across southern Africa. He has traveled to different countries enacting these projects, and through his work has seen communities become safer due to the decrease of youth crime.

While NGO’s may be all well and good, individuals like Ziwe who make it their life to improve their community is what really drives progress. What I have found through my work in a Cape Town township is that work from within creates the most change. It is critical for an individual to understand the community and know the people, before solutions are made. You cannot better a community without thinking about whether or not they have food, shelter, transportation to a job, equal opportunity, and if they live in a safe environment. These factors are often over looked in terms of progressing infrastructure, creating jobs or changing the healthcare system, but are crucial to people’s livelihoods.

This past weekend, one of TAC’s community coordinators invited me to attend a “Head. Heart. Hands. Leadership Training” that was being put on my Sanlam Investments. TAC had been attending these trainings for a few months and thought it would be a good opportunity for me to be involved in. This training lasted from 8:30am to 4pm with about sixty members in attendance. The majority was from TAC with other organizations and community members fulfilling the remaining seats.

This was a very powerful meeting to be invited to attend. All day I was able to talk with people of the community and see what their views on leadership and social progress as well as hear their stories. The meeting was separated into two parts, being aware of your own leadership stereotypes and validating the leader inside you. One of the activities involved identifying leaders, out of the group a majority of male leaders where chosen despite the equal ratio between women and men. While looking at our own personal leaders, a group of about ten females, including myself, came up with two males and only one female leader. It took me a while to understand why we had not chosen three female leaders.

Most perspectives of leadership come from an American model: loud, opinionated, creating calls to action, and usually has a large following. To give an example, think of three of the top American leaders and how they represent themselves, and then think of the top three Eastern leaders and how they represent themselves. They represent themselves in near opposite ways; yet have accomplished their goals much in the same way.

In most senses, and particularly when you are in a country in which women struggle to express themselves and gain their own rights, women to not fit this model. And while it is true that leadership comes in many forms, women are not generally recognized as leaders because they do not fit into the American model. In fact, when they do fit into this model, they are considered bossy and even looked down upon. Instead they express their leadership through other means and accomplish their goals not by being loud perhaps, but by gathering the people. Being able to recognize our own leadership model made me aware of how I portray myself as a leader and I also became more appreciative of the non-American model of leadership.

Another big point that I came away with was the idea of limiting beliefs. I have always considered limiting beliefs to be one of the primary barriers to change, though was never quite able to explain it eloquently (and I doubt that I will here either).
When you think of a little boy who grows up in a community filled with gangs and poverty it is hard imagine a different life for him. When this boy is growing up, he sees crime and stealing, and the men he looks up to often have a life of violence so it is hard to see a path any different for himself. And just the same, when you think of a little girl who grows up in a community filled with gender discrimination and violence it is hard to imagine a different life for her. When this girl is in her childhood, she sees the inequality between men and women and sees the way of life other girls are taking, paths of drugs, crime, and sex, there is little to think that her life could be anything other.
These children face challenges and barriers few can relate to: rape, violence, poverty, and gangs, and thus the opinions of what they can achieve is limited. They do not see stable families and jobs that create opportunity and success, but instead they are forced down a path that has already been chosen for them. This is the concept of limiting beliefs; to be surrounded by paths in which few lead to success and it becomes hard to imagine any different of a life for youths.

This of course is not true of every individual, if it were what would you say about all of the progress and activity going on in these communities today. This weekend I heard many stories about people facing adversities and overcoming them. Stories about being a single mother, or an ex-gang member, or fighting against the AIDS stereotype, but the most compelling was of a fifteen year old girl who is already imagining a different life for herself.

At fifteen she had already gone through some of life’s biggest challenges. Drugs, abandonment, and crime surrounded her life; she was on a path that was not leading her in a direction of success. However, she decided that it was only up to her to make a change; that no one could do it for her and so she was going to change herself and choose her own path. She is now two months sober and was capable of bringing a room full of sixty adults to tears.

Even now, writing this, days later, I still feel the goose bumps from her story. These youths, and communities, may be facing adversities few can imagine, but they are not bowing down to the challenges they face. They are standing up, choosing a better life for themselves and the people around them and actively making a difference.

Throughout my experiences in Khayelitsha one thought has resonated with me: the global view of Africa, particularly with regards to South African crime and poverty. While there may be more crime here than in other countries, and its poverty may be so engrained it is hard to think of South Africa without any other connotations, this view is of huge detriment to the people and the progress of South Africa. One of the detectives at the police station made a comment as we were walking through her office, “Do not believe anything you read in the papers. I have been here twenty-seven years, and I am still here.”

There may be challenges to overcome in this community, as there are in every community, but there is also huge changes being made. So much energy is focused on youths here, with the thought that if we can only make the lives of youth safer, increase their education, and aid in their health, than perhaps the community will see those benefits as well. Organizations like TAC, and numerous others, work to create better communities through fighting the status quo of violence and inequality; instead they raise awareness, increase the capability of the people, and stand against their challenges.

I overheard this quote in the office the other day between two coworkers in a simple conversation, “If simply your dreams inspire others to do work, then you are already a leader” and I realized how inspired I had become by just working along side these individuals.

Garden Gals Tour the Coast

This past weekend has been my favorite in Cape Town so far. I traveled up the coast with seven other lovely ladies to see ostriches, crawl in caves, jump off a HUGE bridge, touch an elephant, stay in a commune (well practically one), and gorge ourselves on amazing fish caught from the sea and desserts to die for. Let me see if I can remember it all.

 

We left for our adventure on Thursday and drove north towards Paarl. Here we visited the Drakenstein Lion Park which is a sanitary that saves lions from abuse.

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We then started on towards Oudtshoorn and ate at the most idyllic country style restarunt, “Die Stahl”. Then along Route 62 we pasted by Ronnie’s Sex Shop (a novelty bar that is known for its bras and underwear hanging from the ceiling). We then took a slight detour through Warmwaterberg Springs, a natural hot springs, to soak up some hot, hot water.

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Finally after a long day of driving nearly six hours, we made it to Oudtshoorn where we were able to watch some soccer before crashing in our beds, we had a long day ahead of us the next day.

We woke up on Friday early again, so as to allow some of our crew to ride some ostriches and the rest of us to eat some food at yet another amazing country style restaurant. We realized that we were cutting it close to our reservation at the Cango Caves and decided to send one car up while the others were finishing eating. We arrive just as the last call for the “Adventure Tour” was being shouted over the loudspeakers and sprinted up to the ticket booth to get our spots. Out of the six who were planning to go on the Adventure route, only two of us made it, and I am thankful I was one of the two!

The Adventure route was definitely an adventure. We crawled through tunnels that were accurately named like “The Tunnel of Love”, known for its loving touches as you try and squeeze past the rocks. And “The Chimney”, known for needing to shimmy your way up this 3.5 meter tunnel that was going straight up like a chimney. We even had to crawl through an opening head first, an experience that was referred to as similar to the birthing process…. an odd association, though very true. This caving experience was one of my favorite aspects of the trip.

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After exploring the caves we drove to the coast and ate at the lovely seaside town of Wildernis and then made it to our destination in Natures Valley. The backpackers, or hostel, in Natures Valley would accommodate us for the next three nights. I felt like I was at a commune here. There were hikes, tree forts, horses, waterfalls, family dinners, and people from all walks of life. It was so great to sit down and chat with new people each night and hear their stories and adventures. Also, the family dinners were amazing. It was so comfort to be eating homestyle foods by the comfort of a fire in the middle of the wilderness far away from any city.

One night we started talking with some boys who had taken the night in stride and decided to dress in drag (it was their cousins birthday weekend and they were making the most of their weekend for sure). So, obviously, we decided to join them. There was an entire dress up closet at this hostel that anyone could go in and wear. Clearly this hostel had its priorities. We dressed up in moo moo’s and hats and odd lace outfits and danced around on the patio. It was a fabulously spontaneous night.

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The next morning, while the other girls went on a cheetah walk, I woke early to take a hike to a waterfall. While the guide told me it would take an hour each way, it took me only half an hour to get there and back… so my morning plan had to be a bit altered. I, instead, read on my deck while watching the sun rise over the mountains and had a more peaceful morning than I have had in a long while.

It was a good thing I had such a relaxing morning, because my day was about to get very terrifying.

I jumped off the Worlds Highest Bridge Jump… attached to a bungy of course. Bungy jumping was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had. It was both terrifying and also freeing. Both ridiculous and totally un-scary. The whole time my mind and my body were fighting each other at the thought of jumping off this bridge. But one I had jumped, there was no turning back and you just had to enjoy the freefall. I would love to jump again just to have that feeling.

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After eating some lunch in Plettenberg Bay and decompress after our jump we went and visited some elephants! We got to walk a hand in trunk walk with them. If you know me well, you might know that sheep are my favorite animal. However, after the visit with these incredible animals I think sheep have a little bit of competition.

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The next day we went without any adrenaline rush, and instead opted for a lovely, peaceful walk along the beach. This took all day and we went through all sorts of terrains: a rainforest, an estuary, a beach, a cove, and climbed up some rocks. Even though we ate lunch with by far the slowest service I have had in Africa (and believe me, the service is slow here because everything runs on “Africa time”) the day was hardly ruined.

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This amazing hike rounded out our Garden Route Trip to make an absolutely fabulous long weekend with some fabulous girls. I was so thankful to get out of the city and into the country. To breathe fresh air and dip our toes in the ocean. I have been feeling so claustrophobic stuck in the city and being out surrounded by trees, animals, and new sights refueled me.

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In my preparations before coming to Cape Town I had plans. Plans that were not just professionally focused, such as understanding how HIV impacts the lives of people in South Africa or understanding what it means to be an effective health outreach organization. But also they were personally focused, plans to “reinvent” myself into someone less future driven and more in the moment. Someone who said yes to every experience and every opportunity. Someone who was spontaneous and exciting.

And yet,

Africa had its plans too. After my few weeks stay, I have realized that to understand how HIV impacts the people, I must first know the people. And in order to reinvent, I must first come to understand myself. Living and working in this country has given me a perspective that has already taught me so much. Through this I have been humbled by Africa.

 

When I first arrived here I had dreams of educating community members about HIV. Dreams about helping to reduce the stereotype of being HIV positive and getting tested. Dreams about getting my hands dirty in fighting for healthcare rights. Dreams about listening to people’s stories of how the lack of healthcare access or affordability has affected their life. Though I hate to admit it, I had the typical Western thought that I would be able to come into this country and know what was needed and be able to supply that need.

And yet,

What I found to be learning, and observing, was something I did not expect at all.

In my work I have found passionate people who risk their life for the work they do. The HIV foundation, in which I work, acts as a health education and social activism organization fighting for a better life in Khayelitsha. They fight for the rights of people when they are not given any, or when they are taken away. They are not just focused on increasing HIV knowledge, but also to reduce gender based violence, to bring awareness about alcohol abuse, to share their stories of discrimination, and to bring treatment to those who cannot afford it. They strive to make Khayelitsha safer in every aspect of life. Though they may face ridicule, threats or other forms of discrimination for going against the status quo, they still have found empowerment and hope in this work.

I met a HIV treatment adherence counselor who specializes with youth and was able to oversee her work all day and interview her about her place in the healthcare system. I rambled off so many questions I am sure she felt like she was being interrogated. It was not until half way through the day when I asked her, “What made you join this line of work?”

To which she simply replied, “Oh nothing. Not really anything.” And then after a moment’s pause she added, while staring out the window, “Well no, that is a lie.”

And I discovered that she started this work after her brother died from HIV. She wanted to know more about the disease that took her brother, and eventually her path led her to become an HIV counselor for youth. She had never told anyone this reason or her relationship with HIV. Maybe it was my incessant questions or maybe it was just a stranger dying to know more, but disclosing her real reasons for working as a counselor made me feel just a little more connected to HIV in South Africa.

Even though she was not able to help her brother, she now dedicates her life to youth to ensure they understand the disease and help to maintain the treatment schedule. She dedicates her life so that HIV does not unnecessarily take the life of a youth.

This counselor was so inspiring to have met, to have gone into this line of work for such noble reasons. To be of good health is to be alive, and to feel safety is a right I only took for granted before. These individuals dedicate their lives to making people healthy, safe, and hopefully a little less sacred. I have been humbled to be allowed into a line of work that, to me, is so sacred.

 

It is not only in my work that I have been humbled. In my personal life I have sometimes struggled, and sought out Africa as a way to redefine my interactions with people. I have always been one to give more of myself in a relationship, allowing some people to use part of me to store their troubles. I have let people do this all of my life, until it became a burden too heavy to bear and I could feel myself sinking.

I am the kind of person who is more often given the backseat, interrupted or flaked out on because “I would always be there”. In my adventure across the world I vowed that I would not let the strangers, whom I would soon hope to make friends, know of this weakness. I would be exciting and enthralling and so captivating that I could not be ignored. A flight here, a life there. Bippity Boppity Boop. Reinvented.

And yet,

I was interrupted. And left out. And chose the comfort of my bed than the excitement of a night on the town. Just as I always had been. And I realized that it is harder to just “reinvent” yourself simply because you don’t feel adequate. I thought that maybe I would always feel a little bit like I wanted more from myself.

 

And then sometimes, if your lucky and you are open, people surprise you.

 

After having some of the most thoughtful conversations I have had, with these strangers whom I have since made friends, I discovered a strength that I never took too seriously before: trust.

Though I have known people here for less than a month, there is a feeling of companionship and trust of our deepest thoughts because we all are, in a sense, reinventing ourselves. Even in knowing someone for only a few days is no exception to this.

I am entrusted with the secrets people are too scared to tell their best friends, with the struggles they can’t seem to articulate, and with their happiest moments. I may never have the “obsessively need to be around you all of the time” friendship I envy, but being allowed into someone’s most vulnerable thoughts may be enough for me.

 

Sometimes these moments are fleeting, and must be cherished simply as they are, and some are most sustained, lasting for years. Either way, these are the moments that make me feel humble. That even though I may always be someone who can be interrupted, forgotten, or not quite enough, I will always be someone who can be entrusted into thoughts as precious as friendship itself.

 

I may not be the whole person that I strive to be, but at least I am part of someone else’s life, even if fleeting.

 

 

From Caving to Wine

The past week has been filled with Cape Town adventures galore. Let me try and fill you in.

Last Friday I went on my second “VAC” activity, which is an activity that my internship organization puts on every Friday. This week: Caving at Kalk Bay. We took a forty-five minute train ride down the coast to Kalk Bay and hiked up about forty minutes from which we could see an amazing view of Seal Island (notorious for great white sharks coming to feast on the seals). Then we went caving. We entered in the cave, about five feet in diameter and crawled in one by one until the entire group of about twenty five were well into the cave. At some points we had to army crawl in the pitch black, only lit up by some shotty flashlights, and yet in other parts we could stand freely. There were bats flying around and bouncing off the walls, sometimes people, and a slow drip of water coming from… somewhere above. After about twenty minutes in the cave, climbing over rocks and getting lost in the tunnels that ran below the rocks, we emerged and was greeted by the sun and yet another amazing view of the coastal towns. When I come back to Cape Town I am going to A) come back in their summer so its hot, hot, hot and B) stay somewhere on the beach so I can go caving and swimming all in one day.

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On Saturday two of my roommates and some friends booked a wine tour with Wine Flies (anyone going to Cape Town I strongly recommend them). They took us to five different wineries, more of-the-beaten-track than most tours take you, and into two different wine regions: Stellenbosch and Paarl. We had chocolate pairings, cheese pairings and of course a delicious traditional braai for lunch, complete with the South African favorite of butternut squash soup.
Our tour included three other boys who rounded our group out to a lively bunch. Jerry from New York:  sick of his job in publishing so quit to travel around the world. He has been all over northern Africa and dipped down to Cape Town before heading off to India and then… who knows! Stijn (or something Dutch that resembles Stein) from Holland:  studying hotel management in northern South Africa and came down to Cape Town for a vacation before he returned to Holland. and Chris an Austrian living in Australia: in Cape Town for a business trip for a consulting firm where he works. We all got along so well that we decided to go have dinner together and hang out on Long Street that night.
All in all we had amazing wine, met some amazing people, and got to see life outside of Cape Town and it made for an amazing day.

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On Sunday my roommate Amanda and I decided to trek up to Kirstenbosch Gardens and brave the cold weather, which actually turned out to be a very pleasant day. While we weren’t able to explore the entirety of the gardens  (as I realized that there is a waterfall in there somewhere) we enjoyed meandering through the flowers. Seeing the views from the treetop walkway was glorious, though it was a little too foggy to get a good look at Cape Town and the thing swayed so much we did not spend too much time up there.
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This is the flower of an aloe vera plant, who woulda thought!

On Monday night my roommate and her visiting friend invited me on a sunset cruise around the Cape Town harbor and bay area. We saw a view of Cape Town like I had never before, and awed at the mountain ranges as the sun slowly dipped beyond the sea. The sunset was complete with champagne and good company. In all of the hype about setting off on a “sunset cruise” I forgot all about my seasickness…. until we were will into the swells and the sailboat was dipping up and down and crashing into the water. Despite getting sick, experiencing the sunset on the water is one of my favorite things in the world. The last half an hour the moon came out and we were able to see the sun and the moon from the boat.

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This week at the Treatment Action Campaign has had its ups and downs. While we are getting more accustomed to working in the environment, we still have our frustrations about doing the work that we want to be doing. Though we know that if we keep pushing forward, making relationships and connections within the organization and asking for what we want out of the internship we will eventually see the community side of the organization.

I am learning so much about being a follower, which seems like an odd thing to learn. I have always been one to start the project, organize the people, and direct the flow of things, however in this setting none of those skills are coming in hand. Here I am forced to sit patiently while a task comes to me, and then figure out what they want from it. Learning patience and seeing how this organization works together is really a great skill that I will, I’m sure, master while I am here.

I am also learning a lot about being an observer, a skill that I never took too much time to determine my competency. I have never learned so much about a culture, human interaction, respect, and passion just from observing (its almost all I can do because I do not speak enough Xhosa to understand much more than Hi, how are you?).

I hope to have more to report on in the coming weeks.

I head off to Cederberg this weekend, a few hours north for a trip out to the South African country to enjoy some hiking, campfires, wine, and of course braai.