Sunday, December 13, 2009

'Tis the Season

The holiday season always seems to be a time when we all give thanks for the great things in our lives: family and friends, roofs over our head, our health and all the blessings that we have. I have been thinking about what I am thankful for a lot lately, especially because my life and my work here has helped me to prioritize and appreciate what I have even more.

There are two things that I wanted to briefly write about, to highlight some of the frustrations, and common practices in South Africa, which I have been thinking about a lot lately.

About a month and a half ago, much to our surprise, we had two break ins at our house. We live in suburbia, comparable to Southern California, a place that you would not expect to have break ins. But, what we have learned is that you cannot expect anything here. Life is different, and South Africa is a completely different world. Just because it looks like America does not mean that it is comparable to the States. At any rate, one morning we awoke to find our back sliding door unlocked and open, and things strewn about on the floor of our living room. A robber managed to steal computers, iphones, ipods, sneakers, money and a door key while we were all asleep. Then, a week later, another(or the same) robber returned and while we were eating dinner downstairs, climbed onto our upstairs porch, opened a window and stole sneakers, a camera, a wallet and some soccer jerseys. It was such a mess, and certainly a huge wake up call for all of us. We learned that just because a place looks safe does not mean that it is safe. What is the most disappointing thing to learn is that in all honestly, people don’t really care about these things. Petty theft is so common here, it’s almost a rite of passage. Everyone we have spoken do has experienced a similar(or worse) situation, and the police here barely even bother with reports. They don’t really care, so they don’t even bother trying to help. It’s completely jarring to think that this event which impacted our lives so much is just another day in South Africa to most people. While these experiences have made us grow and we have learned a lot from them, it also makes me wonder if I could ever actually live in a place where events like this are common practice, and having your guard up is just part of life. Who knows. One thing that we have to be incredibly thankful for is that the robbers were only looking for things, not for us.

Another thing that I wanted to touch on briefly is one part of my week that always humbles me. Usually once or twice a week, one of the interns brings the trash from the office out. Where we bring the garbage is to a large pile of trash, mixed with twigs and branches. This pile sits right behind the Primary school where we work, and often you will see kids rummaging through the trash. And, the common practice with the garbage is to simply light it on fire, rather than disposing of it any other way. I mean, in all honestly, with the other things to worry about in the township, why would anyone be concerned with where their trash is going, or that they are releasing harmful toxins into the air every day? Either way, every time that I throw our black trash bags onto the pile, I always have to step back and think about things. As small of a thing as it is, that is one thing that I still have yet to fully accept. We see a lot of things on a daily basis that are quite shocking, but that we are learning to accept as part of the scene. But this garbage pile is something that I can never really get over. It makes me think about the frustrations over lack of recycling and compost in the States, and in comparison to garbage situations in most countries, we are extremely progressive. As I said, although small in the scale of concerns that South Africa faces, this small act that I am contributing to always makes me stop and think, and appreciate the every day novelties we are blessed to have in America.

So, in between holiday parties, gift shopping, skiing, skating, shoveling snow, baking and celebrating, try and remember all the great gifts that we all have every day. It’s easy to forget all that we have to be thankful for, and even seeing such hardship here sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own world that I forget to step back and appreciate all the wonderful things in life. I hope that these two small glimpses into life in South Africa help you to appreciate and recognize the gifts of life in America.

Well after work this week I am off to Tanzania with Rosie and Anna for Christmas, leaving this Friday, so I will have lots of stories and photographs to share when I return. I hope you all have wonderful holidays, and happy new year!

Voluntary Counseling and Testing

On November 28th, in conjunction with December 1, World Aids Day, we had our annual Voluntary Counseling and Testing(VCT) Tournament. This is an event sponsored by Grassroot Soccer that allows high school teams from three of the townships in Port Elizabeth to participate in a soccer tournament, as well as have an opportunity to get tested for HIV. The event is also open to the public, so community members can come, watch some soccer, enjoy some live music and know their HIV status. The events are always a huge success, and this year in particular Grassroot Soccer has been breaking testing records across Southern Africa at these events. So, we were really excited to help out and see our first VCT.

The 28th also happened to be right after Thanksgiving, so after enjoying a delicious feast on the 26th with friends and co-workers, we got down to business to prepare final logistics for the big day. Dom had been working on this event for months, facing challenges, budget cuts and other frustrations along the way, but the day of the event everything went incredibly smoothly, and everyone had a lot of fun. We tested 188 people, which was a huge success. And, for the first time ever, we had every team show up to participate in the soccer tournament, which was a huge accomplishment. Everyone had a great time. All of our staff and coaches were there, helping out in various areas, like coaching the teams and ensuring that the day ran smoothly. We had prizes and giveaways as well, like cool vuvuzelas, a plastic horn that are like the South African national instrument, used at any soccer match. We also had a signed Bafana(the South African national soccer team) jersey as a prize, which a student won, so that was very exciting.

All in all, the day was really really fun, probably one of the best days that I have had in South Africa. It was a great bonding experience for our entire staff as well. The highlight of my day was at the end, we all were dancing and goofing around, then we decided to all go and get a beer together to celebrate the end of the VCT. So, Dom, Mike, Rosie, Anna(another intern who was visiting for the week) and I, along with about twenty of our coaches piled into various cars to head to a bar near the field where we held the tournament. Anna had brought her truck down for the week, so I jumped in the back along with about fifteen other coaches. We were dancing, singing and playing vuvuzelas, in a euphoric and adrenaline filled state in the back of the truck. I have rode around in trucks before, but usually on back roads in Vermont, so riding around in the back on some major roads in the township probably wasn’t the smartest move that I could have made, but I jumped on board in the excitement and energy of the moment. So, we were all packed in the truck bed, singing and jumping around, waiting for the other cars to catch up, and we see a cop come crawling towards us. My heart sank. Immediately, my gut reaction was, “If the cop sees a white girl here, in the back of a truck, he’s going to fine me”. I held my breath and tried not to make eye contact with the close approaching police vehicle. Dom, Mike and Rosie in the cars behind me watched nervously. The cop car approached us slowly, then accelerated while driving up on a grassy embankment on the side of the road, zooming past us without as much as an acknowledgment of our cars. I was in shock. While most of the time, our thoughts towards the cops here are that of frustration and resentment, at this moment, I loved the cops here, and I loved South Africa! That would NEVER happen in the States. I breathed a sigh of relief, and let out a huge laugh. We were on our way, cheering and singing songs again. That is a moment that I will never forget.

The picture above is of Mike, Dom and I with a bunch of coaches and DJ Slyso(in front), a well known radio DJ who performed at the VCT.