Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The road less travelled

Imagine: it has been a heavy week. You have driven over 2000ks dropping volunteers to their new homes for a year. Dusty, hot Limpopo in winter. You have fought with border control to bring your Zimbabwean volunteer back, you bring your new Norwegian volunteer to their new home. The head of the sport committee has died the week before, aged only 25. Your volunteer has 10 minutes to see his new home before his first experience of a memorial service. Eyes pinching against the dust, and swallowing the tears. Subversively, the singing and mourning offered the first moment of tranquillity in weeks. The hospitality of the host family extended to being given the main bed, the mother relocating to the floor of the living space. Protests are batted away like insults; to sleep in the bed is a given. Then back to Pretoria to find somewhere to live. No time for such frivolities. A tournament to help plan for, a huge one. 8 hubs all over the country competing for the Grand PRIZE of attending Nationals. In no particular order the following happened: car exhaust fell off, car stalled so many times the electronic gate closed on it, average sleep 5 hours a night, hostel I stay in got broken into, I started exercising again (feeling better) and a great incident where I went to pick my colleague from the exhaust shop, got flustered ended up on the main toll road, took the first turning off, realised I had no money, ran out the car at the toll gate to the man behind me and through frantic hand gestures and what I perceived as charm managed to get cash to pay the toll gate. Turned the wrong way, ended up in township, got back on toll road, same stopping and borrowing money for exit and 45 minutes after I left to collect her, returned to our team breakfast meeting in Wimpy. A big tick for team Blondie.
The car trauma does not end there. Having hired a 'bakkie' a open back truck to transport prizes up to Limpopo our convoy set off 3 hours late on Friday. Arriving at night into town, I met colleagues gave prizes and was sure I could drive the hour and a half to my community. After all, I lived there for over 6 weeks and have driven the road many times. OH HOW WRONG COULD I BE? I think the combination of pitch black darkness, and the standard insecurity associated with driving around one of the most dangerous countries in the world...at night...played havoc with my sensibilities. I got lost, frightened and was fielding calls thick and fast from concerned friends and colleagues; half reassuring them, half shouting, more at my own stupidity. So I did the only sensible thing I could, I went to the Police Station. Finding this Police station was the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack (excuse the analogy but there is none more fitting), finding me in there caused just as much shock to the staff. To cut a long story short, it is how I found myself with a four man Police escort 90ks to my community. One riding next to be in the cab, and us following 3 others in the car. Call it a drain on taxpayer money if you like, but at the moment I had no time for moral dilemmas. I was a petrified English girl, 40k's off the road she should have been on, driving through South Africa. I loved those Police and the wave of relief was incomparable. The next morning driving to the community I was just about to accelerate around what I perceived as a 'drunk,' no Sisi said my companion, it's the traffic Police. Great. Slamming on the breaks, I stopped and greeted the man with a smile. Refusing to speak in English I showcased my excellent Northern Sotho skills... not helping. As he put his head through the window (not sure why) I was struck by some inspiration. I took a SCORE lanyard off my car keys and placed it around his neck; a mini prize giving ceremony if you will. It took a split second for me to realise that actually this was the best decision I had made, he grinned, clapped and waved me on. Later at the facility the head of the local sport council came up to me laughing. He said he had seen the 'bribe' that I gave to his cousin on the way, and his cousin was thrilled but would also like my phone number. Shame. Fortunately I pretended I misunderstood the request and ran off. I also made a mental note to keep a supply of lanyards on me; for future bribery purposes. The tournament ran well, and I left at last daylight to drive the four hours back to Pretoria. I had only a number of hours of sleep before flying the next day to East London. The capital of the Eastern Cape, Xhosa speaking (that's the one with the clicks), the birthplace of Mandela, the homelands, ANC stronghold. It's politicised, it feels advancing and it is different to Limpopo. Fortunately Geoff my fellow VSO volunteer is the EC coordinator and I managed to coordinate our site visits so spent 12 days together on the road, visiting my four volunteers, collaborating work programs and revelling in the intricacies of British humour. I was fortunate enough to visit Mount Fletcher; so beautiful, so remote, no electricity and generally travelled through on to to via horseback. (ha, no fear I was offered a horse but with no saddle so I declined.) We walked up a mountain, then another, then another still no phone reception. I had one of 'those' meals that I will never forget. Fried fresh fish, fresh apricots, spices and rice. This community is on the foothills of the tremendously imposing Lesotho border. (Lesotho is bordered by all SA provinces but it is it's own country and it is generally very cold in winter and the mountains are snow capped.) I wish you could all ('you' denoting reader) experience that place. Geoff had a bash at stepping on the property market, of course something important in today's society... he would have been the first white to live in the area for 30 years. We found the house, with land and the view and the community were supportive. A steal at 2500R (less than £200) that house would have been his. As fate would have it the house was 'sold' the day before, alas, it was not to be. On reflection we felt the lasting impression would have been that one could just come in and purchase a house, when many people simply cannot afford. Of course Geoff would have given the house to someone to live in...maybe next time.
On to one of my communities, a hard community, a hard life. One poignant element I cannot get out of my mind. A young girl (15) and her little sister (3) came to the family I was staying in. They looked sad, no smiles, I could not break the silence. When they left I was told that their mother had passed a week before, the 15 year old was now 'head of house' responsible for 3 siblings. It is not unusual but it does not make it any less painful. You feel very small about what you can offer, but it is up to me to support the volunteer there, to enhance the structures for sport to function... and hope there will be some trickle down effect...
big hopes...

Sunday, 3 August 2008


So it's official... The typhoid is gone, and for the first time in months I am starting to feel like 'me' again. Back to my 24/7 week... and really it is 'in theory' 24/7 because now my work phone has to be on 24 hours a day in case of emergency. Not ideal.

My team of 4 Norwegians, 1 Zimbabwean, 1 Namibian, 1 Lesotho(ian), 1 Zambian and 2 South African's are just about settled into their new host families across South Africa- their new homes for the next year of their lives. We are working through three Provinces; Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape.. and they are my responsibility; no pressure then.

Presently I am doing my best impression of finding my feet, whilst not really having opportunity or time to do so. I may have found somewhere to live although my schedule means I'll probably only be there for 7 days out of every month.

I revisited my first two host families in Apel and Ga Radingwana and their reactions were priceless, I was so excited to be back and I had this permanent smile on my face the whole time. I actually felt like it was the breakthrough I needed, and from that day I took a turn for the better.

During our specific orientation for the South African volunteers I asked the fatal 'any questions?'

My Zimbabwean volunteer; intelligent and very strong as a volunteer asked

" B, can I just ask, is it true in your culture people with blonde hair are stupid? I'm just confused because I've met you and you really are not stupid so actually now I'm confused about why they say it..."


I told her after working with me for a year she could let me know her opinion.

We'll see.