Sunday, May 24, 2009

Medicating the Problem

I spent the last three weeks trying to fend off an annoying and persistent cough. This means staying in pretty close communication with our Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) and traveling back and forth to my shopping town to get medication from the pharmacy.

There is a pharmacy at the hospital in my village, but my host mother assures me that it is better to use the pharmacy in our shopping town. The hospital means long lines and waiting for hours. From what I understand there is also a chance that the hospital pharmacy may not even have the medication that you need, especially if it is not a commonly prescribed medication.

It's slightly annoying to have to travel by taxi to my shopping town, especially when I don't feel well--but the convenience of getting a prescription in five minutes or less at the pharmacy and being able to send that little receipt off to Peace Corps for a reimbursement makes it worth it. And its a convenience that I am highly aware is not available to most people in my village. Yes, they too could travel to the pharmacy in the shopping town, but that's a R58 taxi ride round trip plus the cost of the medication. It's expensive and a luxury that most people around me simply cannot afford.

The last few days of training, our PCMO gave me a PPD test (TB skin test), it thankfully came back negative. I had asked for the test because of a high suspicion that at least one member of my training host family (possibly all three) have active tuberculosis--a strong possibility when 95% of the South African population has latent TB.

The day I was given the test, I walked out of the exam room and started crying. I cried not because I was afraid of having contracted TB, but because of how easy it was for me to get tested and how easy it would be for me to get treatment if the test showed positive. I knew that it was not easy for my host family to get that kind of care or to be able to afford the treatment necessary. In that moment, my life of privilege was blatantly contrasted with the new world I found myself in. And now I see that contrast in a thousand ways almost on a daily basis. It is a contrast that I sometimes have a hard time coping with--feeling guilty, angry, remorseful, frustrated, and a host of other emotions.

Those emotions can eat away at you--eroding hope and crippling your ability to serve the community and empower them to build up needed resources. It is a trial that I think many volunteers face.

For me, there is only to lay those emotions at the feet of Jesus and ask for hope and love in their stead.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

News at the Embassy

The US Embassy in South Africa put up a nice article about our group of volunteers on their website. You can check it out here.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Lessons in Painting

On Tuesday of this week, Stellah, Sophy and I met at my house to finish painting the interior walls.

This was our second attempt.

The first time we tried to paint the house we ran out of paint after the first coat in the first room (it's a two-room house). Really this was probably my fault. When they asked me if I thought "five" would be enough, I naturally thought that of course, five gallons would be more than enough to paint two coats in two small rooms. Unfortunately South Africa runs completely off of the metric system. So "five" meant liters and not gallons, and five liters was enough for one coat in one room on a concrete wall.

For the second go around, they bought a ten liter bucket. I new it wouldn't be enough to fully finish the job, but I was more concerned with the other more serious problem. This was a different kind of paint! Not only a different shade--this was water-based and in our previous attempt we had used oil-based. My mind wandered back to basic science in elementary school--oil and water do not mix. I already knew, but now I was positive that this was my coworkers' first experience with painting a house. And really, what could I do? The paint had already been purchased, and I knew that it had cost the center a lot of money that they didn't have to spend. So we started painting the second room...

During my previous experience of painting with Stellah and Sophy, I found myself several times teaching basic painting skills like: paint in the same direction to keep the paint from looking streaked or blotchy when it dries, don't put too much paint on your brush or in the paint trays, finish painting the section you are on before moving to the next. I frequently found myself feeling like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid--"paint the wall, Stellah-son and Sophy-son." But I don't think I was displaying the Miyagi patience. Several times I felt my frustration rising as I showed them again and again the importance of painting in vertical strokes--not circular motions or a few vertical strokes followed by a few horizontal and diagonal strokes.

At one point on Tuesday, I asked Sophy if she was tired, "A o lapile?" Sophy said "no" that she liked the work. I was surprised at her response. I knew how tired and frustrated I was. I really just wanted the project to be done. But as Sophy's response sunk in, my heart softened and my frustration began to subside. I suddenly realized how empowering this simple activity was for these two women. Two single mothers in their late twenties for the first time in their lives doing a job that is traditionally thought of as a man's job. My friends got to live for a few hours outside of the cultural norm and experience something challenging and new. And I became so excited and happy for them.

At the end, we completed two coats in the second room--which looks pretty good--and one and a half coats in the first room--we'll call it art-deco. It was an experience that I hope I will not forget soon, and I'm hopeful that Sophy and Stellah will not soon forget it either.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A Day at the Nature Preserve

I got to spend the day at a nature preserve near my site last week to help with a Peace Corps training. It was amazingly beautiful! To check out more pictures from the day, visit my Flickr page.

Posted by Picasa

Friday, May 01, 2009

A Weekend of Celebrations

Last weekend I attended several local celebrations in the village--a funeral, a tombstone unveiling and two weddings. Each of these events are very important in Tswana culture. (The area I live in is predominately Tswana. While there are some similarities between the various tribes in South Africa, they definitely all have their own distinct culture and origins.)

When I say that I attended the funeral and the tombstone unveiling, it was more that we stopped by to pay our respects and give well wishes to the family. But before we left both homes, we were offered a plate of food. The sharing of meals and food is very important. Very rarely do I visit someone's home without being given something to eat. The offering of food is more than just a welcoming gesture, but a chance for the person you are visiting to share a portion of what they have with you. It goes back to the idea of Ubuntu that I discussed in an early post--I am because you are also means I have and so I give.

After we paid our respects, we moved onto the home of the bride's family to help prepare the food for the wedding celebration. Thankfully it is the duty of the men to slaughter the cow and prepare it. My contribution was peeling and grating a ten pound back of carrots. At almost every celebration, a cow is slaughtered. Cows are a sign of wealth in the Tswana culture. Slaughtering a cow is a way for the family to share their joy or share their sorrow with their friends and neighbors.

After we had finished preparing the food, we took a portion of it to the house of the groom as an offering to the groom's family and the couple themselves. The mothers loaned me a traditional skirt that all of the female members of the brides family wore for the wedding. Everyone got a big kick out of the American in the traditional garb. We sang and danced all the way to the groom's home and then took part in more traditional songs and dances that the bride's family does to announce the arrival of the bride and their blessing. After which we sat and watched the proceedings and waited for the groom's family to give us the head of the cow they had slaughtered. The cow's head would come back with us to the bride's house.

We left the bride with the family of the groom, and the bride's family returned home to continue the celebration. The family of the groom and the bride only celebrate together for a brief amount of time.

Upon our arrival back at the bride's home, we dished up more food--I had eaten six times that day by this point--and continued the celebration.

The wedding on Saturday was a similar format but a much bigger wedding. The couple on Saturday had actually been married for about ten years but had never thrown a celebration for their friends and family. Sunday's wedding was a young couple who actually went through the full traditional wedding on that day. It was a much bigger celebration complete with a traditional dance group and lots of alcohol. At each celebration I have attended, I've noticed that there is always a circle of old men who by the end of the celebration are very, very drunk. It is custom here for men especially to drink a lot more than most of us would drink in the US. Alcoholism is definitely a huge problem that is enforced by so many factors like the high unemployment rate.

By the end of the weekend, I was very, very tired and didn't want to eat again for days. But I am glad that I had the opportunity to share in such a way with my community, and I enjoyed every minute of it.