Monday, November 30, 2009

Today is World AIDS Day

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. The theme for 2009 is Universal Access and Human Rights.

Here are some basic facts about the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the recently published UNAIDS Towards Universal Access report:

There are 33 million people living with HIV globally.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for two-thirds (22 million people) of the global disease burden.

There 15.5 women in the world living with HIV. 60% of the cases of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa are women, so there are 13.2 million African women who are HIV-positive.

90% of the pregnant women needing antiretroviral treatment for themselves and/or prophylaxis for their babies come from 20 countries--19 of which are in Africa (the 20th is India). Those African countries are Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Burundi, Angola, Chad, Lesotho, Ghana, and Botswana.

Of those countries listed above, mothers2mothers works in South Africa, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, and is currently initiating services in Uganda, Mozambique, and Tanzania. m2m is also in Swaziland and Rwanda and is in the planning stages in Namibia.

91% of HIV-positive pregnant women in low and middle income countries come from Sub-Saharan Africa, with 70% of those African women in Eastern and Southern Africa and the remaining 30% in Central and West Africa.

1.4 million HIV-positive pregnant women gave birth in 2008 in low and middle income countries.

Of the 2 million children living with HIV globally, over 90% were infected through mother-to-child transmission in utereo or during labor or breastfeeding. mothers2mothers (shameless plug) focuses on the prevention of mother-t0-child transmission.

mothers2mothers will reach 300,000 clients this year and is expanding into additional countries next year. We employ 1,500 women who are new mothers living with HIV to counsel pregnant women and new mothers who are HIV-positive and to help them navigate the clinical maze in which they often find themselves, not to mention supporting them to live positively and healthily.

Please, take a moment today to reflect on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. You can help in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and financial support is only one of many options. You could take a year off and volunteer, or you could volunteer on Saturdays. Or you can lobby your representative(s) to make HIV/AIDS prevention, medical treatment and support, and equal rights for those living with HIV/AIDS a priority at local, state, national, and global levels. And, this is very important: know your status. Get tested regularly, even if you think you could never contract HIV.

Imagine an HIV-free generation. We can do this. We can see this in our lifetime.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rosie, the Queen of Crayola, Gets a Nose Job

Two weeks ago, I got in a fender bender while driving to work. Although I am not supposed to deny or admit guilt as per my auto insurance handbook, let's just say that there was distractingly nice sunny weather and a particularly nasty intersection involved. Oh, and also a strangely stationary Peugeot that magically did not turn when I thought it did, leaving me very surprised when the front of my car and the back of the Peugeot were impolite to each other. Please note the use of adverbs employed to qualify the situation. The girl driving said Peugeot was very nice about the whole thing, and information exchange (in the middle of a busy morning turn onto a major street--talk about awkward), breathless call to insurance, a slightly sketchy getting-lost-bit while trying to find the mechanic in Woodstock, and a jointly filed police report (which was a unique experience in itself), I was ready to get my car fixed.

I sustained a series of broken headlights and blinkers on the left side (and, maybe it's not weird but I know nothing about cars, the light covers are made of glass, which made a spectacular auditory addition to the sickening crunch of metal-on-metal on impact) and some damage to the panel and front bumper. The other car had a bent bumper, which I assume will have to be entirely replaced. So, nice work all around. I had to draw pictures for the insurance company and the police report detailing what happened, but I can't post pdfs as pictures on my blog, so you won't be able to enjoy them. Which is unfortunate for you because they were very artistically executed. I couldn't bring myself to take a picture of the damage, so that will also remain undocumented.

A bit of background on the car: Rosie is a 1993 automatic 3-series baby blue BMW. Despite the make, she's seen better days, and her cracking rubber seals, slight shuddering, weird dial clicking, and a host of other small quirks speak to that. However, she gets me where I need to go, has AC, gets decent gas mileage (or L/100K) for a large-ish BMW, and is automatic, unlike the majority of cars here. I couldn't face a manual and adjusting to the other side of the road.

And as for the name: in her early days, she was known as Ingrid, but it never sat right--she's not classy enough. Rosie, the Queen of Crayola, came about organically. I was listening to a lot of Paul Simon, and I'm a fan of "Me and Julio Down by the School Yard (goodbye Rosie, the Queen of Corona). I've also been missing New York a lot--shout outs to you all in the Dojo and Curry Hill and Chicago and where ever else you are; miss you guys--which is part of the reason for the Paul Simon marathon. On top of that, Byron, who has a penchant for making olfactory observations about my surroundings, including "your place smells like pets" (thank you, Byron, I do want a pet), identified the odor emanating from car as particularly crayon-like. I think this has to do with a plastic melting and/or decay issue, but it smelled just like a freshly-opened yellow and green box of Crayolas, points still flat and symmetrical. Rosie also has a charming habit of getting blue goo on anything put under the back seat--opinions vary on whether this is melting plastic or some kind of oil to keep the seats moving back and forth smoothly--but I somehow suspect that her particular scent is related to that issue. Anyway, this is how Rosie, the Queen of Crayola, came about.

I dropped Rosie off at Peter Panelbeaters (sidenote: I always wanted to say Peter, Peter Panelbeater but was unsure whether that would elicit a laugh or a very confused and awkward conversation elaborating on how that connected to pumpkin shells and keeping your spouse financially supported). And of course, during the week she was away there was nasty Cape Town weather--rain, wind, and cold. Luckily there are very nice people at work that were willing to chauffeur me around, so I was OK for the most part.

I got the call Friday that it was time to pick her up, and so I enlisted Morgan (and her, Byron, and Wenli's car, Edna, a white Toyota Conquest) to get me to Peter Panelbeaters in Woodstock. Cape Town is hard to navigate in that while one street might look OK, a wrong turn will quickly take you into a sketchy part of town, and scary enclaves exist next to busy areas, tourist spots, and very fancy neighborhoods. Once you get into a somewhat dodgy area, like Woodstock or Obs, making the wrong turn can be a bigger problem.

My card was declined, and so I had to find an ATM in Woodstock or risk not getting Rosie back all weekend because the panelbeater closes at 3pm (thank you, South Africa. I really don't know how anything gets done around here without playing hooky from work, though if I had a shop in Woodstock, I'd probably close at 3pm too). It's a sort of industrial, near-the-train-tracks place, with lots of legitimate and what look like not-so-legitimate car shops. The woman who runs Peter Panelbeaters told me that there was an ATM nearby and sent Charlie, a nice man from the garage, along with me, Morgan, and Edna, to find it. Charlie was meant as protection, and after learning that my former landlady had been mugged over the weekend after leaving the bank, I felt that this was a good thing.

Morgan is very brave, and I feel grateful to her for allowing me to drag her out of work and around Woodstock. She's a good driver, and does an excellent job with a manual transmission, but being new to the trade, she doesn't always feel confident about it. She shouldn't feel that way since her shifting skills are just fine, but driving with a stranger who also happened to work with cars professionally, she was understandably a bit nervous about stalling.

Long story short, with Morgan double parked in heavy, minibus-taxi-laden traffic, I sidled up to an outdoor ATM vestibule (like an open telephone booth) adjacent to a very, very shady looking garage that I think might more accurately be called a chop shop, and withdrew cash as Charlie stood behind me, arms behind his back like a bouncer (he was small but capable looking), while men of a less-than-wholesome appearance circled around. I've never been more nervous withdrawing money, since I would never under normal circumstances ever go anywhere near an ATM in a neighborhood like that. Luckily, nothing happened, and Charlie got us back safely, after warning us that we should not venture onto backstreets here because we look like we don't belong in "gangland." Thanks to Charlie and Morgan all around.

So now, Rosie is back, and cleaner and sleeker than ever. Her "spa treatment," "week at an exclusive resort," "drinking lots of water," or whatever it is Californians say when they're recovering from cosmetic surgery, did her a lot of good. She looks well rested and so much younger. keep in the habit of photo sharing, here are some pictures from the walk I took last Sunday with Morgan, Byron, Wenli, and a friend of a friend of Wenli's. These were all taken within five minutes of my new apartment. As you can tell, I got vaguely excited about the settings on my camera.

Pine trees burned in a fire

The view up Devil's Peak, with stand of eucalyptus trees

Proteas (?) or some kind of fynbos or coniferous plant burned out in a fire to look like flowers

Charred log, looking up towards Devil's Peak

Table Mountain and on the right, the Disa Park towers, where I almost lived (the shoebox sized apartments)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sierra Leone Revisited

My favorite billboard in Sweet Salone, courtesy Helen Weld

There was an article, with very good photos, in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday about Sierra Leone through the lens of health. And I have to say, with sorrow, that it captures the situation dead-on. As Helen, who brought me to Sierra Leone way back in September 2008, wrote, this is all so sad and too familiar. Those of us who have lived and worked in Sierra Leone are not shocked by these stories or these statistics. The fact that one in eight women in Sierra Leone dies in childbirth is not surprising.

It was strange to read about key players that I have met or knew about, including the First Lady. It's a small country, but it faces huge challenges. Sierra Leone was an incredibly difficult place to live, and the farther away I get from it, the more unbelievable my whole experience seems. Sometimes what I experienced there is a ghost--forgotten, or pushed aside, only to reappear, to rise out when it's not wanted. I'm honestly still working through a lot of what I saw, what I did, what I lived. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Much of what I wrote about last year did not and could not capture the sheer insanity of the situation because I did not, and still do not, feel comfortable putting much of what I experienced out in a public place. Not because I went through a hard experience that I don't want to share, but for other reasons, and particularly because a blog is so public, even if few are reading mine.

I don't have the faintest idea how Sierra Leone or any supporting governmental or non-governmental organizations are going to begin to address the problems there, because they're at every level and cover every sector imaginable. Deep scars and anger, which I witnessed firsthand, from the civil war; corruption at all levels; an exploitative economy based on diamond mining that only enriches a few and subsistence farming of few nutrient rich vegetables; massive environmental degradation made worse by cheap and quick mining practices and the use of wood stoves for lack of anything else; utter lack of basic infrastructure from roads to electricity to clean water; devastating tropical diseases including malaria and yellow fever and diseases of poverty including typhoid; lack of rights for women and a worrying trend towards sexual violence during periods of unrest; crime that has no deterrent beyond vigilantism; and a health system that is beyond broken and seems beyond repair at points--and these are only the first scratches on the surface of a much deeper and more complex reality. In my own experience, there was no waste facility at the hospital, which meant that I watched dogs and vultures eat human tissue thrown out behind the operating theatre and children play with used syringes, which also littered our patients' garden. There was no running water at the hospital, which meant that our patients suffering from fistula, including ones with foot drop, or limps due to nerve damage, had to carry buckets of water on their heads from the hand pump well several times a day to wash themselves, since they were constantly leaking urine that gave them painful chemical burns if left uncleaned. I had a letter sent to a government official requesting treated mosquito nets for our patients so that they would not contract malaria, which could make them anemic and therefore delay surgical repair of their fistulas or cause life threatening risks, only to find that I'd committed a political faux pas because the official had "eaten" the nets. There were electricity cuts to the Bo Government Hospital, where I worked, on a regular basis, including extended blackouts that lasted several days, despite the fact that the hospital was supposedly on an emergency grid. This meant that the autoclave for sterilizing surgical equipment would not work and surgeries were performed by flashlight, if at all. I saw life saving equipment, vehicles, and other materials misused, misappropriated, and disappear. I saw people die because they did not have enough money, or because medical personnel were too overwhelmed or undertrained to offer treatment. I saw things that, as I wrote above, I cannot detail here.

It's very easy to get lost in this, even if there are good people living their lives and struggling for survival every day that are defying the odds, people who do not steal and who are able to surmount the lack of infrastructure. People like the strangers that helped me and a group of friends without regard for their own safety. People like the patients I worked with every day, who are able to laugh despite the fact that many of them were shunned and abandoned by their communities. I saw some of these women forgive their families for pushing them away and return to live their lives. Sometimes I'm not sure if we, as a global community, can even start to pick up the pieces of Sierra Leone. But I feel that something must be done. There's still time.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Shamelessly Plugging My Job

So, I've been doing a lot of work over the past months, in a support and research function, around getting mothers2mothers ready for various meetings with Very Important People in the US. I'm not plugging myself here (unless you want me to brag about my PowerPoint skills...actually, maybe not) but rather mothers2mothers, which has just gone through an insane period of growth and has had enormous success in the past few years. To give you an idea, in 2007, we had 150 sites offering PMTCT counseling through Mentor Mothers, and we reached 55,000 clients. In 2009, we will have 600 sites in seven countries and will reach 300,000 HIV-positive pregnant women by the end of the year. This is 20% of all HIV-positive pregnant women in the world.

As Gene once said (and I paraphrase), that's the sort of thing you hear that makes you break down and cry.

mothers2mothers was the recipient of the 2008 Skoll Foundation Social Entrepreneur Award, and we've been making ripples in the social entrepreneurship, philanthrocapitalism, and venture philanthropy realms since then. Recently, my boss met with Skoll to talk about our success. You can see the Skoll post written about the meeting here, but I have also reprinted part of it below. The excerpt discusses m2m's "heresies"--the things we were doing that were radically different from most public health NGOs that we didn't even know were unique at the time.

Gene has a great set of lessons that he’s learned in the process of “building a program for today, but an organization for the long term.” I think they’re worth repeating:

  • Do one thing well - beware mission creep.
  • Don’t say yes unless you mean it - don’t morph what you do just to try to meet funder requests.
  • Magical thinking isn’t a strategy - we may all want something to be different, but we need to work with what we have.
  • Pay people fairly for what they do - mothers2mothers pays their local community mentor mothers, whom they train intensively on the preventive medical practices and coaching techniques needed to make the program successful. (Sadly, this concept is not widely embraced among providers of public health assistance in Africa, many of whom still insist on volunteer community health workers.)
  • “Development” and “Advancement” are euphemisms for sales, marketing and investor relations - call things what they are. There’s nothing wrong with this.
  • Technology won’t solve everything - mothers2mothers isn’t about the medicine, it’s about behaviors and practices.
  • Neither will process - it’s not about outputs, it’s about impact.
  • Neither cash nor caring are scalable commodities - you need to constantly replenish these.
  • Overhead is not evil - the best ideas, without an effective organization to deploy them, won’t succeed.

And, in keeping with my attempt to post more pictures, here is a photo from Wenli's blog that illustrates how "nice" the "spring/summer" weather has been so far. So glad I brought a fleece blanket to the Muizenberg beach.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Small But Slightly Worrying Snake

There's a snake on the path to my apartment. It's quite small (the pictures make it look bigger than it is, but I didn't want to put anything next to it for scale and have it risk biting me). It hasn't moved in a while, so it's possible it's dead (again, I took the "better safe than sorry" approach and didn't poke it with anything). It's a beautiful chocolate brown with a blackish or olive-ish underside. It has a very small head--thinner than its body, with a pebble-like pattern. The scales are smooth and shiny. The snake is quite fat for its size, which might mean that it's a hatchling that hasn't reached its full length yet.

I'm pretty sure it's not a mamba because I've seen one before in Sierra Leone. It was during the clearing time, when the farmers burn their fields before replanting in advance of the rainy season, and it must have slithered out from a controlled burn. The boys and the caretaker at the house killed it with rocks and then burned it. They told me that it was very dangerous, but I thought they were joking with me because it was a friendly green color and didn't display the normal venomous snake qualities I have been trained over years of hiking (and merely living in rural Southern California) to identify in North American rattlesnakes: triangular head, rattles, dull and prominent scales, beautiful skin patterns, etc. I didn't know it was a green mamba until later, when I read about mambas and remembered this one's black mouth, a telltale sign. In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't know it was a mamba until after I'd left.

Online resources aren't very helpful, but I'm pretty sure this snake not a viper/adder (they have many of the same characteristics as rattlesnakes and have that same don't-mess-with-me nasty look around the eyes). And probably not a cobra. But I read that you should avoid brown snakes in Africa. So I'm not going anywhere near it and will continue hoping that it will not slip under the door, as a gopher snake once did back in California.

And if you happen to know what kind of snake it is, please let me know.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On Moving, Tolkien, and Beating the Devil

My first apartment

I’ve moved. My lease on my place downtown was up, and even though I love the apartment, I couldn’t afford it anymore. Plus the lease on my parking space was also finished, and I wasn’t exactly keen to park on the street. Real estate in Cape Town is a tricky affair. It’s not so bad, as it is in New York, that you have to read the Obits to find a place, but it’s close. From what I’ve heard, real estate agents are not very helpful (I didn’t get one, though I was close to it once I really started having trouble). Like most denizens of Cape Town, I used Gumtree, the local Craigslist, to search for a place. You have to be on your toes, refreshing the page every half hour or so and calling places immediately upon posting, and you have to be OK with rejection. For every five replies I sent out, I got a single response, and most of the time it was to say that the flat wasn’t furnished or didn’t have parking or was already taken. Once you have requirements—in my case, a fully furnished place, with a parking spot, in a security complex, in a safe neighborhood, for under a certain amount—things get harder. I looked at dumpy places, a few that were so small I didn’t think I could live in them (the test was whether I could turn around in the kitchen or not), and one place that was so popular—the location was amazing—that there were people lined up to view it. I arranged to look at a couple of places in slightly sketchy neighborhoods before deciding it wasn’t worth the risk.

View from my new place

All the places had a view, though. It may be impossible to live in Cape Town and not have a view, and it’s breathtaking every time, even though it might mean that on a clear day if you stick your head out the bathroom window you can see Lion’s Head. I almost took one of those shoebox flats because it had a full panoramic view of Table Mountain, but the miniscule kitchen, and the fact that the closet was in the bathroom, did me in.

After a long search, I found a good place. It’s located in the Vredehoek neighborhood, in Devil's Peak, right under the peak of the same name (the mountain to the left of Table Mountain). Apparently, it’s also “Windy City” as one co-worker called it, and she warned that I wouldn’t sleep at night. The fact that a nearby street is called “Windburg” does not bode well, though Vredehoek means “Corner of Peace” in Afrikaans. And so, I moved into Devil’s Peak on Halloween. The apartment is small, a studio, with a kitchen, washing machine, and large balcony. A bar separates the main area from the kitchen. The complex itself is quite large, and not a building so much as a cluster of apartments. It reminds me somewhat of a resort I once stayed in on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Oh, and the views are spectacular—the ocean, the mountain, and the city are all visible.

The Shire/On the way to Stellenbosch

With the certainty that this will reveal my nerdy-ness even more, Cape Town and South Africa in general often feel very Lord of the Rings-y (as a good friend calls it). Tolkien was born in what was the Orange Free State, South Africa (I actually didn’t know this—someone told me recently), though he moved to England at a young age. However, I can’t help but think, upon moving here, that South Africa must have imprinted something on young Tolkien’s imagination, though I know that his travels in Switzerland and England played a huge part in shaping his Middle Earth (the Jungfrau and Silberhorn, or Young Lady and Silver Horn mountains; the English bogs and countryside; English towns named Kingston Upon Hull and Swiss ones called Grindelwald...).

At Kirstenbosch Gardens

“Windburg” and other place names certainly evoke Tolkien’s works for me, as does the stark, stunning beauty of Cape Town and the surrounding area—the jutting mountains, bits of green between the rocks, the howling wind, the wildflowers. Trees possess names like silverleaf (or silwerboom); flowers, King, or Honeypot, Protea. Outside the city, there are little farmhouses in green fields with little brooks and ponds. There are lush forests that can feel welcoming and ordered in a natural way, or dark and old and a bit foreboding. There is wine country and steep, rocky, barren land, seas dashing themselves on rocks, and winter nights with warm, simple food.

A silwerboom

Mulling over all of this brought me to origin tales about Cape Town and its unique setting (I used to rock climb, so I will admit that I also looked into the actual geology, but I won’t torture anyone with it here).

It’s said that a Dutchman, Jan van Hunks, lived in a little cottage at the foot of a mountain that was called Windburg in his day. He was known far and wide as an exceptional and dedicated smoker and had won many wagers on his talent. Jan’s wife did not allow him to smoke his pipe in the house, and so, he would wander out onto Windburg to enjoy his favored pastime. One day, while smoking on the slopes of the mountain, he met a stranger carrying a pipe. They struck up a conversation that turned to a series of boasts about which of the two smoked more. This, naturally, led to a contest between Jan and the stranger. They smoked and smoked until they created a cloud that floated up and over Table Mountain. Finally, Jan prevailed, and as the stranger turned to go, his red tail peaked out from under his clothes. Van Hunks realized that he had beaten the Devil himself. The mountain was renamed Duiwelspiek, or Devil’s Peak, and the cloud of smoke that the two created still wafts over Table Mountain when the Southeaster, or Cape Doctor, is blowing. It’s now called the Tablecloth, and when it appears, it’s said that Jan and the Devil are at it again.

Lion's Head (doesn't it look like Weathertop?)

Table Mountain features in an epic poem, Os Lusiadas, by the Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões. The poem is seen as the Portuguese Iliad or Aeneid. At the beginning of the world, Kronos and his siblings, the Titans, were overthrown by Kronos’ children, the Olympians. The most mainstream version in Greek mythology details that after the battle, most of the Titans were imprisoned in the deepest pit of Tartarus, while the remaining were granted places in the Olympian pantheon by Zeus. De Camões veers from this line, writing that the Olympians banished the Titans to the farthest reaches of the earth. Zeus had the Titan Adamastor imprisoned in stone at the southernmost tip of the world, forming Table Mountain. Centuries or millennia later, Adamastor was angered by the navigator, Vasco de Gama, who trespassed on his territory while rounding the Cape of Good Hope in the attempt to tap the spice wealth of India by establishing a sea route to Asia. Adamastor tossed the Portuguese ship in storm after storm, but the piously Catholic De Gama and his crew prevailed over the “heathen” demigod, eventually reaching India (and, in case you were interested, another sailor associated with the Cape is the Flying Dutchman, but I won’t get into that story here).

A !Xhosa origin story tells that Qamata, one of the focal deities in the !Xhosa pantheon and the child of the sun god and earth goddess, Thixo and Jobela, wanted to make dry land, but the sea dragon Nkanyamba interfered. Jobela created four giants to aid Qamata in his efforts. After their task was complete, Qamata turned the giants to stone to keep watch over the land in the four cardinal directions. Umlindi Wemingizimu, the Watcher of the South, became Table Mountain.

Table Mountain, with Tablecloth, seen from Lion's Head

It speaks to the tumultuous and convoluted history of the Cape region, and all of South Africa, that there are stories from so many backgrounds. From the first Khoi inhabitants (in keeping with the uneven nature of African history, I could not easily find much information on the web about pre-European incursions) to the Portuguese, then Dutch, and then British, South Africa has been crisscrossed by many peoples and fought over for centuries. Everything in the Cape is a mix of indigenous Africa, Europe, and Asia (from the slaves brought over to work), from the Afrikaans language before the “impure” non-white elements were expunged; to the food, which combines curries and meatloaf; to the "coloured" population itself.

PS: I'm not sure why this post (and others) has different font sizes--I don't know anything about the actual Html/code side of blogging, so I apologize if it's weird or jarring to you. I have no idea how to change it--I think it's a code error.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Uglier Side of NGOs

The NGO world is a funny place. There are many successful, well-meaning organizations like mothers2mothers (I’m drinking the Kool-Aid—I loved it before I even started, and the more I learn, the more enamored I become of m2m), but for every good deed and success story, there’s another organization that is not always so well intentioned or is so dysfunctional that it hurts more than it helps. I do not mean to point fingers at any specific group or groups—this is all accepted knowledge in the NGO world, and there are lots of excellent articles about the problems that come with the territory.

Some organizations try to stay in business, never actually solving a problem so much as keeping cushy jobs, nice houses, and drivers. Others mean well but do not have themselves set up in a way so as to be effective and can even do more damage when they don’t have the resources, knowledge, expertise, and support to do what they set out to do. Many organizations close because they don’t have enough money and leave a vacuum behind them of clients who no longer have the support that they needed and local staff out of jobs and in need of the same services that have now disappeared. A huge problem is that are limited funds out there for organizations to snap up—and competition between rival NGOs can be beyond fierce—it can be dirty, corrupt, and downright nasty. This is the nature of the job. But it’s sickening at times to hear stories of the lengths that some organizations will go to in order to sabotage competitors.

There’s no solution, probably—it’s the nature of the world we live in. NGOs are not immune to the ugliness that occurs in the private sector merely because they are doing something for the benefit of others. When businesses close, there’s often a reason—there isn’t a market or demand for their services, or the business had bad luck, or there were too many competitors, or they didn’t do a good job at what they offered. It’s the same with NGOs, and the closure of both of these tends to have serious ramifications in the communities in which they operate. NGOs, however, are often serving people that are lacking basic necessities—food, clean water, housing, medical care. NGOs have of course suffered in the current economic climate—donors aren’t giving as much as they used to, endowments have shrunk as the stock market fluctuates, and governmental grants are smaller, or cut completely.

Anyway, all the same, despite the fact that competition is unavoidable in the NGO world, it still leaves a bad aftertaste. There has to be some way that we can work together instead of tearing each other down—two different NGOS working to prevent and treat TB, for example, are both trying to accomplish the same thing. Maybe it’s naïve, but I wish I didn’t have to keep hearing and reading about these ugly behind-the-scenes disputes.

Then again, when an NGO is truly hurting more than helping, it needs to close—it should recognize this fact on its own and bow out with dignity, but there comes a time when others need to step in. Incompetency is too dangerous, too damaging, to allow it to continue.

It can be hard to see beyond your own organization, to see both sides of an issue, especially when all you hear are nasty stories about the other side or feel that you’re being attacked. But it’s time that NGOs looked beyond their own borders and saw how they fit into the global community of those who do work for the betterment of humankind. If they’re doing harm and cannot self-correct, they should step aside. If they can cooperate instead of compete with other organizations, they should reach out and offer the olive branch. And most importantly, organizations need to realize that the ultimate goal, the best-case scenario, is working themselves out of a job, out of a country, out of existence, instead of trying to sustain their presence at the cost of curing the ills that they target. Imagine what it would be like to say “I used to work in HIV prevention, but we’ve been able to achieve an HIV-free generation, and my services are no longer needed.” The NGO community cannot be truly sustainable until organizations are able to do these things. We will not truly claim that we work for the benefit of humankind if we cannot set aside the ego and whatever else divides us.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On Eating

I’ve been to a lot of restaurants and done a fair amount of eating in my time. The first restaurant I ever ate in, I’m told, was Brigitte’s (we called it Brih-gee-tah’s—I have no idea if that was a weird Robinson thing or not) in Santa Barbara, California. We used to eat there frequently before it shut down/switched owners/whatever happened, and I remember, vaguely, nice chargrilled slices of chicken breast and avocado.

Since then, I’ve eaten in restaurants, both humble and fancy, all over the US, in Canada, France, Switzerland, Spain, England, Italy, Senegal, Morocco, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. Every country, and distinct geographical region, particularly in the case of the US, has its own way of eating and of serving.

A stereotypical diner waiter in New York City is very different from one in the South or in California (NYC: abrupt; South: calls you “Hon;” CA: may get involved in your conversation). American service is often DIY (“Please seat yourself”) and quick—the plates are cleared at the first sign of the food being finished, the check comes without prompting, water and wine glasses get filled once they are empty or look low. Some people may not like this approach, since one can feel rushed in and out of a meal, and you really don’t want to mess with serious and/or snobby wine people about pouring wine too quickly.

Moroccans will try to entice/pressure you into their restaurants, going up to you with a menu on the street. Sierra Leonean restaurants, as a general rule, do not have very friendly service—not a sign that populace isn’t nice so much as a symptom of servers getting paid far below a living wage (one woman I interviewed for a catering position made about $20 a month for her previous full-time waitress and cooking job in a restaurant) and not getting very good, if any, tips. French waiters are very solicitous in a hands-off sort of way, and you must assure them at the end of each course that it was very good (if you leave food on the plate you have to assure doubly hard). You don’t tip in Switzerland. Senegalese waiters go crazy when you try a little Wolof (it may take you a good ten minutes to get through an order if you start out in Wolof because you have to explain your entire life story and demonstrate what your language level is). I got a few free drinks in Italy.

South African service has, so far, been a bit spotty, or at least different from what I find comfortable (I prefer the US way, even if it is a bit rushed). South African waitrons, as they are called—it sounds like a robot waiter to me—are always anxious to warn you that you have to be out by such-and-such time, usually anywhere from one and a half to three hours later, because South Africans linger over their food. Waitrons tend to be overly attentive in a sometimes awkward way—the water doesn’t get filled or the bill brought without asking, but they’ll try to tie a bib on you (no joke) or explain the entire menu or SOPs of the restaurant to you. The upfront warning and the lack of bill bringing make sense—waitrons don’t want to seem as if they are rushing you or being rude. In the US, servers assume you know that they want to turn over the table and generally don’t mind kicking you out—all bow to the almighty profit (although, again, this rarely bothers me; after all, an establishment’s gotta make money, especially these days, and servers, who get paid below minimum wage in some states, get more tips if they have more tables). Anyway, the service in South Africa is something I still need to get used to.

Eating is just as different. Americans like to use their hands for some things, like pizzas, hamburgers, and burritos. A French person wouldn’t be caught dead using his or her hands—you have to eat a slice of pizza and even Freedom fries with a knife and a fork. French salad must not be cut up, even though it comes out to you with full, untorn leaves—you have to make a little packet using a knife and fork.

Senegalese and Sierra Leoneans (I would assume most Africans) eat with their right hand or a spoon—knives and forks are less common. One of my favorite things when eating with my host family in Senegal around a bowl was watching people help each other get a piece of meat off the bone. Since it is beyond rude to use your left hand (not a lot of money spent on the luxury of toilet paper) for eating, the person next to you has to hold the meat bone while you pull off a piece, and vice versa. It’s nice—collaborating while eating. Sometimes the cook or head of the household would distribute the meat by throwing a piece into the little hole you’re supposed to dig out of the rice in front of you. Every time you eat it, she throws another one in (which is great when you’re eating intestines—you can eat around it in your rice space for a while and therefore eat less of it overall). Even eating with hands is different. In India, I’ve been told, you are not supposed to get food in the center of your palm but rather use your fingertips. In Senegal and Sierra Leone, you make a food ball in your palm, a skill that I could never master and that usually ended in me as covered in rice as my two-year-old host cousin.

Eating on the street is generally not done outside of the US, at least in the places where I’ve been, though there is street food everywhere I’ve gone (from falafel to “bush meat”—ie, probably monkey or dik-dik if you’re lucky). Not eating on the street seems to make sense in the African countries where I’ve been, since you are expected to share food (it’s incredibly rude to not offer your food to other people, at least in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Morocco—I don’t know the rules in SA yet) and it feels very callous and ignorant be munching a falafel wrap when an emaciated woman with legs bent from polio and carrying a child on her back asks you for food or money on the street. I’m not sure why it’s not OK in France, though I hear that since the smoking ban in restaurants and cafes and the advent of Starbucks, the French are loosening a bit.

It always amazes me that something so universal—the need to eat—varies so widely from country to country. When it comes down to it, it’s just shoving some fuel in your mouth to keep going. But it’s so much more than that to everyone on the planet—both to those lucky enough to get three squares a day and to those who consider themselves fortunate when they get a handful of rice provided by the UN’s World Food Program. Although there are some of us who live to eat, others who eat to live, and many in between, we all have very different opinions about how it’s done. One thing that’s universal, however: burgers and fries. The patty might have an egg perched on top, and the fries may come with mayo or vinegar, but they’re there.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Do I Understand Your Question, Man?

Warning for the reader: This post has nothing to do with South Africa.

So Bob Dylan is releasing a Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart. I’ve been a Dylan fan for a long time—probably since my sitar-playing music teacher at Monica Ros (Preschool-3rd Grade…possibly the happiest years of my life—there was a wooden pirate ship on the playground) had us all sit around barefoot and sing Blowin’ in the Wind. I wrote more than one paper in high school based in some way on Dylan—one a comparison of the music of Woody Guthrie, folk Dylan, and post-Newport Folk Festival Dylan (when he plugged in and went electric) for my American History class, the other a senior exhibition (thesis-ish) on the Weather Underground, an extremist Marxist group that carried out bombings and radical actions in the 60s and 70s that took its name from Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues—“Keep a clean nose / An’ watch the plainclothes / You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” They shifted from the Weathermen to the Weather Underground when the Weather ladies protested. Note: You may have heard of this group more recently because one of the founders, Bill Ayers, was portrayed by the Right as the best friend of then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama. I won’t go there today, nor will I get into a discussion of the Weather Underground because it makes people all crazy like. As it is, I can go on about Dylan for hours and hours (as evidenced by my 20-page American History term paper), and probably after I finish this I’ll lament that I forgot something I wanted add in because I got distracted by all the other stuff that surfaced in the process. This post is also going to expose me for the extreme geek that I am, as if people didn’t know already.

So, Bob Dylan. There’s no one nastier when he’s angry (Positively Fourth Street, Like A Rollin’ Stone), sweet when he’s in love (Love Minus Zero/No Limit, the meaning of title puzzled me until I took Calculus and was also a record store owner's way of testing my Dylan knowledge--I failed--Girl From the North Country), funnier (Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum), or full of outrage over injustice—both starkly overt protest (Masters of War, Hurricane) and slightly less so (Mr. Tambourine Man, which is NOT about drugs or maybe not entirely about drugs, Desolation Row, It’s Alright Ma). PS for all the really big nerds out there, you can probably tell I’ve been on a Bringing It All Back Home kick, since I just named a bunch of songs as examples. I like his newer stuff as well, though my favorite time period is the Rolling Thunder Revue tour era in the mid-70s. To be honest, I’ve tried and never gotten that far into the “Bad Dylan” phase, though I own most of the non-bootleg Dylan albums out there. One of the gems from the Bad Dylan era, however, is a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Boxer on Self Portrait, in which he sings his own back up vocals. Every time that song is played, a fairy somewhere in the world may fall down dead.

Dylan is of course famous for his mystique and unpredictability—his lyrics that the craziest Dylanheads pore over for meaning, his random conversion to Christianity, the appearance in the Victoria’s Secret ad, the fact that he puts his Oscar on stage with him (I am not kidding—I’ve seen him live twice), his refusal to take on the mantle of the “voice of a generation” that so many thrust at him (they can’t help it; it’s what he is, though since he seems to find a lot of nerdy followers in my generation, his voice might be a tad more universal).

It’s funny—he both embraces and repudiates his music-god status. At the beginning of every concert, an announcer says: “The poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to 'find Jesus,' who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.” This is apparently from a journalist, Jeff Miers, who published it in a profile of Dylan in the Buffalo News in August 2002.

Dylan is all of these things, but it’s strange that he allows them to be said about him. Dylan’s always been a complete puzzle, and he certainly enjoys messing with people—you can watch the way he plays with journalists in Dont Look Back, a fly-on-the-wall documentary by D.A. Pennebaker about Dylan’s tour in the UK in 1965, and also see how much it stung when people yelled “Judas” at him for going electric. Pete Seeger, as the legend goes, tried to take an ax to the soundboard or power cables or something at Newport in ’65 when Dylan went on stage and plugged in an electric guitar, to the shock of the folk world. In Dont Look Back, when people call him Judas, he turns to his band and says “Play it fucking loud” before launching into a blistering Like A Rolling Stone, but you can see how much it hurt that people didn’t get it. It feels to me like so much of his anger at crazy fans for idolizing him, his bizarre behavior, his nasty and often misogynistic songs (though I think everyone’s nasty at the end of a bad breakup, and he just sang it out loud to other people), all of it—is in some way Dylan expressing his disappointment that we, all of us, just don’t get it. And of course we don’t. Because he’s him and we’re us.

One of the things I love most about Dylan is his humor. It’s dry, it’s incredibly witty, and it always has the air of an in-joke about it. Which is probably why so many young people latched on in the Sixties—they felt, erroneously perhaps, that he was speaking in a language that only they could understand, a language that was not their parents’. There’s a Dylan world, and you can always go too far with it—seriously, go to a Dylan concert and you’ll see what I mean—but it’s a nice place to visit. I think the recent I’m Not There, in which several actors in different storylines portrayed a semi-fantasy semi-biographical depiction of Dylan, captured this world very nicely, in fact. The film’s worth it just for Jim James of My Morning Jacket singing Goin’ to Acapulco in the Billy the Kid vignette, and for Cate Blanchett, who does a spot-on 1965 speed freak Dylan.

But Dylan’s always done things that are so outside the realm of normal—again, that creepy Victoria’s Secret ad—that it’s easy to scratch your head, to even get upset. I try to laugh at it. Everything he does is such a non sequitur that it’s hilarious, though it’s sometimes confusing whether Dylan means it as a joke, or whether he’s deadly serious. Which brings me back to the Christmas album. I listened to snatches of a few songs, and I have to say that it left me confused and made me laugh, and not always in a good way. But I’ll certainly buy it. It may ruin Here Comes Santa Claus forever. Listening to it may bring me one step closer to solving the Dylan mystery. Or throw me off track again. The way I feel about this newest musical choice by the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond (to quote Joan Baez) is from a Dylan song. He knocked me out, and took my boots, and I was on the street again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Camels in the Garden

I've been driving instead of walking to work this week due to inclement weather and late meetings. Today it looked like it wouldn't rain on the way in, at least, so I walked. The walk is generally uneventful, but it usually offers a few quirks, as one sees in cities. There's the man who plays the recorder from a park bench, the sea gulls that sound like cats, a few homeless transvestites coming back from a late night somewhere, or sometimes an armored car surrounded by guards with automatic rifles and flak jackets.

Today, I didn't expect much. The tourist population in Company's Garden, the main park that's across the street from my apartment, has grown as it's gotten closer to the high season. There's more light to photograph Table Mountain as well. Anyway, as I was walking through the garden, I saw the area through which I normally walk cordoned off. I assumed they were doing some landscaping, but as I passed the statue of Cecil Rhodes, I saw three men with dreadlocks saddling camels, and beyond, a film crew laying down track for the camera and setting up a crane. The trees were festooned with Christmas ornaments and tinsel, and floodlights softened by silkscreens cast a strange glow. I assume they must have been filming for some sort of Nativity or acid trip scene--I'm unsure. But I did not expect to see camels at 8AM this morning.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Blog

I'm sure no one's checking here anymore, but since I left SL in May, I'm not writing here anymore. My new blog is over at

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Required Reading

I majored in African history* in college, partly because it was a soft major with more flexible requirements, and after dabbling in film, French, and English, I was a bit stuck, but more importantly, because the classes I took sparked a passion for discovering a history that I had never learned in school or through the news or independently. People ask me why I chose my major, or what drove me to want to do NGO work on the continent, or how I came to study in Senegal, volunteer in Sierra Leone, and work in South Africa, and I can't answer. I don't know.

I've always loved traveling, and when I was younger I certainly held a romanticized notion of "Africa," but when I decided to go to Senegal, I'd had learned enough at my pinko anarchist-fascist university, or whatever Fox News calls it, to know that my preconceived notions were 100% wrong. But I still wanted to go. And when I came back, I didn't call it "Mama Africa" or feel like I had some special connection to "Africa"--I loved Senegal, but it never felt like the home I'd never had. I used to collect masks, mostly of African origin, as a child/young teenager...I can't even tell you why this was a fascination for me. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, I like to learn about things that other people don't and I like to share that knowledge (often obnoxiously, I apologize). I've always felt that it's vital to know the forgotten things, the unknown things, to witness them.

Perhaps I'll come back to this sometime, but this post had a point before I tried to answer questions I still can't answer. In a seminar my senior year, I read the article "How to Write about Africa" by the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, and I ran across it again this morning. It's fantastic. Takes me down a peg or two every time I read it and think about what I've written about Senegal, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. Wainaina's article and the first article I ever had to read for my very first lecture in Main Currents in African History (talk about a broad topic...) on the word "tribe" should be required reading for anyone who is not from the African continent but is doing something in some way related to it, such as traveling, studying, or working. Funnily enough, these two articles were the first and last that I ever read for my major, both assigned by the same professor. Good bookends.

How to Write about Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina
Talking About Tribe: Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis, Chris Lowe et al.

*I realize that calling it "African history" is in itself sort of counter to what Wainaina is writing, but I wasn't allowed to specify my concentration below "African" because there were not enough classes offered in, say, Senegalese or pre/post colonial or even West African history to complete my major.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Watching Whales Watching Us

Being from Southern California and a short drive to the part of the Pacific that houses the Channel Islands (San Clemente, Santa Catalina, San Nicolas, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel—the one from Island of the Blue Dolphins), I’ve been whale watching more than once as a kid, spotting the smooth circular “footprints” left by gray and blue whales (and possibly humpbacks? I was young) on the water’s surface, watching dolphins play at the bow of the boat, and getting spectacularly seasick to the point of immobility (never a lot of throwing up, but lots and lots of debilitating nausea). In fact, my sharpest memory of whale watching occurred during a hurricane in Mexico that whipped the Californian reaches of the Pacific into mountainous swells and peaks that spilled over the bow of the boat—always a good day for surfers and never for landlubbers like me (as an aside, I’ve always known my secret dream of being a pirate captain would be trumped by my inability to wield a cutlass or even stand up in high seas, but I tried to ignore this fact as a child). My cousin Peter was visiting, and the two of us spent the entirety of the boat ride lying in the stern and moaning while clutching our bellies and eating saltines. I remember not caring in the least when we found whales.

Somehow, I thought that I’d be all right in a boat off the coast at Hermanus, which is one of the premier whale watching spots in the world. It seemed strange when my guidebook talked little of boat-based whale watching and instead spent more than a few pages on coastal whale watching—standing on the rocks overlooking Walker Bay, which is a breeding site for Southern Right Whales, though Humpbacks, Orcas, and Bryde’s Whales also range here. Only twice before had I seen whales from the coast—once while driving back from Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway, though it seemed as if the whale had been lost, and once at Mossel Bay in South Africa, but it was far away.

And so, we booked a somewhat expensive whale watching tour (it’s much cheaper in California) and drove out along the coast to Hermanus in my new car, a 1993 baby blue BMW, which is in good shape but still makes some interesting noises and has a few quirks. Fortunately it’s an automatic, which is why I got it, and so I only have to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road. The drive was absolutely stunning from the flashes that I could see, though I spent most of my time trying to stay centered on the incredibly narrow roads while attempting to navigate World Cup-related highway construction, not collide with cars weaving back and forth and cutting corners and tailgating, avoid people jaywalking on the freeway (on the way back, we saw a man who had been hit by a car while he crossed in the dark surrounded by cop cars and ambulances), and continue driving in the right direction. I’m a nervous driver as it is, so this was a bit of a trial by fire. But we got there without incident, parked, and found a good but unfortunately long lunch—we waited about an hour to get our food.

Finally, we were free to explore Hermanus, and as Morgan and Heather (a new fellow at m2m) looked at souvenirs and Wenli bought a giant slice of delicious looking cake, I wandered down to Walker Bay to look at the ocean. As I approached, I saw a few whales in the distance, but once I came to the edge of the cliff overlooking the water, where tons of people were gathered, I looked down and saw Southern Right Whales, identifiable by the callosities on their heads and lack of dorsal fin, herding their babies around the bay within swimming distance of the shore. Whales were breaching (lifting out of the water), spyholing (sticking their heads out to see), lobtailing (lifting their flukes, or tails), logging (resting at the surface of the water with their backs out—looks exactly like it sounds), and rolling on their backs to stick their squarish fins out of the water. I’ve never seen whales more active or closer to shore. I had to fight an urge to throw myself headlong into the water and swim out to them. There’s no other way to describe it other than awe-some, in the classic dictionary definition of being filled with awe.

We had to tear ourselves away after a while to catch our boat, and we were anticipating something even more amazing—if we could almost touch the whales from the shore, then we should have basically been able to ride the whales we encountered from the boat or at least pet them, I thought—and we paid our money and looked at the dinky boat upon which we were about to embark for a two-hour trip with about ten other people (the guys said it could hold 90 people, but I think that may have been in a refugees-fleeing-across-the-ocean kind of capacity). The bay had looked calm, and there wasn’t a lot of wind, and so I was optimistic that I’d be OK, especially if there were whales to distract me. The second we were out of the marina and onto the sea proper (no boats are allowed in Walker Bay so as not to disturb breeding and calving), I knew there was going to be trouble. The swells were huge, and we were glugging right into them, and the boat, shuddering and rolling, almost felt as if it were about to capsize, which became even more of a worry upon recalling the assurances of one of the tour guides that we would be brought home “no matter what.” I was fine for about fifteen minutes. Luckily, we found a mother and calf fairly quickly.

The rules say that you must stay 50 meters from the whales, which can approach if they want to, and that you can only stay with the whales for 20 minutes. We didn’t exactly follow either of these rules as the boat fought the swells and the whales circled us, the mother nudging along her calf, who played with a piece of seaweed, spyholed and stuck out its tongue. At one point, I thought they’d come close enough to touch, but the sea was too rough. We stayed with them for a while (I lost track of time because once I become seasick, a minute is an eternity), and I stayed on the bottom deck, following the whales around the bow and sides of the boat, after one ill-advised run up to the top with the majority of the other people that felt a bit like being on a Tilt-A-Whirl. The whales were beautiful.

We stayed out for about an hour (the tour guides seemed a bit anxious to get to something, probably a Saturday braai or party or whatever) and even though we did not get the full two-hour experience, I was more than ready to get off the boat. By the last ten minutes or so, I couldn’t even lift my head I felt so sick.

When I think about the boat ride and the cost, it feels as if it weren’t worth it, as if we’d have been better off sitting on the rocks and watching from land. When I think about the whales, about how close we were, it was worth every stomach churning, head throbbing second. I wouldn’t get on a boat at Hermanus again, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it, but I’m glad that I did it. It was an unforgettable experience, one that makes me wonder at the heartlessness of whalers—how could one kill something so gentle and playful, so curious, so obviously intelligent—and at how easy it must have been to catch and kill “Right Whales,” named as such because they are slow swimmers, tend to float on the water once harpooned, and stay close to shore. The whales that we saw from land and from sea saw us and seemed interested in us, people watching us as we were whale watching them. They showed off, spinning in the water, breaching, and playing. There were other places less populated with human beings where mothers could nurse their calves, but they came right up to the rocks where people stood, displaying their babies to us. To steal from a recent New Yorker article on whales, despite the terrible history surrounding our two species, there seems to be some kind of gentle connection between us, as we watch each other from solid ground or boat deck and from the ocean.

Photos, from top: the Southern Right Whale calf spyholing (the top of the head is cut off in the photo because the sea was so rough); the view over Walker Bay--no whales visible; a random man on the rocks at Walker Bay to give you an idea of how close the whales were to shore; Morgan, Wenli, and Heather in front of the boat; the baby whale sticking out its tongue.

I tried to post a not-so-great video of the whales in Walker Bay, but the Internet is impossible today. I'll try again later--the video is much better at capturing what was going on, since it was hard to anticipate when one of the many whales would breach or lobtail and get the camera around in time to capture it.