Thursday, July 30, 2009

"Probe Corruption, Workers Demand as They March in City" [Shutting Down HIV Clinics]

When I said that I wouldn’t have known anything about the current municipal strike in South Africa if I didn’t happen to turn on the news now and then, it wasn’t strictly true. Although I have not seen any of the havoc wreaked so far, I have caught the edges and effects of the strike. Municipal workers from the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) and the Independent Municipal and Allies Trade Union (IMATU) went on strike recently, demanding a 15% pay raise to address the inflation that hit South Africa last year and to bring appallingly low salaries up to some semblance of a living wage. Inflation has now dropped down (from a 13% high to around 8%). The South African Local Governments Association has offered a 13% incremental raise of all salaries and a minimum wage, but the unions rejected it. It has been approximated that over 16% of the South African workforce is now out on strike. Voters reaffirmed the might of the African National Congress (ANC, Mandela’s party) and brought Jacob Zuma to power in elections held not too long ago, but many are now angry that none of the promises doled out during the campaigns have been fulfilled.

Water, garbage collection, transportation, and other essential services have been affected. I’ve seen overflowing trash bins put out for collection day that have not been picked up, although it’s not on the scale of, say, the trash problems in Naples or the once-a-month-if-we’re-lucky collection day in Sierra Leone (the trash from my house was actually being thrown in the neighbors’ bushes, I found out after a few months). Strikers around Jo-berg rioted a few days ago, throwing garbage and rocks, targeting and/or attacking police and motorists, and setting things on fire. Some strikers were drunk or otherwise intoxicated, possibly inspiring some of the uninhibited behavior. Police responded with rubber bullets and pepper spray. I’ve not really been here long enough to speculate whether the police were using excessive force or the strikers were out of control (both sides, of course, point fingers at the other). What I do know is that the strikers’ tactics are losing them support among the South African public—people are angry that anyone is striking in a country suffering from high unemployment made even higher by the global recession, and they are unhappy with the unruly and violent nature of the marches. The strike also affects services in the poor townships and informal settlements that have basic amenities, such as trash pickup.

There was a huge protest in Cape Town yesterday, and everyone at m2m was advised to stay inside as much as possible and to avoid downtown. When the Princeton fellows and I decided to venture out at lunch, one staff member tried to convince us not to go and told us to come back immediately should anything appear amiss. This made us (maybe just me) a bit nervous, but we were literally going around the block. Nothing happened—we didn’t spot a single striker, though the day before I’d had to pass through a large group of mostly men with sticks (it was unclear whether the sticks were for signs or for hitting things) to get out of the office. The group did not give me a second look and did not seem angry, but it was a bit troubling at first. I could hear the roar of the rally yesterday—whistles, horns, and singing and shouting—but it did not pass by our office.

What leads me to write a post about an event in which I am not in any way involved or even a witness to, however, is the tactic that the strikers used yesterday to get more people out on the streets. A group of strikers stormed (the newspaper’s word, not mine) the Khayelitsha Community Health Centre, ostensibly to intimidate the government health workers at the clinic to join the strike. It is illegal for healthcare workers to strike in South Africa, so few have walked off the job. In the process of trying to get the healthcare workers to initiate an illegal strike, the municipal workers, armed with sjamboks, or whips/clubs, drove out patients coming into the clinic for anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) and tuberculosis medications—i.e., blocking chronically ill HIV+ patients from the treatments that will keep them healthy and alive. Furthermore, skipping ARV or TB drug doses can create multi-drug resistant strains of both illnesses, which make treatment and survival that much more difficult for patients and create global health threats of illnesses that cannot be treated or at least managed with drugs. After this event, the Department of Health decided to close the Khayelitsha (a township on the outskirts of Cape Town where many of m2m’s clients live or go to receive counseling and treatment) center and others in the township along with other clinics in different areas. When I asked about how our clients would deal, or if there was anything m2m had as a contingency do for them (m2m does not deal in any medical aspect of HIV, from prescribing drugs, to administering tests, to giving mothers formula for their babies), my boss shook his head. They always find a way, he said. Something like this happens every year, and there's nothing we can do. The clinics are often the first to close, as they did during the xenophobic violence of the past year and during other strikes, including one by doctors last month. To have HIV and to live positively means having to find a way no matter what the obstacle, and there are many and they are all daunting.

All day, I’ve been thinking about the strikers shutting down the clinic, and it infuriates me. No matter how right someone is to strike, how understandable it might be for someone to get so angry and frustrated and marginalized that he or she may turn to violence as a last resort (I don’t condone this or any violence, but I can understand why it happens sometimes), there is no excuse for denying sick people, especially those with HIV or AIDS who have so many other obstacles to overcome, from stigma to drug shortages, a safe and stable place where they can seek out the treatment that they need to survive. The rubbish throwing was pushing it, but storming a clinic distributing ARVs crosses every line I can possibly think of. The strikers claim they are holding the politicians that they voted into power accountable for all of the BMWs they bought after election, for the corruption they promised to stop, for the wages they pledged they’d raise. But in the end, as it often happens, what starts as a challenge to power becomes another excuse to tear down the few people or institutions that are doing good.

Further strike coverage: LA Times Photo Gallery, about the clinic shut downs, about the strike, more photos.

Photo above: Brenton Geach, Cape Argus Times

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On Forgetting Where I am (sometimes)

It can be a bit hard sometimes to verbalize all that I’m thinking about and seeing and hearing here. To some extent, it’s very easy to disconnect from the reality of South Africa—I can walk to and from work through a very attractive part of town, shop in a supermarket that has almost everything that I want, and get into a taxi to reach a nice restaurant or mall. It’s very easy to feel uncomfortably separate, as a foreigner, a white person, and someone with enough money to get by. For example, there is currently a huge strike on across the country, with 17% of the workforce on the streets or staying home, and if I didn’t watch the news in the morning, I’d have no idea.

My previous experience of “Africa” (I'm not tryin to generalize, sorry) is in nations where the poverty is right there alongside the wealth—in Dakar, I’d catch an expensive meal and maybe an event at the Institut Française downtown, and then I’d pass a row of beggars with limbs twisted by polio around the corner before hopping onto a decrepit, though brightly colored, car rapide on my way back to my host family’s house in a neighborhood that was neither cripplingly poor nor wealthy. In Bo, Sierra Leone, I might be getting to the hospital everyday in a white NGO Land Cruiser, but once I got there, there would be no light or no water or women outside with malnourished babies or young girls and sometimes even staff members who would see me and follow me into the office to ask for money for their brother’s medicine (usually $2-$5). Furthermore, in both places, I stood out very starkly as a foreigner--most of the time, I'd be the only white person in a room or on a bus. Cape Town is very, very different.

South Africa is one of the most economically disparate nations in the world, and I’ve already written about that. But another aspect that is strange to me is that because things are so familiar, it’s easy to forget where I am, to remember that I want to learn more about the cultures here, and that I have to actively pursue educating myself about this country. A few nights ago I met a young Afrikaans woman, and beyond the language differences, the cultural divide was so great—everything she talked about was alien to me, from “windsurfing” (not the sport but rather the English translation of Afrikaans swing-type dancing), to the singers of Afrikaans music (it ranges from poppy, with heavy parallels to cheesy American country music I am told, to a genre called “fuckoff” that is more like punk rock), to the difference between the traditional “Boer” mentality and the new “almost 1960s-like” counterculture that is moving towards artistic expression and long and unwashed hair. All of this was beyond new.

I don’t even know most of the slang terms yet—hectic seems common enough but I can’t tell even if it’s negative or positive or both yet—and the regular language confusions that one gets in the range of ex-British colonies and holdings—from Sierra Leone to the US to Australia to South Africa. Take away and not take out or to go, toilet or cloakroom and not bathroom or restroom, flat and lift, boot and bonnet.

All the same, I think it would be very, very easy to be here and remain divorced from most of the culture, to stay out of the townships, to maybe go on a safari, but to spend a lot of time at the mall or the movies or at home. And sometimes those things are very necessary, and more often that not it is very, very hard to find ways to delve into the cultures that exist here. It has been the small things that have brought me back, that have reminded me of where I am—riding a minibus built for 11 that ended up with 19 passengers while deafening music blared overhead, helping my desk neighbor format fliers for her church in the Khayelitsha township, chatting up locals as we cross paths hiking up Table Mountain. Baby steps that will hopefully gain ground as time goes on.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Diversion for the Day

In 1937, Woody Guthrie wrote a song warning Dust Bowl migrants about the dangers of the California Dream. As a native Californian, I found this fitting for the current events surrounding the disaster that has become my home state.

You want to buy you a home or a farm, that can't deal nobody harm,
Or take your vacation by the mountains or sea.
Don't swap your old cow for a car, you better stay right where you are,
Better take this little tip from me.
'Cause I look through the want ads every day
But the headlines on the papers always say:

If you ain't got the do re mi, boys, you ain't got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot
If you ain't got the do re mi.

Excerpted Lyrics as recorded by Woody Guthrie, RCA Studios, Camden, NJ, Apr 26, 1940, released on "Dust Bowl Ballads," transcribed by Manfred Helfert.
© 1961 Ludlow Music Inc., New York, NY

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Yes, I talk about missionaries, alphabet soup, bears, and (briefly) Harry Potter

I’m in that strange in-between time of feeling like I just arrived in Cape Town but that I’ve been away from home for months. Most of the city is still entirely new and exciting, and even the places that I’ve passed twice a day to and from work for the last two weeks sometimes act out and do something new. Yesterday the mega church next to work spilled well-dressed proselytizers (you can always pick out a Christian missionary, whether in Las Vegas, Bo Sierra Leone, or here: it’s a combination of specific styles of black pants, white shirts, and ties) very nicely and warmly invited me in as I returned from lunch with the three Princeton in Africa Fellows who are here for year to work with m2m. I pass the church everyday, and there are always rows of men waiting for something—jobs that require clambering into truck beds, much as one sees in California; food from a basement soup kitchen; something, anyway—and the thin woman with a limp who waits on a box but never asks me for money, but the missionaries were new.

Work is still slow, but I suspect things will pick up once my boss returns. We’re only a few days away from the International AIDS Society Cape Town Conference, and although I haven’t been much of a help, I’ve seen people running around the office (literally) dealing with IAS and juggling nine other things at the same time. It’s hard because I want to contribute but I know that I am completely and totally useless at this point and that me helping would actually create more work for the person I’ve offered to assist, but such is starting a new job. I’ve attended a few meetings as a (very silent) note taker, but most of my minutes are filled with question marks and ellipses. During the Board Meeting, there was a period during the discussion where I literally wrote nothing down because I didn’t follow it. Joining an NGO is much like entering a country that shares a language with your mother tongue but has its own distinct dialect—and I’m having enough trouble as it is with American vs. South African English. NGO dialects are largely made up of acronyms (much like college), and each NGO has its own special alphabet soup. Sorting PMs from PDMs from RMs, SCs and MMs, or remembering ANC (not the African National Congress), AZT, CBO, and NMEC, is not easy. In fact, when I come back to look at this post, I probably won’t be able to say what all of these are. On top of that, there is a lot of NGO terminology (mission creep, task shifting, etc) and private sector lingo (scalability, overheads, COOs) that is not always entirely familiar. I’m using online dictionaries, Wikipedia, and Google searches to keep up to speed. I keep fighting back concerns that I’m in way over my head, though I take some cold comfort in knowing that the Princeton fellows are feeling similarly. It makes it worse to see the bios of most of the other HQ staff—all of them are scarily accomplished (and a lot of them at a young age) and often came from high-power jobs in entertainment, banking/the finance sector, and the NGO/humanitarian world.

Beyond that, I am now settled in a studio apartment right by Company Gardens with a balcony that overlooks Lion’s Head (see photo above; photo below is the sunrise view from my first temporary flat). I’m a short walk from the bustling Long and Kloof Streets, several museums and landmarks, and work. I get to pass through Company Gardens on my morning and evening commute, and while locals take cellphone videos of the North American grey squirrels that Cecil Rhodes imported to the park, I try to be cool while watching brightly colored ducks with bleeding heart markings herd fuzzy ducklings on the soggy lawn and large brown birds with long beaks squawk at each other in flight. I have no idea what they are, but they’re treated like pigeons in Central Park. A woman in the office told us about how a roaming baboon broke into her kitchen one afternoon, and I smiled, thinking of friends nearly driving into black bears that were galumphing down the road in the dark or the nightly visits from raccoons scratching at my back door for cat food, or the coyotes howling over a kill in the barranca. It’s strange to remember sometimes that what is exotic to one person is ordinary to another. Though, when it comes down to it, a baboon in the kitchen is always an exciting story, as is braking a few feet from a very confused and avocado-fat bear. And then, sometimes things are always the same. The new Harry Potter movie was released in Cape Town yesterday and has already sold out—forcing the Princeton fellows and me to see it tonight. Though we have to take a minibus taxi (much like a Sierra Leonean poda-poda, Senegalese car rapide, or a dilapidated 10-person van that can miraculously seat 15-20, and in West Africa, goats as well) to get there.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Settling In

From first impressions, Cape Town is, similar to ex-colonial hubs like Dakar or large immigration centers like New York or LA, a city of almost schizophrenic contradictions and mixtures, a place where old and new coexist in often uneasy, but never uninteresting, ways. The statue of Cecil Rhodes in Company Gardens, with its disarmingly round face and uncomfortably Nazi heil-like one-armed salute lies a minute or two’s walk from the ex-Slave House Slave Museum, which is now hosting a retrospective on Steve Biko, thirty years after his murder, much how in Dakar the Boulévard Faidherbe ran into the Place de l’Indépendance. I hear English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Portuguese, and a myriad of other languages that I cannot begin to identify, some of them all mixed together. Even the TV is multilingual, and South African soap operas sometimes require subtitles within conversations held mostly in English as characters switch back and forth. It reminds me of Spanglish or the mix of Wolof and French I heard all over Dakar, or even the strange vernaculars that expats living abroad pick up with each other—in Senegal, my American friends and I spoke a mixture of English, French, and Wolof. There are mosques and synagogues and churches, and I’m sure a host of religious centers and places of worship that I cannot identify. Even the weather is fickle, and a beautiful sunny morning with breathtaking views of Table Mountain becomes a freezing, windy afternoon rainstorm. The city of four seasons in one day. There is also the strange paradox of a city that loves to be outside but that does not walk on the city streets on weekends or once night falls. Security, in many ways, reigns supreme.

Cape Town sometimes feels upside down to me, though I think this is partly due to arriving in the middle of winter after coming from Californian summer, and from having to readjust to the cars driving on the wrong side (or other side or left side or right/correct side…whatever). It’s not easy to adjust to, and I have to constantly repeat in my head or out loud look right left right every time I near an intersection. There are familiar African and European elements, and some parts have a tinge of New Orleans and others of San Francisco or even Big Sur, and of course Cape Town is also something entirely new.

A part of the discomfort is the obvious segregation here, which falls, as is often the case, along economic and racial lines. This is largely in part due to the legacy of Apartheid, though I have seen disparities of this nature, though perhaps not of this extremity, in many places. The difference, as many will tell you, is that Cape Town does not really have a middle class per se. This is a town where you can see miles and miles of Informal Settlements (shantytowns, bidonvilles, squats, what-have-you) while driving from the airport into the city center, and then you can go test drive a Ferrari or buy ocean view real estate that starts in the low millions. It is very strange to look around a moderately or inexpensively priced restaurant and realize that almost everyone, except for the servers, is white in a predominately black nation.

I experienced this segregation in restaurants in Sierra Leone, but it was different: the “upper class” is mostly comprised of expatriates (and many Lebanese born in Sierra Leone, but that is a separate issue), not native-born black Sierra Leoneans. Most of the local people were in the same boat of dire circumstances and expats made enough money to frequent supermarkets and restaurants that mirrored (or attempted to mirror) establishments “back home.” I also saw this type of disparity in Dakar, but the elite was comprised of black Senegalese who had made their fortunes in one way or another. Tourists were easily recognizable and set apart, and expats seemed more low-key, as I remember at least. Cape Town’s disparity and segregation are unique, though with a subtlety that I find hard to articulate.

All the same, Cape Town is an amazing city. Beautiful views across the City Bowl, up to Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Signal Hill, and down to the Waterfront and out to Robben Island. Lovely parks, many of which were once designated as vegetable gardens to restock Dutch East India Company ships traveling to and from Europe, leafy residential areas and old, distinguished buildings. A vast cornucopia of restaurants offering everything from boerwoers to sushi, fish and chips to curry, pad thai to pizza, and more big game meat than I can identify. I could, as a co-worker recently exclaimed, eat my way through Cape Town. There are also outdoor activities that range from tame to extreme: picnicking in one of the parks or botanical gardens, surfing and swimming down at the beach, hiking the mountains around the city either by sun or full moon, bungee jumping and rock climbing, or going cage diving to observe Great Whites.

I am just under two weeks in now, and everything is exciting and new and fascinating, even the more difficult bits. It’s cold and rainy today, perfect for a glass of old brown sherry and stew, I am told, but a big deterrent in terms of getting out and exploring. Everyone seems to be hibernating in preparation for the return of the sun, so that they can get back outside. These rainy days are not all that different from those in Southern California, in fact, until the wind whips around the City Bowl and blows back your hood, tearing the scarf from around your neck, and scurrying you inside for things that I have not yet been around long enough to try or to understand: the glass of sherry and bellyful of stew, the multilingual soapies on TV, the elusive but omnipresent shared experience of the Rainbow Nation.