Thursday, July 16, 2009
Yes, I talk about missionaries, alphabet soup, bears, and (briefly) Harry Potter
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.