Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Lessons You Learn From Peas

I can't believe that in two weeks, I will be on a plane headed back to the States.  Time has passed so quickly, and I'm dreading heading back into the "real world".  Admittedly, it's been nice to be a little removed from the life of an American and the constant updating of social media outlets, but at the same time, I'm finding that I miss the community and connectivity of it all.  I do get the chance to hear about the news from Al Jazeera, and considering all the hoopla of Libya, the US debt crisis, and all the other things going wrong in the world, it is nice to get a somewhat unbiased report on what goes on.  And, I get to watch all the football (soccer) that I want, because it is the sport, outside of rugby of course.  I watched a few minutes of a rugby game (seeing as the Rugby World Cup is this year), and as hard as I tried, I could not quite grasp the game.  Alas!

As to the aforementioned and titular peas, the village garden project has been flourishing, and harvesting of some of the crops that have been planted have been going bloomingly well.  Just the other day, I had some fresh spinach from the garden - delicious!  The lettuce has also been ready to harvest, and some people from the community have actually been able to buy some of the surplus produce.  The peas were actually used in one of the lunches that we provide the kids that attend our preschool, and I spent a good hour or so getting the peas out of their pods.  I'm not sure what the term is for the process, but I'm going to say de-pod-ing peas, like shucking corn or threshing wheat.  So I was de-pod-ing these delicious peas, and I have to say, it's a lot of fun, but also a whole lot of work.  Although the saying is "two peas in a pod", most pea pods don't have two, and if they did, it would be a rather small pod.  Most have around 4, with upwards of 7!! And some even had something a little extra in it: a worm!  Not that we were eating those ones, but life has its little surprises along the way.  I guess Mendelian genetics isn’t the only thing you can learn from peas.

The fact that we are even able to harvest some of the vegetables planted in the garden is just an amazing fact in itself, and goes to show the success of the projects here.  We were able to use the peas we de-pod-ed as part of the lunch menu, and it’s so exciting that it is even possible for this to happen, even if some of the kids purposely picked out the peas from their bowls.  In the time that I’ve spent here, I can honestly say that I’ve seen changes, great and wonderful changes that makes me stand in awe of what the Foundation is doing here in South Africa, and makes me loathe to leave.  The kids that are in the preschool, that I help to wash their hands, that I willing let shake my arms and hands until I’m sore – I’m really going to miss them.  After about 6 weeks, they finally know my name, and when they say “Good morning Karissa” when I enter their classroom, I can’t help but smile back at them.  The heart and resilience of a child is incredible, and it makes me remember how much I take for granted: my dream of a childhood, the fact that I have two parents who love each other and me, the mere fact that I am a United States citizen by the sheer reality that I was born there, the wide range of opportunities offered to me because of a free public school education until age 18, the even greater echelon I enter because of my acceptance to an Ivy League university and subsequent private graduate school, the financial capabilities to attend these schools and go on this trip in the first place – all of which put me in the top 1% of the world’s population.  And that’s not even going into the most trivial of things that, like having a toilet seat, like being clean when you wake up every day, like having readily accessible pharmaceuticals and medical care, like reliable electricity and Internet that doesn't cut out every few minutes, like the ability to wash clothes in a machine rather than by hand.
And it makes me aware of what I'm going to miss here, like how the night sky is simply radiant here because light pollution doesn’t drown out the Milky Way.  It really puts things in perspective, and makes me appreciate all that I’ve been blessed with, what I’ve been given, out of no effort of my own.  When I look up into the sky, usually on the drive back to our lodgings or when I’m taking a shower (our shower is outside), I can’t help but be in wonder of the millions of gaseous bodies way out there in the universe.  It makes me feel so small, because in the scheme of things, in the midst of this massive galaxy and the multitude of stars created by the Creator, He still cares for me, He loves me, and has given me a life that has been so chockfull of grace and blessings, and that is something that I can never lose.  What can I do but give back but a portion of the gifts He’s granted to me, to share just a bit of the intelligence I don’t really think I have, to offer what little expertise and knowledge I’ve gained from my years of schooling, and present it wholeheartedly to the people, the future generations of this world, that desperately need it.  And yet, as much as I attempt to rectify and solve the problems in this one community, there are thousands more who are not so lucky, who don’t have a benevolent benefactor bringing them medicine to treat their sores or providing them with fresh vegetables or teaching them English or paying their primary school fees.  It hurts my heart when I realize the fate that awaits some of the children I see here, that despite the help we may provide, they may end up selling cabbage and oranges on the side of the road, living in a small house raising 6 children, or driving a taxi van from town to town.  I can only hope that because of this small window we’ve opened to them, that they aspire to become something bigger than a street vendor or cashier at the Pick N’ Pay (the local supermarket), and that they actually achieve that dream.  And while hope is something I seem to constantly be lacking, it is the one thing that I should and can never truly abandon.  Because without hope, where would we be?

Anyways, on to a less somber topic… I’ll be in Zimbabwe for a few days doing a nutrition workshop to an HIV/AIDS group and then pop back to South Africa for a few days for a health fair before leaving on a jet plane back to the States.  And as soon as I get back, I hit the ground running with orientations for my clinical rotation at Cedar Sinai, health screenings, and moving to the bustling life of a graduate student in Los Angeles.

But until that day, I’ll be savoring every minute I have left in this wonderful country.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Of Bribes and Border Gates

So, here we are again in Zimbabwe.  Because of the two new volunteers, we had another round of tourist activities, the same, in fact, as the ones we did before: Kruger National Park, God’s window, Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park.  And that is where our story begins:

The two volunteers will be leaving on Sunday to go back to the States from Zimbabwe, and so, part of the schedule was to go to Zimbabwe via car, show them Victoria Falls, do a safari in Botswana, and then let them go back with a whole bunch of awesome pictures and experiences outside of helping out in the village in South Africa.  The trip to Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls is a two day trip.  The first day has us go through the border gate to cross into Zimbabwe, and then stay in Bulawayo and Hlekweni, the service project in Zimbabwe where the Foundation has an HIV/AIDS support group.

We had some problems, unfortunately, with the Foundation’s van on the first day that we tried to go to Zimbabwe.  In a town called Tzaneen, which is about halfway between where we were staying (Hoedspruit), and Bulawayo, a strange sound started coming from the car after accelerating after a prolonged stop at a signal.  After a number of people stopped by to see what was wrong, offering their help, going to three or four different dealerships/mechanics, still no prognosis on what caused the problem in the first place.  Some people said it was the transmission, some said it had something to do with the tire or the axle, and others said it was something with ball bearings and the engine.  Needless to say, no real cause was found, and as the sound had disappeared as soon as we starting driving to the first place, no one could really say what was wrong.  And so, back to Hoedspruit we went.  Nomvimbi, the director of the Meriwether Foundation, was going to just book flights for her and the other two volunteers, to take them to Zimbabwe and the tourist attractions, while those left behind would continue working at the village, and would take the van to the closest Toyota dealership to get a second opinion to find out what was wrong. 

As it turns out, there was something seriously wrong with the van, and the flights were going to be quite pricy.  Due to a fortuitous connection to a local police office with a 14 passenger van available to lend to us, we were able to use this vehicle while our car got fixed.  And that turned out to be our downfall.  In South Africa, vehicles are often stolen and transported across the border to Zimbabwe, and can be found all around Africa, from Tanzania up to Egypt.  As a result, the border gates between South Africa and Zimbabwe are closely monitored to make sure that all the vehicles have the proper paperwork and registration.  Because we were traveling in a vehicle that did not belong to any of us, we needed to have a letter from the owner, stating that he was okay with us driving it across the border. 

The way the borders work in Africa is like this: Basically we first go through immigration and customs for South Africa, in order to officially “exit” the country.  Then in order to enter the next country, in this case, Zimbabwe, we go through another set of border gates, immigration and customs.  At both of these gates, you need to clear your vehicle and get your passport stamped.  For the country you are entering, any visas that are required will also be paid for at the immigration counter.

The border officials at the South African border were not convinced by the paperwork we provided, and actually thought that we were trying to trap them.  They wanted us to have a notarized letter, as well as a note from the bank that partially owned the vehicle as well, all of which we did not have.  The bank would never provide that kind of documentation to anyone, and since we were already far from our original location, we had to resort to other means of persuading them to let us through to Zimbabwe: Bribery.

Now, bribery and corruption are commonplace in most African countries, and as much as it is looked down upon, there still is a good amount of it that happens behind closed doors, so to speak.  Government employees are not paid much, similar to the United States, but these individuals seem to believe that this entitles them to make a little money on the side, and people know it.  For a little extra money, they are willing to look the other way, or if the opportunity presents itself (i.e. that there are Americans who have money, and are willing to pay for seemingly small breach of standard operating protocols), they are willing to propose a monetary amount that will smooth things over.

And so, a “service fee” of 1000 rands was paid to the border officials in South Africa to let us go through to Zimbabwe, with the added incentive that the majority of the people in our car were American citizens, of course.  The exchange rate is about 6.5 rands to the US dollar, which amounts to about a $153 charge to get us through the border.  Apparently, during the negotiations of our “service fee” to the police officers, one of them took a liking to me, so someone joked that if only I had flirted a little more, perhaps we could have paid a little less, or maybe, nothing at all.  But that was not to be, and we passed through the first border with no other problems, and the feeling that because we had overcome this obstacle, the next border gate to enter Zimbabwe would be relatively easy, minus the wait in line.  Our last visit to Zimbabwe had us standing two hours in line before we even got into the building to purchase our visas and get our passports stamped.

This time, the line was relatively short, and we completed the necessary paperwork, paid for the visas, and got stamped, all within 30 minutes or so.  Our real problem came again with clearing our car.  The border officials in Zimbabwe had the same problem with our paperwork as those in South Africa, and had the gall to charge ask for 1600 rand, or the equivalent of $246.  By this time, our collective pool of available cash had run almost dry, not only having to pay for the visas, but also the “fee” at the first border gate.  We also needed to have some cash on hand to pay for gas, as gas stations were few and far between in Zimbabwe.  As it turned out, we had just enough: 1500 rand plus $20.

So there you have it!  An adventure in itself just to get to another country, and it only cost us a few extra dollars, and 4 hours of our time.  And because it took us so long to get through our problematic papers, we didn’t leave the Zimbabwe border until 1 am, which meant that we had to drive through the night in order for us to reach Bulawayo by morning for us to arrive at Victoria Falls by the next evening.  And so it was:  I spent around 24 hours in a car and pulled the closest to an all-nighter since college.  Hopefully, we won’t have the same problems on our way back, but then again, who knows!

It’s sad that this type of thing is normal here, and that it is so widely accepted as a means to any problems you may encounter with any authority figure.  It is true that corruption is rampant in the African continent, if the current problems with Egypt and Libya are any indication.  At the same time, it does give a picture of the state of mind of the people here, in that people here will do what they can to make sure they get ahead.  There is a little in the sense of working for the greater good or helping out another person, and it’s in this attitude that causes a lot of the problems when organizations try to get some community involvement and sustainability after they leave.  People are loath to help out or volunteer their time and services, unless they know that they are getting something out of it.  Even though they see the good that can come of it, people are always asking for something to compensate for their time, and it's here that changes need to be made, so that these communities can be empowered to continue improving their own situation and livelihoods, without the assistance and crutch of foreign and visiting organizations.

Anyways, on to pictures!! These are just a compilation of stuff that's happened within the past few weeks - homemade pancakes and lettuce wraps, elephant ride, cheetahs and walking where lions were, a leopard spotting in the Kruger National Park (although you can't really see it), and some tomatoes that have been growing in the village in South Africa.  The internet is pretty slow in uploading pictures, so I'll just leave these as a teaser.


Until the next time - one month and counting...