Monday, July 30, 2012

A Paint Splattered Struggle: A Look Back

Back to the good ole US of A. I can hardly believe that it has been three weeks and I'm sitting on my bed in Los Angeles again.  Feels like not much has changed from a month ago, and yet, almost everything has.  Even though I still don't have a good grasp on what I'll be doing for the next year, I do have a better picture of what it will look like, and I can honestly say I'm excited about what the next year will bring.  But before we go into all that, I thought I should divulge what went on while the past couple of weeks.

The last time I updated, I posted very briefly about what we were doing in South Africa, and the simple joys of just being back at Zitha surrounded by children and Africans I had met before.  As to what we were physically doing while at the village, it mainly consisted of, you guessed it, painting (I know I sort of gave it away with the title of this blog).  And to be frank, that's a lot of the work we were doing in Zambia too.  Seemed like this was one big painting trip - and I still have some random splotches of paint on my arm that I somehow missed with my frequent turpentine baths.  But it was an important part of getting things ready, and painting a drab gray room with white paint really brightens up the room, and makes it so much nicer to look at.

In South Africa, we were painting two rooms, destined to be preschool rooms in the interim while a real preschool with a cafeteria and classrooms is in the works to be built.  These rooms, originally designated as a chicken coop, will still be used for those in the future, but with the expansion of the preschool program from 30 to close to 100, more space was needed.  And since there aren't any chickens at the project yet, it was important to spruce up these rooms so that they could hold kids and look like classrooms.  Not only did we help to paint the rooms, but we electrified them, literally bringing light to their corner of the world.  With donations from the volunteers, some African astroturf, colorful plastic tables and chairs, and creative artwork from the children, the rooms looked super awesome.  I don't have any before pictures (you'll see that I tend to forget to take pictures of things), but here are some of the finished products.

The last day we were at Zitha, we held a health fair, providing free HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, organic vegetables from the garden for sale, eyewear, and passed clothing donations out to the children of the community.  I had the opportunity to conduct the HIV testing, using a new FDA-approved test that uses saliva instead of blood, and only takes 20 minutes to process.  It was something I wasn't really trained for, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to do so.  It also reminded me of how prevalent and pervasive the stigma against being HIV-positive still is in African culture.  Despite the countless efforts by many an organization and government to educate people about HIV and its transmission, it still is something that people are reluctant to talk about, much less voluntarily get tested for it.  And if the results show them to be positive, some still remain in denial, because to be HIV-positive not only impacts their own lives, but also those around them.  It's heartbreaking to see first hand how adamantly someone can refuse to acknowledge and accept their status, particularly when the test is right in front of you, and you know that they can receive the help that they need.  There were even some who got tested, and then did not even return to get their results.  Nevertheless, the whole fair was a success, and while it was an extremely long day for everyone, it was rewarding in the end, seeing the kids with their new clothes and staff with jaunty new baseball hats and sunglasses.

Volunteers planting trees
Zitha staff members
We're not all work and no play, and even though we did a good number of sightseeing on our way out to Zitha from Johannesburg, we also got the opportunity to visit the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) and do a night drive through a private game reserve.  The HESC specifically was started to help protect cheetahs, and boy did we see some.  I have yet to see one in the wild, but it was pretty awesome to see them up close, including the the rare king cheetah, which has a darker coloration and pattern than normal cheetahs.  As for the game drive, this was my first one at night, and we were blessed to have some up close and personal interactions with them.  I've never been that close to rhinos or lions - always spying them from way far away.  This time, we were close enough to touch.  There's something about being that close to wild creatures that is both awe and fear inspiring at the same time, being in the presence of that much raw power. It also has made me painfully aware of how terrible my camera is.  It's super old, and seems to like being more in video mode than camera, but it gets the job done.  Perhaps when I've saved more money I can buy me a new shiny one. =)
King cheetah with their distinctive coat
Rhino family browsing
Mr. Lion chilling on the side of the road
So we left South Africa via plane to go to Livingstone, Zambia, the home of Victoria Falls, and my soon-to-be-part-time-residence for the next year.  I really didn't have an idea of what Zambia was like, as I only spent a few days there last year, and found it to be welcoming.  I got to meet with Gilbert, the doctor I will be working with, as well as help with the final interviews for the additional staff we will be hiring for the program, including nurses, teachers, chefs, a social worker, and driver.  A lot of work needed to be done for the house that we would be working out of, and again, it involved painting.  Because this house would serve as a preschool, as well as a fully operational clinic, we needed to make sure that everything was up to par.  Unfortunately, no pictures, but seeing as I'll be spending more time there in the near future, I guess I can take pictures as I go, if I remember to.

Another project the Foundation has in Zambia is in the village of Manyemunyemu (say that ten times fast!).  They are helping to build and supply a local clinic, and we basically just went there to deliver some donations to the clinic, see how it was starting, and meet with the community to hear their input and let them know what the next steps would be for the clinic.  This particular clinic serves around 16 villages around the area, but it's continued open status is conditional on the building of a bathroom per government regulation.  The Foundation hopes to build a new one, and is looking to sponsor community members to learn to trade skills as builders, as well as provide materials to help construct the bathroom.  While we were there, we also took a tour around to some of the villages, and saw some of the community members we were helping.

View from the village
Dr. Gilbert seeing a patient in the clinic with the nurse
Water buffalo at Chobe National Park
So that is basically the whole of the past couple weeks.  We did another game drive slash river cruise through Chobe National Park in Botswana one day.  Then we took a day trip to Zimbabwe to check in on another project in a village called Lambo where the Foundation is helping to build a primary school.  For the most part it was pretty laid back for the last couple of days, in that we weren't doing a whole lot of physical labor, more just traveling around, relaxing, as well as planning and preparing for the new project and program to get started, nailing out details and stuff like that.

I will admit, I wasn't really quite sure when I left for this trip three weeks ago what I was expecting.  It was all last minute, even the job itself, and I thought that this trip would help to fill in the glaring gaps in the amount of information I had been given about what I was going to be doing.  Turns out, this trip was more to help supervise the volunteers, and get introduced to who I would be working with and what I would be doing.  Now, I don't have any more answers to the questions I had, and to be honest, I probably have more now that I've seen what the situation is.  But truthfully, I think that it's okay.  I can't pretend and say that I'm not scared about what this year will hold, or that I don't need to have these answers or details figured out.  I'm just not wired that way; I'm a planner at heart.  But I know, deep down in my heart of hearts, that God has this planned out.  That despite all the planning I do in my head for what and how I think things should pan out, things rarely go that way, especially in Africa and especially in public health.  I have to be able to let go of what I want to have happen, of what information I think I need to do my job, and simply trust in His sovereign plan.  You could drive yourself crazy thinking of all the "what if's" and I know my mind tends to go into overdrive when I don't know what's going on.

And now that I'm back in the States, dealing with waking up at 2:30am and jet lag, I can't help but still feel that bit of anxiety creeping back in.  Sometimes I think that every time I go to Africa, I feel like it's a break from reality, from real life, when in truth, that will be my real life, at least for the next year.  And seeing how frustrating things could be working with people who's idea of a meeting lasts 3 hours at the minimum and little care to time management, much the kind of efficiency that Americans seem to pride themselves on, I wonder if I am cut out for working there, if I can not only survive living virtually alone in a third world country, but thrive.  Yet, because I have faith (however shaky it may be) that God's plan is the best and rightest of any that I could even think of, I convince my albeit overly logical brain that it will be okay, that even though this may be an incredibly hard year, not only physically and mentally, but also spiritually, everything will be okay.

So I will prepare to live out of a suitcase for the time being, spend an inordinate amount of time in an airplane, have a truly fantastic time seeing pure joy on children's faces, and be amazed at God's grace and brilliant plan.  I continue to hope in what God has in store for me and take comfort in that.  I'll be stateside for the next few weeks, and then head back to start training staff and putting policies and guidelines in place before the program officially begins (hopefully) in September.  While I selfishly wanted to be home for my birthday at the end of August, I guess I'll just have to celebrate either early or extremely late.  But that is another concern for another time.  

To end on a perhaps slightly humorous note: Normally when travelling abroad, or anywhere really, your diet changes, usually depending on what is easily available or whatever the local cuisine is or whatever your wallet can afford to purchase.  But the most satisfying meal you eat, the one that you look forward to, is the first meal you eat when you get back home, or at least, that's what I think. As delicious as it is to eat exotic foods and try things at classy restaurants or hole-in-the-wall shacks, there usually is just that one thing you can't get while you are travelling, and it is that much more gratifying when you get your hands on it.  For example, getting In N'Out after coming home from college on the East Coast is awesome.  This time, however, after travelling over 24 hours to get home from Zambia, I had something different on my mind.  The guys who were volunteering had a brief discussion about this before leaving, stating something along the lines of Chipotle.  But no, not I.  The specific food I wanted wasn't steak or Chinese food or even a nice green leafy vegetable (something we really didn't eat that much of over there).  It was granola.  And not just any granola.  Nope, it was the granola I make at home, perfected over several batches and simply crunchy and golden and delicious.  So I made some yesterday.  Today, it's gone.  And it was oh so yummy.  The end.

Until next time...

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