Ag in Africa

25 September, 2006

Cruelty to dogs and diarrhoea

Filed under: Development worker, johannesburg, Soweto — Ag @ 6:13 pm

So, anyway, I’m in Africa. I had one of those they-wouldn’t-treat-a-dog-this-way journeys. (Why are dogs always the benchmark for cruelty? I treat many people loads worse than I treat my dog, Bobby. For example, only a very limited number of my friends are allowed to sleep on my bed and none of them are allowed to share my pillow. Having said that, Bobby doesn’t smell or snore…)

The journey started on that lovable old rogue – the British Train. Got on at Tiverton where me and mon amour could barely squeeze into the vestibule (or whatever you call the bit where you get on). Loads of people – men to be exact but unusually pleasant ones – squashed in like cattle. As always in stressful travelling situations, I switch to my refugees-put-up-with-this,-so-should-I mindset. But it was so bleedin’ awful I wasn’t sure that refugees do necessarily put up with it. To top it off nicely, one of the men sharing the vestibule was on crutches, which begs the question – Would they let a dog on crutches stand in a vestibule for the length of the journey? Or cattle on crutches? If I could draw, it would be a great pic. (Lucy, if you get time out from being super-successful, please add illustration here.)

It was one of those very modern trains where the toilets are the size of a pied-a-terre-a-Londres. Three times brave (more likely desperate) people scrambled over the luggage-terrain and were able to hit the ‘open door’ button. The door slid back gracefully, conversations stopped and we peered in at the amazing space in the toilet. It was like peering in on first class. There was floor area – enough that you could have sat down on it. And you could stretch your arms wide, you could stand up straight. It was almost attractive… If only it wasn’t a water closet.

Inevitably, the rest of the journey was better, cos it didn’t involve a British Train. I got stuck in one of those seats right in the middle of the plane, next to a woman reading ‘Properties Abroad’ and an English bloke banging on about how awful the UK is. His example was, ‘You can’t say boo to a Muslim without getting in trouble’. Which begs another question – Why would you want to?

On arrival I went to a wedding in Soweto, as you do. It was HUGE. I’ve been to Indian weddings, but this was ENORMOUS. There were hundreds of people, and they all got fed. The speeches were interminable. When I’ve been at Hindu weddings, I’ve been reliably informed that the more cash you pass to the priest-person, the quicker the dull bits of the ceremony get done. After an hour of endless speeches in Zulu, I was wondering if this might be a good time to spread a bit of international good practice.

But the wedding was also very beautiful. When the bride and groom arrived, they danced very gently and rhythmically up the street towards the building. Songs were sung by everyone following behind, and everyone danced. It was gorgeous and I felt my awkward Englishness at not taking part. Then, mindful of mon amour’s insistence that I eat well, I stuffed my face with yummy veg casserole and rice. Then I spent the whole of last night running, in both senses of the word. Cramped trains, obnoxious passengers and diarrhoea. So far so typical.


12 September, 2006

Guilty secret

Filed under: AIDS — Ag @ 3:45 pm

It’s my birthday today, and all people born on 12th September share one recent, common, guilty secret: huge relief that we weren’t born yesterday. Every year, the 11th comes round and we all feel that way: thank fuck tomorrow isn’t today. We feel guilty ‘cos our relief shines a red-selfish-egotistical-shallow-spotlight on our lack of humanity. But stuff it. The fact is, it’s kind of difficult to have a massive drinking session with all your friends when the wheels of American sentiment crank up to warp factor 10 and the West’s media rain their dark, exploitative 24-hour-bad-news about 9/11’s tragedies over the cringing date that is the 11th of September.

It is the day that we must hang our heads and tut-tut about the state of the world and how religion is the root of all evil. (Aside: ‘religion as the root of all evil’ – I love a sweet paradox.) 9/11 is a nice, easy thing to tut-tut-bemoan-doomgloom about, because it has happened, it’s over, and there wasn’t much we could do to stop it. It wasn’t our fault.

Well, it’s the 12th today, not the 11th, and today about 700 peope will die in South Africa from AIDS. (I’m going to be safe when I go there, ‘cos I really like garlic and I eat loads of it.) The worldwide figure is about 8000. But tonight I’m still going to party like it’s 1999 (which was a bloody good party, as I’m sure you’ll agree) because the self-conscious projection of personal loss and tragedy when nothing has actually happened to me is so bloody easy and so entirely unproductive, it’s offensive.

I wonder (actually, I rarely wonder, I’m much more of an espouser) whether we don’t get all tut-tut-bemoan-doomgloom about this constant tragedy because it’s not easy; it’s daunting; it can’t be expressed in soundbites; it’s not sentimental. It’s real and it’s largely preventable and we can do something about it. But we don’t. So that’ll be two guilty secrets I can drink to tonight: one that I share with my co-birthday-ers and one that I share with everyone else in the West.

4 September, 2006

Dodgy maths

Filed under: Development worker, Divorce — Ag @ 11:47 am

Being a near-divorcee, I have let rip with life-gusto like any self-respecting gal with her own teeth should do. In fact I wrote a series of articles called the ‘Divorce diaries’ detailing all the gory hilarious details. One day I may be brave enough to publish them, but probably not.

One of the ace things about not having an obligation-to-another is that I can do whatever I want. And what I want to do is a) have a huge adventure and b) do something good for someone else, that is more interesting and less scarey than babysitting. So I’ve got myself a job for one year at an AIDS education charity in Johannesburg. Cool, nah? Nuff context.

I have been inducted by various people in how dangerous and anxiety-inducing Joburg is, but I’m not convinced. As much as I try to feel the danger, it remains something I accept intellectually rather than feel. Statistically-scientifically what’s the chances of me getting bludgeoned? No, I don’t know either, but I reckon it’s less than 716. However, if I think about the chances of me seeing things I didn’t know existed, feeling ways that I thought I was way too shallow for, and gorging on life, I reckon my chances rise to at least 893. I’ve bet on worse odds. (Cos I don’t really do maths, my odds system is an arbitrary number that sounds about right, but is also statistically-scientifically defensible, as I’m the only person who can work it out.)

So I’m officially becoming an Aid Worker. I’m assuming the halo will arrive through the post along with my aid-worker-visa. I spend quite a lot of time considering my motivations for doing this. I know it’s a mixture of adventure and doing-a-good-thing, but in my more honest moments I reckon the balance is about 7-parts-adventure to 1-part-good-thing, and this distresses me. I’d like it to be roughly even, and I’m trying to will myself into feeling more saintly, but it’s not working. I just feel really excited about big-city / big-country / warm sunshine / beautiful africa / pure-selfishness. I need an injection of love for humankind and goodness. I could probably achieve this by reading texts and reflecting Ghandi-styli. But I’m so bleedin’ shallow that I’m spending my final 19 days in the UK partying for England and falling in love with someone I won’t see again for a year, if ever.

So, as I need to know how ‘good’ I actually am vs how selfish I actually am, I inevitably try to calculate the sum of my dodgy motivations + lack of reflection. The answer = 214. Which, according to my special maths makes me really deep, loving and selfless. Hurrah!

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