Ag in Africa

16 October, 2006

Fist-in-the-stomach moments

Filed under: Development worker, johannesburg, south africa — Ag @ 8:28 pm

In Joburg, I’m surrounded by statistics. Crime statistics (only 642 ‘aggravated robberies’, a paltry 12 murders, and just 150 instances of carjacking in my area in 2004 – hurrah!), HIV statistics, house price inflation (which is a tedious gluttony here too)… numbers, numbers, numbers. But for me it is the tiny details that I come across that turn these numbers into full-colour pictures. Tiny tiny details – just a couple of words thrown at me here, a snap-shot as I glance up a side-street there; the surprise of exchanging pleasantries with a stranger whilst waiting at a pedestrian crossing.

So here are just two of the tiny moments that have left me winded during my three weeks in Joburg. The instances when I’ve felt sick to my core at the burdens of the people who live with me and around me.

1. Mary does the cleaning in the offices where I work. She is, I guess, about 60. She’s a big lady – she puffs and creaks as she washes the two flights of stairs from the ground floor up to our offices. On the first day I met her, I walked into the kitchen where she was sitting with a cup of tea, tired and sweating. She said, “Aggy, where you live, have you already got a maid?” And I was flummoxed. A maid? A what? “No mamma. I live in a house with a family. We don’t have a maid.” She said, “I need more work, I need some money.” And I’m looking at her and I’m thinking that she probably travels here for an hour each day from one of the townships, and she didn’t even ask me where I live. Wherever I live she will travel there every week for the few Rands that she would make cleaning my tiny flat for a morning. It’s surely time for her to relax and work less and just have enough. I said, “When I move to my own place I’ll tell you mamma”. She said, “Thank you, sissy.”

2. In the first few days that I lived in Joburg, my boss (another Blighter) used to pick me up and take me to work. At the end of my street, there would always be men gathered, obviously waiting for something – I assumed to be picked up to go and work somewhere. On the third day, I said to my boss, “These men, who are they waiting for?” She said, “They are waiting for you or I to ask them to do some work on our houses, like plumbing or fixing something.” They are waiting for me? Is that why they look up at us as we pass every day? I don’t have anything for them. It’s late in the morning, so surely there won’t be any offers today? So they probably won’t make any money today. So what will they live on? These are such naive questions, but I ask them, hoping that there are some reassuring answers to them, which of course there aren’t.

You can read about a project to help these thousands of unemployed men.


10 October, 2006

A horror story

Filed under: Development worker, johannesburg — Ag @ 6:59 pm

The charity I work for uses theatre to try to influence the way ‘young people’ behave in order to reduce the spread of HIV. Stand back! There’s no right-wing-SilverRingThing-positioning going on here. George Bush wouldn’t approve. It’s all very pragmatic and realistic. (Actually, it’s remarkably candid – I never knew there were so many sexual practices available to young people today, I was quite envious – I’ll list them another time…) And because it’s theatre, darling, the 15 or so actors do various warm up acts in the mornings and afternoons before rehearsals and performances. So today, I thought I’d leave the dreariness of my office and wander down to join them in a warm up. I imagined that maybe we’d do something fairly innocuous like… um, like… play British Bulldog or something. But no.

Everyone stood round in a circle, then each person had to jump into the circle, shout someone else’s name and then “do a jive” which everyone else had to copy, with loads of shouting, whooping, clapping, etc. After a few seconds the person whose name was called jumped into the circle, shouted someone else’s name and “did a jive”, whooped, cheered, etc. The thing is, these people are all black and young and cool and lithe and they can bump and grind and whoop and, you know, they can do it, man! Me, I’m none of these things and, what’s worse, I’m a bleedin’ Blighter (person from Blighty) so I’m additionally transfixed by the horror of having to make a complete fuckin idiot of myself. Can you imagine the terror?

So not only was I frantically searching my brain for a “jive” I could do without looking a complete prick but I was also making the feeblest, pathetic-est attempt to copy the jives that were being flung out mercilessly in front in me, quick time. Most of the time I just squiggled from foot to foot, grinning inanely, but once or twice they did a jive that was easy enough for me to vaguely copy, so I’d give it an extra small pathetic effort, and then, big-hole-please-swallow-me-up, they pointed at my hips, whooped more and shouted, ‘yeah, Sissy!”

After a few rounds (believe me, it felt like a boxing match) my name got called. People who know me will vouch that I don’t suffer nerves – I don’t mind public speaking and I quite enjoy interviews, but this… this… this felt like the emotional equivalent of fingernails scraping very slowly down a blackboard.

So I stumbled into the circle like the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz, stopped, looked up and, right there, discovered that I know how to do the Charleston. It just happened. My feet were twisting left-right, forward-back; my hands were twirling round in circles together then opposite; then kick foot out front, hold it! then kick foot out back, hold it! then straight back to the twisting and circling – the whole bleedin’ jive, and everyone’s shouting, ‘Yeah, Sissy’s doing the Charleston!’. And then we’re all doing the Charleston with whooping and shouting and I survived.

So was it liberating? Did I find out something new about myself? Is this like the ending to an American film where we clap each other on the back and big each other up? No. I am NEVER NEVER doing that again.

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.

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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