Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The only sin was the color of my skin

It can be very intense here at times, and everyday seems to have its own moment of despair, sadness, silence, but also hope. Also, many of you wondered how I am "dealing." Yes, seeing the effects of poverty and HIV is having the residents of the townships is hard; seeing their commitment to community, to education, and to each other is inspiring..but in many ways I wonder, really what do I have to deal with? In truth, I leave everyday at 5:30 to go back to a city where everyone looks like me and lives in big houses. In two weeks I will be leaving the township and heading back again to Cape Town. And in seven months I will leave South Africa behind as I start another exciting chapter in life in the US...I can escape, I can turn a blind eye, I can live in my little bubble...so really, who is it that has to "deal?"

But I wanted to balance the previous email with one that is more uplifting. Again, with just the reality that I am facing and processing, there is something that I want to get off my chest first before I get to some of the good moments at MadAboutArt. As you can tell, I have been processing a lot about inequities surrounding race, gender, sexuality, economics...and this one newsstory symbolizes in many ways why I am angry and saddened by the world:

WHO: A black college student. Female. Mother of 2 children. Is an exotic dancer in order to make ends meet.
WHAT: Raped. Sodomized. Almost Strangled to Death. Beaten. Called Racial Slurs throughout.
HOW: By a gang of three white men.
WHEN: Two weeks ago.
WHY: Is there an answer to why such evil can happen? I have found none.
WHERE: Though I am in South Africa and there are probably hundreds such stories here, this particular one is not from South Africa. It is from my own home, Duke University, only one block away from where I lived last year.

There is so much to say about this story and why I write it in my South Africa Updates. And yet there are no words. I am in South Africa, less than fifteen years after the end of apartheid, where so much is still divided between race and economic status..and lest I forget that South Africa is not an exception to race relations, just one that is a bit more obvious and talked about. In fact, I am reading a book now, Country of My Skull, about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, in which one of the black victims says, "My only sin was the color of my skin." And as the story above shows at Duke University- one of the top five universities of the US- that, very sadly, this woman's only sin was the color of her skin and the only way she could feed her children was to objectify her body for men. (Imagine, as my best friend said, if the tables were turned and a white Duke student was victimized by three Durham black men...which also brings me to another point that the one lacrosse team member whose DNA was not taken was black...perhaps one of the first times his skin color worked for him- he didn't match the profile)... Of all that I have seen here, I don't know which story is worse. And this story I HAVE to deal with, I cannot escape, it happened in our backyard.

OK- back to South Africa. I have loved getting to know the kids here. My favorite moments have been when we get to hang out on a more individual level a couple kids at a time. Perhaps my favorite afternoon so far has been this past Saturday, when Melanie, Siphewe, Omthombi, Ebby, and I left the township towards for a meeting on the water. Though it's a mere ten minute ride, it feels like a world apart (one which by the way I am much more used to) where white tourists come and have coffee overlooking one of the most beautiful sights of South Africa I have seen yet- think waves crashing on rocks of the rising mountains. But what made this my favorite afternoon was that the five of us brainstormed how I can teach film skills to the rest of the kids, and decided that they would actually make their own documentary about how MadAboutArt has changed their lives, educated them about HIV, and empowered them to teach others. For me, it is so exciting that I will be able to give them skills that will last way beyond my stay, and I can tell they are excited to learn. We start next week and I think it will be one of the true highlights of my experience here in South Africa.

Finally, I want to paint a picture of a moment for me yesterday morning: my friend (the same from last email)'s mom who is diabetic had dangerously low blood sugar and so Melanie (who is a trained paramedic) and I went to go see what we could do to help. As we waited for the ambulance to come- it took two calls, by the way, and incidentally they only came after Melanie called- I sat in the living room, listening to the painful cries of the mother in the other room. My friend came out, tears in her eyes, and said it was just all too much for her. That her monster (vocab taken from the hero book she made) was starting to overpower her, that she would maybe resign from MadAboutArt to help her family. Also from the Hero Book is the chapter that her mother is her hero, a strong woman who cares for her family and the community. I try to comfort her by saying that I know her mother has passed on her strength to her. No, she responds, her mom is the glue that holds the family together. My friend's year and a half year old adorable daughter can sense that something is not right in the house and holds on to her mother's legs. As we sit in the dark living room- decorated with photos, some African crafts, and a hanging that says "Hard Life"- still waiting for the ambulance, a commercial comes on the TV. It is for a gospel cd and at the end of the commercial the announcer says, "With Gospel, everything is okay." Still hearing the pained breathing of the mother, seeing the helpless face of my friend, and thinking about how this is just one problem from a list of dozens that this family has and will face. I cannot help but wonder if, really, it is gospel music that will make everything okay for my friends.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Looking for words for today

I pride myself in my ability to connect with people, to make them comfortable, to make them happy, to talk with them across divides of nationality, language, race, religion, gender, sexuality.

But none of those characteristics, nothing that I have learned in school, just plain nothing prepares you for when your new friend sits in front of you and tells you how her mother, who is returning from the hospital this very day, had 8 children, and only 2 of them- she and her sister- have died. What words of comfort can I begin to offer when she tells me that her sister has cancer, HIV, and TB...she could died any day. What could I say when I learn that my friend too is HIV positive. No words, no hugs, I just sit there.

This was the last half an hour of my day at the MadaboutArt Center today. It is what I am thinking about in this very moment, but I would also like to give a bigger picture of the day, because there were both highs and obviously lows, and it will give a good glimpse as to what I am doing here and what the MadAboutArt Center is all about.

I wake up at 8 at the home of Larry and Liz in Plettenberg Bay (as I have said, an upscale white vacation town) , have breakfast and coffee, and Melanie and I set off for the MadaboutArt Center, which is about a half hour ride from where we live in a town called Knysna (the township though is called Nekkies). As Melanie drives I close my eyes and try to get a few more moments of sleep but end up just thinking about a fight I had with a friend back at home. Despite being thousands of miles away, it feels so close to my heart and makes me sad.

By 9:30 we turn from the highway into the township, past small shops and a bar, onto a dirt road where we dodge pigs dogs and small children, and finally park at the MadAboutArt Center. Larry and Liz are not coming in today so the only ones there are the Youth Ambassadors, five or six young people from the township who work full time at the center, part of a training process so that they can take over Larry's job and run the entire place themselves. Siphewe, one of the Youth Ambassadors and future leaders of the center, asks if I can give him a ride into Kynsa to pick up some groceries and cardboard for the hero books we will be making that day. I love having one on one time with him, since it gives me a chance to get to know him better. He is an aspiring artist who is actually selling many of his paintings for a good price. Though he probably doesn't need the small stipend as a Youth Ambassador, he wants to give back to the community, to use art as a way to teach about HIV. He has taken a film course and he and I start talking about the possibility of teaching a few film lessons to the kids there. We both get really excited about this idea and decide to meet on Saturday to plan out how this might look. I think what a wonderful opportunity this could be, rather than to only film these guys but to give them the tools to film themselves and put something together. I'm sure it would be a powerful story, there are many to tell that I have already seen in only the three days I've been here. Plus, they have Larry's videocamera (one better than the one I used for Mechina actually) so that even when I leave they can do their own thing. It reminds me of Hillel's degrees of repairing the world, with the highest one being teach someone to fish rather than give them fish. In a small way, it feels like that's what this would be, and it is an exciting idea.

We return to the Center where the six Youth Ambassadors are getting trained in first aid by a woman visiting from London. On my way back from walking out to the car quickly to make sure it was locked, I stop to watch the preschoolers who have a building right next to the center. Perhaps it is my biological clock, but I love watching children and probably stood there for about fifteen minutes watching the little people run around, gossip with each other, fall over, comfort one that has started to cry...all of this without taking notice that I - a white woman- am watching them. Something in the back of my head creeps up and wonders what their lives will turn out to be..in a town with amongst the highest rates of HIV, I wonder how many could become infected...or are already. I hate this thought. a lot. It would never have come up had I been watching the same children in the US.

Later, we all have lunch together and I like being able to just talk and get to know the Youth Ambassadors, who are all about my age. Siphewe has to run back to his house and he and another Ambassador, Shaida, take me on a walk through parts of the township. Siphewe goes into automatic tourguide mode, talking into the camera about wanting to organize the community to make change, particularly through art. In my head, I think it seems they are well on their way. We walk through mud paths, past wood houses with tin roofs, that look like shacks but it doesn't feel right to call them that. Indeed, my new friends and everyone I meet in the center lives there...so I'm not sure what to call them yet (will write more later about them though once I figure how to say it). I think in my head also that this is great footage.

Then, the Young Youth Ambassadors (yes I know it's confusing) start trickling in. These are the kids who are still in high school but who all are also training to become leaders in the center. They have all been to London as part of the Rainbow of Hope project, a year long project that began right there at the Center and snowballed into a huge artpiece that showcased in Trafalgar Square in London. They decided they wanted to update their hero books and this is what I filmed. It was extremely powerful to hear what the hero book process has done for them- it gave them voice to a problem they are dealing with. It lifted a huge burden off their shoulders once they were able to write it down and talk about it. It makes them feel stronger for having dealt with it. It makes them feel proud that now other kids around the world are reading them (including in the US, Canada, Honduras, Zambia, Malawi, the UK to name a few) and being able to learn from their lessons how to deal with similar projects. All of the kids are excited to update their books, with a couple years of strength and wisdom to add depth to the books. After being in South Africa for one month, this is the first time I'm actually hearing from authors of the hero books (whose books I read months ago back in North Carolina) how powerful and strong the books were. It was an exciting feeling to be capturing this, to be part of a movement that will allow other children to also see themselves as heroes.

As the kids left the center, that's when my friend and I started just chatting. She's clearly the leader of all of the Ambassadors and I was excited just to have a few moments to get to know her better and for her to feel comfortable around me. We spoke about who a few of the Youth Ambassadors wanted to come visit me in Cape Town to get away for a few days, about how they want me to stay with them in the township to see what it is really like, about me being Jewish...and then, about how she takes care of her nephew because her sister, his mother, died many years ago. And about how her own hero is her mother because, despite the fact that she has buried six of her children, she continues to be strong and to help the community (for example, I know she runs a soup kitchen for children in the morning). As she tells me about how she is only left with her mom and her dying sister, I am surprised at how calm she is, how she just takes it in. Apparently, right before Larry came and MadAboutArt started, she was a different person, having nervous attacks and even attacked her teacher out of all her bottled up hatred of men...but today, she has learned to talk about it, to see her own strength and grow as a leader. It seems to me she has so much on her plate, I can't even fathom how strong she is to deal with it all, with her family, with the children at the MadAboutArt Center, with her own child who is, by the way, HIV negative...

Melanie and I are silent for the entire half hour ride back. Beside the highway we pass three other townships with their shacks seemingly piled on beside the other. Then we turn into Plettenberg Bay, where people again look like us with big-windowed houses overlooking the water. It seems so unfair, and yet it feels natural, that's just the way it is. Another day in South Africa, another day as a white person.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Hello from South Africa!

Hello to everyone from South Africa!

If you're getting this mass email then you probably received my
Mechina emails also. Don't worry, things with Mechina are continuing
beautifully while I am away (indeed, I'm applying for another grant
this week!), but in the next eight months my mind and body are also in
South Africa, so enjoy these emails, my thoughts, and of course write
me back! You can also check out photos at

You'll have to forgive my first email as it will ramble a bit and go
on small tangents, but stick with me. It seems pretty important to
first say a few of things about what I heard about South Africa before
I came. First, and foremost, I heard about its beauty. But what I
also always heard was that the crime was very bad, and that I should
be very very careful. Indeed, many of my friends who came a few years
ago had computers and cameras stolen from their homes. You also
cannot talk about South Africa without talking about the racism here.
In many ways, I knew that this would be a very challenging experience
for me, especially to see the poverty and racism, but I was excited to
at least be facing it with a videocamera in hand. Perhaps
appropriately, as I landed after my 24 hour trip to Cape Town, with
the beautiful ocean on one side and Table Mountain on another, the man
sitting next to me warned me, "Beware of black people here. They're
not like black people where you're from. They're barbarians."
Welcome to South Africa, I thought.

And yet, besides that first horrific comment, I have actually been
surprised by how life here feels so similar to life at home. (It is
crucial that I repeat again and again that I have only been here for
two weeks and haven't seen much at all besides the town I am living in
now). This is my third time on the African continent (following Kenya
and Morocco) and interestingly enough, I feel the least culture shock
here. Let me explain my situation and where I am currently living
before I get into that too much…I have a point to make I promise…

I'm here in South Africa for eight months on a Lewis Hine Documentary
Fellowship from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
There are two other fellows in Southern Africa and each one of us is
placed with an organization. Mine is called the 10 Million Memory
Project. The idea behind the project is that in order to live with
and deal with HIV/AIDS, treatment alone is not enough. Yes, it is
important for the body, but for the mind, soul, and spirit, there must
also be more psycho-social support. In actuality, what that has come
to mean is called "memory work" in which parents create things like
memory boxes to physically pass on their stories to their children.
In some cases, memory work also ensures that anti-virals and other
medications are taken on time, etc. Thus, the boxes also serve as a
way for the parent and child to communicate with each other.

But what I am filming is a new (about three years old) form of memory
work called "Hero Books." Rather than focusing on the parents, Hero
Books are created by children. During facilitated (what's cool is
that these can be both caregivers and also other children) workshops
(about 17, 1-hour sessions), the child creates her own book. There
are several different chapters that are included, from "My Family
Road," "My community," and then where more of the meat happens: "A
Problem that often gets the better of me," "A Shining Moment when I
overcame the problem," "Tricks and Tactics to overcome the problem,"
and finally, "The Hero, Me!" Each child narrates and illustrates her
own book, eventually realizing that they too can be heroes, empowered
to overcome, or at least co-exist with, the issues they face. The
issues from the books I've read range from abuse, missing a parent who
has passed away, and fighting stigma surrounding HIV. Again not all
of the children have HIV/AIDS themselves, but they all live in
townships and so are affected in some way or another by it or by other
social problems of living in extremely poor conditions.

I'm living with the head of the Hero Books Campaign, Jonathan Morgan.
Though his postal city reads Cape Town, in actually he lives with his
family (his wife Kyoko and two adorable children Masego and Taiji), in
Clovelly which is a small suburb about 45 minutes away from the center
of Cape Town. In my adjustment period, we have decided that I am
going to live with his family (they have a guest room and kitchen) for
now. From my window is a beautiful mountain, and my fifteen minute
walk to town passes by wetlands and a beautiful, beautiful beach with
the Indian Ocean ("they" say it's warmer than the Atlantic but it was
pretty frigid to me when I went in for the first time yesterday).
Walking around the town feels no different than walking around a small
beach town of North Carolina (except I would say the South African
accent is cuter).

That is the three paragraph version of basically what I will be doing
here. But it's really still too early to tell. I haven't seen any of
the children myself yet, and have only driven through a township. I
will go in about one week to a township where Hero Books originated
for about three weeks to film, and from there I'm sure will have many
more personal stories to tell.

Until then, this is my email of why South Africa has not been much of
a culture shock. (The first email is always the hardest because I
have to give background stories when I'd rather share my own personal
stories which I think are also more interesting to read, so stick with
me). Yes, I did walk around the first three days scared, waiting to
be mugged at any corner, fearing any poor person that I saw on the
streets, most of them black men. After a one-day trip to Cape Town
central where I really could feel I had to be more aware of my
belongings, I realized that though it's always important to be
cautious, that in Clovelly I actually don't have to do much more than
I would have done anyways while traveling or even walking in Durham at
night. Why was I feeling safer when I was expecting to fear for my
belongings everyday, I wondered?

And then on one walk back from town I had a small realization that I
think will be a major theme/comparison of my time here. Yes, South
Africa is still recovering from apartheid, which ended only last
decade. Yes, because of the high rates of unemployment people are
much more likely to break into people's homes (though Jonathan's house
has never been broken into, but he has had gas stolen from his car
last night). Yes, there are obvious examples of racism here. BUT,
though I was expecting this to be a huge shock, it hasn't been yet.
One very important reason is that I am living in a small suburban
bubble (though still it's not excluded from crime and muggings mostly
at night). But another, perhaps more profound reason, is that, being
a white person in the US—though institutionalized racism was four
decades rather than one decade ago—I too have been bombarded with
racist beliefs in the US. Now, most of those have not been outwardly
racist remarks from people like that man on the airplane, but I have
been taught to fear the black man- let's face it, most of us have
whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not.
Perhaps that's the reason why it doesn't feel all that weird to be on
guard when a poor-looking black man passes me on the street here in
South Africa- I would have been just as guarded in Durham, NC.

It feels quite vulnerable to be writing this on a mass email, but I
can't help but share my true thoughts and feelings. I of course
welcome your comments. But when I hear about the mass poverty of
townships, in many ways I could not help but think of New Orleans,
both when I lived there for two months over the summer and after
Katrina. Now, of course there are big differences, but I suppose what
is challenging thus far about South Africa, now that my initial four
day settling in period is over, is how normal it feels. Why, I have
to ask myself, have I entered a well-known racist country and still
feel no culture shock? I can't help but think perhaps my own American
culture too is not all that different….

So, I'd love to hear your thoughts to this email! I know that there
will be HUGE differences when I actually go to the townships, but I
wanted to make sure that I put my thoughts down in an email before I
head out for that next challenge. If you've read up until this point,
thank you- I know my email jumped around a bit, but I think after this
one they will make a lot more cohesive sense.