Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Maital's Four(teen) Questions

Hello to everyone out there! I have officially been here in South
Africa for seven weeks, hard to believe! Though it has been amongst
the most intense experience that I have had abroad, it has also gone
by so far the quickest. Probably because it will be the longest I
will be gone, and so a few weeks ago I switched from thinking about
the length of time that I would be away from loved ones, I started to
think of this time here as an absolute privilege- I am constantly
processing, thinking, being challenged, and seeing both beautiful and
unfair parts of this country and really of the world.

As many of you know, this past week we Jews around the world observe
Passover, when we celebrate freedom- so much so that we eat matzah not
for one night but for seven! I am always amazed at how millions of
Jews gather around their tables, search for the afikoman, and
celebrate freedom, and that here I was thousands of miles away from
home but able to sing along. It was of course sad to be away from my
family, from our singing and my Ima's cooking, from our questions,
spilling wine over the table and each other. As if we Jews don't ask
enough questions as it is (if you know my mother and her sisters on a
tour you'd know exactly what I was talking about), Passover encourages
us to ask even more. Two stuck out for me this year: "Why is this
night different from all other nights?" And when I sat with my friend
Hayden's family at the Seder, I couldn't help but reflect on how
different this night, this year has been for me. And though I don't
wish to spend many holidays away from my family, in a way it was very
interesting to be away from anyone that I have known for more than
seven weeks, to have a chance to process both another world and-
because when I am outside of my comfort zone it is inevitable to
compare it with own previous comfort zone- to think of my own world.
On this seder night, I am beginning to see my surroundings in a new
way, to put a human face to a faceless virus and everything that comes
with that.

The second question that stuck out in my head this year, well I guess
it's actually not a question but a statement that leads to many of my
own questions: "During Passover we celebrate our freedom and vow that
we are not free unless everyone is free." And I wonder:

Do I understand anymore what freedom means, what it looks like?

Are my new friends in the township truly free? Yes, they have the
right to vote, but do they have the freedom to pursue what they want
in life? Do they have the freedom to access treatment? Do they have
the freedom to be educated for free, a right the UN has declared every
child must have? Yes apartheid is over and they certainly have more
freedoms (just as a small example when we went with Beaty to my
favorite spot on the water she said how blacks were not allowed to go
there…hard to imagine that was in the early nineties). But, why are
they still living in shacks, why is there still such an obvious divide
(it would be so easy by the way for me to stay in only white spaces,
except of course for the workers)? I am only now beginning to be able
to ask these questions, and yet the more I see, the less I understand,
the more questions I have…

I can't help but compare my own freedoms, as I said my own privilege
of being able to come here to South Africa and type these questions on
my mac laptop. But still, am I truly free, am I free to marry the
person of my choice? As a woman, am I free to walk alone after dark –
whether here in South Africa or in North Carolina?

Which brings me to another question, one that I have been asked
recently- What do I think of the recent news about the woman who was
raped at Duke (see previous email or google Duke lacrosse rape) and
how the DNA tests from the lacrosse players don't match up? (prepare
for a small rant that will hopefully make sense)…Now, I've only been
able to follow from readings online and haven't been there on campus
to get a better sense, but in my opinion a DNA match up would have
helped to prove guilt but it certainly doesn't preclude innocence, I
read a Duke student's editorial today- he is a white male- who was
trying to say that the prejudice that exists in the case of the rape
is against not the woman who has raped but the white lacrosse players,
that their reputations have been damaged. To me, that mentality is
ridiculous and dangerous. (A sidenote: this echoed in my head when I
spoke with an elderly white woman here who said how after apartheid it
has been much harder for whites to get into college, this being only
two days after I came from the townships where college is still an
almost unreachable dream)….But to this boy and also to this woman, I
want to say: bullshit and please open your eyes. Why would a woman
put herself through any of this if it were not true? As we can see
from the response at Duke, when a woman who accuses a man of rape she
herself must face as much hatred and judgment placed on her than on
the man, as if because she is an exotic dancer (in order, again, to
pay for college tuition and two children) that she had it coming, that
she deserved any of this? In a culture where 1 in 4 (the same rate of
HIV infection in the township by the way) women is sexually assaulted-
why are we so quick to point fingers at the victim when the reality is
that there is no benefit on her to make up a story. Now, I'm not
saying to throw any of the players in jail without a fair trial (which
I'm sure daddy will pay for the best lawyer…is that in it of itself
not a form of privilege)- but from what I can tell, this case has
opened a lot of wounds for women on campus, particularly from women of
color, on their past experiences, moments when their/our freedoms were
taken away by force, considered less than human, dehumanized and
disempowered. And to the women who have become survivors, inspired
others, had the courage to speak out and say, no it is not my fault
and I will speak out against this so that others don't have to face
what I have faced….to then continue to be silenced by people who are
too caught up defending themselves than looking at the deeper problem
(like this white male who wrote the article and said it should have
just been taken as a joke when a lacrosse player wrote in an email
that he wanted to invite strippers to his room and skin them)…I'm not
sure where I am going with this, it is hard to put into words, so I
will end with another question

And the last questions: Why are those who say, This is Not Male
Privilege, why are they all men? And why are those who say, This is
Not White Privilege, why are they all white? Why do we refuse to
listen to the women of color who say, "This is a case of White Male
and Economic Privilege, and it is not the only case as I have
experienced sexual assault also." To be blind to who holds the power
in these situations is to blind to so many people's reality… and I am
one white person who is trying hard, especially here in south Africa,
to open my eyes.

So, that was again a rant and I'm sorry, but I just had to get that
off my chest. There are many more examples of freedom, or lack
thereof, that come to mind, but these are the main ones I thought
about at the Seder…as an optimist and an idealist, it is sometimes
hard to confront all of the moments of inequity, ignorance,
unfairness, and un-freedomness (yes I just made that up) and to still
be hopeful about the world…but perhaps as in the Passover story, the
Jews had to wander the desert for forty years before they reached
freedom and yet there were still moments of hope, even enlightenment
(ie the Torah), and so perhaps we are still in those forty years in
some ways, and rather than Moses, it is only we who can lead one
another towards freedom…

Love to all,

p.s.I am returning this weekend to my friend Beaty's sister's funeral
with Melanie…thank you everyone for your kind words and thoughts, will
write more about that later!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Township Life on the Weekend

Hello to everyone! I feel like I'm sending more updates these days, but it's because my time here with the kids at MadAboutArt has been so full and thought-provoking that I can't help but put thoughts down on "paper." Plus, it's my last week here so I want to capture my feelings before I leave, and head back to the less intense life of Cape Town (less intense not because of the location but because I don't go into a township everyday).

Before I go into the past weekend, I wanted to share some things I've thought about being here with a camera. At some points, it feels like taking out a camera is the exact opposite of my instinct as a compassionate human being. When we went to take out dying Beatty's sister from the hospital, I thought it would be a good time to film. But how do you ask someone to film such personal and private moments. Excuse me, can I film you dying? There are other moments, like when we were sitting around at night talking, and Beattie's cousin (whose mother is the one dying), with an odd smile in her face said as she punched her chest and said, I want someone to kill me, but I don't want to kill myself because people will think I did it over a boyfriend. Some of the most powerful conversations, including positive ones, have been too much to put on film...

And yet, yesterday was one of my favorite days of filming. Mostly because the MadAboutArt kids are really getting into their filming process and ask wonderful questions and have great vision. I think sometime we poo-poo kids and forget how incredibly talented and mature they can be, if we know how to make it fun and interesting. But also, Beatty opened up to me on film, talking about incredibly personal information from her past and how she came to be empowered today. She spoke of the desire for death when she found out her positive HIV status, but then realizing that it also could be a new life for her, where she can teach others. She spoke of breastfeeding her newborn child but also discovering she was HIV negative, and how her adorable child is her hope in life, what keeps her strong. Finally, though she is one of the leaders of the center, she has not fully disclosed her status to her family. As we spoke about her ARV's, her cousin came to sit beside her. Beatty turned to her and asked if she knew what we were speaking of and then turned to me to say that she had not disclosed to her cousin yet. There, before my eyes, I saw her tell her cousin and then had tears in my eyes as her cousin said she and her family loved her and just wanted to support her. It was an incredibly powerful moment, and one that I think could only have happened after building trust with Beatty and the kids at MadAboutArt.

In any case, let me talk about this past weekend which Melanie and I spent in Nekkies with my friend Beatty. Despite the fact that her mother went to the hospital twice that week because of insulin shock and that her sister is dying of AIDS and cancer (which by the way she only learned of and got sick from one month ago), they still wanted to host us so that we could REALLY experience township life. And in many ways, we did, but in many ways we always had the car to escape into the town...and besides, it is not our reality...Though even after two days we were totally drained- though I can go into work there everyday (at least for three weeks) I couldn't stay there for more than a couple of nights...

So on Friday we sat at Beatty's house, which from the outside looks like a wooden shack, just like the other wooden shacks that characterize most townships. Beatty's mother, still weak from the previous week, spoke with us about the community, how many things have gotten worse since the end of apartheid (crime for example) while others have gotten better..she spoke of how she started a community soup kitchen that continues today because kids were eating out of the garbage dump...and finally ended with a story about the many kids that we see everyday and who hang around the center and at their house...this one, Pinky she's called, was only a small child, probably two, when her father murdered her mother, while her mother was still holding her, blood dripping on little Pinky who didn't know what was going on. Such is the start of our intense weekend.

After eating dinner (they had sausage and white bread while Melanie had hummus and cheese on bread we got from the grocery store in town earlier) they showed us when the township truly comes alive- weekend nights after people have been paid and go have a few drinks at the taverns here. This is not something advisable usually for white people to do, but because we had a group of them who were with us and because Nekkies is a smaller, somewhat safer township, we decided to go for it. Anyways, this is where they live and what they do, and despite the confused looks from everyone in the tavern (I think they could tell we weren't from there, couldn't imagine how), we had a nice time, listened to the same five songs on the jukebox, and had a few good dances. We got home at about 130, hung out for a bit, and went to bed...I say went to bed rather than sleep because between the mildew-urine smell of the sheets and the dogs barking outside I didn't really sleep much.

The next morning we got ready for the main event of the day- the bar-be-que! This was after, though, we learned that Beatty's cousin and friends were attacked by people at night by bricks and Melanie patching up one of their eyes (still they swear it is a safe place, as long as you don't make enemies). At the bar-be-que,i t was great just to hang out with our friends, be relaxed together, eat good food, sit next to a fire, and share some laughs and dancing (I contributed the only thing I know how to cook...s'mores). One of the best parts was that I got to film, with permission, a traditional ceremony that was happening in a neighbor's house, which was a lot of dancing and chanting- really a priviliege to see. That night we went out to the tavern again, danced more, and went to bed...It's hard to remember what we did the next day, it dragged and we left at about 5.

All I could do when I got home, after seeing how they live, was take a shower and fall asleep under my down comforter.

A Phone Call

hello to everyone, today marked the end of our three weeks at MadAboutArt in the township Nekkies- it was a truly amazing, intense, inspiring, and hard experience, as i'm sure you could tell from some of the emails. this past week has particularly felt special, as it truly feels like we are now friends...indeed, in this week after we spent the wekend, i got a beautiful letter from one of the students (ill quote it later), i got to see them filming in action their own film and get so into it (my
favorite part), there was a parents evening where they gave hero awards to their parents and a certificate to melanie and me, they opened up to us. i find myself feeling especially close to beatty, who i have written about in probably every email, and we were talking one day and realized that i am the first white person her age she has ever hung out with. and, we realized as she translated "picking a wedgie" for me in her language (letting the person out of jail in Xhosa if you're interested), that despite our differences, we all get underwear stuck up our butts!

but still, lest i not get too feeling good about life, yesterday when we said goobye, there was a feeling of dread, as melanie visited Beatty's sister Jennifer in the hospital and said that she wasn't doing too well. And today, 20 minutes ago as I sit in the backpackers on my way to Cape Town, overlooking the ocean, she calls my phone (the first time she has), and instead of summarizing the conversation perhaps i should let her/me/it speak for itself...

beaty: Hello, Maital. It's Beaty. I just wanted to let you know that
my sister has died.
Maital: Yes, I heard this morning and tried to call. I am so sorry,
Melanie and I are both thinking of you.
Beaty: Yes, she called us last night to come over, and Olivia (her
daughter), Ebby (her nephew) and I (her sister) went. She was in such
pain. When we got there, she was screaming. But when she saw us she
held it back and just held my hand. SHe even gave us a smile before
she died.
Maital: I am so sorry. (what do you say in situations like these).
At least she is no longer in pain. when is the funeral?
Beaty: It is next Saturday. If we can't afford to pay I will ask
Larry to borrow money from him,because he said he would and he can
take it from my money every week.
Maital; How much does it cost?
Beaty: I don't know , I find out Monday. A lot of people came to the
house today and I didn't konw what to do. It's sad to think she'll
never be here again, I just keep looking at the photos. I don't konw
if you have a sister, but now I realize I am alone (her other seven
siblings have all died, she is the only one left). I'm trying to be
strong but I feel like every in falling to pieces inside. At least I
have the photos.
Maital: And you will always have the memories, and you have her
strength. How is Olivia doing?
B: She's pretty strong, she's here. But Ebby is not, we don't know
where he is and I am worried because when she died he said Two Gone,
One To Go (for those reading that don't know yet, his mother died,
now his aunt, and now Beattyis the only one left, but she too must
battle HIV).
M: And how is your mother?
B: She is strong.
M: And Timmy (Beatty's daughter whom I absolutely adore).
B: She cried hard all yesterday and mom said she woke up in the middle
of the night, crying and crying. And then, at1:30am when my sister
passed, she fell asleep. I only hope I can sleep tonight. And
M: I heard you are wearing red ribbons to the funeral?
B: Yes, because although she died from cancer, it (AIDS) was still a
part, and we want our family to know that it will stop. Also, I want
to film it, to borrow Larry's camera, and I will send you the tape.
But I just wanted to call to hear your voice, and to tell you thank
you for being here and driving us to the hospital.
M: Well, I feel like I should be thanking you. And if it would be
okay we would love to come to the funeral.
B; I just can't believe it. She was in such pain when she came. Her
body already started to smell. Wait, Olivia wants to say hello

(I'm a bit surprised)

Olivia: Hello
Maital; HI olivia how are you?
O: I'm fine thanks, how are you.
M: I'm really sorry about your mother, She was a beautiful woman and
strong like you. We are thinking of you.
O; THank you, bye.

Beaty: Okay Maital I just wanted to hear your voice and say thank you.
M: Okay Beaty, I will call later.

I got off the phone, and felt that I had to come and share this with all of you. I came to South Africa only six weeks ago and after not feeling culture shock the first three weeks, I have now made friends and become close with young adults my age who come from a very different place. 28 million people infected by HIV in Sub-saharan Africa has now become, to me, my friend's family.

Monday, April 03, 2006

My Shining Moment

Hello everyone! I love the responses to these emails and find that both writing them and also the responses I get help me to process, to feel supported and comforted...so please keep responding, it helps me a lot!

So this past weekend I spent in the township, Nekkies. It was good. It was very intense. And I will write about it sometime soon and what we did and all that happened (in two days it seemed a lot happened, but then again it seemed pretty typical to them, so who knows)..you'll just have to wait in suspense until I find the right words to describe the weekend...for now, I want to write about what happened today, because in a time when I have been here for two weeks, I have truly felt the power of what MadAboutArt does here, how it empowers these kids, how- despite all of their hardships that are too great to even list or understand fully- they have a lot to teach me, to teach the world.

Before I get there, a bit of background. I'm living with the founder of MadAboutArt, a white British man named Larry whose vision in life is to teach kids about HIV and empower them to make their own life choices. Last night, as we watched the sunset from his back porch in Plettenberg Bay, he was explaining the name: MadAboutArt. The Mad part actually stands for Making A Difference because for him, it's not just about making art. It's about motivating these kids that they can Make A Difference with their art, that they have some purpose for it and for their lives, to help others. He explains how he hates the world victim..(think how many times you've heard the phrase victims of HIV). It disempowers the kid, leaves them helpless. Instead, he views them as survivors, who can be made stronger and can help others who may be in the same situation. Indeed, one of the things that stand out about my time are my conversations with these kids, with shacks in the background, that they want to help other kids around the world. My friend said what she loves about Nekkies is that despite having little, they always share what little they have- her family has run a soup kitchen for the kids for years now. Another boy, Richet, told me today that he wants to work to give people living with HIV a voice. They are amazing kids, and I continue to be amazed...particularly today...

So, today the kids started to shoot a film that they are creating. On Friday we had our first brainstorming meeting, where we discussed several things. One, what was the value of filming, and what do we hope people can get out of it. They answered they can tell others' their own stories, with the hope that they - particularly youth in a similar situation- can learn from them. Second, we decided on the story- one that each of them have taken- coming from Nekkies and how MadAboutArt has changed their lives and empowered them, particularly through the Rainbow of Hope (that went to London), Hero Booking, and learning about and then teaching other kids about HIV. Finally the film will end for their hopes for the future, entitled Looking Forward to the Future (taken from Andhile's hero book title) that shows both visions for themselves and MadAboutArt. We broke into crews who is each in charge of one day of filming, with a director, cameraperson, lighting/sound person, note taker, technician, and 'actors.' Today we went out to the community, interviewed each other...and it put a huge smile on my face to see them get so into it, to see Kenneth climbing up on trees to get a good image.

After a long day of filming in the sun, we sat in the shade of a tree beside their high school (by the way the reason we have time to shoot is that they are on a one week holiday, and yet they still want to keep learning and coming to MadAboutArt), and I asked if they were scared about stigma or discrimination when speaking out about HIV. They all quickly shook their heads no, that the only way to breakdown that discrimination is to talk about it, to teach others. What's even more profound to me is that they have taken this lesson and applied it to the annual gay pride festival. Though they are not gay, and though they faced a lot of criticism from the community and their families, they decided last year to march in support of gays.

It is an amazing concept, one that shows an incredible depth of thinking, of empathy, of understanding- to say, Yes I Understand Stigma and Discrimination and I will Support Others, Not My Own Group, Fight Against It..I Will Stand Beside Them as an Ally. From the work I have done with various groups, all too often I am so surprised at the inability of one group who has been discriminated against to empathize with another group. All too often I have witness a "who has suffered more" contest. For these kids, though, anyone's suffering is their suffering. Anyone's discrimination is everyone's. It seems appropriate that Passover is coming up when we Jews proclaim, No one is free until we are all free...These kids are putting those words into action.

And as I sat there, underneath the tree, thinking about how much I admire them, how much I appreciate their honesty and embracing me, allowing me to see into their lives...I decided to reveal a part of myself I had not yet to the kids (but did to my friend that I write about in emails)...I came out to them. What's funny about writing this in an email now is that it feels almost scarier than actually saying it to them, but I suppose if I feel the right to reveal extremely personal bits about their life then I should be gutsy enough to do it for my own life (and anyway, I assume if you are reading this then you already know!)...In anycase, I told them how amazing I thought their work was, that I wanted to share a part of my own life also, and some of the monsters (feelings of shame, guilt, secrecy) that I had to overcome in my own life. I showed them a picture of my beautiful girlfriend and said, "You are able to show support when even people in the United States are not...That I too, because I love someone who is a woman and whose skin is as dark as theirs...That I too have felt stigma and discrimination, and know that it can be scary and vulnerable...but that it must, for all of our sake, be fought against." Suddenly, they started clapping.

If only the world were as empathetic, open-minded, and driven towards tikkun olam (repairing the world) as these kids in Nekkies. We have a lot to learn from them.

This was one of my most hopeful moments here in South Africa, when if I turn the corner, I am again faced with the despair that many of the people face...but I promised hopefulness and here it is, effecting me in a way I could not have expected.