Finetastic Adventures

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Six Months In

We have just returned from our InServiceTraining (IST) which marked the end of our first six months in South Africa. Dave writes about IST and its relation to our work here (after my observations), but I'll just say that it was a very busy, but fun-filled 10 days. It was great to meet up again with our fellow PCVs, as well as enjoy the good food (too much of it!), hot shower, the lap pool and our first paintball experience. This IST was held in White River, a town in Mpumulanga, not far from Kruger Park. We got very lucky and didn't have to take public transport either way. The day before IST began would have been spent on 3 taxis, taking most of the day, though it's no more than a 4 hr car ride. At each town we would have had to sit in the taxi waiting for it to fill before heading to the next town. While sitting in the first taxi here in town, waiting for 7 more people, our phone rang. Joanna, who is working temporarily for PC and who lives here in Polokwane , decided at the last minute to drive instead of taking a bus. When she asked if we could get off the taxi and ride with her, we didn't hesitate! How fortunate that we had gotten to the taxi rank a bit later than we had planned! The drive there and back on different routes was beautiful, through the Drakensberg Mountains of the Limpopo Province. And we didn't have to pay; we were indeed the envy of the other PCVs, riding in air-conditioned comfort, for free!


It's hard to believe we've been here for over 6 months now. Though we are feeling at home, there are always reminders that we are very much in Africa. There are some observations that we've made that I'd like to share, so you can have a better feel for what we deal with on a daily basis.

First, the banks. What a racket. Any transaction warrants a fee, even if I were to deposit cash into my account. Whether dealing with a teller at the bank or using the ATM, anything I do costs me. There's the usual additional fee for using another bank's ATM, but there ends any similarity to US banks. We have learned the cheapest way to withdraw cash is to ask for cash back when using our card to buy groceries, because of course we have already had to pay a fee to use our card for the purchase. These usage fees are in addition to the monthly fees, which are unavoidable no matter what type of account one has. Then, there are the lines (queues). Never in my life have I seen so many people line up to either enter a bank or use an ATM. Depending on the day of the month, the lines can have well over 50 people. Once you learn when different government checks go out, you know when to avoid using the bank or machine. On paydays the lines can wrap around a corner waiting for the bank to open. The inefficiency of this business is incredible, which also means those long queues move slowly. Though our bank is online (though I haven't been able to complete my registration due to more inefficiency) I had to go to the bank to change my mailing address. This, of course, entailed a short 30 minute wait. There is way too much paper work involved for a business that should be electronic. South Africans must show their ID for anything they do. This would be like us showing our Social Security card. Just another way in which we feel like we're back in the 60's or 70's in the US. I just feel so bad for all these people who must stand in line in the heat, waiting to do something that we've been doing electronically for years.

Second observation: the status of pedestrians and cyclists, or should I say the non-status. Again, like the US of thirty or forty years ago, cars rule the road. As a pedestrian and a cyclist I have had one contact each with a vehicle, not to mention the very close calls. When crossing at an intersection downtown a couple of months ago, a car turned just as I was walking and I ran into it, better than the other way around. I wasn't at all hurt, just pissed. Dave yelled at the driver, but I do ask him not to yell at anyone here, just don't know if they'll get pissed back at us. Whenever crossing at a corner, the pedestrian has to yield to the driver who is turning, even if the 'walk' symbol is on. Cycling is just too new here and there are no cyclists' rights. Though the law states that anyone wearing a helmet has the same right to the road as a vehicle, the drivers don't know that. Some drivers move over when overtaking us in their lane, but most don't. This is why we like having a mirror, so we know if we have to bail when the truck or taxi approaches us from behind. They are the worst; cars seem to be a bit better about giving us enough room. The roads are the other main problem. They were not, of course, built for cycling, so shoulders are either narrow or in disrepair, or nonexistent. Plus all the glass on the roads makes it hard to stay too far to the left for the safest position. Many of the secondary roads are dirt, which makes for uncomfortable riding, but at least they are not usually too busy. My intervention with a car happened downtown while I was stopped at a 4 way stop sign. I had one foot on the ground, waiting my turn to cross the intersection. A car came up behind me, and just ran right into me. Luckily, she was going very slowly, as she was preparing to stop, which in itself is something not always done. When I turned to give the driver a dirty and questioning look, she didn't even acknowledge that she had hit me. Once again, I was unhurt and proceeded home. So we have learned, whenever we are walking or cycling, we watch out for the traffic much more closely than we ever did in the US. We do hope to improve the safety of cyclists while living in Polokwane. We recently met another cyclist who is active in the club in town; he provided us with the name of someone we hope to contact to begin working on this issue. We realize our time here is not long enough to make Polokwane a 'bicycle friendly community”, but we do hope we will leave it better and safer than we found it.

I have other observations I will write about in future blogs. I keep a running list of topics; as I write about one or two, others get added, so it seems there is an endless supply of blog topics.

A Great Ten Days

Well we are back at work after our IST (in service training). It turns out that like many large organizations, the Peace Corps has developed its own language of acronyms. Perhaps the reason for two years of service is that it takes that long to learn all of them.

It was a great ten days. All but one of the PCVs gathered together at a nice lodge/ conference center. So, let me cover the highlights: A hot shower that ran from a tap. A buffet. Dessert for lunch and dinner. A large-size lap pool. And, being surrounded by a great group of people. As for the actual seminars, they were not bad either. It ran the gamut from hearing about our fellow PCVs' experiences, meeting with our supervisors for two days to outline the next few months, building our HIV/AIDs knowledge, getting exposure to customer relationship marketing (I presented), and perhaps the most interesting presentation was hearing the development of apartheid as told from an Afrikaner perspective. That is worth remembering in this blog.

In our initial training, we spent a great deal of time learning about black South African culture since most of us spend our time in the black community. It turns out however, that our exposure to Afrikaaners is significant enough that we wanted to learn more about their culture. In our case, we have already made friends with a few people with whom we socialize and we have exposure to Afrikaaners in some way nearly every day. On a social basis, we have found people to be generous and fun. At IST, we were primarily talking about the race issue.

As a generalization, the Afrikaaners with whom we have engaged in conversation have a similar attitude as many white Americans had in the 1970's. People seem to be trying to put race issues behind them but every sentence starts with “I'm not racist but...” The 'but' usually turns out to be a generalization about crime, taxi drivers, or political corruption. Things that are problems for everyone but given the current situation and the need (desire) to get along, it seems generalizations come easy. If you are old enough, take yourself back to the 70's; you might remember hearing many of the same things from parents and friends. People who were not racists (in the KKK sense) did not teach their children to be racists but lacked understanding of black culture. Consequently, they often thought and said untrue and inappropriate things. And, while they are not KKK, I do believe, like in the States, there is still a great deal of institutional racism that will need to be overcome, but again like America, will probably exist for a long time.

South Africa is different though than America in terms of population dynamics. Whites, who hold a significant part of the wealth, make up a very small portion of the population. So while in America people are able to lock themselves away in all white communities, in S. Africa while there appear to be attempts to do this, it is impossible. So, whites come together with blacks nearly every day and must interact on some level. Also, being a significant minority, some fear political change could influence their future here. These types of considerations can have a profound affect on one's views and planning.

Well, history is written by the victors. It doesn't mean that the losers do not have a history. We heard the Afrikaaner apartheid history at IST. At the end of the session, our PC trainer characterized it best. Afrikaaner history is written in a way that when a grandfather tells his grandson about the events from 1948 to 1994, he will not be embarrassed by his participation. In a nutshell, our speaker characterized the Afrikaaners as a strong, independent farming people attached to the land. As they made their Great Trek to the north they took unoccupied land (sounds a little like American westward expansion). Since they wanted to keep their independence, land, and identity they began the policy of apartheid. In other words, it had nothing to do with the Black population of S. Africa. It had all to do with the needs of the Afrikaaner society/culture. Hmm, perhaps if they had consulted with a few of them diaspora Jews maybe they could have found another solution.

Well, this discussion hit a nerve with some of our fellow PCVs and led to a very interesting dialogue about race issues and relationships. Some personal feelings may have been hurt but I am hoping that with time and understanding actual intentions will overcome some of the discussions that went on.

I just saw Blood Diamond and suggest you go see it. You will learn the expression, TIA - This is Africa. That is kind of how things operate at work. If things just don't move along as expected, we look at each other and simply say, TIA. I think we are making progress however and I feel we are building respect from our co-workers. We have recently completed an Excel spread sheet that will allow us to track accounts receivable. Prior to helping with this project, information was being kept on a handwritten ledger. Several years ago, Marti and I found her grandfather's 1920's ledger from his dry goods store. Unfortunately, the ledger we were using at work here looked very similar. We are also developing an accounts payable tracking program. And, we are looking at income generating opportunities. Right now, the leading project appears to be brick making. We would make bricks and sell them to builders or home owners who sometimes build their own homes or sub-contract. We are also hoping to put together an employment placement program for our intellectually impaired clients. And, Marti wants to upgrade the HIV/Aids intervention program for our clients. She recently sat through the quarterly family planning program from the health department that she thought was fairly good but felt still had room for improvement. For example, while the girls receive birth control and HIV/Aids training, the boys are not part of the program.

Well, the next few weeks will be interesting at work. I am hopeful that our projects will pick up some momentum and we will be able to proudly say we left some 'concrete' things behind. The good news however, is I do feel we have already made an impact on many peoples' lives just by interacting with them, which is a good feeling.


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