My first full week in South Africa has been fairly unsettled, good, but unsettled. We arrived at our house safely...Thank God. All our luggage was accounted for...Thank God. My roommates and I are still getting along after our first week...Thank God! However, as I said, it's been an unsettling week. Let me first explain to you where we are situated...
As I'm sure you already know, South Africa has had a very tumultuous history specifically dealing with race relations and apartheid. We live in an area referred to as the Valley of 1,000 Hills in the province of KwaZulu Natal. Our property is on a hill overlooking the valley of Embo. Embo (as seen in a picture below) is a very poor valley which is home to many Zulu families and to one of the highest percentages of HIV/AIDS in the world...reportedly 66%! The houses are falling down, the roads are in bad shape, people don't have basic needs met and the AIDS epidemic has and continues to wipe out populations left and right. I have looked out into the valley of Embo each day we've been here and it's truly unbelievable.
It has been a weird week just settling in here before we begin at our respective placements, feeling quite removed from the people we came to serve. Our first full day here, we decieded to go grocery shopping. We drove down the hill into Hillcrest (can't get away from San Diego I guess) and it felt like I could have been in Anytown, USA (that is a bit of an exaggeration, but close). The main street is lined with restaurants, shops, plazas, even Curves and KFC. The stores sell similar items as home at much, much cheaper prices. We shopped for what we needed, then went to dinner, and returned home. As we get in our car to drive where we need to go, you can't help the hundreds of Zulus who have worked or looked for work/help all day and now must begin a very long trip back down into the valleys on foot.
Day three came along and we were sitting and talking at their priests home, I mentioned that I was anxious to begin my job and start doing my part...I was sick of just hanging around and settling in. Fr. Frank stopped me and stated,"Oh don't worry, you will see the REAL Africa soon enough." Boy, was he right. The next day we went to tour my job placement site...The Hillcrest AIDS Center Trust. This is a Respite/Hospice Unit for Zulu men, women and children with HIV/AIDS. The center is not located in the valley, but it is tucked back on that same busy street which is home to the strip malls and grocery stores. The Respite Unit serves the poorest of the poor in the valleys of Embo and Molweni. We walked in to the building and I had no idea what to expect. The main room is large and bright and at the moment is housing 17 patients...men on one side and women on the other. The building is clean and crisp...bright white. The woman that gave us the tour stated that first and foremost this is a place of great life and hope. You can immediately tell this is true while watching the care workers with their gentle smiles. I tried not to stare like a tourist at the patients, but one caught my eye. A young woman probably younger than myself looking frail and weak locked eyes with me and I smiled at her. Yes, Fr. Frank was right, unfortunately, this is the real Africa. I know that this will be a challenging placement and to be honest, I have no idea what I'm getting myself into. I do know that the young girls' face has been on my mind since the second I saw her and I hope I can be of service to her and many facing the same terrible realities. Hillcrest Aids Center is certainly meant to be a place of rest and compassion...I'm looking forward to finding my place there.
Fr. Frank also described South Africa as a "land of great contrast." Yesterday (Sunday), we traveled for the first time into Molweni and saw that first hand. We drove about 25 minutes from our gated home, like many others, equipped with razor wire fencing, house alarm systems and bars on the windows into poverty that I have honestly never seen before. Molweni is home to a huge number of Zulu people who live in desperate conditions. This past November they endured a tornado and many of their already dilapidated homes were demolished. Apparently, the government came in to survey the damage and pledged to re-build the homes before Christmas . As of yesterday, hundreds of men, women, grandparents and children are living in simple tents like you or I would take on a low budget camping trip. The tents are green and stick out all throughout the valley. This is the REAL Africa.
While in Molweni we attended our first Zulu Mass at St. Leo's Church. The Church began filling up and you could feel the eyes on us because we stuck out like sore thumbs. I was looking around when I felt a hand on my leg. A little Zulu baby (maybe 1 or 1.5) put his hands on my leg and perched his chubby face on me staring in amazement. I came to find out from my 2nd year roommate, Alex, that the little guy is named BOY. Yes, that's his real name! So Sweet. Mass began and the choir sang the most beautiful music I've ever heard in my entire life. They danced and they sang with all the energy they possessed. It sounded like heaven and I can't wait to hear it again. We were introduced by Fr. Benji to the crowd who proceeded to cheer, clap and smile our way. Everyone there was so welcoming and some welcomed us in English, however, most of my responses were nods and smiles back. This is the REAL Africa.
After Mass, my roommate was approached by two little children (4th grade and 2nd grade) who she taught last year (and will continue to teach this year at St. Leo's Primary School). They were speaking to her in Zulu and I obviously couldn't understand. She later explained that they are AIDS orphans and live with their Go Go (Grandma in Zulu). They were at Mass alone and their Go Go told them to find someone there who would be able to bring her to the clinic as she was running out of their ARV pills (AIDS treatment). Alex told them that we could bring her today (Monday). I went with Alex to pick up the Go Go in Molweni this morning. The kids and she were standing in their tiny concrete home awaiting our 7am arrival (that's why I am up so early and have some downtime). We drove her to the clinic where she'll have to wait for an indefinite period of time...probably hours and hours to get the medicine to sustain the health of her two grandchildren. This is the REAL Africa.
The REAL Africa has also meant learning to drive stick shift on the opposite side of the road in the opposite seat in the car. Let's just say...I'm still learning on back roads. Now I know why everyone always said "you should learn to drive with a stick shift car just in case." Hopefully, I stop stalling soon! The REAL Africa was very REAL when a huge monkey ran out in front of our car on Wednesday! I screamed because I was so excited to see it. The REAL Africa has diet coke which was a thrilling find! Even though I've had an unsettling week, I know that I made the right decision and I cannot wait to spend more time here. I have and will continue to see and experience things I never thought possible. The REAL Africa is certainly a place of sickness, disparity and despair, but I have found much more than that in only one week. The REAL Africa is also a place of joy, hope, compassion, and love. I am excited to share in truth that will unfold here in the REAL Africa...
The pictures below are: 1) The valley below our home called Embo...2) Alex, Me and Katie standing on our porch overlooking Embo...3) An unbelivably beautiful necklace I bought at the income generating business at the Hillcrest AIDS center. The shop is called Woza Moya (Come Holy Spirit or Come Hope) and the local women bead as a way to support their families. The jewelry is absolutely gorgeous and very reasonably priced. Orders are being taken :)