Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dependency and Paternalism

Though Apartheid ended 17 years ago, I still find that there is a deep racial divide in South Africa. Though it is not one that is institutionalized, it is one that is embedded in the culture, like in the way that we still see self-segregation a lot in the States. There are many social structures that still keep people in the position of second-class citizens, while calling them “equal” at the same time. One of the things that I find myself struggling with a lot here is this notion of white people as protectors, guiders, or suppliers for black people. Especially in the Transkei, a white person is always assumed to be wealthy and educated, and surely, they will share what they have. And that stereotype exists for a reason. The only white people that I know that live in Mthatha are all, in some capacity, involved with/running social programs. They are here because there is need and they are wealthy and educated enough to organize and do something about it (or think they can). More than that, many of the people living here cling to these social programs because they are often the only stability people (especially children) have. This isn’t a new phenomenon or one that is restricted to South Africa either. This kind of dependency on charity and aid is one that seems to me to be widespread in lots of developing countries. More than just a subsistence dependency, it also carries along with it these undertones of unworthiness and a mindset that people will never be good enough because aren’t as rich or as intelligent. Or feelings of shame because they have to depend on someone else to provide food and clothing for their own children.These are things that have been growing in my mind for a while now, but it all kind of came to a head just before my Christmas break.

There are some of our kids from Itipini that now live in Bethany home because they’ve been taken away from their homes by social workers. One of these is a girl named Sisipho, whose mother is one of the more stable women at Itipini. I’ve seen her several times visiting Sisipho and volunteering in the baby room at Bethany and, just before our break, it was decided that Sisipho could come back to Itipini to live with her mom in a kind of trial period. I saw her when she came back, walking around with her mother and looking very cheery, and went to say hi. Sisipho instantly put out her arms for me to pick her up and I obliged. Only, when I tried to hand her back to her mom, she wouldn’t go. When I tried to put her down, she cried and followed me. When her mom took her away, she threw an absolute fit. Every single time I saw her over the next few days, it was the same story. Why? She sees her mom much more often than she sees me. When her mom goes to Bethany, she loves on her and plays with her. When I go to Bethany, I hold her down while she gets shots. This child does not really know me or like me; but I’m white. I am a young white female, just like the volunteers that work at Bethany home. I am not more kind or more loving than her mother, but I resemble the only thing she has ever known as constant and doting. Because of this, she sees me as the one that will protect and care for her even if her mother is right next to me for no other reason than the color of my skin. And that kills me. Her mother is trying really hard and doing absolutely all she can to succeed where she may have failed to begin with and yet, her child is coming to me who has not done a single thing and has not earned that affection. Every time it happened, the look on her mother’s face broke my heart. Sisipho isn’t old enough to understand or even old enough for anyone to explain it to her, but I am and her mother is. My presence alone in that situation must have made her feel so inadequate and so rejected when she is giving her best to provide for her child. What does this situation say about the mindset that is being ingrained into people here before they even know how to talk? Moreover, is my presence here adding to its power?

To what extent do we help those in need and at what point does our “help” become debilitating to those it is supposed to be helping?

Thoughts and comments are welcome.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bedford Christmas

The Bedford Orthopedic Hospital (whose grounds I live on) is also an African Medical Mission project and is the only public orthopedic hospital in the Mthatha area. It is funded both through the government, the African Medical Mission, and donations. Beginning as a single operation room, the hospital now has a male ward, female ward, children’s ward, and spinal unit which are nearly always full and the hospital serves numerous outpatients. This has largely been done through the work of Jenny and her late husband, Chris McConnechie, whose legacy is still very alive in the Bedford community. He is buried in the graveyard here and people still talk of him all the time. Every December, Jenny carries on one of their traditions and buys presents for all of the patients that have to stay in the wards over Christmas. I had the immense honor of getting to be a part of that this year from the shopping and wrapping down to the distributing and unwrapping. We gathered with the hospital staff and nurses, began with prayers, and made rounds through all of the wards, singing and distributing gifts as we went. All of the kids either got a car or a doll, the men got a care-package that included a hat, soap, sugar (they’re always complaining about not having enough sugar for their tea), and other goodies, and the women got a care package similar to the men’s except with a beaded necklace instead of a hat. It was a really joyous occasion and the kids even did a small Christmas play and some traditional dancing. The best part was getting to help the kids unwrap their gifts. Most of them couldn’t manage it on their own because they all had a cast of some kind and it was a real treat to get to sit with them for a bit. Stephen, a fellow YASCer, came up for a few days from Grahamstown and got to join in the festivities as well! All in all, it was a really great and heart-warming experience and I am in ever-increasing awe of all of the work that Jenny does and the abounding love that she exudes in this place. 

Children's Ward

Made his day!

Female Ward

The star and angels that lead us through the wards

Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

World AIDS Day

Greetings all!
Today is World AIDS Day. The purpose of World AIDS Day is to raise awareness and rally together in the fight against HIV/AIDS. These things, however, should be (and are) happening every day of the year; today is just a focal point. More than raising awareness, World AIDS Day is about support for those living with HIV/AIDS and remembrance of those who have died as a result of the disease. Having such a day is important to the struggle against HIV/AIDS because it encourages an open discussion of the disease, which is often not found. There are lots of stigmas and stereotypes surrounding HIV/AIDS and without breaking through those barriers, the endemic will continue. Today, at Itipini, more people than I have ever seen on the veranda gathered together to show their support for the day. Sister Dorothy (the other nurse at the clinic) gave a talk about HIV/AIDS and the importance of being tested, having your partner tested, and taking care of yourself. One of our patients gave her personal testimony. This woman, two years ago, was so weak that she could hardly walk or move and was beyond skinny. She finally got tested and began an ARV (anti-retroviral) regimen. Today, she is one of the most lively (and sweet) women you will find around Itipini. She is healthy and vibrant and you would never know that she is living HIV from looking at her. She has taken control, but she hasn’t been able to do it alone. It is because she was open and honest about what she was dealing with that she got the support she needed from friends, family, and health-care workers. After the talks, everyone received a white candle and as we passed the flame from one person to the next, we sang songs and said prayers. Once all of the candles were lit and the singing finished, we made a pact to help and support one another and do those things within our means to stop the spread of HIV.  To know more about World AIDS Day, visit http://www.worldaidsday.org/

Most importantly, get into the conversation.

Gathering on the veranda

Painting AIDS ribbons in the preschool

Sisonke getting creative with her ribbon