Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

31 January 2007

One More

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 12:20 pm

200447765-001.jpgZimbabwe 5 November 2006 (continued)
When I think back to my time in Zimbabwe, I remember fear seeping into me slowly like a deep and deadly leak hidden in the bowels of a ship. It started the first time Erik called my hotel room and we spoke in Dutch, thinking we would have more privacy from the phone tappers, and forgetting that Afrikaans is so much like Dutch, but when I said something about Mugabe, mentioning his name, the line went dead.

I am with Katherine in Zimbabwe, driving to her home after church on Sunday. I ask about her co-director, Peter, and wonder how she pronounces his last name with one of the clicking sounds. Katherine says you make the sound “as if you’re sucking on a sweet.” That is one of those clicking sounds I was trying to learn in Zulu. She’s already referred to the grannies taking care of orphans as gogos, so I ask, “Do they speak Zulu here? I thought it was Shona.” My friend in The Hague is from Harare and she has taught me a handful of Shona words. Katherine says, “No. Ndebele, but it is very similar to Zulu.” Well, I think, that will do me a lot of good.

Katherine explains the orphan training they give to churches. “There are forty Scriptures for the fatherless and orphaned. God’s heart is for the orphans. In James 1:27 the Bible states this is pure religion.” Pure church is caring for communities. “We brainstorm with people, what are the needs of the orphans: food, shelter, school fees. Too often we think that only when we have money, can we get something done. God asks us, what do you have? We tell people, God made your heart. In Jesus we have His heart. Dare to look into the orphans’ eyes and you will see abuse. Really look at their hair and you will see their level of health.

“Our volunteers visit no more than five families each. Because this is so grass roots, they can pick up signs of hunger in an area earlier than the WFP (World Food Programme). We train them to have ears to listen, especially to the elderly. We teach them not to speak too quickly, but to sit and listen to the orphans and ask, ‘What can we do?’ Often such a simple question leads a child to pour his heart out and all you need to do is just listen.”

I think of Gugu’s comment about just listening. Katherine and Gugu couldn’t look more different, but their message is the same.

Katherine says, “When we do follow-up we hear story after story from volunteers who tell that family by family—and these are often child-headed families—there is a new roof, some clothing, school fees. We teach churches to meet the individual needs of orphans one by one. It starts in your own church. It starts in your own heart.”

I write in my notebook: Look for child-headed households. Totally grassroots. Church by church. Message for West—people with nothing do something.

Katherine tells me stories of churches where people barely have enough to eat. There is an “orphan box” at the back of the church for clothing and other contributions, and there is a jam jar for a few cents per person. I remember Jonathan telling me about a church in his township where the pastor asked every member to contribute 1 rand (11 €cents), and that way they were able to feed and pay the school fees for a few of the orphans.

I ask Katherine about her own funding sources. Where does she get the money for the medicine and training materials and salaries of her staff? She says, “HIV Alliance and Tear Fund found us. I never thought to ask for money. Jeff Foster at Tear fund UK told me, ‘I think they’re waiting for you to write.’ We have such a high caliber of people working on the team. Peter told me he didn’t want a salary, but I insisted. I believe God gives gifts so you can give to others. When he went to the UK for training, he was so homesick and missed his family, but he understood he would need to take a salary.”

We talk about the South African term Ubuntu, a sub-Saharan African attitude of heart. The term has been used and abused in terms of global village mentality, and the promotion of the common good at the cost of individual enhancement. I’ve looked up Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s definition, stated in 1999: “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” The people Katherine knows use it in terms of visitation of the sick, orphaned and widowed. Maturity is a combination of insights and wisdom, Katherine says.

I ask her about my friend’s church in Harare, St. Mary’s Anglican. She tells me the women’s groups there do such a brilliant job of taking care of the poor and orphaned in their part of Harare, other groups don’t even have to provide additional care. “They have the orphans covered so well. This is pure religion—visiting orphans and widows.”

When I ask her what most of the orphans she has met want to be later, she says doctors, nurses, teachers, and pastors.

Katherine lives in a small bungalow in the outskirts of the city. It is a home filled with light. As she puts lunch together in the kitchen, I sink into an armchair and look at the books and photos in her living room. There are several photos of two children at different ages. I ask her about them. “Those are my twins,” Katherine says. Michael was born HIV negative to an HIV+ mother who attempted an abortion with them. They were born two months early. They were 48 hours old when they were found in the bush, suffering from frostbite. They weighed 1 kilo each when they were born, but 2 kg a month later.”

I ask Katherine about her own background. She was only supposed to be in Zimbabwe on a temporary basis. She came here as a nurse and worked for 4 years with aids victims and in a home for abandoned babies. That’s how she came to know and adopt Michael and his sister Mary. Katherine explains to me how the birth process passes HIV onto the babies. There are several theories, but it seems that C-section babies have less of a chance of contracting the virus. It has something to do with exchange of blood and fluids in the birth canal. For example, her Mary, who was born first, contracted HIV, whereas Michael, the second twin, did not. Another way children become HIV+ is through breast milk—again, an exchange of body fluids. But this is even more controversial, since the number-one rule with aids is to protect the immune system, and nothing builds up a baby’s resistance to disease like breast milk. Either a baby should receive only formula or only breast milk, but the combination of the two is proving deadly when the mother is HIV+.

I tell her about Gail’s children’s home for toddlers with HIV. “When I was nursing,” Katherine says, “I realized that holding babies and making beds is a lot. When I retire, Michael and Mary will come live with me.” She tells me stories about other aids orphans she has loved in her life, little Frankie and his gang, how he used to call her, “Mommy, Mommy.” Little Joseph with HIV and sickle-cell anemia.

I ask some more about Michael and Mary. “I don’t know if Mary will make it to 11 years. She’s been on the ARVs since she was 9. Mary didn’t walk until she was two. She just didn’t have the muscle tone.” From the stories Katherine tells me, it sounds like little Mary is just like her mother, with a caring heart. She already is a little nurse, pretending to bind the arms of other children in the home with bandages, using cotton wool. “Mikey” is a natural-born worship leader. He teaches his Jesus songs to other children. The twins are 10 now and Michael is singing with a worship group at church.

Katherine is a strong advocate of developing ARVs for children, a patient groups more or less ignored by the pharmaceutical companies at the moment. Most HIV+ patients get TB treatments. There are not enough drugs that help children.

We talk about the young men and women I met at her church, the youth-group generation in their teens and twenties, who have learned the harshest of lessons by losing their own parents to aids. These young people want to do it differently and have pledged celibacy until marriage, and to care for orphans they meet.

After lunch, Katherine has planned to go with me, Peter and his wife, to a nearby game park. But the sky clouds over and it starts to rain as thunder rumbles in the distance. “God is saying, ‘It’s all right—I’m still with you.’” Katherine calls it her ministry of clouds. She seems to have a knack for bringing the rain on.

As the drizzle becomes a downpour and we drive through streets with people running to take cover, Katherine explains the vision behind her organization. “God’s vision for the rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem was to use the families. In Zimbabwe there are orphans everywhere, and we are using the families to help them. Through the churches people come forward to say, ‘I can take one more child. I can take two.’”

Our Isuzu gets pelted with raindrops that sound more like pebbles; the sky throws them down with such force. We arrive at Peter’s house and make a dash for it, getting soaked in the few meters between the car and front door. I notice elderly people taking cover in the carport and Katherine says these are people who lost their homes when Mugabe plowed under the shacks in cities all over the country a few months earlier. They are staying in Peter’s yard now. Peter’s daughter ushers us into the living room, which opens up onto a porch. The house is surrounded with trees. The windows are open because of the heat, so we hear rain and birds and trees moving in the wind. Metalwork covers the windows. I remember how we had to shout into an intercom in order to ask for the gate to be opened when we entered the property. It feels safe, but you can see that security measures have been taken for a reason. Interesting that the people living under the tarpaulin in the yard are also protected by the gate, stone walls covered with twisted barbed wire, and alarm system.

I meet Peter’s children: teenagers all shapes and ages. Their parents haven’t come home from church yet. Peter is a pastor and Katherine jokes with his daughter about how long he can preach sometimes. “One time he preached three hours in a rural community.” This daughter is charming, staying in the living room and answering my questions. She is 18, doing her A-levels, and wants to be a lawyer. She is a worship leader at their church. Her favorite subject is geography. She goes into the kitchen and makes tea and ends up laughing with us until her mother gets home.

When Peter’s wife Susan blows in, shaking her “brellie,” the house comes alive. Susan is another woman of traditional build. One son offered to meet her at the gate with an umbrella. Everyone is in the kitchen but me. I look at the couches, listen to the crickets, a canary somewhere outside, and a whip-o-will. The trees drop, drop drop the rain onto the flat roof. The bamboo growing outside the window rustles. I look inward. I note there is nothing hanging on the walls, a TV stands guard over the room, the wooden floor is immaculate

The storm gets even worse and lightning strikes somewhere close by. I see sparks come out of the wall where the phone is plugged in. I shout. Another son comes running. The power goes off. Susan calls to everyone, “Did you plug out?” I think, Zimbabwean English strikes again. I suggest to one of the teenagers that he unplug the computer. It’s already been done.

Susan comes into the living room, takes off her hairpiece, and collapses into one of the chairs, unfazed by the loss of power. Katherine has told me Susan is their organization’s Projects Manager for Micro-Enterprise. The name is familiar; I heard her mentioned when I was at ACAT because she attended a workshop there. Cynthia told me it took several days for the Zimbabwean participants at ACAT to relax enough from the fear they carried out of Zimbabwe with them, and actually focus on the material.

I tell Susan how delightful her children are. I’m almost afraid to ask how many she has, but she says, “I have four children plus two children that are ours now. Yesterday another child was brought to us.” Katherine and I exchange looks. We’ve just been talking about this open-heart policy among people who are willing. “What is one more?” Susan smiles.

It occurs to me here in Holland that I am writing about orphans like they are oranges. Orphans this, orphans that, orphans this and that. It is what this trip is all about, learning enough about orphans to write a short novel from an orphan’s point-of-view. But as I see the photos again and read the handwriting made on that day, as I think back to my own reactions and emotions, it strikes me how devastating it is for there to be even one orphan, let alone 16 million. Is it any wonder instructions about caring for them in the Bible are so specific? Orphans—that would have been my own Julia and Daniel if Erik and I had gone down in that plane when we were hit by lightning 12 years ago. An orphan—that is a child who has no one to protect her. To be an orphan means I am a child, but food and shelter and safety and schooling are all things I have to work for, steal for, hope for, hustle for myself. And if there are other orphans, my little brothers and sisters, then I have that heavy burden—my own—plus the burden of taking care of their food and shelter and safety and schooling. Just a child, alone in the world. Just one child. Alone.

30 January 2007

Pink Hot Dogs

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 3:30 pm

667533_south_africa_.jpgZimbabwe 5 November 2006
Early Sunday morning and I’m waiting for Katherine to pick me up in front of the hotel. It is slightly cooler now, with a breeze moving the dry heat. A man sweeps the leaves, looks tired, says, “Good morning ma’am,” as has everyone I’ve met in the elevator and behind the hotel counter so far today. My impressions this, my first morning in Zimbabwe? British plugs, birds singing, palms, the end of a dry winter, guards everywhere. Waking to the heat and knowing everyone I meet has been up for hours already. Still trying to figure out the money—all those zeros. 2000 Z$=1 €=10 SA rand. Katherine warns me not to exchange at the hotel. The official rate yields only 10% of what the money is worth on the street. Inflation soaring.

I’m off to church! Inside I look around. There is only a handful of whites. The worship is sweet, and lasts 90 minutes. It is led by a man who resembles Stevie Wonder. I see my own church in The Hague and imagine the front 2/3 pews, who sits there, and then tell myself they are affected by aids. I start to cry during the worship, looking at all the young people and imagining 2/3 of them with lives torn apart by aids. These tears—they are the first of many. I think of what it means to have a heart for brothers and sisters in Africa with aids. God’s heart in place as we pray for others.

The sermon includes Psalm 32. I hear the words, “I will be there with you.” Every word I write. “I am I am. Author of Life. I will guide you.” Unfailing love. Full of compassion. Lord, You care. Romans 8.1-10. James 1. There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Going on with God. New nature of God—acting like He acts, wants and experiences the things of God. God’s Peter—press in and take. Romans 7.22-23. Don’t make provision for temptation. Life of abiding peace. Peace of reconciliation. There can be and will be abiding peace, assurance, confidence. Do this through the Word, Spirit and fellowship with the Lord. Job 17.9. Hold their way. Blessed joy and deep peace from honoring God. Abiding Victory. 1 Cor. 15.57. Romans 8.37 More than conquerors. 2 Cor. 2.14. See victory in all times and circumstances. 2 Cor. 9.8 God makes all grace. Constant growth of the spiritual. Seek after Him. Ever reaching out for everything spiritual. Gal. 2.20 No longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Strengthen what remains. Do you long for God’s Way in your life? Gal. 5.16 Walk in the Spirit.

The preaching lasts an hour. The preacher is an elderly white man who preaches from a Palm pilot version of the Bible. I seem many older people with salt-and-pepper hair, and I see many people in their 20s. But I do not see many people my age or in their 30s and 40s. A beamer puts the words of the songs onto the screen. People go forward to ask for prayer as we sing, “Here’s my heart, Take it and mould it, Into Your likeness, Here’s my life, Break it into what You desire.” I look at the elderly white Rhodesians and understand they have a heart for this land.

The singing is unbelievable. Every woman in the choir sounds like Whitney Houston. I stand beside Katherine and see her as a small and mighty woman. She has kind eyes and a quick smile for everyone who greets her. And there are many. We sing, “You’re the Living God, And I chase after You. Lover of my soul, And I thirst for You.” In total the worship takes up two of the three-hour service. We sing “Amazing Grace.” We sing, “By Your grace, I stand. By Your grace, I’m saved. By Your grace, I am what I am.”

After the service people gather in the parking lot, where pancakes, frozen juice popsicles and bright pink hotdogs are sold—I think to raise money for the orphans in the congregation. I take pictures of the orphans and other children.

I speak to the youth leader who tells me about the orphan-mentoring programme they have where the teenagers take responsibility for the younger orphans, acting as a sort-of big sister or big brother, and make sure the children get at least one warm meal and do their housework and are able to pay their school fees. “Many of the orphans are taken in by aunties.”

(Not necessarily relatives—these are just any women who take orphans into their own families. My Zimbabwean friend in The Hague says it is rude in her culture to differentiate between one’s biological children and nieces, nephews and adopted orphans—they are all referred to as “my children.” Just as all women one generation older are called “aunty.” In this way, every child I met here, also called me “Aunty.” But I sure didn’t look the part!)

I ask the youth leader about bereavement counseling for the orphans. See, I’ve learned something from ACAT. He shakes his head though, “No, they keep it bottled up in their little hearts.” I ask what the biggest challenge is, and he says food. I ask what I can pray for and he says, “Pray for the youth who target them for the police camps. Plus, pray for anything because everything is a challenge.” I also ask one of the pastors what he sees as the greatest challenge and he says, “Apathy among the youth. The police brainwash them into thinking that making money is all there is. Our strength is in our old people who are praying.”

After church with Katherine I ask about medicine. Can people get the ARVs here? I know there are no free clinics, but her answer slams shut a door of hope. “No. It’s very hard to get any sort of medicine here. And ARVs are in high demand, so they are extremely expensive. We can’t even get antibiotics in Zimbabwe.”

We talk media and she says the newspapers like the one slipped under my door at the hotel are lies. “So many journalists have been tortured.” The government controls the petrol, which often simply is not for sale. “If there is fuel, we have queues of over 100 cars.”

As we drive through town, I notice bright orange trees alongside the jacaranda purple. Katherine says they are called Flamboyance trees. Unbelievably startling in the shade of orange-red. I think about how British Zimbabwe still is, tea is all-important, wedding banns read out in church like it was the Church of England, but when changing money, people don’t think in pounds or euros or South African rands even, but in U.S. dollars.

One of Katherine’s favorite phrases is, “God is Awesome.” She says it whenever our conversations take a downward turn about the hopelessness of the situation in Zimbabwe. She mentions Isaiah 66: “Can a nation be saved in a day? I will bring the nations and they will see My Glory.”

We talk about Mugabe’s mother, who was Roman Catholic. Once she died, he renounced his religion and is now tightly in the grip of witchcraft. His wife Grace holds the record for having bought the most clothes from Herrods in London.

Katherine stops at a street corner and buys a newspaper. It is an illegal paper, printed in the UK and distributed on the streets. The “C10” is Mugabe’s secret police.

I ask about the white farms in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia. Katherine says in the eighties the UK gave money to help smooth the transfer of money and land from white to black, but the government squandered those funds. Now there are only 600 farms left in the country that are white owned. I tell her what I have heard, that Mozambique is welcoming white farmers from Zimbabwe, eager for their know-how, and offers them as much land as they used to have here. Katherine says it is so sad. “This year the rains came, but no one is farming. Zimbabwean farmers in Zambia are sending us food. We import from everyone. We import South African food. Sometimes there is no food when there is food, but there is no money to buy food.”

I ask about testing for aids. “We encourage young people to get tested and onto the ARVs, when we can get a hold of the drugs for them.”

I ask Katherine about her organization. She is co-director with a Zimbabwean pastor named Peter. The reason their organization is allowed to exist is that they work strictly through the churches. Mugabe’s government won’t allow any aid organizations into the country, but Katherine and Peter have managed to get around that restriction by coming alongside churches, working with and through them.

I am grateful for this opportunity to see this purely grass-roots, church-initiative organization in action. I think it is one of a handful of times I’ve witnessed initiatives by Africans for Africans. Here in Zimbabwe that’s the only option since Mugabe has thrown all foreign aid organizations out of the country. And this organization is highly successful in terms of reaching many communities and training the gogos and teenagers—the only adults left after aids. What is more, the persecution the church in Zimbabwe is subjected to has meant a high level of church unity, so denominations that elsewhere in the world wouldn’t have the time of day for each other, are in daily contact, praying for one another and sharing resources like petrol, reading materials, food and medicine. Since the government is only making things worse by plowing under poor people’s homes, and foreign aid organizations are not allowed to operate in Zimbabwe, the only help being offered to aids orphans comes through the churches. I realize how privileged I am to catch this unique glimpse into a country virtually cut off from the rest of the world, battling aids with very little medicine, groaning under the heavy burden of the same poverty and famine and illness plaguing other parts of Africa plus the added deadweight of a corrupt and cruel dictatorship. The very fact that Zimbabweans endure is a miracle.

“How do they hear about your organization?” I ask. Katherine says, “Our churches say we hear you have a programme for orphans. We need help with all our orphans.” Her organization provides food and training. “We didn’t used to provide food—I was reluctant since then people become dependent. But we found we couldn’t very well give training to people who are starving.”

I ask about the practicalities. “We get all the church leaders in an area together for a half day of envisioning. We ask them what they want for their congregations. Then we find people in the congregation with a heart for the orphans. These are our volunteers. Then we train the volunteers, so they own it. It is their dream, their hope to help. Then they go back to their communities and put into practice what they’ve learned, teaching others as they go.”

“So no one is getting paid here?” I ask. Katherine shakes her head. “Except for our staff, no. Where would we get the money? No, these are purely people from churches we work with, who have a heart for the orphans and want to do something to help. They already have nothing, most of our volunteers are very poor, but they are willing to learn in order to make a difference.”

29 January 2007

White Sheep of the Family

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 11:21 am

72005800.jpgSouth Africa-Zimbabwe 4 November 2006
Cynthia and Geoff are driving me to Durban, where I will catch a flight back to Jo’burg, and from there to Zimbabwe. It’s going to be a day of travel. In the car, as we pass my eucalyptus trees that seem to have followed me all over the world from Stanford, with early-morning light shining on the long leaves, we talk South African politics. I also learn the following:
• ACAT has the support of Tear Netherlands and Tear Fund, UK, as well as 13 other NGOs (non-governmental organizations).
• An example of great South African English: “No man!”
• Employment equity pushes intellectuals out
• Mbeki’s brother has his own scandals
• Some think that the ANC coalition is cracking apart
• The black middle class was built up this last decade at the expense of attention to aids and addressing poverty and making rural communities a priority.

When I ask Geoff what he thinks the top priority should be, he says it is education and opening the door to inquiry and analyzing. He admits that the presence of the black middle class now means they share the responsibility for shouldering responses to aids and poverty.

He tells me about a woman trained at ACAT, Sheila, once so shy she could hardly speak in a room full of others. Now she has her own NGO which provides home-care for aids patients. It all started when she saw a body on the floor like I did, dying on a mattress, and she asked, “What can I do?” She received information and training from ACAT. Geoff says, “Having information enables people. It means they have a choice. Combine that with organization skills, spiritual enlightenment, motivation, and a sense of worth, and there is no stopping people.”

I ask for more examples of what people say has motivated them and Geoff provides the following quotes:
• “I realized God loves me and God’s got a plan for me. No, I’m not a mistake or accident.”
• “What a mess. I can’t live like this. What would happen if Jesus came and saw this?”

Geoff says, “ACAT helps people learn how to plan and mobilize and set goals and combine this effort in order to generate a cash flow.” ACAT comes alongside communities, trains their volunteers, and then sends them back to the communities to train others.

We talk about the Church in action and ACAT’s vision of a balance between the spiritual and the practical. Geoff says, “Thursday is Church day here—you see women dress up in blue, green and purple, visiting the sick and bringing food everywhere.”

When I ask Geoff my question, how does he cope, he says, “I don’t want the responsibility of a thousand people on my shoulders, but if I’m standing in God, then I can bear the weight of 10,000 because it’s really God who is carrying them. I believe in giving people tools.”

At the airport I buy more materials for the information kits: tea towels with the life of Nelson Mandela and a map of where he has lived printed onto the cloth.

I call my family from the Jo’burg airport. I won’t be able to get any more emails on my Blackberry in Zimbabwe, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get phone reception either, since the EU has no agreement with Zimbabwe. I know from the emails exchanged between Tear and Zimbabwe that emails are censored there. I know someone will meet me. I know there is a woman named Katherine who will be my main contact. (In this blog I have changed the names and places referring to Zimbabwe, for the protection of the people there.)

I look around the shiny marble, wealthy shopped airport and wonder what world I am entering now? A close friend in Holland is from Harare and she has always teased me that I would be welcome among her family. When I said, “Uh, Joyce, I’m white,” she replied, “We’ll just tell them you’re the white sheep of the family.”

The plane from Jo’burg to Zimbabwe is a prop plane with less than 20 seats. On the way, we fly over what I think are the Drakenburg mountains in Kwa-Zulu Natal province, South Africa, or something equally beautiful—rugged rock and violent colors.

When we land, we taxi right by the hangar which has a sign on it saying it’s the temporary airport terminal. Passengers grumble, “Must be the pilot’s first time here.” We finally come to a stop, but must stay inside as the temperature soars and I can smell all the big white men around me. I’m thinking, Rhodesians? And remembering when Zimbabwe declared independence in 1980. I was studying in Vienna then. Finally the door opens and we get some fresh air. The pilot emerges and says he only had the use of one battery and didn’t want to take the chance the plane wouldn’t start up again. Besides, we were out of fuel and needed to park beside the fuel tank. Everyone nods, “Ok, no arguments there.” After a long wait on the tarmac shimmering in heat, a bus comes to pick us up. I go through customs, need to buy a visa, a Zimbabwean with a UK passport asks if I need any help? Is anyone meeting me? I’m a little suspicious. Finally the visa is in order and I get my luggage—the last passenger left on this side of customs in the airport from our flight, the only flight—and walk through the door.

New world. New heat. Extreme heat in the forties. Dry. A woman with short white hair and a smile from here to heaven comes forward and welcomes me. “Anne?” “Katherine?” We’re off. She drives me to the hotel, where I will spend the next six nights. Here the jacarandas are a week further and purple petals dance along the roadside with every breath of wind caused by our passing car. I see dry bush, no green, the outskirts of a town that doesn’t feel like a city. I remember driving through this place eight or nine years ago and buying cookies with the kids, on our way to Botswana. In that short time, Zimbabwe has gone from not so bad to much, much worse.

Katherine talks to me about the persecuted church here. The government censors emails. Phones are tapped. “We’re not allowed to exchange food or money or talk about the government. Groups of more than five are not allowed to meet unless it’s strictly church related. Mugabe has thrown out the NGOs and reporters. Journalists are arrested, sometimes tortured, imprisoned and/or expelled.”

She drops me at the hotel and says she’ll be back a few hours later so we can eat together in the hotel restaurant. I remember walking past a group of American teenage girls, dressed in short shorts and barely nothing tops. They were draping themselves around the front steps. As I passed, one of them asked the doorman, “How much is a room for one night?” I thought how strange, then realized these must be bored students from the American high school. Me, who is always so careful to wear her long skirts and cover up my shoulders and cleavage in Africa, to me these girls were offensive. I could only imagine what the Zimbabweans walking past them thought.

The heat oppressive; there is a mix-up with the rooms, I end up on the top floor with a view of the pool. So grateful that it is clean. A good bed. A bathroom. I can do this, I tell myself. This is much better than any of the private spaces you’ve had in past trips to places of conflict. I remember my first one when I stayed in a refugee camp with rats who came to visit every night. In this room I check for cockroaches, find none, discover the safe is broken, unpack everything but my passport and cash, lock those into my suitcase, and go sit on the balcony. I see palm trees, a garden, the pool, and in the distance, dry, dusty brown buildings. I check my phone—no emails, but I can sms and call. I sms Erik with the hotel phone number.

That evening Katherine returns and we eat at an American-style restaurant in the hotel. I order Mexican food—so strange to do that here. Katherine tells me about how young people are being recruited by the police to spy on teachers and parents and everyone else. The police give them walkie talkies. People are picked up for talking about how many sick children there are in Zimbabwe, or for talking about the recent destruction of homes in poorer areas.

The way Katherine talks about Mugabe is how I remember Iraqis talking about Sadaam when I visited that country in 2001—never actually mentioning his name, but referring to him in fear, with a lowered voice and a glance around the room first. I think East Germany and how that society still has not recovered from its culture of betrayal, where children were raised to turn in their teachers and parents, and 90 percent of the country worked for the Stasi secret police.

Katherine says, “He doubled school fees so that will keep many kids out of school. They go to police camp instead and are given handcuffs and taught to beat up other children who don’t attend. They’re like the Young Pioneers or like the indoctrination of youth in China. Families cannot pay school fees, even with double incomes. A teacher’s salary equals one day’s bus fare. You’ll see on Monday morning, early on the roads there are very few cars—the world is walking.”

I watch Katherine, her sparkling blue eyes, the lines on her face. She emanates a tremendous energy and something else—righteous anger. At some point, she greets others in the restaurant, excuses herself and is welcomed with open arms at another table. Later, as these people leave, the man passes us, leans down and says softely to me, “You’re talking with the Mother Teresa of Zimbabwe.”

28 January 2007

The Eyes of God

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 10:28 pm

72302630.jpgThis is me, the artist-child part of me, looking through my notebook and remembering pictures in my mind and heart. Now I know what I saw in the Zulu Indana (assistant-chief) Jonathan’s eyes. A hunted look—like a shepherd with a flock of thousands, who knows the wolves steal in the night more than millions.

And yet again I wonder who has listened to the voices of frontline fighters like Gugu and Jonathan—the adopters of orphans, the buriers of the dead, the parents of a dying generation? To those of you want to help, Jonathan’s address is: Jonathan Ngcoya, 19 Uplands Road, Blackridge, Pietermaritzburg, 3201 South Africa.

Which reminds me, if you wish to contact Gail Trollip in order to volunteer, or to send money or food or clothes for her toddler orphans, her address is: Suite 192, Postnet X6, Cascades 3202, South Africa. For further details, consult the website

South Africa 3 November 2006 (continued)
Leaving Jonathan’s home I see a stack of flyers advertising a youth boxing club. I pick one up, “This is a great idea.” Jonathan agrees, “Yes, anything to keep the boys off the street.” As I shake his hand I realize he has a boxer’s posture and walk. So the muscles are not from wrestling, but from fighting.

Gugu is bringing me to Pietermaritzburg. I need to buy materials (everything times 5) for the school information kits that will be sent to classrooms in The Netherlands once this aids survival book is published. I ask for the largest textbook store; she agrees to drop me off there. She has called Aubrey and he is nearly finished with his meeting and will pick me up at the bookstore. Sounds like a plan. On the way into town, we pass more of the blooming purple jacaranda trees. What a sight! There are only two weeks of the year when they’re in full bloom, and I’m here during that time. The trees line highways and grow wild between eucalyptus, so sometimes an entire road is coated with the violet leaves, and other times a hillside is dotted with purple. This is what I wrote in my notebook: Jacaranda violent purple fluorescent in its intensity.

In town, it is crowded because schools have let out for the afternoon. Teenagers in uniforms everywhere. Mobile phones, girls watching boys watching girls. A tall, dark and handsome young man meets Gugu. Her son! So I must have written down her family stats incorrectly. She has 12 children?

(Which reminds me, a blanket apology to all of you I’m writing about if I remember things wrong. This is actually only supposed to be a record of my own reactions, emotions and experiences, but it’s turned into the world’s longest blog birth, a documentary of my impressions. It’s not meant to be factual, though I am trying my hardest to remember the truth.)

Gugu walks me to the bookstore and we say our goodbye. She has agreed to check the book, once I have it written, for cultural accuracy, since the publisher and I already know it will be about a Zulu boy in South Africa. Oh sister! I think, watching her disappear in the crowd of new-hope South African teens, surging over the sidewalks.

The bookstore is quiet and cool. I LOVE bookstores. I wrote a short story about my addiction to books last summer, and it’s true that whenever I enter a bookstore, it calms me like a drug. I head for the bargain bin, read what they’ve got in Afrikaans, look at the fiction, peruse the non-fiction, linger in the Biography department, choose a book about reconciliation in Rwanda, open the covers of books with photos of South Africa and slowly make my way to the back of the store where the textbooks lie in little piles according to grade. My choices for the children of The Netherlands? A play for 10-year olds written in Afrikaans (the language is so similar to Dutch, they’ll get a kick out of reading it), and my own personal favorite—Simply Zulu—Workbook 1 by Bongiwe Gumede and Hilary Cawood.

This book is yellow and has a picture of three black children and one white boy, all with their mouths open, as if they are conversing in simply Zulu. The first page describes this as a “methodical introduction to learners of isiZulu.” Ah, I think, isiZulu is to Zulu as kiSwahili is to Swahili. I have this love of linguistics and learning what makes languages tick. In isiZulu’s case, clicks are what make it tick. Simply Zulu states, “There are three basic ‘clicks’ in isiZulu. Only one appears in this workbook. ‘C’ as in incwadi: a clicking sound made by dropping the tongue from behind the front teeth.” Now, wasn’t that useful to know?

So I am buying five copies of my play in Afrikaans and Simply Zulu, enjoying the certain justice involved in spending the publisher’s money on books, when Aubrey finds me. His meeting went fine. I told him my morning has also gone fine, and he reminds me the day is almost over. He had mentioned a market where toys made out of rubbish were sold and I am interested, but now we won’t make it back in time. Besides, there are more books I want to buy from ACAT, and their office will close soon, as well. We decide there’s only enough time to buy the South African Springbok rugby caps I’m after. We find a street vendor who says he can get five for me. He takes off at a run through the busy streets after we promise to wait for him. When he returns I notice he has aids lesions on his face, and that the one on his lip is bleeding. We barter over the price, which was already far below what the caps sell for in the airport, and I make my purchase. Afterwards, Aubrey tells me whites don’t barter in South Africa. This one does, I think, remembering all the “best friends” I have made in other African countries among countless vendors. “My best friend,” they told me before trying to sell me something, “today is your lucky day.”

Walking back to Aubrey’s car, he points out some of the older buildings and we talk colonial architecture. I can recognize many lines similar to what I’ve seen in Amsterdam. In the car back to ACAT I ask for success stories and Aubrey tells me about how learning to grow a garden (such as taught through Gugu’s department) can make the difference among the poor between nothing and something. He tells about:
• one woman trading her crop of wild spinach for second-hand clothes
• a group of concerned people in the community who started a soup kitchen
• sharing skills to save for pigs
• one woman who owned property employing others to work it.

Back at ACAT, the fence covered in climbing roses and the scent of sweet grass now feel like home. I regret that I must leave the following morning, and feel a little resentful since I’m only now starting to get my bearings. But this trip, indeed, these books I’ve been writing about children in developing countries, are all about trust, so I trust that my trip has been planned to provide me with the richest mix of experiences. Still, I will miss the friends I’ve made, the South African cadence in English, and the courage of this brave new South Africa that the rest of us said would end in bloodbaths once Mandela stepped down.

We get to the ACAT office just in time for me to buy the workbooks. These are their titles:
Bereavement Counselling of Children—Module 4
Hope is Vital—A Wellness Course—Living Positively with HIV and AIDS
Health and Healing—Module 1
These three are all books from “The HIV and AIDS Series”
Then there is the ever-popular Basic Life Skills from ACAT’s “Development Programme Series.” Lastly, Aubrey gave me his copy of ACAT Entrepreneurial Development Programme Success Stories April to December 2004. I am delighted with these books, and still think some smart publisher should publish and distribute them in other countries. Great, practical, hands-on advice. I know books from “The HIV and AIDS Series” doesn’t sound like light reading, but the wisdom and practical tips in these workbooks could serve to teach and train so many people in other countries groaning under the curse of aids. (So to all you many publishers who are reading my blog—here’s a tip for you, as well as Aubrey’s suggestion that children’s Bibles be published in Zulu. Remember—I want 10 percent!)

While at the ACAT offices, I literally run into Gerald, the head of ACAT. It’s nice I got to meet him. Cynthia and her husband Geoff Morgan are taking me out to dinner tonight. I have heard of Geoff, as the head of the Entrepreneurial Development Programme, and Cynthia picked me up at the airport, but I haven’t met Geoff yet. It turns out they live on the other side of the compound. And the rottweilers I saw chasing a springbok my first night here, are theirs. We eat outside at a German sausage restaurant. Lucky for vegetarian me they serve a nice trout. The best part about that night is being able to debrief with Cynthia and Geoff. The second-best part about that night is sitting outside beneath a South African turned-around moon that shines onto water and cattle on a thousand hills.

Geoff tells me he is fourth-generation South African. I ask him about the possibility that white South Africans didn’t know what apartheid was doing in their country. He agrees, “We didn’t know it was so bad. We were cut off from the rest of the world. Information and media were totally controlled by the government.”

Later that evening, in the quiet grace of their home, he and Cynthia tell me the greatest story about a group they took to Capetown. I can’t remember exactly, but I think these were rural Zulus who won a prize, or maybe there was some sort of make-a-dream-come-true initiative. In any case, there was this group that had never flown and never been to Capetown before. The elder said once the plane took off, “This is what God sees. Now I have the eyes of God.” There was a great deal of laughter throughout the trip. They were not impressed with the view from Table Mountain.

Geoff says to me, “Most white South Africans don’t know what’s off the highways. You’ve barely been here three days and you’ve seen more than they do in a lifetime. They just see their homes, the shopping malls, their office buildings and the main roads in between.”

When I ask what the biggest difference is since apartheid, he says travel. “People travel now—they used to need passbooks. Mini-van taxis changed the fabric of South African society. It used to be there was one bus or train going and coming a day. I’m constantly amazed, even in the rural parts, how often people aren’t home. Villages rent a mini-van and off they go. Between Boxing Day and New Year’s the beaches are black with bodies bobbing in the surf. Also, the little things mean so much. We used to have separate mugs. We have groups of thirty here for workshops and I hear them saying to each other in Zulu how amazed they are, ‘They eat the same “black” food as us. They eat with us and out of the same mugs and plates.’ For most of them, it’s the first time ever that they’ve shared a meal with a white person.”

At some point that night, I say something about the rural poor. They both correct me. “Where you’ve been, Anne? That’s not rural. Rural is when it takes at least half a day to drive there. Rural is when there is hardly any road left. Rural poverty is another level altogether than what you’ve seen here.”

27 January 2007

Find Your Own Little Corner

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 1:35 pm

460221_the_fog_of_our_past.jpgAre you all Gugued out? Heard enough about my morning with this woman? Wondering why Anne doesn’t let go of the conversation, and maybe summarize an interview, for a change? I was wondering the same thing. Sometimes it’s like I don’t want to move on. Ok, so maybe there is a certain reluctance to describe this trip, but I trust something even more beautiful will come out of this travel story. And if you read the previous post (Something Else Beautiful), you’ll have seen my mini-soap box comments about listening. If you’re reading this blog, then you’re already interested in engaging with the issues. And maybe it’s just that if you’re interested in listening, I can think of no better voice to hear than this brave woman with her Something Beautiful heart and children—Gugu fighting this war on aids on the very frontline where casualties pile hightest and depression, despair and fear run rampant.

South Africa 3 November 2006 (continued)
I am in the Sweetwaters township near Pietermaritzburg and Durban, South Africa. My morning with Gugu has grown and blossomed as both of us lose track of time. She is telling me about yet another ACAT programme—Home-based care groups who give more spiritual hope and practical nursing to aids victims. I think it’s a great idea and get all excited as she pulls out a folder to tell me more details, when her daughter reminds her of the time.

“Oh! I’m supposed to be taking you to see Jonathan. We must go! I’ll just be a moment!” She disappears down the hallway and I find my way back to the living room. I find one corner is set up as a sort-of shrine to her three dead sisters. I gaze at their graduation photos as Zulu Gospel songs play softly on the stereo.

I hear a car honk and go to the front door. Gugu is sitting in the driver’s seat, motioning for me to come on. “How did you get out here?” I ask. She grins. “The back way.” In the car beside Gugu I tell her that Something Beautiful is beautiful inside and out. “She sings to remember her mother.” Gugu looks out the window and says, “Yes. Her mother had a voice like no other. People came to church just to hear her sing.”

Gugu’s little car tackles the mile-deep potholes bravely, crawling out each time, only to head back down into another like some moonrover. I’m in my usual contented state of ignorance—not knowing where we’re going or who Jonathan is. So I ask, “Who is Jonathan?” She looks at me like Aubrey did earlier that morning—as if I should know these things. “My brother. He’s a chief.”

I think, A Zulu chief! Colorful National Geographic photos of warriors with shields and swords dance through my head. As if reading my mind, Gugu says, “God has His hands full with us Zulus. We’re an aggressive race, and have always loved to wage war more than to make peace.” I’m trying to place this statement into some kind of context. I think how valuable it is to know oneself, to know one’s race, one’s nation. I think of my own background and say, “My country, where I was born—America—I think we are this way, too.” But as usual, Gugu is mining a far deeper vein. She skips over my statement as if she never heard it, and says, “My hope is, because we are so good at war, that we will fight this one bravely, to the death if need be, but never surrender to despair.”

Her words silence me. I think of Ruth, my Hanna in the Poland novels—a real-life hero who endured the Nazis and the Soviets and decades-long persecution for her faith, then died in pain, her body twisted and broken by MS. The feeling I had when in the same room as Ruth, is the feeling I have now, in the car beside Gugu. Angels unseen, all around us. Heaven just around the corner. God’s pleasure. His glory.

She says, “Is there anything you have asked the others, but haven’t asked me?” It is an odd way to formulate her question, but it reminds me of my #1 question: “How do you cope?” Her answer: “Just day by day. And I make some days just mine, when I go off by myself and listen to what I’m thinking about.” She pauses. “When my sisters died, I felt such a big emptiness in my soul, I didn’t have the words. I didn’t cry when I found out, but. . . . One day is enough. For three months my sister was lovely and alive and strong, then one day death loomed like a big shock, and the next day, she was gone. Any long-term plans I might have had are not a priority anymore. I try to take each day as it comes, to be thankful and strong for that day. For example, it would be too much to wonder who will pay for the school fees of my grandchildren. I couldn’t handle that.”

We pull up to a stone house with several potted shrubs standing guard along the path beside the house. Gugu gets out of the car and walks up to them like they are runaway children. She starts mumbling under her breath as she picks off dead leaves, then sticks her finger into the soil. “Looks like they’re waiting to be planted,” I offer. She straightens up, “Don’t worry,” she calls over her shoulder at the plants as we walk toward the doorway, “I’ll liberate you soon!” I smile, realizing I’ve just witnessed Gugu the Garden Guru in action.

In Jonathan’s house we sit on couches. Young men pass through the room going places. They greet us. A little boy comes out one door, wearing a school uniform and Gugu teases him about something in Zulu. We are late and Jonathan is supposed to be somewhere else, yet he joins us and sits with me for a half hour as Gugu peruses his bookshelves and finally chooses a thick Amplified Version of the Bible, announcing to us both, “This one I’m stealing.”

Jonathan is short and thin, but I can see the family resemblance to Gugu in his eyes—sharp and non-committing, but also, weary and sad. His hair is graying slightly, but it’s hard to tell how old he might be. His shoulder muscles burst through his T-shirt sleeves. His back is broad. I think, he looks like a small ox, or a wrestler. He could be 50 or 60.

I’m nervous because I have no idea what the protocol is around a Zulu chief. Should I say, “Sir”? He’s not royalty, or maybe he is. It would account for the deep well of integrity Gugu and Something Beautiful seem to draw from. Another young man enters, asks a question, Jonathan answers, and the boy is off.

I thank him for his time and say he must be very busy as a chief. “No, I am not a Ngosi, I am an Induna, a sort-of assistant chief. I prefer to call myself a community leader.” My head translates, Township leader. I see my opening, thinking, He’s humble, on top of everything else. “Of Sweetwaters?” I ask. He nods. I say, “Carol from Canada, at Tabitha Ministries, told me how cooperative the indunas were who helped her.” He blinks and looks at his watch. I try again, “. . . with the survey of child-headed households.” He nods slowly. I ask, “Were the results a surprise to you?”

Instantly the interview plummets past superficialities as Jonathan leans toward me, the passion deepening the timber of his voice, “The results should not have surprised me, but they did. Some families think all aids orphans are also infected, so the children are shunned and isolated, and so have that to deal with, on top of everything else. Some of the orphans are homeless, but I have some very large families who keep taking children in, even though they are quite poor.”

I ask him what his greatest needs are. “We have some clinics and caregivers, but the situation doesn’t change. We still need more training in how to deal with HIV and aids. I want to make more use of the 16-year olds and train them, too. The young people can be trained, but sometimes they can’t do the nursing work because of something basic, like not having plastic gloves. In my view the isolation caused by aids is as painful as the disease itself. More training and more information—that’s what we need.”

I ask how many of the homes under his care are touched by aids. His answer falls like a bomb in our midst: “Seventy percent. Funerals are on Saturdays. I spend all day attending funerals. It’s like the Saturday occasion. On Saturdays I don’t schedule meetings anymore because there are always funerals. Last Saturday I had six.”

I ask him what he sees as his biggest challenge. “If we can get homes for the orphans, identify the infected and get them treatments.” He pauses. “We are at war. The government has not yet realized we incur deaths like in a war. This government doesn’t see that our political violence cost fewer people than aids.”

I am listening to Jonathan, watching Gugu devour her stolen goods, but I know she keeps one ear tuned to our conversation. I judge them both to be anywhere between 45-60. No matter, they grew up under apartheid. And now truth and reconciliation are constant companions, foregiveness like a fine wine, to be poured out every day again.

I think back to the previous evening. One thing that will not let me go is something Aubrey said from his couch in the living room with Bitty’s family antiques. “We are like the Nazis.” At first I thought I must have misunderstood his South African accent. He pronounces the word like the Dutch do, nasees. How could this humble, unassuming servant of a man be like the Nazis? “What do you mean?” I asked. “The Germans said after World War Two that they didn’t know what was happening during the war. That’s how we are about apartheid.” I was truly floored. In Holland, there is such a loaded connotation behind the German Wir habben es nicht gewusst. The Dutch don’t buy it. And anytime they hear the Germans claim the sanctuary of ignorance, they shake their heads in disgust. I was tempted to pin Aubrey down about that. “How could South African whites not have known?” I asked, trying desperately to keep the condemnation out of my tone, out of my heart. For I have grown to admire Aubrey and I almost envy his proximity to a world where making a difference is so easy to define. Aubrey said, “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m confessing the truth. Sure we all had black maids, but the media coverage given to apartheid in the rest of the world was much more extensive than what we saw here. We didn’t know what you knew.” I left it at that.

But now, while talking to Jonathan, Aubrey’s words return to haunt me. Less than 15 years ago Jonathan and Gugu were probably fighting–and organizing their people to fight–for freedom, doing the very things Mandela would have done, had he been off Robben Island. This process of constantly forgiving, or reconciling to such an extent that former enemies–even former enemies ignorant of one another–now can work alongside as comrades-in-arms, is being forged at the moment in South Africa while blacks and whites battle in a new war, one where the enemy is much less visible, but a million times more deadly.

Jonathan: “At least in a real war people die instantly. Here, money is slowly drained away—the savings accounts for future generations’ school fees—and people die slowly and painfully.”

I ask Jonathan how others can help. “Anything—food parcels, clothes, anything for the orphans.” I ask, “What is your dream?” He says, “An old-age home to include the elderly and the orphans—so they can take care of each other. Our views, my emotions, are hard to express. Losing hope can’t get a better life.”

I hear the rooster crowing in the late afternoon. I see family photos spread everywhere. A calendar. A stereo. Joathan’s voice: “We are trying. I tell my people, ‘Do not think your life is ending here.’” Then he looks up at me. Our eyes lock as he says, “One thing you can do. I just met with the head of one of our high schools. He has several members of my community, students who are orphans and are very poor and very smart. They want to study science and maths. Despite the disasters in their lives, they are doing well at school, but they cannot study further because of lack of funds.”

I ask how much. Technical College costs 5,000 rand (€550). Jonathan: “Getting out of poverty is so difficult for orphans. They have the double stigma of HIV and being orphans. There is no funding. Without education, they have no future.”

Silence descends like the fog outside. And then Jonathan says, “I’ve got no hope.” I catch my breath. He jumps out of the couch and starts pacing back and forth in the living room like a lion in a cage. I ask, “How do you cope?” He replies, “I cannot do everything. You find your own little corner and do what you can.”

Of the 5,500 people under Jonathan’s care, he says 128 have died from aids. This year.

26 January 2007

Something Else Beautiful

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 1:13 pm

159562_party_hats.jpgI have been thinking about what Gugu said about listening. (See end of previous post The Silent War.) Maybe just listening is enough. I took it as a compliment that morning when I interviewed her, but I think it might be something much deeper and more universal. Sometimes strangers, friends, or family ask me, “But what can we do?” That’s when I’m lucky. When I’m unlucky I get a sermon about the hopelessness of Africa and how the money you have given to an organization has been wasted or stolen, so you don’t give anymore. What can we do . . . about aids? What can we do . . . about the children—theirs? Ours? They don’t listen. They don’t care. We don’t listen. We don’t care. Maybe just listening is enough. What would happen if western politicians just listened, just came alongside and really listened to their African counterparts? What would happen if we really listened? Intercessory prayer is about trying to see the ones we pray for through God’s eyes. Our hearts open and in doing so, we heal and change. Wouldn’t just listening change us, too? The ones being listened to, and the ones doing the listening?

South Africa 3 November 2006 (continued)
I have spent the morning with Gugu as she explains her take on the aids pandemic. She asks if I am willing to meet someone. I nod with my mouth full of her daughter’s mouth-watering scones. I will do anything, go anywhere, trust this woman in any circumstance. I see her as a prophet, a leader in the true sense, a wise woman with vision. ACAT is lucky to have her. And besides, she has taught her daughter how to cook these scones from another planet.

“I want to call my 14-year old up here from the other house. You said you were interested in hearing the children’s voices. She has a baby.” I blink at Gugu, doing more math—13 maybe 12 when pregnant, depending on how old the baby is. Then I swallow and say, “Yes, no, of course. I’d love to meet her.” I tell myself the fact that she is exposing one of her children to me must mean she trusts me. Then I remember. When she said “my 14-year old” she was referring to one of her sister’s orphans whom she has adopted.

“What is her name?” I ask. Gugu says, “Nobuhle.” “What does it mean?” “Something Beautiful.” “And her baby’s name?” “Something Else Beautiful.” We both smile. At what? The innocence of a name by a 14-year old. Gugu adds, “You can ask her about losing her mom while she was pregnant.”

My next question is out before I can stop it. “Is she HIV+?” The look Gugu shoots my way tells me I’ve overstepped my bounds. I remember the TEAR people in Holland and Aubrey here warning me about the taboos—I mustn’t ask people directly if they’re infected. But I had thought a woman as eloquent and well-versed as Gugu would be above the stigma. I remembered her own words about the distance between head knowledge and heart practice. Family, her own family, her child, her own sister’s orphan—maybe this was too close to home.

Still, she answers me, but only after a pause that makes me wish we could be friends for life. “Yes. We had her tested. Both she and the baby are not infected. And we had her tested for other things, too.” I think venereal diseases. Gugu says, “Imagine my shame when one of my own family members, a girl her age, became pregnant. It was as if all the talking I do with these girls, all the teaching, all the prayer, had been for nothing.” Again, Gugu’s honesty knocks me off balance. I scramble for a response and say, “But it wasn’t your fault.” The words sound weak and hang between us.

A phone call and five minutes later a girl who walks like a dancer slips into the office as Gugu introduces us, then leaves us alone. I am aware of the open ceiling and that Gugu and her daughter will hear whatever we say. I put the thought aside and focus on the heart-shaped face before me. Her eyes are wide. She truly is something beautiful. I wish she were a boy so we could start off talking about football. “Do you like football?” I ask, hoping. “No madam,” comes the shy response. Well, I had to try.

Then, of course I know what it is that will put her more at ease. “You have a lovely baby,” I say. Magic charm. She smiles and bounces him on her knee. His chubby cheeks match his chubby hands and chubby knees. I put out my finger and he grabs hold of it as I smile at Something Beautiful. “What is he? Six months?” She nods.

I lean forward and say softly, “It cannot be easy, being a mother without your own mother?” She says, “It is a little bit hard.” Her eyes will not hold mine and we both keep looking back at the baby, as if he might have more answers than we know.

I ask, “What do you do when you miss your mother?” She says, “When I miss Mom? When I need something I talk to Auntie.” That would be Gugu. I try again, “But what do you do when you want to feel close to your mother?” “Oh!” Her face lights up as she finds something to offer me. “I sing. I sing the songs she used to sing, and I sing for my baby.”

I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. “A physical therapist. I would like to do massage therapy. I want to make people feel better.” I ask how she will manage that with a baby. “I will take him to the crèche and go back to school. Auntie says she will help, and so will my Granny.”

I think, I’ll just keep asking questions until she stops me, so I dig a little deeper, asking about her Granny’s reaction to her pregnancy. “Granny said, ‘No matter what you’ve done, I forgive you.’” The answer sideswipes me. Something Beautiful blinks at me, so confident in her integrity as a member of this African Queen matriarchy.

I ask about school—she studies maths, science, English, Zulu and biology. I ask about her long-term goals? “In five years I want to have my own practice and take care of my family and Auntie.”

I thank her for her time and she stands to go. The baby is fussing. As she passes me, I reach out a hand and take hers. “And stay away from the boys, huh?” I know I’ve clicked into Auntie mode myself, but I can’t help it. She smiles at me, a little embarrassed, “Of course.”

Gugu comes back into the office and we talk about what it means to own our dreams. “If a dream is clear, I can always find my way through, and not get sidetracked. When I train people we talk about writing dreams down onto a piece of paper and keeping the dream alive by seeing it every day. For some people it is an amazing achievement to grow your own garden. Self-esteem is so crucial. The black empowerment movement gave us many opportunities, but none of it is obtainable if we don’t build self-esteem on an individual basis. Whatever we’ve been through as South Africans, whether it is surviving apartheid or HIV, self-esteem is needed for that survival. We need enough self-esteem to keep working, otherwise the stigma will swallow us and you lose who you are.

“Under apartheid we were nobodys. Now with HIV it is the same—we are dirty. I try to build others’ self-esteem by teaching them how to harvest their first bunch of spinach. You should see them, planting the seeds, and a few months later, picking spinach. They were so happy, sizing the leaves, comparing, visualizing what their mothers would say. A garden empowers people. It’s theirs. They don’t need to ask permission. And it’s a challenge to work in a group.

“Why agriculture? There is such a lack of knowledge in the townships. I went to a conference with people from Germany, the UK and all over Africa. The only thing the Africans had in common was our ignorance. I realized how being uninformed, especially in the rural areas, is accepted as the norm.

“Apartheid brain-washed us. Women were beaten up by their husbands and we accepted that as a sign of love.

“I do agriculture, but what I mainly do is people development.” Gugu tells me hope stories:
• “One woman in her late 50s planted beans. I saw her a year later and asked, ‘Are you selling your beans?’ She said no. ‘For now I’m still enjoying giving them away. All my life I had to say thank you. ACAT has helped me give and hear thank you.’ Giving away 40 kg of beans was worth more to her than the money!
• “Another woman used her first profit from selling what she grew to buy a cup of tea with sugar. This was a great luxury for her. To hear someone call tea a luxury. It sounds like a very little thing, but it is a very big thing.
• “Youngsters who hold a Bible for the first time and open it and read. Being allowed to have their own Bible.
• “Young people picking spinach. Knowing they will have this skill of growing a garden for the rest of their lives.”

I ask Gugu about her own training. She did community work for five years. “I trust God for every step and day, linking the Gospel to what happens every day. The practical Word of God is so important. I cry a lot and I laugh a lot.”

I ask about her aids workshops. “We talk about how to get it, how not to get it. How to live with an HIV+ family member. I link nutrition and family care.”

And for the children? “I tell the 9-12-year olds, ‘Nobody has a right to touch your body. Your body is your body. If somebody has touched you, first talk to your mother or teacher or minister. Sometimes they just don’t know whom to talk to. Although kids these days are more aware because of TV.”

I ask, what do the children say to you? “They don’t want to hear ‘I’m sorry, don’t cry, everything will be ok.’ Kids say, ‘You don’t know how I am feeling.’ I’ve also heard, ‘People avoid me, don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything. I want someone to say, “I’ll listen if you want to talk. I don’t know what to say to you, but I care about you.”’” I realize she is quoting her own adopted children now, her sisters’ nine orphans.

“Gugu, what is your prayer?” I ask.

“God, give me love for these children.”

25 January 2007

The Silent War

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 12:20 pm

444861_little_feet.jpgSouth Africa 3 November 2006 (continued)
I am sitting in the home office of Gugu Ngcoya, in Sweetwaters, a township between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal province, South Africa. Gugu is head of the Sustainable Agriculture Programme at ACAT, the NGO (non-governmental organization) sponsoring this leg of my trip, a quest for aids survival.

Gugu is telling me about her very personal grief at losing two sisters to aids five months earlier. “When my sisters died in June I felt so empty and depressed. I still feel so alone. I try to find a way of making friends.”

I say, “It’s harder as we get older, don’t you think?” She looks up at me and pulls her fleece tighter around her shoulders. I say, “I think we’re about the same age.” She nods again and is quiet. The emotional pain, her grief, spreads across her face like cracks in a broken window pane. I try again. “You were very close to your sisters?” She finally responds, “They were my best friends. I told them everything. We did so much together.” The words she does not say are, And now I am alone.

I wait a few moments until she can speak again. She says, “I call this a place of emotional poverty. Not the spiritual or material poverty we hear so much about. To move on doesn’t mean something physical. I have struggled so much with this depression. Counseling costs money. How do people who are not in the black middle class cope? I know mothers who have lost all their adult children. I think people cope by doing as much as they can. We must not point the finger at a child who has lost a parent and call him lazy just because it appears he is doing nothing. We don’t know what’s going on in their little minds. Because of aids we are all grieving, all wrestling with depression. I honestly wonder, how do others survive this? If they are Christian they may have the assurance that God will help them. But we really need support, and are not easily understood.

“Here is something much bigger than death and moving on. I started feeling my sisters’ pain while they were sick. At some point she needed to be carried. Didn’t want to eat. We gave her TB pills. I suppose I need trauma therapy. In HIV+ support groups people are fine one day and the next month they are full of sores. Changes happen around us. People are like chameleons. After I completed my aids training, I thought, hey, I know nothing.”

Gugu’s extreme honesty has caught me off guard. I take down word for word what she says–there is so much pain and grief behind her tirade. I never expected that anyone would open up to me like this. I am a stranger. Usually my most emotional interviews are conducted second-hand, through aid workers who have built up trust relationships (usually with children) and then they tell me what they have heard. But here I am, hearing firsthand from a woman who not only knows what she feels, but knows how to articulate her struggle in words that flow over me like poetry of the soul.

I remember sitting there, shaking so hard I could hardly write. My handwriting in the notebook is small and cramped. Gugu is the first person to use the word that I use now myself to describe the pandemic.

“We are at war. It is a war. The loss is of warlike dimensions. In a normal war people are shot and die. In this war they always die a slow death. How do the sick feel? I wonder. In this war you know ahead of time that you are going to die. How do you do that? I used to watch my sisters watch their children. I could see in her eyes, she was wondering will she see their next birthdays? I feel that pain. I wanted to give her hope, but I don’t know where hope is. I am caught between hope and reality. I wanted God to heal them, but it was not His plan. When I say Amen, I look through these eyes and I see these eyes are dying. I had to know, is it time for me to prepare their kids? Will I give them false hope? Sometimes we cried together. When I told my sister’s children, I said, ‘She is sick, her life is the Lord’s.’”

I ask about the reactions of her sisters’ children. The children’s voices. “Their kids are getting stronger faster than me. One of the daughters has her mom’s disapproving eye. This daughter told me, ‘I don’t want people to see me die. I felt so angry after Mom died. (Her father is already dead.) Nobody wants to listen to me.’ She feels very angry and frustrated. She has not only lost her parents, she’s lost her home and friends because she had to change schools and move in with us. Here she is called a coconut by the local blacks.” Gugu looks at me and I shake my head that I don’t understand the term.

“They think she should be living as rural blacks, but instead we are sending her to a white school, which is what my sister wanted. So–white on the inside and black on the outside. Mixed schools in town are highly expensive. Locals look at children like this and say she is not really one of us. Education and housing are another form of apartheid, keeping the races apart.”

We talk about all the teens with babies, and about a child-headed household Gugu knows of where the gogo is 90% blind and suffers from diabetes. In such cases, the gogo is actually more of a burden on the older children than the other orphans. I confess to her my own shock at the sight and smell of aids in the child-headed homes I had visited the day before.

She says, “Then just imagine how huge a shock it is when you find out it is a family member who has aids. When I found out about my sister, I remember staring at her big eyes and understanding where the flesh had disappeared to. She was just skin and bones. I was in a big shock. Then she started taking the ARVs (aids medication) and gained weight. She even put back on her high heels. Then through problems at the clinic, which was administered by a church that was breaking up, she couldn’t get any more ARVs. Her C2 count was too high by then to qualify at a different clinic, so she became worse very fast.

“In terms of my sisters and the pain they went through, I think death was ok because they were suffering so much physically. In terms of my loss, I’m not ok. It frustrates me that they’re just gone. We were always together. That hole is still there.

“It’s a war that attacks people on an individual basis. Look at the statistics, the number of people dying! We are in a war. We don’t need AK-47s or missiles. This is a silent war and people are suffering alone. It takes time before we are willing to share these things with others. With aids there is so much shame and stigma—this causes the silence. We are only now learning how to teach people who volunteer to reach out psychologically and come alongside others. Our government has made aids shameful. The health minister didn’t give any direction. Testing for aids should become a common thing. It should be a crime not to be tested, like driving without an eye test. Aids is not a private matter. There are teachers dying. When they’re gone, we have lost their skills. People are so naive. It should be a crime to have sex without testing. The government says it’s a private matter.”

I ask her about the government grants. She says, “A granny grant will bring in 800 rand (€90) per month. To get a child grant, she must prove both parents’ deaths. How can she do that when the father has disappeared? Where does she get the death certificate of a disappeared father? Impossible for grannies.”

I ask her about the ARVs provided free by the South African government, the only country in the world to ignore the pharmaceutical companies’ demands and provide these drugs free of charge. She says, “Sure the ARVs are free at state hospitals, but most people die on the waiting list. In order to qualify, you have to have a low C2 count, then you go onto the waiting list. Also, you have to show up with your caregiver, but most people are too ashamed. So, most everyone ends up going to private clinics, where you have to pay for the ARVs.”

I ask her about the aids information campaigns. She says, “Sure, there is plenty of head knowledge, but it hasn’t filtered down into practical heart knowledge yet. Why else are there so many pregnant kids? The government grants maternity leave for teens and gives them money for babies. That’s a big thing for poverty-stricken kids. It means they have money for a cell phone.”

I stop writing and ask, “You don’t mean? . . .” She says, “Exactly. Girls are getting pregnant so they can pay for a cell phone. A society like our needs more than just information. We think, I know it, but I can do it anyway. I know one woman who completed the aids training as a volunteer. She still thought you get aids by the jet streams streaking the sky.

“My 17-year old is open about her world of drugs. We’re at war. They feel like I’m judging them. In truth, I am still trying to regain my strength. I’m seeing a psychologist. I write things down. My husband knows of my pain, but not its depth. He feels this pain.”

“What helps?” I ask. She says, “Sometimes just talking. Like this. My psychologist just asks, ‘How have you been?’ We do a lot of praying together. It seems like we always want to fix things. Maybe just listening is enough.”

And with those words, I realize that this brave, smart, classy woman has just given me a compliment. Much of the self-doubt and nausea from the previous day melt away and I sit up a little straighter. The shaking stops. She has left the office and returns with a beautifully woven shawl to wrap around my shoulders. Her daughter enters with a tray of hot tea and the fresh scones I have been smelling all morning. Gugu laughs as I say how delicious they are. “Yes, Aubrey will be jealous when he hears you have had some of my daughter’s scones.” Then she places a hand on my shoulder.

“Anne, there is someone I want you to meet.”

24 January 2007

Gugu is a Gogo

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 6:33 pm

9 January 2007

To my faithful readers:

Filed under: Write on — annedegraaf @ 5:33 pm

Due to technical difficulties I won’t be able to upload further messages onto my blog until 22 January. Don’t forget about me! Please check back then. Your interest means the world to me. Thank you–Anne

5 January 2007

Make My Baby Live

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 4:15 pm

693650_people.jpgSouth Africa 2 November 2006 (continued)
The sun sends long shadows alongside us as we drive Thembi back home in the township outside Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. We park in front of Nellie’s half-finished home and Aubrey gets out of the truck so Nellie can get into the cab with me and tell her story. She is HIV+. It begins to rain and dusk falls quickly. Nellie’s husband comes out and her teenagers peer at us, but Nellie is determined. I thank her for being so open.

Once she starts, a flood of words washes over me. I don’t need to ask a single question. This is what I wrote in my notebook: “Pregnant, cold, flu, doctor discharged other woman, pick up baby—she’s breathing. Not drinking, end of day my baby’s not drinking anything. Sister in charge Indian. At 4.30 my baby’s not drinking. Change breathing, has a sound like person with cough. They tell me she’s ok. Didn’t see. Where. Waiting outside. My baby is sick. I say why? Probably in lungs. I said ok, but I have hope. In my heart I say thank You, Lord, I’m in a hospital so I can get help. Baby steam pneumonia, was in very cold room. This nurse is wrong. If I saw my baby, oh my baby! So difficult. Why my baby breathing so hard? Lungs. I say ok. Baby very big—don’t be worried. The thing I noticed is way baby breathes. Moves head to breathe in and out. Make my baby live. Look my baby little. No, I trust God. Nellie, you must move your baby. Your baby is sick. We tried to help her. Ok, your baby can’t breathe now. Baby not in steam, but not breathing. Worried. But didn’t cry. I still believe. I touch my baby. I touch my baby, but still not breathe. Doctor says Nellie, I’m sorry. Hope God give you another baby. At night wake up look for baby and hear sound. Take long time to believe. I want to build my house. I’m worried about my children. One day I must die. Bless you. God took my little girl—in heaven.”

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