SaltSpring Organization for Life Improvement and Development
Comment by Meron Moroz
Andrea's Christmas Message
Merry Christmas to everyone from the other side of the world. It's the day after: we lounge with the laziness that only comes on Boxing Day. The kids are too listless and hung over from chocolate to reach for their toys, which are strewn over all available surfaces, and the usual negotiations about eating carrots and peas have been abandoned. Not much parenting to do here: think I'll write home.
I am settled enough in this African mirror world to finally give you some clear reflections: the first month of being in Africa is a bit like parachuting out of a plane and landing on a trampoline. Soaring up one day, crashing the next, the mood swings tend to guide my observations more than just the facts, ma'am. Hopefully I've settled enough in the centre of things that you won't be bouncing between wrist slashing, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here rants, and 'gee, look at the potential in this perfect place, boy am I ever going to be able to help out here' earnestness. However, my previous dispatches may be warning enough: pass the salt, and the hankies, please. And yes, its loooooong: it's split into chapters (!). For those of you with things to do, just read the first bit for news of Mamello & the folks in Lesotho.
The facts: Gary, the kids and I have moved into our house in Lesotho. We bought it for the price of a couple of months' rent when the house we'd lived at previously, in Rustlers' Valley, burnt to the ground, along with the rest of that lovely eco-village which we'd called home on our other African adventures. In some ways, we have found an even more beautiful site to live, even though the infrastructure (running water, power, road access, etc) is yet undeveloped. The house itself is 10'x16, capped with grass, and has a view which rolls and folds and opens out and goes on and on and on... the view is like an epic story rolling off the tongue of an exaggerating, pissed romantic poet. Extreme gorgeousness, jaw dropping, mystical, majestical forevermore, etc etc.... the red dirt valley floor is full of corn fields rolling down to a steep river gorge, then rising on all sides to mountains coated in velvet green, crowned with spires of stone. It has been extraordinarily wet, so the colours are scrubbed fresh. You can stand in our 'yard' and turn around 360 degrees and see mountains peaking in all directions: you don't see one single written sign, there's no trash, the only noises are of animals, wind, streams, and people's voices calling to one another on the pathway alongside us. The human settlements that dot the bases of the various mountains consist of clusters of houses made from earth, covered in grass roofs with silver tin raincaps. These villages are harmonious little copies of the hills they nestle in. Our toilet is a tin can whose door hangs lopsided on a single hinge: as I sit in there I look through the wedge opening in the door and I see this slice of unspoilt Earth that, before experiencing it, I barely believed could still exist. There's no electricity, you drink from springs and streams, music is what people sing and play. Peaches are in season, along with radishes and early peas. Permaculture? We have a nice meadow outside the house to garden on, a slope for an orchard leading down to a river which borders three acre-wide fields that lay fallow and waiting for our inspiration.
Our house overlooks the Phelisanong project, run by our friend Mamello. The place is thriving more than ever: when we first started coming here, 2 years ago, the group used borrowed buildings and makeshift shelters to care for the disabled children they have taken in. Today, the project is built on a piece of perfect 'bottom land' donated by the villages' hereditary chief, who cherished the vision Mamello has of helping communities come together to help the most needy. There are 45 special needs kids living at the centre now, and 360 primary students who are mainly orphans or 'vulnerable children': i.e. kids who can't afford the school uniform and shoes required by public schools. The place is surrounded with fields irrigated and planted to the hilt, & they have built a primary school, offices, dormitories for kids and their caregivers, a craft shop, and a kitchen, all surrounding a courtyard planted with herb and veggie gardens. Fruit trees ring the perimeter and out back, there's a soccer field. We enjoy watching the evening games from our perch up on the mountainside, watching new people join in the game, listening to the shouts and laughter, and finally waving to the 'team' as the players climb the hill past our house and fan out across the twilight mountains to their homes.
The Phelisanong project is an amazing example of what can happen when we humans pool our resources towards a common goal: the villagers all lend a hand, cooking, cleaning, farming, and teaching, while people overseas, some of whom have never even been here, provide support for the project, based on their belief that there is great value in sharing their abundance with these hard-working and compassionate Africans. All of you who have helped, from all of the pockets on Earth where Phelisanong is known.... if you need to replenish your faith in humanity, stop on by. Currently we have Abigail from the UK, who works with the craft co-operative, Tamar from Israel who has spent 3 months working with the disabled kids, and Amber, a Peace Corps volunteer from the US who is here for 2 years. A little ex-patriate cluster, who support one another, processing and working through all of the challenges that we face here.
We're spending a long time here this year, and so get to play house, replacing the chairs and beds that were lost in the Rustlers' fire, planting the orchard and the gardens and the solar bathhouse. These domestic affairs allow me to take the long view, and I'm in less of a hurry to get moving on 'projects' than I am to get on with living.
I realized something on World AIDS Day which has helped deliver me from the impossible, Sisyphan task of trying to 'solve problems' here in Lesotho, particularly with regards to HIV/AIDS. I developed a tenacious lung infection shortly after arriving in Lesotho at the end of November, and went to see this doctor in the town of Leribe who gave me a handful of drugs which he called 'antibiotics'. One of them must have been a very potent painkiller, for I spent the day at a government sponsored, December 1st AIDS-focussed ceremony feeling like my voice was coming from several feet to the left of my head, and that I was sitting underwater observing a too-bright, too-dry aquarium swimming past me. I was suffering from weirdly amplified gravity, so took shelter from the long, uninspired speeches under a striped tent, which turned out to belong to USAID. Cheerful Americans from head office were making a foray into 'the field', passing out shiny pamphlets and free pens to villagers. It all seemed so disconnected: talking with a group of teenaged actors, who performed a drama this afternoon for the King of Lesotho, brings it home. These guys know narrative inside out, they've been acting out stories for comic relief and revelation since they were kids. They say they'd NEVER watch a play if they knew it was 'supposed to be About AIDS'. They all laugh and joke at the woefully preachy and earnest AIDS information they have been given at this official ceremony. "Believe me,' says our friend Teboho, 'you have to find ways to talk about it without mentioning it. This stuff that people give us to read isn't going to touch us in our lives. When you say it's about AIDS people think they've heard it already, and they change the channel." Finding creative ways, and safe spaces, to talk about the deeper issues that surround AIDS, is getting us in contact with actors, artists, musicians and teachers who recognize that to get to the conversations that do shift people's thinking, you have to cajole them out of the Box that, unfortunately, young people are often confined to when talking about sex. From missionaries to medics to abstinence preachers and parents with problems of their own, there has been lots of talking 'at' these kids, not so much hearing them and inviting their thoughts. Art helps to create spaces where we are all really safe to express our feelings and imagine alternatives to the heavy cultural expectations that exist here. They still do viriginity testing here in the mountains: girls who aren't declared virgins by 'expert' elders are simply discarded. They say if a girl becomes pregnant before marriage she has 'broken her knees.' The statistics around rape, which is notoriously underreported, are appallingly high. There is a disconnect between the cultural claims that women and men remain chaste until marriage, and the reality of teenaged pregnancy, multiple partners, and rape. There's LOTS to talk about, and work through, before you even get to the AIDS virus.
The day after the official World AIDS Day ceremony Mamello and her Phelisanong group host their own grassroots World AIDS Day celebration, part conference, part party, part potlach. The highlight is a community parade down the main road of Pitseng: boisterous singing, whistles and bells, and a much-tooted horn that honked like a braying donkey while people sang and danced alongside. Mamello had hired an accordion band, with a great gospel singer supported by three well choreographed back-up singers. The day opened and closed with dancing. As usual the Warrior Women are the ringleaders: 4 women who run a network of HIV support groups throughout the Pitseng region, who were using this as an opportunity to bring together all of the people they worked with and met on their rounds through 14 rural villages. The Warriors lead the singing and are the first on their feet to start dancing: they are also gracious hosts who have pulled together a fabulous lunch which they stayed up the whole previous night cooking. There's so much joy hanging out with these people, it's crazy that we're all gathering because every second person around here is dying of a horrible disease... yet we have more fun and do more hugging and grinning than we would at a Canadian family reunion. Contrast this with the official World AIDS Day government ceremony we attended yesterday ? that had about as much spirit as a coat hanger. What I appreciate most about this grassroots community convergence is the brazen courage it takes for people to gather and to celebrate even as they are addressing horrific situations: the HIV positive Warriors defy the despair of AIDS with their relentless living, whether they are leading the parade or wiping the forehead of a sister on one of their home visits. Each one of them is confronted by death every day, but the Warrior Women are undaunted. For the people they work with who are laying sick in huts and houses over these mountains, they are the midwives of hope.
At both World AIDS Day gatherings, official and grassroots, I run into a lot of old friends. Gradually, I'm being caught up on local gossip: who is sleeping with who, and who else, and who else besides that.... people aren't any more promiscuous that westerners here, its just that they tend to overlap their relationships. We'd call it infidelity: it's strange, though, to people here that we westerners would put a final ending on our affairs and never go back to those people that we'd once been so intimate with. 'Breaking up' or 'ending relationships' is considered odd around here, and if you've slept with someone then they often are referred to as your girlfriend or boyfriend whether you have moved on or not. I don't know what's more loyal or more trusting, our serial monogamy or this version of polygamy, only that these southern African 'multiple concurrent relationships' are a very effective and rapid way of spreading AIDS. Why southern Africa is so devastated by the disease has a lot to do with these sexual customs. I watch and wonder at how some of these educated friends of mine continue to participate in these kind of relationships even though many of them are HIV positive activists who are well aware of the risks they are taking. Culture and custom overwhelm logic even when sex isn't involved. Add lust and gender power trips to the mix and you can kiss your cool headed 'messaging' goodbye.
On this strange pharmaceutical trip, thanks to an Indian doctor in a southern African hick town, disconnected by modern pharmacopia from my can-do, energized self, I realize that in spite of the fact that I am here to help stop the AIDS pandemic, I have absolutely no control over the in-the-moment choices people make that actually spread AIDS. I can urge, recommend, explain, encourage, and educate, but the plain fact is I can't choose for anyone else. As an outsider, my influence on culture and sexual attitudes is going to be very slight. The changes come from within people, within culture : once again, I am reminded that I am a witness here, showing people alternatives that they can take, or leave.
Part of taking the long view is realizing that it's how I live my life that is what will change the world: I can come here with my tents and pamphlets and policies and live a comfortable, western life in the capital, or I can live in the village and learn from people who are dealing with the drama of AIDS that is everywhere in their lives. I can help the people who are on the ground delivering community services by connecting them with people and resources that will make them stronger. In the end, though, my life is the only thing I can really affect, and the choice I make to live here in 'mirror world' is all about learning how to tread lightly on the earth, live sustainably, and try to make a bridge across the vast inequalities between the world I come from and the world I live in now. I can't just accept that the kids across the path from us are starving, or that the super smart 12 year old who does laundry for a living has to drop out of school to look after her little sisters. Helping to provide for all kids what I would ask for my own kids seems like a useful place to start.
The spectrum of possibility is crazy wide here: this Lesotho village life appears to be a paradise, an unspoilt last-stand where indigenous ways continue undisturbed by the industrial revolution. However the soil is infertile and the land has been overgrazed and deforested, and the AIDS pandemic has brought the main labour pool of young and middle aged parents to its' knees. Grandmothers work in the fields to keep their children's children alive. The local furniture makers have switched from building beds to building coffins: they come in all sizes, including newborn. There are many kids in my neighborhood whose parents have died of AIDS, orphans who have to grow their own food and carry their water and somehow survive winters here, where snow is common and central heating is not. Then there are the kids at Mamello's project who offer relief from these bitter realities. What Mamello has managed to do, by bringing one community together to pool their resources, focussing on the poorest and most needy as the glue that keeps everyone committed, could be called a miracle. She invites anyone who is themselves disadvantaged or disabled to come and join her, and many do: although there is no pay and the work is incredibly hard, the centre offers people support and shelter, and gives them a way to care for kids they know wouldn't make it without their help. Mamello simply ascribes her accomplishments to her faith, and her vision. If only those things could be added to the water, we'd have a cure for the ills that plague our world.
Here's a story that may help to illustrate the impact of Mamello's work on people's lives:
Metsediso, or "Seedi" as everyone calls her, is this tiny kid of 4 who came to this centre for disabled and orphaned kids in September. When she arrived, she did not speak, did not smile, and could not walk. Her guardians, left with the child after her parents died of AIDS, were afraid she was infected with AIDS too. Terrified of AIDS, about which they only knew that if you had it, you died a horrible death, they were just waiting for Seedi to die. In a place this poor, you don't waste food on someone who isn't going to make it. They fed her by shoving plates of corn mash under the door of the hut she was kept in. If you can imagine, she was not let out to use the toilet, and lay in her own filth. Somehow she survived, and was found by one of the Warrior Women who do door-to-door community outreach for Mamello's project. The Warriors brought Seedi to the centre, and there, she began to emerge. We met her a month ago: she is a cheery, adorable, cuddly toddler who is relishing her position as the project baby. She has begun to make sounds, and gives a delighted 'caw when she sees Gary. She learned to walk this week: that was her Christmas present to all of the patient volunteers who have been encouraging her. She's been tested: she's HIV positive, and is taking ARVs thanks to Tsepong Clinic's ambitious pediatric AIDS program.
Nonetheless, Seedi has no legal status as a ward of the orphanage. The wheels of government move slooooowly here, and while it is possible the centre will be able to formally adopt the girl, it has yet to happen. So, during the holidays when Mamello's orphanage workers go home to thier own families, she had to be sent home to the same relatives who had neglected her, to spend three days over Christmas. With the Phelisanong centre closed and all other kids safely farmed out to relatives and friends, nobody, not even Mamello, wanted to risk having Seedi's body on their hands should she die. In addition to the digestive ailments related to her condition, Seedi's anti-retroviral drugs are incredibly hard on her tiny body. Mamello discussed this 'dilemma' with the project volunteers, all of whom have been charmed by Seedi thoroughly: none of us could take her either, for were we to be left with a dead child there would be both legal and cultural repercussions. Instead, we'll take turns looking in on her twice a day, making sure she takes her ARVs on time and that she gets the food which was bought with help from Canadian donors. Hopefully she will make it through Christmas and come back when the centre re-opens: if not, the life she has had since meeting Mamello's community has given her a taste of happiness, and of love, that she would not have otherwise known.
Christmas is perfect as an example of how mad the world is, as I'm sure we all notice no matter what our vantage point. While our family travels one way, from Lesotho to South Africa, there is a flood of migrants going the other: miners who work in the gold and diamond mines around Johannesburg have been arriving back home in Lesotho in steady streams.
Our neighbor, a mother of four kids, goes out early every day, carrying a bucket or a shovel, to work the family plot in hopes of pulling out enough food to survive on. We throw pineapple peels on the compost pile and later see the kids chewing them happily. We watched her husband, a miner, come home for Christmas with some apprehension. We wondered, what would happen when dad got home? Because in many cases the trip back to Lesotho for these miners is the only time they have to live it up and spend their hard earned money, and the bars are bursting at the seams by 10 in the morning. While for some families this means dad comes home drunk and spoiling for a fight, in some cases women look forward to their husbands' return. Most migrant workers bring imported gifts of blankets, new cooking pots, and food. Some bring more insidious imports: crammed in men-only hostels at their workplaces, many miners frequent prostitutes, who, in this AIDS ravaged place, are highly likely to carry HIV.
In this case, for whatever was going on below the surface at the house next door , we saw the kids welcome their daddy, and watched mum dressed up and heading off to join her friends while daddy stayed home and listened to the radio, soaking up the view and the light of miles of green mountains. That sight, this pure landscape grazed by horses and herds, must have been like a salve for this man's mine-darkened eyes. At night, Gary and I sit on a little knoll watching the sun setting over the hills (a rivetting show), and as darkness falls we see the silhouettes next door of dad and his five year old son dancing in the wan light of the rising moon. Simply, sweetly, beautiful.
Our family kind-of had two Christmasses: one, a party for the orphans in 14 villages near where we live, and the other, a family Christmas with Gary's mother in the suburbs of South Africa. There were some contrasts to be remarked upon.
At Mamello's Christmas party the kids all got a huge plate of food, plus the most needy went home with a 5 pound sack of samp, which is like rice. There were approximately 5 pairs of shoes and a dozen shirts to distribute amongst the many kids, a process which was interesting to watch. Mamello would hold up a pair of shoes and call out the size, "10, size 10." Then the kids, about 50 in all, figured out among themselves who had that size feet, and who most needed shoes, then they'd send that kid up to collect his/her present. It was a consensus decision making process that was amazingly quick, peaceful, and generous, given that even the kids who have shoes have pairs all full of holes and held together with bit of string and scraps. Offered a bunch of gifts, they decided who was most needy, and didn't begrudge the ones who came out gifted.
Now, visiting Gary's mother here in the white suburbs, or 'mall world', as I call it, Christmas is all supposed to be about Jesus, but ends up in a shopping orgy where we spend our time in malls piling up stuff. Wasn't Jesus all about teaching us to care for the poor, and to renounce the material world? Anyway, WE did our part to commercialize Christmas, leaving Lesotho the day before Xmas and making a Christmas Eve assault on the suburban malls south of Jo'burg. We got Kina a book about caring for horses, since a Basotho pony is what she is really getting for Christmas. And Marly, having seen 'The Simpsons' Movie" on the plane, has declared he wants to be a pig farmer. What timing... Mamello's project, having completed their first season of running piggeries in the outreach villages, is suffering a surplus of piglets just born... so Marly's Christmas wish, to get his very own pig, comes true, and we get to build a stable... I've witnessed so many miracles here in Africa, that if any pregnant virgins stop by our house I won't bat an eye, I'll just get started spreading the straw.
Have a good time together, you guys, and thanks for coming along on the journey.
Love Andrea & family