Omo and cold brown water for whiter than white clothes
Last updated at 23:46, Friday, 10 February 2012
North Cumbrian woman Jean James is spending a month in one of the most deprived communities on Earth - South Africa's Elgin Valley. The area suffers from high unemployment, extreme poverty, alcohol and drug abuse and HIV infection rates of up to 50 per cent. She's recording her experiences and thoughts here in a heart-rending blog...
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10...
Hi all. Awoke to the dawn chorus which is so different from ours at home. These birds really seem to be making a statement.
The birds here are the Hadida Ibis, Wagtail, Cape Sugar Bird, Sun Bird, Cape White Eye, Cape Robin, and the Drongo.
I have waited patiently for a baboon to come and see me - but so far haven't had the pleasure. So today I went looking for one.
I spent the day with two wonderful retired ladies (described as the the golden girls) from the UK, both associated with TFP (The Thandi Friends Project ), which I am currently working for out here.
They tell me it's not home from home but work from work. I agree but reply kindly saying otherwise! They are such fun and drive faster than me!
During their holiday they have deposited some money into the bank to pay for a feeding programme for the local school.
The schools are given limited funds to feed the children, so the Killington WI afternoon group fund-raise to feed the children chicken one day a week and a snack during the morning for the whole year. 600 pounds sterling is given. Isn't that wonderful?
I wish I could organise a feeding programme for our creche. Meals are sometimes a problem depending on our funds. The WI group also provided some bags which they had sewed for our Bounty Baby Bag project.
I'm taken to some botanical gardens where they promise I will meet a baboon. Sadly the only baboon I saw was the one I purchased for Baby Scott - but I did see some tortoises strolling around and had a lovely day.
I had the pleasure of feeling clean today. Anyone working in the care sector will understand! At the end of each day I feel like a carrier of any bugs born to this planet. I worry what now lives on my steering wheel, as more often than not I am unable to find a sink. Don't forget 30+ degrees heat every day.
Education is so important in Africa, the children love learning. They leave home at 6.30am from the village of Lebanon and walk the mile down the stony, rough, sandy road to meet the school bus, taking off their shoes to protect them.
I have to say they really care for anything they are given. These children have feet made of wood. Even babies walk over ground that I'd suffer pain from if i did the same. I have watched them slowly walk back up the mile long hill at 4pm, shattered. I notice there aren't any designer clothes, shoes or bags here. No hair extensions, jewellery or make up either.
The children wear green jumpers and skirts or trousers with white tops - and I mean white. I had to ask how they manage to get such whiter than white whites bearing in mind they haven't got washing machines and the water is so brown it could be mistaken for a glass of cola. I'm not exaggerating, I have the photos to prove it. They use Omo with cold brown water but it works. I think my black tee shirts will be a grey white soon.
The TFP have arranged for the staff at the creche in Lebanon to attend college to take their NVFs, the equivalent of our NVQs. I offered to help out if anyone wanted a hand. What did I let myself in for?
One member of staff was doing level one and was stuck with some work she had to complete, which, bearing in mind they have to complete it in English, is not easy. She gave me three pages which were in a comic strip format. The three separate stories showed a couple having a conversation with blank balloons above their heads which the student had to complete. The member of staff was struggling with the words to enter. No problem I said and read the small print at the top of the page.
Each story was to focus on a conversation between the couple - a suggestion from the guy, an argument and agreed conclusion.
One of the pictures showed her trying to take condoms out of her handbag. The subject had to address sex, condoms and sexually transmitted diseases. OMG! When in the creche holding a baby I had four members of staff waiting for my answers...now that's pressure! What am I doing here? I decided to "get over myself", forget about my own embarrassment and just go for it. This is Africa after all and people must be educated about HIV, Aids and other associated sexual diseases and I did say I'd do anything to help! Character building that's what I'm doing I tell myself. She was very happy with my work which was all that mattered. What next?
Have a lovely weekend, I'm hoping to travel to the most southern tip of Africa.
Take care, Jean xx
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 9...
Hi all. This is a sad story that I have thought long and hard about whether or not to write - but I decided I am reporting on Africa and this experience is Africa.
Yesterday I was a volunteer assistant with a doctor in a satellite clinic. He was providing a confidential service for those who wished to be checked for blood pressure, sugar levels for diabetes and HIV.
Any information collected is confidential to the staff present and not recorded to a surgery as such. Patients are given the results of the tests within the 15 minutes consultation. They are then advised accordingly by the doctor and the responsibility is left with the patient to follow through for medication or further testing at the day hospital.
I'm told that in the case of a HIV test showing positive, the patient is told to go to the day hospital within two weeks for another test to confirm. I asked if it was possible to have a false negative. I was told no but the reason behind the second test is that a positive result is such a huge, life-changing dilemma for people to deal with and they may suspect a false result.
The second result helps them to accept the situation.
After that, they start a course of anti-viral drugs which they must take for the rest of their lives and they are told about the importance of maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. The doctor also told me that they can continue to have a sex life but would need to use condoms, which are readily available in Africa.
Every half hour or so the local radio stations talk about Aids. The advice is huge here. Everyone I talk to discusses Aids and there are adverts about safe sex everywhere.
The next patient arrived - I'll call her Grace. She is a gorgeous young girl, beautiful features, stunning looks, perfect figure. She show's a half smile, worry behind her eyes. She is 25 years old.
Although most of the consultation is held in Afrikaans, words such as pregnancy tests are easily identified.
Grace asks for a pregnancy test because she had slept with a friend once and was worried. The doctor agreed and a discussion took place. She said she had slept with her friend as a one off and she didn't have a steady boyfriend.
The tests took place and she was relieved at the negative pregnancy test - but horrified when the doctor told her she was HIV positive. I was sat behind her and literally saw the energy fall from her. Her poor little shoulders slumped. She didn't speak just listened, or did she?
As she left the consulting room, her head hung towards the floor, she looked up at me for a split second. Oh my goodness, what to do, say or even think! At this moment in time, her lovely little life is in tatters.
I struggle to stop thinking of her and guess she will always stay in my heart.
I wonder will she have the confidence to go to the hugely overcrowded day hospital? Has she got parents or siblings? Would she tell them? Will she ever have a partner that she can trust to support her with this illness? Did she manage any sleep last night? The list of thoughts I have had are endless.
Yes, I have prayed for Grace. I prayed until I thought I was just repeating myself. She was the first thought I had when I woke in the early hours.
Grace is one of millions of people worldwide who are suffering from HIV and AIDS. But I can only say how I personally saw the effect this result had on this beautiful girl.
Why didn't she use protection? Who knows. We are not to question why. It was quite clear her friend either didn't know that he was infected or failed to advise her.
I am reminded of the saying "there but for the grace of God go I", which relates to us all.
Take care, Jean xx
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 8...
Hi all! Fears face us in so many different and occasionally funny ways.
Whilst visiting Irac I was walking with the two nurses Cindy and Cynthia, when Cindy directed me up a lane between two shacks. I was totally lost but they were too. They kept looking at numbers on the doors and muttering to each other.
I had realised that my car was now very far away and asked diplomatically if it would be alright and in anyone's way. As there were no cars to be seen it was highly unlikely but I was wondering how if taken to bits it would look in someone's new shack!
Well shame on me. "No Jean, your car will be fine," Cindy replied.
As we later reached my car intact without even children investigating it, she very calmly said: "See your car is fine Jean but if it was night time the front and back would be taken apart by now because people use the bulbs to smoke Tick." So there you have it, I'm no longer feeling ashamed.
Anyway, I do as I'm told and turn to walk between these two shacks and froze. In front of me was the scariest beast I have ever seen in Irac, a four legged dark brown beast of an animal....a cow, which was by now six inches away from my face, charging down the gap being chased by a pack of dogs. How I moved I don't know ...
Once my heart had returned to my body I asked where it had come from. "Oh dear Jean, the dogs are behaving badly for you today," said Cynthia, who had not been unnerved in any way. It wasn't the dogs I was meaning.
Cows are either gifted to someone or have been brought in from the Eastern Cape.
A cow is an honoured animal and can go wherever it wishes, unless, of course, a pack of dogs chases it. It can enter a shack and be welcome, if the doorway is large enough. It can cross a main road - as I have already seen - and drivers wait for it to move. No horns are beeped to startle it either.
The cow in Irac eats bushes and trees as there is no grass; it certainly looked quite thin.
The dogs, of which there are dozens and cats, hens and chickens look a poor state. I couldn't possibly describe the dogs to you as it would be too upsetting to read, but yes there is rabies, mange and other diseases. I'm told that some charities come into the townships and give them injections. My thoughts went back to the advice I received to have a rabies vaccination - the only one that I refused.
In Irac there are two creches of sorts - more like a shack where people take their babies and children to stay for the day.
As we approached creche, Ouma (grandmother to all children) waved us to come and see her. Once given permission I filmed the children playing outside on the rough ground. When I say playing I don't mean with toys I mean with pieces of wood, animals or rocks. I have yet to see a toy in a township.
Ouma waved me to enter the shack. As I did, a toddler waving a large plank of wood tried to follow me in, so Cindy closed the door. I froze! Well you try sitting inside a cardboard box and close the lid. Trust me, it's very dark.
My eyes focused enough to see eyes all around me staring at me but that's all I could see, whites of eyes. I screamed, dropped all the paperwork, arms flew up and I'm sure my feet left the ground. Cindy quickly opened the door, I then saw in front and around me three African women holding babies and about 10 babies lying around on the floor and on a table top. What an experience, so funny eventually. I think they were as scared of me as I was of them!
Babies here do not appear to move around much. For example, if we put our babies on a table top they would wriggle and fall off, these babies tend to be quiet and still, maybe because they spend the first two years of their lives strapped to mum's back. I have yet to see a pushchair or pram.
On the dirt track into the village of Lebanon I have to drive over a train track which looks like its from the cowboy movies. There are no barriers, signal box or flashing lights. The road is hardly built up to make the drive across easy, so it's a slow bumpy ride which cannot be done at speed.
The fear I have lies with the fact that one can barely see if the train, which carries flour and runs three times a day, is on its way due to a bend in the line to the left and right of the crossing. Why I think holding my breath will save me I don't know but there are no wrecked cars near by and I'm told no fatalities as yet. But my fear was faced today as the train arrived in perfect time JUST before I crossed. It hardly goes at the speed of our Glasgow to Euston but it was pretty fast. Fear faced and resolved, I guess.
I spoke to a bank manager today who asked what I'd been up to. "You are mad, even the police will not enter Irac, did you see a shooting?" was his reply. "No, just smily happy people, and a mad cow," was mine. One gets back what one puts out I believe.
On the way to work each day I pass dozens of hitchhikers. These people start the day early expecting to walk for miles to get to the fruit farms to earn some money. How bad do I feel when I pass them and drive by. I have been advised by everyone not to give lifts but I want to, as no money no food remember and they are so wiiling to work and provide for their families. It hurts if I look into their faces.
I'm reminded of my trip to California when I was advised not to get the train to Tijuana and I so wanted to - so I did and had a great time.
Decision made. Today I picked up a lovely lady who was going shopping. Oh well, needs must and there are no buses.
Her daughter workes in a school as a cook from 7am to 4.30pm. She recieves 640 rand a month, approximately 60 pounds sterling. She was so proud of her having such a good job.
At the side of the roads there is nearly always a hard shoulder. Most countries have bad drivers but goodness me, how scared was I today?
A large wagon was right up behind me. I felt that one touch of the brake for whatever reason and I would feel its touch. One is expected to move over to the hard shoulder to allow others past. This is all well and good if no-one has decided to sit and have a rest or fall asleep after walking a few miles, or some community guys aren't cutting the trees back. The wagon driver's presence went on for some time until I felt able to move over, then he put his hazards on, which means "thank you", for what I thought, allowing you to frighten the living daylights out of me!
A funny day really, unforeseen experiences all of which I now smile at.
Be brave, Jean xx
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 7...
The day started well as I enjoyed the drive to work at 7am. Until now I have struggled to enjoy the beautiful sights in front of me as I have been quite overwhelmed by my experiences but today, the sky was clear and the sun was shining and I felt more in control of my emotions.
I was meeting with the Sister from the Hospice in Grabow first then I would spend the day visiting patients in their own homes.
These patients are too poorly to visit the hospice due to Aids, cancer and TB.
I met with two nurses who would take me with them to do the visits. We were to visit the township called Irac. The Sister told me we all had to walk unless I could drive us? I obviously volunteered to do so and the look of happiness on their faces was unbelievable. I now know why - these nurse walk miles carrying bags full of necessary aids.
The name Irac is well given to describe the township. It has over 300 hundred shacks and is situated on very rough ground on the outskirts of Grabow.
How can I put the extreme poverty I have witnessed in one word? Bravery. These poor souls have nothing - no electric, no water, no heating, no toilets, no money for food, nothing.
Their shacks are a piece of creative art, they are amazing, nothing goes to waste in Africa. They are made from branches and pieces of wood from the surrounding forest, cardboard then covers the wood, then they cover the frame with plastic bags which are tied to the wood.
Inside, cardboard is used to make internal walls which are then, in some homes of the more able bodied, covered in wallpaper. But wallpaper as we have never seen before. It is made from pages out of magazines or free flyers that they collect off the streets in the town nearby.
All the pages are ever so neatly pasted on with no gaps and in perfect lines. Having made these walls inside they then cut out doorways and windows, or may build another dividing cardboard wall to create a bedroom. In one home, nine people slept in one room. A window was made from what looked like the front of a birdcage (from a refuse tip I guess) with a tiny door and clasp. Like I said, no waste. Front doors are made from wood nailed together.
Then to protect their home of which they are so proud they padlock it and surround it with barbed wire if they can get any.
Anything can be a seat. An upturned battered wheelbarrow, boxes, plastic crates, wood nailed together. Some had a sofa and armchairs collected from the refuse tips. Beds are made from plastic crates or wood and then covered with fabrics for all to sleep together.
Toilets are the waste land around the shacks or if able, some walk into the surrounding woods.
I so admire these people. They are so positive, motivated, creative and appreciative of all they have. How would we cope I ask myself constantly?
The patients were very poorly, living at home unable to do much else except potter about occasionally. They were so underweight and some extremely breathless just from talking. The nurses counted their antiviral drugs to make sure they were taking them correctly, took their weight, blood pressure and sputum samples, had a friendly chat and advised them to have a healthy diet with plenty of green vegetables.
How on earth can they have a healthy diet I asked? They have to try I was told.
Many of the people started to gather around the houses we were visiting as I was the newcomer on the block. Happy smiling faces, full of love and constantly cuddling each other, they all appear very close and protective of their neighbours.
I watched as the women filled huge plastic containers of water from the one water pipe feeding Irac - a hosepipe in the ground, permanently running even though there is a water shortage.
With such grace and ease they lifted it onto their heads and carried it home, balancing it without hands to support the weight. Seriously, I am in awe of these amazing people.
I then came across a community vegetable patch, both men and women were planting seeds, watering plants or weeding. As a community they have made use of some wasteland, built fencing with, as you would expect, anything and everything that happens to be lying around.
The Elgin Learning Foundation has provided the seeds as a part of a Learn To Earn Scheme. They all share the produce equally between themselves. Such wonderful community spirit.
On leaving Irac, I was called over by a group of people huddled together. As I walked towards them I saw that one minute they were shouting at each other, another silent and intense, then laughing. What were they doing? Playing snap - with the tattiest pack of cards I have ever seen and using small rocks )I assumed instead of money).
As we left I asked the nurse if any of these people were suffering from Aids or other illnesses. "Oh but of course yes, but they can come to the hospital so we pretend they are well, but really they all know they are unwell," she said.
You may now understand how I am unable to manage my emotions today. I am so privileged to have shared today with these inspiring people who do two things in life; ACCEPT and APPRECIATE. Our lesson I think is to also appreciate everything, we are so lucky.
When these people are suffering such hardship and illness can smile so brightly, surely we can, can't we?
Be happy, Jean xx
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 6...
Already I have visited the day hospital, hospice, creche and a township (that's what we call shanty towns). I have met so many wonderful positive people, all with the same aim, to help at least one person among millions who are suffering.
The poverty is unbelievable, yet these people are so accepting of their fate. The Lord is mentioned a lot. The Lord will provide, the Lord will look after us, how exactly I don't know. But they certainly have a beautiful gracefulness about them.
The hospital was full to bursting with people who had waited since early hours and may not get seen all day. I was the only white person there but felt no fear. These souls aren't looking for trouble, bless them they have enough of their own.
The very poorly infected patients wait outside so their germs may blow away - even if it is raining, which it has these past few days.
The staff in the TB clinic work from sheds they call the dog kennels, tiny huts, they are literally sitting on top of each other and there are samples everywhere. And they weren't wearing gloves! Posters on the wall advise patients to spit into their hands and not the pavement so as not to pass TB on, then what they do is rub it into their clothing. Hands, I have since realised, are used as tissues, hankies and baby wipes.
When I arrived at the creche, the children were sleeping on plastic cot mattresses on the floor, head to toe, literally, one toddler had his foot on a tiny baby's head. There was an obvious lack of basic baby essentials. I thought of the baby bag I use for my grandson, full of all essentials necessary for us. It weighs a ton. None of them exist here.
In the creche I was carrying a tiny baby who kept sneezing and had a runny nose so I asked for a tissue. After a look of panic between the three staff, I was given a face cloth that was from the baby changing area and had been used to wash bums!
I live and learn.
Today I went loaded up with boxes of tissues and when baby was sick, the staff member came and rubbed it into the babygrow with her hand then wiped a toddler's nose with her hand and rubbed it into its jumper. Talk about cross infection.
During the early hours this morning I put together an Infection Control Course for the staff, who will all attend. Hey, one can only try. I fed a four-month-old baby mince and potatoes. No money for luxuries such as baby blended food here. I was terrified it would choke.
These babies and children are so gorgeous, I struggle to not sneak them out with me. They have a smile that opens your heart and brings tears to your eyes as you know how poorly some of them are.
Tomorrow, I am reading English to the older children at the creche - 11-year-olds read four year old books - then I'm going to a care home in a town nearby to have a look around. Be prepared, I tell myself.
The creche is amazing, it's like a mirage amongst so much devastation. It's a way out of poverty hopefully for these children as they get an education and their parents, or siblings if parents have died, are able to seek work. No work, no money, no food as there are no benefits here.
Yesterday, I went down a dirt track to a farm stall/cafe. I was served a scone on a green tin plate which had definitely seen better days. None of the crockery was matching but hey, it's Africa and I no longer care.
On a more positive note, the scenery is amazing - such wonderful sights to be seen. The mountains are similar to the Lake District, except they are full of baboons, porcupines and snakes. I hear the baboons at night time but have not yet had the pleasure of meeting one face to face, which I am told will happen!
Some mornings there is a strong smell of burning and a covering of ash from the natural fires which constantly start due to the heat, 38 degrees today.
I have days planned to work with the district nurses from the hospital and also from the hospice in the townships.
We will be helping the end of life Aids, TB. and cancer patients.
Hope all's well with you and you are enjoying your life? How can we not?
Take care, Jean xx
First published at 16:05, Monday, 06 February 2012
Published by http://www.newsandstar.co.uk
Have your say
I'm sure you'll hold the Overberg in your heart for a while. It's such a special place. Thanks for visiting
Thanks for your beautiful example of global care and responsibility. You might be interested in visiting the Maharishi Institute in Johannesburg (www.maharishiinstitute.org) that helps low income students prepare for higher education while developing their inner creativity and intelligence.
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