Thank you for all of your love and support I am so excited to share this experience with all of you!

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Time To Travel

South Africa shuts down for roughly two weeks around Christmas and New Year‘s Day, offices close, schools are on summer holiday, and life is pretty much on a stand still. During these two weeks most people travel home. I have learned very quickly that while it is estimated that over 4 million people live in Soweto most people left Soweto to go “home.” While Soweto never become what I would consider quiet it did slow down considerably. There were fewer taxis on the streets and in general fewer people. It was refreshing the week before Christmas to have this different pace. This time also was a harsh reminder for me that as much as everyone loves Soweto and the vibrant vibe that Soweto exerts to everyone who steps foot here Soweto was not established to be the contemporary urban hotbed it now has become. Soweto is a township, in fact Soweto is slang for South Western Township. Soweto was established to get blacks out of Johannesburg. And thus no one considers going “home” coming to Soweto. The five miles that separated Johannesburg and Soweto are getting smaller and smaller as both spread outward. Now FNB Stadium (formerly known as Soccer City turning the World Cup) marks the half way point between Soweto and Johannesburg with each inching closer and closer to each other. On any work day it is clear that most people still make the commute. More and more people are staying in Soweto to work but the big jobs still lie five miles away in the city. Soweto is my South African home but I realize that while millions of people live in Soweto they still travel home.
All of my co-workers and friends in Soweto kept asking me what I was going to do with myself as they all traveled “home” for the holiday season. Spending the week before Christmas enjoying a quieter slower Soweto I joined in this traveling holiday season for two weeks around Christmas and New Years. I was fortunate enough for my Christmas present to arrive on a plane on Christmas Day all the way from Denver, Colorado; my boyfriend Josh was able to travel to spend the Christmas season here in South Africa. It was incredible to be able to share my day to day life in Soweto with him. Then we were off for our own traveling. We spent a week in Cape Town and then a few days being tourists in Johannesburg. Visiting Cape Town felt like I was in a different world and I had to constantly remind myself that I was still in South Africa. Just a very different part of South Africa. I was in the tourist South Africa. We did all the tourists musts: Table Mountain, Robben Island, Long Street, and the V and A Waterfront. We learned, saw, experienced, and generally just tried to enjoy the time together. I have to admit that I loved being a tourist. But I was also glad to travel “home” to Soweto after the week.
All of it reminded me of how diverse South Africa is. From the dry vastness of the Northern Cape, to the people of Soweto, to the lush mountains of Cape Town, to the beaches of Kwa-Zulu Natal. I am very fortunate to be able to experience a taste of each of these during my time here. Even more fortunate is that I am able to share this experience with those I love. Through visits, phone calls, and this blog I am able to share so much of this experience.
Coming back to Soweto and being welcomed by open arms of my Soweto family I am reminded how fortunate I am. They all traveled home and was glad I saw and experienced Cape Town while everyone was away. They constantly encourage me to travel more and see more of this beautiful country. Yet I am reminded how lucky I am. I have a blue passport that allows me to travel freely and without much hassle of visas or documents get in and out of most countries. Travel is a gift. I am constantly reminded of that. It is a gift and needs to be shared in whatever way possible. Much like I enjoy traveling myself I love hearing about others travels. I drill my coworkers on what they did at “home.” Why Soweto isn’t considered home. And try to learn as much s possible from my own travel and others as well.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Every Day is World AIDS Day

December 1st marked the 22nd annual World AIDS Day. Across the world people remembered those who are infected/affected by this global pandemic, took time to educate themselves and others, and also made sure that the world knows AIDS is not something to keep silent about. The day was originally established with the goals of raising money, increasing awareness, fighting prejudice and improving education. It is important to mark this day and do all these things but the reality of our world is that every day is World AIDS Day. Every single day HIV/AIDS is affecting and infecting millions of people around the world. This is especially clear in South Africa and sadly rings true for the entire Southern Africa region. Sub-Saharan Africa is the epicenter for this world wide pandemic. The affects are devastating and not just in the traditional way a disease devastates a person’s life. In a speech to the Special Session of the United Nations Assembly on HIV/AIDS in June of 2001, Prime Minister of Mozambique, Pascoal Mocumbi, explained the impact of the pandemic to this region by stating, “Our families are increasingly impoverished, our work force drastically reduced and our children increasingly orphaned. The basic social and economic fabric of communities and political stability of nations are threatened.” The chain of effects that is caused by HIV/AIDS is never ending, leading to increased poverty, social devastation, and human suffering. Serving at DAM I have had the privilege of working directly with individuals who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. The reality is that each and every one of us is included in that. How can we not all be affected by something that has infected millions of people worldwide?

In the last few weeks I have seen the realities of HIV/AIDS in a new light. It is true that you see HIV/AIDS everywhere in South Africa. Billboards, commercials, presentations, HIV is everywhere. Then I realize how many people I know here that are infected and are still courageously living their lives. In my first weeks at DAM I was trying to soak everything in, process everything I was seeing. Now reaching my fourth month the realities are hitting me hard. HIV/AIDS is no longer something I neither read about nor talk about without really understanding. I am slowly starting to understand, as well as a white North American woman in South Africa can understand. I came to South Africa for many reasons. The biggest is my developing passion for social justice especially in regards to HIV/AIDS; this seems like such an understatement now.

This past Saturday DAM held a Christmas party for orphaned and vulnerable children. We work with these kids throughout the Gauteng province year round but this is one of the few times that they all come to DAM for the day. The rest of the year we go out delivering food and clothing seeing the kids for a minute or two before packing up and going back to Soweto. This event was different because the kids come to us and stay for the whole day. The preparation started a month ago with a fundraising Gala Dinner, raising money specifically for an orphan Christmas party. The actual preparation for the party itself started the week before. On Friday we learned we would not have the 60 orphans we planned for but 150 kids would be attending. Keep in mind the party was scheduled for Saturday. Organized chaos followed and by Friday afternoon things were as ready as they were going to be. Saturday came and went with great success and everyone who came was given clothes, food parcels to take home, a snack, and a Christmas feast. The kids were all well behaved and had a chance to run around and just be kids. By the time everyone was leaving I was exhausted and grateful that I only had to travel a couple of yards to get to my house and take a nap.

But I couldn’t sleep. There were images from the day that were lingering in my mind and still are today. HIV/AIDS has virtually wiped out an entire generation. A generation who are traditionally the most “productive” members of society having children, parents still living and the bulk of the traditional work force. With that middle generation gone the other two generations must fill the gap. It’s easy to say that and read it. I’ve done both many times. But on Saturday I saw Gogos "Grandmother" in Isizulu carrying tiny children and both the children and the Gogos looking exhausted. I saw 13 year olds caring for their young siblings as a parent would. It hit me like a ton of bricks just how many social issues surround HIV/AIDS. What happens to the children when the gogo gets ill? What about those young teens who are now parents? Child headed families is something that is constantly talked about but to physically see a 13 year old caring for her 3 year old brother, the reality is something that I cannot begin to fathom. What are the long term affects? How does a family handle losing the middle generation that is commonly the part of the family who is bringing in an income? These are questions that go unanswered. South Africa is finding answers out of necessity. Part of DAMs work with the children is getting them to qualify for government grants to bring some money into the house. But the long range effects are still being determined. I know these questions will follow me for the rest of my life. The face of the little girl who clung to my leg when she had to leave is something I will never forget. The little boy laughing as he tried on my sunglasses will forever bring me joy. How can I ever feel down when this little boy who has gone through so much and can still laugh at the simple things of life?

The increased poverty, human suffering, and social devastation are not just isolated to those who are infected with the virus. Families must make do caring for a sick family member as well as still trying to stay afloat with shelter and food to eat. It becomes clear how things like school fees and nutritious (more expensive) foods get lost in the mix. The entire community suffers through loss and struggles to gain back what each individual contributed as their unique gift to society. The social impact will be felt for years to come. Education and outreach are making a difference. Only a few years ago HIV/AIDS was not talked about as much as it is now in South Africa. Education is the key to the future both in the universal understanding of the world but also in stopping the spread of this devastating disease.

It is with those thoughts that I firmly believe that World AIDS Day is every day. For those who are living with the virus it does not just go away. For those children who are now acting as parents it is their life. And for the countries like South Africa that has the highest infection rate it is not something that is an issue for one day. HIV/AIDS is dealt with everyday, 365 days a year. Every day I find myself thinking of the little girl whose smile was so bright and laugh was so genuine despite everything she has been through in her 8 years of being in this world. December 1st is a great reminder that we need to raise money, increase awareness, and fight prejudice but why are we as a global community doing that every day of the year? Everyday is World AIDS Day.