Although the jet lag has subsided and I’ve finally adjusted to my new home, the wonder and excitement of being on a whole new continent has yet to subside. During the past four days, I have begun to explore and engage with the fascinating and beautiful country of South Africa. In my short time here, I have been exposed to many serious, deep questions and left with very few answers.
Over the weekend, we were given our service assignments, and I found out that I would be working with the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (PACSA) for the next six weeks. PACSA dates back to the early anti-apartheid struggle and was very active in the movement. Since then, it has shifted its focus to HIV/AIDS education, gender empowerment, economic justice issues, and community and youth development. (The website, which one of us will be redesigning in the next few weeks, can be found at www.pacsa.org.za/joomla).
Monday morning, I arose bright and early to begin my first day of volunteer work. It had been a long weekend, and I was looking forward to getting down to business and beginning my DukeEngage experience. Myself, Alyssa, and Gillet arrived at PACSA at 8:30am, and we were led to a back room. Slowly, the employees trickled in to the room for their weekly Monday morning devotions. Although we were introduced to the group, I felt like an outsider as they shared their concerns (included the violent xenophobia is Johannesburg and Durban, which I will address at the end of this post) and their personal prayer intentions. They then sang the song “We Are Walking In the Light of God,” and even though I knew the words from church, I felt very out of place and awkward signing along with them.
After the devotion service, we sat down with the director of PACSA, Daniela, to figure out who wanted what assignment. Jacqui, the co-director of the gender desk, requested two interns to help her, one male and female. Since I was the only male, the decision was easy, and I headed off to meet with her and discuss what projects the gender desk leads and how we could fit in to their mission. She explained to us her efforts to start a peer educator program to instill in the youth the fundamental value of gender equality, and she detailed her work in using women empowerment to stop the spread of HIV. Tuesday through Thursday we would be attending a conference to educate church leaders about addressing HIV/AIDS in their faith communities, she added.
The rest of the day proved to be less than exciting. Jacqui gave us our first project: updating “fact sheets” (they hadn’t been changed since 1998!) that explored the threat of domestic violence and rape and explained the connection between gender inequality and the high rate of HIV infection among women. I took a class this past fall semester titled “AIDS and Emerging Diseases” that explored the AIDS epidemic in Africa and heavily focused on its relationship with the inferior cultural and societal status of women. Therefore, a lot of the information was repetitive for me. (In essence, because women are often raped or cannot economically support themselves, it is difficult for them to abstain from sex. Additionally, when a woman is married, she cannot force her husband to use protection or to remain faithful [most husbands, unfortunately, do not]. This poses further risk for infection.) After reading the material over, Alyssa and I looked online for updated statistics. It was a boring afternoon, and if it wasn’t for the humor and hospitality of Jacqui, our supervisor, it would have been a long day. All in all, I felt like I was not contributing much.
Jacqui, co-director of PACSA’s gender desk
In contrast to Monday, Tuesday was a whirlwind of a day that helped me to see that our efforts here are much needed. After being dropped off at PACSA, Alyssa and I were herded into a combie (white vans packed to the brim with people that serve as taxis) with other people who were headed to the HIV/AIDS training session. We knew no one in the van, and everyone was speaking Zulu. Needless to say, during the trip to the African Enterprise retreat center, I felt very out of place. The wild monkeys in the middle of the road there threw me off a bit as well.
When I walked in to the meeting room at African Enterprise, I never thought that the three-day training session (titled “Churches: Channels of Hope”) would be an amazing experience. Alyssa and I were the only white participants, and many of the attendees primarily spoke Zulu. I don’t think that I have ever felt so out of my element in my life. Over the next three days, however, this feeling subsided as we were warmly welcomed and befriended by the other participants. We were at such a beautiful facility up in the mountains, and I met such nice people; it truly was an awesome and powerful three days.
What shocked me most about the training session was the stark lack of knowledge about basic biology and the mechanics of HIV and AIDS. Growing up in the United States, I have been taught countless number of times about HIV, how it spreads, and how it causes AIDS. Grown men and women—Church leaders, no less—knew so little about the immune system, and had very little clue about HIV and AIDS or how it could be spread. I was absolutely astounded. It made me realize just how much people here lack the basic commodity of information. Without internet access (especially because many of the people were from rural areas), they had no means to seek out information. Instead, they rely whatever information is given to them. And in a country with a president who has failed to publicly acknowledge that HIV causes AIDS, the correct information is hard to acquire. At the end of the workshop, one of the women told me she felt so lucky to have the opportunity to learn the facts about HIV and AIDS.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the training session was that it allowed me to experience both the joy and the heartbreak of true civic engagement. During the information sessions about the scientific aspects of HIV/AIDS, I was able to assist the facilitators because of my knowledge of the topic. It was very nice to be able to use what I had learned in the classroom and actually apply it to make a real world difference. At the same time, however, I came into contact with people that have seen so much tragedy and have experienced so much loss, all at the hands of HIV; this definitely was a bit sobering. Meeting them, hearing their stories, and feeling their pain puts a name and a face to HIV/AIDS statistics and really brings to life mere numbers of a PowerPoint presentation during a class lecture.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned the violent xenophobia that has taken root in some South African cities. In recent years, many Africans have fled their country to avoid political violence and taken refuge in South Africa. Many native South Africans, themselves poor and without much hope, have turned against the foreign nationals who they blame for their economic ills. (For more info NY Times coverage) In Durban (about 50km from PMB) and Johannesburg, mobs have murdered foreign nationals. It is so strange to be living in a country where political violence is still a harsh reality of life and where the government does not have total control over their citizens. Fortunately, the violence appears to be contained, and no European or Americans have been targeted.
To conclude this far-too-long post, I guess that I would have to say that I am enjoying myself, and I am looking forward to continuing my work at PACSA next week. In the future, I will try to post more often—my busy schedule this past week precluded more. Check back Sunday night for details about our weekend trip to the countryside!