Tuesday, July 29, 2008

life in zambia

So i have crossed over to a different world...In certain parts of South Africa, you feel like you are in Europe. There are swank coffee shops and jazz music pours through the windows of open patio restaurants in cities like Cape Town. The restaurant about 10 kms up the road from where i lived these past few weeks serves sushi!

mmmmm pap...or nshima...this is the staple food that i ate a LOT of...and yes, folks, those are chicken feet. chicken heads and feet are considered a delicacy, and they call them "walkie talkies" pretty clever, eh?

Zambia is real Africa. I landed in Ndola International Airport with about 40 men on a small plane. The airport looks more like a machine shed from my family farm in South Dakota, and you get off the airplane with a slightly rusted green ladder. All of these men were European or South African businessmen, here to be a part of the copper mining industry which is located in this region..this is called the copperbelt of Zambia.

I live in the skeletons of a booming copper mine. In its prime, this region was where Zambia’s middle class was born.(this next bit is pieced together from talking to staff members and community members and background reading i have done). Copper companies built housing compounds, and families travelled from all over the country to settle down to a good life. People weren’t hungry, wages were fair, the work was safe. The house i am living in is a 3 bedroom flat with a kitchen and a living room. In the late 80’s, the International Monetary Fund came up with this idea called Structural Adjustment. It was a bad idea (please remember this is my perspective). All of the companies which were previously managed by national governments and national taxation policies were privatised (meaning external groups were able to regulate the industries), and regions like this became economic ghost towns over night. Wages were driven down, standards of living plummeted, and workers lost their jobs so quickly they were not even able to save up enough to travel home to their native villages. People still living here are a hodge podge of different tribes and people groups from all over Zambia.

This is where i am working...

Unemployment rates in my ‘hood are around 80%. How crazy is that? The houses are dilapidated beyond recognition – i can see the sunshine through the roof of my room. My shower is a sawed off rusted pipe that sends and electrical shock through my body every time that i try to turn on the tap....i have learned to master the art of the African bucket shower...

my shower that shocks me:

My days are pretty simple. We only have power 3 or 4 days a week, so i wake up wondering if it’s hot coffee or cold coffee each day. I have learned that coffee powder will, in fact, dissolve in cold water. I’m living across from the director’s home, and about a 10 minute walk from the office. I walk down a shaded dirt path, past dozens of half-dressed black Zambian babies who chant “azungu” (white person) over and over again, and greeting me with a broken “How are you?” (emphasis on the YOU. Just imagine having that yelled at you 29 times a day!!!). if anyone’s ever been to Africa, you know what i’m talking about.....When i get to the office, we either turn on the computers or head to the community for interviews with the young mums. I am also giving typing lessons to the staff members here, because right now they are all pecking away at around 3 words per minute. When i was working in south Africa, i played a terrible prank. I switched around 4 of the vowel keys so they were spelling everything wrong. They didn’t really like my joke, and made me retype their reports.

the first day of typing lessons with paul, the finance officer. he was cheating and peaking at the keyboard, so i covered his eyes.

this is the view as i walk to work

My mom always asks me what i eat here – have you guys r had cream of wheat? The staple food is called Nshima (people will eat it for 3 meals a day if they can, they love it!!), which is like super-thick cream of wheat. You have it with baby fish called kapentas, or goat or whatever meat may be available and a little bit of greens....that’s dinner. Then lunch is usually deep fried sweet potatoes. And breakfast is an egg. Every day. Same thing. Mmmmm....african food. That’s where the African booty comes from!!!

Alright, my candle light is fading and the battery is slowly slip sliding away. Much love from me, under the beautiful black and blue African skies.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

the leprosy of teenage pregnancy

thabi, sylvia, agreement, agnes, linkie and maeghan after an interview

this is me and thabi and nelisiwe after beading lessons for the income generation program


i am only describing what I have learned from the girls i am working with here in South Africa. the research is NOT representative of the entire continent of africa....

So two weeks have passed since arriving in south Africa...my days have been filled with walking dusty roads to the homes of young women, booty shaking at a few braiis with the young mums, and documenting what i have been finding. I always struggle to explain situations without telling a story, so here is the tale of a few of these girls woven together.

Teenage pregnancy in rural south Africa is roughly equivalent to leprosy in mid-evil times. It’s a curse - a situation where one becomes an untouchable. Let’s start from the sex and go from there - sex is not a choice for most African women ... it’s an obligation and a job and one which they are trained to perform from a really early age. In some communities, girls are still married at the age of 13, expected to be pure virgins for their husbands. So girls are taught to obey men, and that sex is expected in an intimate relationship....South African rural societies are caught between two worlds – the Western world of Beyonce’s and beauty queens and the traditional societies of the bride price, where daughters are given in exchange for 10 cattle. And this is the tension these girls live in. Teenagers in Africa are just like teenagers in Europe – they experiment with sex. Then, it gets tricky. Condoms are not cool here. Despite HIV/AIDS and STIs, only maybe 1 in 10 use condoms regularly (more than once a month). It’s a sign of trust in your relationship to have sex without a condom, and girls are beaten and seen as unfaithful if they request the guy to use one. Does this make sense at all? Not to me....but that’s the story.

So now we have a lot of pregnant teenage girls. Lots. Like i said, 1 in 3 are pregnant before 19. This is where the tension comes in. When the community members and family members find out they are pregnant, the girls are shunned for being “impure”. Now they are no longer suitable for marriage in the traditional village systems. Parents tell their kids not to talk to these girls. They are seated at the back of the classroom so no one has to look at them... A lot of the girls i am speaking to hide their pregnancies under baggie clothes, and then hide from the world, not leaving the house for 3 or 4 months straight at the end of the pregnancy. They dropped out of school because teachers harassed them, and some where kicked out of their homes by relatives who were caring for them. The boys they are dating can’t marry them even if they want to, because these villages still use the practice of bride price. And with the going rate of a cow sitting at around $1000 US, the average girl in my program is worth about $15,000 US. So even if the boy loves her, he can’t afford to marry her until he graduates high school, gets a good job, and saves for about 30 years, as the average yearly income in the community is around $700 US per year.

When this program started, about 90% of the girls had dropped out of school. They started working as house maids to feed themselves and their kids, and were still shunned by the communities. All of the girls in these groups have also lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, so they are caring for little brothers and sisters as well.... Now they meet together every week, on Fridays after school, and have tea (which means bread and Roibos tea with 9 sugars per cup) and talk about what it means to be a mom. They talk about dreams for their futures, about the latest fashions and new music, and about normal teenage life. The transformations have been amazing – we have 90% of them back in school now, with a few eyeing up medical school applications in the new year. They still have their ups and downs, but it’s pretty rad to see how much strength they have found by just meeting together and realizing they aren’t alone. They told me stories of literally sneaking into the homes where families had hidden a pregnant girl, and praying with her and telling her about their group and helping her to leave and go to the doctor. Such cool beans. And they organized an anti-AIDS march earlier on this year, and a pregnancy awareness event. I was never that bold when i was 16.

So now I leave for Zambia in the morning, to a rural community on the Western side of the Copper Belt called Luansha to find out about the situations of the young women there. We are hoping to start up the program in August, and i’ll be interviewing potential participants to see what their challenges are, and community leaders so I can better understand how teenage pregnancy is seen by the community members.....It’s gonna be a bit more rough because i am without the internet, and i’m living on a farm about a 5 hour bus ride from the nearest city, but it will be an adventure....for now i need sleep.....much love....maeghanjune

Saturday, July 05, 2008

young mums are da bomb

back again....

it's always weird to come back to a place that has been home. you expect things to have remained unchanged, but instead to understand that life goes on without you, and you were only really a visitor.

so i am living on an old game reserve about 10 km from the nearest paved road. there are 15 or so international volunteers living there, who come from england, canada and all over the world, who are working with Hands at Work (www.handsatwork.org). life is pretty normal there, outside of the fact that there are electrical security fences and security guards and the threat of robbery. we had a robbery last sunday morning, right before i arrived, where they cleaned out the electronics in the apartments here.

i never know what to write on these blogs, but i know that it feels good to be able to journey with people into the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS. so welcome to masoyi....i am working in a rural black community about 50 kms from nelspruit. when i was here last, i worked as the project manager for a USAID-funded education initiative focused on keeping orphaned girls in school. now this project has been established, and the women i trained up when i was here last are sucessfully running the programme for over 2 years (which is one of the coolest feelings i have ever known). now i am here working on my dissertation research for my masters of international health, focusing on maternal health of orphaned girls.

pregnancy in south africa is a huge challenge.... 1 in 3 women are pregnant before they are 18 here. pregnancy is one of the leading factors which makes a woman vulnerable to HIV infection. and there are 9 women who are HIV positive for every 1 man in the 13 to 24 age groups. that's a lot of stats to say that it's really critical to understand these young women's lives, and to understand more fully what can be done to help them be protected from contracting HIV.

but what precisely am i doing? well, a lot of talking. and recording. and asking questions. hands at work is running support groups for young mums who are also orphaned children. my days here are filled with riding public transit taxis and walking on dusty dirt roads to sit with young women and talk to them about their lives. i ask them about their families, how they became orphaned, what it is like to be pregnant, what the community thinks of their pregnancy, and what challenges they face as young mothers.

their fearless leader is a gorgeous woman named thabisile (thabi). she is 19 years old, and has a laugh that starts deep in her before erupting into a loud sound of joy. if any of you guys know my laugh she sounds a lot like me. she speaks quickly and won;t meet your eyes until she trusts you. thabi is the head of a child-headed household, and lost her dad when she was 10 in a car accident. then her mom died when she was 15, so she went to live with her uncle, who then died early this spring. it is so humbling to sit beside someone so strong. people often feel sorry for the women i work with, but they have a strength of spirit that one only knows when they have suffered. she approaches life and friendship and love with a fierceness of one who know that all can be lost, and the next moment is the most important. thabi wants to be a social worker when she grows up so she can tell other women to continue to fight for hope in their lives. how cool is that? i used to want to be a lawyer when i grew up so i could make loads of money....i think she might be onto something!!!!

We are also doing some cool stuff with income generation programmes. i ran a workshop on friday afternoon, teaching the girls how to make hand-made paper beads so they can start to make earrings to sell in the local market.

and i have a load of pictures to upload, but the internet is too slow here. so i may modify it later on today. and i was super-sick earlier on this week, so if you guys could pray for my health here that would be great....much love to you all!!!!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Shake it like a polaroid picture

Fatimata worshipping....

The women and our team sitting together on the floor of the center....

Dancing the morning away in the community center...

Dancing is the best way to start a day…aside from Starbucks coffee. As I mentioned before, we rise each morning as a team to prayer, scrambled eggs (very safe to eat, no matter what part of the world you're in, and a great source of protien!), and a 30-45 minute ride to the rural communities that Somebody Cares/Visionledd work in, via a rickety white minibus.

and then the dancing….women pour from the shanty shack shelters which serve as training facilities, bums shaking, hands in the air, and a war-cry-like sound erupts from the loudest lady, who happens to be the fearless leader, and a simple song begins. Praises to Jesus mostly…simple, repetitive songs…most all have actions that include more bum shaking. Basically I have been reminded why Africans needed to have such big booties…

The 6 sewing machines have arrived. When I came, I thought these would cost around $100 CND, but I didn’t figure in the African inflation rate. What are African inflation rates, you ask? To put it simply: Scarcity. Three days before I arrived in Malawi, World Vision started a similar income generation program and purchased 40 sewing machines. 40 may not sound like a lot of sewing machines in Canadian terms, but in terms of Malawi, this was all of the sewing machines in the country. In Canada, we just go to the next Canadian Tire, right? So I thought I would call sewing shops in Blantyre, the only other large city, to order them. And no. they are all gone. The whole country is out of sewing machines. For how long? I ask the shop keepers. Oh, maybe October. We MAY have more sewing machines in October...

The other side of the African inflation equation rate is price hikes. As I mentioned before, we were able to find 6 machines total, and I had budgeted for $100 per machine. The prices have nearly doubled since World Vision bought those machines. In the end, they cost nearly $200. I went to the shop keepers, trying to remind them kindly and gently that they only paid around $60 for the machines, and despite the fact that they held the last machines in all of Malawi, they would still make a significant profit off of me purchasing them for $100. And I mentioned that we were working with orphaned children and widows who are living with AIDS. Not a spark of compassion crossed their faces. Even the rich shopkeepers hold a poverty mentality...

The poverty mentality of Africa is difficult to encounter…in poverty, people are not able to plan for their futures. They have never known what it feels like to know you will have enough to eat tomorrow. Like in the depression era, when our grandparents took all of their money out of banks and kept it in a hole in the ground because they couldn’t trust the banks to be true to their word, people living under the poverty mentality don’t know what tomorrow will brings. Banks crash, sewing machines go out of stock for 6 months, and you never know that you will have enough to feed your family….so when people know they can double the price of a sewing machine and save more for their families, they do it without a second thought about the widows who are going to suffer when they double the price of a sewing machine from one day to the next.

Someone asked me once why i love africa. There are struggles...empty shop shelves, rotten food, bad water, dirty, uneven streets...but the beauty of the human spirit here will take your breath away. looking into the shining beauty-filled faces of the women on our first day of sewing class made me stop and think. each of these stunning creatures has nursed her husband on his death bed, she has faced the scorn of a community that passes moral judgement on her for her HIV-positive status, she looks to the faces of her children, unsure of who will care for them when she herself succumbs to an AIDS-related illness...and she has the courage to rise each day and continue to fight. people sometimes say to me that i am strong, but i am the weakest woman in this program. these women inspire me, their strength and joy humble me, and their dances make me want to get to heaven, where all of this pain will be gone, we'll sit at the feet of our Lord, and finally, we'll all have enough...

I had a good friend david ask me a few questions to work through…so the next blog will be more of the internal stuff that's on my mind here...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

walking the streets

first point of clarification - there are no streets here...

the team has arrived in lilongwe, comprised of 8 women from across Canada, with the goal of visiting the orphaned and the widowed in the slums of Lilongwe, understanding more how we as the body of Christ can help here, and helping to start up the income generation program for widows.

our mornings start at 7:15 with prayer, and then we move to the streets, carrying packages to deliver to widows who are caring for multiple orphaned children. our teams are made up of 2 canadians, and 2 malawian volunteers. Our week will wrap up with re-visiting 7 of these homes to collect the family stories to compile into photo albums to be passed on to the children when the caregiver (mom or grandparents) pass away.

so my days have shifted from coordinating the logistics for the start of the income generation program to dirtying my feet on the mud-paved streets of Lilongwe.

sorry that this post is so late in coming. internet has been unaccessible here, and now i am being kicked off because the internet closes at 10:00...more to come tomorrow....

Thursday, August 16, 2007

How to start an income generation program

Hey guys!

I have successfully landed in Malawi, after over 2 full days of flying. I love Africa, but there’s gotta be a shorter way to get there... I really don’t know people could handle the boat ride…

Many people have said to me, Maeghan, what the heck are you doing in Africa this time? I am helping to start up an income generation program in 3 communities, which is receiving funding from CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency) and is administered by Visionledd, a Canadian NGO.

Maeghan, Fatimata, and Charmain

So how does one start up an income generation program, you may ask? Well, here we go….

The first part is to have incredible, dedicated local staff members. I work with these wicked-cool ladies, Fatimata and Charmain. Fatimata is a 55-year old HIV-positive widow with 3 kids. She is originally from Sierra Leone, the setting of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond, and lost her husband and 2 of her children in the conflict there. IF you ever want to know if diamonds really fund conflicts, speak to a Sierra Leonian. They will tell you the truth…Fatimata says diamonds destroyed her people.

We sit in the back of the open-ended truck, talking about life and war and diamonds and AIDS. Her favorite colours are purple and green, and she loves to eat fish. Fried fish. She worked for the United Nations before coming to Malawi, helping to start income generation programs (IGAs) across Zambia and Sierra Leone. As her HIV/AIDs advanced, she had to quit her job because of being too sick to work many days. Now she is on ARV’s, the drugs which slow the spread of AIDS, and she has gained strength. Fatimata loves Jesus a LOT, and she is always telling me to pray. I get angry when the truck stalls on the road, or we can’t find a sewing machine, and she says to me, “maeghan, just pray, it will be okay.” She can talk for hours and hours and hours about God, and she has an opinion on everything from civil rights to healthcare reform in Malawi to the best kind of rice to buy. All of that to say, she is one of the smartest people I know. Her prayer for her life is to be healed of AIDS so she can take proper care of her kids and meet her grandbabies. So if you are praying folks, please please please be praying for her with me…and that she can be strong enough to continue to work as well. She travels around 4.5-5 hours a day, walking and on the African mini-buses, to get to the office to work. Kindly remind me of Fatimata if you guys hear me complaining about my commute to Mississauga when I get back!!!
This is Charmain with our 2 precious sewing machines:

Charmain is a pretty cool cat as well. She is turning 50 this year, and is a proper African mama, meaning she has got quite the bootie on her. And she can shake it…we were driving around in the mini-bus today, trying to get supplies for soap making, and the Akon song “nobody wants to see us together” came on the radio. She was getting super-excited to see all of these activities for the income generation program come together, and started dancing in her seat. Of course, we all had to try to bust a move (the try was me – the token white girl trying desparately to keep the rhythm of the song), and we got the taxi driver to crank the music. Our financial officer, Felix, refused to dance with us. Alas…Char is a quiet pillar of strength. She has 3 kids as well, and has lost 2 children to HIV/AIDS. We were speaking about it yesterday, and she said that she still is not free to speak to people about the HIV-status of her children. Instead, she first told me her daughter had died of a headache. I asked why they are not free to speak, and she said that people will judge her, and think her daughter had little character while she was alive. The screaming silence that surrounds AIDS here is still evident, and I honestly can’t say that it would be different in Canada. Often when I speak to people at home, one of the first reactions is people passing moral judgments on the people who are HIV-positive in Africa, even making comments like, “That must be God passing judgment on them for living lives of promiscuity.” Arghh…

The second thing you need is patience. If you think Wal-Mart has outlets in Africa, you are wrong. No matter how many times I come to Africa, I still forget that things are never simple. We tried to buy 8 sewing machines yesterday. Promptly at 9:00AM, Charmain, Fatimata, and I left the office on the back of the transport truck. It was quite a sight for Malawians to see a white girl on the back of a truck. One man actually fell off of his bike into the ditch as he watched our truck drive by. Normally, international workers move around in SUV’s or expensive foreign cars. But Africa is much more fun on the back of a truck….well, I think so….

After 13 shops and 4 hours, we discovered that there were only 2 Singer sewing machine in all of Lilongwe. What the HECK?!?!!? There were many, many cheap knock-offs, brands like SENGER or SPINGER. Kills me…I love what the Chinese come up with to try to trick you. If we sent a cheap knock-off sewing machine into the community for an income generation program, it would break in less than 3 weeks. Not a good idea…

The last thing you need is a market to sell your goods…I have worked in income generation in Uganda and South Africa, and worked with both local (as in within the community) and international (Fair Trade international, etc) markets, and I am beginning to think the local markets are the best way to go. At least when you start up. Africans know nothing of international business – fashion trends and stock and the logistics required to get items overseas. Our program has decided to focus on staple items needed by the local Malawian community members (soap for washing, tie dying fabric for skirts, and also sewing school uniforms for orphaned children). We are going to rent a stall in the local markets where the women will sell their wares. Fatimata has also given them each training in basic business management (stock management, accounting, etc.). Did I mention that Fatimata is great?

So that is what we are up to! I am here coordinating the purchase of the start up materials for about 150 women to gain basic skills in sewing, soap making and tie dying. The women have already selected community leaders who are in charge of training and managing the individual community projects (the women are spread across 3 communities that Somebody Cares works with). Next week, a team of women from Canada are coming to see the project, and to help with training in sewing and such. I’ll keep you posted on our hunt for sewing machines…we are trying to get them sent from the other major city in Malawi, Blantyre, which is more developed and has more resources.

Monday, August 06, 2007

back again

Blogging is a wonderful thing...it allows life to pass by, and connections to be rekindled with little or no effort. oh the joys of the internet...so here i sit, returning to blogging my journey with God and africa...

It has been 9 months since my return to Canada (if you are new to this blog, feel very free to peek back through the year that I spent in Sub-Saharan Africa)...the trip back has been a rough one, but one so totally shrouded in the beauty and protection and provision of God, it takes my breath away when i reflect on it.

When I left Africa, I did not want to come back, quite simply. I was offered a full-time, permanent position working in South Africa; my dream job. And then came a quiet Voice -

"not yet, maeghan. My daughter, you are not yet ready. "

I knew it was God, because there was no logical reason why I would say that to myself. it was too unplanned, too uncertain... but I listened. moved back in with my parents, forcing my poor little brother Colin to give up his room (thanks colin!). Colin is 8 by the way. great guy. gonna be a heart-breaker some day; beautiful blue eyes and a soft heart.

9 months later finds me preparing for a 3 week trip to Malawi to work with Visionledd (www.visionledd.com) and hands at work in Africa (www.handsatwork.org) once again, assisting in training local staff, and working with a short-term team of women from Canada who are heading over to learn what is happening with HIV/AIDS related issues in Africa.

So this is my initial post just to say hey, I'm back! I might write more before I go, but I will write more for sure when i land in the great place of malawi...

much love,