I want to be able to write you something. I want it to be something profound, too. I don’t know what happened to me. Somewhere along the line of the last three years my blogs have become overly poetic and almost brooding.
Experiencing writers block is not something I’m used to. I feel like Carrie Bradshaw, sitting in front of a blinking cursor.
My room on the cruise is not necessarily the most stimulating place. It’s full of mirrors so I can watch my lack of progress from about eight different angles. But I’d be lying if I said I had been at all motivated even a month ago to inform you of what I have been doing.
In fact, you really have no idea what I’ve been doing. Two years ago my blogs consisted of a very structured pattern whereby I would debrief about the week on the project and update my blog on Monday with what I had done on the weekend.
There are certain aspects of this last trip that I cannot share with you, or will not share with you, because this trip was more of an experience for myself than events that I can exploit for your readership.
Take for example the fact that I took about 20 pictures over the last fifty days. The majority of the pictures on my Facebook page have been taken by other volunteers. I lived my last two trips through my camera lens and my laptop and I vowed that this trip would be different. Sometimes I would even sneak off just to be by myself to take in my surroundings, particularly in Drakensberg.
I wanted to remember everything through a mental photograph instead of a file on my computer. I wanted to remember the feelings and the emotions around a particular sight of situation rather than pull out my camera in an attempt to capture it visually.
So I perfected my mental photography on this trip, and as a result I can remember scenes and how I felt at a certain time. It is a perfect medley of feelings and sights that I can experience all over again when I shut my eyes.
Some of the scenes are beautiful and serene, others are full of guilt or sadness and fear. A picture is worth a thousand words even if it’s inside my head.
“Traveling is not just seeing the new, it is also leaving behind. Not just opening doors, also closing them behind you, never to return. But the place you have left forever is always there for you to see whenever you shut your eyes.” –Jan Myrdal
Last year, I wrote a blog comparing my first experience in South Africa with African Impact with my second visit. I’m prepared to answer the question of which trip I enjoyed the most, by summing up what I got out of each trip.
My first trip, I gained perspective. I saw how other people lived and where my place was in the world and I discovered what I wanted to do, and who I wanted to be. I wanted to be independent and I discovered that those who do not have the courage to follow their own dreams will always try to belittle the dreams of others.
My second trip, I learned to be skeptical of what I see, and really discovered the ups and downs of development work. It was this trip that I truly decided that I wanted to continue my education in African development, and I really matured through this trip as I took on a more leadership role, which I enjoyed.
This last trip, I learned to have fun. Sometimes I can be too uptight and a bit of a workaholic, so I learned to let loose and soften the walls I so often hide behind. This trip was full of the most ups and downs, with the death of one of our home-based care patients, and some of the most gruesome home-based care visits I’ve seen. At one point we were popping two abscesses at the side of the road before tending to a lady’s finger that had been bitten by her neighbour, the bone of her middle finger exposed to the elements.
I learned to have emotions as a response to the patients that I saw, and I learned that I can only laugh off so many instances before it’s going to hurt my psyche. Sometimes it’s good to be able to shut down when a situation warrants it, but this group of volunteers taught me that it’s important to debrief and even feel.
I don’t regret changing my plans. Europe would have been nice, and I still got to see some of it. But volunteering has become the place where I can put all my emotions back in their proper place before continuing with another year. It’s exactly what I needed.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” –Mark Twain
“What’s the poorest place you’ve ever been?” an American from Dallas asked me at dinner last night.
In an effort to avoid being confrontational, I had told him that many of the countries I had visited were poor, in a variety of different ways. From China to Swaziland, I couldn’t find the words to tell him it was impossible to compare nations’ wealth or lack thereof.
But it got me thinking about what makes a community rich, and what makes them poor. Khula and Ezwenelisha (both in KwaZulu Natal) were viewed as impoverished by many volunteers who had not been abroad. We pulled up to a dilapidated wooden house one day and one volunteer, on the verge of tears, turned to me and stated, “please don’t tell me that’s a house.”
However, one volunteer who had been to India pointed out that there were plenty of other places that were much worse off.
What makes these two communities unique was their dependence on the healthcare system, as a result of high HIV prevalence, and a lack of healthcare infrastructure available to them.
There are plenty of other areas in the world riddled by natural disasters, drought, and ethnic violence, among other perils.
I wanted to avoid being confrontational with “Dallas”, and conversation quickly moved away from the subject as our main course arrived. But the subject still resonated. It surprises me how many people look upon me with some sort of notion that I am brave or that I should be proud of what I’ve done. Of course, I am proud. I wouldn’t change my six months on the continent for anything, but I don’t consider myself brave.
Whatever bravado I exude is minimized by the resilience of those I’ve worked with, particularly in Khula and Ezwenelisha. It’s also belittled by the hearts of those I’ve volunteered alongside.
“The richest man is not he who has the most, but he who needs the least.”
Development is a slow process. If my recently completed university degree has taught me anything it’s that lifting the “bottom billion” toa quality of life that meets even basic standards will be a slow and painful progression.
If three summers in KwaZulu Natal has taught me anything it’s that everything here takes forever – Africa time runs painstakingly slow, if at all.
I joke that nothing has changed since my first visit. I’ve eaten basically the same menu, bought bananas from the same ladies and drank at the same hole-in-the-wall bar each year.
However, there has been a glimmer of hope this trip. Slowly but surely I have seen small changes i the way gender is acted. Zulu culture is highly patriarchal, ut there have been many instances this year where I have seen empowered and entrepreneurial women, and even men taking on domestic roles.
I will vehemently argue that the gender gap in many periphery countries is a reason for stunted development. Gender inequality has a strong effect on economies, social life, industry and infrastructure. I won’t bore you with technical development study jargon, but if you empower half a nation and that has to be good for something.
Even our Zulu worker, Mpho, says that over the last few years the gender gap has been closing. Thye HIV education class I taught last week had three very intent men, all of whom took packages of condoms with them at the conclusion of the workshop. I watched a twenty year-old brother bathing is baby sister, and past quite a few men carrying babies.
It seems like the men of Khula and Ezwenelisha have finally decided that the dire straights of social life in the villages finally warranted their attention.
It was refreshing.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” –Nelson Mandela
The world is a book, and those who don’t travel read but one page, it’s true. And recently, someone told me that at times those moments that feel like they make up a simple chapter, turn out to be the main plotline of the story. Often on this trip it’s seemed like I’ve been re-reading pages of my life that I have already lived.
This trip to South Africa happened for a reason – everything does. I just have yet to figure out the reason for this trip, which happened on such a whim that there must have been a higher meaning.
Perhaps it was less about my work here, which I’ve done before, and more about the relationships I built this past month. Each person I worked with taught me something different about myself, whether I wanted or not. Some taught me to be more fun, others taught me to shut my mouth. One pointed out my sometimes faltering self-confidence, others relied on me for support. I learned from them, observed them, and listened to their advice when they would give it to me.
Some of my relationships you wouldn’t understand, and I’m not even sure I understand them myself. I had a great bond with some people that others never got to know, and sadly I didn’t have enough time to really experience other volunteers to the same extent.
One volunteer even taught me that just because something is far from my mind doesn’t mean it won’t slap me in the face. It’s this relationship that I could write a whole chapter about – or maybe a book.
This last trip, unplanned, might have meant more for my person. Although it was a rollercoaster more for my relationships and interactions instead of emotionally on the projects, it fulfilled something for me that my last two trips did not.
I left home expecting an escape, and that’s not what I got, but putting myself on the line to build a rapport with others paid off in the end, even if we had to say goodbye.
I wouldn’t change a thing.
Alanna has been blogging about her Barefoot Adventures in April 2009. For an archive of her older posts, click here.