Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cheers, Plett

Things are winding down here in Plettenberg Bay. It’s my second to last day here, and I have to start thinking about packing and saying my goodbyes.

Last weekend was our independent student travel weekend, but everyone decided to stay here in Plett. We did take a day trip to the nearby town of Knysna to browse the shops and walk along the harbor though. A highlight of my day there were the awesome fish and chips I had for lunch. But other than that, I mostly hung out around town and my house for IST. Bruce kindly offered to take Lauren and I to the nearby Keurbooms Beach, to a place called Arch Rock, which is exactly what it sounds like: a big rock shaped like an arch. It was gorgeous. Apparently, they filmed a series about Robinson Crusoe there. We relaxed on the beach for a while, and I’m proud of myself because I even got in the water for a few moments (the water is a bit chilly here.) The perfect Sunday afternoon outing. Maybe it’s just that I’m a bit burned out on travel at this point on the trip, but I honestly felt no desire to go anywhere else. But, I mean, there is also a reason people come HERE to vacation—it’s a pretty fine place.

The past few days have been crunch time on our media projects. Lauren and I decided to pair up to create an artistic book. Lauren created sketches of patients with different illnesses and I wrote poems about the various demographics afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Our presentation is tomorrow, and from what it sounds like, it’ll be by far our biggest audience. Official invitations were even created and sent out. To be honest, I’m super nervous about it—I wouldn’t call myself a poet. The only poetry I’ve written has either been for school or in my journal, not meant to be seen by others, let alone shared publicly. I guess there’s a first for everything.

Friday morning, we leave bright and early to go to Addo National Park for our enrichment week. We have hikes, safaris, canoe trips, and more on our agenda. I hope I get to see some zebras!

In just over one week, I’ll be back in New York City with my wonderful mother and grandparents! It’s hard to believe that our time abroad is coming to a close so quickly, but I’m so excited to hug my mom and hit up Whole Foods once again. I’ve had so many incredible experiences in the past seven months abroad, and it’s daunting to look at the return to the states as a potential end to all of that. But my journey won’t be over yet. Back in the states, we’ll be traveling for 5 weeks up and down the east coast, and I’m sure I’ll continue to learn and experience so much. I’m expecting to have to undergo some reverse culture shock, but let’s hope no food poisoning will be involved this time!

Well, I’m off to make an attempt at starting to pack. And I need to check on the sun tea that Lauren and I are brewing in the backyard. Honey, lemon, mint, ginger. Mmm.

Friday, March 18, 2011

It takes a village...

Yesterday was our last day working with our home caregivers, which marked the end of our TBB service projects. From planting trees to teaching to shoveling poop to administering patient care; I have to honestly say that I’ve never put in so many hours of volunteer work. And yeah, it’s made me pretty good at manual labor. But what it’s also given me is much more hands-on, real world learning experience than I would have ever gotten the chance to partake in had I been at college or any other institute of learning this year. I’ve taken a dive right into the middle of each and every issue we’ve studied, seeing the problems with my own eyes while trying to contribute to the solution.

What that’s led me to here in South Africa is a reflection on community. In our readings, we learned about the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. Tradition, culture, beliefs, prejudice, and fear all play a role in developing the shame associated with the virus. The result is that people don’t want to acknowledge their HIV status or disclose it to the others around them. They worry about what members in their community will say, think, or do. So does having a community hinder the resolution of this epidemic? I can’t agree. During my time walking around Kwanokuthula with Helper and Priscilla, there have been multiple occasions when people have approached us, concerned about the well-being of a neighbor or relative. One woman’s husband refused to go to the clinic to get treatment for his AIDS. He wouldn’t stop drinking and wouldn’t take his ARVs, either. She asked us to go visit him and take him by force to the clinic. We couldn’t do that, but Priscilla said that she would go later to check on him. Another woman, seeing us pass, ran out to the street to tell us to go check on “Rasta.” Rasta lived only a few houses down from her. She told us that he was HIV positive but had defaulted on his ARVs. He was very skinny and she wanted us to go right away to check on him. So we walked down the street to find Rasta, dreadlocks and all. And after talking to him for a while, Helper was able to persuade him to go to the clinic to restart his treatment.

In a true community, you’re surrounded by people who care about each other. Everyone looks out for one another. I was touched by the concern and awareness of these township residents and amazed by the power of one person speaking out. One person taking a few minutes out of his or her day to speak to a passing caregiver may have saved a life. I couldn’t help but think: in America, how often would a neighbor beg a doctor to help out the guy living down the street?

Another positive to a community is that when everyone is looking out for each other, friendships are made. And everyone is happier and healthier, at least mentally, when there are others to talk to and spend time with. Plett is a pretty small town when it comes down to it. The other day, Lauren and I went down the hill to Woolworth’s to get baking supplies for chocolate chip cookies. Upon reaching checkout, we were pleasantly surprised to find that our cashier was a woman who lives in one of our patients’ houses. We struck up a conversation and she told us about the patient’s weekend plans. It made me realize that the influence I was making in this community was real—people knew me, recognized me. I felt like I was actually helping people.

If it takes a village to raise a child, maybe it takes a community to combat AIDS.
A very big concept I’ve learned from our work is that every place has different needs. Blanket solutions to a problem are not the answer. What works in one region simply will not work in another, regardless of what statistics may predict or the UN may say. And that’s because societies all have their own people, culture, traditions, beliefs, infrastructure (or lack thereof.) Spending a good chunk of years living on tiny Orcas Island has led me to develop an appreciation for small-town life. So maybe I’m biased, but I think it’s important to never undermine the importance of a community. Each community knows where it stands; each community knows its values better than anyone else. Maybe stigmas wouldn’t even be an issue if policies were handled on this sort of smaller scale, as everyone would be in more equal understanding. I know it’s not that simple. There are myriad complications. But if nothing else, remember that the little things are often just as crucial as the larger ones.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Search for a Definition

Sometimes I wonder what “the end” really means. Because there’s always more that follows. The end of a game means a final score, but that’s not the last time that team will ever be together or that sport will ever be played. The end of the day means you go to bed, but sleep is the gateway to a whole other world of dreams and subconsciousness. And then there’s the end of life. Death. I don’t want to get into a whole discourse on the afterlife here but let’s just say for now that when one dies, the body or soul goes somewhere—it gets buried or cremated, maybe the soul goes on to a different place, maybe it stays here on earth as a ghost. Everyone holds a different view what really is the end. But what does unquestionably continue is other life in the rest of the world. The birds still chirp, the tides come in and out, businessmen go to work at 8 and come home at 5. The same is true for families and friends who are left behind after the death of a relative: when a loved one dies, of course a huge gap will be left behind in their lives, but the truth is that their lives will still continue. Life goes on.

The death of one of my patients, Lalli James, is what got me to thinking about this. Lalli was a sweet, old man with HIV who lived in Kwanokuthula. When we visited him, he always smiled as he greeted us. But when we walked into his house yesterday, I was surprised to find his bed, one of the only pieces of furniture in the house, gone. I thought the family had sold it to get some much-needed cash, but before I turned to Lauren to mention my hypothesis, a woman spoke up, “He has died.” On Saturday, Lalli was talking and acting normally when he went to lie down and never got up. The woman, who turned out to be his niece, told us that they weren’t concerned because he seemed to be doing fine. And then he was gone.

The family seemed to be handling the scenario with touching fortitude. Lalli’s niece told us that she believes he died in peace; that maybe it was just his time to go. As she said this, her eyes filled with tears.

The funeral is next Saturday, as there is already another one being held this Saturday. Thus prolonging the burial that, for many, really signifies “the end.” But this tribulation may never end for the family. Of course, Lalli’s memory will stay with them forever.

And the family’s dealings with sickness and medicine won’t end with Lalli’s death either. The girlfriend of another man living in that same house has not been doing well lately. But the family can’t take her to the clinic now because they have so much going on with the recent misfortune. They’ll have to wait until the burial is over. But by that time, who knows what could have happened. So the cycle continues. The end is never really the end.

I keep trying to think of what can be done. When a family is taking care of a relative with HIV or AIDS, there is so much pain and hardship that they must face. It just seems unjust and unfair that their suffering is perpetuated even after the sorrowful death.

Lalli is one in a sea of hundreds of thousands. So many people die from HIV/AIDS related illnesses everyday. But if “the end” doesn’t really mean anything, if there’s something that always continues, what does finding an “end” to this horrible epidemic entail? Is it even possible?

I don’t like to be so pessimistic. And I don’t want to be. I really would like to believe that some cure, some relief, SOMETHING can be done to solve or alleviate this issue. But it’s so hard for me to envision at this stage.

I really think that prevention , awareness, and education are going to be the most important methods, at this point, in curbing the rampant spread of the epidemic. While treatment is obviously extremely important, the hope for future generations lies in the destigmatization of the disease as well as the true understanding of the science and implications of HIV/AIDS. If people are well aware of the importance of prevention, and understand prevention methods, the number of new infections could decline, and overtime, maybe—just maybe—be stopped altogether. Let’s hope so.

Anyway, on a completely different note, we started afternoon service projects last week. I’m working on clearing out an old, dead garden in preparation for a new one to be put in. It requires lots of weeding and hacking and shoveling in the hot sun, but I feel like I accomplish something when I look at everything we’ve cleared out. Two afternoons a week we head over to the garden after mornings with our caregivers, putting our total amount of work on Tuesdays and Thursdays to seven hours. We may be living in a beach town, but we’re not exactly on vacation.

Our caregiver, Priscilla, went on leave today and won’t be back to work until after we’re finished. So instead, we’re following another caregiver named Helper, who has been working with us the past two weeks. We’ll miss Priscilla! It’s strange to think that after tomorrow, we have only one week of work left. By this point, I’ve seen all of our 27 (according to Priscilla) patients at least once, and am getting better at knowing my way around the houses and streets. So at least I don’t feel so disoriented all the time… I enjoy the conversations I’ve had with Priscilla and Helper on our walks and sometimes we’re offered tea or snacks at the homes we visit. I recently got to try some mealie meal pap—porridge made of corn meal and mixed with milk. Mealie meal is a staple food here, eaten as a sweet dish, as I had it, or a savory dish, mixed with vegetables and meat. I’ll have to get some to bring home—I actually liked it a lot. In almost every home we visit there’s some sort of music playing. Helper always tells me to dance, so I do. And then people laugh. So I have a new resolution to work on my dancing skills.

I guess that’s enough for now. I hope everyone is doing well!