Thursday, January 17, 2013

An Opportunity That Can't Be Missed

I have recently been selected as a fellow with Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB) to attend the Opportunity Collaboration, an annual conference held in October in Ixtapa, Mexico. The conference brings together leaders in the field of global poverty alleviation, and the delegates in attendance represent organizations and foundations from all around the world that are working to fight poverty from all sides of the spectrum—food justice to public health, women’s empowerment to education, just to name a few. The conference convenes both established and emerging leaders in the effort to unleash ideas and discover new ways to fight poverty. However, in order to attend this ground-breaking and meaningful event, I will need to raise some money. As a fellow with TBB, the registration cost has been drastically reduced for me (from $5,000 to $750). I also need to purchase plane tickets, which will cost approximately $800. My goal is to raise $1,500 total.

I am extremely grateful that TBB has given me the chance to participate in this experience. Since taking a gap year with TBB, I have been inspired to do something with my life that will create positive change. TBB also helped me pinpoint the issues that I am particularly passionate about: the environment, sustainable agriculture, and food justice. But I’m a bit stuck right now because I’m not sure what the next step is. I feel that I lack the resources and connections to create concrete solutions. Attending the Opportunity Collaboration will give me the chance to network with and learn from others who have more experience dealing with social justice issues.
More specifically and immediately, attending the Opportunity Collaboration will expose me to concepts that will aid in the development of Real Food Williams, a student organization I helped establish on my campus.  So far, Real Food Williams has been dealing more with on-campus issues related to food sustainability, such as developing better labeling in dining halls, determining a definition of “real food,” and promoting more student awareness about the issue. But the next step in our organization will be to expand our efforts to include food sovereignty in the area. Williams is located in an extremely rich agricultural area, yet there are many residents in the surrounding communities who cannot afford the farm-fresh produce that is grown around them. Williams College has a very large amount of influence in the area—the money and power it holds is immense. At the conference, I’d like to discover ideas on how Real Food Williams can partner with the administration to focus on food justice. It will be a fantastic venue to learn about how others have found solutions to issues in the same field.
From attending the Opportunity Collaboration, I expect that I will gain a greater perspective on how actual change is created. I will be able to see the numerous complexities that are involved, but I’ll also be able to learn what it takes to develop solutions from delegates who have succeeded in doing so. Right now, being a “proactive agent of change” is a pretty abstract goal for me. I really have no idea what it’s going to take. But I expect that the Opportunity Collaboration will help to make it a more tangible thing to strive for.
To donate, please use my PayPal account (the button is on the top left side of the screen) or contact me for more information.
Thank you all so much!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Motherland

I’ve been meaning to write a new blog post for a while now, but I haven’t actually been able to succeed because I don’t know where to begin. But here’s a start: I’m back in the States now!!!

We spent our last week abroad in Addo, a small town on the Eastern Cape known for Addo Elephant National Park, as well as its manifold citrus groves. We were told that we were staying in student lodging in the park, so I was picturing cabins with outhouses and electricity if we were lucky. But when we arrived at Chrislin African Lodge, I was pleasantly surprised. We stayed, paired up, in luxury thatch-roofed mud huts. They were adorable. And the grass lawns everywhere were perfect for my affinity for going barefoot. We went on safaris in a few different private game reserves as well as the national park; hiked, with some added cliff jumping and waterfall sliding, in the Zuurberg Mountains; canoed down a river; visited a reptile and raptor center; and much more. When we returned after our packed days, we were treated to delicious three-course dinners every night. I got to eat kudu, ostrich, and impala meat. Kudu was definitely my favorite. And to name some of the animals I saw: giraffes, rhinos, elephants, zebras, hippos, cheetahs, lions, a leopard, a caracal, meerkats, warthogs, buffalo, antelope (kudu, rare heartabeest, impala, and more,) tortoises, and alligators. I definitely felt like I was in an amusement park, looking at trained animals. But it was still awesome.

Boarding the plane back to America, I was sad to leave, but anxious to return home. When I had to go through a million layers of extra security measures solely because our flight was to the US, I was reminded of the big bureaucracy that I was about to fly back to. On the 19 hour flight from Johannesburg to JFK, emotions were running wild—fatigue and dehydration supercharged them even further. I knew we were getting close to landing when I saw Alex in the seat in front of me spontaneously squeal, waving her arms and jumping around in her seat. We were all so incredibly excited to see our families and be on American soil again. I can’t even describe how happy I was when I hugged my Mom at the Riverside Tower Hotel a few hours later. The rest of the weekend was free, and I had the most amazing time with my Mom and grandparents.

I’m experiencing some reverse culture shock. It’s a very real thing. Everyone speaks English and I have a cell phone and computer again and I can eat any kind of food I want. You’ve gotta give it to America—we do have diversity. After being in countries where solely one or two races predominate, we really do seem like a melting pot.

Last week was spent in New York City, visiting the UN and various organizations that work in areas ranging from the environment to public health. Some of them were really impressive.

We left New York yesterday morning and boarded a double decker megabus (equipped with wifi…what?!?!?) to D.C. We’re safe and sound in our rented house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood now, and I’m really excited for the upcoming week!

I admit that I do harbor a general distaste with America’s policy and culture. And the bureaucracy and complications and nonsense that accompany it all. But being back after so long has made me realize that while it’s not perfect, it’s my home.

It’s good to be back.

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!


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ebb and Flow

I walked into a house where a young woman named Philiswag sat on a couch. She looked weak and wore a hat, even though the sun was scorching outside. “Moloweni!” she greeted us with a bright smile. She was very thin, but her stomach was distended and her left ankle was swollen—symptoms of an HIV infection. From her purse, she withdrew her ARVs and other pills and set them on the table to show us. She has to take them all at scheduled times throughout each and every day. If she misses a dose, everything could go wrong.

On Monday, our South Africa routine began.

In the morning, work starts when our taxi driver, Percy, drops us off at the medical clinic in Kwanokuthula at 8 o’ clock. We then set out on foot for the next five hours as we follow Priscilla from house to house for her patient check ups. Arriving at each house, we’re greeted with smiles and cries of “Moloweni!” (which is hello in Xhosa.) We visit patients with varying degrees of illness and living conditions. About half of our patients are HIV positive; of those, many have Tuberculosis additionally. Philiswag was the first patient I saw. She was also the first person that I think I’ve ever been face-to-face with who has had HIV. Maybe I’ve been sheltered, but HIV and AIDS have just never been real-life issues in and around my community and life at home. But sitting feet away from Philiswag as she held her ARVs provided a jolt of reality for me. Everything I’ve learned, heard, read, and watched about HIV/AIDS crashed down on me with full force. Seeing the epidemic in person really illuminated the immensity of the issue and true necessity for a solution. We’ve seen patients with other ailments as well. I was surprised to note that, after HIV, the second-most prevalent condition afflicting the patients I’ve seen is diabetes. The case of one man sticks out to me most poignantly. We entered his room to find him sitting with his legs in a bucket of water. Withdrawing them allowed us to see the raw sores running up the sides of his calves and ankles. We wrapped the sores with wet gauze and a cloth bandage, but that’s just a temporary fix. If these sores get worse, he could lose the ability to walk. If they get too bad, he might have to have his legs amputated. We’ve seen other patients with arthritis, high blood pressure, and strokes, too. Priscilla is teaching us to take insulin finger sticks and use the blood pressure monitor in a very “learn-by-doing” way, meaning that she hands us the tools and tells us to use them on the patient. Lauren and I were both confused and lost at first, but we’ve got it down now.

On our walks between houses, we have time to talk with and get to know Priscilla. Home caregivers like her spend their whole days—rain or shine-- walking from house to house. Since they don’t have scheduled visit time, sometimes patients won’t even be home. So they continue walking to the next house and check back later. I just want to buy all of the caregivers bikes. Sometimes Priscilla will take us to one of her friends’ houses for tea or juice or for her to get some lunch. And at one, Percy picks us up and drops us back in Plett. But Priscilla keeps doing her rounds until four.

After lunchtime, we head down to the beach for seminars. Yes, our seminar room is above a restaurant that is right on the sand. We hear the waves crashing and can watch the lifesaving team (there are like 100 little kids in speedos that are on some sort of lifeguard training team that come to the beach for hours every single day.)

While our days are filled with some pretty heavy stuff in the townships, things lighten up back in Plett. On Thursday, I met the local running club for their weekly time trial. It was neat to see so many people of all ages. I had a good time, but was not expecting for it to actually be a time trial with timing and everything! I also went bungee jumping! I conquered the Bloukrans bridge, which at 216 meters, is the highest point you can bungee jump from in the world! It was awesome. And there’s more: a chartered catamaran sail around the bay. We even got to see a pod of dolphins and TONS of seals. Bruce cooked us our first braai, a South African barbecue, too.

Don’t be too jealous, though. Unfortunately, all of our activities in the sun have given me some pretty funky tanlines…. :)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Even Better Than the Ice Cream

We’ve now been in South Africa for a week, and so far it’s been fantastic. When we first arrived, we were bussed to a hostel/retreat-type place called Rocky Road. I don’t know if I can even describe how happy I was when I got there. Driving down the dirt driveway through pastures filled with (healthy-looking) cows, horses, and ponds, I could breathe fresh air again. Butterflies flocked around the flower bushes. I could hear birds singing. I felt like I was in heaven. Even though we had been traveling all night, Rocky Road gave us all a second wind of energy—everyone kicked off their shoes and jumped around on the grass. It got even better, as that night Mac (the owner of Rocky Road and one of the directors of Willing Workers in South Africa, the NGO we’re working with here) made us delicious hamburgers. Sorry India, I missed beef.

We were at Rocky Road from Saturday until Thursday, mostly relaxing, taking hikes to the beach, doing orientation things, and adjusting to culture shock. South Africa is such a huge change from India, but I’ll talk about that a bit more later.

We moved into our homestays in Plettenberg Bay on Thursday. Our homestays here are very different than they have been in previous countries—here, we’re divided up into only two houses, seven students in each. I’m living with McKinley, Kasha, Hannah, Maddie, Lauren, and Alex in a house owned by Bruce, a single man in his forties. Our house is so cute and perfect. We even have a pool. It’s located about a five minute walk from the main street of Plettenberg Bay, with all of its shops, cafes, restaurants, and bookstores. Plett draws many tourists due to its location right on the beach and proximity to myriad outdoor adventure activities. To get to the beach from my house, it’s about another ten minute walk from town, down a HUGE hill. It’ll hopefully get me back into mountain climbing shape for when I come back home! The food has been delicious, too. We even have salad to accompany our dinners…it’s amazing. Bruce, our host, is a really nice, incredibly interesting guy. On our first night, we all sat around the dinner table for at least two hours, talking about things ranging from racial issues to the science behind HIV/AIDS to natural plant medicines to cooking.

All of the Western conveniences we need are here—reliable showers, clean tap water, familiar food. The language barrier is virtually non-existent as well. It’s a bit odd to feel so at home, yet be halfway around the world. On the other hand, though, things are still very different for me here than at home. For example, the townships. The wealthy community of Plett is surrounded by poor, black settlements. I haven’t spent extensive time in any of them yet, but you can immediately tell the huge differences driving by. Fortunately, in this area at least, it seems that there are many initiatives coming from volunteer organizations and NGOs to provide help to these communities. I don’t know if that’s being done nationally though, or how much they are actually helping. Coming from seeing the slums in India though, I have to say that these townships were in better shape than I was expecting. We start our work in the townships on Monday, so I’ll soon be able to get a better look. For work, we’re all matched up with caregivers, either in singles or in pairs. Lauren and I are paired up and matched with Priscilla, who works and lives in the township of Kwanokuthula, which is about a ten minute’s drive out of Plett. I’m really excited to work with Priscilla or, as she told us to call her, Big Mama.

The sun is shining and I’ve got a free day, so I’m thinking I’ll go down to the beach later. Or into the pool. Or both!

I miss everyone lots!