Orphanage

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22:09, Feb. 13, 2013
Picha ya Ndege (translates to “bird picture”), Kibaha, Tanzania

Today is pretty special, a very new setup compared to all mine previous. I’m sleeping under one roof with 26 children (plus a few adults) at an orphanage with no name.

In Tanzania, pretty much all the volunteer work I’ve come across is with orphan children. It was never a line of work I considered myself qualified for or even interested in, but here it just seemed a most logical path to take.

I must say I don’t like the word orphan so much, as it sounds almost derogatory, conjuring too many pathetic preconceptions. It seems to me a misguided label, calling someone by what they don’t have: which is biological parents on-hand, instead of by what they might have instead: like a big family of beautiful and assorted souls, (hopefully) compassionate and committed caretakers, good energy and love in scarcely-seen abundance.

At the risk of glorifying happenstance that one would probably never choose given a more “nuclear” alternative, I must admit that I’m thoroughly surprised and impressed by what I’ve seen. After spending last week at one home and now beginning another week here at another, at least here in Tanzania where the big cold institutionalized approach and infrastructure is missing from what I’ve seen portrayed in the media, there’s a lot of love to go around. The culture must play a large part in it, as we’ve quite easily met a ton of Tanzanians in a few short weeks, all of them amazingly kind, warm, and caring. The life force is strong with these ones, and this energy is Love; this wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

After much musing and comparing (which I’ll spare you), these orphanages seem more like a family than anything else I can think of. That’s my impression, and I’m happy to convey it.

What isn’t in abundance is money, and even the basics are scarce, even in nice homes. Electricity, water, and food are on the hotlist everywhere. Next that come to mind are teachers, books, and school supplies. In a country where a majority of people are living in mud brick homes without doors, these basic needs overshadow pretty much everything else I can think of, which would practically fall into a relative class of luxury. (Let’s not forget health care, jobs and whatever makes a strong economy happen.)

So what would I have to offer here? I had no idea coming-in. Talia’s qualifications include that she was a teacher and loves working with kids, even ones with disabilities (next stop: disabled kids’ home in Kenya), but I’ve never had any such rapport with young people. But it all made sense soon after I arrived.When we rolled up the dirt road in a borrowed 4×4 (the equivalent of riding the red carpet in from the bus stop a few miles away), dozens of smiling jumping beans ages 4-14, eagerly awaited us. When we stopped, they pulled us and our bags from the open doors, hugged our legs and held our hands. “Welcome” came in many forms: in Swahili of course, plus English, Smile and Hug. (And they don’t do the fake smile, or even hug much here, for the record.) These kids were pumped.

When they’re not in school, and during the day when some of the littlest, sick or ‘challenged’ ones have stayed behind, we Play. Swapping English and Swahili words and phrases is a most natural way for us to communicate. Teaching skills and chores (like cleaning, food-prep, caring for the animals) is another. Singing any songs we can think of. Making stuff, drawing, playing games. Pretending and laughing. I’m so new to all of this (and Swahili) that I’m probably learning more than they are, but boy do they Beam when we’re doing any of it. It’s fun, (as much as I’ve got energy for!) Talia is a great inspiration and teacher for me too, (but I have much work ahead of me to match her brand of marathon playtime.)

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A bunch of impressive elders run the show. I still don’t know how exactly everyone is involved; people of all ages help make it happen. Some are the oldest kids. Some might be local volunteers. Do they receive stipends, or is this their job? And who is this wonderful, fabled director who is away in the city, whom we haven’t met yet but received many gracious compliments? All I know is everyone seems to take care of everybody in a most natural way. Anyone, even visitors who are just dropping-by, will pick up a crying kid or chase rambunctious rascals around the barn. Everyone is amazing and extends enthusiastic gratitude for our being here to play with and teach the kids.

Those volunteers who preceded us have usually left in their wake some contribution, which became their legacy. Some made purchases: mattresses, cement to become a floor, others labors of love. Every little bit helps things progress, or at least stay afloat. Talia and I are lowly volunteers, not in a position to be amazing patrons, but we are happy to assess what they’ve got (which is practically nothing beyond walls and beds) and do what we can with the money that we are saving by staying here. (Our daily budget isn’t necessary when we’ve got room and board), so today we put that money into some foodstuffs from the market and art supplies for doing activities and some sprucing-up around here. We’ll see what flows next. What I like is that nothing is required, as our presence is definitely appreciated, but it just makes sense to help out when it’s obvious how advantaged and abundant we (very thankfully) are.

If any kind readers wish to contribute anything, I can assure you that we can definitely put it to a huge benefit for many people out here. As we will progress up through Tanzania and into Kenya, we’ll be visiting many such places (as is the obvious path). Any penny saved can be easily redistributed to grateful kids.

Cheers and thanks for reading! And Happy Mother’s Day, to all those with and without your kids (for any reason, God bless), and a special thanks to the ones who share your motherly love with so many, whether your ties are with blood or without.

(Addendum: oops it’s not mother’s day but My Momma’s birthday! I’m getting old – or it’s late-nite senility. Happy Birthday Momma P!)

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Staying in Sodwana

20:39, Nov. 25, 2012
Sodwana Bay, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

So much life happening, all kinds of things big and small. I stepped out of New York and into a rural beach community in eastern South Africa called Sodwana. I’ve begun writing this blog ten times, but I was trying too hard to summarize a month in one place. This aspect, that I haven’t been “traveling” in the usual sense, but rather living in one place, or more accurately in one big scenario, is the biggest thing for me.

Since my arrival at the airport, I’ve been practically adopted by my host Ronell, and her family, friends, her world really.

Introducing my hosts, Ronell and Felix. I make a peace-offering of a seashell for him to suck on. (Mmm salty feels good on sore gums.)

The only other time I’ve stayed put for a month was at the World Rainbow Gathering in Argentina two years ago, a chapter amongst the best of my life for so many reasons, and I wonder why I haven’t rooted-down more often. In both cases I feel like I started a little life somewhere else, complete with family, friends, work, and a lasting connection to the place. Everyone I’ve met here is local, or at least South African, and by each I’m asked How I ended-up here?

How did I end up here?

After over a year without spending any significant time on a farm, staying as a Wwoofer at an organic family farm-stay was my first desire. Dirt, plants, animals, organic lifestyle, permaculture, the intimacy of family life, local culture… this is the antonymous universe to life in my home city. Sure, we’ve got all those things back home, but it wouldn’t be traveling if it wasn’t different in every respect.

Situated in on the edge of a natural reserve, at the end of a dark dirt track, way out in the middle of a sparsely developed rural wilderness, it’s far far from home. We’re off-grid too, generating power by wind, pumping water from a bore hole, and eating much food from a huge garden that encompasses this plot, the main house nestled with a low-profile into the hill.



Ronell is serious about permaculture, so it’s been serious fun learning all about her impressive setup and systems, not to mention it’s so hooked-up. We’re living comfortably, with good plumbing and flush-toilet (in addition to an outdoor composting one), solar-hot water, wind-generated electricity, refrigeration, washing machine, and even air-conditioning (brilliant engineering). It’s pretty sweet. I’ve even got my own cottage of local trash. And it’s all so beautifully conceived and tweaked to be as sustainable, environmentally friendly, recycled and abundant as possible.

Air conditioning. A fan in the terrace draws outside air underground, where it cools on the way to being piping into the house through vents in the floor. Ingenious!

So what do I do here? I’m a happy helper. I’ve spent my days with Ronell learning and helping to run this homestead and ambitious garden. Gradually, I’m tending to it and harvesting food daily with increasing confidence. Half the day is spent sharing chores, meal preparation, doing handyman projects, computer projects (including making a slick funding-proposal for her NGO), and most shockingly: learning to occupy a 10-month-old baby. Can you imagine me a manny? (Thankfully, I was never asked to change any nappies :) And the kicker: for a majority of this time the husband Charley has been away guide birding expeditions in Madagascar and spotting cheetahs in Kruger National Park. I wouldn’t say he’s had all the fun tho!

Upon Charley’s homecoming, much celebration and feasting was our natural response. After 2 weeks without him, I don’t know how we made it.

Besides all of this, I’ve been graciously hooked-up as a guest. Back in Joburg, I was fetched by Ronell’s sister at the airport and driven an hour away to their parents house in Balfour, and spent a half-week there with the family. We ate together, they showed me around the garden, her mom drove us on scenic backroads and told me much of the local history, and we visited her workplace, where she teaches English to black kids. (It sounded funny to me first time too — the racial landscape is indeed interesting.) As soft a landing one could hope for, as I was jet-lagged and still exhausted with a spiritual hangover; I felt like I had to steamroll my way out of NY this time, and i luckily escaped hurricane Sandy by 2 days!

My first stop: relaxing on the veranda at Ronell’s parents’ beautiful and rustic hand-built home.
Her Dad builds homes, including the one in Sodwana. He’s very handy, and well-known for his ingenuity.

Ronell’s Mom taking us out for a spin around rural Balfour. She’s a fountain of knowledge, and a great oral historian.
The Felt holds many tales. Their family owned and sold many of these farms in earlier times.

When Ronell was done with all her city stuff (so conveniently timed with my arrival), she and I, along with baby Felix, doggie Cressida, and my luggage, smushed into the littlest car, and took a 9-hour road trip to her home in Sodwana. We even tried to drive through the nearby Game Park at sunset en route so I could see my first big game (= amazing animals), but a flooded road made us turn back.




And here in Sodwana, I’ve been well-socialized into the friendly community, met everyone (numerous times; it’s a small place), attended dinners and brais (bbq). Heck, this morning i was washing dishes after a party they had in the local coffee shop last night! It was full-on, with dancing, bonfire, a band, led by the school principal on guitar — but it felt more like a family affair, or a big byob house party, only the whole village was there.

Ronell and I regularly went on outings and joyrides (to relax baby), wildlife-spotting missions (ongoing, at all times really), to the beach, and nearby Lake Sibaya, where I saw wild hippos for the first time. We’ve since had one visit us at the homestead, grunting at us from just outside my cottage!

Another part of Lake Sibaya
Across this Indian Ocean is… India of course!

For the last four days I’ve been on my own. The family had to go away and I had the opportunity to stay and house-sit, which I happily jumped-on. It’s like vacation, getting even sweeter with time because Sodwana just gets better, I’m set-up in Ronell’s gorgeous world, and I feel at Home. And my duties got a lot easier; they even took the dog! I’ll be onto the next adventure after this week on my own (which is sort of not true, as I’m never really alone, as I’ve been hanging out witth the neighbors of Hippo Haven almost every day, who also coincidentally happen to be the other awesome Wwoof family I contacted back in the States to be my first stop in South Africa! And so it goes, when you plan to Stay in Sodwana.

Early to bed, early to rise. I often see the sun rising around 4:30AM.

H I P P O P O T A M U S

Hippo tracks (and trails)

23:36, Nov. 7, 2012
Sodwana Bay, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

Bugs, schmugs; I’m in Africa. There are much bigger fish to fry (before they fry you!) I’m on Lake Sibiya, a breath-taking natural reserve, and HIPPOS live here. In fact, when they were building the main homestead on this land, a hippopotamus was seen right here on this very spot, at the corner of the property. I’m in hippo-land. Hungry-hungry, man-flattening Hippo-land.

Did you know that hippos kill more people than all other people-killing mammals combined? (That includes lions, tigers, bears, and elephants.) It’s because they don’t fake-charge. They simply Charge. And this is exactly what happened to us yesterday.

Ronell, my gracious Wwoof host and “barefoot nature doctor” to the community, escorted me and another volunteer from next-homestead (aptly named Hippo Haven) down to Lake Sibiya. I drove the 4×4. On the way, just before the Jurassic Park theme sounded and we entered the gate, we saw 15 giant amazing hippo skulls in front of the park rangers’ station; should have been a clue. Nevertheless, moments later I could not stifle my jaw-dropping surprise of finding a family of hippos playing in the lake, splashing about, exhibiting their cavernous mouths for all to see. From a safe distance we watched this sunset vision.

Like Sibaya

Alas, onward I drove. When we were approximately upon the family, who were now obscured by tall yellow grass between our crude dirt path and the lake’s edge, I asked if it would be foolish to get out to sneak a peek. Ronell suggested we keep driving a bit further, with good chances of seeing more up ahead. Sure enough, a big blobby hippo crossed our path. Amazing! And look, another one over there! A baby! They’re close enough that we were shooting video.

The following events took place in a blur, but by combining our fragmented testimonials and disrupted videos we’ve pieced together this story:

The hippos suddenly started running. For enormous pink blobs, they move incredibly fast. For no apparent reason they changed directions, and were heading straight for us! I was glued to my camera. We all started screaming. Ronell repeated “start the car, start the car!” (so I cut my video) but it wouldn’t start. She fumbled over the driver’s controls, and inadvertently sounded the horn. All I could think was: hippos are charging and are about hit us broad-side, or shall I say driver’s side; And how a 12-inch hippo tooth like the one back at her house can slice through this car like a tin can. I think the horn spooked them, because in the final moment they barely missed us. The baby kept running, the big angry one stopped behind our car and glared at us until we drove away.

What a rush! We were all amazed, and happy to be alive. Here we were, with mother and 10 month-old child, and we’re all laughing. Doc says it’s amazing; never happened before. Africans live among stunning wildlife, and life-threatening experiences are all part of the fun. (Aussies share this brand of national masochism too.)

Anyone for a swim?

(Crocodiles don’t fake-charge either, when you can’t see them sneaking-up beneath the water’s twilight reflection.) Gotcha bitch!

Spooky Things

21:11, Nov. 6, 2012
Sodwana Bay, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

Today’s approximate proximities of the local wildlife to me:

2 swarms of African killer bees. (2 smoke fires later, we drove them away.)
2 Hippopatamuses charged us. (only bypassing us by 2 car lengths.)
1 scorpion. (1 foot from my foot, 1 step away from my chapel bush cottage.)
1 beautiful brown owl. (perched 1 meter away from the 4×4.)
20 centimeter millipede. (20 centimeters from my bed.)

As is my usual style to go on about pretty and extraordinary things, I feel it would be more fun tonight to write about spooky things.

I’m staying in a remarkable little cottage on the edge of the property here at the permaculture homestead I’m volunteering at. It’s a stand-alone, medium-sized room, built in the form of a little chapel, comprised exclusively of recycled plastic bottle ‘bricks’, and covered in a smooth concrete finish, painted all-white on the inside.

Chapel
The Chapel, where I sleep (at sunrise.)

Next to me is an similarly sized, but differently-shaped dwelling, the ‘Green Haus’. Here, a Zulu couple is taking refuge from their own homestead, where ‘little men’ have overrun and deemed it unfit for their living. It’s round, inspired by the traditional Zulu mud and thatch-roofed huts, but made instead of quick and inexpensive green metal. Its inhabitants, Sibongile and Mfanseni are having some domestic issues: yesterday she chased him with a garden hoe clear across the neighborhood, to another homestead, or so he told my host, Ronell. We got a clarification later in the afternoon, directly ‘from the horses mouth’ so-to-speak, as she confessed to a neighbor she was trying to kill him.

I haven’t seen either of them since shortly after the incident, although eerily-enough, for the last two nights, the door of the Green Haus has been left ajar, lights-on, all night. It’s only 5 meters away, but I haven’t been bold enough to go pop my head in to see if everything’s alright. (Honestly, I don’t think I could handle it if it wasn’t.) Ronell found in both cases that nobody was home.

I’ve had mixed feelings about this room since I first stepped-foot inside. It looked a bit, shall we say: abandoned. Bedding and rugs heaped in piles, a lot of dirt and sand collected, a line of five red candles in holders alongside the bed (ritual?) News of Sibongile’s dwindling mental health had reached me long before I entered the space she occupied most recently and during the last episode, which spanned the month prior to my arrival. It _all resonated. I promptly dashed-open the curtains and windows, collected the linens to wash, swept the space tidy, and moved-in. It’s cozy and quite charming.

Except that the door handle is broken (falls off) and the lock can’t be engaged from the outside. So I can lock myself-in, but not out. And being so close to the edge of the land, [to the little men in my head] it doesn’t feel 100% safe. And I hear noises outside. Could be dogs? Tonight it sounded as if dirt was being thrown at my big bay window. Or could be bugs buzzing into the glass. (Very likely.) Swarms of bugs.

We really did have to fend off swarms of African killer bees yesterday, and today. But that’s another story.

Just after I locked myself in tonight, a buzzing at the door startled me. From beneath it a beetle buzzed and entered, (unsolicited, mind you.) The next moment, a giant millipede just trotted under behind him. And one more, something we can all relate to: inch-and-three-quarter roach (just big enough to be too-big) scurried from somewhere near my bed to the other side of the room, and I didn’t even get up from my typing to chase her. I suppose these _are the other native inhabitants. (Shiiit, I didn’t kill the scorpion I found outside my door this morning either.)

Really, I’m just the new guy here, and I’m getting used to all this new stuff. For every thing I’ve mentioned that one might find questionable, I’ve got three more I could wax lyrical about. But this was the spooky blog.

Speaking of spooky, I heard a big phantom swallowed-up Halloween this year?