November 5, 2008

To Believe Again

I had become so jaded. After working in politics and large NGOs, I had seen so much crap. Experienced so much pain. Slammed my head against so many walls. I had given up and lost my faith. So I left. I left America and came to South Africa in search of renewal. I wanted to believe again. I wanted to believe that doing service could in fact lead to change.

Today – the day Americans have elected President Barack Obama – my faith is renewed. I remember now why I began in public service. I remember now why my parents left everything they knew behind to immigrate to the United States. I remember now that in America change is in fact possible. I remember now that in America, unlike many places in the world, everyone has a chance - black, white, purple or green – rich, poor or in between – in the United States you really can move beyond societal castes. Today I learned that anyone can be President of the United States. And today, I believe again.

October 7, 2008

Psychology of an Epidemic

Five people have died in South Africa recently due to an unknown viral disease. One woman came back from Zambia and died. The paramedic that flew with her died. Her nurse died. Two hospital cleaners have died. And her doctor is ill, exhibiting her symptoms.

What everyone is dying of is unclear, but the media is quite clear – don’t panic.

Don’t panic!? Um… that’s exactly what my mind wants to do! Do I still drink the water? Should I steer clear of certain areas? If I get sick, should I even go into a hospital? Is my sinus headache (that I have daily) now a sign of something else? I think my finger is turning blue!!! (oh wait, that’s ink…)

The truth is that although the actual nature of the disease is unknown, the likelihood of me personally coming anywhere near it is quite low. Hopefully the doctors and scientists will figure out the details soon so the public can take precautions, but freaking out actually results in nothing productive.

Just going through this exercise in my head, however, has given me a whole new perspective on the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. In “And The Band Played On,” Randy Shilts goes into great detail through personal narratives of how early AIDS patients were ostracized, how nurses would no longer treat them, how people wouldn’t touch affected persons, etc etc. When I read those lines, I was mortified – how could someone be so cruel! I work with people living with HIV and then work to create programs to end the awful stigma attached to their communities. I think these thoughts and do these things because I am well informed. I know exactly what causes HIV and what doesn’t, so there is no reason for ill-placed fear.

But suddenly I have a whole new empathy for lack of information, not to mention misinformation. When you don’t know, you don’t know what to think. Your mind plays games with you. The news seems to take new meaning. Even the office water cooler becomes its own cesspool – "Did you know that so and so’s sister’s grandmother’s cousin was once in the same room as the woman who died? "

And so the cultural and psychological virus begins, forgetting any facts around the physical one. But how do you stop it? How do we learn to think rationally and not allow the mob mentality to take us over? How do we defeat the depths of fear and anxiety around the unknown? And how do we learn (the eternal lesson) to simply accept what is, while still taking precautions?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. But I do know that the biggest reason people don’t get tested for HIV is because they don’t know they should, or they don’t want to know the result - “It won’t happen to me.” Or equally damning, “ If it does happen to me, I will suffer a social death, and I’d rather physically die.” I spend my days trying to figure out how to combat these mentalities, but where I thought there had been progress, I am again completely lost - reminded that I don't have the answers, but also learning that there are so many more questions (including why the blueness of my finger won’t go away…)

September 29, 2008

I’m a bad, bad blogger (who doesn’t understand Christmas in the summertime)

A good blogger posts regularly at consistent intervals, usually at least once a week. I haven’t posted in months….

A lot has happened since my last post in July, including a whirlwind tour of North America, lessons in global citizenship – most notably the hell of work permits and visas, and a large lesson in patience, because as an ex-pat things rarely work the way you’d like but the experience in the end is always worth it.

Aside from all of that and the fun political and financial madness of both the US and SA, there has one fairly benign thing that I can’t stop thinking about: the concept of Christmas in summertime!

Logically, I know that in California its hot during Christmas. Hell, growing up in Louisiana I didn’t even see snow until I was 17. But I was talking to my boyfriend the other day, who does store design for a major clothing retailer here, and he tells me that they’ve just finished implementing their summer store design and now they have to get busy on Christmas.


It feels like Christmas in July and I can’t wrap my head around it. So over the course of two weeks I asked everyone lots of incredibly ignorant questions that led to some pretty hysterical conversations. Here’s some of the color commentary:

* Do you have Santas running around in winter suits in the dead of summer?

Yes. Why is that odd?

* What about reindeer?

No we don’t have those. Impala probably carry Santa’s sleigh here.

* Where do you get your Christmas trees?

Out of a box.

* Do you put lights up on your house?

What’s the point – there’s a 14 foot wall outside my house, so no one is going to see the lights.

* Have you ever heard of Kwanza?


* It’s derived from African traditions. Are there any African traditions similar to Christmas?

No, we do what the white people tell us to.

* How do you feel about Christmas carols that directly relate to winter, ie. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”?

That one was great during apartheid.

July 14, 2008

In Search of “My People”

I’m five days away from being in SA exactly six months. I’m also five days away from getting on a plane and returning to the States. And although I’ll be back in SA for another four months, it’s certainly an interesting moment of reflection. One thing I haven’t written about yet is one of the big reasons I chose this particular country when I could have gone anywhere in the world – South Africa has the largest Indian population outside of India. And as a first generation South Asian American, I have to admit that I came looking for answers amongst an Indian population hundreds of years deep.

At first blush, one immediately notices the physical distinctions of South African Indians. The majority are of South Indian decent, thus generally darker in pigment, at least than me. At second blush, one notices the class distinctions. In the 1800s the British East India Company brought 300 indentured servants from India to South Africa as labor for the sugar cane fields. History tells us that what begins as an immigration pattern based on labor doesn’t easily break from that role in the future. But third blush shows the nuances within that class structure – a business class within the laborers. Like good colonists, the British used the Indians to “manage” the African laborers, thus creating strife between the two groups that is still very real today.

Layered on top of traditional colonial and immigration issues is the role of apartheid on the South African Indian community. Traditional Indian food & dress are still very prevalent in the community, as are many traditional values. Language, on the other hand, was essentially lost by what is the equivalent of my parent’s generation. In my opinion, this has much to do with the forced homogenous living situations of apartheid, while English and Afrikaans were the pre-determined medium for schooling.

The heart of the Indian community in South Africa is on the southeast coast of the country in the city of Durban, the third largest city in SA. This is where the original laborers were brought, where the community grew, and where still today the largest Indian community lives. So recently, I dragged my boyfriend (who happens to be South African Indian) to Durban. I told him I needed to find “my people.” He told me I was crazy. To him, Durbs (as they call it here) is just Durbs. Nothing particularly exciting besides the beaches. But I insisted and so he agreed. I told him I wanted to go to Chatsworth, the Indian township. I wanted to visit a neighborhood temple. And I wanted to go to the Gandhi Settlement, where Gandhi honed his philosophy of “satyagraha.”

Convincing Quinton to take me into Chatsworth was a task and a half. And only when we got there did I really understand his apprehension. Chatsworth and Phoenix, SA’s two largest Indian townships, are not fun places to be. Riddled with crime perpetuated by a serious drug problem in the community, poverty is only the beginning of a very sad story. For me, I must admit that it was tough to see. I’ve been to some of the most rural parts of India and witnessed the most extreme of impoverished situations there, but somehow I didn’t expect it when visiting Indians in another country…. it’s as if my lens for the diasporic experience is that of the South Asian American one (largely of a professional class), even though I know that’s wrong….

Finding a neighborhood temple proved to be more difficult than we originally thought. Partly because our GPS, although aware of all the local churches, wasn’t particularly helpful with addresses for temples – even though the massive Indian community has been here for hundreds of years. When we did find one, the most striking thing for me was the dates. Pieces of the building and parts of altars were donated as far back as 1939. 1939! In my head, I’m rationally aware that the community has been in SA for that long, but to see it and feel it right in front of me was a completely other thing. My family’s neighborhood temple in the suburbs of New Orleans was created in 1996… And really it’s just a converted house with a trailer in the back where we learned Bengali and scripture… So to know that previous Indian communities began that process in another land so many years ago was both awe-inspiring and incredibly intense.

The final stop on our Durban tour was the Gandhi Settlement, which turned out to be even more difficult to find than the temple. Lauded in all the tourist guides as a “must see,” no website, pamphlet, or tourist bureau could provide us with the exact address. It turns out that the Gandhi Settlement is located within what is today an African township and the Trustees that manage the Settlement and the local municipal government seem to have some serious issues to sort out, beginning with proper publicity and signage. Apparently the Black vs. Indian struggle finds itself permeating in local government and the end result is no signage at all.

Also striking was the lack of electricity and running water at what should be a World Heritage Site. One could think that the bare bones system is a throwback to Gandhi’s way of living, but it’s not. It’s more fighting between the Trustees of the Settlement and the local community.

Even worst than all of that was the need to “rebuild” Gandhi’s home. Up until 1985, nearly one hundreds years after it was created, the home was still in perfect condition. Yet one day, randomly & viciously, the entire settlement was burned to the ground by apartheid sympathizers. The Settlement had helped many who fought against apartheid and this was the opposition’s way of getting back. Completely unnecessary and such a shame.

After we returned from Durban I got to thinking about not just the Indian tourist sites, but also all of the little things that demonstrate a long-standing Indian community here in SA. There are Indian TV shows and targeted radio stations (with names like Eastern Mosiac and Lotus fm), bhangra parties, and speciality stores. There is the “Oriental Plaza” full of Indian spices and goods, government mandated halal labeling, and a consistent availability of frozen samosas.

I also got to thinking about my many South African Indian friends in Jo’burg. Each of them once came from a township during the era of apartheid but have since come out of it to prosper. In some, there exists the twinge of continued racism, which we see consistently in our Indian community, yet they are all very aware that they face very real racism themselves. They sit in literal terms, based on the apartheid racial hierarchy, where I normally feel in the States – smack in the middle of the Black/White paradigm. And quite frankly, if SA is any indication, I don’t think that’s ever going to change.

As for the overall South African Indian community, they didn’t just create “Little Indias” for themselves. There are pockets that feel like Calcutta, but for the most part SA’s Indian community has created a unique space with unique customs and unique attitudes. I suppose time will only tell if America’s Indian community will produce our own unique version of the diasporic story.

June 20, 2008

MYMsta launches!!

It’s been a LONG six months, but today the product I’ve been working on has launched! We had a press conference yesterday, and I was so crazy nervous that the press would be bad, but so far, pretty good. (knock on wood!) The product is designed for young South Africans, but if you’re curious and want to check it out, go to on the web browser on your cell phone. It’s a social network designed for your phone, but more importantly, its designed to give South African youth access to knowledge, skills, opportunities and each other – which will hopefully give them a million reasons to protect themselves from HIV.

But rather than me going on and on, much easier to post the press release. =) Here it is:

MYMsta is making his Move – Make YOUR Move!

This week, loveLife - South Africa’s national HIV prevention programme for young people, launches an international first: MYMsta - the world’s first mobile-based social network dedicated to the empowerment of young people and the prevention of HIV.

MYMsta goes far beyond text-messaging, providing functionality typically found on Internet-based social networks. Young people will be able to maintain their own profiles, join chat groups, access information about bursaries and scholarships, and much more.

MYMsta stems from loveLife’s belief that it is the circumstances of young people – and not their disregard for the message of HIV prevention - that continues to drive the epidemic. Many young people who leave school face an uncertain future and feel excluded from opportunity. Not surprisingly, half the lifetime risk of HIV infection among young women is crammed into just five years after leaving school.

loveLife’s call to young people to “Make Your Move” seeks to build their personal initiative, strengthen their ability to negotiate day-to-day pressures and expectations and find new links to opportunity. Given the extensive ownership of cell phones by South African youth (75% of 15-24 year olds have one), cell phone-based technology opens up new possibilities for HIV prevention.

“Young people are much more likely to protect themselves if they have a strong sense of identity, belonging and purpose in life,” says Dr. David Harrison, CEO of loveLife. “A mobile social network will never replace face-to-face interaction, but it offers young people a new way of defining themselves and connecting to each other. It also gives them instant links to information which makes them feel that they can go places in life.”

In partnership with CellSmart Technologies (a mobile marketing agency and Wireless Application Service Provider), loveLife has built an inexpensive and easily accessible mobile platform called MYMsta (Make Your Move – social network). Strategically this WAP site was not only the answer to accessibility, but also the most effective use of technology for two key reasons:

1) Over 75% of all South African youth own mobile phones (71% of youth in informal settlements and 67% in rural areas), and although Internet access via computers is very low at 6%, mobile internet usage via WAP in South Africa is one of the highest in the world.

2) Social networking behaviour plays directly into the three key triggers to behavior change – sense of identity, belonging, and purpose. Users define their identity by creating personal profiles with photos, video, and text. They develop belonging & community by connecting to like-minded individuals through forums, groups, and messaging. And MYMsta is designed with a sense of purpose.

By combining these two factors, MYMsta will empower individuals, build solidarity amongst South African youth, serve as an organizing tool amongst and for young people, and facilitate content distribution and data collection.

Integrated into loveLife’s already extensive on-the-ground and media programmes, MYMsta will bring together South Africa’s youth; encourage self-expression and dialogue; connect young people to each other and with key leaders; and will share important information on opportunities, jobs, skills development, advice, and motivational success stories for only a few cents in airtime. Data rates for the WAP site have been minimized such that MYMsta is only 2-5c per page on average, and less than 25c for downloading specific information about educational and other opportunities.

MYMsta will serve as a platform to enable the loveLife generation to work together for a better collective future for themselves and for South Africa. It will be live on 20 June and will be available at on WAP-enabled phones.

June 2, 2008

The Month of May: Xenophobia

The closer I get to the launch of the loveLife Mobile product, the worse I get about blogging…. Time and sleep also seem to be running away from me. But many thanks to everyone who has been checking in. The big issue that happened in the month of May was the xenophobic attacks. They’ve certainly given me a lot to think about….

Many of you saw the headline “Foreigners Attacked in Johannesburg” and sent me very kind & concerned notes. To all I had to reply some derivation of: “Don’t worry. I’m fine. Technically I’m not a foreigner in South Africa. See I’m not Black nor from another African country. So I’m actually welcome here.”

The more I wrote those lines (or tried to explain the phenomenon to my very concerned mother), the more frustrated I became. For one, in my day-to-day existence, living & working in Sandton, the horrific violence could have just as easily have been happening on the other side of the world, even though it was actually happening only a few miles away. Second, everyone knows that the root cause of the violence isn’t hatred of immigrants. The root cause is the lack of opportunity and the festering of unfulfilled post-apartheid promises. Yet in my opinion, no one in the SA government wants to directly address it or do something about it.

On the first point, everyday I read in the paper or heard on the radio about another gross & inhumane act (including the lighting of a man on fire), I became more and more uncomfortable with my “suburban” bubble. I know from a safety perspective, I need to be where I am. But suddenly it became abundantly clear to me how so many White people were able to feign ignorance during apartheid. The way the apartheid government set it up privileged members of society can go about their daily life completely unaffected, while 10 minutes away angry mobs veer towards genocide.

The question of why this is happening in South Africa is a bigger issue with a very simple answer but seemingly no concrete solution for the foreseeable future.

“White people hire the foreigners because they work hard and they do it for less money,” Mr. Booysen said. “A South African demands his rights and will go on strike. Foreigners are afraid.” NYT

I could easily replace the word foreigners with Mexican and South African with American and it would seem like the same tired immigration story. But here in South Africa, that’s actually not the case – simply the only way the media can wrap its head around such a complicated situation. In truth, Zimbabweans and Nigerians have been living side-by-side with South Africans for decades. The issue now is not fear of immigration and unemployment (which already stands at nearly 40%); the real issue is misdirected anger. Deep-seated anger very directly related to the aftermath of apartheid. And in turn, the oppressed are trying to overpower the further oppressed…

According to the media, the violence has begun to subside. Actors have come on TV denouncing xenophobia. The government declares South Africans must love all Africans. And magically, angry mobs have supposedly disappeared. I’m not so convinced the violence is gone. Given ever so slight an excuse (perhaps the pending water crisis in Jo’burg…), I think we’ll see it again. It won’t be until the South African government makes a real commitment to education, skills development, and broad-based economic growth that this country will see true post-apartheid change.

May 8, 2008

Touring Southern Africa

My sincere apologies. I unfortunately haven’t been able to post in some time because I’ve been on a whirlwind tour of southern Africa with my family. The journey was amazing and breathtaking and simultaneously surreal. So many moments of being taken by the beauty of the world; equal number of moments of gratitude for being able to experience that beauty first hand.

Some notes and pics from the road:

April 21st – 24th
South African Safari: Kruger National Park, Timbavati Reserve

I must say that before arriving on safari I had my reservations. For all who know me, I’m not exactly a “camping” kind of girl, much less one trying to hang out in the bush. But after my first safari experience, I would definitely recommend it to anyone and everyone – even the most city of the city girls.

The truth is being so close to some of Earth’s most magnificent creatures is an unbelievably beautiful and humbling experience. For me, it was a consistent reminder that this place does not belong to us; as humans we’re simply borrowing parts of it for a bit of time.

There really is no effective way I can put the experience into words. In an attempt to capture each amazing moment my family and I took nearly 1200 pictures. Here are some of the best:

April 24th – 28th
The Path to India: Cape of Good Hope, Cape Town

This trip to Cape Town marked my fourth, so I thought I had seen it all. Turns out I hadn’t actually seen anything yet. ☺ The highlight of the four days was the Cape Peninsula tour. To simply drive around the peninsula doesn’t take more than an hour or two, but we spent the entire day leisurely stopping at each beautifully scenic point. (We also took a slight detour to an ostrich farm and penguin colony along the way. The more time I spend with animals lately, the more I see humanity in them and animals in us… sounds strange, but let’s just say having a diva ostrich snap at me when I tried to touch him taught me a lesson or two. =))

The Cape of Good Hope was a particularly interesting stop on the tour. It is perhaps the most tourist-visited site in Cape Town, as it is known to be the southern most point of Africa (although technically that point is Cape Agulhas). The area is crawling with buses and trinkets and retirees – signs of tourist hell. But upon arrival near the lighthouse, where one can get the best views of the actual “southern point,” all of that tourist-related anxiety melts away. The scene is stunning and you can actually feel yourself within the space of history.

For my father, the Cape of Good Hope had a whole other level of meaning. As a small boy studying in rural India he learned of Vasco da Gama and the explorer’s adventures to find the ocean route to India. Never in his dreams did he think he’d be standing at that very point one day – the point that in many ways linked east & west; the point that combined where he grew up and where he is today.

April 28th – 30th
The Smoke That Thunders: Victoria Falls, Zambia

At the moment I’m sitting in Livingstone, Zambia, “working” on my laptop literally ten feet from the Zambezi River flowing slowly before me. It is a gorgeous, nearly cloudless day, temperature at a near perfect 76 degrees, and every time I look up from the screen at the vision around me, I have to look again to make sure my eyes haven’t deceived me. It’s as if my mind can’t comprehend being in such a beautiful place while still getting “work” done. (I suppose it helps that our hotel is on the river. ☺)

My eyes have felt tricked many times over these past two weeks of tours, guides, hotels and airports. Earlier today I experienced the Victoria Falls. Standing in the thundering mist of the falls is incredibly invigorating. It feels like a wonderful shower in nature’s water, with the slight (ok more than slight) twinge that you might die as the water’s power pulls you in.

At one particular moment, we were crossing a very wet & slippery bridge to see more of the falls. This walking bridge is directly parallel to the car bridge that links Zambia and Zimbabwe. With everything happening in the region right now, it’s hard to simply be present without thinking about what Zim’s people are going through. But I did have a selfish moment, where I looked over the bridge at the gorge, water, and rainbow beside me. And in that moment, I felt completely at peace.

It has been such a privilege to see these sights and be in these places. As a spiritual person, I am aware of a divine presence all around me, but there have been many moments, like the one on the bridge, where that presence has felt incredibly intense. Perhaps it’s because I’m sitting before that which is unadulterated, relatively untouched by human interference. Perhaps it’s just the beauty of the places themselves. Not sure. I just know that I’m really grateful for all of it.

April 20, 2008

“You don’t travel South Africa. South Africa travels you.”

The quote comes from the cover of a beautiful coffee table book on South African fashion titled “Well-Souled.” Lately, through work, I’ve had the opportunity to travel around SA quite a bit, and nearly every moment reminds me of the truth in that quote.

Quick stories from some of the places I’ve been:

Orange Farm, Alexandria, and Langa
Whereas Soweto includes a burgeoning Black middle class, Orange Farm and Alexandria are Johannesburg’s “ghetto.” Alexandria (or Alex as it’s called here) is located literally next door to the super rich Sandton suburb. Orange Farm is about 40 minutes outside of the city. Langa is Cape Town’s equivalent.

Corrugated steel barely held together make up many of the “homes.” Violent crime is rampant. Unemployment is upwards of 60%. And HIV/AIDS is a very serious, very present issue.

Each of these regions are Black townships created by South Africa’s apartheid government, placed close enough to the cities to provide cheap labor, but far enough away so the people could not benefit. Today, the kids born in these townships are able to go into the cities without the previous regime’s pass laws and entry requirements, but there is still no effective system to help them benefit from the financial hubs so close by.

Interesting story: When I was in Orange Farm, I spent the day at the loveLife Y-Centre focus-grouping our mobile social network. The kids are all on MXit (SA’s mobile chat application), ao I asked them what they would want if they could create their own MXit. They didn’t tell me they wanted games, music, pictures or other prizes like I thought they would. They literally asked me for inspiration. “We need role models. Inspirational quotes. Maybe even the Bible.”

Ethenbeni and Port Shepstone
Ethenbeni is about an hour outside of East London in the Eastern Cape. Port Shepstone is about and hour and a half south of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Both villages are pilot sites for loveLife’s gogoGetters program, which is working to organize the already mobilized grandmothers of South Africa who are raising many of SA’s 1 million AIDS orphaned children. (Gogo means grannie in Xhosa.) Here’s the PSA:

All of the Gogos I met in Ethenbeni and Port Shepstone were as beautiful and vibrant as depicted in the PSA. Passionate, energetic, and full of life, they are very serious when they assert that they have watched their children die of AIDS; they won’t stand by and watch their grandchildren die too.

Painful story: The gogoGetter program is designed to help the Gogos achieve five things. (1) Make sure the orphans and vulnerable children feel like part of the community. (2) Keep the kids in school. (3) Help the children access government grants. (4) Ensure food security. (5) Work to stop sexual abuse.

When the loveLife program development team was discussing the final point with the Gogos, they asked who was the most likely perpetrator of sexual abuse? The uncle? The neighbor?

The Gogos responded that it was actually the younger men in the community. And that they would come to the Gogos’ houses in particular to rape both the children and the grandmother, because they knew no male figure would be around. As I looked around the room, my heart sank as I realized many of our beautiful Gogos had likely been victims.

Whereas Jo’burg feels like Los Angeles and Cape Town is like the south of France, Nongoma is National Geographic’s version of Africa – stunningly beautiful, pristinely natural, and heartbreakingly poor.

The poverty, however, is only one piece of Nongoma’s story. Located in Zululand in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal, the beauty of Nongoma’s people is further enriched by the beauty of the land - green, lush, rolling hills for miles, complemented at random by circles of traditional, brightly-colored, clay homes with thatched roofs.

The people of Nongoma face difficult circumstances: Gender equity is incredibly tough to accomplish as many traditional rules still apply (the Zulu King still rules the area). Unemployment sits at above 80%. And the region has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, reaching upwards of 50% in certain cases, such as mother-to-child transmission.

But Nongoma’s people have tremendous amounts of faith and hope, and those who can are doing what they can to give themselves and their families a better life.

Inspiring story: The young people we met at the Nongoma Y-Centre were like many of loveLife’s youth – hip, happening, passionate and on it. It didn’t matter that they were from one of the most remote parts of SA; they all had this immense sense of passion & style combined with a deep desire to succeed beyond their circumstances.

One particularly inspiring young woman had recently moved 60 km from her home in order to be able to simply volunteer at the loveLife Y-Centre. Just the travel alone would have been quite a feat for her in rural SA, but she made it to Nongoma and was able to organize a place for her to stay while away from home. She went to all of this effort because for her, like for so many of SA’s youth, loveLife’s Y-Centre is the only place even remotely nearby where she can learn computer skills, debate skills, motivation, or quite frankly, gain any form of skills development. And she was determined to get the skills she needed in order to get a scholarship to go to university to make her dreams come true.

April 16, 2008

Thank You

Many who read this blog have written me with incredibly kind words. And I wanted to share here how much those words mean to me.

When I decided to take this trip back in August 2007, I knew how hard it would be for me to be so far away from my friends and family. And I won’t lie; it isn’t easy. But being away has been a consistent lesson in gratitude. Gratitude for the amazing people in my life. Gratitude for the many wonderful life experiences. Gratitude for the love felt, shown and shared through those people and experiences, even when I can’t be in the same physical space.

So, thank you for making it easier. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

April 8, 2008

The Work: Part II

When I said I would write more “tomorrow,” I actually meant next week. =) Funny enough it has been work that has kept me from writing about the work.

But now on to the why and how around loveLife’s mobile program.

Why mobile social networking?

1) Social networking plays directly into the key triggers of behavior change – identity, belonging, and purpose. Creating a profile is an explicit exercise in developing identity as you decide how you want people to see you; the nature of groups, forums, chats, etc. is rooted in developing belonging. And the core of this particular social network is around purpose.

2) loveLife’s massive physical network makes creating a virtual network a natural extension. Launching a viral product with a built in base of 20,000 people and access to 800,000 more is a marketer’s dream.

3) One of the core objectives of loveLife’s “Make Your Move” campaign is to link young people to potential opportunities. (Each year, millions of rand go back into the SA government budget simply because not enough people know about or know how to apply for government grants.) Another core objective is igniting initiative and self-reliance. Social networking tools provide a platform for young people to organize themselves. And since it’s all on their mobile, information dissemination (particularly around jobs, scholarships, and internships) becomes significantly easier.

So strategically, mobile social networking makes sense for loveLife. It may not be right for all NGOs, but it will bring this organization where it wants to be. How we came to create this thing, however, is a more interesting story.

The How

As a marketing consultant, I’m in the business of messages and ideas. In my past experience with non-profits, the messages have been forced to be watered down and the big ideas are hardly ever able to survive.

The difference with loveLife is their CEO, David Harrison. Spend ten minutes with David and you realize he’s a visionary. Spend thirty minutes and you understand why he’s a brilliant fundraiser. Spend an hour with David and you notice he’s a bit of an anarchist, or at a minimum, not a huge fan of conventional wisdom.

More important than all of that – he gets it.

I spent only five minutes walking him through Facebook (an exercise I end up doing with most clients over 35), when his eyes lit up. He immediately saw the potential I had seen of social networking on mobile, and simply asked me, “How much?”

I warned him about the challenges, the largest of which was that we wouldn’t be able to control or always monitor the social network, as doing so would kill it. He understood. I warned him that it would require multiple hires and a reconfiguration of content development from his media team. He understood. I warned him that if it took off, it would be huge, and he had to be prepared for both the good and the bad that comes with that, including a need for new sources of funding. He understood.

One week later I interviewed nearly every mobile development agency in SA.

Two weeks later we hired one.

Three weeks later we outlined the scope.

Four weeks later I ran around the country focus grouping the functionality.

Five weeks later we began endless partnership conversations to bring in music, games, fun and prizes to the network.

It’s now six weeks after I mentioned a simple idea to David and I’m writing a product launch strategy.

This June, the product will be live.

I often can’t believe this is all actually happening. What began as a personal journey to South Africa has become one of my most enriching professional experiences. More importantly, I actually feel like I’m creating something that will provide value to the youth of South Africa. 10 of them could use it, or a million could be on it, and it would still mean as much to me. Because each of those kids is one additional person who has access to more information and more people and more tools than they did before. And for me, that's exactly how media and technology can help create social change.

March 31, 2008

The Work

I haven’t written much about the actual project I’m working on here in SA. Part of that is the sincerely amusing irony that I work more now as a “volunteer” than I generally do as a paid consultant. So by the end of the day, when I do sit down to write, I’m often trying not to think about “work.” But lately, I eat, breathe, sleep, even IV inject my project, so there’s been no time for writing at all. (Much love to those of you who actually read this blog. Even more love to those who send me emails asking why I’m not writing. =))

When I first arrived I thought simple SMS information solutions would be the route to go for loveLife’s mobile program. In the US, it’s the cheapest, easiest and least technologically taxing of mobile tools, so it seemed like a logical choice. What I quickly learned, however, is that South Africa is in a whole other playing field than America.

For starters, SA has one of the highest mobile internet usage rates in the world. Forget the computer age, Africa (like many other developing countries) has leapfrogged directly into the mobile future. No need to lay cables. No reason to buy expensive hardware. Just access the web on your favorite personal device, your phone. Oh and by the way, it will cost you nearly nothing to do so. Data transmission rates are a fraction of a cent in US dollars, sometimes per hour of roaming.

Second, South Africa has a particularly unique combination of market forces: cosmopolitan (read wealthy) hubs of Jo’burg and Cape Town have created an incredibly sophisticated advertising industry + essentially little to no mobile regulation. So as mobile uptake skyrockets, advertisers are readily funding entrepreneurs to figure out how to reach people on their phones, who in turn have already tested all the possible models. The winner: MXit. 7.6 million kids, with tens of thousands joining each day, chatting away over the mobile internet (as opposed to SMS) using this tool. Ask any South African kid what they do all day, and they’ll tell you they’re on MXit.

The third piece of the project strategy puzzle is loveLife itself.

(1) loveLife has the most massive on-the-ground NGO footprint I’ve ever seen. Through youth centers, community partnerships, school & government programs, and a huge peer education network, loveLife literally reaches millions of kids with face-to-face interaction every year. On top of that, they have one of South Africa’s largest media holdings, with massive reach on TV, radio, outdoor, and the country’s largest youth publication, with a 650,000+ print circulation. Most in the international community don’t realize this, but no one can reach the South African youth market the way loveLife can.

(2) loveLife has learned that what works in other places, doesn’t work in South Africa. Kids here get the HIV prevention message; they hear it everywhere. They don’t listen, however, because they don’t care. Day-to-day life for most young South Africans offers little to no opportunity. You have no money, no access, no hope, and sadly thanks to the AIDS epidemic, likely no family or community to guide you through either. HIV is just a tiny bump compared to life’s many other hurdles.

In response, loveLife has moved from direct HIV prevention messaging to a more holistic approach. Their 2008 media campaign is working to shift young people’s perception of opportunity, while their massive on-the-ground program will give South African youth direct access to tools, skills development, and information to “Make Your Move,” the campaign’s tag.

(Here’s the campaign teaser ad, designed simply to introduce the concept of “Make Your Move” and get kids to call their Call Center to find out more.)

So after all of this explanation, what am I doing for loveLife on mobile: we’re developing (potentially/hopefully) South Africa’s largest mobile social network.

More tomorrow on why and how. (I have to sleep at some point. =))

March 19, 2008

When Load-Shedding Plans Your Life

It's getting colder in Johannesburg. Which means people are turning on their heat and using more electricity. Which also means Eskom has started load-shedding again. The papers have printed the load-shedding "schedule." Unfortunately, Eskom doesn't always follow it, but either way it's really not good fun. For starters, vanity goes out the door when you quickly realize you will not be able to use your hair dyer in the mornings (not to mention the fact that you're freezing out of the shower anyway since there's no heat). But much worse, if you're in the areas that have load shedding from 6pm-10pm, you can't make dinner for your children, relax with TV, or really do anything except sit and stare at each other by candlelight. And let's not forget the issue of the electric gates. Two friends have already called this week locked out in search of something to do until the lights come back on.

Perhaps even worse than everyone's individual annoyances will be the economic impact. Three days a week our offices now have no electricity until 10am, two hours after office hours begin. (And we just happen to be located in the same area as all of the banks, law firms, major high end stores, etc.) On top of that, every time Eskom announces price hikes or load shedding the value of the rand plummets. I can't complain about the exchange rate, but there are certainly plenty of reasons for concern around South Africa's electricity issues.

March 18, 2008

Cape Town

When I first decided to move to South Africa, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to live in Cape Town. The original plan was to “rock up” in CT (as they say here) and sort out the details of what I would do once I landed. For years I’ve heard about the beauty of Table Mountain and the serenity of Africa’s southern most beaches, and after my first visit to Cape Town, I must say everything everyone said is true.

But as fate would have it, the CEO of loveLife asked me if I would come to Johannesburg instead. He asked me to give him six weeks in Jo’burg to help develop the mobile strategy, and then if I still wanted to move to Cape Town, I could easily execute the strategy from there. Turns out I’m a big fan of fate.

For starters, I don’t think I’d ever get any work done in Cape Town. I could easily spend hours on end just staring up at the mountain or down on the gorgeous beach (and I’m certain I’m not the only one). Secondly, Cape Town – although incredibly cosmopolitan – is a beach town. And like any beach town, life just moves a little slower. On vacation, I think that pace is fantastic. For day-to-day life, not so much.

But perhaps the main reason I couldn’t live in Cape Town is the very obvious racial segregation. When my friend Mitch and I went to visit last week, we stayed in Camps Bay, which admittedly is one of the nicer parts of town, tucked directly in between the mountain and the beach with spectacular views of each. It is also apparently occupied by pretty much Whites only. On our first night out, we headed to a restaurant down the street and were both fairly shocked that there wasn’t a single Black patron, only staff. I know in many parts of the world this isn’t terribly uncommon, but White people only make up 9% of South Africa.

Then, the next night we went out to Long Street, essentially the Bourbon Street of Cape Town with literally a long stretch of bars, clubs and merry people hanging out in the streets. We began at the top of the street and realized pretty quickly that there were White bars and Black bars on Long Street. There was even one point in the night when we looked around and realized that all the White people were on one side of the street and the Black folks on the other. Mitch and I just stopped and looked at each other in awe.

Self-segregation probably doesn’t seem too terribly shocking a mere 14 years after the end of apartheid. But Johannesburg does not suffer from the same issue. Part of this is that proportionally there are a larger percentage of Whites in Cape Town than in any other part of SA at 23%. Another part is that Cape Town is largely a tourist town with a fair share of the property owned by foreigners. But the biggest issue is that unlike Johannesburg, Cape Town has no Black middle class to speak of. And even in the most gorgeous setting, the poverty is pretty in your face – literally with children waiting outside of restaurants begging for change.

In the end, I’m tremendously grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to visit Cape Town. Standing on top of Table Mountain is a spiritual experience, and I would recommend it to anyone. Driving alongside the mountain looking over at the Atlantic’s water crashing on the rocks is consistently breathtaking. And at any given moment while in CT you can turn around and be in complete awe of nature.

I will continue to visit Cape Town and visit often. But ironically enough I don't think I could live there.

March 7, 2008

The People of South Africa

I’m currently procrastinating. I need to finish packing as I fly out to Cape Town early in the morning, but I’ve reached that point in the night where sleep is fairly pointless.

One of the many things I’ve done tonight (besides not sleep) is to take a quick look back at my blog entries thus far. And I’ve noticed that I’ve spent a lot of time writing about South African culture and society, but I don’t think in doing so I’ve done justice to this country’s people.

Hands down, without question, the people I have met in South Africa have been some of the nicest, most caring and helpful people I’ve ever met (going above and beyond even the kindest of Southern hospitality, I must say).

I came to this country literally knowing no one. So I spent the four months prior telling everyone I knew that if they happened to know anyone in SA to let me know. Through that process, I’ve created a network of friends in Johannesburg and Cape Town who are in reality actually friends of friends of friends of friends (no exaggeration). Yet everyone has welcomed me with immensely open arms. They invite me out whenever they’re going anywhere. They constantly give me advice about places to go and things to do. They drove me all around town before I got my car. And they continue to check on me to make sure I’m doing ok, even one’s I haven’t had the opportunity to meet yet.

Through everyone’s kindness, I’ve been learning an interesting lesson about asking for help. Coming from New York, where fierce independence is a cultural norm, I expected to have to figure things out on my own in SA. But here, not asking for help is practically offensive. For example, I didn’t ask anyone to take me to the airport, as I assumed I should just take a taxi. But when I mentioned this to a friend, he looked at me like I was insane and said, “Why didn’t you just ask me to take you?” I honestly didn’t have a response; it just didn’t occur to me. He then said, “When you don’t ask, it makes me think we’re not friends.” I’ve never explicitly thought of asking for help as a sign of friendship, but I suppose that makes perfect sense.

Maybe I’ve just been living in New York too long. :)

March 6, 2008

Presidential Politics

At least once a day I get an email, SMS, or forwarded article about the US Presidential Election. For all who know me and my love of politics, there is both a sense of immense excitement in everyone’s messages and a nearly equal amount of awe that I’m “missing it all.”

The truth is that I calculated this trip so I would be away specifically during the primaries. I knew it was going to be crazy, and I wanted to step back and gain some perspective. Although I could have never anticipated it would be as crazy as it’s been, being on the outside looking in has been incredibly interesting.

For one, it’s much easier to see all the media bias. South African newspapers don’t believe America is capable of electing a woman or black man, so they’ve placed their bets on John McCain, “the old white man” as they say. (This coming from a country whose likely next President, ANC-Chair Jacob Zuma, faces charges of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering. Not to mention he has four wives and eighteen children and is likely to marry a fifth soon.) The New York Times, on the other hand, clearly loves Barack. I used to think it was just the op-ed page, but now I see it pretty much everywhere. Part of that is Obama’s charm, part is the public perception of Hillary’s lack thereof. And part of it, from a true objective (and well documented) perspective is that the media has never exactly been friendly to Hillary.

As for my thoughts on the race - honestly, I don’t know. Every day, every poll, and every (generally useless) pundit brings in a new frame on what this race is about. More interesting to me than those reports are the stories I’m hearing. My twenty-two year old younger brother, for example, recently told me he’s become a Hillary fan. A self-proclaimed moderate who consistently disagrees with my progressive views, particularly when I wax poetic about women in politics, I was a little surprised.

“What brought you to that conclusion?”

“She really seems to have her act together, and I think she can get stuff done.”


“Yeah, but I can’t really tell anyone, because as a young person if you’re not a Obama supporter it’s sort of like you’re a traitor.”


Politics is rarely polite dinner conversation, but it’s much more unique for it to have infiltrated the social lives of America’s college age set.

This brought me to my second thought from SA – the surge of young people in politics this election cycle. I spent the last two presidential elections talking to tens of thousands of young people about why voting is important. The overwhelming apathy was resounding, no matter what cool new free stuff I was giving away. But with the right inspiration and the right candidate, a lot of that has seemed to change. Young people simply wanted someone who speaks to them. Makes sense.

And I am thrilled that young people are engaged and inspired, but I’m also a little bit worried, because I’m not sure it’s sustainable. Not all elections can be historic (In fact, local elections, which affect one’s day-to-day life most, are the LEAST historic. They’re down right boring.) And all candidates simply will not have the oratory skill of Barack, Bill or JFK. (Again, when’s the last time your Senator, Governor, or Mayor got you excited about something?) It is true that we expect the most from our Presidents, and to some degree they have a duty to inspire, but I feel like we’re all tuning in to watch Michael Jordan on the court without having a clue as to how the game of basketball is played.

So as I sit and watch the show from a continent on the other side of the world, I am both thrilled and frightened by the excitement of this year’s primaries. Everyone is plugged in like it’s the Super Bowl, but what happens when the game ends and the real work of governing has to begin? Will anyone stay tuned?

February 28, 2008

Race, Identity, Soweto and Me

“Hello, white girl.” This was my welcome to Soweto.

One of South Africa’s largest townships, Soweto is most well known as the hotbed of youth activism against apartheid, particularly during the fateful June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprising when over 10,000 students marched against the government’s policy that education must take place in Afrikaans as opposed to English. (The apparent “logic” behind the ruling was that White’s taxes were contributing to Black education, thus Blacks must learn in Afrikaans, a language they had no background in.) The Soweto Uprising brought national attention to South Africa as police opened random fire on the students after a policeman threw rocks into the crowd and the children threw rocks back. 566 people died that day, and the senseless violence upon children was the tipping point to bring political and economic sanctions against South Africa.

Knowing this history, I of course wanted to visit Soweto. The guys at work decided that I wasn’t allowed to take a tour. “No, no, no. We’ll take you to the hood,” they liked to tell me. So I finally got them to commit to a time, and on Sunday Thabiso and Molemo (in the pictures below) showed me around their town.

For starters, their version of the “hood” is not exactly the Magnolia Projects. Perhaps I’m not sensitized as I might be if from here, but I certainly didn’t feel in danger at any point in time. Instead, I felt like I was in a low-middle income Black community, not so unlike Duke Dr. where I spent my early years in Kenner, Louisiana. Single family homes with lots of family coming in and out. Folks hanging out in the streets, strolling around on a hot summer day. People calling out to everyone who passed by ‘cause you know they know your “mama and ‘dem.” (Ok, so maybe we only say that phrase in New Orleans. =))

What was different were the clear signs of apartheid and the progress since. Soweto is where Gauteng Province’s Black people were forcibly moved during apartheid (and today 6 million of South Africa’s 42 million people live in Soweto). No one was allowed to own land. The homes were built practically on top of each other, so there are generally no “yards” to speak of. And quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot of racial diversity to be found in Soweto.

On the other hand, those who have been able have added extensions to their homes. So in between a row of modest houses are newly constructed two-story places. (However, interestingly enough, very few of these houses have the immense security walls found in the White suburbs.) At the “posh” local restaurants you do see some folks of other races. And perhaps Soweto’s most interesting sign of “progress” is the absolutely massive mall and the equally ginormous mega-churches. (I thought I’d seen some of world’s largest mega-churches when working in Ohio, but this is a whole other thing….)

Soweto, like most of my time in South Africa, also consistently brought me back to the conversation of race. The initial trigger came as Thabiso and I were standing outside Molemo’s house waiting for him to get back from church. Molemo’s cousin walked by and started calling out to me:

“Hello white girl. Come stand in the shade with me white girl. Don’t get burned white girl.” Thabiso just laughed and laughed.

My jaw dropped. “Thabiso, did I lose six shades of pigment since this morning?”

“Nah, you’re just White in Soweto.”

Hmm…ok. I could see how even in the Rainbow Nation the black/white paradigm would be powerful in the township. If you aren’t Black in Soweto, essentially you’re White. I could see that.

However, the next day is what really surprised me. I went into the office to tell my Sowetan tales, including my new found whiteness. I was certain everyone would see the humor in my “Hello white girl” moment and laugh with me at the story. Turns out several people at the office thought I was White as well!

So again, I ask the fairly inane question, “Did I lose several shades of pigment today?” The Johannesburg summer has been baking me, and I’m definitely a very toasty shade of brown.

“No, it’s not about your skintone. Your facial features are White. You don’t look like our Indians. And you speak proper,” says my White, Afrikaans-speaking co-worker. Apparently accents in South Africa tell you more about racial category than skin color.

“I thought you were White as well, but maybe Coloured (mixed). Although wouldn’t have guessed Indian,” says my White, lesbian co-worker, whose partner is Coloured and adopted daughter is Black.

“Why not Indian I ask?” South Africa has the largest Indian community outside of India. Surely I could be “recognized” Indian here.

“We don’t really know that there are any Indians from India in America.”

Fantastic. We need to get Kal Penn to do more movies.

I then ask a Black female co-worker and she says she couldn’t guess my racial background either. But she did notice that I had “Indian hair”...

So then I asked an Indian co-worker (in a fairly obvious move for acceptance) what he thought my ethnic background was. Surely he would take me for one of his own.

“I figured you were Hispanic.”


From what I gathered from him, most of South Africa’s Indians are South Indian, who are generally darker skinned than me. And as I was told by another co-worker, “Our Indians aren't usually ‘curvy’ as you are.” Ah, the curves…

In the end it became abundantly clear that my racial category had been a topic of office conversation, and the general consensus was that no one knew. Which also meant they didn’t know which social box to put me in. Well, except foreign.

Which got me thinking…

In America, I’m never quite American. Everyone asks me where I’m from. Not the American city I was born in, but where I’m “from from,” in other words my ethnic background. In India, I don’t have to open my mouth before it is assumed I’m not from India, simply in how I carry myself. In Argentina, I was assumed to be Brazilian. In Brazil, I was Venezuelan. In Ohio, I was Black. And in South Africa, I’m now apparently White.

I’m not complaining about playing racial chameleon. It’s actually often fun, generally interesting, and sometimes quite helpful. It’s just fascinating to me that race is still used as such a salient social construct, although it can’t be definitively defined.

Moreover, this whole experience has me thinking about identity. My personal identity is deeply linked to being “South Asian American,” but that construct has no value here. I’ve also grown up working with and for communities of color, but suddenly I’m seen as White here – not as part of the majority group, but as part of those with elevated access and power.

I’m not really sure what all of this means yet. But I am going back to Soweto tomorrow tonight. Maybe there I’ll find some answers, or at least some more questions...

February 17, 2008


I’m getting really antsy to spend some time outside of Johannesburg, partly because the constant reminders of extreme income disparities are incredibly unnerving. I’m aware that economic inequality is not a uniquely South African condition, but the acceptance of the disparity here makes me terribly sad and uncomfortable. As someone explained it to me, “You have a first world society within a third world country, designed that way during years of apartheid to create cheap labor. No one is going to rush to change that – newly rich Black or always rich White.”

A perfect example of the juxtaposition is a comparison of Jo’burg’s so-called Downtown CBD and the current location of most corporate offices, Sandton. Downtown Jo’burg looks like the place time forgot. Dilapidated office buildings, pot-holed filled roads, and chaotic taxi ranks suggest the area was once a business center, while simultaneously evoking a complete lack of care. As the pictures tell the story:

In contrast, Sandton, as I’ve mentioned, looks like Beverly Hills. Below are pictures of the place I’m staying. Considered your standard “nice Sandton home,” I can’t even capture the whole thing in one shot (although again, not complaining).

Perhaps it’s not only the juxtapositions that do exist, but also the ones that do not that are making me a bit anxious. American movies, American television, American restaurants, American clothing stores – all part of my daily life here. I didn’t come abroad to get away from those things necessarily, but I was certainly looking for something a little different. And it’s not that differences don’t exist, it’s just that I often have to look really hard to find them.

Part of the lack of difference, I believe, is that the uniquely “South African” story, as I’ve mentioned before, is still developing. (ie. The government tried to introduce a national pledge. Though a good idea in theory, the actual words were greeted with much controversy: “SA Battles National Identity Crisis” articleid=332519&area=/breaking_news/breaking_news__national/ ) The other part of Americanized Johannesburg, I think, is the city's apparent xenophobia and its deep desire to be to be Africa’s “most Western city.” Often I’ve heard South Africans tell me that they’re going to “Africa Africa” when headed to another African country. Even Black South Africans do not consider themselves to be “African.”

In the end, maybe my personal anxiousness is based in expectations, and I need to stop looking for or at “juxtapositions.” Perhaps instead I should learn to be more fully present in the moments that are. Not really sure either way. But in the meantime while I figure it out, I just booked a trip to Mozambique. =)

February 15, 2008

I <3 Technology

For someone who works in “new media,” I certainly have crap luck with technology. My problems began when I realized that Apple computers do not have even a remote following in South Africa, not even in the trendiest Jo’burg suburbs. So when I talk about my “Mac,” more than once I’ve been asked if I’m referring to McDonalds.

The lack of Mac computers of course means there’s a lack of support services. So when I nearly blew a fuse in the office trying to charge my laptop through my converter, it took interrogating six different computer stores to realize no one could help me get a local charger, extended battery, or a converter that wouldn’t spark when I plugged it in. (Thankfully some bootleg options solved that problem.)

My second issue has been internet access outside of the office. Like most developing countries, there is no mass use of broadband or existence of cable modems here. Anything that requires laying cable doesn’t exist. So satellite and wireless are the norm, which would be fine if I had a PC. 3G cards are easily accessible and incredibly easy to use. But alas, again, the Mac I love has no slot for a 3G card.

So I devise Plan B: use my cell phone as a modem via Bluetooth or a USB chord. Should be easy enough. I load my SIM card with a data package, follow all the appropriate instructions, and rush home excited to finally be on Skype when people in the US are awake.

Five calls to customer service later I learn that Macs are apparently only compatible with Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones for use as a modem. I own a Motorola.

Great. I go to each of the wireless service providers again for other options, but they can make me no guarantees. “We don’t know Apple computers ma’am. Sorry.”

By this point I’m angry and bitter and taking it out on the folks at the one Apple-authorized dealer I did find, as they can barely help me with anything either. The manager feels so bad for me that he personally takes me around to all the wireless service providers in the mall yet again. Perhaps there was some solution…

Four stores and an hour later, we finally found one. A Mac-friendly USB modem that I could buy without signing away my first-born (most required a three year contract and infinite paperwork that I, as a foreigner, could not produce). I purchase this US$400 device out of exhaustion and desperation; I needed the madness to end.

I get home and again am supremely excited to be connected. But my bliss only lasts one week. The SIM card in my USB modem suddenly malfunctions and I again cannot connect. Error message: “Cannot negotiate connection with remote PPP server.”

Ignoring the fact that I have no idea what that means, the people at customer service had no idea either. After calling every day for a week, after spending 5 hours total on hold listening to terrible music, after talking to 9 different customer service reps, no one could tell me what happened to my SIM card. “We’ll try to fix it ASAP. We assure you.” I’m not so trusting of call center assurances.

Finally today, over a week after it stopped working and two weeks after my USB modem’s purchase, I spoke to someone sane at MTN, my service provider.

“You’ve simply run out of airtime miss.”

“I’m sorry, what?

I’ve been speaking to you people for a week now.”

“Yes, seems as though you were set up with 100MB of data and it was used up in five days. You just need to purchase a new SIM card.”

Oh. Great. That’s all. Say hi to your colleagues for me. Tell them I’m the girl with the Mac.

February 14, 2008

Home Is Where the Heart Is

They say living abroad helps you better appreciate home. I wrote this entry about six months ago while sitting in an airport contemplating my random travels. It has nothing to do with South Africa, but reading it again while in SA gave it more meaning, as part of me going abroad on my own was to be reminded how much I love the people, places, and things I love. Perhaps because it’s Valentine’s Day, perhaps it’s the sentimentality that comes with being away for a month now….not sure. But thought I’d share this random entry anyway. =)


I’ve had two great loves in my life.

The first gave me life, taught me to grow, unconditionally provided me with support, kindness and grace that I didn’t even ask for. It taught me reality from fantasy and authenticity from pretense. It taught me the true meanings of loyalty and honor. And perhaps most importantly, my first love taught me to love all of life, even in its many shades of gray.

But I left that love. I was young, and it was all I knew. So eight years ago I packed my bags in search of something more.

I didn’t find something more, but I did find something new. I found a second love that brought excitement, intrigue, and wonder. A love that taught me about the world’s endless possibilities, and then taught me about my own. I remain in awe of my second love as I slowly discover its history and many dimensions. In my second love, I find myself finding myself.

Yet both of my loves have seen tragedy - my second was hurt before I knew it; the first is still not back on its feet two years after it was struck. So I’ve begun to reconnect with my first love, to be supportive in this time of need and in hopes of finding all its original glory. Instead what I find are small broken remnants of what once was and constant reminders of what may never again be. My second love sees and understands from afar, but doesn’t truly comprehend why my first love can’t seem to recover.

See my first love is the city of New Orleans – vibrant, diverse, nuanced, and unique in only those most indescribable of ways. A city that throughout my childhood exuded the type of energy that alchemists once tried to bottle and store, but they couldn’t capture its beauty. The music, the colors, the people, the food, the history, the art, the love of life that cannot be replicated, all made up everything I knew as a child and how I believed the rest of the world to be. It wasn’t until I left it, however, that I realized how truly special it was. Apparently all children do not celebrate Mardi Gras and treasure cabbage thrown at them on St. Patrick’s Day.

My second love has many of its own idiosyncrasies. I am in a committed and fairly serious relationship with the city of New York. We’ve been together nearly five years now, and not a day goes by that I don’t discover something new. New York is so full of energy that no one even tries to capture it, as it’s clearly impossible. In fact, the endless potential found in New York is both awe-inspiring and simultaneously maddening. Sometimes it makes my head spin when I realize just how much I can actually do in the city of New York. Yet the truth is that the madness is exactly what keeps me coming back, and every time I leave and return to New York, I’m quickly reminded why I love it so much.

What I can’t understand, however, is why my two loves can’t meld and share. Why can’t the crazy accomplishment driven energy of New York be shared with New Orleans to help my first love rebuild? Why can’t New Orleans’ love of life’s smallest pleasures be shared with New York to help my second love slow down? Perhaps then they wouldn’t be the same, and I should learn to accept them as they are.

But if I were to be truly honest, my greatest dream would be to have them both. A few months with my first love, a few others with my second. In theory, that can be accomplished, but I’m genuinely scared that my first love is dying. That my children will never know the New Orleans I knew, and my New York self doesn’t know how to change that.

All I do know is that the energy of New Orleans that once could not be bridled now only comes in as a soft whisper. And although barely audible, it tells me the core of its soul is not gone and allows me to feel the ever so slight beat of a pulse to say New Orleans is still alive – it will return to full form in its own way, in its own time. My New York self doesn’t really understand that type of patience and continues to push for signs of progress, but my New Orleans self reminds me to have faith, and to continue to love one day at a time.

February 11, 2008

Apartheid Museum

Every weekend I try to do one touristy activity. This weekend was the much heralded Apartheid Museum. I must say that it is a beautifully designed structure. In particular, the path to enter the museum is a gorgeous depiction on full length mirrors of South Africa’s multi-racial people walking “with you” on the path. So as you walk by to see who makes up South Africa, you consistently see yourself. Another beautiful acknowledgement of inclusion and individuality.

Beyond the design, the museum itself brought up lots of interesting questions about what makes a “museum” and how one can tell the story of apartheid. The current “exhibit” takes you through the history of apartheid, beginning with Johannesburg’s gold rush that brought people from all over the world to SA and then taking you through the economic and social factors that created and eventually brought down the horrific institution of apartheid. Although most certainly worth experiencing, I personally have read and studied this aspect of South African history at length, so my mind went immediately to how the story was told as opposed to the story itself.

At the Apartheid Museum the story is told almost exclusively through photos, words, and videos. So you feel like someone has blown up pages from a multi-media history book and you’re simply walking through. There are few “artifacts” of the “era” – beyond the many signs that designated segregation between “Europeans” and “Non-Europeans.” Further, there is limited editorial to the story. Instead, everything known to have happened is placed on the walls in basically chronological order.

In truth I don’t know that the “museum” can present its “exhibit” any differently, except perhaps to deepen the segregation experience for attendees (which they try to do with the separate entrances to the museum, but it’s a very small example of the severe indignities people faced during apartheid). Beyond this, South Africa’s truth is that the story of apartheid is still evolving. There is yet little time and space for historians to look back and say, “This is how this story should be told.” No place to dig up “artifacts” to define the “experience” of apartheid. South Africa has essentially erected a “museum” (a structure usually displaying items already in existence, such as art or artifacts) for a story that is still in development, and the post-apartheid picture has yet to emerge.

My personal fear is that the post-apartheid story will be an economic one. Today, one does see racial integration – in the office, in the mall, even at the clubs – you see people of every color, a true “Rainbow Nation.” But the mix of races quickly belies the similarity in socioeconomic class. And as you move into the “poorer” parts of town, the mix of races all but disappears. There are few white members of Johannesburg’s underclass. And although there has been growth of a black middle class and the emergence of the "Black Diamonds," SA's black wealthy elite, the distribution of wealth is not even close to reaching a broad base. As such, the photos in the Apartheid Museum of how things “were” in terms of racial and economic segregation in SA are unfortunately photos that could just as easily be taken today.

February 3, 2008

How Eskom Stole My Saturday Night

One of my new found Jo’burg friends planned a big evening out for Saturday night – dinner and dancing at the Monte Casino, full on Vegas style. She wanted to introduce me to Jo’burg nightlife, have me meet all of her friends, and essentially show me – the new foreign girl – a good time in her city. Obviously, I was looking forward to the evening, especially as my new friend had gone to so much effort.

Eskom is South Africa’s electricity provider. These days, they are also Public Enemy #1. On the lips of every radio talk show host, newspaper editor, businessperson, taxi driver, or street vendor are words of venom toward Eskom as the load shedding continues to disrupt everyone’s lives. The salt in the wound is that Ekom (and the government) knew ten years ago that this power shortage would come, but no one chose to do anything about it.

Initially, I only listened to everyone’s Eskom horror stories, but did not join in the bashing. Load shedding is something I’m familiar with from India, so I didn’t think it was unbearable. UNTIL Saturday night.

On Saturday I learned that the security gates to get in and out of the property where I’m staying are powered by electricity. And lucky for me, the power went just as I tried to leave the house for the big night out.

[ For all who know me, this will be a classic sight: Four-inch platform heels, layers of non-waterproof mascara, recently straightened hair + pouring rain, complete darkness, and manual labor. ]

The only way to get in and out of my place without electricity was to manually open the gates. In order to do so, one has to unlock the padlocks on the heavy iron arms that lock the gate. Then one has to lift the iron arms, move them to the side, then one can physically pull open the massive gates. At first I was quite proud of myself because I figured it all out. But then, as soon as I shut the gates, I learned that one can manually open the gates to get out, but cannot manually open the gates to get back in….

Let’s just say I never made it to Monte Casino.

February 2, 2008

Old Fort Prison and Constitutional Hill

Old Fort Prison, commonly known as Number Four, was home to many of apartheid’s atrocities. Every political prisoner – from Nelson Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi – was held and abused there. And Number Four’s “common law” prisoners faced even further severe human rights violations and indignities there.

In an effort to both acknowledge the past and move towards the future, South Africa chose to place it’s Constitutional Court on the site of Old Fort Prison. The Court, which has created perhaps the most progressive Constitution in existence, hears only cases of human rights violations and works to move South Africa forward. As such, it was built out of the bricks of the Old Fort Prison into a new, forward-moving, inclusive space that is deeply embossed in symbolism. In doing so, the Constitutional Court building demonstrates both the beauty and challenge of diversity. It sits as an example of inclusiveness without assimilation and demonstrates how different cultures can mix together and still stand on their own.

The photos tell the story best. (Click on the box twice to see the slideshow full screen.)

January 30, 2008

Expat Life

The beauty of expat life is that you don't have any real responsibilities, in theory at least. So one can easily enjoy a blissful summer evening by the lake with the world's largest strawberry daiquri. (This coming from a girl from New Orleans!) Needless to say, it was a beautiful day. Besides, this trip can't be about social & political commentary all the time. :)

January 28, 2008


On Saturday I had the opportunity to attend a loveLife groundBreaker training. groundBreakers are loveLife’s peer education staff. They’ve generally just finished high school and spend the following year implementing loveLife’s on-the-ground programs, which include fitness and body image training, computer courses, dance and music lessons, etc – all designed to develop well-rounded, healthy lifestyles for South Africa’s youth, as opposed to just drilling them with HIV stats that they’ve heard all their lives anyway.

At the training I sat with four 19-year-old women to learn about their experiences with loveLife and their thoughts on SMS opportunities. I say women because these girls have been through more in their nineteen years than anyone should ever have to. Rape, poverty, abuse – all of it. But they are NOT victims. Or even simply survivors. They are beacons of perseverance, hope, passion, ambition, and pure love. One minute they were talking a mile a minute about the state of South Africa, the next about relationships, the next about their hopes and dreams, and then quickly turned to bombard me with questions about America. They represented at once the struggles of South Africa and this country’s immense opportunities.

Of their many inspiring qualities, to me the most inspiring was their capacity to give. Each woman was clearly incredibly intelligent and insightful, and they have access to all of South Africa’s scholarships and opportunities for advancement. And they will take advantage of them. But they told me that first they needed to give back. They felt they had been given so much - from loveLife, from life - that they wanted to spend this year giving other youth the lessons and opportunities they had been afforded. At nineteen, they already combine an intense desire to succeed with an equally intense desire to give back. Pretty amazing.

January 24, 2008

The Sandton Bubble

Currently I live and work in Sandton, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, and sometimes I feel like I might as well be in Houston. Jo’burg’s businesses created Sandton when the CBD became too riddled with crime.  The area is all new construction (literally nothing less than five years old).  The streets are pristine.  The homes are gorgeous (think Beverly Hills behind twenty foot walls), and the public landscaping well manicured.  In fact, everything is so in it’s place that sometimes I wonder if I’m in some weird version of the Truman Show…


But more surreal than the surroundings is the Sandton City Mall.  It actually seems to take up an entire corner of the city, and I’m fairly certain it’s larger than any of America’s malls.  Moreover, there is not a single thing found in the US that can’t be found in that place.  Gucci?  Check.  Ed Hardy?  Check.  McDonald’s, KFC, Dr. Phil, Revlon, the Family Guy, Yankees paraphernalia?  All there.  The only reminder that I’m not in America is quite frankly the lack of white people.


Yet admittedly there are reminders that I’m in a developing nation, even in the Sandton Bubble.  For one, Johannesburg is facing a serious power shortage, and every day there is load-shedding, where the electricity goes out in rolling sections of town for several hours at a time.  I was in Sandton City Mall today when the power went out, and you could just feel the economy losing millions.  (not to mention notice how ill prepared Johannesburg seems to be to host the 2010 World Cup…)


The second reminder that Sandton is an attempt to mask South Africa’s problems is the intense security.  Every car that leaves my office has to stop for a security inspection.  Then en route to the guest house where I’m staying, there are two private security checkpoints, the second of which requires every car to be checked and registered each time they pass.  (And it’s not like you can avoid it; there’s literally a barricade blocking the road.)  Then, when I finally do get to the house, I buzz the metal security gate, which lets me onto the property that not only has the pre-requisite 20-foot wall, barbed wire, and alarm system, but the entire place is also protected by secure laser beam sensors – the likes of which I’ve only seen in Ocean’s 12.


The truth is, due to my current lack of transportation, Sandton is all I know for Week 1.   And I’m not complaining.  I’ve got amazing accommodations and the security is a good thing. It just feels incredibly ironic that I’m in a place that represents all the aspects and aspirations of American suburbia that I was so happy to leave behind.

January 23, 2008


loveLife’s Office Manager, Thembisile, has quickly become like a mother figure to me.  She came to pick me up from the airport, made sure I had groceries and a new cell phone, finds me drivers, buys me lunch - essentially ensures that I’m taken care of.   Today we were chatting about the electricity issues of SA, which turned into a conversation about Oprah, which turned into a conversation about Mandela.


To hear her speak about Nelson Mandela seriously brought tears to my eyes – the power, passion, and conviction of her love for him was incredible. 


Thembisile told me about her days as an ANC organizer in Durban and about how when she was jailed and tortured for over a month by the government (simply for organizing) she wasn’t phased because Mandela had been in jail (then 20 years) for her.  She told me that her then 14-year old nephew was the sole survivor of a government raid in her town, where he was miraculously shot only in the leg, while witnessing his three friends being shot in the head.  She said the government feared masses at funerals and thus wouldn’t allow more than 200 attendees per plot.  (She said the police would count each person as they walked in.)  So she asked for the three plots of her nephew’s friends to be laid side by said so 600 people could surround the boys.


She said through all of this Mandela gave her strength.  She said he was always a beacon of generosity. She said when he was released from prison, he came to Durban and the first words out of his mouth were to thank the people.  “I am free today because of each of you.” she said he said. 


Years later Thembisile met Mandela at a loveLife event.  She said Mandela saw her looking at him and he asked if he could shake her hand.  And then after doing so, Mandela said to her, “Thank you for allowing me to shake your hand.”  Thembisile said she never wanted to wash that hand again.


Later in the conversation, I asked Thembisile how she sees the struggle in South Africa today, thirteen years after the end of apartheid.  I asked her if she felt things were getting better.  She said, “Yes, many things are better, but there are still many serious problems.”  She then quoted the title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and said, “It’s a long walk to freedom.”



Disclaimer: I was so filled with emotion after talking to Thembisile that I had to sit down to just write and write.  I’ve read about many stories like hers, but to hear a first hand account is a whole other thing. And as I now try to edit my previous stream-of-consciousness, I realize I can’t do her stories justice. 


I also can’t help but ask myself:  How many leaders today would do the same as Mandela did?  How many others show that type of grace and generosity?  How many prioritize the gift of giving rather than the gratification of power?


I know the answers to those questions. And I know hoping for more Mandelas in the world isn’t a sustainable solution.  I know we need to create systems and institutions that propel progressive change.  But damn… generosity, spirit, and inspiration within the slow moving revolution certainly wouldn’t hurt.