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.

Perceptions of America

Questions I’ve already been asked more than once:


“What are Black Americans really like?”

“Are all Americans as beautiful as they seem on TV?”

“Are there any poor people in America?” 


I still can’t really wrap my head around each of these conversations, except to note that pop culture, one of America’s largest exports, seems to have conveyed that there is no racism in America and everyone in the US looks like Beyonce and lives like Jay-Z….

January 22, 2008

Heita ooollaa

The boys in the office are trying to teach me the local slang.  So far all I’ve been able to pick up are a few different ways to say what’s up:


Ayoba (literal translation: togetherness)

Heita-ola (how ya doin? Joey from Friends style)

Kao fela (cool like that)


It’s both fun and funny to hang out with them.  There are three, each in their early 20s, all from Soweto.  They drive around in their pimped out cars when the windows rolled down and the music blaring, but it’s not hip-hop – it’s deep house.  They balk when the women in the office (who are hysterical and deserve their own entry) adamantly declare, “All men cheat.”  But then the next day they come in wearing a shirt that says, “Here’s to my girlfriends (big picture of beer mug) May they never meet.”  When I ask about the shirt, the smirky reply: “I bought it for the colors.”  


All men may not cheat, but in so many ways they are the same. J


But honestly, these guys, like everyone else in the loveLife office, are super nice and really great.  The fact that they continue to put up with my dumb questions and terrible pronunciation is a huge testament to that.  And they’re teaching me a ton about South Africa’s youth.  Next week, they’re taking me to Jo’burg’s biggest house music party.  A Black rave sans the drugs they tell me.  Should be fascinating. J

Lions in the Office

The IT guy just asked me if I knew there were lions in the office. 


“I’m sorry, what?”  At first I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or if there was some sort of San Francisco tiger situation going on.


He said, “Many of our visitors expect to see only lions roaming and men in loincloths.”


I assured him I was not one of those Americans and expressed my embarrassment for their ignorance.   He just laughed, as if we were all the same.  Gotta love American tourists.

January 21, 2008


Day 1 at loveLife couldn’t have been more exciting and fun.  I knew the NGO was huge, but I don’t think I truly understood their depth and breadth in South Africa.  As SA's largest HIV prevention NGO, they are essentially everywhere – their magazine in every major newspaper and rural community publication, their radio and television PSAs on nearly all possible outlets, their “groudBreaker” peer educators in every province, and the list goes on… So needless to say, I’m quite excited about the opportunity to work with them.


But beyond the organization itself, the best part has been the people, who I firmly believe make the difference in any professional experience.  They’re all smart, funny, cool, and deeply passionate about what they do.  They’ve been incredibly kind to me and have gone to great lengths to make sure I’m taken care of and included in every part of their campaign’s development. And perhaps MOST exciting, they all have their shit together.  For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like I’m in a stereotypical “non-profit” environment.


Also, exciting is their creative energy.  Although often criticized for doing so, they really believe in being radical; they take “out of the box” seriously.  In fact, the CEO joked with me that he was concerned that they hadn’t been called to a government hearing in over a year.  Love it. J

January 20, 2008

Walled City

Lots of people told me about Johannesburg’s high concrete walls surrounding nearly every home and office building.  It’s definitely the first thing I noticed on the ride from the airport, as they are not only over 20 feet high, but are also all topped off with barbed wire and broken glass.  Although perhaps designed to induce fear, for me they just feel like a part of the cityscape, like steel storm gates on New York stores or bulletproof glass in New York taxis.  I know those things came when New York was a much less safe place.  And I’m not na├»ve enough to believe Jo’burg is as safe as NYC today.  But it did make me think about how crime, and their associated socio-economic factors, can partly define the look and feel of a city, which in Jo’burg unfortunately seems to only say, “Stay away.”