Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

Since I was a little bummed about forgetting my camera yesterday, I made a point of bringing it today and taking pictures. And a good day for it, too.

First thing in the morning we four pack in one car, along with a sizable load of Mac SE’s. It’s always the days I choose not to shower that I end up nearly sitting in Zenzo’s lap. We head over to the school we visited on my first Friday here; Hlonipa (hlon-EE-pa). It’s the one where they only just got electricity, and had no idea how they were going to get countertops or chairs.

Turns out Alan found a cheap (300 rand) type of metal folding table that works pretty well, and he suggested it to them at a visit last week. The principal’s eyes lit up “Standards and Norms!” she said. “If those tables will work, we can order those tables through the education department easily!” Turns out there is a list of certain approved items that even the low-budget schools can order. And this particular table is one of those approved items. In fact, to get things moving, she said she could buy them out of pocket and apply for reimbursement.

We drop Donna off to do some training at another school, and then we head to Hlonipa. When we pull in today, they have about 12 of the tables standing folded and in their boxes against the wall and the principal is ordering the kids around to clean out the storage room that will become the computer lab. Zenzo, Alan, and I help out. And slowly but surely, as we all work together, the lab starts taking shape.

Yes, I was actually helping, not just taking pictures.

Before you know it, we’re all done. Twelve computers are set up, and we plan to bring another bunch next week. They don’t have enough chairs, so we show the principal the little plastic stools that we are using at Ncome, and she likes them. Alan offers to buy a set for their lab, and she accepts and thanks him.

We pick up Donna and then head to a school called Boschkloof. It serves all grades R through 12, which must be pretty tough.

On the way we pass an amusing site: someone has stolen a telephone pole. How do you tell? You see an extra long stretch between two telephone poles and a sad little wooden crossbar hanging in the middle, sagging everything down. Alan said he’s seen that a couple times; people want wood, and there it is. He says that sometimes when the electricity is being wired out to a new area the wires get closer in the day and then retreat at night as people steal the wires.

Even more so than any previous school, Boschkloof is in the middle of nowhere. We drive over miles and miles of dirt roads to get here. Actually, it’s not in the middle of nowhere, it’s in the middle of a forest, which seems rare here. Most of the land is open plains only dotted by trees. But the area around this school is covered in trees.

The lab inside is a Franken-lab of various odd computers. This place got the machines of which Alan didn’t have enough to make a full lab. The three types are the Mac IIsi, the LCIII, and the Color Classic. All good machines, though. There’s five or six of each. Still, most of them are working, and we’re able to cross cannibalize so that in the end we’re only down one whole computer. Donna handles software with Zenzo and with the different OS versions (system 6 and 7) and other oddities, it takes the rest of the day to get everything back in order.

We eat a late lunch of last night’s curry, and some kids who stayed after at the principal’s request lock up.

There’s one last thing that Alan and Donna want to do while they’re in the area. There is a mission just a little further into the forest, partway up a hill. In the mission there is a girl named Zenele (zen-EL-ay). Zenele is about 17 years old. About ten years ago she asked her step mother for a new pair of shoes and her step mother beat her until she was paralyzed. Zenele has been a quadriplegic ever since.

They heard about this several years ago. Alan had some experience working with disabled children, so he rigged her up a battery powered radio with a switch that allowed her to turn it on and off by rocking her head. He thought it would be nice to have the music and for her to be able to control it herself. He sent it to a contact of his in the area, and she used it for a while until someone tried plugging it in instead of using batteries, and it got toasted by the 240V power.

He and Donna had never met Zenele, though. And when they found out she had been moved to this nearby mission, they thought they’d stop by to say hello. So the four of us drove deeper into the forest and up the hill, until we got to the gate.

Heading into the mission I am struck by a sense of peace that I haven’t felt in a while. This place seems like a little world apart from the surrounding area. The buildings are distinctly European, but that’s not it — there are other European buildings in town. It is the sense of care and respect that is apparent in the way the grounds are kept; in a spirit of goodwill.

We all feel the change in atmosphere and mention it — Zenzo says someday he’d like to live in a place like this.

We walk up through the buildings and encounter a young Zulu lady in a nun’s outfit. We ask her for directions to Zenele’s room. She points to a building further into the mission. We walk over and head inside. There’s a mission nurse there, and we tell her we’d like to see Zenele. She leads us over to the room and there she is in bed. Another nurse is sitting in a chair, next to a larger-than-life white stuffed bear, reading her a book. There is a TV on as well, playing the world cup cricket match quietly off to the side.

Zenele’s body is tiny, not having grown much in the past decade. She is noticeably withered, and her body is limp, not laying the way she would if she was just resting. But she can move her head and speak. She looks over at us with bright eyes and smiles just a bit. Alan introduces himself and us, and tells her that he has wanted to meet her. She remembers the radio. He asks if they take care of her well here and she says yes. He asks her if there’s anything she can think of that she might need, and she says no. The people here take care of turning on and off the TV and radio whenever she wants, and they take her outside from time to time, so she can see the beautiful outdoors.

Alan, Donna, and Zenzo move on to another room; there are a few patients on this floor. I stay behind and talk with Zenele for another minute. She asks where I am from and I tell her America, that it’s my first visit to Africa and I’ve only been here for two weeks. I ask her if her big stuffed animal has a name. Her speech is thin and my ears are thick, so takes a few tries before I am able to repeat it back to her. I don’t remember it now, but it’s something like “Big So”. I go over and shake Big So’s hand, and she laughs. I ask her what her favorite things on TV are, and she says music and movies. The cricket world cup is on, so I ask if she likes that, she says she does. I ask if South Africa has a chance to win still, and she says yes: they’ve only lost one game so far. She thinks they will win. I tell her I will root for them. Then I head out to meet the others.

They are talking to another bedridden man, an older man. I don’t know what is wrong with him. He seems in good spirits, but says his joints are hurting. I tell him I hope he feels better soon.

Apparently the doctors don’t know what is wrong with him either. Alan tells me later that the man, who was black, implied that the reason the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him was because they were black doctors. The man didn’t trust the black doctors to be fully competent.

We say goodbye to the man, and then to Zenele. Then we go and talk to the head nurse from the upstairs ward, where they have HIV patients. We learn that they care for about 9 people right now, and there are 15 beds total in the ward. The people here are the ones that are on ARV treatment, so they are survivors. The function of the ward is to take people in who have just started treatment, help them with the strict regimen of meds, and with counseling and education about their condition. Then, when they are able to take care of themselves they are released to go home to their families. If they don’t have families, they are welcome to stay here. This policy has not caused them to run out of space yet.

We thank her for her time and good work and head back to the car.

Donna points out a small white cross up on the hillside. It is there for people to make a pilgrimage; you can see the little path winding up to it. She tells me that their friend Simphiwe did the hike a while back. We hop into the car and head down the hills and through the forest.

I have an awful confession to make: when we got to the mission and I saw how well tended it was, I thought there would be a white presence here. Given the stark contrast I’ve seen between the quality of life for different racial groups, it is hard not letting pessimistic fears overtake me. But all the people I saw running the mission were black. And it made me feel better.

On the long ride back to Dundee, Alan asks Zenzo if he was scared coming out here. He laughs and says no, not as long as he’s with Alan. I ask why someone would be scared, and Zenzo says that this road is known to have gangs set up road blocks to capture cars.

A moment later a cow is crossing the road and we have to slow down to let it pass and get back to the herd. I joke that perhaps the cow is a gang member.

Back in Dundee, we stop at a Muslim run Kwik-E mart type of place and pick up some ice cream on a stick. We look at the Courier, the local paper, and see an article about Thalana teachers stealing school books and selling them to the students.

The four of us walk down the street and bump into one of the computer teachers we met, back on my very first day out at the schools. He spots us instantly but it takes us a moment to remember where we know him from. He is doing well and Donna tells him she may have a lead on some more PC’s. Right now he is four short of having one per student per class.

Alan finds out where there is a musical instrument store, because I want to buy a capo for my guitar. It’s just around the corner so we walk there and I buy one for 30 rand. The store is run by a young Indian looking man. He sells guitars and bicycles. An odd combination, but it seems to work okay for him, as there are customers for both in the store when I am there.

Zenzo has expressed wanting a guitar, so I ask how much the least expensive one is. They have a 3/4 scale guitar for 500 rand (about $85). Still out of his range at the moment, but he says he might be able to convince his mother to buy it for him.

Then we all head back to the trailer. We see Thabani walking along the road and we pick him up: he wanted to come over tonight to type up a physics paper. Then Zenzo and I head over to my place so he can check out my guitar. I snap on the capo and play the first verse of “Follow You Into The Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie. He seems to like it. I hand the guitar to him and show him a few chords; E, A, D. He’s never held a guitar before, and says this is a special day. I go to the restroom and when I come back he’s trying to make some chords of his own.

He jokes “maybe I’ll rob a bank, and when they ask me why I did it, I’ll say, ‘because I wanted a guitar’”. I laugh, but then probably react too seriously by saying “we got to get you a job”. Then we talk a bit about how there are so many jobs in America, though all the easy ones to get don’t pay very well. Over here jobs just don’t exist. I really don’t know what to tell the kid. I do know, though we haven’t told him yet, that we’re going to pay him for the time he’s been helping us. We’ll be paying him enough that he can get a guitar in a couple weeks, I think. But after we’re gone, then what?

I take him home, and then I come back to my place and eat canned mutton curry. It smells a bit like dog food, but it tastes pretty good once I add some fresh cut tomato and red onion chunks. After posting and writing, I head off to bed.

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