Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

Day Three

I awake a bit later, around 9:30. Alan and Donna are up doing work; Alan has fixed or marked as waste nearly all the machines that were cluttering up the floor of the tiny common area. I don’t jump out of bed right away, waiting to see if I can feel a little more well rested. I drift in and out a bit.

Around 10:00 I actually get up. Donna is preparing some lunch food; a bean salad. Alan is working on a flakey Laserwriter that keeps jamming. He eventually solves it by ripping a guard flap off of the toner cartridge and throwing it out. Then it works like a charm.

I look over a map of Dundee and Sibongile. The split between the two towns is just as apparent in the overhead drawing as it is in real life from ground level. I mark a few points of interest, Alan & Donna’s place, the market, and the “Backpacker’s Inn” that I’m going to try staying at.

After another quick breakfast of yogurt and grain paste, we pack up and head off to town in the car with a carful of stuff. I skip the shower since time is rolling on. We drop Donna off at an internet cafe, and Alan and I head off to do a few errands.

First we stop by a favorite computer shop of Alan’s, run by a resourceful tinkering Afrikaner (whites descended from Dutch imigrants from hundreds of years ago) fellow named David. David is a hefty bearded old fellow with piles of computer bits around his store. Alan shows him a Mac Quadra, one of Alan’s favorite machines. It works perfectly but has a broken off pin in the ADB port. Before resoldering the port he wants to check with David if he’s got any clever ideas about how to fix it.

David offers some suggestions, but they agree it’s unlikely to be fixed without resoldering. We also drop off all our bad components from the previous days’ repairs. David reuses or recycles them. We leave a printer, a monitor, and a box full of dead hard drives.

– The Warehouse

Next Alan takes me to the warehouse. It’s on the backside of a storefront in Dundee center. He backs the car into the dirt alley between two buildings and we hop out. The warehouse door is a big metal sliding door with two padlocks. Behind that is another wooden door with another two padlocks. After it’s all opened up we step in.

It’s largely empty, probably 10 meters by 30. About a fifth of it is storage for the computers. Each machine is in an individual cardboard box, stacked just over waist height. Alan says he has more than enough components here to last the project as far as he can carry it, so they’re not planning any more shipments. He notes that despite the meager padding of just the cardboard, they’ve yet to have a single component arrive broken. He says the secret is just to pack them into the container so tight that they can’t move much, and that seems to do the trick.

He originally shipped them free of charge, since the US government provided free shipping for containers of humanitarian goods to South Africa (and possibly other places, too). He took advantage of that method twice, but between Iraq and Katrina they aren’t offering that kind of money any more. The last shipment was just a palette, and it was going to cost $5000, but a kind donor covered the expense for him. So they’ve pretty much shipped everything except himself and Donna for free.

At the warehouse we drop of some repaired machines, and fix a couple keybaords by stripping keys from a small graveyard of old broken ones. Then we lock up and head back to pick up Donna. She’s still at the internet cafe, reading up on news and such. Learning that, for example, the US stock market had it’s worst day in four years. You can’t tell from here. But that’s not the interesting part to her anyways.

– The Farm

At home, Alan and Donna have been fighting to save a local historic farm that was set to be torn down and replaced with Yet Another Track Housing Development. They’ve been fighting it for a while, and the vote was last night. They had campaigned to have the town buy the farm and set it aside as a historic site, however this required the town to pass an override to the taxation limits, an unpopular move that has never passed in the history of the town. In fact, they had to pass two overrides to succed. And again, the town had never passed even one. Alan and Donna had been telling me how there was no hope for it to pass, but that they did their best. The locals who had been involved in town politics for ages told them they were fools, that it would never pass, and they were wasting their time and energy. But the two of them pushed on anyways.

Donna jumped up to hug Alan as he came into the shop, shouting “we did it!”. Both overrides passed… and by a staggering margin!

What this reminds me is that irrational behavior is very important. It is so often that some goal is by every measure impossible, and yet if we apply our efforts we can nonetheless succeed. Irrational behavior hasn’t been selected out of our species because it is critical to our progress and success.

I speak a little facetiously by calling it “irrational”. What I mean is that when the facts are gathered, they point to a conclusion that is actually wrong. Either the fact gathering was flawed, or there are unknowns, or something. The point being that we have to have a mechanism that lets us ignore our rational mind, because it can be very wrong even about obvious things. In other words, some form of faith or hope is critical to our success. So next time you’re in doubt, admit that we don’t know what is impossible, and do the work to make it happen.

After having sandwiches for lunch we head back out to hit some schools. We decide to use my car, so I can learn my way around and keep up on the left-side driving. I’ll be spending more time on my own eventually, and I’ll need to be familiar with all this.

– Dundee Primary

We head to Dundee Primary, which does up to grade seven. It’s in the middle of town, and is primarily Muslim (Indian? Pakistani?) and more recently blacks have started coming too. They seem to make up more than half of the student body now. I don’t see any whites, even though it’s in the heart of the town. The administrators are all Muslim women, at least the ones I meet. Today we’re returning the laser printer that Alan fixed this morning to the administration office. The main secretary is middle aged, busy, and kind. She deals with a few small emergencies with the kids while we reorganize her computer setup a bit. Unlike with the black faculty, who always shake hands and sometimes hug to greet, the Muslim ladies are much more reserved. They don’t offer to shake hands. They are still warm and friendly, though.

I make a few trips to and from the car to get little items for setting things up. On one journey I see a pair of boys, one Indian one black, standing apart from the others. They are probably about 10 years old. The Indian boy has pulled up his sleeve to expose his shoulder. The black boy has a hypodermic needle pressed into his arm and is giving him a shot. The Indian boy says “ouch” in an annoyed but resigned manner. I don’t get a chance to see if there is really a needle, or if it’s some kind of play thing. This seems very odd to me, but I move on.

While Alan is doing some training, Donna shows me the local paper. On the day I arrived, a schoolteacher who lived in Sibongile was found dead. He had been shot four times and his head smashed in with a rock. His body was left in the fields near the township. I ask Donna how often this kind of thing happens. She estimates that there’s a murder in town every week. For a population of roughly 20,000 people that seems like a lot. I don’t ask but I figure it is disproportionately black perpetrators and victims.

She also tells me that the county we’re in is actually the poorest in all of South Africa. I guess that does put things into context a little; it’s very easy for me to draw conclusions about the country as a whole because of what I see here. But I’m sure I could see some similarly rough spots in the US, too, if I looked hard enough. Still, I get the sense that there are a lot of people in SA living in areas not too much better off, and even the more expensive areas have terrible crime problems. The country is experiencing some growing pains.

Before we leave the school I meet one lady who does shake my hand, in fact, a joke is made out of it. She has a small statue of Gandhi on a shelf. She points out that Mahatma himself stayed in Dundee for a while, before going on to lead the peaceful revolution. I feel a sense of awe as I think of the man and his work.

– The Starting Point

Next we head over to Thalani High School. It is actually the first school that they worked in nine years ago. It has fallen a bit from the favorites list, but they keep it going. It is located in the heart of Sibongile, so I drive us into and through the black township.

We find a lucky parking spot in the shade of the main building, and we grab some stuff. My car still has this sporadic problem where the alarm goes off a few seconds after you lock it. I find it terribly annoying and embarassing: a white guy standing beside his shitty little car, setting the alarm off over and over and locking and unlocking it. It just calls so much attention to me and my apparent fear of the people around me. I mean, I certainly have to lock the car, but I wouldn’t bother using the alarm if I could figure out a way to just turn it off.

When I catch up with Donna, she’s talking to a younger teacher who, before I approached was asking how old I was. Then seemed embarassed when Donna told me this. She tells me her name, which I forget, and that it means “Vision”. Then we head inside.

We work in the adminstrator area again, not the classrooms. Though Alan expresses some regret that they don’t focus a little more on the children’s computers, I still see it as a benefit for the children if the teachers can do their jobs better. Assuming they can.

We fix a printer (just an unplugged cable and a control panel setting) and then work to fix a power cord that got broken, which killed a daisy chain of four machines in their staff room. Donna hooks up with one of the ladies and does some assistance and instruction.

While we mess with those machines, Alan tells me some stories. He keeps seeing signs that the teachers here don’t put the students first, that they just look out for themselves. For example, there is no assembly hall, so the kids meet outside. However it is often very hot, sunny, or otherwise inhospitable. Last year there was a fund raising effort to buy an outdoor roofing structure to gather the kids under for assembly. They succeeded in raising the money, but when Alan came back this year there was no cover for the kids. Instead, he saw cover for the teachers parking spaces. Heck, I didn’t even get that as a perk working at Zappos in Las Vegas! That’s pretty disappointing. Of course, there may be some other explanation, but it seems suspect.

He tells another story about how more than once teachers have stolen computers for themselves. And how he catches them and kindly confronts them, but they tend to just lie and act surprised as if they didn’t think it was a big deal. Things like that take some of the fun out of it for sure, and strain the relationships. Alan doesn’t hold a grudge, but I imagine it can be hard to forget which people are responsible for those difficulties. He points out that this is one of the only schools where the computers in the faculty area are chained down.

Poking around the computers to see what people are using them for, we see lots of good stuff… tests and cirriculums and other administrative things. We also come across a police report that reminds Alan of a major breakin and robbery here a few years back. Though the perptrators were all caught, it is still a bit frustrating. He is bothered that the police report is inaccurate, because the teachers doing the reporting seemed to be making stuff up.

It wasn’t really an inside job, though several students were involved. The police nabbed one kid, and according to the kid they tortured him by putting a plastic bag over his head and suffocating him until he agreed to tell them who else was involved. The kid was probably 16 years old. He was traumatized, but he talked. There were three other kids from the school who had no previous record, and one older man from outside who had instigated the thing. He had an extensive record.

In court, Alan testified that while some punishment was warranted, he had come here to make life better for these kids, and it bothered him that his bringing computers was going to have indirectly messed up their lives, so he asked for clemency. The boys were sentenced to three years in jail each, but the sentence was suspended and they were put on probation. Alan breahted a sigh of relief at that. The older man instigator was put away for 20 years.

Talking to the kid later, Alan learned that he hadn’t even considered the consequences. He just saw in his mind that if he got a computer of his own, he would be happy. But he seemed to have learned his lesson; Alan hasn’t heard that the kid has been in any more trouble.

A more pleasant reminiscence was his first day here, giving a talk to the various principals, telling them that if they wanted help and materials, he and Donna would provide it. It happened right here at Thalani.

He also remembers the first time he and Donna did a class. A teacher asked them to speak, as a special guest, and so they came by. However the teacher wasn’t even there to greet or guide them when they arrived; he had just wanted them to come by so he could disappear for a while. They decided to improvise and have fun with it. They stumbled into the room, probably the first white people the kids had ever seen in their classrooms, and made pretend they were tourists looking for something. The kids were wide eyed and engaged, but they wouldn’t participate. Alan asked a series of “raise your hand if…” questions that elicited no responses, even when he escalated to “raise your hand if you’re alive”. Eventually one girl did speak up with a question: “how much do they pay you to be a tourist?”

I definitely get a bittersweet sense at this school. We leave Donna behind to continue working and plan to meet up later at the supermarket. We drive out and on the way take a spin around Sibongile.

– Sibongile

I’m really getting a good look now. If I had the time and skill to write, I would, but I’ll just hope I get some pictures at some point. It really is an amazing place, unlike anything I’ve felt. Just the style of houses and living is so different from what I am comfortable with seeing, it calls into question my ideas about life. As I said, overall it’s a nicer area than some of the stuff I drove by on the way here. But it’s a mix. Most of the houses are concrete blocks with a corrugated aluminum roof, making for a simple and fairly depressing little dwelling. Occasionally there are nicer houses.

And then there are, jammed in occasionally, the saddest little tin shacks and mud huts. People are living in every one of them, usually lots of people. There’s goats roaming the streets, eating from trash. There’s a lot of trash around too. Alan mentions an interesting way to look at the trash problem: it isn’t that they throw stuff out in the street, but rather that the type of trash changed. It’s fine to throw organic trash out in the street, especially with goats around. But now plastics and other eternal products don’t work the same way, but the folks haven’t totally caught up. I can see that being a legitimate thing here, given the speed of technology adoption. It doesn’t explain, however, why poor areas in the US have terrific trash problems too. I think sometimes that people in those areas have resigned themselves to not caring about their surroundings.

As we cruise around, the streets are still full of children as always. They are here, but so full of joy. Alan and I note how everyone, child and adult, all have a very happy, warm, and friendly demeanor, even living in such a tough situation. I wonder at the mind’s capacity to reframe and relativize a situation. It is hard to guage how disadvantaged the people here feel. They are aware of the outside world through TV and movies. How badly do they want to change how they live? Are they reasonably comfortable living like this because it is all they personally know? Do they desperately want to change things but don’t see a way? It probably would be answered differently by each person here.

– Lucky ConneXion

We cruise back into town eventually, and stop by Simphiwe’s place, the little internet cafe (called “ConneXions”). He isn’t there, but the place is full. That’s not saying too much since only three of the computers are working at the moment. One girl is playing a typing tutor game. We poke around, and the phrase “guerilla computing” comes to mind. It’s just so interesting to me to see high tech meeting low tech in this way. His shop has a weird assortment of computer parts stacked up and on the shelves. Some new parts, some used parts. Some completely useless parts like exposed hard drives and CRTs. But people always synthesize anything useful into their own life, often creating something new. There’s just something rather Mad Max about it all.

Here I meet Lucky. Lucky is one cool dude. He is one of the first people Alan met back in 1995 that started this whole thing. There was a project then to bring a youth singing group, the Dundee Voices Of Joy, to the US for a visit to sing their traditional Zulu songs. It was an unprecedented project, and Alan believes that it only happened because someone got the idea that if they did this US visit they’d somehow make money. Of course, that didn’t pan out, but it did cause Alan to bump into Lucky, who was about 22 at the time. They were singing at Harvard, where Alan has several connections, and he went out to have Chinese food with the group afterwards. Lucky caught his attention because he was the only person interested in learning to use chopsticks. It was actually conversations with the principal of Thalani that really got the project rolling, but meeting Lucky must have had it’s effect, too.

Lucky has his hair in tiny dreads, neatly organized and tied back. He has a large gap between his two front teeth, much like what I used to have, but his is filled in with some dull gold bling. Maybe I should have gone that way instead of getting braces. It looks good on him, anyways.

He has proven to be an adventurous soul. After returning to South Africa he got himself a job on a cruise ship and has done a lot of travelling that way. He wants to become an airline pilot, and recently applied and got accepted to a flight school in Florida. However, he couldn’t get even a student Visa because, they said, he is not established enough here in SA so he is a flight risk. No pun intended. If he had a wife and kid they’d have let him go. Kind of odd that one of the few young men who has managed to not get anyone pregnant is being punished for it.

When Alan steps away Lucky and I chat alone, he asks me “So, when you got off the plane were you wondering where all the elephants were?”. I laugh and tell him that I knew a little better than that what to expect. I sense that he thinks visitors have a inaccurate view of the country. He says local people always ask him what it’s like elsewhere, but he tells them it often looks the same. I agree that the world is all pavement, bricks, cars, and people in pants and shirts. But I say, “there are differences, too”. He agrees.

We chat, and Simphiwe comes by later too. He mentions that Tabani, the kid from last night, told him that he and I had done some hip-hop together. But Simphiwe didn’t believe him. Alan asks if I can do some beat boxing to demonstrate, and I do for a few seconds. They seem to enjoy it, and are at least a little surprised that such a dopey looking white guy can throw down a beat.

At one point a boisterous but playful lady comes by. She knows some of the people here, and is in fact the mother of one of the kids hanging with us a little, but Alan has not met her before. Her name is June. She has a very fancy cell phone, but is complaining to Simphiwe that she wants to trade with him; he has a very bulky, very old Nokia. She likes it because it’s easy to use, and also because she’s not afraid to use it in Joburg like she is with her fancy phone.

At some point she mentions that she wants some computer help from Simphiwe. But she has a Macintosh. This perks up Alan’s attention because really, there is no way a Mac would be here if it wasn’t one of his. And aside from the ones that were stolen, they should all be in the schools. He asks where she got it and she says she bought it at a nearby store second hand. She starts seeming defensive, though, and I am suspicious of that story. Then he tells her that there’s no way that the store owner had the right to sell her that machine, that it was stolen. She gets even more defensive and starts making hard to understand comments about why some of the schools don’t have computers and how it’s some kind of beuracratic consipricy.

She seems a little belligerent to me at this point, but she asks Alan to teach her how to use the computer better because she says it takes too long to type. Then she implies that it is unfair that we can type well and she can’t. Alan points out that everyone is born naked and everyone is born without knowing how to type. She does give him her address and phone number, but then says “you’re going to confiscate the computer, aren’t you!”. Alan sort of laughs in the affermative without saying explicitly. Then she says “I don’t have anything. I was joking with you. I don’t have a computer, just this cell phone.”

Alan lets it go, and we politely say goodbye and head off to meet Donna. It was an uncomfortable encounter, for sure, and he says he should probably just not think about it. Who knows what is really going on there.

– More Tabani

We get to the Pick ‘n Pay (the strangely named local supermarket) and Donna isn’t there. We poke around and bump into Tabani, the kid from last night, at a nearby record store. He has with him a copy of the latest Proverb album, which he is excited for me to check out. He and I chat about horror movies for a bit. He really likes violent horror movies. I admit to him that I used to be a fan, too, though I haven’t watched many recently. He says that they scare him, but he likes it. This is a recurring theme: last night he had invited me to go to the cave of horrors with him, where they have a vampire and a mummy and things. He said it is terrifying but that it is funny afterwards. Somehow I find it interesting that on some level these people are living with daily horrors, but they still have many of the same archetypes of horror that we do.

Donna arrives and goes to do some food shopping.

He mentions “House of Wax”. I mention Paris Hilton. He mentions that he heard she named a perfume after her dog. I mention that my dog didn’t smell like you’d want perfume to smell — I guess I’m referring to Snowy, who died in the mid 90′s. He says he wants a dog, but he can’t get one until he has his own place because nobody else in the family wants one. Then he says “I was told in school today that dogs don’t have a soul”. I tell him that I don’t believe that. He says he doesn’t either. But the teacher had said that humans become slightly lighter when they die, and that it is because the soul leaves the body. But dogs and other animals don’t get any lighter when they die, thus they have no soul.

Of course I could say here that I don’t believe in souls, but actully I do in a sense. Not in a mystical way, but there is some name we should give to the gift of consciousness, the unique neural map that makes each of us an individual with our own model of the universe in our head. Our personal awareness. A dog has this too, I think.

I mention to him, though, that it’s so hard to know what is true or not. I tell him I’m skeptical that people really get lighter when they die. He agrees that some things you have to just think if it makes sense. I agree, but remind him that some things you really can test and prove. He gets it.

He then asks why everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. I tell him that it’s an interesting question. He says he’s never heard a good answer. I have my own, I tell him, but it’s probably not a good answer. He then announces that he’s not afraid to die, but he is afraid to be killed. It’s the violence of death that scares him. But dying naturally and peacefully is not frightening to him.

Right before we take off, I buy some yogurt, grapenuts, and jam, for breakfast tomorrow. I plan on moving into my own place tonight.

We all drive home, Alan, Donna, Tabani, and I. Tabani mentions how he doesn’t like it when outsiders ask if he sees elephants around his town. This reminds me of Lucky’s comment earlier. Tabani points out that he’s never even seen an elephant. Tabain says he doesn’t like elephants, or wild animals. But Alan and I convince him that since he’s never seen them he doesn’t really know. He ends up seeming open to the idea. I hope he gets to see some elephants someday.

Back at the trailer, Donna prepares a wonderful dinner of pumpkin curry and hoppin’john, a traditional US southern black rice and bean salad. As she is preparing, I walk over to the backpackers place.

It’s dark out, but it’s only around the corner. Alan feels it is totally safe, but nobody else is out. I find I have a really hard time gauging danger in this environment. All the cues are wrong. So i choose to not worry too much about it and trust Alan and Donna’s advice. Though it is worth noting they thought I shouldn’t have bothered with the vaccinations or the malaria pills. They’ve never done any and in nine years never got anything except once Alan got a tick bite that required antibiotics.

I get to the backpackers place and meet Evan, a British immigrant in his 50′s, I’d guess. In addition to running the backpackers place, he gives tours around the local battlefields. This is actually a very historic area, where the British and the Zulu had many famous and bloody battles. I rent a room weekly for 490 Rand; or about $65. It’s a tiny room with a bunk. The bathroom and kitchen is shared with three other rooms. But it seems comfortable and safe. I walk back to Alan and Donna’s.

Donna is finishing up the food and Alan is giving Tabani an introduction to hexidecimal and binary numbers. He seems to get it pretty well, better than I would expect most kids his age. Better than I did. Then we do some memory games that he learned in school; like memorizing lists of things by visualizing. We enjoy dinner and then I pack up my stuff and head over to my new room. I take a shower and hop into bed.

I wanted to get to the internet today but I couldn’t. I feel a little lonely and isolated tonight. Perhaps it was the fact that there wasn’t any singing today. Maybe that’s why there’s so much singing around here.

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One Response to Day Three

  1. You don’t know me…but I’m small and may have something to do with the 3rd letter of the alphabet

    It sounds like you are having some great adventures there! It also sounds like you have found a neat little buddy in Tabani. The more I read the more interested I become in the intricacies of the project. Keep these book-length posts coming! I look forward to them and I know of at least two other people (if not more) who look forward to reading them as fast as you can post them!

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