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Although it got off to a rocky start, soon I had to ride in the trunk so all of our members could fit in the car!

Although it got off to a rocky start, soon I had to ride in the trunk so all of our members could fit in the car!

It’s no secret that when I first arrived as volunteer coordinator in May of 2011, my personality and the Zulu culture clashed. Badly.

The hardest lessons I have learned over the last 28 months have been about how to alter my conduct when working in another culture. It was particularly hard, as a young woman, to gain respect in a patriarchal atmosphere that holds experience, masculinity and age in high regard.

I had none of these things going for me.

And so for my first few months I fumbled along trying to make my mark as a coordinator. Mostly this consisted of attempts to work as hard and as much as possible. All I got was called “active.”

Then came a blessing in disguise – as my contract got extended I gained the opportunity to facilitate one of our weekly support groups in a community called Ezwenelisha – which means ‘a new world’ – and oh boy was it ever.

Fun with pedicures!

Fun with pedicures!

I was stoked for my first meeting with the weekly group, whose numbers had dwindled as the result of local politics and employment. Myself and the volunteers readied our plans, packed up the car, and headed to the group’s meeting point.

No one showed up. How anticlimactic!

However, bolstered by my fellow coordinator and local South African Nokwethemba, over the next two years the group grew and evolved. Nokwethemba busily recruited members of our 10 Families and home based care programmes, we made exciting and interactive plans like teaching about snake bites and performing pedicures on the members.

Slowly but surely I gained the respect of the group, and I found that once I relaxed and really started to bond with the community I started gaining, not the respect I thought I wanted, but the camaraderie of the communities, locals and even our staff.

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Our last meeting, with Monique, who will now be taking over the facilitation of the group.

It was with a heavy heart that I spent my last morning on project with my Ezwenelisha Support Group. We had gone through so much together; domestic disputes and violence, stigma around HIV status, visits to the beach, St Lucia and Crocodile Centre, the death of both my grandfathers, one of our members and many, many of the group’s friends and relatives.

This group of incredible men and women taught me about loving and grieving. They taught me that it was okay to ask questions at any and be unsure, and to lean on others for support. However, most of all, the group taught me about respect – how it’s earned, how to show it and how important it can be.

I owe a lot of my growth over the last two years to this group, and how through them I learned about relationships, respect, and most of all, how to just relax.

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When the first individuals suffering from AIDS were discovered in the United States in 1981, there was no such thing as World AIDS Day. These individuals suffered in a silence that surrounded HIV/AIDS for years, particularly in America but also throughout the world, until the first World AIDS Day in 1988.
For us at African Impact – St Lucia, the 1st of December is likely the most important date on the calendar. It’s a line underneath all of the work we do throughout the year with AIDS orphans, HIV education and support groups in the communities in which we work.
Worldwide, an estimated 33.3 million people are living with HIV, and more than 25 million people between 1981 and 2007 have died from the virus, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains the main battleground in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS, and South Africa is an important area to work in because of the large number of individuals living with the virus. Our message on World AIDS Day was one of education – particularly surrounding HIV prevention and positive living.
An important part of raising awareness in a province whose HIV infection rate is approximately 39% is getting tested, knowing your status and living positively. Living in an area where life-saving antiretroviral treatment is available means individuals can still live long, healthy lives with HIV, and prevent transmission to their partners and children.
After a very successful World AIDS Day campaign in 2011, we decided to join forces and hold an event in partnership with the Sipho Zungu Clinic in Khula Village and Peace Corps volunteer Danielle Piccinini. The end result was a day filled with local talent, speakers and activities for kids and adults.
36Alongside the main event, the clinic and local NGO the Africa Centre held testing and counseling for HIV/AIDS and promoted sexual health check-ups for women and men.
Volunteers and staff spent the morning preparing food and setting up the event, which lasted the majority of the day and hosted over 400 people. With healthy living parcels to give out (which included toothbrushes, toothpaste and condoms), the volunteers also tested the crowd on their knowledge of HIV and gave out prizes for those who could correctly put a condom on a wooden penis.
This year’s UNAIDS Global Report detailed an epidemic that is on the decline, but there is plenty more to be done in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Travel restrictions on the HIV positive, human rights abuses in a number of nations and the ongoing battle to educate individuals on prevention and treatment remains paramount if next year’s figures are to show a continued decrease in the epidemic’s power.
We were proud to do our part this year in an area of the world where education is so needed, and although we work towards the goals of World AIDS Day every day of the year, to be able to celebrate with the rest of the world gives us a real high.
World AIDS Day is not only important for those 33 million HIV positive individuals living on all corners of the globe – it is an important day to remember those who perished first without the worldwide support of a day to encourage acceptance and spread knowledge.
Read more from our African Impact – St Lucia projects on our official blog.
We were Live Tweeting from our World AIDS Day event!
Check out the full album of photographs from the day here. 

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If I could make a list of the lists I keep, let me tell you, it would be long. To-do lists, shopping lists, a list of tasks for each week’s planning session, a list of messages I need to send, a list of books to read.

However, by far the most important and valuable of my lists is my “Long-Term Goal” list, which I keep both as a Sticky Note on my laptop and written out on a piece of paper that is pinned above my desk.

Call it obsessive, or anal-retentive, or whatever you’d like, but last week it served me very, very well.

Last week was one of those weeks where everything just falls into place. All the months of planning all of a sudden come to a head in a handful of days, leaving you wondering why coordinating such plans seem to be so difficult. Although the timing wasn’t great, with just Sofie and I working at the moment, this superweek was nevertheless an extraordinary feat.

Now let me tell you why, because you’re all probably sat there thinking you accomplish goals everyday and don’t feel the need to write a blog about it.

First – I have small goals that I complete every day. They involve things like the Primary School not taking a random holiday, or celebrating a holiday a week after it was meant to be celebrated. My small, daily goals include the Home Affairs Office not changing their opening time without notice or a strike blocking the main road.

I can tell you see where I’m going with this.

My big goals are things like getting a sign put up at Inkanyezi Creche, or redoing the Children’s HIV Education booklet. They’re things that would take days to do at home, but weeks or months to complete here in KwaZulu Natal. As a result, this superweek is receiving a blog.

Volunteer Donna explaining to the boys about respecting the library and its books.

The first accomplishment occurred on Monday. After a discussion with Peace Corps volunteer Danielle, I got to thinking about why we weren’t using our container of donations. The container (meant to be turned into a library) was nearly finished, and certainly the kids wouldn’t mind that all the books didn’t look 100% in order anyway.

So Monday’s Khula Afterschool Club arrived and off we went to open the container to a handful of the learners. Success! Eight boys read along with three of the volunteers, Shwele and I and we all had a blast. Check that one off the long-term goal list!

The second long-term goal checkmark came on Tuesday, when three of the volunteers, Shwele and I (I’m beginning to see a pattern there…) headed out to Monzi, a farming community about 20 minutes away from St Lucia, to host an HIV Education course for a farming compound. When thirty people showed up we were a little overwhelmed, but only 15 sat the test on Thursday, and all passed with flying colours!

Our location for HIV Education on the farm in Monzi.

It was a great achievement, as it’s so important that we teach the workers in the area, because many of them are migrant workers – a group most at-risk for contracting HIV.

Along with teaching high-risk groups in the community, the volunteers also helped me achieve my third goal of the week by creating more resources to make the course more of a workshop than a class. They did so by creating games with flash cards, adding more interaction between the participants and the teachers of the course. It also gives the volunteers more to do when Shwele translates the course into Zulu for the learners.

In all it was a great week. We teach our volunteers that they must take small victories like the kids smiling, the building of bricks or the creation of a lesson plan, as big victories during their time with us. This is important because it helps manage people’s expectations. However, every once in a while a week like this one comes out of the woodwork when we least expect it, helping us stay a little more sane and spurring us on to achieve more of our goals.

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Last year, I wrote a blog comparing my first experience in South Africa with African Impact with my second visit. I’m prepared to answer the question of which trip I enjoyed the most, by summing up what I got out of each trip.

My first trip, I gained perspective. I saw how other people lived and where my place was in the world and I discovered what I wanted to do, and who I wanted to be. I wanted to be independent and I discovered that those who do not have the courage to follow their own dreams will always try to belittle the dreams of others.

My second trip, I learned to be skeptical of what I see, and really discovered the ups and downs of development work. It was this trip that I truly decided that I wanted to continue my education in African development, and I really matured through this trip as I took on a more leadership role, which I enjoyed.

This last trip, I learned to have fun. Sometimes I can be too uptight and a bit of a workaholic, so I learned to let loose and soften the walls I so often hide behind. This trip was full of the most ups and downs, with the death of one of our home-based care patients, and some of the most gruesome home-based care visits I’ve seen. At one point we were popping two abscesses at the side of the road before tending to a lady’s finger that had been bitten by her neighbour, the bone of her middle finger exposed to the elements.

I learned to have emotions as a response to the patients that I saw, and I learned that I can only laugh off so many instances before it’s going to hurt my psyche. Sometimes it’s good to be able to shut down when a situation warrants it, but this group of volunteers taught me that it’s important to debrief and even feel.

I don’t regret changing my plans. Europe would have been nice, and I still got to see some of it. But volunteering has become the place where I can put all my emotions back in their proper place before continuing with another year. It’s exactly what I needed.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

~ Mark Twain

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I often mention that being in Africa is about rolling with the punches and taking the hits as they come, but sometimes things just magically fall into place, like they did last Friday.

On Thursday we had a meeting with a teacher from the primary school about a special HIV day they were going to have – the next day. It turned out that we did our presentation to about 500 students!

Now, this is how things happen here. Magically, all of a sudden the students have a morning off of class to learn from invited guests.
The police were coming to speak about rape and underage drinking, and nurses and others from the clinic were coming to speak about HIV and teen pregnancy.

We had less than 24 hours to prepare a presentation, so we got to work and came up with an awesome presentation that we were all happy with, complete with scenarios, information and posters.
We decided to speak about healthy living and regular testing; two subjects that are often overlooked when it comes to HIV education.

Everything came together in a strange way like it usually doesn’t here. Perhaps I shouldn’t always be so pessimistic…

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Being a volunteer is hard. Sometimes I wake up at 6:30 in the morning and go to bed at 10:30 at night and all I have to show for my day is a sore back and emotional baggage.

Part of the tough job of being a volunteer is that you rarely see your hard work come to fruition. There is rarely an ending point, a goal that you can meet, or a measurement of your success.

Perhaps that is why it is such a demanding job and one that is not easily recognized by those who have not partaken in something like it.

Last year, for example, I was told the day care centre we were building could be completed in six weeks if we worked hard enough. That was one year ago and the day care centre was not completed until April, almost 11 months after we broke ground. This is Africa, and this is the trouble with a lot of volunteering abroad.

Gardening here is one of the few projects that is visibly sustainable and objective. We build farming plots, mostly they’re gardens for people to grow fresh vegetables. Whether the people use their gardens for subsistence farming or they sell the products they grow, farming plots are an easy and relatively cheap way to create an income and provide for a family in need. Usually it’s as simple as putting up a fence around an already existing plot of land so that chickens and other animals can’t ruin crops.

But the home-based care families that we see will still struggle for income, food and basic necessities long after I’m gone, and the people we’ve seen with opportunistic infections caused by HIV will still be sick. I guess what each of us has to do is keep in mind that not only is volunteering for those we help over the five or six weeks we’re here – it’s also for us.

Last year I grew so much while I was here and when I returned home I made decisions that changed my life for the better. I gained perspective and work ethic and I saw the world in an entirely new light.

My hope is that when I help someone, they’ll pay it forward and be more likely to help someone else. After teaching the 20 year old mother how to wash her baby, maybe she will help other young mothers care for their children – she is responsible enough to ask for help, to go to the clinic, and to vigilantly work to keep her baby healthy.

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It can be great fun here, and more often than not I am having the time of my life.

Some women don’t have that luxury.

If I had a baby, I would know nothing. I would be asking a million and one questions, and I would have many outlets that would be willing to answer them.

I met a woman this week who gave birth to a baby 5 months ago. Her mother left in 2007 to get work in a nearby village and has not been heard from since. Her father died last December and she has been left to care for her 15 and 13 year-old brothers and her 9-year old sister, not to mention her 5 month-old son.

She found out she was HIV positive when she was five months pregnant. She told the father and she says it is the last time she ever saw him. She was given adequate healthcare so she did not pass HIV on to her son during childbirth. However, he is now HIV positive, acquiring the virus through her breast feeding, as she showed us how cracked her nipples had become.

The little boy looked right into my eyes, and gripped my finger and I knew at that moment, I was done for.

This morning I bought all the supplies needed and headed out on Home-Based Care, back to the family’s house. With me, I had bought (using money donated by my aunt and uncle), baby soap, moisturizer, diapers, diaper rash cream, a pack of bottles and bibs and a big tub of baby formula.

The baby had a really bad rash all over his body, which we figure is from not being washed enough. He also had what people call “cradle cap.”

Mpho, one of our Zulu workers, showed the mother how to bathe her baby with the help of Brier and I. We moisturized the baby and got him in a new towel, blanket and t-shirt and he looked so much better than he had. I got to hold him and he seemed happier and healthier.

The mother nearly cried when we brought out the baby’s formula. She goes door to door attempting to do small gardening for neighbours to gain enough money to buy the formula for her boy.

I know it sounds like a story out of a World Vision commercial, but this is real life.

People around the world live day to day, wondering where their next meal comes from, and obviously with the guilt of passing on a deadly virus to their child. The pain this woman of 20 feels can be seen in her eyes, but she watched intently as we demonstrated how to care for her child.

In her, I saw myself. I couldn’t help it – had the stars been aligned, or misaligned maybe, that could have been me, essentially a child left alone to care for a family that has been thrust upon her at the hands of such extenuating circumstances.

Please don’t be depressed by this story. It’s a happy one, in the end. It’s a reality that people around the world lead different lives, with different worries. I am not trying to thrust some sort of higher meaning on you, nor am I attempting to scold anyone for being more fortunate than anybody else.

I am simply here to evoke thought, dialogue, perspective and understanding.

Until next time,
-A

“People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.” – Audrey Hepburn

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