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“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for eternity." (Translated) - Nelson Mandela

“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for eternity.” – Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is the perfect example of the intangibility of success and triumph. Although Mandela told CNN in an interview for his 90th birthday that he regretted nothing in his life, there is no doubt that his road to freedom and the South African Presidency was not without its stumbling points. Why else would one of his most quotable declarations be “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”? But nevertheless, he taught us to strive to be better in every way.

Mandela wasn’t always the man we will remember going forward from today. In the early years of the struggle, he co-founded the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and traveled the continent amassing a following and funds for an armed struggle against apartheid. For this, he was jailed – labeled a terrorist for so long he remained on the Untied States terrorist watch list until the age of 89, until he was removed in 2008.

It is for this reason that Mandela’s triumph over apartheid is such an inspiration. He became a beacon of forgiveness, faith and humility when no one would have blamed him for being anything but bitter and angry. Taking pause and evaluating the struggle while imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela later abandoned the idea of an armed struggle and instead began preaching respect, tolerance and love. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love,” he said, and an overwhelming number of people around the world and even his enemies in South Africa sat up and took notice.

Instead of facilitating an armed resistance, which many believed would spiral the country into civil war, in his later years Mandela opted to fight apartheid with a halo. His years in prison were the crucible that created President Nelson Mandela – the optimist that believed he could work alongside his enemies to bring an end to apartheid and avoid a South African civil war.

Mandela

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” – Nelson Mandela

Mandela took the helm of a sinking ship. There’s no doubt his ‘Rainbow Nation’ fell short of his albeit high expectations. Mandela wasn’t perfect – he avoided a civil war, implemented the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission and did oversee a five-year term of stability. However, later ANC leadership has left much wanting when it comes to Mandela’s vision for the country. The current ANC government is plagued by controversy, underachievement and corruption. Rumours swirled years ago that Mandela no longer even voted for the party. But still the ANC has held power since 1994. In political science we call this phenomenon the ‘Mandela Factor’ – no one will vote against the ANC while he still lives and embodies the struggle for freedom.

But despite your politics, skin colour, birthplace or hometown, Mandela is not remembered as a politician, but a man. A man we thought (or perhaps hoped) would live forever and give us hope that South Africa could become that perfect Rainbow Nation. I like to believe it still can.

Statue of Mandela along with South Africa's three Nobel Prize laureates in Cape Town.

Statue of Mandela along with South Africa’s three Nobel Prize laureates in Cape Town.

My favourite Madiba quote goes like this: ‘There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.’ This is my personal choice of his many messages: that we can improve ourselves as individuals and this will change the world. We don’t all have to be Mandela – surely these shoes are too big to fill. We don’t all have to move mountains. If we all strive to be better people, whether because of a faith in God, or in the greater good for humanity, or both.

Nelson Mandela taught us about faith, forgiveness, acceptance, strength and perseverance. In an imperfect world and an unprecedented situation, he was a beacon of calm, dignity and poise. His message was not for us to make the world a better place, but to work to make ourselves better people, and this is something we need to take with us moving forward.

President Obama said in his beautiful eulogy-like speech of a man that inspired his journey towards becoming the first black president of his country, we are likely to never see another individual like Mandela again. For this reason, his message of how we can create a better South Africa and a better world is a message we can’t afford to ignore.

Hamba kahle Tata Nelson Mandela – Go well, Father Nelson Mandela

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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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All the security we use at our home in St Lucia. Think she could take on a hippo?

All the security we use at our home in St Lucia. Think she could take on a hippo?

Oscar Pistorius, his bail hearing and the pending trial for his alleged premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp dominates not only my Facebook news feed, BBC Homepage and Twitter page – it dominates my life. I’m glued to the updates as the courtroom drama unfolds, and although I do acknowledge that it’s a little sick, I have a special connection to violence in South Africa as a foreigner living here.

The events that transpired on the night of Valentine’s Day at Pistorius’ house are without a doubt horrific and tragic, but as a Canadian residing in South Africa, some of the articles and comments I’ve read about the country I’ve lived in for the past two years have hit me the hardest. These pieces condemn the country I love to live in, calling it “crime-ridden,” “dangerous” “wracked by violence” and saying the people “live in constant fear” and are “paranoid about home security.”

The worst came today, when my Twitter feed brought me to an article in the Toronto Star by Cathal Kelly. Although it’s well-written, it truly embodies the hyperbole so many who don’t know what it’s like to live in South Africa fall victim to believing. One thing I can’t help but point out is that Kelly generalizes that all South Africans are obsessed with safety, when all of my Zulu friends and staff sleep behind what is probably South Africa’s most common security system – a dog in their yard.

Thankfully, since the Twitterverse provides no safe refuge from argument and ridicule, the Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York came to the rescue with a rebuttal that got me thinking about how South Africa, and my life therein, is perceived by outsiders.

Kelly is half right – living in South Africa is no easy task. Maneuvering security gates (not “rape doors” – I have no idea what the hell that is but it’s a disgusting name) is no easy task for someone who grew up in a house where we used to sleep with the door unlocked. Having to get used to opening and closing a driveway gate, or keeping a security button next to your bed is daunting at first. In the first months of living in South Africa, I found the security a bit suffocating. Why was it needed?

I answered my own question the hard way when my house was broken into on August 24 of last year. Ransacked and pillaged, my roommate and I luckily got the majority of our stuff back, but the damage to my psyche was done. I felt violated, and mostly betrayed by a culture and community that I was working so hard to help.

But Pistorius got me thinking – do I really live in a society that is so prone to violence that it excuses firing four shots through a closed door at an alleged attacker?

Surely not.

The break-in that happened in my house in August? The same happened to a friend of mine in Paris just two weeks ago.

That unlocked door of the house I used to live at in the Toronto suburb? My dad used to freak when he woke up to find it opened.

My Afrikaans boyfriend is moderately obsessed with my safety and security, but he has never gone as far as to keep a firearm in the bedroom, or even in his house. When I think back all of our conversations about locking doors, not walking at night and sharing each other’s insurance information, these are all discussions that would have been had anywhere in the world.

I tell the volunteers that living in South Africa is all about avoiding the temptation for people to take your things. Keep belongings in the trunk of your car, don’t flash money around or leave your purse unattended. Aren’t these things we do at home? I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have been robbed if our plasma flatscreen TV hadn’t been so visible from our yard – I miss that TV so badly I think I’d consider stealing one.

Of course South Africa can be dangerous – there is no question about that – but it’s no Mogadishu and it’s not a warzone. Like York says, there aren’t bullets zipping over our heads every day and although all the houses I have lived in in St Lucia have a gate and high walls, it’s mainly to keep out the hippos. In fact, the gate has no lock and the electric fence above it doesn’t work.

Being safe is the name of the game, and although it is more difficult in a place where crime is higher, it doesn’t mean that South Africans live in a constant state of fear from being raped, robbed or shot. We love living here despite the harsh reality that crime is a way of life – not a paralyzing black cloud.

The sad truth in all of this is that if someone in South Africa is a victim of crime, it’s usually by their partner or someone they know. The Institute of Security Studies found that 60% of violence against women in South Africa is committed by their own partners. The Department of Justice estimates that 1 out of every four South African women are survivors of domestic violence, and every 1 out of 6 women who dies in the province of Gauteng (where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located), is killed by an intimate partner.

Crime, and even violent crime, in South Africa is commonplace, but it doesn’t mean that those of us who live in the country live in a constant state of fear, as Kelly has told the readers of The Star. Of course there are times that I’ve clutched my panic button after hearing a noise, been thankful for my big dog sleeping next to me, or felt undermined as a woman.

That doesn’t mean that every day I don’t enjoy my life in this beautiful country. I only hope others will take the chance to experience the wonder of South Africa instead of being persuaded by the nonsense some people choose to write.

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SONY DSC

Watching Maverick grow up was also a major highlight of 2012.

Better late than never, right?

Here is a list of some of our fun 2012 highlights, as decided upon between Carla, Miriam, Sofie and myself. Obviously when you work somewhere where you get to help people every day, there are countless highlights. However, these ones stuck out to us mostly because they embody the randomness and hilariousness that were our lives in 2012.

Ice cream corkage fee

The local restaurant didn’t have any exciting desserts, so we ran over to the store to grab some ice cream. Little did we know, when we were to bring it back the restaurant owner would charge us R30 for each ice cream.

That was quickly remedied by a visit by Carla to his office.

Prank on Henk

Not sure why all of our highlights occurred in Reef and Dune (see above), but once again on an evening out for dinner, a large group of us pulled a very nasty prank on our epically slow waiter. Running out of the restaurant and hiding behind a big bus, the look on his face was almost as priceless as how many other patrons came up and thanked us for our comedic performance.

Getting lost in RCB

When local South Africans give directions like: “Just look for the airplane on a big stick” you know you’re going to get lost. This is exactly what happened to Sofie and I when we tried to pick up our car in Richard’s Bay. Lesson to all: this town’s roads lead to the middle of no where.

World AIDS Day

Check out what we did for World AIDS Day – always a highlight of every year.

As you can see, there was very little champagne to go around, but it was enjoyed anyway.

As you can see, there was very little champagne to go around, but it was enjoyed anyway.

Team Champagne Dinner

Sofie arranged a lovely dinner out for our staff, which funnily coincided with me getting accepted into my MSc programme. Our Zulu staff thought I was joking when I said I’d buy us all champagne, but I did! Many questions then arose about how the bubbly would make everyone drunk, loud singing on the drive home ensued and a few headaches were felt the next morning.

Everyone had about three sips.

Finishing the container

Now for the real highlights – on project stuff. We were finally able to arrange the entire container into a library, and every Friday kids now read, hear stories and have the occasional dance. After months of organising, it was a great accomplishment to see.

Inkanyezi opening

Not to mention what a great honour it was to see the opening of Inkanyezi Creche. Seeing the principal, Mama Gumede, open the doors for the first time is a sight that will never leave us.

Chickens

Peak season at any job can be tough, and ours was busier than usual when the African Impact – Mozambique project was forced to close down due to visa issues and we were suddenly flooded with double the amount of volunteers for which we had planned.

Typically, we fed our stress each Sunday (sometimes Saturday) with a slow-roasted chicken from the local grocery store. Soaking in grease and delivered in a paper bag, we made sandwiches, or just picked chicken off the carcass, usually while watching Keeping up with the Kardashians on Chris’ TV. Let’s just say it kept us sane.

Team meetings everywhere

Dancing

When you work in the field of development, team meetings and pow-wows have to happen everywhere, anywhere and at any time. In the parking lot of the house, over coffee, after a few drinks, at the mechanic, in a bed, on the top of a mountain from your cell phone – when a meeting is needed, it is held.

Sofie’s birthday

Our most epic party was Sofie’s birthday – hands down. Everything typical of a night in South Africa – crappy music from the 90s, dancing, a blender, six litres of cocktails, a tasty braai, and whatever is happening in this photo.

Funny ailments

From bites and rashes to intestinal infections and flu, the volunteers came down with many ailments in 2012. But nothing could compare to Miriam, Sofie and I, who were all diagnosed with different types of fungal infections on the same day. Toenail, head, chin, each one of us left the pharmacy with a different concoction of sprays, pills and creams.

We’re so attractive.

Cyclone

Let’s just say, Sofie left for a week and in the meantime a cyclone hit and the house flooded. I don’t want to talk about it. Why did we say this was a highlight!?

Motorcycle accident

Every once in a while, while living in South Africa, there is a good chance you will stumble across an act of racism. However, one night I also witnessed two Afrikaans men refuse to help a fellow white South African after he had assaulted a black man for doing absolutely nothing. And then been bumped off his motorcycle in retaliation. True karma.

No volunteers reading club

Every once in a while, when there are no volunteers, us staff take over and take time to remember how incredible it is to be a volunteer.

Magic Mike

The one time in 2012 that we all went to watch a film and we chose Magic Mike. Think about that.

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While contemplating a seriously long hiatus from my blog (I know, I’m sorry), I also began thinking of all the silly questions I ask myself – mostly the result of living in South Africa and working where I do. So I have compiled a list of the questions that come to mind on a regular basis that provide a bit of a chuckle, considering just how different life is here.

  1. How can I avoid stepping on a frog in the dark?
  2. Is the length of this skirt/these shorts culturally appropriate?
  3. Should I really have another beer when we have to go to the Induna’s wife’s funeral tomorrow morning?
  4. How much later really is Africa Time?
  5. Is the water that is collected when it rains in the JoJo tank really safe to use for washing dishes?
  6. How close can I get to that hippo without it charging me?
  7. Will brick-building/painting/garden be cancelled again this week because of rain?
  8. How much rain does a cyclone cause?
  9. Is that a dead animal?
  10. Is that smell a dead animal?
  11. Whose cows are these?
  12. Will these crops grow if we plant them now?
  13. How many bananas will an entire creche eat?
  14. Is this a mosquito bite?
  15. Is that plane Chris?

…And many more to come.

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 It was only a matter of time before this happened,  let’s be honest. However, walking barefoot  everywhere and working barefoot on the projects, I  would have bet money on it happening while I was  mixing cement, plastering a house or digging post  holes during our Inkanyezi refurbishment project. I  haven’t even stubbed a toe while gardening, walking  barefoot around Khula, or out at the bar (don’t  worry, I bring my shoes so I don’t have to go  barefoot into the toilets).

Instead of all of those logical reasons for getting a broken toe, I broke mine by dropping a 2L bottle of frozen milk on it. What is more interesting is that dropping said bottle of milk on my toe meant I couldn’t go to church for the first time since I was 11.

Yes, I had planned on going to church. A few of my friends here in South Africa attend churches in Mtubatuba, so I figured why not? The women who work for us at African Impact all attend church, and I’m constantly surrounded by it on the projects and in the communities. I find people’s faith refreshing, and I enjoy hearing about why church and having a connection with God makes people feel despite the lack of any kind of structured spirituality in my own life.

I would consider myself Agnostic – I’m really not certain what I believe, nor have I really put that much thought into it. So I thought no time like the present to attempt to discover whether I’m the spiritual type that would enjoy attending church. At the very least I’d meet some more people and make friends, right?

Wrong. No church for me. Instead, an incredibly sore, swollen, black toe. I’m trying not to take it as a sign, and will try going to church next Sunday. If a higher power doesn’t want me practicing religion, let’s just hope the next sign doesn’t cause me any more bodily harm.

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