Saturday, August 16, 2014

What Happened?

In case you haven't noticed, this trip wasn't like the others as far as this blog went. Mostly you'd notice because I haven't said much about anything that was happening or what I was actually doing.

I ran into a couple problems early on when it came to recording a public history of what I was up to: telling the story affects the participants. It's tougher to write about something when you see and are working with your subjects.

I've left a few things out of what I've posted here. For example, the day before my story of putting up food tents, one of our biggest projects were destroyed by organized crime leaders, who also reportedly sent out assassins looking for my boss. Amazing story, but posting it had some really obvious hurdles-- primarily the safety of my colleagues and superiors if I went into any more detail than I have in this paragraph already, as the people involved have political affiliations. And anyway, none if it (thankfully) happened to me. I was never in any real danger.

Unlike the time when I was accosted a few blocks from my house by what at first appeared to be a one-armed homeless man and who turned out to be a two-armed (former?) prison gang member with the infamous numbers gang . Thankfully I didn't know enough to be scared by a 27 tattooed on a guy's wrist until I told people about it later, and I was in a well-lit, populated area when it happened. So nothing came of it, despite a thinly veiled threat at the end of the encounter. I just had to keep track of my own personal safety. I didn't have a car to hijack or anything.

Unlike my friend and colleague who drove down to Cape Point with her visiting boyfriend and almost lost their rental car. They drove down the road slowly on the way to the national park, on a slight downhill incline when they spotted a baboon on the side of the road. They slowed down to look and take pictures of the baboon. The baboon noticed them, ambled over to the car, opened the unlocked back door, and hopped in. It took a perch on the center console, and started baring its teeth at the human occupants. In case you didn't know, baboons have a strong enough grip to crush the bones in your arms if they have a notion and opportunity to do so. So my friend and her boyfriend, after being unable to shoo the thing out of the car, both opened their doors and dived out themselves. Luckily the baboon just grabbed their lunch and jumped out a second later, because the unoccupied car started rolling downhill. They had to chase it down, jump in, and lock all the doors.

And as for doors... well, actually I already told that story.

The day to day work honestly was a bit slow for me. I've been explaining it to people this way. I came to South Africa expecting to find a community in need, get to know them, their values, and the obstacles they faced day to day, and then assist them in whatever way I could using what skills and training I could muster. And I feel like I did exactly that. Only the community in need turned out to be American and European college students serving alongside me as interns.

Without going into too many details, because a few things had gone awry, the office was something of a logistical mess when I came in. Nobody knew who was responsible for what, tasks were being duplicated constantly, and nobody could access basic resources like templates for training or marketing material. So I fixed up a couple IT projects in the office to help alleviate those issues. Also while I was at it, I set up two extra broken computers, extended the office WiFi network's range with an extra router, got the dysfunctional printer working, and generally taught and reassured people with IT woes.

I'd like to think they all went on to help the kinds of people I was picturing helping when I fly down. I think the odds are probably decent they did. But it's going to be a long time before we really know, since most of the projects are currently under construction.

In my spare time, I got to meet some remarkable people, especially near the end of my trip. One of them sent me a Facebook message after we'd parted ways:

"Great to spend time with you Joel; just sorry that your experience wasn't as great as it could have been," he said.

That surprised me a bit. I hoped I hadn't come off as complaining about not having a good time. 

"Thank you!" I sent back. "I hope you take any apparent disappointment as me being a perfectionist about my approach rather than any shortcomings in what I found." 

His reply was one of the most flattering comments I've gotten in a while: "I took it as being less of an experience than someone of your caliber would be stimulated or challenged by.....: )"

Regardless of whatever anyone takes my caliber to be, I'm looking forward to hopefully a more challenging experience next time-- not because South Africa and Heart Capital don't face challenges, but because next time I'll know how to better find them myself directly. When I do, I hope I'll have better stories that I'll be able to share on the spot.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Door Story

Something happened here at Bryant street recently. To understand it, you'll need a couple background stories.

First was several weeks ago when I sent a short list of things that needed to be fixed in the apartment to my super, including the fact that my bedroom door wouldn't stay closed unless locked. He came in and decided the best solution was to give me a new lock. He installed it and gave me a new key, letting me keep the old key as a souvenir.

Next was about a week ago when I was having drinks with a couple guys who were from Cape Town originally. I told them I was living in the neighborhood of Bo Kaap.

"Ooh. Pretty place. Dangerous though." One said. I was a little surprised, I'd thought it was a very safe place. "Yeah," he said, when I told him that. "Well I had a couple friends living there, they had stuff stolen out of their car twice and their house was broken into. So be careful up there."  He did at least assure me that they'd never been mugged.

A few days after that, earlier this week, I was eating breakfast when Natalie, one of my five housemates, asked if I was going to be home in the afternoon the next day. I told her I was going to be at work. She looked perturbed and asked what I was going to to about "the visit." When I asked what visit, she asked if I'd checked my email. I hadn't. Our landlord was apparently showing someone around both my room and Natalie's since we were both moving out soon, and asked us to leave our rooms unlocked. She's the most security conscious of us and didn't like the idea, but I assured her it'd be fine for one afternoon.

Now, our house isn't big. The layout is like so: immediately after walking in the glass entrance door you'll find the room of my Swiss-French housemate, Hubert, who spends a lot of time here with his brother, Fabian. When they aren't working in high end hotel consulting, they're surfing in Muizenberg. After walking past his room you'll enter the small common area with kitchen and dining room table. To the left again is French hospitality intern Amandine's windowless bedroom, and down a short hallway to the left is German wedding business intern Natalie's room. Then are the two bathrooms before you get to the glass doors to the back porch. There is also a set of stairs leading up a floor and to the back of the house. At the top of the stairs, furthest from the front entrance you will find the room of Duy and Slobo, the German-Turkish Model and her German-Serbian stuntman/stage fighter husband, and opposite that, my room. All the rooms have individual locks with very old fashioned looking keys.

Short version: closest to the front door is Hubert, the ladies are in the middle, and furthest from the door are me and the married couple.

So, that night, about 4:30am, I wake up to a loud banging on the front door. My first thought is someone is very clumsily trying to attack us or break in. I figure Hubert will be the one to take care of it, since hes closest to the door. But it keeps going, and going, and going. Finally I hear room door downstairs open, and then the front door, then Amandine and Hubert talking rapidly in French. After a few minutes of this, I get out of bed and stumble downstairs to see what's up, followed shortly by Slobo, who said he was about ready to beat up an intruder.

There were Hubert and Fabian, who explained that they had lost their keys. I was the only one whose number they had, and my phone was off. They were the ones who had been banging on the the door until Amandine had let them in.

So they'd gotten into the house, but not their room. Hubert needed to get his laptop out of there for work, where he was supposed to be in a few hours.

While they pondered, I stumbled over to one of the bathrooms, since I was already up anyway. While I did my business and thought about looking up lock picking techniques, I heard three more loud bangs, but not on glass this time.

Here's what I found when I came out:
That's Amandine and Fabian. When Hubert stepped back out of the hole he'd kicked in his bedroom door (which apparently is made mostly of cardboard), I was the one to tell him the landlord was showing someone the place in twelve hours.

I'm not sure how the viewing went the next day. I wasn't there. I don't think any of us were.

But I do know that, to add even more insult to injury, we later tried both my room key and my old room key on Hubert's room on a whim. The second one fit the lock perfectly.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Quick note on photos

Hey folks, having some technical issues with the photos here. The service I used to use to seperate photos within albums for each blog entry no longer works. So in the meantime, you can see some of the photos from the trip so far here.

Also, there's a video for you. Check it out here.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Reversal

Looking back over the last couple weeks, thinking of what to put here, I've realized something a little weird. The things I'm doing that are the most remarkable to normal people seem to me to be background. Meanwhile the stuff I find the weirdest to adapt to and deal with is what's background to most normal people.

In other words, stepping out of a 16 seat van with twenty people in it on a highway in Mozambique, and negotiating sandwiches from street vendors in Portuguese? That's normal for me. Sitting at my desk figuring out when I should write up a report or talk to my boss about the progress of my work? Almost completely alien.

What I've been doing here hasn't been exactly the photo worthy moments you might expect of me going out into a township and getting to know people and their problems. Mostly I've been at the back end in the office helping people who help people help the beneficiaries we're trying to serve.

For example, when I came in, I found out that the company was 95% temporary interns, all of whom were very smart and skilled, but none of whom had institutional memory beyond six months. Nobody in the office had any easy way of figuring out who was doing what, leading to a lot of duplicated work. Plus there was no working way for people to share files beyond emailing each other.

So I fixed that by activating a file sharing system and an app that now functions as a directory and project management tool. Setting it up took an hour or two. Most of my time since then has been showing it to each intern and signing them up so they could use it. Now even if the people leave, the work remains, and whoever comes next will have a much easier time figuring picking up what we leave behind.

Interesting to me. Probably boring to 98% of people reading this. But it does help the people in my office who are teaching business skills and getting nutrition to poor people. It's just not all that direct.

The direct stuff is coming.  I've just started working with a project that uses technology for education, and seeing if it will work in poor communities.  I'm not  100% certain that it is going to work.  But we can get it pointed in the right direction.

 But that will come after tomorrow. As of 25 minutes ago in this time zone, it's now my birthday. So I've got a few other things to do first.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Fresh Tofo Coconut

My girlfriend flew down to visit me in South Africa on the condition that we’d get to spend some time traveling together outside of Cape Town. Which is my excuse for going on vacation less than three weeks into work.

Tofo, Mozambique, was probably a quiet beach and fishing village twenty years ago. Actually it still is, except that it’s been dwarfed by a small army of guest houses, restaurants, and scuba shops, not to mention the numerous signs pointing to each scattered everywhere around the sandy roads. It’s not crowded by any means, but I can’t exactly call it a secret either.

It was my first time in the tropics for over a year, and there were two things I wanted that I hadn’t gotten in my first 24 hours: fresh mango, and fresh coconut. We’d spent the day and the previous evening exploring the shops etc near the beach and wandering and swimming at the beach itself. Highlights included meeting week-old kitten, body surfing waves, and miraculously running into a friend of mine from grad school on a dirt road outside of town.

After swimming in the Indian ocean, my girlfriend and I headed back to our towel and belongings to relax for a bit. She turned to me and said that at this point, she was afraid that if there were fresh coconuts to be had around here, someone would probably have been selling them there on the beach. All we’d seen were bracelets, paintings supposedly made by the seller, and one oddly insistent teenager who really wanted to sell us bags of bread rolls.

So, when we first spotted the guys coming over to us with the baskets of cheap bracelets, our first thought was ‘here we go again.’

My girlfriend suggested deterring them by making out. Unfortunately, while fun, that only served to delay them. Once we’d stopped and she was resting her head on my shoulder looking at the waves, one of the guys walked around from behind us, squatted down directly in front, set his basket of wares next to him, grinned, and offered a hand for a high five.

After we each gave him one, he asked us where we were from. After telling him, I asked him where he was from. Instead of giving us the quick answer and trying to hawk bracelets, he told us he was from Tofo, that his brother managed a nearby backpackers hostel and let him stay from free and launched into a description of his normal day. I asked him how many languages he spoke. He said English, Portuguese, Tsonga, and Afrikaans. Tsonga being the local language, I asked him how to say hello and thank you. He told us.

After a bit of this, he selected a bracelet and held it over my wrist. I told him I wasn’t interested, so he held it to my other wrist.

“Sorry, still not interested.”
“It’s very cheap.”
“No, thank you.”
“You know how much?”
“No, but it doesn’t matter.”
“Why don’t you want one?”

This went on for about five minutes until out of nowhere the kid said. “fresh coconut?” That got my attention. I asked how much, and instead of telling me, he told us to wait and ran off. He came back with a coconut stripped of its outer green layer. I asked how much and he said cheap, pulling out a knife to chop it open. I tried to stop him saying if it was too much, I wouldn’t buy it. He asked how much I’d pay for it. I considered and said 30 meticals (about US$1). He made a noise like I’d hit him in the stomach. My girlfriend suggested 35 meticals, earning a look from him saying “you’re not helping.” Then he cut it open and set it on the ground in front of us.

The bargaining then swung from 35 meticals to 150 meticals, to him asking for our sunscreen, my shirt, my flipflops, and one of the towels we’d borrowed. We settled on 70 meticals, though he wasn’t happy about it. When he found out we only had 25 meticals in coins and a 500 metical bill (a bit less than US$17) he then raised the price again, and tried to tempt us by offering bracelets, the sunglasses of a friend who came over, and even the keys to his house. They only had 350 between them in change, but the friend said he could make change at his shop. He asked me to give him the money, saying he’d come back with it. I instead offered to go with him. He insisted on me giving him the money. I insisted more. More laughing and noises like being hit in the stomach.

So I put on a shirt, made sure my girlfriend was okay to be left there with the original salesman and a second friend who’d showed up with his own basket of bracelets. She said yes. So I put on a shirt and followed the guy back to the shops.

On the way he tried to sell me beer, rum, soda, and I don’t remember what else. People saw me coming and tried to sell me bread, cashews, soft drinks, alcohol, and fruit. None of them was about to break ranks and give me change without having me buy something.

I finally bought a bunch of bananas from a lady who claimed she could sell them for 20 meticals and get me change. Then she only had 400 meticals in change, saying I should take a papaya, too. Then she turned out to have 450 meticals in change and wanted me to buy oranges. She did not offer one of the coconuts I spotted that was identical to the one the guys were trying to sell me. Eventually she gave me another 12 meticals, and I decided paying a little over US$1 for a bunch of bananas was okay.

Meanwhile my girlfriend was fielding questions from the original seller.

“So, he is your brother?” he asked.
“Your friend?”
“Sure, he’s my friend.”
“...but you kiss.”
”You sleep together?
“So he is your boyfriend, not your friend,”
“You are going to marry him?”
“You are going to give him children?”
“We’ll see.”
“You can have one or two.” And with that pronouncement, he followed me and his friend off the beach.

After I left the fruit stand, the guys caught up with me and asked me to give them the money. I said we’d go back to my girlfriend and the coconut first. They kept asking, I kept walking. The friend called the original seller stupid in Portuguese and they all started laughing as we walked back. The seller asked for my shirt. I said no. He asked for a banana, and I gave him one.

When we got back, they asked again for 150 meticals. I said he’d offered 70 and I’d already given him a banana. He tried to take the money from my hand. I pulled it back, counted out 70, handed it to them, and handed the rest to my girlfriend, who immediately put it in her swimsuit top. They asked for more, I said, thank you, no, and started drinking from my coconut. I think that was the point at which they decided not to stick around to cut it in half for me, as originally offered, and they left.

Even if I had to scoop the meat out of the small opening with two fingers, it was great coconut. Satisfactory experience all around.

I wonder what getting that mango is going to be like.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Finding Housing

When I landed in Cape Town on a Friday, I had this idea that I’d have an apartment by the following Monday. That was a silly idea.

I started by asking other interns about where they thought I should look.The top three areas I heard from anyone were Observatory, Sea Point, and Gardens. I’d started out in a hostel in Observatory. It was close to our office, and it was a student neighborhood with a history of cafes and performing arts patronized by people of all races even during apartheid. That sounded like just the neighborhood for me.

So my second night there, I asked the hostel staff where I should go for the popular bars, restaurants, etc. They told me to go to Lower Main St.

I followed the directions they’d given me and found the street they were talking about. It was cordoned off with police tape. Someone had just been robbed and shot by a stranger who got away in a car.

I went back the next day during daylight hours at the Obz Cafe, across the street from the crime scene, and sat at the bar for lunch. I chatted up the bartender and asked him what had happened. After telling me, he also told me that a week previously, one of his friends had been shot and killed by complete strangers who wanted to rob him. He'd had a wife and three young children. When I left after paying the bill, I said again I was sorry for the loss of his friend. He shrugged and said, “that’s life.” I think that attitude got my attention more than the actual shooting did.

I decided to look at a safer neighborhood, one where I didn’t get ominous looks from hostel staff when I went outside after the 6pm sunset. Sea Point overlooks the Atlantic Ocean to the west, with beautiful sunsets. It’s very safe, with a street of restaurants and shops just a couple blocks up from the promenade, as well as access to the new MyCiti Bus system, a clean, cheap, and reliable bus service that could get me to work.

I thought I had found the place for me when I answered an ad for an apartment share on that main street with two young “artistic types.” But when I came to the address, the guy wasn’t home, saying his roommate would show me around.

She did. The apartment’s shabby looking halls had five foot posters of naked women in various fantasy-inspired backgrounds. I’m not sure how I’d describe the color of the water in the kitchen sink, but you couldn’t see to the bottom. There was a nice balcony, but the door to it was broken, detached, and leaning sideways against the open doorway.

I talked later to someone in local real estate and for reasons I didn’t entirely understand based on “rental stock,” this was pretty standard condition of Sea Point apartments. I did keep looking, but didn’t have much luck. So I expanded my search to Gardens and downtown.

All in all, it was more than two weeks until I finally found a room with internet and a full-size bed that would rent to me for the remaining month and a half.  It's in a bright orange house in the historic Bo Kaap neighborhood (pictured above), just up the hill from the restaurants and bars of Long and Kloof streets, shared with a German couple, a french intern, and two other roommates I haven't yet met. My bed feels like a sheet wrapped around a box of coat hangers, and I'm still waiting on promised repairs to a window that's permanently cracked open, but it's home.

I spent a couple nights at a nearby hostel while I worked out the cheapest way to get money from my American bank accounts in US dollars into South African rand for my German landlord. While I was there, I sat at the obligatory bar and talked about the work we're doing in the townships, and housing came up.

Most homes in the poorer areas are made by the residents. If someone puts up a shack, usually of corrugated metal, it's flimsy, gets hot in the summer and keeps no heat in the winter. But the real problem is that if a neighbor wants to build a house, they realize they can save money and materials by using the outside of the wall of an existing house as the inside of a wall on their first house. So all the houses are joined together by shared walls, which is fine, until one of them catches fire. Especially if the one thing between firefighters and another burning house is another unbroken line of houses.

So maybe my bed is a little uncomfortable, but when you think about other people not that far away living in these shacks for most of their life, finding my room two weeks isn't much to complain about.

That said, there's something we can do about housing for the people who need it. Among other projects, Heart Capital has started getting into housing. Maybe not a typical house in Bo Kaap, that would take more time and money than most people in townships can afford. But we've met an entrepreneur who's developed a low-cost, easy to build structure using recyclable plastic bags filled with sand, a strong plastic mesh, concrete, and plaster. It's fireproof, well insulated, very sturdy, and can be built in a few days for roughly US$1,000. Originally dubbed e-khaya by developer Dr. Johnny Anderton, we're likely to start rolling them out as a new business called Heartland Homes.

Reaction so far from residents who have seen the structures has been positive. There's even talk of using some to house Heart Capital interns like me in the future. So even if things aren't exactly equal yet, we can hope for good housing for people out here who actually need it.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

First Week of Work

I’d been told to be ready on Wednesday at 6:30am to be picked up. This being Africa, I was picked up around 6:50. The sun wouldn’t rise for another half hour, and no matter how many layers each of us was wearing, we all felt under-dressed for the morning chill.

“That white stuff on the grass is pretty, eh?” my boss said as we drove by, about forty minutes later. I looked where he was pointing.

“You mean the frost?” I asked.

“Is that what that is?” he asked.

Winter in southern Africa is cold enough for people here to be uncomfortable and remark on it frequently, but not enough to actually teach people any systematic way to deal with the cold, for example, closing doors and windows. As a result, while it’s hardly gone below 55 during the day, whatever temperature it is outdoors will be pretty close to the temperature indoors as well.

We were headed to Kayamandi, one of the region’s “townships,” areas that during Apartheid were reserved for non-whites. While the legal segregation has ended, the poverty of those put there in those years endures and have left them functionally segregated. Most of the townships consist of illegally-built tin shacks that, because of their lack of legal status, have no official channels to clean water, sewage lines, or electricity, and if they have any of these things have only gotten them through precarious home rigging of power lines and pipes.

One of the many problems of life in a township is that the only access to fresh nutritious food is through distant supermarkets with escalating prices. Since most of these areas on the peripheries of cities aren’t ideal farming land, normal cultivation isn’t an option. So one of the social enterprises that Heart Capital has invested in and taken on a large share of running is FoodPods. FoodPods is a system by which township residents are given the training , space and materials to grow fresh produce in crates of soil.

What I got whisked off to help with last Friday and was headed out to do on Wednesday was assist with the second FoodPods site, which would have been done weeks ago had everything gone smoothly. Never count on anything going smoothly when you’re trying to fight poverty.

One of the many challenges has been putting up shade-netting food tents (pictured above). These help protect young plants and allow for growing in a wider range of conditions. Apparently putting these tents up had stumped and frustrated all attempts for a good long while. The weekend before, someone brave and intelligent had finally come in and spent hours just getting the pieces of poles sorted and arranged to be the correct length, checking each 4m x 9m tent, and putting in the poles. They had then been rolled up, and when I got there they were handed to me.

Now, Heart Capital’s mission is not to bring interns in from all over the world to do construction work. They hire community members as day laborers to do the real work. We’re brought in mostly to figure out the tricky bits, like putting up these tents.

Just as I was being handed the job of trying to put the tents up solo, someone came up and said a twenty-two year old from the township had shown up looking for work. My boss looked over and said to send him to me.

I’ve worked with teammates and colleagues before. I’ve had classes of students. I’ve interviewed and trained new hires. But when he walked over and my boss left the job to us, I realized for the first time in my life that I had a subordinate. And that he was looking to me to know what his job was.

So I tried to get to know him a bit better, without much success. I got his name, but more complicated questions in English were beyond his limited vocabulary. I couldn’t even get across the idea that I wanted to learn some words in Xhosa, to show that as far as languages were concerned, we were on an even footing.

But I could get across the basic idea of what I wanted and soon we were measuring and marking out the site for each of the tents. Part way through he pulled out his phone and cobbled together something like a sentence to ask what social networks I used.

I walked over and said Facebook. He shook his head and launched Whatsapp on his phone. The same network that pretty much every student in my program who isn’t from the US uses.

I think a large part of my mission here is going to be figuring out communications, especially with the people we serve. Language is going to be a barrier, but after that, we’re going to have a lot more in common than I think some people expect.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Back Out There

Hello again! I'm sitting in Cape Town, South Africa, and by popular demand, I'm back and writing on JTrek about the experience. I've come down to work an internship helping disadvantaged communities in townships. I'm working with impact investing firm Heart Capital. My first day was originally going to be Monday, but when I arrived Friday afternoon after about twenty hours of travel, I was picked up and whisked off to a work site to get started. Then a shower, then a goodbye party for three departing interns. Then my first night of sleep in a bed for a couple days.

I'll be here for two months. I'm currently exploring and reaching out to contacts in town. I'll update this blog with my usual stuff: photos, stories and more (that's fit to print) from my adventures. Stay tuned!