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.

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