Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Thursday, November 5, 2009

International Social Work Conference

The social work department held a conference today, to benefit the students going to Belize for Study Abroad in January. I was asked to present on the work in South Africa. I spent 12 hours putting together my presentation, using pictures from the past five trips. I wanted to paint a picture of how the country had changed--and how social work had changed--since 2001 when the transition to social development finally began to come about.

I noticed as we were setting up the computer and projector that the room was so light the pictures were not visible. We were in the ball room, which had ceiling to floor windows and the east sun shining through them. There was nothing to be done (apparently, drapes are not thought to be necessary in a ballroom) but turn out the lights, and lower the shades on the east side...which were white, mesh shades, designed only to filter but not block. It made little difference.

The idea had come to me a couple of days ago as to how to begin my presentation. Without pictures being clearly visible, I knew I had to make the narrative even more interesting, and I tried to do that by walking around, doing descriptive examples of the work I have done. I stepped up to the microphone after my introduction and startled the crowd by belting out "Mandela, Mandela, says fight for freedom, in our land of Africa. Holyshasla, Mandela. Freedom is in your hands. Show us the way to freedom, in our land of Africa."

I have to say that my whole experience of planning this South Africa class has been doomed from day one! Now, I am still going, and looking forward to it, and my part of it has gone seamlessly. I arranged the incredible pricing of $15 per night for housing, and only $100 in excursions due to my contacts. By reducing my salary by 2/3 and taking no per diem, I was able to get the cost (which includes all the tuition and mandated university fees) to an all-time low--the lowest cost of any study abroad course in the January session. With airfare running at 1400 now instead of the usual 2,000, my cost was still the lowest of any of the travel courses and I was certain the class would make this year.

It did not. It was doomed from the beginning by errors (not mine) which resulted in posters printed for the wrong city, inaccurate information posted on the website as to the nature of the class, failure of others to show up for meetings and classes as scheduled, or answer correspondence and in the end, in spite of my efforts, I had two students sign up, so it is a no go for the class. From the first mistake to the last, I have spent many hours obsessing over it, grieving over it, and asking myself what it all meant.

Even though I am not taking a class and the efforts of today from me (presenting and supporting the silent auction with some of my cherished South Africa items such as hand-beaded spoons and silk-screens), go to support students selecting another trip, I applaud the notion of studying abroad. It adds so much to one's experience. Since my first trip in 2001, South Africa had become an important part of my life and my experience and I will never be the same again.

On December 31, I leave Memphis with my son for my sixth visit to South Africa. I will see two new programs, revisit my dear friend Aunty Goliath and family, and spend time with my friends Courtney and Lira and their son, Joshua. I will see my former student and now friend and colleague who works there, Jeanne. I will have time--for the first visit--to be truly on holiday, spending my time as I choose rather than working. When you put something out to the universe, things happen. I said not long ago "My next trip to South Africa is going to be on holiday." And so it is.

These are some of my pictures from my first visit in 2001, when I went to evaluate the internship experience of my student who had just spent a year there working in child welfare. As we drove past the airport on our way to Stellenbosch, I was not prepared for the miles and miles of shanties--known as informals--that make up the townships of Gugulethu and Khayelitsha. I did not know then how much time I would come to spend in those townships over the next 9 years.
Once in Stellenbosch, we headed out to Kayamandi, the township. Though apartheid had ended 10 years earlier, the communities were still very segregated and housing was inadequate for the majority of the population.
Shanties do not have kitchens nor cooking capacity for the most part, though some families will use a small kerosene burner to prepare a one-pot meal. Far more common is the braii, or barbeque, where families will purchase simple foods.
One of the commitments is to preparing the next generation for education and success. Each township will have a number of pre-schools, or creches, for early childhood intervention.
Basic curriculum materials are provided, and social workers work with mothers in the community to help children become school-ready. It also provided a bare minimum of nutritious snacks under the feeding programs.
To this day, I recall looking into the eyes of this young man and wondering what he was thinking as he stared at me. One of my friends, on seeing this picture, said, "Now there is an old soul." This little boy would be around 11 or 12 by now.
The first trip was a whirlwind week of my visiting all Jeanne's work sites, but on the last day before our departure, we had time to see a few tourist locations. Jeanne took us for the day to Cape Town to the market and to see some of the stunning views of the area.
One of my favorites was this mural made from guns (real and toy) that had been turned in following the ending of apartheid and the move to a violence-free culture. Sadly, there is still much violence in South Africa, though it is not the same type of violence. I also define the daily poverty of unemployment, living in dangerous and unhealthy shanties without running water, toilets, floors or proper roofs as violence. Violence can be more than guns and crime.
Tourism has been a boon to some in the area, and sites such as these street-side performers is common. I still play their CD on a regular basis and enjoy the beauty of their voices, singing both in English and in Xhosa.
Our last meal that year was at Mama Afrika's where we ate traditional African food prepared by an excellent chef. We sampled springbok, crocodile, and ostrich, accompanied by traditional foods such as butternut and spinach.
I was particularly fascinated by the chandelier made from old coke bottles!
The following morning, we would depart for the flight home. I knew then that I would return the following year for my upcoming sabbatical, and began at that moment to prepare for what would turn out to be the most incredible experience of my life.


Betty said...

You are truly a Social Worker with an adventurous heart! It's awesome that your son is going with you. I gather you are leaving Randy home this time. I loved your pictures but was aghast at the poverty there. It's hard to contemplate living that way and every day.

Suzassippi said...

Randy had to take care of the dogs. :) These don't even reflect the true poverty. I plan to post a few more over the next few days. It really bummed me after all the work that no one could see the presentation this morning!