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Great news from the Eastern Cape: “Let Us Protect Our Future!” a go!

All over the world, the bureaucratic machine moves slowly. Organizations lumber towards results, interrupted by fiscal years and approval processes. Sometimes brilliant ideas wither and expire before before they’ve had a chance at the table.

In Africa, action sometimes masquerades as idleness. Initiative must take an indirect path. It’s anti-intuitive to the western visitor, and can test our patience. This is no place for frenzied activity, for make-work. Results come more easily to those who understand that the companionable conversation is part of negotiation, not a distraction.

So imagine my surprise to hear that in the meager five months since I left the Eastern Cape, Craig has succeeded where many have given up in frustration. This story picks up where my visit to the Duncan Village Day Hospital left off, way back in October ’09. Here’s what I remember most: Nomalizo’s confident, friendly, energetic face. She was the peer educator who handled the PMTCT workshop in the hospital’s crowded corridor, giving her presentation in both isiXhosa and English. Word was that project funding was set to expire in December ’09 so Craig was there to see if he could employ the peer presenters through his department.

I kept up with the status of the proposal by monitoring Craig’s uniformly exhausted-sounding status updates. Then, recently, this: “Craig Carty just got the email stating that the contract with the hospital network has been signed!!! Prevention education for South Africa’s most at-risk kids a go!!!” In this case (and only in this case), I can excuse the flagrant abuse of exclamation points. This is really big news.

In Craig’s own words (detailed, and very much worth the read):

Adolescent-centered health care is missing from provincial, government-run hospitals. Kids between 10-19 are lumped in with adults, thus many of them become “lost to follow-up” or return to clinics with “adult” problems.  We know that the highest rate of HIV in this country is diagnosed in 20-25 year olds, therefore it is assumed that most contract the illness in their teens. Often they present at hospitals with advanced stages of AIDS as indicated by opportunistic infections which only arise in patients with seriously-damaged immune systems.  If you couple the problems of overburdened ARV clinics with consistent issues of funding, kids presenting with AIDS are kids without a fighting chance at survival.  That’s the reality.  Plus, South Africa just stepped up their treatment standards to match those of the rest of the world in December of 2009.

We created an adolescent-centered education program based upon years of research and data collection from area amaXhosa communities. It is called “Let Us Protect Our Future!” and is co-authored by Drs. John and Loretta Jemmott and Ms. Lynette Gueits.  Initially, it was designed for dissemination within the Department of Educaton as a tool to augment the existing life skills programs.  For logistical reasons, this fell through.  Working with the provincial government, particularly with certain departments, can be daunting (think meetings to discuss meetings to discuss meetings to discuss funding to discuss “how much we’ll get out of this,” etc.).

Shortly after my arrival in South Africa, I was approached by a very passionate physician working within the hospitals of the Eastern Cape. She proposed looking at the manner by which we could disseminate our prevention education program within hospitals, drawing from the patient populations in abortion clinics, maternity wards, HIV care clinics, casualty care (abused kids), pediatrics and chronic care (diabetics, etc.). So we did.

We sent the curriculum to the adolescent division of the CDC for analysis. The feedback was great.  We met with the CEO of local hospitals (Frere and Cecilia Makiwane) as well as the Chief of Clinical Governance.  We developed a 20-page Memorandum of Understanding (ugh) so that we could ultimately “gift” our work unto the health department over the course of about 12 months.  They agreed to integrate the campaign into their 5-year fiscal program which, conveniently, started in April of this year.  But the contract-signing part dragged on and on.  It was a nail-biting experience since our training team was waiting in the wings with airline tickets reserved and I was working long nights perfecting the art of panic.

On March 31, 2010, they signed the contract. For all intents and purposes, it was a go and I was able to sleep through the night (only to wake up on April Fool’s Day wondering if it was a joke—it wasn’t).

This new program will provide a foundation that will demonstrate to the Provincial Dept of Health that the construction of new adolescent wings within our two major launch hospitals is an imperative. I was once told by a high-ranking government official that “first, you must prove that you can work in the conditions provided.”  Then, she added, “ If you can make it work, they will build you space.”  So we’re cramming ourselves into unused waiting areas adjacent to abortion clinics for the first round of pilots. And we’ll make it work.

One pediatric physician was concerned that her HIV + kids would be left out. Not so.  Those already living with HIV will be educated in terms of prevention of transmission (commonly referred to as “prevention for positives”) alongside those without HIV.  Since all the sessions are run in groups of 10-20, this will build a sense of fellowship and reduce stigma.

That same physician expressed worry about the work burden on her staff. No need to fret, I said.  The “Let Us Protect Our Future!” campaign is designed to be self-sustaining through the employment of people like Nomalizo Nonkwelo who was recruited from a de-funded prevention education project in Duncan Village. For a minimal financial output, the hospitals will maximize the reduction of repeat cases of abortion, STI treatments, etc. through empowering their most vulnerable patients.  In the long term, we’ll be reducing the burden.  In addition, we have integrated the National Campaign for HIV Counseling and Testing into the curriculum.  All participants will be referred for HIV-testing if they have not already been.

During my last conversation with the Chief of Clinical Governance (an amazingly calm and collected woman despite her incredibly-stressful post) stated, “I hope you are ready to be very busy.  Every hospital in the Eastern Cape will want this campaign once we’ve completed the integration in our two hospitals.” Her assertion is great news, indeed!  We’ll just have to muster up the energy (and funds!) to make it happen.

Once the pilots are completed and the campaign is successfully integrated, we anticipate drawing on even more of the de-funded agencies to hire more staff to hopefully enact this program in all hospitals throughout the province (but I’ve got my sights set on the entire country). It’s a lofty goal, but I have a capable, eager and determined team with a vested interest in stopping the epidemic in its tracks within this demographic.  I’ve also been told that I’m too idealistic and that burn-out is right around the corner.  Perhaps, but if South Africa foresees a future free of HIV, directing initiatives and funds toward the highest-risk populations in the highest-risk settings is key to making this happen and we’ll just have to buck up and deal.
– Craig Carty, “Let Us Protect Our Future!” campaign

Maybe this by-line should be “Craig Carty, Bureaucratic Machine-slayer”. Bravo to you for having the meetings about having meetings, and for getting your vision to the table. I could not be more impressed, my friend.


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Do-goodery on wheels (Call for sponsorship)

The Friends for Life Bike Rally is an annual week-long cycling trip (Toronto – Montreal) fund raiser with proceeds going to the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. If you live in Toronto, you might know somebody who’s done or is doing this amazing ride. I do, and I’ve offered to help him publicize his effort through the blog. Why? A couple of reasons: The FFL rally is a creative and interesting fund raiser for super-good cause, and Christopher is a fellow soccer player having his own adventure in do-goodery.

Also, after watching him dance around in various states of undress, a little PR was the least I could do. Let me explain: Christopher Hayden’s alias is Bruin Pounder, and he’s a performer in BoylesqueTO, Toronto’s all-male burlesque troupe. He’s also the founder of the ARTWHERK! Collective, and an all-around good guy. Though he’s not sharing all of his plans for the event just yet, he confides that Bruin will making an appearance somewhere along the 660km ride.

“This will be my first year participating in the ride,” says Christopher. “One of my main interests in this event is supporting the PWA. They have been leaders in providing support to people living with AIDS in Toronto since 1987. This isn’t something I’m doing necessarily as a gay guy, because HIV/AIDS affects people from so many different communities. I am doing the ride to support my city, promote HIV/AIDS prevention and to help provide services to people that are living with AIDS. Money is great but so is participation. We owe it to our communities to tell stories and advocate for things we believe in.”

What do you get for your donation, you ask?

“Any donations over $20 get a tax receipt … and my plan is to make a t-shirt with the names of all the people who sponsor me on it. I will wear it one day during the ride to show Canada who has got my back (literally and figuratively) for this challenge.”

Ready to make your tax-deductible donation and get your name on that shirt? Click here to reach Christopher’s donor page.

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Do-goodery: achieved; Mountain Birds outfitted and undefeated

Day before yesterday Craig drove out to Potsdam, which is beyond Mdantsane, past NU-18  where the rural areas meet the township. There, he delivered the equipment we collected and got to watch the Mountain Birds practice.

At practice in Potsdam

Two Mountain Birds at practice in Potsdam

Coach Sandile and his son at practice in Potsdam

Coach Sandile and his son at practice in Potsdam

The Mountain Birds are currently undefeated, and prepping for a match against the second-ranked team later this month.

Mountain Birds in their O'Grady's jerseys

Mountain Birds in their O'Grady's jerseys

Craig reports that the equipment delivery resulted in a rash of “complicated handshakes and hugs”, and he writes, “Thank you again to everyone who had a stake in making this happen. The joy and appreciation witnessed by me on the many faces of this struggling township team just served as a reminder of how important the spirit of giving is…”

Since the equipment packet left Canada, I have received many inquiries about when I will start the next program. The simple answer is: I don’t know.

The Mdantsane Soccer Kit Drive program was unique in a few key ways:

1) Independence: We did this without involving bureaucratic or governing bodies. This allowed us to circumvent some barriers (postal delays, paperwork) but ultimately relied on a unique set of circumstances (i.e. that we had people travelling where we needed to go) that will likely not present themselves again. In other words, this was an extremely successful one-off.

2) Environmental impact:  From the beginning, we were committed to the idea that this program should work to redistribute existing goods. The obvious way around postal/Customs issues is to avoid shipping equipment, but by sending money to be spent in-country only one issue is addressed: that of getting the team their kits. It does not help reduce consumption; it does not redistribute existing usable goods; it does less (in my opinion) to connect communities.

3) Community: This program was a beautiful example of geographically disparate communities connecting through a shared love of soccer (football). Much has been researched and written about the unifying power of sport, and organizations like Right to Play, Girls in the Game, and the Federation of Gay Games, to name a few, promote sport within their communities (international, girls, and LGBT respectively). I wholeheartedly support these initiatives but it is gratifying to see that similar outcomes can be achieved on a more grassroots level. We succeeded here without a budget and without corporate sponsorship. And we connected two very distinct communities on a much more personal level than if it had been through a larger organization. I feel that the Mdantsane Mountain Birds are “my” team. I want them to succeed. And I hope that everyone who contributed to this effort feels the same sense of pride and connection and engagement.

If I can figure out a way to replicate the success of the Kit Drive without having to abandon these ideas, I will.


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A holiday story

Last Monday evening I packed up the Mdantsane soccer equipment into the Goodlife duffel and three string bags. Hoisting the whole lot onto my back I made my unsteady way towards the door. As I staggered past the full-length mirror, I was startled into a spit-take: Father Christmas was staring back at me.

Now, I don’t observe Christmas. By the time I hit my mid-30s I was tired of waking up on January 2nd exhausted, emotional and penniless, so a few years back I announced to my loved ones that I was no longer going to celebrate. This doesn’t mean I’m a Scrooge. It means I am free to give gifts when the spirit moves me, even if that is in May or September or July. It means I have a bit of money in my pocket. It means I spend those final weeks of every year considering what has come before and what I will accomplish next.

In 2009 I made it halfway around the world, met amazing people doing critical work in their communities, and lent a hand. I learned that getting help is often as simple as asking. I saw the generosity of strangers and friends. And when I returned home I knew myself as part of a global community – a community of do-gooders, of soccer fans, of adventurers and storytellers. My world was both bigger and smaller, and I wanted nothing more than to reach across the ocean and connect these places.

The Mdantsane Village Soccer Kit Drive was one way to accomplish this. For me, the program was about more than providing equipment, though that was the ultimate result. I wanted to leverage the unifying spirit of soccer to do good by the teams I met in Africa and my own community. We have so much in the West. It’s scandalous, really – in my soccer league each player is outfitted with their own jersey and socks each and every season. And each and every September when the sun finally goes down on the pitch, these items become useless except as mementos. It’s wasteful and it’s a shame.

This is what I was thinking as I sat at the sideline of the dusty pitch watching the Mdantsane Mountain Birds kick their opponents’ asses in borrowed cleats. If, as we know, there are seasons worth of good, unused soccer equipment growing dusty in the closets of Toronto… and if, as we know, it is expensive to send goods from here to there and improbable that they will arrive intact if at all… then we must find another way. For me, this was not about sending money – it was about connecting two communities; it was about redistributing what is already available.

Then a remarkable thing happened: Craig told me that on his holiday trip home to Philadelphia he’d bring empty suitcases so he could fill them with cleats and jerseys. Philly is a lot closer than Mdantsane Village. A single conversation cut the task down by approximately 12,800 kilometres. Now we only had to get the goods to Philadelphia. And then another remarkable thing happened: my friends Tedd and Garry offered to drive the equipment to Philly during their holiday trip to New Jersey. Suddenly all I had to do was the collection. And then the remarkable things began to tumble over other remarkable things. My request was met with such enthusiasm that I was overwhelmed by the response. Players that I only see during the summer travelled out of their way to meet me. My entire summer team agreed to donate jerseys so I could ensure the Mountain Birds would receive a full matching kit for themselves. And even now I am receiving calls asking if it’s too late and when the next Drive will happen.

So when I saw myself in the mirror with a bag of presents on my back I snapped a picture. I felt “the joy of giving”, an emotion that’s been sullied for me by years of cynical exploitation. I also felt thankful and proud and connected – and ready to begin organizing the next Kit Drive.

That evening I met up with Tedd and handed over the parcels. And this morning my phone lit up with this message: The stuff made it over the border fine. So thank you to everyone to who participated in big and little ways. I just got confirmation that the equipment is passing through Scranton en route to Mdantsane Village. See how little this big world is (and vice versa)?

Toronto to Mdantsane Village via Scranton

Toronto to Scranton. Next stop Philadelphia, then Mdantsane Village, South Africa.

Happy holidays, everybody.


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Good-bye East London

I wake up early and finish packing. Craig is at work and it’s impossible not to tour the flat at the Kennaway without whispering good-byes. Though the  past weeks have been full of jocular assertions that I will return – certainly for the World Cup in 2010! – I don’t know how realistic that is. Good-bye jacuzzi tub, good-bye Dennis Fistofassholes, good-bye depressing penguins at the East London aquarium.

I have a couple hundred rand left in my pocket. It’s a grey day, windy and spitting rain, but the vendors are out on the waterfront. I buy a wooden spoon from a woman who asks me to take her to Canada. She is out here every day beading bracelets and carving pieces of wood into mantle-sized elephants and baboons. Good-bye waterfront vendors.

The local Spar (grocery) is not very big but they have what I am after. O.B. tampons cost about 2 bucks a pack here; I clear the shelf, and throw in five tubes of Sensodyne. The checkout woman does a double-take and I wonder what kind of affliction she is imagining I labour under. I walk back through the parking lot.  Two men are asleep, spooning on the grass under the sign for the fitness centre. Good-bye.

Though Craig is not scheduled to take me to the airport until early afternoon, he shows up at the Kennaway at 11am. “D’you wanna go for lunch before we head out?” We load my bags into the BMW and grab a bite at the Red Tree Tea House, a cafe that’s full of antiques and really weird art. Normally we’d indulge ourselves and skewer the misshapen Jesus with six fingers… but there’s not a lot left to say, now. I hate long good-byes. We pay up and drive to the airport. Good-bye Debonairs Pizza, good-bye parking lot guys, good-bye magic bank machine (you were the only one in East London that would give me money).

Craig parks and comes inside, claiming that he wants to make sure my bag isn’t overweight. Liar. I check in (good-bye 1Time) and we walk to security. Awkwardly, Craig thanks me for coming to visit and we hug. I turn to him abruptly and say, “I don’t want to make this a big thing…” God, I can be lame sometimes but there it is: Good-bye, Lady Kennaway.

Click on a thumbnail for a closer look:


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Duncan Village shebeen

Well, we’re kicking off my last week in Africa with an extraordinary adventure: Craig and I have been invited to a shebeen (tavern) in Duncan Village by Craig’s friend and colleague, Dumile. It is nerve-wracking and exciting, likely-dangerous, and a never-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The drive to Duncan Village is short and tense. I am thinking about the balance between caution and paranoia. Craig says that Dumile is very well-respected in his community and that as his guests we will be safe. Still, the townships in general and shebeens in particular are reputedly dangerous and violent places. I brace myself for an explosion of race politics. I am thankful for the opportunity despite the churning apprehension in my stomach.

Duncan Village after dark is… well, really dark. There are no street lights and in the charged excitement of a Saturday night, people are out walking, visiting, talking, and drinking in the moonlight.

Dumile meets us and takes us to Stella’s, a small shebeen near his place. It’s a two-room cinder block building. In the front, people are sitting and drinking. One woman dances in the doorway to music coming from a small stereo in the corner. We order beer through a locked grate; a girl fetches two large bottles of Windhoek from a fridge and passes them through the bars. We walk out into Duncan Village.

Dumile seems to know everyone, so we stop every few feet to be introduced to this or that person. He walks us through a crowd of people in suits and dresses. They are prepping for a funeral the next day. The introductions confound my tongue as I struggle to repeat them back. One guy assumes a high nasal voice and cracks, “Hello Peter, hello James.” Though the joke is at my expense, I think it’s pretty funny.

I recently found out that the firm handshake I am accustomed to giving and receiving is perceived as aggressive in this culture. It is better to offer a softer hand – and the shake has at least three grips, which I have only recently mastered. I am feeling quite chuffed with myself for the near-seamless handshake I am negotiating with Dumile’s mother when she throws me off by adding a finger snap at the end.

Next we go to Dumile’s place, a two room tin and wood shack with two beds, a beanbag chair, a fridge, a television on the counter, and three certificates taped to the wall. There are a few women there, drinking and watching soccer. I miss a lot of what happens next. The conversation is mostly in isiXhosa and I have to rely on Craig to send me cues. I spend a lot of time smiling and nodding like a dashboard Jesus.

It occurs to me that the word is out that Dumile has some unusual guests over because very quickly the place fills up with people. I chat with whoever is interested, but this ends up being only men – the women want nothing to do with me. Eventually a guy shows up who introduces himself as “the Mayor of Duncan Village” and hunkers down in front of me. For the next fifteen minutes we have a conversation that feels a lot like a job interview, in which I confirm that South African beer is good, that Canada is cold, and that their “big five” is better than ours (I suggest that ours includes moose, bear, goose, salmon and beaver – not bad, but they ain’t no lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino).

Finally, Dumile says he will take us to Oud’s – the best shebeen in Duncan Village. As we are getting up the Mayor says something to Craig and smirks, turning to me. “What’s that?” I say. “I didn’t hear what you asked.” The Mayor chuckles again and says, “Well, have you?” I’m no idiot, so I say with certainty and a smile, “Nope, I absolutely have not.” The Mayor winks and laughs heartily. At the car Craig tells me he had asked if I’d yet had a “taste of Africa”. “Dude,” Craig explains, “he thought you were a guy the entire time.” Uh-oh. Experience tells me this can be very dangerous territory and Duncan Village is the last place I want to see go all Boys Don’t Cry.

We pile into the car: Craig and I in the front and 6 passengers in the back seat. Oud’s is a larger building and outdoor space packed with people and loud (very good) music. We walk inside and every set of eyes is on us. I buy another giant Windhoek. A guy grabs my arm and pulls me close to his face. “We are wondering,” he gestures to a small circle of people seated on broken plastic chairs, “are you a boy or a girl?” I smile broadly, warmly, and reply, “I am a girl, but I am from Canada. We all look like this. Weird huh?” The guy grins back and we chat for a few minutes. Yes, Canada is cold, and South Africa has good beer.

Dumile leads the three of us outside, and a small group of other curious folks follows. Craig takes me aside and whispers in my ear, “I’d say this is going quite well… except for the guy who just threatened to slit my throat.” Looks like part of the fun is to wind up the white people – or at least that’s the explanation Dumile gives, apologetically. Craig’s teeth and eyes flash. “It’s not a funny joke,” he asserts and Dumile shakes his head: he knows.

We socialize for another fifteen minutes with a little dude in oversized Nikes who keeps calling Craig “nigga”. They swap lingo: in South Africa his shoes are “takkies”; in the U.S. they’d be “kicks”. A guy approaches me and says in my ear, “We’re going to slit your throat and steal your car.” The additional detail in the threat is almost funny – like the next guy will say something like “We’re going to slit your throat, steal your car and piss on your corpse” – but the overture makes me angry. I swing my body around to face him and ask, “Hey, what do you think my friend Dumile would think about your ‘joke’?” He’s contrite: he was kidding, he says. We leave in a display of a righteous indignation which is better, I guess, than leaving in a flurry of white panic.

In the car on the way back to his place, Dumile repeatedly apologizes. There’s a shadow across his handsome face and his welcoming smile is gone. I turn around in the seat to reassure him – we are fine – and I can see his discomfort. He is embarrassed and I feel terrible for him, for me, for everything the incident suggests. We drop Dumile at his place and then Craig and I drive home, crack open beers, and process the hell out of the whole thing.


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Cape Town, yes; Evan, no

Remember Evan? Well he’s dead to me.

Dead to me?

Dead to me?

No, not really. How could you hate this face? But unfortunately he is unable to drive the Garden Route with me, so I have made a new plan. On October 9 I am flying on my new favourite airline 1time.co.za to meet up with Craig’s friend Mike, from Cape Town. I will stay with Mike for the weekend, and Craig will join us on Sunday. We’ll explore Cape Town until Thursday October 15, when we’ll fly back to East London.

We are planning on visiting Boulders Beach where there is a penguin colony, including a healthy population of Jackass penguins (so-called for the braying noises they make). I may have found my new term of endearment for lovely Lady Kennaway. Speaking of penguins and the Kennaway, the East London aquarum is across the street from us, featuring an outdoor penguin cage. It houses 20 or 30 of the most depressed-looking penguins I have ever seen. I went and poked my head over the rail to see them, and there they were, vacantly staring into the corners, motionless. We are considering an effort to set them free. I am not sure if I have ever seen anything as forlorn as a depressed penguin.

It stared into the corner the entire time I was there.

It stared into the corner the entire time I was there.

Update: as it turns out, there is indeed a vision as forlorn as a depressed penguin, and conveniently, it is located at the very same aquarium.

White Pelican...in a cage overlooking the Indian Ocean. There are two of them in there.

White Pelican...in a cage overlooking the Indian Ocean. There are two of them in there.

Also on the agenda for Cape Town is a shark dive. Apparently you can submerge in a shark cage (DANGER!) off the coast of Cape Town without a SCUBA license (DANGER!): sounds like an irresistible double dose of African DANGER.

I am excited, and also sincerely hope to cross paths with Evan again. Evan – when you are ready to continue our conversation about bringing open source to the South African school system, contact me.

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