Yebo - Joey and the Deltones

In a way, this song kind of represents me at my best. It is a snapshot of me at my most idealistic, dreamy, and hopeful.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Jabu's Choice

For context, please see the first part of this story below.

Jabu had been to the free clinic. Jabu had received medication for her illnesses. Jabu had been surrounded by supportive friends and loving family since the moment she walked back onto the farm. Then came the phone call that threw a monkey (not a monkey wrench) into the whole operation and screwed everything up.

Jabu's boyfriend, Judas (father of her second child) called her and demanded to know why she had not returned yet. After not listening to her reasons, he told her that if she didn't come home in 2 days, then it was over between them.

To any outsider, the situation seems easy to handle. This boyfriend was the one who infected Jabu. This boyfriend was the one who never took care of Jabu as she was getting ill. This boyfriend never visited Jabu at the farm to see how she was feeling. This boyfriend has had other affairs while together with Jabu. This boyfriend was the same boyfriend who to this day refuses to get tested for HIV or allow their child to go receive medical attention even though the young boy is HIV positive.

Why on earth should Jabu care to go back to him?

"Because he loves me.... and I love him."

For hours, her sisters on the farm talked to her. They made their case telling her that she was surrounded by people who loved her on the farm. They would take care of her, get her food and water, help her get around, make sure she's taking her medication and eating healthy. They would stay by her side and love and care for her until she was healthy again, or until the day she died. They were only met with empty, sad, and troubled eyes staring into nothingness.

They tried to make her understand that they would do anything for her, no matter what, and if she did get back, there was no one that would look after her - and she knew that. But ultimately, they admitted, it was her choice.

Many of the kids on the farm came to talk to Jabu separately that nite - each telling her that they loved her and wanted her to stay. Even Jen, who had taken days off from work, driven in from Jo'burg, spent her own gas money and paid for other expenses on the way, who had gone thru such lengths just to get Jabu proper medical attention, and give her a fighting chance to get healthy again and stay alive to watch her kids grow up, tried talking to Jabu for a long time, seemingly in vain.

The next day was a long day for many people here. Jabu was deciding what to do. Feeling that she might actually leave, her older sister Ellen decided that our last hope was to call on Jabu's boyfriend, Judas, to come to the farm and talk to the family to try and work something out.
Ellen walked the 3km to where Jabu's boyfriend lived. She found him at the house, sitting outside, drinking with other people, a young woman laughing as she sat on his lap. Ellen contained herself as she watched Judas caressing the young woman's back, endlessly flirting with her as he dodged questions she was asking him.

Ellen made the request that he come to the farm to talk to the family to work something out. He finally got fed up and responded, "If the soccer game ends before 5:00, I'll come over. If it ends at 6:00, I'm not coming over." Ellen didn't expect to get any further, and so returned home.

Needless to say, Judas never showed up. Ellen reported all that she saw to Jabu, who was unmoved by anything she heard. Judas called again that evening telling Jabu that if she wasn't home by the end of the day tomorrow, it was over between them.

Jabu's 5 year old daughter, Ayanda, has lived here on the farm with the other kids for most of her young life. She would occasionally go stay by her mother, but often preferred the company of the other kids on the farm. Ayanda absolutely loves her mother to bits and pieces. She stayed by her for a few hours that nite, aware her mother was ill, but clueless about the decision she was about to make. My heart was bleeding for Ayanda. Her mother grew up without ever knowing her parents, and she would now be faced with the same fate, if her mother decided to leave.

I checked on Jabu the next morning. She was sleeping soundly even at 10 am. When I came back that evening, Ellen informed me that Jabu left that afternoon.

Jabu had told Ellen her reason for leaving and going back to Judas. She said:

"I'd rather die with him than die alone."

After Ellen related to me Jabu's rationale for leaving, I don't know why, but I was unable to suppress an audible chuckle. Ellen did the same. How could we laugh or find anything funny after what just happened? Jabu's health would again start to rapidly deteriorate, her one year old son had no chance of surviving very long without seeing a doctor, and her boyfriend was already busy spreading the virus to other women in the village. Jabu was fully aware of this, but still was convinced that it didn't matter, because he loved her.

I wasn't sure how to react. Maybe that's why I laughed.

Jabu apparently didn't understand or chose to ignore the fact that family can love someone just as much and more so than a boyfriend can (especially when that boyfriend is busy fooling around with other women). She also seemed to have forgotten what it meant to be part of and surrounded by, a loving family. She had thought herself to be alone, even in the company of all her sisters and brothers and friends. She put her boyfriend before anyone else in her life, including herself, and her own children.

Myself, I cannot fathom the thought process there. And that's a lot of the reason why this disease has been able to spread as much as it has, in my view. Nothing seems logical or to make sense in this decision making process. Jabu's thoughts and feelings were her own, she knew how her actions would affect others, and she knew the consequences of her decisions. We all knew which decision she would make in the end, we all could have predicted it. We don't know why or how she arrived at that decision, but we do know that it is an all too common thought process among so many young women around South Africa.

Death does not seem to be a concern or worry to so many people out here. And quite often as well, they don't seem to take others into consideration when making certain choices in their lives.
The reasons for this may be many, may be complicated, or may be very simple. I will not risk putting in writing my own thoughts and opinions as to why this seems to be common place here in South Africa. However, this is an open forum for discussion for those who do wish to talk about it.

As for Ellen, her other sisters, myself, Jen, and everyone else here on the farm who was involved with Jabu the past week, we are able to find comfort in the fact that we did everything we could to help Jabu, and we know we would have done more if it was within our power.

But ultimately, you cannot help someone who does not wish to be helped.

I am always open for conversation, and hearing what you have to say.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

There's Something About Jabu

The following story is a true story, though names have been changed during the writing process.

I don't think anyone would wish to have their obituary read as cause of death - "Death by Bureaucracy" - but that is precisely the reason why countless people in South Africa have met and will meet their end in the years to come.

Everyone knows that HIV/AIDS is an unforgiving, indifferent, treatable though incurable disease. With the knowledge we have amassed over the past 20 - 30 years researching the disease, it has become quite manageable, and people are able to live much longer and healthier lives if they have access to the information, medical attention, and drugs that they need.

The SA govt., to put it plainly, is overwhelmed. They have problems from A to Z ranging from high crime rates across the country, massive unemployment, land redistribution, race issues, affirmative action, poverty issues, lack of infrastructure and resources in rural parts of the country, energy and electrical issues, a broken education system... the list goes on and on. Add to the top of that list is the fact that according to one study, as of 2006, over 6 million people out of a population of 46 million, had been documented as being HIV positive, with over 1000 more people being infected every day. And that's just the information gathered by those who have been tested, not including the countless number of people who are HIV positive but have not gotten tested.

I don't wish to get into a full length essay about American misconceptions about the disease here, and what is learned by actually living amongst the people of SA, but please know that the issue of HIV/AIDS goes infinitely deeper than many of us can imagine. Myself included. Everyday it seems I learn about a different aspect of the disease and/or the culture surrounding me that brings me closer to understanding the depth of the issue, but still no closer to having any sort of solid approach to addressing it.

One thing that I have realized is that the disease takes on entirely new dimensions in one's mind when you personally know someone with it. The idea morphs again when you see that person progressing into the later stages of AIDS.

Here at site, only two adults and one infant have passed away in the last few months due to HIV/AIDS. That's a relatively small number of deaths, but then again, the community consists of only about 200 people. Others within the community, old, young, and middle-aged, are positive, though no one ever talks about it, and they continue on with their lives as if there is nothing wrong with them.

We recently had a young 21 year old woman come back to the farm here where she was raised along with the 15 - 20 other orphans that have come thru this home over the years. Jabu has had two children already - one 5 years old, one just about a year old. Both children have different fathers. The reason Jabu returned to the farm after many years of being absent, was because she was HIV positive, and has progressed into much later stages of AIDS. Now she is unable to walk without extreme pain, she has virtually no energy, she runs a constant high fever, and upon a recent visit to a doctor, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Her CD4 count as measured few weeks ago, was 240.

Jabu, as mentioned before, was raised as an orphan. Though a few attempts had been made to get her proper identification documents such as a birth certificate and ID book, to this day she is waiting for her ID number, along with millions of other South Africans.

We would like very much to get Jabu on ARV drugs, which the government does supply at most local clinics. However, to receive ARVs, your CD4 count must be below 200, and you must have proof that you are a South African citizen, in the form of either a birth certificate or and ID book. Jabu meets neither of these criteria. However, any way you look at it, it is obvious that she is in desperate need of ARV treatment. Though her CD4 count was above 200, she has already progressed to the later stages of the disease, so technically, she is eligible to receive them. But govt. clinics will not give out ARVs to people without proper documentation.

Facing this dilemma, we called for some outside help. Jen has been a friend of the family here for many years, and is currently working for an NGO in Jo'burg that is very involved with issues surrounding orphans and HIV/AIDS. Jen confirmed that technically, Jabu is eligible for ARVs. She told us that because she knows the family and Jabu quite well, she would make a personal trip out here to see if she could help.

I went with Jen early one morning to the Dept. of Home Affairs at the local municipality to check on the status of Jabu's application for an ID. The people at Home Affairs all confirmed that it was "stuck" in Pretoria as of 2 weeks ago, and could tell us no more. The computer systems had recently been switched over which caused delays in the processing, and the employees did not know how to investigate as to why the application was "stuck". We asked when it might be resolved and we might have a more definitive answer. They responded it might be about a month before it was ready. Of course, TIA (This is Africa) so one month could mean anything. We asked in vain if there was any way to speed the process up, and received the expected answer of "no". We explained the situation, that our friend was very sick with HIV, and needed ARV treatment but couldn't get it because she had no ID. They were sorry, but they couldn't do anything.

So here is the case of a legitimate South African citizen, raised as an orphan, who has lived in rural South Africa for the entirety of her life, who now is essentially being told that her life is being weighed against the government's willingness to free its hands of the red tape binding them together. The government, by making no exceptions to their rules, are saying that they would rather keep their hands tied as so, as opposed to risking giving out life saving medication to someone who might not be a legitimate citizen of this country.

That, dear readers, is called Death By Bureaucracy.

Our only chance at getting Jabu ARV treatment is to take her to a private clinic (which we cannot readily or sustainably afford) or to take her to an NGO site where they can give out ARVs to those in need for free. We found only one NGO clinic that was within driving range which we could take Jabu to.

After an hour and a half drive, we arrived at the clinic where the doctor looked at Jabu, diagnosed her with TB, gave her medication, and instructed those of us with her to make sure she returns within a few days for further examination, followed by visits once a month. They are unable to give out ARVs until her TB is under control.

Now the issue is transport back and forth for Jabu and her "treatment partner" who is supposed to make sure she understands what the doctor is telling her, and to make sure she is taking her medication as scheduled. Transport is expensive (doubly so when including the treatment partner's transport expenses) and notoriously unreliable out here where we live. (I once waited over 2 hours on the road for a ride only 40 km away – the ride then took 1 1/2 hours to complete due to the poor condition of the vehicle) We are making a plan to solve this issue, but it will prove to be more difficult than should be.

Part 2 of this story "Jabu's Choice" will follow in a separate post.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The No Hands Meal

Right hand? Check.

Left hand? Check.

Ten fingers? {Wiggles fingers} Check.

Oh thank God. It must've all just been a bad dream.

So, I like to eat. A lot. You wouldn't think it because of my size, but it's true. Many people often comment to me "I can't believe how much you eat. Why are you so skinny?" For which I usually respond, "I don't know, but thanks... are you done with that pork chop?".

Eating, besides being one of my favourite past times, is also a necessity in life, if one wants to... well, live. Different cultures around the world use different means to transfer food to their mouths. There's the good ol' Western way of using a fork, knife and spoon to get the job done, there's the Eastern method of chopsticks, and there's the poor man's way of simply using one's hands - a method also made popular by babies and small children worldwide.

Each of these ways is effective in its own right. Myself, I enjoy using silverware, after 10 years of seriously trying, I swear I've almost got the chopstick method down, and my hands are acceptable feeding tools when the food is burgers or pizza or something of the sort.

But recently, I was faced with a major challenge... Something I don't think I had ever seriously attempted before - Eating with out using my hands. At all.

I got back recently from a week volunteering at Camp Sizanani (Helping Each Other) which is a camp for children infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. It was a wonderful overall experience. However, one of the "fun" activities they had us do at camp was a "No Hands Meal". The rules were simple. You couldn't use your hands to eat. We asked about using closed fists or elbows, and they said no - "Put your hands behind your back".

Damn it.

The meal was burgers, fries, and some sort of onion soup. How the hell was this going to work? Immediately, the thought came to mind of giant human chickens, pecking away inefficiently at the bits of food on the plate in front of them. What followed was not too far off from that...

People began the meal by looking quizzically at their food (which they were allowed to set up and dress up before the meal started) thinking, "Ok, what's my first move?" After realizing their was no good option for a first move (or second or third or fourth move), I think most people gave up pretty quickly on planning, and just started face diving into their plate, coming up with whatever their teeth could grasp onto. Kinda like bobbing for apples.

I had similar thoughts prior to diving in (i.e. WTF mate?), though I had a very separate concern in the form of a large mane of hair sprouting from all angles of my face. Did I really want to dive into my food like this and get my beard covered in ketchup, chutney and soup? Did I really want to risk shedding bits of my beard into my burger throughout the course of the meal? The short answer was no. It seemed I had two options:

1- Don't participate in the sillyness of the meal. Result: I'd be "that guy" who doesn't know how to have fun at camp.

2- Shave my beard. Result: All my hard work for the last 6 months would have gone out the window. Also, I would have no beard.

I chose option number 3 (not listed), which was tying my beard into a pony tail at the bottom - a style I thought would help minimize the damage done to my beard during the meal, which in actuality did little more than make me look like an absolute tool.

You see, the problem wasn't the bottom of my beard where my pony tail hung, the problem spots were the part right in front of my chin, and my moustahce - essentially, anything on the same plane as my face, which was constantly dipping itself into the mess of food in front of me.

Some people made incredible progress, finishing their food with seemingly little effort. Others tried to be more [un?]conventional and attempted cutting up their food into little bits by grasping the knife with their teeth and shaking their head "No" as the blade slowly made its way thru the red meat of the burger. (This seemed the dumbest approach in my humble opinion)

As for myself, it was hard enough to grab the burger or the bread between my teeth, jerk my head to pull off a chunk to chew on as I imagine a lioness or a velociraptor might do when feasting on its prey. I didn't like going in for my fries. I had unwisely covered them with some chutney, and every time I got too close, I would breathe in, and my nose would be filled with the strong scent of vinegar and fruit and my eyes would tear up instantly. Tears are not delicious on fries. They just make them wet.

What really concerned me was my soup. It was just sitting on my plate, (we had no bowls) soaking all the fries and bottom of the burger with it's liquid onion-ness. I decided to throw caution to the wind and attempt to start slurping. Face down, lips puckered, sucking in.... And lo and behold, it worked. Of course, my beard was now onion flavoured and I had soup dripping from the point of my nose (I think because I have a slightly larger and more oddly shaped nose than most), but the soup made its way to my belly eventually. Hooray.

Drinking was pretty cake (aka "easy" for those of you not down with my lingo) - the teeth do most of the work clamping down on the plastic cup, then it was just a matter of tilting your head back a bit. But you had to be careful and drink in small bits. If you tilted your head back too far, massive amounts of juice would try to descend down your throat, causing you to cough and choke, thus opening your mouth too much, causing you to drop the entire glass of juice onto your unsuspecting private parts.

Not that I'd know of course....

By the time you'd stand up, you'd look a complete and total fool - pony tailed beard-face, soup dripping from nose, your pants looking like they belonged to an un-housebroken race horse...

In other words, it was the perfect activity for a camp.

Other themed meals were the "No Spoons Meal" (aka no silverware, use your hands), "No Chairs Meal", and "No Table Manners Meal". We decided not to try that one out when the kids were present. That was a counselors-only experience.

So next time any of you decide to have a dinner party, I would highly recommend you consider the endless laughs and massive clean up job of the "No Hands Meal". But please, have pity on your bearded guests, and get them a hair tie for their face.

I know it doesn't do anything, but I promise, they'll look ridiculous.