We all have our own stories and examples to illustrate this universal trait.
In the past few months in particular, what I've come to realize is that death, like life, is just as unfair, if not more so.
Death is as impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, unjust, inconsiderate and infuriating as anything on this earth. And recently, it has stepped on one of my few remaining nerves, igniting an anger inside me that makes me want to pummel death back to life. I am unable to truly put into words how much the "unfairness" of death has affected me. I suppose it's something we all have to get used to, but just because we all have to do it, doesn't make it any easier to deal with.
The back story...
I don't keep in touch with many people from Vorova, but I still maintain contact with a few friends who I felt very close to. As is the case in many small rural villages, many people within a community are members of only a few extended families. From what I could gather, there were only about 2 or 3 groups of families in Vorova. My good friend, Jealous, is part of the rather large Mhlongo family. Jealous is in his 30s, has three children and a wife. They are a close-knit nuclear family - the closest I had met in the entire village. Jealous has had a job as a farm manager at a nearby farm for the past 10 years, but despite his length of time on the job, the 10 to 12 hour days he works, and the number of responsibilities and skills he has acquired, he still gets paid less than 900 rand per month (about $120). That is not very good even by rural South African standards.
Jealous had always struck me as a family man. Don't let his uncommon name fool you (I think it's actually a variation on "Julius"). He is a gentle, mellow soul, and a man of intelligence, even though he only finished school up to 5th grade. He is reasonable, good-natured and kind hearted. He is proud of his achievements, frustrated at the system he lives in, but very optimistic for his childrens' future.
"Hi joey igreatyou,ihaverecive yourmessage.W e are still alivebutnot allofus.Surprise,died onthe 20.06.2008.So weburriedhim isthat all by .Jealous"
The message, though somewhat cryptic, left me speechless and feeling like I had been shocked by an electric fence. There was confusion and doubt at first, then all of a sudden, a stinging pain coming from somewhere inside of me. I understood the message loud and clear, and it hurt me to do so.
Surprise, not yet 3 years old, was the youngest member of the Mhlongo family. He was Jealous' nephew, and brother to my closest companion in the village, Selby, who is 12.
Selby and Surprise lost both of their parents 2 years ago (the assumption is that they died of AIDS, but virtually no one talks about it the disease openly, so I could never get the full story). The two brothers were being raised by their aging grandparents and older aunts and uncles who live nearby. Selby stood out from most of the other young boys in the village in my eyes, because he was more reserved, a bit shy, but most of all, was the most respectful of them all. It's hard to really describe why one may become attached to one kid over another in this type of situation, but there are reasons for it, even if they can't be explained or justified. Selby was that kid for me. I felt like he was the much younger brother I never had. (My actual younger brother is only two years younger than me, which isn't that much younger, but he's stronger than me and could very likely beat me up, so it's not quite the same. Shout out to him now: Love you Brother)
It was pretty obvious by his behaviour and demeanor that Selby had been strongly affected by the loss of both his parents, and he was probably in the same mental state as any 12 year old would be who had gone thru such an ordeal. In our time together, Selby reminded me a lot of myself when I was younger (or what I think I was like back then - Mom and Dad would have to verify). He was a smart kid, but made silly mistakes, and didn't seem to have the same level of street smarts as the other boys. Selby wasn't the strongest kid, and he didn't take being made fun of by the other boys very well. He looked up to me a lot and was the only kid who respected what I had asked of the group of boys.
Often times I would have a group of boys over to where I was staying, and they would help me water my garden or I'd show them some magic tricks or let them play my guitar. Being 12 year old boys, they would often get rowdy and would begin doing things they weren't supposed to do - things like fighting over insignificant objects, hitting each other, handling my breakable possessions as if they were designed to play tug-of-war with, etc. I would always ask them nicely to change their behaviour and to essentially "chill out". They didn't always listen to me. When it came down to it, Selby would see that I was getting annoyed and angry with the boys, and he would tell them in siSwati that it was time to go because they were being disrespectful and I was getting fed up with them... all without me saying anything. Selby was very conscious of me and my frame of mind. He could read me very well.
Selby understood and spoke very little English, which was the same for me with regards to siSwati. Although we were able to verbally communicate effectively only about 40% of the time, we were able to communicate on a different, non-verbal level. I tried not to play favourites with the young boys, and I succeeded outwardly in that regard I suppose, but Selby was always different from the rest, and he always will be. I want so badly for him to break out of the cycle of poverty and hopelessness that surrounds him. I don't want you to think I'm heartless - I want that for all the young boys, obviously - but I didn't see the desire for that to happen within them like I did in Selby.
Another thing I noticed about Selby was that he cared deeply for his younger brother, Surprise. I didn't get to know Surprise very well - he was extremely shy, uncomfortable, and seemed very untrusting of anyone who didn't live within the makeshift mud and reed gates and walls that made up his world. What always struck me most about Surprise though, was the perpetual sadness that emanated from his small dark eyes. I rarely saw him playing with other kids, and I only saw him smile once in the 8 months I knew him. I never saw or heard him laugh. I would talk to him in siSwati with Selby next to me, but he always turned away. When I would greet him and try to give him a high-five or shake his hand, he let me take his hand but made no effort to comply with the gesture. He just looked at me with a skeptical and disinterested gaze.
Side note: Surprise also rarely ever wore pants.
I called Jealous after I received his message because I was curious to know what had happened.
Why had Surprise died?
It turns out that there had been an outbreak of cholera in Revolver Creek. Jealous told me that Surprise had died soon after he got sick, as did 3 older people in the village. A number of other people had contracted the disease, but had not died. I don't know if Surprise was HIV positive. But it wouldn't really have mattered if he was or wasn't. Almost any child under the age of 5 wouldn't stand much of a chance in a fight against cholera.
I tried asking Jealous how Surprise had contracted the disease. He didn't know how it happened, and he was rightly skeptical of the shady reasoning given to them by the Dept. of Health, whose explanation was that "people from the mines brought it in". Whatever that means. No one works in the mines in Vorova. To my limited yet constantly increasing knowledge base, cholera is transmitted most often thru contaminated water. I checked up on the disease on Wikipedia and got schooled on just how vicious the disease is. An excerpt on how it's transmitted...
No one was sure how exactly how the disease spread thru the village. Cholera used to be a common problem in the area that resurfaced frequently before the neighbouring farm allowed the community to take water from the taps on its property. But it had been years since the last outbreak.
My thoughts went immediately to the canal water that runs thru the Vorova. I believe it most likely had originated there. I had been trying to get the people of Revolver Creek access to clean water for months because the situation was so dire. I would have been furious if the cause of the outbreak was the canal.
As was told in my previous blog post, Vorova had a functional water system at the time of this outbreak. That's encouraging, but... the canal was still there, and it's not going anywhere in the future. Maybe people were still washing their pots and pans and food with the canal water. I imagine that old habits die hard, even in desperate circumstances. I can only speculate that the combination of the canal water and overall poor hygienic conditions in the village lead to an outbreak that claimed the lives of those whose bodies were too weak to fight it. I don't know what else to think. I can't help but have my mind wander and wonder.
The good news of the clean water system was for the time being, overshadowed immensely by Surprise's death.
The way events have played out over the past few months has been a hard thing for me to come to peace with. I am thrilled that there is a clean water system in place now, and I do celebrate this success. However, a larger picture emerges from recent events. Despite the fact that there was a functional water system in the village, there was still an outbreak of a water borne disease. This shows that although clean water is a huge step in the right direction in terms of development, it is not a silver bullet in terms of solving the plethora of problems faced by poverty stricken communities every day. Sanitation and hygiene issues must also be emphasized when working in community development.
People will be happy to have access to pit toilets as opposed to having to shit in the bush, but germs and disease will still spread if people don't think to wash their hands after using the latrine. Infrastructure is not the only thing that must be developed - people must be educated about how to maintain healthy lives for themselves and their children.
At the risk of sounding preachy, please allow me to ascend onto my temporary soap box...
I am much more angry than sad at the thought of Surprise's early death. There is nothing normal or natural about a 3 year old child dying... at least it shouldn't be considered normal. And it's not - in the first world at least. The maddening thing is that it is accepted as a fact of life in the developing world. The death of children in the third world is so widespread that you have no choice but to numb yourself to the idea that these kids never got a chance at living their lives.
Even more maddening is the fact that the way in which the majority of children in developing countries around the world meet their premature end, is due to completely preventable problems, such as a lack of access to clean water, malnutrition, poor hygienic conditions, and locally unavailable inoculations and vaccinations - some that cost less than 10 cents to administer.
As I mentioned before, I wasn't very close to Surprise. However, I was [and still am, in my heart] very close to Selby. How would I have reacted if I heard that it was Selby who fell ill and died in this fashion? I don't like to ponder that thought. I fear for him and all the other kids in similar living situations throughout Africa and the world. There is so much that needs to be done to try and offer them a fair shot at life. But where does one even begin? Selby is now the only person left in his nuclear family. He lost both his parents, and his younger brother, all within a time span of 2 years. How does one expect him to cope? Who will be there for him to support him emotionally as he grows up? Will he ever have a chance to come to peace with all that has happened around him?
Selby is one of many in this situation. I can't be there for all the kids in his situation. No one can be there for everyone. Hell, I can't even be there for him for more than a few months of his young life.
But what I can do, is be there for him when I am nearby. I can let him know that there are still people in the world who care about him, who love and support him, no matter how far away they live. I'd like to think that I've let him know that already, since before I left.
Being in Peace Corps and/or working in development in any regard is so much more than helping people to help themselves, to lift themselves up... it's so much more than advancing social causes and organizations, improving education systems, etc.
At the core of all the work we do and the lives we live both abroad and at home, is a passion and motivation that cannot be accurately portrayed in words. It can only be felt. That motivation and passion, as best I can try and explain it, is what is most precious to all of us - it is that sense of connection - pure human connection that is at the foundation of all the emotions we are capable of feeling. It is this connection that transcends every other reason and detail of why we do what we do.
When people ask me if I ever regret coming here and doing what I'm doing, given my less than stellar experience over the past year, at times I am tempted to say "maybe a little bit". But I never do. All I do is think about Selby, and Rafilwe, and Gontse, and about all the other kids that have touched my life so deeply, and it doesn't take long for me to answer the question with a resounding and whole-hearted "No."
The bad news hurts and the effect still lingers. And I'm sure that there will be more bad news to come in the future as well. Some things we cannot fix right away. But there is light and hope that shines thru here too. There will always be good news to counter the bad, if we want it badly enough and work to see it thru.
I don't regret any of this. How could I? Just look at all the beautiful people who have changed me and my life forever...