Sunday, August 29, 2010

Africa Notes 8

Africa Notes #8
Series written by John Zlatnik
July/August 2010

Roosters start their crowing well before dawn – they are so hopeful! With the first light the chickens and the wild birds join the chorus, and soon cow-bells in the field behind our sleeping space join in. Before long we hear the grinding of corn to feed the chicks. We are visiting Tim Sandoe, ex student and friend from Fremont that is serving a two-year stint in Swaziland in the Peace Corps. He lives and works in an isolated village in the highlands above Piggs Peak two hours from Mbabane by bus and combi (small van). Judy and I are staying in the "ancestors house" – a round hut with a thatched roof. The farm family that Tim lives with depends on their corn crop for subsistence, but they sell some eggs for cash.
Tim is engaged in HIV/AIDS education. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is a disaster in slow motion! The Swazi population has one of the highest infection rates in the world; with about a third of the population is HIV positive. It is predicted that if things continue as they are, by the year 2050 Swaziland will cease to exist as a viable country. With proper treatment HIV patients can remain relatively healthy and active – but as the infection grows the cost is considerable and the drugs must be taken twice daily. Already vast segments of the society have died of AIDS, including trained professionals in key functioning roles. There are two important means for dealing with the crisis – prevention and treatment. Adult circumcision of males appears to be promising but it not easy to "sell", also consistent use of condoms is effective, but still lagging. Tim’s work takes him into community groups and schools where he works to educate those most likely to be infected by teaching about the practices most likely to halt the spread.
I asked why this region has such a high incidence of HIV infections – I was told that due to economic pressures, many men go to South Africa to work in mining. They are away from their wives for long periods of time and some return with HIV. General cultural practices tend to condone multiple sexual partners. To some extent, reliance on traditional medical practices has inhibited prompt identification and treatment of HIV cases. Simple access to knowledge and medical help has been limited.
Friday we visited a local drama group that Tim supports– members of the group write and perform short educational plays for the purpose of educating the general community to better deal with situations that lead to the spread of HIV/AIDS. The group of young actors combines incredible music with their short productions. We found the acting to be remarkable.
Like many Peace Corp members, Tim lives a very basic life with few American amenities. He has adapted to the local language and cultural patterns and integrated himself into the life of the community. Walking with him along a dirt track, he stops often to speak with local people. The cultural patterns between people are polite and easy going. Tim’s diet is simple, based on available foods or things that he can buy in the closest larger village – but that involves an all-morning ride on a "combi" mini van- and they arrive only at irregular intervals. (So – how many people will fit inside a "combi"? - the answer of course is "one more".) Judy and I take combos that often have 16 people crammed into a normal size van. Tim is more fortunate than one PC volunteer we spoke to that must walk an hour to reach the combi stop, then hope that the combi will come that morning. He must also carry his propane tank to and from the combi after purchasing a refill.
In every trip there comes a moment when you turn around and start the process of returning home. We left Tim’s village yesterday – and are staying tonight in Mbabane, and tomorrow will take a small bus back to Johannesburg. Then we will warm up our wings and fly home to California. These last 5 weeks have been an epic journey for Judy and me – we have met so many wonderful people and seen such incredible sights. I won’t pretend that we have seen "Africa" – only that we have seen a few corners of Africa. It is often difficult to generalize because there is no single "Africa" – but a mosaic with many different facets. But we come away with some general conclusions about the peoples and countries that we have seen.
1. Africa is rich in both natural resources and in human resources. The natural beauty of many regions is stunning. So many of the people we have met have been polite and soft-spoken…. so gracious!

2. Large portions of the African population still live in abysmal poverty. Global climate change has produced devastating droughts and intense rainfall in different regions. (Normal weather variations are expected, but long term climate changes are happening here.) We come away with a much better understanding of the reality of living in a third world country (supporting your family on less than two dollars a day). Farmers can at least maintain subsistence farming if the weather if good.

3. During colonial times Europeans took control of all that they found useful in Africa. Few efforts were made to educate the African people – and when colonialism ended most European powers abruptly left leaving peoples with little education or preparation for self-management. Such conditions have made it possible for corrupt self-seeking dictators to rise to power in some countries.

4. The fall of colonialism has been followed by "neocolonialism" involving American, European, and Asian companies that come in to extract resources, often paying minimal wages, and provide little or no benefits for local people. In fact it is in the interest of large companies to keep education levels low – the better to control the local population. Examples would be large oil companies, mining interests, coffee, and forest products.

5. HIV/AIDS is having a huge toll on the continent – it’s hard to imagine the make up of cities and countries in 50 years unless the infection can be abated. It is truly akin to the plagues in Europe in 1300AD. The toll is felt at the national level – but also so intensely at the personal level – families without parents, schools with missing teachers, farms that are not tilled.

6. Both Evangelical Christian churches and Islam have undergone considerable growth in recent years. We see many new churches and mosques, and can sense the impact of religion on East African society.

7. There are amazing success stories of events within African counties that have achieved remarkable progress in a brief amount of time. There are dedicated African politicians, doctors, educators, scientists, etc working to bring improvements to their people.

8. Perhaps most important in bringing about positive change is the improvement of the education system so that more capable young Africans can join in building their countries. We found young people working in menial jobs but eager to complete secondary school and perhaps even go to university. But for too many the cost is prohibitive.

9. The other factor needed for change in Africa is access to capital. A bright young entrepreneur with wonderful ideas still would still be frustrated without access to loans and technical support. When support is offered it often comes with strings attached.

10. The medical system that we have seen often does what it can with
limited resources but is overcrowding. The doctor patient ratio is one of the most challenging in the world in Tanzania.

11. There are many caring people from Europe, America, and Asia who are donating time and resources to working with the African people. But we hear over and over that it is not effective to come and impose our ideas upon the Africans. We must be willing to work with them – listen to them and develop mutually acceptable plans that respect the local culture and the local economy.
So now as we leave – springtime is coming to the Southern Hemisphere – fruit trees are blooming and migrating birds are returning. Hard to imagine we will be returning to late summer in California!