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African Journal - Report 1


Dear Friends!

This first report will be rather simple. I have just gotten access to the Internet, and have not had the time to develop pictures, let alone scan them and put them on this page for your enjoyment. I hope to get access to a scanner in time and make some snapshots available; until then, simple text will have to do.

I also apologize to my German friends for the lack of a German version of this report. I am sure that all of you will be able to read this English version, but few of my English-speaking friends would be able to understand a German text. Therefore I have chosen to write in English only.

But now for the report:

As most of you know, I will be doing my social service (instead of military service) in South Africa, until the end of 1999.

I arrived in Johannesburg after a long and largely event-less flight on Monday, the 7th of September 1998, about ten in the morning. My venture started out with a bit of a shock when I discovered that one of my bags had been lost on the way (I got it back two days later). I was then picked up by my new "boss" Annelie Franken, who packed me and my stuff into a Landrover Defender and drove off with me towards Pretoria (about 40km from Joburg).

When we reached Ubuntu Centre, my new home and workplace for the next 15 months, I was surprised to find it way outside of the city, instead of in the suburb of Hatfield. What I had not known was that ONLY THE POSTBOX of Ubuntu was in that suburb; the center itself lies on a large piece of land about 15 car-minutes outside of Pretoria!

At first, that fact scared me quite a bit. I was always afraid of being "isolated from society" during my service, which made me rule out some places that were far out. Was I now facing life in the wilderness? Fortunately, during the first week here my fears were calmed as I found myself driving to the city frequently, just as most people at Ubuntu do. But more to that later.

I got a short tour and discovered that Ubuntu Centre is fairly big. It contains a Waldorf school (or Rudolf Steiner school) with classes from primary to high-school level (class 1-12), a therapy center and a hospice, and a farm which produces food according to the "biodynamic" method. The area of the whole centre is stretched out over a large, open piece of land; it takes about 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Everybody who has a car uses it to get around "on campus".

The part that I am to work and live in is the hospice - Johannes House. It is a place where terminally ill patients are cared for. All of them suffer from either AIDS or cancer, and will most likely die here.

This was another "change of plan". You may remember that I expected to work with behaviourally disturbed children. However, the work with these children had been given up shortly before my arrival, because it had been very difficult to re-socialise them and integrate them into the life at Ubuntu. Frequent stealing and aggression had proven hard to overcome. Therefore, they had been sent home, and the Johannes House was transformed functionally into a full-time hospice.

To my own (subsequent) amazement, this alteration has not cause me much distress. The warmth that surrounds and permeates the hospice is amazing. Dying is seen as an integral part of living here, and is accepted with a good bit of tranquillity. Since my arrival, we've lost two patients already. Their death and burial was a very peaceful and almost beautiful experience.

My job is not in the nursing field, however. We have nurses and staff to do that properly. I am assisting Annelie with running the hospice. At the moment she's away, and I'm trying to fill her place, which is difficult since she's central to the whole place and I have little experience. But I do what I can. My tasks include fetching medicines from a local hospital, doing the shopping, administration and finance stuff in the hospice. I feel that I would like to get into the whole caring work a little more, to get a different perspective. After all, admin is what I've been into all my life in some way or other. I will have to see about that, and will keep you posted.

Also, work and life aren't really separated here, since I live in the guest flat of the hospice. So I'm always there, in a way. I don't know yet whether that could become a problem in the future, but so far it is fine. The flat is light and fairly large, and in good shape, since it is as newly built as the hospice itself (about 1 year old). I also get my meals at the hospice, all "stuff that's good for you" from biodynamic farming on Ubuntu's farm. Sounds limiting, too, and in a way it's a bit of a pity because eating out down here is very cheap and there is a good bit of variety. But since I get part of my "income" in food, eating out is an expensive extra nevertheless.

This brings me to some early impressions of the country South Africa. First you should know that I am situated in Gauteng Province, Afrikaner heartland and probably the most "white" of all areas in SA. Pretoria is a colonial-style, whitish and Western town. It has an extensive suburbia and is littered with gigantic shopping malls all over the place. Although the closeness to the West is an initial comfort, I sometimes tell myself that that isn't what I came to see here. I could have shopped in Germany, as well.

But more and more I see how polarised this society is. So far, I have seen mostly the "white side" of the country. Sure, there are loads of blacks everywhere, be they kids here at the school, pedestrians even in the whitest of suburbs, worker on the farm, or out staff at the hospice. But in many cases, they work there for white businesses and live somewhere else: In the townships out of the city. Apartheid set up geographical separation that way. I haven't been to a township yet; going there as a white "tourist" is not the wisest thing to do, since crime is appalling and I don't wanna get killed. But I'm planning to visit one of our great nurses, Audrey, in Mamelodi township soon. That way, I'll get to see the "other side" or South Africa, also.

It is pretty disconcerting that, despite the "transition" which is now 9 years old, old attitudes still dominate here. They are only less obviously voiced. Many whites treat blacks as unreliable, childish people without a sense of responsibility, and act in a patriarchal manner towards them. They see themselves as "educators" of the blacks. It is quite sickening to see that.

It is true that our staff, for instance, sometimes is less reliable that one would wish. But this kind of treatment increases their dependence and blocks personal growth with could improve the situation. The resulting non-progress is then cited as reason for the necessity of patriarchal treatment. As I observe more on that, I hope to share deeper insight with you.

Since I mentioned crime: The extent and brutality of it is shocking. We've had several burglaries here during only the last couple of months, two since I got here on the 7th. One of our primary school teachers was shot trough the chin by two youngsters, AFTER SHE HELPED THEM OUT WITH FUEL WHEN THEY HAD RUN OUT OF IT BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD. Strange kind of "thank you". Another farm worker was killed after he refused to hand over money to a gang that assaulted his fruit stand in his township. People apparently get killed for their shoes and watches, and with a discomfortingly large proportion of the gangsters, a human life means nothing at all. People are getting shot "just in case", even after handing over their valuables. I admit that I am a bit scared, too. I am careful not to be in town after dark in unsafe areas, and always to appear to know where I am going. Many of the worst stories come from Johannesburg, and Pretoria is considered fairly safe by daylight and out of "danger zones", so think with care and consciousness I'll be ok.

To end on a positive note: The prospect of having a true "Rainbow Nation" here within a generation is very real. I see the kids at school here, and there is every colour, blacks, coloureds, whites, asians, living together in absolute ease. It's great to see. In fact, the school at Ubuntu (Max-Stibbe-School) was one of the first to admit blacks, even long before the "transition". The experiment is working as far as I can see! :)

So much for today from me, I will post reports in regular intervals as I discover the place. I also hope to include some pictures in the next "issue". So come checking back in a while, and meanwhile, let me know what you think via email!


All yours,