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African Journal - Report 4

Dear Friends,

It is the 3rd of January 1999 now, and things are changing again, so here’s a new report.

First of all, I hope that all of you had a wonderful Christmas, and that the last year before the millenium will hold only good things in store for you.

Over here, I had the chance to take some time off and refuel some of the energy spent in the last months. I went on a low-budget backpacking trip, first down to Capetown (wonderful city, beats Pretoria by a WIDE margin), then back up the coast. I checked out the "Garden Route", saw a load of breathtaking scenery, and did the highest bungy-jump in the world at Blauwkranz bridge in Natures Valley (216m – yipeeeeeeeee!). Then I went through the former homelands Ciskei and Transkei (the "wild coast"), where the coastline is stunning and untamed, and Africa is still quite unspoiled. I also spent Christmas there, in Coffee Bay, with lamb-on-a-stick, the 750ml beer bottles (standard size there!!) and champagne (all free!!), and a little boat-tour from the backpackers to an untouched rivermouth where we spotted dolphins, even two whales (out of season!), and caught a shark. The trip reconciled me quite a bit with South Africa as a country – its beauty is almost endless, and there are a lot more tolerant and cosmopolitan people here than a visit to Pretoria would let you assume.

The energy I got from that trip I’ll need very much during the coming months. The decision to change jobs had been looming even before I departed, and during the trip it got quite cemented as I got distance and different angles. Tomorrow morning, I will permanently change, for the remainder of the year and hence my service time, to Mohau Centre on the west-side of Pretoria. Mohau is a hospice and orphanage for babies who are HIV positive, or have been orphaned because of AIDS. It is situated close to a township, on the premises of the former non-white state hospital of Pretoria (Kalafong Hospital).

I have already spent three days there, working with the babies, and I am realizing that the job will be VERY hard. I’m not used to baby care, and the job requires that I give warmth and attention basically around the clock, all the time. I haven’t been a very emotional person to begin with, and in this job my intellect is pretty useless. Starting from the admin job at Ubuntu, it probably is the biggest step, all the way to the other side of the "think<->feel" spectrum, that I could pick.

After three days, I was so exhausted that I considered throwing the towel and get back to my static, but SAFE job at Ubuntu. Probably to my fortune, my boss rejected the idea of me coming back in case Mohau would prove too much for me. So I’ll have to hang on, and don’t need to bother with the decision "should-I-stay-or-should-I-go". At Mohau, I won’t be paid, I won’t have car access, I’ll live in the orphanage itself (essentially 24h duty, because you never really get away). But the team is wonderful and supportive. Especially Father Barry, the project leader, is very compassionate, yet no-nonsense and down-to-earth.

I sort-of had expected that, simply by being around the babies, I would turn into deeply compassionate, empathetic, new Ingo. Well, think again. After the second day, I was panicking just to get out of bed in the morning, because I feared my own oh-so-limited degree of "natural empathy" with the babies. My soul struggled NOT to be touched, to detach itself, and I was shocked it that backlash to my growth efforts. So I tried to force it, and of course, it only got me to the brink of a nervous breakdown, with dizziness, shaking hands and all that.

When I confessed my state and my doubts about my ability to do that job to Father Barry, he didn’t label me or showed disappointment ("you’re letting me down"), but encouraged me to give myself more time, put less pressure on myself, and just let things happen. I trust him completely, and accept him easily as a mentor and guide. He and the team will help me to deal with my problems, I’m certain of this.

Now I’ve been back at Ubuntu for some days to clear all my affairs, hand over my work, and pack my stuff. Tomorrow I’m off. Now that I know I’m here as a visitor only, I am appreciating the natural beauty of the farm much more than before. Also, the great degree of support I’ve received from all our staff, and the encouragement, have touched me deeply. I will be missed here, and much more than I thought. Not least through the attitude of my superiors, I never had the impression to be either much needed or more than tolerated here. I’m only starting to realize now that I will leave a gap large enough to matter, even though I’ve only been here for a few months. Besides the admin work that will suffer, I have (largely unconsciously) acted as a bridge between our black staff and my boss, because of my non-patriarchal attitude towards them. I even have felt (for the first time) guilty about "abandoning" the hospice and the patients. Maybe I would have found a path to growth here, too. Not so much through the work, but by sacrificing the self-centered goal of MY growth and simply dedicating myself to the support of the place on the grounds that it is helping people who need that help - even though I was never really happy there. But it is quite possible that I wouldn’t have arrived at that insight without my decision to change, and the different angle this gave me. I might well have spent the rest of 1999 agonizing over chances missed by staying and lack of growth at Ubuntu.

But in any case, the decision has been made, and will not be reverted. I’ll probably be back once in a while, to help my boss with computer stuff (homepage etc.), so I’ll stay in touch with my friends here and see how things go.

I hope that I’ll settle down at Mohau quickly, and that it will feel like a home to me soon. For the beginning, I’ll try to get social contact in Atteridgeville – the township nearby. I know that Father Barry is working on getting sponsorship for an apartment away from work (so I can get away from the stress), and transport to get me to and from. I hope that, eventually, there will even be some money coming through. Also, the last three long-term volunteers that were at Mohau had such a good time in the end that they all want to come back. So, with a bit of optimism, I might end up having a really good time in SA, after all. Wish me luck!