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African Journal - Report 5

Pretoria, South Africa, 2/3/99

Dear Friends,

I've been out of touch for a while, sorry for that. I've been going through turbulent times here, and I simply didn't have the time to catch up with you. Even now, my future here is very unclear, and I don't know what I will be doing during the next couple of months in South Africa. But first, let me update you on what happened in the meantime.

In my last report, I said that I was to work with AIDS infected and affected children in the Mohau Children's Care Centre. Well, I did, and I must admit that, initially, I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew.

I went to Mohau straight from my backpacking trip. The welcome was friendly, but not many people were around, since it was just after the Christmas vacation. My accommodation consisted of a large, unused, and totally empty baby dorm room, which had but a bed in it. It was right next to the kids' rooms. So I was to live right "in the shop", i.e. at the place of my work. Get up with the babies in the morning, be around them all day, and go to bed with them. Babies crying at every conscious moment of your existence. I stayed on the job for 3 days, 72 hrs straight. Then I was ready to accept defeat.

I think I've never failed so badly in my life before. Most of the kids were 3 yrs or under, only two were 6 years old. I had no clue about baby care, and they had no time to train me, just told me "go there and make yourself useful". I had no comprehension as to what it means to care for 8 hrs plus for a herd of babies. I was basically useless, trying to help here and there and feeling so much out of place. On top of it all, being around the kids is emotionally enormously straining. After day one, I had panic attacks to get up in the morning, I felt dizzy and weak all day. And on top of it, I developed an enormous guilt complex. After all, that was what I had wanted to do, that was the work that was supposed to make me grow emotionally, build empathy, the goals of my personality crusade. The guilt about seeing myself go under like that was probably the worst of all the feelings pulling me down.

After three days, I was destroyed. I considered going back to the Ubuntu Centre. At least there I was useful, here I wasn't, and I was very uncomfortable. So I talked to my new boss, and to my old one from Ubuntu, and told them about my feelings. Both pointed out (quite rightly) that the discomfort was part of a growth process. My new boss urged me to give it time, and my old one finalized all by refusing the suggestion that I'd come back if things didn't work out at Mohau.

So I stayed on. We arranged that I'd help them with admin. stuff in the morning, and work with the older kids on a 1:1 basis in the afternoon. Also, I got myself a room in a town, and went to and from work every day with a colleague. And guess what, things brightened up immediately. I had my private space after work, and more defined structure at work. I was doing good quality administrative projects for them and helped a lot in day-to-day work. I also started enjoying my individual stimulation work with "my" three older kids a lot. Things were on track. I developed loyalty to Mohau and felt that I had found my place.

Until the end of January. In order to save money on staff, me and two fellow full-time volunteers were asked how we felt about working on weekends (a childcare worker costs 40 Rands for a whole weekend day - about DM 12). We weren't thrilled about sacrificing our weekends to save an incremental amount of money. We said that we'd rather not but, if it's not becoming a regular thing and in emergencies, we'd do it. The vice project manager presented that to the boss as "refusal to work on weekends". We got blasted in an extremely rude and disrespectful way, basically told "you'll do whatever we tell you to and we don't care what you want or think". We weren't happy and complained to the volunteer coordinator about that treatment, but also compromised and worked out a revolving schedule for weekend work. A day later, I was told that my supervisor had been called in. My colleagues and me guessed that I was to be disposed of, and basically everyone at Mohau spoke up in my defense, pointing out my contribution to the centre.

That only made things worse. The boss had to prove that he alone was in charge. On Friday that week, I was fired. The management board was not consulted as he had promised, and the explanation for me being fired (I had to demand an explanation, otherwise he wouldn't even have talked to me) was that "I was a Maverick, with my own mind" and that he couldn't have someone like me in the organization at that moment. He hinted that "people" in the organization couldn't work with me. Strangely enough, everybody but the vice project manager had been happy working with me, and even she never openly criticized my work performance.

However, she'd blasted me a week before for helping our volunteer housekeeper with a job that she herself was supposed to have done long ago. I was "supposed to take orders only from the vice project manager, no-one else". So I should have told our housekeeper "sorry, you've got to do your stuff yourself, I only work for the vice project manager, thank you" and sit back down on my arse until the latter comes in for her 2 hrs a day do give me job. Great working athmosphere.

Anyway, I was fired despite a howl of protest from everyone, and have not been allowed on the premises ever since. I'm not even allowed to visit my kids. I was told that "this is not personal". Well, make up your own mind on that.

On top, my supervisor was tired of my case, because that was the second job that didn't work out. She told me to go back to Germany. I would have to finish my service there, and should I be found "guilty" for the early termination of the service, I'D HAVE TO START ALL OVER AGAIN, FOR A FULL 13 MONTHS! I was angry, tired, at the bottom. I felt that everyone was walking right over me.

But I had arranged to work with another NGO for a week, and my super let me do it. They did inner city work with homeless people and abused women, in a strongly Christian/missionary setting. After three days there, I felt that that was just too difficult for me at that stage. I had no energy, no drive, I was just tired.

Then I heard of a township school that needed a computer teacher. I rang, went there, and they told me I was "heaven-sent", and I've been working there since then. I've been enjoying it, teaching kids in grade 9 and 10, all black but for a Swedish exchange student. My super approved the job. I felt at home and all seemed on track again.

Then, yesterday, bad luck struck once more. The board of management decided to close down the school. There had been a labour conflict at the school for a while, with occasional strikes. Behind the scenes, the conflict had escalated to a point where they thought it not feasible to continue running the school.

Now there's to be a major meeting on Thursday with everyone involved to decide whether the school will be re-opened or not. But there is little goodwill, and the fate of the children doesn't seem to count for much. The fronts are hardened, and compromise unlikely. If the school isn't reopened, I'm out of job again. At least this time, because I really had nothing to do with the failure, my super won't put me in the next plane home. But I might find myself looking for a new position before long.

Say what you will, but living in this country is a constant challenge. There is so much violence in the society, not just in the form of crime. There is no culture of debate and compromise. People don't sit down and talk when they have a conflict. They fire from all cannons and the weaker one dies. There is no such thing as a win-win approach. Everyone is guarding their turf with iron teeth, and power politics and nepotism matter more than getting the job done. Information isn't shared, but used as a weapon to exclude opponents and favour supporters. Lying is common all over the place, and no-one seems to have any scruples to spread misinformation if it helps to gain ground. Moral principles are scarcely found. As an outsider, you wade constantly through a minefield, and you don't know whom to trust and whom not. Everyone is taking you for a ride, trying to get out of you as much as they can, and when they don't need you anymore, you're discarded. On top of that comes the ever-present racism.

You can learn a lot here, just by battling your way through and keeping your eyes open, but many of the lectures are a bit disheartening. This country is an optimist's biggest challenge.

Hanging on in there,