Saturday, September 09, 2006

EUROPE #1/SOUTHERN AFRICA #4 (my favorite)

so, London. is cold. damn cold.

The first day here the cold got to my bones and chilled me and I couldn't shake it. I mean it's only between 30 and 40 degrees, but it was shocking. And damp. I have been downing garlic echinacea pills and emergenC to keep the strange teetering shaky feeling in my body from turning into full on sickness - fighting th war against this bitter cold each day.

The people here are cold too.

The second of the three biggest shocks after Southern Africa - nobody says hello or how are you or smiles or touches me, they just stare. That kind of staring, which is fine to a certain extent in New York as well, just seems so intense and inappropriate to me now. To have someone checking me out with no obligation to actually make contact with me, it just feels very rude.

Ther third shock is the amount of useless information that I have gathered after just two days here - signs and articles and tlaking and re-talking about the same thing and styles and faces and colors and foods. It is unfathomable the sheer quantity of it.

2 days in a new place feels like a century.

When my flight stopped over at the airport in Dubai, it was the first time in four months that I sat at a table, ordered something to drink, and watched all the people walking past me. No one noticed that I was white and I didn't notice that I was white. I was normal and anonymous and it felt so different and strange suddenly to be totally anonymous. but it feels normal to me too. 24hr internet access. fancier food. riding a subway. city life. fast smart intellectual conversations about this and that. lots of criticism. and having an old friend to eat meals iwth.

It is, in fact, normal.

In Lesotho we worked with 9 different organizations in 15 days - at each place for 1-3 days - we only had one real day off. Our pace was never normal; everyday was really different and always exhausting in a new way.
We stayed in lots of different kids of places - at children's centers, with host families, at a center for adult women, at a lodge, at a hotel. Lesotho proved to be overall much much poorer that South Africa - we stayed in a number of places without electricity and/or running water and we ate a lot more carbohydrates - pap(cornmeal), rice, beans, bread, potatoes.
The pace was really hard. hard physically. hard emotionally. Hard starting to comprehend the extent of the HIV/AIDS crisis - that it has affected everybody and because it is so normal now, most people are passive about it - wont get tested and dont use condoms. Hard hearing about so much sexual violence against young children. And hard seeing so much poverty. But in this kind of work it was also hard for us to say no. For all four of us clowns to say, "no, we're too tired we can't do that performance." Very very hard....


The third place that we visited in Lesotho was the Kananelo Center for the Deaf
Run by sisters from the convent, it is incredibly poor, surviving on donations that come in the shape of a grant for a building, or electrical wiring (but there is no generator to supply any electricity), t-shirts for the kids, staple foods, but very rarely money.
The kids greet us immediately with warm smiles and lots of attention.
Each one wants our gaze,
tapping us on the arm,
waving their hands,
showing us their names in sign language,
finding out where we are from,
writing the names of places in the dirt iwth our fingers.
We have a meeting with the sisters and David one of the kid's teachers and our primary contact. Immediately the first question is "why are you only here for two days?"
We have to explain that it's an exploratory mission. - Hopefully there will be a next time - Hopefully we will be here longer next time.

We have dinner - salty eggs on a big plate of rice - and a visit to meet the local chief - a woman in charge while her husband is in South Africa working in the mines. She gives us seSotho names and serves us sorghum drink (a big bowl of a rind of really liquidy porridge) Esther is Lerato (love), Perry is Palesa (flower), Jamie is Thaban (jay), and I am Mapuso (mother of independence). (And I was sitting there very quierly and politely. really.)

The next day we perform for the kids in the morning. Go to do some lunch time errands in town, come back to teach our workshop and discover that they have a canoeing trip across the toad that the teachers had forgotten about. We are all of us tired and frustrated about not being able to do the workshop and not getting to spend more time with the kids. Perry and Jamie have to go back into town for laundry.
When the kids get back, Esther and I teach a bunch of them the softshoe dance from our clown show. Somehow it turns into a big dance party. Everyone is dancing in silent rhythm. Along line of couples weaving through the yard. David the teacher, a young volunteer staying at the convent, and the down-syndrome kids who also live at the center, want music. We get the music blasting. It is so unbelievably beautiful and joyful.
This center suddenly strikes me as the most beautiful place I have visited ever. So poor, the children utterly rejected by society, by their families, by fate. And yet here such a supportive environment. Everyone just dancing and bouncing and moving, huge smiles, a few kids from town pass by with their donkeys trailing behind them. They stop and watch. No one is bothered that they are being watched in all their revelry. The town kids creep closer but there is a huge divide between the center and the town and they don't join.
Perry and Jamie drive back from town to find a hug party waiting for them. They join in dancing immediately. Perry suddenly realizes after 10 minutes that the kids can't hear the music; she had forgotten completely that they are almost all deaf. It is hard to tell because all of the kids are clued into each other's rhythm. when the music stops and the party finally winds down, one of the younger boys wants to keep dancing with me. He doesn't know that the music is stopped. He probably doesn't know what music is really. We dance in rhythm together. Smiling, doing different moves. I don't think I've ever done this before. Danced just bouncing rythm silly dance in silence with another person. Not modern dance, not ballroom dancing. Just dancing with someone, but in silence.

After dinner Jamie shows the kids Charlie Chaplin films on his laptop. 35 people gathered around one tiny laptop screen. The kids love it. The group erupting in laughter every once in a while. They all make sound. Little grunts. Or sounds when they are trying to get your attention. The down-syndrome kids speak occasionally, mostly saying out names. It's all a weird mixture of little sounds, SeSotho and English. The only time the whole group makes a sound that feels totally normal is when they laugh. Their laughs are normal laughs. It's beyond their control.

The kids so smart. Each one of them so memorable. In our workshops the next day they are great. Thrilled by the pantomine. so good at it. We have translators that help us say what we want in sign language. The kids are really good in written English and they are so keen to teach us sign language.

Still now, in London I can remember almost all of their faces.

After lunch it is time for us to leave, they want to perform for us first so we stay around longer. Watch them do traditional dances in silence, in sync with each other. Some times some drumming or a joyful holler form one of the Sisters or the woman who does the cooking or one of us.
I notice every sound.
They shake the bottle cap skirts, faces so blank, so pure and serious.

After many dances, we take some group photos. Esther, Perry and I go around shaking hands with all the kids. It is the most complete-feeling visit and goodbye I've had. We are heartbroken as we drive away wondering what it will be like that afternoon after we are gone. Imagining that emotional drop I've felt after a play I worked on is over, at the end of the school year. It feels like that. The drop after the emotional high of having us visiting. Knowing that whether we see them again or not, they will remain so vivid in our memories, each of us thinking of what we can do to try and find schools for the deaf for them in South Africa or even America. The postcars we want to send to the kids. But it is beautiful waving goodby to them. Feeling like I made such an impact on all of them.


A few days later we visit the Lesotho Child Counseling Unit run by an amazing woman named Lydia - the center counsels, houses, and finds permanent living situations for sexually abused children. We arrive at night. It's thanksgiving. Jamie makes a pasta. We eat in the dark. We are exhausted, wiped. The children are quiet and shy. After dinner we drive to our host families. They don't tell us anything at night when we go and wake up our already sleeping families at each door. But the next morning they explain that htey chose to place us with some of the poorest families on purpose so that we would have the experience. The family I stay with headed by a 37 year old mother. We sit on the little counch in the kitchen and in the candlelight she shows me photos of her husband and his funeral, herself and her children when they were young. I don't have my photos from home with me so I show her some photos of Jamie and Esther and some photos of John my honey from Cape Town.
She speaks hardly any English so all we can say to each other are basic things. She says "you are my friend" a lot. Both in English and in SeSotho. I sleep on the floor in the bedroom. She sleeps in the bed. Her son sleeps on the floor in the kitchen. That's all there is to the house. Her daughter sleeps at the neighbors.
I pee in a bucket in front of her at night.
Show her how I have to take out my contact lenses and can't see without them.
She baths in front of me in the morning.


At Lesotho Save the Children which we visit right before we leave, there are about fifteen 2-5 year olds who smother every visitor with hugs. The second we arrive they surround us. It is great to just play with them. No structured workshop or anything. But we have dinner with them. Play with them while they are getting realy to go to sleep. Sometimes three kids on our laps at a time. The two british volunteers tell us that the kids aren't as adoring to the people that stay longer. It is because they are afraid of being left by people and want to get love before they are left again.
We do a beautiful intimate performance for the kids the next morning.
My last in Southern Africa.
Before we leave I play with the three year old boy I found especially adorable from the get go. When I say goodbye he says "no" "no" I have to go "no" so normal for a fussy American 2 or 3 year old. But so stiking and sad in Lesotho. I flip him upside down one more time and the he joins his friends and is fine. As we pull away the older kids and the grownups pretend to sob, crying the way that we cry in our show, and laughing at the same time too.

We drive back to Johannesburg. Back to Jamie's grandfather's house - with bars on all the windows and double locks on all the doors. Go see a late night show of Harry Potter. Spend the next day doing an expedition reflection, errands, and our closing ceremony the clown eulogy. Then, the next morning Jamie, Perry, and Esther drop me off at the airport. Suddenly I'm struck by how much they feel like a family to me. We eat ice cream bars, take some photos, say our goodbyes, and wave big grins as I walk towards the security gate. It feels like I'm just leaving my family for a bit to go on a trip to London and I'll be back in Johannesburg in a few weeks. It feels like I'm leaving home.

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