Posts Tagged 'South Africa'

Good intentions

Saturday was another workday, our last, but it kept us busy in meetings until it was time to go to the airport to catch my flight to Johannesburg. I kept telling myself that once I landed I would have time to finish my notes, turning my scribbles in the training handbooks into notes usable for the session authors. But once there I realized that transcribing scribbles into notes is tedious and detail work I didn’t have the energy for. I postponed the task once more with the intention of finishing the job in Madagascar before my next assignment would start on Monday.

The flight from Johannesburg to Antananarivo is only a short 3 hours but between getting up at 7:30AM and arriving at 6PM at my hotel in Tana (5PM South African time), I took me an entire day.

The quiet Sunday afternoon I had imagined myself sitting on a terrace with a cup of tea, finishing my work, didn’t materialize because a glitch in Kenya Airways baggage handling left me waiting for a colleague for two hours. I took the taxi I could have taken 2 hours earlier and arrived in the dark.

To my great surprise I arrived at the same time as two ICRC staff members with whom I have shared many weeks of training in Addis, Lomé, Bangkok and Dar es Salaam. Quelle coincidence! We had a nice dinner together, longer than if I would have eaten alone, and thus the final slug to complete my assignments from Capetown made for yet another late night, hopefully my last.

Testing – round 2

I joined the rest of my team in sunny Stellenbosch on Sunday morning and reviewed the materials for the second pilot of the training of trainers of the WHO Wheelchair Service Training packages.  Participants began to trickle in from Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Burkina, Jordan, Canada and the US; twelve participants to learn how to train managers of rehabilitation services to either start, improve and/or expand wheelchair services.  Another group of nine learned to become trainers of intermediate wheelchair services (those that are for people whose bodies need to be supported in a wheelchair).

I joined my co-observer, the same as in Nairobi a few months ago, to see whether the improvements we had made after the first pilot, some months ago, were indeed improvements. We had two new trainers to deliver the package as per our instructions and it was them we were observing; one trainer from South Africa and another from Zimbabwe. It was a fabulous team of trainers and, by and large, of participants.

The training took place at the Western Cape Rehabilitation Centre, requiring a daily 45 minute shuttle between Stellenbosch and the center. Since it is located at the edge of Capetown in an area where one should not drive after dark, we were under considerable pressure to end the packed days in time so that we could debrief with the trainers and observers and share our learnings. We never managed to get out before dark.

As a result our days were very long, often arriving back at the hotel at 8PM or sometimes even later, having left the hotel in the morning at 7AM . After the two days of core training participants were given assignments to try out sessions from the management training to get a taste for the material and demonstrate the concepts taught the first two days.

They were quite anxious about the practice sessions. We offered to be available after hours, which sometimes meant till 10:30PM. Then there was the requirement, for us observers, to write our daily observation notes about each of the sessions every evening. I was always too tired, pushing the task ahead of me. And so the intense and long days from the previous week continued. When I filled in my timesheet for the two weeks (New York and Capetown) I had clocked 170 hours in a two week period that demands only 80 hours.


The honeymoon suite turns out to have a few flaws. Nothing is perfect for long – the divorce rates are testimony to this. The beautiful bathroom stinks. It smells like sewage but I suppose it could be the zebra poops outside my window. The smell hangs thickly and sickly in the air. The espresso machine runs until the reservoir is empty and then some. This means my cup flows over with thin diluted coffee that is not worth drinking. The only way I can stop the machine is to turn it off. All these are of course small things that don’t take away the joy of being with a great group of people in a great place.

Last night the corporate teambuilders organized a game show kind of event that got everyone pumped up. The expectations aboout bonding and integrating from the participants are being realized. I watched and marveled at the energy that our teambuilders created.

Over dinner we reviewed our progress and the plans for the next day; we made some small changes, reviewed the time budget and relaxed.

While I was asleep dreaming about going into the coal mines (undoubtedly brought on by the gumboot dancing), the rest of my family exchanged pictures of their artistic creations and are learning, I am sure, about imperfections in a more joyful way. Axel is learning how to paint on silk, Tessa has made her first ring in a jewelry making class and Sita is learning how to be a potter. I am also creating something but it is less tangible. After a while I also need the more tangible kind ,and am looking forward to pick up my knitting needles in a month.

Among zebras and other luxuries

Our retreat place looks like a honeymoon destination: everything is for two, two showers side by side, a large bathtub for two, and two sinks, mirros, an espresso machine and a king size bed with countless pillows.

There were even two zebras grazing outside my terrace when I checked in. There are complementary massages and everyone in our retreat is slotted in for a one hour massage. Twelve masseuses have been summoned to get us all done before the retreat ends on Thursday.  I don’t think I have ever had this kind of treatment in any retreat.

We are in the Valley Lodge and Spa near the ‘Cradle of Mankind,’  It is one of eight South African World Heritage Sites. It is the world’s richest hominin site, home to around 40% of the world’s human ancestor fossils. It is a place where tourists go; I am so close but there won’t be any time to visit it as I will have a plane to catch on Thursday when our retreat ends.

A South African outfit called Affordable Adventures has been engaged to provide opportunities for getting to know each other outside the workplace, bonding, laughing and integrating. I am mostly observing and am struck by the creativity of the exercises. Last night, in pairs, people painted small panels that, together, created a 1.5 by 2 meter visual related to our work. The panel painting required coordination with adjacent panels without knowing the final end product. Today we learned gumboot dancing, a traditional form of dancing and singing that entertained the workers at the South African mines so far away from their homes and families. Everyone got a pair of (too large – slaps better) gum boots (we call them rubber boots in the US) and a bandana. Three experienced dancers/singers and drummers tried to teach us a very complex song and dance, requiring constant slapping of our boots.  This was a challenge for most of us and produced some very good laughs. Rhythm is not quite my forte, at least not this kind of rythme.

We also worked hard – getting alignment around results and lessons learned, clarifying language and learning who is doing what. It’s instructive for just about everyone, including our CEO who was able to join us for the morning of our first day.

And now I am sitting on my spacious porch, overlooking a kind of village green where the zebras come and go as they please, actually just galloping by as I sip my glass of Pinotage.


Since my last post the world has changed, again. I finally turned off the TV with its endless telling of Paris stories that were no longer news. We are all so connected to France that the list of people who could have made the wrong choice that night is endless. It reminds me that ‘making the world safe and secure’ is a relic of the past. In fact, one wonders whether we, in our fragile bodies, could ever be totally safe and secure.

Here in Pretoria things are calm and some would say, almost sleepy. But I know such things can change on a dime. I am not going to worry about that as it would make no difference whatsoever.

I designed and facilitated the last meeting of Board and senior SA staff to focus on the most critical challenges they have to deal with in the next few months, and we ended with a round of ‘what have I learned,’ giving everyone a last chance to speak out to the whole group. They are currently all in the air or have already landed.

After our goodbyes I had lunch with K and J who have married in the meantime and are in an exciting phase of their life. They dropped me off at a hair salon that is all but sleepy, with its loud thumping music, colorful hair dressers of both sexes (colorful in both dress and hair style), with mirrors everywhere. It is a frantic place. The massage of head and neck that comes with the washing before the cut is one of the attractions. Still, I was grateful my haircut was done quickly as I could only stand so much of that beat. As usual (I have been there a few times before) the cut was expertly done and very inexpensive, allowing for generous tipping.

I Facetimed with the Blisses and then with Axel to reconnect with home, finished my reports for my assignment in Madagascar and started to prepare for the next, a little outside Johannesburg. My colleagues for that assignment have arrived from DC and we enjoyed a nice meal together. Today is a half rest day and half workday. On Monday we are off to our retreat center.

This morning I read the newsletter from our Quaker group and the query for the month of November seems right on target:

Do you respect the worth of every human being as a child of God? Do you uphold the right of all persons to justice and human dignity? Do you endeavor to create political, social, and economic institutions which will sustain and enrich the life of all? Do you fulfill all civic obligations which are not contrary to divine leadings? Do you give spiritual and material support to those who suffer for conscience’s sake?

Purple houses

I have been in South Africa since Wednesday afternoon. The clean(er) air has done me good and I can now sing nearly one octave – with lower and higher reaches still a croak. But it is hot here (in the 90s) and everyone is suffering from the heatwave and the absence of rain.

I gave myself Thursday off and tagged along with my MSH colleagues and the Board. First we went to Johannesburg for the official launch of the “No More Epidemic’’ campaign at the Nelson Mandela Institute.

This place is hallowed ground. It is both a museum (his work room, significant correspondence, photos, footage), a reminder about the evils of Apartheid, currently celebrated by honoring the journalists who showed the world what was going on here, and a conference facility.

A panel of public health experts shone light on ways that we can work together and prevent a repeat of the many epidemics that have killed millions of people over the last 100 years. It was helpful for me as I already have my eye on the next assignment in Cote d’Ivoire which is on the horizon and very relevant to this pre-occupation of no more epidemics.

After a finger food lunch we piled into a van to visit a “cradle-to-career” center in the Alex(andra) township. We toured the center that caters to the needs of a poor and very disadvantaged population, adding skills, hope, education, food, entertainment and space to people from infants to elderly. We know that talent is everywhere and that it takes opportunity to realize it. This place is doing just that with the help of an impressive list of supporters, worldwide.

We had a chance to sit in on a youth group (early twenties) discussing the rootcauses of the frightening HIV statistics (1700 new girls between 14 and 19 infected every week) and what to do about it. It was a refreshing open and honest conversation between very articulated boys and girls who have all become youth leaders and are educating their peers in the township; some do it through sports, some through entertainment, working with parents and teachers.

But there was one thing that touched me more deeply than anything else. Recently the organization has started to work on getting disabled children out in the open. Awareness about the plight of families with disabled kids is growing thanks to a campaign to paint the houses where these families live the color purple, with a picture of the kind of disability the member of the household has. It has been an amazing success as it has brought these kids out in the open, educate parents, provide services, teach them skills and set them to work.

Let’s see how we can create a movement #purplehouses4disabledkids

Sugar and purple arcades

I could fly around the world in a B-class pod that reclines 180 degrees. This way the 15 hour flight was a cinch.  For the connecting flight to Atlanta I was on the waiting list for an upgrade. Maybe it was because of me being a 2 million miler but I ended up at the front of a list of 50 hopefuls, all competing for one seat. I got it. Maybe having passed the 2 million mark has put me in a different league where I am leaving some of the competition for upgrades behind. I imagine that most of the 2 million milers are already business class travelers with paid seats.

On the long stretch I watched three movies: A Royal Night Out (OK, probably won’t remember in a month), The Little Prince (in French, lovely) and That Sugar Film. The latter shook me into a resolve I am keen to stick to. It is a documentary about sugar and how it has slipped into what we might consider ‘healthy’ foods under the guise of ‘low fat.’  I have resolved to not touch the stuff, at least in recognizable foods, until I get back to the US.  This is no small deal as I am a bit of a sugar addict, and learned that I consume more than the prescribed 24 grams for women on many days. It was the promise of a healthy liver and mental clarity that was most attractive. Test my clarity in 45 days!

I arrived in Johannesburg under clear skies. It was a warm summer day. The hotel is in one of the suburbs. The Jacaranda trees are in full bloom. The urban designers planted the trees in such a way that one has a sense of going through a purple arcade with the flowering limbs touching one another overhead. Here and there the dark red Bougainvillea adds another magnificent color to the overall décor of suburban lanes. It is breath taking; but here, as in Pretoria, people hide behind tall walls, serpentine wire and thick gates.

The hotel presents itself as an opulent urban sanctuary. Urban here means main thoroughfare and shopping malls. The hotel which is a dedicated historical monument, must at one time been looking out over green fields and surrounded by gardens. But this is no longer the case. It is now separated from the busy street life by hedges and a locked gate, just like the jewelry shops at the mall.

I have an enormous suite that has two bathrooms, two rooms and a separate dressing area. The old fashioned bathtub was the main attraction after the long flight. Before taking a bath I wandered into the mall to get money, a local simcard and a small bottle of wine. I completed my mall visit with a sushi dinner on a mall terrace while watching people stroll by. This stopover in Johannesburg was just what the doctor prescribed. By the way, I had no dessert, nor did I eat the praline that was put by my bedside. Sugar!

May 2018
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