06 December 2010

Live Life Positively

Last January I left the United States on my transatlantic voyage. Packed amid my clothes and pictures were an assortment of well wishes from various individuals. The phrase “this experience will be such a positive one for you” inhabiting space on nearly every card. On any other day, embarking on any other adventure, to any other location I would have overlooked the word positive. It would have been just that, a word in the middle of a sentence. Instead the eight letters seemed to leap off of the page and hold tight to my heart as if they were a tangible thing.

Sitting aboard the airplane headed for South Africa I kept thinking about the AIDS Respite Center where I would be volunteering for the next year and each of my patients whose status was positive. Until then my use of the world positive had typically been in the affirmative. How could I now be embarking on a journey that I hoped would ultimately be a positive experience when that same word was being used to describe someone fighting for their life?

A year later, as I pack my bags and prepare to say goodbye to my beloved South Africa I can whole heartedly say that the word positive has been powerfully redefined in my vocabulary. It is no longer only something that expresses the affirmative, nor is it only something negative, but rather a word that encompasses both optimism and faith.

My patients, who have become my dear friends, are HIV positive and although many wear the duress of their disease in lines on their faces an impressive veneer of resiliency encases them. Their unfathomable needs are masked by their strong faith, passion for life and infectious love for one another and for God. Watching their commitment to faith and dedication to life even during their most painful of days has encouraged my own faith in God.

An HIV positive status will always be heartbreaking, but through my patients I have learned to see the silver lining. Amidst the heartache and struggle there lays an important lesson in being told you are positive, finding a way to live positively.

-Thandiwe lived positively by openly discussing her strong faith and accepting Gods plan.

-By encouraging her community to get tested one of my co-workers is currently living positively.

-Delisile, a strong beacon of hope, lives positively by ensuring that faith, love and laughter flow freely.

-Mlungisi, with his bright smile and big hugs lived positively by embracing me in friendship and support.

-By spreading awareness through her school, Nokuphiwa a beautiful 14 year old lived positively until the day that God called her home.

Somewhere deep inside me still aches when I hear that another individual is admitted to the Unit or when I sit with someone as they take their last breath. However through it all I have learned to rejoice in knowing that someone’s status may be HIV positive, but God is on their side encouraging them to live positively.

I am leaving South Africa understanding what it is to really feel love, to hold hope so close to the heart, to see the face of God in the friends I have met and to know that He is encouraging each of us, regardless of our status to live positively.

24 November 2010

Two weeks.

In two weeks I will be climbing into a big ole Boeing 777 headed for home.

Saying that sentence is easy and hard at the same time. It seems fake. I'm a mix of emotions; happy to see my family and my friends that I have missed so much, sad to be leaving a land and people that I have fallen so deeply in love with. I'm excited at the opportunities that await me, yet terrified that for once I don't have a structured "plan" of what comes next.

South Africa has seeped its way into my soul. It has captured me and I'll be leaving a large part of my heart here.
-Some will stay with with the Home Based Care Ladies and Nurses at Hillcrest AIDS Centre who, despite a language barrier have guided me through the hardest and most physically and emotionally draining days of my life.
-A large piece will stay with my former patients - those who have passed away and shown me what it means to have unending strength and to die with dignity and those who are living and have become a source of hope and some of the most genuine friends I have known and will ever known.
-Part will stay with the Woza Moya staff - Claudia, Paula, Kerry and Gogs who have taken me in as one of their own family members; showering me with love, attention and more sleepovers than I could ever have dreamed of.
-Some will stay with the Reception staff - Skhumbuzo, Julie, Daniella and Louise who are constantly encouraging me to be myself and giving me opportunities to do so.
-Part will stay with my neighbors the priests and sisters who have acted in lieu of family and let me "borrow" food and wine whenever my refrigerator is bare.
-A huge chunk will stay with my St. Theresa boys, each who have melted my heart on a consistent basis this year.
-And another huge chunk will stay with my South African friends; Wade, Andrew, Mart, Matt, Claire, Claire, Rich, Will, Adam, Jeff and Gordo who have given us a social life, shown us the ins and outs of Durban and unconditionally loved us.

I'm truly at a crossroad of thoughts: somewhere North of rhyme and reason just South of details and structure slightly West of convention and customs and East of old and new.

01 November 2010

Dinner at Delis

I have talked a lot about the inconsistency in emotions that I experience at the AIDS center. The sadness that fills my heart when a new patient is admitted and is in the deepest stages of illness is something I still have not learned to completely deal with. The struggle to understand death consumes me every time a patient passes away and those feelings are magnified when that patient is a child. But the joy that I find through working with my patients is unparalleled. Each and every time I help a patient pack up whatever small tokens of home they have brought to the Centre with them and give them a hug as they are discharged home my job seems worth all the sadness and tears.

Delisile was admitted to the Respite Centre just after I arrived in South Africa. From the first moment I met her I recognized that her heart not only filled her tiny body, but exploded from it; consuming all who came into contact with her. She has a magnetism that draws everyone to her. The first time I saw Deli, a 32 year old woman whose illness stole her capacity to function, pulled her away from her family and job and ripped weight off her body I thought she was a frail 13 year old. Since those early January days, I have seen a miraculous transformation.

Deli moved from depending on everyone for all of life’s basic necessities (feeding, bathing, transportation) into someone whose brilliant story was featured in Oprah’s magazine. She can eat food without falling ill and has thus regained weight and her mobility. She has been discharged from eight months in the confines of a metal hospital bed to the loving arms of her daughters and family. She has become a survivor and my best friend here.

For selfish reasons there is a teeny tiny part of me that misses seeing her vibrant smile and receiving her warm hug every morning, but knowing that she is at home, functioning as a healthy woman and mother overrides the absence of her in my daily life.

Three weeks ago Mary-Kate and I were invited to her house to spend the day with her and her family. As we got out of our car and approached her home we were greeted with open arms and love by her entire extended family, neighbours and friends. Inside we were presented with a plate overflowing with chicken, rice, sweet potatoes, salad and potato salad-a beautiful token of their appreciation. Although the food was beyond outstanding I couldn’t help feeling slightly self-conscious as we sat eating while everyone else empty handed watched us. Part of living here is recognizing that others give from what they have – Deli’s family had food and prepared a feast for us because they could. I struggle with accepting a meal knowing that I have ready access to an abundance of food and her family’s food consumption is limited. A complex feeling that will always leave me unsettled.

The day was nothing short of beautiful. People from all over kept coming to her house to greet us, thanking us for helping her to get well which is a true testament to the strong woman and integral part of the community that Deli is. Her daughters and other various young children preformed dance after dance for us and even sang the whole Shania Twain CD. I couldn’t help but choke back tears as her two beautiful daughters appeared from around the corner in dresses my Nana had made and sent over here with my family. Although they are beautiful and I would have loved to keep them for myself I gave them to Deli when she was discharged to bring home as a gift for her daughters. I realized that my already overflowing closet was not where the dresses would be the most appreciated and seeing the girls sashaying through the house, big smiles on their face reaffirmed that decision. They send many thanks to you Nana!

The day concluded with many pictures of everyone all together, big huge hugs and a promise to see each other again. With my days in South Africa coming to an end saying goodbye to her was one of the hardest things, but knowing that she is healthy, happy and at home where she belongs puts a smile on my face.

Friends come from an assortment of places, with their ages- races- and significance in our lives varying. Deli has taught me that love between friends, true inner strength and determination have no regulated maximum, but rather are the most infectious ailment one could be lucky enough to confront
Deli now!!!

Deli a few months ago

27 October 2010

Overheard in the classroom part two and three

Correcting a 13 year olds paper on types of natural disasters, these are the responses:
"1. torna-doz
2. mud slide
3.lots of rain for a flood
5.maybe heart break?"

Talking about the letter B
Me: "What else starts with the letter B"
Lindo: "Butthole?"
Me: "Well yes, that does start with B, but lets think of a word that is english classroom friendly."
Spha: "English people don't have buttholes? MAN I AM GLAD I AM ZULU!"

12 October 2010

Sure, I'll sign autographs

Awhile back I wrote about a PBS film crew that joined us in South Africa filming a documentary for their program, Visionaries which profiles non profit organizations. Season 16 episode 1602 highlights the Order of St. Augustine and the amazing work the Augustinians do in Philly, South Africa and around the world. It shows clips of our house, the girls school, and me delivering food parcels in the valley. Its a truly beautiful video and I was lucky to have a chance to take part in it!

Hit the big blue play triangle in the middle of the screen, sit back, relax and enjoy.

Its only PSB and I am choking back tears the whole interview making me look ridiculous, but celebrity status starts somewhere right?

If your computer will not let you watch the video via blogger you can try and access it from another computer via the website listed below


11 October 2010

fancy a lil tug o' war

A few weekends ago we spent a full Saturday at St. Theresa's with the boys for their annual sports day. We arrived and our car was canvassed by a sea of red, green, yellow and blue shirts. On typical days at St. T we assist the boys with their homework. Once homework is complete, if there is time we play with them outside. Saturday we were able shed our authoritative homework helper roles and instead play all day. As soon as the teams began chanting back and forth I reverted back to childhood joined in the friendly fun. I cannot remember the last time that I have laughed more or for such an extended period of time. Watching the boy’s attempt to maneuver an orange around the circle using only their necks and chins was beyond comical. I felt like a proud mother seeing the older boys demonstrate how to complete each activity to the younger boys; their patience was heartwarming. Watching the two ages bound by string and determination during the three legged race was hysterical.

The field behind the home was turned into an abundance of sack races, cones for soccer dribbling exercises and an obstacle course for jump rope competitions.

The day concluded with a tug of war between the teams and then we all joined together for a BBQ style lunch. Day after day I have found that it is impossible to leave St. Theresa’s without a smile on my face. Because despite whatever horrendous circumstances brought the boys to the home, or however frustrated and impatient they get with me as I explain homework, or however many times I have to remind them that kicking - pinching - hitting - or biting each other is not acceptable - at the end of the day they are a part of a family.

07 October 2010

Overheard in the classroom

"Class do you now understand the difference between then and than or do you have questions"


10 year old student:
"Miz Meggie do you understand that if you were black you could dance better and Lil' Wayne and Usher would like you or do you have questions?"

01 October 2010

A new neighbor

Father Bob has officially movef in as my neighbor in South Africa! The priests my roommates and I surprised him at the airport and even after traveling for 24 hours his smiles and hugs were abundant and his energy plentiful! He was a wonderful friend and neighbor in the Bronx and South Africa and I are both blessed to have him here this year!

27 September 2010

Nkosi Haven

In May I wrote a blog that discussed a book I recently read by Jim Wooten. The book, “We Are All the Same” chronicles the life of Gail Johnson a woman living in Johannesburg who started an AIDS home for mothers and children and during the process found herself taking a young boy with AIDS into her family and her heart. The story spoke to me on many levels. I was touched by the connection between boy and woman, I found myself getting lost in their trials and triumphs, in the love and dedication between the two. I was impressed by their strength and learned more how to relate to my patients at the AIDS center through their story.

While we were wandering around shops in Johannesburg last weekend we walked into a used book store. The first book that caught my attention was “We Are All The Same”, ironic I thought considering we were probably just a few minutes from Nkosi’s Haven, the site Gail Johnson had created. I found their number and address in a phone book and after getting lost for a good 25 minutes, my patient roommates and I found the center.

Gail unfortunately was not feeling well and had gone home sick, but we were given a tour of the beautiful facilities. I was impressed with the size of the place which houses currently 91 children and 32 mothers and is still not at max capacity. The accommodation includes housing, food, love and support, treatment administration and encouragement, as well as specialized therapy sessions for children (speech and language, occupational therapy and a social integration play room). There was a beautiful bakery on the property a brightly colored leisure room and various places for children to play.

As we were leaving I rememberd the copy of “We Are All The Same” that I had purchased. I asked one of Gails co-workers if she thought Gail would be willing to sign it and mail it back to me if I left money. In all honesty I wasn’t expecting it to realistically happen, but two days later I received a package in the mail with a very kind note in the front of the book.

“Dearest Meghan,
Wishing you all the very best in life and in your future career in nursing. All my love – Gail Johnson”

I have recently been trying to decide where I want to go once this year is complete – it has been a toss up between going back to school for speech therapy or nursing. I never told anyone at Nkosi’s Haven that I was interested in nursing, but perhaps it’s a sign?

26 September 2010

I'm brushing up on looking down I'm working on my roar

Last weekend the girls and I took our first ever big road trip together. Our boss April came from the states for our last site visit and the office kindly took us on a trip to a game reserve near the baorder of Botswana.

We estimated our trip would take 10 hours so we had an early start. Sinead kindly set up the ipod and speakers to play our favorite community song "Alejandro" which came bumping through our house at 2am Friday morning. I couldn't help but laugh as Mary-Kate and I silently laid in bed and took turns echoing various combinations of "thats loud", "thats so loud". We collected our things, packed our bags and at 3am embarked upon our trip.
Our 6am breakfast of PB/Honey and Bananas on toast

After 12 hours of rotating through our various cd’s, seeing outrageous signs including a warning for Owls for the next 5k and a HIJACKING HOTSPOT FOR THE NEXT 6K (see below) stopping for a few bathroom and coffee breaks, and one minor “detour” we arrived at Mosetlha bush camp. During the ten minutes it took us to drive from the main gate to our bush camp we saw elephants, zebra and giraffe – a promising start to a fantastic weekend.

Our weekend included two night drives and a full day drive, many scrumptious traditional Zulu meals and “Sundowners” – South Africas version of happy hour where we got excellent drinks and a beautiful sunset!

The game drives were incredible; we saw everything- lions, rhinos, elephants, monkeys, baboons, zebras and giraffe.
The first evening game drive we crossed paths with a gigantic giraffe

as well as two very casual lounging lions. We were at most 10 feet away from the pair who languidly looked us up and down and returned to their naps. During the day drive we saw a pregnant giraffe, numerous Zebras and more lethargic lions. The second night drive we were blessed to see a mother Rhino followed by the smallest yet fattest baby rhino running, closely being followed by two lions in pursuit.

As we headed back to the camp we stopped by a watering hole and emerging from the pitch black night came the outlines of elephants. Not one or two, not twenty or thirty, but close to 200; bathing, drinking water, playing and splashing, itching themselves on trees. It was something that no words or pictures could do justice. The eight of us in the rover just sat in silence mesmerized.

After our first night game drive we got back and they had set up lanterns leading down the various paths – a beautiful scene. The bush camp we stayed at was very primitive it had no running water or electricity, a lesson in really living simply. The huts that we slept in had a roof and two walls – the other two were partially covered in somewhat of a cabana style. Sleeping in the fresh air was amazing, probably the best two nights of sleep I’ve had since being here.

To take a shower we each got a bucket of water which was poured into a metal contraption that used a fire underneath to heat the water. Once heated and mixed with a portion of cold water you put the water into a second bucket in the bathroom and used a pulley to hoist the water above your head. An off on lever allowed the water to be turned off between latherings, something which really made me realize how much water I waste on a normal basis. One bucket lasted me through shaving my legs, washing and conditioning my hair and face and I even had some left over.

Our weekend safari concluded with a night stop over in Johannesburg which is about half way from where we were to home. We spent a day at the Apartheid Museum which was both educational and overwhelming. An experience that I would relate to visiting the Holocaust Museum. It was important yet very hard to witness the separation of a country, the harsh reality of a group of people that I have come to love and the brutality of mankind. I was certainly taken aback, but I think it was really beneficial for us to visit the Museum. It’s difficult to believe that Apartheid occurred so recently, that many of the older individuals we come in contact with on a daily basis actually lived through it.

After the museum we were blessed with hospitality and kindness from my extended family members who opened up their home to us. We spent our evening in Joburg driving around (getting lost in ehhh) and finding the Airport to drop April off. The following day we enjoyed a delicious breakfast with Leon and Charlotte and then made our way through the city. Our day in the city was filled with wonder and excitement; we wandered through bookstores, cafes, clothing stores and antique dealers. We ate lunch at a funky cafĂ© and were able to visit an orphanage and meet a friend of Mary-Kate’s.

I wish we had more time to explore the city; Joburg is somewhere I need to return to – if not during this year then sometime in the near future. Its rich history is abundant and the progress it has made is evident.