Proofs of a Small World

The world is sometimes a very small place.When I first arrived in the Drakensberg (already more than three weeks ago; the time does fly!), I could not believe my eyes. The landscape of rolling hills, dry grasses accented with the lushness of Spring and agriculture, the fences along the road to keep out the cattle… It is beautiful, but more than that, it is familiar. I have traveled halfway around the world only to stumble into a place that feels more akin to the eastern Montana plains I call home than anywhere else I have traveled.

Admittedly, the similarities may be superficial, but they are striking. The wheat is coming in, nearly full grown now and left to ripen in the lengthening days. The sandstone bedrock erodes, creating the same ravines as my own home ground.  Poplars line the gullies and pines the hills, and I hear both in the sound of the breeze. The red and white cattle roam freely, leaving their footprints (literal and figurative) in the bare ground left behind when they graze, unmistakable to the trained eye. The grasses’ hues shift subtly from sienna to black char indicative of recent fire, passing through the green of new growth in the burned ground.

Sometimes not so subtly

Sometimes not so subtly

When I run, the stalks crunch underfoot in the same intimately known rhythm as those grasses halfway around the globe that made me love running in the first place. I catch myself watching my step to avoid the sago lilies and prickly pear of my own home turf.

Sometimes it takes a surprise to shake me from the lull of familiarity, to remind me I am not in the American Great Plains, but southern Africa. For instance, this week. The morning run was disarmingly similar to what I know—the grass clutching at my shoes; the forms of the wildflowers, if not their Linnaean classification; following the faint tracks of cattle through the grass; the barbed wire fence I slipped through without a second thought; the sandstone threatening to crumble under my feet; the habit of watching my step for deadly camouflaged snakes (rattlers at home, here puff adder). I topped the ridge, stepping from the shadow into the glorious morning sun…

And was greeted by the silhouette of a curious zebra. (I wish I had my camera, but didn’t and my drawing skills are sorely lacking. This image is emblazoned in my mind’s eye.) Flanking the staring equid on one side were two more zebra, whose grazing I had clearly interrupted; on the other, a herd of antelope watching two rutting males caught in an horn lock over some lovely doe. The zebra, still staring at me, perked his ears. Though he didn’t look to be laying them flat, I didn’t care to test how far his curiosity extended, so turned tail the way I had come.

Obviously, I’m not at home (zebra, please). The poplars are invasive, and the pines are “green deserts” of tree farms rather than healthy sustainable growth. The mountains to the west are not the distant peaks of the Bighorns, but the ridges of the Dragon’s Back that give the Drakensberg its name.

The view to the West

The view to the West

Had I run east, past the zebra, I would have ended up in the outskirts of Injisuthi township, vastly different from anything I’d encounter at home.

*     *     *     *     *

Townships are in many ways very far from the world I know, a legacy of apartheid, when all non-whites (blacks; Indians; and coloureds, or mixed race) were placed into separate, and generally inferior, residential areas. The term “township” itself is not pejorative, but realistically townships often struggle with poverty, burgeoning populations, high rates of crime, and a lack of infrastructure.

Winterton is the nearest official town. According to the 2011 Census, only 270 people live in Winterton[1] (although I’m unsure as to how the Census Bureau – or my reference, for that matter – arrived at these numbers, and the South African Census Statistics online[2] are singularly unhelpful). But Winterton is not unlike small towns in America: a grocery store, gas station, a few churches, a bar. Beautiful downtown Winterton is the two blocks from the police station to the lone stoplight within a few dozen mile radius. I’d hazard a guess at a population of a thousand or so. Mostly Afrikaner farmers, complete with dusty pickup trucks and sun-faded caps.

Cross the railroad tracks, and you’ll find the township of Khetani, a very different world. By some estimates, Khetani alone houses as many as 11,000 people,[3] which would put the population density on par with Chicago or Miami.[4] Khetani is on the surface as dissimilar to my hometown as Winterton is similar. But Khetani is indirectly the major reason I’m still in South Africa, instead of changing my tickets to fly home last week. The story is another proof of a small world.

*     *     *     *     *

When I first arrived in South Africa, flustered and more than a little lost, my mother e-mailed me with a fortuitous discovery. A good friend of ours not only had family in South Africa, but had spent a few months in this beloved country after graduating high school. I e-mailed him, we caught up a bit, and he forwarded me the contact information for his South African family, along with the appended note:

“You may never have heard of Isibani [Community Centre].  The founder is a woman from Australia who … has been very active … as has her organization … in reaching out to AIDS patients, orphans, …”

I looked at the website, agreed that it looked like a really great organization, and promptly pushed it to the far corners of my mind.

Skip ahead nearly four weeks, to September 14th. I had been staying with friends in Pietermaritzburg, and they insisted on taking me the 160 kilometers to Ardmore, arguing that such a distance is hardly worth taking the bus. We arrived in Winterton, drove through the (green) stoplight, and my jaw dropped: we passed right by Isibani Community Centre. By complete and total accident, the workstay I’ve arranged is in the very same town where our family friend stayed so many years ago, the same town as Isibani.

By yet further coincidence, my hosts here are good friends with the woman mentioned in the e-mail (her son spent the better part of the last week of school vacation out here). So I ended up visiting Isibani for a day, and I’ve ended up staying there for the last two weeks. I still work at Ardmore for my keep, but I catch a ride into town whenever I can during the week.

Isibani as an organization does a bit of everything. They facilitate food drops when people don’t have enough to eat, operate a safe house for girls and young women who have become victims of domestic violence, augment in myriad ways the social work capabilities of the state and municipal governments, assist with government paperwork (a semi literate population + a dysfunctional and corrupt government make for a bureaucratic nightmare), and help out in various capacities in the overcrowded schools.

And they do a lot of medical work, both in Khetani and in the outlying communities. Being a rural area, access to medical resources (or resources of any variety) can be challenging, and the population here is too often overlooked by the authorities. Isibani provides a location for distribution of and training in use of chronic medications, including the anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) used to treat HIV. They employ a full time nurse alongside auxiliary community health workers who both consult with patients at Isibani and do home visits for patients unable or unwilling to come to the Centre.

I don’t think I do much for Isibani. I shadow the public health nurse when I can. I help out as able, but most of the population speaks Zulu as a primary language, meaning I often fail to understand the staff, much less the patients. I go wherever else someone needs a hand.

There is absolutely no question that I am getting much more than I am giving. More than anything, I’m learning. I’m seeing the effects of poverty combined with chronic disease and societal neglect in a community, and seeing what a few dedicated people can do to alleviate suffering. I am learning firsthand how much a small group can do with minimal resources in a community with even fewer. I have the opportunity to follow a group of women whose compassion for others and dedication to their community is beautiful and inspiring. That they should welcome me with smiles and open arms, should take time to explain to me what is going on in the middle of a busy day, is humbling to say the least. But I am happy here, and excited for Monday after the weekend.

*     *     *     *     *

I don’t really believe in fate or destiny or anything like that. But sometimes coincidences are enough to make me question my lack of belief. That I should accidentally end up in the same middle of nowhere in South Africa as not just another American, but a dear friend (for the record, I can’t recall meeting a single other American in my nearly four weeks here)… That by chance my only connections in this place should be able to connect me personally with Isibani… That my hosts should be so enthusiastic about my taking time away from my help exchange to volunteer in town (in addition to being generous and wonderful people who go out of their way to make me feel at home)… That I should be welcomed into a community where I could be seen as an intruder, as not belonging (and not wrongly so)… It is wonderful to feel like I’m involved in something meaningful, even if I may not be the most useful member of the team.

It’s enough to make me question my cynicism sometimes. But the advantage of such a mindset is that I have the chance to be continually amazed, awed, dumbstruck by the kindness of people. And so I am.

*     *     *     *     *

P.S. Isibani is entirely funded by donations, no government or commercial support. I know that everyone has their pet charity (I have a few myself). But I will also say that a little goes a long way here (R100 is about $7 at the moment) and that everything will go to fill immediate and important needs in the community. If you want to contribute, the link to do so is here.

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