Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “October, 2012”


People in ZA don’t celebrate Halloween.

My heart is breaking.  Costumes and candy – does life get any better than that?

But it’s hard to go trick-or-treating when everyone lives in a fortress and is too frightened to walk around after nightfall.

North Americans – my thoughts are with you today.  Live it up for me!


Site Work

You know it’s going to be an awesome day when your morning starts with hugs!

These four kids followed me around one of MHA’s projects while I mapped out the bathrooms, lights, fire equipment, etc. 

We hopped down the hallway single file and ran down the stairs. 

The whole time they giggled “Hello” and “Goodbye” – the only English words they knew.

The security man told us to be quiet.

Working in the office can’t compare to this!

Carly Rae

Confession of the week: I am terrible at flirting.

I love talking to people, but innuendoes make me uncomfortable.  I usually try to ignore a man’s flirting or teasing, even though this strategy often makes me look dumb/oblivious.

Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian.  And sorta from Vancouver.

Van is notorious for its frosty, polite people and terrible dating prospects.  I’m not kidding.  How many articles do you want on the subject?

Seriously, only a girl from BC would sing a song about how hard it is to get a guy to talk to her:

Being from a small town, though, I love chatting with EVERYONE.  People in Van frequently think it’s weird that I try to talk to them.  One of the best parts about ZA is that it’s normal to chat with strangers without automatically being labeled as a creeper.

Along with that openness, however, is more flirtatiousness.  Not sweet smiles and respectful compliments, but over-the-top ridiculous overtures. 

One of the other interns told me about going for a walk near her office in Marshalltown (Joburg’s CBD): a man across the road started singing “Hey sexy lady!” Gangnam style, with the accompanying dance moves.

“That would never happen in Canada!” she exclaimed.

“Thank god,” I answered.

Unfortunately my ignoring strategy isn’t working too well in my office.  I see these people every day and it’s pretty difficult to disregard a direct insinuation without looking like a total idiot.

Sometimes I just shake my head in response and give a disapproving smile.  Like to the security guard who always me “My love” (not in a sweet way).  Or when a colleague said, “You moved to a new neighbourhood?  Can I visit your place?  Your bedroom?”

Or I try to downplay it, such as when one of the security guards stopped me as I was entering the building and said, “I meant to tell you.  Yesterday, as you were walking, a man turned around as you passed, looked you up and down and said, “Daaaaaammmmmn.”  It was a few blocks away and I heard him loud and clear, but you didn’t even notice.”

I smiled awkwardly, “Uh… yeah… well that’s this neighbourhood, right?  All women get lots of attention so I try to ignore it.”

“There were lots of girls on the street, but you’re the only who caught his eye,” the security man smiled.  “Because you’re so attractive.”

“Thanks,” I muttered.

Does he think its compliment to be sexually objectified?

Sometimes I am at a complete loss for an appropriate response.  Like this week when one of my colleagues showed me a poem he’d written about a beautiful angel who stops traffic with her grace and his deep, fiery desire for her.  So. Awkward.

Back home, this would be sexual harassment.

But here, I don’t think the men in my workplace are trying to be disrespectful; flirting is the only way they know how to interact with women.  They expect me to appreciate their attention instead of feeling offended.

Even though I don’t like their behaviour, I am doing my best to remain open-minded.

It’s still weird to me, though, that the maintenance manager, an older man with a daughter my age, frequently grabs my wrist when we visit the projects or grips my shoulder when he greets me in the office.  But I read “Rainbow Nation Navigation” (  and learned that Afrikaners are much more touchy-feely than British people.  So I’m trying to be tolerant despite my British heritage of stand-offishness and why-are-you-in-my-space attitude.

Because that was also in “Rainbow Nation Navigation”: don’t tell British people too many details about your personal life or touch them unnecessarily.  Too true.

Maybe that’s why the best commitment most Vancouverites can get is, “Call me maybe?”

21st Century Women

This week we had an interesting office conversation regarding the role of women.

It began when one of the men stood up and declared, “Twenty-first century women are unreasonable!  They want to have an opinion on everything!”

The women beside me began arguing with him in Zulu.  Eventually he turned to me and asked, “What do you think Bethany?” 

“I didn’t understand most of the conversation,” I confessed.

“What do you think is the role of the woman in the house?” he pressed.

Oh no.  There are a few topics I try to avoid with my colleagues and feminism is one of them.

“I think in this day-and-age, no one has to have a gender specific role anymore,” I answered.  “Even though we have cultural norms and expectations for the different sexes, no one should feel hindered by their gender.”

The conversation progressed with the first man and the woman beside me doing most of the arguing.

She told him, “Women have to act like men because men aren’t acting like men!  I grew up without a father, so my mother and my grandmother had to do everything.  We couldn’t wait for a man to take a screwdriver and fix a door – we had to do ourselves!  Do you think women like having to do everything?  But we do because we can’t depend on 21st century men!”

Her tirade didn’t convince him – or me for that matter.  I hate gender arguments that focus on blaming the opposite sex for everything.

He finally agreed that men and women should have equal voices in the household.  He said everything should be a discussion.  BUT it’s the man’s job to keep the family close to God and, as a result, he has final say on every decision.

What a colonial attitude!  “You’re allowed to have your own opinion as long as it’s the same as mine.”

“I’m not Christian and I don’t believe in God, so you’re going to have to give me a better reason than that,” I said.

He gave me a bunch of bullshit reasons why men were head of the household, but I countered each one.  Finally he said, “What if the decision requires more education to understand the issue?”

I thought about it and said, “OK, I can get on board with that.”  It’s true that some decisions are better understood with more education and usually the men in poor families are better educated than the women.

Then I asked, “Does this go both ways?  What if the woman is better educated?  Does that mean she gets the final say?”

He looked at me and shook his head, “Educated women complicate the world.  It’s never easy for them.”

I think that meant no.

Eventually the conversation wound its way full-circle and he started complaining about upstart 21st C women again with all their damn opinions.

“Look,” I said, getting annoyed.  “Women have anyways had opinions, but historically we weren’t listened to.  You complaining about today’s gender conflicts is like white people complaining about today’s race conflicts.  Yes, it was a lot easier for white people during apartheid when they could disregard black people – but that doesn’t mean blacks didn’t have a voice.  The more voices you listen to, the more conflict there will be.  But you shouldn’t be afraid of conflict.  Instead you should embrace other opinions and try to look at issues from different points of view.”

“Yes!” the other woman agreed.

He wasn’t convinced, but eventually he realized that he wasn’t going to persuade me that men should govern women by divine right.

The conversation trailed off and he hasn’t brought up either gender or religious issues with me since then.

Core Culture

The following is a quote from the National Post article “Multiculturalism in its controversial glory: Is Canada a ‘country without a core culture’?” by Joe O’Connor:

Salim Mansur is a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario. He has been described, including in the pages of this newspaper, as Canada’s “angriest moderate.” And what makes him so angry is that nobody, he says, not the media elite, politicians or even the academics, is willing to have a frank and open dialogue about multiculturalism in this country.

“Numerous languages spoken inside a country is only a problem, and a lethal problem, when the core identity of that country comes to be increasingly disputed — as is happening in Canada,” Professor Mansur, an Indo-Canadian Muslim originally from Calcutta wrote in an email. “A multicultural country, and officially so designated, has basically indicated it is a country without a core culture, or the core culture that once gave it cohesion, identity, framework, anchor, has been jettisoned to embrace a multiplicity of identities — and thereby the unintended consequence is that there is a void in the centre.”

He argues that Canada, before it became beholden to a Kumbayah notion that everybody should get along and be free to do so in whatever language they choose to speak was, at its core, a liberal democracy. Previous generations of immigrants — Irish, Italians and Greeks, Germans, Russians and Poles, to list a few — who arrived before multiculturalism became enshrined as federal policy in October, 1971, were forced, not by fiat, but out of necessity, to embrace English and/or French because speaking the official languages was key to being a part of the greater Canadian tribe.


I strongly disagree with Mansur’s argument.  It’s based on an assumption that a culture has to remain the same to exist.  But the wonderful thing about humanity is that it’s constantly evolving and changing.

Give me an example of an unaltered, pure culture.  The bushmen?

Almost every culture in the world has been influenced by others.  Last summer, I was surprised to learn the extent that Spain was influenced by Muslims.  But it made sense once I thought about it.  I think many North Americans have an overly romantic view of European cultures.  While there are definitely distinctions between Spain, France, Germany, etc., there are also more overlaps than we sometimes realize.

Mansur’s definition of culture reminds me of the definition of wilderness that William Cronon argues against in his essay “The Trouble With Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” (1995).  He contends there is no such thing as a pristine environment (such as “virgin” forests) because humans have affected most environments on Earth.  Furthermore, creating a dualism between “pristine” and “artificial” nature actually hinders environmental movements by creating artificial hierarchies of importance.  It’s a great article and I recommend it to everyone:

Back to Mansur:
Does welcoming immigrants mean we are no longer a liberal democracy?  I don’t see how those two values are necessarily conflicting.

Sometimes I get frustrated with people and politics back home too.  But now that I’m away, I miss the (apparently non-existent) “core culture” of Canada.  Celebration of tolerance and diversity counts as culture too!

Returning Racist

Two of the other Canadian interns and I have a terrible joke between us: left Canada to save the world and came back racist.

Personally, I haven’t become increasingly aware of race since moving here.  But that’s because I was already more conscious of skin colour than the average (white) Canadian.

To illustrate this phenomenon, I’ll tell you a story about one of the girls getting her hair cut.  She told us she went to Rosebank – a mall for the middle/upper class – and was surprised to have a black hairdresser.  Moreover, she was surprised that the hairdresser did such a good job.

“I don’t want to notice these differences!” she complained.

Unfortunately, once you start to categorize people by race or ethnicity it’s impossible to go back to that innocent place where you didn’t see it.  I know because I’ve tried.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s bad to notice differences.  Human beings are so diverse!  Who wants to be there same, anyways?

The problem stems from the associations attached to certain differences: prejudges

Even though I don’t condone the jokes the three of us make, I actually think it’s good that we’re having these conversations regarding racism.  I think it’s beneficial for white people to understand what it means to feel like an outsider, even if it makes them uncomfortable.  In fact, especially if it makes them uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s appalling for a Canadian to say.  But ignoring racism doesn’t make it go away.  I’d rather discuss it and get all those unpleasant feelings out in the open. 

We have to acknowledge our demons to fight them.

Women During Apartheid

Attached below is a fascinating document provided on the Apartheid Museum’s website regarding women’s contribution to ending apartheid.

Our Triumphs and Our Tears – Part 1

Our Triumphs and Our Tears – Part 2



Humble Pie

Today I was working in one of the projects and came across a little boy that looked about 8 years old.  He had a mattress upright on the floor beside him and was looking up a flight of stairs.

“Do you need help?” I asked.

He nodded.

My first thought was that he wanted to ride the mattress down the stairs.  That’s the sort of thing I did at his age.

We carried the mattress up two flights of stairs to the roof.  Outside I asked him, “Is here ok?”

No, he wanted me to keep going.  Maybe he wanted to set it up in the sunshine so he could lie on it with the other kids?

We reached the far wall and he tilted it upwards to that other side faced the sun.  I could see a wet spot I hadn’t known was there.

We went back down two floors.  At the bottom a toddler was a waiting – presumably the one who had wet the bed.  The little boy picked him up and walked off down the hall.

It was a humbling experience, to say the least.

When I was 8 years old I could barely clean up after myself, let alone for a baby.

Oatmeal and Bread

Knowledge is power.

Education is important.

I don’t think I can emphasize that enough!

Knowledge is power.

The more people I meet, the more grateful I am for BC’s school system.

To illustrate this sentiment, let me tell you about the woman who sits beside me at work.  She’s on a diet.

There are few things worse than working with a woman on a diet.  Just ask the other intern, whose colleague is also dieting.  She told him one day, “Don’t ask me that!  I’m hungry and tired!  Figure it out yourself.”

But these two are on diets that I’ve never heard of.  One is trying to lose weight by only eating bread.  The other is only eating oatmeal.

An all-carb diet?  Really?

After broaching the topic of balanced eating with the woman who sits beside me, I realized she didn’t know what I was talking about.  I showed her the Canadian Food Guide and we went through it together.  I explained the four different food sections (grains, fruits + veggies, dairy products, and protein) and that it’s important to eat from all of them every day.  I also told her the best way to lose weight is to eat more vegetables and less processed food.

Again, education is important!  My body can be enigmatic to me, but it’s not an unsolvable mystery.

The cynical part of me wonders if the ZA government has purposefully left nutrition out of its education system.  More than one person here has told me he/she thinks the ANC hasn’t significantly improved education to maintain a large, uneducated black voting base.  Instead, they use vouchers and government handouts to keep people “happy” – meaning dependent on the system.

Being undernourished is not the same as being underfed.  Imagine if you ate oatmeal all day.  Your tummy would be full, but you wouldn’t have the energy needed for a vigorous life.

Undernourished people are less energetic – and fatigued people are less likely to press for change.

How many times have I heard my colleagues say, “I just want to go home and sleep”?

How awesome would it be to hear instead, “I want to go home so I can get to my community meeting this evening.”

Or, “I can’t wait to get home and go for a run.”

Or, “Tonight my kids and I are building a fort in the living room.”

Anything besides wanting to sleep or crashing in front of the TV.

I want to give everyone an apple and say, “Eat this and demand better from your government!”

Instead I just give out apples without the sermon.


Saw my first rugby game!  The Johannesburg Lions versus the Pretoria Blue Bulls.  Live!

Rugby doesn’t make any sense to me.

But that didn’t stop me from cheering with the crowd.

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