Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “March, 2013”



My friend and I are embarking on a road trip to explore this fabulous country for the next 1.5 weeks.  It should be a gorgeous trip of hiking the Drakensberg Mountains and swimming in the Indian Ocean.  Expect some beautiful photos upon our return!

If we don’t kill each other from being in close proximity for so long, this blog will begin again in early April.


Typical Canadians

Typical Canadians



Do you know the K’Naan song “Bang Bang”?

When it first came out, I loved that song!  I listened to it over and over and over again. 

Bang bang
She shot me
She shot me
Bang bang
She shot me
She shot me

My sister was around six-years-old at the time and thought it went like this: 

Bang bang
Shoe shopping
Shoe shopping

Already you could see my influence on my little sis!  Because I thought it was adorable, I sang the song that way as well.  One day, years later, we were dancing around my parent’s kitchen to that song when all of sudden she stopped and said, “Be… is he saying ‘she shot me’?”

“Um… yes,” I replied sheepishly.

“That doesn’t make any sense!” she exclaimed.

Hahahaha I still laugh at that story.

So how is that related to today’s post?  Only minimally.

I work in Hillbrow.  We hear gun shots every now and then.  That’s life.

There’s a bakery a block from my office that I pass on my way to and from the grocery store.  A group of men always hang around outside, chatting and catcalling.  As a result, I usually walk along the road instead of on the sidewalk.

A couple weeks ago, a man was shot and killed right outside the bakery.

Nice, right?

Yesterday, as I walked past the bakery, a truck on the street 3m away from me blew a tire.

I’d like to say that I stopped, dropped, and rolled – but I didn’t.  At least I bent my knees and covered my head!

Heart in my throat, I looked around to survey the chaos.  Where was the gunman?  Was anyone injured?

The truck stopped and I realized what had happened.  I resumed walking, attempting as much dignity as possible.

The men thought it was hilarious.

From now on, I think I’ll cross the street instead.

Nothing to Worry About

Don’t worry – my friend is still alive!  Despite my fretting.

Moreover, his experiences on the minibus taxis validated my frequent declarations: they’re awesome.

Yesterday when he caught the bus in the morning, all he had were R200 bills.  Considering the ride is usually R10, that’s a lot of cash to get back.  In the mornings, minibus taxis drivers rarely have the change for such a big bill.

So what happened?

A stranger paid his fare!

Yep.  Awesome.

On another transportation-related note, today he took the Rea Vaya (Joburg’s Bus Rapid Transit system) to Soweto from my office and said it was super easy.  I still haven’t taken the Rea Vaya, but plan on doing it before I leave.  Nice to know that it shouldn’t be a problem!

Missing Pieces

Reports of genital theft have spread like an epidemic across West and Central Africa over the past two decades, in tandem with what appears to be a general resurgence of witchcraft on the continent. Anthropologists have explained this rise as a response to an increasingly mystifying and capricious global economy. Which is to say that when the workings of capital are as genuinely obscure as they are in today’s Africa, proceeding behind a veil of complexity and corruption, rumors of “occult economies”—often involving a trade in human organs—offer a less mystifying explanation for the radical disparities in wealth on display.

Makes about as much sense as “trickle down” economics.

Worry Wart

As mentioned in my blog last week, one of my Canadian friends is visiting South Africa for a month.

Even though I know my friend is a smart and capable man… oh my word, now I know 10% of what it must be like to be a parent!  The worry is terrible!

When I picked him up from the Gautrain in Park Station last week, he’d wandered off to the wrong parking lot so I spent half an hour running back and forth between the two station entrances, wondering where he could have gone in the 3 minutes since he’d phoned to tell me he’d arrived.

“Oh god, he couldn’t have been abducted that quickly, could he?”

Then today he wanted to go on an adventure on his own, determined to use 100% mass transit.

Oh no oh no oh no oh no oh no.

How can I dissuade him when I’ve already laughed casually about standing on the road, waving down minibus taxis, and asking “How do I get to Hillbrow from here?”  When I offered him my car, saying that I’d take transit instead?  When I continually advocate the minibuses and exclaim how incredibly friendly and helpful people have been to me? 

“Are you going to use the city buses?” I asked.

“Not sure yet,” he replied.

“Ok.  Because I haven’t used a metro bus yet, so I’m not sure how they work.  They’re probably quite straightforward though,” I babbled in my anxiety.

“Please be careful,” I said over and over again.

“Please text me at noon to let me know you’re still alive.”

“Make sure you come home before it gets dark.”

“Are you sure I can’t give you a ride anywhere this morning?”

He probably didn’t want to accept a ride because he was tired of my nervous nattering!

He thinks that I’m silly to worry because he’s a man, after all, and therefore he thinks that he’s safer to travel the city alone than I’ve been in the 7 months that I’ve lived here.  I, however, don’t know if I agree with that.  As a young attractive woman, people are unbelievably nice to me.  Strangers often go out of their way to try to make my life easier.  Locals automatically become protective to ensure that I stay safe in their big, bad city.

Take driving as an example.  When I drive, other drivers go out of their way to move over or let me go first.  When he drives, they ignore him or cut him off.

Maybe I’m more at risk, but I also think that my general experience is friendlier and more welcoming.

On the other hand, he’s traveled before.  Rationally, I know that he’ll be fine.  Irrationally, though, I keep glancing at my phone to make sure I haven’t missed any calls or texts. 

Yarg.  The worry is terrible!

Maybe He’s Just Not That Into You, But Maybe He Is

Good morning class!  Today we’re going to discuss a topic that most teachers don’t want to acknowledge, but is part of the gritty reality of overseas development work – especially among young people.

Love.  That’s right. You know what I mean – the stuff that makes the world go ‘round.  Those chemicals in your brain that fill each day with butterflies or rainbows, or can reduce capable people to inconsolable fools.

Don’t worry: today won’t be a technical lesson.  We’re not going to discuss serious “I want to spend the rest of my life with you so how do we figure out Visas?” love.  No, instead we’re going to talk about the early stages, otherwise known as dating.

Dating across cultures almost always entails more complications than both parties anticipate.  When I look back at my first relationship – 5 years with a Latino – I can recognize a lot of issues that arose because of our dissimilar backgrounds.  At the time, though, I didn’t appreciate these differences.  We were 17, self-centred, and in love!  Furthermore, I had no idea what to expect from a boyfriend.

Since then, though, I’ve dated a variety of men (haha I originally wrote “a lot of men” but decided it sounded trashy) and can see the additional difficulties that arise when you date someone from another culture.  Lots of things you assume about how the world works – like that no self-respecting adult wants a stuffed animal as a gift – are suddenly rendered null and void.

As you can probably guess, I’ve awkwardly stuck my foot in my mouth more than a couple times.

Since I’ve dated “a variety of men” you’d think that I’d have this whole dating game figured out.  I’m open-minded, tolerant, and continually advocating for communication.  What difference does it make if I’m dating someone in while living in my home country or someplace else?  Dating is always complicated, right?


It makes a huge difference.

Not just the obvious stuff.  Moreover, I don’t mean stories like this the one that my American friend told me.  She worked for a couple years in the Peace Corps and one of her coworkers got impregnated by a native resident.  It took her, her friend, and the local doctor hours to convince him that he was involved in her pregnancy because they’d had sex.  He believed that he couldn’t get anyone pregnant because he’d made sure he sat on a block of cement before intercourse.  Moreover, he’d seen her sitting on cement as well so how could she have gotten pregnant anyway?

What a nightmare!

But that’s not what I’m focusing on.  I’m talking about dating between two people with similar economic and educational backgrounds.

Let me tell you, dating a South African while living in South Africa is completely different than dating a South African while living in Canada (although I haven’t actually done that).

First, there are inherent power dynamics that complicate things when you’re a temporary foreigner.  Back home, I am in my element!  I receive tons of invites every day.  I throw frequent dinner parties.  Men, good luck integrating yourself into my busy schedule.

But that’s not the situation here.  If my date cancels on me, I don’t think “Oh well now I can go that other party!” or even “Hmmm maybe tonight I’ll finally mend those socks that have been sitting my drawer for 2 years.”

Even though I’ve tried to recreate my busy social life, it takes time to make all those connections.  When one person cancels on me, it’s a bigger deal than it should be.

Second, the local automatically has more knowledge of the city so you feel a little more dependent on him.  When he says, “Where do you want to eat tonight?” you don’t answer “Wherever you want” because you’re lame and indecisive, but because you only know a couple restaurants and you’ve already eaten there before.

These power dynamics play into normal friendships as well.  I think that’s why you so often see foreigners befriend other foreigners.

One of my friends recently became involved with a European man and exclaimed, “This is what I needed!  I’m done with South Africans!”

I laughed and told her that I considered dating a South African while in South Africa a cultural experience – probably the #1 reason why I tried it despite my promise to myself for a 6 month dating hiatus.  At the same time, however, I completely understand where she’s coming from.

Third, no matter how open-minded you try to be, you will still be blind-sided.  I dated a guy for a few months and the break up has been messy – especially for someone like me who hates drama and disorder.  I told my new roommate, a wonderful South African woman, about the situation and was shocked at her response.

I told her that I was surprised by this man’s reaction.  First, he broke up with me so it didn’t seem fair to me that he’d drag it on like this.  Second, I’ve had men besotted with me before and this guy’s behaviour didn’t fit the bill.  It seemed to me that he was idealizing our time together, whereas in my mind it wasn’t even a real relationship.  That’s not to say that I didn’t take it seriously – I cried every night for weeks after he broke up with me, which is unusual since I don’t cry often – but since then I’d regained my rationality and could see the “relationship” for what it was: somewhat insignificant.

All you Canadians out there, tell me what you’d think if you were in my position.  You meet a guy who tells you he doesn’t want anything serious, which is cool because you don’t either.  You two rarely communicate during the week and you usually see each other one night on the weekends – but you never even go for dinner dates.  Instead you meet up after you’re done hanging out with your own respective friends.

That’s not a relationship, right?

As my roommate explained to me, though, maybe it is.  When I described the situation, she said (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but still), “Honey, that’s practically married in South Africa.  We’re a very emotionally removed culture.  Especially the men.”

I know she was exaggerating – there’s absolutely no way this guy had any long term plans around me – but she also made me question my own interpretation.  Could he actually be sad about the way things played out?  Maybe his feelings for me were stronger than I thought.  Maybe he wasn’t just being melodramatic and attention-seeking.

(Hahahaha oh god I hope he doesn’t read my blog.)

Regardless, however, the point is that I hadn’t considered the inherent cultural differences between us.  Instead, I’d interpreted his behaviour completely through my own cultural references.

Fourth, when (or if) things fall apart, you’re going to feel incredibly lonely: you’re going to miss your support structure.  But don’t dwell on this aspect too long and definitely don’t let it stop you from getting involved with someone.  With email and Skype, you can instantly reach out to your friends and family back home.

Thank goodness.  I don’t think I would’ve survived the beginning of 2013 without the internet.

Fifth, you’re going to have to say good bye at one point.  Whenever I get sad about letting people go, I think of this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel Eat, Pray, Love:

People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.

A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then leave.

A soul mate’s purpose is to shake you up, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you have to transform your life, then introduce you to your spiritual master…

A little bit histrionic, but I still find it comforting.

So, class, what are the lessons?  None particularly.  Just understand that you’re going to have some additional difficulties while you date overseas.

Furthermore, as you always should with dating, try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  Instead of thinking, “Why isn’t this asshole texting me?” recognize that he has his own life and his lack of texting probably isn’t a malicious power game.

Then again, maybe it is.

Awesome people and mean people exist everywhere.  Protect your heart and only open it to someone worthwhile.  Make him prove that he’s worth your love.

That advice is relevant no matter where you live.

Class dismissed.

Putting Asia’s Gini back in its bottle

In a world driven by unstoppable technological progress and relentless globalization, we must consider whether income inequality really matters more than equality of opportunity. Answering that question will help Asia’s people gain a better understanding of themselves – and the development challenges that they face.–chin#DKIoYpbYLT5MUKGV.99

Is it even possible to separate the two?

I think that inequality and equality of opportunity are intrinsically linked.  Data shows that in places with high levels of inequality, the poor are more likely to stay poor while the rich get richer.  As inequality rises, there tend to be fewer opportunities for people to climb the economic ladder.

It would interesting, however, to see an example of a place with opportunity equality despite economic inequality.  Isn’t that the basic argument behind capitalism?  If the government doesn’t interfere with the market, anyone can succeed if he or she works hard enough?

Unfortunately that’s not how capitalism actually plays out.  Too bad… it’s a good theory.

My search for a smartphone that is not soaked in blood

For 17 years, rival armies and militias have been fighting over the region’s minerals. Among them are metals critical to the manufacture of electronic gadgets, without which no smartphone would exist: tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold.

While these elements are by no means the only reason for conflict there, they help to fund it, supporting a fragmented war that – through direct killings, displacement, disease and malnutrition – has now killed several million people. Rival armies have forced local people to dig in extremely dangerous conditions, have extorted minerals and money from self-employed miners, have tortured, mutilated and murdered those who don’t comply, and have spread terror and violence – including gang rape and child abduction – through the rest of the population. I do not want to participate.

“I do not want to to participate.”

Like the author, I also struggle to be a responsible consumer.  Some days it feels like I can’t buy anything – shoes, electronics, soap – without inadvertently funding exploitation.  As a result, I try to buy less.  Who really needs to scrub themselves clean anyways?

Seriously, though, wouldn’t it be awesome if you factor ethical considerations into your electronics purchases?  Isn’t there a watchdog group for that?  Could someone please start one?

The Easiest Verb

Andrea, UBC-EWB’s other Junior Fellow heading to Africa this summer, started a blog!  Check it out.

Andrea is one of the most knowledgeable people I know regarding international development.  Moreover, her sense of humour is wickedly sarcastic.  I can’t wait to read more!


[Updated below]

In light of recent events, I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal safety and the dumb choices I often make.

Back when I was in high school, my dad dropped me off at a party with these words: “Beth, I’ve done the best I can with you and taught you everything I know.  If you get yourself if in bad situation, it’s probably your own fault.”

At the time, I was a little taken aback by his statement.  Ten years later, though, I finally appreciate how awesome my dad is!

Lots of women are taught to be dependent – financially, physically, emotionally.  My parents, however, taught me that my life is 100% my own, yet also gave me the education and support necessary to cultivate my sense of self.

That being said, they’d probably be appalled at the stupid things I do.

Which they’re now going to find out about via my blog.

They’re probably already cringing.

First, if I’m going to take my own advice from yesterday’s post, I need to stop driving around Joburg during the wee hours of the morning with my windows down and music blaring.  On the one hand, I’ve probably woken up half the people in my neighbourhood.  On the other side, it’s stupid behaviour.  I love driving in the city at night when the roads are empty and blasting through red lights (perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, behaviour here) – but I need to start keeping my windows up.

Second lesson: Durban is not like the community in which I grew up.  It’s the third largest city in South Africa.  Consequently, I need to stop taking rides from strangers.

The first time I visited Durban in September, it was raining and a police officer stopped outside Wilson’s Wharf to offer my friend and me a ride to our hostel.  My friend hesitated but I jumped right in.

Last weekend I visited the Durban a second time.  Once again, someone offered my friend (a different one this time) and me a ride while we walked away from Wilson’s Wharf.

The funny thing is that when I saw the guy drive by us and smile, I almost flipped him off.  My friend and I had put up with two days of men honking and catcalling, mostly due to her long blonde hair and short skirt – but I didn’t have the energy to react belligerently so I smiled back instead.

The man must’ve pulled a U-turn behind us because he drove by again and asked if we wanted a ride.  Our taxi was late, but I knew we were only a 10-15 minute drive to the train station.  I accepted, even though I could tell my friend was not happy.

I got in the front seat and she got in the back.  I didn’t know how to communicate with her not to put on her seatbelt and to keep her bag ready in case I decided we needed to jump out of the car, but “luckily” she was so uneasy that she didn’t need my safety advice.

The man drove us right to the train station and I got his number and told him I’d call if we were ever back in Durban so he could take us out for Bunny Chow.  Obviously a complete lie, but in a situation like that I feel like it’s less likely to turn out bad if you make plans for the future.  Manipulative, selfish, and conniving?  Absolutely.  Not that I’m proud of my behaviour, but that’s what I did.

After we got on our train, my friend could no longer contain her amazement that I was so nonchalant about getting in a car with a stranger.  Then I told her some more of my stories to show that even though I’m nice and polite, I’m not a pushover.

I told her about visiting Zambia shortly before Christmas.  I was only there for a few days, but one evening I drove around Livingstone with a local guy I met, visiting the various bars and letting him buy me a couple drinks.  As he dropped me back at my hostel, he leaned over to kiss me but I ducked out of his arms and spun out the car.  From outside, I blew him a kiss and he said, incredulous, “Are you seriously doing this?”

“Yes!” I cackled with laughter as I ran into my hostel.

I also told her about an argument I’d gotten in the night before with a guy from the band at the bar we were at.  He told me, “You’re the hottest Asian chick here.”

I glared at him and said, “First, I’m the only person with Asian heritage in this whole town, so that’s a really lame compliment.  Second, I already told you that I’m Canadian so you can fuck off.”

He tried to backtrack.  “You could be white, black, Asian, whatever – you’re still really fucking hot.  I haven’t been able to keep my eyes off you all night.  I don’t care if you’re from America or Korea or –.”

“This conversation isn’t worth my time.  This is the last time I’m going to tell you to fuck off,” I said as I walked away.

Lastly, I reiterated that I work in Hillbrow.  I walk around the projects every day and often men try to touch my face or grab my arm.  I’ve really improved upon my death glare since working here, as well as my small-circle jujitsu to sweep a hand away or break a grip.

As I explained to my friend on the train, I don’t normally tell these stories because I don’t want people to think I’m more bad-ass than I am.  (Her response: “Omg Bethany you are bad-ass!”)  I don’t want people to expect audacious behaviour from me in the future.  In every “dangerous” or provocative situation, I’ve only reacted the way I did because I felt 100% comfortable.  I know how to read body language and I take my own intuition very seriously.

But sometimes that’s not enough.  Sometimes you have to stop playing the odds.

One of my South African friends always gives me safety lectures – as a result of my everyday attitude, not because I’ve told him any stories.  He says that foreigners come here and don’t understand the risks.  They do stupid things and don’t realize how lucky they are not to get hurt.

“Maybe you overestimate the probability of risk,” I once said, but then he drowned me out with anecdotes.

My Canadian friend thinks it’s really sweet when South African men show their concern for her by giving her safety advice.  I, on the hand, find it extremely irritating.

But now here I am, trying to take all this information a little more seriously.

Although, I admit, my change of thinking is not a result from the stuff that’s happened over the last couple weeks.  It’s come about because a friend is visiting me from Canada for a month and he arrives tomorrow.  I know his parents are nervous that he’s traveling to Johannesburg; I would never be able to forgive myself if something happened to him because I was too cavalier about our security in this city.

Furthermore, he’s the type of person who would worry too much if I put myself in danger.  If I did something stupid, his concern for my safety would ruin my flippant attitude and I’d probably end up creating tension in a previously lighthearted situation.

So don’t worry Mum and Dad: I’m going to take care of him better than I take care of myself!  This next month is probably going to be my safest in this country!


A bunch of people have emailed me their concern after reading this post.  Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted to my dumb behaviour.  However, I would like to explain a bit regarding the ride in Durban.  When the man stopped, I did a quick cost-benefit analysis of the likelihood of our taxi arriving, of being able to get another taxi, of missing our train, the mannerisms of the man offering the ride, and the ability of two strong, fit women being able to take out a skinny Indian who looked like he weighed even less than me.  In the end, I decided the risk of missing our train was greater than the risk from our would-be chauffeur.

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