Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Things I Miss From Home

It’s hard to believe how fast time has flown by!  I’ve been living in South Africa for 8.5 months now and only have 1.5 months left in this country.  While part of me is counting the days until I go home, another part of me is already sad at the thought of leaving this beautiful place.

To counteract the sadness, I’ve listed some of the little things I miss about home. Obviously there are the important things (my friends and family) as well as the predictable ones (the ocean, mountains, forests, etc.) – but some items took me by surprise. Such as these:

  • Matcha lattes
  • Egg tarts
  • Gelato/ice cream vendors all over the place
  • Tortilla chips, particularly “whole wheat” and “hint of lime”
  • Almond milk
  • Reese’s peanut butter cups
  • Dairy Queen blizzards
  • Tim Horton’s donuts (and I don’t even like donuts!)
  • Proper sized samosas
  • Coffee shops that carry soymilk
  • Automatic glasses of tap water at restaurants (South Africa’s water is just as clean as Canada’s, if not cleaner)
  • Widespread availability of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies
  • Widespread availability of wireless internet
  • Unlimited, highspeed internet
  • Public transit
  • Traffic rules and regulations
  • Staggering home drunk at 3am and not feeling the least bit worried for my safety
  • Hailing cabs from the sidewalk at any time of day, not only outside clubs at night

As you can see from my list, I live a pampered middle-class life and don’t have any serious grievances to complain about.

Also, food is a big part of my life.

Maybe once I’m back home I’ll write a list of some of the things I miss about South Africa. I can already predict a few:

  • The weather
  • Joburg’s friendly, gregarious culture
  • The Drakensberg
  • Cheap, delicious restaurant food (anything European based is generally better than Vancouver’s, anything Asian based isn’t)
  • Cheap booze
  • Avocado on pizza
  • Thin crust pizza
  • Making up traffic rules as I see fit
Most beautiful city in the world

The most beautiful city in the world


Elevator Story

At my office, our elevator is a bit moody. Or “tired,” as we often call it.

You see, our elevator was never meant to carry people up and down all day. It’s actually our building’s service elevator, so its purpose in life was to make a few trips each day – probably with a heavy load, but not too frequently.

Moreover, it was built for hirelings: non-white cleaners, handymen, etc.

A different elevator was built for the day-to-day operations of the white people.

In 1994, however, New South Africa was born and it was no longer acceptable to (officially) segregate people according to skin colour or social class.

I don’t know if this event changed our elevator’s usage significantly or not. My guess is that its trips decreased since everyone would want to use to main elevator. Maybe our elevator got a couple years’ rest. Maybe it got sluggish and lazy during that time.

Then something happened to our main elevator that changed the dynamics of our building forever.

One evening, shortly after people left the office to go home, a group of workers showed up and told the security people that they had been called for elevator maintenance. Within a few hours, they managed to strip away the entire operator and drive it away without security expecting a thing.

You can imagine the scene that played out the next morning. It wasn’t pretty, to say the least.

Everyone at work suspects that the heist was organized by the elevator maintenance company that MHA had recently used. Soon after the incident, the owner left South Africa and was never heard from again.

To replace the main elevator would cost a significant amount of money. I don’t remember the exact sum, but it was something like a million rand, which is in the ballpark of $100,000 CDN.

Since our building had another elevator anyways, the directors decided it wasn’t worth the cost. Consequently, one elevator shaft now sits empty while another is used continuously throughout the day.

As mentioned before, this elevator is moody. For some reason it doesn’t like the 4th floor (which I’m on). It often chooses to pause, wiggle the door slightly, then continue downwards. When it’s in that mood, you have to tap the “down” button over and over until the door shudders open. I didn’t believe in that strategy when I first arrived, but experience has shown me the wisdom of the “tapping” method.

Furthermore, the elevator doesn’t like going up. It takes the same amount of time to travel from the 4th floor to the 5th floor as it does to go all the way down to the ground level.

About once a month, the elevator breaks down completely and a repair company has to be called.

Amazingly, however, no one gets stuck in the elevator. Even though it doesn’t like to follow directions, it does like to sit on the ground floor with its door open. Good luck getting those doors to close and the thing to move somewhere, but at least you can always get out.

In Canada, we would deal with an elevator like this by keeping the emergency staircase open, right? My building only has five floors (although ground floor is considered Floor 0 so back home we would call this six floors). Personally, I would much rather walk up those flights of stairs than argue with our elevator every morning. Today I had to ride it up to the 5th floor and back down to the ground floor again before it decided to go up to the 4th.

But that’s not the way things are done in South Africa. Our Emergency Exit stays locked with iron bars over the door. No joke. The keys are kept in a glass box in our kitchen.

I mentioned this to a friend a couple months ago and he responded, “That’s normal. I guess you have the choice of getting robbed or potentially burning people to death.” He then laughed. I didn’t.

I understand that statistically, it makes more sense to keep the doors locked. But that mentality it still weird to me. Moreover, it means I have to play Russian roulette with our elevator every morning.

Maybe its racist. Maybe some days it needs to make a stand and rebel against carrying everyone – white, black, employees, directors. Maybe it is just tired. Maybe it wants sympathy. How many times have I heard, “Shame, man. The poor thing can’t handle us today”?

Or maybe we need to change our mentality and unlock the emergency exit door every day.

Maybe that will be my legacy here!

“Moved to South Africa to help alleviate poverty, but most lasting impact was getting people to use the stairs more often.”


If you’d asked me a year ago, I never would’ve guessed that I’d be celebrating my quarter century mark in East London, playing for Joburg in South Africa’s ultimate frisbee national’s tournament.

But I am.

Life is beautifully unpredictable!

Johannesburg in photos: on the block of gentrification

Some beautiful photos comparing the gentrified area of Joburg’s inner city and the poor areas only a couple blocks away.

E-tolling judgment illustrates failure of media and citizens

Being a citizen can be hard work.

On the other hand, if you’re not willing to put in some effort then don’t complain when the government does whatever it wants.

(Some advice I need to take myself.)

But maybe the (mostly) middle class citizens, who ignored the original announcement as well as the physical evidence of gantries being built all across the newly upgraded freeways of Gauteng, cannot escape responsibility. Surely, if citizens want the government to listen to them, then they have to remain vigilant about government decisions affecting them and must be prepared to organise against such plans from an early stage?

No-Fail Recipe for Making Friends

Often, I give ridiculous opinions to my 11-year-old sister with the preface, “Listen up.  Here’s some super important advice from your big sis.”

Then I’ll say something irreverent like, “When you start dating a man, never text him back right away.  Make him wait.  Make him realize that you’re not at his beck and call.”

“Uh, Be…what are you talking about?”

“Furthermore, the harder you run the harder he’ll chase.  Sometimes that backfires, but you want a man that’s willing to jump through some hoops for you, right?”

She usually rolls her eyes and has a clever comeback like, “Whatever.  When was the last time you had a boyfriend?”


Anyway, blog readers, listen up because here’s some super important advice from your internet sister:

If you ever move to a new city and don’t know many people, do anything you can to create a community of friends.

It’s easy if you’re in in school, but much harder if you’re a professional.  As important as office friendships are, you don’t want to work and socialize with your colleagues.  It’s just too much time together.

So get out there and meet people.  Join a book club, even you don’t read the books and mostly go for the “tasty snacks” – as one of my friends here does.

Or join a sports team.

Or start a new hobby.


Why am I emphasizing this so much?  Because a support group is seriously important.  Even if you’re generally positive and optimist, sometimes things that you don’t anticipate can really get you down.

For example, I consider myself a happy person.  Probably annoyingly so, sometimes.  But I have a nagging foot injury that got way worse after hiking the Drakensberg last month.  As a result, I’ve spent an enormous amount of time lying on my bedroom floor, watching Star Trek, and feeling sorry for myself.

This is not my usual way to deal with stuff.  Usually if I’m sad I go out with friends or go out for a run, but the problem with an injured foot is that you can’t get away from it.  I feel it all the time and it makes me grumpy.  Hence the lying on the floor, sulking.

My schedule has remained relatively busy.  A full time job, swimming, meditation classes, reading, dinners with friends – yet I definitely notice the lack of yoga, ultimate frisbee, and dancing that used to fill a significant amount of my time.

Yesterday, though, I dragged myself to ultimate practice because I’m supposed to go to Nationals with the Joburg team in a couple weeks.  I’ve been swimming almost every day and icing my foot and doing everything I can to both stay in shape and heal myself, but it’s a slow process.  Going to ulti practice makes me even more grumpy and frustrated because I still can’t play.

I decided, however, that I should go show some solidarity for my team.  Maybe learn a bit of strategy from watching.

Unfortunately I didn’t learn anything, but I cheered and clapped a lot on the sidelines.  At the end of the first game they called me over to give my opinion as an observer.  After the post-game chat, we all put our hands into the middle to do the pump-up cheer for the next game.  Someone asked, “What should we cheer on?” because we don’t have a team name yet.

“Beth!” someone else answered.

And they did.  They yelled “Beth” on three just because I had gone to watch part of practice.

I couldn’t believe it.  I think ultimate players are usually awesome people – more awesome than other sports participants – but I’m obviously a bit biased.

Nonetheless, I left practice grinning from ear to ear.  Instead of going home and lying on my floor, I sat in a chair (in a real chair!) and read my book while doing hot and cold therapy on my foot.

Which was much more productive than feeling sorry for myself.

So, expats, get out there and meet people.  One friend told me that as a Catholic ultimate player, he pretty much has a community no matter where he goes in the world.  That’s really cool (except the Catholic part.  Joking!)

Yes, sometimes it can be hard to put yourself out there.  The first time I went to an ulti practice in Joburg, someone asked me if I would be interested in playing on their National team since they needed more women. 

One woman glanced at me antagonistically and asked, “Do we?” in a slightly unfriendly tone.

I thought to myself, “That girl and I are going to be friends.”

And you know what?  Now we are.  Now we’re totally buddy buddy.

My Canadian friend who came to visit for a month got thrown into my active life as soon as he touched down in Joburg (this was before I reinjured myself).  First, he was surprised by how busy I was.  Second, he was surprised by how many people I know.

“You’ve made more friends here than I have back home,” he exclaimed, although this is a definite exaggeration.

But, you see, the busy schedule and the friends are strongly correlated.  How else would I meet so many people?

So get out there!  Are you shy?  Me too.  But here’s my no-fail recipe for making friends:  ask people about themselves – because everyone wants to talk about themselves.  And listen, really listen, to their answers.  Don’t brag about yourself or put others down (better to be understated than obnoxious).  Smile often.  Be open to new people and new experiences – don’t judge anyone.  (Yeah, some of the people in meditation class are kinda weird, but they probably think the same thing about me.)  Lastly, don’t be afraid to let others see your personality.

I love strong individuals!  That’s why I never downplay my passion: people deserve a chance to get to know me.

One more piece of very opinionated advice: don’t rely on meeting people at the bar or in clubs.  I know lots of people make awesome friends at these places, but it’s never worked for me.  Not that I’ve ever tried… but it just doesn’t seem like a good environment for meeting cool people.

The more people you meet, the better.  This might sound really stuck-up, but I sift through people quickly.  If I don’t like you, I’m not going to waste my time hanging out with you; I know there are TONS of others out there that I’m going to mesh with, we just have to find one another.

Done.  You have now read your super important piece of advice for the day.

The Question of Socialism (and Beyond!) Is About to Open Up in These United States

About time!

Even as we learn more and more about the various forms and their positive and negative features and tendencies, hopefully we can engage in a far-reaching and thoughtful debate about how a new model might be created that is both systemically sophisticated and also appropriate to American culture and traditions – a model that nurtures democracy and a culture of inclusiveness and ecological sanity. Many serious and committed people on the left have been struggling with these issues and keeping the critical questions alive for decades. Even though the way forward, politically, is obviously daunting, difficult and uncertain, it is time to widen the dialogue in ways that include the millions of Americans who now seem increasingly open to the challenge.

Super interesting article that explores and critiques different types of collective-ownership models.

After Ever After

I don’t know about you, but the commentary following the Boston bombings have left me feeling a little depressed.

In case you needed some humour:

Definitions of African

Last month, everyone at Madulammoho traveled to Soweto to visit our newest project, Jabulani.  One of the managers brought his minivan and a large group of us packed ourselves inside: one white South African, five black employees, one coloured employee, me, and my Canadian friend who had just arrived the day before.

Even though we all work in the same office, it’s unusual for all of us to talk together.  The white manager, who visited Vancouver in the 1980s, asked my friend about Canada and his opinions regarding South Africa.

I really like the manager who was driving us.  He’s passionate about his country and loves discussing politics.  Moreover, he’s a decent guy: a nice person.

During the car ride, he exclaimed,

“Know what really bothers me?  Our voting forms used to have four racial categories: black, white, coloured, and other.  But now what do we have?  White, colour, other, and African.  My family has been here for 160 years!  I hate ticking the ‘white’ box.  How much more do I have to do to prove that I’m African?”

“Move to a township and learn Zulu!” quipped one of my black colleagues.

We all laughed, including the manager, although he didn’t concede that he agreed with her.

On the one hand, I agree with my black colleague.  There are residual and obvious differences between those descended from disempowered aboriginal tribes versus the affluent white population.  At the same time, however, how is this country going to get over its racism if it can’t accept place of origin regardless of skin colour?

I hate it when people question my Canadian heritage, although Canada is a little different since it’s a country built on immigration.  We either killed our natives or segregated them to isolated reserves – a tactic that worked because most First Nations tribes were decimated by foreign diseases before European pioneers ever made face-to-face contact.

Anyways, it frustrates me that people want to know where I’m really from because I’m not 100% white.  Moreover, if I’d been born here, it would frustrate me that only black people were considered African according to national surveys.  What about coloured people?  They should count as African, shouldn’t they?  Their ancestors have lived in this country just as long as blacks’, although not all of them.

The residual resentment here drives me insane.  “Just get over it!” I want to say.  “Just get over your white supremacy or your reverse racism and start accepting people as people.  All these barriers and stereotypes you put up… can’t you see what utter bullshit they are?  Doesn’t the government understand that continuing to use us-versus-them rhetoric is harming this country?”

I’m not advocating to overlook history.  But one purpose of remembering history to keep it from repeating, is it not?

Nestle chairman says water isn’t a human right. Tell him he’s wrong.

Time to boycott Nestle again.

That doesn’t only mean Kit Kats and Nestea.  Also Haagen-Dazs and PowerBars.

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