Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Another Break

As mentioned previously, I’m off to Malawi for a week because of complications regarding my visa.

One of my friends here recently asked, “When are you gone again?  I can’t keep track of your schedule.”

“Me neither.  I feel pretty organized if I know what I’m doing two hours from now, maybe two days – but two weeks?  Forget it!”

Life sure is exciting, isn’t it?

Posts will begin again June 1!  But only for 10 more days.  After that I’m going back home to Canada!!!


Band-Aid for a Broken Leg

A couple months ago, my friend gave me this book as a gift for chauffeuring her around Johannesburg:

Band-aid for a Broken Leg

“Thank you!  This looks really interesting,” I exclaimed.

“Yeah, I saw the part about being single and it immediately reminded me of you,” she answered.

A short pause.

“I’m single by choice.”

“Sure, sure,” she sniggered.

Regardless of her reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  I could definitely relate to many of Damien Brown’s experiences in Africa.  As a doctor, however, his job is much more exciting than mine and actually interesting to read about.

Maybe this is cruel, but I’m going to give away the ending.

The last page says something like,

“(Oh… and other ways to stay single?  Move back in with your parents.  Then write a book.)”

“Great,” I thought.  I’m moving back in with my parents when I return to Canada (hopefully only for 3 weeks, but still) and lots of people (no publishers, mostly family) have told me I should consider writing a book.  Staying single, however, is not on my agenda.

If you’ve never worked overseas – or maybe even if you have – you might find Brown’s emphasis on being single at odds with the rest of his book.  He jokes about it a few times, but does it really deserve a shout out on the cover?

I think it’s common, though, for development workers to worry slightly about their future.  I turned 25 a month ago and entering my mid-20’s has been more sobering that I thought it would be.  I look at many of my friends and I see successful young adults with high paying jobs and long term relationships.  They’re buying apartments while I’m trying to figure out how to budget for another 2 years of school.

It’s easy for that worry to get slightly out of control.  Occasionally I freak out along the lines of “Oh god, I’m 25 now!  I need to get my act together!  I want to get married!  I want to have kids!  What am I doing going back to school?  Isn’t it healthier to pop out your babies before you’re 30?  I ONLY HAVE 5 MORE YEARS TO FALL IN LOVE, GET A DECENT JOB, AND BEAR 3 CHILDREN!!!!!  If I get a Master’s that’s another 2 years.  And volunteering with EWB would be another year.  And I want to date for at least a year before I get engaged, then it’ll probably take a year to plan the wedding but ugh I hate planning and even if I to schedule my time I’ll probably do it all in the last month anyways and become a total bridezilla.  Then he’ll probably cancel the whole thing and I’ll have to start the whole dating thing from scratch.  And I want to have a good job before I get preggers so that I get decent maternity benefits.  Plus I want a workplace baby shower – they usually give awesome gifts….”

You see?  Absolutely crazy.  Before I even realize that my brain is freaking out, in my head I’m already 52-years-old with a 2ft long beard and living in a mud hut with 80 cats.  It’s not a good image, to say the least.

It can be difficult to go off the beaten path and redefine your own version of “success” and “fulfillment.”  For me, it’s tough not to compare my life to my friends’: it feels like they’re growing into responsible adults while I’m still adventuring and avoiding commitments.

At the same time, however, I recognize that I’m much happier with my current lifestyle than I ever would have been in a “real” job and climbing the corporate ladder.

Also much more broke.

But that’s cool.  It means I can’t afford cats.


EWB Blogs

My two friends volunteering for Engineers Without Borders have finally arrived in Zambia and their blogs are fantastic!



Sarcasm, or Lack Of

Last night I was looking through one of my old journals and came across my notes from a telephone conversation I had with the previous MHA intern before I moved to Jozi.

“They didn’t understand sarcasm.”

I should’ve re-read my notes a month after I arrived.  It would’ve saved me a lot of trouble!

One of my friends here is from Ethiopia, but he went to university in Canada and picked up some Canadian sarcasm.  Here’s a story to illustrate how our humour doesn’t quite fit in this country:

A South African girl asked him how he did laundry in Ethiopia.

“That’s why we all have six-packs,” he replied.


He mimed washing laundry on his stomach.

“Oh…” she said, amused but uncertain.

Afterwards he said, “I couldn’t tell if she was extra sarcastic, or didn’t understand the joke at all.”

Trying to be as diplomatic as possible, I told him, “I’ve noticed that subtle sarcasm isn’t part of the culture here.  The humour tends to be much more… overt.”

“I was being pretty outrageous.”

Throwing diplomacy to hell, I said, “Maybe she was just dumb.”

Canadians try super hard to be nice, but we can only go so far.

Or maybe I’ve lived in South Africa too long and turned callous.

Uh oh – how am I going to integrate back into Canadian society?  Forget about getting used to stopping at red lights again… how am I going to relearn sarcasm?


Noma’s Chakalaka Recipe

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion
1 green pepper
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1-2 chillies, to taste
5-10 carrots, grated
Parsley, to taste
Knorox (bouillon stock)
Tin of baked beans (in tomato sauce)

Heat oil in a frying pan over medium low heat.  Add onion, peppers, garlic, and chillies.  Cook until onion is golden.  Add carrots, parsley, and Knorox.  Cook, stirring often, until carrots are soft.  Add beans and heat through.  Serve warm or cold with pap.

Some More Visa Complications

This is the letter I sent to my Rooftops Canada advisor yesterday.  I should have known when I went to the Department of Home Affairs that I wouldn’t get my visa: a tree outside the building was on fire.  If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.


Hi Kamba,

How have you been lately?  Enjoying the beautiful Canadian spring?  My friends and family keep sending me emails describing all the things we’re going to do this summer to make up for lost time and I’m starting to get super excited about moving back home!

I just wanted to send you an update on the complications I’ve had regarding my visitor’s visa.  As you know, I applied for a rectification of my original extension over a month ago.  I received a phone call at the end of April that although they would not extend the date to June 10 (my departure date), they would change it to May 30.

When I went to the Department of Home Affairs last week, I was told to come back the following week (today) because the woman who dealt with rectifications was on vacation.  When I returned today, I was told that my rectification has been rejected.

Unfortunately, operating on the assumption that I would have a valid visa until May 30, I booked tickets to Malawi next week with the intention of receiving a new visa when I returned June 2 to work my final week with MHA.  I discussed the situation with a representative from the Department of Home Affairs was told that I would have to pay R1000 when I leave South Africa, but shouldn’t have any problems when I return.

After listening to similar stories that the other interns went through, may I make a suggestion regarding South African visas?

While still in Canada last year, I applied for a 6 month South African visa.  The process was time consuming and expensive.  In the end, the visa I was issued was only valid until February 17 even though I requested one until at least February 28.  Regardless of whether or not I extended my internship, I would have had to pay another R450 for a visa extension.

On the other hand, if you simply come to South Africa with a Canadian passport, you are stamped a visitor’s visa upon arrival that is valid for 3 months.  Any time you leave the country, you are re-issued a 3 month visa.

I think it would have been easier make sure I leave the country – even just a weekend trip to Swaziland or Lesotho – once every three months than go through the bureaucracy of South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs.  I know someone who has lived here for 7 years through that strategy.

Alternatively, perhaps Rooftops Canada should write their letters claiming that the intern’s dates of departure are a month later than planned?  From my experience, the Department of Home Affairs takes about two weeks off the date you request.

All the best,

William Bunge

Personally, the rich are often beautiful people.  They are loyal to each other, often kindly, truly concerned with children and tremendously full of the humorous sense.  At my sister-in-law’s wedding in Milwaukee, I remember the bride’s father toasting the assembled bridesmaids and his daughter, all recent Smith graduates, as “the girls from Schmidt” which is a really fine joke in Milwaukee.  The rich love to give themselves personally: charity tutoring, saving the whooping crane, Charlotte Ford’s charm school in Harlem and blood.  In my home town the Junior League ran the blood bank.  Regular vampires!

But at the same time these “generous” people perpetuate a system that sucks the poor dry.  Their charities are designed to solve their consciences and them by contrast of their “lofty” status rather than to eliminate poverty.  The rich individualize their kindness and socialize their cruelty.  They balance small-scale acts of individual goodness against mass-produced social greed.

The poor are just the opposite.  They tend individually to be hard-pressed, touchy, tense and greedy, but socially open-hearted and generous.

– William Bunge, Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution (1971)

I do not completely agree with the above quote – how can you make such broad generalizations for each socioeconomic class? – but I still think Bunge makes a brilliant point:

The rich individualize their kindness and socialize their cruelty.

I would argue that this trait doesn’t only belong to the rich, but also the middle-class and the poor as well… actually to western civilization in general.

Instead of donating to charities, why don’t we all try to overhaul our lifestyles instead?  Pick something you’re passionate about and make the effort to go against the status quo.

Worried about the environment?  Stop driving and start biking.  Don’t eat shrimp.  Go on less overseas vacations.

Worried about workers’ rights in the Developing Countries and the race to the bottom?  Only buy from second-hand clothing stores, companies who make their clothes in North America (like my favourite dress store or companies that you’ve researched and are comfortable with their working conditions.  Buy less.  Yeah it takes some extra work and research on your part – but isn’t it worth it?  Don’t you want to socialize your kindness?

Plus a lot of people feel the same way as you.  There are more tools at your disposal than ever before, like this smartphone app:

Progressive western society has been demanding transparency and ethical business practises for decades, but now we finally have the technology to enable everyday people to act as whistleblowers and enforcers.

We have the power to spread information quickly.  Consequently, we also have the responsibility to inform ourselves and make conscious decisions regarding our lifestyles.

We’re global citizens whether we like it or not.  Our decisions affect others, even if we don’t have to deal with the consequences personally.

So that’s make informed choices.  Let’s both socialize and individualize our kindness.

If we need outlets for our cruelty, there are always internet comments sections.

Travel Buddy

Travelling brings out different aspects of your personality.  Some people find their element in the unknown, and some people… don’t.

I’ve gone traveling in a variety of different dynamics: class trips, large groups of friends, small groups of friends, one friend, on my own.  For the most part, I prefer traveling on my own.  It seems that most of my friends and I can only be together for four days maximum before we start to annoy each other.  Put us together for a whole week and we become slightly homicidal – or maybe that’s just me.

Truthfully, I can be a difficult person to travel with.  I recognize that and accept it.

Last weekend, I went to the Drakensberg to hike Cathedral Peak with a girl that I hang out with but don’t know very well.  I was a little unsure about how the weekend would unfold: a 4 hour car ride together Friday night, 9 hours arduous hiking on Saturday, a 3 hour drive back to Jozi on Sunday (no traffic plus I feel comfortable driving faster in the daylight) could go really badly if we our personalities clashed.

On the drive to the Amphitheatre, however, I quickly discovered that we would get along fine.  First, when we stopped for dinner in Harrismith and the restaurant’s milkshake machine was broken, she found my sulky response amusing and didn’t hold it against me.  Second, we drove along a 10km stretch of road construction in the pitch black and she didn’t freak out at me.  At one point we were driving along a section without any potholes and I got frustrated with the slow speed at the car in front of me so I zoomed past.  Right afterwards we went flying off the pavement and onto gravel.  I immediately reduced speed and laughed, “Whoa, I thought we were going to die!”

She started laughing too and said, “The car behind us must think we’re really funny.”

We were obviously a good match for each other.

The next morning we drove to Cathedral Peak hotel and went to the reception to check in for our hike.  The woman told us that weren’t allowed to hike Cathedral Peak on our own.

“Let me see if I can contact the guide for you,” she said as she picked up the phone.

“I’ve done lots of hiking before,” I started to explain, but she ignored me.

“Hello, I’ve got 2 people who want to hike Cathedral Peak… mmm hmm… two… two young girls… mmm hmm… ok… ok I’ll tell them.”

My friend told me later that as soon as the receptionist said, “two young girls” I had a similar expression on my face as when I found out the milkshake machine was broken: pissed off.

The receptionist told us that it was too slippery and dangerous to hike to the peak, but that there are various other hiking trails and to pick one then she’d give us a map.  I chose one that had the same starting point as Cathedral Peak, wrote it down in the registry, and we set off.  As soon as we were outside I told my friend, “We’re hiking the peak.  If worse comes to worst and it’s too slippery to continue, then we’ll turn around, go back to the hostel, and drink.”

She thought that was a great plan.

Unfortunately the signage wasn’t very good and we soon discovered that although we could get to the peak on the path we started, it would add an extra 3 hours to an already 9 hour hike.  My other friend told me that that proves that we needed a guide, but I told him that if we had started on the right path at the beginning we would have been fine.  We still ended up having a great day, however.  It was cloudy and the tops of the mountains were covered so we stayed about 100m below the cloud cover and walked the mostly flat “contour trail.”  For the weather, it was perfect.

Anyways, like I said, I’m a hard person to travel with.  I’m going to Malawi in 6 days on my own for a week and only started looking at what to do/where to stay today.  Last minute planning (also known as no planning and sending a couple emails right before you leave) doesn’t always translate to the best trip – surprise surprise.  At the same time, however, I’ve found that although you can make a detailed itinerary before you leave, once you arrive and actually chat with some locals then the whole plan gets thrown out the window.  So what’s the point in wasting time beforehand?

My attitude drives most people crazy.

However, If you can find someone that you travel well with – that person is worth more than their weight in gold!

I have one friend that I travel well with.  We spent two weeks doing the Garden Route and Cape Town and didn’t want to kill each other once.

Neither of us like detailed plans, we both like meeting people, activities and partying, but can also sit at the beach for an afternoon with a book.  Furthermore, we’re independent enough that we can spend time on our own without having to worry about the other person.  For me, clingy people are the worst traveling companions.

We’re also both a little crazy.  In Cape Town we climbed the Lion’s Head on a night of gale force winds.  We had to crawl on our hands and knees because we were honestly afraid of being blown off the mountain.  The guy with us, an American we’d met on a wine tour that day, told us, “I never thought I’d meet two Canadian chicks as stupid as me in South Africa!”

There's only one way to get a photo like this: risk your life.

There’s only one way to get a photo like this: risk your life.

Like I said, that girl is worth more than her weight in gold in me!

Some people think it’s safer for women to travel with at least one other man – but I disagree.  What are you willing to sacrifice for “safety”?  Whenever I’ve traveled with a guy, I have met way less people.  In addition, I usually have to pay for more of my own drinks – laaaaaaaame!

I’ve also been told that it’s best to go with a lover.

As one friend told me about his trip to India with his girlfriend, “I’ve never had more sex in my life.”

“That…um….hasn’t been my experience,” I responded.

“Then you’re going with the wrong men.”

But, honestly, if attractive young women go partying and stay in hostels – we could still have as much sex as we wanted.  And more variety.  So I deem his argument null and void.

If you can’t find that ideal traveling buddy, however, go on your own.  Go on your own, chat with strangers, and make new friends.  It’s way better than being stuck with someone you don’t get along with.

When I traveled through Spain – my first time completely on my own – I found that I felt intensely lonely whenever I entered a new city.  But that feeling quickly faded as soon as I settled into my hostel and met other travelers.  Sometimes, though, I would experience something and think, “I wish someone was with me right now to share this.”  Even if you don’t have a friend in the moment, however, you’ll eventually have someone to share the story with – whether it’s a stranger at the bar that evening or your dad when he picks you up at the airport months later.

Glenn Greenwald and Bill Maher

Your video for the day!

How I Got Here

Sometimes when I tell people about my internship in South Africa, they respond with statements like, “Wow… it’s really brave of you to move to a new country on your own” or “Wow… it’s really noble of you to give up a decent salary for volunteer work.”

Or sometimes it’s a sad, wistful, “I wish I could do that.”

I think it’s time to set the record straight: I’m not brave, noble, or any other adjective more than the average person (except maybe impulsive).  Furthermore, there are tons of opportunities to work overseas if you want – you just have to look for them.

Even if it’s not in your “plan,” however, you never know what will happen if you’re open to possibilities.  I didn’t plan on coming to Johannesburg: I ended up here through a series of random events.

Yesterday my coworker asked me if I traveled a lot with my parents when I was young: “Did you grow up this way?  Why are you a world traveler?”

“No,” I answered.  “My parents don’t like traveling.  We only ever left home to visit family in the States.”

As I child, I was always super jealous of my friends who went on exotic vacations –and to me, pretty much anywhere was exotic: Hawaii, Mexico, Europe, Alaskan cruises, Kelowna.  I remember my parents had a BCAA (British Columbia Automotive Association) magazine with a photo and 50 word caption about caving on Vancouver Island and I used to fantasize about going there for a weekend.  But we never did – mostly because our home was beautiful and peaceful and better than anywhere else anyways.

The point, however, is that you don’t need to grow up traveling to become comfortable with it.

I didn’t start traveling extensively until I was 22.  I thought about taking a year off after high school to backpack around Europe before going to university, but I wasn’t mature enough yet.  It took me awhile to achieve the confidence and self-awareness necessary to go off on my own, plan my own adventures, and feel comfortable chatting with strangers every day.

Moreover, I was in a serious relationship for a long time and traveling wasn’t one of our priorities.

When we broke up, however, it was both devastating and enlightening.  Through the process of breaking my heart and then rebuilding it piece by piece, I was able to recreate myself into the person I wanted to be – which unfortunately was not the person I was at the time.

Within a few months I had changed from someone who planned dinner for each night of the week to a woman who bought plane tickets to Cancun while drunk on her birthday.

It was this re-awakened impulsive streak that eventually led me to Jozi.

In my final year of university, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  My engineering class had all graduated the previous year, but I had decided to another year of school and study geography – despite everyone’s reaction of “What’s the point?”

Even with an extra year in school, however, I still felt like I was floundering through life without any direction.  I only had one post-graduate plan with no idea if it would happen or not: a few months before graduation, I applied to volunteer for a year with Engineers Without Borders.  Right after classes ended, however, I received an email that I wasn’t accepted.

Upset and angry, I spent a couple days crying and trying to figure out what to do instead.  I decided to stay in Van for the summer, play lots of ultimate frisbee, then maybe visit Europe for the first time in the fall.  Soon afterwards, however, I went to an ultimate tournament and broke my foot, although at the time I believed it was a bad sprain.  Regardless of the correct diagnosis, I knew I wouldn’t be playing any ulti for at least 6 months.

The next day I had all four of my wisdom teeth removed.  A few days after that I turned 24.  I wore a veil at my party because my face was so swollen and limped around to chat with the guests.  It was a bit of a low point, to say the least.

But every dark cloud has a silver lining, right?

One guy I used to date emailed me a “Happy birthday” message and we sent a couple emails back and forth, catching up on what the other person was doing.  He told me that he checks the website almost every day for cheap plane tickets.  I looked at the website and found a one-way flight from Toronto to Barcelona for $600 leaving in 3 weeks.

“I might as well go now since I can walk but can’t run,” I thought and bought it.

For those of you who don’t know, Toronto is really far from Vancouver.  It’s a 5 hour flight from Van.  Why did I buy that ticket then, you might ask?  Because EWB’s office is in Toronto and I wanted to visit and convince them to hire me during their next round of recruiting.

I had a couple of weeks before I left, though, so I spent some of my spare time perusing the CIDA internship website.  It was a bad time to be looking: by May most 2012 internships had already been filled.  Furthermore, almost all the positions were for accounting or arts majors.  I didn’t see a single posting relating to engineering.

But I was bored so I sent out some emails anyway.  “Is this position still open?”

One company, Rooftops Canada, emailed me back right away to say that although the particular position I was enquiring about had been filled, an intern had dropped out last minute and attached was the position’s description.  Surprisingly, it was for an engineering job in Johannesburg!  I wrote a cover letter, sent my resume, and had a Skype interview 3 days later.  The following day I was offered the job.

Thank goodness I’d only booked a one-way ticket to Europe!  My three month backpacking plan was shortened to three weeks and I returned to Vancouver for the month of July to get my ZA Visa, medications, and other necessities in order.

In the span of a week, I had made various declarations to my parents.

First: “I want to spend a year volunteering in Ghana with EWB.”

Then: “Waaahhhh I don’t know what I’m doing with my life!”

Then: “I’m going to stick around Vancouver for the next couple months.”

Then: “I’m going to Europe until my money runs out.”

Then: “I’m only going to Europe for 3 weeks.  After that I’m moving to South Africa for 6 months.”

They were amazingly tolerant of my changing plans.  Probably because they realized there wasn’t much they could do – after all, they were the ones who raised me to be independent – but I still very much appreciated their patience and support.

So you see?  You don’t have to make any long-term plans to work overseas.  You don’t need to anticipate travel that far in advance.  You just need to be open-minded about the possibilities that may open up unexpectedly.

Being single helps too.

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