Archive for January, 2012

Hills of Zululand

A Zululand day is like a cat on a hot tin roof; no matter how fast you move you just can’t escape the heat. By 7am the air around you is a thick and soupy 30 degrees, and you know it is only going to get worse, as the sun climbs across an impossibly blue sky.

January 11th 2012 was registration day at the local Further Education Training (FET) College, and I was taking my three students, to sign up for their year of study. I’m a very ordered person; I make a plan and the primary aim is to stick to it; which is a pretty useless skill when you run a non-profit organisation in Africa. Plans are merely guidelines and the real skill is to go with the flow and move with the events as they unfold around you in ways which you had not factored in at all. The day before I had popped into the Izulu Orphan Projects office and five young women were standing at their door, asking the seemingly universal question posed by school leavers, “What do we do now that we have passed matric?”. IOP asked me if I would take the girls along to the College the next day to see if they could register as well. I stood their nodding my head while internally I was visualising trying to fit 10 girls into my car. Logistically it was not going to work, but I figured that some of the girls would not arrive at the specified time, so it wouldn’t be a problem. I was wrong; clearly these girls want to study. I offered to pay for two of them to catch a taxi into Richards Bay, and after much silence and feigning of a lack of English communication skills, two girls were dropped in town to make their own way there.

One of my favourite things about working in Zululand is driving on the dirt roads into the rural areas. It is really one of the loveliest places; giant cactus and aloe plants can be found in abundance, and when the aloe flowers, it truly is a sight to behold. It lights up with hot orange pokers and is an iconic emblem for this area. The dusty and rutted roads take you past small homesteads, which are often surprising in their design, and décor. I have often been caught completely off guard by a wonderful mural splashed across a rondavel wall; a herd of leaping impala or a ferocious leopard in full flight. Some gardens are abundantly full with vegetables of every kind; pumpkin, tall rows of green and gold corn, huge bunches of the freshest spinach and beetroots the size of a small soccer ball. Cows stand languidly in the middle of the road, chewing the cud, and slowly saunter off after you grow tired of waiting, and hoot your horn. For miles vegetation and clusters of huts can be seen, with few cars on the road, which stretches out before you. It is in this environment which my students grow up; this beautiful yet world-limiting place, where young women feel trapped and long for a way out so that they can offer something better for their own children one day. Simply getting into town, a 30-40 minute trip by car, is out of the question. The options are to find the R40 each day for a return trip via taxi (which one often must wait hours for), to walk the long distance under a baking African sun, or to stay at home knowing that they will merely repeat the family cycle of poverty, pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. Access to information is near to impossible; though most people have cell phones, many do not have internet enabled phones, which means that in the early 21st century young people can’t find out necessary information, such as what subjects to study at school, in order to become a nurse or engineering. They don’t know where to study, how to get there, what it might cost or any other crucial information, which would help them to make the right decisions. We all know that the decision making process is detailed and requires sound knowledge so that choices can be made; these young people live completely without that knowledge. They cannot ask their parents, many of whom never finished school, and some of whom have never seen a computer with their own eyes, let alone used one. How do you change your life when you are shackled by such ignorance? For those of us who do have this knowledge, these life changing resources, I believe it is our duty to bring it to the people. As much as it is government’s responsibility to do this, I truly believe it is ours as well. Our government can never reach all of the people, nor can it provide all of the resources and man power. But together we can make small inroads into this social problem which will one day, and is already beginning to, affect us all.

Home sweet home

As we attempted to register the girls for their qualifications, I found myself giving a crash course in career guidance, as their hopes and expectations were wildly out of sync with the reality of the situation. Even though they arrived with dire marks for maths, accounting and economics, they were determined to enroll in Business Studies or Financial Management courses. The chances of them understanding the work, and passing the year, is slim; the FET College system is plagued by an 80% drop out rate, for the simple reason that students are not guided properly in relation to their career path. Young school leavers with 13% for maths are enrolled in the Engineering course, and although this course is not at University level, it is sufficiently difficult enough that someone with a low proficiency in maths is more than likely to fail. I heard from a friend about a young woman who enrolled in the Hospitality course, when really she had wanted to study Nursing; as English is her second language, she was under the impression that the word hospitality and hospital, meant the same thing. While this might seem mildly assuming, it is a terrible mistake to make. The reality is that she was never going to study nursing; she did not have the required marks, let alone the correct school subjects, which would enable a career as a nurse.

Since my return from Zululand two week ago, I have had countless people call me to ask what they can do for their children, and the children of their domestic workers. Children are not receiving the necessary information regarding subject choices and career guidance in school, and are attempting to access it, when applying for university or college. What use is it to know that you did not study the correct subjects to become a doctor or engineer when you are standing in a university registration queue? One of the main aims of I Learn to Live this year is to ensure that school children, both urban and rural, have access to this information well in advance of applying for tertiary studies. We hope to reduce the number of children who have been let down by this current system by providing them with a new system, one based on solid research and the current realities of study and employment in South Africa.

Dancers in the dust


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I have always believed that I am one of those truly privileged individuals. And, while I know it is both wrong and untrue to believe such a thing, I have always held on to the notion that God loves me just a tad more than he loves others. My reason for believing this is that I was born in South Africa, in a place called Zululand, where the veld rolls out endlessly before you and acacia trees offer the only real respite from the heat. This is not a notion that many people will identify with, but for me it is home away from home, the place I visit in my head when I am sitting in the dentist’s chair about to experience something truly horrible. My Irish parents moved to South Africa from Switzerland in the mid 1970’s. They were meant to stay for a year and then move back to Switzerland, which had been home for seven years. They arrived in Johannesburg, and my mother confides she felt rather tearful when her gaze fell upon the scorched and thirsty lands, that surrounded the ugliness of that concrete jungle. From there they made their way to East London where the ocean winds carried the scent of the sea and softened the longing for the lush green mountains of Switzerland. My sister Cara was born, and while my mother laboured, my father was 2 up and 2 to go on the golf course. The barman, on hearing the news, ran onto the green shouting, “Baas, it is a child, it is a child!”; he lost the next two holes. Five months later my father was asked to move to the small town of Hluhluwe in northern Zululand to work as the food and beverage manager at the local hotel. And thus began a love affair which would be passed on from father to daughter; a longing for the open spaces and vast skies found in this small part of Africa.

Sunset over the veld

My sisters and I were raised in a way that instilled in us an appreciation for the bush and all that inhabit it; our reality was soaked in it right from the start.  Our childhood password, to ensure we would not be snatched by a paedophile or human trafficker, was Windy Ridge – the name of a beautifully rustic game reserve up near Empangeni (now Thula Thula of Lawrence Anthony fame). If the adult fetching us could not tell us the password, then they went home empty handed. The soundtrack to our early morning road trips to school, was that of a very monotone individual with a slightly Afrikaans accent who would intone, “Number 212, the Yellow Throated Long Claw”, and then a demonstration of the call of said bird would fill the car. To this day the three of us can tell you the name of a bird which is calling (I’ll admit it is usually a good guess), but there is a strong chance we can’t actually point the particular bird out to you. My father is a twitcher; there is no other word for it. On many an occasion we could be found holed up in a bird hide next to a pond or dam, binoculars in hand, watching and waiting for some elusive bird to make itself known. We would always take along a pack of cards to while away the long hours. At the time it seemed a perfect waste of time and tediously boring, but as we’ve grown older, and spent endless hours in game reserves, we have been converted.

Pin tailed whydah in mating plummage

While the tourists are narrowly focused on catching sight of an elephant or a pride of lion, we can be found debating whether the bird of prey sitting on the dead yellow fever tree is a step buzzard or a falcon, and we’ve even been known to bring out the bird book in times of an unhealthy impasse. It is at this juncture that I should mention the McCarthy sister curse; and it is named as such because it truly only affects us girls – our parents are quite free of it. All three of us have been visiting the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Game Reserve for 30 odd years. My twin and I were born in Zululand and every year, at the very least twice a year, I can be found in the reserve (them less so since moving overseas). But never, have any of the three of us, actually seen a lion in this reserve. We have traversed its many hectares, sat at its watering holes, eaten at its picnic spots and viewed every bush and shrub through high powered binoculars; but still the lion remain elusive. Everyone else connected with our family; whether first time visitors from Ireland or long time friends who’ve at the last minute decided to join my parents for a jaunt to the bush – they have all seen lion. They have seen lion mating, lion in a tree, lion at a kill, lion at the river, and lion soaking up the captured heat of the road at dusk. In short, they have seen lion EVERYWHERE. Like the elephant which sends vibrating infra sound tummy rumbles from one herd to another, across the very continent of Africa, so too must the lion of Hluhluwe Game Reserve when they hear that the McCarthy girls are tootling up the N2 and are about to enter the reserve. At this very point in time, every lion makes itself scarce or the very least secures itself a vantage point of extreme secrecy, and watches as we enter the park with high hopes, and then exit dragging our broken expectations, like the entrails of a mauled impala, behind us. We decided that the only way to break the curse was to pay Phinda Game Reserve an obscene amount of money to take us directly to the lion; that wise old adage – If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain, applies. So yesterday, for the first time in 32 years, I sat in a very open jeep and watched as a beautiful mother lioness gorged herself on a reed buck. We were terrifyingly close, in fact, a little too close for comfort and as I was sitting directly in front of her, the first person in her line of sight, I felt quite ill. I’m hoping that this brings to a close the chapter of unlucky lion sightings however if it does not, we can at least “Remember when…” with the best of them.

Predator’s reward

One of the most intriguing aspects of the bush veld are its sounds. The screech of the African cicada (Christmas beetle) will suddenly fill the air with a high pitched shrieking, only to abruptly cease, leaving you with a sense of disharmony. The air continues to vibrate long after they have stopped. In direct contrast to this sudden shrillness is the wind. It murmurs through the acacia trees and lala palms, and is the perfect sound to fall asleep to. You feel like you have been transported to the banks of the River Nile, and are softly swaying on the gently eddying waters, while the papyrus waves in dance about you. There is no escaping the resonance; every insect, every bug, every moving, crawling creature creates a sound which will either thrill you or fill you with a sense of fear. If you are not an insect person, then the bush is possibly not the place for you. Giant moths, rhino beetles with their horny heads and spiky legs, cockroaches with moss mottled wings, teeny tiny beetles which get into your hair and under your pillows, spiders of all shapes and sizes (and levels of poison), and of course, the most irritating and most fear inducing – the humble mosquito. There is nothing as annoying as the buzz of a mosquito, especially one that you cannot see. For you know you are about to be on the receiving end of an unwanted bite but there is little you can do about it. Unless, like my father, you marinade yourself in Peaceful Sleep, you are likely to succumb. There is however a remedy; the sacrificial lamb. There is always one person which mosquitos will become quite partial to, so it is best to figure this out early on in the game and seat yourself next to them at all times.

I often dream of my own little farm in this neck of the woods; surrounded by lala palms and sand forests with giant cactus trees and the honeyed scent of the silver cluster leaf tree. Would I miss the city and what it has to offer or would I be so completely at home that the occasional visit to the city would suffice?  I can only imagine sitting night after night under a sky ablaze with hundreds of stars, the whoop-whoop of the hyena, and the cacophony of chirping tree frogs. There is a plot of land for sale near here; the grass is neck high, and when lit by the setting sun, is set alight in a blaze of perfect light. The vegetation of my childhood would surround me and I believe I would be happy; living in a wide and open place.

Wide and open spaces

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