Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Change in Plans

As many of you may know I will no longer be going to Vietnam in the fall. While I was in South Africa and since coming home my sensitivity to gluten has gotten much much worse. I wrote a little about it while I was in South Africa. This was a huge decision for me and a very difficult one. I went to see a doctor the day after returning from New Orleans and her diagnosis was basically: you can't eat gluten for one reason or another and you just have to avoid it completely. She ordered lab tests and tested me for celiac again. Although it came back negative she said it was still likely I had it. Celiac is a disease where when gluten is ingested it does damage to the intestines. If it is caught early the damage can be reversed,but if it is diagnosed later in life it is likely it will cause permanent damage. There about hundreds of symptoms of celiac and it is one of the most commonly misdiagnosed diseases in the world. It is guessed that 1 in ever 133 people in the US has it,but only 5% of those are diagnosed. Anyway,I won't go in to details about my reactions but I'll just say not only do I have stomach and abdominal pain but I also experience full body exhaustion and pain. Plainly,it's incredibly uncomfortable when I eat gluten. It's in practically everything and I'm having an insanely hard time avoiding it,even in Portland. So I decided that it would be too difficult for me to completely avoid it in Vietnam and I could not, with a clean conscious, ask my host families to cook gluten free for me.

While it's upsetting that I won't be able to continue my language studies and research in Vietnam, I'm sure Max and I will get a chance to travel in the area in the future. For the time being I've registered for classes at UW again(after much arguing with the school around my credits & financial aid) and I'm attempting to get my body healthy. For a while I did not want to be officially diagnosed with Celiac because that would mean I would have a 'pre-existing condition' and have a harder time buying independent insurance. Nobody should have to worry about that,yet another reason we need Single Payer health care. But I have only gotten more sensitive to food and so I am going to see a gastroenterologist in a few weeks in the hopes they'll be able to help me.

Work at Jobs with Justice has been going great,it feels like I never left. It's only become more evident how much I love this work,and how lucky I am to be doing it at such a young age. Although food has become such and issue because I can't eat anything I don't make,or any processed foods for the most part, life is still good.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Last day in South Africa and New Orleans (part 1)

It's been a while since I returned from South Africa but I never wrote about my last day, even though it will remain in my mind forever. It was a perfect way to spend my last day,and made me feel okay about leaving.

First off: my last day. I woke up pretty early in the morning, headed to the internet cafe and then hopped on a minibus to Salt River. When I walked in to the COSATU/SADSAWU(South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union) office there was a young woman in there with Myrtle. I said hello and this woman excitedly asked if I was Lila. When I said yes she told me she was working on creating a website for SADSAWU and when she had asked Myrtle for some stories from the workers Myrtle handed her my paper! I had come in to the office to say goodbye to Myrtle and Hester and to meet Jennifer Fish,an American who had previously done research on the domestic workers and had kept in touch with them. It turns out that this young woman was one of Jennifer's students and Myrtle & Hester would be speaking to them later in the afternoon. I went downstairs and for over an hour spoke with a few of the students while we waited for Jennifer. They asked me questions about my time in South Africa and it made me realize how much I had truly learned during the four months. After Hester and Myrtle spoke to the students Jennifer asked me to come up and speak about my experiences, which I did. After I did so Hester asked me when I would be coming back. I told her "as soon as possible" to which she gave me a painfully huge hug and told me they couldn't wait for me to come back. Once she said that I knew there was no question of "if" I come back to South Africa, but rather a question of when.

I spoke to Jennifer for a long time and she informed me that her students would also be interviewing some of the workers and they wanted my interview questions so they could keep some continuity to the interviews.When I told her that my only interview question was "please tell me what you think it is important for me to know" she just looked at me before saying "that's the best question I've ever heard". Now,I don't know about that,but it was nice to hear a tenured professor and researcher say that. She gave me her contact information and told me she would be reading my paper in the coming weeks and was hoping to stay in touch. She told me she wanted to help me find funding resources to come back here and continue my work and that she would love to collaborate with me on a publication sometime in the future (!!!). Although research isn't my primary focus, it is certainly a wonderful feeling to be considered a legitimate researcher just because of my apparently obvious interest and passion in the topic.

The interaction with Myrtle, Hester, Jennifer and her students was all I could think about during my 36 hours of traveling. Being home has been simultaneously wonderful and very odd. There's not a huge culture shock but I'm still getting used to going out at night,walking alone everywhere,and talking on the phone while walking down the street. It's great being able to eat things that don't make me sick and to go out whenever I want without worrying about the time of day or safety. I'm sure I've changed a lot although I can't identify any specific ways other than I think I've become more like a typical New Yorker: much more blunt,potentially offensive and outgoing. I guess it's up to those around me to tell me if I've changed or stayed exactly the same.

And now here I am,back in another airport. This time my flights are only 8 hours long and there's no customs to get through. I spent June 9th-June 16th in New Orleans, my first time in the South. I came here for an Interfaith Worker Justice intern training and conference. It's been quite an interesting experience seeing as a majority of the people here are religious in some form or another and my religion, as my mom put it, is the union. But all the other interns are so nice and it's great to hear about all the different backgrounds and ideas, much like South Africa. There's so much to say,I'm not sure where to begin! I only got off of the Tulane campus twice during my week here,but they were both great. The first time a group of us went out to Burbon street to experience the New Orleans party scene. We wandered down the street of bright lights, loud music and exciting costumes.It was a lot of fun. I'm not sure I could do it more than once or twice, but it's certainly different from other cities I've been in. The place it resembles most closely is South Africa which was a bit comforting for me. Even though I try to suppress it,I'm really missing Cape Town. Here it seems like everyone is in vacation/party mode, with people of all ages getting trashed and stumbling down the street. There's so much I could say about that,but it's so much easier to do in person.

Yesterday, Monday June 15th we went on a 'witness' of New Orleans,seeing the areas most affected by Katrina and Rita. I'm going to have to process that a bit more before I can write about it,but don't worry,I will.

The past week left me looking closer at how I relate to religion and people of faith, how I travel and what development and reconstruction means. So heavy topics. In a few days I'll post again with pictures, stories and some thoughts. But until then I think I'll get some sleep and start work at Jobs with Justice.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

2 more days

I'm back in Cape Town after visiting Kwa Zulu-Natal for 2 weeks with my parents. We leave South Africa on Thursday, which is pretty hard to believe. I started crying on the plane last night as we returned from Durban,just thinking about leaving the city. I've never left a place I lived in without knowing when I'd be coming back (I was too young when we left NY to really comprehend it). It's really difficult. Cape Town isn't a particularly beautiful city, it's not particularly easy to get around, and the food's not that good,but still,I don't want to leave. I've made a connection with this city that goes past the wonderful domestic workers or my family in Langa. It's past the crazy minibus taxi system and the inability to travel the city after dark. I like that it's not a perfect city,that there's a lot of problems with it. South Africa is such an interesting place. I can't wait to come back here. When i get home I want to start looking at UCT or research opportunities that can bring me back here with a purpose. I hope that I make this much of a connection with Vietnam next fall,but I'm not sure I will.

I'm ready to go home,despite my sadness about leaving South Africa. Having such a hard time finding gluten free food makes it much harder to live here,but if I came back,I'd find a way to make it work. The next few weeks will be crazy busy,just how I like them,and they'll help keep my mind off missing Cape Town. I'm headed down to Corvallis for a week with Max to get over jetlag and relax in the sun,and then on June 9th I fly to New Orleans for a week for the Interfaith Worker Justice student intern training and conference. It's my first time to New Orleans and I couldn't be more excited!

Tons of pictures will be posted when I get home,don't worry.


Thursday, May 7, 2009

42 pages...

2 hours ago I turned in the final copy of my Independent Research Project. It is 42 pages long and I think my best research. I'm really proud of the result and hope something can happen with it outside of my grade for this semester. When I brought it in to the domestic workers union/COSATU office they were so grateful that I did that. They said I was only the second researcher, out of all of the ones that had interviewed them over the years, to bring the final product back to them. I told them that I really wanted to not just take their stories and leave,but maintain and strong connection with them and the organization. I think a few of the workers and the COSATU administrator/gender coordinator that I spoke with are going to come to my presentation on Saturday. We all have to present our findings to the class/the board that grades our papers. I'm so excited they will be coming to hear me,although it puts a lot of pressure on me. Another exciting part of giving them my paper: Myrtle & Hester are on the International Labor Organization's board and are working on the next ILO convention and said they want to use my paper at the convention!!!!

It feels great to be done after 3.5 long months. Now all that's left is presentations the next two days and then 3 days of evaluation. My parents arrive on Sunday night-I'm going to Langa to celebrate mother's day with my mama there,then heading to the airport to pick my Mom & Dad up. The next 3 weeks will be spend showing my parents around Cape Town, introducing them to the folks I worked with on my project, and heading up to Durban and Umfolozi park again. I'm looking forward to it.

I'm happy to share my paper if anyone has a particular desire to read it. If so,just email me and I'll send it to you.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Updated pictures and bumps in the road

The last few days have been both wonderful and very stressful. The interviews I talked about in my last post were certainly the high point of the week. Yesterday I interviewed Myrtle Witbooi, the General Secretary of the union and we talked for almost 2 hours! It was a wonderful interview and she is certainly an inspiring woman. She has fought tirelessly for her fellow domestic workers and tears came to her eyes when she spoke about retiring. I will write more in the next couple days or perhaps after I have finished writing my huge paper(which is due on the 7th,if you were wonderfing). Those were the good parts.

Now,the bad parts: first of all,last weekend I apparently left my USB drive which has all my research for this paper on it, at an internet cafe. It's gone for good so I had to rewrite my work and get new copies of articles. Not a huge problem,but stressful the week before the paper is due. Bigger issue: I may have talked about my food problems before but if not: I have some sort of intolerance to all gluten products and various other foods and because EVERYTHING here has gluten in it,I have a really hard time finding much to eat,or even to make at home. I visited a doctor who agreed to test me for celiac disease-a gluten intolerance which wears away at your stomach lining when you have gluten and the only cure is to not eat it. Today I heard back from him-I'm negative for that. So we're back to the drawing board on what's wrong with my silly tummy. It's more stressful than it sounds it honestly makes me miss Portland with all it's restaurants and stores catering to people with finiky tummies,like me.

But aside from those few bad things,life is good here in Cape Town! In talking to my parents about their upcoming trip here I've realized that I have really grown accustomed to living here. I even consider it MY city, going so far as to offer my parents, who are seasoned travlers, advice and recommendations about clothing and safety. Things that seemed like a big deal when I got here, like the fact that you really don't go out at night if you don't own a car, now seem like normal life. I even find myself considering all the wonderful artwork that's sold on streets here to be kitshy and touristy,when really I'm just used to it,and I have to be reminded that it's beautiful and unique. I know when I get home I'm going to have a bit of a hard time adjusting to being in the United States,but I'm looking forward to it because I know it will only reenforce the amazing experiences I've had here.

Well,that's enough deep reflection for one time.I've added a few pictures,so check them out!

Lila's travels


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

This is why I came to South Africa...

Yesterday was the reason I came to South Africa.Yesterday I spent 3 hours talking with domestic workers. I got to interview 7 wonderful women and hear their stories. It was inspiring, horrifying and just all around fascinating. It's so hard for me to even begin to talk about it,it doesn't quite seem real. I had three sessions of interview, with 2 women the first time, 2 the second and then 3 the third. After those 7 women a group of French exchange students showed up and so we all went down to talk to them. The steering committee for the Western Cape branch of the domestic workers union talked to the students and then we all sat around and had some snacks. When the French students wanted to take a picture of the whole group of domestic workers (or Home Executives as one of the women called herself) the National President of the union called me over and said "Lila,come be in the picture with us,you're one of us". My heart practically melted out of my chest. All of the women had started out a bit shy and not sure what to expect but by the time I left at 6pm they were all laughing and joking with me and asking when they would see me again, which was exactly what I had hoped for.

The interviews I did are really going to help me with my ISP,and they're the bulk of my research. Today (Tuesday) I'm interviewing Myrtle Witbooi, the Secretary general of the Western Cape branch of the domestic workers union and on Thursday I'm talking to the National President. I still haven't quite processed how lucky I am to have the opportunity to talk to such strong, amazing women. The last week hasn't been the best, what with me being sick, not being able to eat very many foods and losing my USB with ALL of my work for this 40 page paper on it, but yesterday made all that disappear.

I've got 9 days to write my 40 page paper and get it printed. I have absolutely no work on it any more,and have to start all the secondary research over. But nothing can dampen how great my experience with these women has been. On Friday I'm going downtown to help them with their booth for May Day - I'm really interested to see what it's like here. I think the new President, Jacob Zuma, may even be coming to talk.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Elections in South Africa

Yesterday, April 22nd marked South Africa's 4th free, democratic election. Ever since we got to the country we've been hearing and talking about it,it's a bit hard to believe it actually happened. You may have heard a few years ago about the scandal surrounding Jacob Zuma, a top official in the ANC(The African National Congress, Nelson Mandela's party). He was accused of raping a family friend who happened to be HIV positive. When asked what he did to prevent himself from getting HIV he respond "I took a shower", prompting this caricature:

Although he was cleared of those charges many still believe he did rape her and that he got off easy.

And yet,he was the ANC's presidential candidate. Before I talk any more about my experiences with the election I think it'd be a good idea to explain the political system here,I don't think I've done it before. If I have,I apologize. Ok so there is a parliament of 400 members plus the president. Parties run for national office with a list of 400 people that they would put in parliament if they won all the seats. The party that gets the greatest majority of votes (has been the ANC since 1994) puts the person who is at the top of their list in as president,and the people following them get ministry positions,etc. The seats in Parliament are divided up based on the percentages each party gets. If the ANC gets 60% of the vote, for example, they get 60% of the seats in Parliament in addition to the seat of the president. I think it's a pretty cool system-no one party wins or loses, they mostly all get a spot in government. So when you go to cast your ballot you don't vote for a candidate,you vote for a party. Jacob Zuma is the ANC's #1 on their list of 400.

Ok,so most of what we've heard since being here is that Zuma is a scumbag but that a majority of the population is still voting for the ANC. The people on my program have gotten really upset about this, saying they don't understand how people can still be voting for someone who's been accused of rape and corruption(was recently acquitted of those charges -i think that's the right word). The Americans seem to have an extremely hard time separating the man - Zuma - from the party- the ANC. While I think Zuma is a total scumbag who doesn't deserve to be in government, I think the policies of the ANC are great,and I can understand how many people still want to vote for him, despite these things. There are quite a few opposition parties: the DA (mostly an Afrikaaner/Colored party that some say is the remnants of the National Party-the party that created and enforced Apartheid), COPE (Congress of the People, new in this election, old ANC supporters who don't believe the ANC is accomplishing what they are promising, many young people are supporting this party), the ID, the UDM,the IDF, etc. There's a ton of acronyms that I honestly can't remember at the moment. The DA, ANC & COPE are the biggest players in electoral politics in this election.

Ever since we got here there have been posters from all of the political parties lining the streets and it's all anyone can talk about. Most of our families in Langa & Tshabo supported the ANC although quite a few of the people my age support COPE. In Stellenbosch and Bo Kaap most people are supporting the DA. In Durban we met a lot of students who said they weren't voting at all because they knew the ANC was going to win,so what use is it voting for other parties.

Last night we had a party to celebrate the election and a few people in my apartment (I woke say who...this was illegal), went out and cut down signs from each of the parties. These are huge cardboard signs that are on every lamppost. We decorated our apartment with them and had people over to watch the election coverage,which, I'm happy to report, is nowhere near as crazy as in the US. By the end of the night I was feeling quite pessimistic,an odd feeling for me. I realized that presidential elections depress me. There is so much energy and community activism leading up to them but then once the people are in office, that tends to peter off, and people will complain but not necessarily work to change things until the next election. This isn't everybody, or every election,but it's depressing none-the-less. I think South Africa is like that,but not to as great an extent as the US. In fact the homeless people's organizations in the townships around Cape Town and Johannesburg staged "one house,one vote" campaigns where they refused to vote until the government agreed to move them in to the empty housing or creating housing opportunities for them. An interesting situation.

Whew, I wrote a lot about the election. Hopefully that gives you all a better idea of what the political climate is like here. Pictures to come later. As far as my research goes, it's been moving pretty slowly. I've been not feeling so great lately-my food issues are acting up, so I've been trying to lie low. In addition, the fact that election day was a national holiday made it a bit hard to set up interviews for this week. But this afternoon I'm meeting with a woman from University of Western Cape who is working on a program doing research on domestic workers and I hopefully have an interview set up with COSATU - one of the national labor federations. They won't be able to meet with me until may 4th, which is 1 day before I wanted to take my paper to be printed,but it's an interview none the less and I'm looking forward to it.

Oh,before I forget,we don't know the election results yet,but I'll let you all know when we do. The Western Cape (where I am) is likely to be the only Provence that doesn't go ANC...should be interesting!
That's more than enough for now,enjoy!