Its been a little over a month since I first arrived in Kimberley, the largest city in South Africa’s north province. The city has a population of about 150,000 and was founded upon the discovery of diamonds. DeBeers still has offices in the city even though many of their mines in the area have closed down. While diamonds may have founded Kimberley the largest industry is now funeral services and undertaker. The graveyards must comprise 1/6th of the city and seem to be around every corner. This is sobering reminder of the devastating toll that AIDS/HIV and poverty has taken on the majority of the population here.
Realizing the severity of the poverty and AIDS and their shocking effects has given my work more purpose. My internship is with an organization called GrassRootSoccer (GRS), an NGO focused on HIV/AIDS education using the power of soccer. We use a life skills curriculum referred to as SKILLZ in primary schools all around the city and last year had about 3,000 graduates. The Skillz curriculum is administered by our coaches who are technically volunteers, but receive a small stipend, which for many is the their only source of income. This is a constant source off tension for GRS because the coaches are always trying to push for more money in an attempt to make their stipend, which is below minimum wage, a livable wage.
One can hardly blame the coaches for wanting more money when you see the conditions most of them live in. Most of our coaches come from the locations, which are essentially sprawling slums with most of the houses being made of corrugated tin, and not a one of them has not had at least one immediate family member affected by aids. Despite all of this though each coach I have worked with so far is deeply committed to making a difference in the lives of the youth they work with, and each believes in a better future for South Africa.
Since I have arrived and started my internship I have worked on average 10 to 12 hours a day six days a week; last night I worked my first 16-hour day. But the dedication of the entire staff from the management to the coaches makes these long working hours more than bearable. Most of my work has been focused around the logistics of training our coaches and ensuring the day-to-day smooth operation of the programs we put on in the schools. While the days are long the work has been fulfilling and often fun.
I was really struck by importance of my work and the effect if can have on my first weekend in Kimberley when Albert, a fellow intern, a few of the coaches, and I took a couple of the kids from the local orphanage swimming at the local pool. We where talking to some of the older kids about HIV and other sexual health topics when one of the kids asked whether one could get pregnant from giving oral sex. It was shocking because the answer would have been so obvious to me at their age, but I remembered that I had sat through hours and hours of health and D.A.R.E classes by the time I was their age. The lack of conversation about SDI’s and sexual health is disheartening but I feel progress is being made when I walk into the schools and the kids seeing my GRS shirt give me a kilo, which is form of acknowledgment in the Skillz curriculum.
In addition to being surprised at the lack of knowledge youth have here it has taken me a little time to adjust to the different ways of doing business here. Such as instead of trying to call a principal to get permission to have our program in their school you have to go to the school several times in a week, in an attempt just to have a five-minute conversation. Differences like these can be frustrating at first but it has also been refreshing not being confined to my desk by a string of emails that require my attention.
The most frustrating and difficult thing in my experience so far has been the obvious racial divide that still exists in the country. The majority of the population lives in sprawling slums which are lit up by stadium flood lights, lacking running water, and have piles of burning garbage on every street. While on the other side of town the small white minority of the population enjoys on entirely first world existence. I have meet many a white South African who will openly display their disgust for the black majority. The lack of interaction between the whites and blacks sometimes seems to me like an even larger problem for South Africa than HIV/AIDS is seen as. Despite it all though things seem to be steadily improving in many areas for a country that appears destined to be divided for many years to come.
I just enjoyed my last day of work at Grassroots Soccer and will be heading back home in the morning, vuvuzelas in had. While I am excited to see my friends and family, I have come to love the city that sparkles, as Kimberley is now. Time has gone by so fast and I find myself wishing I could have stayed longer because I feel there is so much more I want to do and learn. While I feel I could have learned more my time working for GRS has taught me a lot about myself, development work, and the world in general.
About my self I learned that you can throw me into just about any situation and I will be able to have a good time. I realized that you create your own happiness, and it’s not the things around you that matter much but rather how you view them. In the short period of time I have spent in Africa I have made friends and had adventures that I will remember for the rest of life. More than just having a good time, I came to the point here where I truly felt at home and could easily imagine staying for years to come. It was at this point that I realized how easy it is to adapt to other cultures.
People seem to make a big deal about culture shock but I think they just get too caught up in the big details such as food, language, and different ways of dressings. While these are substantial differences they are essentially the surface of a culture. But as with books and people you cannot judge a culture by its cover. I found that if you can put these big things aside you will realize that we are not so different. For example, working Sunday morning is just as hard for people in South Africa as it is in the US. However, I found that even more important than putting aside these differences when adapting to a new culture, it is better be just yourself. People in general can sense a lot without talking and it can be obvious when someone is uncomfortable. So just relax and be you and the people around you will recognize this even if they can’t understand a damn word you say. The more comfortable you are the more comfortable the people around you will feel allowing them to truly include you in their lifestyles. Getting people to be comfortable with you in a working environment is crucial because I found that being successful in the work place is 85% people skills and 15% technical skills.
While the technical aspect may seem a small part it is still necessary for success. It was these technical skills that I was most sought after for during my time as an intern. I was not brought in to show the poor Africans the right way of doing things or to show them how to manage a company. I was brought in because my western education endowed me with certain skills that are a commodity within the developing world, specifically computer skills. Much of my time as an intern was spent doing things such as asset reports, reconciliation, writing formal letters, or plugging some type of data into an excel spreadsheet. It was during these hours in front of the computer that I came to many frustrating realizations about working for NGOs and NGOs in general.
The frustrating thing about working for NGOs is that usually the people running the show do not have a background in business and therefore efficiency and order suffer because of this. While a corporate structure may seem soulless there is a reason it has been around so long and that’s because it works well for getting things done. I just can’t imagine someone at Microsoft losing the entire list of new hires and therefore having to do an entire set of interviews over again. Its times like these that you want to bang your head against the wall but you quickly get over it when you realize that the reason your doing the work your doing is because everyone has the same goal in mind and believes that accomplishing this goal will make the world a better place.
While I love the work being done and the curriculum practiced by GRS I felt myself disappointed by the world of NGOs. I first found that there are too many NGO’s doing the same thing as we would run into other AIDS/HIVS education groups and we would be competing with them to allow our program to be run in the local schools. This makes no sense because we all want the same thing but end up wasting money because each NGO has its own staff and other expenses such as office space. Consolidating all these NGOs could save tons of money, which could be used to actually fight AIDS. Further more, much of work on the computer was based around properly reporting the money we where spending because our donors needed this information to be sure we were not just spending on everything. If in fact, the overall running of the actual AIDS/HIV education program took only half of the office time, the other half could be dedicated to reporting our spending correctly and then looking for new donors. This is a frustrating way of life when if we simply had our own money to run the program, we could have doubled the amount of graduates from our curriculum.
So while my time in South Africa was spectacular I have become a bit jaded about the effectiveness of NGOs in truly creating the change in the developing world that I would like to see. Overall though I believe that small grassroots organization such as the one I worked have their place in development; however I think that it is the economic success that will truly produce results for developing countries.