Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I Know My Status... Do You Know Yours?

Taylor & Team behind him completing Skillz activity
Grassroot Soccer held its first VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing) Skillz soccer tournament in Cape Town, South Africa on June 16, 2009. It was held on Youth Day, a national holiday in South Africa. Although GRS has held VCT's before, this was the first one held in Cape Town.

The tournament was held at Luhlaza High School in Khayelitsha. Over 140 kids ages 12-18 played on teams and went through the Skillz tournament and activities. By the end of the day 87 people were tested for HIV/AIDS and an additional 100 went through general health counseling.

Alexis and I, as well as some of the other GRS staff and volunteers went through the HIV testing, not only to "know our status" but also to see how the process went in order to figure out how the process can be improved upon for next time. The entire process was so quick and made me feel confident that the counselors were well-trained and that my results would be kept confidential.

Alexis and I waiting for our test results!

The day was exhausting, but it was so exciting to see it unfold, as we had been working on finalizing details since I had arrived at the GRS office. Over the past two weeks, Alexis and I had been doing anything and everything that the GRS staff needed to prepare for the tournament. From designing T-Shirts, to visiting the site to understand the flow of the event, to ordering toliets--we did it. Lisa was in charge of the testing operations, which led her to meet with New Start, Médicins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), and the City Health Staff.

On the day of the event I did everything from registration, serving food, handing out kids lunches, managing the flow of the testing component, and handing out the awards at the end of the day. It was quite an exhausting day. We arrived at the office at 7am and didn't get back to the Stonehurst Guest Lodge until 8:30pm.

Winning Girls Team Celebrating!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 20, 2009 - Confederation Cup: Spain vs. South Africa

I had originally planned to go shark cage-diving on my own for the upcoming Saturday and was looking forward to getting up close and personal with some Great Whites and live to tell the story. But later that Thursday night, Lisa and I had discussed the possibility of going to a Confederation Cup soccer game on that Saturday. She wanted to further her research on stadium development whereas I wanted to experience more of South Africa and take part in South African pride. I was curious as to which match she had wanted to watch, and when she said, “South Africa vs. Spain,” I knew right away I wanted to go. I am a big soccer fan and had been following the Cup closely, and was open, but skeptical about the idea that we could find bus tickets to leave the very next day for the game.

Friday morning (June 19), at the crack of dawn… well, more like 9am… we both woke up early and looked at various tour bus companies that were scheduled to leave from Cape Town to Bloemfontein, which is where the game would be played. We walked across Sea Point to Checkers and Shoprite, hoping to reserve seats on a tour bus. It was very difficult to find openings, and we were prepared to give up, but decided to give it one last attempt. I called InterCape and asked if they had any available seats for a bus leaving the same night to Bloemfontein. To my disbelief, we were able to book two seats leaving Cape Town and arriving Saturday morning in Bloemfontein, and a return ticket leaving two hours after the game. This looked very promising, but I remained cautious as I am more used to planning ahead and anticipating obstacles rather than spontaneously put together a trip at the very last minute. Still, I remembered my roommate from D.C. telling me to put myself out there and see what happens. So I decided to take a chance and gain new experience. As we left Stonehourst, David Hirschmann wished us a safe and fun trip and to bring back a victory. I told him that I would use my divine powers to give South Africa the win, and create the upset of the year. The entire bus trip to Bloemfontein would take a grueling fourteen hours, but once we arrived, the excitement had already begun.

From the tourist visiting centers to the public restrooms, people were talking about the game. The atmosphere was full of buzz and anticipation, and I felt so much excitement, especially since it was going to be my first live soccer game. I had been following the tournament, and could not wait to see the entire South African and Spain teams, and also some of the world’s best players, Fernando Torres (El Nino) and David Villa in action. Everywhere we walked, people wore South African jerseys, showing pride in their team. But Bloemfontein was not Cape Town, and Lisa reminded me to be extra careful showing my valuables. I had already gotten some looks from the locals, and agreed to be more cautious. We went to the Waterfront Mall to pick up our tickets and witnessed a huge crowd trying to get in line and fighting their way into the FIFA ticket center. Fortunately, Lisa and I had bought our tickets online and were shown to the front of the line. People were arguing over line positions, hoping to buy the cheapest tickets and we were both afraid of being targeted for getting our tickets first. The entire process went smoothly, and we decided to spend most of the day wandering around the Waterfront Mall and stayed close to the stadium.

Throughout the day, I tried to pressure and convince Lisa to buy a yellow South Africa jersey, but she resisted. She had also tried to pressure me into buying more clothes, but I somehow found the strength to resist. Actually, I was ready to buy a sweater, but the power went out, and the mall eventually closed (oh well, *shrugs*). At 6pm, we were already in line waiting to get inside the stadium. Once we got past security, we were excited to find our seats only 13 rows behind midfield. They were among the best seats in the house!

There were still 2 ½ hours before the game, and I decided to take some video footage of the stadium. Looking around the stadium was such a breathtaking moment and we could not wait for the game to start!

We were surprised by an interviewer from Sony Entertainment, who approached and asked if we could speak on camera to give a shout out to all the soccer fans. Of course, how could Lisa and I decline the offer? It was quick and simple, and we were given waiver forms to sign to allow Sony to release it on their website: I had expected the stadium to be half empty since past games seemed to have fit that pattern, but the stadium was filled that night, and the atmosphere was electrified by all the fans cheering, singing, blowing into the vuvuzela horns, and waving flags, for their respective teams. Lisa and I had so much fun cheering and waving flags alongside the fans, and for the South African team.

Throughout the game, we experienced an emotional rollercoaster ride as South Africa came close to scoring at least one goal against the defending UEFA Euro 2008 Champions and current #1 ranked soccer team in the world. There were cheers, applause, and at times, frustration among the fans, as South Africa failed to capitalize on numerous fast breaks. The first half was scoreless between Spain and South Africa, and the fans were both excited and anxious to see the second half. I was a bit worried because Spain has been known to finish games decisively and Saturday night would be no different. The biggest moment came shortly after the second half began, when Spain’s David Villa was awarded a free penalty kick against South Africa. The goalkeeper, and birthday boy Itumeleng Khune, had been flawless throughout the game and had not allowed a goal in the entire tournament. I could hear Lisa yell, ”Oh no!” as the entire stadium stood nervous, waiting for Villa to make the next move.

We held our breaths as Villa kicked the ball, expecting the worst, but it was blocked! The crowd went nuts as Khune blocked the rebound kick from Carles Puyol, and the chanting and singing began. But less than a minute later, Villa placed a razor shot that gets past the diving goalkeeper inside the right-hand post of the goal. That took our breaths away and quieted the entire stadium. However, moments later, South Africa threatened repeatedly with fast breaks, and the crowd was once again rejuvenated with energy. But much like the first half, South Africa could not take advantage of the fast breaks and Spain eventually scored a second goal. This time, the stadium stayed quiet as the crowd knew that Spain had the game won. In the last few minutes, South Africa came close to scoring a goal, but Spain’s defense was just too good.

As we started to leave the stadium, the PA Announcer informed us that the final score between Iraq and New Zealand was 0-0. This meant that South Africa had ensured a spot in the semi-finals, and will play Brazil, Egypt, or Italy from Group B, depending on Sunday night’s results (UPDATE: South Africa plays Brazil on June 25th, a day after U.S. upset Spain in semi-finals). The crowd erupted and the celebration began. Lisa and I would only have to wait another two hours before our bus arrives to take us home. Fourteen hours later, we’re back in Cape Town. I could not sleep the entire way back to Cape Town, and part of the reason was because I was trying to think of the last time I experienced this much excitement and happiness. I had never experienced such an electrifying atmosphere, where thousands of people came together as one unified group, cheering for the same outcome. I had never felt so excited or happy, and realized that what I experienced last night was truly special and amazing. It was definitely the best night of my life.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Weekend at the Game Lodge

What would a trip to Africa be without an up close and personal experience with wild animals? Our group of 12 spent a weekend outside Cape Town getting to know the South African countryside on our way to the Garden Route Game Lodge. We hopped aboard a minibus and departed the city heading east on the scenic Garden Route in true South African minibus fashion – at the speed of light and sometimes driving on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic. Our driver stopped along the way to give us the opportunity to steal pictures of the amazing views of False Bay, and eventually we reached a jackass penguin colony for a quick visit with hundreds of penguins. We saw penguins, baby penguins, and baby penguins in the making (awkward). We spent the night in a small beach town called Hermanus where we had just enough time to socialize with some young, local wine farmers and dance with Hermanus’ finest at the local club.

Early the next morning we were on the road again to Albertinia for a late afternoon game drive at the lodge. The road was lined on both sides with huge aloe plants, farms and giant mountains in the background. As soon as we arrived at the lodge, we dropped off our bags in our traditional thatched roof cottages and jumped into land rovers for a sunset game drive. A Professional Hunter (PH) named Julius drove us around to see Gemsbok, Kudu, Springbok, Cape Buffalo, Wildebeest, a mother and baby white rhino, a couple of giraffes, and last but not least, the lions. Don’t worry, our first land rover broke down before we entered the lions’ den so we were totally confident when we drove into their territory and Julius said to us, “Scream at me if that lion comes any closer while I go close the gate.” We then asked Julius what our best defense would be if the lion actually did approach the vehicle, to which he replied, “I have mace.” (I remember thinking: excellent, the PH has mace. That will surely stop the three lions from jumping on our vehicle.) The male lion roared at us a little bit before we drove back to the lodge to end the night with an enormous buffet of food including various animals that we had seen on the game drive (and they were delicious). The sky was incredibly clear at night and you could see the Milky Way as well as several shooting stars and constellations like the Southern Cross and Scorpius.

The following morning we were up before sunrise for the second game drive. Interestingly enough, we went back to see the lions and one of the vehicles holding other guests at the lodge had broken down inside the lion area. We were relieved when the lions were fed a snack to distract them from the stranded vehicle while we were all on their territory. We also saw the two elephants that were fun to watch until they randomly charged your vehicle unprovoked. The morning concluded with another gigantic buffet of tasty food, and then a trip to the snake den and the cheetah cages. At the end of the day I could say, “I went to Africa and got in touch with the Big 5.” (The photos are compliments of Jackie Schumacher.)

my adventures with the minibus system

Having completed our classroom seminar a little over a week ago, we've struck out into the city on our own to begin interning. I am interning at an organization called PASSOP, whose name is both an acronym (People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty) as well as a pun (the word "passop" is Afrikaans for "beware"). The organization focuses on issues relating to the refugee population in South Africa and has had a specific influence in the reintegration efforts that occurred after the outbreak of xenophobic violence a year ago. It's a young office, and perhaps as a result is also an energetic office, and in the week I've been here, I feel like my knowledge of South African immigration and asylum policy as well as issues surrounding xenophobia in the area has increased a thousand fold. It will definitely be an educational experience.


That's not the subject of this story.

My story is about the "getting-to" and "getting-from" parts of my internship. You see, the offices for PASSOP are located fairly far away from where our guest house is in Sea Point, meaning to get to work every day, Samuel and I take a combination of forms of public transit. Starting around 8:00 AM, we hop in a minibus taxi on the Main Road in Sea Point, which deposits us at Cape Town Station, where we board a commuter train that drops us off about three blocks from work by 8:50. We do the same in reverse in the evening, returning back to Stonehurst Guest House for a good night's sleep.

The train is fairly comparable to what you'd find on the Metro in Washington - sleepy people packed in, headed for work in various places, reading a book or chatting with a friend along the way. However, the minibus taxis are an entirely new experience. I think anyone in the program would agree with me. Essentially, you stand on the sidewalk until you see one coming, typically full speed, in your direction. You'll know how to differentiate a minibus taxi from a regular old VW van for two reasons: first, it will be honking. A lot. Second, there will be a man hanging out the side window, yelling its destination. In the mornings, when we hear "CAPE TOWN STATION!" being hollered down Main Road, we know we're about to head to work. After flagging one over (it's really not hard to do, since they're constantly on the lookout for passengers) you climb in, hopeful it's a slow day for the driver so that you can have a little leg room. After passing five rand to the man who was yelling the destination out the window (his job doubles as money collector) you can relax for about ten minutes.

Or can you?

Let's just say that the minibus drivers aren't known for their defensive driving skills. In the past week, I have been on board as a minibus decided that driving down the left side of the road (drivers function on the British road system here) was taking far too long and decided to drive through oncoming traffic instead. This lasted about two blocks. This morning, our driver stuck to the correct side of the street but chose to start braking approximately three feet before the car in front of him. (I screamed aloud - to my own embarrasment - not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES between Sea Point and Cape Town Station.) I also learned recently that, on top of making pedestrians aware of the destination of that particular minibus and collecting money, it's also the job of that same man to lean out the window and deflect oncoming traffic. Either he gestures to other cars on the road or tells our driver when to switch lanes or cut off someone while making a turn.

If I'm not already wide awake when I board the minibus at 8:00, I'm definitely awake by 8:10 when I arrive at the train station.

Hair-raising, death-defying trips between home and work aside, I actually have a growing defense on behalf of the minibus drivers. First of all, while riding in them, I am well aware that their mode of transportation is the most-used form in town. (President Zuma has actually suggested shutting down the minibus system during the World Cup next year, and everyone - EVERYONE - who has heard this news has simply laughed at the prospect that it could ever be possible.) Secondly, it's an incredible people-watching opportunity. There is almost always music playing and people chatting in languages I don't understand and eating brands of potato chips (excuse me, crisps) I've never seen before. In fact, I might be so bold as to declare our daily minibus commute the most uniquely South African thing we've done since arriving. As I get more and more used to the startling nature of these minibus rides (and come to the realization that - despite the fact that their driving style terrifies me - the drivers seem to have a pretty strong handle on what they're doing), I'm also finding that they might be the thing I miss most about Cape Town when I return to DC at the end of the month.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Today we visited the Kirstenbosch botanical garden, established in 1913 to “conserve and promote the indigenous flora of southern Africa.” Kirstenbosch is the largest of a countrywide network of nine botanical gardens administered by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), which also maintains three plant reference collections and is involved in research and environmental education.

Kirstenbosch is situated at the foot of Table Mountain on the eastern side and is internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest botanical gardens. Covering approximately 528 hectares, it includes a cultivated garden and nature reserve. Housed in the "Garden of Extinction" there are many rare and endangered plant species including: Erica verticillata (extinct in the wild), Leucospermum formosum (vulnerable), Barleria greenii (endangered), Encephalartos latifrons (critically endangered) and many others. "Kirstenbosch participates in the Threatened Species Programme, by collecting, cultivating, and propagating threatened plants; making plant material available to gardeners and re-introducing plants to the wild; and

banking seed with the Millennium Seed Bank."

While we weren’t able to visit the Kirstenbosch during the peak season to see the flowers in full bloom, the park grounds were spectacular in and of themselves. We seized the opportunity to go on a clear day with mild temperatures and blue skies. Another added bonus of visiting Kirstenbosch in the off-peak season is not having to deal with throngs of other tourists. We had the garden practically to ourselves! Sitting on a park bench (as I am right now) enjoying the chirping birds and gently blowing breeze while taking in the incredible view of Cape Town from the top of the garden… well, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Beautiful Cape Town

We spent last Saturday the 23rd on a Peninsula Tour of Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Here I am at Cape Point, where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean currents meet. Reppin' New York from 12,541 KM away! It was a gorgeous day, but started to rain and get quite dreary as the day went on. We saw some baboons, ostrich, and a bunch of birds attacking people's food as they dared to sit outside at the restaurant.

I was at the South-Western most point of the African continent this day!

On Sunday, a bunch of us hiked up Lion's Head, one of the prominent mountains in the Cape Town landscape. It was a super intense hike. Here is Jackie and I about halfway up the mountain! In the back are the mountains known as the "12 Apostles." In order to get up the mountain, we had to scale the rocks by using chains and ladders! It was intense but so worth it once we got to the top and had a 360 degree view of the city. We made it just in time to see the beginning of the sunset---but the sun goes down fast and we were slightly afraid that we wouldn't be able to get back down by the chains & ladders. As we got a little lost going down, we were lucky enough to meet up with a great group of locals & their friends from around S. Africa who gave us a lift home, instead of making us hike home in the dark for another hour.

Highlights from the trip!

The Trip Thus Far in Pictures

Dinner at Mama Sheila's in Langa Township

Castle of Good Hope

The Lighthouse right outside our Bed and Breakfast in Sea Point

The lady at the meat market in Langa Township who Tim, Nora, and Alexis bought Fried Liver from (It was delicious! Not quite brave enough to eat sheep's head though)

The view of Table mountain in the background from Robin Island

Cape of Good Hope!

Hike up Lion's head right behind our bed and breakfast

The whole group at dinner at a delicious Indian Restaraunt with people from the NGO Ikamva Youth we met with earlier that day

Weekend in Hermanus and at the Game Park!

This weekend was our last hoorah as we had finished our two weeks of classes and prepared to start our internships the following Monday. We left on Friday for Hermanus, a small town that is known for its whale watching. However, the whales only come from July-September, so we were a little pre-mature. One the way there we stopped at a penguin colony which was amazing! Even though Robin Island had the largest colony of penguins, this place had thousands waddling around and walking right up next to you. We stayed the night in Hermanus and met some other travelers at dinner that were staying in our hostel. The night ended with everyone dancing to a mix of disco and kid cudie.

The next morning we walked around town for awhile and then piled into the van and headed to the game park. Right when we got there we went on a 2 hour game drive and saw rhinos, giraffes, springbok, and buffalo. The game drive was followed by a delicious buffet with Kudu steaks (one of my new favorite meats along with ostrich that I've discovered since being in South Africa). The next morning we went on another 2 hour game drive at sunrise. Perhaps the animals are more rambunctious in the morning, because we had two elephants trying to charge our land rover. We also went in the lion reserve where there was one male and two females. The night before we had been joking about how funny/horrible it would be if one of the cars stalled in the lion area (because ours had broken down earlier) and sure enough, another groups did. They had to bring the lions meat to eat in order to distract them so the other group had enough time to get from their car to the replacement they brought. haha
All in all, a very memorable weekend!!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Robben Island

Although the sun was glaring and the ocean breezes helped to keep Robben Island refreshing, I still felt a slight chill run through my body as we walked off the boat to experience Robben Island.

Our afternoon began with a bus tour of the island, which explained that it began as a Leper colony from 1836 to 1931. It was then vacant until 1939, when it served as a military site during the Second World War. However, by 1959, Robben Island changed hands and became the maximum security prison for which it is widely known.

I was overwhelmed walking through the Robben Island prison, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years before being released during the breakdown of Apartheid. It was definitely a surreal experience to see Mandela's jail cell and have a tour guide who also had been a prisoner after being arrested and tortured for fighting to end Apartheid. Our guide had been arrested after partaking in some civil unrest, and was found guilty of illegally leaving and then re-entering the country without the proper permission of the White Apartheid government (which wouldn't have been granted anyways).

It is quite an atmosphere to take in, especially when trying to picture the cells, overcrowded with inmates and prison guards roaming the halls.

Take-home Message: One of the most touching parts of the tour was from our first guide on the bus. Before we exited, he asked each of the people on our bus what country they are from. He concluded by saying, "if the whole world can fit and get along on this bus, please go out there and do the same." He went on to ask us to make sure that what happened in South Africa does not happen again, and that it is our responsibility to make changes in the inequalities in the world.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Program members discuss South African trends as reported in a spread of national newspapers.