Monday, 31 October 2011

Crigby and Rucket

I have been trying to explore the local culture by learning about the two sports that are really popular here:  rugby and cricket.   Last weekend we went to the semi-finals Natal Sharks game.  This weekend we saw a one-day international test cricket match between Australia and South Africa. This is what I learned:

Rugby:  There is a lot of pushing and falling on the ground that results in players piling on top of each other.  And for some reason the ball is passed backwards instead of forward. Can be quite entertaining after a couple of beers (or one in my case).

Cricket:  People don’t mind sitting around and watching a game that goes on for almost 10 hours.  Drinking helps.  A lot of drinking helps more.  Bringing reading material or having a nap is completely acceptable.  People are quite wasted by the end. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Six Months

I have been in South Africa for almost two months now.  I have shared many of my adventures and experiences, but I have intentionally stayed away from talking about work.  Part of the reason is that it is taking me a little longer than usual to actually assess how I feel about the type of work I am doing.  Part of the reason is to take time to figure out exactly what it is that I am doing.  And part of it is getting myself to actually talk about some of the clients that I have met and the stories they tell.

The complex I work in is called the Diakonia Centre – a Greek word which means serving the people.  The local newspaper recently ran a story, part of which I would like to share with you:

“There was a time when anyone in Durban suffering as a result of the actions of the apartheid government would be told: ‘Go to Diakonia:  they will help you.’ And help would be found.  At about the same time, those who supported the apartheid government, or who belonged to organisations opposed to the United Democratic Front (UDF) or the African National Congress (ANC) (banned at the time) would describe Diakonia as a terrorist organisation.  Rumours went around that bombs were made at Diakonia in St. Andrew’s Street (now Diakonia Avenue).  Luckily for those who worked at Diakonia or who supported its cause, life was far too busy to worry about either of these extremes of opinion.  There was work to do, lots of it, and just had to get on and do it.”

Today the Diakonia Centre houses a number of NGOs, including Lawyers for Human Rights, the Legal Resource Centre, Refugee Social Services and the Black Sash – all organisations seeking to provide help to the most vulnerable members of society.

Lawyers for Human Rights (where I work) is an independent human rights organization that provides free legal services to marginalized individuals and groups within South Africa.   It was founded in 1979, when its primary focus was to fight oppression and human rights abuses during apartheid.  Currently LHR works in a number of different areas through its various programs including:  child rights, environmental rights, land reform and housing, statelessness, refugee and migrant rights, security of farm workers and strategic litigation. The Durban office works exclusively with refugees and asylum seekers who require legal assistance.  This is where I come in (or not).

Most of the clients who walk through our doors are people who have already applied for asylum at the Department of Home Affairs and who have already been rejected.  As such, the chances of them actually having a strong refugee claim is slim.  Every morning I walk out into our reception area to find the room full of people hoping and praying that someone can help them.  They may not be refugees in the true definition of the word, but they are definitely people who have had really difficult lives and are trying to secure a better future for themselves and their families.

Because of scarcity of resources, our mandate is to help only those clients, who have a strong claim.  We simply do not have the capacity or manpower to help everyone.  So my job is to bring clients into my office, one at a time, and with the help of an interpreter try to sort out their claim.  As I explained in an earlier post, the definition of a refugee in South Africa is really narrow and restrictive and as such very few people actually fit within its confines.  Most of the time I know as soon as I have read someone’s rejection why they do not qualify and will likely be deported.  Yet I do spend about 45 minutes with each client listening to his or her story and trying to find anything that may have previously been missed or ignored.  Most of the time I am aware that I am fighting a losing battle.  Though my client is coming from a country that is nowhere close to safe by any North American standard, for all intents and purposes in South Africa they will not be recognized as a refugee and be given asylum. 

It is often very disappointing and demoralizing for me to have to persistently turn people away who see me as their only hope.  Sherylle (my supervisor) says that we are doing them a favour by not getting their hopes up, because they will likely be sent home.  Even still, it is gradually becoming a more difficult issue for me to deal with.  For example, last week at yoga when we were supposed to be relaxing and meditating I could not shut my mind off.  I kept on thinking that at the end of these six months I will likely go back home to Canada, to my family and friends and to my happily ever after.  At the end of six months most of the people I meet with will likely be back to the same hellish place that they originally fled from. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Much Addo About Elephants!

Last weekend we decided to go visit our fellow CBA interns in Grahamstown.  Yes it was a 12 hour bus ride each way and yes we probably spent just as much time on the bus as we actually did there. 
It was actually quite a tough decision whether we should go: 
Pros:  there was a charity rugby game on Saturday that the Grahamstown LRC was to take a part in, the LRC interns were planning to visit the Addo Elephant Park on Sunday, this was as good as time as any to visit Grahamstown and there was actually something going on. 
-  Cons: 24 hours spent on a bus (that plays loud music and movies such as "Death at a Funeral" and "Transporter 3"), dealing with no sleep and potential exhaustion on Monday morning, what is there in Grahamstown anyway? 
However, as my mom put it:  “You should go.  What else are you going to do?”  So off we went to Grahamstown, a small  quiet university town where stores close on Saturday at 1pm and don’t reopen until Monday morning.

Altogether we had a wonderful time.  Grahamstown was a lovely and charming little town with a number of cute little shops and cafes.  The university campus itself was beautiful.   Though the LRC team did not necessarily shine at the rugby game, they definitely did rise to the occasion (by the end of their last game anyway).  Though they did not win and in fact Ali scored the only try of the four games they played it was nonetheless tons of fun.  

Ali scoring a try


The LRC Levellers
The next day we visited the Addo Elephant Park, which was the main thing that motivated me to sit on a bus for 24 hours.  I wanted to see the ELEPHANTS!  Though we saw a couple at Hluhluwe the weekend before they were in the distance.  I wanted to elephants up close.  So I felt that going on a second safari in 7 days is completely justified!  When in Africa....

We saw tons of animals (or “manimals” as I like to call them) and different ones than the ones we had seen last weekend.  We saw tons of kudus, warthogs, dung beetles (very important to the natural environment of the park), and zebras.


The problem was that we were not seeing any elephants.  We had already driven around for two and a half hours and the only proof that we had that there were even elephants in the park was the massive amounts of elephant dung all over the road.  In fact we began to think that the park should actually be renamed to the Addo Kudu Park.  It was almost time for us to head back to Grahamstown when we turned a corner and saw a whole bunch of cars parked along the side of the road.  That’s how you know it is something BIG!  ELEPHANTS!!!  They were everywhere! 

There were a few elephants standing on the side of the road blocking traffic.

There was an elephant taking a bath.

There was a couple of elephants play-fighting.

There was an elephant drinking water.

There was even a baby elephant following its mom around.

It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen!  I could not believe it was real.  And the funniest thing was that if we had passed by the same spot about 15 minutes later we would have missed most of.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Hakuna Matata!

So we have now been in South Africa for over a month and felt that it was about time to go on a safari – or as it is properly referred to – a “game drive”. 

Actually it didn’t quite happen that way.  Ali and I felt that it would be nice to get as many of the CBA interns together to celebrate Thanksgiving.  We thought that since most of them are in Johannesburg it would be a good meeting spot.  So me being a natural-born organizer, I took the initiative to go on Facebook and find out if people were interested in getting together for Thanksgiving.  The answers were as follows: “Yes we are interested” and “Why don’t we all meet in Durban?”  All of a sudden we were potentially facing an influx of Canadian interns visiting us for the weekend.  The problem was that our place, though right on the beach, is not that big and not very guest friendly.  So our response was, “How about we go on a safari?”

It turned out to be the best and most exciting Thanksgiving weekend ever.  We had three interns visiting from Jo’burg/Pretoria (Joseph, Sarah and Sean) and three interns visiting from Grahamstown (Mat, Sabrina and Tim).  Tim is from Australia but we decided to adopt him from the weekend.  After everyone met in Durban we were on our way to Hluhluwe-Imofolozi Game Reserve.  The park is described as follows:  “Set in the heart of Zululand, the oldest game reserve in Africa where Zulu kings such as Dingiswayo and Shaka hunted and put in place the first conservation laws, where today the "big five" of African legend stalk the verdant savannah.”

When we arrived at the park we immediately saw zebras, giraffes, buffaloes and a rhino.  It was so amazing that it almost felt like they were told to stay close to the gates just to impress visitors on their way in. 

Upon check at the Hilltop Camp in we discovered that the evening drive was all booked up, however, there were spots available for the morning drive – which by the way leaves at 5am.  Not everyone was thrilled with this.  I was too excited to care.  We were spending the night in rondavels, which were actually quite comfortable.

We decided to take some time to drive around the park on our own before dinner.  As we exited the camp we immediately encountered a rhino that was just walking on the road.  It was coming straight towards us and it was quite nerve-wrecking.  As we were trying to reverse the car, which by the way wasn’t really working as Mat’s car was right behind us, the rhino slowly proceeded to walk by us without taking notice.

While we were driving around the park we could not help but admire its absolute beauty.  With its rolling hills and valleys the sights were unbelievable.  After watching the sun set behind the hills in the distance we returned back to camp.  We had dinner in a beautiful restaurant at the top of the hill.  After dinner we got together for a couple of drinks in Sean and Joseph’s rondavel.  It was so much fun to hang out with the other interns and relate stories of our various experiences so far – the good, the bad and the ugly!  Unfortunately, we had to call it an early night and prepare for our 4:30am start the following morning.

Our three hour game drive the following morning was amazing.  I could only relate the experience through pictures as sometimes words are not enough.  As this was my first safari ever here are my TOP 10 observations:

1.  Driving through the game park is more like driving in Algonquin Park looking for moose than feeling like you are in The Lion King.  You have to be patient.  I almost expected that I would be driving around and there would be tons of animals everywhere just like on TV.  Instead, you can drive for quite a while without seeing anything.  That makes a sighting that much more exciting!

2.  Zebras are incredibly photogenic!

3.  You should under no circumstances get out of your car, because more experienced safari-goers will likely yell at you!

4.  Male impalas are very controlling of their women!

5.  For the most part you forget to be scared of the animals as you are so excited just to see them.  Unless there is a rhino coming right at you and then you might just think twice!

6.  Having the soundtrack to The Lion King while driving around on your own may add to the experience (or it might scare away the animals)!

7.  As much as it hurts, waking up at 4:30am is really the way to go if you want to see a lot of wildlife!  Going with an experienced guide is a must!

8.  Apparently the monkeys steal your things so watch out.  Though we were not subject to any muggings on this particular occasion.

9.  Going on a safari with seven other amazing and fun people is an absolute bonus!

10.  Spending Thanksgiving viewing wildlife instead of eating turkey is definitely a DO!