Stories from Africa: Annie Fairman

Annie Fairman

Annie Fairman '07 - Cape Town, South Africa

I had no idea that when I said I wanted to go to South Africa anyone would even believe me, let alone help me to go. It was just sort of one of those things I said to hear what it sounded like coming out of my mouth, and then when I liked the way it sounded I researched it online and liked the way it sounded in research, and then Gordon Aelishman from the South Africa Community Fund offered to help coordinate a place for me to stay, and told me about working at Fikelela Children's Home, and then I could hardly contain my excitement. In all honesty, it wasn't until I was looking at a flight map from my airplane seat that showed us flying above the Kalahari Desert that I started to realize this had all materialized, that I was en route to Cape Town, and it was no longer about how it sounded or made me feel.

When I first arrived in Cape Town, I was surprised by how 'European' it appeared, how almost unrealistically immaculate it was for one of the biggest cities in the country. I would realize later, of course, after thinking to put such urban planning in the apartheid context and wandering through the older collections of paintings at the South Africa National Gallery one rainy afternoon, that Cape Town was, beginning in the 1900s with the first government forced removals, quite literally an exclusively 'European' city. And as I traveled to the township of Khayelitsha where I would be living, the 'informal settlements' that lined the highway and offered a taste of township life, I realized that the near-obsession with the façade of Cape Town was a direct contradiction to the lack of value placed on housing for non-whites. After traveling back into Cape Town on the minibus so many times, safely restrained between two large 'mommas' (who needs a seatbelt?), the disparity began to wear on me. After awhile, the ridiculousness seemed almost laughable it was so absurd. It was the elephant in the room; the flagrant violations of any concept of environmental health, housing codes, and sanitation and health apparently just led you to keep your eyes on the road, I suppose, when driving the fifteen minutes to Cape Town.

When I arrived in Khayelitsha, something changed for me; I met my host family and settled into township life, and the anger I felt reemerged only on trips back into the city, which became rare. The home where I stayed presented a startling portrayal of the crossroads at which those living in the townships find themselves; of traditional village life that most brought with them when they moved after 1993 from the more rural Eastern Cape, and of materialism, pumping the idea of consumerism into the townships but making a quick exit before any community initiatives or employment could be expected. In my home, there was no foundation, and the once-dirt floor had been covered by synthetic wood, and then recovered with a sticky sheet that was supposed to simulate tiles. There was no heat for the winter, and no toilet or running water, but the family owned a large television and DVD player, for which they could not afford to rent or own DVDs. The television was on constantly, playing episodes of Days of Our Lives that were a year behind on one of three channels. It was pretty much like this in every home I visited; the television was the center of the room, and everyone ate, visited or just sat in front of it as it blared embarrassingly vapid American television. I didn't understand this at first, and found it rather disheartening. But after daily episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful for a month, I started to realize that television was an escape; the concept of having all of your basic needs met so easily that you could then worry about who doubled-crossed who, why Brooke wanted to have Jack's baby instead of Ridge's, which direction the new hotshot exec planned on taking the company, the whole thing was so foreign and so intriguing that soap operas were most people's favorite programming.

The house had three rooms; a kitchen-family room area, and two bedrooms separated by a half-wall, one for the two youngest siblings, and one for their father. With employment at roughly 33%, alcoholism ran rampant among the men and my host father would disappear for days at a time, and we would all sleep with the light on and make him a plate, as if nothing was wrong or different. Just behind the house, which the family had completed on their own after they were informed that applying for a government house would require a two year minimum waiting list, was the original house they had built when they first moved from the Eastern Cape. I had moved in there initially, but the series of winter rainstorms made the corrugated tin roof leak profusely and my host sister, who had become head of the household after their mother had died three years prior, packed up all of my bags one day when I was at work and moved me into the room in the other house.

There were other Americans living in Khayelitsha, and after seeing the way that they bussed people into the township on air conditioned buses to shop at the craft market, we glowered at each other for the first week or so, waiting to see who was there for the right reasons and who was a reviled tourist. It was funny though, because despite the other scattered white faces, every day on my walk home from Fikelela I would receive shouts of "umlungu!" the slightly derogatory way of saying white or white person, from children all under the age of ten as they were hushed by embarrassed mothers. It was a foreign concept not to know your neighbors in the township, and every morning as I walked to the main road to catch a minibus taxi we all greeted one another with "molo" as chickens and roosters wandered from yard to yard and American rap boomed from tin-sided houses. I would take the taxi to the corner of Oscar Mpetha road, although none of the drivers knew these streets by their new, post-independence names, and I would walk across a field of trash to Fikelela each day. After doing this for a week, one of the other commuters asked me why I wasn't afraid of the "skolis," or gang members. "Don't you know this is a rough area?" he asked me. "They will rob from us, their neighbors even. Who knows what they might do to you?" I never ran into any skolis, but it made me think about Fikelela, a bright yellow building guarded with barbed wire located right in the middle of this trash field, this "rough area," across from the Sunny Flower pre-school where the older children went during the day, decorated with poor renditions of Disney characters from movies these kids had never seen and biblical images of Noah's Ark that were read to them in English and not Xhosa, and it came to characterize my time at Fikelela in a lot of ways. No matter how much hope was painted on the walls, no one, and certainly not the children, got out unscathed from the reality of the world outside.

There were twenty-six children at Fikelela, and twenty-two of them were HIV positive, most receiving government issued anti-retrovirals. All of the children I worked with were under the age of three. The other women who worked there were from the township, and spoke only Xhosa to one another when I was around. "Come sit with us Ayanda," they would call to me in my 'Xhosa name,' and I would race over, eager to be included, and after inviting me to sit down they would continue with conversation in Xhosa. One day an American church group came to Fikelela, and the other women called me to come speak to them. The leader of the group seemed to want the workers to welcome them, say thank you for coming, thank you for being here for one day, and impart some sort of wisdom about the hope in all of these children's lives. Pindiwe pushed me forward as a response, saying simply, "Ayanda will talk to you. You're both English, the same. You can talk to each other" and walked away.

Things went on like that for some time. It was the same with changing the children's diapers, or being invited for teatime. Because there were so many babies, they would change them in shifts, unless the diapers broke (which they were known to do) and leaked through to their clothing. There was a very odd, unspoken racial tension between the women and me on such issues, and they would often roll their eyes and take the child by one arm to change them, as if of course I expected them to do it, as if I refused to get my hands dirty. After the second eye-roll I stopped informing them of leaky diapers, and changed the children myself. I also started doing the dishes every day, which was a nice escape from the exclusionary chatter of naptime. After four days of this, the other women invited me to sit and drink tea with them, for the first time. They started serving me a plate at lunch, though my place in the pecking order was still reinforced by the chicken necks I got while the head women, the real 'mommas' ate two chicken breasts and a drumstick. It didn't matter though; I had been initiated.

There was a significant difference between the attitudes of the younger and older women who worked there though, as was explained to me by a successful foster mother and pastor's wife over tea one afternoon in Guguletu. Sheila, the social worker from Fikelela, and the foster mother went on about how this younger township generation of women aren't the same, that it is the grannies who do all of the work. Sheila, who was a granny herself living with her son's children in Khayelitsha, explained that there is a new trend of young mothers offering the foster children in order to receive state benefits, especially if the children are HIV positive. "These young girls know they can count on their mothers to take care of the kids, so they keep living however they please. They don't have the maternal instinct of the grannies, and so they don't even try," explained the foster mother. Though this was a minority of mothers, I started to look for that interplay at work, and noticed that there was in fact a significant difference. A lot (not all) of the younger women never held the children, ever, unless it was to feed them. They scoffed at the question when I asked them if they had kids. While I came to love some of the women, young and old, there was definitely a disturbing element to the behavior of others. One day when Anati, a little boy who was normally wildly energetic and happy lost all coloring in his face, was screaming from the thrush in his mouth as he was force-fed and then vomited everywhere, I felt like I couldn't do it anymore. I went to see Candice, the head nurse, later in the day when she got back from the Red Cross with another child.

"Is Anati okay?" I asked hesitantly.

"You mean from his thrush? We gave him some medicine this morning, so he should be better this afternoon."

"No, I mean his coloring. And after he threw up all of his lunch. I just wondered what it was."

No one had told Candice about the vomiting, or the coloring, and suddenly she looked as if she were about to cry. She was a petite blond South African who had a child of her own, and she was one of the kindest people I had met. She walked across the playground and scooped Anati out of his bed, his face now looking nearly as white as her own. He looked dazed; stunned or something, and Candice took his temperature in her office. It was 103. He spent the next three days in the hospital with severe pneumonia.

It is still difficult for me to write about my time with the children. My main objective when I was there was to work with them on developing their motor skills, teaching them to stand holding a chair, to take a step pushing the chair, to do art and music therapy with them once a week. Above all, my personal goal was to hold them as often as I could and to provide a loving presence for as long as I was there. Because there were so many children, they were often yanked from the cribs, bottle fed, and then put on the carpet to sit and entertain themselves. It was as if the women working there were so overwhelmed and shorthanded meeting the basic demands of the children that playtime seemed a bazaar suggestion. There was always crying, and someone's diaper was always dirty and in need of a change. Megan, the social worker, estimated that ninety percent of these children were from traumatic situations, many of which included abandonment or abuse, which caused many of them to have severe 'failure to thrive' or malnourishment on their arrival.

I had a particularly special connection with one of the children there, who they had called 'Lee Ann' because her mother died during childbirth and so Candice had chosen a name for her. She was the first child I saw when I got to Fikelela as Candice was showing me around, and she was being hoisted from the carpet for a diaper change, an indifferent, almost stern expression on her two-year old face. Though the children responded differently to their troubled pasts, some crying constantly if you paid even the slightest bit of attention to another, some acting violently towards the other children, Lee Ann's response was arguably the most unsettling. When she returned from her diaper change that first day, Candice told me that she was two years old and that she still couldn't walk. "We're desperately concerned for her, because we fear if she doesn't walk soon she never will," Candice explained. It was easy to see why she couldn't walk; her legs were pencil-thin and she looked about six months old as a result of the ARV's. As Candice was speaking, Lee Ann crawled from her spot on the carpet and into one of the cabinets without a door on the ground. She was just small enough to fit in there, and she sat there alone, staring blankly with that stern expression on for the rest of Candice's tour. It was unbelievable to me that this two year-old, who should have been going through her "terrible twos" was instead silent, not crying or laughing or engaging with any of the other children.

After that day I spent special one-on-one time with Lee Ann, holding her as she napped, introducing different toys to her, and eventually, helping her to stand. After two days she started to smile, and then later to laugh, and on my second to last day at Fikelela, she took her first step holding on to a chair. She was hardly 'cured' in any way; she woke up one morning after a week of what seemed like improvement with pneumonia and no appetite. I stayed with her in Candice's office, comparing the weights I had taken of the children with the projected average weight of a child that age, and I fed her when she woke up and regained her appetite. I asked Candice about her future, being as sick as she was, and as small. She said her prognosis was actually good, that on the ARV's the children would most likely live fifteen to sixteen years, and that she was thinking about sending Lee Ann to a better, smaller orphanage where she would receive the personal attention she so desperately needed. I asked Megan about this later, and she told me the paperwork would probably take about six months, but that they thought it would work out. Part of me was pleased, but the other part couldn't help but wonder what could happen to a child's development, especially a child like Lee Ann, in six months.

When I came back to the states, I was overwhelmed by the culture shock, and by the lack of desire I had to talk about my time there. I found that most people wanted a one to five minute explanation, and that was about all. One of the other Americans warned me about becoming one of those people who was always showing photographs from their trip, but I never felt that way. It felt private, something I didn't want to share with "the undeserving" who didn't really care. I found myself angry a lot; at my mother for saying "I thought you would have come home with one of the children" and my friend's older brother for asking me if I had to be tested for HIV before I could get back into the United States. I closed my journal, and I couldn't open it again, until writing this paper. I didn't want to hear people ask me how much better I felt about myself, mostly because I didn't. I came up with buzz phrases to answer the same questions over and over again and after awhile they became completely thoughtless. Thinking about it hurt. It seemed preposterous to try to qualify the experience as a "good" or "bad" time, because it had been both and neither and just not about that. Even now, I grapple with my feelings about it, and with my feelings about being here, and I get depressed about my negligible contribution to the lives of the children at Fikelela. At times I feel selfish, voyeuristic almost; that I went there, saw for myself, and returned to my life at home. I think about the difference between children in this country and the children there. Mostly I wonder if the permanent lump in my throat will ever really go away.

It seems, however, that the best learning experiences are oftentimes the most painful. One can hear the statistics illustrating the minority that enjoy the quality of living that Americans do, but it meant nothing until I stared at miles and miles of informal settlements; until I helped perform the intake for yet another baby to the orphanage; until my seventeen year-old neighbor nervously laughed about giving birth being "hell." And what I realized after a month or so of feeling listless and depressed is that the adage "with knowledge comes responsibility" is unquestionably (and sometimes painfully) true.

I am eternally grateful to Professor Haley and the Center for the Study of Human Rights; for everything I experienced this summer, the good and the bad, and especially for asking me to write this paper; to reopen my journal, and to remember my responsibility.

Update from Annie (October 2009): Just an update on where I am these days. I was set to attend graduate school in journalism in the fall when I was offered the opportunity to join the Aga Khan Development Network and work as a Research Analyst for the University of Central Asia, an opportunity brought to my attention by Professor Jonathan Petropoulos. I decided to defer my enrollment and move to Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, to lend a year to the efforts of UCA, which is a truly unprecedented initiative in Central Asia (another post-conflict region of great interest to me in my studies, as I wrote my senior thesis on governance in Afghanistan). I can say without question that my experience in South Africa is what led me to where I am now, as it ignited in me the desire to discover firsthand the situations on the ground that I had previously only studied on paper. I would be happy to provide you some more information about the work I am doing, as there might also be internship possibilities for CMC students here as well. I remember back in 2004, Professor Haley, you had entertained and even supported the possibility of studying abroad in Iran (what a different time it was there then...) although the study abroad office did not allow for this. However, the region of Central Asia is truly fascinating, and of ever-increasing strategic importance, and if there was any interest among CMC faculty, research institutes, or students, I would love to discuss it further. Needless to say in working on an initiative that is building an institution of higher learning from scratch with elements that comprise the cornerstones of CMC but are wholly unprecedented here - a residential campus, liberal arts curriculum, close student-faculty interaction and an emphasis on independent research - I am coming to appreciate my own undergraduate experience at CMC all the more.

Back to Africa Page