Playing Catch Up

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The last week and a half have been incredibly busy. This place is starting to feel like home. I thought when I first got here and heard Tom say he was sick of this place or had seen enough of that place that I wouldn’t do that – that this place wouldn’t get old or familiar to me. Now I know better.

I pass the same people on my walk to work, which in this town isn’t always the best thing. Do I want to be the well kempt white kid walking with a backpack the same route every day? I dress down for work – today was a sweet Hoops4Hope t-shirt I got my first week here and a pair of jeans. I don’t take the nice briefcase I (thanks Mom) bought right before I left, because it screams AMERICAN WITH A LAPTOP and that’s not exactly the vibe I want to give off. The beggars and street people here are everywhere, and they stay in the same place every day. Every morning I pass a group of 7 guys posted in a doorway outside a nice bookshop right around the corner, and another group of 5 guys on the corner of a church about a mile from here.  They could be day laborers waiting for someone to drive by and offer them work, but the couple times I’ve left work early I’ve found them at the same spot, just posted on a ledge. I just walk like I know where I’m going, and if someone stops me to talk to them I look them in the eye and act as polite as possible, while pushing forward and moving on. Most people don’t bother me, and once some people realize I’m American sometimes I get a smile and a laugh about something.

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Last Friday I took a crash course on the unsavory sections of this city. Valerio’s mom came to visit him for two weeks, and we got Ravic and Lavouyo – two of our coworkers – to drive all three of us around the townships and give us a real tour. We drove through a couple of the rougher areas around Gugelthu and Khayalitsha before we stopped at one of Lavouyo’s schools. He’s an All-Star in our program, which means he coordinates the Khayalitsha district’s programs, working directly with the MVPs at the individual schools to make sure everything runs smoothly. He makes weekly stops at each school with a program, passing out uniforms, making sure the MVPs and referees (often MVPs from nearby schools) know what they’re doing and have things running smoothly, and doing a little bit of coaching.

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We stopped at one of his nicer schools because he needed to drop off some kits – the term H4H uses for uniforms – before the two boys and girls games.  Barbed wire fencing surrounded a well-kept Southwestern style school, with outdoor courtyards and classrooms that opened up to exposed passageways. African flowers and trees shadowed our walk into the school. A group of girls in their school uniforms played on a pile of old battered plywood off to the side. Behind the school was a brick basketball court, with uneven tiles and old beaten hoops, sans nets. The hoops rose at least 11 feet off the ground, and I paced the court at 49 yards – or around 50 feet longer than a regulation court.

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The girls played the first game. Barefoot, wearing donated jerseys originally owned by a team of under-10 Canadians, ten girls ran up and down the court to the cheers of at least 40 other kids, all of them whooping and hollering at every turnover and every foul. The basketball fundamentals on display were terrible – one team relied on their tallest girl cherry picking, and the guards gunning for steals and then throwing the ball blindly as far as they could in the direction of the tall girl. More often than not this meant a turnover, and a fast break back the other way. Sometimes the tall girl would catch it, take a few dribbles, and heave a layup six feet over the basket, taking hacks and slaps from the defenders the entire time. The refs operate under a ‘no blood no foul’ streetball refereeing style, letting everything but a straight mugging or what is probably considered some form sexual assault in at least seven US states go without as much as a slight admonishment.

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The boys played next, and while their fundamentals were a little bit better, their basic skill level was about the St. Ann’s Youth League’s half court under-8 league, and these kids were about 13. The final score of the girls game was 6-4 and the score through three quarters of the boys game was 7-2. I guess that explains why Disanga Diop sucks. I walked around while the kids played, snapping pictures and talking to some of the little kids watching the game. A few of the boys were dribbling a ball, and when I asked them to pass it to me they immediately wanted me to try to dribble around them.

Once I showed that I could actually dribble a ball, the first kid – replete in a khakis, a handed down polo from a Catholic middle school in the Boston area, and a bandana tied just under his knee to show his gang affiliation – wanted to take me one on one. He didn’t speak any English, but smiled when I popped his crossover to the wall. The kid tried to go between my legs at least 6 times, and at one point even tried to throw the ball over my shoulder, off the backboard, and back to his other arm. None of it worked – playing on a Rec team with Marcus Monroe and one on one with Sean and Frank taught me, usually after getting thoroughly embarrassed at least ten times by the same trick, how to stop those kinds of shenanigans, but the kid kept trying. He seemed like one of the tough guys of the group – the other kids were noticeably quieter around him, and played up his successes and ignored the times I stole the ball from him. It was an interesting experience – Lovuoyo told me after we left that he keeps trying to get that kid to join the program, but every time he signs up he misses too many practices and doesn’t show up to games or our life skills lessons. His gang affiliation, through older brothers and neighborhood friends, has already sucked him into the downward spiral that’ll leave him in the townships his entire life. His chances of graduating high school, because of the role that gang is playing in his life already, at the age of 13, are around 15%. Statistically, he’ll probably drop out within 3 years, start using drugs if he hasn’t already, and amp his drinking up substantially – all of which will stop him from ever holding down a legit job, leading him to crime. His life expectancy, especially in a country with close to a 25% AIDS infection rate, is probably around 30. That kid, bandana and all, and all of his buddies are our target – the focus of our program, and the reason I found myself playing one on one on a Friday afternoon at an elementary school in a South African township.

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The next day brought with it a beautiful morning. I was up at 6:30 a.m. watching the sun rise over the ocean. The group I’m living with was working in a township for the day, building a government funded house as part of an Irish Habitat for Humanity program. Since I’ve been on a Habitat trip – New Orleans Spring Break 2008, I jumped at the chance. We took a bus over to pick up another group of Westerners, and headed out to a nicer township. It was the first time in a township for most of the kids I live with, and it showed. They were taking pictures of mundane things, gawking at the shacks and the people walking around, and in awe at the utter despair and the terrible conditions. (Obviously I was never that naïve, and never took any pictures like that or thought any of those things, previous posts and pictures excluded.) We split up into groups of about 10, and headed out to individual lots. The government recently started a rehabilitation fund for people in townships to upgrade their homes with free houses, as long as they can show that their current home – most often a shack put together with pieces of plywood and aluminum – didn’t meet the established housing standards. Once they were granted a house, they had to go through the process of getting someone to build it. The organization we volunteered with builds houses all over the township we were in, using the government money to fund it. The money goes straight to the organization, who then builds the house. The residents just have to move their shack to the back of their lot, to make room for their brand spanking new free house.

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Our job was the build the exterior walls. To do that we had to mix what South Africans call duga – mortar – and use it to put up the cinderblock exterior. We worked with two contractors, who supervised us through their limited English and with what I assume was more than a handful of Afrikaans curse words. We built the house up from a flat foundation to the window level – about 4 feet in 5 hours of work. Not bad for a group of Americans with zero construction experience. At one point I was carrying cinderblocks off the pile and into the house, so the people putting up the walls didn’t have to go get the heavy blocks every time they needed a new one. While I was doing this, a kid from a house across the street was leaning against one of the electricity poles, watching me. He didn’t say anything, but I nodded to him and he gave me a little nod back. He was probably about 14, skinny, with a buzz cut and a Nike tshirt on. When the organization gave us waters at our break time, I walked over to the kid and gave him mine. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember what he asked for: my Live Strong bracelet. I shook his hand and he immediately looked at my bracelet, and after he introduced himself he just flat out asked for it. Luckily I had packed three with me, in case one broke, so I figured what the hell. After I explained that I wore one in honor of my mom, I took it off and handed it to him. The smile on his face made the day worth it.

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I spent the next day hiking Lion’s Head – the smaller mountain next to Table Mountain in the pictures of the skyline I put up earlier. A group of six or seven of us went out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, guided by clear skies and 70 degree sunshine. The hike itself is pretty easy. It takes about an hour to do it walking, and the toughest part is a set of chains hanging off a ten foot sheer wall that we had to rappel up, using footholds and handgrips to help. It was a lot easier than it sounds, and took me about 10 seconds to scale. The girls had a bit more trouble, but I had a great time. At the top of the chains I randomly met up with my friend Ravic and his friend Monene, a fantastic random meeting. We climbed the rest of the way with them, and Ravic proved to be as adventurous as I wanted to be. We climbed off the path a couple times on the way to the top, hurdling and scampering up nine and ten foot rocks every time we spotted one next to sheer drop offs. It was fantastic – and not nearly as unsafe as I’m making it sound, I promise (Mom).

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The view at the top is absolutely mind blowing. Camp’s Bay, the City Bowl, ten miles into the Atlantic Ocean, Table Mountain, the harbor – its all right under your feet. The picture right above this paragraph is the view of the city and the townships off into the distance. My apartment building is the tall one about an inch to the left of my right elbow. The huge pool of water to my right is the city water reservoir, which has a 1 km running lane around the edges, a lap I’ve recently begun to take advantage of.  The picture at the top of this post is from the other side of the top of the mountain, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean and the rest of the downtown area. There are more pictures on my facebook of this hike and the view – you should be able to look at them here(second album with pictures from the township and my hiking) and here(pictures from my first week), even if you don’t have a facebook account.

More later about my Garden Route weekend and the employee development training I spent the week at last week.


1 Response to “Playing Catch Up”

  1. 1 Mary Snow
    October 8, 2009 at 3:15 am

    Jack, it sounds like you are doing a lot of interesting and worthwhile things.
    It’s very interesting, but it’s sad how the kids have to grow up in this situation.

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