Archive for June, 2004

Last Day in Durban

Wednesday, June 30th, 2004

That’s it!  I’m heading back to Port Shepstone later today.  It’ll be sad to leave the comforts and pleasures of the big city, but that’s not really why I came to South Africa.

Sizwe’s steel drum band was definitely worth sticking around town to hear, and Robin’s art room is really something else.  I *must* try and get pictures up when I get back to Singapore.

More random trivia, Durban edition

Monday, June 28th, 2004

1) For all its sophistication, Durban has yet to see fettucine catch on as *the* pasta.  And vermicelli is served virtually exclusively as a milky, Indian dessert.  Very strange.

2) Don’t talk about taking a “taxi” here in Durban, say “metered cab”.  Taxis, and even “cabs” refer to these 12-seater-turned-16-seater minivans that ply the roads taking passengers, kind of like private buses (and equally cheap).  Ever taken sharp bends going at 140km/hr (what is that in mi/hr?)?  While the driver counts out coins to give change?  Want to?  Well, get on a Durban taxi.  I have, and survived to tell the tale (being wedged soldily against other people is a great way to avoid being flung about).

3) The mega-malls here are awesome in scale (6-storey free-standing climbing walls, anyone?), and opulence (live concert pianists??), but the shopping is unfortunately lacklustre (unless you’re shopping for home furnishings, because that is another story altogether).

Durban excitement

Sunday, June 27th, 2004

Alright, too many things to say, but not much time to say them all right now.


I’m in Durban right now, which is South Africa’s third (I think) largest city.  It’s a vibrant port city on the East Coast, in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).  I came to see Robin and Sizwe, with whom Janine and I worked on ThinkQuest ’99 (some of you will know what I’m talking about, the rest can ask me some other time).

I’d planned on spending either one or two days here and staying at a hotel.  Instead, I went to an art exhibition at the Alliance Francaise here, chatted up two friendly older women and now I have free accommodation in a really nice part of town (neighboring homes being auctioned by Sotheby’s international realtors and all that ;).  But seriously, the people here have been really lovely, and I’ve been ferried around, given money (!), wined and dined (gotta love South African wines!), brought to churches and housed comfortably on the unending generosity of the people here.  Thank you, God.  Thank you, South Africa.

At this point, I want to officially complain about having (finally) decided to “simplify” and pack lightly (only a day or two, at most!).  Normally I bring enough to last a lifetime (oh, but what if I get invited to a swanky cocktail reception?  I’d better bring my dress shoes and a nice shirt; And what if I want to visit a gym?  Better have my track shoes and some workout clothes…), but this time I thought: “it’s ridiculous for me to lug a ton of stuff to a city just over an hour away for a weekend junket.  You always think you need to be prepared for an unexpectedly long stay, but this time it’s simply pointless (yes, I do usually carry a spare toothbrush in my bag whenever I go out, even in Singapore).”

So this time, it’s really happened – I’m staying a week instead of the two days originally planned.  Thank goodness my capsule-capsule luggage *just barely* covered all the situations I’ve been in so far. (Invited to a series of concerts at a music festival?  No problem!  Going clubbing at Durban’s oldest and hippest dance club, open only once a week?  Ready when you are.)

The artwork produced by Ningizimu under Robin’s guidance is truly remarkable, breathtakingly intricate and almost unimaginably creative and beautiful.  I’d seen pictures of the wall-hangings before (they’re called “banners” but they’re really more like installation art), but photographs do no justice to the presence and lustre of the pieces.  They’ll be exhibited in Paris, Nantes and Geneva in the next couple of months, and they really do deserve to be seen in galleries and exhibition halls.

Now I’m really looking forward to hearing Sizwe performing with his steel drum band at Ningizimu on Tuesday (the primary reason I’m extending my stay here in Durban).  I think it’s going to be extraordinary.

Hmmn, that wasn’t much of a summary, now was it?

Anyway, I’ve been cooking lots for the three of us (Sally, Sizwe and myself).  I made pasta and garlic bread yesterday, chicken soup and pan-fried vermicelli today (fried bee hoon, for those who know ;).  I *love* cooking!

At the fete de la musique, there was a very talented sextet of South African youths from a nearby township (KwaMashu) that played beautifully, and one of their most poignant, original songs was titled “You Must Come to South Africa”.  The lyrics were very simple, along the lines of:

You must come to South Africa (x3)
You’ll see the beautiful country
You’ll see the beautiful people
You must come to South Africa

The reason I mention this is not because I agree with the sentiment (which I wholeheartedly do), but because it made me think of what Xin Wei once said about state-sponsored art.  I wonder what she would have thought of this song, given that it can easily be considered corny, nationalist propaganda, yet has as much credibility as can be mustered for any piece of art.

Last note: As Emily, Doug and some others have realised, to call me from the US, you need to drop the zeros from the country (27) and area codes (31).  But in any case, I’ll only be back in Port Shepstone on Wednesday.  In case of emergency, Pastor Maggie has a number to reach me here in Durban.


Friday, June 25th, 2004

Random things I’ve learnt so far:

1) Those fields of what I originally thought was wheat or corn or something are actually *sugarcane*.  Now, I’ve seen (and consumed) lots of sugarcane previously, but because of the way I’d always seen them in hawker centers (stripped of leaves and ready of the juicer), I’d always asumed they looked like bamboo in the wild, with exposed stems and sparse leaves.  Apparently not.

2) Couscous is made from corn meal.  This one has puzzled me for a while now.  I still don’t know how it’s made exactly, but let’s take things one step at a time.

3) It’s much easier, as a foreign intern, to attend fairly high level meetings and interact with senior government officials, than it is in your own home country (or at least just in Singapore).


Field Trip!

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2004

Just got back from one of the wards in KwaMachi where there was a big meeting with the local Ngcosi (the tribal chief, whose title is translated as “His Majesty”).  The whole thing was quite an experience (and almost entirely in Zulu), quite exotic, formal and quaint, even if the whole meeting was held in a new, modern building with fluorescent lighting and fabric office blinds.

The nearly three hour travelling time was quite tiring though.

PS: I saw my first South African chickens today!!  Big fat hens with little chicks swarming after them, scrawny pullets and strutting roosters :))

Mondays don’t bother me (Happy Father’s Day!)

Monday, June 21st, 2004

This is a long post, so important things first: I can be reached at Pastor Maggie’s home where I am living at (027) 039 682 4619 in the evenings (note that I am normally asleep before 10pm); and in case of emergencies, I can be reached at the Practical Ministries office at (027) 039 682 6203 / 4.  South Africa (GMT +2) is 6 hours behind Singapore time and 6 hours ahead of the US (Eastern Time).



Some things are the same everywhere.  I haven’t seen a single bit of what might be called “wildlife” in the African-bush sense of the word.  Every adult has a mobile phone, and the neighbours are watching “Spykids 3” with 3D-glasses.


I guess people are the same everywhere as well.  There are self-important, ossified dignitaries, there are self-martyring, pedantic matriarchs, there are mischievous, energetic children, there are swaggering young men, quietly-struggling fathers, flirtatious young wives, there are shy, friendly, hospitable, chatty, introverted, hopeful, insightful, amenable, lost, excitable, spiritual, talented, relaxed, musical, curious, proud, multi-faceted, indescribable people.  There’s a bit more emphasis on the “friendly” here in South Africa than elsewhere, though, perhaps especially because Port Shepstone is a relatively small community (about half a million people).



The levels of need here are stark, and pervasive, even if I haven’t yet seen much of it directly – there is too much dignity for that.  They talk of it in the community churches with bare floors, at the lush Hindu weddings resplendent with rose petals and candles, at the elegant garden parties with finger food and live jazz bands and also at the seaside villas with the stunning views of the Indian Ocean just beyond the swimming pool, and they all acknowledge the tragedy of the matter.  The children orphaned by AIDS, the teenagers washing dishes to support themselves through high school, the old men addicted to drink, or gambling, or drugs, the abandoned wives.  I have spent more far money feeding other people than I have spent on feeding myself, which is not a boast, but a lament.



One thing notably different here though is (what seems to me) very low levels of anxiety concerning exams and academic achievement in general.  While a sizeable proportion of the people I’ve met or heard about have various Masters degrees, and one fourteen year old in Pietermartizburg told me about the suicides that precede and follow the public announcement of the “Matric” (short for Matriculation, sort of like the A-levels or the SATs) results, the children and parents here don’t seem anywhere as concerned as those back home in Singapore, admittedly some of the most stressed individuals anywhere.  Remember the relatively high levels of unemployment which you would think might raise the importance of doing well in school.  All the students here are in the midst of “writing exams”, as they say here, yet parents are still renting DVDs for their children and the teenagers will still hang out, chat and have tea with you, even the ones taking their Matric this year.  I think of Jenevieve at home, a month away from her Prelims, who has been studying for weeks, or of the intensity of Reading Period back in Cambridge (remember those kids who literally move into Cabot Library?), and this laid-back attitude strikes me as almost incomprehensible.  Even if I may agree that Singaporeans can go rather overboard in their approach to schooling (I don’t think I would ever be able to claim I studied too much or too early; Zheyu and Jolene, I’m thinking of you two), I can hardly begin to imagine that any other attitude towards academics (other than grave respect and diligent work) can be appropriate.


And these people I speak of have been overwhelming Asian (i.e. Indians), who have, together with the Coloured people, progressed the most materially and otherwise since the fall of apartheid in 1994.



I can be nothing but very thankful for my situation here though.  It’s almost everything I could have hoped for in an NGO internship.  Practical Christian Ministries is a non-profit grassroots organisation (kind of like BCCSC back home), that runs a variety of projects in the areas of democracy (like running workshops on election processes, doing voter registration, monitoring voting etc.), human rights and women’s rights in particular (workshops, training ministers, surveys to monitor the situation etc.), poverty reduction (skills training, setting up cooperative business, providing information and access to government grants, micro-credit etc.), HIV/AIDS prevention and impact-reduction (awareness programmes, minister-outreach; they’re launching a new, holistic-approach campaign called “Living Positively” in July), youth outreach (skills training, trauma counselling etc.), and pastoral care (training pastors in counselling skills, creating communities of pastors in rural areas etc.).  So far I’ve only been there for two days (16 June was Youth Day, also the anniversary of the Soweto riot/massacre, which Janine might remember), but I look forward to the following weeks.  The first day I was a scribe at their latest progress-report meeting, which gave me a fantastic overview of all the work the organisation is doing, and now I’m helping to put together an outline for the organisation’s corporate PowerPoint presentation and website.  I’m expecting to be brought out to see some of the fieldwork some time soon.



I dreamt of Harvard last night.  I dreamt that Thayer Hall had been radically renovated, and that Thayer 101 had been transformed into an enormous 16-man suite that stretched several floors above and one floor down into what would have been the IRC and Computer Society offices.  In my dream I met the freshman who were just moving into the suite, and answered some of their questions about administrative matters, classes and extracurricular activities, all the while marvelling at the vastness of the space with just a little pang of regret at how unrecognizable the space had become.


I’ve been entertaining thoughts of learning how to make chutney and making it in DeWolfe. J



Doug agrees that my accent has changed.  I wonder how it sounds.  I imagine it sounds rather South African, and try as I might I can’t quite recall how to sound American.  Slightly disturbing.


I can still just manage Singaporean, though.



PS: Whatever possessed me to believe that I could go a month with a week’s worth of clothes??

Monday, June 21st, 2004

Monday, June 21st, 2004

Monday, June 21st, 2004

Monday, June 21st, 2004