Support Derek and GRS

Monday, October 31, 2011

Cliff Notes

So I’ve had some requests for blog cliff notes.* Fine, the entries have been a bit long. This gets you up to speed if, like my cousin, you don’t have the attention span to read long posts. Even if you’ve been reading all along, there’s lots of new stuff in here so check it out!

*I'm not endorsing cliff notes. Read the whole book! You'll get more out of it.

Character list:
Derek Stenquist – protagonist, GRS Zim Grants Officer
Alejandro “the ‘stache” Frischeisen – roommate/partner in crime, GRS Zim Business Development Officer
Annie Bauer - GRS Zim Director of Operations
Doc Ndiweni– GRS Zim Director of Health and Local Relations
Methembe – Executive Director “The Big Boss”
Nkosi – GRS-Z intern house guard puppy

Chapter 1: This is Zim
I arrived in Zimbabwe on August 22nd and have since had many adventures. I’m serving as an intern this year, and so far I’ve been assigned the role of Grants Officer for the organization. I write a lot of proposals and grant reports to donors and get to do awesome site visits to check in on our programs or investigate sites for future programs. Alejandro and I work under Doc in the Health and Local Relationships department (which also handles Business Development), and our other role this year has been to kick off GRS Zim’s VCT campaign. More about that in Chapter 9, but preparation for our first VCT has meant lots of networking with local independent and government-funded health organizations to create an HIV health services dream team, ready to deploy to any township with tents, HIV testing kits, CD4 count machine, condoms, peer educator support, and of course, sweet GRS t-shirts.

Chapter 2: Soccer
Soccer games here are always a crazy experience. We went to the Banc ABC Super 8 final between Motor Action Might Bulls and Highlanders FC last month. Highlanders are the team of the people in Bulawayo (nickname Bosso). They used to be a powerhouse in Zimbabwe but have fallen off in recent years. Fans still have very high expectations. Bosso lost 1-0 to Motor Action and 10,000 people in the North stands got upset. They started kicking down the fence at the north end of the stadium and police moved in with tear gas and German Shepherds. We watched from high in the East stands as the police loosed the dogs on the crowd. At another premier league game in Luveve we had a policeman in full riot gear come after us swinging his nightstick. The friends we were with didn’t tell us that the gate they were trying to pull us through actually wasn’t an entrance…

Chapter 3: Food
So far I’ve eaten macimbi (larvae of an endemic tree slug), matemba (tiny fish salty enough to turn your tongue to leather), imbuzi (goat), chicken liver, cow liver, and ox tail. Sadza is the cornmeal mush that doubles as Zimbabwe’s staple carbohydrate and silverware. Too bad it’s so hard to keep your hands clean here.

Chapter 4: Mpilo Hospital
I’ve written about Mpilo quite a few times because it fascinates me and presents such an incredible picture of the overwhelming need that still exists here in Zimbabwe. The hospital houses one of the largest pediatric Opportunistic Infections (AIDS) clinics in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is currently run by Doctors Without Borders, which brought the first ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs) to Bulawayo in 2004. The AIDS epidemic had been raging in Zimbabwe for over 20 years by the time the drugs arrived. The Mpilo OI clinic has a great teen resource center for kids living with HIV. One of the projects the interns have been cooking up in Business Development is a program to put the GRS curriculum to work for HIV-positive kids. We’ve written several proposals to fund SKILLZ Club, a support group for HIV-positive teens using GRS games to build collective identity, self-esteem, and conflict mitigation skills. Most importantly we want to help Mpilo counselors reduce default rates (defaulters are HIV-positive kids who stop taking their ARVs) because HIV-positive individuals who adhere to their treatment are 96% less likely to infect others with HIV! We think GRS has an important role to play in this aspect of treatment for prevention by bolstering support for HIV-positive teens with a soccer-based curriculum that helps realize they can live long, healthy lives if they stick to their treatment regimen.

Chapter 5: Transport
Our trashed Mazda truck has Ultimate Force decals on the front and back. It also has a sticker on the tailgate that says “Bad Boy” and has a little face with devilish eyebrows. We’ve been rolling in the truck for about a month now. The tires are worn completely bald and whenever we put too many people/things in the bed of the truck, the wheelwell grinds ruts into the tire and the air smells like burning rubber because the shocks are kaput. We were promised something safer, but this is Africa and they’re working on the repairs to another car for us. In the meantime, I love cruising with the lefty stickshift. I’m writing about the truck again because we’ve since had some unbelievable episodes with running out of gas. When I wrote about it before, it was funny. Then we ran out of gas three times. In one day. The gas gauge is broken so we have to guess how we’re doing from the sound of the engine.

Chapter 6: Bantu
Ale and I play for Bantu Rovers in the ZIFA southern region division 1 league. Side note: he’s also been grooming an impressive mustache since we got here. Our season’s over now, but we got to do some traveling with the team and see parts of the country we never would have otherwise. The other day we went to a gold mine called How Mine for a game. The sign at the entrance said: “all visitors will be searched upon exit” and the entire complex was surrounded by barbed wire. The field itself sat below an impressive complex of towering scaffolding and machinery and who-knows-what up on the hill they pull the gold out of. On opposite hillside nestled an entire town of squat, white-washed square houses and a few longer, rectangular school buildings. This side was the town for the miners’ families (High-density How Mine housing area).  At one end of the field the ground fell away into amazing valleys covered with scrub grass and stunted trees. Everything is dusty here…elephant country. We hear that Zimbabwe has tons of gold, and we’ve seen our share of mines since we’ve been here. Hopefully some day soon Zim will have a government that takes all the country’s abundant natural resources (diamonds, coal, gold, platinum) and puts them to work for the people once again.

During another team trip we went to play up at Vic Falls on the Zambian border, and the team stayed in a backpackers’ lodge and went to see the Falls together the morning before the game. I’ll post some pictures of the team, Falls, and cooking a giant vat of sadza over a fire to feed 25 people. I chopped about 10 pounds of chamolia (local lettuce-type veggie) that night.

Chapter 7: Robbery
We got robbed a month or so ago. The thieves made off with two bikes, two bananas, a can of beans, a jar of peanut butter, and other groceries. Luckily they didn’t come looking for our bedrooms because we were in the house, asleep! Two days later they came back and siphoned gas out of the truck. Since then we’ve upgraded our security systems considerably (added an extra padlock and bought a 6-week old puppy).

Chapter 8: Nkosi
We got a puppy two weeks ago. He has been a blast to hang out with and really rounds out the intern house. Some day he might even be large enough to scare someone. His name is Nkosi, which means “Chief” in Ndebele, and he is a yellow lab/boxer mix. He’s also my new alarm clock, and I’ve never seen a bigger ball of energy than Nkosi at 5:30am. Pictures to come (all picture promises are always dependent on internet connection strength. Usually that’s a 2 on a scale from 1-10.)

Chapter 9: VCT
A GRS VCT tournament is a soccer tournament held in a disadvantaged area with HIV health services offered on-site during the event. GRS has had incredible success hosting VCTs in Malawi, South Africa, and Zambia, with over 21,000 people tested for HIV since 2009. One of our tasks as interns was to help GRS Zim launch its VCT campaign this year. Well, we got off to a great start on Saturday with our first event at Lobengula Rugby Ground in the high-density township of Lobengula North outside of Bulawayo.

Our tournament featured soccer games between boys’ and girls’ teams from three local high schools. The matches started around 9am (after a GRS staff game!) and our testing partners came and set up tents by the field. Our testing partners are government and international organizations with mobile testing units who can set up shop to test people for HIV in any environment. We hired a DJ for the day and he kept the African house music pumping all day long. I can’t wait to post some pictures from the event. It was like a giant dance party and the little kids in attendance danced from 8am to 5pm. Professional soccer players (who also work as GRS coaches) decked out in their GRS t-shirts with slogans like “Play it Safe, Get Tested Today” went door-to-door in the community, encouraging people to come test. We encouraged all families and community members to test and utilize other services provided by our health partners such as PMTCT counseling, family planning resources, and referrals for medical male circumcision.

By the end of the day we had tested 300 people for HIV who may otherwise not have had access to HIV testing facilities. It was a great day and a fantastic first VCT event for GRS Zim. The entire staff was exhausted by the end of the day, having worked from 6am to 6pm to make it happen! Most importantly, we lowered barriers to care such as fees, distance, and time, for a lot of vulnerable children and individuals, allowing them to access vital health services and know their HIV status. It was amazing to see the response – some people were crying they were so thankful to be negative. One young woman claimed to have seen the light, and was planning on changing her lifestyle in order to stay negative. The great thing about GRS VCT tournaments is that they bring together many of the resources this young lady needs to help her stay negative (behavior change curricula, referral to health partners, family planning services).

Chapter 10: Aliens
Our work permits still haven’t come through and we had a brief stint as illegal aliens last month when we overstayed our holiday visas. Luckily we have a friend in immigration, wink wink. The best part was this week when our permits came back, rejected. They’d decided to retroactively impose an additional two requirements for a work visa. Literally took the requirements list and added numbers 12 and 13 after we’d filed our paperwork and then enforced those requirements. Classic.

Plot Summary:
The people of Zimbabwe are incredibly welcoming and have made our stay a blast so far. Africa is so different from everything at home; many things are quite the opposite, in fact. Two and half months here and I’m really starting to get a hang of life this side. Everything happens five times slower, bureaucracy is the rule, and soccer is king. There is a great need for development, improved infrastructure, and more efficient and abundant health services. Most importantly, living here has helped me to realize how fortunate we truly are in the United States. Sure, we have our problems, and we gripe about government and money and work. But we have the basics, and we have an awful lot to be happy about.

Life for us is downright easy compared to what many of these people face on a daily basis and what they’ve gone through in the last few years. Just a year or two ago there was no food in the grocery stores. Even today, many people go hungry in the townships where we host VCTs. Unemployment is still over 80%. There are no jobs, and precious few opportunities to improve one’s lot. HIV is a daily reality for everyone, regardless of class, race, creed, sexual orientation. Education is limited and up to 50% of kids are out of school. In the United States many of us have educational opportunities that young people here can’t even imagine. Thank you to everyone who has helped me to spend this year working on behalf of the people of Bulawayo through your generous support. Organizations like GRS help us all to realize what it means to be worthy of our privileges.

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