Africa 420 (The Africa Diaries) Part Three

Published 06, Dec, 2012

Ed Wolf returns to Africa to follow-up with the counselors he helped trained earlier in 2011 for an HIV vaginal gel microbicide trial.

You can read part one and part two by clicking on the Related Articles links below.


November 3, 2011


I’m heading to SFO within the hour, returning to South Africa to follow-up with the counselors we trained in April & August. It’ll be summer there now, and I’ll be spending more time outside of the bigger cities, into the more rural areas. I’ll post my impressions and photos when I can. When I return, I’ll have a few days to rest up, and then into the hospital for a knee replacement. What a ride this year has been! 

November 4.

My employer paid for business class for me to get to South Africa and back home again. Such a generous gift, especially given the length of the flight and the condition of my knees. As the economy passengers walked past me, I heard some say, “He’s the 1%.” I felt like making a sign that read, “Have worked for non-profits for 25 years.” Reminds me to not make assumptions the next time I’m heading back to economy. 

November 5

The plane descends to Durbin, looking like Santa Barbara, lots of red tile roofs and bougainvillea along a blue sea. When the cabin door opens, the air smells like Florida. I’m so tired and stiff, I stumble as I leave the terminal. I meet Arnold, who will take me to the hotel. He asks me where I’m from and then says, “I’ve been to California!” Durbin reminds him of Santa Barbara too. He asks me why I’ve come so far. 

We drive along the Indian Ocean. I tell him I’ve come to support staff working in vaginal microbicide trials. He’s never heard of microbicides, says they’d be a miraculous gift to Africa. We get quiet. He says he & his wife have been trying to get pregnant; they’re discouraged. I tell him midwives often advise couples to not try so hard; it’s difficult to create a life under such pressure. He says it’s good advice. 

I arrive at the hotel. What was once a large mansion has been turned into a guesthouse. When I open the door to my room I see a big screen TV on the wall, a huge tub in the bathroom. It’s big enough for me to get all the way in; a chandelier hangs above it. I recall the 1% comment I heard muttered on the plane, then ease down onto the bed. It’s been 31 hours since Kirk dropped me off at the airport. Time to sleep! 

November 6

A rainy day in Durbin, reviewing our materials for the week, taking naps, waiting for my colleague R to arrive. Walked thru the neighborhood around the hotel, passed a field with a large circle of white rocks in the middle. I remember seeing it yesterday, when there were women, all dressed in white, sitting on each stone. It seems a sacred circle of some sort. There’s lightning tonite. Tomorrow, our 1st clinic visit.


circle of stones 

November 7

Our driver arrives early to take us to our 1st clinic visit, an area called Valley of a 1000 Hills. We drive between hills lined with eucalyptus trees; it’s like Marin County back home. We pass more circled stones. The driver tells us of a religious sect who follow the teachings of someone called “The Black Jesus.” They don’t believe in worshipping inside, so services are held outside, within the circle of stones. 

Gandhi lived here 20 years, began non-violent non-cooperation due to racism he experienced here. Gandhi was one of the 1st people to call for release of Mandela, thus his home is a revered place now. The clinic staff welcomes us; they’ve seen 100s of women since we were here, women who often live in the mountains surrounding the clinic, walking many miles to come here, as well as to shop and retrieve drinking water. 

It’s lunchtime as we leave, passing more circled stones, and churches, mosques, and temples to Sai Baba. We stop to have a bunny for lunch. It’s a half loaf of white bread, hollowed out and filled with curry. Everyone eats with their fingers; it’s very tasty. The driver hears me talking about a gay bar in Johannesburg and says there’s one in Durban called ‘Bean Bag Bohemia.’ R and I decide to check it out soon. 

November 8

Our site visits continue; staff we trained are happy to see us, reporting positive outcomes from the counseling approach we introduced in April. We travel through vast fields of sugar cane, spying huge mansions in the eucalyptus trees, informal settlements high on the hills. The contrast between the haves and have-nots is striking. I’m riding in small cars and my knees remind me of my impending surgery when I return. 

Our driver tells a harrowing story about being a truck driver before he worked for the clinic; a hijacking, a gun battle, a narrow escape with his life. He says more about the people who worship in the circle of stones. When I return to the hotel, I find a story of mine about the early days of AIDS has been published on-line. 

November 10

We’ve been to 6 sites now, interviewing over 60 counselors, nurses and pharmacists. Our first refresher training goes well. On the ride back to the hotel, our driver shares his concerns about the fate of South Africa when Mandela dies; he’s almost 94, frail, reclusive. The driver says that many are increasingly worried, afraid that the country could possibly erupt into civil war when their beloved visionary is gone. 

We go to the gay restaurant near the hotel for dinner. We sit outside. Other tables quickly fill with gay men and lesbians. The discussion about Mandela weighs heavy. The economic disparity, the legacy of apartheid, the racism we see and feel everywhere. Is it all a powder keg, waiting to explode? As we return to the hotel, the rain begins to fall. A huge storm blows into Durban. During the night, the power goes out. 

November 11

The next day we go to our last Durban site visit. En route, we pass the public market. I want to stop but the driver says it’s too dangerous. During our lunch break, I find the driver and ask him to take me. We spend 45 minutes walking thru the peoples market. Oh how I wish you could have been with us! I took my camera and will post photos as I am able. One of those truly unforgettable life experiences! 

market scenes

November 12 

We leave Durban early Saturday a.m. Our flight will head north for our next site visit, a small city outside Jo’berg called Klerksdorp. We tell our driver where we’re headed; he warns us that some of the white Afrikaners we’ll meet will be very racist. He shares awful stories about how he’s been treated by them. When he sees the pained look on my face he says, “Don’t worry, they’ll like you. You look just like them.” 

We land in Jo’berg and are met by 2 black men. They’re pleased when we see the large sign they’ve made with our names on it. They take our luggage and go to the car, which is too small for me. I force my body into the front seat and my legs immediately begin to throb. I can tell they feel bad, but there’s nothing we can do. They say the drive will take 2 hours. Then we take a wrong turn from the airport and get lost. 

It’s my most challenging experience on the trip so far. The drivers try to get back to the highway, R tries to get the GPS to work (the instructions are in Afrikaner). I groan in pain. It would be humorous, except it’s not. The drivers are boyhood friends, speak to each other in their native tongue. They’re aware of my great discomfort, trying their best. Finally R gets the GPS to work; we’re back on track!  

We leave the city, cross high plateaus. I want to get thru the discomfort of being cramped, lack of air conditioning and water. I don’t want to seem the racist Afrikaner I look like. There’s tension in the car until I ask the driver about the huge hills on the horizon. He tells me about the gold mines, how they folded, brought unemployment and misery to the region. I start to come out of myself; my discomforts lessen. 

The driver talks of boyhood in Soweto. He uses “olden days” instead of apartheid, talks of the 2/3 unemployment now, government corruption, poverty, hunger, struggles to find anything to do, to eat. I ask what can be done; he says, “I don’t know; I’m not a politician.” We drive over a crest in the road. I look out over a vast plain, a vista so far and clear; it’s the farthest I’ve ever seen. My heart splits open. 

When we arrive in Klerksdorp, my legs, thankfully, have fallen asleep. The city center’s empty; the town died with the gold mines. We turn onto beautiful tree-lined streets, huge white mansions behind brick walls. Its late afternoon and the domestics sit in the shade, waiting for rides back to their township. We pull up in front of one of the large homes; a tall white man and several housekeepers come out to meet us.

It’s my 1st African guesthouse experience, sharing space with a family who lives here.  An elderly housekeeper serves all the meals, washes all dishes, all laundry, etc. She’s invisible to all but R and I. We thank her, ask about her day; we see her. She tells us she has lost a key and she’s in big trouble; the owner has yelled at her and will do so again. It’s so painful to watch and not know how to intervene. 

We’re stuck here for the weekend. Unbearable heat, no e-mail access, and a fearful housekeeper. We can’t say anything to the owner about the maid; it could make things worse for her. It’s complex because he is, in many ways, a good and generous man. He clearly loves his children, has a houseful of pets he loves, is a lawyer, his wife a nurse. It all seems perfect, except for the poor treatment of the invisible maid. 

November 13

I toss and turn all night. I stick to the sheets, the almost full moon shines thru the open window. I keep hearing the maid say, “He will shout at me again!” What to do? In the a.m., the owner offers us his car. We drive to an animal preserve. The wheel is on the right, we have to stay in the left lane. “Far right,” we shout, when we have to turn. “Little left,” we shout again. We laugh all the way to the preserve. 

Impalas, wildebeests, rhinos, giraffes. We drive on red dirt roads, relieved to be away from the hot house and the helplessness of the situation there. I’m struck by the beauty of land and wildlife. I think of the strangeness of it being November, suddenly aware it’s the 2nd Sunday of the month, the 17th anniversary of Bob’s death. A close friend of almost 30 years, he took his own life to escape the misery of AIDS. 

(Interrupting my African travelogue to share the wonderful news that, waking up in Johannesburg this a.m., I read that 'We Were Here' is officially shortlisted for an Oscar Nomination. Thanks to David, Bill, everyone involved in the creation & support of the film. I'm feeling tired & far from home. This news will get me thru my last week here! Hugs to all!) 

Driving slowly, ostriches and wildebeest crossing the road ahead, thinking of Bob and others who died of AIDS so long ago. The mystery of how grief works. So acute at 1st; then the slow lessening. I used to dread November, bringing its memories of Bob’s terrible passing, and my father’s 2 weeks later. This year, I’d almost forgotten about it all. If there’s one absolute certainty about life, it’s this: it goes on. 

November 14

We go to the clinic in the a.m., meeting with nurses and counselors who see 6-7 women a day, week after week, month after month, finding ways to support them using the vaginal gel that someday may be shown to protect them from HIV. The staff’s dedication is endlessly inspiring. When we return to the guesthouse to get our bags, we find the white owner himself is going to drive us the 2+ hours back to Johannesburg. 

I’m struck by his thoughtfulness. He’s fixed the a/c, removed the front passenger seat so I can sit in the back and stretch out. I’m still so troubled by his treatment of his housekeeper; I ask him his opinion of what’s happening in Africa. The issue, he says, are the blacks. “I don’t mean to offend,” he says. “But they are different from whites, very different.” It gets quiet. He says, “I don’t want to offend.” 

I tell him I won’t be offended, tell me the difference. He waves his hand out over the highways, the mills on either side. “White men built all of this . . . infrastructure. If a white man sees an empty field, he does something with it.” I say that for centuries, Africa was doing just fine without highways or mills; and besides, what’s wrong with empty fields. He says I can’t understand because I don’t live here. 

They lack ‘steam,’ he says. I tell him about all the resourceful, committed, resilient and compassionate people I’ve just spent weeks with. They’ve got plenty of steam. “Ah,” he responds, “but they don’t have engines.” Our discussion heats up, he saying it’s evolution, they lack capability, me saying that access to education and opportunity have a lot to do with capability. “Let’s stop,” he says. “We’ll never agree!” 

I try one more time. “What’s your vision for the future for South Africa?” He tells me of his youth here, his military service in the Congo as a peacekeeper, of friends and family who lost everything in Zimbabwe and Angola when they were evicted from the only countries they ever knew. He says he used to have a vision, but now, (he holds his hand in front of his face) now it’s all blocked by a dark cloud. 

We enter Jo’berg traffic, glad the drive’s over. I hear shouts & bull horns, drive thru a crowd in front of our hotel; employees are on strike. We unload the car, thank our driver. I take his hand, say I wish that something changes, that he’ll see a future again someday. Then I’m ushered away, checked in, led to an elevator by a nervous bellhop. He says he had to sneak into the hotel to avoid a beating; he’s a scab. 

He opens my door and leaves, refusing the tip I offer. I see the chanting strikers down below, then lay down and fall asleep with the tv on. During the night I’m awakened by Oakland mayor Jean Quan’s voice explaining why police raided the Occupy Camp. I watch protestors being dragged away on African television. I realize now that we’ve been chanting all these years is true: the whole world IS watching. 

November 15 

Our last clinic visit’s in the a.m. When we finish, we go to the airport. R. leaves; I stay behind to do 2 last trainings. We’ve worked & travelled so well; I’ll miss her companionship. I’m driven to the next hotel. It’s the same one I stayed in back in April. It feels so right to be where my African adventures began so many months ago. I look down from the 21st floor. My knee throbs; it will be gone in 2 weeks. 

November 17 

The trainings go well. A great moment: gathering everyone in a circle to read them “The Giving Tree,” a story about a tree and a boy who takes her leaves, apples, branches; eventually her trunk; at the end, she’s a only stump he can sit on. It’s a story of unconditional love; but in this room of caregivers, it becomes a cautionary tale of the dangers of poor boundaries. Everyone commits to taking care of themselves.   

November 18

During the days, the counselors & I explore ways to support women in clinical trials. Nights, I sit in my room on the 21st floor, looking out over Jo’burg & beyond. I write to you. I follow the Occupy Movements back home, talk to my beloved Kirk. When violent rain and lightning storms roar across the city, I go out on the balcony, lean over the railing and feel their power. Once, I do it naked. I highly recommend it. 

November 19 

My last day arrives; suddenly I’m back at the airport, sitting in a Business Class Lounge with other white men, most in suits. An open bar in front of me, covered with bottles of booze and canapés and cream puffs. How to make sense of all the disparities of the past weeks? I’ve tried to be kind & open to everyone I’ve met; it’s the best I could do. For now tho, a chocolate éclair, and a ginger ale before I fly home! 

November 22 

My year: 3 continents, 6 countries, 7 states, 24 cities, 57 flights, 130,000 miles, 142 taxis, 87 hotel rooms, 18 HIV trainings, 52 screenings of “We Were Here.” Thank you, so very much, to everyone who picked me up, helped me down, put me up, helped me in, brought me food, made my bed, found the time, shook my hand, shared their views, read my posts. Take heart my friends: Life, at least from here, begins at 60!

November 28, 2011

Tomorrow morning, Kirk drives me to St. Mary’s hospital. By 3 pm, if all goes well, I’ll have a brand new titanium knee. I’ve been told the challenge (and my work) will be to stay ahead of the pain over the next few weeks. Please send me a good thought tomorrow, Tuesday, about 10 am, when the surgery begins. Imagine me on a horse, riding out ahead of the pain, free and clear and easy. Yes! Free and clear and easy!