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Lisa Oakley '04Lisa Oakley '04

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Living the Lessons of South Africa

I really wasn't expecting to lose a toenail that day. The room was stifling -- 85 to 90 degrees -- and full of the stench of body odor and rotten fruit. The single ceiling fan on the far side of the room lazily floated on the slowest setting, accomplishing little more than stirring the hot air.

Standing in the middle of a rude mob in a passport control room on the border between South Africa and Mozambique, finding myself repeatedly elbowed in the stomach, stomped on and rammed into a metal railing, I thought, "We're not in Oregon anymore, Toto!" This was definitely not the weekend getaway I had expected.

It was a little more than three months since I had begun my six-month volunteer stint in South Africa. I was working with an AIDS organization named Community Aids Response, located in a Johannesburg neighborhood. Johannesburg is a big city by any standard. With about 3.3 million people -- not counting the illegal immigrants, refugees and those living in the informal settlements just outside city limits -- it is a teeming metropolis. I quickly became accustomed to big city life, South African style.

However you view it, it's a big step up in size from Portland, where I had lived and worked for the previous two years, and a giant leap from the "Willamette Bubble" I experienced during my undergraduate years in Salem. I was fortunate because I hadn't fallen into the city completely blind. My choice to volunteer was strongly rooted in the amazing experiences I had two years earlier during a three-week Chamber Choir tour through most of South Africa. Subsequent to a passionate speech from Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Willamette's campus, Choral Director Wallace Long and President Lee Pelton began planning the tour -- planning that began with a wild idea and ended a year later with more than 50 current students and recent graduates boarding a plane to travel to, literally, the other side of the earth.

When I returned to the country for my volunteer trip, I wanted to feel the full impact of the diversity of a country like South Africa, so I ventured out of the hustle and bustle of the city to the rural areas any chance I got. Besides the unspoiled nature of the villages, there is just something clean and pure about being with native peoples.

The temperature was close to 100 degrees, and it was very humid when my friends and I visited a village named Venda. Venda is the kind of village that I imagined Africa being like before I learned how big the cities really are -- and no, lions did not walk down the middle of the dirt roads. White people are not common in Venda, and most children have never seen a white person before. The only paved roads in the region are the motorways (highways) and in the nearby town of Thohoyandou. Otherwise, all roads are dirt and most require the assistance of four-wheel drive.

I believe that Venda is one of the poorest areas of South Africa, at least the poorest area that I have yet seen. Unfortunately, as in most of the world, poor and rural seem to go hand-in-hand.

The most heart-warming experience was our visit to a rural primary school. These kids didn't have much in life. Many of them were barefoot, most of their clothes were torn and ragged and a number of them came to school just so they could get a free government-provided meal. Some kids were scared of me; white skin is pretty odd if you've never seen it. But once they warmed up and saw my camera, they went crazy. They were jumping, laughing and smiling. I love the kids there! They can have so little and still show so much love, excitement and enthusiasm for life.

One particular boy was very frightened of me. Every time I got close to him, he started crying. I was told later that he thought I was a "she-goat." I don't quite understand how a woman can be confused with a goat, but it really hit home how much of an outsider I was. Never before had I been thought of as non-human!

Of far greater impact was the realization that, for the first time in my life, I got a sense of what it is like to be judged based solely on the color of my skin. That's an experience that just doesn't happen to most white people in Salem, Portland, or most of Oregon or the U.S., for that matter.

Once I was back in the city, the realities of working with people infected with or affected by HIV or AIDS set in again. Deaths are so common there that they are not viewed quite the same as they might be in the U.S. Nearly everyone you talk with knows someone who has died from an AIDS-related illness, and many have an immediate family member who is infected and/or they themselves are victims.

There were 499,268 reported HIV-related deaths in South Africa in 2002. To put that in perspective, that is more than three times the population of Salem dying in just one year in a country the size of Texas. And that is only the reported deaths. There still is a great stigma in South Africa around one's HIV status, so many of the deaths are recorded as something other than AIDS or are not recorded at all. In 2005, 10.8 percent of the population was HIV positive and, sadly, these numbers are growing.

My goal for this trip was to impact the life of at least one person. I believe I did that through the support groups I facilitated for youth who are either infected or have family members who are infected, and the trainings I did every two weeks to help infected people gain general office, computer and presentation skills.

But nothing I was able to offer the people of South Africa compared to what I gained from the experience. Nothing in the world is more valuable than immersing yourself in another culture. I learned how much patience it really takes to care for others. I learned that some of the poorest people will give you anything they can if they think you need it. South Africans are the warmest, most welcoming people I have ever met. I realized that sometimes you can learn much more about life from someone who has lived it than you can from textbooks that only talk about it. Experience, whether your own or someone else's, is priceless.

And so it was experience I sought on that day I traveled to the border of South Africa and Mozambique. The experience of being assaulted by a jostling crowd of impatient African men in a culture with little sense of personal space (and apparently little concept of queuing) was unanticipated! Five and a half hours later I crossed into Mozambique with a very sore baby toe (minus one nail), and I once again was totally overwhelmed with how much of the world I had yet to experience.

Lisa Oakley '04 wrote this article during a six-month volunteer trip earlier this year in South Africa, where she worked with HIV-infected and -affected teenagers.