Tuesday, June 1, 2010

“Urgency won’t help you here.”

When I first arrived in South Africa, I was fortunate to meet and spend some time with the previous Peace Corps volunteer who was working at my site. I was coming in, she was going out, and I was lucky enough to have her “show me the ropes” of my new community.

I spent almost a week with her and the college, and when it was time to return to our pre-service training site, the college arranged to take me to the taxi rank so I could meet and ride with other PC volunteers back to Pretoria.

I was told my ride would be ready by 9:00 the next morning to get me to the taxi rank by 9:30, where I could meet up with my friends. I knew my time would be pinched, because by my estimates, the ride to the taxi rank was more in line with 40 minutes, not 30. So, the night before my departure, I was worried about arriving late.

The next morning, at 9:05, I was on the porch, tapping my foot, and pacing a bit. At 9:10, I headed for the administration building to inquire about my ride. At 9:20, I’m in a near panic because everyone I’m asking is shrugging and acting like they don’t know what I’m talking about.

At this point, my predecessor comes to my aid and says to me, “Urgency won’t help you here.”

I think of her often and hear these wise words whenever I find myself “feeling urgency” about anything in South Africa.

(And I’ve never, ever again counted on the college to take me anywhere.)

In February of this year, I was still living in the girls’ dormitory, and I noticed raw sewage bubbling up out of the ground. The raw sewage was coming out of a drain pipe directly below my bathroom window. Now, raw sewage is something I feel urgent about. So, I closed my bathroom window and did a quick internet search of “the dangers of raw sewage.”

I wasn’t crazy about the situation and wasn’t terribly worried about my safety, but called my medical officer and made a report with the college administrators nonetheless. While I was about 20 feet away from the sewage, I worried about the students walking by it in their comings and goings—walking directly by it. If it rained, they were walking IN IT. This was in February.

As the days went by, and then the days turned into weeks, I inquired again about the raw sewage and when we could expect repairs. The response to my inquiry was, “Oh, is that pipe still leaking?”

STILL LEAKING? How could you not know that the sewage was still bubbling up out of the ground? Do you have EYES in your head? The leak is in a major throughway—and by a parking lot. I was assured the matter would be attended to.

I kept my windows closed, watched for the flies that my medical officer said would indicate a more serious problem, and warned students to keep away from it.

And then it would rain. And rain some more. Ick!

Well, I’m sorry to say that the college never did find the situation urgent and was shocked to find that when the college hosted a local competition for primary school children in MAY, the college simply plopped a piece of tin over the mess and set up tables for vendors to sell food.

Let me repeat: they simply plopped a flimsy piece of metal over the raw sewage and women set up tables to sell food—to sell food to CHILDREN.

Again, my predecessor’s words in my head, “Urgency won’t help you here.” Apparently, urgency won’t help South Africans either.