Saturday, April 16, 2011

Health Symposium, Spider bites, and sight-seeing in Pretoria

Union Buildings in Pretoria

Hello all!

Peace Corps provides its in-country volunteers with training opportunities throughout a volunteer’s service. For example, we’re provided six weeks of training when we first arrive in-country to prepare us for living in a new country with a new language, a new culture, and (usually) new work assignments.

We’re provided more opportunities for training as our time passes: training opportunities to prepare us for teaching life skills and permagarden skills for our schools and communities; training opportunities to prepare us for grant writing; training opportunities to prepare us for community and school project management; and training opportunities to prepare us for helping our schools or NGOs with organizational development.

As a volunteer nearing my Close of Service (my Peace Corps contract ends in September of this year), I thought my training opportunities had all passed. However, I was surprised and delighted to learn that Peace Corps, in partnership with PEPFAR (The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), was hosting yet one more training opportunity for me to attend: a Health Symposium hosted in a hotel near Pretoria for a week.

Often, our trainings invite us to bring along our counterpart from our communities: the people we most closely work with in our schools. My counterpart is a superstar teacher from my primary school, Rebecca, and also an HOD (Head of Department) in our school. She has accompanied me to all of the Peace Corps trainings I’ve attended in South Africa.

It’s strange, because as Rebecca and I live in the same community and work for the same school, you’d think we’d have all the time in the world to discuss matters related to our primary school. But for some reason, we seem to “fire up” for these training sessions and not only do we benefit from the actual training sessions, we also benefit from having this concentrated time together to think and talk about projects for our school. In every training, we seem to put our heads together and get really excited about projects for our school.

This time together was no exception; in fact, I think it was the best training time ever for us to spend together. There was, however, one problem.

The Friday before I was to travel to Pretoria, I noticed an especially itchy, what I thought at the time, a mosquito bite. Other than the itchiness and trying not to scratch it, I didn’t pay the bite much mind. (Due to the rain, the mosquitoes at my sight had become very bad, but in my stubbornness at witnessing the splendor of the South African sunsets, I continued to sit on my porch steps each evening for the sky show—and of course, was eaten alive each evening by mosquitoes! But it was worth it!)

Rebecca and I spent all day Sunday on the taxi travelling from Pudimoe to Pretoria. When we arrived, I noticed a sharp pain on the inside of my left leg. I would soon learn that my lymph nodes, in my groin area, were swollen in reaction to the insect bite.

On Monday, sessions started and my leg at the bite site became very painful and the bite was growing bigger and looking more threatening. By Tuesday, I had contacted Peace Corps medical and by that evening, had started antibiotics. Even with the medication, the wound and the pain from it seemed to worsen and I was also experiencing other unpleasant symptoms: head/body aches, fever/chills, malaise and I started developing shooting pains from the insect bite.

Throughout all of this, I attended sessions and felt Rebecca and I were doing very good work together. By Thursday though, I could bear it no more and left the Health Symposium to seek medical attention in Pretoria. (The hotel of the conference was located just south of Pretoria.)

I hated to leave Rebecca and the good work we were doing, but, well, I was no longer able to function on a professional level. She was able to remain at the Health Symposium and complete the training, even though I felt dreadful leaving her.

Long story short: my doctors were never completely convinced of the cause of my bite or the illness that may or may not have resulted from it. The doctors kept me in Pretoria much longer than I wanted just to monitor my condition and watch how I reacted to and recovered with the antibiotics. I was not able to return to Pudimoe until Wednesday, the week after the Health Symposium finished.

Now, a bit of information on me and Pretoria. I don’t visit Pretoria often and I usually only visit for medical reasons. If I am visiting Pretoria for a medical reason, I usually don’t feel very good. There are tons of fun things to do in Pretoria, but again, I have only visited Pretoria when I wasn’t feeling well and haven’t had the opportunity to “site see” in the Jacaranda City.

So, last week, I was in Pretoria, not feeling well, but staying in this dark, damp, depressing hostel room that felt filthy. I didn’t feel I was in a situation that fostered recovery so I did everything I could to get out of that filthy room every day, even though I didn’t feel well. (Peace Corps does provide a very nice venue for recuperating volunteers, but I was told “you must have a broken leg or something” to stay there.)

So, I got out every day and hobbled about Pretoria. Interestingly, I saw more sights on this visit to Pretoria than I’ve had in nearly two years of living in South Africa.

A dear and new friend Amy B, helped me hobble to the lovely Union Buildings of Pretoria, and graciously took these photos that you see here. If I look a bit green around the gills, it is because I was feeling a bit green around the gills. The buildings were absolutely lovely and I couldn’t believe how lush and well-kept the grounds were. It is now my favorite place in Pretoria and I’m so glad Amy helped me to get there.

I, with vendors in the background, standing beside some fabulous scarlett sage.

Here is a bit of information about the Union Buildings of Pretoria, taken from the 2004 edition of Lonely Planet’s South Africa: Lesotho & Swaziland:

“These buildings are the headquarters of government, South Africa’s equivalent to the Kremlin. The impressive red sandstone structures—with a self-conscious imperial grandeur—are surrounded by expansive gardens and are home to the presidential offices.

The architect was Sir Herbert Baker, who was responsible for many of the best public buildings constructed immediately after the Union of South Africa was formed” (411).

Since the buildings are an actual operating seat of the government, South African President Jacob Zuma may have been there that very day! And Mandela gave a historical speech from there on his release from prison. Thanks Amy for the lovely photos!

Again, I was in Pretoria, somewhat against my will and very uncomfortable. In the end, I convinced the drs. to let me return to Pudimoe to finish my recovery. Although the bite and the illness still remain something of a mystery, I feel it was a spider bite, rather than an infected mosquito bite, that caused my illness.

I’m very glad to be back in Pudimoe where I feel much more able to rest and better recover. So, sorry so quiet, but that is what has been up with me!


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