Wednesday, December 14, 2016

October: An Executive Summary

So, remember that month called October?

It happened. So did the month that came right after it. I’m fairly certain it was called November, but… you know… don’t go quoting me on that.

Have you been waiting patiently for my next update, dear reader?

Have you been gripping the edge of your seat in anticipation?

I have.

LHR was a little short-staffed these past two months, and that meant it was more slammed than normal for those of us left standing. This is not only because we’ve recently said ‘goodbye’ to two very hardworking interns, (… and the clinic manager had emergency surgery, and the photocopier died a few times, and sometimes our building doesn't have water (or power), and there were literally riots in the streets, and…) but also because many of my colleagues spent several weeks swamped with bail applications and court appearances. Why, you ask? Well, students, in part.

I certainly can’t go blaming all of the October mayhem on the students though. That would not only be unreasonably unfair, it would also just be a lie. There are a LOT of things happening over here right now as 2016 comes closer to an end, and really… I’m starting to wonder exactly how different South Africa is going to look when I leave compared to when I arrived.

So let’s take a look at a few of the things I’ve been up to in chronological order, shall we?

First and foremost, when October began I was at a point where LHR was happy to let me start picking up files on my own. This also meant I inherited a few (hahahahahahahaha…. Literally dozens of) files from two of the interns who had just finished their time at LHR. This was simultaneously very exciting, and mildly terrifying. It was immediately before the UNHCR monitoring meeting too, which meant that everything we’d just transferred had to be in tiptop shape in case the UNHCR decided they wanted to inspect any of the hardcopy stuff.

An accurate summary of my feelings towards the UNHCR.
You also have to remember the number of clients that we help. Every day, our waiting room is alternately filled with nightmares, desperation, and justified frustration; but we only have the capacity to do intake for about 10 new people. No one wakes up in the morning and decides that they’re going to be a refugee for the fun of it, which makes LHR a last resort for many people. To me, that means that every time we open a file we’re holding a significant part of someone’s future as ink on paper, bundled together with fasteners and glue sticks. When I sit down to work on a file, it gets my full attention (to the best of my ability) specifically because of that. It feels like the stakes are high here, because they are.

(The best part of this is that you think I’m joking about the glue sticks. Oh, ye innocent friends and family… if only you knew how often I’ve reached for a glue stick in the past eight weeks.)

Colleagues with a similar fashion sense are clearly the best colleagues.
It also means that when something goes well, it’s a huge victory; both for the clients and ourselves. Even in the short amount of time I’ve been here, I’ve had the chance to see the highest of highs, and a couple worst-case scenarios. Both are inherent in the work that we’re doing, and that’s especially so given the political climate here right now. A heavier workload, and extreme case-facts are the reality of NGO work in this sector. I wouldn’t give up a moment of the experience I’m gaining here, but that does mean that it’s harder to find time to sit down and write about the whole thing haha!

On a lighter note, I settled in with a lovely young Afrikaans couple and a friend of theirs as my room mates near the beginning of October. They have two lovely dogs, live in an old character house that is the definition of country living in a city setting, and casually keep chickens. 

The Academic and I, giving some scale to that ginormous Voortrekkers Monument in the background.  It is a gigantic, three level museum and monument to the journey many Afrikaners made up through South Africa. It is a somewhat one-sided view of history, but the building itself is certainly something to experience. 
Looking down from way up on the third floor. We definitely took the stairs. 
Some of the stained-glass windows right up at the top of the monument, letting in some cool light in the afternoon sun. 
... and they took me with them to their family farm one weekend. 

It was beautiful. The clouds were dynamic and stormy, everything was industrial, there were cows, and endless rolling hills. The original plan was to dedicate an entire post specifically to the farm, and just inundate you with photos. Unfortunately, I also got robbed when I went to Pride 2016 in Johannesburg the weekend after. I neglected to load the photos from my phone onto my computer right after the farm trip, so that leaves us with a short paragraph that alternately gushes about the farm, and also provides zero images of its rustic beauty. Not to worry, I’ve been promised that we’re going back on at least one other occasion before I return to Canada.

Life is what you make it.
Please don’t be too alarmed about the robbery. Crime is a reality in SA, and all in all I was very lucky with this one. Someone came up behind me and cut open my bag while I was with friends listening to one of the performers, but all they got was the phone. I have since gotten a different phone up and running, and the mother of one of my room mates patched the hole in my bag. (She is made of love and tiny perfect stitches. I have fed her wine and cookies several times, because I am so happy with what she’s done to my bag!) Anyway, I was aware of the robbery when it happened, but wasn’t quite fast enough to catch the thief when I turned. Really though, that’s probably a good thing. Chasing people with knives is an awful idea.

What else have I been up to other than work, and walking in the streets throwing glitter?

Eating. All. The. Food.

Seafood paella at the Neighbourgoods Market in Johannesburg.  It was delicious, and I have no regrets. 
If you’ve ever wondered what food would be traditionally South African, the answer is really very short: meat.

I’ve talked about braai-ing before, but I don’t know that I’ve really communicated the sheer amount of protein that is consumed at the bottom of this continent. For example, I had the chance to braai with two lovely women this month who laughed when I asked if there were any vegetables with dinner.

Guys, I’m not even a huge fan of veggies. I’m not that person who sat next to you in law school and casually ate an entire yellow pepper like an apple, or who always had carrot sticks and beet salad in her lunch box. (Both of those people exist, in case you were wondering.) So when I say that I asked about vegetables, please understand that the fact that I now actively seek fresh veg literally whenever I see it is highly comic.

Oh look... a casual South African dinner table!
(Ok no actually this is Viktor Polish Meats at Neighbourgoods Market, and you should eat there.)
Dinner began with a lovely appetizer of bacon rashers, which are like bacon, but thicker and with a thin section of bone along the edge so you can pick it up and eat it as finger food. Then we moved onto the second course of woers, which is a very Afrikaans version of a hot dog/sausage/bratwurst. Then we moved onto chicken. Chicken was the main, and it was done four ways. It was delicious, and beautifully braai-ed, but at this point I was looking around for something even vaguely green.

Ha! Rookie.

Then we moved onto the lamb.

And then the beef.

And then a single bowl of salad with tomatoes, peppers, pumpkin seeds, and avocado slices made an appearance.

I basically ate the salad. Like… by myself. I may have gone back three or four times for separate helpings out of sheer force of will, but that’s only because there were other people at the table... and it would have been inexcusably rude to just eat the whole thing directly out of the bowl without sharing.

But I thought about it. 

Last(-ish) but not least: I got to go be a colossal law geek, and it was wonderful. There is a watchdog position in government here called the Public Protector. I suspect the job itself is vaguely similar to our Privacy Commissioner. South Africa’s previous Public Protector was Madame Thuli Madonsela, and I was very privileged to have the chance to hear her speak at a lecture on good governance. If you haven’t had the chance to read about how this woman showed up and stormed corruption with her unflappable calm, you really, really should.

Want to see the lecture that I saw? Good news! You can check out a recording of it here:
Definitely only had the chance to attend this lecture as The Academic's +1. Just to be clear, if you're ever travelling with The Academic and she happens to start a sentence with "Would you like to come to - " or "So I was thinking go doing - " the answer is "Yes. I'm in." 

I also had the opportunity to attend a conference held by the International Association of Refugee Law Judges. The conference was very well done, with experts and judges coming in to speak from literally all over the world. I also had an incredibly proud moment when I realised the (Canadian) Immigration and Refugee Board was not only present, but its members had spent several days before the conference doing a workshop on best practices for assessing claims with the Refugee Status Determination Officers here. They did a whole section based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or similarly (potentially) very sensitive/personal issues, and spoke as panellists on a variety of topics. Guys, I was so proud to be Canadian I might as well have leaked maple syrup in happiness.

Want to see their workshop and conference schedule? Yeah you do! 'Cause they're coming to Canada in May 2017 and you should absolutely take that as an excuse to go visit Victoria. 
… and I had the chance to attend the latest appearance of LHR in the Constitutional Court, on the case of LHR v Minister of Home Affairs.

This is inordinately exciting if you're me.
Right, and I got caught in a protest march with the EFF. It ended up being incredibly educational, but at the time I was very aware that I was watching what began as a peaceful protest become a riot… from the inside. That was pretty scary at times. As someone who is so white I practically glow in the dark, I maybe wouldn’t recommend protesting with the EFF in particular. 

This was the only time during the protest I felt it was safe to pull out my phone and take a quick photo. Most of the time, I was one of what I suspect was nearly a thousand people. I did not end up with the EFF on purpose, but once I was there it was absolutely safer to be a part of the group than to be outside of it. So if you happened to stumble on a photo of me with a whole bunch of people in red (and a protest sign) that's what that was all about. Unsurprisingly, I was a bit of a stand-out in the crowd. Many people took selfies with me. 
So… you get the idea. October was a little packed down here.

November was an adventure too, but that is definitely fuel for another day. My plan is to get back to two entries a week, but at this point I’m not guaranteeing anything. This isn’t really like France, where living abroad was more of an extended language-learning vacation with buckets of lemon meringue tartlets. This is definitely working abroad.

And with that: Enjoy your snow Canada! It’s a balmy 25 degrees and stormy here, and this girl is signing off for the night with no worries of shovelling a sidewalk tomorrow morning ;-)

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