Archive | August, 2011

RIP Roderick

31 Aug

Howdy folks,

Having spent great eight days with Michael Linke (founder of BEN, Namibia) in Zambia meeting with potential partners for future bike workshops I arrived back to Katima around mid day. I spent the afternoon packing up Mandy’s bike and gear to send back to Windhoek with Michael. I had planned to go out to the workshop and see the guys but ran out of time so sent a text to the workshop manager Moses saying I would see them in the morning. The reply I got from Moses was not what I expected, it said:

Welcom back 2 namibia bt tomorrow we shal b at Kongola 4 buring rodrick and u a free to go take picture and see how we bury our fellow volunteer when he dies and it wil take place moning at Kongola 110km away

I knew Rodrick was sick, but was shocked at the news as I had been out of contact in Zambia.

Rodrick (pictured to my right in the above photo) was one of the 5 mechanic trainees, a softly spoken polite gentleman. Unfortunately the HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravages this part of Namibia doesn’t care if you are polite.

One of my motivations behind this blog post is to help portray the harsh reality of HIV in the lives of Africans. I can talk about the statistics of HIV all day long, but it is not until you have a personal story that the reality of it actually hits home. I realise attending a funeral, and then documenting it is a very delicate matter.

One of the other motivations behind this is because tomorrow I’m going to do some filming with one of the mechanics Movem who is a Catholic Aids Action (the local organisation that BEN, Namibia has teamed up with for the Katima bike shop) home based carer volunteer. Tomorrow we will visit his clients and I will film how the bike that was donated to him helps him visit more clients, and what his role as a home based carer involves. As you can imagine the stigma behind HIV it is a very fragile matter that needs to be treated with a great deal of consideration and decorum. But something Movem said to me made me feel comfortable writing this post, and documenting these highly sensitive and personal stories. He said that the reason he wants to do it, is because the documentary will help portray to the outside world what it is like here in Africa with HIV. Without further ado I would like to share the experience of Rodricks funeral with you.

The following morning I woke at 5.30am to a day I will never forget, a day that deeply touched me. I biked out to meet Moses at the morgue, a small concrete brick structure. At the morgue we piled into the back of a pick-up truck with 13 other funeral goers. Then in a 4 car convoy drove the hour out to Roderick’s village. As the sun rose the church choir that I shared the pickup canopy with started singing church hymns in that harmonious way that only Africans are able to pull off.

When we arrived at Roderick’s village the scene was set for the funeral ceremony. Colourful African ladies sitting on woven mats a top of the sand. The men were off to the side, with the elders sitting on chairs.

Being the only white face out of the 120 attendees was an honour, but I was also tense. Obviously I felt like an outsider, and plus I had my camera. Moses who was going to be leading the funeral wanted me to take some photos and footage of the funeral. Even though I had his permission I still felt like an intruder. I made sure that he went and got the permission of the elders and Roderick’s family before I took out my camera.

The grieving hysterical atmosphere, the loss of Roderick, the past couple of weeks after saying good bye to Mandy and the knowledge that I was capturing something on camera that few get to experience had a strange effect on me. Tears were welling up in my eyes as the families grieved and I thought of Roderick and other funerals of beloved ones that I had attended. My legs were shaking uncontrollably as the emotion of it all past through me.

I didn’t think I would be this affected. For some naive reason I had played down the effect of death here, this was Africa, I had desensitised it. I was in the Caprivi region where there is a 40% HIV/AIDS rate, I had arrogantly thought that death was just another part of everyday life here.

How stupid was I. How stupid do I feel writing the above. It doesn’t matter if you come from a neighbourhood in New Zealand with street lights and hand basins with running water or a small African village where the HIV rate is 40% and the chickens and dogs play on the sand floor of your hut, death is death.

I can only describe the funeral as a beautiful ceremony. The vibrant colours of the ladies fabrics and the bright flowers on the tomb contrasted to the dusty weathered earth. The singing was heartfelt and harmonious. The grieving was expressed with no reserve, women openly wailing, wailing like I have never heard wailing before. Wailing that will stay with me the rest of my life, wailing that I will remember every time I hear the mention of HIV/AIDS. It was also special for me to see Moses the bike shop manager who I am used to see fixing bikes dressed in his white robe as he led the funeral in a commanding way beyond his years.

Thank you to Roderick’s family and Moses for sharing with me this unforgettable and deeply moving experience. For showing me the grim reality of AIDS, and for teaching me that life is valuable no matter what continent you are from.

To Roderick, REST IN PEACE.

Bike shop opening ceremony

19 Aug

OK, enough of me, back to the reason why I’m here in Africa; The bike work shop. Last Friday we had the grand opening. There were governors, chief of police, Michael LInke the BEN, Namibia founder and plenty of other important community people, including the Honourable Mr Happy. There were TV camera’s from the Namibian Broadcasting channel and journalists from the local newspaper. Like any ceremony there were lots of speeches, photos, and smiles and a grand feast afterwards (no, there was no sausage sizzle).

Here are a few photos and captions documenting the day:

The temporary bike shop sign for opening day. You can see from the photo that it says MEN BICYCLE SHOP. This is unusual for BEN, Namibia who is a leader in Namibia with women empowerment. The reason for this is because the local partner organisation Catholic Aids Action has an initiative where they have involved males in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The 5 mechanic trainees were selected from the current 14 male home based care HIV volunteers who have been volunteering for the past 5 years.

The first half of the mornings program. Check out the speaker at 10.00am, “Honurable Mr Happy”. I think I have finally found my place! I’m looking into building a mud hut and buying a herd of cows.

Some of the other honourable people.

Then opening ceremony took place under the shade of a tree. The brick building in the background is where the small business training has been taking place.

The 14 HIV home based carers receiving their new bikes. The bikes are sold cheaply to the members of the community, but these bikes were donated to the hard working volunteers to help them in the fight against HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravages this region with a 33% infection rate.

This was a special day for me as I (and of course Mandy) worked so hard for this day. I remember the day back on the overcast Melbourne Sunday afternoon (that blue sky in the photo was only there for the last bit) with the Bicycles for Humanity volunteers packing this container. To see the container sitting there and the home based carers receiving their bikes was rather special. It was this moment I have been working towards from the first time I met with Bicycles for Humanity founder Matt McCullough. It was over 18 months ago that I met Matt in an inner city Melbourne café to tell him my idea. My idea of raising the funds to ship one a Bicycles for Humanity container to Africa and then go work with it.

I want to take this moment to thank everybody who made this happen, there are many of you, and without all your help this would not be the reality that it is. I hope this is a special moment for you all. THANK YOU.

Although we had the opening day there is still one last week of business planning before the 5 bike mechanics get let loose in the world of running their own bike shop business. Such planning that includes the workers drawing up their own employment contract, signing up for social security, planning the layout of the bike work shop, opening hours etc. The thing I love about this, and Michael Linke is a big advocate of, is that BEN, Namibia do not come in tell them how it is. No, it is the 5 mechanics who decide and come to an agreement on all these. BEN, Namibia just facilitate this, trains them and guides them. It is very much a project run by the locals, for locals.

Elephants, just what the doctor ordered!

16 Aug

Howdy folks,

Well after my last blog post you were probably thinking that being in the middle of Africa may not be the best place to be, and trust me I thought the same a few times as well. But Africa has elephants!

I think it is impossible to be thinking about any “worries about tomorrow” or “regrets over yesterday” while watching these majestic creatures amble by. Oh, by the way if anyone is wondering why I talk about these worries and regrets it is because it originates from my favourite quote, the quote that my tattoos on my back represent. It goes:

“Regrets over yesterday, and worries about tomorrow, are the twin thieves that rob you of the moment”. ANON

Michael Linke the founder of BEN, Namibia has been in town for some training and the opening of our container which opened on Friday (I will post some photos). This weekend past I went along with him and his friend on a camping trip to the nearby Bwabwata National park (Caprivi game reserve). The same park that Mandy and I cycled through for 190km on our way to Katima.

After a challenging week for me, it was just what the doctor ordered. Good company, plenty of laughs, a few wines and plenty of elephants and hippos. For those of you wondering how Mandy is doing? She is experiencing Africa before heading back home. She spent last week at one of Southern Africa’s top 4 game reserves in Zambia, she saw everything and described it as magical. She just texted today saying that after a day long bus ride she has arrived on the shores of Lake Malawi for some much needed rest and relaxation and no doubt beer!

As you can imagine I have plenty of photos of elephants, but have only added a few. And Sich, I got about 3 hours of elephant footage for the doco! (just kidding, only 2.5 hours)

Hap and Mandy: The end of the road

11 Aug

Last week I did the saddest and toughest thing of my life. I ended my relationship with Mandy.

So since I made the choice to make my life public through this blog, and next year through my book, it means, as hard as it is, I must write this post. Eventually you would have wondered why the beautiful smile of Mandy was missing and why my blog posts were riddled with grammar and punctuation mistakes.

How could I possibly do this to Mandy, such a caring and loving soul who has given up so much for me? How could I do this in the middle of Africa, in the middle of the bike project that we have both worked so hard for?

I hope my words below help you all understand. Just so you know this is extremely hard to write, I have tossed and turned the past couple of weeks as to how to break this news to you my blog readers. Do I just write something brief and have everyone make up there own story? No I couldn’t handle that.  I believe the only way to write and as hard as it is,  is it to write honestly. Here goes.

The story of Mandy and I was something of a fairy tale, so beautiful, amazing and adventurous. We met in a small Mexican surf town bar. I was a long haired Kiwi awaiting a work visa so I could re-enter Canada and continue my work on the rigs. Mandy was an outgoing American beauty on a holiday with her friend and family. After knowing each other six days and emailing for three months, I flew to Denver to live with her in her one bedroom apartment and continue our romance. This was to be the start of us both working the world.

However as romantic as it may be, working the world with your partner also brings added stress. Most notably, the question of “WHAT NEXT?” that lingers. As one chapter unfolds you are constantly trying to find a new chapter that will work for both of you, a chapter where you can both get visas, can both earn money, can both find work, will both be challenged, and will both be happy. With our relationship there has always been the “WHAT NEXT” question hanging over our heads. We have always been able to hop to the next continent, the next country, the next chapter, and when we have decided what we were doing next we would enjoy the moment.

However we both knew that the big “WHAT NEXT” would come in Africa with the end of my “working the world” goal.

In Melbourne, that “WHAT NEXT” question kept raising its head with me and between us. As I have mentioned, people in a relationship with someone from another country know the added stress that comes into it. Things like visas are always a trouble (and being deported from your girlfriend’s country doesn’t make that process any easier), but I believe the greatest stress is that one partner is going to have to miss out sharing with their family the joys of their children. One family on the other side of the world will have to watch their grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews grow up through Facebook photos and updates.

For me personally last year was hard, as I fought my gut feeling of ending our relationship. There is never one reason for a gut feeling like this, but as Mandy has always told me, the fact that we are from different countries on the other side of the world is a deal breaker for me. Last year I fought the gut feeling, I decided I wanted to give it my best shot with Mandy and that was the least I could do after all she has sacrificed being with me. I opted to leave my mining job in Tasmania at the start of the year and come back to Melbourne so Mandy and I could live a somewhat ‘normal life’ where I wasn’t flying out to work every couple of weeks and leaving her by herself. We both jumped head first into the Final Continent Expedition. I know this allowed me to put the ” WHAT NEXT” question into the back on my mind in the hope that it would sort itself out. I know Mandy did it to forget about her desire of wanting a house with a big kitchen and garden, her desire to have some stability. She always said that Africa would either make or break us, and she thought that if we could make this a success, that I could then give her that big house with a kitchen and some little kiddos crawling around.

As soon as we hit Africa, after all the hype and madness of leaving Melbourne, we were both hit with “WHAT NEXT” depression. Early on I fought the same gut feeling of breaking up by telling myself that it was just a natural come down, I was just flat after all the hype of leaving. Plus I was holding on to hope, the hope that my gut feeling would change, that my gut had it all wrong. How could I possibly feel this way about such an amazing, loving and caring soul who has done so much for me and for whom I have such an amazing connection with.

Mandy was also unable to enjoy living the moment in Africa, as she was wondering what was next for us. As much as we both wanted to be in the moment, the future was weighing too heavily on our minds. We talked openly about all of the above and a whole lot more and we both knew where we stood. She knew my doubts, my gut feeling. I also knew very strongly what her feelings were and what she wanted.

What all this translates into is that all these worries about tomorrow had been robbing us of the moment. There were days when we were cycling along, and then all of a sudden we were pulled off to the side of the road, having an emotional discussion, trying to find the answer to the “WHAT NEXT” question, an answer that would make us both happy. We came to the conclusion that after my birthday on 11/11/11 we would go home to our respective countries for the holidays. Mandy would go back to the US to spend time with her family and get some work and I would go back to NZ to finish writing my book. This felt right, and we thought the time apart would help us figure out a “WHAT NEXT”, or for me to sort my shit out.

This made us feel better momentarily, until we both realised how much it felt like we were going our separate ways. Why were we making plans to be apart? Shouldn’t this be the time that we were making plans to be together? What it came down to was I knew I was unable to give Mandy the stability in the coming years that she had been yearning for.

The thing is for me I’m coming up to a pretty big transition in my life. After nine years of being driven by my goal of “working the world” I have struggled thinking about life after the goal and the uncertainty that brings. With this I found myself under an unbearable lot of pressure. Not pressure from Mandy but pressure from myself. How can I think about Mandy, starting a family, supporting a family, going to live in America at some point when I’m trying to sort out what I will do. Yes, I could just get a normal job, start at the bottom of some corporate hierarchy shuffling paper, start a family with Mandy and get that house, that stability.

I needed to be truthful to Mandy and myself so made the decision I’ve made

All I know is that we could not keep going how we were. It never turned sour, we never fought, but we were not happy. Behind the smiling photos of the blog posts, there were some days that were just plain shit as we battled with the “WHAT NEXT”. When you see someone you care deeply about crying, and knowing the reason they are crying is because of you, because you cannot give them what they want after they have dedicated themselves to you, it is tough. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t just Mandy that was crying and feeling down, I was right there beside her crying and confused. It wasn’t every day, but it was often enough and constantly there. The big thing for my decision was that we could not continue like this for the coming years. Bottom line was I knew I could not give Mandy what she wanted at this time, and how long can one wait? As I try to figure out who I am if I’m not working the world Mandy’s biological clock keeps ticking, life keeps on moving. Something had to be done. If I cannot make the decision to give Mandy what she wanted, I had to make the other decision.

Making this decision has been horrible, and full of sorrow. But with the decision made, Mandy and I have been able to enjoy the moment, be it a bittersweet one. We went to Livingstone in Zambia, the home of one of the world’s seven natural wonders, the mighty Victoria Falls. We did a rafting trip, spent a lovely day at Victoria Falls, and had some special moments reminiscing about good times over dinner and drinks, especially the photo below where we sat on top of Victoria falls with a bottle of champange. We spent the best days we’ve had since being in Africa, because finally the “WHAT NEXT” question has been answered, we have stopped living in the limbo land of uncertainty. In a sense our time there was a celebration of all that Mandy and I have achieved and experienced together.

We have talked a lot and in some strange way this is the perfect place to end our journey. In fact, it was the only place that it could happen. Without having friends and family around, we’ve been forced to get through this together. When we leave Africa, we’ll both be starting fresh chapters in our lives.

Mandy is going back to Denver, where she will get that house and big kitchen, be with her family and friends and finally be back doing what she loves, teaching Spanish. She will finally have that stability she has been yearning for the past year. As fate would have it, she has just been offered her old job back. An opening happened just yesterday that is very last minute, but they love her so much they are willing to cover her classes with a substitute teacher until she can make it back to Denver. I’m sure it will be surreal for Mandy, walking right back into her old life that she left three years ago to come and work the world.

It’s fair to say I’m still sorting my shit out, facing the reality of the decision I’ve made. For me the question of “WHAT NEXT” has been replaced with the comfort of knowing that in time the great sadness I’m feeling will be replaced with new opportunities for me in the future. I will be back in NZ before the end of the year to finish writing my book and work on the documentary. I will see what happens with the ideas floating around in my head.

I would like to take this moment to pay a little tribute to Mandy and all she has done for me in my working the world quest and here in Africa. I have told her a million times, but I want you, my blog reader, to know what an amazing support Mandy has been to me. Although Africa was my idea, it was Mandy that helped make it happen. The final continent expedition was very much Hap and Mandy working the world. I know that Mandy feels like she has let people down by leaving the project early. But I have told her that no one will look at it like this. I fully support her, she has to look after her herself, and do what is best for her. There was no use in prolonging the inevitability of leaving. Life goes on, best we both start living it.

This chapter may not have a happy ending, but I know that there is another chapter full of happiness waiting for Mandy and myself. Thank you so much Mandy for all you have done for me.