As I mentioned in my last blog post, Thursday and Friday of last week were spent in Pretoria attending a grant signing ceremony hosted by the U.S. Embassy. I attended with Knowledge and Agnes from my organization, as well as a few fellow volunteers. The grant is called the "U.S. Embassy HIV/AIDS Community Grant," which supplies $10,000 in funding for the course of a year. My organization received the grant to help fund its five newest DICs (drop-in centers), where we provide food, education, shelter and psychosocial support to children infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.
Attending the grant signing ceremony was quite the experience. It was the first extended period of time I spent at the U.S. Embassy here in South Africa (the building itself is one of the biggest embassies and looks akin to a bunker). It was fascinating to speak with the employees of the embassy, who all had interesting jobs and a remarkably perceptive view of politics and relations in the Southern Africa area. In addition, it was revealing to see what a huge investment goes into foreign relations, political analysis, etc.
Just to highlight some of the experiences of the those two days - a time which is distinctly different from the average time spent in my village or around South Africa:
Timeliness. Although Knowledge and Agnes were an hour late in picking me up, we still made it to Pretoria and to the event with time to spare. Such timeliness is rare and so appreciated, on my part at least. So I decided to make Agnes and Knowledge tea. I even made Agnes some tea from Trader Joe's that happened to be a the U.S. Community Center. She was thrilled and called her granddaughter to announce, "I am in the United States now!"
Good food. Sue, Jo and Mokgedi, the embassy staff who organized the event, made sure to arrange for great food and refreshments. This included vegetable kebabs, chicken-tortilla wraps, delicious pastries, etc. So we ate often and well, which was a nice experience for Knowledge and Agnes, but I loved it too.
Jo's House. The grant recipients were all put up in a hotel, but us three Peace Corps volunteers were not in the budget, so there were no hotel rooms for us. Instead, we stayed at the home of Jo, one of the coordinators. Both she and her husband work for the U.S. government (in fact, her husband used to be a Peace Corps volunteer), and as a result, are provided a house in the nice Waterkloof neighborhood of Pretoria. Embassy provided houses are based on seniority and family size, and apparently Jo's husband has been with the department of agriculture for some time now (we did not actually get to meet him, sadly), as they had a stunning house. Having come here from several posts in Asia, there is remarkable Asian art throughout the house. All in all, it was one of the fanciest homes I have stayed in, and my description won't do it justice, so I took a few photos with my cellphone while there.
And Jo was a fantastic host, she spoiled us Peace Corps volunteers. We ate well, sat around in her living room talking and watching TV, and awoke to an amazing breakfast that was cooked just for us (she let us sleep in, telling us that the morning session wasn't critical for us). So we ate fresh omelets, cereal, juice, real coffee. Mmm!
Meeting embassy workers. For the second day, we spent time inside hanging out inside the embassy, learning about the reporting procedures and financial record keeping. But over the course of the day, I had a chance to talk to many people who work at the U.S. embassy, both from South Africa and from the U.S. They were such interesting people to talk with and meet, and provided a lot of very perceptive information on this country and its future. Of course, it was appropriate that I was with such people when it was announced that the corruption charges against (most likely future president) Jacob Zuma will be dropped on account of an outdated legal practice.