You Got Questions, We Got Answers

Inquiring minds want to know. In our last post, we asked you to ask us…anything. A few of you did, thank you, and we have some answers.

See below for our responses to questions ranging from what it’s like at our jobs to gender differences to fruits, trees, haircuts, politics, what we will miss the most and more. Hope you enjoy!

What does business attire look like in the downtown area? What are the gender differences in clothing?

Ryan: Honestly, we’re rarely in the Central Business District (CBD), so I can’t answer this question specifically. But, if we’re talking business attire at the university, I’d say it’s more relaxed, but that’s true of most academic environments, I think. Except at the stuffier business schools…

As for gender differences, it seems that, as usual, women dress much better than men. Even the students follow suit: the female students are most often in cute little dresses, or at least well put together; the guys are sportier and wear more denim. And the white guys wear waaaaay shorter shorts. That whole “rugby thing.”

Jenny: I like how work attire for women is more flowing and cool, i.e., appropriate for 80-degree weather, yet still dressy here. There is a bit of a girliness here to women’s styles that I’m not completely down with though—lots of lace, ruffles, and floral fabric. Sometimes I think women seem as though they’re headed to a garden party rather than the office.

What was your experience from a working perspective?

Ryan: Well, though I do spend the majority of my “work” time in the offices of the Centre for Human Rights, I’m really a volunteer, so I don’t know if I can truly capture a “working perspective.” However, I will say that in many ways I find the work culture here more relaxed than in the States. That’s not to say that nothing gets done; it does. The Centre has been a well-respected academic institution and international NGO for 25 years…they’re doing something right. In fact, you should go ahead and Like our Facebook page.

I suppose the biggest difference I’ve noticed in my small work world is that there seem to be fewer meetings here. Or, at least fewer scheduled meetings. There are ad hoc get-togethers, but not the kind of regular, block-your-calendar team or staff meetings to which I’m accustomed. It could just be a difference in how this place is run, though.

Jenny: As far as office climate, people don’t hesitate to make time to be social here. Right away, people made the effort to get to know me, and that felt great. Teatime is a must, both mid-morning and mid-afternoon. My Type-A personality has a hard time with this, but I think I’m getting better at putting the work aside for a few minutes per day. Ryan would say this experience will serve me well back in the States.

How do men treat Jenny?

Ryan: Pass. No, wait! … Sorry, definitely pass.

Jenny: On runs, they are noticeably silent when Indie is with me. (She’s a commanding force!) But when I’m running sans dog, there are more whistles and puzzling comments—more like what sometimes happens in the States.

Describe in great detail all of the trees that you have seen.

Jenny: That’s a tall order. The flora here is a passion of mine. See Ryan’s previous post about the purple jacaranda trees for which Pretoria is famous. I also love the fever trees with their lime green trunks and round, yellow flowers, and the leopard trees with their namesake bark, acacia-like green leaves which turn red in Spring, and spiky yellow flowers.

Babobabs

But maybe my favorite is that decidedly African tree—the baobab. They can live up to 3,000 years (this is true!), and can grow large enough for 40 people to sit beneath one. They look like they’re upside down (their shape looks like their roots are in the air). The story goes that some African tribes believed that, at the beginning of time, the baobabs were upright, and too proud, and that they lorded over the lesser trees. This angered the gods who uprooted them and thrust them back into the ground, but this time with their roots upwards. Now evil spirits haunt the sweet, white baobab flowers, and it’s said that anyone who picks their flowers will be killed by a lion.

Ryan: I don’t see trees; I see forests.

Do you both wear shoes less?

Jenny: Actually, more in the house: Our floors are usually dirty from having the windows open 24/7. But funny you should ask—the Afrikaner children (even some college students) don’t wear shoes, even at the mall, the grocery store, and to class. “No shoes, No service” is not a credo here.

Ryan: Hmmmm…no. About the same. I suppose if I wasn’t going to “work” most days, I would wear shoes less. The weather, since September, has certainly been accommodating enough.

What habits have changed in your daily hygiene?

Jenny: I wash my hair less often.

Ryan: Nothing major. I smell Jenny’s hair less often.

What is Indie afraid of that is strange?

Ryan: Well, she continues to be afraid of thunderstorms, aluminum foil, trash bags, etc., which some may consider strange. The thunderstorms here, by the way, are at a professional level. Chicago thunderstorms are bush league, in comparison. The lightning strikes and thunderclaps are so sharp, so piercing, so percussive that we humans are often jolted.

Jenny: Can I talk about what she’s NOT afraid of? I’m delighted that she’s assertive enough to go after mongooses, cats that wander into the yard, and giant birds with long beaks called hadedas (that are not well-loved here). She’s come into her own in Africa!

Indie is NOT afraid to lie in the bushes outside our flat

What fruit have you had too much of?

Ryan: Ah, this is the beauty and (mild) frustration of SA: It’s difficult to find a fruit when it is not in season. We once asked for limes at a very nice produce shop and they looked at us like we were aliens. “We will have limes in three months, when it is time for limes.” Roger that.

Right now, the mangos, nectarines and Cape peaches are impossibly delicious.

Jenny: Again I want to answer a different question; sorry. I’ve had too many Greek salads. They’re on every (and I mean every; this is not an overstatement) menu.

Ryan: If feta cheese was a fruit, it would always be in season.

What will you miss the most once you return?

Ryan: Everything. The people. The lifestyle. The proximity to outdoorsy activities. The proximity to awesome animals. The weather. The excitement that comes with a young democracy that seems very close to either getting its shit together or falling off a steep cliff.

Jenny: Stella Nkomo, the wonderful woman I work with. Mangoes every night after dinner. 80 degrees every day. Eating dinner outside. The stars in the southern hemisphere. Biking with zebras. Toads hopping around on my kitchen floor. Never having to make my own bed, change the sheets, iron, or do the breakfast dishes. Buildings with hallways that are open to the outside. Our housekeeper cleverly and subtly putting us in our place.

What was the most striking generalization that you had about SA before you left that has changed?

Ryan: We won’t have to sleep in a tree house? There are no lions in the streets?

I suppose that since we had been here before as tourists, we had something of an idea of what we were getting into. Still, I suppose I thought it would be “harder” to live here. I didn’t think we would have as many creature comforts or opportunities to explore as we have had. I think I was naïve, in a sense.

Jenny: That most white people here were in favor of Apartheid.

Do you stay out of politics in conversation?

Ryan: Ha! No. Jenny probably wishes that I would. Early on, I would introduce the topic just because I was still trying to figure out the players and the histories and the positions, etc. Now, it’s interesting to hear where people fall on the spectrum, what they would change, who they support, whether they harken for the “old days” and what what what, as they say here.

Of course, you often can’t talk politics without talking race. That’s where things can get fascinating. What words do people use? Syntax says a lot, even when people are trying to talk politely or in what they think is a PC style.

I like, for example, when a white South African begins a conversation with a statement about his/her own status as an African, someone whose ancestors came to the continent multiple generations ago, then later refers to black people as “Africans.” Wait…just a second ago, weren’t you all Africans?

On the flip side, many black South Africans seem to be holding on to old stereotypes about whites. See how that white person is dressed? He doesn’t like blacks. White people don’t know how to do things. Good times.

Back to politics…I’d say we have enjoyed many good conversations about the state of affairs here, from discussions about the ANC, President Zuma, Julius Malema, opposition parties, elections, service delivery, etc. And, as you may imagine, having an American president by the name of Barack Obama has prompted a number of exchanges, as well. He would certainly win reelection here.

Jenny: No. See Ryan’s comments. He takes the lead on this.

Were the things that you were fearful of, now just common daily occurrences?

Jenny: Driving stick-shift in a right-drive car. Negotiating prices. Getting people to understand my American English. Walking somewhere.

Ryan: Yeah, driving. Sure, I had driven on the left side of the road in a right-drive car before, including on the narrow, windy “roads” in Ireland and Wales, but Pretoria is a the poster child for suburban sprawl. I’m from Grid-System Chicago, dammit! Don’t give me curlicue streets whose names change from robot to robot!

I was also nervous about Jenny traveling to campus alone everyday. Crime is a big concern here, especially gender-based violence. Fortunately, we live on the education campus and there is a shuttle that runs frequently to the main campus. Even if I wasn’t also working on the main campus, I would feel secure knowing that Jenny had safe transport.

Barbershop experiences?

Jenny: It’s crazy fun. You have the run-of-the-mill gay men, and the young women who can give you tips on everything fashionable. But here you also get all the free lattes, bottled water, and wine you can drink. And they are quite entertained by our accents and try to imitate them. My stylist works hard to try to teach me Afrikaans, and writes on her mirror with a marker so I can see the words spelled out. It makes for a fun afternoon. I try to go as often as I can.

Ryan: That’s what she said. No, really, she said that. And, I agree.

Does the cape really look like CA? If so, in what way?

Ryan: Um, yes? I can’t claim to have a lot of exposure to the California landscape (I think I’ve been to LA once, San Diego once and the Bay Area twice), so I can’t say for sure. But, the juxtaposition of green, rocky mountains/cliffs and blue, shimmering ocean waters seem quite similar. Some call Cape Town “Africa’s San Francisco” because of shared qualities like fog, relative tolerance, scenery and the island prisons off their coasts.

Cape or Cali?

Do Ryan’s jokes work in SA?

Ryan: Do they work anywhere?

Jenny: Big no.

Are there stray cats, I only recall you mentioning dogs.

Jenny: We have one in particular who likes to come into the yard to taunt Indie. She’s a dirty, matted white Persian who we’ve nicknamed Nasty Tinkerbell. She boldly drinks from Indie’s outside water bowl when the sliding glass door is closed.

Ryan:

What does an average bookstore look like?

Ryan: A lot like US bookstores, except more expensive. Trade paperbacks are easily a time-and-a-half more than US prices. I think we paid almost twice as much as we should have for a Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia, for example.

The bookstore-with-attached-coffee-shop model is popular, especially in malls. The biggest chain (I think) is Exclusive Books, and they sometimes have a Seattle Coffee Company next door. The biggest differences are that the stores here often will have a significant Afrikaans section (not sure about other official languages) and an insignificant periodicals section. I take that back…the section is big, the selection is not.

What about an art museum, art scene?

Ryan: Yes, there are a couple on campus, but I can’t say that we’ve done a lot of exploring. We have been to some live stage performances in Joburg, at the Market Theatre, and plan to see a production of Phantom of the Opera in the coming weeks.

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How South Africa Can Win if Obama Loses

An outdated -- but, let's all admit, HILARIOUS -- grid of Republican presidential candidates (courtesy TelestialState.com)

Nearly every four years in America, it seems that a new crop of even more radically conservative presidential candidates throw their tri-cornered, bald eagle-feathered hats into the ring. Each time, and this year is no exception, there are progressive, liberal and even centrist Americans who threaten to leave the country “if that guy becomes president.”

I must admit, it’s been quite nice to avoid the wall-to-wall coverage of American politics, the microscopic analysis of every syllable of every word (or every long, awkward pause), and the hyperbolic rhetoric of candidates and talking heads. After all, there’s plenty o’ mess to monitor on this side.

However, I did catch an article on Politico.com the other day about how this year’s menagerie of Republican hopefuls seem hell-bent on both “protecting the Constitution” and completely changing it. Herman Cain wants to end birthright citizenship, but doesn’t “support tampering with the 14th Amendment,” which is where related issues lie. Rick Perry wants to end lifetime appointments for federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, even though the framers carefully crafted the language to avoid adverse political interference in appointments. Bachmann, Santorum and even Romney want Constitutional amendments to outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage.

These ideas raise the hackles of most Democrats – and, truly, of most middle-of-the-road Americans. Progressives, of course, are outraged. And ready for action.

As an American living temporarily in South Africa, this got me thinking. If I was in charge of the Department of Home Affairs here, I would seriously consider saying something to the effect of, “Hello, wealthy, disenchanted, but highly skilled, Americans! Welcome to South Africa! You’ll love the weather. Please, try the boerewors with a nice pinotage!”

To appeal to those Americans who really would choose flight over fight, South Africa should simply take a copy of its incredibly enlightened constitution down to Cape Point, face it in the direction of New York, some 12,500 km west, and let it serve as a beacon for adventurous, diverse and talented American progressives.

Here’s why:

  • The type of Americans likely to be attracted can help fill skills gaps in areas such as medicine, engineering, information technology, etc.
  • They will almost certainly be do-gooders who invest time and resources into projects that can make a difference in local communities.
  • They won’t be here forever…in four (hopefully not eight) years, the political situation in the US will have calmed and the Americans will go home, making room for more South Africans to step up and step in.
  • Without promising a utopia, it’s probable that many skilled, native South Africans may also want to return from places like Australia and Canada to start businesses, etc.
  • Welcoming a flock from the US could be politically shrewd, as well, as it creates a cadre of Americans who will become Mzansi fo’ sho’.
  • There’s a chance it could stave off the kind of overreaching Chinese investment once welcomed but now somewhat lamented elsewhere on the continent.
  • Sports like rugby and cricket (sorry, netball) will reach and win over an expanded audience. (Hey, it’s sorta worked with soccer…)
  • South Africans love malls. Americans love malls. It’s a love connection sweeter than a Cinnabon.

Yes, the election in the US is still a year away – and South Africa will have one of its own in the interim, which will undoubtedly add some funk to this drama – but I say it’s never too early to develop your marketing strategy. To get things started, I’ve come up with a few potential slogans for a South Africa interested in wooing liberal Americans:

  • South Africa: Even the lions in our streets are pro-choice
  • South Africa: Because a young democracy still values its constitution*
  • South Africa: Hey, we could use a few more folks who don’t secretly long for the old days
  • South Africa: Yes, we are a country…no, not near Kilimanjaro…right, at the bottom…well, below what was called Rhodesia, it’s now Zimb…just come here and we’ll show you…
*just don’t ask us about the Protection of Information Bill

Anyway, that’s just something I was thinking about. Those of you who have been to counseling or are shrinks yourselves can probably see that this post was, what, my attempt to rationalize my own return to South Africa should the words “President Bachmann and Vice President Santorum” ever spew from Wolf Blitzer’s bearded lips? Yeah, that’s probably right…

Missent to Jamaica

Most of the stories are the stuff of urban legends. A cache of undelivered letters found in a postman’s home. Bundles of mail burned under a bridge. Birthday cards that never arrived.

Of course, in Chicago, this stuff is not only believable, it is often true. Beyond the annoyances of finding last week’s Time Out in the mailbox or wading through mountains of discarded rubber bands the mail carrier couldn’t be bothered to discard (or reuse?), there are times when it seems like the USPS in Chicago just doesn’t care.

Like it is one giant Dead Letter Office.

Among the myriad logistical details to cover before we left Chicago was what to do about our mail delivery this year. While we canceled every magazine and catalog we could think of, and made sure we could pay all critical bills online, we knew that there would still be important letters coming through. Or, at least that should be coming through.

Though jaded by years of mail fails, we nevertheless made a special trip to the main postal facility, Cardiss Collins, to inquire about international forwarding.

“Hi. We are moving to South Africa for one year. Can we have our mail forwarded there?”

“Where?”

“South Africa.”

“Uh huh.”

“How do we do that?”

Blank stare.

Expectant stare.

“Uh, ya gotta fill out the form.”

“Just one, or one for each of us?”

“Yeah, both.”

We found the forms in a dingy cubby and began to fill them out. They were like mini standardized tests on postcards, with dozens of loose coupons for moving companies, car rental services and storage facilities. We entered our names and the forwarding start/stop dates into the tiny squares. All black. ALL CAPS.

But, wait. There’s no place to enter information about the address in the foreign country. We are not moving to South Carolina or South Dakota, we are moving to South Africa.

We took the forms back to the counter. “There’s nothing here about forwarding to a foreign country,” we said. “And our forwarding address is a bit complicated. How should we do this?”

“Just put the whole address on there. It will be fine,” they said.

So we did.

“OK, it’s all here,” we declared, handing over the completed forms. “Will there be confirmation?”

“Yeah, should be.”

And that, naively, is where we left it.

But you’re smart…you know our transaction sounds too good to be true. And you’re right. Not one piece of mail has been forwarded thus far. Or, at least nothing has arrived.

Now, mail sent from the US directly to Jenny’s university address does trickle through. Among the cards and letters from family, and a bill from our storage company (that we pay electronically anyway), was a notice from Jenny’s doctor in Chicago. Although clearly addressed to Jenny at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, you can see that the piece was initially…

MAIL FAIL: MISSENT TO JAMAICA

MISSENT TO JAMAICA.

What? How?

What?

Yeah, your guess is as good as ours.

What we know is that the letter left Chicago on or around July 26 and arrived in Pretoria around October 10.

What we don’t know:

  • Whether the letter heard Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock” upon arrival in Jamaica.
  • Whether the letter felt (or smelt) a “Jamaican breeze.”
  • Whether the letter got its groove back.

The letter probably didn’t shoot the sheriff, but it did shoot another hole in the foot of the already ailing US Postal Service. If this letter is any indication of how mail gets routed, it’s no wonder the system is just a cancelled Elvis stamp away from being returned to sender.

If you’re reading this, General Donahoe, please know I wish you nothing but the best of luck. I also wish you would send us our mail.

Without a Warning: 9-11 from 9K

I’m not a flag-waver. I don’t subscribe to the “Love it or leave it” school of bumper sticker patriotism. I refused, as a sophomore in high school, to say the Pledge of Allegiance, in dissent of both the early morning, drone-like recitation of a post-Civil-War-slash-pre-Red-Scare oath of loyalty and the “under God” interference in my public school education. I felt there were better ways to express one’s faith (or lack thereof) and commitment to liberty and justice for all.

But on September 11, 2001, my tears streamed red, white and blue, too.

We were one nation. We were indivisible.

With the exception of the unfortunate and truly inexcusable acts of retaliation towards Muslim Americans, we did all come together in the days, weeks and months after the attacks. We all remember the reports of “New Yorkers getting along” and doing otherwise normal, mundane things like saying hello to each other on the street. It was a new America (albeit one that was constantly reminded to keep on shopping).

And, of course, we all remember where we were or what we were doing when we heard the news. Jenny was in Gainesville, Florida preparing for an interview with the University of Florida — an interview that was not rescheduled, by the way…she went through with it, despite it all. I was in Lexington, Kentucky, where we lived and I worked as local host of NPR’s All Things Considered on WUKY-FM. In fact, the station recently posted an interview about my role in covering 9/11, including a couple of the local news stories I reported, as part of a series on the 10th anniversary.

Which brings me to the true point of this post: Here in Pretoria, 9,000 miles from Chicago, there is very little chatter about the anniversary, at least that we are hearing. Granted, we get three-and-a-half channels on our rabbit-eared TV, but none of the newscasts we’ve caught have mentioned it. There was a story on the SABC News website titled “Weary Americans to honour 9/11 victims” but a.) this headline says nothing of the anniversary’s significance, and b.) I don’t know if a companion story ever aired on the pubic broadcaster’s TV station(s).

I’m sure in America, land of the free and home of the pundit, the coverage has been inescapable. Every angle, every moment, every opinion about what it meant then, what it means now and what it will mean in another ten years. While some of the journalism is undoubtedly quite good, it has to be just plain exhausting. I’m happy Wolf Blitzer’s mumbled monotone isn’t a part of my life right now, I can tell you that. (Would The Situation Room be better if hosted by The Situation? It’s a dangerous question, but one that remains.)

Also, as of this writing, no warning or instruction has been issued by the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria to Americans living in South Africa, at least to my knowledge. This radio silence is despite the “threats” — both “unconfirmed” and “credible” — being uncovered back home. There are bigger fish to fry here, I suppose. The Embassy is hosting a social event in remembrance of 9/11 in Johannesburg, but no one from this household will attend.

It seems strange not to be wrapped in the swaddling coverage of one of the most significant events in American history, but the feeling is at the same time somewhat Rumsfeldian: I don’t know that I know what I don’t know. How should I be feeling? Without Olbermann or O’Reilly or others telling me how to think and what memories to dredge, the anniversary is poised to feel like, well…like Sunday.

And I guess what I’m saying is that’s OK by me. I don’t want to forget 9/11 — I don’t think any of us could if we tried — but I don’t need to be bombarded by the images, sounds and stories of the events, either. I’m also like that about remembering deceased loved ones. I don’t need to visit a hunk of marble to conjure up a laugh or a cry or a memory of what life was like with that person. That’s just me, though; maybe I’m odd like that.

Besides, when it comes to the legacy of 9/11, we still have plenty of everyday reminders: troops in Afghanistan, troops in Iraq (not really related, but still related), soaring deficits from said unpaid-for troop commitments, plastic trays for shoes and belts at the airport, and so on.

What’s more, like so many American families, ours was also impacted on that day. While we didn’t yet know him, our wonderful brother-in-law was in the World Trade Center and managed to escape. His description of the events, including being offered shelter and care by a complete stranger in the hours after impact, means more to me than any analysis from any talking head.

And, sure, many of the stories on the air and in the paper and on the web right now are also the accounts of survivors and victims, of people whose lives were forever changed or tragically lost. I don’t want to diminish that. Telling the stories, hearing them, is part of our national healing process. I’d just like it if the stories we tell on September 12 actually shared the same sense of national cohesion and we’re-in-it-togetherness. I’d like it if the narrative continued to help our once-again-divided nation find common ground. I’d like it if our leaders and media and, well, all of us learned something from this anniversary — something that would make us all proud to pledge our allegiance, not just to a flag, but to each other.

The New Normal

Before departing for this year in South Africa, several people advised us to spend as much time and energy as possible in the first month noting the things that look, feel, smell, taste and sound different than life in America. We’ve tried to do that here, documenting the language, the food, the little things and even Indie’s perspective. Now that we’re deep into our second month, a lot of things that are truly different are starting to feel somewhat normal. Such as…

Turn on the outlet to make a cup of rooibos

  • Turning light switches off by flipping them up
  • Turning outlets on by flipping them down
  • Turning on the outlet and setting the clock on the range to 12:01 before the oven will work
  • Bathrooms with no outlets
  • Entire rooms with no outlets
  • Driving on the left side of the road
  • Roundabouts
  • Paying a “car guard” R3.00 to watch your car in a parking lot — any parking lot — and then “help” you back out of your space
  • Parking within inches (centimeters) of trees or underneath public bus shelters on the side of Lynnwood Road (and then paying the car guard, of course)
  • Saying “Mmm.” repeatedly to indicate you are following the conversation
  • Laughing when Jenny orders a latte and the waiter says, “Black tea?”
  • Rooibos tea
  • Rusks (dunked in the rooibos tea)
  • Russell Hobbs (the ubiquitous appliance brand we refer to as Walter Hobbs, better known as Buddy the Elf’s human father in the movie Elf — “They gave me one phone call. They gave me one phone call. I said, I know who I’m gonna callWalter Hobbs. Sure enough, you showed up.”)
  • Constantly cleaning red dirt off of our shoes
  • Constantly obsessing about data bundle balances
  • Blogging

The question we’ve been asking ourselves lately is which of these “new normal” things will make the things we are used to in Chicago seem not normal? For example, I suppose the amount of Thai food I eat at home is not normal, but I’m sure I can get back into a nice routine.

Happy Birthday, Madiba!

Today is a big day in South Africa: It is Nelson Mandela’s birthday! Madiba is 93 beautiful years old.

As part of the celebration, South Africans are encouraged to take part in Nelson Mandela Day activities and to volunteer at least 67 minutes of time supporting a charity or working in local communities. That’s one minute for each of the 67 years of his life Mandela gave fighting for the rights of the oppressed in South Africa and around the world.

For our part, Jenny and I will be volunteering with others from the University of Pretoria this Saturday in Mamelodi. Mamelodi is a township outside of Pretoria that was established under apartheid. In the 1960’s, black South Africans were forcefully removed their homes and relocated to Mamelodi and other townships. While we have visited a township called Khayelitsha outside of Cape Town as tourists, I’m sure this experience as volunteers — and adopted South Africans — will be different and hopefully deeper.

I have to say, the feeling of being a part of anything remotely related to Nelson Mandela is electric. He is one of a select few figures that emit such energy and possess such gravity, whether you are near him or thousands of miles from him. I mean, he is in a category with the likes of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama. He is an inspiration to all.

Back in 2006, a year after Jenny and I visited Robben Island (where Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison), I had the opportunity to work on a project to promote the Robben Island Singers during their visit to Chicago. These three men — Grant Shezi, Muntu Nxumalo and Thembinkosi Sithole — were also political prisoners on Robben Island. Now, they sing the songs and tell the stories of the struggle for freedom, sharing a message of forgiveness, tolerance and peace. It was a tremendous honor to meet these men and be a small part of their ongoing efforts.

While today is a happy day and this week will be filled with acts of kindness and spikes in volunteerism, it also reminds me that Mandela’s release did not put an end to the struggles here or elsewhere. There remains an institutional bias in favor of the white minority that will take some time to balance out, just like our systems continue to need balance in the United States.

It also reminds me that the practice of imprisoning political enemies or those who speak out against government abuses continues around the world, even in America. Human Rights Watch in Chicago recently screened a film called In the Land of the Free that chronicles the situation of the Angola 3, three men targeted by prison officials for being members of the Black Panther Party and kept in solitary confinement for decades. Two of the men remain in prison.

So, wherever you are and whatever you do, let’s all wish Madiba a happy 93rd birthday and try to spend at least 67 minutes improving our little corners of the world.

Give us our MONEY!

No, you are not allowed to use your own money. Denied. (photo by Steve Rhodes via Flickr)

This is a tirade directed towards the largest bank holding company in the United States, Bank of America. It is a tale of mind-boggling ineptitude and questionable online security. All we want to do is access our funds to purchase a vehicle in South Africa. In 2011 — the age of the interwebs, globalization and Baja Blast-flavored Mountain Dew — we should be able to transfer money from America’s biggest bank to South Africa’s biggest bank. Right?

Not so much.

We started by establishing the vehicle’s seller as a payee in our Bank of America online account. No problem. Then, we tried to initiate the transfer. Oops, there’s a problem: Any transfer over $1,000 requires enrollment in “Safe Pass.”

OK, that’s cool. We like extra online security. Let’s enroll in Safe Pass.

Nope.

After several hours online and on the phone with BofA customer service, it was determined that it is not possible to enroll in Safe Pass from outside the United States. Their suggestion? Have “someone in the US” log in as Jenny and try to enroll.

What?!? How is that more secure? Sure, we trust (certain) family and friends — we didn’t think Grandma Chum was a good candidate — with our info, it sort of seems like fraud to have someone else pose as one of us, doesn’t it? Isn’t it, in fact, the exact thing BofA is trying to thwart with Safe Pass?

Of course, none of this worked. We tried everything the customer service reps suggested. My mom’s husband, better known as My Mike, patiently maneuvered his way through the BofA site and dealt with the delays and hiccups inherent in an international conference call. All to no avail. (Actually, that’s not true. He did learn how to send a text message from his phone. Ironically, though, his first-ever text was the word help.)

After ALL of that, here’s the kicker: The customer service rep said he would have to “escalate” the case. Sounds good, I said, what does that mean? Basically, that means we send your case to someone higher up, and they call you in 2-3 business days.

Again, WHAT?!?

Whatever, we said. Let’s go back to the drawing board and brainstorm some other ideas to pay the seller.

  • Travelers Cheques? Huge fees.
  • Cash Advance? Huger fees.
  • Have someone else wire the money to the seller and pay that person back? A workable idea, but seems unnecessary. Put that idea in the parking lot.
  • Western Union? There are no stupid ideas in a brainstorm.
  • Pay the seller in $1,000 installments? It would take several days to wire all the installments, and there’s no guarantee that each transfer will be immediate. It could take weeks to complete the sale. But there are no stupid ideas…
  • Try this process from the start on Ryan’s account? OK, why didn’t we think of that sooner??

So we tried. “Someone in the US” logged in as me and tried to enroll in Safe Pass. What do you think happened?

Error.

Three days, scores of costly internet megabytes and hundreds of cathartic pushups later, we are still in the same boat. Which is to say, we are still not in our new car.

If any of you work for, have sway with or feel like protesting Bank of America, please let us know. Right now, we could use the support. And a lift to the mall.

UPDATE (8:17pm South Africa Time): On a whim, I called BoA customer support again, just to check on the case number and try my luck with a new person. Luckily, I got the very sharp Katie Preston at the call center. She said, “I think there’s a workaround.” She was right. She solved in 3 minutes what others couldn’t solve in 3 days. Now, the transfer is in process, it should be cleared by Wednesday, and we should have our car by Thursday. Good timing, since there’s currently a petrol strike going on in South Africa with no end in sight. Baby steps.