The Odyssey to Cape Town

June 10, 2015
The historic (and colorful!) Bo-Kaap neighborhood where I am staying

By Tatenda Yemeke, MSc-GH '16

A common refrain during pre-fieldwork workshops was that "things will go wrong during fieldwork." Things started going wrong for me before I left Durham. Upon showing up at RDU, the airline informed me that I needed a visa to enter South Africa, despite the fact that citizens of my native country (Zimbabwe) are on the visa exempt list for South Africa. Fortunately six years as an international student (or 'nonimmigrant alien' in US immigration parlance) makes one adept in immigration nuances of all sorts. After a heated debate and several calls to airline supevisors, the issue was resolved and I was all set to fly to Cape Town. Apparently not! The next bombshell from the airline was that my flight to JFK was going to be three hours late due to "air traffic control," which meant I would miss my connection to Amsterdam and to Cape Town. I had no option but to return to Durham and wait two days for the next flight out of RDU.

When I showed up to the airport two days later a different airline worker raised the visa issue again, but I was otherwise able to fly out to Atlanta without much incident. Finally!! Or so I thought—there was to be more trouble in Atlanta! The auxiliary power unit (APU) on the Boeing 747 that was supposed to (finally) take me to Amsterdam had stopped working three days ago (I only know what an APU is because one of my pasttimes is flying airplanes on Microsoft Flight Simulator). Ordinarily is such a situation the plane would be plugged into an external power unit, however it so happened that the external unit at the gate was also not functioning. The result was five hours of sitting on the tarmarc in sweltering Atlanta heat (the plane needs the APU to run air conditioning and to start the engines). By the time I arrived in Amsterdam, I had missed my connection again and all the Cape Town bound passengers were being rerouted through London! The only hiccup was that Zimbabweans need a transit visa to pass through London, so off to Dubai I went!

By the time I arrived in Cape Town, three days later than I had been scheduled to arrive, my driver had been to the airport twice to pick me up and haggled with airline staff to get details about my Gulliver's travels-like trip.  The driver, a chirpy fellow, loaded my bags into a vintage Mercedes Benz that groaned audibly over the the steep inclines of the N2 freeway from the airport into the City. With the majestic Table Mountain in the horizon, we drove past tin roof shacks of the shanty-town slums that line the sides of the airport road (a stark reminder of the legacy of apartheid and the worsening economic inequality in South Africa). We snaked our way up on cobblestone paved streets and finally arrived in the historic Bo-Kaap neighnorhood of Cape Town, where my host mother (more on that later!) was waiting for me outside her bright neon green house.

So thus began my fieldwork experience in Cape Town. Perhaps it was only appropriate that my first blog post came three weeks "late," just as my arrival in the mother city was delayed by three days.

I will spend the next two months implementing a small pilot screening project for sexual trauma and mental health symptoms in HIV positive women. My screening is part of formative research for my mentors' three research studies on Improving the Health of South African Women with Traumatic Stress in HIV Care. I will also be conducting key informant interviews with various policymakers and public health officials to understand the implemenation of Option B+ in South Africa. Option B+ is one of WHO's new PMTCT guidelines, which recommends provision of lifelong ART treatment for HIV positive pregnant and breastfeeding women, regardless of CD4 count or clinical stage.