By Sara Calabro
Ever since leaving his native country of South Africa at age 13, Gidon Levenbach has wanted to give something back. Gratitude came in the form of needles.
Immediately upon graduating from acupuncture school, Levenbach began laying the groundwork for Flying Needle Project, an organization that provides acupuncture to HIV/AIDS patients and other vulnerable populations in South Africa. Levenbach and his team of acupuncturists operate a free clinic in Cape Town, where they are making inroads toward decreasing the stigma associated with acupuncture. Just two years old, Flying Needle Project already has plans to expand into South Africa’s more remote townships.
AcuTake recently spoke with Levenbach about practicing acupuncture in South Africa, the logistics of starting a clinic in another country, and how he pays the bills.
AcuTake: What was the impetus for Flying Needle Project?
Gidon Levenbach (wearing a green shirt in the picture at right): After completing acupressure training in 1995, I decided to volunteer at Quan Yin Healing Arts Center in San Francisco, California. Working there was amazing. I got hands on experience. This was before Clean Needle Technique was instituted, so I was taking out needles, changing sheets and doing moxa, massage and acupressure. Working there, I was blown away by the positive impact that acupuncture had on HIV-positive patients.
That experience inspired me to go to acupuncture school. It took me a while, because I was reluctant to get into debt. I slowly completed the prerequisites and took some time learning about other things. I studied Chinese and Western herbs, and I also did a bone setting apprenticeship in South Africa. I committed to going to acupuncture school in 2004. Coincidentally, when I applied, the person who conducted my interview happened to be very interested in HIV. My focus throughout acupuncture school was HIV and public health, and I knew all along I wanted to start a clinic in South Africa.
Starting a new profession can be overwhelming on a lot of levels, even without having to navigate the ins and outs of a foreign place. Logistically speaking, how did you begin the process of starting an affordable acupuncture clinic in another country?
When I graduated, I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do it. Aside from some volunteer work, I really didn’t have any experience with non-profits. I started by taking out a book on proposal writing from the library. I went through the book systematically and wrote out each section—executive summary, vision, mission, budget. I also had a friend who had experience with grant writing, so she put the proposal into language that funders respond to. I worked on that proposal for one year while volunteering at three public health organizations in Portland, Oregon. I figured this would be a good way to get my foot in the door with non-profits and get some public health experience.
I knew that I didn’t want to start my own non-profit. I wanted to spend my time doing the practical work. My goal was to get umbrellaed under an existing non-profit. I had another friend who worked for a non-profit that does international naturopathic and alternative medicine work. This group initially accepted me into their non-profit, so I went to South Africa and made some connections. I found a practice space, recruited acupuncturists, and started talking to HIV advocacy groups. Unfortunately, when I came back to the States to start fundraising, the non-profit that told me I had the go-ahead was now saying that I had to reapply. Then they weren’t happy with my reapplication, so they wanted me to write a business plan. At that point, I got frustrated and started exploring other options.
In the end, the organization that had agreed to provide space for me to practice—The Scalabrini Centre, a refugee organization that does a lot of advocacy work in South Africa against xenophobia—agreed to umbrella me. Scalabrini was amazing, not only providing space, but also a little bit of funding and some volunteers. I am not sure Flying Needle Project would have gotten off the ground without them.
What was the timeline on this whole process?
I graduated in 2007 and we opened in June of 2009. So just under two years from when I graduated, we were treating patients in South Africa.
How many patients are you seeing a day?
Initially we were seeing about 30 people a day. In coordination with Scalabrini, we were driving to a township to pick up about 15 women who had no other way of getting access to food and healthcare. We’d pick them up, give them food and acupuncture, then drive them back home. That unfortunately became unaffordable, driving 40 minutes each way, so we had to stop. Now we usually see about 12-15 people a day. Treatments are community style, with two acupuncturists working four tables. We started out using just chairs but now we have four tables so we only use chairs when we have to.
What kind of response have you received from mainstream healthcare providers?
HIV and alternative medicine is quite controversial in South Africa. There’s a lot of backlash against it. It is coming around but there is still a lot of skepticism. South Africans in general are very scared of needles and acupuncture is very foreign to them. There’s been some acupuncture research recently that has given doctors a little bit of faith, but often they are very closed to it.
The big issue with HIV and alternative medicine stems from cases of traditional doctors telling patients not to take their ARVs [antiretroviral drugs] in favor of herbs. There also was a German businessman who came to South Africa and started telling people that ARVs were toxic and could kill them. He advised them to take some very expensive vitamins instead. A lot of HIV advocacy groups really came down hard against him and there was a big public debate over it. The end result was that these advocacy groups became completely anti all forms of alternative medicine.
I had the phone slammed down on me by someone pretty high up in an HIV advocacy group. He said I was completely irresponsible for providing acupuncture, that it was giving people false hope. Someone else from this organization told patients of ours that acupuncture would cause ARVs to stop working. People were told that if they kept getting acupuncture they could no longer get services from the advocacy organization. This is what led me to call this person, and he said, “I have no sympathy for you,” and hung up on me. There is a lot of money and politics in HIV in South Africa.
Despite the obstacles, you are about to enter phase two of the project. Congratulations. What’s involved there?
Thanks. At the end of January, we’re hoping to start working in the township of Philippi. We did a trial there just before I left and it was incredibly positive. They wanted us back immediately, but I had to first work on getting funding so that I can pay the acupuncturists more (currently they make about $7-8 an hour) and ideally start paying myself. We will still be at Scalabrini once a week, and then we’ll be out in Philippi one day. Also, the organization that offered us space in Philippi has two trailers—called caravans in South Africa—that they use to do volunteer counseling and HIV testing. We have talked about the possibility of using those trailers as mobile acupuncture clinics so that we can reach some of the more remote townships.
What are your long-term goals for Flying Needle Project?
Projects are effective when you leave something behind. I want to get things to the point where they are stable and able to function without me. Currently, there is no easy way for volunteer acupuncturists to come from other countries and work temporarily in South Africa. I want to see that happen. Basically, I want to grow—more acupuncturists, more clinics, more regions, more days, more acupuncture.
Do you live full-time in South Africa?
I live six months there and six months in the States. When I am not there, the other acupuncturists step up and run the clinic for me. My time in the States is spent on fundraising for Flying Needled Project and raising money for myself to live in South Africa. I also hope to do some continuing education, and possibly visit some acupuncture schools to talk with students about the organization.
If you don’t mind me asking, how do you make money?
So far the project has existed off of about $17,000, which I have raised through benefits and personal donations. I am hoping to find benefactors and philanthropists who like the idea and want to donate. Luckily I don’t have any overhead, and needles are cheap. Acupuncture is an incredibly affordable medicine that can reach a lot of people. The main expense has been paying to live. Personally, I do whatever I can do to stay afloat. I do acupuncture and massage; I’ve worked as a photography assistant; I’ve done manual labor. I live pretty frugally. I have put a lot of things on hold to do this project, but I know this is the direction I want to take my career. I believe people should have access to acupuncture without it being an elitist thing. I didn’t want to go into private practice and charge $70 a session. I felt like that would exclude a lot of people.
Throughout this experience, what has surprised you most?
As scared as South Africans are of needles, they keep coming back. A lot of people return consistently and have a lot of faith for something so foreign. Also, the results I get with people in South Africa are phenomenal, better than the results I ever got in the States. I think part of this has to do with how we are so filled with excess in America. People in South Africa are struggling just to eat. Of course, there also is a lot of poverty here, but the resources in general are much greater; there is more upward mobility and possibility here. The levels of poverty in South Africa make people ideal patients for acupuncture. I’ve found that syndromes are a little more cut-and-dried, because people’s lifestyles are not convoluted by so much excess. For example, people eat very similarly in townships. I see a lot of the same syndromes get repeated because of the way people have to live.
Have you achieved your goal of giving something back to the country where you grew up?
I have felt like I have had my hands tied at a lot of points, but just the fact that we have been open for two years now is an accomplishment. I’ve seen people’s lives really transform. I’ve had patients who have never had acupuncture before. They got a few needles, passed out on the table, and woke up feeling like different human beings. Many of these people are under enormous amounts of stress, and yet they come in and have an opportunity to rest. One patient recently told me that after her first treatment she kept having to check in with herself to make sure she was the same person. She felt so completely different. Having just one patient like that is enough to make me feel good about having dedicated my life to this project.
Photos courtesy of Flying Needle Project
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