Sunday, July 10, 2011

Goodbye, The Beloved Country

In August 2010, I boarded a plane to Chicago in which would be the beginning of my year living abroad.  I had to say goodbye to all my friends and family, knowing that I wouldn’t see them on Christmas, my birthday, Easter, or any other special holidays.  At that time, it was the hardest goodbye I’ve ever had to experience.  I was leaving all that I knew, and leaping into an unknown world.  But now, a year later, the goodbyes I have to experience with my South African hosts hurt worse than those a year ago.  I find difficulty leaving the people who have supported me during my most vulnerable times, and I cannot grasp the reality of this experience coming to an end.

When I left to come to South Africa, I didn’t expect to fall in love.  But I have felt a love stronger than any love I’ve felt in my past.  I’ve fallen in love with the generosity, hospitality and Ubuntu seen in every South African I’ve met.  I’ve fallen in love with Jesus like never before.   I’ve fallen in love with the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, the golden velds of the Free State, and the crashing waves along the coasts.  I’ve fallen in love with the world’s most marginalized people who have taught me so much.  And my love for the majestic Maluti Mountains of Lesotho has been renewed, and so has my love for its people.  Now my heart truly belongs to Africa.

This past year has been the most challenging, difficult, stressful, agonizing and unpredictable year of my life...and it’s been the best year of my life. 

Despite the numerous hurdles that presented themselves this year, I wouldn’t be who I am today if I never faced them.  I was challenged in ways I never could have imagined.  I saw things I never saw in the flesh before, and felt emotions I didn’t know I had.  I walked alongside those I once ignored, and I felt the presence of the Lord in places I’ve never known.  I was at my most vulnerable this year, but fell upon a plethora of grace and love by my hosts.  And this year I lost someone very important in my life, but gained so many new wonderful people. 

I admit that in the beginning of my experience here, I wasn’t quite sure how what I was doing benefitted the ELCA and the partnership with ELCSA.  But as the time progressed, I began to see how my presence here was impacting those around me.  I began to see how accompaniment was a powerful tool and a way to break down cultural barriers.  And I began to see how relationships with our fellow human beings are the true wealth in life, and without them I am nothing.

I am forever thankful for the love, compassion, grace and hospitality I experienced from my South African hosts.  I cannot express how blessed I feel to have experienced what I have with the people I have.  I was blessed with the most loving and caring host family anyone could ask for.  I was blessed with the most amazing supervisors at work.  I was blessed with a spiritual church parish full of love and praise.  I was blessed with wonderful co-workers who are now simply my brothers and sisters.  And despite these people being “assigned” to me or stumbled upon, I now consider them family.   

I must say goodbye to the beloved country, but thankfully I will say hello to a new life as a more globally formed and informed person.  I have a better understanding of the realities and pains of this world, and know how to live simply.  I was told when I first arrived in Bloemfontein a saying that says, “You cry twice in Bloemfontein; once when you arrive and once when you leave.”  I have not only shared those tears at those times, but many others in between.  I’ve had tears of joy of the wonders of life, but also tears of sadness for so many people in despair.  I cannot, and will not, forget the tears I’ve shed.  I will hold dear to me every happy experience and every painful one, for it made me who I am today.

There is an endless list of the things I’ll miss when I leave this Rainbow Nation.  But I know that despite leaving Africa, Africa will never leave me.  I will carry with me all that I’ve learned this year and will share my experience with all those around me at home.

Thank you South Africa for shaping me into the man I am today.  My heart will always long for your sunsets, clear night skies, hospitality and inherently beautiful essence.  I will always carry your spirit with me.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I Am An African

The following poem was shared with us at YAGM orientation in August, 2010.  But it wasn't until recently that I fully grasped its meaning and found myself deeply connected to it.

I Am An African
By: Wayne Visser

I am an African
Not because I was born there
But because my heart beats with Africa’s
I am an African
Not because my skin is black
But because my mind is engaged by Africa
I am an African
Not because I live on its soil
But because my soul is at home in Africa

When Africa weeps for her children
My cheeks are stained with tears
When Africa honours her elders
My head is bowed in respect
When Africa mourns for her victims
My hands are joined in prayer
When Africa celebrates her triumphs
My feet are alive with dancing

I am an African
For her blue skies take my breath away
And my hope for the future is bright
I am an African
For her people greet me as family
And teach me the meaning of community
I am an African
For her wildness quenches my spirit
And brings me closer to the source of life

When the music of Africa beats in the wind
My blood pulses to its rhythm
And I become the essence of sound
When the colours of Africa dazzle in the sun
My senses drink in its rainbow
And I become the palette of nature
When the stories of Africa echo round the fire
My feet walk in its pathways
And I become the footprints of history

I am an African
Because she is the cradle of our birth
And nurtures an ancient wisdom
I am an African
Because she lives in the world’s shadow
And bursts with a radiant luminosity
I am an African
Because she is the land of tomorrow
And I recognise her gifts as sacred

Friday, July 1, 2011

Jesus Behind Bars

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” 
Hebrews 13: 3

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day at the religious center of the Mangaung Correctional Center here in Bloemfontein.  The Mangaung Correctional Center is a maximum security prison and the second largest private prison in the world.  A few months ago I was given a tour of the facility, which I blogged about here:

But on my recent visit, I spent the day in the religious center of the prison.  Within five minutes of arriving, I was brought to a general Christian bible study where 15 men were singing before starting the bible study.  I was shown my seat and left alone with the inmates in a classroom-type atmosphere.  After the singing was done and some prayers were said, I was asked to come to the front and talk about myself and share some scripture.  When I asked how much time I had, they said, “You have about 20 minutes.”  Ha!  I almost fell over as I did not anticipate having to give such a talk.  But, as many situations this past year have taught me, I had to think on my feet and make the best of it.  So I got up in front of them and basically gave a sermon.  Giving a sermon to my congregation in South Africa was hard enough, but I really had no idea how to preach to maximum security inmates.  However, the Holy Spirit must have grabbed a hold of me because before I knew it, my 20 minutes were up and I was receiving many smiles, “Amens”, and “Hallelujahs.” 

My second session of the day was another bible study, this time for the Assemblies of God.  This time there were over 30 inmates in attendance, and I was much more of an observer this time.  However, towards the end I was again invited to the front to share some of my story.  They treated me like a guest in their home, and were every courteous the entire time.  The leader of the bible study said towards the end, “Brother Andrew, know that you are family here and your family will always be ours.  We are all family in Christ.”  These were powerful words, especially coming from a man such as him.  After the bible study had ended, every inmate came and shook my hand and thanked me with “God bless,” as they left the room.  It wasn’t until after everyone had exited the room that I remembered I was in a maximum security prison.  The hands I just shook have killed, raped, and robbed other human beings.  These were the most dangerous men in South Africa.  But none of that seemed to hit me, not when the Holy Spirit was so strong in each of them. 

In the afternoon I observed a Zionist Apostolic worship service held outdoors.  This is a religion that combines Christianity with traditional, ancestral beliefs.  There was a large traditional drum, lit candles, and an object made of various string, rope and wool hanging above the candles.  The men would occasionally dance and spin around the candles when singing was going on.  It was fascinating to observe such a service, so unlike anything we have back home in the States.  And as the service went on, they tried to translate into English to accommodate me.  They didn’t have to do this, but they did.  Towards the end of the service, one of the inmates who was translating into English came up to me and started talking with me.  He explained to me what was happening in the service, the history of their church and what the leaders wished for me to know.  He continued to come and assist me in following the service.  He showed me some of their documents, which showed that they were recognized as an independent church and registered with the national church.  It was amazing to see how these inmates had created their own church and gone so far as to register it officially. 

The singing was beautiful, and I couldn’t help but tap my foot and clap my hands.  There was such passion in the voices of the men who preached, and so much enthusiasm for God in their bodies.  As the service came closer to an end, the same inmate who had been helping me had a conversation with me that I’ll never forget.  He asked where I was from, where in South Africa I’ve been, and other basic questions.  He then started to talk about his life in prison.  He told me that most of the inmates worshiping there had found God once inside the prison.  That he, along with the others, lived lives “on the outside” they were ashamed of.  He spoke eloquently of how they have changed and become new people.  He assured me that if and when he would be out, he would live a life with God as its central point.  After exchanging more words and dialogue, we stood up and embraced each other.  Here I was, hugging a man who has created such a horrific crime that he is in a maximum security prison.  But we shared the love of Christ and it was so strong that I was never afraid.  As the service was winding down, we said our goodbyes and he leaned over and said, “I want to leave you with some scripture.  Please don’t ever forget it.  Jeremiah 29: 11-12.”  I quickly wrote it down on a piece of paper.  When I got home that night, the first thing I did was look up the verses I was told by the inmate.  

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come pray to me, I will hear you.”  
Jeremiah 29: 11-12

I sat there dumbfounded by the day I had just experienced.  I had spent the day with some of the worst sinners on Earth.  But these men are humans, and their remorse and dedication to their faith was inspiring.  It was one of the most spiritually fulfilling days of my life.  I could feel the presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit amongst the prisoners.  I could see how their lives were no longer surrounding crime, but now surrounding God.  For people who are forever judged by others, they still welcomed me with warm hospitality.  It is fair to say that Jesus is behind bars.  He lives in each and every one of the inmates in the prison.  He is the strength they receive each morning to wake up and the peace they need to sleep at night.  I pray that God’s grace will shower the inmates with the peace, comfort and repentance that they will need.  I will always have the memories of the bible studies and services from that day.  And I will never forget two verses in the book of Jeremiah that, for some, is the hope and strength to live each and every day. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

10 Suggestons for Helping your YAGM Return Home

Written by Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, the Mexico Country Coordinator

1. Don’t ask the question, “So how was it?” Your YAGM cannot function in one-word answers right now, especially ones intended to sum up their entire year’s experience, and being asked to do so may cause them to start laughing or crying uncontrollably. Ask more specific questions, like “Who was your closest friend?” or “What did you do in your free time?” or “What was the food like?” or “Tell me about your typical day.”

2. If you wish to spend time with your YAGM, let them take the lead on where to go and what to do. Recognize that seemingly mundane rituals, like grocery shopping or going to the movies, may be extremely difficult for someone who has just spent a year living without a wide array of material goods. One former YAGM, for example, faced with the daunting task of choosing a tube of toothpaste from the 70-odd kinds available, simply threw up in the middle of the drugstore.

3. Expect some feelings of jealousy and resentment, especially if your YAGM lived with a host family. Relationships that form during periods of uncertainty and vulnerability (the first few months in a foreign country, for example) form quickly and deeply. The fact that your YAGM talks non-stop about their friends and family from their country of service doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, too. It simply means that they’re mourning the loss (at least in part) of the deep, meaningful, important relationships that helped them to survive and to thrive during this last year. In this regard, treat them as you would anyone else mourning a loss.

4. You may be horrified by the way your YAGM dresses; both because their clothes are old and raggedy and because they insist on wearing the same outfit three days in a row. Upon encountering their closet at home, returning YAGMs tend to experience two different emotions: (1) jubilation at the fact that they can stop rotating the same 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts, and (2) dismay at the amount of clothing they own, and yet clearly lived without for an entire year. Some YAGMs may deal with this by giving away entire car loads of clothing and other items to people in need. Do not “save them from themselves” by offering to drive the items to the donation center, only to hide them away in your garage. Let your YAGM do what they need to do. Once they realize, after the fact, that you do indeed need more than 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts to function in professional American society, offer to take them shopping. Start with the Goodwill and the Salvation Army; your YAGM may never be able to handle Macys again.

5. Asking to see photos of your YAGM’s year in service is highly recommended, providing you have an entire day off from work. Multiply the number of photos you take during a week’s vacation, multiply that by 52, and you understand the predicament. If you have an entire day, fine. If not, take a cue from number 1 above, and ask to see specific things, like photos of your YAGM’s host family, or photos from holiday celebrations. Better yet, set up a number of “photo dates,” and delve into a different section each time. Given the high percentage of people whose eyes glaze over after the first page of someone else’s photos, and the frustration that can cause for someone bursting with stories to tell, this would be an incredible gift.

6. At least half the things that come out of your YAGM’s mouth for the first few months will begin with, “In Mexico/Slovakia/South Africa/etc…” This will undoubtedly begin to annoy the crap out of you after the first few weeks. Actually saying so, however, will prove far less effective than listening and asking interested questions. Besides, you can bet that someone else will let slip exactly what you’re thinking, letting you off the hook.

7. That said, speak up when you need to! Returning YAGMs commonly assume that almost nothing has changed in your lives since they left. (This happens, in part, because you let them, figuring that their experiences are so much more exciting than yours, and therefore not sharing your own.) Be assertive enough to create the space to share what has happened in your life during the last year.

8. Recognize that living in a very simple environment with very few material belongings changes people. Don’t take it personally if your YAGM seems horrified by certain aspects of the way you live – that you shower every day, for example, or that you buy a new radio instead of duct-taping the broken one back together. Recognize that there probably are certain things you could or should change (you don’t really need to leave the water running while you brush your teeth, do you?), but also that adjusting to what may now feel incredibly extravagant will simply take awhile. Most YAGMs make permanent changes toward a simpler lifestyle. Recognize this as a good thing.

9. Perhaps you had hopes, dreams, and aspirations for your YAGM that were interrupted by their year of service. If so, you may as well throw them out the window. A large percentage of returning YAGMs make significant changes to their long-term goals and plans. Some of them have spent a year doing something they never thought they’d enjoy, only to find themselves drawn to it as a career. Others have spent a year doing exactly what they envisioned doing for the rest of their lives, only to find that they hate it. Regardless of the direction your YAGM takes when they return…rejoice! This year hasn’t changed who they are; it has simply made them better at discerning God’s call on their lives. (Note: Some YAGMs spend their year of service teaching English, some are involved in human rights advocacy, others work with the elderly or disabled, and at least one spent his year teaching British youth to shoot with bows and arrows. The results of this phenomenon, therefore, can vary widely.)

10. Go easy on yourself, and go easy on your YAGM. Understand that reverse culture shock is not an exact science, and manifests itself differently in each person. Expect good days and bad days. Don’t be afraid to ask for help (including of the pharmaceutical variety) if necessary. Pray. Laugh. Cry. This too shall pass, and in the end, you’ll both be the richer for it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Will You Be My Friend?

Recently I was grabbing a quick snack at a place in town when I experienced something quite common in South Africa but unfamiliar to the United States.  A young lady sitting at the table to my left asked if the letter I was reading was a song.  I explained that it was simply a letter someone had written me and that I wasn’t talented enough to write a song as long as that.  She then asked if she could sit with me, and I didn’t see a reason why that would be a problem.  After scooting over to my table, she asked my name and where I was from.  (My accent is quickly noticed by everyone in South Africa, although not everyone can pinpoint its origin!)  So after the initial points of the conversation, she asked me something that used to startle me a bit earlier in my term here. 

She said, “Will you be my friend?” 

“Of course I’ll be your friend,” I said with a smile.  Her face lit up and she seemed elated that I agreed to be her friend.  I knew that our newfound friendship would only consist of the immediate conversation we were having, but for her it meant more.  It showed that we could accept each other and enjoy each other’s company.  Our conversation only lasted about 15 minutes, but she opened up and told me things she may not have told me if I didn’t say I’d be her friend.  The trust was established, and even though I was a white man she found it easy to confide in me as her new friend.  As we both went our separate ways, I couldn’t help but smile at the beauty of the acceptance in people’s hearts here. 

I have been asked “will you be my friend?” by strangers a number of times this year.  Mainly, the question comes from children I work with or come across during my experiences.  This question coincides with how most of the children I work with act.  The children in this part of the world are not shy and not afraid of “strangers.”  We in the United States are taught from an early age the “stranger=danger” scenarios, and rarely will go up to people we don’t know.  But here, children will run up to you and give you the biggest hug they can muster.  They will grab you hand, walk with you and ask you if you’ll be their friend.  Sometimes all they can say is “Papa!” or “Mama!” when they greet you.  This is because the sense of community here is so strong, and such a part of the people’s foundation.  Again, it plays to the concept of Ubuntu, where “people are people through other people.”  It doesn’t matter if you grow up in the township or rural area, everyone around you is considered family.  That is why the children call any person older than them “papa” and “mama.”  It’s why the children are unabashed to literally run up to you and embrace you in a loving hug.  It’s why holding hands with someone you don’t know, even a white American, is simply part of life.  It’s why everyone is accepted for who they are. 

The powerful sense of community here is something we can all learn from.  Instead of growing up in fear of the dangers that others may bring, why not grow up loving and accepting everyone in your life?  The children here don’t see race or economic status, they see people as people.  Let us learn from this and start asking the question, “will you be my friend?” a little more often.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Breaking Barriers By Being

17 years after the end of Apartheid, there are still very strong cultural barriers throughout South Africa.  As a YAGM volunteer, you are immediately thrust into the middle of them all.  During my time here, I have certainly participated in many “barrier breaking” activities, but most have come by way of simply being, not doing.

Being a YAGM volunteer means that you are not allowed any driving privileges.  Sure, this can seem annoying at times and take away some of that independence we have cherished since teenage years as Americans.  However, my rides in the taxis have produced some of more fruitful experiences during my time in South Africa.  The taxis in South Africa are very different from the ones back in the States.  Here, the taxis are really minibuses, or “15 seaters” as we commonly refer to them back home.  Here, you squeeze in to capacity (and sometimes far over capacity!) and head to one common destination.  You get off where you want, and you have to know the lingo and hand signs to get where you want to go.  The taxis are quite cheap, and virtually travel everywhere and anywhere.  Despite the common use and convenience, the taxis are rarely ridden by white South Africans.  Often referred to as the “black taxis,” many white South Africans would rather walk than ride in them.  So, whenever I step on to a taxi, the heads turn.  People stare in amazement and for many I may be the first white person they’ve ever shared a taxi with.  But shortly after aboard, I try to start a conversation with whoever is seated next to me.  And the conversations have usually been wonderful, rich, fulfilling ones in which I learn a lot.  I see a lot of people smile when they see me on the taxis, perhaps enjoying the fact that race is not the issue it once was.  And all this by simply being.

My host family lives in a very safe, comfortable suburban neighborhood called Fauna.  The streets are generally quiet and I spend a lot of time outside with my little host brother and sister.  Down the street there is a little neighborhood shopping area, with a mini supermarket, a fish & chips place, a butchery, a dvd rental and other retail stores.  So whenever I am feeling for a walk or need something quickly, I head down to the shops.  As is often the case, my host brother or sister will accompany on my walk, (they do this because they usually get a chocolate or some ice cream out of it for keeping me company!)  We tend to make these walks quite often.  Each time we make the walk, we get stared at as if we had five heads and twenty arms.  Unfortunately, the stares became so intense that my host brother and sister started to refuse to accompany me because they felt so uncomfortable.  As unfair and rude as it is, it proves that there is still a stigma surrounding people of different races spending time together.  I can only smile and laugh it off, for I know that our presence by just walking is making people think and contemplate the realities of the new South Africa.  We are slowly showing people that it’s no big deal for a white person and black person to walk together.  And all this by simply being.

Either for work or leisure, I spend a lot of time in downtown Bloemfontein.  Covered with street vendors and markets selling spices, produce and other miscellaneous goods, downtown Bloemfontein has the hustle and bustle of a true African city.  Bloem has character, and it’s something you need to experience firsthand to understand.  And it’s because of this lively atmosphere that I sometimes just go for a stroll downtown.  Now, when I am walking around downtown, I am the only white person in sight.  I don’t get stared at as much as in other places, perhaps because it’s a city and people are more focused on their next destination or where the best avocado dealer is.  But I certainly get the looks.  I probably get the most astonished looks when I purchase something from the markets, or buy some of the food from the street vendors.  There have been many times when I’ll bite into a fat cake (doughnut like bread ball sold almost everywhere,) freshly purchased on the street just to have people literally stop and stare at me.  I’ve even had people tell me that they’ve never seen a white person eat something that they’ve just witnessed me happily devour.  And despite hearing from many people how “dangerous and unsafe” downtown Bloemfontein is, I have never had a problem.  Although I am just a drop in the ocean of people in downtown Bloem, I cannot help but think that my presence there triggers people’s thoughts about race, acceptance and life.   And all this by simply being.

After spending over ten months in places and situations that are against the racial norm of the area, I see how powerful a presence can simply be.  And then I think, how present have I been back home?  How have I gone about my life in the cities and towns back in the U.S.?  I was not unlike many white South Africans.  But my hope is that after this year, I will continue to “simply be” amongst people unlike myself.   

I’ve learned that you don’t have to do something tangible or big to make a difference.  You simply have to be in ways you’ve never been.

Monday, June 13, 2011

South African Slang Words

In order for many of you to understand me when I return home, I thought it would be a good idea to list some of the commonly used slang words from South Africa.  A more comprehensive list can be found at, but the following are ones you will most likely hear me utter once or twice:

bakkie - a utility truck.pick-up truck, now a mainstream word in South African English. Can also refer to a small bowl.

biltong - dried meat, similar to jerky (a mainstream word)

boerewors - spicy sausage (Afrikaans) farmer-sausage, used as a mainstream word in South African English

bokkie - (diminutive of bok, literally meaning "goat" or "doe") a popular term of endearment, comparable to "sweetheart", "honey", etc.

braai - to barbecue (from braaivleis), used a mainstream word in South African English

china - a friend; as in the greeting howzit china (likely origin: Cockney rhyming slang "China plate" (meaning "my mate"); from early British immigrants.

lekker - nice, good, great (lit. tasty)

sies - expression of disgust, disappointment, annoyance, as in: ag, sies, man

eish! - an interjection expressing resignation

gogo - grandmother, elderly woman (from Zulu, ugogo

hhayibo! - wow! (from Zulu, 'definitely not')

laduma! - a popular cheer at soccer matches, "he scores!"

Mzansi - South Africa (uMzantsi in Xhosa means "south")

ubuntu - compassion or kindness, humanity

yebo - Zulu meaning yes

wena - Zulu meaning "you". Commonly used in a sentence "Haw wena!"

chop - idiot, doos

just now, sometime in the near future, not necessarily immediately. Expresses an intention to act soon, but not necessarily immediately. (as in 20–90 minutes time)

now now - an immediate but not literal declaration of impending action, may be past or future tense. From the Afrikaans expression "nou nou". (as in 5–60 minutes)

isit - (pronounced: \izit\) the words "is" and "it" put together. Short term for "Is that so?" (For example: John: "Bra, I just found out I have a million dollars!" Charles: "Isit?"; or: John: "Bru, you would not believe how amazing it felt to footskate in front of all those people." Charles: "Isit?") Also, it can mean "really?"

shebeen - illegal drinking-establishment

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tears of the Street

Last week I had the opportunity to spend the week serving at Towers of Hope, a NGO that focuses on providing resources to the homeless, especially homeless youth.   Towers of Hope is located in the heart of Bloemfontein and serves three meals daily.  In addition to providing meals, clothes and food parcels to the homeless of the city, Towers concentrates on rehabilitating homeless youth, or “street kids.”  I spent most of my week meeting many of the homeless youth in the streets, as well as working with some of the teenage boys who are now off the streets.  The week was an eye opening, yet heartbreaking experience.

Every morning Steven, an employee of Towers and a former street kid himself, does his rounds around Bloem.  Over time, he has developed quite a rapport with many of the youth, and knows them all by name.  He would take me to all the usual spots where they spend their days, as well as where they sleep.  The two main areas where the homeless youth sleep are under a bridge in the center of town and in the “white house.”  Both locations are ironically placed and in unimaginably harsh conditions. 

The bridge location is directly down town and right next to a shopping area called ‘Central Park.’  The irony lies just 50 meters away where the Central Park police station is located.  The police used to allow the boys to bathe there until they deemed them “too old to bathe at the police station.”  So now the boys remain unclean, relying on the flow of water under the bridge.  Many of the boys sleep under this bridge, where running water flows from city run-off and drainage.  There are copious amounts of garbage heaps and the only way down or up is to climb the steep stone wall and jump over the palisade fence.  But for more than a dozen teenage boys, this is home.

The “White House” is a place that I will never forget.  Also in the center of the city, it is located in a large plot normally used for the Macufe Festival in September.  Once a large brick house, after an uncontrollable fire it was condemned and abandoned.  There is no roof, no windows and no doors.  But inside, young girls make it their home.  The girls living here, some as young as 13, prostitute themselves at night for survival.  In the waking hours of dawn they have to come back to a house of ruin.  Their rooms, if you could even call them that, are dark, damp and full of soot.  The mattresses are lumps of garbage, and their blankets are tattered and torn.  My heart ached upon seeing this and imagining the daily struggles these teenagers and children have to endure.  As I walked out the front entrance of the house, Steven pointed something out to me.  To our right across the street, loomed a tall and powerful building.  It is the government building for the Department of Social Development, starring down at this structure that embodies so much struggle and pain on the streets of this city.  How could these people go to work every day and peer out their office windows and not do something about this place?  This extreme irony and apathy from the general public sadly encompasses more than just this scene.

As my week continued and I met more and more of the boys of the streets, I started to see them in a more human way.  Unfortunately, the homeless have lost all dignity and humanity.  We don’t see homeless people as people, we simply don’t see them at all.  This is a universal problem, not just a South African one.  But despite the boys seeming to be dangerous, constantly huffing glue, wearing tattered clothes or sleeping under a bridge, I felt their youth.  I could see in their eyes and youthful smiles that they are just boys, many of whom have been abused.  They love playing soccer, dancing and creating art.  They are people.  I constantly thought back to my years as an adolescent, and how much I took for granted but also for how blessed I’ve been.  After experiencing this, I will never see a homeless person the same again. 

Every night since I’ve left Towers I pray for the comfort and peace for the children living on the streets in Bloemfontein.  When I hear the rain, I can feel it as it falls on the boys under the bridge and sweep away their only comforts.  As I huddle under my many blankets at night, I feel the bitter cold on the emaciated bodies of the girls in the White House.  I do not deserve anything I have.  I have been blessed by God’s grace, and I can only pray that His grace will befall the children on the street.  But until then my tears will continue to fall, and my fight for the hope of the poor and marginalized will rage on.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Unifying Power of Sports

Sports in South Africa are huge.  This is a country that loves their braais, (BBQ) loves their wors, (Spiced sausage) and loves their sport.  There is a true national pride in the beloved Springboks (rugby team), and Proteas (the name for all other national squads.)  History has shown how sports in South Africa have acted as a cultural and racial divide, and in some respects it still exists today.  But my many experiences here, as well as some recent national sporting events, have proven that sports play a powerful role in uniting people of different backgrounds. 

During the era of the apartheid regime, nothing escaped the grasp of racial divides.  Rugby and cricket were the main “white” sports, and soccer remained the “black” sport.  This not only meant the kind of players in each sport, but even the fans who support the games.  Rugby and cricket were played at all-white schools while soccer was the dominant sport at all-black schools in the locations, townships and rural areas.  There weren’t many more segregated areas than professional sporting events, and this generally remained the case until 1995.  In 1995, something amazing happened, a turning point in South African sports and national identity.  The Rugby World Cup was being held in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela was a newly elected president.  The South African team wasn’t favored to win and many had them at long shots to be champions.  However, Mandela saw this as an opportunity to unite South Africa for the first time.  He got behind the Springboks, and openly became a fan of the team.  This enabled other South Africans, especially black South Africans, to feel alright about cheering for the team that symbolized white supremacy in South Africa.  And as the movie Invictus beautifully portrays, South Africa won the World Cup and the entire nation celebrated their victory.  This was a turning point for sports in South Africa, and would open the doors for the mutual love of the game.

A more recent and obvious example of South Africa unifying behind sports is the 2010 World Cup.  The 2010 World Cup has been considered by many to be the best World Cup in history.  The event electrified the African continent, and the world’s eyes were on South Africa for over 30 days last June/July.  South Africa proved that it was capable of hosting such an event, and South Africans of all races and creeds played gracious hosts to the world.  And they didn’t disappoint.  Besides the South African team, Bafana Bafana (Boys, Boys), not performing like some wished, the event was still a success and widely supported by all South Africans.  The theme song, Waka Waka, seemed to be the theme song of the nation, and can still be heard in the streets almost daily.  The World Cup proved that South Africa is capable of coming together as a country in support of their sport, which is very promising for the future.

Some of my most memorable experiences here this year revolve around sports.  During orientation, all of the volunteers were taken to a soccer match in Durban.  We all played our Vuvuzelas loud and proud, and eventually befriended many of the African fans around us.  Early in my year, I attended a soccer match between Bloemfontein Celtic and Kaizer Chiefs in Bloemfontein.  I attended the match with the Monama’s, my eventual host family.  I remember high fiving, hugging and celebrating the epic 1-0 victory by Celtic with them and the people around me.  I’ve also played a lot of soccer at my placement sites and in the streets.  It is often the case that I am the oldest and the only white one playing the game when I do.  And although we don’t speak the same language or share the same pigment in our skin, we share the game.  I truly believe that soccer is the international language, and it has played an intricate role in accompaniment for me during this year.

The 2011 Cricket World Cup in India also occurred during my year here.  I was amazed to see the national unity during the World Cup.  The nation all wore their Protea jerseys on Fridays, and everyone was glued to the action on television.  The news would often show people of all different races enthusiastically talking about the national cricket team.  And I also noticed during that time that kids in the townships were playing cricket.  I once thought soccer was the only game played by kids in the townships, but all of a sudden there were cricket matches going on.  It was beautiful to see this.  And a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to play cricket on the beach with some of the orphans who I went to the sea with for work.  Once a sport completely foreign to me, it was now a game I could discuss with the arbitrary person in town and play with people completely different than me.

Sports play a big role in lives of South Africans.  There is a strong love and passion for the national teams, and I’ve seen firsthand how large scale events can bring this nation together.  There are obvious barriers and divides in the history of sports in South Africa.  Sadly, those barriers and divides still exist in parts of the game today.  However, sports have been able to unify this nation like nothing else before it.  Celebrating a national victory or event is something that all South Africans can relate to.  I believe that sports can act as a catalyst for South Africa moving forward.  If sports become more integrated on the local level, it will resonate to the professional levels.  And as people become more understanding and accepting of the different sports, their acceptance of one another won’t be as difficult.  My hope is that South Africans continue to embrace their rich love for sports and let it evolve into a greater love for all.  We’ve seen how the Rainbow nation can come together as one.  Victory for a unified South Africa is not out of reach.

This blog was written as a monthly reflection for the elca-mud blog, which can be found at:

Monday, May 30, 2011

50 Days

Seriously?!  Really?!  No way!!

As I was walking around downtown Bloem this afternoon, I started to think and realized that I have exactly 50 days left until I leave South Africa.

I couldn’t believe it.  I actually stopped in my tracks, quickly did the math and realized that I was in fact correct.  This hit me like a brick from the sky, and I immediately felt a bit of sadness.  Of course I started to think of all the things I am going to miss once I leave.  I will miss my host siblings starting our nightly prayers with, “Thank you Lord for the world so sweet.”  I will miss the warm African sun and the way it introduces me to a new day as I walk to my taxi in the mornings.  I will miss the everyday excitements and twists and turns that have made my life exhilarating.  I will miss the spontaneous conversations between complete strangers that open my mind and heart to things I’ve never before conceived.  (The list goes on and on, but I will save that for my blogs closer to my departure!)

And so I began thinking to myself, “Ok Steele, you have to live it up your last 50 days here.  You have to spend every minute here in a worthwhile way and not take anything for granted.”  But then I realized that I’ve pretty much lived this entire year like that so far.  Everyone is guilty of taking things for granted, and I have been no exception throughout my life.  But I have lived so differently this year, and can honestly feel good about how I’ve spent my time.  I have been so blessed to be here, and truly understand what a privilege it is to serve my community.  So all I could do was smile and promise myself to really embrace my remaining days here.

My hope is that this newfound attitude towards life, time, and each waking day will stick with me when I am back home in the States.  I also hope that some of my experiences, stories and reflections will inspire others to see each day as a blessing, and to seize every opportunity in front of them.  I’ll never forget the day a friend here asked me, “Druza, are you ever in a bad mood?”  I could only simply answer, “Well, I am alive and am loving my life, so no.”  Don’t let a bad situation or mood get in the way of you embracing and loving life, the most awesome gift God has given us.

So later in my day I was browsing through a book in a bookstore when I came across a picture that caught my eye.  The picture was of a painting of an active township scene, with signs above a building displaying a phrase that perfectly sums up how I feel about my year here.  It read:

“Some say I’m in Africa.  The truth is…Africa is in me.” 

This will never change, not even 51 days from now when I am no longer in South Africa.  I will take the lessons Africa has taught me home, especially the lesson to Live Life.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Two Weeks of Changing Lives

The last two weeks (or so) have been some of the most rewarding, extraordinary days of my year thus far.  I had two different but equally amazing experiences, and I thought it was worth sharing with you.

Tshepo Foundation Sea Trip

On May 8, the Tshepo Foundation (where I volunteer) embarked on a very progressive, worthwhile and awesome project.  We took 23 orphans and vulnerable children to the sea for the first time in their lives.  We all packed on a mini bus and left Bloemfontein around 4am and headed south.  Our destination was Jeffrey’s Bay, a surfing town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.  Jeffrey’s Bay is actually considered one of the world’s best surfing locations on the globe, and the plethora of surfer dudes in the town are a testament to its ‘supertube’ waves.

After our long journey of 11 hours, we finally made it to the sea.  We stayed in a nice Christian operated hostel, only 2 blocks from the beach.  The kids were so excited to be there that they couldn’t wait until the next day to see the ocean.  So we walked them down to the beach, and their reactions were priceless.  They all sprinted to the water from the edge of the beach, and dipped their toes in the water.  They didn’t know quite what to do with the waves, and the excited apprehension was a beautiful sight.  The smiles and pure joy were plentiful, and it was such an incredibly special moment. 

All of the children we took to the sea are in great need, and are either orphaned or living in extreme poverty.  None of them had seen the sea before, and many may never have had the chance if not for Tshepo Foundation and this trip.  Throughout the week, the kids couldn’t stop smiling.  It was a week of pure bliss, of forgetting the troubles and struggles back home, and time to relax.  I, too, couldn’t stop smiling the entire week.  Sitting back and seeing the kids discover the wonders of the crashing waves, endless sand and surplus of sea shells was incredible. 

For me, the beach is a very spiritual place and probably where I feel most connected to God.  The awesomeness of the ocean and the beauty of the ecosystems along the water are a constant reminder of the power, love and grace of the Lord.  And I think the kids got the same feeling.

The Steele’s come to South Africa

Immediately after the sea trip, my family arrived in South Africa to spend 10 days with me.  I was elated to welcome them to the Rainbow Nation, and was excited to show them the people and places that have so greatly impacted me over the last 9 months. 

Despite being jet lagged, my family was a bunch of troopers.  We had a few hiccups along the way, most notably the manual car with the wheel on the right, all while driving on the left side of the road.  I had to do quite a lot of directing and navigating from Shotgun as my parents adjusted to driving here.  (Oh and the massive flat tire we got in Lesotho was a bit of a hiccup.)  But we persevered through all of the adversities and made a plan in every situation. 

On May 15, we shared a very special church service with my home parish in Bloemfontein.  My parents were in the service, and it was one of the coolest cross cultural religious experiences any of us Steele’s have been a part of.  My father gave the sermon, my mother baptized two children and they both gave Holy Communion.  My mother, bless her heart, had tears in her eyes the entire service because of how incredibly special, loving and spiritual the day was.  Afterwards, the Steele’s had a braai, (or BBQ) with the Monama’s.  So this was a time where my American family got to spend time with my African family.  We feasted well into the evening, and I was so happy to be able to have both of my families finally spend time together.

Later in the week we headed to Lesotho, the place that first changed me and planted the seeds of service deep within my soul.  It was important for me to show my family the place that has played such an intricate role in shaping who I have become, and it was an equally inspiring experience for them.  There is just something about those Maluti mountains and the Basotho who live simply but with so much love. 

And to end the week we spent time in Kruger National Park in northern South Africa, a wildlife reserve the size of Wales.  We spent time on game drives observing the wildlife and weren’t disappointed in what we saw.  We saw many animal species, from the common Hornbill to the rare Cheetah.  And being in Kruger gave us a spiritual feeling, for it is a place of such enormity and endless wilderness, that it reminded us of God’s awesomeness. 

I continue to be blessed during my time here, and the last two weeks have continued the trend.  Being a part of such a unique trip to the sea with such wonderful children was a great opportunity.  And being able to share my life for the last 9 months with my family will always be something I cherish and something my family will always share together.  I look forward to the final two months of my service and will start mourning the approaching departure date from this amazing country.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Amazin' Dr. Rowan

Tshepo Care Center, where I currently volunteer, is a special place for many reasons.  It is a beacon of hope for children in one of Bloem’s poorest townships.  It provides 155 children with 2 meals every day and a safe environment to learn and play.  The children of Tshepo Care Center also have a unique chance to be seen by a general practitioner doctor, something many have never been able to do in their lives.

A few years ago, the University of the Free State sent its first medical students to Tshepo Care Center to volunteer and conduct a project.  At UFS, third year medical students are required to volunteer with a local NGO and help raise funds and awareness for the organization.  Students then present their work to the department, and the project is a major part of their overall grade.  Well, a few years back a third year student named Rowan Nichol was assigned to Tshepo Care Center.  And now, several years later, Dr. Rowan Nichol is still making weekly trips to Tshepo.

In March of this year, Tshepo celebrated their 10th anniversary as a Foundation and Care Center.  The anniversary also saw the opening of a wellness center, which provides unprecedented medical attention to the children attending Tshepo, as well as the surrounding community.  The wellness center is complete with a bed, examination table, desk, scale, sink, and a cabinet full of medical supplies.  Dr. Rowan has been coming to Tshepo weekly for two years now, each time seeing at least 8 children.  She gives the children a basic check-up physical exam, which has proved life saving in some cases.

Many children living in the Freedom Square township have never seen a doctor.  The clinics available to the general public in South Africa are commonly crowded and under staffed.  So the opportunity to see a doctor is something many of the people in Freedom Square never have the chance to do.

Dr. Rowan coming to Tshepo once a week during her busy schedule is no little matter.  She has discovered many ailments, some which are of a serious matter.  She has discovered HIV in some children, TB in others.  Just earlier this week she discovered a tick in the inner year of a child, something that could have ended up terribly if it wasn’t for her early intervention. 

When Dr. Rowan diagnoses something, she then refers the children to see specialists, something that again would be impossible otherwise.  When the illness is serious enough, Tshepo will even help with the prescription medicine.  It is so beautiful to witness her selfless work each and every week.

The acts of Dr. Rowan are truly inspiring.  She does this for no money, just out of the love and kindness in her heart.  She is the true epitome of a Christian, acting as a Christian.  Tshepo is blessed to have her services, and the many children whose lives she has saved or improved will be a lasting testament to her loving commitment to equality in healthcare.