Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Our Brothers and Sisters

In Desmond Tutu’s book, God Has A Dream, Tutu states,

“God’s dream wants us to be brothers and sisters, wants us to be family.”

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I am experiencing a new sense of family while in South Africa.  Family is no longer just my Mom, Dad and two sisters.  Family is much more than that to me now.  And as each day passes with new experiences and created relationships, my family grows.  And with that extended family comes the happiness and joys but also the sorrow and pain.  Recently, I met one of my newly extended family members, and I felt her pain.

As I was going about my busy day at Tshepo Day Care center, I actually had to teach a grade R class (kindergarten) for the day, as our grade R teacher couldn’t make it to work.  It was quite a stressful day, as I wasn’t really prepared to teach 20 children, none of whom speak English.  But the day was going on well, and it finally came to a point where it was nap time for the children.  During that time, a woman named Sophie came to the Day Care center, asking for assistance for her and her family.  As Sophie waited in our Hall for her food, I sat with her and engaged in a conversation that impacted me like none other.

 As I took a seat opposite Sophie, I could already sense the pain in her heart.  We began talking and I started asking how she was doing and what her situation was.  Sophie then started telling me her story.  Her grandmother had just recently passed away, and her grandmother was her guardian and only person looking over her, her 18 year old sister and 2 year old baby, and her 14 year old brother.  Sophie’s parents had passed away, and at 26, she was now responsible for watching over her younger siblings and niece.  But the passing of her grandmother was difficult for another reason; her grandmother was the only one receiving a grant from the government.  The grant, a measly R1,000 a month, (approx. USD $145) was supporting a family of 5. 

At this point in her story, Sophie’s eyes began to water.  She looked out the window, seemingly trying to fixate on something to keep herself from getting too emotional.  I felt so helpless.  I realized that this was a very difficult point in her life, one that I’ve never had to experience myself.  She continued with her story, describing how her brother is in High School and has school fees to pay.  She explained how she has a strong desire to work, but can’t get a job because she has Tuberculosis.  She told me how she is alone, with no food, no work, and no hope.  At this point, Sophie had become quite emotional.  I couldn’t help but become emotional myself, as I could see the pain and sadness in her eyes.  I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t know what to do.  No matter how hard I could try, I could never relate to the pain and hardships she was feeling.  I did what I could to provide comfort and assurance that things would work out.  All I could do was think to myself, “What can I do right now to help her and her family?  I have to do anything in my power, anything.”  But as I searched for comforting words, it was hard to find some that could bring comfort to someone in such pain, with such a hopeless feeling .   When I asked Sophie what was the most important thing that she needed right away, she answered, “Food and a bed.”  In her one room tin shack in the informal settlement, her and her family have no beds to sleep on.  They must sleep on the uneven dirt floor every night.  As I sat there with tears slowly falling from my watery eyes, I couldn’t help but think how much I’ve taken for granted in life.  How lucky and blessed I’ve been.  How this woman, very close to my age, is living a life so contrasted to mine that you wouldn’t think we could be in the same room together.  This was the first time I’ve truly felt someone’s pain from such poverty.  The empathy I’ve had after reading books or seeing statistics on impoverished situations didn’t even compare to the compassion I was now experiencing.  As our conversation came to a close, we stood up and we embraced each other with a hug.  As I held her in my arms, and all I could say was, “Everything’s going to be alright.”  But I knew that I was lying to myself and her. 

Whenever I’ve faced hardships in my life, I could always go with the “everything’s going to be alright” mentality because, more likely than not, it was.  But that’s because I’ve never had to face challenges like Sophie’s.  I’ve never had to go to sleep with an empty stomach.  I’ve never had to sleep on a dirt floor in a one room house.  I’ve never had to go to someone else to ask for food in order to survive.  I’ve never had to take care of my younger siblings on my own.  I haven’t even met anyone in a situation like this until I met Sophie. 

As I continue to move on with my daily life and the comforts that come with it, I can’t stop thinking about Sophie.  And what makes everything even more upsetting is that her story is only one of millions around the world.  And for the most part, many people like me have never sat down and heard a story from someone like Sophie.  But as I’ve learned during my year here, everyone is part of my family, including Sophie. 

I will continue to cry for Sophie, and for the millions just like her until there is economic justice in our world.  I’ll never forget the conversation that will forever be a part of me.  And as I continue to work in solidarity with people like Sophie, my big extended family will continue to increase.  Despite the color of my skin or my country of origin, I am making new brothers and sisters every day in South Africa.

And as Desmond Tutu provides the following questions for reflection, I too provide them to you:

“What would it mean for you to see everyone around you as a brother or sister?  How would you treat them differently?  What keeps you from welcoming them into your family?  As you see people in the street, and opinions, judgments, and prejudices leap to mind, can you see them as not this or that, but as a child of God, as your brother or sister?”

These questions had a very different meaning to me when I first read them.  But today, as I continue to reflect on these questions and others, I do so while remembering Sophie, the newest member of my family.  

This blog entry was written for the ELCA MUD3 blog, which can be viewed at:

New Placement, New Beginnings

As 2011 has come, so too has a new placement site for me.  Over a week ago, I was at home with my family relaxing when Mamoruti came to me with an interesting organization she found while ‘Googling’ organizations in the Bloemfontein area.  I was quickly intrigued and began clicking around the website.  After fruitless attempts of getting in contact with organizations before the holidays, I decided to call the Director the next day instead of emailing.  So the next day I called Peter Howe, one of the founders of the Tshepo Foundation.  To my surprise, Peter was able to meet me that afternoon to discuss things.  After about two hours of meeting with Peter and his wife Petro, I was officially offered placement as a volunteer with the Tshepo Foundation and Judea Harvest.

Tshepo Foundation is an organization that runs Tshepo Day-Care for children 2-6 years old, as well as conducts in orphan care and community upliftment.  The Foundation regularly provides food to the surrounding community, as well as assistance to other crèches in the area.  Judea Harvest is an organization that Peter works with.  They work with pastors primarily in the townships who are without a church structure.  Judea Harvest provides the pastor’s with large tents in order to have a place to worship.  They also conduct weekly computer classes at the Tshepo crèche in which they go over basic computer skills as well as software regarding scripture.

This week was my first full week with Tshepo.  There is so much to do, and I have already done activities ranging from cutting down trees to teaching a Grade R (kindergarten) class.  As tshepo is a Tswana word meaning ‘hope,’ I hope to learn and interact in solidarity with the staff and children at Tshepo for the next several months.  I’m excited for what lies ahead and can’t wait to share more stories with you.

To visit the Tshepo Foundation website, please visit

Monday, January 10, 2011

Khotso, PULA, Nala

Recently, 8 other YAGM volunteers and I went on a vacation to Lesotho, a landlocked country within South Africa.  Lesotho is known as the ‘mountain kingdom in the sky,’ for its breathtaking Maluti mountains, making it the highest elevated country on earth.  Lesotho is a country blessed with beautiful mountain ranges, fast flowing rivers and streams, and wonderful people.  However, Lesotho is also suffering from extreme poverty and has the third highest HIV infection rate in the world.  In 2009, I embarked on a month long service trip to Lesotho with my school, Wittenberg University, which forever changed me.  It is because of my trip that summer that led me to the YAGM program, and Lesotho will always have a special place in my heart.

Before departing for Lesotho, the 8 other volunteers convened in Bloemfontein for a ‘send-off braai’ by my host family, the Monamas.  It was a great way to start our vacation.  It was a sunny, warm afternoon and we spent time playing cards, helping prepare the food, and just hanging out.  After enjoying a massive braai, it was time to head to Lesotho.  As is always the case, our taxi adventures were interesting.  It took some time before we figured out the correct process to take the correct long distance taxi.  But after some assistance, we were on our way.  Once we crossed the border, we were swarmed by taxi drivers eager for our business.  We had to fend off drivers as we looked for the proper cars. We eventually split into two groups and headed to Roma.  As the sun was setting, we reached Thorn’s Trading Post Guest Lodge, a place quite familiar to me as it was where I stayed in 2009.

Our first morning, we were to head to the guest lodge in Ramabanta, a village high in the mountains and about 40kms further inland from where we were staying.  But before we left, we had time to do a little hiking.  So we set off on a hike to see the dinosaur footprints in the area.  But before we left, we needed someone to guide us there.  So as I did in 2009, I stood in the road and basically caused attention on myself.  And to my surprise, the first child to greet us was a boy I had befriended on my trip two years ago!  He immediately recognized me, and I him.  What an awesome moment, for I never could have imagined being back in Lesotho.  As more children came running from their homes, we went hiking hand-in-hand with our local guides, to the top of a mountain where the footprints were imbedded in rock.  After our hike, it was off to Ramabanta and the journey in the mountains.

With our guides at the Dinosaur footprints 

Lesotho’s motto is ‘Khotso, Pula, Nala,’ or ‘Peace, Rain, Prosperity.’  Well, there was no shortage of pula while we were in Lesotho.  The rain we encountered in Ramabanta was unlike any rain I have ever experienced myself.  It was an intense rain, loud as it hit the roofs and even as it struck the ground.  For the three days we were in Ramabanta, it basically was a steady rain.  But the pula didn’t deter us from enjoying our time there.  On New Year’s day, we went on a long ‘4 bridges’ hike, which went around a mountain and over 4 bridges.  Since we got a bit lost, our hike actually went over a mountain.  But we didn’t complain.  That night we were treated to a fabulous dinner, accompanied by candlelight and soft jazz music playing in the background.  After enjoying our meal, we spent about an hour going around the table and each offering a toast.  After getting lost in conversation and laughter, we headed back to one of our flats we were staying in. 

Now, at Ramabanta, there is no constant stream of electricity.  Each day, the generator is powered from 6pm-10pm, providing electricity for those 4 hours of the day.  New Year’s Day was no exception.  At 10pm, all the lights went out, and we spent the remaining hours in a dark room with the soft glow of candles as our only source of light.  As midnight approached, we stood outside and counted down the minutes.  The only sounds were the distant rhythmic beats coming from the local shebeen, or bar, and there were small fireworks going off in the valley and mountain ranges all around us.  The clock hit 12, and we rang in the New Year in complete silence, complete darkness, and complete simplistic bliss. 

Our last day in Ramabanta with our hosts Rosemary and Eric

The rest of our time in Lesotho was spent hiking and enjoying the outdoors, as well as each other’s company.  On Sunday, we had an intimate worship service in which we read the readings for the day, sang some songs and offered our reflections.  On our way back to Roma, we had to drive through a river, as it had flooded and was flowing quickly over the road we needed to pass.  But we made it through and enjoyed spending our last day at Little Angels day care orphanage, where I had spent some time with my University in 2009.  That evening we enjoyed the best homemade potato soup ever made, a movie, and sitting by the fire as we tried to dry out from a wet and rainy 5 days. 

Our trip to Lesotho was one I’ll never forget.  I was able to create new memories at old places, and the time we got to spend together was priceless.  Being able to return to a place that so drastically changed my life is a blessing and the most surreal and amazing experience I’ve ever had.  I am so happy I was able to share ‘my special place’ with my YAGM family, and look forward to creating new memories with them in the future.