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: