Sunday, February 27, 2011

Into the Fire

I’ve just returned from the loveliest Mass at Holy Trinity in inner-city Johannesburg served by my dear old friends the Jesuits. The parishoners are wonderfully diverse, ranging from Zimbabwean immigrants & Cameroonian refugees to the elite, students at Wits University and their professors.  The Schola Cantorum sang wonderful hymns, both in the Gregorian style and traditional Sesotho and Zulu gospel, supported by the most wonderful organist.  I feel like Dorothy in Oz, saying, “It’s a long way from Kroonstad, Toto!”  Now I’m back at home where you’d never know there were five other sisters here with me.  The silence is wonderful.  I told my sister Maria on Skype yesterday that I feel as though I’m on a Silent Retreat that happily continues for weeks instead of ending all too soon.  The regularity of morning and evening prayer during the week as a community has already proven so fruitful… As has the cooking rotation of which I’m now a part because it’s helping me finally become a quasi-decent cook.  The community, and consequently the palates, range from English to South African and from American to Zimbabwean, and from ages 24 to 70.  I’ve already used Mom’s staple recipes like beef stroganoff and my Auntie Judi’s chicken… thankfully there are a several cookbooks in the kitchen in crisis moments. 
Children+Fire+Center+Aids+Young+African+Burn+-I-MlrwMXVhl.jpgWork at the school/home for blind and/or severely burned children keeps me exhausted with endless opportunities to grow in humility, trust, and grace.  I try to spend at least an hour daily with Dorah.  Serving her and engaging with her feels like the closest I’ve ever come to Christ in another person.  Left (perhaps intentionally) by her mother in a burning shack at 6 months old, she was rescued in the final critical seconds when she could possibly have survived.  She has been raised at Children of Fire and is now 16.  She has no lips, eyes, nose, or hands, and only one ear.  Taking her for walks or to use the toilet, I'm continually in awe of her... I’ve never met a more vulnerable or a more authentic person.  There can be absolutely no affectation or pretense in anything she does, any "word" (sound really, as in "doy-yet" for toilet) or any giggle.  I made up a simple song on piano called “Dorah’s Song,” and she likes to hum along while I sing.  Usually she doesn’t try to play with her “stumps” (as what was saved of her wrists are called) because she can’t play less than three keys at a time with them, so she doesn’t like the sound.  When I take her for walks, passersby stare and flies start to pester her, eating the mucus that’s dried where her eyes and nose once were.  I used to try to swat them away.  I never thought I could be so outraged by flies and their insensitivity!  And taking Dorah to use the bathroom or helping her eat is always an opportunity for receiving and sharing grace.

Both in community life with five wonderful sisters and at work with such vulnerable children, I find I'm growing every hour except those in which I'm sleeping (and even there, my dreams are occasionally invaded)!

Friday, December 31, 2010

Oh How the Months Go By!

Americans and Europeans who've travelled to this continent often speak of the relaxed and fluid nature of “African time” in comparison to the fast paced and productivity-driven “Western time,” but these past months have flown by as if I were in New York City.  The school year ended on December 10th, when the St. Peter’s 9th graders took exams from the provincial government in every subject, two of which, Maths (as they say here) and Technology, I teach.  Incredibly, although St. Peter’s is one of the higher performing school in the township, last year’s 9th grade class largely failed in several subjects. Since it is a private school and funding is contingent on performance, St. Peter’s scores were critical this year.  Soon after I arrived in March, only one of the 59 9th graders had passed the first quarter Maths exam. The students and I set a shared goal that every one of them would improve their score by at least 10% on the fourth quarter exam. Some days, the students complained, “Maam Sarah, you are working us to hard!”  And sometimes, after serving up a sizeable portion of homework several days in a row, I even thought perhaps it was unfair to require as much of them as was required of me in a private American high school.  But we kept a sense of humor and fun about it.  When we learned about speed, distance, and time, I took the students to the soccer pitch and every student (including one in a wheelchair) took their turn running from goal to goal and then calculated their speed in meters/second and kilometers/hour.  They loved learning about probability because we turned the classroom into a gambling hall for several days.

In early December, they took the provincial exam, and we came very close to meeting our goal.  Nearly every student improved their scores, and this time, about a third of them passed, which was incredibly encouraging.  I can’t describe the joy I felt when student after student came up to me after receiving their marks with smiles and hugs and expressions of mingled surprise and happiness.  Many told me they never knew they had it in them to achieve so much.

Next year, I’ll be leaving St. Peter’s to teach at a school with which the Sisters of Notre Dame are connected in Johannesburg.   It’s been hard coming to terms with leaving Kroonstad, especially when I think of how much could be accomplished in another year and how much I’ve grown here— the main reason for the move will be that I’ll be able to discern religious life a bit more attentively in the SND community made up in part by young postulants.  This past year, I was nearby but not actually with the sisters, but in a house with the two other American girls, so I wasn’t able to experience life in a religious community to the same degree. The school where I’ll be teaching seems to be a truly incredible place.  The students come from rural areas across Africa and have sustained serious injuries in accidents, abuse, or torture involving the use of fire.  Many became partly or entirely blind after their injury, so I’ll be learning Braille during my first week.

After St. Peter’s closed for Christmas holidays on the 10th, I embarked on a two week African adventure.  I had saved up all of my allocated days of leave to travel this month, and my high school best friend Brian came to join me.  On the 10th , Brian, my fellow volunteer Katie, and I took an overnight bus from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.  On the 11th, we spent a day in Bulawayo with the local community of Sisters of Notre Dame (SND).  That evening, we took a dilapidated but spectacular 1950s British-built train, complete with sleeper compartments and bed linens, to Victoria Falls on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day I happily share as my birthday.  We stayed in a very fun-funky hostel and spent the next days exploring the magnificent falls and taking day trips to Zambia and Botswana.  The highlight was hiking into the massive gorge with a Zambian guide, who took us to a natural pool where we swam in the Zambezi with the falls thundering around and upon us.  It was exhilarating.  A close second was the incident that immediately followed that experience, when Brian and I became lost in Katie and our guide and were lost inside the Victoria Falls National Park, which had already closed, at night.  We eventually found a thick barbed wire fence that led us to the Zambia/Zimbabwe boarder crossing, where about 15 Zambian truckers waiting for clearance held the fence as we army crawled (life jackets and helmets still on) under the barbed wire to “chat” with the armed boarder patrol who’d heard all the commotion and come running.  Illegal immigration took on a whole new meaning! J We were given antiseptic for our cuts and beer for our nerves until our guide found us!  As you can imagine, the events have been rehashed, the tale retold, to many people since that night.

Christmas found Brian and me in Cape Town for the tail end of the long break before I move to Johannesburg.  We savored the best of Cape Town thanks to Brian’s generosity and job as an accountant, hiking Table Mountain, driving to the tip of Africa to stand at the edge of the cliffs at Cape Point, and enjoying a delightful Christmas Eve dinner at Cape Town’s oldest hotel.  It is New Year’s Eve, and I’m resting, packing, and cleaning the converted schoolhouse where Katie, Kelly, and I have lived for nearly a year (they’ve both moved back home to the USA).

Christmas has filled me with a bittersweet sense of gratitude for loved ones and sadness at being far from them.  Wishing each of you a truly abundant New Year!  

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Thumb of a Greener Hue

Spring has finally graced Kroonstad with her presence!  Though most Americans probably, and understandably, think of scorching heat when they hear “Africa,” Kroonstad’s winter was brutally chilly—warmer than a Colorado winter, but unpleasant in that we spent it entirely in unheated buildings and homes.  I’d experienced the phenomenon, or unphenomenon perhaps, in chilly Irish homes when our family spent Christmases there growing up.  Like the Irish, South Africans simply bundle up, use hot water bottles, or huddle around space heaters to stay warm indoors.  It turns out we Americans are quite spoiled (shocker, I know) and among some of the only people in the world who insist on heating our offices, schools, and homes in winter months. 

With warmth and spring has come a new development in my interests, a thumb of a slightly green tinge.  Yes it’s true.  I, who barely knew how to help my mom transplant potted flowers without killing them, have by necessity expanded my gardening (vegetable, not floral) horizons.  It all began when the textbook we use for my 9th grade “technology” class (think mechanical and electrical science not computers… we don’t have any of those) called for the students to design and cultivate a vegetable garden on the school premises.  Thankfully, the textbook advocated a garden with dimensions of 1 meter by 2 meters, a “door-sized” garden, and nothing intended to feed the multitudes. 

I divided each of the two 9th grade classes into 4 groups, and every technology class, either group A, B, C, or D took their hand at digging a trench out of the stubbornly hard soil found in this region.  After a few weeks, both classes achieved the required depth of 500mm, though I’m sure their mothers weren’t pleased at the mucky state in which their uniforms arrived home in the afternoons. 

As part of their project, I required the 9th graders to bring in one packet of vegetable seeds per two learners.  I thought this would be manageable for them, since it would equate to about 5 Rand ($0.70) per student.  It was humbling when several students sought me out in the next few days after setting this requirement, asking what they could do to earn the points if they simply could not afford the seeds.  I changed the requirement to bringing in either seeds or refuse for compost, since I knew cow manure or food peelings wouldn’t be as difficult or expensive to come by. 

But I thought about my presumptuousness for days.  I have liked to think myself sensitive enough to avoid such blunders, but sometimes I’m reminded that such blunders aren’t always avoidable, that the difference between my experience as a student and theirs is so great that I will mess up.  This dynamic has forced me to get very creative in finding alternative projects when our textbook calls for us to create, for example, elaborate electrical circuits or an automatic electrical watering system for our garden. Our text is published by Cambridge University Press, and, as you can imagine, not always sensitive (although they do make efforts) to the feasibility of suggested assignments for a school in a low-income, rural township.  The funds for such projects just aren’t there right now, at St. Peter’s or for most of the students.

The students do seem to be having fun and success with this project though, despite my blunders and theirs.  Their blunders, or mischief in latter example, have included forgetting to water the seedlings for days and getting scolded for trying to sabotage the other class’s garden (both 9th grade classes have their own door-sized garden, the two lying side by side, and their competitive spirits got the best of them).

Serendipitously, my fellow volunteer Kelly recently attended a two-week workshop on a type of gardening called “permaculture.” She teaches skills training courses at an NGO formed by the sisters and some other Catholic orders and is currently teaching a permaculture course to people from this and neighboring towns with the hope that trainees can inexpensively provide fresh produce to their families and people in the community suffering from illnesses such as HIV/AIDS.  The permaculture method, like our technology text, advocates the use of door-sized gardens for beginning gardeners.   

Kelly has of invaluable help with her previous gardening knowledge (she was a better apprentice in her mother’s garden than I) and newly acquired permaculture expertise.  She’s coming with me to school tomorrow to help direct the students in transplanting the seedlings without killing them, which I’m not sure I trust myself to successfully achieve alone.  The hope is that come harvesting time, the two gardens will be brimming over with pumpkin, tomatoes, onions, carrots, chives, cabbage, spinach, and beans to supplement the free school lunches many St. Peter’s students receive.  

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Day at St. James's Church

Recently I attended a church ceremony where our friend Anata was receiving a special blessing because she was turning 21.  She had invited myself and another local friend, Mavis.  Mavis and I had drove up and down the rocky backroads roads of Maokeng in search of the church, which she’d simply told us was called St. James’s.  Mavis and I didn’t know what type of structure to look for, because “churches” here are often organic communities of believers who meet wherever possible, whether in a home, under a canopy, in a field, or in a church building if they have the resources for one.  Thankfully, Mavis’s first language is Sesotho, and she was able to ask around until, after we had been directed to two other “St. James’s” where we didn’t find Anata, a helpful young man directed us toward a tattered blue and white tent.  As we approached from far off, we could just make out the figures young men marching with brass instruments next to the tent.  Their invigorating melody grew in volume as we drove closer, and I could now see how worn and banged up these horns and trumpets were, presumably from years and years of use in the same church community.  The band played up and down the road to rouse the people from their homes to come to church.

Anata had asked us to wear long skirts and head wraps, as was the policy of women in the church.  When I arrived, I was so relieved I did, because even my longest skirt showed more of my lower calf than anyone else’s.  As the only white person, I was acutely aware of my legs making me even more conspicuous.   I soon discovered that Anata’s ceremony coincided with a very special occasion, the annual visit of the provincial bishop of this particular African denomination (called “The Church of Prophesy”) to this particular church.

Mavis and I found a spot on some weathered wooden benches.  In our haste to find a seat, we had accidentally sat on what appeared to be the men’s side of the tent, but our embarrassment abated with the smiles we received.  I knew this might be in for a mental struggle for the next few hours, as I soon realized that my long-sleeved sweater, another wardrobe request by Anita, would accentuate the already sweltering heat.  On the women’s side of the church, I noticed an interesting pattern.  After the wives of the bishop and pastors, the elderly women were placed in seats of honor near the front of the tent, and a seating system based on age (which didn’t seem to apply to men at all) continued all the way to the preteen girls in the back of the church.  Almost all the members of the women proudly donned the church’s colors of blue and white, and the white was blindingly bright despite the very simple shack dwellings comprising this neighborhood, where most of them presumably live in.  Similarly surprising was that many men wore suits, even though for many it was too large or too small, with a white or blue handkerchief.  I instantly thought of how frequently I grumbled to my mom as a kid about having to dress in Sunday clothes for Mass. 

The three-hour service was entirely in Sesotho and Zulu, two of South Africa’s eleven official languages, so most of the service was beyond my understanding.  I could gather that this denomination seemed to incorporate both traditional Basotho religious practices and familiar facets of western Christian worship, such as Biblical readings and preaching.   Some of the most notable elements were that the bishop and the local pastors each held their own unique sacred stick, some made of metal, others of lovely carved wood or bamboo, which was used as a pointer during their sermons and as some sort of sacred object for conferring blessings to the people.  At one point in the ceremony, the bishop, who had been preaching, walked over to a woman near me on bench.  He placed his stick near her, and suddenly she began to convulse and wail, requiring more than 4 people to hold her down.  I was certainly startled, but as the wailing and convulsing did not prevent the bishop from continuing with his preaching, I assumed this was a fairly normal occurrence.  At one point, my friend Anata collapsed in a similar way, when she and a few other people of similar age where brought forward for their initiation blessing.   My experiences with charismatic Christian communities in other countries made this a bit less unnerving, though I wouldn’t say it was exactly the same.

Towards the end of the service, Mavis and I were invited to join a line of church members who went to the front of the church where we were handed a small glass of water to drink.   We walked back to our seats by passing through a “tunnel” of the elderly women and men of the church.  As we passed through, each pastor stopped us, touched his stick to our chest and then to our back, and then motioned for us to continue through the tunnel, until we were through.  Then we returned to our seats. 

To signal the service’s end, the brass band played several songs and danced around the tent, encouraging church members to dance as well.  Mavis and I were a bit too self-conscious so we stayed on our bench.  After church, several people came up to shake my hand and inform me that I was the first white person to visit their church.  Comments like that come very frequently to my fellow volunteers, Kelly and Katie, and myself.  “You are the first white people to come to my house,” is one we receive a lot too.  Or recently, a teacher at St. Peter’s invited Katie and I to attend her daughter’s wedding in October, saying “It is very good luck for a couple to have a white person at their wedding.”  It’s the kind of thing we’ve just learned to take with a smile and an expression of your own gratitude for their openness to us, though you can imagine our internal discomfort.  The church, for example, really seemed thrilled to have an outsider amongst them, and so such comments are meant only as an expression of appreciation for your company.  

Anata came to us after the service and told us now it was time to eat. I was invited to eat as the special guest under an umbrella with the bishop and Anata, another slightly embarrassing request that you just have to honor.  He asked me about America, my experience in South Africa, and my own religious beliefs when he noticed the tiny gold crucifix around my neck.  Interestingly, he had received money to obtain some sort of distance theological degree from a university in the U.S., though he couldn’t remember the name of the institution.  As we chatted, he and Anata gracefully ate the delicious feast of potatoes (cooked in 3 different styles), beef, and a rice-banana salad with their hands.  As I’m used to meals at St. Peter’s and with some of our Indian friends here, where no utensils are offered, but I was unsurprisingly the least graceful finger-eater under that umbrella, particularly of the moister dishes.  In fact, I dropped some banana from my mouth to my skirt as I tried to answer one of the bishop’s questions. 

It was a thought-provoking day, to say the least, especially with my interest in the Catholic Church in Africa.  It was my first real taste of a Christian church that so heavily incorporated traditional religious rituals into their worship, and I felt grateful that Anata asked me to join them.  It also helped me understand the culture of my students a bit more, as several St. Peter's students, I discovered that day, belong to this church or churches like it.  

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Oh When the Strike Comes Marching In

It’s a fascinating, albeit unsettling, time to be a teacher in South Africa.  Three weeks have passed in a seemingly indefinite strike of South Africa’s public unions.   Schools and hospitals nationwide have become battlegrounds as more than a million public employees, tens of thousands of teachers among themf, are demanding an 8.6 percent pay rise despite insistence from the debt-stricken government.

St. Peter’s is one of the only non-government schools in the area.  Though they aren’t government employees, many of our teachers are still members of SADTU, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, and thus have joined the strike.  The strike began on a Monday, and out of desire that learning continue, even the SADTU teachers remained in their posts for much of the week despite pressure from fellow teachers striking in our rural streets.  All of us began parking our cars in the center of the schoolyard because strikers who were out of school had threatened to vandalize cars (which they could easily do with rocks if the cars were parked along the fence).

On Wednesday of that week, the SADTU teachers (the vast majority) of St. Peter’s walked away from their posts halfway through the school day to join a huge march of strikers that was gathering a few kilometers away.  The scattered few non-union teachers (obviously including my fellow volunteer Katie and me), the principal, and the assistant principle tried to manage as many classes as we could after the walkout.  I rotated between three classrooms of 8th graders and two classes of 9th graders.

We’d been warned that there could be hostility and even violence towards St. Peter’s staff, who some government teachers and community members saw as treacherous for remaining in session despite the strike.  Roughly an hour after the teachers had walked out, hundreds of marchers made their way down the dusty road towards St. Peter’s.  As the chants of struggle songs and hoots of vuvuzelas (horns) grew louder, our principal asked the oldest male students (9th graders) to ensure that all the students stayed in their classrooms with the doors shut.    Some of the older female students were asked to run to the younger children in grades 1-5, many of whom were alone in their classrooms.  One of the 9th grade boys came to my classroom and said, “Don’t let the students out for any reason Ma’am Sarah.  You don’t understand how angry these people are.  The teenagers will hurt us if they can.”  More than striking teachers, he was referring to gang members and radical youth who, their schools being closed or having dropped out of school themselves, had joined the protests.

It was hard to keep cool in front of thirty fearful 8th graders. As I tried to carry on with a lesson about the history of paper making, my head swelled with thoughts like how we might blockade the door with desks if protesters got inside the fence.  One student started shacking with fear, and several others began crying. I thought to myself that these students know the destruction of which a select few are capable.  We heard shouts and rocks being thrown at the library, the building closest to the fence where the marchers passed.  After about fifteen minutes, the march had passed us.  Thankfully, the first days of the strikes came and went without any serious acts of violence toward the school. 

Into its fourth week, the strike rages on.  Each night on the news, we hear of chaos breaking out when strikers gain illegal access to schools that have remained in session.  Some strikers go in with the intention of disrupting learning.  Others try (and often succeed) to intimidate teachers and pupils to abandon their classrooms.  Sadly, in some cases, the intention is in fact to damage school property or teach so-called treacherous teachers a lesson. 

Some St. Peter’s students have experienced taunts and even threats from peers from other schools over the past weeks. Fearful of being targeted and attacked for attending school, those who walk several kilometers have sometimes waited to put on their conspicuous uniform shirts until safely within the fenced grounds. 

The emotional intensity of this standoff between the government and unions has grown, even in such a town as Kroonstad.  On the news last night, an angry union official being interviewed encouraged striking teachers to carry the pickets to private schools and hospitals where the “political elite” educate their children and send their families.  The official was presumably referring to posh schools in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, not a rural township school like St. Peter’s.  Our school fees are nominal, and our funding less than that of many government schools.  And there are certainly no “political elite” living in this impoverished community for that matter.  But strikers in Maokeng seem to have felt the same anger toward St. Peter’s for remaining in session.

Following threats, other non-government schools throughout South Africa have shut their doors, telling non-union teachers they mustn’t come because of the intimidation from striking colleagues and risk of violence against them.  In areas nearby Kroonstad, rubber bullets and water cannons were used against protesters when picketing in front of open schools became hostile.  In many towns, demonstrators have forced their way into schools and hospitals and forced non-union doctors, nurses, and teachers to leave, tearing up exam papers were torn up and using physical force to “release” the students. Katie and I have planned alternative routes to and from St. Peter’s after hearing that strikers might block roads accessing hospitals and schools.  St. Peter’s has urged the local community to remain peaceful despite protests, but the anxiety of teachers who’ve decided to return to work is palpable.  Being a volunteer teacher has put Katie and I in a unique position amidst battling teachers and schools, but we are also anxious about the welfare of all involved, particularly the students.  

Thankfully, St. Peter’s only goes through grade nine, though students at other schools are less fortunate.  Throughout the country, 12th graders are struggling to study for their trial examinations as their teachers strike.  With only two weeks before the exams, many people fear the strike will affect their performance. Government officials have even appealed to community members, former teachers and university students to teach learners during the strike.  So please pray for South Africa, especially as the strike continues to block access to the basic services on which the majority of the poorest among us depend.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Soccer aka. Futbol aka. Football MANIA

Even after their team (“Bafana Bafana,” aka. “The Boys,” aka. the South African national soccer team) has fallen from World Cup runnings, South Africans remain full of sustained enthusiasm and energy, and the kids have been no exception.  Since the students from St. Peter’s have been on holiday for the tournament's duration, we’ve put on a camp for them these past few weeks.  A major reason for the camp is the increased risk, particularly to young women, of being taken for or bribed into commercial sex with the influx of foreigners in the country.  Unfortunately, major international events of this sort frequently correspond with a skyrocketing rate of incidents of human trafficking.  
Fortunately, the South African government has already broken up several trafficking rings before and during the Cup.  To keep the St. Peter's kids safe and fed (another concern when they’re off for such a long period), we’ve been introducing them to kickball, Capture the Flag, egg toss, three-legged race, paper mache, origami, and all those “Field Day” games American kids grow to know, love, and eventually un-love by the 100th time they play them.
The kids find three-legged racing to be the coolest concept; in fact, it’s infiltrated all the other games!  Now they insist on playing three-legged soccer and three-legged hide-and-seek! And three-legged racing has become ten-legged racing for that matter (see the photos ha ha). And they're not just learning American games; they’re teaching me and the two other American volunteers their traditional games too, my favorite of which they call “Rush” and can best be described as cricket meets kickball if you can imagine such a combo.  “Absolutely exhausting” and “hilariously fun” can best describe the camp experience thus far (there are 300+ students and about 6 facilitators).

What else? Well South Africa’s finally feeling like home.  It helps living in a rural town where you bump into familiar faces often.  Those who know us have affectionately dubbed us “the Americans.”  Now when we drive through the rocky roads of Maokeng (the underdeveloped township outside Kroonstad), barefoot, soccer-playing kids start running next to the car waving and shouting “Maam Sarah! Maam Katie!” (female teachers are "Maam"). 
The other day, while visiting a small township more than 100km away from Kroonstad with Sister Obehi, I was astonished when a group of teenagers approached me and hugged me saying, “It is good to see you again Sarah!” The week prior, 100s of Catholic youth from the region met at the Catholic church in Maokeng for a day of traditional Sesotho song, dance, food, and Mass in celebration of Youth Day, a national holiday remembering the protests nd killings of young people marching against racist educational practices in 1976.  Katie and I were the only white young people in a packed church, so the priest, who knew us well, thought it necessary (we were quite embarrassed) to introduce us at the end of Mass… to everyone!  So these teenagers said, "We met you on Youth Day in the church!"  I said, "Oh yes, I think I remember your faces now!" Ha ha. 
That day I was in the township with Sister Obehi on her weekly visits to the rural OVC centers she coordinates for the Catholic diocese.  I mentioned her work with OVC’s (orphaned or vulnerable children) in my Easter blog.  I went with her on a whirlwind tour of about 150km radius of Kroonstad to visit several such centers, where these children receive food support, medicine, and a safe place to play, sponsored by their local Catholic churches.  Sr. Obehi received a donation of old Easter chocolate from a grocery store, as well as some brand new soccer balls from some organization or another.  Center after center we visited, but the reaction was always the same: the kids were absolutely ecstatic about the chocolate, only to nearly lose their composure in total glee over the balls. I couldn’t help but be struck by their gratitude as they all gathered ‘round the open car trunk, begging to be the first to have a go with a brand new ball, happily setting aside the tattered, punctured-and-patched-and-repunctured-and-repatched balls they’d still been playing with as we pulled up. 
In the months before I left Colorado for South Africa, I nannied for some wonderfully kind, very affluent families.  I couldn’t help but observe the difference in these South African childrens’ faces over receiving two or three soccer balls to share amongst 50 or 60 of themselves, compared with the short-lived grin of one of the children I nannied upon receiving piles of nifty, expensive toys at their birthday parties.  And then I thought, “Heck, it’s not just those country-clubbin’ kids.  My own younger siblings and cousins can be like that!”  Then thinking further, I thought shame-filled, “Am I not often like that too? With new shoes or an updated version of iPod?!”  There have been very few times when I truly milked every last drop of enjoyment out of something like these children do with what they’re given.  The old soccer balls told the story of months of play, and I knew these knew balls would truly be loved by them. 
As I watched the boys pass the new balls to one another in a circle, the 6 and 7-year-olds honestly looked like varsity high school athletes in the States.  Without Play Stations and the Disney Channel at their disposal, they’ve mastered the feel of a soccer ball, heading and dribbling it instinctively, naturally, in a way only hours and hours spent with a ball can produce.   The St. Peter’s students are just the same.  There are no organized leagues or swanky uniforms, no orange slices at halftime and “made in China” trophies at the end of the season.  These kids just create organic little teams and play, often barefoot, on rock-strewn, glass-filled side roads… and they have so many hours of pure fun.   
I have to laugh when I watch the boys play soccer with a cleat on one foot and the other foot bare, the logic of which I wouldn’t have understood had I not observed the same mysterious phenomenon on my first African adventure to Namibia in 2008.  You see, a pair of cleats is a rare commodity to these boys.  So when one fortuitously happens upon a pair, whether from an international aid shipment or as a gift from a wealthy relative, he won’t keep both cleats to himself.  He’ll share one of the two with his friend for the good of the team, because two half-cleated players are better than one fully-cleated.  This works out particularly well when the friend’s favored kicking foot is the opposite of his own. 
The same stunning agility exists among the girls, most notably with skipping ropes.  I’m almost certain any of these girls could give a champion inner-city jump rope squad from the U.S. a run for their money.  Without the latest and the best at their disposal, these girls will use every rope at their disposal until it’s threadbare… By the time it’s no longer usable, they hope another one shows up.  And if it doesn’t show up quickly, you can bet your bottom Rand they’ll be hunting around in garbage if they have to in search of a replacement rope. 
A final note: I may never go to the Olympics, but the same craving to be wrapped up in a global event of that magnitude has at least touched my palate… A generous pal of ours helped find me a ticket to the South Africa vs. France World Cup game last week!  Travels there and back were long and hot, but to say it was worth it would be the understatement of a lifetime!  All 3 of us volunteers also got tickets to the 3rd and 4th Place Finals in Port Elizabeth (quite literally the opposite side of the country, so thank God for overnight buses)!  We were all hoping Ghana would take it home for the continent, but you probably all saw their devastating loss to Uruguay.   Since Ireland was cheated out of participation in the tournament (still bitter about that clearly ha ha), the Africans are all out, and Argentina (my non-African favorite) was creamed by Germany, I’ve got my chips on Spain, though my roommate insists it will be the seemingly unstopable Deutschland.
I hope you enjoy the photos of camp and delivering the balls and chocolates to the kids at the OVC centers.  My personal favorite is the one of the boys looking up in anticipation of a dropping header, sun beaming on their happy faces. 

Monday, May 31, 2010

Sekhambane, Speeches, and the Seaside

Previously unemployed, Patrick and Lucia are workers who've learned the skill of candle making at one of the income-generating projects to which I've been assigned. We sit together for hours at a time in their workshop.  They've given this business the moniker "Bambanani Candles" (bambanani is the Sesotho/Zulu word for "working together" or "standing strong together").  There are cultural differences I just have to laugh at, one being my American ideas about division of labor and efficiency.  South Africans just don't have the same Ford-inspired production principles like the assembly line.  Its not uncommon that Patrick or Lucia to make a few candles, shave off the rough edges when they cool, wrap them, tag them, price them... and then start over with the next small batch.  Africans also don't have the same Western concept of "job creation"... In fact, I sensed on my first day that I wouldn't simply be helping them with the marketing and development of their small business.  Nope, I'd be rolling up my sleeves and getting in the hot wax with them.  To them, it doesn't matter that each candle I make or wrap depletes from the sum of their work, and consequently, the hours of paid work available to them.  What's important is that when I'm with them, we can laugh together and work together, we can bambanani.  

They've also agreed to help me learn Sesotho as we bambanani and I'm swapping those lessons for help with their applications to a nursing school about an hour's drive from Kroonstad.  There are highly competitive government bursaries available to some students in this nursing school, and it includes a living stipend worth much more than we can pay them here.  I feel a bit strange helping them pursue another option to the Bambanani project, but I understand their dilemma.  Neither seems to have a passion for nursing, but for both, getting a bursary would mean a better life for their families.

Since it's too expensive to get a taxi to the city, they're hitchhiking there in a few days.  I haven't decided whether I'll accompany them yet, though I think with a man in the trio we should be quite safe.  Hitchhiking here is much more common than in the States too. :)

Over the hours, I've learned about their children and the struggles to put food on the table.  When the candle business wasn't running, Patrick and his girlfriend supported themselves and their little girl on 600 South African Rand per month (less than $80).  He just smiled when I asked if they ever went hungry. "Sure, sure, of course we do.  My girlfriend and I just drink coffee before bed and look forward to our next meal, whenever it comes.  But my little girl always has something.  She isn't going to suffer because of me."  Lucia describes how difficult it has been for her to send one of her four children, the oldest who's twelve, to live four hours away with her mother, because she can't feed him herself.

Despite these struggles, the generosity overflows.   I've started bringing extra fruit and tea with my lunch both Patrick and Lucia insist on sharing their meals with me.  One of my favorites is an indigineous delicacy they make or buy called "bunny chow" or in Sesotho/Zulu "sekhambane" (I'll have to ask the kids at St. Peter's the correct spelling).  The cooks at St. Peter's also make and sell it for R5 (about 80 cents), so I've had to practice temperance (two per week is my goal).  Making sekhambane involves cutting an unsliced loaf of white bread into thirds.  Each portion consists of a third of a loaf, which as been hollowed out.  Inside is a piece of pologny, the closest equivalent for which would be bologna in the States, a layer of a spicy mango chutney-esque mixture called acha, and a layer of chips (thick fries).  Then the filling is capped with the bread portion that was taken out.  Carbohydrate overload, but its DELICIOUS!

This weekend Lucia and her husband invited me to attend their church.  During apartheid times the South African government made distinctions between "white," "black," and "colored" people these distinctions still manifest themselves in the Kroonstad community.  The church was almost entirely colored people, with a few black people and one or two white people other than me.  The service took place in a reclaimed building that served as a movie cinema years ago.  The environment felt nothing like a church, but the moving praise and worship music and the choir (which was about half the congregation) made up for any lacking in "churchiness."

Other than that, life here is wonderful... We're being spoiled rotten, by those who can afford it and by those who can't but want to anyway.  This weekend, we enjoyed the quintessentially Afrikaans get together with some new friends... they invited us over on Saturday for a braai watched the Super 14 rugby finals and had a braai (South African barbecue).  Then on Sunday, an Indian family called the Josephs, invited us over for a delicious feast of fish briyani (who knew baracuda was so darn tasty).  The Josephs have essentially become our family-away-from-home.  This weekend, they're taking us with them to Durban to see the seaside, which will be a nice vacation from the tall grasses of the savanna we now call home (not that we need one).

One insight I've been thinking about a lot lately has been the grace of receiving hospitality.  It feels more comfortable to extend it than to accept it, I've found, but whether its sekhambane from Patrick and Lucia or a seaside trip with the Josephs, I'm realizing it takes a humble heart to accept and enjoy the love offered by others and not instantly think of how I can "even the score" by returning the favor.  Of course, this too is important, but receiving graciously and allowing your enjoyment to bless the giver of the gift is a gift in and of itself.  This is the most challenging when the person who desperately wants to give is far less privileged than you, but it's equally if not more important to allow them to be the giver sometimes and not always the recipient.

What else? Oh, the students at St. Peter's recently had the opportunity to compete in a regional speech and debate competition some of the rural schools organized.  With my background in college speech, I thought I'd offer the teacher organizing the team my help.  I helped him judge auditions for the 6 spots available on the St. Peter's team... over twenty students tried out.  Their speeches ranged on topics from HIV/AIDS to human trafficking during the World Cup (   We narrowed the group down after much deliberation and helped coach the lucky 6 before the competition.  St. Peter's took four 1st and two 2nd place awards!  It was incredible... I'm looking forward to helping develop the team.  They're amazingly passionate speakers.  This week, the entire student body is sitting national exams.  Tomorrow I'm helping proctor the tests.