Thank you for all of your love and support I am so excited to share this experience with all of you!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

African Poem

I have used this blog as personal reflections of my own experiences. However, I recently read this poem and had to post it because it sums up so much of what I am feeling as I prepare to leave South Africa. I found it in a great book Awesome South Africa by Derryn Campbell.

I'll be leaving South Africa on July 18th but I know like the poem says my soul is at home in Africa. I'm leaving one home for another, leaving one family for another. It will be a transition but one I am excited about. As I started this year I wrote about growing pains coming here I will have a similar experience coming back to the United States. I am grateful for this experience, every challenge, every frustration, every moment of joy. As always thank you for your continued support.

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 honors 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 colors 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 recognize her gifts as sacred

Friday, June 24, 2011

Packing and Living Simply

I have started to think about packing. How I am going to get my life back into 2 checked bags and one carry on bag plus one personal item. It is slightly overwhelming and to be honest it is more appealing for me to blog about it than to actually do any packing!

We recently were asked to help with the packing list for the next group of YAGM coming to South Africa, it made me start to think of what I wished I had brought, what I did bring and couldn't live without, and what I brought but didn't need. I think each says a lot about my time here.

Things I Wish I had Brought

-More warm clothes. It is cold here and luckily when my family came my mom brought me a few sweaters but I now wear those sweaters in a 3 day rotation.

-An extra pair of jeans. I brought 2 and since winter has set in I wear them on the same rotation as the sweaters. After many holes and patches on pair had to be sacrificed to be more patches for the other pair.

Needless to say it has been much colder than I imagined it would be. I had been warned that South African winters are not a joke. But I thought living in Colorado and Iowa I knew cold and would be fine. However, I am accustomed to houses with insulation and central heating. We don't have either of those things here in Soweto so if it is 50 degrees outside it is 50 degrees inside too!

Really though there are very few things I didn't bring that I need. I find it true again and again that less is more. Living simply is a gift. Moving for a year in suitcases in way forces simplicity. You cannot take everything you think you "need." But really what do you need that is tangible that can't be put in a suitcase?

What I Brought That I Couldn't Live Without

-This can almost go without saying but my pictures. I brought pictures from college, pictures from Denver, pictures of friends and family. The first night here I put them up and they will be the last thing I take down when I am packing up. They make me smile and know that I have an incredible people in my life and I am so lucky.

-My headlamp. I bought this right before leaving and I use it every single day. My room has two outlets. One has a space heater and the other is usually charging either my computer or my phone. They are located far from my bed and therefore I do not have a lamp. I read every night with the headlamp. It has also been useful as the winter months mean more power-outages and I find myself in the dark.

-My pocket knife. Anyone who knows me knows that this could never be on any list of things I couldn't live without before this year. I am not crafty, handy, or outdoorsy, mostly I am not usually doing activities commonly associated with pocket knifes. But this year I have used it more times than I can count.

-Sleeping bag. It seemed ridiculous when I saw this on the packing list. I couldn't imagine giving up that much of my precious suitcase space for a sleeping bag. But it has been so useful! I take it along when I am not sure of what my sleeping arrangements might be at a conference, retreat, or other event. I even use it in my own room now as an extra blanket.

What I Brought and Didn't Need

-This is mostly clothes. While I could use more warm clothes I still brought too many summer clothes. Who doesn't when packing?

Much of this year has been about living simply. What do I NEED? And the answer is not many THINGS. Life is about relationships and not what you have and while I think I knew this before this year has solidified this belief for me. Especially now that I think about packing and looking back at what things I have here and what things I will take back. Yes there are some things that I am bringing back that will make me smile and always be cherished. But it is just like my pictures that have been the most important thing to me here. They are a representation of the relationship not the actual picture that are so important. I know that in the coming weeks as I pack it will be the relationships that I have built that are the most important thing I have gotten this year.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I cannot wait to see my family. A word of warning to anyone who happens to be in the Cedar Rapids Airport on the afternoon of July 19th. I will be running and I will knock you over. But on the other side of those awful 28 plus hours of traveling I will not be running as I board my first flight. I will be hugging and most likely crying as I am saying goodbye to my family.

It makes sense to think of family embracing me this year in every sense of the word embrace. They have supported me, pushed me, and picked me up. Coming into this year far from the family I have known all of my life I expected this. What I didn't expect was the family in South Africa embracing me in the same ways. I have always felt like I have had a larger family than my biological family; family friends were aunts and good friend's moms are my moms too. I loved that this is even more true in South Africa. I can never actually tell how someone is related to someone else my sister, mama, granny, cousin, any of those could mean they are actually how I understand the title or they could be someone who fills that role thus the title. I love it.

Now as my weeks and days here are dwindling and I am fast approaching my goodbyes to my family here. I see just how this new expanded understanding of family has affected me. I cannot explain in my western understanding of family my South African family. I have been welcome into homes so many times. I cannot imagine my life without these people who a year ago I did not even know. I grew into these relationships through the year. Now I am at home. I am spending weekends with my South African extended family these last few weeks. Traveling with my family to visit their families. It has been a wonderful way to start the process of saying goodbye. These trips are gifts of memories I know that will always travel with me.

There is another family I am apart of in South Africa. Well technically Southern African since one member now resides in Swaziland :) But they are my other YAGMs here. We make a family that is spread across this region. But we are always talking and checking in with each other. And while we are spread out here it will be odd when we are back in the United States and are much further spread out. They have been my brothers and sisters in so many ways. We have only been all together a few times this year but we have bounded in a way that is only possible when you are thrown into a complete unknown together as we were in August.

So in these weeks I am with my family. I am home and I am feeling so loved. I have learned that while I considered my family much more than the basics before it is now grown to a whole new level. I will be saying goodbye and hello all at once all to my family. I can't wait to see one part of my family while I don't want to leave the other part of my family.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Bible, Food and Community

I have never been much of a Bible reader. I know the basics but sit down and read it on my own has never been a priority to me. That was until this year. First, I have to admit that I bought a Bible from Barnes and Noble the day before I flew out of Iowa. I didn’t really have one that inspired me or that I was personally attached to and to be frank the one I had looked too big and heavy to pack. So with 24 hours left in town I picked up my NIV Student Bible, the compact version of course. As it would turn out this Bible and the headlamp I bought on the same errand run have become perhaps the 2 most used things during my time here in Soweto. (In case you are wondering my room has one electrical outlet that is typically used each night to charge my computer or phone so I use the headlamp to read.)

My first Sunday in Soweto I attended my first church service conducted in isiZulu. I didn’t understand a word and found myself flipping through my Bible. I had been informed that church in South Africa was BYOB (Bring your own Bible). So I found myself flipping through my brand new shiny Bible I found that this Bible came with a handy 180 day plan of reading the Bible. I was intrigued and it had a fun bookmark that you got to check off everyday. This was not a major read every word of the Bible plan but an overview of sorts. It entailed reading at least one chapter from every book. It also makes sure you get all the best known, most quoted portions.

If you do the math I should have finished this plan in March if it really did take 180 days and I stuck to my original plan of reading (like my bookmark told me to) one chapter a day. I have to confess last night I had to do some math and I realized I am going to have to double up some days. So I haven’t been the most loyal but I will, by the time I board the plane back to the United States in July, read all 180 chapters that are listed on my bookmark and I will check every single one of the off said bookmark!

In what has really become my first reading of the Bible I have discovered time and time again how food is a common theme. Ok, so it might not be the most common theme but it is something I have understand. People are always congregating around food. Food and meals are one of the foundations of community. This foundation and bounding around food is quite clear in the Jewish communities of the Old Testament, Jesus and his followers in the Gospels, and the communities of the early Christian Churches. I, too, have found community over food.

Last year I lived in an intentional community. Part of the agreement was we ate together most nights of the week. They weren’t always the greatest meals. Nor were they always memorable. But some where and now looking back almost an entire year later it is around food that most of my memories are based. Finding a roommate who loved peanut butter as much as I do, learning to cook on a bare minimum budget together, the worst meals and the best meals; it was all part of our community and our food.

I have found myself coming back to this idea of community around food but in Soweto. Community is in every aspect of food from it’s growth, preparation, and consumption. I do not believe you can see that as clearly as you can on a Saturday in Soweto. On every single Saturday white tents are assembled everywhere. These tents close down streets and are an automatic sign for a party. (Attempting to get anywhere in a hurry on a Saturday in Soweto is impossible due to the scenic routes these tents cause!) The norm is that a white tent signals either a wedding or a funeral. It takes some skill to be able to differentiate the two. They both involve huge meals served to all guests.

A few weeks ago I was attending one such wedding in a big white tent on what would have been a busy street if the tent hadn‘t been assembled there. I had never met anyone who was at this party other than the people I came with but that was a very minor detail. I was welcomed with open arms as an honored guest, served coffee and tea. I have no idea how many people were actually invited to this wedding. Now that I am thinking of it I have only seen one wedding invitation in my time here. Everyone just knows and with that knowledge knows that they are invited and will be welcomed with open arms just as I was.

I love how cooking goes here. I swear in Soweto when there is an event it is customary to cook for all 4 million residents of Soweto. Small houses are full of people and expanded into the street with the tent. You must be prepared for everyone and anyone and this is never a problem it is just the way it is. Huge pots with huge tubs of food keep appearing with a stream of just washed plates; to an outsider it seems like there is an endless supply that is somewhat magical. It becomes less magical when you find yourself in the kitchen where a handful of women (always called mamas) who have been working for days and will continue to work for days at this huge operation. Yet, as a visitor and guest I rarely get to see this side.

I have seen this over and over again. Weddings, funerals, birthdays, confirmation, even family dinners are prepared in away that no matter who may show up there will be food to spare. This is something I hope I can take this back to the United States with me. Not that I could take the mounds of food although I would love to to share with everyone because, trust me, it is delicious. But the community around food. I thought I understood what it was like to have a community around food. I did but it has now been expanded. I have found that in these times I have felt the most community spirit. I use to think that meals were a time to share with people you knew and cared for or maybe to get to know a new person. I have learned, been shown by my hosts in Soweto, that the community around food is so much bigger than that small narrow understanding. Enjoying a meal sharing in a celebration of a wedding or celebrating the life of someone who has passed on the feeling of community is almost tangible even for me, who most of the time can‘t understand what is being said around me due to vast variety of languages, and have never met 99% of the people there I can still feel the community.

As I think about these events my mind keeps coming back to the miracle of the food in the Bible. It is such a timeless concept, both food and community and how they come together. I have now learned how it transcends cultures and traditions too. And I hope to take this understanding as play it out in my own communities and personal faith.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A South African Easter

Happy Easter!

I thought I had seasons in the southern hemisphere down. I loved celebrating Christmas in the hot summer sun, loved that while attempting to bake Christmas cookies I was on the verge of heat stroke and my chocolate was just a pile of melted goodness. But now the days are getting shorter, I have overcome my fear of using a space-heater, and the winter clothes I packed but never thought I would use are becoming staples; winter is upon us in South Africa.

Celebrating Easter in the fall has made me re-examine what Easter means and how I celebrate. Much like Christmas I was amazed how much of the Northern Hemisphere traditions carry south, there were eggs, and bunnies, and other decorations I associate with spring decorating stores and on tv commercials. It felt as silly as seeing the fake snow while applying sunscreen in December. I am used to talking about Easter as the world around me is coming back to life from the long cold winter, now I am just going into winter. Instead of associating Easter with the resurrection we celebrate and the world resurrecting here I have to trust that as I see the leaves falling and the days getting shorter that there will again be resurrection.

Along with the seasons being different I was able to celebrate this time with my ELCSA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa) hosts. The Soweto circuit hosted it's second annual Easter Conference. All the perishes of the circuit came together to worship for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and the Resurrection Service. The hall was full of nearly 2,000 people! It was an Easter to remember. Here are a few of the highlights!

Palm Sunday with palms cut from the tree outside the church then processing singing through the streets of Soweto

Learning that washing feet at Maundy Thursday involves bringing your own towel but learning this as my feet were in the water.

Stations of the cross devotions through the streets of Soweto Good Friday morning.

All day Good Friday service that included a brass band, singing, and dancing!

My host family sharing their traditional pickled fish for all the meals of the week. (I pictured the pickled herring my dad would eat that I can barely stomach but in reality this was more like a curry! Tons of spices and pepper with onions along with the fish it was so tasty!)

Easter vigil starting at 8 pm Saturday evening and going until 8 am Sunday morning. (I wish I could say I did the whole service but I did sneak a power nap from 3-4:30!)

A sunrise procession around Soweto with candles at 5 am singing and dancing.

The resurrection service ending the whole event.

It was an Easter to remember. One I will always cherish. I got home Sunday morning slept and then with my host family went to a gospel concert by, Joyous Celebration. Check them out!

Now I am enjoying a quiet week with public holidays Monday (Easter Monday) and Wednesday (Freedom Day the anniversary of the first democratic elections in 1994!)

Hope you all had a blessed Easter and for those in the Northern Hemisphere that you are enjoying spring!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Piki Tup

Piki Tup is on strike. I didn’t really pay attention to piki tup until a few weeks ago. They are the waste disposal company that serves Soweto and the greater Johannesburg area. But for 2 weeks piki tup has not been picking up anything.

I have never before noticed trash like I have this year. One of the first realities of life in South Africa, especially in the black townships is the trash. It is only recently that Soweto has gotten the piki tup service, like so many other services it was reserved for the white areas. Trash pick up and collection is not the norm. But living in Soweto I get the benefit of being in one of the most progressive townships in the world. We have buses, trash collection, police stations, and hospitals, things other townships that are not so prominent or in such urban areas only dream about.

I knew that I was fortunate in this regard especially comparing stories with other YAGMs and their dilemmas of what to do with their trash. Prior to this yeah I didn’t give a second thought to recycling let alone how my trash just disappears once a week. Now that it is gone I feel guilty with every piece of paper I have to throw in the trash since there is no recycling option. Yet, I have the privilege of trash cans that get picked up weekly.

That was they did get picked up until two weeks ago. Living with about 6 million people the trash piles up really quickly. It is everywhere. There is usually trash on the side of the roads but this is mounds. I thought it was bad in Soweto but then I was traveling through central Johannesburg. Walking through streets with thousands of people as we all try to dodge trash, each other, and the taxis speeding down the road makes the journey even more of an obstacle course. It has sadden me to see areas that weeks ago had kids playing now have trash and to see billowing black smoke from trash burning since there is no other option.

The strike is not over. I find myself asking how all of this will ever be picked up? How will this all be cleaned up? Then I realized how close we are to Earth Day. Earth Day is easy to celebrate in the United States. I live in Denver, Colorado a pretty environmentally responsible city but how do I recognize this holiday in Soweto in the middle of a garbage truck? I try to do my part; reusing paper until there is no space left, composting what I can. For now I am hoping that the strike will end soon and that trash collection will resume.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Price Of Healthy Eating

I love food. A large part of my time in South Africa has been spent eating. Lately, I have been thinking more about what I am eating. I have never had the greatest of habits when it comes to food, most notably my addiction to peanut butter. I love the stuff and have learned since having a solo food budget that I eat a ridiculous amount. Peanut butter m+m’s are a particular point of weakness and I am embarrassed to admit how many of the bags are left of the 10 that were delivered to me in December as part of a Christmas present. However, living and cooking on my own and being in a new food culture has made me step back and take a look at the food around me and what I am eating and most importantly why this food is important. I knew that in South Africa I would most likely have less processed foods and was excited about some healthier eating. I was warned that my vegetarian eating habits would be doable but hard to maintain, I decided to go back to my meat eating ways because I knew that it was more important to me to eat everything that was served to me while I am a guest here in South Africa. However the focus on what I am eating that started when I became a vegetarian has remained with me and for that I am grateful.

That is how I came into this year, ready to eat. I was confident that I could maintain a healthy diet with a manageable amount of my favorite comfort food, peanut butter. The first thing was finding that the generic peanut butter is delicious, priced right for my volunteer budget and that it would in-fact sustain me for many breakfasts and lunches. My first weeks here, I loved discovering the traditional South Africa dishes. Most meals featured meat as the main dish with a carb, a starch, and some sort of vegetable as side dishes. The most common and popular meal involves a piece meat and a side of pap (pronounced pop). Pap is made from maize meal (corn) and has the consistency of a mix between mashed potatoes and couscous. Along with these traditional family style meals I have also explored the fast food options. One of the biggest surprises I have found again and again in South Africa was KFC. The chain KFC is everywhere, even in the smallest towns I have seen the red and white sign. It has been a challenge to explain that even though I come from the same country as KFC, that it does not mean that I enjoy buckets of chicken. Along with the KFC there are more local fast food options. I have found that different areas of South Africa have different ideas of local fast food. The Soweto classic is the kota, slang for quarter. This popular lunch item consists of a quarter of a loaf of bread, chips (thanks to the British influence we don’t say fries!) a type of meat or two, cheese, archer (pickled mangos) and a fried egg. The bread is hollowed out to fit everything in then the extra bread that has been taken out is placed on top to make it sort of resemble a sandwich. I love these. My favorite spot to get one is at Aggie’s. Aggie is an amazing woman who runs a food shop from her home. Where there would be a garage there are tables and a counter to order at. Aggie now knows my order by heart and loves when I bring people who are visiting Soweto by for a true “taste of Soweto” as she says.

Kotas are extremely popular for everyone in Soweto. The price is right they average in price from 7 to 10 Rands or about 1 US Dollar to at most a dollar fifty. In theory, it would be possible for me to stay within my modest budget and still eat a kota everyday. It is very common for kids to take kotas to school for lunch. Now I am not a nutritional expert but a kota seems like a good treat once in awhile but even as I am eating them about once or twice a month I think about how unhealthy they are. But they are so cheap and filling. You aren’t hungry for days after eating a kota. But at what price? A cheap meal to satisfy a hunger but that will hurt your overall health.

While cooking for myself I like to stick to a vegetarian diet here. I find that the money I save on not buying meat products can be used to buy fresh vegetables. Other staff members laugh at me because it is very rarely that I am cooking something that does not have at least one green veggie in it. But this is not cheap and does not fill you up in the same way a kota does. So is it that practical for life in Soweto? It is for me, I budget and have a priority to eat healthy although I do enjoy my kota once in awhile. But what about my hosts, my neighbors, the majority of the 4 million people who call Soweto home? There are necessities in the budget that need to be covered long before fresh vegetables can be made a priority.

Thinking like this brings the kota in a whole new light. It fills you up. You don’t feel hungry. You can trick your body into thinking that it is satisfied with this amount of food that has very little nutritional value. This makes sense if you can only afford 10 rand a day on food, a kota is all you need. Like almost every part of my experience in South Africa this has a history and its roots in the Apartheid history. When there is no money and no work and there are many concerns bigger than what you are eating the focus becomes feeling full, masking your hunger so that you can focus on other issues. Hunger is still a enormous issue in South Africa. People go hungry everyday in South Africa according to ELCA World Hunger 963 million people are hungry in the world and 947 million people are undernourished. This is a global issue. Hunger and malnourishment is something that will continue to be a vital issue in our ever connected world. I know that it is something that I will carry with me when I travel back to the United States and now each time I enjoy my Soweto treat of a kota.