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.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Typical Untypical Weekend

Weekends have been the time of some of my most unique experiences in South Africa. Through my time here I have become accustom to these weekend adventures they range from birthday parties to church events to seeing new things in Soweto. This past weekend was one of these typical untypical weekends, I never really know what to expect but I know that it will be an adventure, and I want to try to share it. I went with staff of the Central Diocese to the Eastern Diocese to celebrate the consecration of the new Bishop. It was an honor to be able to accompany my South African hosts to this event. We were told to be ready to go at noon on Saturday and by 3 pm Saturday afternoon we were on our way :). We had snacks, laughed, and enjoyed the hours in the car together. As we drove out of the city and into the country side I was struck by the wild flowers, being late fall they were a surprise to me but the sides of the road we traveled was covered in breath taking pink and white blossoms. We arrived at the hall where the service would take place on Sunday in Ermelo in the Mpumalanga province (near the border of Swaziland). People were running around with last minute preparations but everyone was able to stop and share dinner together. After dinner we left the hall and were dropped at a house of a woman I had never met. She had prepared a room with beds for all of us and welcomed us warmly into her home. I was extremely thankful for a bed as I had no idea what our sleeping arrangements were going to be and was thinking in my mind we may be sleeping on the floor of the hall. Sunday morning we were back at the hall by 6:30 am. I am unsure if some people ever left as it was a busy and full of people as it had been when we left Saturday night. Breakfast was served and church started. It was a service full of celebration with all ELCSA Bishops there to welcome the newest Bishop. The service started around 9 am and with greetings and speeches of thanks being given the it was still going when our car left at 2:30 pm! The entire time we were singing and dancing and enjoy the time together. I was especially grateful to see a few of the other YAGMs, one who stays with the new bishops family and 3 others who had traveled with their own hosts to the service, it is always a treat to see YAGM when it is not a planned YAGM event. Much too soon I was told I must eat lunch and we were heading back to Soweto. The lunch was traditional South African dishes I have learned to love, samp (made primarily of beans), sweet potatoes, and a stew. The car ride back was a little quieter since we were all tired but there was still plenty of laughing, talking, and singing as we drove back to the city.

This past weekend is full of memories, conversations, and most of all people I treasure deeply. I am realizing more and more my time in South Africa is limited. The weeks and months are going by and suddenly the number of weekends I have makes each weekend more of a gift, something to be treasured. My hope is that this gives more of an insight in the day-to-day happenings that I am experiencing here. As always thank you for your continued support!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Learning and Teaching

I have had a hard time calling myself a missionary. Something about the world and the history associated with the title rubs me the wrong way. Images come to mind of a white man teaching and preaching to people who have darker skin than him. In my images this man continues to teach these people “the way,” how to eat, speak, behave, live their lives according to “the way” the white man sees fit. All of this being presented neatly packaged as “saving” people through preaching the Christian gospel. The not so subtle undertones of the lessons involved creating the white society in the so called bush of Africa. Now I find myself being called a missionary through the Young Adults in Global MISSIONS program and living in Africa surrounded by people who have darker skin than myself. However, these images that at times haunt me serve as a reminder to me to be different. Luckily the ELCA has adapted a model of accompaniment. I am learning from my hosts. I am here to walk with my gracious hosts in South Africa. I am serving in whatever way I can in the months that I am here. My mission and whatever teaching I am able to do will really start when I return back to the United States not while I am in South Africa. I will share what I saw, what I felt, and to the best of my ability what I experienced here in South Africa, sharing with anyone who is willing listen, hopefully imparting some teaching in that mix. So instead of going to the “bush” and teaching I will return back to “civilization” and share what I experienced in South Africa.

This week I had an experience that reminded me of the scary missionary vision I have in my head. I had the chance, via skype, to talk with a group of young adults from my home congregation who are preparing for a mission trip. As the conversation progressed we started chatting about my day-to-day activities. I explained my site Diakonia AIDS Ministry (DAM) the different departments and activities that go along with each department. Trying my best to explain how the Lutheran Church runs an HIV/AIDS organization. My friends in the United States were really curious about how the church was involved with this fight against HIV/AIDS. It reminded me that while I am surrounded by HIV/AIDS in South Africa that is not the norm in the churches where I grew up attending. In a church service here HIV/AIDS is the first prayer at every church event. It makes complete sense that the church is focused on serving those who are infected and affected by this virus. I found myself explaining how the church, at least how I am experiencing it, is very HIV/AIDS focused; it has to be everyone is affected in some way. One question I asked as I was explaining the education events were we go out and teach to anyone who will listen; was what exactly we were teaching, was it the Gospel? I was asked if we were teaching about Christianity. This made me take a step back and really think.

These education events at DAM involve packing a large sound system, fresh vegetables, clothes, a portable generator, boxes of condoms, and as many people as can possible squeeze in the left over room into one bakkie (pick-up truck). We then drive all around to informal settlements. These are quite literally shanty towns with families living in shacks build with anything they can find and roofs held on with large rocks sitting atop the structures. These are the poorest of the poor. We drive up unload everything: set up the sound system using our own portable generate and start with music playing. Bribing people to come and listen to what we have to say with the promise of free fresh veggies at the end of our presentation. Our educators start talking about HIV/AIDS involving anyone who has come by to listen. After about thirty minutes we hand out the veggies, give out packs of condoms and then pack up and move onto the next site. We try to visit three sites on a day we go out. But it all depends on the roads (as the informal settlements are not set up with getting a bakkie through in mind we find ourselves limited to the outskirts of these areas), weather, and how many people are at each site due to the fact that once the veggies are gone we head home. I love these events. I have been lucky enough to accompany the DAM staff on two such days. They are fun and it’s a great way to see more of South Africa. Everything that is taught is in the local language so I understand very little of what is being said but I enjoy the environment and helping in the set-up, tear down of everything. One of my co-workers pointed out at the last event the number of men who attended. She said it was unusual to have that many men coming for the free handouts and that is a sign of real need as it is usually the women who come get the handouts but if it is the men who are willing to show that they are in need there is extreme poverty and need for assistance.

Riding home in the back of the now much more comfortable and spacious bakkie I started to think about the question I was asked about what we were teaching at our education events. These events do have some similarities to the corner preachers I see in some cities and come back to the image of the old fashion missionary teaching. We don’t ask people if they want to learn. We show up and preach. Not about the teachings of Jesus or how to live your life but about this killer disease and how to protect yourself. We bring our big fancy equipment and set up shop. Generating power in areas right next to the community porta-potty. Packing up and going home back to the comforts of running water and electricity. I am reminded of those white men who came to the bush to preach. There are key differences, most notable that DAM is run by South Africans for South Africans and it is clear when I am tagging along while I can help I am soaking up everything not at all the one teaching. While there are some similarities it is clear that the differences make these events completely different than any of white attempts to civilize the “bush.”

With the language barrier I had to ask my co-workers what was the main theme of these events. That particular day it was love and respect. Love and respect for: yourself, your community, your family, and your sexual partners. While the presentations never mention that we are a church organization I find myself thinking about how the ideas of love and respect are impossible to extract from how I define my Christian faith. Jesus taught us to love our neighbor. Our neighbors are those living with HIV/AIDS, those in the informal settlements, those who come and teach there, and even those who still have the missionary attitude of coming to the bush. So maybe we are going and teaching the Gospel at our education events. Teaching the love and respect of Jesus in a time and world of HIV/AIDS.

Monday, February 28, 2011


It seems odd that it is 6 months into my experience in YAGM that I am writing about prayer. But I have a confession to make; I am not good at praying. I’m awkward and weird about it. I would like a very simple, Joy Michelle Waughtal, this is how you personally should pray booklet. I realize that praying and faith does not work like that. Prayer and faith are a continual journey that will be a life long process of growing and learning. Coming into this year I hoped that I would grow in my faith, specifically in the area of prayer. I wanted to have a real prayer life. Like most aspects of my faith this has come gradually and it is only now looking back at 6 months of living in South Africa and focusing on this goal of a prayer life that I feel I have something to write and reflect about.
The first weeks in South Africa were overwhelming. I was thrown into a new culture and everything that entails: new food, new language, new traditions, it felt like new everything. This included something that I could never have expected, a new way to pray. I first noticed this in the church services. The first few times attending church I was absorbed with the singing and the dancing. The next few weeks I was noticing how there are parts of the liturgy that are universal in understanding, regardless of the language being spoken. After a somewhat embarrassing amount of time I realized how prayer is something more than a silent time or words printed in the bulletin. Prayer is something that everyone speaks during the service, not all the same prayer, but everyone praying what they feel. Not everyone speaks out loud but it seems to me that most people do chose to pray this way. During the services I have attended I know it is time to pray when I hear quiet mutters all around me. I have found listening to these prayers to be a powerful time for me. Although, I have to admit that I still struggle to pray out loud during this time. I find myself praying and listening to the prayers around me. Depending on the service I am attending these prayers are either in isiZulu, Sesotho, or Afrikaans. I do not understand the words around me but there is something about this time of prayer that brings me peace.
While I still struggle praying during the set time of a Sunday morning service I have found myself praying more than ever before in my life. As I am here through a church program I have learned that I am a go-to person to lead the prayer before a meeting or a meal. While I have always been shy about praying in front of a large group of people that shyness quickly went out the window as I realized that I was not in a position to say no. So I have become a public prayer in that regard. I have also found that at night there are some nights were there is nothing to do but pray. One such example has come from the rainy season here. I love a good rain shower, but the rain here has had me concerned and while I realize no house has ever collapsed due to rain it sounds as though that could change quickly. Lying in bed realizing that my fear is slightly irrational I find myself praying. I know that in prayer it is ok that my fear is irrational and I have understood finding peace in prayer more in these moments than I could ever explain through words.
These moments have paved the way for my prayer life. I still have a hard time praying. Part of me hopes that I will always struggle with prayer, because then it will be a constant challenge for focus. The difference I see now is that I turn to prayer. I find myself in situations where I feel out of control and I turn to prayer. This is a big deal for me as I have always been a mild control freak. I love to have complete control of a situation, as much as I try to deny it this is a part of my personality. Being in South Africa has challenged this over and over again. A realization that I have recently come to while taking this time to sit down and write about prayer is that my faith has changed and grown more than any other aspect of my life here in South Africa. Now in moments when I do not have any control I naturally turn to prayer no longer trying to regain control. It has become more familiar for me to be in a situation where I do not have control and I find that prayer comforts me the most in these times.
One such time where I did not have any control was on a recent kombi ride. Kombis are public taxis, fifteen passenger vans full of people. People in South Africa take these to get everywhere and they go anywhere. Being in Soweto it is easy to find a kombi that will take me anywhere from the mall down the road to as far as Cape Town. This particular trip I was returning in a taxi from Pietermaritzburg to Johannesburg. This five hour journey started with the realization that my fellow “Muddie” and I who were seated next to the driver in the front of the van filled to capacity that our seats were on top of the engine. As the ride continued we struggled realizing that in kombi manners the people in the front should not sleep. The final hour of this ride was spent in one of the most vibrant lightening storms I have ever seen. At one point it seemed that five bolts of lightening struck at once. Driving along having no control and being frightened of the storm I found myself praying, praying hard. And much like those nights in the rain, and those moments in church I found peace.
Looking back at six months I have found that my prayer life has changed. It is still not what I thought of when I started thinking about what prayer looked like but I am learning how it works for me. I know that there is no personal manual but I am finding that every time I find myself in a moment of prayer I find peace. I am not to the point where I set aside time and force myself to pray but I find myself coming to prayer due to circumstance over and over again.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Greetings from a HOT and sunny South Africa!

I know that most people reading this are reading from the cold and snowy North America. I have to keep reminding myself that it is February and being hot and sunburn is the norm for February in the Southern Hemisphere. I am really enjoying summer and all that it brings. Everyone in the Northern Hemisphere can give me a hard time when I am writing about being cold in June :)

Recently I have had many opportunities to share. Part of our program is set up so that we are able to serve with other volunteers throughout South Africa. These past few weeks I had the chance to travel and see completely different parts of South Africa. Along with my trusted travel buddy (Heather Nelson who is placed in a small rural community in the Limpopo province of South Africa) I spent two weeks traveling around Kwa-Zulu Natal province. We visited four different volunteers. The sites ranged from downtown Durban to very rural Umphumulo, the farming community of Escourt, and an incredible community of foster families outside of Pietermaritzburg. I loved getting to see the other sites. See how many other American volunteers see South Africa. I joked in the rural areas that I can't sleep without loud music or car alarms that are a constant in Soweto. Through it all my thoughts kept coming back to how each place fits the volunteer. Each one of us is here for our own reasons and are growing in our own ways and each of our sites fits us. At this point in the year it is hard to know if our sites fit us or or if we fir our sites or if we have each grown into our site, I believe that it is a combination of all those things. It is such a gift to be able to share our experiences with each other. Have time to see the sites of each area, serve along side each other and our wonderful South African hosts, and at the end of the day share. Share a meal, share our thoughts, share our time together.

This coming week I will have another chance to share. Share the South Africa I love and now call home. As I type this my mom, her husband, and two of my cousins are on a plane somewhere over Africa. (well at least I hope they are!) They will be here for a week. Enjoying the summer weather and seeing South Africa. I am excited to show them around, introduce them to the people who have made this experience what it is for me, feed them traditional South African food, and above all spend time together. Share this experience.

I cannot ever say this enough, thank you for letting me share this experience with you you through this blog. Thank you for your continued support in the letters, e-mails, thoughts, and prayers. It means so much to me.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Time To Travel

South Africa shuts down for roughly two weeks around Christmas and New Year‘s Day, offices close, schools are on summer holiday, and life is pretty much on a stand still. During these two weeks most people travel home. I have learned very quickly that while it is estimated that over 4 million people live in Soweto most people left Soweto to go “home.” While Soweto never become what I would consider quiet it did slow down considerably. There were fewer taxis on the streets and in general fewer people. It was refreshing the week before Christmas to have this different pace. This time also was a harsh reminder for me that as much as everyone loves Soweto and the vibrant vibe that Soweto exerts to everyone who steps foot here Soweto was not established to be the contemporary urban hotbed it now has become. Soweto is a township, in fact Soweto is slang for South Western Township. Soweto was established to get blacks out of Johannesburg. And thus no one considers going “home” coming to Soweto. The five miles that separated Johannesburg and Soweto are getting smaller and smaller as both spread outward. Now FNB Stadium (formerly known as Soccer City turning the World Cup) marks the half way point between Soweto and Johannesburg with each inching closer and closer to each other. On any work day it is clear that most people still make the commute. More and more people are staying in Soweto to work but the big jobs still lie five miles away in the city. Soweto is my South African home but I realize that while millions of people live in Soweto they still travel home.
All of my co-workers and friends in Soweto kept asking me what I was going to do with myself as they all traveled “home” for the holiday season. Spending the week before Christmas enjoying a quieter slower Soweto I joined in this traveling holiday season for two weeks around Christmas and New Years. I was fortunate enough for my Christmas present to arrive on a plane on Christmas Day all the way from Denver, Colorado; my boyfriend Josh was able to travel to spend the Christmas season here in South Africa. It was incredible to be able to share my day to day life in Soweto with him. Then we were off for our own traveling. We spent a week in Cape Town and then a few days being tourists in Johannesburg. Visiting Cape Town felt like I was in a different world and I had to constantly remind myself that I was still in South Africa. Just a very different part of South Africa. I was in the tourist South Africa. We did all the tourists musts: Table Mountain, Robben Island, Long Street, and the V and A Waterfront. We learned, saw, experienced, and generally just tried to enjoy the time together. I have to admit that I loved being a tourist. But I was also glad to travel “home” to Soweto after the week.
All of it reminded me of how diverse South Africa is. From the dry vastness of the Northern Cape, to the people of Soweto, to the lush mountains of Cape Town, to the beaches of Kwa-Zulu Natal. I am very fortunate to be able to experience a taste of each of these during my time here. Even more fortunate is that I am able to share this experience with those I love. Through visits, phone calls, and this blog I am able to share so much of this experience.
Coming back to Soweto and being welcomed by open arms of my Soweto family I am reminded how fortunate I am. They all traveled home and was glad I saw and experienced Cape Town while everyone was away. They constantly encourage me to travel more and see more of this beautiful country. Yet I am reminded how lucky I am. I have a blue passport that allows me to travel freely and without much hassle of visas or documents get in and out of most countries. Travel is a gift. I am constantly reminded of that. It is a gift and needs to be shared in whatever way possible. Much like I enjoy traveling myself I love hearing about others travels. I drill my coworkers on what they did at “home.” Why Soweto isn’t considered home. And try to learn as much s possible from my own travel and others as well.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Every Day is World AIDS Day

December 1st marked the 22nd annual World AIDS Day. Across the world people remembered those who are infected/affected by this global pandemic, took time to educate themselves and others, and also made sure that the world knows AIDS is not something to keep silent about. The day was originally established with the goals of raising money, increasing awareness, fighting prejudice and improving education. It is important to mark this day and do all these things but the reality of our world is that every day is World AIDS Day. Every single day HIV/AIDS is affecting and infecting millions of people around the world. This is especially clear in South Africa and sadly rings true for the entire Southern Africa region. Sub-Saharan Africa is the epicenter for this world wide pandemic. The affects are devastating and not just in the traditional way a disease devastates a person’s life. In a speech to the Special Session of the United Nations Assembly on HIV/AIDS in June of 2001, Prime Minister of Mozambique, Pascoal Mocumbi, explained the impact of the pandemic to this region by stating, “Our families are increasingly impoverished, our work force drastically reduced and our children increasingly orphaned. The basic social and economic fabric of communities and political stability of nations are threatened.” The chain of effects that is caused by HIV/AIDS is never ending, leading to increased poverty, social devastation, and human suffering. Serving at DAM I have had the privilege of working directly with individuals who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. The reality is that each and every one of us is included in that. How can we not all be affected by something that has infected millions of people worldwide?

In the last few weeks I have seen the realities of HIV/AIDS in a new light. It is true that you see HIV/AIDS everywhere in South Africa. Billboards, commercials, presentations, HIV is everywhere. Then I realize how many people I know here that are infected and are still courageously living their lives. In my first weeks at DAM I was trying to soak everything in, process everything I was seeing. Now reaching my fourth month the realities are hitting me hard. HIV/AIDS is no longer something I neither read about nor talk about without really understanding. I am slowly starting to understand, as well as a white North American woman in South Africa can understand. I came to South Africa for many reasons. The biggest is my developing passion for social justice especially in regards to HIV/AIDS; this seems like such an understatement now.

This past Saturday DAM held a Christmas party for orphaned and vulnerable children. We work with these kids throughout the Gauteng province year round but this is one of the few times that they all come to DAM for the day. The rest of the year we go out delivering food and clothing seeing the kids for a minute or two before packing up and going back to Soweto. This event was different because the kids come to us and stay for the whole day. The preparation started a month ago with a fundraising Gala Dinner, raising money specifically for an orphan Christmas party. The actual preparation for the party itself started the week before. On Friday we learned we would not have the 60 orphans we planned for but 150 kids would be attending. Keep in mind the party was scheduled for Saturday. Organized chaos followed and by Friday afternoon things were as ready as they were going to be. Saturday came and went with great success and everyone who came was given clothes, food parcels to take home, a snack, and a Christmas feast. The kids were all well behaved and had a chance to run around and just be kids. By the time everyone was leaving I was exhausted and grateful that I only had to travel a couple of yards to get to my house and take a nap.

But I couldn’t sleep. There were images from the day that were lingering in my mind and still are today. HIV/AIDS has virtually wiped out an entire generation. A generation who are traditionally the most “productive” members of society having children, parents still living and the bulk of the traditional work force. With that middle generation gone the other two generations must fill the gap. It’s easy to say that and read it. I’ve done both many times. But on Saturday I saw Gogos "Grandmother" in Isizulu carrying tiny children and both the children and the Gogos looking exhausted. I saw 13 year olds caring for their young siblings as a parent would. It hit me like a ton of bricks just how many social issues surround HIV/AIDS. What happens to the children when the gogo gets ill? What about those young teens who are now parents? Child headed families is something that is constantly talked about but to physically see a 13 year old caring for her 3 year old brother, the reality is something that I cannot begin to fathom. What are the long term affects? How does a family handle losing the middle generation that is commonly the part of the family who is bringing in an income? These are questions that go unanswered. South Africa is finding answers out of necessity. Part of DAMs work with the children is getting them to qualify for government grants to bring some money into the house. But the long range effects are still being determined. I know these questions will follow me for the rest of my life. The face of the little girl who clung to my leg when she had to leave is something I will never forget. The little boy laughing as he tried on my sunglasses will forever bring me joy. How can I ever feel down when this little boy who has gone through so much and can still laugh at the simple things of life?

The increased poverty, human suffering, and social devastation are not just isolated to those who are infected with the virus. Families must make do caring for a sick family member as well as still trying to stay afloat with shelter and food to eat. It becomes clear how things like school fees and nutritious (more expensive) foods get lost in the mix. The entire community suffers through loss and struggles to gain back what each individual contributed as their unique gift to society. The social impact will be felt for years to come. Education and outreach are making a difference. Only a few years ago HIV/AIDS was not talked about as much as it is now in South Africa. Education is the key to the future both in the universal understanding of the world but also in stopping the spread of this devastating disease.

It is with those thoughts that I firmly believe that World AIDS Day is every day. For those who are living with the virus it does not just go away. For those children who are now acting as parents it is their life. And for the countries like South Africa that has the highest infection rate it is not something that is an issue for one day. HIV/AIDS is dealt with everyday, 365 days a year. Every day I find myself thinking of the little girl whose smile was so bright and laugh was so genuine despite everything she has been through in her 8 years of being in this world. December 1st is a great reminder that we need to raise money, increase awareness, and fight prejudice but why are we as a global community doing that every day of the year? Everyday is World AIDS Day.