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

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.