Monday, October 11, 2010

Great Times in SA

Greetings. It has been a busy couple of weeks for me since my last blog post so I figured it was time to let you all in on the seemingly secret life of Josh in South Africa once again.

It is safe to say that I have finally found the little bit of routine needed to keep one sane, I have fully settled in, and I feel totally at home both with those around me and in my general location. My week that was once totally empty and fully open to whatever I chose to fill it with has become filled with great opportunities and different experiences. Early in the week I spend my time at the school for the physically handicapped up the road where I have gotten to be good friends with the assistant principle and a few other staff members. While I still have no clear active role in the school it is a great work in progress and some day I am confident that the teachers will actually have the meeting they have promised me to have to sort out how I can be of service to the school and its wonderful students. I have also been splitting my time early in the week working at the center doing various projects. The most recent of these is a serious painting project that I just started on today in fact. And when I mean serious I am not kidding…last week we picked up no less than 360 liters of paint. I have a feeling that I am going to be busy with this project until Christmas, as they want me to paint every building at the center. It is a good thing I enjoy painting and who can complain with working outside in the African sun…not me.

Wednesdays I have found myself heading to town with a lady from the center by the name of Goodness. In town I help ship off communion wafers through the post, help out with the banking for the centers various accounts, and help out with the weekly grocery shopping. By heading into town I mean heading into Estcourt, a small town with everything one would need and absolutely nothing more. It is also the time that I try and do my weekly grocery shopping so all in all Wednesday is pretty much spent in town doing one thing or another. Wednesday evening I have found myself heading back into town to meet up with a few new friends that have come about from getting to know one of the therapists from the school for an evening Bible study and a bit of home cooking.

Thursday-Fridays I have found myself working at an orphanage in Geurton, just a short kombi ride down the road from Loskop. The orphanage is run by a lovely American couple who have been expats for quite some time now. The orphanage has about 40 orphans in total ranging from infant through high school. Overall I have spent most of my time there just playing with the kids or helping them with their homework. Last week the topic we work on was long division…long division has never been (taken)…well so long. It is a work in progress. There is also another long-term volunteer working at the orphanage from Wheaton College so it is nice to see a friendly American face and spend some time in conversation without the language barrier. He has been at the orphanage for about 4 months and has just over 2 remaining before he heads back. In general though I roll into the orphanage early on Thursday, work the day, spend the night, then work the following day before returning to my home. It’s really a great place that is providing a great service for the surrounding community. The orphanage is run in a way that there are women who volunteer and live at the center as “mothers” so that there are just about 4 kids to each mother. It is really a great system from what I can tell.

My weekends have continued to remain open but recently have spent the majority of them in Estcourt at the assistant principles house as he has welcomed me into his family as if I were a son. Mr. Mbhele has 3 sons of his own, ranging from 9-17ish, and a very nice wife who also happens to be a great cook. Along with spending time at their home in Estcourt I have gotten connected with a local soccer team that I am now coaching to some degree of the term. The “team” consists of boys from around the neighborhood and kwaza area. They are really pretty good soccer players and it has been fun to play some pickup games with them. Just a few weekends ago I was able to play in my first game, which my team thankfully won as there was quite of bit of Rand exchanged in the form of betting for or against the American. In the next few days or so we will have our first real practice and soon enough the season will be underway…or at least that is my understanding of the situation at this point.

In addition, I have been able to get out of my community and stretch the adventurous legs a bit. On September 23rd I set off toward the Durban area to meet up with some of the other YAGM and partake in the biannual ELCSA young adult league conference. The best part about this adventure is I really had no idea where I was heading or who I was meeting up with. My only directions were literally: take kombi to Pietermaritzburg, grab another kombi in PMB to Cato Ridge, then proceed by walking to a school where the conference will be taking. Not exactly the clearest of directions but hey what was I to do other than give it a shot. I got up early and grabbed a taxi into Estcourt without problem as per usual at this point. Got to the kombi (taxi) rank in Estcourt where I wandered around for a bit before asking a nice looking gentleman for a bit of help finding the Martizburg taxi, waited only about 45 min for the kombi to fill (a very short time), and soon enough found myself on the road to PMB. The ride into PMB was only about an hour but in that short while I saw some great countryside, a few cows, oh and I nearly died…literally…came within inches of getting in a four car/kombi/bus/truck pile up as a truck in front of us decided that it was going to change lanes with no regard to those around them. There was quite a bit of screaming, slamming on the breaks, cursing, and general confusion throughout the kombi as we were suddenly rolling on the shoulder going 125 km/hr with a tanker truck just inches from the side of the kombi. Good times…have to say the only though that rushed through my head was “really?… This is how is going to end…in an overstuffed mini bus in South Africa?” But no worries made it to PMB in one piece. Once in PMB I was supposed to meet up with another YAGM before heading out on the second part of the journey together. I happened to get a call informing me that there were a few other YAGMS in the area and they possibly had space in their car for us to join. I quickly booked it all the way across town to meet up with them and see what they were all about. Turns out they were traveling with a pastor (Trevor) from their area (close to Joburg) and had some extra room. Extra room entailed cramming 4 YAGM ladies in the back seat of Trevor’s 5 series BMW, while he and I rode up front in style and comfort. We set off toward Cato ridge, as my directions would have lead me, quickly got lost and once we found our way and almost as soon as we got in the general area of where we thought we were supposed to go, Trevor got a call informing him to head to Durban. The ride from Cato Ridge to Durban should have taken only about 15-20 minutes but it took nearly an hour as there was traffic. Durbs is really quite a large city and it runs right up to the Indian Ocean so I enjoyed the view as we sat in traffic. Once in Durbs we met up with some folks whom were also with ELCSA and heading to the conference. Trevor parked the car on a random sidewalk, told us to stay put and proceeded to walk off/drive off with the other ELCSA folks. We waited for just about an hour and a half or so sharing some stories, having a coke, and a laugh (it was the first time we had really had a chance to catch up with each other in about a month). Trevor eventually came back and told us it was time to go but we “don’t know where were going.” So we started to drive…in the general direction of where we had eventually came from. We eventually got off the interstate a few exits before Cato Ridge (about 15km before) and drove for a bit until we ended up at a school that was really in the middle of nowhere. At this point it was about 6pm and I was very thankful that I had met up with Trevor and the other YAGMs as I never would have found this place on my own. Everything happens for a reason I guess. All in all the travel day took from about 7:30am-6:00pm when I should have taken less than an hour and a half to get to where we ended up. Great times…just another day in the life of a YAGM in SA.

The conference as a whole was an interesting experience. It was a great lesson on what productivity, community, and adlib musical numbers are really about. We all got a good sense of the YAL, their goals, issues, and role in the greater ELCSA. We were able to hear insight from Bishop Biyela of Eastern Diocese, Bishop Bowles of Cape Orange Diocese, ELCSA General Secretary Rev. Mathe, and our own fearless leader Rev. Brian Konkol. And of course, tt was great to meet up with the majority of the SA YAGM group again to share stories about our first couple months. Everyone is having a very unique and different experience so it was great to come together and get the rundown from everyone. Overall it was an interesting weekend that can be chalked up as a win.

Last week Friday I had the opportunity to join Mrs. Constance on a road trip into the Drakensburg mountains to visit a group of ladies whom hand weave baskets that are then sold in the center I am living at. We set off early in the morning in a bakkie and headed west toward the mountains. The trip itself was pretty uneventful but I got to see a great deal of countryside, enjoy a tasty sausage roll, and finally get a glimpse at the mighty Drakensburgs. We drove for about 2hrs on paved road before heading another 30km or so on a dirt road to a small community tucked into a beautiful valley. We met with about 15 or so ladies from the area, paid them for the last 3 months worth of sales and then loaded up the bakkie to the max with more baskets to sell over the course of the next 3 months. A full days road trip was very much enjoyed and I will be returning to the mountains for some further adventures and exploration sooner than later.

Looking back on the last few weeks its been a wild and crazy journey that has entailed getting on the wrong taxi more than once, getting moderately severely sick with food poisoning resulting in the loss of about 10lbs, becoming the local billiards shark at the corner store, fixing the many holes in my TOMS with a needle floss and an old bit of fabric, growing a very poor moustache, waking up with a general plan for the day and having it totally go out the window within the first few hours, having a few laughs after hours with some of workers from the surrounding areas, navigating the most vague directions ever, playing barefoot soccer in a field, popping two soccer balls in less than one month, my Rooibos tea addiction has become serious, my Zulu is still quite poor but it’s a continued work in progress, the weather is amazing and only getting warmer, I got to experience my first SA thunderstorm, and the sunsets are amazing.


Learning to Walk with Others

Why am I here? What do I hope to accomplish? What does a “successful” year in South Africa look like to me? What is to come after this? What does globally informed and transformed really look like? What does accompaniment mean to me? Where do I spend my time? What is of value to me? How did I end up here?

These are some of the questions that have been both posed to me and are issues that I think about on a daily basis. Some questions that have really stuck with me these first few weeks are in regards to what do I hope to accomplish and what am I really doing here. These questions have been of particular interest and struggle for me these first few weeks as I try and get involved in the community in which I am living. There have been many quiet days here where I cannot help but feel that I have done or accomplished anything. Many days I feel as though there is no real use for me at the center where I live as it runs smoothly and efficiently without my help. It has taken many weeks to seek out the necessary people at the school where I am trying to get started working in, it took a few weeks to get to the orphanage down the road where I am looking serve, and I have very few projects around the center to keep busy. In short, there have been many days where I feel like I am simply hanging out being more of a consumer at the center rather than being the producer or a helper that I came here to be. At times I have felt useless, alone, bored, and uninvolved.

Yet just today, it became clear that despite not having a clear direction as to what I am to be doing here, I have had a positive impact on people and the community in which I live. At the end of the work day, around 4pm, people tend to congregate the local corner store and pub to gather around share a beer, a smoke, and take each other on in a casual game of snooker (pool/billiards). With little to do in the later part of the afternoon I have found myself heading to the corner store to talk with people, share a story, hear a story, and just be present with my brothers who live in my community. I never thought it was a big deal; I was merely trying to pass the time and have a few conversations with others.

My daily trip to the store took on a new meaning today when a man, whom I had never talked with nor seen before today, greeted me and asked if we could talk for a bit. He started by saying that I was different from most of the white folk he had met. When I asked him to explain what he meant he said it was easy. The very fact that I was there at the corner store, talking with him and others as if I was one of them, a friend, a colleague, a fellow brother, just enjoying other’s company was very different from what he had seen before. After all, I was and continue to be the only white person who stops in at the store and spends time just hanging out with those who are there. He continued by saying that it was great for people who shared the same god and believed in Jesus were able to come and share a moment together and talk about life. We are all going to the same place the day we die so why not share the time on earth together as well? He continued by thanking me for spending time with him and his friends from the area, coming to serve for a year, and for breaking down barriers of race that many were fearful of doing themselves; and that he was proud to welcome me to South Africa as a fellow brother in Christ.

I have to admit I was a little taken back that my very being present with those around me was so impactful to those around me. Despite having no physical proof that I have accomplish anything I suddenly felt like I had accomplished a great deal. I finally understand what accompaniment means. It is not about getting things done, fixing walls, teaching English, coaching soccer, or anything in the physical sense. It is about walking together with others. It is about entering into an unknown path where we don’t know where the road will lead, but we will walk it together. I did not come here to start anything big and grand. God is already here and by his grace he has asked me to join in what He is already doing. I am simply a participant in God’s mission.

As an American it is hard to avoid being caught up in only focusing on getting things done, getting involved, and accomplishing tasks. We are trained to get involved. Hanging out and simply being with people without a clear task or objective to accomplish is against our viewpoints of productivity. The real reason I am hear is to live in solidarity with those around me. Today I created a new relationship with a fellow brother in Christ and for me that is more important than anything I have accomplished in the physical sense these first few weeks.

So now when I am asked what have I been doing, I will respond that I have been present with those around me. My very being present in this community has provided me with the knowledge that life is not about getting things done, it is about slowing down and hearing what others have to say. As an American I have not come here with the answers to poverty, race issues, church issues, or anything else that I am looked to as a resource in solving. I have come here to listen, learn and become open to encounters with god daily in the known and unknown. Everyone can tell us something about God. Everybody and everything has a story. I have something to learn; those around me have something to teach.