March 29, 2012


Perhaps you've wandered over here because you've been reading my new book, Grace at the Garbage Dump: Making Sense of Mission in the Twenty-First Century. Welcome!

The material on this blog formed the basis for that book but there are many more stories here than I could fit in the book so read on!

If you're looking for my more recent writing—not only blogs but articles and books—I invite you surf over to

Thanks for the visit!

August 31, 2009

New life = new blog

Sorry, gang. It's time to retire Mthatha Mission. I'm now a student at Yale Divinity School and have moved my blogging life accordingly. You can find me now at:

It's there that I'll continue to write about my transition back into Lower-48 culture and my new beginning at YDS. I'll hope you'll change your bookmarks and follow along with me.

And I'll be leaving this blog up for as long as Blogger will allow as a resource for future missionaries.

August 18, 2009

I'm Not Dead Yet!

I just felt compelled to say that after I realized the length between my recent posts.

The truth is, I've been travelling (some more!), seeing family, taking in a wedding, celebrating a birthday, packing, driving (too much), sleeping off all the combined jetlag and emotional trauma of the last few months, and preparing for the next step in my life.

And I'm trying to decide what to do with my blogging presence in this next step.

Details to follow...

August 5, 2009


I’ve completed my month in Nome, Alaska, my former home and an odd interpolation between Mthatha and my return to school in a few weeks.

I’m not going to recount every last detail of what went on while I was there. I had a few memorable moments - singing karaoke for a bar-full of drunk gold miners, interviewing my two favourite Alaskan women - Lisa Murkowski and Sarah Palin - in the same week, meandering across the tundra, contra dancing at a wedding reception, and much more. But mostly the joy was in resuming an old life - spending time with lots of old friends, making new ones, sliding right back into my old role in the newsroom and ambulance department, and generally enjoying myself.

One thought I had while I was in Nome was that everything seemed so easy. Almost everyone I interacted with spoke English as a first language, there were clear tasks required by my job (fill the news folder every day), and I knew how to do those tasks (write story after story after story). Compared to Mthatha, where no one spoke English, it wasn’t always clear what had to be done, and when it was I didn’t know how to do what needed to be done, this was a major shift for me. I was left thinking several times, “This is too easy!”

I also realized how vocational news reporting is for me. It helps that it was all so “easy” but the job spoke me to in a way I hadn’t expected. That, of course, only complicates my vocational discernment plans.

Except for those few moments of comparison to worklife in Mthatha, I must confess I barely thought about Itipini and Mthatha except for the evening when I gave a slide show about my time in South Africa and the time I recycled a sermon for the Methodist Church. At first, I felt a little guilty about not thinking about Mthatha. Here were all those great people, who just a few weeks prior I had been thinking about how much I would miss. And then… out of sight, out of mind!

Well, maybe. But I don’t think so. I have this feeling it’ll all catch up with me sometime in the fall. Right now, I’m feeling very unsettled in this in-between period and I’m still obviously in denial about the fact that I’ve left Itipini. Once I start a new phase of my life, maybe I’ll have more time to think about what has gone before.

Nome is a white-minority community in a white-minority region. As I interacted again with Alaska Native culture, I couldn’t help but compare it with my interactions with Xhosa culture. Mostly, I thought about how traditional cultures of the world deal with the steamroller of Western, consumerist mass culture and I couldn’t help but think about how Alaska Natives and Xhosas are dealing with the same set of issues - what to do with a traditional way of life that is eroding in the face of a culture that sets a new ideal but also takes away the means to achieve that ideal. I thought a lot about cultural alienation, especially in terms of men and masculinity. Inupiaq men face similar challenges to the ones Xhosa men face.

I remember at my mission training two years ago that one of the presenters had a Ph.D. in something like cross-cultural studies. At the time, I rather small-mindedly thought, “What good is a degree like that?” Now I want one of my own.

I also realized the ways in which I now see the world through the lenses of mission and reconciliation. I saw Nome with new eyes and the walls that people sometimes allow to be erected around themselves that cut off relationships. (This is, I am sure, true all over the world. Nome is just the first place I ended up and so I noticed it there first.) Reconciliation is needed as much in Nome as in Itipini. It’ll just take a different form.

I often thought about the line from Ephesians 2:14 about Jesus being the one who breaks down the dividing walls between us. Whatever else Nome is, I would describe it as an a-religious place. It’s not that people are hostile to religion; they just don’t see what it adds to their life. I found myself puzzling over how a message of reconciliation could be shared in a place like Nome. I didn’t come up with many answers.

If you want more from Nome, you can check out this photo album on Facebook (even if you’re not on Facebook - and it’s been updated since I last linked to it) or read this story from a friend’s blog. You can also listen to the stories of mine that aired on the Alaska Public Radio Network - there’s one on the po
llock fishery and chinook returns, the Nome wind farm, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, wind power in Western Alaska , and formerly used defense sites.

July 28, 2009

Haven't been posting much...

...while I've been in Nome. But this should give you a good idea of the fun I've been having.
You can also see more of my pictures on Facebook (even if you're not on Facebook) by clicking on this link. Or you can check here for pictures from one recent event.

More to come on settling back in once I leave Nome.

July 18, 2009

Testing Times

I’ve written before about how many people in Itipini are afraid to be tested for HIV because they are afraid what the result might be and afraid a positive test is a death sentence. This is one of the defining features of the HIV epidemic, I believe. I would always tell people how it is better to know than to not know and that there is help available for people that will prolong their life. But I recently got a little taste of that fear myself.

About a year ago in South Africa I thought about getting an HIV test. It would have just been a precautionary step. But it seemed that after a year in the clinic, it might be a wise idea. I never did get tested. Maybe I had heard from too many people at that time that they were too scared to be tested and I let that affect me, even though I had no reason to be scared. Some irrational part of my mind guided my decision-making and the idea of being tested just slipped away, even though it might have been a good example for others in Itipini.

Now that I’m back in North America, it made sense to get a pretty thorough check-up to make sure that everything I’ve been exposed to in the past two years hasn’t left any permanent marks. Naturally, when I went to see the doctor he suggested I have an HIV test. I readily agreed. I was over that irrational thought process.

The lab in Nome has to send the blood out for the HIV test so I had to wait a few days. The doctor had said that if it was negative, he would probably just leave a message on the answering machine telling me that. If it was positive, “we would have to sit down and have a talk.” But, he added, I shouldn’t be worried if I got a message telling me to call him.

A few days after the blood was drawn, I got back late on a Friday night and there was a message on the machine. “Jesse, this is Doctor So and So. Could you give me a call?” The HIV test was the only outstanding item remaining from the visit so I knew it was about that. It had been a good night and the call brought me right back down to earth. Why didn’t he just tell me on the phone? I lay awake in bed that night thinking about what it might mean.

The doctor, unfortunately, was out of town for a few days so I got to stew in my own thoughts. It’s easy to say in retrospect that I was never really scared about what the results might be but I definitely thought about it a lot. The only thing I did that put me at the slightest risk for contracting HIV was handle needles and I never poked myself with them. I covered up even the slightest abrasions when I noticed them. Objectively, I also knew that HIV is actually a difficult virus to transmit. I knew I didn’t have any symptoms of HIV (though given its long incubation that shows nothing). And I knew I shouldn’t be afraid of HIV. I personally know scores of people living successful and healthy lives with the virus.

But there was that tiny sliver of unknowing, the thought that “well… maybe… you can never be too careful… there was that one time I didn’t wear gloves…”

The doctor and I next spoke when I was at work. I don’t want to sound too melodramatic but I closed the door to the newsroom before I picked up his call and tried to get my head from a point where I was writing a story about fish to a point where I was ready to hear about my health.

“Well, Jesse,” he said. “I’ve got your HIV results here.” He seemed to take a torturous path to get to the point. “They did a really thorough work-up on them.” He explained all the ways my blood had been tested. “And, of course,” he added, almost as an after-thought, “you’re negative.”


We chatted a bit about when or if I should be re-tested and he apologized for leaving an unclear message. And that was that. (I also don’t have TB, despite daily exposure to it.)

It’s a reminder, I guess, of how we are all the same. Despite my preaching about the importance of testing these last two years, when it is my blood on the line, I get scared and nervous and uncertain just like everyone in Itipini.

July 13, 2009

Transkei Shout-Out

Often while I was in Itipini, I found myself wishing that someone would write a version of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed for the people of the world who live on less than $1 or $2 a day. Now, it looks like someone has. The book is Portfolios of the Poor. I haven't read it yet but NPR's Planet Money podcast interviewed the authors in a recent episode. A lot of what they talked about reminded me a lot of my experience with people in Itipini. The authors talk about a visit to a South African village near Mount Frere. That's a Transkeian town that is very close to Mthatha. Listen to the podcast and then go find the book. That's what I'm going to do.

July 3, 2009

“That baby looks so pale!”

I’ve been back in North America for ten days now. I endured the long plane flight back and then another series of flights to get to Alaska, where I am now. I’ll be happy not to get on a plane again any time soon.

The major adjustments have all been on relatively minor things. For instance, the size of the produce in the grocery store always gets me. The eggplant is the size of my forearm and the tomatoes are huge. On the other hand, the avocados are puny, compared to the softball-sized ones we ate in South Africa.

On one of my many flights, there was a young baby and as the family boarded all I could think was, “That baby looks so pale! I sure hope it is alright.” Then I realized the baby was white and was supposed to look the way it did. I guess that’s what happens when you work with a bunch of black babies for so long.

In South Africa, by virtue of my skin colour and perceived wealth, I was always the centre of attention wherever I went and regardless of the situation. I didn’t always like it. Now I am just part of the crowd, which has been a relatively easy adjustment to make.

I don’t find myself thinking about Itipini all that often. I don’t know if I should be relieved about that or feel kind of guilty. I’m back at work as a reporter, fishing has become an act of civil disobedience, there's a big parade tomorrow, and Sarah Palin just resigned (!) so there’s lots to keep me busy here.

July 1, 2009

Star Trek, Jairus, His Daughter, Miracles, and Mission

Here's the sermon I preached on Sunday at Christ Church Anglican in North Bay, Ontario. If you live in Nome, Alaska you might not want to read it as I'll be recycling several of its themes in sermons up north.

28 June 2009
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Let us pray.
Dear God. Why is it so easy for you to perform miracles and so difficult for us? And how can we be more like you? Amen.

Good morning. This is now the third time you’ve let me into this pulpit to preach about my experience as a missionary. I am tempted to begin as I always do, with the reminder that mission is not solely or even mostly about conversion, bopping people on the head with the Bible, and dunking them in the nearest puddle. Mission belongs God. And God’s mission has been the same throughout history - to reconcile people to each other and to God and in so doing build up the righteousness and completeness known by the ancient Hebrew word shalom. For the last two years, ending last Tuesday, I sought this reconciliation in a place called Itipini, a shantytown on the site of a former garbage dump in one of the poorest parts of South Africa. I’ll return in a moment to tell you more about the clinic and community center where I worked but for now I want to begin someplace else: in the movie theatre.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the new “Star Trek” movie. I have. Twice. What stayed with me after the last explosion was the dialogue, especially on board the space ship Enterprise. Have you ever noticed how Captain Kirk gives commands? “Alert the sick bay to prepare to receive injured crewmen.” “Fire on enemy ships!” “Energize!” “Enterprise, get us out of here!” or my favourite, “Mr. Scott, maximum warp!” He just says what he wants. And the shocking thing is that he gets it, every time. The injured crewmen are treated, the enemy ship is fired upon, Kirk is transported into or out of whatever danger zone he chooses, and the Enterprise does go into warp speed.

It reminds me a bit of how Jesus acts in this morning’s Gospel lesson. A sick woman needs healing? Jesus says, “Go in peace and be healed of your disease” and she is. A young girl has died? Jesus says, “Little girl, get up!” and the little girl does get up even though she had been thought dead. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is able to perform miracles simply by visiting and speaking to sick people.

Let me just say that after two years in South Africa where I knew countless sick people and watched helplessly as many of them died, despite my best efforts to prevent it, this Captain Kirk/Jesus Christ way of looking at the world seems improbable, impossible, out of touch, unrealistic, and, quite frankly, downright insensitive and rude. When I sat in a tumble-down shack next to people about to die, no matter what I said, no matter what I did, they were just never able to get up. Miracles are for Jesus. That connection between word and deed epitomized by Captain Kirk is imaginary and represents a point none of us will ever attain.

That’s what I thought at least. And then one day in South Africa I performed a miracle of my own.

I first met a woman named Pakama about this time last year. She was in her mid-30s and when we met she was very sick. Her HIV infection had turned into AIDS and she had tuberculosis as well. She had just started taking the life-saving anti-retroviral drugs that combat AIDS but for a variety of reasons she still needed to make numerous trips to a local clinic and the doctor to change her ARV prescription so it would be compatible with her TB treatment.

The trouble was that Pakama was quite weak. The clinic she needed to visit was a 15-minute walk away, uphill. Actually I should say, it was 15 minutes away for someone like me, a young healthy person unaffected by HIV. For Pakama, it was impossible. She couldn’t even make it to our clinic under her own steam and we were only 200 meters or so away from her home. When she talked, she had to take frequent pauses to catch her breath between words. She had severe gastro-intestinal problems, likely brought about by the HIV, so she couldn’t eat, which just made her weaker. By the time I met Pakama, I had known lots of other people in similar situations and virtually all of them had died. I didn’t have a lot of hope Pakama would be any different.

In Xhosa, the language that is spoken in Itipini, the word pakama means get up. It’s the imperative form of the word so it means “get up!” When I would find Pakama lying in her bed in her shack, I wanted nothing more to tell her what Jesus told Jairus’s daughter and what Bob Marley sang - “Get up, stand up.” Of course, she didn’t.

Over the course of several weeks, I drove Pakama and her mother to appointment after appointment, in a seemingly never-ending quest through the bureaucratic maze of the health-care system to change her ARV prescription. There were numerous hurdles but day by day we knocked them down, only to be confronted by new and different ones on the other side. Pakama’s health got worse. She could no longer walk at all and had to be lifted into the car and then wheeled around the clinic. I was hopeful but a gnawing voice in the back of head told me not to be surprised if I showed up one morning and learned she had died the night before.

I’ll spare you all the details but eventually Pakama got a new ARV prescription and began taking the right pills. We didn’t have to go to so many appointments anymore but she was still too weak to come to the clinic for her TB treatment so I visited her every day to give her that. Progress, if it was visible at all, came slowly. She spent most days under a pile of blankets on her bed, complaining about the cold.

It was about that point that I took a break from South Africa and came here last August and September. Pakama was on my mind while I travelled and when I returned to Itipini one of the first things I did was seek her out. I found her in her shack, standing up and doing the laundry. After I asked how she was, I had one question, “Uyakwazi ukuzihambela? Can you walk by yourself?”

She glanced away as if embarrassed to remember her previous condition. But she nodded slightly.

“Ndibonise,” I said. “Show me.”

And so on that warm October day, I made Pakama walk back and forth in front of her shack. It had been obvious to me from the moment I saw her doing her laundry that she was much better. But watching her sashay back and forth unassisted like that convinced me that she was well on the path to recovery. But I didn’t think of it as a miracle.

A few months after that, Pakama finished her eight months of TB treatment. As I filled out the paperwork to formally discharge her from treatment, I mentioned to Jenny, the missionary I worked with, that Pakama was finally done. Jenny smiled and looked at me. “You know,” she said. “You saved her life.”

Me? I had saved a life? Impossible! Saving a life is a miracle. I couldn’t do that! The idea made me uncomfortable and Jenny could tell so she dropped the subject. We didn’t mention it again.

I think what made me most uncomfortable about Jenny’s assertion that I had saved Pakama’s life is that it gave me too much credit. What did I do? I drove the car. I lifted Pakama in and out of the passenger seat and in and out of a wheelchair. Surely such simple acts can not lead to such tremendous results?

But as time passed, Pakama gained weight - always a good sign when you have AIDS - and kept improving. I moved on to other patients and she carried on with her treatment and the normal course of her life. As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think back to my early doubts that some morning I would arrive in Itipini and see the hearse in front of Pakama’s shack. And I had to acknowledge that somehow my efforts had helped prolong her life. There was never a “get up” moment like with Jairus’s daughter but a miracle had occurred. Somehow I had found myself accidentally stumbling along a path that Jesus intentionally followed in his ministry.

It’s tempting to look at the miracles in this morning’s Gospel passage as isolated events. But we shouldn’t ignore what precedes them. Immediately preceding the healing of Jairus’s daughter was a journey. Jesus’ ministry was not stationary. Gospel passages, including this morning’s, are always beginning with phrases like “Jesus had crossed to the other side” of the sea or “Then he went among the villages” or “He left that place.” Jesus was always on the move, ranging far and wide over the Holy Land.

I went on a journey with Pakama. It was an actual physical journey of countless car rides to and from clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, and so on. If there was anything I did, it was simply to help her find the way on this journey, to point out where she had to go when she didn’t know, to follow her when she knew the destination, and to help her along when she was too weak to go herself. Mission is a journey. Our task is to accompany our brothers and sisters in Christ on their journeys and let them shape ours.

So Jesus didn’t heal people, like Jairus’s daughter, from a distance. Before he spoke to them and healed them, he went to them. And Jesus’ decision to go to sick people wasn’t made, say, when he decided to go to another town or decided to cross the sea. Preceding the journey part of the healing was a much more basic - and also much more consequential - decision, the decision to be Incarnate among humans, to take flesh as one of us, and be Emmanuel, “God with us.” This is the obvious point but Jesus would never have healed anyone if he had stayed in heaven at the right hand of the Father. If I had stayed in North America, I never would have been able to accompany Pakama on the journey that led to her healing. I chose to share an existence with her.

Jesus’ command to Jairus’s daughter, “Get up” is a phrase that is heard time and again in the Bible, only there’s often another part added, “Get up and go.” God says this to Abraham, to Moses, to Isaiah, to Jonah, to name just a few of the people who learned they couldn’t serve God where they were but had to move someplace else to do it. Jesus’ healing words to Jairus’s daughter are as much meant for us as they are for the little girl he is healing on that particular day. We need to get up and go to the people who are different than us, to share an existence with them and begin a journey.

The healing of Pakama and the healing of Jairus’s daughter share common antecedents - a decision to share an existence, a decision to being a journey. The analogy begins to break down in the actual healing itself. That’s because unlike Jairus’s daughter, Pakama had an imperfect and sinful human accompanying her - me. There was never a moment when someone said to Pakama “be healed.” Healing does not come in a moment, as it did with Jairus’s daughter, but over a lengthy journey. Our job is to choose to take that journey - by faith and with thanksgiving - and pray that we are headed in the right direction.

I know that sometimes when I start talking about people living with HIV in a far corner of the world, it can seem pretty remote from North Bay and this congregation. It is. The tendency - and I’ve seen this in many other congregations - is to pat me on the back, congratulate me on the difference I’ve made, and then blithely forget everything else I’ve said.

But mission is not just for me. It is not just for the group of people who feel called to live overseas for a time. Not everyone - or even most people - is called to work with people with HIV. But all of us are called to journey towards righteousness and wholeness. Mission begins in baptism. The great South African Desmond Tutu says, “We are all missionaries or we are nothing.” By choosing to follow the Lord, we choose to commit ourselves to God’s mission of reconciliation, the seeking and building of shalom. Mission happens all over God’s creation because the needs of the world - mental, physical, spiritual, emotional - are equally obvious in North Bay and Itipini.

When we think about where God is calling us, let us begin by asking this question: how can I be incarnate among these people I want to serve? This may seem obvious - well, I live in North Bay and there are people suffering here. But is that really incarnation? Incarnation is going someplace and choosing to share an existence. Just because we know somebody is suffering doesn’t mean we’re sharing that existence. How do we enter more fully into a shared existence with the wild diversity of the members of the Body of Christ instead of retreating to our familiar groupings?

And after we share that existence, let us ask this: where is this journey going? Is it headed in a direction towards peace and righteousness? Or do we need to redirect its trajectory in a new direction? Martin Luther King Jr. often said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Indeed. But maybe we need to pull on that arc so it bends a bit quicker towards that righteousness we yearn for.

None of this is easy. Being incarnate among a people can be difficult. It’s worth noting that Jesus’ decision to be Incarnate led to his death on the cross, the same place many of Jesus’ followers ended up. Moses followed God’s call and ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years. Working on a dump gave me countless illnesses I would have avoided if I had never gone to Itipini. There are countless speed bumps and road blocks we encounter on our journeys, some brought about by the failings of the world and some by our own failings.

So incarnation brings risks, both from without and from within. But neither would Jesus have saved the world if he had never been Incarnate. And neither would I have experienced a transcendent journey in mission had I stayed here. Incarnation requires a certain willingness to open oneself to what may come, a willingness to be vulnerable, that is not common in this world of ours that seeks to control everything. But I think we’ll find that the benefits of the decision to be incarnate, to share an existence far outweigh the costs.

Jesus did not come to heal the world. If he did, he would have made a beeline for the leper colonies and gone to work. Jesus came to teach and to save. He left the healing up to us. It is our job to heal the brokenness of the world and work towards peace. That’s what mission is all about. It can seem like a tall order and it is. But miracles happen every day in this world. And they are performed by people like you and me. It’s simple and straightforward. It begins in the decision to get up and go, to go to where there is hurt and suffering in the world, and then to choose to accompany these brothers and sisters of ours on a journey into mission, poking and prodding that journey in the direction of righteousness and peace. We may not know where the path leads or when the journey will end. But it is our calling to set out on that journey nonetheless.


June 23, 2009

Lots of goodbyes

I’m writing this post from the Jo-burg airport, killing a long layover on my way out of South Africa for the last time. (For now.) It’s over.

I had to say goodbye to lots of people these last few days and weeks. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially when so many of them don’t quite understand just how far away it is I am going.

In lieu of any sustained reflection on the experience or the departure, I’m just going to post some pictures with a few captions to show you some of the people that have been in my life these past few years.

There was my Bible study group, which had a good-bye potluck for me.
Joe, Zama, and I were the only guys there that night.
There was Yoliswa, my fabulous Xhosa tutor these past two years. I’m still looking for conversation partners to keep my Xhosa up in the U.S.
There was my friend Adam, the only white medical student in Mthatha.
My missionary friend Matt came up for one last weekend in Mthatha. As luck would have it, when he left I had to push his car in my pajamas to pop the clutch.
There were professionals around Mthatha I’ve come to now in the course of my daily work. One is Sister Nellie, who is the driving force at Ngangalizwe Health Centre. After a relationship that was occasionally contentious, she was surprisingly magnanimous the last time I saw her.
There was also the deputy principal of Nozuko High School, who has been on me as long as I’ve known him to help him raise money to build a hall at the school so they can host events and generate income for the school. He works so hard with so little reward. I happened to show up during a parents’ meeting to vote on new members of the parents’ advisory board. He wanted me to run for the board and didn’t seem to understand that I was telling him I was leaving. He at least insisted I vote. I have never cast a less-informed ballot.
In Itipini, I had time to lead more round of morning prayers with the pre-school children.
Then I set out to visit all the many people in Itipini who have shaped my life, like the Nophondo clan that was busy washing their clothes when I went to see them…
...and the crowd in one of the shebeens
...and a former TB patient…
...and the daughter of a staff member who died while I’ve been in Itipini…
...and a woman whose name I love to say, Nomadamazana Malangeni, who is happily lost in a mental fog most days...
...and a current TB patient, who tried to hide his alcohol behind his foot and his cigarette in his hand when he saw me. (You can see the smoke coming from his hand.)…
...and Johnson, one of our watchmen…
...and Zanemvula, one of the few older men in Itipini I genuinely like and respect. I was so touched when his daughter died suddenly last year. As he is one of the taller people in Itipini, I gave him all the clothes I had decided to leave behind. I was a bit embarrassed I had three boxes worth of pants, shirts, sweaters, shoes, and much more to give away and my luggage was still way over weight. He liked it though…
...and then finally the staff, who gathered for a goodbye on my last afternoon.
I’m using the time in the airport to polish off a few more posts I’ve been meaning to write for a while so keep scrolling down to read more about these last few days in Itipini.

“She turned me into a newt.”

The story I told recently about the young man who burned down the shack of one of our staff members because he thought she was a witch and had cast a spell on his girlfriend got me thinking about witches and witchcraft. We dismiss that sort of thing in the rich world but, as this incident shows, it is a very real and salient consideration in places like Itipini. I started asking around among my cultural interpreters and here’s some of what I learned.

One cultural interpreter sighed when I asked her about the situation and explained that young men are always blaming old women for their problems and doing so with the language of witchcraft. One other young man in Itipini who suffers from severe alcohol- and drug-induced dementia even blames his mother for his troubles but has said he won’t harm her because he loves her.

In my limited knowledge of witchcraft, which, as the title of this post indicates, stems mainly from one scene in a Monty Python movie, it seems that it is always the old women who get the blame so this news didn’t strike me as unusual. What was interesting is that it is the young men in Itipini making the accusations. I wonder if this has anything to do with how relatively powerless the young men are. They can’t find steady jobs, they can’t get married, and they aren’t educated so they can’t get positions of (legal) power in society. In contrast, the women, especially the older women, are doing all the work that keeps society functioning - raising the grandchildren and great-grandchildren produced by these young men, working long hours at informal jobs to keep the young men fed so they can spend their money on alcohol, and so much else that keeps everything ticking along. It struck me as one more indicator that a major need in South Africa is a re-conceptualization of masculinity and what it means to be a man. (As I’ve noted before, that’s not my job.)

One cultural interpreter explained that she believed that a person could acquire HIV in their sleep, independent of sex or bodily-fluid transmission, if someone else cast a spell on them. This woman is otherwise well-spoken, intelligent, and well-educated on HIV, which she has. She is also devoutly Christian and saw no apparent contradiction in her beliefs. When I mentioned this conversation to another friend in Mthatha, he noted that it is another reminder that HIV is not just a medical condition but also a spiritual one. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before.

What was most stunning to me, however, was what I learned about how beliefs in witchcraft affect our work in Itipini. Two of our staff are responsible for what is loosely called “home-based care.” When people live alone and are too sick to take care of themselves, these two older women bring them food to help them back to health. This seems like a perfectly harmless and uncontroversial thing. Two jobs are created and sick people get the nutritional assistance they need. That is about the amount of intellectual energy I’ve put into thinking about this program.

So it came as something of a shock to me when, in conversation about witches, one of my cultural interpreters said, “You know, people don’t like it when Elsie and Mrs. Nani [our two staff] bring them food. They think it is doctored and they don’t want to eat it because they think it is making them sick.” She stressed that not everyone thought this way but even if some people think like that, it is a major obstacle to the success of home-based care. Sick people need the food so the medicine for say, HIV or TB, can be effective. Whatever the reason, if they won’t eat it then that’s a problem.

But how do you solve it? Is it the fault of our two staff members that they are looked upon with suspicion? Should we take a job away from two responsible and hard-working staff because of the effect they have on the success of the program? How do we convince sick people to eat the food they need, regardless of where it comes from?

I often talk about the obstacles posed by cultural differences but I realize I don’t always specify what I mean by the phrase. This is one of many examples of the obstacles that are a constant in cross-cultural work.

More obstacles

I found myself thinking a lot in these last few weeks about the many obstacles to education that students in Itipini face. It’s June so that means it is time for mid-term exams, which stretch over three weeks and give students some time off during the course of the school day. That, in turn, meant I saw them more frequently than normal during the day.

One student, Siziwe, lives with her family in a shack just above the clinic. On a few occasions, I had to head that way for other reasons and poked my head in to say hello.

One time I found her warming her hands over the dying ember's of the morning's fire.
Another time, I found her lying in her sister’s bed, bundled up in a blanket in the middle of the morning.
A third time, I found her sitting in the sun with her sister, her sister’s child, and a neighbour’s baby.
Each time I saw her, I asked when her next exam was. But I didn’t quite know how to ask the question that was most pressing: how come you’re lying in bed when you should be studying?

On one trip, I asked Siziwe to show me her bed and she pointed to this tiny thing, which she shares with her younger brother.
She can’t sleep very well there. I wondered if that had something to do with the answer to my question. If she can’t sleep well at night, perhaps she needs to spend time during the day catching up on that sleep. And if she’s always cold because there’s no insulation in the shack and there’s not enough blankets, then maybe she needs to spend time during the day warming up. (No one ever believes me when I tell them this but it gets quite cold here during the winter, especially at night.)

I remember how much I studied for exams in high school and college. But I never realized that what allowed me to spend so much time on studying were things I took for granted, like a comfortable bed, thick walls, and a working furnace, among much else.