October 31, 2007

If You Build It, They Will Read

I was going to wait until I had a chance to write more before posting these pictures but I was so pleased with them I couldn't hold off. These children came into Itipini's new library today, sat down, and didn't move for quite some time.

More Teaching

Not content with teaching the children to sing or to make funny faces, I have decided to teach the babies to walk.

October 29, 2007

A Fine Romance

The missionary is not traditionally seen as a “sexy” figure and I don’t quite know how to say this but… the young mothers and young women who come into the clinic are definitely flirting with me.

Of course, pretty much everything they say is in Xhosa. But it turns out that more than just smiles and thumbs-up are universal. So too are embarrassed giggles, blushing faces, and shy smiles, it seems. There’s also the occasional question in halting English – “What is your name?” or “How old are you?” – followed by that universal body language.

Now in English, I’d be my usual debonair and suave self (…) but in Xhosa… well, all I can really manage is, “hello, how are you, I’m fine” or “my name is Jesse.” I can also ask “what is your name?” but I have ask about a dozen times before I get it and I’m only asking so I can find their medical records. So I just sort of return the smile and play with their babies, which only excites more giggles and whispers. (As if they have to whisper – it’s not like I can understand them anyway.) Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly chivalrous, I’ll start speaking to everyone in French (that mostly just consists of calling everyone “mademoiselle” and saying “oui” a lot) I guess just to prove I can speak another language (as if they can tell it’s a different language). When I’m feeling mischievous and have to weigh a patient, I’ll secretly step on the scale or hold onto the weight to make them seem heavier than they are. But I’ve found a woman’s weight doesn’t hold quite the same existential importance here as it does in the U.S. and the women just look at me and wonder why it’s taking so long for me to weigh them.

It’s sobering when I look at their medical records to see just how much these young women, who are often several years younger than me, have experienced in their lives so far. They are experiences – pregnancy, assault, and, of course, HIV – that have never even touched my life. And yet we’re not all that different, really, just people more or less in the same age bracket playing more or less the same games people our age play all over the world.

I like to think I have fairly “enlightened” views on gender relations and have tried to demonstrate that in Itipini by, for instance, taking on traditional female roles, like getting the water for the clinic and learning to carrying sacks of corn meal on my head. And I’m realizing that my interactions with the young women in the clinic are another opportunity to do the same. I can treat their babies with the love and attention they may not receive from their fathers. I can treat the young women themselves with dignity and respect they may not receive from other males my age. I’ve known generally that in many poor communities there is a dearth of positive male role models. But I often thought such role modeling gifts as I have were primarily for the children. I didn’t realize it could apply to their mothers as well. Being a smiling and welcoming male face may not solve a lot of their problems but it’s something I can do pretty easily.


When I like to be pretentious, one of my favorite words to use is reify or reification. The word comes from the Latin word res, which literally means “thing” or “situation” and survives in English in, for instance, the word republic, which comes from the Latin phrase res publica meaning “the public thing.” (I may not always be pretentious but I’m always pedantic.) So reify means something like “to make thing-like,” i.e. to become real.

I mention all this because the word reification has been continually popping into my head as a way to describe my experience in Itipini so far. I have said frequently that I am learning a lot from working in Itipini every day but it is probably more fair to say the experience in Itipini is reifying what I already know. For instance, I knew before I arrived here that many people in the world didn’t have enough food to eat. But it is only now that I can attach particular names and faces to that bit of knowledge. I knew that HIV was endemic in South Africa and particularly affected women but it is only now that I can see the wide variety of people living with HIV and see how it affects the context and fabric of relationships in this country. I was familiar before coming here with the common stereotype of flies landing on poor African children, who are so accustomed to unsanitary conditions they do nothing to shoo the flies away. But now I can see it happening with particular flies and, more importantly, particular African children. (And I see it happening to me – and I too am getting accustomed to it and resigned to it.)

Clearly, reification deepens learning and understanding. When I speak with hungry people, I can get a sense of some of their background that has led them to be without food, stories that don’t come across in statistics. When I make friends with people who are HIV-positive, I can see how they continue to lead their lives in a dignified and proud way despite their diagnosis.

Sometimes reification and learning happen simultaneously. I must confess that one part of African life I knew very little about before moving here was school fees and just how much it costs to send children for what would be free education in the U.S. or Canada. Now, when I speak to parents they tell me just how much it costs them to send their children to get an education so that I can’t think of the issue of school fees without thinking of these particular families.

I’ve been reading some of Desmond Tutu’s sermons and writings lately. In his sermon at Steve Biko’s funeral, he talks about how reconciliation needs to happen between true persons who “assert their own personhood and acknowledge and respect that of others.” (This is a lot like a phrase I have heard frequently that we must strive to see the face of Jesus in others and have others see the face of Jesus in us.) In Tutu’s context, he was saying that peace would only come when Blacks respected themselves as Blacks but also acknowledged the contributions of Whites and vice versa. But in my context, of rich-world/poor-world relations, I think it means more that I have to see beyond statistics and stereotypes I am far too familiar with and actually see the people who are inhabiting those statistics and providing the root of the stereotypes. Because it is only then, when I see that the people I need to be reconciled to are true people with needs and concerns much like my own but expressed in a unique context, that I might be able to take some steps towards the reconciliation I am supposed to help bring about.

October 25, 2007

The Children of Itipini

October 23, 2007

Extra Storage Space

Mthatha, as I’ve noted before, has a definite reputation among other South Africans and, particularly, tourists. Generally speaking, it is looked upon as a crime-ridden city and I’ve been advised never to stop for a red light at night because I might be car-jacked. But up until last Thursday, I’d found the reality to be quite different and felt safe around the downtown area; out of place and different to be sure, but safe nonetheless.
I still feel safe but I have a better idea of where Mthatha’s reputation comes from. Last Thursday afternoon, in the middle of a very busy downtown, we returned to the volunteer car to discover some folks had decided our little car needed a bit more storage space and so had helpfully removed our stereo. There was nothing else loose in the car and the steering wheel had a lock on it so the car was fine. (I don’t know what happened to the much-vaunted security system, though). I hope someone else finds a stereo that gets poor reception, a tape player that makes a big clacking noise every time it plays a tape, and a clock that can’t keep time more useful than I did.

October 22, 2007

At Work

One of my less frustrating moments...


This little girl’s name is Siphisihle (that’s Xhosa for “beautiful gift”). She has tuberculosis and needs to take drugs every day. We keep them at the clinic so in an ideal world she would stop at the clinic every morning on the way to pre-school, I’d mash up the pills for her, mix them with a multi-vitamin syrup, watch her drink it, and then give her a little candy and send her on her way. But for several weeks her attendance was sporadic at best and she was missing several days of her pills.

So I found out where she lives and tramped through the mud and the garbage to get her and bring her to the clinic. Her home is pitiful and the conditions exceed description. Her mother spends her time in town doing who knows what and her 12-year old sister is in charge of the household. Siphisihle and her three siblings need a lot more than a couple of pills a day. But on the theory that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” I returned every day for a week and we walked hand-in-hand through the huts to the clinic.

One day last week I was shocked to see Siphisihle show up in the clinic all by herself. And the next day she did the same. And the day after that. And the day after that. It doesn’t solve all her problems but it’s a start.

October 18, 2007


Sometimes I say to myself, “Gee, I’ve got a great job. Every day I can play with children.” And it’s true. The pre-school children at Itipini are an ever-present part of my day and for someone like me, who has always enjoyed the joy and vitality that children bring to their surroundings, there’s a lot to love about what I get to do on a daily basis.

But I’ve been surprised lately that I’m experiencing a fair bit of frustration in my interactions with the children and only a very small bit of it is due to the language barrier. The major part of my frustration centres on dealing with hordes of children who are desperate from some part of me. When I wander over to where they are (or they come find me), I am besieged by children doing anything to get my attention. This ranges from the cute and endearing, like shouting my name, singing whatever song I’ve just been teaching, mimicking me playing the guitar, or smiling shyly at me, to the aggravating and painful, like hitting me, jumping on me, using my shirt to scale me like a rock face, and, my least favourite, tugging my hair, sometimes so hard it jerks my head back. (They make pre-school children tough and strong here.)

It is understandable to me that these children want attention from a grown-up figure. Many are so thoroughly ignored by their parents, relatives, and anyone and everyone else that they’re desperate for anything they can get. And I really sympathize with them. They have been given so little to begin with and if I can build them up a little bit just by spending time with them I want to. But it’s hard to do that when there are 20 or 30 children swarming around you. What I want is to see them in groups of two or three at a time and get to know them that way.

The situation probably isn’t helped by the fact that I’ve developed several “favourites.” I have plenty of experience as a camp counselor and know that playing favourites is just a recipe for disaster. But there are a handful of children who are so gifted and talented and capable and amazing – and it all shines right through their circumstances – that it’s impossible not to want to get to know them better. So when I seek those four or five out, the other children clamber around and want a little piece of what the four or five are getting.

My frustration with this situation has been building lately. I’ve learned the Xhosa word for “stop” (“ima”) and try to use it when my hair is pulled or I’m punched particularly hard. But when I try to speak to one particular child about their behaviour in my “stern voice” (something that has always been more comical than effective for me), they just laugh and smile and ignore me so happy to finally be getting the very attention they crave. And in the meantime five other children are punching and tugging at me.

In all of this, though, I try to keep in mind that the children are not the ones I need to be directing my aggravation at. There are larger targets, like the parents and the broader community and the economic circumstances, that are the real source of my frustration.


This past weekend was Mthatha’s annual festival, sponsored by the Rotary Club. It had all the hallmarks of something I was familiar with – people trying to sell you gadgets you don’t need, halls of mirrors, rides, lots of food, and so forth. In fact, at several points, my friends and I commented to each other that it didn’t feel like Mthatha at all.
But then we ended up in the beer tent and I learned things were a bit different than in the U.S. First off, there was rugby on the T.V. Second, the bar was shut down and when we asked why, one of the men in charge said, “Something is out of order with our license” – I think they had forgot to apply in time – “so we’ve got a couple of people down at the office right now seeing how big a bribe it’ll take to get everything sorted out.”

Not perhaps a strategy the Nome Rotary Club would have adopted to sort things out.

October 15, 2007

Pictures of Mthatha

I've been meaning to give you a sense of Mthatha for a while but only recently ended up downtown with my camera. These shots hardly do Mthatha justice, however, as they were taken on a Saturday so it was far less busy than the weekdays when I normally have to navigate it.

Home Sweet Home

Last Thursday, I took a moderately epic journey around Mthatha with our after-school program coordinator, Mkuseli (UM-coo-sell-i), dropping a few people off and mostly searching for various items for his programs and my library. I really like Mkuseli (he has a great smile but gets deadly serious when you ask to take his picture) and towards the end of the trip, I asked him to show me the Anglican church he goes to because someday we plan on going together.

After we saw the church, he insisted on taking me to his home, which was nearby. I wish I had my camera with me, both to show you what it was like but also to capture what my face looked like when I saw it. He and his wife live in a mud-brick house that is probably 10 feet by 10 feet. In that space, they cook, clean, sleep, and do everything else people normally do in their homes. I could barely move anywhere as it was so cramped.

I was first struck by how proud Mkuseli was of his home. A man’s home truly is, I guess, his castle and he showed me the various features of the house and the mementoes crammed here and there (it didn’t take long).

I was then struck by the fact that I probably have six times as much floor space as Mkuseli does, running water and electricity (most of the time), and a bathroom I don’t have to leave the house to get to. And I live all alone and Mkuseli’s daughter right now lives with a relative because there isn’t enough space for her. And Mkuseli has a full-time job, though his wife hasn’t been able to find work.

My stipend is rather small by American standards but it’s still more than twice what Mkuseli makes and I don’t even have to pay rent. Next year, when his daughter gets old enough, Mkuseli is going to have come up with the money for her school fees, books, uniform, and so on, which amounts to about 15-percent of his monthly salary.

October 10, 2007


I have always loved books; one of my first tasks upon arriving in Mthatha was to borrow and assemble as many as possible from diverse sources so I could have a full bookshelf. I intend to read all of them, of course, but sometimes it’s just nice to have a bunch of books around keeping watch over me.

Now, I’m trying to start a library in Itipini. Here’s what I’ve got to work with.

A donated box of books And a corner of our after-school program container, that with a little love I might be able to transform into something a bit more library-esque.
I’m hopeful that people will borrow and then return books (instead, of say, using them for firewood) and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to find books that children whose knowledge of English is very minimal will be able to enjoy.

What do you know?

Today, this young woman came into the clinic and said she needed some more clothes for her baby. She’s 18-years old and gave birth in January. I offered to take her to our store-room and help her find some clothes.

“Help” might be too strong of a word because when it comes to child-rearing I am worse than useless. I kept picking out clothes and showing them to her and she would dismiss them, saying either “too big,” “too small,” or “girl.” The last one was fairly emphatic as her child is, apparently, male. I was thankful she knew at least this much English. Of the six or seven pieces of clothing she ultimately took, I think I had found one.

It got me thinking that by most standards, I would be considered better educated than her. I have been in school longer, have more degrees, and can at the drop of a hat, if need be, lecture on the reasons North Korea is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. At the age of 18, I could tell you all about the history of Europe, translate parts of Virgil’s Aeneid, or perform differential calculus. (Incidentally, none of that knowledge is directly useful to my current occupation.) Yet, despite (or because of) all that education, I can’t even tell a male baby from a female baby. And I’m apparently worthless when it comes to picking out clothes.

The people of Itipini would not be considered book-smart by anyone but I still have so much to learn from them.

There's the baby - androgynous wouldn't you agree?


I’m used to churches being seen as places of refuge but I was still a bit surprised to see just what was taking refuge in a church doorway during a rainstorm this afternoon.

October 8, 2007

“Tata wam”

This young child and I have a favourite game we play together. He runs at me at full speed and I use the momentum to fling him up in the air and catch him. When we’re both tired he’ll sit on my lap and we’ll talk as best we can, which basically consists of him talking a mile a minute in Xhosa and me trying to pick up from his hand-motions what he’s saying. Today he said to me, “Tata wam,” which means “You’re my father.” Heart-breaking, they are.

It’s Simpler Than It Seems

On Friday, I attended for the first time a Bible study sporadically held at Itipini that is primarily for young teenage girls and mothers, roughly aged 12 to 16. I am a bit skeptical of what I can offer but the volunteer who leads it has been insistent I attend and I figured I should do at least one thing that is stereotypically associated with missionaries, though I can’t proselytize very well in Xhosa (or English, for that matter).

We read the story of the healing of Naaman (II Kings 5 or Ookumkani II in my Xhosa Bible or Izibhalo Ezingcwele). One part that struck me was Naaman’s disbelief that he could be healed by something as easy bathing seven times in the River Jordan. He expected a little more theatrics from Elisha.

It occurred to me as I was reading that I might be in a similar position. I thought this missionary business would involve a lot more hard work that would produce tangible accomplishments I could point to. But as I’ve been explaining, it’s quite a lot different. Who I am continues to matter more than what I do (even as I do more things more regularly). In a sense, it’s easier than I thought; all I have to do is be a loving and gracious person with the people I meet. (Perhaps I should add it is theoretically easier but practically harder; my fallen nature keeps getting in the way.)

On Friday, for instance, I made it a point to spend time with a young girl in the pre-school. She is about six, though looks much younger and frailer, no doubt partly due to her tuberculosis. On Thursday night, her father threw her, her siblings, and her mother out of their shack in a drunken rage. Her mother isn’t exactly an angel, either. She spends most of her time in downtown Mthatha, ignoring her three children and letting them take care of each other, which to judge by how dirty and hungry they always are, they can’t do all that well. It is rare that this young girl actually makes it the pre-school or to the clinic to take her TB medicine on her own.

So when Robert, the other male volunteer, and I saw her on Friday, we were delighted and though we didn’t explicitly talk about it, I think we both realized the importance of being a positive male presence in this young girl’s life at this particular moment. Of course, since I can’t speak with her, my attention mostly consisted of getting her to make faces with me, making sure she ate lunch, splashing her with water when it got hot, and letting her sit on my lap. And I think that’s all right. Sometimes God doesn’t need fiery displays to show Godself at work.

A "Tour" of the Itpini Clinic

Inspired by my fellow missionary Kate, I thought a description of the clinic where I spend most of my working days might be appropriate.

The clinic is a rectangle, probably ten feet across by twenty feet long, with a low sloping roof, and no power or running water. When you walk in the door, on the right is a bench where the patients wait to be seen and the scale we use to weigh patients, mostly TB and HIV positive patients.

Along the wall to the left are our medical records. All patients have a 5 by 8 inch index card on which we record the date they visited, what their ailment was, and what the treatment was. Some patients have several index cards, stapled together, that might contain ten or twelve years of their medical history. If a patient has a sexually transmitted infection, is receiving birth control from us, has TB, is an infant, or any of a variety of other factors, they get filed – with more paperwork – in various other places.

After the medical records along this wall is a storage cabinet and then there’s one of our examination tables. There are curtains that can be used but mostly the patients sit down and tell the nurse their problems without much privacy. This is where the bulk of the clinic work happens and our two nurses – Jenny and Dorothy – see up to 60 patients a day between them.

On the back wall of the clinic is more storage, all carefully labeled and organized by Jenny. There are all kinds of pills, pregnancy tests, HIV tests, birth control, emergency response tools (like suction and oxygen), TB meds, and so on and so forth.

Working back along the far long wall is another examination table and then our long counter that is sort of my home base. After the nurse writes the ailment and treatment on the index card, it comes to me or another volunteer, where I put the information into our daily log of patient visits and meds distributed. Also on this counter are the pill boxes for TB patients, who stop by once a day (in an ideal world) to take their pills. We also have a variety of interesting books here, including several on HIV/AIDS, the Xhosa language, the Bible, and, for a good measure, a copy of the South African constitution, just to be sure, I guess, exactly what rights (e.g. to education, health, job) it guarantees that our patients our missing out on. Also on this counter are the industrial-size bottles of cough syrup, laxatives, calamine lotion, and so on we hand out on a daily basis. Then we’re back to the scale and the wall nearest the door.

Running down the middle of the clinic is a low table that stores important bandages, gloves, and so on. It also has our water supply, a large bucket we fill up every morning and wash our hands with, give to our patients to take pills, and so on. At the end of this table is a handy little cart with more bandaging material that provides a third work area between the two exam tables and where I often squeeze between the two nurses and bandage the burns and cuts people walk in with all the time.
Our bandaging cart.

October 3, 2007

Give Me Whatever He's Drinking

I brought my guitar to Itipini yesterday to teach our choir director a song or two. He is a great singer and quickly picked up “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “Down by the Riverside,” among a couple other of my favourites. It was so much fun because he could sing some beautiful harmonies and got so excited at the possibilities of combining “Swing Low” and “When the Saints.” As we were singing, we attracted a crowd of people waiting to get into the clinic and waiting for food who were interested in what was going on.

Since I can’t resist a crowd, I ambled outside and started playing, encouraging as many of the maybe 50 people to join in with me as possible. I wasn’t all that successful as most people preferred to stand and stare but a small handful of women joined in the singing and dancing and even asked me to repeat the words so they could learn them as well, which they did. As is my wont, I was dancing and jiving away.

It was very hot and I was sweating profusely, mostly due to my rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” (by the end of this year, I’m going to be putting Chuck Berry and Michael J. Fox to shame). So I asked for some water, using the Xhosa word I had only recently learned. “Amanzi,” I said and someone went to get a cup. I indicated I wanted my water bottle but the message was lost in translation and I ultimately went and got my water bottle myself.

Several of the women I had been singing and dancing with were trying to ask me a question and I finally figured out they wanted to know what I was drinking. “Coke?” they said. They used some other words I didn’t understand. “Amanzi,” I said, so pleased I knew the word, and indicated the bottle. I assumed they understood because they gave me a sort of knowing nod and then asked if they could drink out of the bottle as well. I’m democratic with my water bottle and gladly handed it over, from which they drank heartily (leaving me with only a small amount for the remaining three hours in the hot sun).

Anyway, that moment ended and I moved on to other tasks, quietly content that I had done more in that one half-hour to integrate myself into the community than I had in several previous weeks combined.

It was only as we were driving away from Itipini that one of our pre-school teachers, who speaks Xhosa and English fluently, asked me what I had been drinking and I again said, “Amanzi.” She then told that all the women were convinced I was drunk when I had been playing. They wanted to drink from my water bottle because they were convinced it had alcohol in it. That, to their minds, was the only possible explanation for my singing and dancing. I hope this obvious but it really and truly only was water in the bottle.

(In response to the pre-school teacher’s comments, I asked our Xhosa nurse, “Does Jenny treat patients who come into the clinic drunk?” “No,” she said. “But Jenny lets me come into the clinic so what does that mean?” “You’re not drunk,” said Dorothy, our nurse. Pleased with this Socratic bit of reasoning, I turned to the pre-school teacher and then heard Dorothy say, “But Jenny doesn’t treat you…”)

On the plus side, when the pre-school children see me now they start strumming an imaginary guitar and singing “O When the Saints.”

October 1, 2007

I'm Finally Teaching the Kids Something... And They're Learning!

Q & A

I mentioned in an earlier post that Miss Coyne’s second-grade class in Charleston, South Carolina is using this web site to learn more about Africa. I got a list of questions from them the other day about life here and thought other people might be interested in the answers too.

Can the kudu hurt you with its horns? Have you fallen out of the hammock yet?
I really wish I knew more about kudus than I do. They’re so neat. But they only eat plants so I don’t know why they’d want to hurt you. But the horns must be there for something. Maybe they’re for fighting other kudu?

As for the hammock, I’ve only been in one once while in South Africa and that was at a hostel. And no, I did not fall out. I only stayed in it long enough to take the picture and then was off to the beach.

(Before I left North America, I fantasized about getting a hammock when I got to South Africa and passing hot summer Saturdays reading in it. Now that I’m here, I’ve got a couple of great trees outside my house and am looking all over for a hammock for them. But they are not to be found in Mthatha.)

Can elephants beat up the kudus?
Elephants and kudus both only eat plants so unless they both came across the same leaf at the same time I don’t think they’d ever fight. But I’d put my money on the elephant if they did.

Are the elephants big?
Yes, elephants are rather large and I saw all kinds, from young, little guys to older, big ones. I wouldn’t want to make one angry at me.

Did you shoot any kudu bulls at the National Park? Have you been in a kayak there?
I don’t hunt and I’m pretty sure you can’t shoot the animals in the park. In fact, Addo National Park was started to save the elephants after many of them had been killed in the early part of the 20th century. But the horns of kudu are used to make musical instruments so somebody must kill them at some point.

I haven’t been kayaking yet in South Africa, though I’d love to. There’s some great ocean around here.

Were the bicycles in the sculpture real?
No, the bicycles in the sculpture were really just metal pipes in the shape of bicycles. You couldn’t even sit on them because they didn’t have real seats.

Are the elephants related to the kudus?
I studied political theory and ancient civilizations in school so I don’t know a thing about this question. I’d say probably not as kudu are related to antelope and elephants are, well, not. They both have four legs, though.

What do they use to guard your car?
When a parking attendant offers to look after my car, that is really all they do – look at it. But I’m not even really sure they do that. I think they wander around and look out for when I come out of the store and then come back and ask for some money. If I pay them before I get in the car, they’ll then walk away. But if I don’t, they’ll help me back out of the parking space and then come over to the window and ask for the money.

The insurance company, however, demands that the car have an alarm, which is really quite complex and I set it off myself several times a day. The car won’t turn on unless I press a special button on the key ring. Then, once the car is started I have to press a secret button hidden somewhere in the car or else the car will stop and won’t re-start. I also have to press this secret button after every time a car door is opened or I stall and have to re-start the car. That way, if I get carjacked and someone pulls me out of the car, they won’t be able to drive very far because the car will just stop. I’m sure it all makes sense to someone but to me it’s just a confusing series of beeps and sirens. For good measure, I also have one of those iron locks that you put across the steering wheel when you park.

Are the elephants fat?
No, not really. In fact, I was impressed at how muscular they look. Those trunks could do some damage.

How high was the hammock? I would like to sit and read there too. Maybe Miss Coyne will put a hammock up in our classroom!
The hammock was only a foot or two off the ground but I just love swaying in them. Did you know sailors used to sleep in hammocks? Wouldn’t that be neat? (Alright, maybe only for one night.) But if she put one up in the classroom, you might fall asleep!

What type of cars are there?
My car, the VW Citi, as it is called, has to be one of the best-selling cars in this part of South Africa. They are everywhere. Even the police drive them. For the most part, I am surprised at how small the cars are here. All the big trucks and SUVS and minivans that are everywhere on American roads are nowhere in sight here. The car makes are different here, too. There are a lot of European models, like Renault and Peugeot that you don’t see often in the U.S. And I haven’t seen any American models at all, like Ford or Dodge. But there are plenty of Asian cars, like Toyota and Nissan.

Does the food look like noodles? It did to me! Do they believe in ghosts? In Charleston, we believe there are spirits in the old houses!
I haven’t seen any noodles but I do see a lot of bread. Everyone eats so much of it and it is very tasty. The Atkin’s diet would never work.

I’m sure some people believe in ghosts but I haven’t talked to anyone about it. Some people also believe in witchcraft. I met a woman once who had traveled a long way just to visit a woman who she thought could remove a spell she thought had been put on her and was causing a lot of bad luck.

Do the hammocks look like canoes?
Not really, but they can be as hard to get in and out of as a canoe!

When can you come visit us? You can stay at my house. I have good food!
You should come visit me. The food here is great!


This morning an older woman came into the clinic to return a crutch her husband had borrowed a few weeks back. We were a bit puzzled, as the patient had been very weak and it didn’t seem likely he’d be off the crutch by now. She was speaking in Xhosa and I had only been able to gather she wanted to return the crutch by her motions.

When I checked her husband’s record, I realized he needed to do another TB test and so we prepared some specimen pots to give to her to give to him. As we were doing this, she started speaking very animatedly in Xhosa and was obviously trying to convey something important. Robert, another volunteer, and I were trying to communicate the importance of the pots to her and laughing at the whole situation as little to no information was being transmitted in either direction.

Finally, in frustration, Robert asked our Xhosa nurse Dorothy what the woman was saying and Dorothy said, “She’s saying, ‘He’s late.’” Robert and I were a bit puzzled so we asked what that meant. “He died on Saturday,” Dorothy said. “That’s why she’s returning the crutch.”

That cut that laughter short.

New Home

For a variety of reasons, I have moved to another place on the Bedford Hospital campus and am now settling into a rondeval, a traditional circular South African hut made out of mud bricks and a thatched roof. Attached is a small kitchen and bathroom. My main room is about 15 feet in diameter, which is plenty of room for a double bed, desk, couch, and “dining room” table. One of the best things about this place is the ceiling is very high, with plenty of space for me to practice my juggling and not worry about taking out a light. I love it here and am looking forward to making this my home for the next year.

From the outside...

The leopard-print bedspread came with the place. It's not mine, I swear!

Maybe your picture is on my clothesline. Books - all borrowed.

View from my bed.


This Episcopal missionary finally went to an Anglican service in Mthatha for the first time this past Sunday. I went to the English service at the Anglican cathedral downtown. Note the dedication: it’s at 7:30 in the morning! People wake up early here but this struck me as a little extreme. I thought the congregation would be other native English speakers but I was the only white person there and there was only one Indian. You have to bring your own prayer book and hymnal and I had the former, which I recently purchased, but not the latter. I was pleased to see the liturgy is very similar to the American service I know practically by heart. The other Sunday service is at 9:30 and is in Xhosa and is, I have heard, three hours long. I’m not sure I’m ready to chance that yet but someday I shall.

The real excitement of the day church-wise (and any other way) was the evening confirmation service I went to. I saw it advertised in the morning’s bulletin and thought it would be a neat way to see the bishop of Mthatha who I ultimately work for (temporally, at least). Though I had been warned, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the trappings attached to the African episcopacy. It really is as if the bishop is a prince and he is treated with such amazing deference. This particular bishop – the Rt. Rev. Dr. S.T. Mzamane – combined the trappings of the office with a liturgical informality I appreciated. It’s somehow reassuring that after people have bowed and scraped to the bishop and he’s shaken the incense all around, he can look up and say, “What hymn are we on?” or “Should we say or sing the Nicene Creed?” He spoke directly to the newly-confirmed and I was impressed that he spoke directly about HIV/AIDS, though his message, abstinence only, struck me as correct but wishful thinking.

What I wasn’t expecting at the confirmation service was that a lot of it was in Xhosa. I naively assumed otherwise when I made plans to go and was rudely awakened when I heard the opening sentences. But it turned into a really neat experience as I felt like I was a Catholic before Vatican II where I had the sense something important was going on but I couldn’t quite grasp the particulars. It made me realize, though, how important the ritualistic high church “smells and bells” and robes are. The incense and choreographed movements and candles and crosses and colourful robes are all an indication that this event is actually quite important and are a way for people who don’t speak the language to access and understand some of what is going on. Thankfully, the sermon and confirmation was in English.