February 28, 2008

Fun in the Sun

We were donated a big (4-feet in diameter) beach ball today and I immediately set about blowing it up. Half-hour later, light-headed and dizzy, I set out to find some children to play with.

When there’s broken glass everywhere, a beach ball has a pretty short life span but while it lasted, fun was had by all.

February 26, 2008

“Two hundred sixty two thousand, eight hundred minutes, how do you measure, measure…

…six months?”

Here’s how I measure six months in Itipini. On my first day there last August, a new TB patient started the 6-month anti-TB treatment course. Yesterday, he finished, cured.

How quickly time flies!

The Ever-Present Reality

A few weeks back, I rented the movie Notes on a Scandal and was struck by something the elderly spinster character played by Judi Dench says: “She thinks she’s lonely. She doesn’t know what loneliness is, what it is like to plan a whole weekend around a trip to the laundrette.” Replace laundrette with Internet café and you’ve got a statement that applies pretty well to me, too. Indeed, to be perfectly honest, one reason I’ve started going to Xhosa-language church services lately is that I know they’ll be longer and take up more of my Sunday. There’s no escaping the fact that when you pick up and move across the world, to a city where virtually no one speaks English as a first language (or at all), and find yourself navigating cultural obstacles every single day, loneliness and solitude will become a dominant shaping force in your life.

There’s lots that can be good about this. I happened to read, quite by chance, Thomas Merton’s Steven Storey Mountain on the plane ride here and his paean to the virtues of the contemplative life was influential as I began to confront my new reality here. Working in another culture and in another language, among people who are suffering so much, requires a different sort of energy than I’ve used before and I frequently find myself exhausted by mid-afternoon. In these instances, it’s nice to be able to return to a quiet evening with a good book (or the Good Book, as the case may be).

But I shouldn’t kid myself. By my nature, I am the social and extroverted type; I thrive off of others and I enjoy meeting new people and being involved in a wide range of activities. Each day of my previous life in Nome, Alaska was planned down to the minute because I was balancing so many commitments. I’ve re-located frequently in the past several years and I’ve always been able to make myself feel comfortable and at home fairly easily because I can strike up conversation and get involved quickly. But I realize now that was all dependent on our common language and cultural background. Remove that and it becomes much harder to start meeting people, making friends, and becoming part of the community.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with solitude or being alone (though I now realize that when Jesus sent disciples two-by-two it was as much for their sake as it was for the effectiveness of the evangelism). It’s just that it is not the dominant framework of our society and it is certainly not the way I’ve been used to leading my life up to this point. But it is something that all missionaries have to come to grips with and coming to grips with it requires a re-thinking of how we lead our lives.

Here’s some of the ways I’ve learned to cope:

  • Re-think the parameters of my job – My work day in Itipini may be relatively short but I now realize my job as a missionary can include more than what I do there. So when I am mentally tallying how I’ve spent my time each day, I include my Xhosa lessons as work and I also include the time I spend writing posts like these. That makes me feel a bit more busy and a bit less lonesome.
  • Set new goals for myself – With all this time on my hands, it’s a good time to re-think what I do with my life. What I’ve realized is that I have precious few hobbies, aside from my guitar, my juggling clubs, and, you guessed it, books. (Other hobbies I used to have, like ice hockey, swimming, racquetball, or snowshoeing are stymied by the climate or available resources.) So, for instance, I’ve taken the opportunity to read some parts of the Bible that I never have before, like all those Old Testament history books I always skip over and the parts I don’t want to agree with, like Revelation and Leviticus.
  • Change my expectations for evenings and weekends – I used to judge my weekends by how much I could cram into them. I’ve come to realize, if not fully appreciate, that spending an hour of my Saturday at the Internet café catching up on the news of the world and then spending a few hours in the hammock before spending a few hours in the kitchen is actually not all that bad. Sure, it means you can go the whole day without saying more than 10 words to anyone but that can be all right, particularly since I can go a whole day at Itipini without understanding 10 words anybody says to me.

All of this helps a little bit and helps keep me busy but it’s a dramatic lifestyle change for me and it never truly addresses the root of my problems, namely that I’m here and you’re there. Coming to grips with that reality is likely the enduring struggle of any missionary. Paul writes some place (I forgot where), “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” In a similar sense, this current affliction (loneliness) will pay remarkable dividends in the future (I hope) in the memories and perspective and lessons I’m gaining here. But I wouldn’t mind it if the current price were a little less and the benefits a little more readily apparent right now.

And just think: I get to be a missionary in the electronic age when friends and family are just an e-mail or phone call away. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for missionaries in the pre-electronic age. Maybe that’s why they all went with their spouses.


Here’s something I was not prepared for: I have a cleaning lady.

Hilda comes to my rondavel once a week and cleans the place inside and out. Like many other people here, her English is spotty at best so it has only been in recent weeks, as my Xhosa has improved, that I’ve felt like I’ve really been able to communicate with her. In any event, cleanliness is more or less a universal concept and we don’t need to be able to understand the same language for her to do a great job on my place.

What’s been interesting is how having a cleaning lady has affected me. At first, I was intent that she not have to work that hard and that I neaten things up before she arrive. To an extent, I still do this but I am so used to having her around now that my behaviour changes in advance of her visits. I no longer make my bed on the day she comes, nor wash the dishes, and I frequently do my laundry on days when she is around because I know she’ll bring it in from the line and fold it.
On the other hand, as I’ve gotten to know her better and learn more about her family and life, I’ve become more generous with what I have. I’ve gone from never tipping her to (almost) always tipping her because I’ve realized that an insignificant amount of money to me is huge for her. I also make sure I have part of a loaf of bread that she can take home at the end of the day.

February 23, 2008

“Webaba silale maweni”

Here’s an obvious life lesson: sometimes it’s the unexpected that can be most memorable.

Last week, I walked in on our after-school program director Mkuseli singing to himself. This is not surprising as he is very musical and music is an integral part of life here. What surprised me, though, was that he was singing a song I knew, “Homeless” off Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album that was written and recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He was entranced by the song and I by his singing. When he finished, I asked him where he learned the song and he said he heard it on the radio the other day. I don’t think he had any idea who Paul Simon or Ladysmith are.

This week, I brought my iPod to Itipini and showed him how it worked. Words can not describe how much he loves that thing. For two and a half hours on Wednesday, he walked around with the little white ear buds in his ears humming along. I eventually took it back when the batteries were almost dead. As a sign of how much it affected him, when I went to take his picture, he actually smiled!

He listened to “Homeless” and then I showed him the other Ladysmith music I have, as well as some Soweto Gospel Choir. He eventually got out of the South African section and ranged across my music from Nickel Creek to Joan Jett to the Talent Brothers, my own, sadly defunct, band.

On Thursday, we had some speakers so we could listen together. I also printed off the lyrics to “Homeless” and we sat and sang it together (again and again and again…). He taught me what the lyrics mean and I realized I actually already knew some of it with my limited Xhosa knowledge, including the title of this post. (Xhosa and Zulu are closely related languages and Ladysmith Black Mambazo switches back and forth between the two.) But if you want to learn for yourselves, you’re going to have come visit and sing along with Mkuseli and I.

Also on Wednesday, I was playing with a baby in the clinic and decided it’s never too early to teach a child to waltz. (It was a slow day.) So I started waltzing around the clinic. But of course, you need music to dance properly so I put in the ear buds and dialed up my album of waltzes. (Yes, I have one of those. And to forestall the obvious comment, yes, I frequently march to my own drummer or waltz to my own tune, as the case may be.)

My favourite recent picture: the missionary who teaches the baby to waltz but is interrupted by a phone call while the baby’s mother listens to the music.

That trusty little iPod. Who knew it could facilitate the mission of reconciliation?

UPDATE: Those of you looking for the article I once wrote about how iPods were the greatest threat to American democracy referenced in the comments should look here. I was hoping no one would remember that!

February 22, 2008

The Evolving Missionary

I am approaching the six-month mark of my time in Itipini and I’ve realized that my approach to and attitude about the work here is changing in a pretty fundamental way.

Those of you regular readers of this blog will know that for some time I have been pre-occupied by the distinction between doing and being. What I’ve been forced to learn is that in many cases who I am is more important than what I can do. This is a lesson that I struggle with on a daily basis but have gradually come to accept and come to see as part of the job and one of many important life lessons I’ve learned and re-learned here.

But lately I’ve been noticing myself actually doing a fair bit. I’m teaching English after school, dealing with parents who want their children to go to school, taking patients to the hospital, and so on and so forth. Essentially, I’ve been finding my niche here and trying to exploit its potential. My workday has been lengthening in reflection of my added tasks. (You might recall that at one point I found it quite short.)

It has reached the point where I can look at a situation and see new tasks (and not just opportunities for being) for myself. My English classes are currently confined only to people who are actually in school right now but I know many young mothers who would benefit from a similar class but have dropped out of school. There’s a group of unemployed young men who hang out in our gym every morning and I’ve been wondering what I could do with and for them. It is a new and uncomfortable feeling for me here: the obstacles to my doing something here are less cultural or language-based (though of course those are still dominant) and more centered on my own willingness, drive, and inspiration to make something happen. There’s no reason I can’t start an English class for young mothers not in school tomorrow. What’s stopping me is my own hesitation about adding another commitment and my own uncertainty about just what sort of form it would take.

As the doing/being distinction fades (comparatively), a new frustration is rising to take its place: ineffectuality. I can do all I want and I can do it as often as I want and yet – to paraphrase the first chapter of Ecclesiastes – NOTHING EVER CHANGES! I can try hard to prepare a good English class and the students still walk away living in desperate circumstances with a limited knowledge of the language. I can read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with some high school students but that doesn’t help them feed their young babies. The scale of the problems is so gargantuan and what I can do so limited, it is impossible not to feel like a vanishingly small worker in an overwhelmingly large vineyard.

Maybe the distinction I need to start thinking in terms of is process/product. That is, I’m conditioned to judge the results of my action by its product or results. (This is what grant applications want to see – how will you judge your success?) Perhaps what I need to think about is the process I implement that will, say, set students on the path to better English comprehension even if that is not evident now-now (as South Africans like to say). Perhaps by giving students books to keep forever, I am beginning a process of reading that will continue for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the way in which we do something is more important than what is actually done. (Oh… is that a little too post-modern?) Perhaps.

Doing/being say hello to your heir: process/product.

February 20, 2008

“Zinker, just because you’re skinny…

…doesn’t mean you’re in shape!”

So said my high-school cross-country coach one fine autumn day as I shirked my way through another practice and the words rang as true this past weekend as they did then. I entered myself in the “Surfers Challenge,” a foot race along the Indian Ocean coast in East London, the next big city heading southwest from Mthatha.

Employing the patented training routine I’ve used before, notably in Nome’s Stroke-n-Croak triathlon and my bike trip through Maine when I graduated from college, I did absolutely zero training for the event. (It’s all about peaking at the right time you see.) This, despite the fact that the race was longer than anything I’d ever run before, either 16- or 18-kilometers. (The race organizers never said for certain and there weren’t any distance markers along the way.) In any event, it was a long way and I was not prepared at all for it.

The course was actually quite beautiful, right along the beach, with rolling dunes on one side and pounding surf on the other. I might have enjoyed it if I hadn’t been focused on the ground directly in front of me, trying to pick my way through terrain that included sand, loose stones, and flat, wet, rocks. There were also two river crossings, with a swift current and water up to my chest. This was kind of neat, except that the first crossing was at about the 6-kilometer mark and meant I had to run with soaked shoes for the rest of the race.

Emerging from river number one.

By the end of the race, the (heavy) wet shoes and an unfortunate cramp in my quadriceps conspired to reduce my forward movement to a pathetic combination of a hobble and a stagger. I was passed by just about everyone in the race on the last stretch of coast but I finished and I didn’t once have to walk. My finishing time, though, I’ll keep to myself, lest you calculate my embarrassing split times.

Since I was nearby, I dropped in on my fellow missionary Matt in Grahamstown and managed to get a day off work in Itipini to go to work with him and see what he does. He and I are engaged in completely different types of work but, as we found out yet again, we wrestle with many similar issues on a daily basis.

In the morning, I went with him to the school for children with disabilities that he volunteers at. The highlight was recess when the children took out the rugby ball and the cricket bat (an example of the constant reminders that I’m not at home anymore). I joined in the cricket game and I’d like to think I did all right. I managed to hit and catch the ball, though things went south when I tried to bowl. Generally speaking, you probably haven’t bowled correctly when the batsman collapses in hysterics at your flailing attempt to throw the ball instead of swinging at it.

I could never quite replicate that form.

Haven't had a post like this in a while

February 15, 2008

Warning: Big Words Ahead

One of the major philosophical divisions in political theory is that of structure and agency. A theorist like Karl Marx, for instance, argued that the (economic) structures of a society are what determine a person’s life chances and opportunities. A classic liberal, like John Locke, argued that the will and agency of an individual is what is important. This debate plays itself out in many areas, such as those who argue in favour of equality of opportunity (agency) and those who support equality of condition (structure). When I was studying political theory in university, I learned some folks like to have it both ways and invented a word, “structuration,” that basically means that both structure and agency are important factors in shaping an individual’s life.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean – “moderation in all things” – should be enough to remind us that there’s always some truth in both extremes of any continuum and that structuration is basically correct. You wouldn’t deny that the structure of Europe after World War I – a punitive peace, economic recession, etc. – helped lay the groundwork for World War II but you also wouldn’t deny that the agency of Hitler helped lead to that war.

Why does all this matter and what does it have to do with Itipini? It goes back to my previous post about the Millennium Development Goals and the idea of development more generally. What I’ve realized in my time here is that the obstacles to improving the conditions of our sisters and brothers in Itipini lie in both structure and agency. What’s more, the agency obstacles might be the more salient and, most distressingly, the more difficult to remove.

While many structural obstacles can be deep-seated (and therefore hard to identify), many are not. There is lots that we in the rich world can do to remove these obstacles – pay school fees for those who can’t afford them (or lobby to remove school fees altogether), put new and up-to-date books on the shelves of libraries in the developing world, help distribute necessary vaccines (or ensure those vaccines are widely available) so preventable diseases don’t kill unnecessarily, and so on and so forth. This sort of aid appeals to the sentiments of donors in the rich world (equality of opportunity is a deep-seated belief held even by those who don’t like to admit it) and is easy to address with a check addressed to one’s favourite charity.

(Here’s perhaps the most obvious structural barrier we should all be working to remove: rich world tariffs and other barriers to trade cost the developing world twice as much as it receives in foreign aid every year. The transfer of wealth is not north-to-south but south-to-north because of fat subsidies that see more spent on a cow in Europe or North America than a child in, say, Itipini. I’ve known some good cows but none approaches the worth of even the most aggravating child here.)

But there’s got to be someone ready to take advantage of the removal of those structural barriers. I was in a long and disappointing conversation with some people involved with Itipini the other day in which we catalogued the people who had had the fees for some vocational or other training course (like hairdressing or security guard training) paid but now were still seen hanging around Itipini either because they didn’t finish the course or they weren’t in town working and putting that training to work. It was a distressingly long list we made.

Sure, there are likely other structural obstacles involved – it doesn’t help to train a single mother to be a hairdresser if she can’t find someone to take care of her child during the day. But it is hard to avoid that word that is far too frequently and unjustifiably applied to the poor and which I hesitate even to write now – lazy. One look at the weight of water women carry on their heads every day is enough to convince me the people here are not lazy. But there’s still a part of me that wants to share a few selected snippets of Max Weber’s “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” with these people.

At what point does the effort to remove structural barriers and provide assistance become a trap that removes incentives to improve one’s own condition? What structural barriers should people have to overcome themselves and which should we seek to remove? If people don’t work to improve their condition or waste opportunities they’ve been given, how should we respond when they ask us for help with immediate needs, like food because they’re hungry? Do we say, “we tried to teach you to fish and you failed so we’re not going to give you a fish now”? And if a person doesn’t use an opportunity we’ve given them, should we stop trying to help them? Aren’t re-birth, renewal, and redemption central concepts to our faith?

Like I said before, I’ve only got questions… and more where these came from.

(This other post talks about structure and agency issues without even mentioning the words. They’re everywhere!)

R.I.P. Piglet

One aspect of life in Itipini that is now routine to me is the pigs that are everywhere. Normally they run away from me and particularly my car when I am driving. But the other day while driving back to the clinic, one darted out in front of my car and I couldn’t swerve in time. I hit it with both the front and back wheels and when I looked in the rear-view mirror it was writing and squealing in agony, clearly on its way to death’s door. When I came back later, it was gone, obviously dispatched by some kind soul (or, more likely, someone who couldn’t handle the sound of the squealing).

Coming not a week after my first-ever speeding ticket, my first pig road kill is adding to a growing list of driving firsts. I’ll be happy not to add anymore any time soon.

Greasing the Skids

While giving a tour last month to some visiting students, I was describing all the various things we do in Itipini and a new phrase popped into my head – “greasing the skids.” What we do can best in Itipini is to grease the skids of someone’s life to help them overcome the manifold obstacles that confront them every single day. If you liked physics, you could think of these in terms of the friction formula f=μN. We can reduce the coefficient of friction (μ) and thereby reduce the overall drag someone is experiencing.

Examples of this are numerous:

  • We can pay the hospital fee for someone who needs more advanced care than we can provide. The fee isn’t huge, less than 5 U.S. dollars, but even that can put care out of reach of people here.
  • We can drive patients to hospital appointments. Itipini, as I’ve noted before, is a good hike from the nearest taxi rank and if a person is weak, say from HIV, the advanced care they need might be physically out of reach for them.
  • We can help a family buy uniforms for their children so they won’t get kicked out of school.
  • We can provide ready access to condoms and other forms of birth control to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and the spread of disease.
  • We can buy the beads for women who then turn them into crafts that they can sell.
What we cannot do is resolve the major issues that define the very heart of life in Itipini. We can’t cure HIV, we can’t make absent fathers provide for their children, we can’t build better homes to replace the decrepit shacks people live in, etc., etc., etc. But perhaps if we help people overcome some of the issues at the margins of their lives, some of the more substantial problems will become a bit more manageable and or at least seem in the realm of solve-ability.

I imagine this phrase has stuck with me because it appeals to that part of me that wants to be doing something, rather than “just” being present with people here. It turns out I’ve been doing something all along – it’s just that what I can do will always be at the margins.

February 13, 2008

Dorothy and Nthantisi

These are pictures of two of my co-workers. Dorothy, a nurse, sees patients in the clinic and Nthantisi (pronounced “TA-tease” for those of us who can’t master the “nt” dipthong) teaches in the pre-school. (Dorothy is the one who doesn’t like having her picture taken.)

Every morning I pick both of them up at a bottle store (the South African term for liquor store) that is owned by Dorothy’s sister-in-law and is quite close to Itipini. I navigate the usual collection of customers stumbling around the parking lot, do my best to exchange a few words in Xhosa with the sister-in-law, say, “Masihambe” (“Let’s go!”), and off we go to work.

One of the blessings of spending such a long time here is getting to know more about the fabric of life. Dorothy and Nthantisi have been instrumental in shaping my understanding of that fabric.

Nthantisi is in her mid-40s and has 3 children, the oldest of whom is my age. I don’t think she’s ever been married. In addition to teaching in the pre-school, she runs a spaza shop (kind of like a convenience store) out of her home, where she re-sells items she buys downtown; sells airtime for cellphones; cuts and styles hair; and has about a half-dozen tenants in single rooms she’s built out of mud bricks. She also built her own home one room at a time out of mud bricks she made herself. It’s pretty nice. At Itipini, she’s become the integral link in an effort we’ve launched to secure some serious government funding for the ladies who make crafts at Itipini. Some days I can’t believe all the work she has to do just to support her lifestyle.

Personality-wise, Nthantisi reminds me a lot of what I imagine Whoopi Goldberg to be like – loud, overbearing, and hilarious. In our car rides to work, she makes us laugh and laugh and laugh. She has a way of using the all-purpose South African exclamation “Yho!” at just the right time that never fails to amuse me. She is also fond of “Jesus Christ!” which shouldn’t make me laugh but does because of the way she says it.

Dorothy is quieter but she has some pointed and sharp opinions and is not afraid of sharing them, about say, my Xhosa ability, the alcohol consumption of various community members, and so on and so forth. She has a crustiness that is the prerogative of women her age (69) and is made of steel. When a patient gets caught in her tractor beam, it’s game over for them. Since she’s fluent in Xhosa, she is a huge help in counseling patients, particularly those who have just tested positive for HIV or those who seem to drink all the time.

Underneath it all is a really wonderful sense of humor that has taken me a little while to draw out. One time I was playing the guitar outside the clinic with some children and she came out to ask me to quiet down. I serenaded her with “You Are So Beautiful” and she walked back into the clinic shaking her head and chuckling and I escaped my “talking-to.”

Dorothy has been a widow for nearly 30 years and only started working at Itipini two years ago, when she realized she was bored with retirement and the clinic was looking for another nurse. She is originally from Libode, a village about a half-hour outside Mthatha and goes there nearly every weekend. Why? Because of all the funerals. Since the onset of HIV, funerals are a regular weekend occurrence across South Africa and people are expected to attend funerals even for distant family members. I used to ask Dorothy on Monday mornings about her weekend but I got so discouraged about hearing about funeral after funeral after funeral. One Monday morning, I asked her if she had been to a funeral on Saturday and she said something like, “I was supposed to but I took a back way into Libode so they wouldn’t see me. People expect you to go to all these funerals but it gets in the way of work you have to do. I did what I needed to and then came back to Mthatha.”

So… a slice of my daily life.

In which I prepare for a career as a mother bird

The food must have been good.

My Daily Workout

February 8, 2008

Taking a page from Oprah

What makes Jesse Zink and Oprah Winfrey different? One will work in a shantytown in South Africa and the other won’t. On one of her many jaunts to Africa – and this is a true story – Oprah was planning to visit Itipini but at the last minute her “people” pulled the plug on the visit because they decided it was too “dangerous” for her here. Too “dangerous” for her but not for the Episcopal Church!

But what do Jesse Zink and Oprah Winfrey have in common? We both have book clubs.

Thanks to a generous donation from a supporter, I have several copies of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” In my new high-school after-school English class, we have just started reading this classic and, I sincerely hope, will make it to the end sometime before the second coming.
I knew it would be above the reading level of the students but I picked it in the hopes that they would rise to the challenge. So far, the results have been mixed. There are all the usual group-related challenges of varying skill levels and levels of interest, not to mention the fear of embarrassment in front of one’s friends. Navigating these in another language is, like everything else here, aggravating beyond belief. I stop frequently to test their comprehension and the students give me dumbfounded looks and are unable to answer some pretty basic questions.

But there are also the small victories. You should have seen the look on their faces when I gave each student a book and said it was an “isipho” (gift) that they could keep forever. I’m not sure if any of them had ever received such an expensive gift and I’m sure none of them had ever received a brand-new book before. It was like when I told them they could buy two pairs of socks each. Watching the students help each other sound out words (the advantage of having varying skill levels in a group) is great, as is seeing the look of (moderate) disappointment on their faces when we reach the end of a chapter and finish our session for the day.

I had initially thought about reading “The BFG” but decided against it because I was worried there would be too many made-up words in it. (I’ve never forgotten the words “whizpopper” or “snozzcumber” even though I read the book at least 15 years ago.) These students have enough trouble with real words without any other complications. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was my compromise choice but I realize now that every Dahl book has made-up words in it so we’ll just muddle through like we do with everything else.

But “Charlie” has proven to be an inspired choice for another reason, namely that Charlie’s life is a lot like that of students. He lives in a small, run-down house on the edge of a big town, is desperately poor, lives close to starvation, and so on and so forth. I just hope the book doesn’t raise the hopes of my students that some day they’ll find a Golden Ticket out of their current lives.

I also have another English class of younger, middle-school age students. My lessons with them have so far been comically awful and frustrating, due as much to my own woefully inept and insufficient planning as to what I realize are universal attributes of middle-school students. But that’s a story for another time.

A Talented Child

Here’s a talented child.

Not only can he change a flat

… and read a book

he helps his mother clean up the lunch dishes.

February 6, 2008

In Use

My burgeoning little library is becoming a popular place to hang out.

A young mother can come to read… and simultaneously feed her child.

When, for reasons that I don’t quite understand, school is cancelled for a day, children can come use the colouring books. These children were there for nearly three hours on Tuesday.

All very small steps but all in the right direction.

A Travesty of Justice

This news will likely come as no surprise to faithful readers who recall those halcyon days when I was a lead-foot ambulance driver but it came as a shock to me. I got a speeding ticket!

It’s my first one ever and came on the way back from my trip to Stephen’s ordination in December. Some camera took a picture of me going 84 km/h in a 60 km/h zone and I now owe 300 rand, about a tenth of my monthly stipend. I was going to try to blame my fellow missionary Matt, who drove part of the trip, but in the picture it is a very clear that I am driving. I could plead ignorance of the charges as the ticket is mostly in Afrikaans.

On the plus side, I guess this is a good sign that I’m finally used to driving stick shift on the left-hand side of the road.

This is neat

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has a Lenten children’s program that is centred on Itipini. Check it out!

UPDATE: I fixed the link. It should work now.

February 2, 2008

The 8 Commandments

All the work I’ve lately been putting into getting the children of Itipini into primary school has brought to mind the Millennium Development Goals. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the MDGs are a set of 8 goals established by the United Nations in 2000 that seek to improve life in the developing world. One of the goals is universal primary education by the year 2015.

Itipini will not meet this particular MDG this year; there are some children who won’t be in primary school. Why not?

A major obstacle to primary education throughout the developing world is school fees. But that’s not an obstacle in Itipini. For parents who can’t afford to send their children to school, African Medical Mission will pay their way. AMM is not exactly flush with cash but there is enough money to ensure that it should not be an obstacle to education.

Think for a moment about what it takes to get a child into primary school in the developed world. School fees and school uniforms are not generally at issue. What it requires is a mother or father or guardian who will wake the child up each morning, feed them, clothe them, and send them on their way. Then, when the day is done, that same person needs to welcome the student home, feed them, and make sure they get to bed on time. For the student to be successful, she or he might need help with their homework or someone to read to them. If none of this happens, other people might start to notice and there is a whole array of tools – from truant officers to foster parents and so on – to ensure that the child ends up in school.

It is this second set of non-monetary, social obstacles that is the prime obstacle to universal primary education in Itipini. While there are many mothers (almost exclusively, given that the fathers are AWOL) and grandmothers who do their best to feed their children and make sure they go to school, there are also many who do not and who really don’t seem to invest all that much energy in their child. There are children who run around Itipini all day because no one has bothered to sign them up for school or tell us they can’t afford the fees. We made a big public push to get children registered for school but still parents show up now – two weeks into the school year – and ask if it’s too late. I guess I should welcome the fact that they’re trying at all but I want to scream, “Where have you been? Don’t you care?”

In the developed world, the long arm of the state would intervene in these situations. But the South African state has a weak to non-existent presence in Itipini. There are no truant officers or enough social workers to intervene when necessary. I do my best to play the role of guardian for those children who I know need it. I ask them what they learned in school, I try to find out about their homework, and so on and so forth. But to do this effectively for even one child is hard and takes an immense amount of time and there are scores of such children here and millions more like them across the developing world.

The Episcopal Church is one of many organizations that has made achievement of the MDGs one of its primary goals. This is laudable and should be widely emulated. But we will not achieve the MDGs simply by writing checks and sending money to the developing world. At some point, we need to stop and answer the question of agency – are the people on whom this money is being spent ready for the advantages the money will bring them? Most are. But what about the ones who aren’t? How do we best help them?

I’m planning on coming back to this topic in future posts but I want to raise it now because it’s been on my mind constantly these past few weeks. I have no answers, just questions.

(Here’s another one – what if all that effort and money we expend in getting the children into a school puts them in a sub-standard or failing school where the quality of education leaves a lot to be desired? As a statistic, that child is in primary school but is it doing him any good? This is not a hypothetical scenario.)


Somehow, what was once just an off-handed suggestion – “a library, that would be neat…” – has become a full-fledged, operating reality in Itipini. It has only become a reality thanks to a huge array of people, including

  • numerous readers of this blog who sent me nearly 300 books in the mail (not cheap!) to add to the ones I already had for a grand total of 356 on the shelves (currently…).
  • other people sent posters, which help make the walls a little friendly
  • a group of volunteers from Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington who visited for a few days and painted the inside of the container to make it a bit more welcoming
To my very great surprise, people in Itipini – particularly the children – are really into this idea of a place for books in the midst of their community. I had expected having plenty of time to ease people into the idea of checking out books (and even more time to get people used to the idea of returning books) but I am now coming up with a cataloguing and record-keeping system on the fly.

What you really want to see, I am sure, are the pictures. Before you look at these, remind yourself of the “before” shots.

Admittedly, this picture is posed… but isn’t it wonderful! (You might remember this child as the one who helped me change my flat tire.)

The Whitworth students drew a crowd.