April 22, 2008

This is neat

There's a school in Maryland that is having a fundraiser for Itipini and African Medical Mission on Saturday at Barnes & Noble. Basically, as I understand it, a portion of the the purchase price of the book comes to us. And I believe this works at any B&N across the country. So if you were thinking about buying some new books, Saturday is a good day to do it. You can download the vouchers and read more about the fundraising on the web site of the St. Timothy's Girls School.

This might also be a good time to mention that I have just finished reading a new book, Sizwe's Test (called Three-Letter Plague in South Africa) about HIV in rural South Africa. It is easily one of the best books I have read in the last five years. If you are at all interested in HIV in Africa, the challenges confronting HIV treatment, the kind of people I work with every day, you should read this book. It is unbelievably good.

April 21, 2008


I have difficult news to report: my trusty laptop - my sidekick in mission - has given up the ghost. I'm trying to sort this problem out and I'm hopeful it can be solved both a) relatively cheaply and b) in Mthatha but I'm not optimistic either will be the case. But in the meantime the frequency of my blog posts and e-mails is likely to be drastically curtailed.

UPDATE: The computer - a trusty old iBook - is kaput. There's no Mac repairer within a 1000 miles of me. I'm working on a solution.

April 18, 2008

If Only They Knew

My high-school English class wrote letters back to our pen-pals last week and they did quite well. Many of them even managed a complete, grammatically-correct sentence, without a spelling or vocabulary error. But what really struck me as I watched them write was how diligently they were applying themselves to the task. They were clearly invested in the task and our room fell quiet as each began composing a reply.

No one is forcing them to attend my classes. There’s no consequence if they miss a day. The only thing I have to offer them is a snack and a friendly smile. But they continue to come and they even seem to enjoy what we are doing.

I wish we had enough vocabulary in common so that I could tell them how much their attendance and positive attitudes mean to me. I’ve been searching in my time here for a way to make a positive and substantive contribution to this community and in these students and in this English class I have found it. And it feels GREAT! Just by showing up, they validate my thought way back when that I should go to Africa to “help out,” a thought that ultimately led me to YASC and then to Itipini.

It’s too early to tell if my efforts with these students will have any impact on their grades and I am continually fearful our efforts will yield little discernable effect. In the meantime, though, I give thanks for the impact these students have had on me and what a continual encouragement they are in this constantly frustrating business called mission… even if they don’t know it.


I hope that whatever news source you rely on has been informing you about the global rise in food prices and the consequent unrest and insecurity it is causing. Did you know world finance ministers the other weekend devoted an entire summit to the issue and South Africa’s finance minister is urging people to plant as much arable land as possible?

In Mthatha, we haven’t had any riots yet and I don’t think we’re on the verge of any but I have definitely noticed a modest rise in my grocery bill. It’s “modest” for me, of course, with my excess disposable income but I imagine people in Itipini might contest my adjective choice.

Anyway, there’s lots of well-written and –reported stories on this issue. This recent one from the New York Times caught my eye in my brief troll through world news while at the Internet café.

Not only can he…

change a tire, he can also unload the truck of our daily bread.

Of course, I’m not sure how good the snot-flavoured bread tastes.

Then he helps his aunt hand out the daily ration of corn meal.

And when he’s not busy with all that, he follows me around, hanging on to my shorts…or neck. That’s why I have so many pictures of him!

April 16, 2008


Going to church has always be a regular Sunday morning event for me and I can’t remember a time – aside from vacation – when, as I lay in bed on a Sunday morning, I didn’t feel some internal guilt trip building that I’d better get out of bed and get myself in a pew. There have always been other reasons to go to church, of course; aside from the obvious religious/spiritual/devotional ones, I’ve always enjoyed the social event of a Sunday morning and chit-chatting with new and old friends.

But in Mthatha, church occupies a much different – and more difficult – role in my life and coming to grips with that role has been an ongoing challenge for me.

First, there aren’t a lot of English-language church services in Mthatha, not surprising, given the dearth of English-language speakers here. There’s the prosperity Gospel mega-church (no thanks), the Presbyterians (maybe), and one Catholic church (but would I get communion?). The Anglican cathedral has an English service at 7:30 but yikes! is that early. I’ve been once. I spent quite a few Sundays at the Catholic church when I first arrived and it was fine but I ultimately decided to stop going because, well, I’m not Catholic.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to go to a Xhosa-language church service. This resolution was based as much in my desire to eat up my Sunday morning as it was to immerse myself more fully in the language and culture of the people here. I bought a Xhosa-language prayer book and for a few Sundays in January and February I went to the Anglican cathedral at 9:30. This was fine and I would have kept going but I got an invitation to the Anglican church in the township from my co-worker Mkuseli.

I first went with him mid-way through Lent and immediately liked it more than anything else I’d been to. The congregation was the biggest I’d been a part of and I immediately stood out as not only the tallest person there but also the whitest, in fact, the only white person in the fluctuating congregation of between 200 and 400. As a result, as I noted in a recent monthly e-mail, I was immediately re-seated in the second row of the church with all the well-dressed wardens and vestry members; clearly if I’m white and in this church, I must be important! (This is an interesting reversal of the Rosa Parks situation – I would be quite happy to sit towards the back of the church but I am literally not allowed. When I try to sit there, I am almost immediately moved, despite my fervent protestations to the contrary.)

Not a single word of the service, not even the announcements, is in English. (In fact, I missed the opportunity to go to any Holy Week services because when they were announced, they were announced in Xhosa and I missed the times. When I asked later, I couldn’t make myself understood and never got my questions answered.) I’ve been to about six Sundays at this church and I enjoy them and even find a little bit of spiritual fulfillment amid all the new vocabulary I am learning. I’m pretty well over the fact that there are hundreds of people behind me staring at the back of my head and wondering, “Just what is he doing here?” (So I imagine they are thinking. In reality, they are likely too busy singing or praying to pay me any mind.) All in all, my church situation is the best it’s been since I’ve arrived. Things are looking up, right?

Well, not quite. Despite my increasing comfort level in this township church, it still remains the fact that every Sunday morning I lay in bed when my alarm goes off and start rationalizing with myself why this Sunday I should stay home. Every Sunday (so far) the go-to-church voice wins out but sometimes it’s close. While I may feel welcome, it is indescribably difficult to walk into a church where you are the only person of your skin colour, walk all the way down the centre aisle, and take your seat in the second row. (It certainly gives new meaning to the thought that the most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning when you’re the minority.) When the service is over, it’s even harder to leave. Everyone is walking down that now-crowded centre aisle and gabbing away in a language you barely understand. Then you get outside and realize for all the hundreds of people inside, there’s only a few dozen cars outside, yours prominent among them. So you get inside and drive away while everyone looks at you (or so you imagine) and wonders, “How come he’s not giving anyone a ride in all those empty seats he’s got?” (When Mkuseli is around, he, his wife, and their daughter take up those seats. I’m trying to get in the habit of giving some of the older gentlemen I sit with rides to fill up those seats on other Sundays.) Sometimes I park a distance away from the church so I don’t have to drive past the entire congregation when I leave.

There are two reasons that ultimately get me out of bed on Sunday. First, I reason, I’m already awake, I’m not falling back asleep, and what else am I going to do all day? (The service starts at 8:30, which means I have to set my alarm earlier than I do on a weekday. I object to this on principle.) Second, and more importantly, every time I’ve been to church in Xhosa, I’ve always come away feeling like I was meant to be there, that some encounter I’d had or something I’ve witnessed was an important part of my developing understanding of Xhosa people, Xhosa culture, and the African church. I can’t point to an instance for every Sunday but here are a few:

  • Last Sunday, while driving to church, I spotted a man I sit near waiting for a taxi and stopped to give him a ride. I hadn’t previously spoken with him but on the short ride remaining, he said some very nice things about how welcome I should feel there and how happy they were I was coming.
  • One Sunday, I marveled at all the acolytes this church was able to round up. During Lent, there were at least two dozen per Sunday. I’m not making that up. Twenty-four young people all moving and bowing and processing with almost perfect order and timing. It puts to the shame the yawning, bored-looking, and tired young people I remember in church (I was one of them), who may or may not show up on Sunday. It occurred to me one Sunday that perhaps a good cross-cultural exchange might be a synchronized acolyting competition between the various provinces of the Anglican Communion. The acolytes I’ve seen would smoke anyone I’ve ever seen in the U.S.
  • I’ve reflected (during the sermon I can’t understand) about the use of “smells and bells.” Every African church I’ve been to so far just adores incense and bell-ringing and I’ve realized it truly does augment the meaning of the liturgy, or, in my case, give it any kind of meaning at all.
  • I’ve really enjoyed the music at all the services I’ve been to. It’s a stereotype, of course, of the African church that the music is wonderful and lots of it is. But it’s been nice to pick out people who sing a little off-key or hymns that are sung without a lot of enthusiasm and realize while the stereotype might be true a lot of the time, people are people here just like anywhere else. I’ve also enjoyed learning the music myself and trying to translate the lyrics as we go along.
  • I’ve had lots of aha! moments with Xhosa. Following along with the liturgy in the prayer book is tremendously helpful as it allows me to see words and bits of grammar in print I may have only heard in conversation before. One problem is it is awfully hard to goof off during the sermon (and, say, practice your vocabulary with the prayer book) when you’re sitting ten feet away from the preacher.

I’ve moved several times in the last several years and each time one of my foremost goals has been to find a “home church” as soon as possible. I think the support community provided by a congregation is invaluable when settling in some place new. Usually, I’ve been able to do this within a couple of Sundays. Here, it has taken much, much longer and I wouldn’t even really describe my township church as my home church…yet.

(Some of you have asked about my experience with the current divisions in the Anglican Communion. That is another post altogether but my preliminary comment is that it’s my gathering impression that it is a battle being played out at the highest levels of the church and hasn’t really filtered down to individual congregations. But then again, I can’t understand the sermons. They could be condemning same-sex unions, female priests, and gay bishops every single Sunday. But I don’t think so.)

Getting Greedy(?)

I’ve written before about some of the frustrations I have in interacting with all the children in Itipini. As you’ll recall, when I first arrived I was overwhelmed by how many children were always clamouring for attention and willing to use just about any means to get me to focus on them. I’m happy to say that this is a frustration that is mostly behind me. The shrewd use on my part of a few choice Xhosa phrases combined with the timely interventions of some of our staff members, who have much greater suasion over the children than me, has greatly reduced the number of aggravating encounters I have with children and made each encounter more on my terms than on theirs.

But I’ve come across a new challenge lately and I find it as aggravating as the first. Occasionally, people will give me items they want to donate to the children of Itipini. This is fantastic and I am happy people are so generous. The items range from a batch of kazoos the other day to about 250 traditional Xhosa fatcakes about a month ago. So I bring the donated items to Itipini and prepare to hand them out.

As soon as one child even sniffs I have something to hand out, he or she is on me like glue, often quite loudly and vociferously so that any of the 50 or so children in the vicinity can’t help but notice that I’ve got something. Immediately, I am deluged with children. This is not necessarily a bad thing and one of the English words the children know is “line” so I try to quiet them down and make them line up, which most of them do with some success.

However, once I start handing the items out, four things immediately happen simultaneously. First, the children who didn’t get in line crowd around with their hands outstretched demanding whatever it is I have to give. Second, the children at the back of line decide they can’t wait anymore and start cutting towards the front. Both of these developments mean the children who actually were waiting in line can’t take their gift and go play with it because they are boxed in next to me. This actually suits them quite nicely because the third development is that those who do get a gift immediately stick that hand behind their back and reach out the other for another as if I won’t catch on to this blatant and obvious ploy. (I can understand wanting two fatcakes – the more food the better is the attitude around here and I don’t blame anyone for it – but two kazoos? Do you have two mouths?) Fourth, some of the bigger children who haven’t got a gift will take one from a smaller child who has, leading the younger child to either a) cry, b) ask me for another, or c) both.

The end result is that children are pushing and shoving each other to get close to me and invariably someone (or several someones) falls to the ground and start crying, lots of others are shouting my name trying to get my attention, and the line has descended into chaos. When I reform it, the children who’ve already got whatever it is I’m handing out get back in line and try to hide the fact they’ve already been at the front. This means I have to keep track of to whom I’ve given each item – no mean feat when there’s 50 children running around – or basically frisk each kid before I hand over the gift, not something I’m exactly keen on. The whole situation just enrages me and my reactions are often more representative of my innate sinfulness than God’s gracefulness.

Are the children here similar or different to children all over the world? Certainly, children I’ve spent time with in the U.S. seem to understand the concept of waiting a bit better and while they try to sneak an additional snack/dessert/whatever they generally understand why that can’t be the case. I think the behaviour in Itipini is motivated by two factors. First, the absence of parents who have raised their children to understand the concept of limits. This is just one part of the generally absent parenting strategy practiced here. Second, the children here have so little and have been deprived for so long that when they see the opportunity to get something, they just can’t wait for it for fear that it may be gone by the time their turn comes around. Perhaps this is the natural response when someone has lived with deprivation for so long and I wish I could understand it better.

In any event, several recent instances have taught me a few lessons and I’ve resolved that in the future when people donate items to me, I’ll hand them over to our pre-school teachers who are much better at organizing the children than I am. That way the children get the gifts and I’ll just get to watch. Because it really is fun when everyone has their gift at last. Have you ever led a band of 50 kazoo players? It’s a lot of fun.

April 12, 2008

The Accident of Birth

There are several people I see regularly around Itipini who are about my age. It is impossible to look at them and not think about the wildly divergent paths our lives have taken since 1982. Often they have a child (or children), many have HIV, virtually none has a high school diploma, none has a formal job, and all live in tumbling-down shanties that barely deserve the word. As I’ve gotten to know them over the months, I’ve realized many of them are also quite talented, funny, intelligent, and hard-working, and, really, not all that different from me.

The vast chasm of differences between our relative positions in this world cannot be due to personal characteristics; there’s nothing innately superior about me that has allowed me to get this economically- and educationally-privileged state. What’s been different, of course, is the opportunities available to us by virtue of where we were born and where and how we were raised. I had access to supportive parents, good schools, and an economy that produced opportunities like this one, among a whole host of other advantages. My peers in Itipini had almost none of that.

Many of the people with HIV I’ve seen decline and die in my time here have been very close to my age. In fact, one woman – whose story is forever imprinted on my mind – was only three weeks younger than me. When I think about these people and see them struggling with their myriad health-related problems, I think about how fortunate I’ve been with my health and how good the medical care I’ve received has been and how good it would be (I hope!) if anything happened to me here. It just doesn’t seem fair. But I guess the world isn’t.

A few weeks back, I was driving Mkuseli and his family over to my house to meet my parents. I took a route I frequently take that bypasses a lot of traffic in town and as we turned onto the road, he said, “In all my life, I’ve never been on this road.” This is a road that is no more than four miles from where he lives and well within the city limits of the town in which he has spent his entire adult life. I was astounded. But as I thought about it, I realized it made sense: taxis didn’t drive down this road so the only reason I was able to drive it is I am able to afford to keep a car and grew up in a culture that made it relatively easy for young people to get driver’s licenses. One of the reasons I frequently drive this road is I love the sweeping views it provides of the region and I thought about how many people who live in Mthatha might never be able to enjoy those same views.

“Accident of birth” is a phrase I had heard many times before arriving in Mthatha but it is only now that I’ve been here that it has been made real for me. For that I am thankful.

April 11, 2008

You’ve Got Mail

My high-school English students have become pen-pals with the second-grade class in Charleston, South Carolina that has been assiduously following this blog (Hi guys!). The thought of a bunch of too-old high-school students with young babies struggling through an inadequate school partnering up with some precocious young privately-educated elementary school students always makes me laugh and think about the multiplicity of ways reconciliation comes into our life.

In any event, a batch of letters arrived not long ago and I shared them with my students at a recent meeting. The circumstances of the meeting were unusual in that it was in the midst of a term break and my main goal in meeting with them was to get on the same page about when we would re-start our “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” reading after my short break and to determine a good time to go out and buy some school supplies for the new term. For reasons that defy my explanation, a prayer meeting of revival-esque proportions was going on in Itipini at the time so we were meeting outside the library on a very public bench.

I pulled out the letters, hoping for at least a glimmer of excitement or anticipation in the eyes of the students. I got nothing. (By the way, they all had jobs for the term break – informal and very poorly-paid, of course – and all had negotiated a way of getting off work to come to this meeting. But I imagine they were all eager to get back and keep earning money.) But they dutifully began opening the letters and started reading.

As they began reading, a look of slightly startled wonder came across their face as they realized each had a letter – with an official postmark and stamp all the way from the U.S. – that was addressed to each one of them. I doubt they had ever before received something like that. I wish I could adequately describe how Luleka’s tone of voice shifted just on the first line. “Dear Luleka Sikilongo” began as a slow monotone that rapidly ascended into an excited and shocked exclamation that concluded with a sigh of satisfaction and a glance around to see if there was anyone else to share the letter with.

It turns out there was. Because we were outside, we pretty soon had a whole crowd of young mothers – none of whom are in school – crowding around wanting to see what all the fuss was about. Before I knew it, I had a whole crowd of women all reading the same couple letters over and over again and admiring the photos the students had included of themselves. I had been planning on having each student read her letter out loud and then explaining what it said but I quickly realized that was unnecessary because they were already doing that with each other and everyone was reading everyone else’s letters. I just kept silent and reached for my camera.

The pair on the far right are my favourite in this picture.

Next week, we’ll write back in hopes of squeezing in another round of letters before the school year ends in the northern hemisphere.

April 9, 2008

Back in the Saddle

I’ve returned to Mthatha following two relaxing weeks touring South Africa with my parents. Here are a few highlights.

We spent the first few days in Mthatha and Itipini. People in Itipini very warmly welcomed my parents and they hopped right into things, organizing some games and activities for all the students who were on a fall break from school. One night I invited Mkuseli, our after-school program director, and his family over for dinner. His wife and daughter got dressed to the nines in traditional Xhosa dress, which was neat, and we had a great evening.

Our next stop was Grahamstown where by a curious twist of luck three of my fellow YASC missionaries were – Matt, who lives there, Stephen, visiting from Klerksdorp on some post Holy Week R&R, and John, re-paying our New Year’s visit to Uganda. We had a great dinner together and caught up on all the news we don’t share on our blogs.

We’re not actually all the same height. We’re arranged just so on a ramp.

From Grahamstown, my parents and I took a circuitous route that took us through the elephants of Addo Park, the ritzy Garden Coast, the spectacular mountains of the Karoo, into the midst of an Afrikaner cultural festival, and down to the coast and Hermaneus, where we spent a night with Sarah Jackson, Matt’s roommate and a future volunteer in Itipini. In Hermaneus, I investigated just how much colder the Atlantic Ocean, fed by the Antarctic currents, is than the Indian. Answer: VERY! It honestly reminded me of a polar bear swim in Nome, Alaska. I also encountered Mthatha’s reputation among white South Africans. One representative guest house owner, upon hearing where I lived, asked, his voice dripping with scorn, “Mthatha! Who’d you have to kill to get sent there?” It didn’t endear him to me very much.

From there we headed into Cape Town, by this point pretty exhausted but enjoying the time together as a family. We hit several of the tourist highlights of Cape Town but skipped several others in favour of more relaxed events, like an afternoon at the movies (“Juno” for those of you interested) and an impressive tour of Parliament that almost didn’t happen because of some farcically bad directions and notably unhelpful security guards.

We also had a small reunion of people from St. John’s Northampton, the church in Massachusetts I grew up in. Linden, a family friend of ours, is studying abroad in Cape Town this semester, and we saw her for dinner. She’d brought a whole assortment of great gifts, including the local paper (now two months old but I still devoured it) and a parish profile they’re using to find a new rector.

On Friday morning, my father and I took a quick hike to the top of Lion’s Head, which has great views of Cape Town and Table Mountain.

On the way down from Lion’s Head.

After seeing off my parents at the airport that afternoon, I headed over to the movie theatre (“There Will Be Blood”) waiting for Linden to finish class. We met up that evening for another movie (“Michael Clayton”). There’s no movie theatre or video rental place in Mthatha; when I find myself near one, I’ve got to splurge!

On Saturday, Linden and I headed north, away from the tourist franticness of Cape Town and ended up at the seldom-visited West Coast National Park, which had a simply spectacular beach we spent the afternoon on, swimming and jumping off the sand dunes.

Bet you didn’t know I could do a handstand. Me neither.

I flew back to East London on Sunday to take a minibus-taxi back to Mthatha. John wanted to see Mthatha before heading back to Uganda and we had discussed the idea in broad generalities when we were in Grahamstown. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to get into specifics because John’s cell phone was taken from his car in Cape Town after he had helpfully left the door unlocked. I imagined we would meet at the East London taxi rank and ride up together. But as I arrived there, he called me and said, “I’m at the taxi rank” and I said, “Me too, where are you?” He said, “Mthatha” and I said, “East London.” Fortunately, saintly Jenny stepped into the gap and picked John up in Mthatha and entertained him for the afternoon while I rode up to Mthatha with the only taxi driver I’ve ever met who follows the speed limit.

I put John to work counting pills in the clinic. I’m not sure how much he enjoyed it.

Now I’m back to work in Itipini and happy to be back, sleeping in my own bed and returning to my routines. I’ve realized that being in white South Africa makes me decidedly uncomfortable for a number of reasons I haven’t quite pinpointed yet. Mthatha might be overwhelming and isolating but I’ve fashioned a kind of comfort and familiarity that is reassuring. I was warmly received when I returned to Itipini. They missed me!

One thing that has changed is the weather. It is quite cool, making me skip across my tiled floor when I get out of bed in the morning. It warms up during the afternoon but not to the face-melting heat we had earlier in the year. The sun is also setting noticeably earlier. Autumn has arrived.