May 31, 2008

Just to put you at ease…

...Mthatha is not near any of the violence that has been occurring in South Africa. And though I work in a community much like the ones where the violence has been taking place, there is no indication that it will spread here.

Thanks for your e-mails checking in, though!

The Three R’s of Mission (long post alert!)

Reconciliation is the dominant idea underlaying the mission theology that I’ve been sent here to propagate. Essentially, the idea is that God’s mission has always been one of drawing people closer to God and closer to each other and our goal is to figure out what part in that mission of reconciliation we can play. (If you’re interested in more on this idea, I recommend Titus Presler’s “Horizons of Mission.” My sermon from way-back-when is heavily cribbed from that book.) When we first discussed this idea at mission training, I was wholly supportive of it and nothing that has happened to me since has changed that feeling.

But I would like to add to it a bit and these additions are rooted in some reading I’ve been mulling over for quite a few months now. When I arrived in South Africa and was looking to learn more about this country, I happened across a book of Desmond Tutu’s sermons, which was fortuitous as not only is he a famous South African, he is also one of recent history’s most forceful advocates of reconciliation. In his funeral sermon for Steven Biko, he says, “For true reconciliation is a deeply personal mater. It can happen only between persons who assert their own personhood and who acknowledge and respect that of others. You don’t get reconciled to your dog, do you?” That is, reconciliation doesn’t happen between people who don’t know each other for who the other truly is.

It seems, then, that reconciliation is not something where the Nike motto of life will help you. You can’t “just do” reconciliation by showing up with the right attitude and expecting all of a sudden reconciliation to happen. Particularly if you show up in a new culture and language setting, any reconciliation you claim will be kind of hollow if you can’t communicate with the people or know a little about how they live. And even if you’re ready for it, it’s tough to reconcile to someone who doesn’t know you and may have little interest in your vaunted concept of reconciliation.

All this is a long way of saying that I think there are two important steps prior to reconciliation we must condition ourselves to expect and go through (or endure). The first is reification. I’ve already written about this idea and if you’re really interested in where this post is going I recommend you go back and read that previous post now. Briefly, what I said earlier is that the great gift of this time in Mthatha has been that it has “made real” just how our brothers and sisters in Christ in Mthatha (and by extension South Africa and beyond) live. I’ve learned - in a way I can’t from news reports and in a way I won’t soon forget - the toll HIV wreaks on families, the amount of work people have to do on a daily basis to survive, how far the health of some people can sink without intervention, the effect of poverty on numerous aspects of life, and on and on and on. Before I can even think about reconciliation with the people in Itipini, I need to learn about who they are and how they live. That is an ongoing process.

As I learn more about how people live here, I am naturally drawn into deeper relationship with them, through both the tragic and joyful parts of life, those serious and the light-hearted moments that make up a day. More than anything lately, and with a clarity I didn’t have before, I have seen the core focus of my “job” here to be building relationships with the people of Itipini. This has, I think, been implicit in a lot of my posts thus far and I’ll have more to say about it in later posts. For now, though, I think that it is only natural to say that when you encounter new people, when you learn more about them, when you are drawn to them (as I have been here), it is only natural to begin to relate to them. This is as true for second-graders on the playground as it is for missionaries overseas. Like reification, this relationship-building is an ongoing process for me. I can point to ways in which some relationships are deepening by the day while at the same time noting relationships that are only just beginning.

It is now finally at this point that true reconciliation can begin to take place. My thinking is still a little spotty in this area, though, because I’m having trouble separating relationship from reconciliation. What is it that makes reconciliation more than an empty buzzword and something more than “just” a fancy word for relationships? I believe there is a difference but I haven’t quite put my finger on it, at least not in a way that is reducible to a pithy little paragraph.

Let me conclude with a story that, I think, illustrates all this. For the last several months, I have been cultivating a relationship with Vuyelwa, the 18-year old daughter of one of our employees. She has a fourth-grade education and a year-old son named Bulumko (he is one of the ones whose development I have been privileged to witness). Her English is quite good (a huge help in building the relationship) and she likes styling hair, particularly her own. I’m no judge of this sort of thing but people ask her to do theirs so she must have some talent.

For quite some time, she has been talking to me about how she wants a job and how much she wants to work and how she really wants to provide for Bulumko but just can’t on her mother’s salary alone. (Because of those rising food prices, the family the other week had to decide between baby food for him and rice for the whole family. Before it was both-and.) We talked about this over several weeks and eventually I learned she has a friend who works on a city block downtown with a number of other women who style hair on the street and, judging by the business they conduct, make a not-inconsiderable living. This led into a conversation about how she could join them, if she wanted to join them at all, and what barriers there were to her entry. One barrier was Bulumko - she couldn’t bring him with her and she didn’t have any money to pay for daycare. The cost of the daycare is a small fraction of what she could earn and I told her I would lend her the money for his first month. There was also some supplies she would need and I told her I would lend that money as well.

This has not been confined to one conversation but has evolved in the course of numerous interactions over the course of a few months. In the interim, there have been myriad distractions and obstacles. Her niece has been quite sick and for a while she had to look after her other niece while both children’s mother was in the hospital with the sick child. A major setback - and right now the one we are stuck on - is that at the moment there is no room for her on the street. I’d like to be able to bring this story to “happy” ending by telling you she is now working hard and raking in money hand over fist but we’re not there yet (process, not product, remember).

The point is that over all this time - at least two months I think but likely more; my memory is a bit fuzzy - we were together building a deeper relationship and the idea of earning one’s living by styling hair on a street corner was being reified for me (and the concept of a loan for her). Both aspects were critical: the relationship part because it allowed me to gauge how serious she was about the idea and her to learn more about the idea of a loan and for us to discuss how it would be repaid; and the reification idea because when we first started talking about job ideas, this was not one I would have naturally considered nor a loan one she might have contemplated.

The ideal end state of all this work is for her to be able to use her God-given gifts to continue to live into her God-given dignity, which I am pledged to respect by my Baptism. That for me will mean we’ve reached reconciliation. It’s not clear what I get out of the deal but perhaps “what do I get” is the wrong question to ask about reconciliation. And maybe the most frustrating thing of all is that reconciliation’s results are not tangible in the way our results-oriented society demands.

You are familiar, I am sure, with the “three r’s” - reading, writing, and arithmetic. I would like to suggest that there are three r’s of mission work as well - reification, relation, and reconciliation. You’ll note they all have the virtue of beginning with r.

May 28, 2008

New Book

The end is in sight for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and as I know there are teachers, authors, and avid readers among the audience for this blog, I thought I’d solicit some advice for its sequel.

I am looking for a new book to read with my high-school English class for the second half of the school year that begins after a winter break in late June and early July. Ideally, it would be something about the same level as “Charlie” and something that speaks to a group of young women, some mothers, living in poverty in South Africa. I think as a group we are collectively done with Roald Dahl, as his made-up words and word play just make things more complicated and generally unintelligible. Plus, there’s a wonderful diversity of books to read and I don’t want to limit us to just one author. And don’t suggest “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator,” a natural sequel: it’s just too weird and I don’t like it.

I’m also tossing around the idea of beginning a similar reading group for a slightly younger group of students, say grades 8 and 9, and welcome ideas for books for that group. Something a little less challenging than “Charlie” would probably be best.

Send me your thoughts and suggestions by e-mail or leave them in the comments. If you’re interested in buying several copies of the books and sending them to me, be sure to let me know that as well!

What do they know?

During our mission training, we talked a lot about “isomorphic attribution.” Basically, the idea is that when you are working in another culture and you’re trying to figure out why somebody is doing something, you assess their motives in terms of their own cultural background instead of yours.

In some instances, this is easy. Why do Xhosa men head off into the bush for a month before getting circumcised in a public ceremony instead of just ducking into the hospital for a quick surgery (done with the benefit of anesthesia)? It’s likely because they understand circumcision as part of their journey to manhood and their culture dictates that they prepare for it in a certain way.

But there’s a crucial part of isomorphic attribution that is actually quite difficult. And that is figuring out just what beliefs and traditions the other person is carrying inside of them that dictate their behaviour. It is impossible for me to separate my decision-making process from my years of education, specifically what those years taught me about logic, probability, science, and on and on and on. But when you work with a community of people who are very poor and relatively uneducated, I’ve realized I can’t assume my decision-making processes apply to them as well.

When I was a baby my parents made sure I went to a doctor and got all my required immunizations. No doubt they did this because they had been raised with the belief that they should do what doctors told them and they cared deeply about my health. But some mothers here are downright casual and cavalier about making sure their babies get their immunizations on time. (Many, however, have the same devotion and seriousness of purpose about immunizations that I am sure my parents had.) To a western-educated mind, this is completely irrational. These mothers are turning down a free immunization that will go a long way towards guaranteeing the health of their baby and this in a place where lots of the diseases these immunizations guard against, like polio or measles, are still a credible risk. Why would anyone do this?

There are many answers to this particular question, I think, and it’s figuring out all those answers that makes cross-cultural work so difficult (and fascinating). Some caregivers actually aren’t mothers at all but grandmothers, aunts, cousins, etc. on whom the child has been dumped by the mother. In that case, the child might just be one more problem to be managed and taking preventative steps might just be too much of a demand on a woman already overstretched by other commitments. Or the mother may just not have the same belief that we westerners do in science and medicine. (I saw an article in a magazine not long ago that claimed to link the polio vaccine to HIV. The scary thing is not the claim itself but that people will believe it.) They might believe some of their medical problems can be solved by traditional healers.

I think this question of “just what do they know?” is particularly important when it comes to HIV. I hear about people with multiple sexual partners, who don’t use condoms, who let STDs go untreated, who refuse to get tested for HIV, who, if they are positive, don’t bother to try to get ARVs and don’t do all the little things that will strengthen their health. And I ask myself, “Why on earth would someone ever act like that in a place where HIV is so widely prevalent?” It is, by my standards, completely irrational and inexplicable.

And yet I believe all people make rational decisions within the confines of what they know to be true. Perhaps some men see condoms as an insult to their manhood or a sign that women don’t truly love them. Perhaps people don’t see the connection between STDs and the ease with which HIV can spread. Perhaps people are just too scared too find out if they have a life-altering virus and would rather not know than know. Perhaps they don’t realize that HIV can, in many instances, be managed and is not an immediate death knell.

The challenge, then, is sussing out all these different beliefs and attitudes that are deeply enmeshed in a person’s brain and that lead them to rationally make irrational decisions. It is a difficult task and a difficult adjustment, not helped by a gargantuan language barrier. But I’ve learned that asking someone, “Have you been tested for HIV?” really doesn’t get you very far. No one wants to talk about this and everyone would prefer to just change the subject. A better way, if you can get on to the topic of HIV in the first place, is to ask why they don’t use condoms or talk about all the treatments available for HIV now and how people can live quite long with the virus if only they find out early.

The dominant approach to HIV prevention used by aid agencies around the globe is the ABC method: abstain, be faithful to one partner if you don’t abstain, use condoms if you’re not faithful. It is completely rational and easily understood…in the Western context in which it was created. But in another culture? Maybe not. How can I abstain when I’m being raped? How can I be faithful when my partner isn’t? Why would I only want one partner when more would be a sign of my status? How can I use condoms when he refuses to? Why would I use condoms when I believe HIV has been put in them to kill Africans? I have heard it said - and I think I mostly agree - that combatting HIV in sub-Saharan Africa is as much or more a cultural battle as an educational one.

So, anyway, isomorphic attribution… easier said than done. What else is new about mission?

“Uzihambela wedwa!”

One thing I didn’t know a lot about before my arrival in Mthatha was child development and all those milestones infants and toddlers pass as they grow. But in Itipini, I am constantly surrounded by young children, ranging from newborns to almost ready for first grade and it’s been neat to watch these children grow up.

At first, I wasn’t even aware that I was watching them change. I was just sort of vaguely aware that a child who used to be easy to pick up now strained my back when I lifted her onto my shoulders or a child who used to sit on the floor in the clinic now spent his visits crawling wildly all over the place. Now that I am consciously aware of what’s going on, I’ve been watching for it. It’s fun to watch a child take some of its first tottering steps or see a young girl come to pre-school for the first time or marvel at how tall some children seem now.

And it goes without saying that if I share a moment like this with the child’s mother, it binds the relationship between me and the mother that much tighter. It is amazing how touched a mother will be when I notice that their baby is now walking all on his own. (That’s where the title for this post comes from - it’s Xhosa for “he’s walking by himself!”) About two months ago, I took a young woman (age 15) to the hospital after her water broke. Maybe by the time I ever get around to leaving Mthatha, that child will be walking.

(There’s the converse, too, namely that children who should be passing milestones are not and I’m trying to stay aware of those unchanging children too.)

On the list of things I hoped to learn when I came to South Africa, more about child development was not one of them. But now that I’m here, I’m grateful for it and it’s only because I’ve made a long-term commitment to this place.


I’m fortunate that at Itipini a few of our staff members speak English. Not only does this help me do my job, it’s helped me form deeper relationships with them. (Though I’m at the point now where language is less of a barrier for the Xhosa-only staff.)

Still, there are problems, epitomized by one conversation I had not long ago with Mkuseli, our after-school director. We were doing our best to speak in Xhosa and I had to ask in English about a vocabulary word.

Me: “Coach, how do you say ‘sad’ in Xhosa?”
Him: “‘Sad’? It’s ‘watsho’.”
(I already knew “watsho” and it means “he said.”)
Me: “No, not “said” but “sad.”
Him: “Yes, ‘watsho.’”
Me (a slight note of aggravation creeping into my voice): “No ‘sad’!”
Him: “Spell the word.”
Me (thinking I’ll get somewhere now): “S-A-D.”
Him: “Yes, ‘said.’ ‘Watsho.’”
Me (very aggravated): “No, not S-A-I-D, S-A-D!”
Him: “‘Watsho’!”
Me (resigned to defeat): “Forget it, how do you say ‘cry’?”

I have conversations like this every single day. A lot of people in Mthatha speak some English but not a lot (at least of the ones I interact with) are fluent or are used to an American accent. So I am always thinking of ways to simplify my speech, find a common vocabulary, say something I can translate into Xhosa, and so on and so forth. I think it is one of many reasons I come home at the end of the day so exhausted. Working here just takes new energy in parts of the day when I’m not used to expending any.

“With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for...”

Earlier this year, we had an old pool table donated to the gym we have for the after-school children. It was immediately seized upon by some young men not much younger than me, who passed long hours in the morning there for several weeks. (And they had the audacity, while playing pool, to ask me for money for food.)

Jenny eventually had the bright idea of asking them to re-paint some of the walls and buildings in our area. That cleared everyone out except one lonely fellow, who’s been working hard these past several weeks.

And now the pool table is being used by the children we had hoped.

May 24, 2008

Nobathembu, Victoria, and Ayabulela

Here’s a story about three people I know and a difficult decision confronting them.

Nobathembu is a woman in her mid-40s or -50s. She has HIV and on a recent blood test returned a CD4 count of 22. This is in I-can’t-believe-you’re-still-alive territory. Under 200 is clinical AIDS according to the government and qualifies you for free anti-retroviral drugs. Not only is she still alive, however, she appears to be thriving and showing no outward signs that her immune system is under sustained attack from HIV. I frequently see her walking the long road from Itipini to town, pushing a wheelbarrow full of groceries or balancing something on her head.Nobathembu’s daughter is named Victoria and she is one of the students in my after-school English class. Victoria is 18, in grade 10, and wants to be a doctor. She’s a good student and her dream is at least plausible.

She also has a young son named Ayabulela. Ayabulela is a bundle of joy who used to come running over to me whenever he saw me. But one day he saw me playing my guitar for the pre-school children and since then has been petrified. He only comes near if I woo him with stickers.Nobathembu looks after her grandson during the day so her daughter can go to school.

Since Nobathembu’s CD4 count is so low, she should be in the midst of the long process to begin anti-retroviral treatment. But she hasn’t even begun. She’s not allowed to begin until she can find a treatment support partner who will go with her to all the appointments and ensure, for the rest of Nobathembu’s life, that she takes her pills as required. The problem is that Nobathembu can’t find a support partner. There are some men in the family but none appear interested in helping and none, certainly, are convicted of the gravity of the situation. (I’m not sure Nobathembu is either.) There aren’t any other women who could go with her, except a sister who lives in a village outside town who can’t really afford to make it to all the appointments. So that leaves Victoria as pretty much the only option.

But that is problematic. If Victoria becomes her mother’s treatment support partner, then she’ll miss lots of school going to all the appointments (the clinic isn’t open after school). But if Nobathembu doesn’t get on ARVs, her health is going to deteriorate dramatically and ultimately she will die. (Every other person I’ve ever met with a CD4 count below 50 is now dead.) If she dies, who’s going to take care of Ayabulela? Victoria will likely have to drop out of school to tend to him.

It’s awfully hard to provide advice in this situation when every option seems to lead a worse conclusion.

Catching Up

Some favourite pictures from the last month

KNOM Abroad

I'm sure my friends in Alaska will appreciate these pictures.


I’m not quite sure how it happened but some weeks back the cross bar on our swing set went missing. Mkuseli saw this as a problem of dire proportions and immediately resolved to make it right by constructing an almost entirely new set. This was a project that ended up stretching over weeks. My contribution was the purchase and primarily the transport of the new five-meter cross piece across town, perched precariously on top of the truck.

But the results have more than justified the effort.

May 17, 2008

I've Been Sitting, Watching, Waiting...

So my new computer is en route to Mthatha. Unfortunately, it's been en route for the last two weeks and doesn't show any signs of getting here soon. The delay appears to be South African customs in Jo-burg. I guess there's nothing to do but sit and be patient - not someting I'm good at.

In the meantime, the swirl of events at Itipini continues its increasingly frenetic pace and there have been so many blog-worthy moments in the last several weeks, I'm going to have to write a short dissertation just to include them all when I actually get a computer to type on. But the themes will all be familiar - HIV kills people, children are neglected, no one speaks any English, and somehow we all endure.

I've been fortunate to have a steady stream of visitors to my rondavel these past few weeks, friends old and new who're in South Africa and were itching for a trip to Itipini. (A friendly reminder that the offer is still open to all of you, should any of you ever want to seize on it.) In my free time, I've finally picked up the Harry Potter series and have read through the first six books but have now stalled for want of the seventh. (And what a cliff-hanging place to stop!) It's been nice to escape this world and be engrossed in another for a while.

My thanks for those of you who have been sending me those lengthy, newsy e-mails (no better way to support me than writing one of those!). I haven't responded not because I don't want to but because I just can't afford the Internet time it would take to say all I want to. I will, though, someday.

Maybe that computer will show up someday soon and I'll be able to post something that wasn't dashed off in five rushed minutes in the Internet cafe. Until then, well... this will have to do.

P.S. If you're looking for a thoughtful and beautifully-written reflection on mission, check out this one from my friend Kate in the Dominican Republic. It gave me a lot to think about.

May 7, 2008

A Slice of News

Check out this article about living statistics in my adopted province, the Eastern Cape:

THE Eastern Cape is no place to live, get sick or go to school. And ranked against the other eight provinces, a South African Institute of Race Relations survey has given this province the thumbs down....

According to the survey, barely half the people live in formal houses, no other province has such a large proportion of the population without water, electricity or cellphone access and only North West has more homes still relying on bucket toilets....

On the education scorecard, the province fails dismally. Fewer than one in five people have passed matric, 15% of the people cannot read or write and fewer than one in 10 pupils gets a university entrance matric....

As has been highlighted during the past year, healthcare is the province’s worst feature with the highest incidence of diarrhoea among children, high and rapidly growing levels of HIV and TB infection, an average life expectancy of only 48 years and only one state doctor for every 6273 people.

And if those statistics are averages, just imagine what it is like in Itipini, a distinctly below-average part of the province.

May 3, 2008


I realize I haven't shared with this audience an important piece of news I recently shared with the growing audience of my monthly e-mail newsletter: I've opted to extend my time in Mthatha beyond the expiry of the initial commitment in August. After a break in August and September, I'll be back here and back to work in Itipini. I'll have more to say about this decision once I sort out my computer situation and can compose posts off-line.

Speaking of that situation, life has been different these last two weeks without my laptop around but it seems like I've been so busy at times I've barely noticed its absence, except when I want to sit down in the evening to compose long e-mail replies to all those wonderful e-mails people send me. For now, that will have to wait.

Thanks to the generosity of a number of people scattered all over, I've ordered a new laptop. God willing, it will be here within a week or two and I'll be back in the saddle again, blogging wise.

In the meantime, you'll just have to imagine what I've been up to as the weather turns wintry here, food (and gas) prices continue to rise dramatically, and I imagine what I can do here now that my departure date has been pushed back.