August 31, 2008

Sarah Palin

Before I became a missionary, I was a news reporter at KNOM radio in Nome, Alaska for two years and covered Sarah Palin’s successful run for governor in 2006. It has been a stunning feeling to read all the news about her these last few days. This is surely the closest I’ll ever get to the Oval Office. (It’s also fun to watch national pundits talk about her and realize, “hey, I know more about this than you do.”)

I interviewed Palin three times, twice before the election and once in her office in Juneau, after she had won. At the time, I was keeping a blog about Alaska issues and I wrote about the first interview and the second interview (but not the third, strangely, though I do recall that she read off of note cards in that interview as well as the other ones). In addition to those recollections of specific interviews, if you search that blog for “Palin,” you’ll find lots of thoughts on her campaign and her first few months in office.

I also went to at least two of her press conferences, leading to my favourite interaction with her, about a month after I danced with her at her inaugural ball in Nome. I was in Juneau for my first-ever gubernatorial press conference and before we began a friendly old-hand reporter went to introduce me to her. He said, “Governor, this is Jesse…” but she cut him off and said, “Oh, I know Jesse Zink. We danced together in Nome!” That sure caught the attention of the rest of the press corps.

One thing I remember about her was how she uses “progress” as a verb and not a noun, as in “we want to progress these issues for Alaska” instead of “we want to make progress.” It drove me nuts then and still does, when I saw her use the phrase in a recent interview some place. Her signature legislative accomplishment of her first term was the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act or AGIA, even though Gasline is a not a word. The phrase is “gas pipeline.” Politicians mangle that most beautiful of all things, the English language. What else is new? Sigh…

After she was elected, there was lots of talk about her beauty, sayings like, “Alaska - coldest state, hottest governor” or “HGIA - hottest governor in America.” Though I think she is a person of substance, I do think her looks and her overwhelming charisma are an integral part of her persona, as is the case for many other politicians. I can remember preparing to interview her and wanting to hit her with all kinds of tough questions. Then when I actually came face-to-face, I would be overwhelmed by the desire to soften my questions, not ask the tough follow-up question, or take her answers as gospel truth. When I went back to listen to them later, I’d realize how much she had dodged the question or given an inadequate answer. I guess that’s called “being spun.”

I remember Palin as being kind and friendly, in a genuine way. This was not the case for every politician I met or interviewed. Her personality and her charisma are a huge part of her record popularity in Alaska, I think, as much as her policies.

I think McCain's surrogates just need to drop the talking points about her experience as commander of the Alaska National Guard on the front lines with Russia. I've interviewed National Guard members on the true front lines in Gambell and Savoonga and Diomede (check Google Maps for where those are) and it doesn't matter who their commander is. They did a fine job defending the border during the Cold War (and it actually did need some defending, I learned, in fascinating detail from some fascinating older men) and they'll do a fine job again, if need be, regardless of who is governor.

This leads to the question of experience, which is a major stumbling block for her now that she is on the national stage, I remember reading something once, which I can’t find now, that went something like, “Politics is the one job for which experience is not counted a qualification and may actually be a hindrance.” I agree with Obama when he says that what is important is a person’s judgment and not his or her experience. At times, Palin has shown great judgment, like when she made ethics reform a priority of her first term as governor, when she didn’t meekly do what the oil companies wanted her to, when she called out people when they needed calling out, and so on.

She’s also shown poor judgment on a number of issues that are important to me. I think she was wrong to oppose the listing of polar bears as an endangered species. I’ve never gotten the sense that global warming is a pressing issue for her or that she is as convinced of the science on that issue as I am. I’ve never heard her say anything about health care and surely that’s a central issue in this country. (Of course, I got to interview her three times and I never once asked about it!)

I’m also wary that by voting for her she might someday be entrusted with the nuclear launch codes. That’s nothing against her. There’s millions of people in this country, including me, I’m glad don’t have access to those codes.

All told, though, it’s an exciting time and I’m slurping up all the news I can on the nomination. I’ll be fascinated to watch her leap on to the national political stage. Geraldine Ferraro just wrote about her difficulty in mastering the teleprompter almost over night in 1984. Will Palin have a similar problem? The press corps in Alaska is not exactly investigative or hard-hitting and it will be interesting to see how she responds to the criticism that will surely come her way. And what happens if she loses and has to come back to Alaska? What will it be like to go from shaking hands and giving speeches all over Ohio and Pennsylvania and wherever else and then come back to Juneau and argue with lawmakers over whether a high-school in Anchorage should get a new football field with artificial turf? (That is a real argument they once had. She vetoed it.)

For Alaska politics, there are lots of interesting possibilities, including the national profile Palin will gain from this run. That would, I imagine, set her up nicely for a senatorial primary challenge against Lisa Murkowski in 2010, funded by all her new conservative fans around the country. Or it might even fund a run against a Senator Mark Begich in 2014. And what about her Lieutenant-Governor, Sean Parnell, currently locked in a close race for the U.S. House seat? Do you think he’d rather be governor or a back-bench minority member of the House of Representatives for the next two years? So many fascinating questions to keep me up late at night.

OK, I think that’s all about Alaska and Sarah Palin. I do have a different job now.

P.S. My favourite spin-off of this whole thing is the KodiakKonfidential blog, which I still read for my Alaska news. It went from about 500 hits a day to over 583,000 on Friday. A picture the author Photoshopped of what Palin would look like on Vogue ended up on the cover of at least two Italian newspapers. Love it.

August 29, 2008

Yup, I danced with her

I've stayed away from explicitly political topics on this blog in the past but given the news that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is apparently John McCain's running mate, I just had to post this picture.

That's from Palin's inaugural ball in Nome, Alaska, March 31, 2007, when, after a long night of dancing with everyone else in the room I managed to convince her to dance with me. I even managed to dip her, all while her nearby staff shouted at me, "No dipping, don't you dip her!"

This should not, in any way, be construed as an endorsement of the McCain-Palin ticket. In fact, it is just the opposite and I'll have more to say about my experience with her (in her capacity as governor and not as dance partner) in a later post.

And to all of you out there just meeting her for the first time, her surname is pronounced PAY-lin, not PALL-in.

August 27, 2008

My muse is on vacation

I wrote in my last monthly e-mail that I wanted to keep writing blog posts even while I was on my break from Mthatha and I really did mean that. But now that I'm in the midst of that break, I can't seem to summon the will to write a single word about Itipini - I've tried and I just get nowhere. It might have something to do with the fact that all my writing energy is going towards the sermons and other presentations I'll be giving in September or it might just be the realization that I've got other things I want to be doing now.

So I might come back with a few posts while I travel next month, spreading the good word about Itipini, but in the meantime don't expect anything substantive from me.

August 22, 2008


I'm back in North America and preparing for a month-long tour talking about Itipini. I sent my schedule to the recipients of my monthly e-mail list and have posted it on Facebook. But if that didn't include you and you're interested in what I'm up to and where I'll be, drop me a line and I can let you know.

August 21, 2008

Lesotho report

I've finally posted a lengthier (quite lengthy, actually) account of my July trip to Lesotho but I buried it back in the July posts.

You can read it by clicking on this link, if you're so interested. You might not want to do it all in one go.

Singing and Dancing in Itipini

The staff here at mthathamission are always looking for ways to make your experience of Itipini as full as possible. To that end, we can now add video content to the blog and show just how hard we work on a daily basis.

These videos were shot in February.

Kicking the tires

Like it? More changes coming soon, maybe.

August 17, 2008

Others at work

Now that I have more regular access to the Internet, I've been indulging every little whimsy that comes my way when I'm surfing online and googling things that have been bugging me all year, except when I'm online and could find answers, like, just who is the Archbishop of York and why is he important?

In my searching, I came across this movie about Itipini. I can tell it has been made in my time there but I'm not sure by whom. I'd kind of like to know as it uses a number of my pictures (without my permission) in the course of the video and gets a few things wrong.

But, hey, the more of a spotlight there is on Itipini the better, I guess.

And someday soon, I'm going to post my own video clips from the last year. Stay tuned.

August 12, 2008

The Loan Shark

I’ve shared this news with the audience of my monthly e-mails but not with this audience. We’ve recently launched a small micro-credit program in Itipini and, after several months of design, several weeks of interviews and education, and a few bouts of doubt and wonder if anyone in Itipini would ever repay money, on Monday we lent 7000 rand (a little less than a $1000 U.S.) to nine women who are eager to make a go of earning their own money.

The business ideas are varied - one woman is going out of town to buy chickens wholesale, bring them back to town (in a mini-bus taxi), and sell them at a mark-up of R25 per chicken. A few others want to sell airtime for the pay-as-you-go cell phones that are used here. One or two want to open “spaza shops” (little convenience stores) in their shacks in Itipini and sell staples like corn meal and paraffin and other assorted goods. One woman is making and selling dresses, which she already does on a limited basis. Our loan is helping her expand her business.

I have been working alongside Unathi, a young woman we hired as a part-time social worker. She has been a wealth of information and business ideas. She will also be overseeing this program (and the all-important repayments) in my absence and hopefully taking on more responsibility if and when it comes time to expand to other borrowers.

A word about the title of this post: while we were discussing this idea, one of the first things I said was, “I’m all for it but I do not want to become a loan shark and have to hunt people down.” Those of you familiar with the idea of micro-credit know that its high repayment rate is attributed to the fact that borrowers form groups and mutually support each other towards repayment. This was the hardest part of the idea to translate to Itipini and we sort of faked it in a number of way that I hope will show us to be clever and not foolish. Unlike other micro-credit programs, we had long-term pre-existing relationships with all of our borrowers before we even thought up this idea and I think that will help us get our money back. (The wish being the father of the thought…)

Both yesterday and today, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people who came to me asking for money. They saw some people walking out of a meeting with me yesterday with money and assumed they could get some pretty easily. What they didn’t see is the weeks of meetings that led up to the transfer of cash. I had no more than the usual sympathy for them - this is an idea we have been talking about very publicly for more than a month and if they missed all those announcements, then, well, I can’t be made too care too much. I’ve told them all to submit their ideas and when we start getting some of our money back, we’ll be able to make more loans. Hopefully, this waiting list will generate so more pressure on our first round of borrowers.

Unathi, translating for me.

Some of the crowd who came for one of our education sessions on some basic business principles. (“For the love of God, only spend your profit, not the capital we give you.”)

Counting the money to make sure it is all there.

Off to buy some chickens.

One of the shacks that will soon be a spaza shop.

A few concluding thoughts. I heard from a friend involved in a Christian micro-credit organization that her organization had never tried anything in South Africa because it seemed like it would be difficult to get people to trust each other. That was not exactly comforting but, again, I’m hoping our pre-existing relationships will help out. This is not a program I would have felt comfortable launching last year at this time. It has taken me a full year just to get comfortable enough to feel like this could be a success.

The sermon on Sunday was unaccountably in English and at one point the preacher began railing against the system of grants, for single-mothers and people with disabilities (including AIDS), that the government has implemented since 1994. He said the grants were destroying people by taking away their will to work. (Easy for a guy with a guaranteed salary to say. The chorus of “Amens” began to fade at this point.) Obviously, a hand-up is better than a hand-out, to resort to the hoariest of development cliches, but I hope he is not so right that the will to work of our borrowers has already faded and they see the money we gave them today as just another grant.

Only time will tell.

On 16th century West African empires and other missionary challenges

A few weeks back, one of the high-school students I see regularly asked for my help on a homework assignment. It was a document-based question, familiar to me from high school Advanced Placement tests. You’re supposed to answer the questions based on your own knowledge and the information you learn from the set of documents that accompany the questions. The particular topic of this assignment was West African empires of the 16th century, something I know zero about, but we settled down to tackle the assignment as best we could.

It quickly became clear to me that we weren’t going to get very far. This particular student has a minimal grasp of English so understanding the documents and questions (both in English) was the major initial challenge. I had her read the documents and questions to me and tried to explain the parts she didn’t understand (all of it) in my limited Xhosa. She had no pre-existing knowledge of the topic, though it is not clear whether this is because she has missed a lot of school lately because her son has been sick or the topic hasn’t been taught and there are no other readily-available resources. Needless to say, the hour we spent on this assignment was one of the most frustrating experiences of the week for me.

A while back, I wrote about how one of the great challenges that an overseas missionary faces is the sheer fact of being alone. This is still a great challenge for me and one that I know won’t ever go away. But it has faded (to an extent) in recent months to be replaced by another overwhelming - and likely insurmountable - challenge: ineffectuality.

The more you learn about people the more you realize just how hard it is to do anything of value for them that will allow them to make concrete and positive changes to their lives. There are scores more stories like this homework story and they frustrate me so much.

Ineffectuality (like loneliness) is nothing new, of course. For instance, as a news reporter, there were times when I wanted to move people to righteous anger or indignation about a topic and my story generated nothing but more apathy. There are a number of things I wish I could do and have tried but just cannot. That’s a part of life.

The difference here is that the gap between the need and the ability is massive and overwhelming. For the high school student I tried to help, she needed to learn more English, be able to attend school more regularly, have better resources available to her, and on and on. My English classes address only one of those needs and they are only for two hours a week and are only a small part of what she needs for a better command of English. I think of this gap between needs and ability when I see HIV patients who need so much and all I can give them is some vitamins or a ride to the doctor.

At this point, I imagine some of you are saying, “But, Jesse, you yourself have been yammering on for the past year about how what is important as a missionary is not what you do but who you are.” That, of course, is true and I continue to take comfort from this knowledge. But it only gets you so far when the stark and awful nature of the overwhelming needs here are laid out in plain sight. My desire to help is also overwhelming but my actual ability to do so is significantly less so.

It’s solipsistic to quote yourself, but I found myself re-reading my past monthly e-mails recently and this paragraph from the November letter grabbed me:

Had I made a shorter commitment to Itipini, I don’t think this patient would have affected me as much as he has. But since I’m here for a year, I am learning to see the people of Itipini for the individuals they are and learning about the trajectories of their lives. On the one hand, this is wonderful because there is a whole community of talented and capable people to get to know and become friends with. On the other hand, that knowledge makes this patient’s health struggles all the more difficult to deal with because I see them as affecting a real person whom I genuinely like. I want to snap my fingers and cure him – I must have missed the “how to perform miracles” session at mission training – but I can only provide a smile, a caring heart, and a free ride, all of which seem woefully, even insultingly, insufficient.
How true this remains. And to think I was just writing about how much power I have here.

A few thousand words about church

I’ve written before about the Xhosa-language Anglican church I’ve been attending in Mthatha’s township for the last six months but it was only on Sunday that I brought my camera along. I didn’t get a lot of great shots but some of them illustrate a few points I made earlier.

The sanctuary before the service begins.

The processional - note the crucifier is on the far left of the picture, followed by six torch-bearers, a whole mess of other acolytes, then a bunch of lay ministers, before finally getting to the clergy, out of sight on the right of the picture.

The acolytes form a phalanx for the clergy and others to get to the altar first.

A few clergy (there are at least three others not in this picture), surrounded by acolytes. Think how many churches in the U.S. breathe a sigh of relief when just three acolytes show up. This church always has at least 20.

The wardens and vestrymen of the church I am made to sit among. Think how out of place a tall, white person not wearing a dark suit coat would look in this picture.

Some of the lay ministers take communion. Look at all of ‘em!

Archdeacon G.M Buso, the head guy.

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that one of the clergy looks like Ving Rhames and the deacon looks like Samuel L. Jackson. Consequently, I frequently find snatches of dialogue from the movie “Pulp Fiction” flitting through my brain during the service. None of them, of course, are appropriate for a family-friendly blog but I’m sure those of you familiar with the movie can see how amusing it would be to consider those two characters conducting an Anglican liturgy.

I love the name of this store. Just love it.

August 9, 2008

Squashing my conscience

Someday soon I’m going to get around to writing about my recent trip to Lesotho but until I do, here’s a story I want to tell about my experience of being a white person in a black majority country.

On the way back to Mthatha, I had to hitchhike between two towns because there weren’t any taxis on that route. I went to the edge of town, held out my little sign with my destination on it, and began to wait. I had done all the usual preparatory steps that are advisable before hitchhiking - tuck in your shirt, neaten your hair, pick a spot where the driver can see you from far away, and so on - but as I was doing this I was thinking to myself that I would have no trouble getting picked up. After all, I was white, this was a white part of the country, and I could reasonably assume I’d have a much better chance of getting picked up quickly than a black person in my position would. I felt a bit guilty about thinking about the situation this way but I couldn’t exactly change my skin colour or how people relate to each other here. It turns out that this smidgen of guilt was nothing compared to what I was about to feel.

While waiting, I struck up a conversation with one of the handful of other people - all black - also trying to get a ride. She was pleasant and I learned we were going to the same place, though neither of us made any promises to help each other. (My Xhosa/Zulu isn’t good enough for that.) After about five minutes of waiting, a white truck, driven by a white man, pulled over and offered me a ride. He said he was on his way to my destination and would be glad to give me a lift. I was grateful for the ride but I felt more than a tinge of guilt for my new friend. The driver was making no effort to include her in the conversation and it was clear she was not being offered a ride, even though she came up to the car and began quietly asking for a ride. Thoughts began to race through my head - did I insist he give a ride to this woman? did I refuse to take the ride unless she could come as well? how was her hitchhiking my business anyway? All of this happened as I put my bag in his car, got in the front, and before I knew it, we had driven off, my conscience squashed and leaving me racked by a not inconsiderable amount of guilt at my inaction.

My driver was very friendly and soon was talking my ear off about this and that, including race relations in South Africa. He was of the opinion that 90-percent of people here are honest and safe but he would never give a black person a ride - “not even that woman moaning back there” - because you just never know. Plus, his truck model is apparently one of the most hijacked models in the country so he had to be extra careful. I was apparently a safe bet because I “looked foreign.” Later, though, he got talking about the state of the country and how it was imperative that everyone help out to address some of the problems facing South Africa. He kept saying, “you do what you can.” Like giving people lifts?

Sometimes I forget how much I stick out in Mthatha until I see another white person and realize how shocking it is to see them. But I still attract stares, often from children, particularly as my work day takes me lots of places where white people don’t generally go. But I’m comfortable in those places and have learned to ignore the stares or convince myself the children are staring at something else unusual about me, like my height and not my skin colour.

A woman who is always sitting at the information desk by the main door in the hospital pulled me aside a few weeks back and said, “I always see you with black people. What do you do?” She asked the question in such wonder and befuddlement, as if the thought of a white person pushing a black woman in a wheelchair or supporting a black man is completely unusual to her, which I guess it is.

As much as I want to do my best to live and work alongside the people here and experience their way of life as fully as possible, my skin colour will always prevent it. For the most part, being white means I am treated better than other people. No security guard makes me check my bag when I go into a store and I don’t get patted down on the way out. The history of race relations in this country is such that I think it would be unusual and possibly unthinkable for a black man, no matter what his position of authority, to challenge a white man to do something like check his bag. I remember asking my first South African friend, on my first cold, night in South Africa, why the members of a white motorcycle gang were allowed to hang around in the parking lot of the fast food restaurant we were in without buying anything. She said, “Oh, they’re white - no one will ask them to move.” In stores or the hospital, black people often have to interact with me in their second language because I don’t speak theirs well enough. That gives me a huge advantage, particularly when there is trouble (like they don’t want to take a patient) and I intimidate them just by throwing out big words and making them do what I want just to get me to shut up and go away.

People here are always apologizing to me even - and especially - when I am the one who has messed up. When I drop something or bang my head on a low door frame, there is always someone around who says, “Sorry,” even though they had nothing to do with it. At first, I tried to minimize this and say, “It’s my fault” or “Don’t worry about it” but it has done nothing and even people I’m close to in Itipini still fall over themselves to apologize for my mess-ups. And I’ve watched and they don’t do it for other Africans. This, along with numerous other interactions, has made me realize that one thing I’ll need to adjust to when I leave here is that people won’t always be deferring to me.

For the last three years - two in Nome, Alaska and now one here - I have lived in communities and regions where I am in a substantial racial minority. Don’t think, however, that I’m comparing myself to oppressed racial minorities throughout history. In both Nome and here, my situation is opposite to what African-Americans in the south experience. My skin colour overwhelmingly works in my favour here and brings with it vast amounts of power. I wish we could all just live happily together without regard for our skin colours. With most people and for much of my experience here, that has been more or less the case. But I can’t escape the fact that I say that from the a very privileged vantage point.

A final thought that just occurred to me - some of this power is probably linked to my perceived economic power. That’s hard to separate from my race in Itipini but is a separate factor at work. Another post, I guess.

Play, magic fingers, play

This week we had an old but still playable piano donated to our after-school gym/games room and it has sucked me in. Where I go, the pre-school follows and we’ve had quite the time this week singing our usual repetoirie of songs with the piano instead of my guitar. It is so much fun.Actually, there was a slightly un-fun bit when I tried to re-create my energetic and smashing endings on the guitar. I pushed back the bench and stood up, still pounding away on the keys. As I came down for the final chord, my head also came down with a sudden jerk. Unfortunately, it came into direct contact with the upright part of the piano. From the perspective of the pre-schoolers, it added to the overall experience, I’m sure, and made the ending smashing indeed. It just gave me a headache.

O Nkosi Jesu

This post might only appeal to those of you who worked with me at Bement Camp but it was such a moment of joy for me.

At Bement, we had a song called “O Nkosi Jesu” that we told the campers was in Zulu, a language closely related to Xhosa. By the time I was put in charge of music, the staff who had introduced the song to camp were long gone and the exact translation of the song had faded into the mists of time. I had a general idea of what the song was supposed to say but often felt like I was making up a new translation every time I introduced the song. I realized a week or so ago, however, that I actually knew all the vocabulary in the song (thanks to months in Xhosa-language church services) and could translate it all by myself.

So, without further ado, let me present the FINAL, CONCLUSIVE, and DEFINITIVE translation of “O Nkosi Jesu” (in Xhosa not Zulu, which explains a few changes some clever eyes might notice):

O Nkosi Jesu - O Lord Jesus
Wadala wezinto zonke - You have created everything
Wanqaba ukufa - You have conquered death
Wanqaba uSatane - You have conquered Satan
On the plus side, my translations usually hinted at this meaning on most days. As an added bonus, I’ve learned the q in the third and fourth lines are clicks, which makes the song even more fun to sing.


August 5, 2008

Happy Birthday… to me!

I’ve never been big on having birthday parties for myself but the impending anniversary of my birth gave me the opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while - invite the Itipini staff over to my house and say goodbye to everyone before I take my break from Mthatha. Under beautiful, warm skies, about 30 of us (staff and family were invited) had a great afternoon in my front yard, eating hamburgers, potato salad, and birthday cake. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

August 4, 2008

Life in the Lollys

Several months ago, I first broached to Mkuseli the idea of spending a weekend with him when he went home to his village to visit his mother. Mthatha is surrounded by what are known as “rural areas” in English or “ilala” (I think I’ve spelled that right) in Xhosa. (Non-Xhosa speakers sometimes call the villages “lollys” to show how much they think they know.) People from Itipini are always going to or returning from them and I wanted to see what it was like. He thought this was a terrific idea and promptly invited me for a weekend… in July. I have plenty of time on my hands here and decided I could wait. It was well worth the wait as Mkuseli invited me for the unveiling of five tombstones of his relatives. Often when a person dies, the family can’t afford the tombstone so when they have enough money for one, they have a party when they unveil it. It is such a common occurrence, there’s even a service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer for it. With five tombstones, it was a big party and a huge family reunion and I was happy to be a small part of it.

We left after work on Friday and took two taxis to Mkuseli’s village, called Makhotyana. It was less than an hour from Mthatha but when you’re squeezed in a taxi it can feel much longer. We spent the evening greeting everyone and I was proudly shown off as the token umlungu friend/guest. It was an intense Xhosa experience for me and I found it exhausting. But I did manage to marvel at all the people, the festive atmosphere, the cow and sheep carcasses in one of the rondavels from which people were cutting meat as they needed it, the sheer number of pots cooking a variety of foods over open fires, and much, much more. Mkuseli and his wife have a pleasant, small hut as part of his family’s area. He is the first-born and he showed me parts of the village where he has land and would like to build but no money to do so. Though he has lived in Mthatha for at least 15 years, it was easy to tell that Makhotyana is still his home and he was clearly at ease being here. The village itself is pretty big - I bet it has at least a 1000 residents - but surrounding it is sprawling, open, uncultivated fields. In the distance, you can see similiarly-sized villages and as the sun set (gorgeous, by the way), the twinkling lights of other villages came into view in a way that made me think of Biblical stories of armies facing each other and being able to judge each other only by the number of camp fires the other side has.Mkuseli has one daughter, Lelethu, who in the past has been quiet and shy around me. But my presence on her home turf changed matters considerably and she promptly attached herself to me and displayed a outgoing and bubbling personality I had never seen before. She kept up a constant stream of chatter as well, which I usually find endearing, but found exhausting from her as she doesn’t speak a word of English but expected me to respond to everything she said.On Saturday morning, I took a walk around the village and got promptly lost (or, as I prefer, “temporarily confused”). This happens infrequently to me so it is especially disconcerting when it does but I managed to make my way back in time for the service. The service itself was not unusual in the context of what I’ve experienced here. I mostly remember the heat of the sun, the constant singing, and then our procession to the graves where the tombstones, covered in sheets, were unveiled. The oldest death was from 1967; the most recent from 2005. This family has been saving for a while.Afterwards, the one or two hundred people in attendance ate. The women set up the big cauldrons they have in a row and start passing plates down the line, dishing out as they go. The plates then go to the men who cooked the meat, who put on a big hunk of something before they are distributed around. There were more people than plates so we had to eat in shifts. As always, the food was great.I had an invitation to stay until Monday morning when Mkuseli would be returning to town in time for work but by this point, end-of-the-week exhaustion had caught up with me, compounded, no doubt, by all the Xhosa I had been listening to and speaking. I was also tired of being the one white person and decided I would much rather spend Sunday in church, where I am unremarkably exceptional now, rather than the village, where I was notably exceptional.

I headed out to the main road and caught a taxi back to Mthatha. I was even more squished in this time than on Friday. All my fellow passengers were women on the way back from funerals. Would you believe we fit 17 people in this bakkie?

Mike and Sam

The Episcopal Church’s Young Adult Service Corps - the program that is responsible for putting me in Mthatha - has given me a number of gifts. All the ways in which I’ve been shaped and grown by my time here are the obvious ones.

But I’m also grateful for how it has opened my eyes to the work of the Episcopal Church on a national level, rather than at the individual parish or diocesan level, which is how I used to think of the church. Along with that, I’ve met a number of people from around the country who are in similar positions and dealing with similar issues as I am at this stage in my life. It’s been a great gift to interact with these people and I look forward to more of it in the years ahead, as well as the chance to meet more similar people. Young (and old) Episcopalians are cool people to hang out with.

This past week Mike Angell, a former YASC volunteer in Honduras, and his brother Sam visited Itipini as part of their vacation in South Africa. I never would have crossed paths with them without the link of the national church and their visit was a special blessing in the midst of an otherwise normal week. One thing you quickly find out about the church is just how small it is and how we all know the same people.

We tried to get a picture of Mike, Sam, me, and Sarah, a new volunteer in Itipini but finding someone in Itipini who knows how to work a camera is a challenge. Only Sarah made the cut.

But I managed a fine one of Mike and Sam.


Sometimes on a slow day, I play a game with the children I call Ndipakamise, which translates as “make me get up.” I lie down on the ground, the pre-schoolers gather round and together pull and push and yank and try to make me stand up. It is sort of like Gulliver and the Lilluptians, only the Lilluptians are not trying to tie me down. Hilarity, at least from my perspective, and some sort of a pig pile often ensues.

This child always seems to want to grab my foot and tug. I’m always struck by the size of my foot next to his torso and the other day had him pose for a picture.

August 1, 2008


I haven’t used the blog like this before but because of my Lesotho trip I missed the opportunity to read the issue of the Nome Nugget online that followed the Midnight Sun Festival. I had really been looking forward to the opportunity to see those pictures. If you have a copy of that issue hanging around, would you mind sending it to me at the address in the right-hand column?


Tragedy, Unfolded

I wrote a few months back about a recent widow, a young woman who went by the name of “NoFirst.” She had about five children under the age of eight or nine, her husband recently died from TB and HIV, and she herself was HIV-positive and had recently tested positive for TB. I called it an “unfolding tragedy” and wondered about what the future held in store for this family and especially the children, who faced a very real chance of being orphaned at a young age. If you don’t remember that post, you should check it out now or none of the following will make sense.

In mid-May or so, about halfway through NoFirst’s TB treatment, the whole family picked up and went to their rural village home for what was supposed to be a two-week visit. We haven’t seen them since.

On Tuesday, I was chatting with a woman I know to be a friend of the family’s and asked about NoFirst. In English, the friend replied, “NoFirst, she has died.” It absolutely floored me and my instant reaction (for the first time ever) was in Xhosa, “Nyani!” (“Really!” or “No way!”) To check, I used a few Xhosa words for death and the woman just nodded. NoFirst had seemed reasonably healthy when she left and her CD4 count wasn’t extraordinarily low so I don’t know what happened so suddenly to lead to her death.

The children are with their grandmother now in the rural village and I imagine they’ll stay there indefinitely. I find the whole situation unbelievably heartbreaking.