October 30, 2008

A mission joke

A Catholic missionary spends several years working in a remote part of the world among a tribe known for its cannibalism. Home on leave, his friends ask him how the evangelism is going. “Very well,” he responds. “We’ve got them to the point where they now only eat fishermen on Fridays.”

October 28, 2008

No idea what to do

Sometimes life throws up situations and I realize I have absolutely no idea about how best to handle them.

One came on Monday when a young woman came into the clinic to tell us that her sister had just given birth to a stillborn baby. Her water had broke and they were on their way to the maternity ward at the government clinic up the hill when the woman had been forced to stop and give birth in a field. (It is generally known that we do not do births - or try not to, at any rate - but we could have given them a ride if we had known. I got the sense the situation had developed very rapidly.) Jenny was out for a moment so I went up to the their shack to which they had returned with the corpse. It was so small - the birth was two months pre-mature - and wrapped in a towel on the floor.

How would you handle this situation? How would you handle this situation while working in another language?

I had no idea what to do so I followed the advice in that familiar saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi - “first do what is necessary, then what is possible, and soon you are doing the impossible.” I inquired about the health of the mother, which, given my lack of appropriate vocabulary, would have been comical if it hadn’t been such a tragic moment. But she wasn’t bleeding and had delivered the placenta and seemed to be physically alright. Then we decided to call the funeral home to come pick up the baby.

Jenny came back a bit later and checked the mother again and was generally a reassuring older presence. I realized the mother was younger than me and her sister about my age. They had no one to fall back on to support them and comfort them with the wisdom of their years. And here were the three of us trying to figure out what to do with a stillborn baby.

Who put us in charge?

No title needed

October 25, 2008

A Death in the Family

I had been planning on posting this picture without much comment, aside from something about how this child can wear a shirt on his head and too-small shirt on his body and still have a winning smile.There are a lot of pictures of this child - his name is Simnikiwe - on this blog because he is a regular feature of my days. His mother, Makiwa, works in the kitchen so he comes to work with her and hangs around, hopefully in the pre-school but not always.

We learned on Monday morning that his father, Bafo, had died on Saturday, quite suddenly. He had been at work on Friday, came home feeling sick, got really sick overnight, went to the hospital on Saturday, and died there.

It’s a tragedy anytime anyone dies here but this one hit everyone on the staff harder than usual. In part, it was the suddenness of the death but it also had something to do with the fact that Makiwa and Bafo were one of the few couples I know here who were actually married and - even more impressive - obviously still in love after many years of marriage. Both Bafo and Makiwa had jobs, making them a singularly exceptional couple in this town.

I took this picture a few months back of the two of them and was disappointed with how it turned out.
But I reasoned I would always have a chance to take another sometime. That’s one lesson - there’s always another time - I am trying to unlearn because too often there is not another time.

The staff made the usual pilgrimage to Makiwa’s house on Tuesday to pay our respects. It’s clear Simnikiwe doesn’t understand what has happened because he was so happy to see us and we quickly fell into our usual play routines.
But he still sat (mostly) quietly and watched us sing and pray. I wonder what was going through his head as he watched what was going on?

Some Pig?

I’ve mentioned before how roaming pigs are a constant of life in Itipini. Indeed, that was part of the reason I chose “Charlotte’s Web” for my high-school English class.
We finished “Charlotte’s Web on Wednesday, in the nick of time too as end-of-the-year exams begin next week. It was unanimously voted better than “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Ironically, on Friday I saw my first ever pig slaughter in Itipini, right on the other side of the fence that surrounds our playground.
Where’s Charlotte when you need her?

Jenny makes a house call

Walking the walk

Several times last month, after I had given my slide presentation on Itipini, people would ask, “Where are all the men?” because I had shown a lot of pictures of women and children but not so many of men. I responded with a shortened version of some of the thoughts I have shared on this topic on this blog. And I always added something like, “One of my goals for this next year is to get to know more men better.” I thought this made me sound reasonable and mature but deep inside I had no idea how I would begin and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to.

On the day I returned to Itipini a few weeks ago, I was almost immediately handed some papers. It turns out a group of young men had banded together in my absence and formed what we might call a cooperative to make and sell such things as soap and candles. What they needed was funding. Since I am the micro-credit guy in Itipini, it became my job to work with them and figure out how to make the idea work. Sometimes I like it when God is a little more subtle than this.

Since that first day we have had a few meetings with no discernible progress as of yet. As with any other business proposal, I am trying to strike the right balance between making them cross enough hurdles to prove their seriousness but not create so many they lose hope. I am additionally skeptical because I have seen so many of these young men outside the shebeens (bars) in Itipini, drunk as can be, and I’m a bit wary of them taking whatever money we might give them and spending it there. The most recent hurdle was for them to go into town to figure out how much everything would cost and tell me. That was a week ago and they promised to look into it right away and let me know but I haven’t heard from anyone yet.

In thinking about this, I’ve also had to come to grips with my own feelings of dislike and distaste I have for these young men. I wrote about this before in regards to one particular person but I’ve come to realize it is just hard for me to like this group of people more generally. Often when I see them they are working out in the gym or playing pool while so many women are working so hard around them. I know several them are fathers of the children in the pre-school and yet I act like a better father than they do. Many of their girlfriends are HIV-positive but so few of them have even been tested for HIV. Sometimes I just want to throttle all of them and knock some sense into them.
Clearly, the situation I’ve just described is in need of many things but one thing might be a sort of mentor figure who could help provide a little positive direction in their lives.

And there’s one obvious candidate for that job.

October 23, 2008

It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas

Christmas - and pre-school graduation - will be on us sooner than you know it. The pre-school children aren't wasting any time practicing their songs for graduation.

“Give me oil in my Ford, keep my trucking for the Lord…”

I’ve mentioned before that one thing I find myself doing quite often is driving people to a nearby government clinic or the hospital for more care than we are able to provide. It is not much of a challenge for a healthy person to get themselves to these places but for someone with a very low CD4 count and general weakness brought about by AIDS, it can be an insurmountable challenge. But since the care they need to survive can only be obtained at these places, it is absolutely necessary they get there. Pakama, a woman who was once quite sick but is now much stronger, is one example of a person who got better because we were able to drive her so many places. Obviously, we don’t want to overdue it with the rides - and sometimes perfectly healthy people start wanting rides and we clearly say no - but it is clear that our ability to transport people is a crucial service we provide.

There are two cars we use. The first is the little red volunteer car.
And there’s Jenny’s truck (or bakkie, which is the preferred word around here).
The reason I mention all this is that when I was in the U.S. last month raising money, many people heard about, say, the new micro-credit project and wanted to give money that could be spent only on that. I’m grateful for this expression of support but if I took all the money people offered me for that, there’s no way I would be able to responsibly spend it all on micro-loans, particularly because, as I’ve said, I think a key part of that project is that we are starting very small.

What I ended up saying to a lot of people is that targeted donations are fine but there are other important expenses that no one ever wants to target their donation for, like gas for instance. And yet it is gas for our vehicles that allows us to do some of the very concrete, tangible, and life-changing work that we do. (The other major area of expense for us that is often over-looked is salaries for our dozen local employees. All of them are the major bread-winners in their families and I am always surprised at how many people those salaries end up supporting.) I’ve looked at various foundations and grant agencies to explore other avenues of funding but they all seem to want us either to build a new building or start a new project - none ever want to support day-to-day operations, no matter how successful those may be already.

(And, by the way, have I mentioned how expensive gas is? It’s no different here than anywhere else in the world, of course, though I find it strange that when oil prices spiral, so does the gas price but when they plunge, the gas price takes a lot longer to fall.)

This is by no means a plea for money but it is, I hope, a chance for everyone to think about how we give money. The question I asked in the sermon I preached last month is, when we write a check, “in what way does that check proceed from a relationship and in what way does it further a relationship?” When you build a relationship with an organization (it could be African Medical Mission that funds our work here or it could be any domestic or foreign organization of your choice), then hopefully you have built up a level of trust with that organization as well so that you can confidently believe that they’ll spend the money you give them in the best way possible. That, I believe, is the best kind of giving.

Up close and personal

October 18, 2008

A New CD

Last month, many of you who saw me in action purchased a copy of the Itipini Choir CD, made about two years ago. The money from the sale of those CDs is going towards another CD and for a variety of reasons, that new CD is to be recorded in just two weeks.

Fortunately, the choir has been rehearsing for quite some time and on Friday we had a bit of a dry run so we could decide which songs to put on the CD. It was a great rehearsal.
Jenny got mobbed by quite a few children who kept wanting to see what was going on.

Some of you may recall that a while back, I lent a hand to the choir-directing business. I am trying to take a hands-off approach to this project, in part because Mkuseli has things so well under control but mostly because they sound so good already I’m doubtful I could contribute anything. But I have had a hand in the list of songs and am hoping my Bement heritage shines through on one or two numbers.

We’re headed down the coast to a town called Grahamstown to record the CD - should be a great road trip!

And as a treat for all of you, I managed to upload some video! I had to keep them short so I wouldn't be in the Internet cafe all day uploading them and they are not as good as hearing it in real life, but still pretty good.

Another funeral

This past Monday, on the way into Itipini in the morning, we passed a hearse on the way out - always a bad sign. It turns out a 10-month old baby had died. I can’t say I have any particular memories of the child but I do know the mother fairly well - here she is in happier days.
It’s hard to know what exactly was responsible for the death of the child, other than a generalized failure to thrive. It is disheartening to know that I’ve been in Itipini long enough to see an entire cycle of life, from birth to death in one baby.

On Thursday, the family had the funeral and I drove many of them out to the graveyard for the funeral. Like the previous funeral I attended, it was an object lesson in just how common death is around here. There are plenty of empty graves just waiting to be filled. I had thought there wasn’t much that was sadder than a row of empty graves but now I know that an empty row of child-sized graves is pretty sad.

The coffin was so tiny.
Afterwards, they had the usual post-funeral feast - evidentially, the age of the deceased is not proportional (nor should it be) to the amount of food because they had a lot. And so in the midst of the trash and the dirty, tumble-down shacks of Itipini, with a thunderstorm approaching, we ate… and ate well.
Still, even that doesn’t cover the inescapable tragedy of the occasion.

Just hanging out at the dump

October 15, 2008

New volunteer

We have a new volunteer in Itipini and she has a blog too. Check out her great post about the challenge of "doing" nothing while here.

This is pretty... and only an hour from Mthatha

October 13, 2008

Welcome back to South Africa, Jesse

All my life, I have stuck to the belief that I should only buy cheap sunglasses given my tendency to break or lose them. As a camp counselor, I would frequently start the summer with three or five pairs and be fortunate to end the summer with one.

But while shopping in the U.S. this past month I decided the time had come to turn over a new leaf: I was going to purchase a pair of sunglasses that cost more than five dollars. After all, I reasoned, I’m older, wiser, and take better care of my possessions now. (I was apparently willfully ignoring the fact that I had lost a pair just a few weeks prior while kayaking Lake Simcoe in Ontario.) So I picked out a pair that cost about 25-dollars (no need to overdo it all at once, you see) and patted myself on the back for my newfound maturity.

Well, it’s good thing they only cost 25-dollars because they’re already gone and I hadn’t even worn them once. I got separated from my luggage on the way back to Mthatha and when I was finally reunited with it five days later, someone had obviously given it a thorough working-over and the sunglasses - and some other items - were long gone. Unfortunately, this is a fairly common story with checked luggage in South Africa.

I was kicking myself the whole way across the Atlantic for forgetting to pack a few crucial items. Now I’m glad they’re safely on my parents’ couch.

There are lots of sunglasses for sale on the streets of Mthatha and they are all blessedly inexpensive.


One thing I learned while I was on my break is that - understandably - not everyone knows how to pronounce Mthatha and several asked for a guide. So here it is.

Mthatha is pronounced MM-ta-ta. Do not pronounce the “th” sound like in English. The h is a breath mark that makes the t softer so the Xhosa words “tata” (father) and “thatha” (take) are pronounced with subtle differences. And do not add an a-sound to the first syllable. It is not MA-tha-tha or any variation thereof. The alternate spelling is Umtata and it is much easier to see the pronunciation that way.

Itipini is pronounced IH-tih-PEE-ni

Xhosa is pronounced with the x-click in the first syllable. If you can’t make that sound, use a k-sound instead and say KO-sa.

Does that help?

October 11, 2008

Inside a spaza shop

One of the first things I did this week was check on the progress of the nine women we lent money to in August in the first round of loans of our new micro-credit program. First, the good news: all nine have begun to repay the money. The not-so-good news is that not all of them have stuck to the consistent repayment schedule that we worked out with each person individually. Some have missed a few payments and so are already behind. But at least they’ve proven they understand the idea of repayment; now it is a matter of making those more consistent.

I’ve haven’t spoken with all our borrowers yet but I did have a few good encounters on Thursday when I made the rounds to the few women who have started spaza shops, what we might call a convenience store in North America.

This is a Nobathembu and she is standing in front of the wares she has been selling for the last month and a half. You can see in the picture eggs, candles, matches, sugar, vegetables, cooking oil, cookies, juice mix, beans, and more for sale.
And she’s selling all that out of this house.
So far, she is one of our star borrowers and has made every repayment on time. The initial loan was R1500 (a little less than $200) and she is repaying R50 (about $7) per week.

You might remember Nobathembu from a story I told a few months ago about how she was pretty sick. I was uncertain about how much to let that knowledge influence the decision about the loan. Ultimately, as she was looking stronger and her condition seemed to be improving, her health didn’t seem like a major issue. But she has not been doing well lately and she looked markedly worse when I saw her on Thursday than I remember her. It’s a reminder of something I told people frequently last month, that development issues like health, education, development are all deeply inter-related.


One of the great things about being in the U.S. and Canada recently was the opportunity to talk to people about Itipini directly, rather than through e-mails or blog post after blog post. And, of course, all that conversation was in English.

I mention this because now that I have returned to Itipini, I want to tell all my co-workers and friends here what I was up to while I was gone. I want to tell them about all the new people I met, the new sights I saw, and all the little things that made the break such a treat. But there’s the small problem of language - I lack the vocabulary to say any of that. So when people ask me where I’ve been I say, “at my parents’ house,” which is true but only part of the truth. When they ask how it was I say, “bekumnandi - it was nice,” also true, but again not completely. (Mnandi is the all-purpose Xhosa adjective for “nice,” “pleasant,” or, as some of you may remember, “tasty.”) How do I tell them about the joy of seeing an old friend again for the first time in many years, or the numerous frustrations along the way, or pretty much anything of any interest that happened to me while I was gone?

The plunge back into a Xhosa-dominant workplace was a tremendous shock this week. After talking, talking, and talking, incessantly and in a variety of situations in September, I was confronted again with the challenge of expressing and understanding simple concepts in another language. But I was pleased at how little I had forgotten. I knew so little when I left that if I had forgotten anything it would have been back to square one!


Some of you may have seen this recent article in the New York Times, chronicling the disappointment and frustration some South Africans feel with their country, as the 15th anniversary of the 1994 election approaches.

Fourteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa — the global pariah that became a global inspiration — has lapsed into gloom and anxiety about its future, surely not the harmonious “rainbow nation” so celebrated by Nelson Mandela on his inauguration day.
I don’t have enough Xhosa to be able to plumb the depths of the feelings of the people I see in Itipini every day but I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed in English in my time here. The most stunning perhaps was as I waited in line at a grocery store. The young black man behind me pointed at the picture of then-President Thabo Mbeki on the cover of the paper and said to me, “I don’t want him to be president anymore; I liked it when people like you” - meaning white people, not, I presume, tall people or people with a large gap between their front teeth - “were in charge.” There was also my first South African friend who told me, “One thing about the previous government - yes, we were mistreated, we were disrespected, but we had jobs. Now we have a government that promises jobs - where are the jobs? Where are the houses?”

A (white) friend of mine in Mthatha drew a striking parallel once and I’ve been waiting for the opportune moment to steal her comment and post it here; this seems like it. She said that South Africans now are a lot like the Hebrews were as they wandered in the Sinai for 40 years after leaving Egypt. Did they “grin and bear it”? Did they keep their focus on the Promised Land that awaited them? Nope. They sat around and complained to Moses that life was better in Egypt - where they had been slaves! - than it was in the desert. This is a repeated theme in the Exodus story, like in 16:3 and 17:2-3.

The parallel is correct I think but it must be cold comfort to present-day South Africans who still have to wait 26 years to arrive in their Promised Land.

October 8, 2008

Capital Improvements

I had my first day back in Itipini today, stepping off the plane and heading straight to work. (In retrospect, not a terrific idea as I yawned my way through most conversations.) Aside from the very warm welcome I received, the first thing I noticed was all the changes. I knew about them in advance but it was still a surprise to come back to.

Our old kitchen and store rooms - that were in major disrepair; at one point in July, I leaned against one of the walls and fell through - have been torn down…
...and will soon be replaced with a much better (and bigger) building.
In the meantime, it has turned our playground into a construction zone.

Our small after-school garden
...has now more than doubled in size.

And this guy…
...finished his new shack.

I’ll have more to say about the welcome I received from the people in Itipini (and the struggle to find the right vocabulary to tell them about my trip) but let me just show this picture.
This child followed me around all day (literally!), even climbing up the playground with me when I took some pictures. It’s nice to be missed.

October 6, 2008

Get me outta here!

I begin the long journey back to South Africa tomorrow morning... and not a moment too soon, as far as I'm concerned. Turns out it gets cold in northern Ontario in early October and mid-day highs in the 40s (single digits Celsius) do not impress me at all. Take me back some place where it's spring!

It has been a good break and I've been grateful for all of it but I'm equally grateful for the opportunity to return to Itipini, buoyed, this time, by the knowledge that so many people are interested in what I am doing. I'll do my best to continue to relate my experience on this blog so, please, keep coming back.

First Time Here?

The problem with blogs is that as soon as you post something new, something old gets pushed farther back into the archives. I've directed lots and lots of new readers to this blog in the last few weeks but all you'd find on the front page is a few random posts about Sarah Palin, another about some third-grade students in South Carolina, and a picture of a big stack of books.

To remedy that, I have here a list of links to a collection of posts that does a better job summarizing the sort of things I've been up to in the last year. If you've been a faithful reader for the last year, you can ignore this post. But if you're new, I encourage you to click on a link that interests you and read more about my first year as an overseas missionary of the Episcopal Church. The links are the underlined and coloured bits of text.

I preached a sermon before I left summarizing my take on the word missionary. I preached another this past month, linking that word to my experience.

A major pre-occupation of mine this past year has concerned the distinction between being and doing.

I spend a lot of time interacting with people who have HIV and AIDS. There are numerous stories on this blog about them but a few of them are Fumanekile, Pakama, Nosisi, and Nosipho.

I've been working on starting a small micro-credit program in Itipini.

I work with a group of high-school students after school and have started a book club with them.

My guitar-playing makes me popular with the pre-school children.

I've reflected a lot of what it is like to work in another culture, how loneliness keeps creeping into my life, how concepts like isomorphic attribution play out in real life, if mission work really is a "noble pursuit", what it is like to be male in Itipini, what "the accident of birth" means, and what it is like to be a member of a non-English language church, among much else.

There are pictures of people in Itipini all over this blog and I've posted an album to Flickr.

I also was blessed to have two great trips, one to Uganda and the other to Lesotho.

That's only a brief dip into the 278 (and counting posts) on this blog but hopefully it will give new visitors a chance to orient themselves.

Remember, you can also join my monthly e-mail newsletter list by sending me an e-mail.

And I keep updating this blog - so that means you need to keep coming back and reading it!

October 3, 2008

It takes all kinds

In my tour of the U.S., many people were very generous in their financial support of Itipini and my work there and I’ll have more to say about that in another post. But I want to tell the story here of one donor in particular, whose name, I must confess, I do not know. Here’s how much he gave me.That’s right, one dollar. That very dollar bill, in fact, pulled out of his jeans pocket, smoothed out, and handed to me on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

I was strolling down Fifth Avenue, taking in a few of the tourist sights in a brief moment of down-time. As I did so, a young, black man, dressed in all the accoutrements of urban cool - baggy, low-slung jeans, ostentatious jewelry, a cigar in his hand, a do-rag on his head - shoved a CD in my hands and began his sales pitch. He’s raising money for his third (music?) video by selling the CDs and won’t I please just buy one? Sometimes I’m pretty good about extricating myself from situations like this but I found myself drawn in (he complimented me on my shirt, which helped, particularly as it had cost me about $2.37 at Goodwill) and started answering his questions - where am I from? what do I do? So it quickly came out that I live in South Africa and work with people with AIDS and, in fact, was in New York City raising money and awareness for that exact cause.

This gave my new friend a reason to pause, after which he stuffed his hand in his pocket and pulled out the dollar. I did my best to refuse it but he would not take no for answer so I smiled, thanked him, stuffed it in my pocket, and carried on, feeling smugly self-satisfied at my ability to raise money without even trying. I made it about four more blocks, thinking about how I wanted to tell this story on this blog - mostly to show off my fundraising prowess - and decided I needed a picture of my donor to go with the post. So I turned around and headed back and found my friend again. I felt obligated this time to buy a CD (he more than got his dollar back) but I did get my picture - he made me wear his beaded necklace, by the way.
And I had a longer conversation with him about his background and his work that makes the memory of this encounter less about my fundraising ability than about the similarities between people all over the world.

It takes all kinds to do God’s work.

Nome Promo

"I like big books and I cannot lie" -Sir Read-a-Lot

Here's a picture of how many books I acquired in this past six weeks of travel, some new, some used, some recent, and some quite old. I think I only purchased four or five of them and the rest were gifts (thanks!).
I think I've mentioned before that Mthatha doesn't have a good bookstore or library so it's BYOB when you live there and like to read, provided, of course, you can figure out a way to fit all those in your suitcase without passing the weight limit.

Last Thursday, at St. Mark's, East Longmeadow, MA

Now just imagine 15 or so more events like this one and you'll have a pretty good idea how I spent September.

October 1, 2008

Been there, done that

CNN went to Little Diomede island to check out how, indeed, you can see Russia from Alaska.

I've done that. In the late spring of 2007, I spent a couple nights on the floor of the Little Diomede school. Unlike CNN, I couldn't afford the helicopter ride, so I could only go when the sea was frozen and a plane could land on the ice in front of the village. Then the weather turned bad and I got stuck there longer than I planned because the planes couldn't land. (Only one extra night in my case; I knew a guy in Nome who got stuck there three weeks once.)

The CNN story makes it sound like the residents there are an uneducated bunch - no one seems to be asked a question that allowed for more than a two-word response and the reporter seems to be the star of the segment. I found the opposite to be the case. As with many other residents of remote Alaskan villages I met during my two years reporting on the region, I found people in Little Diomede to be interested in and up-to-date on what is going on in the world. Ask them about global warming, bird flu, alcoholism, or a host of other topics and you'll get some fascinating responses.

In fact, I've managed to dredge up two of my radio stories from that visit. Both were broadcast on the Alaska Public Radio Network's AK show. The first was about the impact of global warming on the community and the second about its proximity to Big Diomede. The first story is the lead segment of this show. (You can see the text rundown of the show.) The second story is in the last third of this show (text rundown is here).

Incidentally, there are at least two other places in Alaska you can see Russia and I've been to both. The first is Gambell on St. Lawrence Island and the second is Wales, the westernmost point on the North American continent.

This is a picture I took from the beach in Wales, looking west around midnight on Labor Day 2007. The land mass in the center of the picture is the Diomedes and on the right is the Russian mainland.


It has come to my attention that at least one of the Itipini Choir CDs I was so recently proudly selling does not work. If that's the case with your CD, please let me know and we'll try to sort something out.