Saturday, June 30, 2012

Simply Living

I’ve been thinking a lot about a frequently used YAGM phrase- Live Simply so others may Simply Live. I’ve been thinking about how that has applied to my life here in Kimberley and how it will come into play upon my return home.

A large part of being a YAGM and going to a different culture is to live simply within your community. During the first month in Kimberley it definitely felt like simple living when comparing it to what I came from. Water, transportation, food, and entertainment- everything was scarcer, less varied, smaller, or nonexistent. It was new, but with each day everything became more habitual. At this point, life feels just as it always has- normal.

Now that I have gained this equilibrium, I’m questioning this simple life that I have been given the opportunity to live and comparing it to others in my community. In doing so, I see that I am still sitting quite pretty. The majority of people that I know, that are my neighbors, friends, and coworkers, do not have a room of their own, do not have a television, do not have dinner prepared for them each night, do not have running water, do not have taxi fare every single day, and let’s get realistic, some of the kids I know by name do not have a roof over their heads.

These are all things that I have. Everyday, no problem.

My house in Kimberley

This hit me pretty hard one Sunday. I was getting ready really early in the morning to take the kids at Thusong to church. It has been so cold here and I really did not want to be out from under my covers. I had a hot cup of coffee, put on my North Face winter jacket, earmuffs, scarf, and gloves and headed off on my 45-minute walk to Thusong. I felt really sorry for myself the entire way there. When I got to Thusong I saw all the kids waiting for me in front of one of the houses where the only bit of morning sun was shining. No one had on a winter jacket. A few had on a pullover or track jacket and a few of the guys were still in shorts with their socks pulled up as high as they could go. Everyone was looking as cold as they felt. I stood there feeling like a complete idiot. I was so ashamed of myself. As I walked home after church the sun was high and the day turned hot. I was annoyed that I was now sweating, but mostly I was annoyed with myself and the attitude I had earlier that morning. 

So this is where my questions come in. This is where I wonder about my simple living in South Africa. Here is where my privilege slaps me in the face and says that even when “living simply”, I am comfortable.

Being a comfortable YAGM is a terribly uncomfortable feeling.

Some of the girls at Thusong receiving donated blankets on Family Day in South Africa

This feeling has caused me to switch up my schedule during this last month in Kimberley. On afternoons when most of the kids are at school I usually sit in Thusong’s office going through and organizing files. Now I spend those hours walking into town and spending some time with the boys who previously had lived at Thusong but now just…don’t. I hate to tell you that there hasn’t once been a time when I have gone into town and not found at least one of these boys. They are usually walking around with others or sometimes they are handing out fliers or washing cars, which I’m sure someone tossed them 5 Rand to do. During each of these visits my heart grows a little tighter. We usually sit on the curb, share a few granola bars, and I try to ask them where they have been staying, usually without much luck. We share a few laughs, tell each other that we miss and care for the other and then hug goodbye.

I know these interactions don’t change the fact that I have and they do not have, but for a portion of my day I get the chance to sit on the street and listen to what a boy has to say and I allow myself into the reality of another. I become uncomfortable that their reality is real.

Being uncomfortable is the exact feeling I want to have.

Knosi, George, Joy 

So, bringing this back to going home. Home, sweet home. There’s no place like home. Nothing more comfortable than that.

I may never see any of these kids and teenagers again; these kids who don’t even have a postal address. I may never be back in Kimberley or hear whether or not the kids graduate Matric or what it is that they go on to do. I may never get another chance to tell them how much they mean to me and how much they have affected my life.

I just hope that in going home I never lose this uncomfortable feeling I have when I see the troubles they go through (uncomfortable being an extremely understated word here).

These same issues happen in the United States as well. Right there in hometown Racine, Wisconsin. It’s a challenge to live differently from what you’re used to but in my experience it’s when I’m uncomfortable that I’ve learned the most and truly experienced real life. Going home doesn’t mean that it’s time to go back to being comfortable. Leaving South Africa doesn’t mean that we no longer seek out those who live differently from us, who’s lives and histories may make us feel uncomfortable, who may need someone it sit and share a few stories with.

I have a new standpoint on ‘living simply’. Acts such as taking shorter showers and not overeating are important and things that we can and should all do, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s more than being conservative with resources and not indulging ourselves.

I think that living simply includes simply listening to a different perspective, or simply accepting other lifestyles, or simply giving not just money but a few hours of your time, or simply admitting when you’re wrong, or simply seeing the world and all it’s complexities that affect each and every one of us. Simply taking the chance to be uncomfortable in order to lift up another and in return lift up yourself.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Family Day with my Thusong brothers

South Africa’s “Family Day” was this month and I got the chance to work with Families South Africa (FAMSA) to organize a special event for some of the guys at Thusong.

For the event I took 14 of the boys who do not go to mainstream school to the prison in Kimberley. Along with FAMSA, the inmates organized an program just for the boys. It was a unique experience, which drew up a whole lot of different emotions within me. I sat back and watched, trying to see it all through the eyes of my young friends who are unfortunately part of the percentage of young males in South Africa most vulnerable to a future stay in prison.

The inmates were eager to share their stories and directed their words forwards the boys. We heard from men who had come from a life on the street similar to the current situation of many of our guys. We heard from men who have learned consequences of drugs and violence and we heard from men who haven’t been able to see their families or hold their children for over 10 years. The conversations flowed as if these men were talking to their teenage selves, giving them a glimpse into a future that could possibly be avoided.

In between these stories the inmates entertained us with their band and worship team. We also watched several skits on negative street life scenarios acted out by the inmate drama team. And, of course, they stood before us clapping, stomping and dancing while singing traditional African songs-, which by the way, and I don’t care how lame this sounds, is the most beautiful thing that I have ever heard in my entire life. It seriously brings tears to my eyes, whether sung by someone doing their wash on the other side of the fence, a traditionally dressed choir or a group of men in orange prison jumpsuits.

It wasn’t the most traditional way to celebrate ones family, but at Thusong we just aren’t that traditional. On our way home I looked back at 14 unrelated brothers promising each other that they’d keep each other in check so that they may never be back in that place.  

Here are some of the guys back at Thusong after a day at the prison.

Friday, June 8, 2012


I’ve talked a lot about the taxis here, or kombis as they are called. Kombis are white, 15 passenger vans, some much older than others, that transport people from villages and neighborhoods into town or from city to city. They can be found everywhere in South Africa, bigger cities and rural villages, although the more people around the more present the kombis are. Friends of mine who live in smaller villages can wait longer than two hours for a kombi to drive by and take them to town.

In Kimberley, the kombis generally run on the same route, like a bus. On my way into town I can just stand on the side of the road near my house and just wait for one to drive by. There are no stops, so people just shout out when they want to get out, sometimes causing us to make a quick turn and we end up going in a different direction. When people want to get out they will shout out an upcoming street or shop or something like ‘after robots’ (after the stop light). Sometimes if there are only two or three of us left on the kombi the driver will just say this is as far as we’re going to go and then we must get out and walk the rest of the way. On the way home from town I go to the rank or near the grocery store where there are kombis waiting to fill and drive back towards the neighborhoods and township. I rarely have to wait longer than 10 minutes for a kombi to fill and take off. However, when I take a kombi the 2 hours to or from Bloem, which I’ve had to do multiple times, I have waited in a kombi for 3 hours until we were full and could go. It’s all about timing sometimes. 

In Kimberley, we have guys called ‘john boys’ who stand in the aisle and collect the money and distribute change. They also open and close the door for everyone and constantly have their head out the window whistling at people to see if they need a ride while the driver lays on the horn- I hear these noises from my bed in the morning. In the other cities and villages I have been to the kombis don’t have john boys and the money is instead sent up to the front seat passenger to collect and make change. I have made the mistake of sitting up there and found myself with a lap full of cash and 15+ people to give change to. The driver rolled his eyes and ended up doing it for me while weaving through traffic.

Kombi rides have turned out to be one of my most favorite experiences in SA. I find myself squished in a van designed for 15 but holding 25 grown adults, listening to deafening SA house music, watching active and fascinating conversations take place and smiling at familiar faces. It’s a place of community in which I have loved to be a part of. 

Here is a photo of the kombi we use at my work. I’ve seen 30 kids climb out of this thing.
Many of the town kombis look like this, but others are newer and bigger and have this pretty waving South African flag running down the side. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In the last year I have gone from feeling completely confident and independent to quite dependent and clueless. Then after a while I began feeling confident again, and now I’m afraid I’ll be back to being clueless in two short months.

One year ago I had just graduated college, had a plan for the following year, and was feeling in charge and self-assured. During my college career in Madison I took care of myself, knew my way around and rarely second guessed decisions I made. I was lively, confident and rarely without friends around me. Then I moved to South Africa and my lifestyle…changed.

When I first arrived in South Africa I was very concerned with how I represented myself. I smiled a lot, giggled a lot, was overall way too happy, and not at all like myself. My host mother walked me around the first two weeks introducing me as her American daughter who has never been away from home and can’t cook (?). I always wanted to interject and correct that by saying I have actually lived away from home for four years and during that time fed myself. I didn’t, however, and just smiled.
During these first few months I was given warning after warning about safety and where I can and cannot go. I began to fear walking alone, although nothing ever happened to cause that tension. I was without a doubt dependent on so many who instructed me on how to get places alone, which kombis to take to town and which ways to walk to work. I listened and learned a lot but never felt like I was ever in control of my days, but rather was a follower of what I can and should do because I was a new comer. At work I observed these street children, most of whom are over 18, and wondered how I will ever be able to relate to them in a way that they would want to be my friend or allow me to teach and learn with them. To be honest, they intimidated me.
Overall, I was a baby in this new town and felt like my confidence and personality hadn’t developed.

It has been 9 month since I arrived in Kimberley and pretty much all of that has now changed, except I’m still pretty dependent on my community and I still haven’t had the chance to prove I can indeed cook beyond rice and instant oatmeal. My confidence is back and I’d like to think my friends in Kimberley would describe me in a way similar to what my friends in Madison would say. I stopped smiling ALL THE TIME and let myself have bad days. I have conversations that go deeper and through them I have been able to show what is interesting and important to me. I no longer rely on my host mother to do the introductions. People shout hello to me through windows as I walk down streets that were once unfamiliar and my phone rings at least once a day with someone wondering what I’m doing. The other week someone actually asked me for directions and I knew exactly where to tell them to go, which I’m sort of surprised that I was even asked because I couldn’t really look more out of place. Kombi drivers know my stops before I shout them out. Sometimes while walking up to the taxi someone will shout, “white girl to Beech Road”. At work, those who once intimidated me are now my friends, my sweet, caring, hilarious, and naughty but lovely friends. We take care of each other. I help them with their homework and engage in meaningful conversation and they will walk me half way to the taxis making sure I cross the “questionable bridge” with no problems. Not only the kids who consistently stay at the home, by the children who have chosen a life on the streets rather than at the home are my friends. Children that have most people crossing streets to avoid run up to me not to ask for money but for a hug or to say what’s up.

It’s amazing how much happens in 9 months.

Last September 2 months seemed like a long time. Now, not so much. Now that my confidence is back I’m nervous, afraid, timid to go back to a lifestyle so different from what I’ve become accustom to here in South Africa. I fear I may be, yet again, clueless when faced with North American culture, expectations, and the fast paced lifestyle. I’ll be going back to a college campus and will be walking around in a sea of people with headphones in and eyes straight ahead. Walking around my neighborhood in Kimberley, every single person says hello to me. I’m beginning to think, strategize in a way, how I can use what I’ve adapted to and learned in South Africa to engage with the people I’m with back at home and to modify the way I move around and speak.

…Because people probably won’t expect me to sit for two hours, over multiple cups of tea, when just dropping off a borrowed book. There probably will not be anyone willing to walk me to the door, only to end up walking me the entire kilometer home because conversation was good. Probably no one will give me all of their just bought avocados because I saw them in the car and mentioned I like them.

If I’ve learned anything in Kimberley, and South Africa as a whole, I have learned what a good neighbor is. I’ve learned what hospitality really is. I’ve been taught that every person is worth your concern, and in my case, those who rarely receive it have become my most trusted friends.
I’m confident in Kimberley and I’m confident that what it has taught me will mold my future forever. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Winter's Coming

While all you people at home enjoy your warm spring approaching, we in Kimberley are seeing the first signs of autumn. It’s still pretty hot most of the time but the nights are getting cooler and rainy days are chilly. I’ve been excited for South Africa’s winter since arriving. People keep telling me that it’s going to be really cold and I brush it off saying, “I’m from Wisconsin, it’s fine”. I think I’m wrong though. I just got done hand washing my clothes in the back and my fingers are numb. I’m sitting in front of the TV, wearing my Wisconsin sweatpants and sweatshirt and holding a cup of tea. It’s not even winter yet…

The trees are changing colors in my yard!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

While living and volunteering in Kimberley, I have been witness to beautiful images. Through individuals here I have seen and felt strength, perseverance, hope and triumph. However, like many places in the world, the struggles here are visible. While working at Thusong, a home for street children, many of the images I see are unfortunately those of illiteracy, hunger and lack of security. Poverty and stress weighs heavy on the children’s shoulders every day.

I often ask myself how it is that I have been able to cope these last seven months working at the home. When other people began to ask, I started thinking about it and giving a name to the mechanisms I consciously and unconsciously use each day. I’ve made a quick list here.

I become a bit numb to it.

I talk about it.

I pray about it.

I plan.

I keep working.

I cry.

Let me explain myself…

I become numb to it.

As extremely dangerous as I see this coping mechanism to be, I find that it is also necessary. One must realize that what these children are dealing with is part of a life that millions of individuals have. Neglect, malnutrition, violence, you name it, are issues that spread worldwide in alarming numbers. They have become so normal that the presence of such disturbances does not shock many people into action. Terrifying, but true.

Seeing and hearing the violence, witnessing the inequality and poverty, one must to some extent become numb to this reality in order to be present every moment of the day. Please don’t mistake this idea of being numb as being insensitive or dead. Rather, it helps while taking everything in without falling apart. If I allowed my true emotions to dictate my work I would not be very helpful. I would be a mess.

Over and over I must tell myself that what I am seeing and dealing with is a reality for many people. ‘A common struggle’ I hear at times, but it is not okay.

I talk about it. I pray about it.

Working as a YAGM through the ELCA’s Global Mission there is never a lack of support and people to talk to. Especially with my fellow MUD4s, I have been privileged to be a part of a group that relates to me and listens to my struggles. I have also found that talking about coping with the struggles faced at Thusong with the local people here in Kimberley has been beneficial. I have learned a lot from just listening about how they deal with this happening in their community.

Prayer has also been a consistent help. Sometimes I think that the answers to my questions are beyond my compression and it’s easier dumping those questions on God, knowing that he will deal with them a whole lot better than anyone else.

I plan. I keep working.

While my country coordinator was visiting my site, he asked one of the directors of Thusong what she sees as the strengths and weaknesses of the home. She replied by saying that the strengths are being able to have a place to house street children, that these children have a roof over their heads and food to eat, and that they have the opportunity to gain an education with the help of Thusong. The weaknesses, she expressed, had everything to do with lack of money, donations, and recognition.

Many times when I am feeling lost, I think about these things. I am motivated when thinking about the strengths this woman addressed. Though the weaknesses are strong, it is true that every night these children have the option to sleep in a bed rather than on a sidewalk, they have a gate to lock rather than being vulnerable on the streets and they have a guaranteed three meals a day, which would be nearly impossible to find in town with no money. After thinking about these strengths, I remember the weaknesses and I begin to brainstorm. Lack of money and donations? Each month, myself and the other volunteers at Thusong hand out letters to local businesses, are persistent in follow up calls and have been successful in gaining donations for the home. From these efforts we have made a partnership with a local bakery that donates bread on a weekly basis and we have received multiple donations from clothing stores over the last six months. In addition, we are welcome to schedule movie screenings at the art museum, rent movies for free at the local movie store, attend programs at the library, and had free entry into the local swimming pool through out the summer. Though these contributions probably will not drastically change much, I pray that they help. Acknowledging and understanding weaknesses is an important step in progress. Action is the essential follow up.

I cry.

Sometimes I feel so pissed off and helpless that crying is what helps best.

What’s happening in this world and in my face at my work site has been happening since Jesus’ time. Poverty, inequality, many other social injustices.

On one hand, this is a very sad realization. In the last couple thousand years, after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we people have gone nowhere. Backwards, maybe? Had we continued to live like Jesus did, coming not to be served but to serve, maybe this wouldn’t be the case?

On the other hand, I find strength in Jesus during these times when I really don’t know what do, think or feel. Jesus lived and walked with people who were outcasts and who were considered unworthy and unwanted. Jesus knew that this is one the greatest dangers facing mankind- he was born, lived and died because of that knowledge-, he talk about it with his friends, he prayed to God about it, he made plans and worked to change these injustices, and sometimes he even cried.

I pray this day and always that we may never become too numb to realize the urgent help our neighbors need and that we may never become too discouraged to lack action.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The last few summers at my parent’s house I remember there being a lot of woodland creatures. Huge increase in the chipmunk population. There are none this side, no squirrels either. However, once a week or so I do see a meerkat running around. I think that Animal Planet is fond of them and the majority of people most likely think they are cute, but I’m not so sure and sense they are a bit devious. I’ve seen them chase the cat at my work and I’m pretty sure they have everything to do with the loss of pigeon eggs at Dinah’s house. Circle of life. Dinah says that I should love all of God’s creatures. “Sorry, my sweet”, she says as she delicately places the horse-sized ant outside the door.

Here’s a sympathy picture for our pigeons. Dinah likes to feed them our left over rice and for that they stick around, despite the threat of the meerkat.