Monday, February 14, 2011

Take the long way home

After a long day in Soweto, I am headed home to Bonaero Park. I had been visiting another YAGM volunteer, Joy and her visiting family. At around 4:15, I walk through the busy township which has become one of my favorite places in the country. I have three taxis ahead of me and the sun here has been going down around 7pm so I want to be back by 6:30 at the latest. As I approach the main street in Joy’s neighborhood I hold one finger in the air pointing sky-ward. A taxi goes by and the driver holds up 4 fingers. Darn… Orlando. About 5 seconds later another taxi, another 4 fingers. What the heck is happening in Orlando today? Finally, the third taxi, about 10 seconds later acknowledges my index finger with his own and gives a happy beep as he pulls over. I slide the door of the taxi open to find about 8 people already there. “Sanbonani, taxi!” I greet as I climb in with my clumsy backpack behind me. And we are Joburg-bound. As we drive through the busy streets, the driver beeps to get people’s attention. Slowly, but surely, stop after stop, we fill the taxi.

As the last of the 15 passengers climbs in and we set off on the highway, we surrender forth our 7 Rands and 50 cents… or 8 rands and 50 cents depending on where we boarded. Each row passes their change forward to the individual in the front seat next to the driver. I try to avoid that seat at all costs. The potential stress of having multiple sets of money coming to me with people saying “one, 8.50. two, 7:50” Ah, I’m not sure I would do well! Finally, all the change is worked out and we are whizzing through the outer layers of Jozi. We pass Orlando Stadium and the security outside means the Pirates must be playing. Oh! I remember now what’s happening in Orlando- the Pirates play the Sundowns tonight. How could I forget? I’ll be cheering the Sundowns later. We pass the world cup stadium, Soccer City. I think about the last game I went to there. Just about 2 weeks ago with my mom- Kaizer Chiefs facing Maritzburg United… Chiefs won, of course.

Finally we come into downtown and I quickly recognize where I am. Newtown, Bree street, Ah- here’s my stop! “Short left!” I exclaim with a bit of a South-African slur so the driver actually knows what I’m saying. I slide the door open and step onto the street knowing exactly where I’m headed. Ooh, bananas… I need some of those! 3 rands. Oh, and I need airtime. Luckily the street vendor I just passed yelling about airtime is selling some vouchers so I can recharge my cell phone. 12 rands. I keep walking down the street I know so well. Fruit, t-shirts, soccer jerseys, shoes, hot mealies (corn), house music bumping from a cd stand, pan-handlers. Ahead there is a crowd gathered around about 10 young people in traditional dress. They are singing and clapping. Two girls come forward and begin kicking high in the air… Zulu dancing. I continue walking. Finally I get to the BP station where I cross the street and make my way to a parking lot behind a church where my taxi to Kempton Park is waiting. There are people all around and about 20 or 30 taxis are parked and waiting to fill before they leave the city. The Kempton Park taxi is not where it usually is so I ask a driver nearby “Kempton Park?” to which he replies “That red one.” And points to a taxi about 3 away.

Terrific… as I approach the red taxi I wonder if it will be different from most other red taxis I have taken… For some reason, the red taxis, I have found are the worst. Many taxis, regardless of color, have been in operation far longer than they should be. The doors sometimes get stuck… the seats bend when you lean back on them… I’ve even seen people hold the sliding door on it’s runners as the taxi travels. This taxi was not quite as bad as I was expecting. However, some assembly was still required to make the seat and door functional. Here we go!

As we come out of the city I can’t help but look around at my surroundings and wonder how I ended up here in this vibrant city thousands of miles from what I have always known. After being here for several months, it’s amazing to me that these moments still occur for me. I am struck by the beauty of a sunset, a deep conversation with a stranger or music in the streets. At times, I still cannot believe I’m here and this is my life. It is a privilege and a blessing to have this opportunity. Seeing life here and learning from the people I meet has been the most unique, extraordinary experience of my short life. So this is what I contemplate on the taxi. =)

Our bright red taxi arrives in Kempton park. This busy suburb area still feels like a mini-Joburg. People everywhere and lots of bars, clubs and shops line the streets. I step off the taxi after a minor struggle with the taxi door and seats. I cross the street quickly to get to the final taxi rank. Although this rank can be rather hectic at times, it is a place where I feel pretty comfortable. Men throw coins down on gambling tables in a way I don’t really understand. People sit on crates playing cards and there is all kinds of food, candy and sodas for sale. I have taken taxis from this rank all over the area. I find the Bonaero Park taxi in its usual place and sit next to a very pregnant woman in the first row. A moment later, a woman with a small child comes and sits in the front row, as well. A few minutes pass as we wait for the taxi to fill. A robust woman approaches with her boy friend and a loud exchange takes place at the taxi door as she pulls herself into the seat. As soon as she sits in her seat and releases a loud sigh, she glances around and sees me “Ah! Amonda!” she exclaims. “Hello, Dinah!” I reply. This woman works at the conference center where I live! She has become like a surrogate mother to me, actually. We talk about where we have been during the day and say how surprised we are to see each other on this taxi!

Finally, we zoom off to our final destination. 7 rands collected from each passenger and Dinah and I disembark after a short trip up the road. We walk several minutes to the conference center where we both live. I am happy to be back at just 6:20pm with plenty of daylight left. It has been an adventurous day and as exciting as it has been, I’m happy to be back here at home in Bonaero Park: just another day in the beautiful country I have come to love so much. And I love to take the long way home.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Visit from "Mom-zozo"!

In the days leading up to my mother's visit to South Africa, people around my site could tell I was getting excited. I could barely keep the smile off of my face. I had a countdown from about 10 days prior... I was planning our schedule for her two week visit here and things were looking terrific. My friends Sakhile and Jane who work in the kitchen at the conference center where I live would tease me incessantly every morning. "When is your Mom-zozo coming??" "Will you feed her chicken feet when she comes to see you?" "Will you sleep in the same bed?". I would laugh at them and report how many more days... yes, she would love to try chicken feet... and no we would not be staying in the same bed. =) Haha.

Finally the day came! She was to arrive around 10:20am and my friend Thomas who works here in reception was going to come with me to the airport. He insisted that he be the first person to hug her when she came off the plane (after me, of course!) So we stood there in the arrival area, me with my stomach in knots SO excited to greet my mother after 6 months in this country. It seemed like forever before we saw her coming into the waiting area! SHE'S HERE! Instantly, Thomas started snapping pictures and we hugged like we'd never seen each other before. It was basically terrific. =)

After meeting everyone here at my site and seeing the sites of Joburg, my mom and I travelled south into the Kwa-Zulu Natal province to visit Brian and Kristen, the country coordinators of the YAGM program and to see the sights of South Africa. We saw many animals at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi national park and we met several of the other YAGM volunteers in Stanger for lunch one day. We stayed with Valerie in a very rural area of the country. We stood on the beach and put our feet in the Indian ocean. We stood in awe of the mountains and stared up at the clear, dark sky at the milky way galaxy. We spent some time at the Apartheid Museum outside of Joburg and we attended a Chiefs soccer game at a World Cup stadium. Overall, the time was incredible. Most importantly, I got to spend some terrific, high quality time with my "Mom-zozo". It was such a blessing to have her stay where I stay, meet my closest friends here and tell her stories about my life and experiences here.

Thomas, my mom and William at the airport on her last day.

When she left on Wednesday of this week, it was sad but it was worth all the good times we had. When I went to breakfast the next morning, Sakhile and Jane were there to make fun of me again... asking me if I cried when my Mom left. I said "Of course I did!" I then went on to explain to them that we live far apart and won't see each other for a long time. They reminded me that they also live far from their families. Sakhile's family lives in Zimbabwe and she only gets to see her parents one time a year. I realized that while it has been hard for me to be away from home for this long, I am not the only one here who is faced with this situation. Many of the employees here are from Zimbabwe or the Northern province of South Africa and are removed from their families on a regular basis. While I am younger than most of them and much further from home, I was once again reminded that my life and my struggles are not so different from those with whom I am living and working. There is a temptation here to feel different and special... like a martyr, suffering for this work. But the reality is that when we honestly engage in relationship with those around us, we will see that we are more similar than we ever could have dreamed and we are all part of one family. We are faced with the same sorrows and we encounter the same joys. We are all connected and are bound to each other.

So, while I miss my family, my mom's visit and the subsequent realizations have reminded me that this is a short-term experience. As I grow closer to my friends and family here in South Africa with each passing day, I also am reminded of how quickly these days are passing and how soon I will be back in the states missing South Africa. So Mom-zozo, I know you miss me and want me home, but I'm not done here! My South African family has so much more to teach me. =)

It's just a bug... right?

In my years of being a camp counselor, I can’t tell you how many times I have told screaming 10 year old girls (and boys, occasionally) “Calm down! It’s just a bug!” I also can’t tell you how many times I have sprayed campers with bug spray or gotten itch cream for a kid with a bug bite. I myself have suffered from the incessant itching of countless bug bites. But none of these experiences were particularly remarkable for me because people can’t die of a bug bite… right?

In reality, 750,000 people die of a bug bite each year. 2,000 children die each day… of a bug bite. What is this horrible bug? Is it the black widow spider, some kind of killer bee? No, it is a mosquito. Malaria is one of the leading causes of death for the developing world… and it’s entirely preventable.

In mid-January, the office of LUCSA, the Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa, held a conference and planning meeting to develop their 2011 Malaria program strategy. This program is relatively new and at this point is entirely funded by the ELCA. Five countries within Southern Africa were represented at this meeting by their Malaria project coordinators and field officers. The week consisted of reporting on the past year’s activities and proposals of the upcoming year’s plans and budgets. Programming varied from net distribution and instruction, to destruction of mosquito breeding grounds to education for identifying symptoms of malaria and rapid response. Observing these meetings was such an awesome experience for me and I felt honored to witness such an important meeting that will save thousands of lives in southern Africa.

Malaria is not a major problem in the country of South Africa. I have anti-malaria medication in a drawer somewhere for when I travel to the eastern part of the country where there are game reserves and the malaria-risk goes up. But I rarely think about malaria here. How often do North Americans think of this deadly disease? Probably about as often as I do here in South Africa. Malaria was eradicated from North America in 1950. Since then, 41 million people have died of malaria in the rest of the world. How is this possible? We know how to prevent malaria. We ourselves have purged it from our country and continent, saving the lives of our children and future generations. The issue of malaria in developing countries is not just an issue of public health. It is also an issue of economics and social justice.

On one of the first days of the malaria meetings, Rev. Benyam Kassahun of ELCA Global Mission delivered an important message to those in attendance at the conference. He stated that North America does not face the challenge of malaria. We have not had to think about this problem for decades. However, here in Africa, malaria is a problem. A part of the body of Christ has a problem with malaria and so the entire body is affected. Thus, we DO have a problem with malaria in North America. We are compelled by our understanding of the gospel to solve this issue and work together to save the lives that are being lost.

Why is this such a difficult concept for us to grasp and act upon? Children are dying of a preventable disease; a disease that we know how to stop and that we put an end to for ourselves a long time ago. Yet somehow, it continues. Why is it so easy for us to push such issues out of our minds and turn a blind eye? Is it because we are so far removed from it that it doesn’t feel like real people are dying? Does it simply fit our picture of “poor Africa” and we have accepted that these things happen in “Africa”? If 2,000 American children died each day of a preventable disease, what would be the response of our people and our government? If 250 million Americans were infected each year by this deadly disease (more than 75% of our country’s population) how would this change our perspective? Now imagine if this was the health crisis in America and there was another country somewhere that had solved these issues for its own people over 60 years ago. If that’s not injustice, I don’t know what is… So why are we allowing it to continue?

More and more, I am discovering how ignorant we are of how the policies and economy of the U.S. impact the lives of people around the world. We are dependent on the rest of the world for so much and yet we sometimes act as if we are functioning in a vacuum. We only see the issues that are right in front of us and we do not bother to understand the way our policies impact the entire world. I, too, am guilty of this ignorance. I have never completely understood global economics or the centuries of war that have shaped our influence around the globe. However, being aware of these issues that impact so many is the first step in understanding our position in the world. This knowledge moves us towards finding solutions for problems that affect millions of fellow humans.

Not only are we morally obligated as members of the human race to make ourselves aware of these issues, but as Christians we are, as Rev Kassahun said, compelled by the gospel to face such issues head-on. Christ challenges us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. To address their issues as we address our own. What would Christ’s life and ministry look like without empathy for the stranger? What would be notable about his life if he was only healing his friends and disciples? Always curing his own headaches and bruises and drying the tears of his own family? Perhaps the most remarkable, compelling and confusing parts of the gospel are moments in which Christ welcomes a stranger or an outcast to be part of a miracle or part of his ministry. Repeatedly we hear the stories of lepers, prostitutes, Samaritans, or just strangers who Jesus comes across and treats as equals. We must emulate this example and learn that while there is nothing we can DO to earn God’s love, the only appropriate response to the wonderful gift of grace we receive is to love others as God has loved us. This love we must have for others means that malaria must be ended for all people.

All figures and demographics included in this essay were provided by the World Vision campaign to end malaria, the World Health Organization and the U.S. census bureau. Check out the World Vision campaign to end malaria website to find out more about advocacy opportunities and for more information about ending malaria by 2015. Additionally, you can contribute to the ELCA Malaria fund at or you can make a donation to directly provide nets to those in need through ELCA Good Gifts. Thank you!