Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Home

Exactly three weeks from today, I will leave Soweto and head into Johannesburg to catch a bus for the last time.

Some people (read: mom) are thinking this: You are finally coming home!

Other people (read: me) are thinking this: I am returning to one home and leaving another.

Soweto has been my home for the last ten months. For ten months, the people here have been my family, my friends, my coworkers, and my community. For ten months, my little flat has been my place of refuge and of relaxation. For ten months, I have lived thousands of miles away from my “other home.”

I have heard it said that home is more than just a physical place – it is a feeling of being loved, being surrounded by people you care about, and a place where you feel safe and at peace. When I first arrived in Soweto, I was hoping that this place would become home, but I was skeptical. I was nervous, scared, and apprehensive. I was not feeling comfortable.

Despite all of these fears at the beginning, Soweto slowly morphed into my home. I distinctly remember posting this Facebook status at the end of January, after traveling for almost a week:

“After traveling, I love that moment when I see the skyline of Joburg in the distance and feel happy to be back home.”

That feeling of returning home means something different for every person. For some, it is a feeling of returning to safety and familiarity. For others, it is a feeling of excitement in seeing friends and family for the first time in a while. Others, still, think of returning home as returning to normalcy and everyday life.

For me, returning home to Minnesota means returning to the only life I knew for 22 years. It means seeing family and friends that I haven’t seen since last August. It means speaking fast-paced, American English. It means driving my own car again. It means watching my brother play baseball.

It also means leaving my South African home.

It means not being greeted by shouts of “Teacher Family!” at the crèche every morning. It means missing my coworkers and wondering what is happening at DAM at that time. It means not getting to hug my favorite OVC kids every afternoon. It means no more kota. It means no more movie nights with my neighbors.

For the rest of my life, home will not only mean rural Ellendale, Minnesota. It will also mean Soweto, South Africa.

The word home will remind me not only of my friends and family scattered around the United States, but also of my friends and family scattered around South Africa and the world.

For all of my homes around the world, I am eternally grateful.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Youth Day

About a year ago, I found out that I would be living in Soweto.

Naturally, as soon as I heard, I did as much research as possible on the area in preparation for my YAGM year. Nearly everywhere I looked, I saw mention of the Soweto Uprising. I saw it described as the beginning of the end of Apartheid, a critical piece in the struggle, the first time the next generation became involved, and more. It became clear that the events of June 16, 1976 will forever be etched into the history of South Africa.

For the past 38 years, South Africans and others around the world have celebrated, cherished, and remembered this day. Today, June 16th, is a public holiday known as Youth Day.

I have always had a love of children. I grew up with a preschool teacher as a mom, two younger brothers, and countless babysitting jobs. In college, I spent a semester as an Elementary Education major and coached elementary students in gymnastics. While here in South Africa, I spend a majority of each day with kids ranging in age from 7 months old to 20 years old. Basically, I love kids and youth.

Now, after hearing more about June 16 and spending all day with some of my favorite high school students in the world, I not only love kids but have a deep and profound respect for them.

First of all, my respect and admiration for the students involved in the Soweto Uprising is through the roof. At the age of 13, I was much more worried about my hair and what boys were saying about me than the political climate of my country. I realize that the political situation in Soweto in 1976 was a little more intense than Minnesota in 2004, but I still don’t think I would have had the courage or ambition to do what those amazing students did.

Apart from my respect for the 1976 participants, I am beyond proud of and grateful for the OVC After-School Programme students who played a huge role in the success of the events today. The Oldest Group sang three songs, including one that they chose and practiced on their own. The Middle Group sang three songs and performed a dance, despite the fact that the sound system stopped working. The Youngest Group sang a song completely in English. All of the children respectfully listened to guest speakers and marched proudly through the streets of Soweto.

The courage, ambition, creativity, and energy of these kids is astounding. I am constantly blown away by their desire to learn, their ability to face challenges, and their overall joy and excitement for life.

In my opinion, the Soweto students of 1976 left a legacy that is being carried on and continued by the Soweto students of 2014.

P.S. If you want more information about the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976, check out these links:


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pictures

I realize that it has been a long time since I have included pictures on my blog posts. To make up for that, I decided to a post that ONLY includes pictures (with captions, of course!). I hope you enjoy a look into my life lately!



At the end of March, we had a joint birthday party for the three of us with March birthdays. Here are some of my coworkers along with the delicious food we ate!

Literally the day after the DAM March birthday party, the creche had a birthday party to celebrate anyone who had a birthday in the first three months of the year. Here are some of the kids after singing "Happy Birthday."

I still help with the cooking class with the oldest group of OVC kids. Here they are posing with the cakes they baked. They were very delicious!

Here is a picture of me singing with the choir at church. The choir has introduced me to new friends, as well as a way to be more involved in the church!

This is a picture of the crowd gathered on Good Friday. Based on my (probably wrong) estimate, there were around 2,000 people there! 

One of my favorite memories of this past year has been taking the creche kids to a local park/party place for a fun day. Here are some of the kids posing with a random orange elephant. It was such a fun day!

One weekend in May, a couple other volunteers and I headed into Joburg to do some "typical Joburg things" before we head back to our respective homes. This photo was taken from the 50th floor of the Carlton Centre, the tallest building in Africa!

Often, when people have gatherings or parties, there will be a braai. A braai is kind of like a barbecue in the US. Here is the meat that we were preparing for one braai - super delicious!

DAM is working hard on making the gardening project successful. One Saturday, we gathered a lot of people and had a "garden day" where we cleaned up the yard and prepared the garden for future planting.

At the end of May, I decided to cut off my hair and donate it to the Cancer Association of South Africa. Here I am, right after cutting off nearly 30 cm of hair!

One day, my neighbor and I decided to attempt fun jumping pictures. Here, we are trying to jump on the wall. Needless to say, we were more successful in laughing than in getting a good picture.

During the last week of May, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit three other YAGMs in their sites. Here is a gorgeous view of Venda in Shayandima, where Elle stays!

I also visited Kelly in Masealama, a rural village outside of Polokwane. I was super excited to see goats and cattle walking down the village roads!

My final visit was with Joe, who stays in Mabopane. Mabopane is a township (like Soweto) outside of Pretoria. We spent time at his creche, where I watched these little guys run around chasing a soccer ball for a while.

I am so happy to be teaching songs to the kids in Grade R (kindergarten) and Grade 1 at the local primary school!

Fitting In

Picture this:
Me, my child-loving and (what I’m assuming to be) friendly face, approaching one of my neighbors, hoping for at least a smile in response. (The neighbor in this situation is a baby girl who was born only a couple of months before I arrived last September.)

Her response to my approach?

Instant tears and an attempt to literally melt into her mother.

Ugh. This situation happens on an almost-daily basis. I have made it my personal goal this year to get this adorable little girl to smile at me and not want to hide when I approach.

I have literally known her for a very large majority of her life. I have been doing my best to fit in here and really become a part of this community. Why doesn’t she like me? Why can’t I just fit in?

Wait a minute - is the goal really to “fit in”?

I don’t think so. When anyone in the ELCA talks about global mission, they talk about accompaniment. To put it in layman’s terms, this means that ELCA missionaries are sent to live amongst their communities, share in their joy and grief, and develop a situation of mutual learning and understanding. Nowhere in the YAGM handbook does it say, “Go to your community. Next, learn everything you can about the people and culture. Finally, proceed to drop everything about yourself in order to fit in.”

Fitting can be so desirable because developing relationships with people who have similar dreams, desires, and characteristics is easy. We find comfort in knowing that we are understood by our peers. In all seriousness, fitting in can be pretty darn cool and incredibly comfortable.

To be honest, though, fitting in just isn’t in the cards for me this year. I must remember that I am a white, American, middle-class, 23 year-old woman. I cannot let go of these characteristics, no matter how annoying or “in the way” they might seem at times. I will never truly fit in here.

Despite the tough feelings that go along with not fitting in, I feel proud and empowered to be who I am and who God meant me to be. I know that while there are SO MANY things I can learn from my South African brothers and sisters, there are also many things that they can learn from me. We must walk through these day-to-day challenges and successes together, regardless of our backgrounds. *cough, cough, accompaniment, cough, cough*

So, even though my neighbor girl may never smile at me, or at least look at me with any look other than pure terror, or even though I may never actually fit in, the people here in Soweto, as well as around the world, are there to see me for who I am, just as I am there to see them for who they are.

Really, fitting in is overrated, anyway.



*Originally written in early April. UPDATE – She has smiled at me, but she still gets scared to death when I try to hold her. Baby steps, I guess.. 

Sharing

Have you heard of the book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?

If not, it is about those basic lessons children learn at a young age that turn out to be pretty helpful even as adults. Some of my favorite things from this book include: “Play fair,” “Clean up your own mess,” and “Share everything.”

I don’t know about all of you, but I passed Kindergarten and thought I had all of these things down. I mean, I’m pretty sure I play pretty fairly. I usually clean up my own mess; at least I know I should clean up my own mess. I can even share pretty well. Or so I thought.

Turns out, I am not good at sharing. Do you want to know who is good at sharing? Well, even if you don’t want to know, I’m going to tell you anyway:

My South African neighbors and community members.

I am constantly blown away by the sharing done in this community. Here are a few real examples from my time here so far. (Yes, all of these examples involve food – I see sharing in other ways as well, but the sharing of food is definitely the most common.)

-While traveling with a couple of co-workers, we stopped at a gas station to fill up. One person was going to get a cold drink (can of pop) and asked if I wanted one. I naturally responded with something like, “No, I’m fine” because I didn’t have any money on me. Well, that was not an acceptable answer apparently because I was soon being handed my own can.

-Whenever I enter a person’s house (whether while doing home visits with Home-Based Care or just to visit a friend), I am always offered juice or coffee and usually some biscuits.

-One morning at the crèche, one child arrived with a sweet (this one was like a small Jolly Rancher). Instead of getting angry when the other kids would ask for it, she literally took it out of her mouth and let everyone have a lick. Despite the definite germ-sharing, this was astounding to me.

-Just a few days ago, a friend of mine insisted that he buy me a cold drink and some chocolate because I figured out how to set the alarm on his watch.

When I first arrived (and even now!), I would always try to turn down these offers. I mean, I just set the alarm – is a gift really necessary?

However, multiple people have explained that is actually considered rude to turn down these offers of sharing. For me, being a Minnesotan through and through, this was so hard to comprehend! I kept feeling guilty taking food from people without immediately giving something in return.

What I have learned in the last nine months, though, is that it is ok to accept gifts from others. No, I don’t usually have some sort of payment ready to be given. What I do have, however, is the promise that if that person ever needs anything from me, I will be there to give it. It is this notion of mutual assistance that seems to hold together my South African community.


So while I don’t always pay for the food that is so whole-heartedly bestowed upon me, I have learned to keep a full stock of tea and other goodies around for any guests. I have learned to accept the kindness that is given with grace and humility, just as I have learned to give and share without expecting anything in return.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ubuntu

I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.  Personally, I think I have heard that story at least 23 times. That is, at least once every year of my life on Maundy Thursday.

This Maundy Thursday, however, was a little different. The first difference is pretty obvious - I was living in Soweto, South Africa. Second, Moruti decided to focus on a part of the story that I had never really considered before. He talked a lot about Simon Peter and his reluctance to have Jesus wash his feet.

I often feel like I could relate to Simon Peter. I mean, my feet smell sometimes – Jesus probably wouldn’t want to touch that.

On a more serious note, though, I also struggle with accepting help at times. When I think about this part of the story, I imagine this going through Simon Peter’s mind: “Oh no, he doesn’t need to wash my feet. I can do that myself. Actually, I have plans to do so as soon as I get home. Oh Jesus, always trying to help. Sorry, but I don’t need it this time.”

This is an internal (and sometimes external) monologue that I experience fairly often – well, not always about washing feet, but you know what I mean.

Why bother someone else with my problems/troubles when I can handle it? I don’t want to put people through that. There is no need to burden others in that way.

Well, that method of thinking pretty much got me through 20+ years of life fairly unscathed. However, I think it also forced me to be distant at times. It also may have made some internal challenges even more difficult than they had to be.

Moving to South Africa was pretty much a crash course in “Accepting Help from Others: 101.” At the beginning of my time here, I tried to turn down help and various other offers as much as possible. If I didn’t have money with me, I wouldn’t eat with everyone else. If I was confused about something, I would just sit silently in that confusion until I figured it out myself (or just gave up and moved on). If I was feeling homesick, I wouldn’t tell anyone – rather, I probably just seemed really crabby for no reason.

Doesn’t sound too great, does it? Well, let me tell you this – it wasn’t. Not only was I hurting myself, but I was hurting my community by not allowing them to help in the ways that they wanted and I needed.

I am learning to be more like Simon Peter at the end of the story – the part where he allows Jesus to wash his feet and even asks to have his head and hands washed as well.

I have come to realize that the reliance on support from others is not a negative thing. South Africans actually have a word for this – Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a beautiful word and an even more beautiful idea, but it can be hard to explain. Here is my attempt:

Ubuntu is relying on your neighbors. Ubuntu is realizing that you who you are because of the people you are surrounded with. Ubuntu is accepting help and being prepared to give help when it is needed. Ubuntu is the basic humanity toward others.


Who knows, maybe ubuntu could also be described as accepting other people’s offers to wash your feet.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Awesome God

One of the things that I do here is spend some time at the local primary (elementary) school. I work primarily with the grade R (kindergarten) and grade 1 classes. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to bring my guitar along and try singing songs with them. Luckily, I worked as a camp counselor last summer, so I knew plenty of songs to keep little kids busy. Here is a video of my grade 1 class singing Awesome God. 

video