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

Friday, March 21, 2014

Retreat

Alright, big revelation comin’ at ya. You might want to sit down.

Here it goes:

YAGM is hard sometimes.

Woah, right?

Ok, enough with the attempts to be witty. Seriously, though. YAGM is tough.

Yes, I get to live alongside wonderful people in a beautiful place for a year. Yes, I get to learn so many things about a new country and culture. Yes, I have seen elephants and sat on the beach.

However, I am also living so far from home that I actually have no idea how many miles really separate me from my family. I am living in an area where the first language isn’t English. I am forced to go outside of my comfort zone just to do something as simple as get groceries. I am forced to face the remnants of apartheid head-on whether I like it or not. I see the beauty of this country and its people, but I also see the oppression and heartache.

Sometimes, all of these things weigh on me and my spirits. There are times when I just want to vent and let it all out. Luckily, I’m not the only person called to live and serve here. My YAGM year came with a built-in set of best friends and shoulders to lean on.

I honestly don’t think I would survive this year without the love and support of my fellow YAGM-SA family. However, we are pretty spread out across the country and it can get pretty expensive to talk on the phone all the time. This is precisely why retreats are so important.

For those of you on Facebook, you may have seen my pictures from our first retreat in November as well as our most recent one last week. Those albums are full of gorgeous pictures of beaches, mountains, good food, sunsets, and more. To many, these pictures make it seem like the words “YAGM retreat” are just code for “fancy vacation.”

In one way, retreats could be considered a vacation. We leave our homes (sites), venture to unknown places, and take a bit of a “break” from our everyday lives. We meet up with great friends, have fun, and eat wonderful food. However, that is not the point or reason for these retreats.

YAGM retreats serve as a time of community, reflection, discussion, spiritual discernment, and more. We have incredible conversations about our place in YAGM, South Africa, the United States, and the world. We bask in the rapid-fire English conversation and make jokes that only other YAGMs would understand. Our hearts, spirits, and souls are rejuvenated and reawakened. Generally, we leave with a new sense of calling and excitement to get back to our sites and communities.

So, yes, we have spent time on the beach, hiking in the mountains, and seeing elephants. However, we have also dealt with questions like “What is the power and privilege that I carry with me and how does that affect my life back home and here in South Africa?” and “How do I even attempt to say good-bye to people who have helped shape my life and who have welcomed me into their lives?”.

Trust me, discussing questions like these aren’t easy and don’t exactly fit into my definition of a “vacation.” However, they are necessary conversations to have and I wouldn’t choose to have them with anyone other than my lovely YAGM-SA family.


In my experience, YAGM retreats have been life-giving, incredibly fun, challenging, definitely needed, and much, much more than a “fancy vacation.”

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dust

“Why are you going to Africa? Just to say you lived in Africa?”


That was a question asked of me by one of the gymnasts I used to coach during college. At the time, I was in the midst of preparing for college graduation, a summer at camp, and the beginning of my YAGM experience. Needless to say, I kind of brushed it off.

Tonight, while listening to Moruti (pastor in Sotho) preach about the Gospel reading from Matthew 6, this comment came flooding back.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” Matthew 6:1

“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…” Matthew 6:6

Ok, I get it. Don’t show off. Don’t act all “high and mighty” because of your deeds. Don’t pray in public.

Wait… What?

I am pretty proud of my place in YAGM. I post pictures on Facebook and tell people about what I am doing. I pray out loud at meetings, aerobics class, and during church with other people. Oh gosh, what am I doing??

Honestly, it doesn’t take too much thinking (or listening to preaching) to realize that these words don’t have to be taken literally. The problem isn’t with the actions themselves.  The problem comes with the reasoning behind the actions.

Alright, I can agree with that. It is better to worship because you want to praise God, not because you want other people to see you worshiping. It is better to treat prayer as a personal conversation with God instead as a way to show others how great of a Christian you are and how good you are at using big words.

So… did I do YAGM just to say I lived in Africa for a year? Well, I sure hope not and I don’t believe so. I truly feel that I was called to do this and that God was behind it all. However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t look forward to the impressed looks on people’s faces when I tell them about my experiences. Does this mean that I’m doing this for the wrong reasons?

Despite my belief that God was behind my decision to do YAGM, I also believe that I will never truly understand God’s call and I could very easily misinterpret his plans. I know that I am but a human, broken and in need of God’s love and grace. I mess up, but God always seems to be there to pick up the pieces.

Although I may never understand God’s purpose for my life and I may have doubts about my reasoning for doing things, I know that it is ok to question and doubt. I mean, I am dust and to dust I shall return. I don’t think God expects dust to have it all figured out, right?


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Taxi

Curious about how I get around Soweto without a car? Here is a play-by-play of my typical taxi* ride to the local mall:

--Walk about four blocks to the main road where the taxis drive.

--Cross to the other side of the street, dodging cars as if I were in the game “Frogger.”

--When a taxi is in sight, hold out one hand and point one finger down towards the ground (that is the “signal” to get a local taxi heading towards the mall).

--Get in the taxi and find a place to sit. Sometimes this is harder than others – some taxis are empty, while others already have about 13 people inside.

--Dig in my pocket for my money. From my street to the mall, the fare is R7.50 (about $0.75).

--Look to the people next to me and make change with them before we all pass our money to the driver. It is an unwritten rule that the passengers make change amongst themselves before handing the money to the front.

--When passing money forward, say how many and how much is being paid. For example, if two people are paying R7.50 and one is paying R8 (because they are traveling a greater distance), pass all the money together and say, “Two seven-fifty, one eight rand.”

--If necessary, wait for my change to be passed back. If not, sit back and enjoy the approx. 2 km ride.

--About one block before the mall, yell “Garage!” loud enough for the driver to hear. This tells the driver that I want to get dropped off at the garage (gas station) outside of the mall.

--When stopped, squeeze through the other passengers in order to exit the taxi.

--Make sure the door is shut behind me and head to the mall.

--Do my shopping, eating, etc. at the mall.

--When it is time to leave, walk to the end of the parking lot where the taxis are parked.

--Find the correct taxi by saying I need to go to “Old age” (the Soweto Home for the Aged is very close to where I stay).

--Walk to the taxi that was pointed out.

--Find a place to sit and wait for the taxi to fill with people. Taxis never leave the rank until they are full (or overly full sometimes, in my opinion). Sometimes this takes two minutes, sometimes it takes 20.

--Once full, the taxi pulls out of the lot and heads for the road. Find my money (R7.50 again) and make change before passing it forward.

--About one block before my street, yell “Short left!” This tells the driver that I want to be dropped off at the next street on the left.

--Exit the taxi, close the door behind me, and walk the four blocks home.


*When I say “taxi,” I don’t mean a yellow car with one of your close friends sharing the back seat with you. I mean a “kombi,” a 15 passenger van used as shared transport. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Anti-YAGM

Yep, I bet that title caught your attention. No, I’m not suddenly turning against YAGM. I actually feel more confident in the fact that I am in the right place. Let me explain…

For those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality test, I recently found out that I am a pretty solid ESTJ.

For those of you not familiar, this means that I tend to be logical, realistic, and organized. I tend to make decisions based on my head, not my heart. I am horrible at small talk, but great at accounting.

Sounds super “YAGM-y”, right?

Umm... If you ask me, the answer would probably be NO.

First of all, it’s not like I didn't know this about myself. I was always the one girl in the group who didn't cry while watching Marley & Me and the one who would rather do accounting homework than go to a party.

For a long time, I struggled with certain aspects of my personality. This struggle was heightened when I began my journey with YAGM. To me, a “perfect YAGM” should be deep, thoughtful, great at small talk, and definitely cry at least twice a week.

The struggle between my personality (logical, realistic, “thinking” instead of “feeling”, etc.) and my perception of what a YAGM “should” be (personable, emotional, and of course a major crier) was something that nearly consumed me for quite some time.

Why don’t I cry very often?
Why don’t I sit and write deep thoughts in my journal every night?
Why can’t I easily make meaningful conversation with others?
Why don’t I write deep, inspirational blog posts that bring people to tears?
Why can’t I be like what a YAGM “should” be?

These are questions that were floating through my head all the time. I was convinced that I was the “anti-YAGM.” Pretty dramatic, I know.

However, I think it took me hitting that low point (as well as some awesome conversations with our great country coordinators) to realize that I’m not actually the “anti-YAGM.” I’m just another human being trying to live in the world. I’m just another unique person called to live in a different country for a year. I’m just me.

I have finally learned that there is no “perfect YAGM” and that YAGM is not just for the future pastors and the deep and emotional criers. It is for anyone who feels the need to discover the world and its citizens in a new way. It is for anyone who knows God is working around the world, but wants to see it for themselves. It is for anyone God calls to take a leap of faith.


And apparently it is for me, in all of my logical, awkward, realistic, and dry-eyed glory.

Monday, January 20, 2014

10 Things

I love making lists. On my desk, I currently have an old to-do list, a more up-to-date to-do list, a list of addresses, a list of people to whom I have sent postcards, and list of blog ideas. Sometimes, I will even make a to-do list filled with super easy things like “Eat breakfast” just so I can make a list and cross things off.

A couple of days ago, I started a list of the things I love about YAGM. While I have only shared my top 10 with you, there are approximately 732 other things I could add as well. :)

10. YAGMs are constantly trying new foods.
                I would have never thought that I would fall in love with a sandwich piled high with French fries, cheese, an egg, and two kinds of meat, but here I am, ordering kota (the sandwich I just described) almost every week. Many people are proud of me because I will try almost anything, as long as I’m not told exactly what it is until after I take the first bite. Food is not only a fun thing to try, but it is also an excellent way to connect with people and a community.

9. I can now appreciate simply “being.”
                Yes, I am an American. Yes, I studied Business Finance and Accounting in college. Yes, I like to get stuff done and be super productive. Yes, I have finally realized that “getting stuff done” may not be the most important thing in life. Some of my favorite days have been “unproductive” in the American sense, but filled with wonderful conversation and time spent with others. Surprising, I know.

8. Being able to find comfort in the discomfort.
                This is one that took me a long time to appreciate. Trust me, being a YAGM is usually anything but comfortable. I have been thrown into more uncomfortable situations than I can remember. However, I have noticed that those situations are the ones that I learn from and appreciate. 

7. I have been forced out of my comfort zone.
                To piggy-back off of the last point, YAGM has completely and totally forced me to go way outside of my comfort zone. Exhibit A: Small-town Minnesota girl (that’s me) living in the largest township in South Africa, with a population of over 1 million people (that’s Soweto). Enough said.

6. YAGM has taught me so much about myself.
                Through all of the challenges, joys, random experiences, conversations, and simple everyday life, I have learned more about myself than I thought possible. I have learned more about how I see myself as a Christian, as a friend, as a white woman, as a privileged American, and especially as a part of the greater global community.

5. I have learned how to rely on others.
                Throughout my whole life, I have been pretty independent. I have always been able to do things on my own without asking for much help. Well, if I tried to keep that same mindset as a YAGM, I probably would spend the whole year sitting in my room doing nothing. In order to simply live in a new country amongst a new community, asking for help is a must. To be honest, I was afraid to do so for the first couple of months. I got through, but since I have started asking for help, I have learned so much more than I ever could have imagined.

4. You can learn a new language.
                The YAGM Southern Africa program is fairly unique in the fact that no language training is provided at the beginning of service. Why, you may ask? Well, between the 10 volunteers here, we are attempting to learn 6 different languages. Yep, 6! South Africa is a wonderfully diverse country, so naturally a lot of languages are spoken. For me, personally, language has become simply fascinating since I moved here. In my little neighborhood, I have met people that speak Zulu, Sotho, Venda, Tswana, and Xhosa as their first language. While this could create major confusion, people are incredibly helpful in translating things to English when I need it, while also trying to teach me some of the native languages.

3. I have made so many new friends.
                Between my friends in my host community and my fellow YAGMs, I feel almost overwhelmed by the love surrounding me. First of all, in my host community, I have fellow volunteers, other co-workers, neighbors, and children of all ages that I now call my friends. Although they all know I will leave in only a few short months, they have all welcomed me into their lives and I will be forever grateful. Second, my fellow YAGM-SA family is truly my second family. When we are together, the air is filled with laughter, discussion, discernment, tears (of joy and heartache), and so much love. I cannot imagine going through this experience without them and I know we will stay friends forever.

2. YAGM makes you think.
                Woah. The thinking that I have done. Seriously, I didn’t know my brain could handle all of these thoughts! Not only has my experience made me think about simple things like new foods and languages, but my time here has made me think about social justice, race issues, gender equality, economic justice, and more. I joke sometimes that ignorance really is bliss, because sometimes it is hard and frustrating to wrestle with these thoughts. However, I am extremely grateful for experiences that bring up these difficult thoughts, because now I feel the need and passion to work on these issues alongside my global brothers and sisters.

1. I now feel truly connected to the global church.
                Seeing what YAGM has done here in South Africa as well as the impact made by fellow YAGMs around the world is absolutely incredible. I feel blessed to be a part of the greater church, but I feel even more blessed to be a part of God’s greater kingdom here on earth. I have seen God in so many unexpected places, and I now know that our Lord’s presence is truly being felt around the world.

Like I said, these are only 10 of the reasons why I believe that YAGM is a truly amazing program and why I am so incredibly grateful for my experience so far. If you would like to hear about the approximately 732 other reasons, just shoot me an email. :)


Emily

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Aerobics

I think I have a love/hate relationship with my aerobics class.

I love it because it keeps me in shape. It gives me something to do every night from 6:30-7:30. Well, it actually keeps me busy until 8:00 because of the conversations after class. It has introduced me to incredibly strong, kind, and inspiring people. This class has finally given me a reason to actually wear the 15 pairs of athletic shorts I brought. My aerobics friends have helped me learn Sotho. Working out together has helped me strengthen bonds with co-workers. It lightens my mood. It helps me get out into the neighborhood. The class and the other attendees give me encouragement. My walk there allows me to see “my kids” playing in the street. My walk back allows me to appreciate the incredible kindness of my friends who always walk home with me to keep me safe, even though they live in the other direction. The prayer at the end of each class gives me spiritual refreshment.

I hate it because I am lazy sometimes and don’t feel like going. I sweat more than I think is necessary. I hate having to quit an exercise before I am done. It gets annoying when more people join our class and the space gets crowded. I hate that the things I hate are also things that I like and keep me going.


I guess when I put it that way, it’s more like I have a LOVE/hate relationship with my aerobics class.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Welcome Back

December is considered the “slow month” for most of us YAGMs here in South Africa. This was definitely true for me. DAM has been closed since December 13 and won’t reopen until January 13.

Yep, that is a whole month.

During that time, I watched more movies than I can remember, crocheted and personalized ten giraffe-shaped bookmarks, read three books (and am almost done with a fourth), slept A LOT, celebrated Christmas in Joburg with some friends, traveled to Cape Town for New Year’s Eve, and spent a lot of time reflecting on my time here so far.

When my “break time” first began, I had mixed emotions. I was scared to have so much time off to think and potentially become very homesick. I was excited to have plenty of time to do whatever I wanted. I was nervous to return to work and have to “start over” again in my community and work placements.

When the crèche opened again on January 6, I was not sure what to expect. I was basically just hoping for a better response from the kids than when I first showed up four months ago. At that time, they spent the whole time staring at the scary white person. Luckily, I was welcomed back with literal open arms. One of the youngest children there, a girl who couldn’t walk or easily sit in a chair when I first met her and is now walking, playing, and attempting to say “Fine” when I ask her how she is, ran (or more like waddled) up to me with her arms outstretched and a huge smile on her face. Another little boy now calls me by name, which is surprising because when I left in December, he would just scream a random noise when he wanted my attention. Since the crèche re-opened, my good-byes have continued to get longer and longer each day. They are filled with hugs, shouts of “Good-bye, Teacher Family!”, high fives, waves, and smiles.

Now, one week back into work at the crèche, I am back into the schedule of lovin’ on some adorable kids in the morning and looking forward to returning each day. I have been welcomed back with open arms.

I am looking forward to DAM opening next week, and even if I’m not welcomed in the same way as I was at the crèche, I am hoping to provide the same kind of welcome (minus the waddling Jto everyone I come in contact with.  We all deserve to feel welcomed and loved, just like the kids at the crèche have made me feel.

Blessings!

Emily J



P.S. I would love to share pictures of my wonderful kids at the crèche, but due to their young age, it would not be appropriate to share pictures of them without the permission of their parents/guardians.