Saturday, January 26, 2013

Life is precious...Serve the world

Here's an email I wrote in response to a question from youth in Delaware and Maryland. Their pastor reached out to the YAGMs for reflections on our service.

What experiences have you had in South Africa while serving, and how do you plan to bring back what you have learned?

The experiences that have impacted me most in South Africa have been my encounters with life and death. Within a couple months of coming here, I was settling in to my role as a Home Based Caregiver visiting all elderly folks with different afflictions. It was hard seeing the suffering and depression of some, uplifting to see others recover, and heart warming to be universally welcomed with open arms into people’s homes. Then one day we got a new patient, and I was surprised to greet a young man one month older than myself crippled in bed with tuberculosis. Every breath was a struggle, every movement agony, and his feet were inexplicably swollen to three times their normal size. After a couple weeks, his condition deteriorated and he was brought by his family to the biggest hospital in Africa: Chris Hani Baragwanath. I find its size and location indicative of the myriad health problems here as it’s on the outskirts of Soweto, a 20 minute taxi ride from my house. My partner and I visited him in the hospital and did our best to offer encouragement, but he was visibly fading. We hoped that the doctors could help him, but his liver failed a few days later and he passed on. His name was Bongani.

The only person close to me I’ve lost is my grandmother, and while Bongani and I weren’t more than acquaintances, I was shaken. From his age and the hip-hop posters on his walls, I could see myself in his bed. Watching life carry on in his absence was disorienting. The hardest part was seeing other TB and HIV patients in his ward, all frail and trapped in their disease addled bodies while family members tried to feed them, or brush their teeth, or change their clothes. Unfortunately, life sometimes feels cheap here. The people are strong, but the pulse of hope is weak. Every weekend I hear of a funeral, and I’m told it was worse at the height of the AIDS epidemic. In Soweto, seventy percent of people are unemployed, over a quarter are HIV positive, and the education system is failing the children trying to escape from the cycle of poverty. These are harsh realities that I’ve learned not to talk around because Sowetans don’t beat around the bush.

In light of all this, it’s even more painful to hear stories from mothers and wives of their children and husbands shot over some cash in a wallet. It’s even more painful to read in the newspapers that over 1,500 South Africans died in automobile accidents during the month of December (many because of alcohol). It’s even more painful to watch people my age self-medicate with drugs and alcohol because their talents are squandered by poverty and lack of opportunity. The violence people inflict on themselves and others in my community is heartbreaking.

So the first part of my message is this: life is precious. There’s already so much disease, poverty, and suffering in the world, that the evils we enact on our friends and family are inexcusable. Every person encountered on a daily basis is a person worthy of love, and dignity, and respect. Those closest to us deserve the deepest of love and care. We are all neighbors, and the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor. From love for our neighbors, we must name our failures, and then act. The poverty created by our global economic structure leads to armed robbery, drunk driving leads to fatal accidents, experimenting with addictive substances will not lead to true peace and happiness. I feel called to speak as widely as possible to this effect upon my return to the US because in spite of my bleak presentation, Soweto has a beautiful spirit, a character that gives me hope. I see it when I tutor children who have memorized multiplication tables on their own initiative. I see it when HIV infected and affected people work at DAM to make a difference in the community. I see it in the dancing and singing of people in the streets. This year has allowed my empathetic side to flourish, which means that as much as I feel the pain of my community, I get to share equally in their joys. My course of action will be to speak about YAGM, but not to sugar coat it. International service is a wonderful thing which can change the world in the following manner:

Travel changes the lens through which we experience the world in a way that makes the seemingly trivial events of life more magical. This sense of magic and wonder creates gratitude in the heart for things such as coffee, sunsets, and understanding greetings in foreign languages. These are quotidian situations in which there is beauty and connection to our shared humanity. But the beauty can so often be swept under the rug when in a familiar setting. Through the simple gratitude travel fosters, respect for life, specifically empathy, is cultivated. Empathy is one of the most important qualities in people. It allows us to release attachment to the greed which creates the current global situation of growing inequality and mass impoverishment. It does this because we can begin to truly see each new person we meet as our brother, sister, mother, or neighbor and identify with their suffering. It breeds global communion. How could the US endlessly bomb and destroy nations such as Iraq if our citizens had traveled there and met the “insurgents”? If they saw the children who are collateral damage? How could the death penalty be legal if we truly cherished the lives of our brothers and sisters? I think it’s telling that peace makers such as Jesus, Gandhi, and Thich Nhat Hanh have been increasingly global travelers with the progression of technology. Thus programs such as YAGM are the start of a chain reaction which I believe is crucial for all people, but especially for people in a position of privilege to experience. It is a cure for one of the most important things I’ve learned in YAGM: “The benefactors of structural inequality have the hardest time recognizing it”. US policies reach so far that we must become increasingly conscious of acting with empathy.

In short, (that’s a joke) the second part of my message is this: get out and serve the world. I want to encourage travel and service to people of all nations so that we know our global neighbors and can act from empathy instead of ignorance. Life must be viewed universally so that we don’t forget the downtrodden and voiceless. I also plan to join efforts to pass an amendment against the death penalty, because a government enacting or even allowing violence against its own citizens in a legal framework is deplorable. I also believe that it has a negative impact on the psyche of the public to live under such governance, and portrays us negatively to the world. One of the first three comments I get from people when I tell them I’m from Texas is...”you put people to death there don’t you?” Talk about holding up a painful mirror of how we are viewed internationally. Laws are a human invention, but the sanctity of life is fundamental. Violence does not solve or deter violence. I plan to bring this back with my words, and with my actions. As much suffering as I’ve witnessed here, I’ve also shared daily in the joy of waking up and living life. I choose to hold on to the joy while I work to alleviate the suffering.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Complexity and Beauty in South Africa

Hello all and welcome to the New Year. As they say here: Compliments! What a ride it's been so far. Literally. Planes, Trains, Cars, Taxis, Buses, Bikes, even a Boat, all in the name of traveling from Soweto to Cape Town, back through Johannesburg, onto Limpopo (specifically Masealama), brief stop in Pretoria, and then back to Soweto. Google it! I've seen diverse climes and people and slept in many different environments….nearly everything South Africa has to offer. I know I talk about complexity a lot, but woof, I'm working to reconcile the "first world" opulence of Cape Town with the "third world" experience of fetching water in a rural village of 500 people, and then to process that in context of returning home to my township flat in the midst of millions of people. In less than 2 weeks. Even the privilege of traveling with such ease and seeing parts of the country some members of my community haven't visited is humbling. I'm definitely learning a new version of thankfulness and appreciation for each moment of beauty and blessing. Hopefully the way in which I transport those moments back with me this year and share them with my community expresses the ways in which I appreciate each blessing bestowed upon me.

Here are some photos to share my experience.

Penguins on the beach in Simon's Town! I love these little guys they're so goofy.
Alex and Jen excited to do some Indian Ocean rock climbing on a walk from Muizenberg to a neat little Cuban restaurant.
Kaleb and Alex in an epic shot after the two hour hike up the backside (Skeleton Gorge) of Table Mountain
View from the Top of Table Mountain looking out on the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. The photo barely does this sunset justice, the colors were astounding, but it was chilly at the top with all the wind.
Imagine my surprise at waking up with cows in the front yard of Masealama. The explanation? The grass needed to be cut!
And finally, here I am at the top of a mountain behind Alex's place. Looking out on a valley with pine tree plantations. Beautiful

Perhaps my favorite quote from the trip came from Alex when he said that South Africa is where the first and third worlds meet. Even my pastor pointed out today that there are some people wealthier than those in developed countries living in South Africa, and others living in abject poverty. My personal experience with this came when I was fetching my third load of water in Masealama. Most people use a wheelbarrow with two 25 liter jugs that are filled at the local tap. Somewhat unfortunately, Alex's place is located at the top of a hill, so getting the water back is much more of a chore that getting the empties to the tap. Perhaps the best way I can measure the clash is when a truck drove up to the water tap with 20 barrels to be filled after I slogged for a solid 30 minutes getting the barrels to the tap and then emptying them into the large blue bins in Alex's kitchen. It's weird interacting with the modernness of a truck after working with a wheelbarrow. Very conflicting to desire the ease of the truck and be annoyed with the prospect of the tap being monopolized. At the same time though, scoffing at the laziness of hitting a gas pedal and valuing the work of my hands and appreciating the combination of exercise and a daily task.

Also, new barometers of success are established in the rural context. Much of the time I think about relationships and reflect on money, power, privilege, but the ritual of fetching water really connected me to the eternal battle for survival that people have engaged in for years. Many things slow down in a rural village. Showers start 30 minutes after you expect, because the water must heat up. A glass of water starts after pumping it through a filter. I measured success by decreasing the number of times the wheelbarrow hit a snag during each trip to the watering hole. I worked it down from five on the first round to one on the last. There is beauty in the simplicity, in the stars, in the people. It's different, not necessarily better or worse, simply another way of life. There are so many boxes that I work to put places and people in that I'm slowly learning to chuck these and strive for acceptance in each new experience and with each relationship. My flexibility is definitely increasing.

I’ll work to reflect on a couple other experiences in the coming weeks and keep you posted on how life looks this year in Soweto. Until we meet again, go listen to every single Mumford & Sons song you can get your hands on. Peace and Love y’all.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Great Thanksgiving

Communities do many things: support, nurture, annoy, complicate, love. I've seen examples of all of these during my time here. On my little YAGM island in Soweto, the complications can loom larger than other positive aspects and make it hard to see the beauty all around me. Thankfully, our program had a retreat over Thanksgiving that motivates the title of this blog and brought 'Gratitude' to the front of my mind (as Rachel has beautifully tattooed on her arm).

We had a wonderful time in Pietermaritzburg and Lesotho, but even before the retreat, Alex and Jen visited me in Soweto. Our three placements are wildly different, and I was blessed to have them around for a couple days to show them the sites and sounds of South Africa's largest township. They reminded me of so many blessings I've had handed to me and friendships I've built around here, and I couldn't help but smile at the wonder on their faces around every turn. On our final night before the larger group retreat, we sat outside and talked while they marveled at constant internet access and the success of our gardening project (which I fail to appreciate even though I see it every day outside my window). I hope to return the favor of a fresh perspective when visiting them in the near future.

My new favorite thing about communities are the different lenses that every person brings to the equation in processing the world. I lament quite frequently that I'll never fully understand the people here because I didn't spend the first 23 years of my life as a black kid roaming the streets in the aftermath of apartheid. It's a barrier that I'll never fully overcome, as much as my academic mind wishes to find a book to explain it to me. But in reflecting and talking with the YAGMs, I realized that the homogeneity of our skin color didn't make our stories as similar as I would have expected, just as my life experiences aren't as distancing in Soweto as I make them out to be. I have so much to learn everywhere, and it's precisely because there's vast difference in the world. Life would be boring if I knew everyone before I met them, and the barriers I was seeing are looking more like invitations to bond and learn. It's what makes stories interesting and powerful. Also why it's so painful to watch the news sometimes when people can't connect because of these differences.

Another thing that community impacts is control. When we were cooking our Thanksgiving meal, I worked really hard not to hover over everything that was happening in the kitchen. You can ask anyone at Tessa's house though, I was definitely stressed. This was for two reasons. One, I really wanted everything to turn out delicious for our group and I found myself making stuffing and carving the turkey (two rather important things I've never done before). Secondly, and more surreptitiously, I realized how attached I am to the way things happen in my family for Thanksgiving. It's my favorite part of the holidays. I love the way my family does Thanksgiving, and as I watched dishes being whipped up differently than I would have done them (while sweating over my potential failure), I was hurting that I couldn't hold on to the comfort of normalcy. Then something amazing happened…everything turned out absolutely delicious. Nothing went wrong despite all my worrying. In fact, I played a much smaller role than my ego would like me to think. And even better, I got to taste life from other traditions, and everyone had something special to contribute. It's impossible to compare to any other Thanksgiving I've had, but it really was a Great Thanksgiving. Not just from the awesome food, but the people, the conversation, the many gifts around, everything about it was incredibly special.

And so I left with a new understanding of this year of service, new goals in mind, and deeper friendships than I had mere days ago. Life looks greener, just like the bus ride through the countryside after two months of rainy season. The paintbrush I tried to use on the world is looking far too thick and dusty brown in color. And the lame metaphors I'm using are running out, similar to the negativity that started at the end of my 'honeymoon' period when I recognized the messiness of the months ahead while getting more attached here.

I hope your stateside Thanksgivings were as blessed as mine, and I wish everyone happy and safe holidays.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pix on Pix on Pix

Hello again from the Rainbow Nation! Internet was out for a while after lightning fried our router. Sorry if I've been slow to respond to any you know. I've also been super busy the past couple weeks with events both random and planned. To start off, here's a picture of Venus and Serena Williams talking to the youth and parents of Soweto about working hard, supporting the next generation, and finding passion. It meant a lot to have them come out and hit with both able and disabled kids. My neighbor's daughter Makola got to play with them!
Cop cars providing security just outside the center where I live! The courts are a two minute walk away. grilling is called having a braai. Below is an awesome mix of burgers, steak, and boerwors. This particular event was on the night after seeing the Williams sisters. It was incredibly fun and a great way to get people together on a Saturday evening for good fun and community bonding.
Here's the crew: Me, Phillip, Fumani (who makes many later appearances), Bongi (our next door neighbor's niece who will be getting her matric and heading to varsity next year), Makola (the tennis star), Julius, and Siyabonga (Bongi's cousin)
Here we are the day after starting a garden project which was conceived at the braai. The tree on the right has since been whittled down into future braai wood, but is proving difficult to remove from the ground. Also, we had to take a break to allow a mother mouse to move her squealing babies after we disturbed her nest during our digging and chopping. Hopefully I'll have future pictures of a bountiful crop, but I think we've missed the spring planting season and might have to wait out summer for the fall.
On Saturday Nov 10, I was the MC at the annual DAM Gala Dinner which is a fundraiser for our Orphans and Vulnerable Children program. It was slightly intimidating getting up in front of everyone and suddenly becoming the point person for a chaotic but star studded evening. Especially since I volunteered to MC at the final planning meeting the Thursday before (which coincidentally was also the first planning meeting I attended). Luckily I had a good support crew.

We had amazing latin dancers, an excellent boy's choir, hip hop dance stars, and a local celebrity speaker come out to entertain the guests. More than 300 people showed up! Considering I was naked in the shower when the thing actually started (since I was working all day to prepare the hall, get the DJ's equipment, and prepare the waiters) every thing turned out very well. This first picture is of my favorite table (because 11 is my favorite number). We really worked hard to do the hall up nice. All the work was worth it knowing proceeds support the kids I work with on a daily basis to feed, teach, and befriend.
Here I am looking fly for a white guy with Fumani (my self proclaimed South African mother) at the event.
Here we are on Monday after working all day Sunday and half of Monday to clean up the hall and tear down all the beds we set up for guests to spend the night. Luckily DAM sponsored a braai to thank us for all the work we put in.
Loving this place and looking forward to reuniting with my other SA YAGMs in a week at our first retreat. You can look forward to pictures from the Drakensberg Mountains and Lesotho.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Missionary Poems

Tangerine Girl

She speaks as a tangerine
Sweet, juicy, crisp
She speaks as a tangerine
Small seeds bear fruit

Outer skin worth peeling
Bright in a dull room

Little, hard to grasp
Color of the sun
On a warm summer night

Tangy when tongued
Delightful when drunk
Succulent when sucked

She longs for a pineapple
Wants to be a pear
What she should be:


Hold On

Over and yonder and
round the next bend
Is the promise of mercy
on this I depend

For life rarely shows me
that which I seek
And so I must wait
as I have every week

Great longing for action
from God in this world
See death greed corruption
into the void hurled

Sometimes it is painful
i so often miss
All that I hope for
sweet promise of bliss

Sweet sliver of mercy
if you I should find
I'll be deeply thankful
my pain might unwind

I try to be patient
and slow to get mad
At a world that has evil
And makes me so sad

We're slaves to injustice
we know it's unfair
God says on each head
that he loves every hair

We're part of one body
we're part of one soul
Yet Broken Heart Pieces
are hard to make whole

Wholeness and Goodness
and Kindness are here
If each one would
deeply into himself peer

But changing is hard
we are all weak
And so I must wait
as I have every week

For a world that is gracious
a world that is kind
Hold on to the dream
that mercy I'll find

There's hope for tomorrow
There's hope in my heart
I'll work with great care
Til this world I depart

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Who Needs Accompaniment?

Accompaniment is the backbone of the YAGM program. The Bread and Butter if you will. In South Africa maybe the Magwenyas and Special. Naturally it's time for me to reflect on this concept.

The scene: I get back home around 10pm after dinner with my neighbor, Philip, and his fellow German missionary Nicole. She's visiting Soweto for the weekend as she's volunteering in Joburg this year. My roommate's cousins are spending the night and a little girl is wide awake in our flat while her mother sleeps and the guys are at the park. I'm tired, but she wants to play so I start trying to talk with her in English. Success minimal. I show her the kitchen and living room while she bounces around listening to me and saying things that almost make sense. She's fascinated by an empty salt shaker, annoyed that I turn the TV off. We go into my room, I show her my electric toothbrush. She sees my pajamas on my bed and folds them. Then she makes my bed while talking to herself (probably admonishing me). How old are you? Three fingers go up, she looks confused then adds two to make five, subtracts one, so maybe she's four. I show her how to count in English. A glance to the toothbrush. She turns it on and starts singing into it. I sit down on the newly made bed as she puts on a dance show. Now it's my turn to sing into the brush, okay now we're brushing our teeth. Back to the kitchen, she pours herself a bowl of Kellogg's and a glass of milk while I simply watch, amazed. She's nearly self sufficient. I pull back the covers on my bed well after midnight as she sits down with her cereal and turns on the TV. Okay, children need accompaniment, and it doesn't always make sense.

Next scene: I stand over a patch of carrots, lamenting that all the leaves are dead after transplanting them two weeks ago. My supervisor comes up and I show him the situation. "You must have faith Kyle, the old shoots die while the roots adjust to the new soil. Soon this whole patch will be green and I'll tell the kids you helped plant their food." A week later new growth. I look out my window now and see a green garden. I need accompaniment when my faith is low.

Third scene: The other German missionary, Julius, leaves his basket in the middle of the store while we go down an aisle for milk. We come back and his basket is gone. We search, but cannot find it. We were almost done. He's tired after visiting another missionary in Pretoria over the weekend. Earlier, we couldn't find a place at the mall to get his hair cut. It takes an extra hour to gather his groceries again. One of his bar codes isn't working at the checkout counter, so they call someone to fix it. Then the checkout machine crashes as he tries to pay. People behind him are restless. We've been here for three hours. My jokes are running low as I've been working to keep the mood light. Finally we're outside. I reach into my bag and open the garlic rolls I just bought, offering one to Julius. We take a bite and his face lights up. They're amazing. "Kyle, this roll just saved the whole trip, thanks." Hm, missionaries need accompaniment? All I have to do is share a roll?

Final scene: Julius and I are on a 30 minute walk home after taking the wrong taxi and overshooting our destination. A man comes up to me and asks for 2 Rand, as many people do here. I ask him where he's headed. He says home, along the same street as me, so we walk together. I find out he's 27 and lives with his grandmother, sister, and niece. He's walking home from his job as a car-park where today he made R5 during 9 hours of work. It was a slow day. Not even enough to afford the R7 taxi home. He'll get home at 9:30pm (2 hours from now) if he keeps walking and takes a dangerous shortcut. Tomorrow his day starts at 7am. He's saving to become an electrician. It costs R9,000 to take the classes. He hopes to save R3,000 by the end of the year. He's making R600/month. I encourage him to keep working hard, saving, and stay off drugs and cigarettes. He says yes sir. He's thin, spending only R200 a month on food so he can save. I give him the money, wishing I could do more but knowing that I too must eat. There are many empty hands here. He walks off into the night. I pray he holds his job. I pray he holds his dream of a better life. I pray he finds safe passage and food at the end of his journey. Tired men need accompaniment, and sometimes it's not easy.

I came here to accompany, to give of myself, and more specifically to work on the issue of AIDS. My understanding of accompaniment is evolving, and so my definition of giving of myself is changing while my attachment to saving the world from HIV is fading. There's 'AIDS fatigue' here. The messages have become a broken record and there's less fear as people can live on ARVs. There's still plenty of room for education, but I'm sensing that AIDS talk is not what the community wants right now. So I'm shifting gears.

I say thank you for protecting me to the night watch guard who wishes to be with his family at home. I say keep working hard to the car-park who didn't earn enough money to get home. I say okay to an impromptu electric toothbrush concert in my home. I say have a garlic roll to the tired missionary far from home. And I have faith that the carrots will grow.

In the end, we all need somebody to lean on. Because everyone needs accompaniment.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Picture Time

I'm working on a newsletter right now, so I'm saving some pictures for that, but I have many to share. Below I've captured a couple shots from heritage day, a couple from the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village at the base of Oppenheimer Tower, and one of the gym I box at during weeknights. The days are getting warmer and sunnier heading into summer, which I enjoy. I just have to make sure to grab the sunscreen since I know about skin cancer stats from Texas 4000 and the sun seems exceptionally intense here. Enjoy!
This is me hanging out with a few people from Reach Out South Africa, the group I was at heritage day with. My mentor, Evelyn, invited me along to a march and performances put on by her church. On the left is a traditional Sotho outfit, in the middle is Mpho, and on the right is a Tswana outfit (I think). Far right is goofy ole my with my awesome free flag. So far I have failed at getting it to stick to the wall with duct tape. More drastic measures are needed. And I was interviewed by the guy holding the mic beam since I was the only white dude in attendance.
These are some traditional Zulu dancers. Amazing athleticism, incredible power, and very entertaining. I have a video, but it's a bit too big to share, I think this photo captures it pretty well as they are about to slam their feet down to the quick beat of a bass drum.
This is Coach on the left and Buhle on the right. Buhle just won his fight in Joburg last weekend and is a rising 18 year old boxer. Sessions in the ring with Coach are always exhausting. As you can see the facilities are quite nice, and amazingly I get to train for free. We always pray after working hard together and I really enjoy the community at the gym (even when the workouts are brutal).
On the left is Mother Earth. In her lap sit two boys fighting over penis size as an example of the triviality many human arguments. Just below them, a young girl prays for peace. In the middle is the Father Creator with four faces, one for each cardinal direction (or races of the earth, I was unclear from the explanation). To his right, the bird-man is their son. I'm pretty sure this comes from African tradition, but it could just be Credo Mutwa's artistic interpretation (he's a shaman). Either way I think it's interesting how it parallels the Trinity.
I will forever be captured by the way light shines through leaves. One of my favorite pictures I took in El Salvador was a similar view. As you can see, this heritage site is a nice little oasis in the middle of the city.
This is an elephant mosaic on the main office building.