Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Fellow Traveler On This Road...

This is from my friend Leena who headed to South Africa in August 2005 with the Peace Corps. I am thrilled to see how God is using her in this incredible land both as a Christian and an American to create connections and form bonds that will last forever. Please think of her in your prayers. I know God is doing a mighty work in and through her.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And He will be called WONDERFUL COUNSELOR, MIGHTY GOD, EVERLASTING FATHER, PRINCE OF PEACE.” Isaiah 9:6

Dearest family and friends,

Christmas greetings from Mtubatuba! I pray this letter finds you in festive spirits as you prepare to celebrate the Christmas holiday with family and friends. Hopefully your Christmas shopping was finished early, and you don’t have to make any frantic last minute purchases. (I must admit that I don’t miss American shopping malls!)

It is hard to believe that 4 months have passed since I first set foot on South African soil. The months have been filled with many adventures – some exhilarating, others challenging – but in everything I have certainly felt the hand of God guiding my every step. Thanks to technology, the distance from home seems significantly less as I am able to correspond with family and friends fairly regularly through letters and emails. (my family is even able to call me once a week with a calling card with amazingly low rates) That said, at this time of the year, when families are gathering together to celebrate Christmas and ring in the new year, there are moments when my heart aches to be home. Thankfully, life in a new culture and environment offers many distractions away from lingering too long on my homesickness.

Since my last email, I have settled in a bit more into life here in rural Somkhele. (10k outside of Mtuba) My host family, the Thabede’s have not grown tired of me yet (at least I don’t think so!), and have graciously accepted me as a new member of their ginormous family. Last Thursday, 9 members of the family and myself traveled to Durban on my host brother Mondli’s truck to spend the day at Shaka (Shark) Marine World. (somewhat like Seaworld) When I went to pay for my ticket, Mama Thabede refused, saying that she was taking her family out for a holiday, and wasn’t I one of her children?

While I am no where near to being proficient in Zulu, it has been extremely helpful to live in a home with small children who tend to be the most eager instructors. My best instructor is 2 year old Far whose simple command like vocabulary is help me learn my verbs. “Aunty Leena woza!” (come) “Aunty Leena hlala phanzi!” (sit) “Aunty Leena thatha!” (take) She also likes to stand outside my bedroom window and yell, “Aunty Leena vula!” (open) When I open the window I respond with “Ngibona Far!” (I see Far!) Then she yells “Aunty Leena vala!” (close) And we repeat this over and over again until I am able to convince her that we need to stop. (for my sanity!)

Through trial and error I am finally able to lift my 20 litre bucket of water onto my head and carry it from the community tap (200 metres from the house) to my room. This has been a source of frustration and embarrassment for me, particularly considering that children far younger than me are able to perform this task with perfection and ease. I have provided the family (and community) with a few laughs as they have been eager spectators in my struggle to perfect this skill. I’ll spare you the details, but let me just say that one incident involved me shattering my first 20 litre bucket. (don’t ask!) Another incident involved my inability to properly push a wheelbarrow carrying two buckets of water, which then led to the water in the buckets spilling onto the dirt path, which then led to the dirt path becoming muddy, which then led to me falling flat on my face in the mud! (which then led to the neighbor lady asking me, “Don’t you have wheelbarrows in America?!!)

Work at the Africa Centre is going well thus far. As was expected, the first couple months have been a bit slow as I am trying to gain a better perspective of the organization and determine where I can best offer support. I have been meeting individually with the HIV counselors at their community centers, and have found that most of them are bored and feel under-utilized, as they only average 5-10 clients per week, leaving them with quite a bit of idle time. All of the counselors have other skills that could be of extreme benefit to the communities they work in – one is an amazing artist, another a musician, another an ex-pro soccer player – all skills that I hope can be utilized to launch support groups and classes for the community members. (to change perceptions that the counseling center is only a place to find out ones HIV status – a perception which may deter some from coming to the centers as they many not want the community members to know) In the coming months I hope to also begin assisting small local organizations that are delivering services to the communities impacted by HIV/AIDS. I have already begun to attend a support group for HIV positive people and AIDS orphans that is run by a British couple at the church I attend, and I hope to assist them more in structuring their programs and securing additional funding.

On November 25, I was able to organize a small group of people from the Africa Centre and my community to take part in a 10K run at the local government hospital. Three girls from the neighborhood (who are my off and on jogging partners), my two 18 year old twin host brothers, 3 counselors, three others from the Centre and myself took part in the 6AM run. The 45 minute drive to the hospital was beautiful, as we had to pass through the Game Reserve (I’ve been there three times already), and was able to see giraffes, wild dogs, impalas, baboons and other animals along the way. The run was along the dirt paths of the community surrounding the hospital – beautiful and scenic, but too hilly!! Some of the Africa Centre staff have expressed interest in organizing a 10K run in Somkhele sometime next year.

Regarding church, I’ve found one! I am attending Grace Community Church (part of New Frontiers) in Mtuba. I was hoping to find a church that was mixed racially, which is nearly impossible here. While GCC is predominantly white (pastor is Afrikaner) there are a few Indian and Zulu families as well. In addition, the church is reaching out to the community through programs such as the HIV support group mentioned earlier. While the church is far from perfect, and I’ve had frustrating moments of dealing with racial tension and ignorance of certain church members, for the most part the church appears to be striving towards bridging the gap between the races. My 9 year old hold niece, Nandile, introduced me to the church – she attends the school that the church runs – and she accompanies me to church every Sunday.

An Indian family at the church (the Stephens) have insisted that I join their Bible Study on Weds nights. The majority of the people who attend the study are Indians, and it has been interesting to learn more about the South African Indian culture and how it differs from my own American (East) Indian culture, as most of their families have been in South Africa for 4-5 generations. An added bonus to this new found relationship is that Aunty Stephen is a caterer and so I am able to enjoy good Indian food. (of course, not even close to being as good as Mom’s cooking, but enough to satisfy my craving for curry)

Socially I have struggled to balance time between two different worlds in which different people in my life live. My role as a Peace Corps volunteer is to serve and integrate into the rural Zulu community in which I live and work. However, I cannot ignore the other “worlds” that coexist in the small area of Mtuba. At work, while the majority of my time is spent in the Zulu community with the Zulu staff of the Africa Centre, there are fellow Americans (albeit much smarter, Harvard grad types) in the office whom I am naturally inclined to want to spend time with. The Indian in me is naturally inclined to want to spend time with the Stephens and other Indian families, to enjoy their fellowship and good Indian food. However, each time I retreat to what is familiar and comfortable to me, I return to my life in rural Somkhele feeling a bit guilty that somehow I betrayed my purpose for being here. I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that I am in a unique position to bridge the gap between many worlds that exist in Mtuba. (at least for a handful of lives) For example, though they live just 10km away, the Stephen family have never once ventured out to Somkhele, due to their unwarranted fear of crime. (and misconceptions and stereotypes of the Zulu people) I was hurt on many occasions that the Stephens were so willing to accept me as part of their family and yet reject a part of who I am in Mtuba by never expressing a desire to see where I live and meet my host family, the Thabedes. That changed a couple weeks ago when I asked them to visit me in Somkhele – for the first time in 25 years the Stephens braved their way to rural Zululand and discovered it wasn’t as scary as they thought!

Another example was last weekend when I took two fellow foreigners from church (one American and the other from the UK) on their first “Zulu culture excursion.” Both have come to South Africa to teach at the church’s school, and are staying with an Afrikaner family in town in a home larger than their own homes abroad. They were expressing their envy of my rural Zulu life and so I suggested they join me for a birthday party in the township and sleepover at my home. With much hesitation, the Afrikaner family whom they stay with agreed to let them go (after all, they are adults who don’t really need permission), but made it clear that they were not responsible if anything happened. (I nearly laughed out loud when I saw the families expression when we said we were going to take PUBLIC TRANSPORT to the TOWNSHIP…one of the few times I was made to feel like a bad influence!) The girls had an absolute blast, and my Zulu friend was ecstatic to have three foreigners (particularly TWO WHITES!) at her party. The girls were excited to return to their Afrikaner host family the next day in one piece, proving to them that taking public transport is not suicide nor are all Zulu people cold-blooded criminals. In fact, they found the opposite to be true of every Zulu they met that night – extremely kind hearted, generous and loving.

Anyway, those are a few ramblings of the past couple months of my life in South Africa. I am heading to Durban this afternoon, and will be traveling by Greyhound to Ladysmith (near the Drakensburgs) on Friday to meet up with other Peace Corps volunteers for Christmas. I am looking forward to seeing the others, but it will be strange to spend my first Christmas apart from all my family. This will also be my first Christmas spent with friends whose faith differ from my own. We make up an interesting hodge podge of beliefs – one protestant, two non-practicing Catholics, two Muslims, a non-practicing Jew, an atheist and two agnostics. (oh and a semi-Buddhist) Hopefully this holiday will provide us all with an opportunity to share a bit of our faith with each other. I will be staying in Ladysmith through next week to help out at a camp for AIDS orphans that is being run by two fellow volunteers.

Let me conclude this long letter with heartfelt wishes for a merry Christmas and a joyous new year. In the midst of the holiday rush, may we be mindful of the amazing gift that God gave us more than 2000 years ago. The “WONDERFUL COUNSELOR…THE MIGHTY GOD…THE EVERLASTING FATHER…THE PRINCE OF PEACE..” choosing to be born in a lowly stable (the most humblest of human existences) in order to grow into a sinless man willing to die for the sins of mankind. May God richly bless you!


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