Thursday, November 27, 2008

African American Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back in America. Here in South Africa it’s a non-event and everyone goes about business as usual. Fortunately for me and my fellow volunteers, our “bosses” – Living Hope volunteer coordinators Mike and Pam Talley – are Americans, and they threw a great Thanksgiving bash today. The festivities included turkey on the table and Dallas Cowboys football on the TV, the latter made possible by satellite TV and a DVR recording of the Cowboys-Redskins game two weeks ago. We also tossed a football around in the parking lot – a curiosity to the neighbors, who mostly know rugby and soccer – and watched A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Speaking of food, I’ve had some interesting African dishes lately, including crocodile kebabs (extremely tasty), zebra (tough and not so tasty), eland (a kind of antelope; quite tender and flavorful), and kudu (another type of antelope). I am thankful for many things and grilled animal flesh is one of them.

I’m also thankful that Black Friday doesn’t exist in South Africa. No Thanksgiving holiday means no day-after-Thanksgiving retail insanity. And that’s a real Christmas blessing. It’s strange, though, heading into Christmas season in a sunny, 80-degree climate. Also, schools around the country are beginning summer vacation, traffic is picking up and the locals are complaining about tourist season. Sound familiar, Hilton Headians?

Next week, I’ll be immersed in the Christmas spirit in a big way. Living Hope puts on multiple Christmas parties at each of its six locations – for staff, for clients (e.g. health care patients, the homeless) and for children. The two weeks after that (my last in the country) will be occupied mostly with Holiday Club, which is a longer version of after-school Kids Club. With three hours to fill each day, it should be interesting. It’s enough of a challenge trying to keep them attentive for just one hour. As with pretty much everything else I’ve experienced here, we’ll make a plan, carry out about 20 percent of that plan, and wing the rest – and by God's grace it’ll all turn out just fine.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Wants and Needs

Want: Refinance to fund bigger garage.
Need: Roof that doesn’t leak.

Want: Next-generation iPhone.
Need: Fifty-cent newspaper that you can’t afford but sure could use so you can scan classifieds for job that may or may not be available.

Want: Kobe Beef instead of Black Angus Beef.
Need: Piece of bread after another cold night on empty stomach.

Want: Steam, mud wrap and full-body massage.
Need: Bathroom tissue to replace scrap phone book pages in communal outhouse.

Want: Full-size SUV to replace mid-size SUV.
Need: Shoes with soles intact.

Want: Water to irrigate 3,000-square-foot Bermuda grass lawn.
Need: Water to irrigate vegetable garden to feed family of five.

Want: Power, status, success.
Need: Peace with God.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Just Wing It

I’ve come to realize that in South Africa, nothing happens on schedule. (That is, if a schedule even exists to begin with). For example, “I’ll meet you at 3:00” typically means something more like, “I’ll meet you sometime this afternoon. It may not be exactly 3:00, but it’ll probably be within an hour of that. Give or take.” Or lesson planning for an after-school children’s club? What-ev-er. We’ll figure it out as we go. For an incessant planner and watch-the-clock person like me, it can be maddening, but I’m gradually learning to accept it.

Likewise, some of my work opportunities here have come about unexpectedly. It never occurred to me, for instance, that I might use my writing background to help people at a homeless shelter. But that’s what has happened as several out-of-work guys have asked me to write reference letters for them to give to potential employers. This week I met a new visitor to Living Grace. He just learned that he’s HIV-positive and is getting counseling and medical help through Living Hope. I worked with him to build a resume and reference letter, as he needs work to be able to stay in Cape Town and get the medical attention he needs, since back at his home in the Eastern Cape (hundreds of miles away), medical care is harder to come by.

I’ve also taken to “playing” the tambourine during the pre-breakfast and pre-lunch devotions at Living Grace and at the afternoon kids clubs in Red Hill. I’m rhythmically challenged, but I can mostly keep the beat, and it’s fun – it’s the most musically involved I’ve been since my career as a high-school trombone player of marginal talent.

By the way, the deal at Living Grace is that devotions start at 8:15 and 11:45 and include 15 minutes of singing and a 15-minute Bible lesson. Those who attend get first dibs on the food; if there are any leftovers, then latecomers can also eat. In other words, “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Out of the Zone

Part of my motivation in coming to volunteer in South Africa was to get out of the proverbial comfort zone. In my case, that means pretty much anything that forces me to interact with people I don’t know well. At Living Grace’s homeless ministry, that happens every day I’m there. Someone always wants to talk about one concern or another. I listen, I try to encourage them, I pray with them. But some situations are way beyond my limited interpersonal abilities.

This morning, I casually asked “How ya doing?” to a woman I’ve befriended these past few weeks. Her answer: “Terrible. I want to find a shotgun and kill myself. I can’t take it anymore.” Um … OK … well … yikes. I did my best to listen and encourage, but I knew enough to realize this lady has some deep-seated issues that require professional counseling. I promised her I would ask around and see if I could find someone she could meet with on a regular basis.

About five minutes after that conversation ended, a staff member introduced me to a new volunteer, an older lady who will be here for the next six months. And guess what her background is? Professional counselor! No coincidence there. God showed me a need, then immediately provided for it. “Oh, have I got a customer for you,” I told my new friend. She’s a sweet lady and she's interested in meeting with this troubled woman. Any prayers for healing are much appreciated.

Another painful circumstance at Living Grace today was the news of Claire’s death. Claire had been a frequent visitor to the facility. I never met her, but I had heard much about her – apparently she was a pretty colorful character. She was asthmatic and was found stricken at the park where a lot of homeless people stay. She was taken to the hospital and passed away on Saturday.

Life at Living Grace is anything but a comfort zone.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Scenic South Africa

View from the Team House, my temporary home

Noordhoek Beach/Atlantic Ocean

Whale off of Noordhoek Beach

Cape of Good Hope, the most southwesterly point in Africa

Company's Garden and Table Mountain

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Reaching Out to Red Hill

If you’ve been following this blog, you know part of my work in Cape Town has been in a community called Red Hill. I want to tell you a little more about this special place now. Red Hill is what’s known as an “informal settlement.” That basically means a collection of shacks, pieced together with tin, scrap wood and whatever other materials can be found. The community is located, literally, on the side of a mountain. It has a few tuck shops (e.g., a small grocery or convenience store); otherwise, the nearest supplies (and jobs) are found in Simon’s Town, in the valley on the other side of the mountain. Many residents don’t have transportation and it’s not an easy walk, so in a sense, Red Hill is quite isolated.

Unemployment, alcohol abuse, malnutrition, poor sanitation and domestic violence are among the problems in the community. We just learned, for example, that a mother was severely beaten by her boyfriend on Monday night. Two of this woman’s children come to Living Hope’s after-school children’s club. It’s heartbreaking, what they’re dealing with in their home life. Sadly, local law enforcement is indifferent. In this case, police responded to the situation and issued the boyfriend a “warning.” Attempts are being made to connect the woman with a social worker.

It’s a considerable challenge to bring love and light to places like Red Hill. Living Hope’s goal is to change the culture with a multi-pronged approach – based on a Christ-centered spiritual foundation – that includes job creation and financial empowerment, good hygiene and health practices, cultivation of vegetable gardens, and leadership from both adults and children. Living Hope’s dream is for Red Hill ultimately to be self-sustaining in all of these aspects. Two churches in the community are on board as partners. One of those, River of Life Ministries, is particularly involved and is essentially the community center for the Afrikaans-speaking “upper camp.” Change doesn’t come overnight, but there is evidence of progress.

If you’re wondering, “Is there any way I can help?”, here’s one. The Cape Town public school system requires uniforms, but not surprisingly, many families can’t afford them. No uniform means no education and all kinds of potential to get into trouble. An entire uniform (shirt, pants, shoes, socks and sweater) can be funded for about $25 USD. Other school needs are basic items like pencils, colored pencils, crayons, sharpener, erasers, notebooks, and for high schoolers, text books and calculator. These needs are not only in Red Hill, but also in the other townships and informal settlements that Living Hope supports as well - Ocean View, Masiphumele, Capricorn and Overcome Heights.

Community needs go far beyond this, but it’s one area where a child’s life can be tangibly impacted for the better. If you’d like to know more, including where to send contributions, email me at

Sunday, November 9, 2008

This Is Africa

More assorted sights and sensations from South Africa:

  • Sheep heads. When they’re fried, the skin peels back and reveals their teeth, hence their nickname, “smileys.”
  • Surgery clinics. Services at some of these businesses include witch doctor remedies and other ancient practices. I pray I don’t need any emergency “surgery” during my stay here.
  • Sideways rain. And wind that makes you feel sideways.
  • Chickens in the streets.
  • Elastic time. Just as 1 U.S. dollar equals approximately 10 S.A. rand, 1 U.S. minute translates to about 10 African minutes. Or more. If someone says something will happen in five minutes, it might be twenty-five minutes, it might be fifty-five minutes, but it probably won’t be five minutes.
  • Tastes from everywhere – Moroccan, Ethiopian, Indian, Turkish, Portugese, the list goes on. I, a notoriously picky eater, enjoyed dinner at a Kurdish restaurant (spiced lamb kidneys, anyone?) on Saturday, complete with seating on the floor and entertainment by a belly dancer.
  • That thing with colored lights that signify when motorists should go, slow down and stop – it’s called a “robot.”
  • Baboons
  • Ostriches.
  • Whales.

    It's all so fascinating ...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Familiarity among the Unfamiliar

I'm starting to feel a little less like a tourist here in South Africa. I'm establishing a routine of sorts, which is comforting, since I'm a creature of habit. On the other hand, it's a different routine depending on the day of the week. But I actually like that - it's more interesting than being at a desk all day.

I spend two mornings a week at the Living Grace homeless ministry in Muizenberg, two mornings at the Living Hope home office in Capri (where I do sit at a desk ... well, actually a table in the kitchen, but you take what you can get), and four afternoons at Red Hill helping with the after-school Children's Club. On Friday mornings I go to Living Grace to speak at the pre-breakfast devotional, then head out for a work project in one of the townships.

I have five housemates, and thus five new friends who have been very welcoming to me. I'm the old guy - they're all in their 20s and early 30s - so I appreciate them not making me feel old. I'm at the same location where our Bluffton team stayed, a 15-bedroom, B&B-type house. Another team is coming in a few weeks, but right now, with only a few people here, it's quiet. And cavernous. I know, I know, a mission trip to Africa should mean I'm sleeping in a hut and going without a shower for days on end. But most of this area is very European. Some call it a first-world city in a third-world country. Anyway, some needs are universal, whether it's Cape Town, Mumbai, Bangkok or Bluffton.

Thanks to all who have prayed for me throughout this venture. Thanks also to anyone who has emailed me encouraging thoughts or posted comments on this blog. It's good to know there's an audience. One of my favorite Dilbert strips shows Dilbert standing at his mailbox sorting through the day's mail. "Occupant ... occupant ... occupant ... occupant," he says. Then, in the last frame: "Ahhh, Dilbert. I get mail, therefore I am."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Welcome to Africa

Oh, the differences between South Africa and South Carolina. Unisex bathrooms in McDonald’s. Assorted vocabulary oddities (bonnet = car hood; boot = trunk). The driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road thing. KFCs everywhere – and far tastier than the American version, I’m told.

Then there are the snakes. In SC, we have our copperheads, cottonmouths, rattlesnakes – all dangerous, to be sure. But the serpents here, they’re hard-core. The cape cobra and the puff adder both live in the Cape Peninsula, and both are highly venomous and deadly. Guess what turned up in the garden on Tuesday, right outside the house where I’m staying? A puff adder.

Who knows how long it had been there. It was in some thick brush that the grounds staff was about to clear. After some unsuccessful prodding to coax it out, a call was placed to the local reptile professionals (“Snake Busters”!). They said leave it alone, it’s a protected species, we’ll come fetch it (fetch is another South African term, by the way).

Soon a free-spirited dude showed up with a hook and a sack. He quickly captured the adder, made a thorough search of the area and concluded the visitor was alone. But it’s a bit unnerving. The mountain this house rests against is prime snake habitat, and clearly human residences aren’t off limits. As the saying goes, TIA – this is Africa.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Provision in a Sun-Scorched Land

I keep coming across a particular passage of scripture lately, Isaiah 58: 10-11. It’s a huge encouragement for my work here in Africa:

If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you always;
He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Would This Pass Building Code on Hilton Head?

I spent some time on Friday helping put a ceiling in a lady’s home in Capricorn, one of the townships outside of Cape Town. The goal was to install drywall beneath the metal roof to prevent leaks. With three workers crammed into a tiny two-room shack, this was easier said than done. But it got done (mostly), a little crooked here and there, but who’s keeping score? Everything is relative. There are no architectural review boards here. Just lots of neighborhoods with lots of people with lots of homes that barely offer a roof over their heads.