Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Summary of Four Months in South Africa

How do you write a poem about
AIDS and violent crime in South Africa
and how do you describe
the sights and sounds
of township poverty
the curling smoke from
campfires in rusted oil drums
roasted mealies at the roadside
corrugated metal shacks offering
haircuts, fruit and funeral services
and how do you write
about the 11-year-old girl
dressed to the hilt
who sells herself each night
to feed her younger siblings,
says she'd rather die
from AIDS than hunger?
because I can't seem to
find the words

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Maximum Security

This is a picture of our backyard fence. Kind of feels like being in a maximum security prison, doesn't it? Most people in South Africa have many security features on their homes designed to prevent break-ins: electric wire fences, razor wire along fence tops, walls, barred windows, gates, and security systems. When you live in a country that has the second highest murder and rape rates in the world, I suppose these measures are necessary. Even the cars here have several theft-prevention mechanisms.

The interesting thing is, the city I am from in California had the highest car theft rate in the nation, and people still didn't have as many anti-theft devices as they do here. Also, the U.S. has the highest rape rate and third highest murder rate in the world, but most people don't live behind bars and electric fences. Maybe Americans value their freedom too much to be bullied by fear?

Don't get me wrong; people in both countries use common sense. I am not advocating foolishness. But the fear here is oppressive; it keeps people from living life. I know people are going to rake me over the coals for saying that, but it's the conclusion I keep coming back to. I know people who won't leave the house after 7:00 p.m., people who won't visit the Union Buildings anymore, people who never leave their suburb, and people who always carry a panic button on them "just in case".

Yes, we need to be wise, but ultimately, our trust is in God and not electric fences. There is no safer place to be than inside the will of God (talk about maximum security!). Whether I die here in South Africa or as an old lady in the United States doesn't matter. My life is His, and my days are numbered by Him. "I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace." - Acts 20:24

Friday, January 25, 2008


This is the road we have to drive on every day to get to work, to get home, and to take the kids to school. Remember how motels used to have those "Magic Fingers" beds, where you'd put a quarter in and the whole bed would vibrate, giving you a "massage"? As a kid I used to beg for a quarter so I could try out the "magic fingers." I wanted one so badly at my house, attached to MY bed... in my heart, I just knew I would have been the coolest kid in school!

Nowadays, "magic fingers" beds are a joke, and even if they weren't, they don't hold a candle to Dr. van der Merwe Drive! (just don't try to drink a cup of coffee in the car... I learned this the hard way... as usual).


This is Letlhogonolo. Her name means "Lucky". I met her out in the township yesterday. She's an orphan, and she's seven years old.

One of the neat things about black African names is that they all have meanings - beautiful meanings - like "blessing", "given", "gift", and "victorious". Some people have English names like "Precious", "Princess", "Comfort", and even "Surprise"!

I was gathering profiles on orphans for potential sponsorship yesterday and this thought flashed across my mind: How are they "lucky", "blessed" or "victorious"? They're orphans. They live with many challenges and difficulties. I thought about this all last night and even this morning, and this is my conclusion:

It all comes down to the love of Jesus. With His love, we ARE lucky, blessed, victorious, precious and even surprised! With that love we have the power to bless others, whether orphans, bosses, neighbors, friends or family members. And, in a spiritual sense, we're all orphans, adopted into the family of Christ. "In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons [and daughters] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will, to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us..." - Eph. 1:5-6

South Africans have a wonderful characteristic of making light of their troubles. They laugh way more than Americans do. Yesterday I saw 26 orphans smiling, laughing, joking. I look at the picture of Letlhogonolo and think how lucky I am.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Things That Live in our House (Besides Us)

Slugs. Today when we came home for lunch, there was a huge slug in our dining room. The slugs in South Africa, while not as magnificent as the banana slug of the Pacific Northwest, are still YUCKY. They are big and circular - almost as wide as they are long - and look like small dill pickles. It was half dried out, but stuck amazingly well to our tile floor (it comes from being all muscle, I suppose). Maybe it stuck because I was trying to use a flyswatter to pick it up (I wasn't going to touch it!).

Geckos. There is a gecko loose in our bedroom. Dan said to leave it because it will eat mosquitos. I don't mind leaving it except when it's right over my head on the ceiling (what if it falls down on me while I'm sleeping?)

Stringy spiders. These things are scrawny and look like asterisks, but they move FAST. Good luck trying to kill them!

The occasional refrigerator science experiment. (I can't help it if the power keeps going out, or if no one wants to eat my leftovers!)

There are always any number of moths, mosquitos, ants, beetles and neighborhood children making themselves comfy in our house. That I can deal with!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

South African Advertisements

Every day when we drop the kids off at school, we park under the "Hug-A-Bum Nappies" sign. I don't know why this is funny to me, but it is (like the ad for "Radox Herbal Deodorants" that came on as a movie preview, showing a man prancing through fields of lavender). As the kids traipse off to school while we yell "I love you" out the car window, the kids respond, "I love you, too! Meet you at the Hug-A-Bum Nappies sign after school!"

It's a small piece of each day that makes us smile...

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Reality of Life in SA

Last week Lucy's best friend from school was attacked. While she and her family were home eating dinner, three armed men broke into the house, beat up the family, pulled the children by the hair, threw them on the floor, tied them up, held guns to their head, and then proceeded to rob the house, taking whatever they wanted. When they had finished that, they sat down and ate the dinner still sitting on the table, and then proceeded to the living room where they watched a soccer game while the family was still tied up on the floor! When they were ready to leave, they threatened to crush the baby's skull if they called the authorities. They loaded up the "loot" into the family's two cars and drove off.

The really horrible thing is, this is the SECOND time this has happened since September to this family. I have seen Lucy's little friend, a nine-year-old, go from just blossoming to completely withering in fear. My heart breaks for her.

When you live in South Africa, you read stories like this every single day in the newspaper or hear them on the news. It has become "normal"... until it touches someone you know, or even yourself. There is a quickening migration out of South Africa to countries such as Australia, New Zealand and England. And there is an oppressive spirit of fear that lays thick over the city.

It is interesting for us, having come from the relative safety of the United States, to live here. We know that God has called us here - we have absolute peace about that - but even we, on occasion, have to fight feelings of fear that creep in. At times like this I turn to the Bible for comfort and reassurance of God's Sovereignty. I don't have all the answers, but I know where to find Truth. This is my strength today:

"Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the Lord and do good; DWELL IN THE LAND and enjoy safe pasture." - Psalm 37:1-3

"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father." - Matt. 10:28-29

I would ask you to pray for Lucy's friend and her family. They need the hope of Jesus, and they need rest.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bits and Pieces

Back to our wastebasket woes - turns out our garbage can (despite being a "swing bin") requires "municipal" dustbin liners.... who knew?! I've never before been this excited to buy trashbags! It's the little things in life....

"Load Shedding." This is what happens when the power company doesn't upgrade the system for 15 years. They institute rolling blackouts (called "load shedding"), randomly selecting complete suburbs (including traffic lights, etc.) to be without power for several hours at a time (4 - 6 hours). This week, our suburb has been "randomly" selected three days in a row. It's weird doing your grocery shopping in the dark! Yesterday the power went out just as our garage door was opening, so it stuck halfway. Let's hope the power stays on long enough for me to bake Lucy's birthday cupcakes today!

Yesterday the kids had no running water at school. It was a warm 94 degrees, but you have to remember that there's no air conditioning here, so they had to sit in hot classrooms with no water, and use toilets that couldn't flush. Can you imagine the contents of those toilets after a whole day? There are more than 1,000 students at their primary school! Still, however "bad" a day may seem, it is nothing compared to our what our neighbor to the north, Zimbabwe, is experiencing. Kind of puts things into perspective.

For all of you who have left comments, encouragement, and prayers - a big, hearty, summery warm South African THANK YOU!!! It means more to me than you could ever know. I could break into a Bette Midler song, but I'll spare you the torture and leave you with a C.S. Lewis quote instead:

"When a man turns to Christ and seems to be getting on pretty well (in the sense that some of his bad habits are now corrected), he often feels that it would now be natural if things went fairly smoothly. When troubles come along - illnesses, money troubles, new kinds of temptation - he is disappointed. Those things, he feels, might have been necessary to rouse him and make him repent in his bad old days; but why now? Because God is forcing him on, or up, to a higher level: putting him into situations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we haven't yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us." - C.S. Lewis in his address "Counting the Cost", from Beyond Personality

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Musical Ramblings

I wrote this song about a year ago, inspired by some ladies who have kids with special needs (you know who you are, you beautiful women!!). I was blessed to be in a prayer group with these ladies. I was playing this song tonight on the piano, and somehow, the words (written for something completely different) seemed fitting to my cultural struggles. It loses something without the music behind it, but I thought I'd print the lyrics for you anyway. It's where my heart is tonight.

The road is rough, the weight heavy,
I can't get it off my back
I've been fighting and screaming,
I'm splintered and bleeding,
Then Your scarred hand reaches down
and touches mine

And if I touched Your robe, You could heal me
If You just say the words, I could fly free
But You have chosen a different path, to make me more like You
So help me submit to the cross I have to bear
Please help me submit to the cross I have to bear

Lord, I will trust, I will draw near,
Though at times I don't understand
I desire to be refined, though lessons be painful
For I want to be gold that glorifies You

And if You touched my eyes, restored my vision
I could take up my mat and dance again
But You have chosen a different path to make me more like You
So help me submit to the cross I have to bear,
Please help me submit to the cross I have to bear

Where would I go, if not to You?
You alone fill my emptiness.
You're my Strength, my Love, my Song,
My reason for living
You lifted me up, gave me hope to carry on
I had nothing to give, but still You bid for me to come

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Typical Day

Emma came home from school in tears today and sunburned to a crisp. Well, that's not entirely true. When I picked Emma up from school today, she never came out. So after searching for her, I found her out on the field, crying and scared.

Turns out today was athletic tryouts. This we knew, but what we didn't know was that athletic tryouts are mandatory for ALL Grade 4 students, it goes until 4:00 p.m., and each student was supposed to pack food, a water bottle, sunscreen and wear the color of their school "house"... none of which Emma did. How were we supposed to know this? Nothing was announced, nothing went home, other that the calendar of events listing "athletic tryouts" today.

When I approached one of the teachers, she said, "Ag, shame! Didn't one of the teachers tell you? " No, I replied, they didn't. "All the learners just know what to do because they've been here since Grade 1, you see." Yes, but surely we're not the only ones new here? Maybe we're the only ones new to this country, but surely there are other new students? "Ag, shame. Well, Emma must come again on Friday and Saturday for the finals. If she doesn't make the teams, she must sit and cheer for her house. Maybe you can talk to Emma's teacher." Yes, maybe. Except that more often than not, we don't know which questions to ask. We don't know what we "don't know" until it's too late.

This is a typical day in the life of an immigrant. When you hear people talk about culture shock, this is exactly what they mean. It's when everyone else just knows what to do, while you plod through each day trying to figure out what's going on, looking for a friendly face in a crowd of passers by. I don't know who cried more today - Emma or me.

The Mouth of Sauron

What does this have to do with being an American in South Africa, you ask? I'll tell you!

Yesterday we were watching The Return of the King. Our kids have been begging to watch this, so we finally let them. When we got to this part, Lucy exclaimed, "Mom! He has Bovril all over his teeth! Eeewww! He needs to go brush them!"

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, Bovril is a classic South African spread, often put on top of buttered bread and topped with grated cheese. It's sort of like Marmite, only beef-based, brown, very strong, and very salty. I guess my kids are adapting well to South African culture... I never would have equated the Mouth of Sauron with Bovril (and how can I eat it now?)!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Wastebasket Woes

After being in this country for four months, I *still* can't find garbage bags that fit my dustbin (that's South African for "trash can"). Every time I go to the store, I am faced with the daunting task of having to choose between "trolley bin" liners, "swing bing" liners, "roller bin" liners, "vanity dustbin" liners, etc. etc. I thought we were the lucky owners of a "swing bin", but apparently, no. In fact, no matter which kind of liner I buy, it's inevitably too small. Maybe next time I'll try the "lawn and garden refuse" liners. Or just give up.

This, of course, leads me to other important philosophical questions such as: If there are 100 choices of dustbin liners, how come there are only two kinds of pancake syrup? Or only five flavours of ice cream (one of which contains raisins, so that one doesn't even count!)?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Cowboy Looks at Psalm 23

Do you ever read a verse, or chapter in the Bible, so many times that the words fail to sink in? That happens to me a lot, especially with Psalm 23, but for some reason, today verse 3 really stuck out as it was read in church: "He restores my soul."

I think it stuck out to me because I've been feeling rather weary lately. I am learning that faith is not a passive thing. It is a deliberate choice that has to be made over and over, when circumstances or emotions conflict with what you know intellectually and Scripturally to be true.

It's sort of like a cowboy who's fallen off his horse, but is still hanging on to the rope. He's bruised, sore, has a mouthful of dirt and isn't out of danger, but he doesn't let go.

"He restores my soul." I don't know about you, but I'm going to choose to hang onto the rope. Maybe I'm covered in a few cow pies and have a tumbleweed wrapped around my head, but I won't let go. I won't. Do you know why? Because "He restores my soul," gives me strength to get back up on the horse and finish the ride. Cow pies and all.

Friday, January 4, 2008

And the Doorbell Rang....

Our house has become a hub for neighbourhood children to hang out. As soon as the first one comes over, it isn't long before they ALL come over, and our house is full of laughing, screaming, creative children who are soon covered in dirt, grass, popsicles and (hopefully) love.

There have been a few instances of children not wanting to play with other children because of skin colour. Each time we gathered all the children together and gently explained that everyone is made by God, everyone is special, and everyone is welcome in our house. We want our house to be a safe haven from issues "outside". This, of course, has opened up a lot of questions on the part of our own children ("Mommy, why won't so-and-so play with....?"), and we have had to explain some things to our kids that I wish, in a perfect world, didn't exist.

There are days when I wish they wouldn't come over, days when I long for quiet, but the Lord reminded me that ministry often occurs "off hours". It is not an 8:00 - 5:00 thing. It is often "inconvenient" to our wishes, but the rewards are far greater than the rewards of selfishness. And maybe, just maybe, these kids will feel the love of Jesus. That gives me reason enough to keep opening the door (and stocking my freezer with popsicles)!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


May this never be said of you or I:

"It was ironic that these Protestant [missionaries] seemed to incarnate even more than their monastic brothers the very view of Christianity they repeatedly deplored, namely, a Christianity which removed itself from men to seek salvation away from the actual life of real people. In their frantic effort to escape the fleshly vices and so to be 'holy', many fell unwittingly into the far more crippling sins of the spirit, such as pride, rejection and lovelessness. This, I continue to feel, has been the greatest tragedy of Protestant life." - Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound

Let's go out and get our hand dirty this year just loving people, wherever they are, wherever you are, however your paths may cross. Wouldn't it be awesome if people said of us, "There goes someone who exemplifies the love of Jesus"? I have so far to go, so much to learn, but I think I'm beginning to understand.....