Monday, September 29, 2008

A Trip to the Hospital

Today my eldest daughter, Emma, had her tonsils removed. She was a brave ten-year-old and came through with flying colours, being the only family member to have survived surgery in a foreign country (she's quite proud of that!).

South African hospitals are so different than American ones! I guess I should have expected that, but somehow I missed that one on my list of "Things to Wonder About". There are six patients to a room (as opposed to two), the beds are really narrow (not much wider than a stretcher), there are no electronic buttons to move the bed up and down or call the nurse, no TV's in the room, and no vending machine in the waiting room. On the plus side, though simple (or maybe American hospitals are too posh?), it was clean, well-run, the staff was friendly and helpful, and South African hospital gowns actually cover all of your body parts!

When I filled out forms I had to indicate whether I was English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking, but it didn't matter as everyone addressed me in Afrikaans, from the nurse to the anaesthetist to the cleaning lady. In a room with six beds and five different Afrikaans conversations going on around us, it was a very lonely and foreign feeling. When they wheeled Emma away to theatre (that's South African English for "operating room"), I almost cried. I felt like the only English-speaking person in the whole country.

Emma was released three hours after surgery. She was nauseated from the anaesthesia, and my favourite moment of the day was when she said, "Mom? I think I hate throwing up almost as much as I hate satan." I have to agree...

(By the way, if you want to know how to say "tonsillectomy" in Afrikaans, it's "mangeluitsnyding")

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Trip to Prison

Today we had the opportunity to go to Baviaanspoort Prison and be family for some inmates who haven't seen their families in years (some of them haven't had a visitor in over ten years!). We were touched by this opportunity because we, too, haven't seen our family in while. We know what it's like to spend Christmas, Easter, and birthdays away from family and friends.

At the prison we were introduced to Thabo and Thabo and were privileged to be their family for half a day. Thabo likes to sing and is training as a tailor. If he comes across a word he doesn't know- whether in a song or book- he immediately goes to a dictionary to look it up. He is thirsty for understanding. The other Thabo likes to draw and read. He, too, has a thirst for knowledge, and keeps his Bible and sketchbook in a battered suitcase that he carries with him. We had a great time getting to know them and sharing pap, vleis and cooldrink with them.

At the end of the day as we were preparing to leave, my son Benjamin asked me, "When are we going to meet the prisoners?", not realising that we had just spent four hours with them, fellowshipping, sharing a meal, praying with them, encouraging one another. And my son's question caused me to realise something:

In the world's eyes, we are often defined by what we do and where we come from. Thabo and Thabo are defined by being from Soweto and having committed a crime that landed them in a medium security prison. I am defined by being an American living in Pretoria, and I have my own list of sins and accomplishments. But in God's eyes, I am not defined by the sins I've committed or what I've done. Neither are Thabo and Thabo. Nor are we defined by where we come from. We are defined by our position and identity in Christ. I can picture God looking down and saying, "These are My children. I love them. Aren't they beautiful?"

Today we met two brothers in Christ that we will spend eternity with. I am so blessed to have met them this side of heaven.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How Information Changes our Assumptions

Imagine what this woman is thinking, without knowing anything about her. Why are her eyes closed? Is she tired?

We make assumptions about people based on how they look. When we get a piece of their story, we change and adjust those assumptions. Let me tell you that this woman has eight children. Now what do you think about her?

The more information we get about a person, the more we understand where they are coming from and can adjust our assumptions and judgments, becoming less critical, more understanding and compassionate (hopefully!). What if I told you that she is raising five of her grandchildren because five of her children have died from AIDS? What if I told you that at least two of her remaining three children are also HIV-positive, as well as her eight-month-old granddaughter?

These are the pieces of her story that I know for sure. It is possible that this granny will outlive all of her children, and some of her grandchildren. Look at her photo again. What do you think now?

Let's imagine further: What if I told you it is probable that those remaining three children prostitute themselves when money is tight to help put food on the table, and that's how they became HIV-positive? What if I told you that even if ARV's were readily available and affordable, many people from her culture opt for traditional healers and herbalists due to ancestral beliefs and the mistrust of Western medicine, believing AIDS to be a disease brought on by white men to wipe out the black population? How would your assumptions and judgments change? Would you blame her, call her a victim, sympathise with her? Would you pass or suspend your judgment?

I don't have all the answers (I have very few), but what keeps me going is the belief that no one is beyond the reach of God. No one is beyond His touch, His healing, His redemption, His hope.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

And You Wonder Why I Get Lost?!

This is one of the highway signs we pass nearly every day. The N1 is heading south toward Johannesburg, the N4 east toward Witbank, and the M2 takes you to Pretoria's city centre. The problem is, you have to KNOW this: the road numbers, what city they lead to, and what direction you are traveling.

In California all roads pretty much lead to San Francisco or Los Angeles. If you want to go South, for instance, you follow the sign toward Los Angeles. When your city of destination comes up, it tells you, and you hop off. You know which direction you're traveling because the sign always tell you. It is really hard to get lost on the California highway system.

But here.... let's just say that the first time we went to our friend Jannie's house we had to pay the toll three times because we couldn't figure out the above sign!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Zambezi Road

The street signs in Pretoria are an amazing thing. Take Zambezi Road, for instance. Sometimes it's printed "Zambesi Road", sometimes "Zambezi Road", sometimes "Zambesirylaan" (the Afrikaans translation). Every block it's different, switching from English to Afrikaanas, and sometimes just plain misspelled.

Lavender Road is sometimes "Levander Road". "Enkeldoorn" is sometimes "Enkeldoring". The misspellings are humorous, the switching from Afrikaans to English keeps us on our toes ("3rd Street" becomes "3 de laan"), but here's where it gets really confusing: 23 streets are up for renaming in Pretoria, including my beloved Zambezi Road, "in an effort to celebrate our rich cultural diversity." I can understand wanting to rename Hendrik Verwoerd Street, but what's wrong with Zambezi?

Just when I thought I had all the variations memorised, it's going to change. I shall feel like a tourist all over again, but at least this time, everyone else will be in the same boat!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Uncertain Times

If you stay current with world news, you'll know that South Africa is now a country without a president. In the latest chapter of the Mbeki-Zuma rivalry, the ANC fired President Mbeki rather than let him serve out the remainder of his term. There is an emergency Cabinet meeting this afternoon. An interim president will be appointed until elections in the early half of next year, when Jacob Zuma is groomed to take over. Whatever your political views are, we are all wondering, "What will happen now?"

For an American like me who's grown up in a safe and stable environment, this is a new adventure. I'm not sure what to think. There are times when I feel like I'm standing on shaky ground, and there are times when I think, "Nah. I'm overreacting." But some things I know for certain:

God has called us here to South Africa. For me, speculating about the future leads to anxiety and fear, causing me to miss opportunities to make a difference TODAY.

I'm just a sheep. All I have to do is follow the Shepherd, wherever He leads me. It's far better to let Him make decisions concerning my life than try to control things myself (look what happened to Jonah... would you rather go to Ninevah or be swallowed by a fish?).

Our pastor said this morning that shaky times are a part of life. Shaking will come. But the faithfulness of God is unshakeable.

"This I recall to mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness." - Lamentations 3:21-23

Saturday, September 20, 2008

If Elvis Were a Bird...

Dan took this photo at the Johannesburg Zoo. Every time I see it, I get "Blue Suede Shoes" stuck in my head.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Not Exactly Rocket Science, But...

I have this theory: If you want to learn about a country and its cultures you should research its art, music, literature and history...

You can also learn a lot by looking at the potato chip flavours.

School Trip

Here's Emma with her classmates, Tshegofatso and Khumo. They went on a school trip to the Sammy Marks Museum. I think they look so smart in their school uniforms.

In case you were wondering who Sammy Marks was, he was a leading industrialist and prominent businessman in the old Transvaal Republic (I had to look this up as I am still learning South African history). Incidentally, he was also originally from Lithuania, which made him an immigrant. I wonder if he ever had issues trying to convert his driver's license (only he would have driven an ox-pulled wagon, not a minivan). But I digress...

My First Toyi-Toyi

I stopped by the shopping mall to fetch the mail (yes, the post office is in the shopping mall), and in the parking lot was a crowd of Woolworth's employees on strike. But it was more than a strike; it was a genuine South African toyi-toyi.

I've been hearing about toyi-toyis for over a year now. They are not just protests, marches or strikes. They involve dancing, singing, foot stomping, chanting... It turns protesting into an art form. The singing was marvelous - at least three-part harmony - and as good as any choir concert. The dancing was passionate and made every bit of the statement they intended to make. I don't know if it will help their cause or not, but it was amazing to watch.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Who Needs Supermodels?

Isn't this woman gorgeous? Her eyes, her smile, the lines on her face - even the chipped tooth - all tell a story, her story. I wonder what it is? Unfortunately, language is often a barrier in speaking with people here. Every time I go out to the township, I use a little bit of English, a little bit of Afrikaans, a greeting in Sotho or Zulu, hand motions, and lots of smiles.

Sometimes our smiles say more than words ever can... especially this woman's. Say what you will, but I think she's stunningly beautiful.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Aftermath of the Bad Day: Spiritual Lessons Learned

One of things I love most about having children is that I can learn so much from them. On the evening of the infamous "Bad Day", all three of my children curled up on my bed with my husband and I for the nightly bedtime story. Sometimes my son Ben plays with my hair while I read, sometimes Lucy rubs lotion on my feet, sometimes Emma lays her head against my shoulder, sometimes Dan is sitting next to me.... but I always feel the touch of at least one family member (it is hard NOT to feel that with five people on the bed!). Even if no words are said, I am aware of their presence and their love for me. Through my family, I could feel God's presence. Even on bad days, God's touch is always there to say, "I'm here. I love you."

After the story, it was time to pray. I thought my kids' prayers would focus on the dead dog and mommy's grumpiness, but no... they still managed to find it in their hearts to pray for those who have it worse off than we do. Emma prayed for Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe. She prays for him every night, that he would turn his heart to God. Lucy prayed for some children in Thailand, Rwanda, and a little girl out in a Pretoria township who lost her parents and all of her belongings in a shack fire. Benjamin prayed for the lion in the story we read... but still, he makes me smile.

I was utterly convicted in my spirit, that I had focused on myself and what had gone wrong for me the whole day. It took three children - MY children - to remind me that the world does not revolve around me (good grief - even Job prayed for his friends!) and that God is ever-present no matter what the circumstances. I so love my family!

"You have loved us first, O God, alas! We speak of it in terms of history as if You have only loved us first but a single time, rather than that without ceasing You have loved us first many things and every day and our whole life through. When we wake up in the morning and turn our soul toward You - You are the first - You have loved us first; if I rise at dawn and at the same second turn my soul toward You in prayer, You are there ahead of me, You have loved me first. When I withdraw from the distractions of the day and turn my soul toward You, You are the first and thus forever. And yet we always speak ungratefully as if You have loved us first only once." - Soren Kierkegaard

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Bad Day, Part 3: The Repercussions of a Typographical Error

After the dog died, and after the license-switching fiasco, I was helping the kids with their homework and trying to forget the awful morning when our electricity was cut. Not thirty seconds after it was cut there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find an employee from the Tshwane Municipality Something-or-Other standing there.

"Are you Mrs. Nel?"
"No, I'm Mrs. Erickson."
"Well, is this stand 1173?"
"Yes... why?"
"Your surname isn't Nel?"
"Well, we cut your power because the Nels owe R12,700 (nearly $2,000) on their electricity bill, and they listed this address."
" (Sigh....) I'm very sorry, but we are not the Nels. The Nels have never lived here. We are the second owners of this house. The first owners weren't the Nels, either. And besides, we pay our electricity bill. I am very sorry that they haven't paid their bill, but must you punish us?"
"Well, they listed this address."
"It is incorrect. I can assure you that the Nels have never lived here. I can also assure you that I pay my electricity bill, and I would really, really appreciate it if you turned my power back on."
"Maybe you should talk to my manager."
"I would love to speak with your manager, if it means reconnecting my power."

So... after a long discussion in which I assured the manager that I was not Mrs. Nel and that I pay my bill, they reconnected my power and said they would get to the bottom of the mix-up. The thing is, this is the SECOND time this has happened!!

Will they fix it? Will they cut our power again? Just who are the Nels? And how is it possible to rack up a R12,700 electric bill for a single-dwelling home??? Stay tuned....

A Bad Day, Part 2: The Joys of Bureaucracy

I kept my American driver's license because the South African government recognises it. In other words, I don't need a South African driver's license. The problem is, my license expires next month, and I have to renew it "in person" because of a "change of address." So....

I found out that it's possible to switch/transfer my license from an American one to a South African one (even though it's not required). Since I can't renew my American license, I thought this might be the way to go. I contacted the AA via email. They said to go to any AA office. I went to the one in Menlyn. They told me they couldn't do it; I had to go to a licensing/testing facility. I went to the one in Waltloo. I couldn't even figure out what queue to stand in. So I went to the office in Rayton. They said I had to go to the Old TPA office in central Pretoria. I did; they were closed.

This morning (after my dog died) I went back to the Old TPA office. They said I had to go back to Waltloo. Waltloo said I had to go to Centurion. Centurion said they could do it, BUT I have to be a permanent resident, and I can't do that until I've lived here for five years.

So.... now I'm stuck. If I can't renew my American license because I have to do it in person, and I can't switch it to a South African license because I'm not a permanent resident, what am I supposed to do? The joys of being an immigrant...

A Bad Day, Part 1: Experiencing Loss

Today our dog Sprocket died. He was only 7 months old. He lost his appetite over the weekend and this morning he didn't look so good, so we took him to the vet first thing, and while they were getting an IV drip ready for him, he died. We didn't opt for the doggie autopsy so we don't know what actually killed him, only that it was sudden and unexpected.

Telling the kids after school was the hard part. It brought back memories of having to tell them Great Grandpa Williams died six months ago. Just last month, Emma's best friend at school moved away... another loss (Emma wrote a heart-wrenching poem about it). And we still have our days where we feel the sting of moving half a world away and leaving all things familiar behind - friends, family, culture. Just when we start to heal, another loss occurs. It sometimes feels like having a scab that someone keeps picking open.

The mother hen in me wants to protect my children from loss, but that's not possible or realistic. The best thing I can do is teach them how to deal with loss - how to grieve and how (and when) to move on - whether it's the loss of a country, a great-grandpa, a friend or a seven-month-old puppy.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Old-Fashioned Fun

I found a stack of old coffee cans at work yesterday, which reminded me of my childhood. We used to make "telephones" out of small cans and rope, and the larger cans we used to make stilts. So... history repeats itself once again as you can see in the photo. We made some stilts for the kids, and they had a blast racing down the hallway at work.

It's amazing how much fun you can have with so little. I have to wonder if we really need all of those toy stores. I have seen kids in South Africa make soccer ball out of plastic grocery sacks, goal markers out of bricks, and any number of things out of old tires. I half think the creativity and ingenuity is worth more than anything money can buy. Five points for African resourcefulness! I realised the other day that we haven't bought a single toy since moving to South Africa, and I don't miss it. The kids don't seem to mind, either. They are content with the toys we brought from the States. Just yesterday Lucy turned a cabbage leaf into a floating cabana in the sink for her Polly Pockets.... until she found a slug on the leaf. Then she screamed and yelled for Daddy to come save the dolls. And in a dramatic rescue that rivals any Godzilla movie, Lucy had the time of her life!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Happy Anniversary!

One year ago today, our family landed at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg with eight suitcases and five serious cases of jetlag.

I thought our one year anniversary would be a big event, a significant milestone. It is, I suppose, but I feel more pensive than anything else. Maybe it's the weather. In any case, to commemorate the event, I thought I'd write down what I've learned this past year:
  • I have learned, above all else, that I have a lot to learn!
  • I have learned that you can live without a lot of "stuff" - more than you think!
  • I have realised that even if you had the best government in the world, it could not solve all of man's problems - only Jesus can do that.
  • Love can make up for a lot - maybe even everything. Without love, you have nothing. With love, it doesn't matter what you don't have - you are pretty rich.
  • I am learning to be less task-oriented and more people-oriented. People are ultimately more important than tasks.
  • Being in a hurry in a long queue only makes things worse. It's much easier to just relax and enjoy "being" for a while instead of "doing." Whatever needs to get done will get done... eventually.
  • Sometimes the best food is the cheapest - fresh bread, fruit, perfectly cooked maize meal and gravy. Who needs five-star restaurants?
  • The beauty of the land, the sounds of the birds, and the incredible sunsets are worth more than money can buy. Movies, TV and music don't hold a candle to the greatest show on earth.
  • It takes time to make friends. In the meantime, you can learn a lot about yourself in times of loneliness.
  • Jesus is... EVERYTHING. He gives meaning to all of life - the joys, the challenges, the adventures, the heartache. Without Him, it's all pointless, and with Him, it's a process of learning, growing, discovering, and incredible purpose.
So... happy anniversary! I think I'll go stand in a long queue to celebrate and just bask in God's grace for a while.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dung Beetles of the World, Unite!

I think my favourite animal (okay, insect) in all of South Africa is not the lion, not the cheetah, not even the springbok, but rather the lowly dung beetle. Dung beetles are cool. They follow animals, wait until they poo, roll the fresh poo into balls three times their size, lay their eggs in it, roll it back to their nest, and when the babies hatch, they feed off the dung. Oh, and did I mention that they do a favour to the rest of us by removing dung and taking it underground, which not only benefits us but the soil and plants as well?

If I had to roll something three times my size back to my house, I'd complain. If I had to follow people around and wait until they pooed, I'd complain. But dung beetles do exactly what dung beetles were created to do. How many of us can say that?

That the next time life drops a poo ball on us, let's turn it into something useful. Let's amaze the world with our ingenuity, problem-solving skills and our great attitude towards challenges and unglamourous circumstances.

And now, introducing Miss Dung Beetle 2008.....

Monday, September 8, 2008

My Own Take on a Parable

I was thinking about Robert Mugabe this morning, feeling some "righteous anger" at what he has done and how he has led his people, when I suddenly got a glimpse of how God sees Him. Imagine that you are a creator and you made the most exquisite piece of art. But the art ran away and was put to lesser uses, did not thank the creator for its beauty or purpose. How would you feel - you who had put so much of your heart into this masterpiece? I imagined how God must feel when one of us turns our backs to Him, lives for selfish gain, rejects the very One who made us. I decided to "rewrite" Luke 18:9-14 in my own words to help get a better perspective:

"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 'Two people went up to church to pray, one a mission worker, and the other a lonely immigrant. The mission worker stood up and prayed about herself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men - Robert Mugabe, Hillary Clinton, Jacob Zuma - or even like this misfit immigrant. I pray every day, buy food for orphans, serve at my church, and love my neighbours.'

"But the immigrant stood at a distance. She would not even look up to heaven but sank to her knees and poured her heart out to God: 'I am lonely. I do not understand the people here. I am frustrated and sometimes angry. I have so many faults; have mercy on me, a sinner.'

"I tell you that this woman, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who thinks they're better than others will be brought down, and he who demonstrates a spirit of humility and meekness will be raised up.' "

In God's eyes we're all equal. He doesn't love one of us more than another. I am not any better or worse than the Mugabes, Hitlers, or Mother Theresas of the world. Which is why, if you noticed, I made myself both characters in my parable. I am the mission worker and the immigrant. I am the pharisee and the tax collector. I am the prodigal son and the jealous older brother. And I am captivated by the grace of Jesus.

More Than Just a Eunuch

Bet that made you look twice, didn't it?

If you read the story of Queen Esther, you will find that the eunuchs are the unsung heroes of the story. As my friend Elsabe pointed out, the eunuchs were the ones who primed Queen Esther on how to deal with the king and how to approach him. They were the ones who took care of Esther before she became queen and told her what to take when it was her turn to parade before King Xerxes. They were the ones who related Mordecai's acts to the king, and they were the ones who played a huge role in saving both Mordecai and Esther's lives.

No one is "just" a eunuch, "just" a domestic worker, "just" a petrol station attendant, "just" a cashier at the grocery store. A superhero lies deep in the soul of each one of us. Not the Spiderman sort of superhero, but the sort that comes from reaching our potential in Christ and living our lives fully for Him. Great things can come from the most unlikely of us.

"... Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." - Philippians 1:6

Saturday, September 6, 2008

African Barbies

So... my daughter Lucy decides to play Barbies, but she said she was playing "African Barbies". She designed the clothes, built the rondavel complete with "thatched" roof, and even added a firepit later on.

I'm not sure if this is good or bad, but since this blog is about learning to become an American African, I thought I'd share what it's like from an eight-year-old's perspective. Maybe even our Barbies are becoming enculturated. I think it's the water...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Spring is Coming!

This is a coral tree. Stunning, isn't it? I love seeing them on my way to work every day. God is the most amazing artist! How many times do we drive by things like this and never think to thank Him for making the world so beautiful?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The President's Garden Crew

Here is the garden crew at the Union Buildings. It must be break time, or else they're waiting for something. They are standing in front of a row of bird of paradise plants, known here as "strelitzia."


"We're going to play a trick on Dan when he comes around the corner to take our photo!" Uh-oh.... Dan snuck up on us first!

Remedial Sepedi

The other day we delivered food parcels to four primary schools out in Soshanguve for the identified orphans there. While we were unloading food parcels, I met the remedial (resource) teacher at one school. She sees 69 students each week. We had a nice conversation, and then she changed her demeanor and said rather sternly, "You don't know a word of Sepedi. Sit down. Now! You're officially in my class!" What else could I do but sit down and... learn Sepedi? She proceeded to teach me several words. After a few minutes, the headmistress of the school walked in, and Mrs. Tabane said, "Now stand up and recite what you've learned for ma'am." I could see I had no choice, so I recited me newly-learned Sepedi for ma'am, and then they both laughed hysterically and gave me big hugs afterwards.

I now have an experience of township school life... in the remedial class, no less!!