Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Love and Memories

The other day a friend told me what he thought of memories- that they are simply misconstructions of reality. As soon as an event happens in our lives, it is no longer real, it can no longer be fully captured or recreated. Our minds are limited by the information about situations that we remember, and slowly over time, as we continue to pull up the same memory, it looses it's grounding in the real world and simply becomes a figment of our imagination. The event becomes faded and fuzzy and usually appears behind a rose-colored glass as we soften out all of the wrinkles of the challenges which we experienced at that time and only focus on the positive. Taking this idea, each time we recall a memory, we become further and further from remembering the actuality. Depressing right? I guess it depends on what exactly you are trying to remember.

While I was in South Africa I was very conscious about remembering fine details about my experience so that I could recall them later. I remember trying to put words to the specific smell that my house in Masealama had, or imitating the phrases and accents of my closest friends so that I could realize what it was about them that I would miss. I made a ridiculously long list of what I loved about South Africa in my journal that I just now remembered and pulled out. I cried and smiled and laughed. But despite all the time I spent intentionally trying to remember things, I now find myself forgetting. The glass is getting frosted. I can no longer hear everyone's voices clear in my head. I find myself forgetting common Sepedi phrases. I no longer randomly break out into a South African chorus. I no longer hear the beautiful weaving harmonies. I don't remember how frustrated I would get when a taxi wouldn't come to Masealama for three hours. I forget to pray before every meal and car ride.

These memories are slowly fading like all the memories from the previous 23 years of my existence. But I don't want them to. I am deeply missing that connection that I have with the people in South Africa, and the only thing that I have left is these memories and some broken-up phone calls once every few months. What I hate most about memories is that they are easily forgotten. I don't want to forget. So, I am taking it on myself to intentionally unbury these memories. One of my many new years resolutions this year was to be in better contact with my friends all over the world. By talking to them and hearing their voices and stories the memories freshen a bit. I have also decided to start taking it upon myself to research South African architecture and how it is currently affected by racial implications and Western ideals which are not necessarily good or life-giving designs for the typical South African. Hopefully my studies will help bring back more concrete memories of places that I visited and people that I met. But this is a fighting battle that I can't win.

Eventually it will all be a faded memory. But when that point comes I want to be a changed person because of it. I don't want this memory to become buried amidst the trash I am accumulating in this American lifestyle. I want it, however faint, to become a beacon which guides my path from here on out. By consciously reconstructing these memories, although they may leave me in tears, I hope to keep these memories stored in a safe, visible place. I am fighting not to forget. I am fighting my own mind, but sometimes that is what we have to do to induce change. It won't be easy, and I will not succeed, but I am going to try anyway.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Fall of the Idols

About this time last year I was seriously missing one thing… You may be thinking- aww, it's during the holidays she was missing her family, or missing singing Christmas carols in English, or missing watching the ball drop in Times Square, but no. Not to say that I didn't miss all of those things, but the one thing that I was craving at this time was a sweet little slice of good old American football. Sure I had "futbol", so much futbol it would make your head spin, but it was the end of the season (the NCAA, I don't do NFL) and with all the championships and bowl games all I wanted was to see a few guys knock each other senseless in the name of this revered sport.

During a quick visit to a pastor's house, I was sitting in their living room flipping through their television channels, and because they had a fully serviced dish, they had ESPN. Needless to say, this being the first time I've seen ESPN in about 5 months, I watched the same sports center three times as it repeated one after the other just so I could see a little snippet of NFL football. I didn't even care about any of the teams which were playing, but just seeing that familiar American sport made me feel at home.

Football has certainly become a major defining part of the American lifestyle. I do love the sport, but what I love even more about it is the ability for the game to bring us all together. What I missed about football wasn't necessarily the game itself, it was watching that game on the couch on a Saturday with your father, or starting a tailgate at 8 am for an 8 pm game, or cheering along with THOUSANDS of other fans all dressed in orange (sorry, Clemson fan) in complete unison. Football has become so integrated into our society that it is nearly impossible to remain separate from it. Football can satisfy our need to feel like we belong, it can inspire us, it can shock us, it can force us into prayer, and it can make us feel more alive than we often feel as we travel along in the day to day grind of the real world. No wonder it has become so central in our nation. But as football has taken hold of us, what have we given up in return? What things in our life have become trumped by this sport at one point or another?

As many of you hopefully know, December 1st is internationally deemed World AIDS day. All over the world on this day, people gather to provide prayer, support, and hope for this terrible disease which is still ravaging the world. One such group that uses this day to raise money for the children affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis in the poor country of Lesotho is Bloom Africa (, a non-profit organization founded by a group of students from Wittenberg University which include past YAGM, Andrew Steele, who joined me last year in the MUD 3 program in South Africa. This year Andrew asked me and the other MUD 3's to help Bloom Africa with their annual World AIDS day event- a nationwide happy hour whose proceeds go to those children affected by HIV/AIDS in Lesotho. Our job was to find a local bar or restaurant which would be willing to host such event, and willing to donate part of their earnings from the evening. The date was set for Friday, December 2nd, the day after World AIDS day. I went around to my five favorite bar establishments in Eugene to see if I could set up an event, and they all seemed really positive at first. But after receiving little response I went back to one of the bars and met with the manager who mentioned this one little fact--- the PAC 12 Championship was also on the night of December 2nd, and there was a good chance that Oregon would be going to it.

So now the truth comes out- no bar is willing to host a Happy Hour event to help the poor children of Lesotho because that evening they are guaranteed to be packed to the brim with people watching Oregon play in the Championship game, and they are guaranteed to make a LOT of money. SO- moral of the story- Football over helping poor children in Africa.

I realize this is being a little harsh and I am probably disregarding a lot of significant information about why these bars rely on the money from this one special event so much,,, but I am trying to make a point. As football becomes a bigger and bigger deal in America, what are we pushing aside? No one in their right mind would agree that a simple game of football trumps getting clean water to children in need, but as a whole this is what we are doing. We are ignoring God's call to do his work. We have made football our idol, which begs the question, what other idols have we placed in our lives that are further inhibiting us from God's call?

I love football, and I missed it terribly last year. But what I missed wasn't necessarily the sport itself, it was the community centered around that sport- a community which can and should be sought elsewhere- like in the Church. While football is important (and I am certainly stoked that Oregon won the Rose Bowl!), I see now that maybe some new priorities are in order. It's time to bring down the idols, so we can see what they are covering.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Things I noticed upon return... Part II

4) It’s easy to acquire a bunch of stuff you don’t need, all the while thinking that you can’t do without it.

Last year I lived out of 3 small suitcases. For the entire year, although I did acquire new possessions I also gave away old ones, leaving me at the end of year with simply the same 3 small suitcases. Which leads me to question- how many possessions do we accumulate each year? How many do we give away? If you had to fit all of your things at the end of each year back into the same amount of bags that you started with at the beginning, what things would go?

5) Proof that God exists.

Oftentimes after a break-up we hear people say that they are heartbroken. They say that someone in their life took a part of their heart, and ripped it from them, leaving them broken and incapable of the same type of full, pure love as they had previously. By contrast we know that God loves all unconditionally, and no matter how many times we sin or hurt him, he still loves us all the same. His love is unconditional, ours is not. This is how we separate the divine from us. But after this past year I see this a little different.

I left my family and friends in America and was stationed in the small village of Masealama, South Africa where I knew absolutely no one. Throughout this amazing year, I came to love the people of Masealama as family and close friends. Even though it was only a year, I feel like I have loved them my whole life, and I love them equally as my family and friends in the States. And as I had to leave them I realized just how much my heart was able to grow this year- it seems as if we do indeed have an unconditional ability to love as God does. Loving my family and friends in South Africa didn’t mean that I loved those in America any less, nor did it mean that when I left them I was left with half a heart. My heart is full and forever expanding as I meet new people and proceed to love them as well. God has formed us in his image- giving us the ability to love unconditionally. Our hearts will never be full or broken, just as God’s heart will never be.

6) Whenever I see water wasted on TV I cringe.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Friday, August 12, 2011

Things I noticed upon returning to the USofA

1) The expectation of communication. As soon as I landed in the US and turned on my USA cellphone that had been collecting dust in the corner of my closet all year, my phone exploded in my hands. I got text message after text message telling me welcome home and they can't wait to hear from me--- i didn't know how I could possibly respond to so many people. I was unaccustomed to frequent communication in SA, and it was common that I would send a text message (which costs a rand) and wouldn't receive a response for days. That was typical. Now I had all these people who wanted to hear from me and EXPECTED to hear from me like now now, and I was in shock.

2)Hair products. My first morning back in my old room I open the cabinet in the bathroom in search of a toothbrush, and all I find is hair products, so many hair products. I couldn't remember why I had all of these hair products, or even what I had ever needed them for in the first place. So maybe my hair hasn't been the greatest this year, but honestly, the products don't really do all that much anyway…

3)Coca-Cola Freestyle. So one of my first days back I go to pick up Moe's (something that I had been craving tremendously in SA) and meet my sister for lunch. This is the first time I have really had to order in a fast food restaurant for quite a while, so I was rather nervous to begin with. Thankfully I managed completing both orders correctly, answering the questions appropriately to ensure the desired results. White or Wheat? Beans? Salsa- mild, medium, spicy? Lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, many more toppings that I can't think of right now? Just when I thought I was in the clear, I head to fill up the drinks,,, but instead I wind up with some Back to the Future inspired machine. After gawking for a solid minute at this contraption fully equipped with a touch screen, a large red button which says PUSH, and one spigot for the drinks and ice,,, I read the instructions on the left and proceed with caution. Simple enough- touch the touch screen, choose a soda, and press the red button. However, once you choose a soda, it then breaks out into 11 thousand different flavors which you have never heard of in the soda category you chose. Want a simple Diet Coke? Impossible, Press the Diet Coke button and up pops Diet Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke with Lime, Raspberry Diet Coke, Diet Cherry Coke, Orange Diet Coke, Diet Cherry Vanilla Coke, etc…. I thought I had problems making decisions before I left the States, but now this so called amazing invention called Coca-Cola Freestyle comes along giving me the "ultimate beverage experience" with 100+ choices and I am really stuck. I can't make a decision because I am given too many options.


~Heather Anne Nelson

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Birds on a Plane

For your enjoyment, I would like to take this time to offer you a story of the amazing return journey from South Africa of Ms. Amanda Tompkins and Ms. Heather Nelson...

Our flight was leaving Frankfurt a little past nine o'clock on Tuesday morning, heading for Washington. Everything was on-time, we loaded the plane, and by some random seat confusion that resulted in the mother of a row of screaming children being placed in business class instead of near her very young and out of control children and flustered father, Amanda ended up in the only empty seat in the airplane- beside me and my helicopter flying row sharer who was returning to the USA from 6 months in Afghanistan. All of that previous information is rather pointless, but it sets up the story.

SO, as we are pulling out from the gate and about to taxi down the runway, there are suddenly some strange dancing shadows around the cabin that catch Amanda and a few other passengers attention... Then all of the sudden, a bird appears whizzing down the aisle to our left, resulting in a chorus of shrieks erupting from those on board. The Captain (who somehow magically kept switching between male and female voices) came over the speaker, and after a slew of German words and some laughter,, he translated to us that Yes, there is a bird on board, but we are not certain of what the airline protocol is to deal with a bird on a plane,,, since it has never happened before. They take us to "remote holding" with other dejected planes, and then the Captain announces our plan of attack. Genius idea number 1- we are going to catch the bird. He pleaded with the passengers to please remain seated unless you have an "extreme physical need" so that the crew can better locate the bird. After a few unsuccessful minutes, it appears that the bird has been "lost", but the general assumption is that it is hiding out in first class. So, starting at the back of the cabin the crew steps on boxes and bangs on the top of the overhead compartments with coat hangers to insure that the bird is not hiding out there, and makes their way to the front. When they still can not locate the bird, the air conditioning is turned off so that we can better hear it. So now we are strapped to our seats, without air, straining to hear the small flapping wings of the cleverly hidden bird.

The Captain comes over the intercom again, announcing that unless the bird can be located shortly, they will have to move to Plan B, because they contacted the US, and no, you are not allowed to fly a plane into the USA with a bird on board. Plan B is the exact same plane located right beside us out the right window, which would require all the luggage to be moved, the plane to be prepped by the flight attendants, all the security measures to be restarted, and then the passengers reloaded-- but since we are not allowed to walk out onto the ground there, a bus has to come pick us up, drive us back to the airport, and then bring us back to the plane that is almost within reach. Genius. So since that would take forever, apparently some flight attendant claimed that he/she saw the bird exit the plane through the front door (or whatever you call that thing- a hatch or something), so we could proceed with take off. As we begin to taxi again,,, the bird reappears. Although the Captain claimed that it was a "second bird", none of us were fooled. This time the bird was a bit more rambunctious, I am guessing he was flustered from being attacked with coat hangers... Anyway, he flys down the left aisle, swerves around the back, and comes shooting forward on the right aisle... Amanda and I have our heads turned back checking out the action, when all of the sudden the bird decides to dive bomb straight at us! As I try to avoid the attack, the bird proceeds to ricochet off my face, resulting in one of my god-forsaken screams, and proceeds to fly forward. Dramatic, yes. But the tension is still building. So now the bird swerves back to the back again, but the flight attendants are ready,,, they quickly slide the curtains closed and stuff pillows above to provide no means of escape, and then we just hear the chaos of 6 flight attendants armed with blankets attempting to capture this now psychotic bird. Finally, a flight attendant emerges running with a blanket in her hand and a freshly squashed bird (we think she was too excited, we heard bones crack), and she pumps her fist in the air as we cheer her on... The bird is disposed of, and we proceed on with our flight, 2 hours delayed. Being on African time, Amanda and I were merely enjoying ourselves, and laughing at the ridiculousness of our own lives,, but the other Americans around us were not so pleased or amused by the delay.

If only we had Samuel L. Jackson aboard and a microwave made specially for birds,, then we could have a had a theatre worthy flick. Or maybe not.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Left Behind

I have a theory that goes like this: it is easier to leave than to be left behind.

11 months ago when I left my friends and family in the USA, I was leaving for an exciting and unknown adventure. I didn’t know what was to come, but the unexpected was alluring, and even though I was anxious and a little frightened at times, I was overwhelmingly excited. However, as I flew across the world to be greeted a different people and culture; I left my friends and family back at home. They remained behind, usually leading the same routine lives as they had been when I was present, but the only difference was I had created a void, an absence, in their lives.

Now it has come time for me to return to the USA, and refill that void which I left. However, throughout this year Masealama has become home to me, and the people surrounding me have become family. So when I leave, I am leaving for another adventure, to return home and then attend grad school, but my friends and family here in Masealama will be left behind. Although they did not know me a year ago, when I arrived they opened up their hearts and homes to let me inside, and when I leave I am going to be leaving the same void which I left when I came to South Africa in the first place.

When you have a visitor in your home, your house is suddenly enlivened- you eat special meals, you stay up late conversing, and you busy yourself to make sure everything is clean and orderly. As you watch them leave, they have a trip ahead of them of some sort- whether it is going home, going to the mall, or visiting other family, they have something on the horizon- a destination in view. However, you are left in the same house, only now you are left with a small void where that visitor was. You house is a little quieter, and you have to return to your normal day-to-day routine. It’s hard to be left behind.

When that visitor stays with you for over a year, their departure is even more of a struggle. Although it is EXTREMELY challenging for me to leave my friends and family here in Masealama, I know that when I return I will be reunited with the friends and family which I left behind. I will be leaving with another adventure ahead of me. But I think that it will be even more challenging for my friends and family here in Masealama. I want to be conscious of this fact, and leave with as much grace as possible, to attempt to ease the transition. I feel almost selfish, being the one who LEFT my family and friends in the USA, and now am LEAVING my friends and family in South Africa. I have the easier end of the deal, while I am busy LEAVING BEHIND the people that I love to continue on with my adventures.

Being left behind doesn’t mean that you do not have adventures on the horizon, but they are simply less tangible than those who are leaving. Although I will be leaving again, and will once again leave a void, I think it is better to have left South Africa than to never have come at all.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to Survive Winter in Masealama

Two things will get you, the dark and the wind. Although indoors provides you with shelter from the wind, the thick stone walls and little sunlight penetration create conditions very similar to your freezer. There is no central heating and air as we are used to the USA, so,

1) Try to find a spot in the sun still protected from the wind. Watch out for lizards and other reptiles which tend to gather in such areas.

2) Wear knit tights under you pants. Layers do wonders.

3) Wear a towel or blanket. Especially if you are a gogo (grandma), you can get away with wrapping yourself up in a towel or blanket to stay warm in public, and it is perfectly acceptable

4) If indoors, old wood burning stoves work miracles at warming up a room. If no wood stove, baking also tends to warm things up, not to mention making things smell heavenly.

5) Drink warm water. You can only have so much tea in one day, but you can stay hydrated and warm at the same time without an overload of sugar. Warms you hands as you hold it and your body from the inside out as you drink it.

6) Invest in a heater to sit in front of. Bar heaters may not warm up a room, but they can burn the hair off you legs if you are close enough!

7) Tuck your PJs into thick socks, thus when you crawl into bed your pants don’t roll up and result in cold, bare skin.

8) And hour before bed, boil water and put in an empty 2 litre. Wrap in a towel and place between your sheets. This eliminates the inevitable cold sheets that you first crawl into at night. Beware- hot water put into a cold glass bottle can result in explosion!

9) 6 inches of blankets covering your entire body, head included, seems to do the trick. The famous fuzzy, heavy South African blankets work miracles.

10) Exercise and bathe often- these are the only two things that ensure warmth, if only temporary!

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Land of Milk and Honey

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the 2011 Rally for the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). For those who are not aware of the church structure of ELCSA, my congregation is part of the Masealama Parish which is part of the Mphome Circuit, which is one of the six circuits in the Northern Diocese spread across Limpopo and parts of Mpumalanga. Our rally was held this year in Nelspruit, a rather distant location for most of the circuits. Travelling with Dean Sikhwari of the Mphome Circuit, we woke up at 2:00 am on a Sunday morning to make it to the service in time by 8:00 am. All in all that day we spent around 11 hours in a car travelling to and from church, and six hours in the actual service- now that is dedication!

The service was not the best attended due to its distant location, but we still filled a high school stadium with many highly energetic ELCSA members. Most of the service was conducted in Sepedi even though there were also Tswanas and Vendas in the audience, but I am used to that by now. However, during one of the two sermons of the day, the pastor would emphasize the main points by speaking extra loud and slow in English. Consequently, I received the Cliffs Notes version of the sermon without getting lost in the details and explanations placed amidst the sermon.

The theme of the rally was “ELCSA: My Responsibility,” and as the pastor started speaking, he used the famous words of JFK to set the tone- “Ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.” And what can we do for the church? What can we do for God? The speaker then went on to say that we should do our best to bring God’s people to the land of milk and honey. People so often preach and speak on the gospel that often times the Old Testament kind of gets sidelined as irrelevant to our current times. Consequently, when we read about Moses leading God’s chosen people to the land of milk and honey, we view it as a historical documentation of what happened in the past and rarely take it past surface value to figure out what this can mean to us in the present day.

So what dos the land of milk and honey mean to us? Why use milk and honey to represent the Promised Land? Let’s start with milk- milk provides us with necessary vitamins to help us grow strong. It is nourishing, life-sustaining, strengthening, and calming. As for honey- it provides us with a natural sweetness which can sweeten even the most bitter or bland things in life. Both milk and honey are given to us in this world as products of God’s creation. They are not from us, but rather from God. Let’s bring God’s people to a land where they will be strengthened, nourished, sustained, and sweetened by something which God has given us.

Jesus is the milk and honey of life, given to us and for us by God. Coming to the “land” of Jesus involves us living in Jesus Christ and letting him dwell in us. Once we enter the “land” of togetherness, we come to know and understand God who strengthens and sweetens us and gives us eternal life. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” John 17:3. When we enter into the land of milk and honey, we enter into the kingdom of God. So our speaker for the day said that it is our responsibility to help others find this kingdom of God.

But how can we bring others to the kingdom when we ourselves have not tasted it? During the sermon, the pastor pulled out a bottle of honey and jug of milk. He then proceeded to share it with the bishops, who then shared it with the deans, who then shared it with the pastors, who then shared it with their congregations. In order to share the kingdom with others, you must first receive it. You can not teach without first learning, you can not give without first receiving- which is potentially one of the hardest and most meaningful lessons I have learned this year, and is something that South Africans do very well.

When you enter into someone’s house in South Africa, you are immediately put into the position of receiver. You are given tea and biscuits, you are given a specially prepared meal, you are given food to take home with you, all whether you want it or not. At first it was hard for me just to sit and eat, especially when I was not allowed to help with the preparations or clean up or do any sort of giving at all. I realized how uncomfortable I am with receiving from others, and I was soon called out on it. When asked if I needed tea at the Dean’s, I would respond with “No thank you, I am fine” because I did not want her to go through the hassle of preparing tea (and biscuits) just for me when I was not really hungry in the first place. One day Dean said, “I know you. You will say you are fine because you do not want to burden others. You are very much independent; you need to let others help you.” She went on to explain how important it is to South Africans to be able to give to others, and how the reception of these gifts- food or help or whatever- is a sign of acceptance and respect toward the giver. From then on whenever I say “No thank you, I am fine,” Dean will proceed to give me whatever she is offering anyway. She is teaching me how to receive, and how to let others help me.

However, this South African culture of giving and receiving means much more than just food. This hospitality and welcoming is a portrayal of God’s love, and it’s contagious. The more you receive from others, the more you want to give- to both return the love and spread it to others. I think South Africa is doing a great job of bringing others into the “land of milk and honey” as they realize that first and foremost you must receive. By being immersed in this culture for almost a year now, I have come to know God and the abundance of his love so much deeper and with more understanding than ever before, because I have let the people here lead me into the “land of milk and honey.” As I return home, I look forward to giving back what I have received here, and more as I continue to open myself up to receiving God’s love.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Saturday, June 4, 2011

10 Suggestions for Helping your YAGM Return Home

Written by Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, the Mexico Country Coordinator

1. Don’t ask the question, “So how was it?” Your YAGM cannot function in one-word answers right now, especially ones intended to sum up their entire year’s experience, and being asked to do so may cause them to start laughing or crying uncontrollably. Ask more specific questions, like “Who was your closest friend?” or “What did you do in your free time?” or “What was the food like?” or “Tell me about your typical day.”

2. If you wish to spend time with your YAGM, let them take the lead on where to go and what to do. Recognize that seemingly mundane rituals, like grocery shopping or going to the movies, may be extremely difficult for someone who has just spent a year living without a wide array of material goods. One former YAGM, for example, faced with the daunting task of choosing a tube of toothpaste from the 70-odd kinds available, simply threw up in the middle of the drugstore.

3. Expect some feelings of jealousy and resentment, especially if your YAGM lived with a host family. Relationships that form during periods of uncertainty and vulnerability (the first few months in a foreign country, for example) form quickly and deeply. The fact that your YAGM talks non-stop about their friends and family from their country of service doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, too. It simply means that they’re mourning the loss (at least in part) of the deep, meaningful, important relationships that helped them to survive and to thrive during this last year. In this regard, treat them as you would anyone else mourning a loss.

4. You may be horrified by the way your YAGM dresses; both because their clothes are old and raggedy and because they insist on wearing the same outfit three days in a row. Upon encountering their closet at home, returning YAGMs tend to experience two different emotions: (1) jubilation at the fact that they can stop rotating the same 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts, and (2) dismay at the amount of clothing they own, and yet clearly lived without for an entire year. Some YAGMs may deal with this by giving away entire car loads of clothing and other items to people in need. Do not “save them from themselves” by offering to drive the items to the donation center, only to hide them away in your garage. Let your YAGM do what they need to do. Once they realize, after the fact, that you do indeed need more than 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts to function in professional American society, offer to take them shopping. Start with the Goodwill and the Salvation Army; your YAGM may never be able to handle Macys again.

5. Asking to see photos of your YAGM’s year in service is highly recommended, providing you have an entire day off from work. Multiply the number of photos you take during a week’s vacation, multiply that by 52, and you understand the predicament. If you have an entire day, fine. If not, take a cue from number 1 above, and ask to see specific things, like photos of your YAGM’s host family, or photos from holiday celebrations. Better yet, set up a number of “photo dates,” and delve into a different section each time. Given the high percentage of people whose eyes glaze over after the first page of someone else’s photos, and the frustration that can cause for someone bursting with stories to tell, this would be an incredible gift.

6. At least half the things that come out of your YAGM’s mouth for the first few months will begin with, “In Mexico/Slovakia/South Africa/etc…” This will undoubtedly begin to annoy the crap out of you after the first few weeks. Actually saying so, however, will prove far less effective than listening and asking interested questions. Besides, you can bet that someone else will let slip exactly what you’re thinking, letting you off the hook.

7. That said, speak up when you need to! Returning YAGMs commonly assume that almost nothing has changed in your lives since they left. (This happens, in part, because you let them, figuring that their experiences are so much more exciting than yours, and therefore not sharing your own.) Be assertive enough to create the space to share what has happened in your life during the last year.

8. Recognize that living in a very simple environment with very few material belongings changes people. Don’t take it personally if your YAGM seems horrified by certain aspects of the way you live – that you shower every day, for example, or that you buy a new radio instead of duct-taping the broken one back together. Recognize that there probably are certain things you could or should change (you don’t really need to leave the water running while you brush your teeth, do you?), but also that adjusting to what may now feel incredibly extravagant will simply take awhile. Most YAGMs make permanent changes toward a simpler lifestyle. Recognize this as a good thing.

9. Perhaps you had hopes, dreams, and aspirations for your YAGM that were interrupted by their year of service. If so, you may as well throw them out the window. A large percentage of returning YAGMs make significant changes to their long-term goals and plans. Some of them have spent a year doing something they never thought they’d enjoy, only to find themselves drawn to it as a career. Others have spent a year doing exactly what they envisioned doing for the rest of their lives, only to find that they hate it. Regardless of the direction your YAGM takes when they return…rejoice! This year hasn’t changed who they are; it has simply made them better at discerning God’s call on their lives. (Note: Some YAGMs spend their year of service teaching English, some are involved in human rights advocacy, others work with the elderly or disabled, and at least one spent his year teaching British youth to shoot with bows and arrows. The results of this phenomenon, therefore, can vary widely.)

10. Go easy on yourself, and go easy on your YAGM. Understand that reverse culture shock is not an exact science, and manifests itself differently in each person. Expect good days and bad days. Don’t be afraid to ask for help (including of the pharmaceutical variety) if necessary. Pray. Laugh. Cry. This too shall pass, and in the end, you’ll both be the richer for it.

An Unwelcomed Giant

At the end of May it was announced that Massmart, a local South African retailer, has approved a $2.4 billion (R16.5 billion) merger with Wal-Mart. For Wal-Mart this is obviously a great step into their further expansion and domination. Now that they have a foothold in South Africa, it can become a bounding point for expanding into the rest of the African continent. For some in South Africa, the arrival of Wal-Mart is thought to bring lower prices which will force healthy competition among other retailers, and even attract other foreign investors to expand their businesses into South Africa. All good news right?

Just to warn you, I am approaching this topic with a slight bias against Wal-Mart and everything that it stands for. My discussion about the topic of Wal-Mart taking over South Africa will therefore inevitably be swayed by said biased opinions, and I apologize in advance for my seemingly one-sided presentation of ideas.

In speaking of the upcoming merger, Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon promised to provide “previously underserved customers and communities with better prices and increased access to the products they want and need.” But I have one question for McMillon—how do you know that the customers and communities of South Africa are underserved? How can you know that people do not have what they want and need from the other side of the ocean? In my experience, the current shopping available in South Africa is plentiful- you can get what you need, even if you have to travel a fair distance to get there. From Masealama I may have to travel about an hour in a taxi to get to the shops in Turfloop, but once I am there I know that I will find local shops that provide the people with exactly what they need, at great prices. So the Shoprite that I go to may not have cinnamon or whole-wheat noodles, but the store stocks what is purchased, thus saving money and space. If Wal-Mart were to take over, I imagine the store would have to be tripled in size so that there could be more aisles providing more items of things that we do not really need in the first place. South Africa is NOT underserved.

The conditions with which the merger occurred are also of interest. Massmart only agreed to the merger if Wal-Mart would abide by certain regulations, like recognizing the SA Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu). Wal-Mart did agree, but only for three years after the merger. As soon as I arrived in South Africa I soon realized how important the unions are to workers in all sectors of business all over the country. I have experienced strikes from people involved with education, transportation, garbage disposal, mining, service delivery, political activity, and much more. If there is something that needs to be changed or reconsidered, people gather together and strike in protest so that their concerns are recognized and hopefully addressed. It is how things are done here, and I fear that if Wal-Mart does decided to refuse Saccawu then things will not end well. Wal-Mart would be denying their workers of what they see as their political rights- the right to free speech and protest- and in a way offending and denying the workings of the pre-established checks and balances system of South Africa.

And of course, I am also fearful of how the promised low prices of Wal-Mart will affect the current diversity and uniqueness of the local shops. Many small businesses will inevitably be unable to compete, and will thus be forced out of business. Losing the small tuck shops and local spazas will take a lot of the flavor and culture out of the streets of South Africa. It would not be the same to walk down the streets of Turfloop without passing through local shops blaring house music out onto the sidewalks.

I also hope that Wal-Mart revaluates the size of its parking lots for South Africa, if not I am fearful that we will wind up with acres of paved over land serving no purpose but to add to the issues of global warming and run-off. More people in South Africa walk, taxi, or carpool, so let’s not put an American sized parking lot out front.

And with that I will stop my rantings. The globalization of American companies is a multifaceted issue which has positives and negatives depending how you look at it. Yes, this is a great move for Wal-Mart which promises a lot of future success down the road, but at what expense? I for one am not in favor of this particular instance of globalization.

~Heather Anne Nelson