Monday, December 27, 2010

Muscle Memory

When I sit at a piano or any keyboard instrument, my hands start playing John Rutter’s Toccata in Seven – they can’t help it. It does not matter how long it has been since I last played it, if there is music in front of me, if my eyes are open, or even what I am concentrating on, my hands know where they should be placed and my fingers automatically tumble through the strange but familiar chords. It is so easy, so thoughtless. After years of practice, this song has been engrained in my memory so deeply that I can feel how the song is supposed to progress without even actively thinking about it or doing it. We all experience this muscle memory- whether it is playing a song on the piano or riding a bike – there are things in our lives that we have done so much that our body just knows what to do.

Sitting outside on a sunny afternoon in Masealama, I experience a similar muscle memory. With the warm sun beating down on me from the cloudless blue sky, my body knows that it is time for cold drinks, fresh fruits, green grass, and summer vacations spent relaxing with friends and family. I am prepared for the hot months ahead, full of barbeques and fun, and when at last the days begin to cool, my sun-soaked skin will slowly pale as pants and sweaters replace breezy summer dresses. When that time comes, my body knows it is time to snuggle up by a fire with a cup of hot chocolate and whistle Christmas tunes. But my body has been deceived. Living in North America for my whole life, I have grown up associating the Christmas season with winter, but now in the southern hemisphere everything is thrown off. I don’t feel like Christmas is coming because the influences which have previously triggered my Christmas “muscle memory” (such as cold weather, warm sweaters, and snowflakes), are not present. I know how it used to go, I can hear it in my head, but the piano isn’t there for me to tap out all the right notes. I keep reminding myself that it is December and Christmas is almost here, but my body is telling me otherwise. I am internally engaged in a civil war- one side fighting for the true Christmas, and other fighting for my memories of Christmas.

My favorite Christmas song is White Christmas by Bing Crosby, which I usually play on repeat for the entire month of December. In South Africa this has not changed, I still love and play this song tirelessly, but now it is full of contradictions. As I sing along while my good friend Bing describes his dream of glistening treetops and sleigh bells in the snow, my internal war rages. How can it be Christmas without the low threatening snow clouds or morning frosts? Living with and fighting this contradiction is one of the hardest things I have had to do during my stay here- even harder than eating a chicken head. I have always been big on holidays, but when the traditions and muscle memories associated with those holidays are taken away, what is left? For me it is hard to leave behind my North American Christmas traditions during my time here in South Africa. This year I pulled out my wintery Christmas music well before the socially acceptable point of Thanksgiving (like I do every year), I have baked all the usual Christmas cookies, and on Christmas Eve I will open a few small but special gifts from my family. All of these things I am doing to make Christmas real to me this year, and to ease the civil uproar inside of me, but I must remind myself that these things do not MAKE Christmas.

We all know what Christmas is really about- that Jesus Christ our Savior was born to Mary and Joseph, and through this gift from God, we are saved from our sinful selves and given eternal life. We all know this, but are our actions and associations with Christmas showing this? Our minds know Christmas is about Christ, but do our bodies feel it? Has Christmas become so easy and thoughtless to us that we can tumble through the season without really concentrating on what it is that we are doing and why- much like I mindlessly play through Rutter’s Toccata?

I have been caught up in all the bells and whistles associated with the Christmas season in the US. It took a large jump in perspective (i.e. a move to a different continent) for me to realize that my small idea of Christmas was distorted by my westernized upbringing. Seeing Christmas from a different angle- one that has not yet been tainted by years of repeated traditions that alter perception- I am able to better see the true Christmas which is a Christmas of celebrating the best gift we have received and can ever receive- the gift of Jesus Christ. The question is this - how do you choose to celebrate this gift?

I love traditions, and will most definitely continue practicing some of the Christmas traditions on which I was raised. But there are a few problems with traditions; we typically do not understand the reasons behind their establishment, and we do not like to see them change. We exchange gifts on Christmas, but who started this tradition and why? If we can understand the initial foundations of our traditions, then we can better understand why we do them, and how they can become more meaningful to us in this day. My task this Christmas is not to give the perfect gift, but to receive the perfect gift. The traditions which I choose to continue should reflect the receiving of this gift from God. I do not know how I will reconcile these two battling fronts of Christmas vs. Christmas tradition, but in the upcoming season I will attempt the painful process of making peace accords. It will take compromise and sacrifice, but if the result gives me a more meaningful understanding of Christmas and the traditions associated with this holiday, than it will be worth it. I encourage you all to consider going through this process with me- and slowly we can redefine Christmas. The tune may not change at all, we can still participate in the same traditions, but by breaking the habit of going through the season using our muscle memories, we will be able to enjoy the true gift of the season.

~Heather Anne Nelson


The following are a collection of out-of-the-ordinary occurrences during my stay here in South Africa which I thought should be shared- to add a little bit of humor to some otherwise heavy blog posts. It is times like these when I stop and ask myself “is this really my life?” Enjoy!

An Innocent Death

Sitting outside on a sunny afternoon with the ladies of the Drop-In Centre, our silence was suddenly interrupted by a sharp squeal. Turning around I see S
ister Marion pulling away in fear from the object which frightened her, and instantly everyone around me screams in a similar manner and does one of two things- runs away to the safety of Mamalume’s stoop, or jumps on top of their chairs. I remain seated and calmly look for whatever devil creature had caused such a scare- and to my surprise- I found a harmless little chameleon to be the source. It was kind of cute, blending in with the dusty yard and walking slowly toward me. “Heather, are you not afraid of it?” I was asked by my co-workers. Well, I can not think of the last instance when a chameleon did harm to me or any of my acquaintances, so no, I am not afraid of it. But they were. So Mamalume, being the brave one of the group, comes off of her stoop with the end of a broom in hand, and slowly approaches the creature. She puts the end under the chameleon, and starts flipping him up in the air toward the gate to get him outside. Once he is out of our gate, I thought it was over- that he could go on with his normal life of blending in, just not with anything in our yard. But no, apparently this chameleon was so frightening and repulsive to these ladies that he couldn’t just be sent away, his life must end, which is a logic that I apply to spiders. So Mamalume proceeds to pick up large stones and throw them upon the little chameleon until he was no more. That is when I screamed. IS THIS REALLY MY LIFE?

Impromptu Safari Tour

It is a Sunday afternoon and we are on our way to a joint wedding party of some friends. Piled in a large blue truck, we are flying down dirt roads in an attempt to make it to the wedding reception on time. The pastor who is driving decides to take a short cut he knew from four years back when he lived and worked in this area, so instead of following the
dirt road which forks to the left, we take the dirt road which forks to the right. A little ways down this road it becomes clear that this passage has not been well travelled recently- for the sweet thorn bushes have overgrown into the road, and as our large blue truck whipped down this road, we all sat listening to the painful sound of the spikes scraping our car. After twenty minute of this scratching, we come to the place where this road is supposed to hook up with the other road and continue toward our destination. But there is a problem- at some point in the last four years a new fence was placed around the perimeter of the land we were on. That doesn’t stop us! In order to ensure that the last 20 minutes of our lives and the scratches on the car where not done in vain, we proceed to jump off the dirt road and begin driving through the high prairie grass- dodging bushes and large ant piles and looking for some kind of gate. Another 10 minutes passed, and we are now in the middle of nowhere with our only trail back being the inconvenient fence which we are desperately trying to break through. After asking a local across the fence for the location of the nearest gate, we turn around only to find out that we were lied to. Accepting our defeat, we proceed back through the prairie grass, ant hills, and spiky bushes to the narrow dirt road and when we arrive back where this story started, we decided to take the left fork. Off-roading through the plains of Limpopo with a pastor- IS THIS REALLY MY LIFE?

Celebrity Status

Arriving at our final destination of the wedding party, we find ourselves in a very rural setting at the foothills of a mountain in Limpopo. Much to our surprise, we arrive to hundreds of cars surrounding a house and large party tent which is housing the wedding party already in session. We walk in late (after our safari excursion), and are standing at the outskirts of the tent with the hundred other people looking in on the festivities occurring, but we are instantly spotted, called out, and drug inside the tent- front and center. After forcing some other ladies to relinquish their seats, the man with the microphone sits Andrew and I right beside the bride and groom who we do not know in the front. Looking around, I know that there are countless eyes on me and Andrew, not to mention the video cameras, regular cameras, and cell phones which are snapping picture after picture of us. Why? We are different- we are white. A rural area like this does not se
e many outside visitors, so our presence gave us somewhat of a celebrity status- something which I am not used to and do not really enjoy. But all you can do is smile at the cameras and laugh at the situation that you are in. At a wedding of someone whose name you can’t even pronounce and you are all of the sudden drawn into the wedding party to be gawked at by hundreds of onlookers. IS THIS REALLY MY LIFE?
When the ceremony was over, we ran quickly out of the tent for some fresh air and hopefully to sit in a little less conspicuous location. But our presence was already well known, so we were found and greeted by many people. Unfortunately as with most parties, some had been celebrating a little too much and approached us with a semi-drunken air. Politely we shook their hands and listened to their slurred Sepedi (which makes it infinitely more challenging to understand), and usually they smiled and moved on. However, there was one man who was enjoying his one-sided conversation with us a little too much, and he refused to leave. A man we were with kindly asked him to step away from us and give us some air, which swung him into a violent rage where he started hitting our friend and saying that he had no right to tell him what to do! Luckily, his intoxicated state resulted in him not being able to maintain his balance, so his punches did not have much force behind them or else he would have thrown himself to the ground. Another man from the wedding party came and escorted him away, and no one was seriously injured. But, a pastor just got punched at a wedding celebration- IS THIS REALLY MY LIFE?

Video footage from the Wedding Party

No Hooting

Riding in a taxi around my area of Limpopo you frequently hear the horn sounded. Whether it is to ask people walking down roads if they want transport, to honk at other cars on the roads, or even to get cows goats and chickens out of the road, the horn is one of the most important means of communication for a taxi driver. Riding in this particular taxi I notice a general silence- the horn in our taxi is not functioning. No worries though because over head the taxi driver had placed a y
ellow vuvuzela to pull down and blow whenever he needed to honk! One of the many uses of the vuvuzela…. IS THIS REALLY MY LIFE?

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Merry Christmas to All

As the Christmas season is approaching, we are used to returning home
for the holidays to be with family. We are used to participating in
our traditions of old- of baking christmas cookies, decorating trees,
hanging stockings, and sipping on hot cider to warm us from the chilly
air outside. Sometimes it feels like these things are what makes
Christmas, our family and our traditions, but when these things are
stripped away, doesn't Christmas happen anyways? This year me and 10
other young adults are seperated from our families and homes, we will
not be participating in our typical Christmas traditions, and we will
certainly not be expecting a White Christmas which I am so used to
pining over in the States. We are breaking our traditions and living
alongside our hosts to experience their Christmas traditions, and we
may not be by our blood family, but we are certainly welcomed into the
homes of our South African family. Each of us look forward to this
new experience, and I personally hope to come out of it with a deeper
understanding of what Christmas truly is without the North American
ideals which I typically associate with it.

So from our family here in South Africa to yours- we wish you a very
Merry Christmas- regardless of whether you are snowed in or lathering
on sunscreen on Christmas day we are all celebrating together!

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Non-Existent Personal Bubble

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of travelling back from Polokwane to Masealama via taxi after the workshop that Monene and I attended. I have taken this taxi a few times, and it has always been fairly crowded, because people will come into town to do all of their shopping and then try to transport everything home via taxi, which leads to some very creative packing skills. This particular journey, however, was the most crowded taxi ride that I have experienced to date, and the following is a vivid description of the ride, for those who have never had the pleasure of experiencing the South African taxi system.

Monene and I arrived at the taxis with our bags for the week just in time for the one to Masealama to depart. There were two seats left, one for Monene near the front, and one in the very back row for me to climb into. I left Monene with my luggage and headed to the back row, which was currently being occupied by three very healthy ladies. Typically fitting four in one row is a pretty tight fit, but this was tighter than usual. Doubting whether I could fit in that seat I started to turn around until one of the ladies motioned to me and told me to squeeze in. She slid over as far as she could exposing about a three inch gap between her and the lady beside her- and it is into that three inches that I attempted to squeeze. This process resulted in me half sitting on the lap of the lady to my right with my right arm behind her, and me leaning in behind the lady on my left because we had to zig-zag shoulders to fit properly. Then the man in front of me sat down in his seat which reclined more than usual due to old hinges,,, which resulted in my legs being crossed and squished up near my chest.

Just when I thought we were settled, it turns out the lady to my right had purchased a large red bucket to do her washing in, so it was passed back to our row. After hitting me in the head with this bucket repeatedly, the lady finally got it situated on her lap in a way that suited her, but that meant that it rested right below my chin. Also in the back row the metal frame of the van comes down further than the rest, so now my head is caught in between the metal frame and the rim of this very large red bucket,, resulting in a game of pinball every time we hit a bump in the road.

Now we are situated and ready to go, but our proximity to each other and the heat of the day has caused us to break out into a sweat, so the lady to my left decides to open the window. In the process she has to lean toward me, which results in my head being thrust totally into the bucket (which is filled with peaches and bananas) and my ability to breathe drastically diminishes. But at least now the window is open and we can cool off. So at around this point, the taxi driver starts pulling away, which forces high pressure cool air into the back of the taxi resulting in my untied hair whirling rapidly around in the sudden wind storm. I have no hands to calm the hair, so I just have to let it fly. Soon some hair gets caught in my left eye, so I have to shut the eye for the remainder of the trip since I can’t get the hair out. Then some hair wisps by my right cheek causing me to suddenly itch in that location, but I am unable to scratch it. I seriously debated asking the lady beside me to scratch my face for me, but I am fairly certain that would require being hit in the head again multiple times by the large red bucket.

We are travelling down the road, about five minutes into our hour long journey, and I notice a familiar car to my left on the highway. Looking closer I confirm the color and the style of the car to be identical to that of the Dean’s (a lime green Nissan), who lives 20 feet away from me in Masealama. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony that we could have been riding comfortably with the Dean all the way home but instead we were packed into this taxi like fish in a can. It is a good thing I got rid of my need for personal bubble space a long time ago!

And that is the story of the most crowded taxi ride of all time. If only there had been a live chicken in the bucket.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

With Rights comes Responsibilities

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on Care and Support of Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) provided by the Life Skills, HIV/AIDS Education Program. This workshop was hosted in Mokopane (west of Polokwane in Limpopo), and brought volunteers involved in organizations which deal with OVC’s from around the area together for a week of education and inspiration. Most of us were active members in the Lutheran Church, so our education went hand in hand with biblical scripture and our spiritual beliefs, something which is atypical for an educational workshop in the United States. Mixing education and religion has always been a problem, but here it is comforting to be able to connect the two openly. During our week long workshop we learned about life skills, drug abuse, sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, sexuality education, first aid, and much more- things with which I am already familiar but could use a little refresher, especially when determining how they are affecting South Africa in particular and what is being done in response. I was not expecting to come away from this workshop with a completely altered perspective, but things often happen when you least expect them.

The first day in the workshop we started by listing out all the problems that children and youth in South Africa are currently facing. These problems included poverty, negligence, peer pressure, lack of confidence, teenage pregnancy, human trafficking, prostitution- and the list goes on. All of these problems combined are feeding into the HIV/AIDS epidemic which is currently crippling South Africa, so in order to put an end to HIV/AIDS, we need to start from the source- from the problems which we listed out. An HIV/AIDS free generation can start with the youth and children of today, so our care and support of these children is vital in our fight against this deadly disease.

In the new constitution of South Africa written in 1994, there is a Children’s Bill of Rights which lists out eight fundamental rights given to children. These rights were instated to ensure the proper care and support of all the children in South Africa, and yet to this day these basic rights are still being abused and denied. The rights include a right to a name and identity, the right to be fed, the right to shelter, the right to education and relevant information, and the right to protection, among others. If these rights are listed out in the constitution, how is it that the problems which are currently plaguing the youth and children of South Africa are still so prevalent? The fearless leader of our workshop, Nelly Tlakula, answered that question in a few simple words that changed my perspective forever, with rights comes responsibility. Rights can be given, but if they are not received with a certain amount of responsibility, then they become null and void.

When this Children’s Bill of Rights was established, responsibility was automatically distributed to society as a whole to hold firm these rights. Even the children, the receivers, are responsible. If you are given the right to a name and identity, it is your responsibility to create a positive association with that name. If you have the right to be fed, it is your responsibility to not be gluttonous or wasteful, but to take care of the food and be thankful. If you have the right to shelter, it is your responsibility to be respectful and keep that shelter clean. If you have the right to education and relevant information, it is your responsibility to take it seriously and listen and learn. If you have the right to protection, it is your responsibility to not expose yourself to unnecessary harms.

On the other side, society is also responsible for upholding this Bill of Rights. Parents, guardians, and adults should ensure that their children and all children around (especially OVC’s) have a shelter above their head, food on their table, proper schooling, and protection from harm. Providing these things for your own child is instinctual, but as adults it is our responsibility to provide this care for all children, as if they are our own. In a child headed family, who is there to protect? Who is there to provide food, shelter, and proper schooling? It is not the child’s responsibility to be the giver of these rights, but the receiver. Unfortunately too many orphans and vulnerable children have to fill both roles. They are only children, but are forced to be parents as well. They lose their rights and their childhood if they do not receive the care and guidance they deserve.

What rights are you given, and what are the responsibilities associated with those rights? What are the rights of others that you are responsible to help uphold? In our constitution in the United States of America we are each given the right to freedom of speech. What responsibility does that place on us? We must not use that right to inflict harm through our words or lack there of. The first may be obvious, but apathy and silence in the light of injustice is just as much of a violation of our right and responsibility as using our voice for harm. On the flip side, what responsibility do you have to ensure that others have the right to free speech? We must be tolerant and able to listen to many different views, and ensure that all are heard- even the homeless living in a cardboard box and your 97 year old grandmother.

I have a tendency to compartmentalize my life. The separation of my secular and sacred life makes it easier for me to deal with the contradictions between the two that I stumble across. Instead of addressing those contradictions and determining how I am going to resolve them personally, I simply separate my life into two categories and avoid the conflicts all together- I guess that is part of my non-confrontational manner. But with my experience here in South Africa, where religion freely pervades all life from classroom education to hospital wards, I am forced to de-compartmentalize. The rights we are given do not only come from our government here on Earth, but our higher “government” as well. What are the rights given to us by God? We are given the amazing right of choice- we get to choose who we love- whether it be our creator, false deities, or earthly possessions. God could easily have created us to always know and love him, and live perfect pious lives. But forced love means little- chosen love is much greater. As Christians it is our responsibility to be aware of this choice and do our best to live our lives accordingly. We do need to actively make this choice, and continually remind ourselves that money, fame, and other earthly rewards are blessings given by God and should not become the center points for our lives.

Imagine what the world would be like if everyone took responsibility for the rights they were given- rights from earth and from heaven. It sounds simple, but being aware of the rights and consequent responsibilities that we have and actively responding instead of living our lives being unaware and passive can make a significant difference in this world.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Aowa, eh-eh, UM-UM!

At the workshop I recently attended in Mokopane, we sang many songs during our break to keep our energy levels high and our brains functioning properly during our sessions. One song quickly became the theme song if you will for the workshop, as it was favored by everyone there and everyone got out of their chairs and would start dancing and singing excitedly. To get a flavor of typical "choruses" sung in and outside of church, attached is a video clip,, I hope to record more and more throughout the year! The song is simple and repetitive, so you may find yourself singing it as your day goes on. Just so you know what you are singing about the song is roughly translated as follows :

No, No, NO! Never have I met anyone like my Jesus! (repeat until you can no longer sing and dance!)

I encourage you to get up and dance along!

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

True Southern Hospitality

We call Masealama an island for a reason. Not only is there no running water and the electricity is hit or miss, but communication is also a major challenge. There are no landlines in Masealama, so the only possible means of communication is via cell phone, but network coverage is very rare. You are lucky if you can get two bars standing over the stove. So how do you stay connected with the outside world when you are stranded on this “island”??? The answer is—you don’t.

This past week I was supposed to attend a workshop on HIV/AIDS in a hotel two hours away in Mokopane. Monene (a lady I work with) and I left on Sunday night to Mokopane to check in to our rooms which we were very excited about—a week of running water!!! So we arrive at Oasis Lodge around 6 o’clock on Sunday night, only to be greeted by a receptionist who told us she didn’t have any reservations for our conference… Through many calls and speaking with the coordinator of the workshop, we came to find out that the date had been changed to next week, and everyone else who was attending the workshop was apparently informed, but those of us from Masealama were left off the radar. So now we are in a town 2 hours away from home with no car and no means of transportation because the taxis had already ended for the evening, and no place to stay for the night. Luckily, we were blessed with a very kind receptionist at the hotel named Sibongile, and she was nice enough to give us a room free for the evening! If I was in the States and stranded in a random town late at night, I am pretty sure I would have to pay for a room, but here we experienced an act of TRUE southern hospitality coming from the SOUTHERN hemisphere in SOUTH Africa. I look forward to returning next week for the actual conference J

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the annual Gala Dinner of the ELCSA Mphome Circuit, and although a power outage the night before limited the life of my camera's battery, I was able to capture this clip. Among other musical treats, the Kgapane Choir performed a very familiar tune which I thoroughly enjoyed. Although it was 32 degrees Celcius and ripe time to pick bananas off the trees outside, this Christmas tune reminded me of exactly what SEASON I am about to enter. Although it may not be the weather season which I expect, we are all about to enter into the best time of the year (in my opinion)- the church season of Advent and CHRISTMAS!!! It is time to bust out the Christmas music, as I will be doing! I'll be singing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" while wearing sandals and shorts and sweating under the sweltering heat of the South African summer sun... Won't be the same, but it is the Christmas season none-the-less. Enjoy the clip!

~Heather Anne Nelson

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Faith on Fire

A few weeks ago I got in a car with four other ladies from the church. I had no clue where we were going or what we were doing, but I did not even bother to ask- I guess I am getting used to the unexpected. As we travelled down the road, carefully avoiding the cattle being herded into their pen for the evening, I looked out the window and smiled- embracing the landscape, the people, the moment, and the element of surprise.

Just as the sun was setting we pulled into the Mankweng Clinic which up to this point I had only seen in passing. Fantastic, I thought, a hospital- my favorite. For those who are unaware, I have a tendency to faint at the sight, smell, or thought of blood, needles, or anything medically related, so obviously a hospital setting is a bit of a challenge for me. Still uncertain of our purpose at the clinic, I took a deep breath and followed the other ladies with me into the sterilized air. We asked directions from a worker there, who led us down a maze of whitewashed walls, slick tiled floors, and florescent lights until we arrived at the surgical ward. Even better- open wounds and IVs. I looked straight forward, carefully avoiding glancing into the windows of the patients for fear of seeing something that I could not handle. We turned into one of the rooms with six ladies who appeared to all be breast cancer patients at various stages. A few were standing, most were sitting on their beds preparing for the night ahead, and one was sprawled out on her bed hooked up with IV’s and relatively unresponsive to our entrance. Breathe- God give me strength. The lady whom we were visiting was an active member of the youth in our congregation, and she had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and was in the hospital preparing for her upcoming operation.

We sat around her bed and chatted for a bit, except in Sepedi so I mostly just observed. She looked happy to have company and comforted by our support but, despite her bright smile and cheery countenance, I could sense worry in her eyes, just as in the ladies around her. When the chatter subsided we stood to pray. Our prayers were full of cries to the Lord to help our dear friend be healed because we the church needed her; we can not survive without her. I know the collective prayers not because I have suddenly developed telepathic abilities, but because prayer here is not silent. Each person was standing with their heads and hands lifted to God, ready to receive his blessings and shouting their prayers up to him in the language of their choice- some in Sepedi, and some in English. As you can imagine, six ladies screaming in various languages to God at the same time creates quite the cacophony, but it does not shock me… anymore.

As our cries were dying down, in walked some members of another church and asked if they could pray for the patients. They began their prayers, which were once again spoken aloud and shouting, but they spoke with more fervor than us Lutherans. They went to each patient and, with their hands on their foreheads or waving up and down the required spot of healing, they shouted prayers to the Lord. What caught my attention was not the shouting, but exactly what they were shouting. The man to my left was standing with the unresponsive lady with his hands on her head screaming for instant healing of her ailments. A man to my right was waving his hands over a standing patient while shouting “FIRE, from the top of the head, to the sole of the feet! FIRE of the Lord!” What is going on? Do they really expect these people to be instantly healed? But as I scanned the ladies of the room once again, I saw each one of them with their heads bowed and their eyes squeezed shut, hoping earnestly for a miracle from God to heal them.

Churches and prayers such as this are very popular here in South Africa. They are given the name of “charismatic Christians” because of that fervor with which they pray, preach, and sing. This passion even carries into the Lutheran church, with frequent outburst of “Amen, Hallelujah!” while the breathless pastor continues on with long powerful sentences delivering a dramatic message. At the ELCSA Young Adult gathering that I attended in Durban last month, a lady close by me started having a seizure during a particularly powerful prayer and instead of stopping the prayer and calling an ambulance, she was surrounded with hundreds of people putting their hands on her and shouting up to God for healing from her suffering.

You would not get this at a Lutheran church in the United States. I guess it is our sometimes conservative nature and closeness to our European roots, but if I were to stand up shouting during the prayer of the day I think every head in the church would turn to stare at me. At times this passion and fervor can seem overwhelming, especially at first to someone who is so used to praying internally- almost as if asleep. But it has made me question why I pray the way I do. Prayer is our conversation with God, whether it is a conversation of thanks, a cry for help, or just a friendly chat, it is still a conversation. I know that we bow our heads and fold our hands out of reverence to our mighty Lord, but how then can you expect to hear his response, see his signs, and receive his gifts if you are bowed with your eyes closed? Do we expect this conversation to be one-sided? Do we have the faith to believe that our prayers will be answered?

If I had a seizure in church I would want immediate medical attention, not a thousand hands trying to heal me with the power of God. But how amazing is it that the power of prayer is so well respected and believed in that it exceeds the power of medicine? Is that not how it is supposed to be balanced- God first, then the knowledge and ability of man second? “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:14. No matter what we can do here on this earth, God is the all-powerful ruler, and in him is where our future lies, not in the hands of the doctors.

This seems to create a large split between the world of medicine and our religious beliefs. Is it wrong to take advantage of the advances in medicine to boost our health and prolong our life? I would like to suggest that instead of working against each other, medicine and religion are actually working in tandem. Perhaps the cries for “instant healing” go deeper than meets the eye. Those men may have been flailing their arms and encouraging the Holy Spirit to come heal those ladies- but what exactly is healing? According to the ELCA's social statement on health, healing, and healthcare, which I encourage you to read, healing is more than simply curing a disease or illness; it encompasses both the body and the spirit, and speaks of restoration of well-being in God. The cry for the fire of the Holy Spirit may not have any physical repercussions, but the ladies were restored in God and healed of their worldly worries. In this light, medicine can help cure bodily ailments but, in order to be in full health, the spirit must also be healed and strengthened in the Lord. Together, medicine and religion can create a strong, healthy follower of Jesus.

It is encouraging to see the unfaltering FAITH with which the people around me believe in prayer and the ability of God to heal. It is a FAITH which is full of fire and fervor and calls for miracles from God. Although instant healing was not given to those six ladies in the hospital, the incredible FAITH with which those prayers were given healed and strengthened the souls of the patients in the Lord, so they could proceed with the road ahead believing in him and his miraculous work. Do not be afraid to shout to the Lord your praise, thanks, and cries for help- you may just receive a miracle of healing in return for your faith.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Here in the Northern Diocese we have a devotional given out yearly to guide our daily worship and prayer life. It has verses and prayers listed for each day, and although they are all in Sepedi, I have been using it recently for our youth services as I have been asked to prepare a sermon on the lesson of the day. This little pink book pictured is entitled T┼íhupa Mabaka which is not pronounced as you would expect— phonetically it is pronounced Choo-pah Mah-bach-ah—or that’s how I would write it out phonetically, I know it is not the “correct” way. Take out the middle sounds of “pah and Mah” and you get Chewbacca. Star Wars will follow me anywhere I go.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Divine Coincidence

Since I arrived here in Masealama, unexplainable coincidences keep occurring. We all experience these at some point in our lives- whether it be meeting someone from your hometown in a foreign country or finding $20 in your pocket when you are running low on cash. Recently, I have been experiencing them in an unusual rapid succession.

A week after I arrived, I was greeted by a young man named Gift who said “Come with me.” After glancing at the ladies I work with for approval to follow this stranger, I got up and followed him. He led me up the hill to one of the old German mission buildings that had fallen into disrepair where I found a van full of volunteers from a nearby town hard at work cleaning this building and setting up for the festivities of the afternoon. As Gift took me around and introduced me to the volunteers from various places all over the world who were setting up this youth centre here in Masealama, I saw a guitar out of the corner of my eye. This centre is being established to teach music, arts, sports, and more to the children of this town to keep them off of the streets and learning life skills which can be applied to their schooling and all aspects of their lives. As it turns out, they had six guitars donated, but no one knew how to play so they couldn’t teach the children. This past year I started learning the guitar, and I happened to bring all of my music with me so I could teach the people here some songs, but I decided not to bring the guitar here to South Africa. Turns out I didn’t need to! They desperately needed someone who could play the guitar, and I desperately wanted a guitar to play.

This occurrence was the beginning of my parade of the strange and unexplainable. My “Feeding Chickens Chicken” blog was posted as a movie came out featuring chicken cannibalism, my last newsletter was released at the same time as one of Pastor Chris Heavner’s morning devotions which focused on making a blessing out of a curse, and my daily bible readings have frequently matched my reflections on my experience here to a pin. So why are these coincidences rapidly occurring? Can they be explained by the influx of ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses as they prepare for All Hallows Eve? Are they simply coincidences that I am becoming aware of because of my increased state of observation? Or are they divine- small “gifts” from God to help guide me along my journey here in South Africa?
It is easy to label these occurrences as mere coincidences or supernatural, but I now see them as trail markers of God’s presence in our lives. They are subtle reminders of his awesome power and ability to provide for us in ways we cannot fathom. While we wander though the woods to make our own decisions on which paths to take, his trail markers remind us that we are not guiding, we are being guided. There is no such thing as coincidence; it is just a sign of the presence of the divine within us- guiding our ways.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cooking for Three

On Monday we were visited by some members of the sister congregation to the Mphome Circuit from Berlin, Germany. Heine, Siglinda, and Lilly have been travelling around various parishes in the circuit, and Monday was their day to visit Masealama and get a feel for what is currently taking place there, and how they can best aid us in the future. Since I have been working in the kitchen mainly, I got to spend all Monday morning preparing lunch for these three Germans, which by the looks of the food we prepared you would guess we were feeding about 30 Germans. This is the South African style though (at least here in Masealama)- prepare food in large portions and then force newcomers to eat it all- trust me I know! So we prepared a typical meal from this region (except without fruit because it is not yet in season…) which included chicken (boiled and baked), pap (for the South African’s present who physically need pap every day), rice (for those of us who can do without pap), cooked cabbage, cole slaw, beetroot, green salad, soup, and juice. It was quite the feast, and although I didn’t do any of the actual cooking I did help slice most of the vegetables that were used to make the soup, cabbage, and salad,, so if you can see the finely sliced zucchini and carrots in the salad- that was my doing. After this meal I did not have to cook dinner all week because 1) I was still full from this meal on Monday, and 2) I was given enough leftovers to feed a small army. When I return to the states I will be able to prepare all of these dishes from scratch, so you can look forward to that!

~Heather Anne Nelson

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Feeding Chickens Chicken

Recently we have been cooking quite a lot of chicken. Partly because I have mentioned my dislike of fish and beans which leaves chicken and a variety of animal intestines, and partly because it is easy to buy in bulk and prepare for the children. This chicken we boil, bake, or braai throughout the day in our kitchen, while we sit around the oven for warmth and conversations. The ladies that I work with daily are quite talkative, but I typically have very little to contribute to the conversation because it is mostly in Sepedi, the main language of this region of Limpopo. Being used to being the most talkative in a group, I now find myself sitting back, listening, and observing more than usual. As I try to magically absorb the language I am constantly pushing my ears to listen and my mind to comprehend, and amidst all this listening I hear the rustling of chickens and their young scouring the dried ground for some food. They may find some bits of edible food here and there, but the aroma of cooking chicken coming from our kitchen draws them near. If chickens could drool, I imagine these would be as they peck outside our door begging for food. In the evening, we oblige them by washing the cooking pots and dumping the remains outside. It’s like Christmas morning for those little chicks. But in my newfound state of observation, I realize that we are feeding chickens chicken… Each day we taunt them with the smell of their friends slowly simmering in a pot, eat them in front of the hungry chicks, and then feed the uneaten remains to them.

I know the chickens couldn’t care less about what is being fed to them. All they know is the constant struggle to satisfy their aching stomachs and those of their children, and when they come across sustenance, they eat rapidly, thankful for the blessing of food. Their struggles remind me of what I have for which I should be thankful. The holiday celebrated in America known as Thanksgiving is very suiting- each year we celebrate the blessings of our lives by preparing enormous amounts of delicious food. What better way could we express how lucky we are than preparing a smorgasbord of food, which sustains us from day to day? In the book Kaffir Boy, Mark Methabane vividly describing his childhood during apartheid when he remembers only being able to afford cow’s blood which his mother simmered into a soup to try to make more bearable- but it kept them alive. For him and many, there is no sweet potato casserole or stuffing on Thanksgiving Day, but the food which they do have is a blessing. Those without do not have the luxury to be picky-eaters, something that I myself am guilty of in the United States. However, never again will I turn down perfectly edible food without thinking of the struggles of the people across the world that would be thankful for such a well-prepared meal.

Why are these chickens forced to eat their own kind in the first place? Partly because their environment has forced them into these starving situations and partly because those who have the power to change their situation do not. As the one in power, I could purchase feed for the chickens and fatten them into happy, healthy birds, but instead I am so concerned with feeding myself breakfast, lunch, and dinner to notice their strife or care about how well they are fed. I mean, after all these are chickens we are talking about right? I, being a homosapien with a significantly larger body and brain than a chicken (not to mention a more developed thinking process), certainly deserve to be better fed than these low lying chickens! But what happens when we start to apply this logic to our fellow people on this planet? We certainly have a history of doing so- Europe with its colonization of Africa, the settlers of the United States with their treatment of Native Americans, the enslavement and mistreatment of all those of a varying race, stature, or class such as the Africans, the Jews, the Japanese, the homeless, and even the system of apartheid well known to those here in South Africa. All are examples of people determining by some seemingly sound logic that they are better than others and therefore deserve to live a better life. We have been treating each other like these chickens.

I’ll admit, this is not always done intentionally. By being overly self-concerned often times we do not notice how others are affected by how we live our lives. As I concentrate on feeding myself and the children who come to this Information Centre after school, I overlook the lowly chickens that are starving themselves into cannibalism by my oversight. When you go grocery shopping, what typically drives your decision on which fruits and vegetables you purchase? It’s usually cost, right? The cost affects you directly, so it is natural to guide your decisions based on that. But looking further down the road, what is the end result of buying the cheaper fruits and vegetables besides padding your wallet? By purchasing food with more bang for the buck from a major company, the local small business farmers are suffering. By helping yourself, you are hurting others regardless of your intentions.

Here in South Africa people are very familiar with how selfish actions of one person in power can affect others, even in post-apartheid times. Like most countries they have had their own struggles with corruption within the government which results in actions that benefit a few, but may not be best for the majority. Currently in South Africa, people are speaking out through strikes to let their government know what they want and need, forcing the government to resolve issues that they previously may not have noticed. But what about those who don’t have the voice to speak out about the injustices with which they are living? It’s up to us to open our eyes and ears, and to observe what is going on around us. To hear the cries of the hungry or read the abuse present in another’s eyes.

As I opened my eyes and ears and concentrated on observing everything around me, I was surprised and astonished by what I found. Unknowingly, I was feeding chickens chicken, contributing to their own cannibalism. While that is rather insignificant, it makes me wonder, what other injustices do I witness and maybe even contribute to on a daily basis that I simply overlook?

~Heather Anne Nelson

For more blog posts from other South African YAGM's like this go here :

Monday, September 27, 2010

Welcome to Masealama

First of all I would like to apologize for not keeping my blog up to this point. I have been settling into my surroundings here in Masealama, and am still struggling with internet access regularity, but from this point onward the blog has become my top priority when I receive internet because I want to keep everyone connected!
It is the end of my first month here in Masealama, and you should be receiving a newsletter for the month in your e-mails, and if you haven’t and would like to be added to the distribution list, please let me know. I introduced the town a little in that letter, but I’ll summarize what I can here.
Late on the night of September 7th my good friend Moss picked me up from my bus stop in Polokwane and took me to my new home in Masealama. As we drove down the straight road through countless small towns in between the two locations, I kept my eyes pealed on the surroundings, noticing the dryness of the landscape, the flat expanses interrupted with rather abrupt rocky mounds which are called mountains. As we drove east we drove further toward the mountain ranges, and Masealama is actually the last town situated at the base of a mountain. As we drove up to Masealama, I just knew that this was the place I was supposed to be—I got the same feeling I got when I heard South Africa announced for my destination for the year at our YAGM DIP event. It was a knot in my stomach, and some kind of divine understanding that there is something special about this place of which I need to be a part. I didn’t see a sign, nor was told that the town up the hill was Masealama, but I knew. I look forward to seeing how God is working through me and the people of this town over the coming year.
This first month has not been without its’ struggles, that is for sure, and I am certain I will have many more. One of the many struggles that I have on a daily basis is that of water. We currently have no running water in my house in Masealama, so all our water comes from the pump down the street that we then carry back in wheelbarrows to the large blue bucket in out literal water closet in our house. While I struggle daily for that water, and see how I can cut my water usage, I reflect back upon my day to day life in the United States and how free flowing and easy it is to get water without even thinking about where it comes from or what a precious resource it is. I am also daily exposed to the large North South divide which dominates our planet- as I travel from a middle class family in the USA to a poorer rural community in South Africa, I have experienced both sides of that economic divide. I even see it as I travel throughout the country- seeing the dichotomy between the luxuries present in the city and the struggles present a few minutes down the road in the rural communities. There are countless more, but I know that living in these situations and being forced to view the issues facing our world from a different perspective are going to help me grow this year.
I will be keeping in touch, and please do the same for me! I try to get internet access twice a week, and will respond to your e-mails and comments as soon as possible! Thank you for the prayers and support from the across the ocean, they are definitely helping me carry through on a daily basis.

Heather Anne Nelson

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Power of Prayer

First of all, South Africa is rocking my world. The country, the culture, the people, this program... everything. Even though I have only seen a little bit of Pietermaritzburg, one small city in this large country, I can not wait to continue to be blown away.

Moving backward in time, I would like to briefly mention our orientation in Chicago. This week was a perfect start to our year of service, and the discussions which were held there both in and out of the "classroom" have already begun to shift my perspective. One particular discussion focused on "spirituality"- discussing how various spiritual practices found in other denominations and religions have a certain amount of merit which can be applied to our faith to help build our own spirituality. We participated in centering prayer, focusing, body scans, and stretch-n-pray's which are highly atypical for a Lutheran group like us, however, we all went into this experience with an open mind and were surprised of the results.

Sunday morning before I left I attended a Quaker meeting with a friend who practices Quakerism. The meetings are typically around an hour long, and members sit in silent centering prayer until they come to some realization which they feel needs to be shared with the whole group. I am not even close to adequately describing Quakerism, but what I can explain is my personal experience. While we were sitting around, and I was trying to reign in all of my thoughts from far off lands, one man stood up and spoke a little about why Quakers gater. He said that they gather TOGETHER to pray, to connect, to go deeper, and to discover what God (the Light) wants us to hear. After that I started focusing on connecting to the people around me, who I had never even met, and to God. Soon enough, those that got up to speak were speaking of issues and topics that were right in the front of my mind. They spoke of how even the smallest act can change someon's life, of how sometimes it is very hard to see eye to eye with someone of a different culture or background, and how there are walls, real and imagine, which we put up between each other which need to be "unbuilt". They even mentioned countries like Jerusalem/West Bank and South Africa directly, and thos of us who were YAGM's in the room were in awe of the relevancy of the conversation to our lives. It was as if God was speaking directly to us though the people in that room, who were acting as mirrors to direct the Light to us. That morning I got to see the power of prayer, which connects us with each other and God, in a more direct manner than I have ever experienced before. God is working through us and in us at all times, and sometimes it is through the eyes of a stranger that brings you to see it.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Great Wall of China

6,700 kilometers- the approximate length of the Great Wall of China. If the wall was stretched out and extended it would span from my home here in North Carolina, USA all the way to my new home for a year in Limpopo, South Africa. By plane that distance would take 16 hours, by car 5 days, by foot 114 days- the more you calculate it, the longer it seems. So why am I and 42 other young adults leaving my home and travelling thousands of kilometers for a year? We are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s program known as Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM). This program is designed for young adults in the Lutheran Church to step out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves to one year of international mission service. This experience is more than serving others- each YAGM will in the process learn more about themselves, their relationship with God, and their place in God’s world.

I can not wait to start this adventure in South Africa. There is no real way to prepare for the large leap that I am about to take, but I find comfort in knowing that no matter where I leap, God will be there. Psalm 139 states…

If I take the wings of morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

I am calmed knowing that as I travel to a country far from my home, family, and friends, at least one thing will remain constant in my life- God. His presence is inescapable and I look forward to seeing how he is acting in South Africa. The journey ahead of us YAGM’s may be daunting- but wherever we go and whoever we meet God will be present. Not even the Great Wall can separate us from our heavenly father.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Friday, July 2, 2010

Wings of Morning

In the year to come I will be living on the flip side of the world in the country of South Africa. Working with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and their Global Mission program for Young Adults I'll be one of the 43 YAGM's sent to another part of the world to volunteer.

Within this blog I hope to recount my adventures to all those back home and attempt to portray what I am experiencing. The title and inspiration for this blog and the recurring theme which keeps popping into my head as I await this upcoming trip, Wings of Morning, is from a psalm which many of you are familiar with and a song that introduced this psalm to me. Psalm 139 seems to capture the YAGM experience perfectly (from an outsiders perspective for now)...

"If I take the wings of morning, and in earth's far corner stand, even there thy love will find me, hold me fast within thy hand."

The music behind this verse in my head was written by William Stevens, and I had the great pleasure of singing it at Augsburg when he first composed it. The melody is sweet and slightly haunting at parts, but the tension is always resolved and calmed, just as it is in the verses of scripture.