Thursday, April 28, 2011

Weapon of Mass Destruction

There is a young woman in the kitchen. She is gently rocking a baby on her back, whom she just finished feeding and is now starting to fall asleep. One down, three to go she thinks as she begins to cook the bogobe for dinner that evening. Maybe she has a husband who will soon return from work expecting a hot meal on the table, or maybe she is alone and must feed her three other children and help them prepare for school the next morning…

Either way, this is the life of many South African women, especially in rural areas. Their full-time job is to cook, clean, and care for all the children- and they do so with amazing strength and love. Women in South African culture typically carried a lot of weight on their shoulders when it comes to household affairs, and many continue to do so. But as times progress, and women enter more into the workforce, these cultural roles of women are coming into tension and beginning to be questioned. I encourage this questioning process to continue. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a woman cooking, cleaning, or caring for children, but I do believe that when they are forced or expected to do so at the expense of their education, career, or happiness there is a problem. Of course, South Africa is not the only country struggling slowly with the equal treatment of women, this is a global phenomenon which affects us all. Similar ideologies about the proper “place” of a woman exist in the United States, and entering into a career historically male dominated is not exactly easy, even if it is occurring more in the USA than here in South Africa.

The Bible is reputably the must influential book in our world, in both the past and present times. For centuries it has been used by many as a reference to how our lives should be lived, and is of course interpreted differently by each individual. This text has been used to justify the submission of women to men, and encourage the belief that women are the “weaker sex” (1 Peter 3:7) and because of the power of the Bible, this has translated heavily into the gender roles constructed in our society. Women in South Africa cover their heads in church to comply with 1 Corinthians 11:5, are prohibited from being pastors in some denominations because of 1 Corinthians 14:34, and are pushed into submission in the household because of 1 Corinthians 11:3.

But the Bible is dangerous. Because of its’ power, influence, and endless possibilities for interpretation, it can be used in harmful ways- especially if taken out of context. For a well-rounded interpretation, the context of when the Bible was written and by whom is extremely important. Firstly, the societal norms of the time placed women in submission to men, thus this was the only reality known by the writers. It’s hard to write about the equality of women if you have never been introduced to such a concept. Secondly, due to this suppression of women, the Bible was written by those who were capable of reading, writing, and “higher thought”- by MEN! So what does this mean? It means that the stories and rules for life laid out in the Bible are almost entirely male-dominated and thus portray women from a man’s perspective- as submissive, silent, motherly, and often evil in some way! This does not mean the words of the Bible should just be dismissed due to their one-sided short-sighted perspective, but rather we should be aware of this when we read and interpret the Bible in our own way. Also, when verses of the Bible are used to found the suppression of women, they are usually taken out of context of the rest of the chapter of the book.

A few weekends ago I attended an all-day youth workshop in Masealama. We were our own teachers and students, as each person brought a different topic to the table to present and discuss. No one claimed to be experts on the topics, but rather opened them up to debate and support from everyone so together we could learn. As I have experienced more gender roles and restrictions here than I am used to in my family and community back home, I decided to speak on the portrayal of women in the Bible, and how this affects our society.

Our conversation started by discussing the roles of women, as defined by the Sepedi culture, so we could determine how the Bible either upheld or contradicted these roles. According to the youth (mainly composed of young men) the roles and expectations of women in their culture are as follows: women must respect men, they should do all domestic work, they should not wear short skirts, they should not walk at night, they are not equal to men, they should submit to a man who is the head of the household, they must love children, they should not go to work, they should not wear trousers, and they should not touch or smell alcohol. While some of these are traditional cultural restrictions that are not still upheld by all, they certainly still play a role in the ideas of who a woman should be and how she should behave.

Next, we listed out Bible stories that we could remember involving women. Interestingly enough, almost all the stories named portrayed women in a negative or submissive way- Delilah, the women of Corinth, the woman who denied giving Jesus water, and Jezebel. Contrastingly, when asked to name stories involving men in the Bible, every single man listed was portrayed positively if not seen as a prophet or savior- King Solomon, Jesus, Adam, John the Baptist, Moses, Daniel, and Isaiah. What stories come to your mind first when you think about men vs. women in the Bible?

These Biblical stories correlate well with the roles expected of women in the Sepedi culture. While they are all negative, they show what women should NOT do. They should not disrespect the authority of their husbands, they should remain silent in church, they should dress modestly, they should provide for men, and the list goes on. The portrayal of these women as bad apples in the Bible further solidifies the overall message that women are lesser than men. But how many of us have actually looked far enough into the Bible to examine these topics from a well-rounded perspective? We may know one verse or two, but is that enough to dictate a lifestyle for centuries?

There are many assumptions made about women in our society that can be proven and disproven using the Bible. Thanks to Martin Luther, who began translating the Bible into the languages of the people, we can all read the text for ourselves and determine our own take on each subject, and I think this is our responsibility. That afternoon in the workshop we sat down and did just that for various topics dealing with women. We researched Biblical text proving that: women should cover their heads in church, Eve is responsible for sin in the world, women should not have authority over men, women were made to help men, men and women are not equal spiritually, a man is the head of the household, a woman can not be a pastor, women should be solely responsible for the care of children, it is okay for men to cheat, polygamy is acceptable, men are stronger than women, and that God is male. The verses which back these have been used for centuries to force the submission of women, and we still hear them used today, but what we don’t hear is the verses which speak out opposing these views of women. For each and every verse speaking against women, there is a counterpart which is usually stronger than the first, but is unfortunately often overlooked, or purposefully avoided.

I attended a wedding here at Christmas, and the preacher who came to speak wise words of advice to the happy couple chose to base his speech on 1 Corinthians 11:3. “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” He went on to speak that the man, now that he was a husband, needed to take full command of his household and ensure that they live lives devoted to Christ. He was the one who was responsible for this, because he was closer to Christ and he must teach his wife and children the proper way. My skin was crawling, but I said nothing. How, in this day and age, can this preacher still believe that a man is closer to Christ than women and that he should be solely in charge of a household? These words written by Paul to Corinth have been used to prove that a man must be the head of the household, and are still being used, but taking things into context, we must look at other words of wisdom given from Paul. In Galatians 3:28 he says: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Obviously, Paul himself was struggling with the proper place of women in his society. He grew up in a world where women were forced into submission by men, but what he knew of Jesus Christ was saying the opposite, that everyone is equal. Let us not forget that he was human- at times he reverted to the restrictions put on people by this world, and at times he was able to break free of worldly concerns and see the greater heavenly ways. He eventually arises at the conclusion that empowers us all. Male or female it does not matter. We are all ONE in the same in Jesus Christ.

We are all like Paul. We try to live our life according to Christ Jesus, but we are pulled back into the concerns of this world. We read our Bibles in hopes to determine how we should live, but we misinterpret. We do not see the whole picture; we can not see the whole picture. No matter how hard we try, we will never be able to fully understand God and Christ Jesus and how our lives should be lived on this earth. Once we realize that, maybe we can stop using the Bible as a weapon to suppress and destroy each other.

… and as her children all finally rest, she pulls out her Bible and finds strength in these words “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” No matter how she is treated, no one can take that truth away from her. She is not weak.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Don't Talk to Strangers

My mother is a Lutheran,

My father is a Lutheran,

That’s why I am a Lutheran,

I am Lutheran, I am!

This is a song that was introduced to me at a young adult conference here in South Africa, and since then I have been well exposed to it- in Masealama and elsewhere. Once I started to think about the lyrics, I realized the important question which is often raised to which this song responds... Why are you a Lutheran?

My answer is simple, and I am sure many would respond in the same way- I was raised Lutheran. I am Lutheran because my parents baptized me as such and have dragged me to church every Sunday since- willing or not. This song addresses how my Lutheran roots began, but not how I have chosen to continue being a Lutheran since then.

After 18, you are no longer under your parents’ control, at least not legally. You begin your independent life, and begin making choices for yourself instead of doing what is instructed of you. Whether you go off to university or find a job and enter into the “real world”, you will likely be exposed to a completely new environment full of diversity. In my experience, I ventured off to the University of Clemson to pursue my degree in architecture. While I did not travel that far from home, when I first set foot on campus I met people from all different walks of life- students and teachers who were rich, poor, white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, South African, doctors, engineers, and everything in between. In fact, about the only thing my roommate and I had in common was that we were both girls. As I interacted with this diversity and made friends, I was exposed to a wide variety of traditions, cultures, and religions that I did not find in my neighborhood school system or Sunday school classes. This sudden exposure to diversity often has a confusing effect on young adults.

It is not surprising then that, in a recent survey conducted by LifeWay Research, 7 in 10 previously active Protestants between the ages of 18 and 30 said that they had quit attending church regularly by the age of 23. This drop occurs over that crucial period where youth become independent from their parents and guardians and begin to make decisions for themselves. As our youth rapidly disappear from our churches, the question we should ask is, what are we doing or not doing that is causing this?

In a world which seems to be becoming ever more diverse, we find ourselves increasingly exposed to “strangers”- whether it is in university, in our workplace, on the internet, in the news, or even in the house next door. As immigration increases and people of varying cultures and religions disperse across the globe, as our international media coverage becomes more widespread, and as our international relations become more intertwined, the lives of others who used to be so far separated from us are suddenly thrust in our faces. And if the church does not respond well to this increasing diversity and practice pluralism instead of just preaching tolerance, no wonder our youth wind up confused and loose faith in their particular religious institution! They are constantly surrounded by diversity and taught to be tolerant of others, but they are not properly equipped to resolve this tolerance with their religious beliefs. For example, imagine you attend a university and you become close friends with a person who is Muslim. You know this person to be kind, trustworthy, faithful, loving, and maybe you even consider them to be a better than yourself. Then comes the question- because you are Christian and believe in God and Jesus Christ as your savior, does this mean that you have to believe that your new friend will not be going to heaven? Why would they be cast aside merely because of their Muslim beliefs when they seem to have more faith and spirituality than you do? The result of this internal conflict usually leaves the youth in confusion and doubt in their religion, and without knowing how to resolve it, they drop out and relate to each other on secular terms. Much easier to handle, and it seems to be a viable solution to moving toward a pluralistic society. Or maybe as you discuss beliefs with your Muslim friend, you find that some parts of their religion make a lot of sense. But how can you still be Christian if you find truths in other faiths?

You see the dilemma. 18 to 30 year old youths are constantly faced with these questions, and in the process of finding themselves in this new world, they often loose their connection to organized religion. So how can our churches begin to address this? As our society becomes increasingly diverse, ecumenical interactions are becoming more prevalent. Maybe your church interacts with other churches down the street as you gather for a dinner, or you all combine together to donate clothing to a homeless shelter. But during these interactions, how many of your youth and children are involved? Do you ever address the fundamental differences in beliefs that separate you, and how they are resolved so that you can promote interaction in events such as these? We spend so much time teaching our children and youth what it means to be Christian, or specifically, what it means to be Lutheran, that we forget to teach them what this means in their relation to others of varying beliefs.

After three years of confirmation classes and a lifetime of church attendance, I thought I had it all figured out. When I went to Clemson, I knew that I wanted to connect with the Lutheran church as soon as I got there- join the choir, be a member of the Lutheran Campus Ministry (LCM), and continue my life in the church where I knew I belonged. It was a simple choice that I made, unknowing of the diversity I would face and the questions which would be raised in my faith. If it had not been for Campus Ministry, I would probably be among those seven youth who drop out of protestant churches by the age of 23. But LCM provided me with the tools necessary to resolve these internal conflicts. On Wednesday night gatherings we would have speakers from other denominations and religions come and speak on their beliefs. We would ask questions, locate differences, but on top of everything, find communal beliefs that brought us together and learn how religions could fit into a pluralistic world. LCM taught me how to relate to people of different cultures and beliefs without loosing my own beliefs, and how the relation between us could actually strengthen both of us. Of course, this has just been further strengthened here in South Africa. I may be relating mainly to Lutherans, but our cultures are widely different. But, because of LCM, I do not try to change them, they do not try to change me, and together we learn from each other.

“To each of you God has prescribed a law and a way. If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people. But God’s purpose is to test you in what he has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue, and know that you will all return to God, and He will resolve the matters in which you disagree.”

Here is your quiz: where in the Bible does this inspirational excerpt appear? It sounds vaguely like it could be Paul’s words to the Galatians, but no, this text comes from the Qur’an 5:49. It speaks a message which is resonated in the Bible, and maybe even puts things more clearly than Paul does. We may all have different beliefs, but if we strive to be the best Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, whatever we believe- then we will all return to the one God who unites us. That is how I have currently resolved conflicting faiths in my life, and how I have maintained my Lutheran beliefs over the confusing years of my independent life. My hope is that churches will begin to respond to diversity early with the youth in their congregations, so maybe the staggering statistics of youth leaving protestant churches will begin to fall. That way, when they are asked “Why Lutheran” by someone with different beliefs somewhere down the road, they are able to answer them with the confidence that although their faiths may conflict, they do not divide.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

CAUTION: Snakes on the Premises

This video speaks for itself.

My Recipe Competition

I have entered into a competition for recipes dealing with heritage, and how food is so integral to culture. As they have moved my recipe onto the next round, they have asked me to post a link to their website on my blog- Easy Recipes. My entry is as follows, for those who are interested.

As you drive down the road in my home town after dark, you will see hundreds of neon signs illuminating the parking lots of the local restaurants. Italian, Chinese buffet, pizza, burgers, BBQ, Japanese, Mexican, Greek, subs, and the typical American cuisine are just a few among many cuisines from which you can choose. These neon-signed restaurants are also reflected inside to the homes in my community. Growing up, we would have so much variety that it would make your head spin, and besides Taco Thursdays we would rarely repeat a meal in one month. So the term “staple food” meant nothing to me, until I arrived in South Africa six months ago…

In September of 2010 I joined a global mission program of the ELCA, and was placed in a small village in the Limpopo province of South Africa known as Masealama. The language, the landscape, the people, the songs, the lifestyle- many things have their differences with my life in North America, but one of the first things that came to my attention was the food.

Walking into work at the Drop-In Centre (which feeds orphans and vulnerable children) on the first day, I was greeted with friendly faces gathered around the stove. As I sat down and sipped tea with the ladies, one of them got up to begin preparing lunch for us. She walked over to a large bowl in the sink and started pulling out long rubbery strings and cleaning out the inside of the goop which was in them. “Do you know what these are?” she asked me. I had never seen anything like it really. “No” I replied. “These are chicken intestines, you will eat them.” So sure enough, my first meal in my new home for a year was chicken intestines, achaar (a spicy concoction made with mangos), and pap- the staple food of South Africa.

I knew I would be eating differently as I was immersed in this culture. I have certainly have had my fair share of interesting meals here- chicken intestines, cow intestines, cow heel, worms from Mopani trees, chicken heads and feet, and more. These things were more of what I was expecting- completely different food. But what I did not expect was the staple food which is eaten for every meal here. Pap, or porridge, is made from maize meal. In my region it is cooked soft (known as motepa) which is usually eaten for breakfast or hard (known as bogobe) which is usually eaten for lunch and dinner. It can be eaten with anything and everything- pap and eggs, pap and milk, pap and fish, pap and chicken, pap and mašotša (Mopani worms), pap and morogo (spinach), and of course, pap and tripe (intestines). Pap is well-loved, and even physically “needed” for life here in South Africa. Some people claim that they can not live without it, and when asked what kind of pap we have in the States, they are surprised to learn that we do not have pap- or even a staple food of any kind!

South Africa has taught me about the deeper meaning of food. Food expresses who you are; it is part of your culture and your heritage. Throughout South Africa pap is common, but in the various regions, the pap is cooked differently. The pap in my area is distinct in that it is cooked into a ball which hardens a little on the outside and thus gives allows it to maintain its shape.

No matter where you go in South Africa, you can tell where a person is from by their pap. They are all made from the same ingredients, but cooked differently enough to have many varieties. And this is true for our world. All of our food comes from the same place, the earth. We eat fruits, vegetables, meat, and grains, all of that is the same globally. How we prepare our meals is what varies. Recipes are personal and often do reflect the culture of the area (especially in South Africa) but ingredients and food are universal. No matter what you are eating, we are all the same.



120g maize meal

600ml water


1. Bring the water to boil in a pot

2. Add approximately 75 g of maize meal gradually and stir well with the wooden stirrer lefetlho until mixture thickens.

3. Cook for 10 minutes

4. Add the remaining meal, stirring well with a wooden spoon.

5. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

6. Form into ball and serve hot.

Re a Kgona

Recently I have started volunteering at another organization in Turfloop known as Re A Kgona (translated as We Can) for added exposure to different experiences in this area. The centre, run out of the house of a now deceased lady who started by feeding children on the streets out of her garage, has expanded exponentially and is now home to a crèche, nursery, and a drop-in centre for the orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) of Turfloop.

The other day while volunteering, I accompanied two ladies who run the centre for home visits to the guardians of OVC’s which we serve. It was a surprisingly warm day for mid-April, and the hot sun beat down on us for our long journey- Re A Kgona covers orphans from a large area so we had to walk quite a distance to visit a few.

Our first destination was a lady who watches over 12 children- some orphans, some her own. A few years back her younger sister was killed by her husband who then killed himself, leaving their children orphaned. Her younger brother also died leaving children behind and she, being the only female sibling left (and females typically are responsible for the care of children in this culture), became responsible for 12 children in total. Imagine taking care of a dozen children who are emotionally traumatized by their parent’s tragic deaths, all the while trying to grieve and come to peace with the situation yourself. It leads to much stress on the part of the care taker, which in turn puts stress on the children, and the situation ends up being quite a mess. What shocked me the most about our visit with this lady was when she mentioned what disturbed her most- the social worker. She said that the social worker would come by and check on the children to make sure they are happy and healthy and in a good, supportive environment, but they would not once ask her how she was doing. She said it was as if they did not care about her, but there are two sides to caring for orphans in this world, the orphan and the caregiver. She needs to be remembered and aided for her psychological well-being just as much as those children.

Next we visited a young lady who takes care of two orphans. During her visit she expressed her concern with their attitudes- they refuse to help out around the house, to listen or respect her, and they have even beaten her on occasion. Being as young as she is, she is already very sick, and she can not deal with the constant struggles with them. She is thankful for the drop-in centre which provides them with food daily, and relieves some of her stress as they spend time there instead of causing trouble at home. She is trying to do well, but the children will not accept her as a mother figure as they are still trying to grieve and accept the loss of their own mother.

Finally we make our way to the other side of Turf for a very different experience- we visited a child headed family. The mother passed away in 2005, and since that moment a young girl became responsible for her five younger siblings. In 2006 they were introduced to Re A Kgona who helped them receive a foster grant, and now the younger siblings are able to receive school uniforms and food from the centre daily, which was the saving grace for this family. The second youngest sibling described to me why Re A Kgona made such a difference to them- she said in 2005 the family was struggling. No head of the family meant no money and no food, so even though they pushed their younger siblings to stay in school, they were struggling to do well with the hunger in their stomachs. But as soon as they started attending the Drop-In Centre, there was an immediate turn around in their schooling- she said they became BRIGHT as they could now focus on school instead of the pain in their stomach. Even though the older child was forced at a young age to make many sacrifices to keep her family together, she has done an amazing job, as the siblings remain close knit and very willing to help each other. The responsibilities of the household are shared, and there is an overabundance of respect and love given to and from each one of them.

On our way back to the centre we were stopped by an old lady who needed help opening her gate. We kindly stopped to help her, and she started to ask us who we were. We mentioned that we were working at Re A Kgona, a Drop-In centre in Turfloop, and she asked if we took care of children with disabilities as well. Well no, currently we only take care of OVC’s, and even with them we have our hands full. She asked us to come across the street with her to see her grand-daughter who is disabled and with whom she could use a lot of help. We sidetracked to her house, and were brought inside the living room where a small girl was sitting in a full reclining wheelchair. Her hands and feet were twisted and distorted securing her to forever remain in this wheelchair, and she could not speak, but as soon as I entered the room a huge smile came across her face and she started waving and wailing- a white person is visiting! I sat beside her as her grandmother explained how she had to pay for a full time babysitter for the child as she was no longer capable to taking care of her, and she needed help and funding to continue the support for this 22 year old girl. 22? She did not look more than 12, it is amazing how much this world can age you, but if you are confined in doors and wheelchair bound, I guess the ageing caused by sun and stress and all the things of this world would not hit you as much… She is my age. I sat beside her and smiled, and if I looked away for only a second she would scream until I returned my gaze onto her youthful looking face. As we left I was told that there is not a single organization in Turfloop that cares for the disabled, but there is obviously a high need. Out of the hundreds and thousands of organizations in this country which are caring for the high percentage of orphans, not many remember the others in need out there, the disabled. The bible constantly mentions that we should care for the orphans and widows, but once again the disabled are forgotten as they so frequently are in society. This experience helped me to remember their needs as well, instead of simply focusing on the obviously tragic needs of the orphans.

As we returned to the Drop-In Centre, our bodies were tired, we were thirsty and hungry, but we had a great day. In fact, we had a day which refounded us in the necessity of the work which we are doing and inspired us to continue to expand and do better. As the school let out, the OVC’s came by for their afternoon meal, but before they participated in traditional song and dance outside of the garage. I watched as they danced away all the stresses and struggles of this world which they should be feeling, until all that was left was bright smiles on shining faces, ready and thankful for the food and clothing which we were about to give them. Even those from the community who passed by the house would stop and smile as they saw this going on- we are making a difference.

~Heather Anne Nelson