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