Umphumulo, South Africa

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Philippians 4:13…

“I can do all things through Christ who STRENGTHENS me.”

I sit down on my bed looking out my bedroom window and what do I see? Being in Umphumulo, one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen with my own eyes, I see the sun sitting on top of the mountains, which are literally so close that I almost feel like I can touch if I reach my arm outside of the window, and I see the sun rays of bright yellow and bold orange and red surrounding the sky above. I see the birds flying around, going to their homes I suppose, and the trees doing the same vivid dance and song as the wind blows between their branches and leaves… and I sit here and can only be so thankful. This past week has probably been the MOST eye-opening and eventful weeks I’ve ever had since being in South Africa, and what lessons I’m learning and growth I’m gaining.

I think it beautiful how God knows who to place in our lives, when they enter and go, and how there’s REALLY a time, a season for things to happen throughout it too. It has been a blessing to get to know the people I’m living around, more specifically, Nomfundo. The more time I spend with her, get to know her, and understand her, I’m learning more about myself that I did not even know, but at the same time I’m allowing myself to see that I am not perfect either. Here at Umphumulo, my life has been introduced to a side of things that my mind has never thought of, and it’s just the reality of life here. It’s a bit surprising too because you’d think I’d feel bad or want to change what’s going on, but I feel more like reassured yet humbled, like getting to the main idea yet not even knowing what it is, like knowing what I’ve taken for granted and then learning how to be without it completely, like knowing HIV/AIDS exists yet still living life like it has never existed… it is growth and learning by listening and observing.

For a week now, I’ve been having this problem with the running water at my home; now knowing that the running water here at Umphumulo has a mind of its own. Well one day, my hot water wasn’t getting hot, so as I gathered my pots to begin boiling some water to bath (something I have found to take 15-20 minutes each morning), my “hot” water began to stop running. Then as I turned on the cold water, it slowly stopped running too. The only thing I thought of was to try the faucet outside and keep my fingers crossed that whatever was wrong with my connection wasn’t going on with the outside faucet. To my luck, I was able to fill my pots up two times each to make some hot water for my bath, but out of nowhere that began to stop running too. So, with the only pot of cold water I had, and feeling the coldness of the weather outside (yes, it’s still cold and wet in the mornings here!) I decided to make porridge; at least I could enjoy a hot breakfast. As the water began to boil, I added my oats and noticed I had too much water. So, I took my pot to the sink. Well, I guess I didn’t push down on the lid enough that as it drained, the lid slipped off and most of my porridge fell into the sink too. “GREEAT!” So as I turn the cold water faucet to clean up the mess, NOTHING comes out, well only because the running water isn’t working, remember?!?! I’m about to just flip out and become frustrated, but instead find myself closing my eyes, taking a deep breath, and praying. I think to myself, I’m sure Dlamini, the handyman for the church center, can help me find a solution to the running water and thank the Lord for what porridge I have knowing that some don’t even have a taste. Patience. Problem Solving. Prayer. The three P’s in my life right now, and I’m getting to see a side of myself I’ve never deeply experienced in this way.

Talking with Nomfundo, I feel like we have so much in common; our ideas and opinions on certain topics just seem to be on the same frequency at times and there have been several occasions where we don’t have to explain things to its fullest because we already know what we are trying to explain to one another, and this brings us to laughter because we know we do it too. But with this reoccurring event, I think to myself, of all the places in the world, God has brought me here. Out of all the people in the world I could be connecting with, the one person He has sent to enter my life and impact it in such a different way, is Nomfundo. Of all the places we both could have been, we are both here at this time with each other… learning, listening, and just being here for one another as life takes its toll on each of us. We both have our different cultures, appearances, and backgrounds, but the love of God we both share is what brings us to where we are… with each other.

I’m not obligated to explain Nomfundo’s story, but know that she took a halt in her civil engineering career to work for the church, and me, I’m taking a pause in my healthcare education and career to find myself, my specific career, and get a different view of what the world is like; doing this for the FIRST time without my family. But I feel even though I left my family in the States, I had a big sister waiting for my arrival in South Africa. With the turns, yields, and sudden stops God has put in both of our lives, Nomfundo and I have found each other. I see this as a gift from God, and it reassures me even more that God places people into our lives for a reason; He just knows who we need. It is this gift God has blessed me with that helps me get through times when I feel homesick or alone, or times to share like making my first African meal, singing acapelo at home, or laughing hysterically at something that happened the previous day. How ironic this has all happened because I was intimidated of the unknown at the beginning, but I left it all to God.

Nomfundo has even found the words to help me through something that I never hoped I would have had to go through while away from home too. God has this way of testing our faith by placing circumstances in our path at certain times, but it is how we persevere that defines the meaning of our true faith and allow us to know the love God has given to us. There was an unexpected death in my family, and I remember as I read the emails sent to me by my sister and father how full of shock, sadness, and homesickness I was feeling. I remember telling Nomfundo how I felt helpless and far away, but that my older sister told me to not worry, stay focused on why I’m in South Africa, and that everyone understands why I’m gone. Then my dad’s email said everyone is comforting each other so not to get too sad, but being so far away, that’s a big part of what I was feeling. As I recalled these emails to Nomfundo, after work in my home, she told me to just cry. That even though she knows I’m a strong, faithful young woman, it’s okay to cry. As she continued to talk, all I could remember was a story she shared with me about burdens. It goes something like this:

One day there was a woman who came to God carrying a cross. And she came to God complaining about how heavy her cross was. So after hearing the woman, God allowed her to trade her cross with another cross that was there before God. So the woman put her cross down and began to try all the other crosses, but as she tried each one, each cross seemed heavier than the other. But, when she finally picked a cross from the bunch before God, she said to God, “I pick this cross, Lord, as it doesn’t seem as heavy as all the others.” So, God granted her to take that cross, but only to tell the woman she had picked the cross that was originally hers.

I thought of this story because there are burdens, trials, and challenges at times in our lives we feel we can’t handle because of EVERYTHING that just seems to go wrong or happen all at once, our cross is too heavy. However, going through all of these things makes us human and, through my own experiences, at times we all fall short. But it is our faith that guides us to handle the circumstance(s), and this is His mercy and grace given to us that allows us to realize our cross isn’t so heavy after all; as stated in my FAVORITE book, James 1:2-4, 12 (pick up your Bible or Google it, and read it!). It is Nomfundo who has helped me to become even more open-minded than what I am, she has helped me become patient to differences, she has helped me know and even admit to myself that I am NOT perfect, but above all she has been my family knowing that my family is so far away. She has helped me to see EVEN MORE that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” as stated in Philippians 4:13. Then out of nowhere Gogo (Grandmother) Jabu, the bookkeeper here for the ELCSA SED Office, came to me and asked if I would like to lead the morning devotion in the chapel for Wednesday, this is an event that is done every morning at 8am since I’ve arrived in Umphumulo. Knowing that I was not myself, I think this was the only way Gogo Jabu thought to help me, but in all regards I decided to tell Gogo Jabu, “Ok,” thinking in the end, if I can’t be with the ones I love, then I will do something for the One I love.

I decided to read from the book of Luke chapter 12 versus 22-34, under the title ‘Do Not Worry,’ and shared an in depth prayer that I have never done aloud to more than my sisters or my mom, and I want to share it with you too.

Dear Heavenly Father,
We are thankful for the breath of life that You have provided us today, for the opportunity to be here together, and for the friendships that we have with each other, and thank you, Lord, for the rain too! Lord, I ask that you watch over each and every one of our families as they go through their own trials, tribulations, and joys. It is with You and it is because of You, Lord, that we are all able to grow. We are thankful for the love You have given us and ask You to help us remember that the challenges we face are tests of our own faith, because the testing of our faith develops perseverance, which allows us to know the love You have given to us. I ask that you continue to bring peace and walk with us, our families, and friends today, tomorrow, and always.
Amen.

As I learn, as I grow, as I find who I am through the three P’s, and as I breathe it all in… I remember that He is always with me, comforting me, supporting me, and guiding me. “34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” As I continue to be accompanied by my fellow South Africans, I close with part of a song by JJ Heller called “Your Hands.”

I have unanswered prayers,
I have trouble I wish wasn’t there,
And I have asked a thousand ways,
That You would take my pain away.
I am trying to understand,
How to walk this weary land,
Make straight the paths that crooked lie,
Oh Lord before these feet of mine.
When my world is shaking, Heaven stands.
When my heart is breaking, I never leave Your Hands.

In the words of Rev. Brian Konkol, my gracious country coordinator, may the Lord’s peace rest within you and be with you this day and always…

Friday, October 1, 2010

Identity...

It has now been over 3 weeks since I arrived in Umphumulo, and now that I have been here for some time I’m beginning to experience more of the realization of who I am in South Africa. Nomfundo, my adopted big sister who lives the closest to me, has really taken me under her wing; she took me home with her one weekend in Ulundi, she cooks for me, we laugh ALL the time together, we have really in depth conversations about life, Christianity, and relationships, and it was her and her friends that gave me my Zulu name… Thandeka, meaning loveable; which I LOVE dearly! But it was this past weekend at the Young Adults League (YAL) Conference in Intshanga where I was faced with something I did not even think I would have ever had a problem with… who I am.

Being at the YAL Conference turned out to be a blissful yet challenging weekend; blissful in the fact that I saw and spent some time to catch up with 8 of 11 YAGM, but challenging in the fact that we experienced a league full of praise and worship in ‘growth.’ By this I mean the procedure of things were very pleasant, full of God, and orderly, yet there were minor details throughout the sessions that were continuously noted and discussed. In the end, the board of the YAL, the religious leaders present, and members of the YAL all had a positive outlook to fix and/or improve the league. I believe it was Bishop Bowles, a religious leader for the YAL, who made a very important point and concluded, “Brothers and sisters, there is one common ground which brings us all here to work on these problems, and that is God. If we did not believe in God, if we did not LOVE God, then we would not be here, but we are. This, brothers and sisters, is what makes us ONE no matter what we think is right or wrong.” The theme for the YAL Conference was ‘Unity in Diversity,’ and with this theme there were definitely things that were pointed out to be different amongst the people, but it was fixed, noted, and left for improvement… ending in unity. What I also thought was a great blessing in disguise was the fact of knowing all 11 official languages of South Africa were present at the YAL Conference. Getting to listen and hear the differences and similarities of the languages was GREAT, and it made me feel good to know that I could understand ONE of them!! Even though I only know a small bit of Zulu, this just leaves room for increasing my Zulu vocabulary; which is always increasing with each passing day… Yebo!

But what I want to touch base on is something that I have found South Africa to bring me to reality with. Since a situation that happened while attending the Conference this past weekend, the idea of who I am in South Africa and to its natives has made an even more apparent ‘itch’ on me. Since visiting Ulundi with Nomfundo, I’ve heard a common phrase that has been stated towards me, “mlungu.” In English, this means ‘white person,’ and I have not taken it offensively, but it has made me think to myself, “I’m not even white,” and I have been dealing with the issue of being called a ‘white person.’ In the States I am Latina, brown, a minority, and I know and have been through certain struggles, but for the FIRST time in my life I am white to those around me and, to some, I am stereotyped in this white American category which I have never lived, experienced, or known. This has been a bit of a struggle for me, and I know being stereotypical is not the ‘right’ thing to do, but they are there and people are human; whether South African, Mexican, American, or from any other country, and we all fall short with the mercy of God.

As a minority in the States and then as something very different in another country, it IS a struggle for me because it is a concept that I have never experienced myself. I am a bit disheartened being placed into this group, but it also reminds me that apartheid was a SIGNIFICANT part of several older black South Africans still living today. Therefore, I do not automatically take into offense the statements that are being stated towards me or the situations that I have gone through with certain adults. I listen to them, kindly give them an understanding of who I am and why I believe this, and then go back home and pray. Being human, the fact that I have to deal with this struggle frustrates me, but because I am a minority, my family struggled, and my family is where we are today because each generation worked hard for themselves to progress… and it is still continuing. This is what I feel is the idea which is being fulfilled or TRYING to be fulfilled within black South African families. And through a process of change, now the same quality of education is provided, there are no signs or barriers as to who can or can’t walk along certain areas of the beach, jobs and even the same ‘top quality’ job titles are offered, and the list goes on and on… but then again all of this is offered to some degree. This brings even more questions because as I was traveling with Baba Khathi, my supervisor at the ELCSA SED offices, towards the YAL Conference I remember him sharing with me how even though apartheid is ‘extinct,’ some private schools increased the pay for tuition to keep blacks from attending, and so there are still some ways in which white South Africans have “out-smarted,” according to Baba Khathi, the change of South Africa no longer being apartheid. In my own experience, there are private hospitals and public hospitals which see either a majority of white or a majority of black South Africans. From volunteering at the Umphumulo Public Hospital for over 2 weeks now, I see that I am the only nonblack young adult who walks through the entrance gate, and I wonder, are the HIV/AIDS patients I’ve seen even getting the same quality health care a person being seen at a private hospital is receiving? Due to sitting in on some circumstantial doctor’s meetings, I’m only led to believe it is not so easy working in a public versus working in a private hospital with what is being offered instrumental and medical wise… and this list goes on and on.

So getting back to my point, I’m struggling because I know who I am, but while in a third world country, who I am is NOT who I’m seen to be. While a minority in the States, I am also still a minority in South Africa, but in an entirely different way and with privileges I’ve never had. Who I am is nonexistent due to history here, and it is this reality of ‘not being me’ that frustrates me. Because if being who I am was a reality, then I would not be put into a group that has NEVER been something I’ve been defined with. So I want to share with you a struggle I have been faced with, a situation that has opened my eyes, and altogether, as ‘being’ with the South Africans, we are learning from each other because I am not just accepting it either. After talking with Nomfundo about it, I see that I am learning that as this country changes and its people change, that in due time… in His time, things will become better because majority of its people are changing too. Again, this reminds me of the drive towards the YAL Conference, when Baba Khathi told me that the country will see a better change when his children, his grandchildren, and so on, become older and start making decisions for this country that will allow this change to become easier. This is because they did not witness apartheid as a first hand event; they will have only heard stories from their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so on, and the change will not be as hard. Baba Khathi stated, “I feel because I have witnessed apartheid and I have been racially discriminated, that even though apartheid is no more I still have that little sense of not trusting anyone other than blacks. But because I know apartheid is no more, I find myself having to struggle with something that I have, for the majority of my life, known to be true. And that my dear friend, is just the reality of me.” And then I remember talking with Nomfundo who stated, “Even though I have not experienced apartheid first hand, I feel we still feel like [white South Africans] have that existing power over us even though it’s not like that anymore; maybe it’s just in our blood. It just seems like even though they are white and make a statement it should just be done. Or [in the reverse side] if you see a white person in a humble home or maybe begging for money you think to yourself ‘what is he doing?’ And that’s probably why when a black South African gets into a high office and he makes a statement, that he feels he needs to make a strong statement, especially if mlungu is around, so that he CAN be heard and taken seriously. That’s just the way it is for some reason.” After these words were stated, my eyes were opened, and I completely respected the reality of what Baba Khathi, Nomfundo, and probably several other black South Africans thought, and it was that moment of the ‘light bulb’ turning on.

I can only ask the Lord to help me understand these concepts being put on me in another country. Who I am, may not be my identity to others outside of the States, but being ‘white’ when I have always known to be ‘brown’ is becoming a battle within myself right now; especially for the FIRST time ‘being’ (however you want to take it) this far away from home. In my heart, I do not just want to accept it, but help others to see that I am NOT what they automatically think. However, because of where I am, I am trying my hardest to be patient when I just want to know why, be considerate towards their truths, be accompanied by my hosts, and allow the Spirit of Christ to work to and through us because it is He, in the end, that allows us to have a greater understanding and be at peace. Again, I ask for guidance from Him as I toss and turn identity in a place that is NOT home, but in several ways still feels like it…