Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Same Country, Different Homes…

Again sorry for the late posting, but this should have been posted on Weds, Nov. 24, 2010... Thanks again for reading!

South Africa. When I first thought about this country there were tons and tons of things that just entered my mind, with the obvious being zebras, giraffes, and lions! But as I have now traveled around a bit I am beginning to ‘see’ South Africa in a whole new light. This past week I found myself in Soweto where I attend the Diakonia Aids Ministry (DAM) Gala Dinner that Joy, another YAGM volunteering for the ELCSA’ s Central Diocese and DAM, had invited all the other YAGM to. Being in the Umphumulo Hospital and volunteering at the HIV& AIDS counseling center, I wanted to be present at this event to see what the DAM was about and then be able to volunteer with Joy for a part of the week I would be in Soweto. Soweto is very different from Umphumulo; as cold is to hot and slow is to fast, Umphumulo is to Soweto.

I spent all day Saturday getting ready for the Gala dinner; sweeping the entire auditorium in which the dinner was held and then peeling, chopping, and mixing all kinds of foods to prepare for ~200 people. After the dinner, which was full of traditional dances, choirs, and fun conversation, I stayed in Soweto to volunteer with Joy; Amanda, the YAGM volunteer in Bonaero Park, stayed with both of us too! Monday through Wednesday began with meeting all of Joy’s wonderful colleagues, working in the DAM office, and then left the evenings to venture out into Soweto. One of the first things I noticed about Soweto was how to catch a kombi (taxi). I quickly looked to Joy and asked, “What is everyone doing with their hands?” You see, kombis in Soweto go to various places due to having several things to do. So in order for the driver to know where you’d like to go, hand signals are key. So to get to the Hector Pieterson Museum, a great place to learn about Soweto’s history and the historical riots that were held there, Joy put her pointer finger up to indicate we were heading more into town. There are about four to five different hand signs to catch a kombi in Soweto, and I was so excited to just learn two of them! In Umphumulo, to catch a kombi you just flag down and get in which ever one is passing by or you wait in one until it becomes full due to only going to one destination, Maphumulo or Stanger.

Another fascinating experience I encountered while in Joy’s community was the neighborhood. In Soweto you actually have a neighbor that is not at least a five minute walk up or down hill. You can just yell a simple, “Hello! How are you,” right to the other side of the gate and get a response with a wave too. The welcoming of the neighbors is the same, but instead of isiZulu you hear more Sesotho; finally another language to hear and learn a bit of! Also, I really enjoyed seeing the man pushing a shopping cart down the street while he rang a bell to sell vegetables; this was just like the paleta man at home in San Antonio (as you hear the ringing of a bell down the road, you quickly gather your money as you see the paleta man pushing the freezer box selling a special kind of Mexican ice-cream bar coming along). It was also nice to see the kids playing in the street as they raced with a tire to see who could roll the tire to the end of the road first or as they played a game with what looked like dice. Just having the noise around was very different, yet exciting all at the same time. In fact, just to have noises of all kinds made Soweto very different from Umphumulo. After volunteering with Joy on Wednesday, the three of us (Amanda, Joy, and myself) headed towards Bonaero Park where Amanda was volunteering. Thursday and Friday we volunteered in the ELCSA’s head office and helped out doing random things for the meetings that were being held at the lodge Amanda also worked. We also met several of Amanda’s co-workers who greeted Joy and myself with open arms, smiles, and warm hearts—which made me understand that no matter where I go in South Africa, feeling like I’m at home is just a part of their culture. Like Soweto, Bonaero Park is full of all different kinds of noises and there is just something always going on. Also if you take a walk down the road, whether in Soweto or Bonaero Park, vehicles of all kinds are always passing by; unlike Umphumulo where you’ll see a vehicle passing by every hour or so.

The three of us also ended up attending a Kaizer Chiefs vs Orlando Pirates soccer game in Soccer City (Soweto). Just to give you an idea of how HUGE this game was, the Chiefs and Pirates are two of the biggest soccer clubs and rivals amongst the soccer fans of South Africa. Getting to the soccer stadium by kombi, was one of the most cultural things I have ever witnessed in South Africa. You looked to the left and there was a kombi with chiefs and pirates fans yelling out the windows for their team, you looked to the right and you could see another kombi with flags favoring the chiefs or pirates waving outside of the windows, and you looked behind you and you could see and hear vuvuzelas, more cheering, and amazing spirit from the fans; we were all South Africans as we rode along in the kombi joining in on the spirit. As soon as we saw the stadium, you could literally see the crowds of people going into the stadium and you could feel your heart beating faster as the cheering from the fans was heard from the distance. As we walked closer and closer to the gate, I began to feel the spirit of the stadium even more. Throughout the entire game the spirit of the fans, which included cheering, dancing, singing, jumping, and blowing vuvuzelas, was one of the most EXCITING things I was able to witness and be a part of myself!! All in all, being in the totally different environments of Soweto and Bonaero Park, which are both a part of Johannesburg (Joburg), has allowed me to see and remember that South Africa is more than just a peaceful, relaxing, and slow place; it is also a place of development, significant history, and different languages and cultures. Now I can understand why Joburg is mentioned as the ‘heartbeat’ of South Africa… Go Chiefs!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

No Plans for the Weekends...

Note: This blog should have been posted on November 5, 2010... Sorry for the long delay, but enjoy!

The past week or two in Umphumulo has turned out to be mysterious, joyous, and full of laughter and I’ll tell you why. Two weekends ago I found myself with no plans, but with the wind of fate, Samke, the Receptionist for the ELCSA SED Office, invited me to stay with her at her home in Msomi Village, about a good 45 minute walk from the church center. Being the loving Umama (mom) Samke that she is, she looked at me and said, “You can’t stay here alone. You must come with me and I will show you my kids.” So of course I accompanied her, but she also gave me no choice but to say, “giyavuma,” (I agree) as she knew I would be staying at the church center alone. So let me start here…

Being Friday, we all left the offices at 1pm for the beginning of the weekend. I now know the offices close at 1pm so that others can have enough ‘sun-time’ to get home in other towns for the weekend. On our way, it suddenly began to pour, become very windy, and cold. With the umbrella I borrowed from Baba Khathi, we walked really close to one another, laughed together, walked even slower than the slow walk we were already doing, and held somewhat of a casual conversation. When we arrived at Samke’s home, drenched from the knees down, I found out that the kids she had been talking about were her chickens that she raises. As we walked through the gate to her home, they all came running towards us and she stated, “We are not feeding you now! Go run around in the rain and play!” I could do nothing else but laugh. As we walked into her home, taking off our muddy shoes and wet socks first, she had me sit down and commanded that I changed out of my wet pants into something dry so that I didn’t get sick. So I did exactly that. We ate a nice hot meal, boiled white rice and dry beans, for lunch and then noticed the sun beginning to shine. Finally I could get outside and see things. We went straight to her chicken pen, where she put the chicks back into their home (cage) and she checked for other random things to fix that were rearranged due to the wind and rain. She also showed me her garden, which isn’t small by the way, and mentioned to me that we were going to plant some seeds the following day since the soil was nice and moist and ready for planting. Then from afar, we saw Phili (short for Philisiwe), the Bishop’s Secretary for the ELCSA SED Office, who was getting ready for a Labola celebration at her home the following evening. By the time I got to look around and see a bit more of things the sun began to set and Bongi, Samke’s daughter-in-law, just arrived home balancing a 5 kg (11 lb) bag of chicken feed on her head. The three of us had dinner, talked about how I was going to balance the bag on my head next, enjoyed each other’s company, laughed like there was no tomorrow, and slept until who knows when.

When Saturday came around, Samke and I woke up with the sun to feed the chickens. How exciting! I ended up playing around with the roosters and hens and laughed as they ran from one side to the other fetching the chicken feed that I had tossed in every direction on the ground. We then had porridge and then got back into bed as Samke said it was too early to be up on a Saturday. We ended up singing from the Zulu hymn book. As we sang each song all I could remember was how relaxing, at peace, and beautiful the very moment was. And when a couple of hours passed, and we could now get out of bed, I remember Samke telling me, “I’m so honored to have you in my home. I can’t put into words, into English words, how thankful I am to have you here with me. Oh, Vale! (my nickname since most can’t pronounce my name) And you sing so beautifully too, no wonder you’re in the choir with me!” It was then that I began to feel the warmth of family and home in a place that was nothing like I had ever imagined being.

So when we got out of bed, Samke began to gather her butternut and maize meal seeds, her “hoo” tool for digging up the soil, and she put on her boots that looked like rain boots but tougher. As she made holes in the garden, she told me which seeds and how many of each to put in each hole. When we were done, she fetched the fertilizer (which was the chicken waste mixed with moist soil), we placed it on top of the seeds, and then covered the holes with the soil Samke had just dug up to make the holes. Then we stood together, mud on our hands, clothes, and skin, and prayed for our crops to grow nice and strong so that it may provide us food later on. I was honored to stand beside Samke. I wasn’t even at her home for a full 24 hours yet, but to feed her kids (chickens), to sing with her, to plant in her garden and be in the mud, and to hold her hand, pray, and smile, was a part of life that I didn’t even know I was missing until that moment. We then had “breakfast,” what I would call “brunch,” took a bath, and then headed our way towards Mama Samke’s home, Samke’s mom.

On our way there, it began to rain heavily; another adventure just ahead. With the shoes we were both wearing, we might as well have danced our way down the muddy paths with all of the slipping and sliding we were doing, but with the grace of God neither one of us fell down and we made it with only mud on our shoes. Mama Samke didn’t know English, but with the isiZulu I knew I made sure to use each and every word… and smile at the same time too! As I watched her talk with Samke, I felt honored to visit with her, be in her presence, stay in her home for a bit, look around, and feel the presence of being a bit deeper in Maphumulo and its people. By the end of our visit, Mama Samke gave me a heart-felt hug, placed her hand on my chest (as if to feel my heart beat that would make me become one with the pulse running through her hand), and then told me to come back soon (of course knowing she said this with the help of Samke as our translator). In a big smile I replied with, “Yebo (yes),” placing my hand on her elbow and then said, “Sala khalle (goodbye).” With the big smile and great laugh she gave me, due to speaking isiZulu I’d suppose, she responded with, “Hamba khalle (go well),” and Samke and I were on our way back to her home, in the never-ending rain, up another muddy path to begin another dance.

The rest of the day was just more time to spend with one another until Bongi returned home from working at the hospital. When she arrived home, the three of us had dinner (uphuthu and beef stew, yum!), and then Samke went straight to sleep probably due to the fun we all had the previous night. Bongi and I ended up staying awake for a while. She mentioned to me that she had seen me in the hospital several times and asked me why I was there. I told her that I was a volunteer there following the doctors, and with that said we ended up going through her nursing materials and studied together. By the time we both began to yawn, she ended up telling me that I had to come over more so that I could help her study, especially for a nursing exam that was coming up soon. We then went to bed and the weekend soon came to an end.

This past weekend was another weekend with nothing planned, and with that said I ended up having another mysterious weekend. I ended up going to an unveiling at the Umphumulo Cemetery with Trevor, a friend I had made heading towards the Young Adults League Conference a while back, Saturday morning. An unveiling is where family and friends come together to witness the ‘unveiling’ of the tombstone for the family member or friend who had passed a while back. At the Umphumulo Cemetery, not all burial sites have a tombstone, but when the family is able to purchase one a ceremony of blessings is done. Since arriving in Umphumulo, I have found myself attending more funeral type services than anything else, but I’m not really complaining about it either… ironic, I know! Actually, it is here that I am getting more into the Zulu culture, meeting new people, having a good conversation, and most importantly not being at the church center alone. The whole environment of these types of services is very optimistic, full of singing, clapping, and dancing, and full of colors! Also, whether a funeral or an unveiling, these types of services are more celebratory than anything else; yes there are those who cry and those who mourn and feel the emptiness of the one being remembered, but the aura that is made amongst the family, friends, and rest of the community that has come for support, is just not the same. One thing I find very impressive, is that the community from ALL directions come; they come jam-packed in vehicles or in little crowds by foot making the support a bigger deal than the distance. Also, death is more about being home, retrieving the feeling of happiness, and knowing that life goes on. It is amazing to be a part of something so celebratory that maybe shouldn’t be, but should something like this be so sad? After the ceremony there was a lunch at the hall next to Baba and Mama Mabaso’s home, Baba Mabaso is the local Baba (Father) for the Umphumulo Lutheran Church. Here I had more of the delicious South African food; beef stew, fried chicken, cole slaw, chutnye (a mix of tomatoes, onions, and green chilies), chakalaka (a mix of fried carrots and onions), butternut pumpkin (my favorite!), rice, and tripe (not really my favorite in the South African style, but in Menudo-Mexican style- it’s delicious!). After eating, was more conversing and getting to look at and adore the African dresses worn by the women. Hopefully I can get one made for me soon! Trevor had then introduced me to Doyo, who I found is a twin too! So she and I spent lots of time getting to know one another, talking about home, family, and friends. Then as the rain was beginning to come again, the three of us (Doyo, Trevor, and me) headed to a home nearby to have more food, conversations, and for me I learned a bit more about “Ubuntu.”

As people arrived, they either conversed in circles inside the kitchen (no, not in the living room!), outside by the vehicles, or outside in the garage; I found myself following Trevor and Doyo to the garage. As I sat on a crate I found myself feeling like I was at home or even in Mexico; seeing people gather in the kitchen/dining room instead of the living room (I’d guess it’s because of the food, but nothing wrong with that in my eyes!), sitting in a circle on anything that could withhold a person outside, watching people come and go, observing the circle getting bigger and bigger as the time kept passing, loud music coming from the small store across the street, and listening to the stories and jokes shared by each person. It’s things like this that make people feel more than just an everyday person; in Spanish it’s “la raza” (the brotherhood) and in Zulu it’s “ubuntu” (humanity).

Being in Maphumulo, South Africa, ubuntu is like a single oxygen atom floating around in the air waiting to attach to another oxygen atom so that its people can “breathe it in” making it a supplemental oxygen molecule. South Africans breathe in this oxygen, let it fill into their lungs and circulate into their bloodstream, and then exhale it into the air to share it with another. Now, I can compare this to what it’s like when I reminisce about being at home with my family or during family get-togethers in the States, and I even get more of a sense of it when I reminisce about visiting family in Mexico too. Maybe it’s this ubuntu that has made me feel at home because what it is here is what it is like where I have already been. I’ve grown up being a very family oriented person, that here the sense of family is everywhere. Maybe that’s why a part of me has felt homesick, but most times it just quickly diminishes and isn’t there.

Humanity. Brotherhood. Family. Whether here or there, it feels like the same kind of environment and way of living amongst its people, but the air has its differences. It’s kind of like being an identical twin, like myself. We may look exactly the same, but once you get to know us we are just different in our ways. The underlying moral of what ‘ubuntu,’ ‘la raza,’ and ‘family’ is, for me, is the same, but they have its differences. Being alongside the community here in Maphumulo and being able to get a bit deeper than just what one sees, has allowed me to taste the sweetness of ubuntu. From here on out, only the Lord knows what lies ahead as I begin to breathe in more of the community and share more with my family, here.