Friday, May 28, 2010

The Beginning of the End

All good things come to an end, or so they say. With seven days left in Cape Town, I think it is safe to say that this is the beginning of the end of my semester in South Africa. That is not to say that I will not one day return to this rainbow nation characterized, in my mind, by cash store names in white letters on bright red Coca-Cola backgrounds in the townships; vuvuzelas; rugby (and this year, the 2010 FIFA World Cup); overcrowded, often uninsured, yet efficient and economical taxis; Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela; ubuntu; a multiplicity of languages; a multiplicity of skin colours; university couples who are less shy than Americans to display their affection in public; the university students' fashionable dress (no sweatpants here!); the spontaneous Xhosa songs and dances that burst out while waiting for the bus, or riding the bus, or getting off the bus, or walking to class, or in the middle of the day at Equal Education, or...; British English spellings of words; British-style school uniforms (e.g. shirts and sweaters, which are entirely inappropriate when the temperatures are in the mid- upper-80s Fahrenheit; the overwhelming presence of meat in people's diets; mothers carrying babies and toddlers on their backs, holding them tight in place by tying a blanket or towel around them; the outfits that the Xhosa boys wear after returning from the ceremonies in which they become men; the ability to use the mountain as a geographical reference and permanent compass; the sunshine, the sunburn; the people who don't have homes; the number of people who tried telling me (a Christian) why I should believe in God; the white pastor preaching to a black congregation (save for me and Lin-Lin, who is Chinese); historically black primary and secondary schools whose pupil:teacher ratio is something like 40:1; the clear demarcations between poor townships and million-dollar homes; herders herding their goats and cattle across the N2; the seemingly carefree pace of life; a "holiday" nation; the cycle of poverty; the numerous legacies of apartheid; the hospitality of most of the South Africans I had the privilege of meeting; the prostitutes that stand on the street corners late at night; the man beating the woman on the side of the street, and feeling so helpless that I could do nothing but watch from inside the bus window; a dual sense of hopefulness and hopelessness; a future.

I'm not sure where this post was headed, but this is where it seems to end: a future. If there is one thing I have learned over the past four-and-a-half months, it is that everything Africa needs to succeed, She already has within and among her. Africa doesn't need our charity, our missionaries, or our approval. And my thoughts seem to end abruptly right here, right now. I suspect that the coming week will be a week of intense reflection, as well as mental preparation to close this chapter and open the next. Here's to the beginning of the end.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

12 days more in Cape Town

It's hard to believe how fast my time in Cape Town has gone, and how few days are left. The fact that our program ends in 12 days is beginning to sink in, and we are beginning to realize how close our group of service-learners has grown over the past four months. Despite our cornucopia of personalities and interests, doing service is the one thing we all have in common, the one thing that bonds us all together. And after leaving any type of group program such as this, there is always some small feeling of disappointment when you are no longer around people who understand certain jokes.

As I begin to mentally prepare myself to end one journey and begin another, I'd like to take a few minutes to reflect on (1) some of my favorite things about South Africa; (2) some of the things I took for granted back home; and (3) some of the new words and meanings I've learned. I'm sure I'll add onto these lists in the next several days.

1. Some of my favorite things about South Africa

- The ketchup. They call it tomato sous, but it's ketchup. It looks the same, but it's 10 times sweeter than the ketchup back home. It caught my taste buds off-guard the first time I had it, but I've come to like it sweet.

- Acquiring a bit of an accent. I don't consider it a bad thing to be able to immerse oneself in a culture so much that one's own language begins to take the shape of the host culture. I've found myself unintentionally using distinctly South African phrases and inflecting my voice in patterns that are more South African than American.

- Being mistaken for a South African. Much to my surprise, this has happened on a few occasions. It's a nice feeling though, really. Some people never overcome the stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb-tourist-phase; I consider this ability to assimilate with a new culture a gift.

- Taxis. The taxis in South Africa are what we would call mini-buses back home. The taxis are run by the Coloured population, are often overcrowded, and frequently uninsured, but they are an efficient and economical way to get into the centre of Cape Town, and it only costs about US $1. It's a great system, in my opinion, as long as the taxis aren't on strike.

- The BIG university setting. I think this one speaks for itself. Ursinus is going to feel even smaller after being at the University of Cape Town. I've enjoyed the anonymity of it all.

- Table Mountain. I'm going to miss seeing the mountain towering over me every morning.

- South African Sunshine. All these hours of daylight and sunshine have been great for my spirit - and acne!

- Being able to walk barefoot anywhere you please.

- Internet. I definitely took fast and free internet for granted. Never again!

2. Some of the things I took for granted back home: grated cheese, chocolate chips, M&M's, drying machine (for clothes), milk that doesn't spoil after five days, my car

3. Some of the new words and meanings I've learned

- Chips = French fries (potato chips are also called chips, so to distinguish between the two you can say "hot chips" to refer to fries)
- Petrol = gasoline
- Boot = trunk of a car
- Takkies = sneakers
- Speed hump = like a speed bump only wider, so it's more of a hump than a bump
- Hoot = honk, as in "Please don't hoot your horn."
- Learners = students
- Robot = traffic light (thought I admit I didn't hear this used too often)
- "Just now" = a phrase used to indicate time; it could mean 2 minutes, 15 minutes, half an hour, 4 hours, or never
- "Now now" = right now
- Howzit? = What's up? (An appropriate response would be "cool, and you?")

And, I'll conclude with a couple of pictures from the recent talent show we hosted for the learners from Equal Education...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Photos: Buffelsfontein

This past weekend was our Reflection Weekend at Buffelsfontein Game Reserve. Overall it was a very nice weekend in the bush, complete with African wildlife, a thatch-roofed hut, and fine cuisine. (Watching the lions devour those raw chickens with their massive canines made me glad for my decision not to eat meat.) But as far as I can tell, the general consensus seems to be that we had spent more time reflecting on our personal growth and transforming experiences rather than just constructively critiquing the study abroad program. Nevertheless, here are some pictures from the weekend...

The thatch-roofed hut where we stayed. (It's more aesthetically pleasing than practical, judging from the puddles we discovered the morning after the rainstorm!)


Mama and Baby.

Welcome to Darling, where my yogurt and milk are made.

This was outside a theatre of the comedian Evita se Perron. I had never heard of this person, so I didn't take any photos, but we had fun with this photo-opp.

A picturesque road in Darling.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


The house where I'm staying.

The view from the bus stop. I'm going to miss seeing these mountains every morning.

Walking to Upper Campus.

Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. All the traditional homemade Afrikan crafts you could imagine.

Saturday Mass

Yesterday morning I was fortunate to attend a Mass of Thanksgiving in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Michael Lapsley’s survival of a brutal attack by the South African apartheid government. This was only the second Catholic Mass that I have attended, but I dare say it was the single religious service where I have most felt the omnipresence of God. Many things contributed to this experience I’m sure – the ornate architecture of the cathedral, the rainbow of skin colours of the congregation and Fathers, the flickering candles, the statues of Jesus and Mary, the crucifix, and the perfume of burning incense that dispersed through the air around us. The service was also multi-faith, multi-generational, multi-national, and multi-lingual.

When I decided to attend the service I knew nothing of Father Lapsley, the man, or his story. In fact my decision to attend was based on the fact that the anti-apartheid activist and archbishop Desmond Tutu (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and Gandhi Peace Prize, among numerous others) was presiding over the service. Tutu is also one of the proponents of “ubuntu,” a collective concept that translates roughly as “I am human because we all are human”, and one that I am thinking to explore in-depth during the year following my graduation. Despite my reverence for Tutu, I was equally inspired by the spirit of Father Lapsley. I have included Father Lapsley’s narrative below because I believe it is one worth reading, and I know that many of you will not read it unless I include it here (and some of you will still skip over it, and that’s okay, too):

Michael Lapsley (South Africa)

After Father Michael Lapsley was exiled by the South African Government in 1976, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and became one of their chaplains. Whilst living in Zimbabwe he discovered he was on the South African Government hit list. In April 1990 he received a letter bomb in the post. He now runs the Institute for Healing Memories in Cape Town.

No one told me why I was being exiled. But as a university chaplain, and in the wake of the Soweto uprising (when students were being detained and tortured) I was no friend to the apartheid regime. In exile I therefore became a target of the South African government.

I had long ago come to the conclusion that there was no road to freedom except via the route of self-sacrifice, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to follow. Three months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, I received a letter bomb hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines that had been posted from South Africa. In the bomb blast I lost both hands, one eye and had my eardrums shattered.

For the first three months I was as helpless as a newborn baby. People have asked me how I survived, and my only answer is that somehow, in the midst of the bombing, I felt that God was present. I also received so many messages of love and support from around the world that I was able to make my bombing redemptive – to bring life out of death, good out of evil.

Quite early on after the bomb I realised that if I was filled with hatred and desire for revenge I’d be a victim forever. If we have something done to us, we are victims. If we physically survive, we are survivors. Sadly, many people never travel any further than this. I did travel further, going from victim to survivor, to victor. To become a victor is to move from being an object of history to become a subject once more. That is not to say that I will not always grieve what I’ve lost, because I will permanently bear the marks of disfigurement. Yet I believe I’ve gained through this experience. I realise that I can be more of a priest with no hands than with two hands.

In 1992, I returned to South Africa to find a nation of survivors, but a damaged nation. Everyone had a story – a truth – to tell. In my work I’ve developed a programme called the Healing of Memories. Our workshops explore the effects of South Africa’s past at an emotional, psychological and spiritual level. I try to support those who have suffered as they struggle to have their stories recognised.

I haven’t forgiven anyone, because I have no one to forgive. No one was charged with this crime, and so for me forgiveness is still an abstract concept. But if I knew that the people who sent my bomb were now in prison, then I’d happily unlock the gates – although I’d like to know that they weren’t going to make any more bombs. I believe in restorative justice and I believe in reparation. So my attitude to the perpetrator is this: I’ll forgive them, but since I’ll never get my hands back, and will therefore always need someone to help me, they should pay that person’s wages. Not as a condition of forgiveness, but as part of reparation and restitution.

I still find it hard to believe that something this brutal happened in my lifetime, and I cannot comprehend that similar acts of violence, suffering, and torture are occurring even as I am writing this. To think of all of the so-called achievements and progress that we as humans have made, while knowing that we are simultaneously unable to control our rage and anger in a humane manner, is an absolute embarrassment to the human race.

My semester abroad has been and continues to be very much a search within myself, often through the lives of others. Religion and spirituality has been one of the more subtle avenues of this self-searching journey, but is just as important, in my opinion. Thus there were certain excerpts from Father Lapsley’s remarks at yesterday’s Mass that I especially appreciated:

It is not an accident that we began with an Islamic and a Buddhist prayer. I have long believed that the future of humanity is an interfaith future in which we need to [have] reverence and learn from each other’s faith traditions including traditional beliefs but I also have the deepest respect for my atheist, agnostic, and communist friends.”
The congregation laughed enthusiastically after this last statement, much to my amusement. I am including the following two excerpts simply because I like them:

Traveling the world has taught me that we are one human family capable of the most horrendous deeds. Just a few days ago I visited the genocide site in Srebenica in Bosnia. At the same time we are all capable and called to tenderness, kindness, generosity and compassion.

Often through the years I have asked myself why I survived a bomb that was supposed to kill me when so many others died, who also deserved to live. I guess that some of us had to survive to be living reminders of what we in this country idd to each other. But a thousand time[s] more importantly, I hope I can be a small sign that stronger than evil, and hatred and death, is goodness, compassion, love and life – indeed of God.

Tutu is also a funny character, though I admit I was more than a little disappointed when he didn’t shake my hand. Prior to giving his closing remarks Tutu, referring to the small square bandage on the back of his nearly-bald head, said to the congregation, “I know you all are wondering what happened to my head. Instead of praying, you were wondering.” Everyone laughed. Tutu continued, “A dermatologist drilled through my head. And found nothing.” Again the congregation – and Tutu – roar in laughter. A nice time at the cathedral indeed.