I want to share my South African experiences with beloved friends and family, from 9,500 miles away!
Please read about my life, and be sure to tell me about yours!

Monday, May 2, 2011

the beginning of the end. or the beginning of the beginning...

“Baby, I asked you not to keep me waiting. I told you not to keep me waiting. Now the afternoon is fading on.” –Avett Brothers

I have ten days left in South Africa. I can’t really even comprehend this.

I thought of going home. It was the first time I really thought about what it would be like to be inside my house again. My house is so big- spacious, welcoming, clean (except for my messiness). There aren’t cockroaches and geckos and other critters that have become utterly normal to live with. My homestays have been in modest, small homes. My house, while pretty normal for the US, dwarfs them. In every way. Our furniture, our fans, our electricity, our carpet, our brooms and vacuums and self-wringing mops, our dishwasher, our backyard, our mailbox--- thinking about these things makes me wonder how it will feel to return.

I’m on the second-to-last leg of this adventure. I need to type up my paper- “Independent Study Project”- about working with the women in the prison. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know even what to say when people ask. The depth of emotion I feel when I think of my time there, those women, what it felt like to hear their stories and see their selves, expressed--- the depth of that is something I haven’t finished processing (and maybe never will). Their joys and sorrows, pain, beliefs, expressions of beauty and goodness; all of this is swirling inside of me, churning and throbbing.

Right now, this is what I want my life to be. I want to spend my life listening to peoples’ stories, learning from them. So many times during the prison, I left thinking, “I could do this forever and feel fulfilled.” Maybe I should be an attorney, maybe that is my calling, but it could be different. It could be something I wasn’t looking for, but fills my spirit. I thought that to help people I would have to be tired and drained and affect policy change. This clashed with my awareness that my strength lays in close relationships and the importance of people in my happiness.

In my Chicago community, we once did a reflection that asked, simply- “What would you give your life for? What would you live and die for?” The answer that flooded me immediately was, “Ending rape.” But how do you do that? I know my passion lies in women’s issues, but how do I end those issues? I can challenge societal constructs that keep women subordinate to men, but I cannot stop each rape from occurring. This time with the women in the prison addressed that desire in a different way. Through art, the offenders were able to express themselves, their lives, and their emotions in a way they didn’t know of before. If I can help create that space for processing, expression, and reflection, I think that could be my impact. That could be my living and dying.

But again, time and experience changes it all… so after a few years, we’ll see, I guess… This is the big push to the end, especially with this paper. I’m trying to process both the joy of returning home and the pain of leaving loved ones here. Always the two together.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


“The truth will set you free, but it will first shatter the safe, sweet way in which you live.” –Sue Monk Kidd

This is a stream of thoughts connected by one loose fiber: truth. If you feel like this is completely random, you were warned.

What is truth?

What is the truth and how separate is it from my truth?

The truth from my Cato Manor homestay is that people are people wherever they are. My sister swore up and down she was Catholic, but attended some mega-church with her friends. My baba (father) was an alcoholic with diabetes, who came in late with a friend to carry him and pretty much only wore his boxers 90% of the time. Religion wasn’t on the radar. Politics was, and his former career as a cop under apartheid seemed to have placed many ghosts in the closet. My mama- my tireless mama who cooked and cleaned all day, did shopping errands and laundry, walked up the hill to sit on a grass mat with her best friend- my mama clung to the church for a reason we never talked about. She was the only Eucharistic Minister at mass, arrived an hour early, had a special outfit--- but we never talked about Jesus.

The truth about my Newlands homestay (colored/Indian neighborhood) is that God’s love was revealed in the way my family treated one another. I didn’t need to hear them pray before dinner to know what they believed. I only had to look at the genuine concern and love they held for one another. I only had to see the outpouring of generosity in time and care that they gave us.

The truth about hospitality is that it exists just as strongly in Bemidji, MN as it does in Africa. People are people. Some are loving and hospitable, and some aren’t.

The truth about my nationality is that sometimes I feel so blessed to have had the opportunities and government of the US. The other truth is that most of the time I feel embarrassed that everyone knows where I’m from the minute I open my mouth. Our country’s imperialism and world power cannot be ignored here. Little kids I know grow up wishing they were American, not their own nationality.

The truth about today is that it was beautiful. The truth about my first day at the prison is that the success of the program was not hindered by the offenders, but by the administration and institution. Policies regarding space and time, red tape and hoops to jump through that were navigated beautifully by our friend here, but I would have tripped up at step one. Once I got to meet the women and work with them, it was clear that the next few weeks are going to be wonderful. They have a lot to express and share, and a desire to learn technique.

Our friend here, the hoop jumper, works for Phoenix and translated for me. She organized a ride for me to two different chemists when the first didn’t have my prescription. She took me on a shopping trip for more art supplies. She introduced me to a woman who leads a Lenten reflection weekly at the Anglican Church, and organized a ride there. She called me to make sure I got home safely from the reflection. She has children and a family, and her care for me was overwhelmingly loving.

The truth about Eshowe is it is where I am meant to be right now. I knew this before the reflection, when the leader invited me into her house for a bit before we walked over to the church. While sipping citrus/honey rooibos and eating a homemade bran muffin she found for me, off of dishes her ceramics major daughter had made, I felt completely at peace. Her home was airy and open, yet cozy, surrounded by green plants of the forest. We talked about faith and God and what Jesus calls for. We talked about truth and disciples.

“Truth is not a set of rules or evidence. Truth is not a moral code. Truth is found in knowing who you are, who God is, and through those two, who Jesus is. Truth is relationship.”

Our reflection centered on the Pharisees, adhering to the law to uphold truth. When Truth itself rejected this: had dinner with tax collectors and his feet washed by prostitutes, the strict law was put to test.

Truth is relationship.

What is my truth in Africa? What is my relationship with God, myself, Jesus, here?

It is different. It is changing. I have been to mass four times, only three of them Sundays. There is so much out of my control, and I know God has asked me to see and receive the Body of Christ in a different way here. I know a facet of my relationship with God, the world- that truth- was meant to be challenged and changed here. I miss mass, I ache for it sometimes, but in my heart I know that this is currently my truth. This is my relationship.

I am among the people of God wherever I go, and here I’ve had the time and focus to really, really look in their faces and see the truth they offer me.

Monday, March 28, 2011

father, forgive us for we know not what we do

Lent in Africa

"That time" has come in our program in South Africa. "That time" refers to what everyone on our program has been anticipating and dreading- the ISP, or Independent Study Project. 4 weeks of individual research, living where we arrange, working on a research project regarding whatever we desire. Well, not really- that research has to be formally proposed and approved by an independent board, clear ethical perimeters, have a supervisor, etc.

The question of "What am I going to study?" has been looming in the back of everyone's minds, each lecture or excursion we participate in a possible option.

I've known from early on that I wanted my project to center around women and art.

First, while walking through the art museums of Durban I was struck by the amount of material revolving around sexual violence and abuse. Why did these women paint this- was it cathartic for themselves, something they wanted to share, an issue they wanted to publicize? Could I talk with them, study this, and work on a painting of my own for the project? Yes, I could.

Second, the rural homestay. I fell in love with my family so much, especially 35 yr old Nokthula and 4 yr old Kwanele. I felt at home there, felt apart of their family, sang to myself as I set the table and took a basin bath. I taught at the local high school and it struck me how few opportunities people in the community had to express themselves. Ideas started forming- I could live with my beloved family, offer free art classes after school at the high school, and ask high school girls and women in the community to paint parts of their lives for me. Could I do this? Again, my academic director affirmed, yes, I could.

Third, the trip to the restorative justice prison. The women entering the cinder block room we sat in, lace table clothes trying to formalize and fancify a drab place. As they entered, it was clear this was important. Their finest jewelry decorated their denim uniforms, perfect eyeshadow and complex hairstyles for this event- meeting 20 students for two days of sharing and communication. Awkward icebreakers melted into warm games of catch, drawing together, and finally discussing our lives.

Art therapy was an important part of the Phoenix Zululand Restorative Justice program, including an art gallery. Walking into the prison, walking around the gallery, meeting with the women-- everything whispered the same thing, "This is where you are meant to be." The whisper was echoed by almost all of my classmates coming up to me, saying, "Claire! This place reminds me of you!!!"

After a tea break, and before the next session, the facilitator asked a woman to start a song. She began a song, two women joined, and at the end of the phrase the entire group joined in time in 4 part harmony. The Zulu words swirled around me, I picked up words, "father", "speak"... and Precious, sitting next to me, stopped her beautiful song to ask me if I knew what they were saying. I said no, and she said, "We sing what Jesus said on the cross. Father, forgive us, for we don't know what we do."

Immediately I was transported back to Chicago, sitting in a community of friends reflecting on the story of Lazurus and the rich man--- asking God who I wasn't seeing and asking for forgiveness. Here I was, in Africa, next to a woman belting her need for forgiveness to God, our hearts so similar. Our needs so similar.

My final question- can I learn more about the lives of these women, give them more opportunities to express themselves, give them another human face to look at, and receive their personalities, wisdom, stories?

Yes, yes I can.

I will be living in the village of Eshowe for 2-3 weeks. I'm staying at a flat owned by the Phoenix Zululand program, within walking distance of a grocery store, homes of staff of the program, and the prison.

For my project, I will become a facilitator for the Phoenix Zululand Restorative Justice Program. I'll be able to offer art classes, and get to know the women. I will find 5 women in the prison who want to participate in my research, and ask them to paint a period of joy in their life, and a period where they experienced sorrow. Once they finish, I will interview them about their paintings, and hopefully grasp a portion of what their experience as a woman has been in rural South Africa. I will do the same process with 5 women in Eshowe who are not currently in prison. I want to hear their stories, understand their lives, which may or may not be different from my own.

And.. I'll make a weekend trip to visit my beloved family.

God is always revealed in the world. This is something I'm constantly relearning in Africa, as I see God in the rainforest in Eshowe (see picture above), and next in the face of Precious as she asks for forgiveness. I see God in my fellow students, all of us who have signed on for these 15 weeks in Africa with no idea what that would entail. I see God in the sky, in my new homestay family in a Colored/Indian neighborhood, in the brokenness and love of South Africans. Finding my place within this, forging this relationship with these new faces of God is my lenten (and life) journey.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I'm all over it (SA)

swazi sunrise!

After a seven hour journey to Swaziland (neighboring country), a six hour journey to Eshowe (back in South Africa), and an 1.5 hour journey, I am back in Durban, sitting at a backpackers/hostel with 9 other classmates. Finally "home", whatever that means. Every place we go feels like a different kind of home. We move in with our new homestays (Indian family in Newlands neighborhood) on Friday.

Swaziland can be summed up in this: beautiful.

After much thought and deliberation, I think it'd be safe to say Swaziland is the most beautiful place I've ever been. Keep in mind I'm from Minnesota (one of the most beautiful places in the world), and I'm still saying this.

Mountains gently curved upwards toward the sky on almost every horizon, mostly covered with trees, but occasionally exposed rock and bluffs would characterize different peaks. Between where I was and the mountains there would be woods, grassy plains, or lakes. The air smelled like hot, sweet grass baked by the sun. The sky and horizon was endless... but what I found myself most taken with was the deep red earth. The trails we walked on were bright red with creamy orange mud puddles.

my friend kelsey w. and I in front of a pond filled with hippos and crocs

I saw hippos and crocs and zebras and springbok and impala and giraffes. We just walked through the game reserve- no big jeep, because there were no big cats. The rhinos were sadly moved to a different area of Swaziland. It seemed surreal, kind of.

Eshowe was the SA town with a Phoenix women's prison. The prison operates on restorative justice, and I need to write more about it later... what I will say now is that it was beautiful, those women are as beautiful as Swaziland.

I feel like I'm spinning within experience.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

the fear of being female

i wrote this for our "critical rural incident", and thought it might be an experience worth sharing.

I am a woman, and because of this I am vulnerable. An experience in the rural village of Amacabini underscored this statement and created feelings of turmoil for me.

During my stay in Amacabini, I lived with a large family consisting of many brothers and a single thirty-five year old woman who ran the house. After talking about it all week, my brothers and I made a journey down to the beachfront. The hike is long and hot, but we finally reached it and had a lot of fun jumping in the waves. Several SIT students and their families were also at the beach, and when it was time to go, I left with fellow students Joyce and Danica, three of their sisters, and my fifteen year old brother, Spha.

As soon as we began walking, Spha insisted on carrying my bag. This was funny to me because he hadn’t offered at all on the way down, but his manhood seemed to be at stake in front of the three teenage girls and so I gave him the bag. Our group quickly reached the spot on the trail where the main road and the shortcut trail diverge. We had previously decided to walk on the main road to avoid the plants and ticks, but Spha had different plans and disappeared into the forest with my bag on his shoulder.

The rest of us continued on the main road. After about thirty minutes, we reached the turn to the road where Joyce and Danica’s family lived. My house was farther along the main road, at least another fifteen minutes by foot. At the intersection, we stopped and had a conversation about how I should get home. It was three in the afternoon, the road was fairly busy with men, women, and children. I told Joyce and Danica I felt comfortable walking by myself if Joyce lent me her phone to have just in case. They agreed and Joyce gave me her phone. As we had this conversation, three high school boys passed by on the road, walking in the same direction as my house. I recognized one of the boys and he greeted me. He was in a grade ten class I had taught all week and he was one of the few truly attentive students that asked frequent questions. Joyce recognized another one of the boys from teaching as well.

After Joyce gave me her phone, I said goodbye to the group and started walking up the hill. I had been walking for about ten seconds when both Joyce and Danica began yelling, “Claire! CLAIRE!” and I walked back to them and said, “What?” Joyce and Danica’s sisters were concerned about me walking by myself, especially after they saw those boys walking by. The three of them kept saying, “No. No. They’re dangerous. Dangerous. They could hurt or rape me- dangerous.” Joyce and I asserted that we had taught two of them and they seemed fine. All of us were tired and hot after the climb and the group did not want to accompany me home. The solution, according to the girls, was for me to take the shortcut that led from their house to the school and then walk the remaining five minutes on the road. I was not happy with this solution. This easily doubled the time it would take me to get home, in addition to hiking down and up an unnecessary hill. Danica was insistent that we should trust the girls’ intutions. Joyce and I assumed the girls were being overprotective, but they decided that I should take the shortcut because it’s “better safe than sorry.”

As we walked down the road to Joyce and Danica’s house, I was fuming. All I kept thinking was, “If I were a man, this would not have been an issue.” And it’s true- if I had been any of the three males on our program, I would have said, “See you later!” and there would have never been a second thought regarding the safety of me walking by myself for fifteen minutes. As soon as we got to Joyce and Danica’s house, I said a brief hello to their gogo and started on the trail. As I walked down the path through the sugar cane field, my anger intensified. By cutting through the sugar cane field, I was literally hiding from men. The inequality burned me.

As I began the climb up the hill, an older woman and her grandchild stood at the end of a pathway connecting their house to the trail. We exchanged greetings in Zulu, and then she told me something more complex that I didn’t understand. I stopped my hiking, and told her in Zulu that I didn’t understand. She switched to English, and exclaimed loudly, “YOU NOT AFRAID TO WALK ALONE?!” I explained that I was coming from a friend’s house to the school, but she remained perplexed and worried. I continued my hike, my steps becoming stomps as I replayed in my head the scenarios with the old woman and Joyce and Danica’s sisters.

By the time I reached the top of the hill I was winded and sweaty and swatting away flies. As I continued on past the school, I saw a different group of three men standing together talking. I overheard the word “American” and knew they were referring to me. They didn’t smile as I approached, and I quickened my pace. After I passed them and my house was in sight I let out a sigh of relief. I felt like I had averted a potential landmine. I could not gauge if I was overreacting because of the experiences in the last half hour or if I had just avoided a potentially dangerous situation.

When I walked up to my house Spha greeted me cheerfully, and I thought to myself, “You have no idea how much your decision to cut through the woods affected me.” My experience as a woman (in both South Africa and the United States) has been this: good men are oblivious to the reality that women must constantly be on their guard against sexual assault and bad men perpetuate this reality. It frustrates and deeply saddens me that society continues to be so unequal. Experiencing how many women in the rural areas were extremely concerned for my safety troubled me. I would like to brush it off as overprotection, but what if it wasn’t? What if their concern was legitimate? If that was the case, the women of Amacabini suffer greatly from an oppressing, constant fear. I am clearly a foreigner in that area. My white skin both attracts more attention and also offers me a certain level of protection; it would be a publicized crime if I were to be harmed. This experience gave me cause to worry for the average women in this community, the women who don’t have the luxury of a blue passport book and the privilege that it indicates. These women may know how to avoid the men by cutting through jungle pathways, but they cannot completely avoid men. They cannot avoid the oppressive power struggle that constructs their reality.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

what i miss most

When I told people I was leaving to study abroad in Africa, responses were varied. In Chicago, the news was typically greeted with something like, "That's awesome! Where will you be? It's going to change your life!" In Bemidji, the common response was, "Wow... and why do you want to go there?"

Amidst the congratulations and criticism, there was a general consensus that this experience would make me thankful for the United States, and what I had.

This is my 7th week in Africa. I've realized the extreme wealth of my material possessions in relation to many South Africans, especially when it comes to electronics like my laptop, camera, and ipod. I've realized the blessing I have to eat healthy food, as I eat mainly starch and meat with my family every night, and watch small children by cheesy 'nic nak' snacks and suckers for lunch (or dinner). I've stamped cockroaches and dealt the with the reality of mangy dogs and monkeys. All of the students in our program complain about the poor accessibility of the internet (WIFI doesn't exist), news, cars, public transport, etc.

However, when it comes down to it, those aren't things I miss. Yes, WIFI is convenient, and I wish I ate more leafy greens and bell peppers, but I could live for a long time easily without those things. I can picture myself very content in a life in the rural area we visited. Picking fruit off trees, washing clothes in big basins, cutting potatoes into french fries and sweeping the house everyday. Walking along the rocky, dusty road that was supposed to be paved five years ago but wasn't. Eating corn that isn't sweet or juicy, playing in the yard and swatting mosquitoes, far away from the internet and cars and bars.

What I do miss is this: community. No matter where I am in the US, Bemidji or Chicago, there are beautiful communities that love and support me in deep ways. These communities are intentional, real, and honesty. They love in a way that challenges a society that tells us we need to focus on time and money, not people. The members tend to these communities like gardens- it takes discipline, patience, and time to grow a community. It takes respect for each plant, and dedication to nurture and grow.

This community is the concept of "ubuntu" that I hear so often here- A person is a person through other people. I am because we are. It was a beautiful realization that what I miss most about the United States is something we created together. Something that doesn't belong to the United States, but to the world.

Monday, March 7, 2011

i hope giving away your heart makes it grow

today is the first day back after the rural homestay.

Ahhhh... I have so much to say, so much I've journaled about in the last few days, and I don't even know where to begin, so I'll try to give a rough picture.

We stayed in pairs for the rural homestay, which was 1.5 hours north of Durban, along the coast in a 'reserve' still heavily influenced by a Zulu chief. In fact, SIT (Langa is a full time staff who is Zulu) had to negotiate with the chief to decide if and where we could stay. SIT toured the homes the chief okayed, and placed us in homes that met their stamp of approval.

I'm pretty sure my homestay partner Jaharra and I were matched because we are/have a preference for vegetarian food, even though I asked that Nokothula cook whatever she wanted.

Our home was by far the nicest in the area. It was the same size, if not bigger, than my home in Durban. A pink house behind a cornfield, with two rondavels (round hut structures made out of cement and thatched/aluminum roof), a garage, a structure with an outhouse/outdoor bath. I refered to the big rondavel as the "man cave", because only boys over the age of 11 lived in it. There were two permanent boys, Spha (15) and Kheta (13), that slept in there, but they were frequently joined by two 19 yr olds, an 11 yr old, and a 10 yr old. All of the boys call each other 'brothers', but when we dissected what that really meant (for example, why are three of you named Spha?) it came out that they were cousins. Spha was adament, however, that they are the same as brothers, and they really are. It is a testament to how family is viewed.

In the house there was me, Jaharra, Zenele, Nokothula, and her 4 yr old boy Kwanele. Zenele, the owner of the house, was gone the entire week at nursing school, and Nokothula took excellent care of us- feeding us until I thought I would burst (every meal was a challenge), insisting we take off our shirts before school so she could iron them, insisting we hand over our dirty clothes, etc.

Also around the house were Sum (female:13) and her mama, who we all called "gogo" (grandma). Sum wasn't of any relation, so the boys called her a cousin. We taught them all UNO, which they loved, and we'd spend a long time around the dinner table playing. Spha went to a nearby school, and his English was excellent, so we'd have long discussions about his life- he wants to be an agricultural scientist.


inside the man cave

on the list of important things i taught kwa

My real buddy was Kwanele, the four year old. When I first met him he wouldn't smile, and Nokothula said, "He'll smile tomorrow." And he did! We first heard him laugh the day after he smiled, and from then on, as soon as I woke up or got home from school I'd hear a tiny voice yell, "HI!!!!", the one English word he knew. With my broken Zulu, and the language of poking and smiles and tickling that doesn't need words, we were good friends and played for hours everyday. At the end of the week, we needed to meet the vans at the high school we taught at (a central meeting place for everyone). It was a 7 minute walk from my house, and I was fine carrying my bags, but instead our family accompanied us. Nokothula and Gogo put our suitcases on top of their heads, similar to the 5 gallon buckets of water they carried earlier that morning. Spha carried my bulging backpack, another family friend carried my rolled towel... Leaving me with just my purse and Kwa's hand in mine. I felt overwhelmed by sadness on the way back to the school... thinking how part of my heart had been claimed by this family and I hadn't even known. I didn't want Kwa to see me crying, so I tried to smile at the pure love of the family taking time to see us off. When we got to the vans, I asked one of the women to tell Kwa in Zulu how much I would miss him. She did, and said we were going, and he started pouting. I held him in my arms, his tiny head on my shoulder, and eventually I gave him to Nokothula. When I turned back he was sobbing, as was little Spha... Teenage Spha had fled the scene, so I suspect he was feeling sad as well (He told Jaharra, "This is an awful day, a terrible day..")

I knew I would be leaving parts of my heart in Africa, I just thought I would have some control over that. But now I'm realizing I never really have control of my heart once I decide to open it. Living with love means great joy and sadness, always missing someone, always rejoicing at the blessing of being with someone. While I'm here I'm simultaneously mourning the separation between my friends and family back home and rejoicing in the new friendships and families I'm forming here. The prospect of going home holds both the joy of reunion and sorrow of separation of these new people in my life. It is a good problem to have, to always be loving someone.

My family is a quilt of all the people in my life that I love. All the people I have loved, all the people I will ever love, God has stitched these together for me and covered me with the warmth of love in this quilt.

I carry your heart [I carry it in my heart]