Thursday, 27 September 2012

Another First: Community Stay!!

Today, we will be setting off into the community of Oshoek, where we will be placed in the home of a child-headed household for the entire weekend (Friday afternoon to Monday morning). This is an incredible privilege for us to be welcomed into this family's home and to be able to get a glimpse into what life in the community is really like.

At this point, we don't know much of what to expect. But here's a little preview of what our weekend will likely involve:
  • No electricity
  • Bucket baths!
  • Peeing in a bucket in the middle of the night
  • Byron trying to learn copious amounts of Siswati
  • Diane screaming as rats and/or cockroaches make guest appearances
  • Tons of neighbours visiting and asking whether we really know Karate or Kung-Fu, followed up by the obligatory "Ching Chong" noises (we have already experienced this many times...)

Apparently, the head of the household, a 19-year old boy, is an aspiring rapper. This should mesh well with my (Byron's) love for gangster rap. Hopefully, we'll be popping and locking together in no time!

Please pray for us as we embark on what we are hoping will be an incredible weekend of listening, understanding and relationship building. Check out our prayer request tab for specifics. We are packing light but are prepared to leave with heavy hearts.


Last Thursday, we had the opportunity to do some patient visits in the community. Patient visits are exactly as they sound – Careworkers visiting people in the community that are ill and in need of medical care. During these visits, Careworkers check on the health of the patient and ensure that they are taking their meds.

We split off into smaller groups and I (Byron) had a couple of unforgettable experiences.

One of the houses we visited contained a father who was ill. With him was his 25-year old daughter that, initially, appeared as though she was sitting with us just to be polite. She was very shy and had limited grasp of English. For most of our visit, she just kept her head down. We made some casual small talk with the father and, just as we were getting ready to leave, the daughter suddenly broke down in tears. We asked the Careworkers why she was crying and they explained that she is unable to get work because she does not have an ID card.

After spending some time thinking about her situation, I realized how hopeless this girl’s situation seemed and how vulnerable she really was. Without an ID card, she legitimately could not work. She also did not have the necessary supporting documents to get a new ID card. The question that repeated itself in my head was: What does this girl do all day? And what does she do to get by? She lives in poverty in rural South Africa, hours away, by car, from the nearest town. She has no car, no money. She has nothing. She does nothing. Not because she is lazy or apathetic but because she does not know how to get out of her current predicament. What does her desperation drive her to do? And what is it exactly that causes these tears to stream down her face? The thoughts did not sit well with me as we left her house unable to help in any tangible way other than to pray for her. In moments like that, it’s hard to know what to say; it’s hard to bring a message of hope.

We were told by our Careworkers that the next patient we visited was a “Sangoma”, which was translated to us to mean “traditional healer”. Little did we realize that what our Careworkers define as a “traditional healer”, we define as a witch doctor. When we approached her house, the Sangoma was sitting in a room with a younger woman and a young child. She told us that she was busy at the moment but invited us to enter the room and sit down. The room was a stand-alone hut which did not seem out of the ordinary to me at the time. After all, many families live in homes the size of small huts. When we entered the room, it became apparent that this was not her house but, rather, her place of practice.

The three of us – Daytona, Jenna (two other volunteers in my intake) and I – huddled into the Sangoma’s hut with our two Careworkers, and the three that were already inside. In the middle of the room lay a bunch of small, random items – dominoes, dice, seashells, buttons, bones, etc. Conversation between our Careworkers and the Sangoma ensued and every once in a while, she would take one of the large seashells, circle it around the rest of the objects, stab it down on top of the pile, and continue in conversation. This is when I started sensing that something was weird. I hoped that this was just something that she did out of habit. I was wrong.

After a few minutes, the ladies in the room all directed their attention at me and I made out my name through laughing and Siswati. The Sangoma gathered up all of the items in the middle of the room into both her hands and shook them up like a gambler at the craps table. She then opened up her hands and let the items spill onto the floor, carefully studying the pattern the items arranged themselves in. She then started speaking over me.

Although the English translation was spotty at best, here’s what I could make out:
  • There are gifts that are currently being withheld from me because my father did not provide my mother’s family with enough money when they got married.
  •  I am generally in good health but my skin is hot (the translation must have been incorrect. I’m sure she must have been referring to my looks).
  •  There are times when I don’t want to be around anybody or speak to anybody and prefer to be alone.

A random collection of thoughts, don’t you think? I just sat there smiling and nodding, trying my best to be polite but, at the same time, wondering what I should do should this Sangoma go even further. After every “prophecy” that she spoke over me, her and the younger lady would look at me for validation. Even the Careworkers, who I was relying on to intervene and put an end to this, looked genuinely interested in whether there was any truth to what the Sangoma was saying. “Is it true?!” they kept asking, heads nodding and gazing earnestly at me for a response. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I did not want to acknowledge that the Sangoma spoke truth over my life but also did not want to be the disrespectful, foreign Chinese guy. Unsure of how to respond, in all my wisdom, I just sat there and continued to smile and nod.

At this point, Daytona asked if he could be excused and brought Jenna out of the room with him. I had a sense of why he made this request (we needed to get the hell out of there!) and I desperately wanted to join him and Jenna outside. After a short time, they returned, and the Sangoma resumed. She made reference to my grandmother and, in my mind, I began to push the panic button. Is she going to pretend to conjure up my grandmother so that I can speak to her from the grave? How is that even possible when my grandmothers are still alive? I started stressing that this was now crossing over into the spiritual side of the things and thought about how best to put an end to it. Luckily, the younger lady who was interpreting clarified and said the following:
  • I must go to my grandmother (my mom’s mom) and give her money. After I do so, I will receive an abundance of gifts.

Again, I smiled and nodded. “Please let this be over!” I continued to think to myself. After some more Siswati was exchanged between the Careworkers and the Sangoma, it was over. We said our goodbyes and left. Thank God.

On our way back to the CBO, we had a discussion with our Careworkers in an attempt to clear up the confusion that just happened.

“So … how do the Sangomas and Christianity mesh?” Daytona asked.

“Some are Christian, some are not. Some go to church, some don’t,” replied one of our Careworkers. She then continued on. “Some people choose to believe in the Sangomas. Some people choose to believe in God. I, myself, choose to trust in God. I do not trust the Sangomas.”

I smiled and nodded (which is about all I really seemed to do that day) but, in my mind, I was not so agreeable. “Really?!!! Then where were you when I was left to squirm 5 minutes ago? Why did you leave me hanging for so long?!”

Despite being a little confused by the whole experience, we had the opportunity to debrief with the group and with some of the leaders at Hands. It wasn’t until we discussed it more in depth that I realized the significance of the situation. This experience shed some light on just how much of a grip cultural beliefs and practices have over these people. Despite many people acknowledging their faith to in God, including our Careworkers, the power of the Sangomas and the fear that they carry with them are still very prevalent. This is a culture that, for centuries, has believed in the power of witchcraft. When people are infected with HIV, or when a family member dies or becomes ill, the automatic response is to attribute it to a voodoo curse. They think of times where a neighbor walked past and looked at them the wrong way, for example, and decide that this had to have been the cause. Retribution is sought. Precious resources are spent to support these witch doctors and their practices that run in direct conflict with believing in an almighty and powerful God.

While the incident left me a little shaken, I was very grateful for the support of the Hands community and for the experience that opened up my eyes to another important aspect of the culture here. I did not allow the Sangoma to speak any truth into my life because, to be blunt, I don’t attribute any supernatural powers to witch doctors. Having said that, I do acknowledge the power they have and continue to exert over the local people. These are communities in need of prayer, not just for physical provision, but for strength and courage to overcome certain cultural beliefs and practices (Sangomas included) that have held them back for generations.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Home Visits!

As mentioned earlier, it was a jammed pack week with so many new experiences to update you on! Our first week of orientation was comprised of information sessions, either at the Hands Village or in community (some of which we have written about), socializing or getting to know fellow Hands volunteers, and visits to some of the communities Hands operates in.

The sessions we have attended have been a mixture of learning about Hands (its structure, how it operates, the core values), learning about HIV/AIDS and how it has affected this continent (and South Africa, in particular), devotions, group prayer and testimonials from local Hands volunteers. As you can tell from our prior posts, these sessions have been truly mind-blowing and so informative in helping us understand what Hands is really about. It has been a total confirmation of the conviction in our hearts and our decision to journey this next year of our lives in Africa with this organization.

During our first week, we had the opportunity to visit 4 fully operational Community Based Organizations (CBOs), which are locally operated care points for vulnerable children in the community. At the CBOs, children learn, play, eat and receive basic care. While visiting a CBO, we typically have the opportunity to spend some time with the kids and help with a feeding. Afterwards, we usually accompany the Careworkers on their home visits to families within the community. This is what we both consider to be the most memorable part of the week.

There are two types of home visits: 1) Child Visits; and 2) Patient Visits. During our home visits, we set out on foot and are usually able to visit 3-4 homes in the span of 2 hours. Many of the homes we visit are child-headed households or households where a single gogo (grandmother) is caring for the children. The goal of child visits is multi-faceted:

1)  To see firsthand the child’s home and family situation and to ensure that the child is not in a life threatening or overtly dangerous environment. For example, one home that was visited was a child-headed household where the eldest sister was only 17, caring for her 7 younger siblings, the youngest one being only 2 years old. The Careworker could see that the single room hut that the children stayed in had a broken-in door, hanging off its hinges. The girls mentioned that recently, men have been trying to break into their hut at night. In a house such as theirs, people don’t try to break in to steal anything – there’s simply nothing to steal. To put it bluntly, the men are trying to break in for the girls themselves which, unfortunately, is all too common in South Africa. Imagine just how vulnerable these children were! After this was identified by a Careworker, Hands provided the CBO with the necessary resources to reinforce the door with extra posts and padlocks. 

A statistic that we heard the other day was that 1 in 4 men in rural communities in South Africa have admitted to raping. That only includes men who have admitted to it! That number is likely so much higher, which sits heavy with us as we go out into the community and interact with so many girls who no doubt have been affected and deeply wounded by this. This is part of the social poverty we refer to which ails South Africa. There is a complete lack of male role models. An overwhelming majority of households know of no such thing as a father. Instead, in many cases, men have become synonymous with rape, abuse and drunkenness. Because of this, Byron has been challenged to be extra careful and sensitive in his interactions in the community.

Byron on one of his favourite child visits

2)  Another very important goal is to invest in meaningful relationships with these children and their families and to bring a message of the hope and love of Christ. It sounds simple but, in seemingly hopeless situations, when little can be done by way of providing immediate physical needs, the visits from Careworkers and Hands volunteers shows these children that someone cares for them and is willing to protect and advocate for them. They are known by name. They are shown they are valued and that their life matters.

After only a short amount of time in South Africa, we have heard and seen some of the most heart-breaking stories of children. Despite this, we truly see hope in Hands’ mission and its ability to truly transform these children’s lives. 

Walking with Careworkers to do home visits 
More walking!
Preschoolers at one of the CBOs. So cute!
Byron getting swarmed by the little ones

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Mission and Structure of Hands

The question we most often receive surrounds what Hands at Work does and what its purpose/vision is. We now realize that, in our initial attempts to answer this question, we really didn’t do it any justice. To some, this may be a boring or dry read but we felt it prudent to include on our blog. Why? Because the heart and vision of Hands is at the very core of why we are here and so incredibly fundamental to what it does. It would be a disservice to those that have participated and are invested in us being here not to explain it.

The Hands Mission (straight from the Hands at Work website):
Hands envisions the local Church in Africa effectively caring for the dying, orphans and widows, and unified in this mission with the Church outside Africa.

Its mission is to, through relationship with the local Church in Africa, challenge, encourage, develop and support the ministry of servanthood among those in need in their community through the replication of the Hands at Work community intervention model.

Everything that Hands does serves to fulfill this mandate. Below, is a summary of how Hands puts this into practice.

Step 1 – Identifying the Poorest of the Poor Communities
Hands is deeply committed to identifying and aiding the poorest of the poor. Hands will do an internal assessment to identify communities within the 8 countries that meet the criteria of the poorest of the poor.

Step 2 – Identifying the Poorest of the Poor Individuals and the Mother Teresa
Once a community has been identified, Hands will send local individuals that it has partnered with to walk the community and to speak with the locals.  This includes everyone from children to mothers to grandmothers to pastors in order to understand their stories and their needs and to identify which individuals within that community are really the poorest of the poor. While this does include those that are living in the worst physical living conditions, Hands is really seeking to identify the most vulnerable and wounded children which, on the surface, may include those living in relatively affluent situations. During these conversations, the locals also help identify a “Mother Teresa” – a local individual who is widely recognized as someone deeply committed and has already demonstrated an ability to care for the orphaned and vulnerable children within her community.

Step 3 – Rallying the Local Church
Numerous churches exist within each community throughout Africa. Despite this, the needs of the orphaned and vulnerable remain largely ignored. In order to rally the local church, Hands identifies a “Man of Peace” – a well-respected leader within the community that identifies with Hands’ mission and vision.  This Man of Peace aids Hands in bringing together the local church leaders and pastors.

Step 4 – The Meeting
The local church leaders and pastors, together with their wives, attend a meeting where Hands representatives and the Mother Teresa tell the stories of those they seek to serve. These church leaders and pastors are then called out and challenged with the biblical mandate to serve and care for the poor, the orphaned and the widowed. At this point, the response is often varied. Some walk out of the room. Others stay. Deeply affected by these stories, it is often the wives that spur their husbands to respond.

Step 5 – Mobilizing the Local Church
The local church leaders and pastors committed to aiding Hands go back to their local church to create awareness and raise support. The congregation, often made up of poor individuals in their own right, comes together and contributes in any way they can. 

Step 6 – Forming a Community Based Organization
Backed by the support of the local church, a registered charity is formed by a collection of local individuals committed and devoted to reaching the most vulnerable children in their community (Careworkers). In South Africa, virtually all Careworkers are women.  Often, the Careworkers come from broken backgrounds and are deeply wounded themselves. But because these women have lived out the stories themselves, they are able to reach and relate to vulnerable children in ways that we simply cannot. Despite not receiving any financial compensation for their time and energy, the Careworkers are devoted to changing the future of their community. These newly formed organizations are referred to as Community Based Organizations (CBOs).

Step 7 – Service Centers
Service Centers are comprised of local leaders that Hands has invested in and partnered with (Coordinators). Although many Careworkers possess an amazing amount of compassion and dedication, they often lack the necessary knowledge and capacity to carry out their roles in the most effective way. Service Centers are created to counsel, mentor and support the Careworkers and the CBOs within a certain region and to journey through life and faith with them. Ideally, several different CBOs will be set up throughout any one community (the communities in Africa are quite large in geographical area).

Step 8 – Regional Support Teams
A Regional Support Team (RST) is comprised of leaders and volunteers within the Hands organization. Its role is to counsel, mentor and support the Coordinators and Service Centers within its region. Currently, there are 4 RSTs within Hands – 1 in Nigeria, 1 for the DRC, Malawi and Zambia, 1 for Mozambique and Zimbabwe and 1 for South Africa and Swaziland.

Step 9 – the Hub
The Hub is the essentially the head office in South Africa. It serves as a base for all Hands at Work volunteers and workers and is responsible for coordinating the RSTs, amongst many other things.

Step 10 – the International Church
Hands is set up internationally in 5 different countries – Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Australia. These international offices coordinate with churches in their local countries to partner with and support Hands.

The most important thing to take away from this structure is the emphasis on local community ownership. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it cannot be emphasized enough how imperative the local community and its individuals are to what Hands does. Hands is merely the support structure. It is the local people that take the lead and it is truly their dedication and commitment that enables them to be difference-makers in their community. The ultimate goal is that each CBO will eventually graduate to become completely independent of Hands and fully self-sufficient. I (Byron) remember fondly Hands’ partnership with one-such CBO, Masoyi Home Based Care, from 4 years ago. Today, Masoyi Home Based Care is fully functional as an independent organization. Through God’s amazing work, many more will follow!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Living out the Core Values of Hands

We apologize for the delay in posting this but it’s been a jam packed first week of orientation. The days have been long. Our emotions have been drained. Our minds have been completely blown away! The next few posts are going to be about what we have done and learned during this first week.

Hands at Work has 8 core values that define it is as an organization. They are:
  1. Loving God and our neighbor
  2. Reaching the poorest of the poor
  3. Living servanthood
  4. Supporting local community ownership
  5. Valuing relationships
  6. Prioritizing God, family, ministry
  7. Being accountable
  8. Giving freely

It is easy to read over these core values and liken them to a product of a mandatory HR policy, as it is with many corporations. However, when they are unpacked and unified with Hands’ mission and structure (more on that later), it is incredible how powerful these values really are. It is an inspiration to see these core values lived out daily by the leaders of Hands and adopted by each member of the Hands community.

Think about loving God and loving our neighbor. These are the greatest commandments in the Bible (Matthew 22:37-39). You cannot love God without loving your neighbor. We are commanded to love our neighbor as we would ourselves. But how many of us can really say that this is true in our lives? We will be the first to admit that we cannot and that we continue to be challenged by this verse.

An important part of the reason behind us going to Africa was defining who our neighbor was. I (Byron) saw firsthand the poverty in Africa 4 years ago. We see images and read stories on the news all the time of the famines, the poverty, the corruption, etc. It broke our hearts. No matter which way we looked at it, we resolved that we could not faithfully serve when there existed such a strong calling in our hearts to act. When we walk into the communities and see the vulnerable children, the impoverished gogos (grandmas), the dedicated Careworkers, we see our neighbor. It is not acceptable to turn a blind eye to Africa’s problems simply because they do not fall in our backyard. We are called to love these people.

We believe that true love can only come from God. All the reasons for wanting to help – feeling good about ourselves, compassion, generosity, easing a guilty conscience, etc. – all fall by the wayside eventually. When things become too tough and we become discouraged, these reasons will not be enough to get us through. We do this because we love. And we know love only because God showed us true love. The message of the gospel shows the greatest display of love in history. Jesus descended from heaven, not to become a king, nor to rule over the nations, but to be a champion for the poor and the oppressed. He came to this world to be the least of us and died a death reserved for the least. God GAVE us His only son so that we could live and give freely (John 3:16). That is love.

Think about relationships and supporting local community ownership. We’ve heard the Western mindset towards some of Africa’s problems and acknowledge the cynics and the criticism. See if any of these sound familiar or resound in your own mind:
  • The problem is too overwhelming.
  • Millions and millions of dollars are donated in aid or relief to Africa every year. Nothing improves. What’s the point?
  • The problem in Africa is self-inflicted and self-perpetuating. By helping the people out, we encourage and foster an environment of laziness and dependency.
  • No matter how bleak a situation, those that persevere and work hard enough will manage to find a way to rise above. Those in poverty have the ability to will themselves out of it.

It is our hope that the message we convey through this blog can help dispel all of these notions. This is not to say that we (or Hands) has the magical formula to fix all of Africa. In fact, before we can be of any use, we must first come to this realization: We are utterly useless and what we think will solve Africa’s problems are, in reality, first world rubbish. Humbling, but true!

This is where relationships and local community ownership come into play. Hands is not a service provider. While Hands supports initiatives to feed, clothe and house children, it understands that these services, in and of themselves, are not transformational. Rather, lives are transformed through love. It is not enough to deliver food to a community. It is not enough to put a roof over a child’s head. Yes, there exists a great amount of physical poverty in South Africa. Yes, there are basic needs that need to be met. But the greater problem that pervades the culture here is the social poverty. These children need to be cared for. They need to be loved and to be showed that their lives are precious and valuable in God’s eyes. They need to be known by name. Only then can they truly be transformed.

In a world where everything is measured by quantifiable results, we acknowledge the difficulty in assessing the effectiveness of what Hands does. Further, we understand that, as missionaries living on the generosity and support of others, there are pressures to identify exactly what we have done (i.e., a school has been built, a water program was created in a community, etc.) so our donors can see the fruit of their involvement. As great as those things are to accomplish, Africa’s problems are systemic and cultural. They cannot be cured overnight and we have no illusions otherwise. But we do firmly believe in Hands’ mission. Children who once had no hope and no future are being loved and cared for and being transformed into leaders in their own communities. We have heard some truly amazing stories in the short time we have been here of such transformation. We are excited to witness them for ourselves and to participate in these stories.