Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Living as the Locals Do!

It was a crazy busy third and fourth week of orientation which is why it’s taken until now to post about our community stay. Apologies for the delay! To those inquiring minds, here’s a little recap of a truly incredible weekend from two weeks ago. On Friday morning, we left for a 2.5 hour trek to Oshoek and, on Monday afternoon, we returned with our hearts filled and deeply humbled.  Where to start …

Our family:
73 year-old Gogo
19-year old boy – Mancoba 
17-year old girl – Nomthandazo
15-year old boy – Sikhulile
13-year old girl – Colile
9-year old boy – Clement
7-year old girl – Nonhle

The kids, in order from oldest to youngest
(FYI: C’s before vowels in Siswati are clicks. Have fun sounding out the names!) The family is made up of two separate sets of grandchildren whose mothers were sisters (and the Gogo’s daughters). Mancoba, Nomthandazo and Clement are from one mother (who passed away in 2003), Sikhulile, Colile and Nonhle from another (who passed away in 2010). They live together on a large property in the very remote and rural town of Oshoek, in the northeast region of South Africa that borders Swaziland.

On the property is a gate that leads to the entrance of the house. On either side of the dirt path beyond the gate stands a mud hut, one divided into three rooms, the other into two, that can only be accessed from the outside. On one side was Sikhulile’s room, Mancoba’s room, and the kitchen. On the other side was Nomthandazo’s room, and the room where Gogo, Colile, Clement and Nonhle stayed. See the picture below and see if it matches up with what you envision an African mud hut to look like. The huts were literally made up of sticks, patched together with mud. There was no electricity or running water. The kitchen, about the size of a typical powder room in a Canadian house, had a wood burning stove and a counter to prepare food. At the front of the property were two gardens that apparently grew sweet potatoes, although it more closely resembled a compost than a garden. Around one side of the property was the outhouse that contained the “toilet” – a bucket placed over a hole in the ground, with four wooden planks nailed together to form a seat over the bucket.

The mud huts
The kitchen
In 2007, Gogo moved the six grandchildren from Swaziland to Oshoek. Swaziland, a small country of about 1.3 million, is essentially bankrupt. Anyone that has the capacity to work leaves the country. The unemployment rate is through the roof. The government can ill-afford to provide grants to children for schooling, hence, the reason for Gogo being forced to leave the country with the children. This is not an uncommon story for many of the residents of Oshoek. Unfortunately, even though it is cheaper to attend school in South Africa, the South African government does not provide school grants to children that are not born in South Africa.

Gogo makes the trek to Swaziland by foot about once a month. While there, she receives money from an “uncle” that she uses to put the children through school and for food. You can imagine how much money they have for anything else. Who this uncle is, exactly, we're not too sure. Gogo had 6 children, all of whom have passed away. How regular these payments are and how much he gives them is also something we did not think appropriate to ask. All we know is that, in many cases, it’s not quite like it sounds, i.e., it’s not a loving uncle that ensures proper provisions are sent on the first of every month. We were hoping that, for our family, it would be one of those rare cases.

There, in a nutshell, is the background of our family and their situation. Because we tend to experience things differently, and because we experienced so much, we thought it better to recount our weekend individually…


I originally started writing this post as a recap of the entire weekend. I soon realized that it would take forever and no one would bother reading a 10-page post (instead, it's merely an 8-page post!). So, to spare you, I’ve decided to write about a few of the highlights during our weekend:

We were told beforehand that Mancoba is an aspiring rapper. That was an understatement. Within minutes of us arriving, he didn’t hesitate to bust out his notebook full of rhymes and show off his stuff. The problem is that Mancoba’s English leaves a lot to be desired. As he rapped, we had trouble understanding what he was rapping about. It didn’t actually rhyme, nor did it actually make sense. One thing, however, that we did manage to clearly decipher was this beauty of a line midway through the verse of one of his songs: “Motherf*#@ Motherf*#@ up!” … I see …

After he finished, he would look earnestly at Diane and I for approval. This is a guy that was passionate about his rap. He spent the majority of his free time writing rhymes. A decent soccer player in his own right, he quit playing on his soccer team so that he could concentrate on his music. Was I, as a foreign stranger in his house, supposed to crush his dreams and tell him to focus on something else? On the flip side, was I to encourage him and give him false hope, thereby encouraging him to spend more time on his music at the expense of perhaps more important things (i.e., schoolwork)? I eventually found middle ground in complimenting his talent and his passion but encouraging him to work hard at his English and study hard in school. I then promised that I would spend parts of the weekend helping him with his spelling and grammar so that his rhymes would be better. This turned out to be a taller task than I imagined but it was an experience that broke the ice and allowed us to bond almost instantly. Who knew hip hop could be relational? At one point, I even taught him how to “Dougie”. He thought my moves were pretty sweet. Little did he know that I had absolutely no idea how to do it.

Sikhulile, likely through the influence of his older brother, was also a big rap fan. He also had a notebook full of rhymes that he wrote himself. As a duo, they referred to themselves as “Homeboyz”. It is their dream to one day make it to North America and introduce their brand of “Swazi rap” – rap that is a combination of English, Siswati and Zulu. I was worried that there may have been a misunderstanding at the beginning of the weekend. I felt they were under the impression that I was going to find them a recording deal. They even asked me to return so that I could take their CD to Canada and sell it in stores there. I tried to explain to them that I didn’t have any connections to the music industry and that, more importantly, I wasn’t here for that reason. I'm not sure if they really understood but they did ease up on me over the weekend.

Before we set off to Oshoek, we had the opportunity to buy some stuff at a superstore to bless the family with. We were instructed not to actually come bearing gifts – this was not the exercise of the weekend and it doesn’t send the right message – just small stuff that we could use to play with the kids and help break the ice. We ended up buying a soccer ball, a tennis ball with velcro paddles, a deck of playing cards, a stuffed animal, nail polish, coloring books, crayons, a drawing pad and some plasticine. We brought out our gifts gradually over the weekend, so as to not shower them with so many new things at once. It was difficult to not want to give them more. These kids basically had nothing. The only toy Clement had was a “moto” – a frame of a car made out of wire attached to a stick, with screw-on, makeshift wheels – that he would wheel around the property.  I just kept thinking to myself that these 6 kids will, collectively, have less toys in their lifetime than my nephew, Tyson, has received on one birthday.

Clement with his moto!
The Little Ones
Clement and Nonhle, like any other young children when first meeting a stranger, were extremely shy at the outset. They would stare at us intently until we made eye contact and then immediately hide behind their hands in embarrassment. Once we whipped out the soccer ball and tennis ball/velcro set, their faces lit up and the walls fell down. After a short while, they couldn’t leave either of us alone. They wanted to play constantly. They craved attention. More than anything, though, they just wanted to be held. Each would regularly wrap their arms around our legs and just stare up at us. It was endearing and sweet but heartbreaking at the same time. Without a mother or a father, I wondered how often these two were held or kissed or told they were loved. The way that they latched on to the two of us after only a couple of hours led me to think the answer was pretty clear. Admittedly, their constant need for attention/affection grew tiresome at some points. There were times where Diane and I were exhausted, overheated, and just wanted to be able to relax with a book. I know … we’re terrible people. But in those moments, we would try to remember that we were put here to be a blessing for this family and did our best to suck it up.

African Church
Prior to us going, the information sheet about our family indicated that they did not go to church. Jackpot! (insert subtle fist pump here). Again … I’m a terrible person. Let me explain. The weekend before, we had gone to African church. I don’t know if any of you have experienced African church before but it is long. Very long. Most services run somewhere between 3-4 hours. I know most people, myself included, have trouble sitting in services that approach 1.5 hours! There is a lot of time allocated to worship and singing. This is the enjoyable part of African church. The African people don’t really have any inhibitions when it comes to music. Each member of the congregation sings and dances their heart out. The men sing in bass and, when meshed together with the powerful female voices, it creates a beautiful and worshipful noise. It’s quite a contrast to Western churches, where we’re often too self-conscious and self-aware to allow ourselves to worship freely. The pastors are usually very charismatic, emulating the African pastors we see on TV. They shout, “Hallelujah!” at every available opportunity and the congregation responds with “Amen!” The problem is that, with these pastors, it’s difficult to ascertain how genuine they are. There are an abundance of churches in rural South Africa. Seen in a role of great power and authority, pastors are treated with a sense of deference in this society and are rarely challenged. Often, men become pastors without any formal training and just get thrust into the role. Many ignore the mandate to care for the most vulnerable in their own backyard and, instead, use their position of authority for personal gain.

On Saturday night, Sikhulile told us that we were going to church the next morning. It turns out that while Mancoba, Nomthandazo and Clement don’t regularly attend church, Sikhulile, Colile and Nonhle do. Despite my enthusiasm, or lack thereof, to sit through a 3-hour service, I was actually excited to have something to do with them. The walk to church was 45-50 minutes long (uphill both ways!), which is not fun in scorching heat, but it gave me an opportunity to speak with Sikhulile (who I quickly found out has the best English of the six children) about the family and its history. When we walked to church, the kids pointed out the pastor’s house located next to the church. It was, not coincidentally, quite a bit bigger and nicer than most homes we saw in Oshoek. It made me wonder where are all the tithe money went.

The congregation was made up of about 20 people, the majority of them being quite a bit younger than Diane and I. The worship started when three young teenage girls in the congregation just started singing. The rest of the congregation soon followed. No worship leader. No lyrics on an overhead. No instruments. Just straight worship. It wasn’t the best singing (in fact, there was a very audible, tone-deaf African, which I didn't think existed!), nor the most intimate worship, but it was really neat to experience. What wasn’t as neat was listening to the sermon. It was given by an 18-year old guy who, apparently, wasn’t the pastor. He must have dished out 250 “Hallelujahs” in the span of his two-hour sermon, mostly in escalating series of five. I found myself getting increasingly annoyed each time. What didn’t help the cause was that I wasn’t agreeing with a lot of what he was saying, nor did his sermon seem to have any Biblical basis. On top of that, there is a 100% chance I will struggle to stay awake during any sermon that long, especially in an environment that hot. But in a congregation so small, I wouldn’t allow myself to be caught sleeping, especially as the foreign Chinaman in the community. To stay awake, I read the entire book of Esther and some parts of John. I knew bringing my Bible would come in handy! I was this close to attempting the two-hour fake prayer but figured that my violent head bobbing would have given it away.

The church
Byron the Handyman/Lecturer
Gogo is a truly amazing woman. At 73-years old, she does everything for her family. Often, she does too much. When we walked home on the Sunday from church, we found Gogo bent over at the waist, using a shovel to mix water with a pile of dirt to create mud. I don’t know if I can ever recall seeing a 73-year old lady bend the way she did. Regardless, it wasn’t right. I told her that I would take over and told her to teach me how to do it. She would make a crater in the dirt to pour the water in and would then mix the dirt into the water, being careful not to let the water seep out. Of course, when I took over, the first thing I did was break the crater and all the water went spilling out. I felt terrible, as I’m sure I was creating more work for her than I was helping. After I finished mixing the mud, Gogo climbed up on a wheelbarrow and used the mud to patch up the mud hut. Again, seeing a 73-year old grandma climb up on an unstable wheelbarrow to do handyman work was not acceptable. I called over Mancoba and Sikhulile and asked them why they weren’t the ones doing this. Mancoba said he didn’t know how but Sikhulile said he knew. I told them to change into work clothes. It was time to get our hands dirty! Now, there was nothing fun about rolling up a large ball of mud in my hands, slinging it onto the wall, and smoothing it out over the wall repeatedly. But did I feel like a man? Damn rights I did. Ask Diane ... She had never been so attracted to me! More importantly, I was hoping that I was teaching these guys that they were the ones that needed to be doing this work, not Gogo. Maybe I’m idealizing the whole situation a bit but I felt like there was also some serious man bonding during our mud slinging.

Gogo hard at work!
Not the most comforting sight ...
Byron showing the boys how it's done
Proof of getting their hands dirty!
The lecturing didn’t end there, though. On the day we left, Gogo spent the entire morning sitting down with her face buried in her hands. She had started feeling ill on the Saturday and, on the Monday, it had progressed to the point where the suffering was almost unbearable. Diane and I felt so helpless. There was nothing we could do except arrange to get her a ride to the clinic when we were to be picked up. During the day, she was getting visibly frustrated at Colile. I wanted to understand what was going on so I called in Mancoba to translate. Apparently, Colile was disobeying Gogo’s requests to clean her room and to clean the dishes. Seeing Gogo in her condition, and seeing Colile’s nonchalant attitude towards the whole situation, drew my ire. I called Colile over and had Mancoba translate a rather stern lecture for me. After I was done, I spoke with Mancoba and Sikhulile and said something to the effect of: “Gogo is very old now and very tired. She has spent her life taking care of you. You are now both young, strong men. You need to help her around the house. She shouldn’t be working on the house anymore. You guys should. She shouldn’t have to cook and clean anymore. Nomthandazo and Colile should. Please promise me that you will do this from now on. You need to take care of your Gogo.” They nodded in approval. I hope they meant it. At that point, I wasn’t sure if I was overstepping my boundaries or not. But after having been in their home as an adopted brother for 3 full days, I felt like I had gained some ground to stand on, if only just a little bit. I realized that these are kids that have grown up without any sort of male influence. If I could do anything to portray a positive male role model, I was going to do it. Regardless, it was the right thing to do. Gogo was visibly wearing herself out. These kids needed to step up!

Gogo suffering with her illness
In the Dark
Usually, in South Africa, or any other African country, for that matter, the dark represents danger. We’re told to never walk around at night or even to drive at night. But when we were staying with our family, the most special moments occurred in the dark. On Saturday and Sunday night, we would all gather in the kitchen, which was barely big enough to fit all 9 of us, and just be together all the way through dinner until bedtime. With the only light provided by a couple of small candles, it was an intimate setting. It wasn’t planned, nor was it forced. It just happened. On Saturday, the main attraction was our iPod, which we hooked up to a mini-speaker we had borrowed from another volunteer at Hands. Mancoba and Nomthandazo shuffled through our music library and selected all the hip-hop songs they could find, while scrolling through all of our photos. Every once in a while, cramped up on our little wooden benches, we would bust out into dance (especially during, “All I do is win, win, win, no matter what!”). Even Gogo was getting into it! Periodically throughout the night, Gogo would tell us how happy she was.

Dance party with the iPod
On Sunday night, I was getting Mancoba and the rest of the family to teach me certain Siswati phrases, which brought them so much joy. Africans LOVE it when they hear you speak their language and attempt to learn it. They would laugh at my pronunciation (much like Hong Kong people do when I attempt to speak Cantonese) and get super excited any time I said something right. Later on, Gogo asked Sikhulile to read a chapter of the Bible. He read it in Siswati and Mancoba translated. At first, through Mancoba and Sikhulile’s broken translation, we tried to make sense of what was being read. We gave up soon after and just started pretending like we knew what they were saying. After the Bible reading, I asked if I could pray for the family and, again, Mancoba translated. It was an incredibly special moment. By this time, Gogo and these kids felt like our new family. There was so much on my heart that I wanted to pour before God, that He would truly bless this family.

Not a lot was said on either of these nights; nothing deep, nothing overtly spiritual. But being together, in the dark, as a family, and just genuinely appreciating being in each other’s presence, was something truly special and something we will never forget. Meeting this family and having them open up their home and their lives to us was truly a blessing. I can only pray that we were able to be as much of a blessing to them.


What a blessing it was to Byron and I to stay with this family and to get to experience, if only for a few days, the way they live their lives. I must say that although there were some difficult moments, the experience, as a whole, truly did bless us so much more than we could have imagined. We had no idea what to expect going into the community stay, but we prayed hard for God to give us the heart to feel what our family feels and the eyes to truly see not only the deep wounds that this family lives with, but also the blessings that they could pour into our own lives. God was definitely working through us that weekend because our hearts were broken so many times in those 3 days and we both felt a deep connection to our family.

First off, I’m very glad to report that I didn’t see any mice, rats or cockroaches all weekend! We did have a spider incident in our bedroom, but Byron quickly handled it (he has become quite the spider killer since being in Africa!). A part of me knew that if I looked hard enough I would find some unwanted visitors in our bedroom or the kitchen so I just adopted an out of sight/out of mind attitude and made sure not to look down too much!

The first night of our stay, Byron and I slept in separate bedrooms – which was a little unnerving, to be completely honest. It didn’t help that a neighbor was stripping the land and had set the grass around us on fire. All night, as the flames drew closer and closer to our house, I kept waking up fearing that our huts were on fire! Luckily, the winds were blowing in our favour and the fire didn’t blow over onto our land. They did get pretty darn close though as the fire had basically burned within a few feet of the property! The next day, we got permission from the family to sleep in the same bedroom. We zipped together our sleeping bags to make one big, two person sleeping bag and had a much more comfortable sleep on the second and third nights.

Nomthandazo's room, where we slept
Mancoba's room, where Byron slept the first night
Being a female, I had the pleasure of helping out with all the house chores that African women are typically responsible for, one of which is cooking! Before we arrived at our family’s home, we were given a bunch of groceries to bless the family with. The groceries were meant to cover everything that Byron and I would eat that weekend plus some extra for the family. Our groceries consisted of a bag of carrots, a bag of onions, a bag of potatoes, some tomatoes, a head of cabbage, a bag of maise (ground up dried corn that is mixed with boiling water to create pap, the starch of all their meals), canned beans, 3 loaves of bread, canned pilchards and a few other items. On the second day, Hands dropped off a live chicken for us, which the family killed and cooked on the Sunday! After we arrived, I got busy by organizing the groceries in the kitchen. The first thing that I noticed was that there was no food in kitchen aside from half a wilted cabbage and some maise. I remember wondering when the family’s last hot meal was and even how often the family goes without food.

That night, I helped Nomthandazo prepare dinner for the whole family (minus Gogo who had gone to a funeral). I followed her lead and just started chopping up veggies. I had no concept of how much of anything to use so I made sure to run everything by Nomthandazo. When I realized that our dinner for 8 would consist of only half a head of cabbage, two carrots, one onion and a potful of pap, it was a reminder of how little these families survive on. Traditional African meals like this one are enjoyed using your hands. Note: be sure to eat with your right hand as, traditionally, the left hand is used for all other things, including the bathroom! You grab a chunk of pap, take a bit of your veggie and then shovel it into your mouth. The trick is to ration your veggies properly so that you don’t run out of the flavourful stuff before your finish your pap. I was much worse at this than Byron. No matter how hard I tried, I would inevitably end up with a heaping portion of pap left over and no more flavourful veggies. I would then proceed to pawning off my pap on Byron while taking his veggies so that I could finish my plate! By the end of the weekend, I learned that I had to request much less pap than would normally be dished out in order for me to be able to finish off everything on my plate. At this point, you might be wondering how Byron, the shameless, bottomless pit, fared with this lack of protein. Luckily, pap is super heavy and fills you up like a brick in your stomach. Despite not having any protein for a few days, we weren’t as hungry as we thought we would be.

Rice with pilchards (very unappetizing canned fish)
I did a lot of house chores during our stay – tidying around the hut, sweeping, fetching water, cooking and doing dishes. Without electricity or running water, I was astounded at how much time it took to complete even these simple household tasks and realized how I completely take for granted all the conveniences we have back home. Once a day, we would go and fetch water by walking to a nearby stream (which was about 15 minutes away) and would carry liters and liters of water back with us by hand (Nomthandazo would carry the largest load of 20 liters which she would balance on her head, true African style!). Because we had to go down a rocky path through the forest, we couldn’t even use the wheel barrel to help us with the water runs. Everything had to be carried by hand, which was so exhausting in the scorching heat! However much water we fetched for the day, we had to make sure that it was rationed properly to ensure there was enough water to cook with, clean with and then to bathe with, as we only fetched water once a day.

Colile doing the dishes
My favorite times throughout the weekend were the moments when we were all huddled in the kitchen after dark, around the wood stove which kept us warm, talking or listening to music. It became clear t us that after night fall, when you have no electricity, you don’t have much to occupy your time or your thoughts outside of your immediate company. As Byron described above, the small room was lit by a couple small candles. The setting was so intimate and was truly a precious time for us where we felt such a deep connection to the family.

Our first community stay here in South Africa was one that we will always remember and treasure. Whether we had any impact on the family we stayed with, we don’t know. We can only pray that what love and affection we showed the family during our short stay could be seen as a blessing and as a display of God’s love for this family!

The bittersweet farewell!

1 comment:

  1. I'm so proud of you guys! Thanks for being so honest and sharing your hearts. It's a reminder to me of how this all began. I wish I could see you both!