Sunday, October 31, 2010

Huntington Hospice Care

I'm standing at my sink getting ready to do dishes. I turn on the hot water tap and within 30 seconds the hot water is scalding my hands. I jump, yell, and turn on the cold water full blast. I get the temperature regulated and tackle the dishes. I am not happy. I have hot running water. Too hot. And I'm complaining about it. Dang. I need to go back to Africa. I need to remember what it was like to do dishes in unheated water. But when I was there, I wasn't doing dishes alone. I wasn't eating alone. It was a community effort. I miss the community.

"It doesn't pay," says Gladys, "but it's important work...It's my people…It's my community!" We are walking dirt roads visiting bed-ridden patients in Huntington. Hospice work is one of the services coordinated by Swa Vana. Sixteen hospice workers spread out over the village every day to take care of people too sick or weak to care for themselves.

We enter the first house. Its small and the thin mattress in the middle of the floor dominates the room. Gladys moves around opening the two windows, sweeping the floor, and piling up the scant laundry. The patient sits up. She is one of the lucky ones I'm told. She can scoot around on her hands, so she can move herself out to the doorstep for fresh air. I look around at the bare cinderblock walls, the small wooden bench along the back wall with a few belongings stacked on it.

Gladys talks to her patient, learning that she did eat that morning. She is gentle and kind, tying a fresh hankerchief around her head. It’s a chilly day, grey and overcast. None of the patients we visit want baths that day. It's too cold. We visited three patients total. Watching the hospice workers in action was amazing. Their empathy for their patients is real. Their commitment to their community is evident. They do not earn money doing this work. Swa Vana does not have funding in place to pay them. They are paid in food parcels.

Swa Vana was asked by the village elders to take on this project over a year ago. They have had some donations, but not nearly enough to meet the needs in the village. When we were there in September, they only had enough knappies (adult diapers) to last the month. We took some supplies over, and it was nice to know that instead of two thermometers for 16 workers, they now have one apiece. It's not nearly enough. Not that any of these people complain. They are so very grateful for everything that they do have. It is me, the missionary, looking at the situation with fresh, wide-eyed culture shock, who wants to wave the magic money wand and make it all better. It's a sobering reality: I can't just fix it. I can help alleviate the need by collecting and delivering supplies. I can care enough to pray. I show that I care by going back whenever I can, and doing whatever I can to help.

Huntington is where Swa Vana started six years ago, after bringing in supplies and establishing relationships in the village. As a result, the tribal leaders offered Swa Vana the Huntington village community center to establish a place where children in dire circumstances could be fed. The bats in the roof were evicted, the buildings were cleaned up and kitted out with kitchen supplies. There are hundreds of stories of ways that Swa Vana has effected change in this area -- stories of initial resistance, which turned into cooperation. Stories of salvation that occurred simply because Jesus showed up in the form of a white woman and her family and fed the hungry -- with no expectations of anything in return. Five years later, the tribal leaders again ask Charmaine to take on a project: Hospice care. Again, Swa Vana steps up, doing what they can do with limited resources.

A new Swa Vana bulding is going up in Huntington. The land was donated, the bricks are made, and the bulding can move forward as soon as the municipality provides the grader needed to level the ground. We walk over to the property and Charmaine describes what it will look like. She points out where the kitchen will be, how the building will be set up. She wants to build hospice rooms for the terminally ill patients, and establish a computer training center for the villagers. This is an ambitious vision. The effort truly does take a community. I see this project growing as more and more of the community gets on board. I see change coming, slowly but surely. Children who have grown up being fed by Swa Vana are graduating school and either obtaining work or establishing their own enterprises. I see a people working together to overcome some pretty overwhelming odds. I want to be a part of it. How 'bout you?

Gladys and I. She has healing hands.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Swa Vana

Have you ever stumbled on something accidently and just known that it was something worth investing your time, energy, and resources? Six years ago one family heard about a need, started a church project to deliver Christmas packages to a truly desolate family, and wound up starting a community program to bring support to a poverty stricken region. Swa Vana is not your normal charity. It is a program that provides compassionate care for orphaned children as well as the sick, disabled, and elderly.

If you ask Mama Charmaine how many children she has, she will quip "I have 413 mouths to feed!" Most people do a double take at that, but that is Charmaine's sense of humor. Children and adults light up when she is around. She just has that affect on people. Charmaine is passionate about this project, its short and long-term goals, and the people it serves. She steps in where angels fear to tread, and is not afraid to call out injustice, greed and manipulation. (I want to be just like her when I grow up.) When she walks or drives along the village roads, people wave and call out to Mama Charmaine. The term "Mama" is a sign of respect, and everyone calls her by that name.

Swa Vana, a project started by Charmaine and her family, has "drop in centers" in four tribal villages: Huntington, Lilydale, Justicia, and Mabarhule Bushbuckridge. They are called drop in centers because they are exactly that: the children "drop in" before and after school for daily meals, sports, arts and crafts, etc. This is a safe, supervised environment both before and after school -- something the majority of these children do not experience in their own homes.

Children in the Swa Vana program are fed twice a day. Each drop in center has four caregivers. The caregivers feed the children, supervise them, help them with homework and teach them crafts. It is interesting to watch (and participate) in meal preparation. Having eaten it, I can tell you the food is pretty awesome. It is like a finely tuned machine at work. Remember, this is not your stainless-steel, state of the art, no-holds-barred kitchen. The stove defies description, but it does have four burners. The knives are constantly going dull and wearing out from use. There are none of the fancy gadgets American infomercials like to convince us we can't live without.

All food prep and service begins and ends with washing dishes. Everything being used for cooking and serving is washed in a large basin of soapy water, transferred to a second basin of clean water, then transferred to a third container for drying. In Justicia, this is done outside. Once the dishes are cleaned and returned to the kitchen, the water is dumped (in the vegetable garden) and the container is rinsed, clean water is added, which is then used to clean vegetables.

The caregivers gather around a large table to cut and chop vegetables. (I had to go to South Africa to learn how to cut cabbage…) Once the vegetables are cleaned and chopped, they are placed in the most enormous pots I have ever laid eyes on. It has to be stirred fairly constantly so that it cooks evenly and does not burn. I'm sure they talk a lot more to each other when company isn't around, but from our point of view it was all very seamless and very coordinated without much conversation.

When the food is cooked, and the children are back from school, they line up and the food is dished out. A lot of the children do not have forks or spoons, so they eat with their hands. (Yes, they DO wash with soap and water first.) This is the main meal for these kids, so they have a very balanced plate: Meat, starch, and vegetable. Meat varies, and the starch rotates between pap (pronounced "pop") and rice. While we were there, the vegetables were different combinations of beets, beans, cabbage, carrots, pumpkin, onions, and tomato. When finished eating, the kids line up and wash the dishes. It is the same setup: one basin of soapy water, one of clean, one for drying. They all pitch in and cooperate, and not one word of complaint is ever uttered. They are grateful for everything they have.

Food is followed by games and homework. One of their favourite games is called "Follow the Leader". They stand in a huge circle, with one child in the middle acting as the "leader". The chant starts: "Follow, Follow, Follow the leader!" The leader then says (and does) an action. The children then do exactly the same thing. This is generally repeated twice, before the leader picks a replacement from the circle.

Swa Vana is a refuge -- a respite from a harsh reality where children are forced to make adult decisions at too young an age. This is a place where children get to be just children for a little while, a place where adults care about them, about their school reports, and about their emotional well-being. This is home away from home.

For more information, visit their website at:

Up Next: Huntington Hospice and Swa Vana's long term goals

Saturday, October 16, 2010

You are not in control...

Missions Trips are an interesting lesson on giving up control. From the time we met at church before leaving for the airport, to the time I was dropped off at my apartment after returning to the United States, I had very little control over what was happening. My life was not my own, it belonged to the greater purpose for which we were traveling. Departure from the States went like this: we met at the church at 12:30pm Sunday afternoon. There was luggage to load, and the last minute repacking and shifting of suitcases, prayer for our safety and then we were off. There were six of us: Lou and Marilyn (our leaders), Robert, Jeanette, Ida and myself.

Each of us were allowed two checked suitcases (not to exceed 50 lbs) and two carry-on items. Each of us gave up the first suitcase to the team for packing supplies. I packed as little as possible into my second case so there would be room for any leftover supplies. When we were repacking the luggage, I ended up shifting my personal stuff into a huge duffel already full of supplies, which then became my second "checked luggage". Once we got to the airport, we weighed everything again, and there was some more shifting and repacking that took place to make sure each case (12 total) did not exceed the weight limit. There was a canvas store bag full of crayons leftover at the end. It was just too heavy for the checked luggage. Since I had only one carryon item, I volunteered to make that my second. I couldn't stand the thought of leaving any of the supplies behind.

We flew to Atlanta, and switched planes to catch a direct flight from there to Johannesburg. It was in Atlanta that my passport received its first stamp. It was epic (but only for me). The flight to Jo-burg was rather turbulent since we flew over two hurricanes. Dinner, breakfast, and lunch were included on the plane (average airplane food), my only sticking point being that I don't normally eat breakfast at 3am. I had trouble sleeping, and towards the end of the flight I told Robert that I wished I had one of those u shaped pillows they sell in the airport -- something to lean my head against. He reached up and showed me how to bend my headrest out. No kidding, y'all: The headrests bend out, creating a U with your head in the middle. Information I could have used ten hours earlier…just sayin….

We were met in Jo-burg by Marianne, Charmaine, and Wally. Marianne was our in-country missionary. She is hard to describe, except to say that she is a wonderful encourager, endlessly patient, and the kindest person I have ever met. Charmaine (aka "Mama C") is the Chairperson of Swa Vana, the charity we were going out there to support. Wally was our bus driver.

From the time we arrived in South Africa, until the time we left, Marianne was there to direct money exchanges, order breakfast and dinner, buy groceries, and be our tour guide. It was Marianne who gathered us at dinner that first night and advised us to eat yogurt. As someone who has traveled to many countries, she always eats the local yogurt when she gets there, and never has a problem with digestion. Now, I hate yogurt, but I followed her advice -- and no, I never did have even one issue with digestion the entire time I was in South Africa. (On an aside note -- I found that I don't like artificially sweetened fat-free yogurt…the regular stuff is nice.)

Now, the food in South Africa was wonderful. Everything is very fresh, and I don't believe that GMOs have made it over to Africa yet, so the meat actually tasted different, but in a good way. I will say though, that by the time we left I was longing for a burger that tasted like a burger. Their burgers and beef-based sausages are really delicious, but they don't taste anything like what I (as an American) was anticipating. Breakfast and dinner were provided everyday at the bed and breakfast where we were staying. Breakfast was a buffet which usually included eggs (either scrambled or sunny side up -- it rotated) sausage or bacon, toast, fruit, and cereal. I was introduced to pap, which is sort of like grits, but thicker with no flavor. Pap and rice are the staple grains of the children's diet out in the villages we visited. Pap is never served alone, it is always comes with a sauce of some type to spice it up. Dinner was always balanced with a meat, starch, vegetables, and a salad. Ida was our vegetarian, so she always had a separately prepared dish (which all of us would at least taste). I'm giving serious consideration to claiming vegetarianism on the next trip out. (JUST KIDDING…sorta…That food was really awesome). The first three days we ate lunch in the villages, but after that we packed fruit and yogurt to eat while we were out doing ministry.

A typical day's agenda went something like this:

7am: Breakfast
8am: devotions
8:30: Into the van and out to the villages.
4:00pm: Leave the villages :( and head back to the B&B
5-7pm: Shower and unwind
7pm: Dinner, followed by a group meeting where we reflected on our day, and set the next day's agenda.

Here's a high-level overview on the trip's schedule:

Sunday - Tuesday: Travel from the US to South Africa, visit the Apartheid Museum, and drive out to Hazyview.
Wednesday: Orientation. Visit each village and meet the caregivers.
Thursday - Saturday: Children's ministry.
Sunday: Church
Monday - Wednesday: Minister to the caregivers and teens.
Thursday: Drive through Kruger, move to Hippo Pools Lodge.
Friday: Moholoholo Wildlife Sanctuary
Saturday: Scenic route back to Jo-burg
Sunday: Church, visit the Baby Moses orphanage, lunch with our SA Family, and off to the airport.

While South Africa is one of the safer African countries, there are still certain precautions to take. The two inflexible rules were: don't go anywhere without clearing it with the trip leaders, and don't go alone. This was especially true when using ATM machines. Evidently a very helpful native who is teaching you how to use the ATM is actually taking your information, which he will then use to drain your bank account. Also, it was a little disconcerting the first time we stopped at the Spar for groceries to see an armored vehicle delivering cash to the bank guarded by men with machine guns. These people don't play. There is a boundary of orange cones set around the vehicle, clearing a path to the bank. Don't cross the cones. They are trained to shoot first and ask questions later. And no, I didn't risk taking pictures of them.

The weirdest thing about being back in the States was being back on my own agenda. I woke up Tuesday morning and couldn't figure out what to eat since someone was not presenting me with a breakfast buffet. I had a hard time accomplishing anything that day, since I had spent two weeks in a very structured environment. Do not think for one moment I am complaining. Being in South Africa was a privilege and I enjoyed every moment -- even the moments when I was in complete culture shock. I loved the team I was with, and I discovered family over there ( I already miss them like crazy). I'm just back to my original point: If you are an inflexible control freak, missions work might not be for you. Of course, God has a terrific sense of humor, and He just might send you on one to teach you a lesson.

Up next: Swa Vana

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Introduction to South Africa

WARNING: This is NOT a warm, fuzzy post. Hang with me folks, I have a LOT to share over the next few weeks, but this files under "background".

Do you know all that "stuff" you think you need? You know, the iPod, the new laptop, the latest TV...Well, think again. You r
eally don't "need" any of it. Let me tell you a little bit about "need". I just visited an area of Africa where people live in one room cinder block "houses" the size of my bedroom. Most homes have electricity, but none have running water. There is barely room for a bed, let alone a refrigerator, stove, or any other comforts that we take for granted. Cooking is mostly done outside over an open fire, and bathrooms are non-existent. The more affluent people have the means to dig their own latrines, otherwise the only choice is the community "longdrop". No, these people did not make "poor choices" and end up this way as a result. Let's backtrack just a little.

In 1948 a government was elected in South Africa whose sole platform was Apartheid, which they promptly enacted. This enactment systematically separated three groups of people by skin color: White, colored, and black. Laws were passed implementing curfews, and if you were perceived as "bothering" a white person by merely walking with them, you could be arrested and thrown in jail. Black (tribal) Africans were "relocated" from prime grazing and farming land and forced into the bush. This is a mountainous area with little rainfall. Today, water is piped into the bush through community wells, which are controlled by the government. Apartheid is long over, and blacks are free to move about as they please, but they have little income, little education, and little means of achieving those moves. Those that do make it out of the rural villages often never look back. Meantime, those that remain would love to grow their own food to sell or feed their community, but that is tremendously hindered by the fact that their water is tightly controlled for "conservation" purposes. On any given day, when they visit the well, the water might not be flowing. Are you getting the picture?

yes this is a community well.

Only the very lucky have cars in the villages. Those who do, travel over extremely rough, rutted, poorly maintained dirt roads to get to the more affluent areas. The cars driving in and out kick up a tremendous amount of dust as they bounce up and down the primitive roads. There is a bus. I think it runs once a day, and if you want to get into the nearest city, you have to walk miles to the main road to catch it. There are also taxis that cruise up and down the main roads picking up as many people as they possibly can. It’s a great way to earn a living. Of course, if you can't afford the taxi or the bus, you are stuck walking. There just aren't many jobs out in the villages.

Add to all of this the issue of HIV/Aids. This is an extremely taboo subject. There is still a lot of superstition around the disease, and there are many people (understandably) distrustful of white men and their medicine. At one point rape was at an all time high (estimated 100%) because there was a belief circulating that if you had sex with a virgin, you would be cured. Those who have it guard their secret closely for fear of ostracism. Untreated HIV is leaving thousands of children without parents in a area where most of us could not survive. Look around your bedroom. Could YOU live in it with 12 other people? The lucky children might have a grandmother or an aunt to supervise them. The unlucky ones are scratching out an existence in child-led homes. With such hopeless conditions come hopeless addictions. There is no lack of bars in the communities. Children lucky enough to receive government stipends or food packages still may not have enough to eat if the stipends are used to fund their caregiver's needs or addictions.

At one point, orphanages began springing up all over South Africa to take care of these children. The government put a stop to it, decreeing that the communities must care for their own orphans. With very little resources available, the community does the best it can, but falls very short. Add to that a corrupt local government who literally steals food from the mouths of orphans. A shipment of 12 food packages will most likely be reduced to two as the food makes its way through the different levels of government on its way to be delivered to the children who need it.

Do you still think that you need that "stuff"?

Religion has taken root in a big way out in the bush. Of course, there are many different churches, with every one competing for the attention of the individuals. Several different denominations of Christianity exist (including Jehovah's Witness), along with Islam, traditional ancestral worship (witchcraft) and Zionists (a combination of Christianity and ancestral worship). Christianity has been undermined by several different philosophies that insist the people do as the government tells them and not fight back. One of the most fascinating exhibits in the Apartheid Museum goes into a great deal of detail about this issue. I'll sum it up this way: twisted Christianity is a tool used by whites to keep blacks under subjection.

There are beacons of hope. Over the next few weeks I will be focusing on the myriad of awesome stuff that happened on the trip, the wonderful people I met, and the many beautiful and gut-wrenching stories from South Africa. This trip was very intense, which makes it hard to write about. But it was completely worth it. And yes, I DO want to go back next year.