Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sweet Home, Arizona

We arrived home last night, and we were welcomed by the characteristic heat of Arizona.  We were also greeted by my parents and our dear friend, Bob.  We were delighted by their enthusiastic reception... and the kids were over the moon with excitement!  Once home, we were treated to even more gracious hospitality as friends (and some family) prepared the house with favorite treats, fresh flowers, sharpened knives (for some chopping fun to be had later...) and a spotless home.  What a wonderful homecoming...

We slept well, as you can imagine.  We woke happy.  We are already looking ahead to some Fall opportunities.  We do not have all our luggage (it got lost in transit when we were re-routed in London...) but we have what we most need - a safe arrival home.  

Thank you for your friendship along the long summer months.  We are eager for Fall - for the new things God is doing in this season.  This blog will be on hiatus... until there is more to report or another journey to be ventured.  


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

In Transit

As of today, we are officially in transit!  We have packed our bags (a few less for the trip home), tucked away a few Burundian treats and readied ourselves for the hours in planes and airports.
Justin and Emma have been ready for days.  They are excited to see Grandpa and Grandma, to enjoy a cheeseburger from McDonald's, to have mama's mac n' cheese, and to return to school. 
They were excited to come to Africa and now they are excited to come home - how wonderfully resilient they are!  

Claude and I are ready to move into the next chapter, the next season of life back in Arizona. 
There will be plenty of travel, visits with friends, on-going work with Africa's brightest leaders and more trips to the continent in our future.  But for now, we will be glad to return to our home base and reconnect with friends.  

Thank you for being such faithful friends to us this summer.  We will thank many of you in person sometime soon!

See you soon!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Here comes the sun...

There is something so satisfying about watching your family have some fun in the sun - on any continent!  So once again, we spent a Saturday on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.  Claude had the kids stretch out before plunging in the water.  Then he cradled each one in his arms and waded in deep for some cool, wet playtime in the water.  But after an hour of playing and laughing... they got a bit tired.  So they took a rest - on the sand, within the reach of the waves lapping the shoreline.  It doesn't get much better than this!  Guess what we are doing next Saturday?  Right - soaking in the Burundian sun one last time before heading back to Arizona.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sharing Space

We shared our summer, our space and our stories together.  We all traveled from Arizona to Bujumbura, Burundi... to see what God had in store for each of us.  These are brave and beautiful souls, and I adore each one.

Ron & Sarah will be traveling home next week.  They return to a mountain of possibilities, given the rich talent they possess.  An electrical engineer by education and experience, he could return to this line of work.  But he could easily teach, or take the foreign service test or any other test he put his mind to mastering!  Sarah is a wordsmith, and someone needs to hire her to write for them.  She is passionate, articulate, intelligent and creative.  Oh, and she is a joy to be around with her humor, laughter and smile.  Yes, the future is bright for these friends.

Christy might be the bravest of us all, as she is here for 9 months!  She will be working along with the Batwa students teaching English.  She will also be homeschooling some very special girls... the Burundian daughters of Melli Johnson.  (Mellli runs the Rainbow Center where I connected with Justin and Emma... you see why I have such affection for this family!).  You might have guessed that Christy is a teacher by profession.  But after 10 years in the classroom she longed for a sabbatical - and a change of scenery.  I wonder what Bujumbura has in store for her in the remaining months...

Grace, as mentioned in earlier posts, is already back in Arizona.  In a few days she begins her college career at ASU.  Her future is so bright that the mere glare hurts my eyes!  She is a young woman with depth, character, mirth and wit.  I believe the learning life will suit her well. And whatever is ahead for Grace, one thing is certain... she will be a blessing to many somewhere in the world.

Then there is Claude and I... coming home to Arizona to continue the work of bridging our friends to Africa.  We will be advocating for the Batwa, preparing for our next international gathering in South Africa, attending some domestic gathering and doing some investigation on community development projects in Latin America.  Things never get old around our house...

It has been a special season with these friends... and I look forward to see what God continues to do in each of our stories.  I will miss the proximity... the morning tea together, many meals of rice, beans, pineapple, the collaboration and laughter.  But friendships last - thank God!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Making of...

Today we filmed a video on building cross-cultural friendships.  We began at the edge of Lake Tanganyika, one of our favorite places.  In the early morning the beach is still, no wind and no noise... only the gentle lapping of water onto the shore.  Perfect conditions for a conversation on friendship!  So we, along with our friends Ron & Sarah, began the morning on film.  Oh - and a camera man and a sound guy!

But the video contains a story, and telling that story took us back to the Batwa village of Bubanza.  Here, we witnessed the making of the signature pots the Batwa are known for country wide.  We filmed, we watched, we learned and we were amazed at the skills of the Batwa people.  Here is a bit of what we saw today...

Ron & Sarah going over the script while the film guys prepare for the set.
Ron & Claude laugh as they wait to film another shot.
The women at Bubanza making pots together.

Women preparing the fire for the pots.

The pots are buried beneath the fire.

A finished pot is proudly carried...

... to a new friend.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mwaro, part three

I did not feel done yet!  So here are a few final photos to tell the story of a great day!
Claude and his uncle, reunited again.
Claude says it tastes like potato, but better...
I had to show you bebe-
She is precious, you have to agree!
Good bye, until next year!

Mwaro, part two

Welcome to the home of our relatives in Mwaro!  This is the other reason Mwaro is a special place for Claude - it is where he was born, where he grew up till he was 8 and where many of his relatives still reside today.  We (and whoever we bring with us) are always greeted with such enthusiastic and genuine hospitality when we walk through the threshold of their rural compound.  They love to see Andre and Rose's son return home, and I think they are a bit fascinated by his white wife!  
One of their gestures of welcome is the sharing of food.  But first comes the traditional beer.  This is made by Claude's family, and when the bowl comes to the table it is still active with bubbling and foaming... still fermenting.  It is a very thick drink, my friend reported.  The long straws are offered to all, and it is a communal drink, as you can see Claude and his cousin wasting no time in enjoying this homemade beverage.  This was the first offering, but there was more to come.  My relatives brought out a lighter beverage, which I did try, called banana beer.
It was very sweet, and one sip was ample to satiate both my curiosity and my obligation to be a gracious guest.  Then came potatoes and beans, corn, other local root vegetables that Claude was eager to taste again, like favorite comfort foods from his childhood.  There was much laughter and generosity around the table, as about 15+ of us gathered round for the reunion.
These are some of our relatives.  We are family, and when we embrace you can feel the affection that surpasses words.  These women are so kind, so welcoming, so generous with what they have.  We laughed a lot together.  They let us hold their smallest baby, just 5 months old and gorgeous.  She is too young to have a name yet, so they call her bebe, rather straight forward. 
One of our uncles (I think, but a relative nonetheless) brought out well-worn photos.  We saw Claude at age 12 with his younger brother, we saw our Aunt Leonie when she was younger and sporting a stunning afro, we saw Claude's parents when they were in their 20's... and it felt like any family gathering anywhere!  You share pictures, you have a deep laugh, you embarrass the younger ones with the infamous 'naked photos' from their baby years... and have another round of laughter.  It was so beautiful being in their company again.  
This is my uncle (???) who welcomed us in his home.  He asked me to take a photo of him with his cattle, it meant something to him that I remember this about him.  He is a man who owns 4 (maybe more) cows and that is a sign of prosperity.  He was so generous to welcome us, along with our friends.  He was so kind to us.  I love that Claude brings me here each year.  We come from vastly different worlds, but we are family.  The connection here is strong and good. 

Mwaro, part one

Today Claude invited our friends to join us on a day trip to Mwaro, a province close to his heart.  We (since we are together in this, right) own some land in Mwaro.  And every visit we make time to journey to this lush green countryside to marvel at the quiet, simple beauty.  The drive from Bujumbura is about 2 hours - taking winding roads through the hills and then driving more slowly over the red dirt road punctuated with crevasses and small ravines.  It is a very scenic drive, but one that takes patience and a well-padded seat!  But you move from the city to the country, from the shore of Lake Tanganyika to the remote interior of Burundi.
I first came to Mwaro in 2001.  This is when Claude proposed to me... every night for 5 weeks. When he brought me to Mwaro, this home was still under construction.  The building stood, but doors and windows were on order and yet to be installed.  Claude took me from room to room (there are just two) to show me the home he designed and built for us.  Yes, he wanted me to live here with him.  The home has a huge fireplace in the common room, a simple kitchen with a view of the valley below, and a porch.  But I could not then (or now) imagine taking up such a remote residence... though the view is stunning.
This is the view from our Little House on the (Burundian) Prairie.  The valley is green with tea bushes.  Mwaro is where 99% of Burundi's tea is grown... and the fields pepper the landscape with such a striking and verdant shade of green.  It is my favorite view in all of Burundi - looking out over the fertile valley.  You can see, in the distance, people harvesting the tea.  You can see goats and cows meandering the roads and fields.  The air is cool and clean, and you can hear your heart beat and the birds sing overhead.  Mwaro is, to me, the essence of Burundian living.  This is how Burundians have lived for generations - off the goodness of the land and uncomplicated by modern progress (and troubles).  It is good to note that this is the one region where Hutu, Tutsi and Batwa have always lived together in peace.  That is part of the deep goodness of Mwaro.  I do see what draws Claude here, time and time again.
Just about 1/2 mile down the road is the office of the governor.  This year there is a new governor to meet, and I was delighted to see that it was (for the first time) a woman.  She welcomed us into her office and to her province.  She shared her warm smile and stories of the challenges and accomplishments of Mwaro in the past season.  Claude was eager to know how our land could be put to use to benefit the wider community (since we won't be living there any time soon...).  I love how Claude always considers how we can bless others, not only ourselves.  To this day, it still makes my heart jump when I see how wide his heart is, how generous he wants to be with all we have, how he naturally considers the needs of others.  I could not help but smile when he inquired about how we could help Mwaro.

A wonderful surprise was that the governor accepted our invitation for lunch!  She cleared her calendar and shared an unhurried meal with us at the restaurant down the street.  She was so gracious with us.  I felt like Mwaro is in good hands with this woman watching over the province, wanting to enrich the lives of her residents.  She dreams of a university (next to our land), an internet cafe, a culinary school (seriously), and vocational schools.  She celebrated the completion of 3 bridges in the province ( thanks to some additional funding from the US Ambassador).  She wants to see progress... and so do we. (to be continued...)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Good Vibrations

My friends + my kids = a good combination.  Yesterday we all piled into the van and drove to Saga Plage, a local beach on Lake Tanganyika.  Claude ordered us an amazing shoreside lunch and we enjoyed the cool breeze and stunning view.  After lunch, my friends (Christy, Ron and Sarah) took Justin & Emma into the water for some beach fun.  (The choppy waters were a good sign - crocodiles usually stay away when the water is choppy.)  They were such good sports - taking the kids in the cold water, getting more wet than they planned and laughing the entire time.  Christy helped the kids get their feet wet - first cautious steps into the water. Then Ron came and lured them into deeper waters to hit some crashing waves and really experience the waters force.  Sarah was not far behind - keeping the kids laughing as she held hands and even swung them over the waves. After nearly an hour of water play - I think everyone was ready for a break!

Then we shared in a moment of Africana... the egg vendors.  All around town you see young boys carrying egg crates on their head.  It is portable protein, these hard-boiled eggs they pedal.  But after playing in the water, Justin had (again) worked up and appetite.  He saw a vendor - they are even active on the beach - and was eyeing the eggs.  So Claude thought it would be fun to give them this truly African experience.  So he whistled for the young boy to come over, selected an egg... and then cracked it on the boys head!  Seriously!  He laughed, the boy laughed... this is how you are meant to crack the egg.  So then they boy pulled out a salt shaker, so once Claude had peeled the egg he could properly season it.  This exchange cost us about 20 cents.  Justin took one bite of the egg and decided against eating it.  But Emma savored her bite, and then enjoyed the entire egg all by herself!  So there is a slice of Africana for you!  
Christy & Emma
Justin clinging to Ron.
The girls... Sarah, Emma & Christy.

Ron & Sarah swing Justin over the waves.
Justin always has a smile to share...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Olympic Moments

I am not a sport fan, but I am an avid Olympic fan.  Summer games, Winter games - I'm in!  And I watch most all of it.  So it is very different being in Burundi while the Beijing Games are happening.  Now, I will confess, my enthusiasm this time around is muted by the host country. I am not a fan of China as the host for these international games of fair play, for many obvious reasons.  Chief among them, I don't believe they are playing fair - did you see their female gymnasts?  But I digress...

Watching the games here is different than the US-centered coverage we get back home.  Today is a good example of Olympic coverage in Francophone Africa.  The US vs. Greece in basketball or France vs. Croatia in handball?  How about 10 minutes of basketball and 40+ minutes of handball... that was painful.  I would much rather watch our all-stars play an impressive game of basketball.  What is handball anyways - soccer with your hands?  But we have French coverage, so France playing handball wins the day.  (I did not pay attention enough to know if they won the game...)  

This is played out again in a sport I care a bit more about - tennis.  So there is a match pairing James Blake (US) and Roger Federer.  Now I admit Federer has been in a slump in recent competitions.  But I was pretty jazzed (yes, that is the right word for my state of mind) to watch him play.  He is simply one of the most elegant players on the court, and I was eager to see him win - even over my fellow countryman.  (This is the Olympics, I can pull for the international guy, right?)  But we got scant coverage - of Roger Federer!!!  Why? Because a Frenchman was playing... so instead I watched Gael Monfils and Novak Djokovic with attention, but less affection.

I am so glad to be able to watch the games, in any language, for a few hours a day.  It is a luxury I did not expect to have, frankly.  So I am glad to watch, to cheer, to celebrate athletic accomplishments in all manner of sports.  But you need to know that our coverage back home is skewed to our American audience.  It is obvious, but sometimes I think we take it for granted until we are out of our zone and see the games from another vantage point.  I still contend that American basketball is more fun than handball, any day.  And... I wish I could have seen Federer grace the court.  But maybe tomorrow I can watch Michael Phelps claim another gold!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Pivot Point

This has been a week of shifting, moving from the long months of summer and toward the coming of fall.  In our house, things have begun to face homeward.  This became most evident as the first to depart from our Burundian homestead prepared for her departure last week.  

Grace packed her suitcases and said her good byes, and we shed a few tears as we drove out to the airport last Thursday.  But she missed her flight.  Let's just say that the third time is a charm, and this morning Grace is flying home to Arizona.  She is headed into a new season which will include college life, independent living and fresh eyes to engage her world.  I trust she will return with an African glow as she faces her bright future which begins on the ASU campus.  But we already miss her!

Now we shift to a new normal, as we are one man down, as it were. Grace's departure signaled what we all knew to be inevitable - that summer would come to an end and we would soon be packing, planning and pressing toward home ourselves.  We are merely weeks away from traveling back, 2 weeks for Ron & Sarah and 3 weeks for the Nikondeha clan.  

Now we begin to consider home and what (and who!) we are returning to in Arizona.  I am beginning to feel ready for the return.  A land where road rules matter, where ice cubes are commonplace in your Diet Coke and you can look forward to ice cream at the end of each day (if you so choose, and I often do!).  A place where I understand the culture, the language and the clock is an agreed upon standard for determining time.  I confess, I am eager to return to the grocery store, my kitchen and reclaim my cutting boards.  

I think one of the first things I want to do is pull out my knives and begin to chop - anything.  I miss the rhythm of chopping parsley, mincing garlic, snipping chives, plucking basil leaves for a batch of fresh pesto.  Deep breath ( I still have 3 weeks to go...).  But seriously, can you imagine a summer without a single batch of pesto?  And extra virgin olive oil, fresh ground pepper and Maldon sea salt - oh, that flakey goodness!  Yes, I am looking forward to my culinary homecoming, to be sure.

Now I have been blessed with friends who have been avid correspondents while I have been abroad in Africa.  In one way, they have not allowed me to feel lonely or out of the loop on life back home.  What a luxury to have such faithful friends to walk through this season with me, not letting me out of the reach of their love and laughter.  Some have even been doing my chores for me - bringing in my mail, depositing checks in the bank, watering my trees and pruning my plants.  What a windfall of extraordinary friends... I have been lavished with love and humbled by their myriad of kindness to me here and at home.  But I miss being able to hug my friends, to drop by unannounced with a mocha or meet for a quick lunch (or a long one, honestly).  So I am eager to return to friends unmediated by technology... so I will be wanting hugs from all of you when I do get stateside!

So I feel like I am at a pivot point - starting to prepare for home.  I am not homesick, as life here in Bujumbura is good.  But I will be ready to welcome home when Sept comes.  I know I will return to a new normal... and get to discover afresh what my life will be like in this new fall season.  I am eager to embrace the newness.

P.S. The first item on my home improvement list:  Obama sign in the front yard.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Month End

Another month has come and gone.  July was a full month for me, and I tried my best to document the high notes along the way.  But this is a summary of July's movements:
  • I traveled to Uganda for the first Amahoro Institute.  There I met up with friends from the States, friends from Kampala and some new friends from Kampala.  The time was joyful, spirited, challenging and enriching.  One particular good thing for me... english speaking country, no translation necessary!
  • Once back in Burundi, we hosted the second Amahoro Institute here in Bujumbura.  Since it is a French speaking country, Claude took the lead.  Another friend from the States traveled to participate in this time of conversation.  This friend came bearing gifts, and I am thankful for the reading material to keep me fueled up for the rest of the summer!
  • Then on the heels of one conversation I sprang into another. I flew to South Africa for the third (and final) Amahoro Institute.  This was a bit more of a stretch for me, as my flight path took me through Ethiopia...  Yes, and I had to spend the night there alone.  I was a bit frayed by the experience, and shed a few tears that first night while in transit, alone in a small guest room in the middle of an unfamiliar city.  But, with several delays and such, I did make it to Cape Town after 30+ hours in transit!  I was in constant awe of the stunning beauty of Cape Town and Stellenbosch.  I was among dear friends from start to finish (including a friend who flew from Geneva to be part of the fun).  The conversation was wonderful, with such honesty from the start.  And then there was some sight seeing - downtown Cape Town, Robben Island and other aspects of the city.  I can say that Cape Town was the most amazing place I have ever been, seriously.  I will return again, and encourage you to consider a trip to South Africa!
  • We continue to work with our Batwa friends.  We now have an NGO officially registered in Burundi.  It is called Community for Burundi, and is in partnership with our friends in TX.  We are still looking for the right land for the community development project.  But things with the committee are moving forward as we learn to work together and trust one another's intentions.  We are with some amazing leaders who love their people.
  • We attended a Batwa wedding of 153 couples - which is a huge step for the Batwa in both official recognition and reclaiming the marriage tradition.  They were so excited and we were honored to be part of the celebration.
  • We have a new house mate... Christy Jones joined us earlier in the month and is working on the Batwa project as well as assisting another NGO on the side.  She will be in Bujumbura for 9 months... a long haul!
  • Grace is flying home this week, and we will miss her sweet presence in our home.  She is returning to attend ASU.  But Africa agrees with her, and I have a feeling she will travel back here in seasons to come.  We have a few more days with her... and we plan to savor them!
  • Justin now tells me he know french very well... because he has been attending a french-speaking school all month.  I think he has his papa's linguistic abilities!  Emma's hearing aid has not been working consistently, so gaining a new language has not been for her this tie around.  But she remains joyful, unflappable and spirited as ever.  The kids squeal with delight when they see Uncle Cadeau come in the morning, when they see Senge Leonie come at the end of the day, when Senge Anna greets them after school and when Erique opens the big gate...Claude says this is not typical for Burundian kids!  But I love their excitement - their life is full of friends and family who care for them and give them reason to shout with joy!
  • Claude celebrated another birthday with quite a birthday bash!  Joseph cooked the most amazing feast ever.  There was music, dancing, laughing and jokes in different languages.
Well, it was a busy month when you put it all together like that!  It was full and good and now you know why I want to rest!  But since this is our last month here, I don't see rest as a huge family priority!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Community Wedding

A single wedding is a significant occasion in the life of a couple, but the wedding of 153 couples at once is nothing short of a societal shift!  On Saturday I witnessed such an occasion as our Batwa friends took a step toward reclaiming their tradition and stabilizing their community life.

We arrived, driving under a flowered garland arch, to the square government building.  We were greeted by singing and dancing, as if we were the honored guests!  But we have grown fond of their joyful hospitality, so we sway with their songs, stomping feet and whistles.  But then we want to move into the building and see what is afoot.  We enter the large room and find all 153 couples crammed in this room, moving two by two as they processed forward to sign their official marriage documents.  After the signing and fingerprinting (part of the Burundian civil process of documentation) comes the picture taking.  And so everyone wants to have their picture taken with the President.  (President Nkurunziza is framed, set on a chair draped with the Burundian flag, this is the backdrop of choice!)
You might notice that the brides are in bright clothes - gifts from our friends in Texas!  Each bride received a fabric for the ceremony, but she will use this as a skirt for years to come.      
Another interesting thing to note is that 100 of the couples were already living together, already with children.  Some are pregnant, many had their babies strapped to their back!  There were even a few grandmothers who were, for the day, blushing brides!
The reality is that as the Batwa people were forced from their land, many of their traditions eroded under the harsh conditions of poverty and discrimination.  Marriage was one.  So coupes would marry at night, in the dark, avoiding any community accountability.  This left women extremely vulnerable.  They would often be thrown out with no recourse, no proof of their union and now way to be protected.  Some men would take multiple wives, neglecting previous wives.  Often families would have open animosity toward one another due to the way their daughters or sisters were treated by other men.  This began to ripe the fabric of the community.  There was no family stability, no communal accountability, no provision for women if they were turned out.  That is why this massive marriage ceremony was so important in the life of this community.  This is a way to mend the fabric of this community, to bring some healing to families and some protection for women.  Making it official before the local Governor and even the President (who sent his representatives) gives them standing in the community.  But this ceremony before God and their community was even more important for a shift in this Batwa society.
This signals a shift in how they see family, how they want to treat one another, how they will relate with one another.  I hope that the children present will begin to reclaim their marriage tradition, and that they will begin to see family life in a new way.  I pray that these women will be well treated by their husbands, and now protected if the worst happens.  I hope the Batwa community is being mended in ways that matter, ways that will make them stronger.
Note:  Here is Claude surrounded by the Batwa couples.  He offered a wonderful encouragement to the couples about love that is faithful, kind and sacrifices for the other. 
When he pointed me out as his wife, the couples in the back stood up to see me.  I guess a muzungu wife is still a novelty!  These friends wanted us in their wedding pictures... which made us all laugh.  But I guess that is something distinctive, having white guests at your wedding.  Glad we could oblige... maybe it was our small way of participating in this amazing day!  Congratulations to all the happy couples!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

African all the way...

One of the great joys of the Amahoro Institute in South Africa is that all the teachers were African!  It was a great delight to be taught by friends and scholars from the African continent, with no need to bring in outside teaching assistance.  So we were really given a teaching experience that mirrored the cultural background of the group gathered - no translation or explanations necessary!  Marius Brand coordinated the event from start to finish, and he was the one who recruited  the teaching team from this event.  Many thanks to Marius for all his hard work in pulling together such a great group of both instructors and participants!

Marius, South African, who began the conversation and offered instruction on the nature of thought and how we approach learning and self-understanding.
Rob, South African, taught on theology, how we approach and understand the Story of God and what that means for us as followers in the South African context.  He was very generous, sharing what he understood of the Gospel but also allowing ample time for others in insert questions and offer commentary.
Rob and Rene, sharing some humor amid the instruction session. 
Sam, a Kenyan, taught on context and focused on the issue of poverty in South Africa.  He had everyone working on case studies and sharing their own thoughts on the apt response to poverty in their neighborhood.  His area of expertise is community development and poverty, so we were quite blessed to have him leading our conversation.
Rene, a South African, (pictured to the right) led the group through some exercises that would move us toward thoughtful praxis.  She has an intuitive sense of the room, knowing how to move us from one place to the next in terms of learning.  She did a wonderful job bringing closure to our learning time together.

This is one of the highlights from this Institute - one fully operated by our African friends.  For Claude and I, this is the ultimate dream for all the Amahoro Institutes in the future, that Africans are the primary instructors and leaders of these learning sessions.  We know that there is a depth of knowledge, wisdom and contextual understanding among our African friends that can be a great blessing to their fellow Africans.  So we are eager to create space for Africans to teach and learn together, and try our best to not get in the way!  We are already gleaning lessons learned from these African instructors (as well as those from Burundi and Uganda) and plan to shape the Amahoro Institute accordingly next season.  But I will always remember South African with a particular fondness, as they are the first to have an all African teaching team, demonstrating that they can instruct within their context with great depth, dexterity and wit!

Birthday Bash

Claude celebrated his birthday on Friday night with a roof-top party!  There were 25+ friends (Burundian, American and one Canadian) to share in the festivities.  Joseph cooked a Burundian feast, Sarah contributed the hip hop tunes and our friends (especially Ron and Alice) brought some dance flare to the floor!  It was a good time to relax, laugh and celebrate a good man!  Here are a few snapshots...

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Common Currency

I have handled a lot of various currency this summer; the Ugandan schilling, Rwandan francs, some South African Rand, Burundian francs and, awhile ago, the US dollar.  The exchange rate fluctuates with each day, each country, the movement of each market.  Some days our own currency is strong where we are, and we seem to get more than we invest.  Other days we know that we are getting the weaker end of the exchange, losing with the current climate of the markets.  But we must engage in the exchange if we intend to stay somewhere for very long, to have the ability to get what we need (or want) while visiting this new place.  So we exchange our currency when we arrive to a new country and hope for the best.

When we gathered together for the South African Institute on the first winter evening, we each came with currency in our pockets.  Not rand or dollars, but the currency of our own unique story.  We each hold this currency very close to our heart, and we are careful how we exchange it and with whom.  Our story, and as a result how we see the world, is of utmost value and something we are not eager to squander.  There is a fair bit of discernment that happens internally before we share the most true and treasured parts of our story.  No one wants to show their local currency and then get a bad exchange rate, and therefore have their own currency devalued.  So when we first arrived to this new place and encountered this new place, we have to determine how to engage in the dance of the exchange rate.

We all were gathered by our mutual friend, Marius Brand.  There is some safety in knowing him as a fixed point in our fluctuating market.  We also could guess that everyone convened cared about the future of the new South Africa and believed that Jesus has something to say on that type of transformation.  But we were an extremely diverse group, as I looked around the circle.  English and Afrikaans, Colored, Xhosa, Zulu, Xhoi Xhoi and a couple of Americans.  
What are the chances that the exchange rate among us would be good, that there would be ample stability for good interactions?  Would some trade high and others walk away with less? 
This is the risk of true conversation, when we all have our currency in our pocket and make those decisions about how volatile we perceive the market to be.  

So we began... Marius offering a word of welcome and I offering a word of context.  Next was a good conversation about... conversation.  How do we encounter others, how do we determine who we are with and what we assume about them?  What happens within us, each one of us, that allow us to share or withhold, to trust others or remain slightly suspicious.  And then he laid down the gantlet, he challenged us each to verbalize our own biases, as we looked around the room.  He asked us, in reality, to confess the things that might hinder us in connecting with the others gathered around the circle.  You can only imagine the thick silence, as we all held our currency in our hands, buried in our pockets. Will I be brave enough to say what I fear, what I assume about you, what fear that you will assume about me?

An amazing thing happened... one man did.  He pulled out the currency in his hand and showed it to us.  He told us a deeply true nugget of his story, revealing who he understood himself to be in the South African context.  And he shared how hard it would be if we were unable to validate this part of himself.  And everyone listened intently.  And then another one shared.  Then another shared.  And then... all 25 of us had shared our biases, our fears, our stories.  And we discovered there was this common currency between us, a currency that had shared value where none was diminished.  None of us left that room getting the sorry end of the exchange rate, as a matter of fact I think we each traded high.  I think when we were each brave enough to share our personal currency, our story, with the others we left with an empty pocket and a full heart.  

This first night we arrived with our currency and made the necessary exchange.  And we found that with the stellar exchange rate that night, we had more than enough for the conversations to come in the days ahead.  We cut through superficiality and went to substance, and that held true for the entire time we shared together.  This common currency created a rich environment for us to be our most honest selves with one another.  We could be open about where we came from, how we see the world, why we misunderstand each other's world... and find ways to connect with one another based on this common currency.  I often marveled a the truth-telling and honesty I witnessed that first night in South Africa.  Imagine the friendships that grow from such a night?  

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Stark Contrast

The challenge is to try and put my South African impressions into words, because word are like containers that are just too small to capture or reflect the true experience of this massive and majestic place.  But some initial words that came to mind were stunning, beautiful, vivid with color, a land of stark contrast, textured culture and a layered history that adds to the utter complexity of South Africa and the road before her and her people.

South Africa is unlike the Africa I know, and by that I mean it does not bear much resemblance to East Africa at all.  It is as if a western country grew up on the tip of the African continent.  While in Cape Town I often felt like I could easily be in a coastal town in California with all the malls, highways, and all manner of modern conveniences.  The city boasts of a rich history with relics from the original Dutch traders who first settled there, the English who later would colonize the land (and her people), even a WW1 memorial can be found in the heart of the city - showing their one-time connection to the Crown.  There are grand buildings throughout the city:  Their State House (where you've seen Mandela greet many a foreign leader and celebrity, alike), The Parliament Building, The National Art Gallery and old Slave Lodge (now another art gallery).  So as I said, I often forgot that I was in Africa.  I have yet to see a city in Africa with this level of development, honestly.  

But this is not the entire story, of coarse.  Because I have yet to share about my travels into and around the townships.  This provoked an utterly different emotion, one that can best be described as heart-wrenching.  The townships are often just out of sight, easy to miss if your eyes are on the road and do not veer.  Many seem to be miles away, conveniently distant from the daily life of the city.  This was the doing of Apartheid, keeping the Coloreds and Blacks out of sight.  But even today, even in the new South Africa, you can steer clear of the townships and never truly see how your fellow countrymen live.  But to see them is to be confronted with a harsh reality - the living conditions of the Blacks have not changed since the dark days of Apartheid.  The townships are strings of shacks and shanties, each leaning on another made of corrugated steel remnants or wood or (if you are lucky) some cinderblock.  They are small living spaces (though not livable, by humane standards), crowded together, susceptible to flooding and fires.  When the winter rains come, it is usual for 30,000 people to be displaced - each rainy season of each year.  The security is so bad in the townships that residents padlock themselves in their shacks at night.  In all of East Africa I never have seen such depravity.

The end of Apartheid ushered in 'one man, one vote' for the emerging democracy of South Africa.  Now Blacks and Coloreds can move about their own country without passbooks or obeying the rigid dictates of curfew every night.  So there is greater freedom for all, true.  But when you witness the living conditions of the townships you see that little has changed in their day to day life, and that can give rise to great frustration as the injustices of Apartheid continue to plague them.  South Africa is not done dealing with the past, not done bringing justice to all those on the edges of society, not done with the hard work of divesting privilege and wealth in order to create a more viable community for all South Africans.  This country has had one miracle (as they refer to 1994's violence-free election), but is in need of many more miraculous moments to bring true wholeness to all.  But this is work that God cares about - restoration, reconciliation, the building of viable communities for the well-being of all.  So we can have hope that God is working on the ground in South Africa.  I had the deep honor of meeting many such leaders who are part of that hope-filled work (more on them later!).  But we all have reason to continue to pray for the future of those in South Africa.

Stark contrast is the phrase that most describes my impression of South Africa.  You have breath-taking beauty and heart-wrenching poverty.  You have generations of wealth alongside generations of injustice.  There are modern cities a short drive from sub-standard housing areas.  I was staying in Stellenbosch, the wine country of South Africa, in a charming guest room of dear friends where I was warm and well-fed.  But on the drive to the airport we passed the Cape Flats, where the morning's rain was a harbinger of another displacement to come.  I found myself vacillating between awe and angst during my visit, the dissonance of this place hitting me full force and often.  This is a lot for a heart to hold, the tensions of this majestic and marred land.  But I will return here many more times, as South Africa and my friends here have made an indelible mark on my heart.  

Monday, July 28, 2008

Some promised

You cannot read this without laughing... it only makes sense in South Africa!
It is a sad commentary that this needs to be said, but in this context I am glad that these coffee shop owners made it clear...  xenophobia is not part of the new South Africa.
This seems to be true all over Africa, from Uganda to Rwanda and all the way to South Africa... Obama is taking the continent (at least) by storm!  I also noticed Obama shirts, buttons and stickers all over, worn by African and expat alike!  There seems to be an excitement growing. 

Sights & Signs in South Africa

I cannot do South Africa justice in a blog post or even a series of posts.  The country is just too stunning, to amazing, to rich to reduce to words.  But you know I will try to convey some of what I saw, felt and learned while in the New South Africa this past week.  A few photos to start... because after 2 full days in transit I really need some sleep!
This is me in South Africa.  Yes, those are PENGUINS behind me.  Did you know there are African penguins?  It was one of many delightful surprises in my week long visit.
Cape Point... the southern most tip of the African continent.  It is too vast and majestic to capture in a photo, but this is my best attempt.  It was absolutely stunning...
Robben Island, and Nelson Mandela's home for 20+ years.  This is the limestone quarry where he worked.  The monument of stones commemorates those who served here, serving time but investing in the future of their country.  One Mandela's 5th anniversary of freedom he hosted a reunion at this very place, and each former prisoner contributed a stone to mark the occasion.  
Stellenbosch is the wine country of South Africa.  This was also the home of our friends, Tielman and Elma, who hosted us in their guest house.  This is the view from our doorstep.
On the streets of Cape Town, you can find color everywhere.  Since I could not pack all the fabrics, jewelry, drums and such I wanted.... photos became a way to capture the color and creative I witnessed around almost every corner.  This is just a sample.