Hitting the Halfway Point!

12 08 2010

So, here I am at the halfway point. Five weeks ago, I was stepping off a plane in Cape Town, wandering around trying to find my ride to my room (and a bed). Five weeks from today, I will again be stepping off of a plane, setting my feet back home in Chicago. It seems like time has been moving quickly, yet I also feel like I’ve been gone for a while. However, I feel appropriately at the halfway point: I feel like I have done a good deal of what I was hoping to do, and I still feel like I need (at least) a good month to finish what I came for.

Travel-wise, I think I am starting to wear a little. It’s a little bit like approaching the middle of the 1650 freestyle at a swim meet: you know you can finish (and finish well!) but WOW, you just finished swimming half-a-mile and that’s a bit tiring!

It’s hard to live off of one suitcase and carry-on bags for ten weeks. The other day, Annette (who is travelling in Ghana on the same grant) and I were lamenting being a little tired of wearing the same outfits so frequently: when I left, I thought I had packed too much because I wanted to be prepared for a variety of weather possibilities. This turned out to be a good idea! Cape Town was cold; my first two weeks in Pietermaritzburg were almost summer-like (70-85 degrees Fahrenheit). Now the temperature has dropped again (rare in the midlands), and we are all complaining about the cold. Of course, it is nothing compared to a Chicago winter!

It is also hard being a visitor: I’m on a different schedule (and at a different school) from the guys I live with. I’m learning the basics of South African life, but I am still an outsider (as anyone who hears my American accent can tell). While I’m able to fill a lot of my free time, I’m still finding that I often have a good bit of time that I have to fill myself—and there is only so much reading I feel able to do in one day! As an introvert, it is sometimes wearing to feel like I am constantly meeting new people but rarely getting to spend a lot of time with the same people. While I’m enjoying the adventure of every day being different, I’m also missing some of the comforts and regularities of home. This is not to complain, but I don’t want the picture of my travels to seem too rosy. (But most of it, so far, has been pretty rosy!)

The biggest advantage to my accommodation in Pietermaritzburg is that I am staying with a community of students who are close to my age and share theological study interests. Since we share meals as community, this means both that I always have people to eat with and that we generally have interesting and fun conversations. Sharing common space means that I have also been able to enjoy “Holy Hour” club: the group of guys who gather to watching the evening Soapies (It’s okay if you miss mass, but you better not be late for Holy Hour!). I’ve also enjoyed going out for some outdoor recreation in the form of Ping-Pong, soccer, volleyball, and/or tennis. Having people to hang out with has helped to keep me from getting lonely.

All in all, I am having fun, and I’m glad I still have five more weeks to explore, learn, and enjoy! Keep in touch, and I can’t wait to see y’all in five weeks!


A Fully Festive Weekend

9 08 2010

This weekend, I got to join in celebrating several events. Sunday was the feast day of St. Dominic, a major event in the life of a Dominican priory; today is National Women’s Day, which is a public holiday (no classes and most stores are closed). Celebration for St. Dominic’s Day began Saturday night as I attended evening prayer after cooking dinner (one of the things I love about weekends is that we are all on our own for dinner—a little independence!). Instead of the usual brief Saturday night service, the service was extended to include a litany for St. Dominic and a renewal of vows rite for Celino, one of the brothers who was committing to another year to the order. This was a liturgical rite that I had never seen before, and I really enjoyed being able to participate in it. After Celino renewed his vows and the brothers had a chance to welcome him with a hug, the rest of us in attendance were invited to come forward and celebrate with him. Having been here for almost two weeks, I am starting to feel like a part of the community living at Emaphethelweni. After prayers, the real celebration began as “recreation” time commenced: recreation occurs every Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon featuring conversation with snacks and drinks. Though I skipped the official St. Dominic’s Mass (instead going to Scottsville Presbyterian Church), I returned in time for the post-service celebration and lunch.

Today, the country celebrated Women’s Day, my first (and only) public holiday in South Africa. August 9 is a significant date because on this date in 1956, twenty thousand women marched against apartheid pass law legislation, singing the anthem “Wathint’ abafazi, Strijdom!”

“Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, uza kufa!”

“[When] you strike the women, you strike a rock, you will be crushed!”

Overall, it’s a great holiday, particularly because of its historical significance. Also, because it is an official holiday with offices closed, it gives women’s rights discourse a spotlight. Throughout the country there have been several events and initiatives given special attention throughout the month; editorials in the paper have focused on equality and ending patriarchy. At mass tonight, Fr. Albert preached on Jesus as feminist, giving particular emphasis on equal rights for all people regardless of gender. (I have to say that I disagreed with his statement that “Jesus was the first feminist” …certainly there are plenty of feminists in the Hebrew Bible, not to mention stories of women and feminists that were never told.)

However, to some extent, I can’t help but keeping in mind the comment of one of the brothers: “Ah, Women’s Day…because every other day is men’s day.” While both the historical significance and the spotlight on women’s rights are meaningful, I can’t help but noticed what I think of as “Mother’s Day phenomenon” in the States. Women are put on the pedestal for one day, but then patriarchal values reign for the remaining 364. Women’s Day is also the day when men are supposed to cook and clean while women take the day off, thus reinforcing the idea that these tasks are traditionally done by women. While I don’t want to undermine the significance of the holiday, I do wonder what Women’s Day could look like in a future when patriarchy has been overcome.

But all in all a great holiday to conclude a fun and festive three day weekend!

Some Reflection on HIV/AIDS

6 08 2010

Many of you are probably aware that HIV and AIDS is one of the major problems faced by sub-Saharan Africa. Within South Africa, there remains a high rate of infection; for every two people who are place on Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART), there are five new cases of infection. To talk about the Bible in the context of South Africa, one must confront the realities of people living with HIV/AIDS.

During my time here, I have met with several leaders of HIV/AIDS organizations, which work to provide resources to those living with the disease and to provide information about prevention. This past week, I attended a “Theological Café” at UKZN, where Dr. Beverly Haddad spoke about her experience as a delegate to the 2010 International Conference on HIV/AIDS in Vienna, which she attended as the director of a UKZN collaborative called CHART (Collaborative for HIV and AIDS in Religion and Theology). “The vision of CHART is to increase the capacity of religious leadership in Africa through theological reflection and engagement in order to prevent and mitigates the HIV and AIDS epidemic.”

I spent yesterday in an office that works to support people living with HIV and AIDS, working with Nokuthula, who (among other things) does work with the Ujamaa Centre to use the process of Contextual Bible Study as a means of support for people living with HIV and AIDS. She told me that while many people are initially resistant to the Bible study process—often due to anger with God regarding their diagnosis—those who choose to engage with the process find new hope and new ways to talk about the disease and about their faith. Unfortunately, I will have to wait until next week to see an actual Bible study; but I did get to meet the Patient Advocates (PAs) who work with this organization. PAs make home visits to people living with HIV and AIDS (most often those considered to be VIPs [Very Important Patients], such as mothers, the elderly, children). During these visits, talk with the patients to learn how their treatment is going, to provide a listening ear, and to help patients get connected to support groups. PAs also provide assistance for patients when they have check-ups, telling them what questions they should ask of their doctors. The unfortunate truth is the, especially in poorer areas, doctors will not always give HIV/AIDS patients the most effective treatments—instead these patients may only receive medication to alleviate certain symptoms.

Dr. Haddad noted that the catchphrase at the Vienna Conference was “Treatment is Prevention.” Being on ARTs has been proven to be one of the more effective ways of preventing the spread of HIV. It also enables patients to live healthier, longer, and more active lives. One of the primary goals of the PA home visits is to encourage patients to continue taking their medications and to determine how often each patient is taking them (the goal is at least 80% of the time).

When I met with Bongi last week, she drew a comparison between treatment of diabetics and HIV/AIDS patients. As a diabetic since age four, I was struck by this comparison and how apt it is. In the past week, many of the people I am living with have asked me about my Insulin Pump, an invention they have never heard of. In the U.S., insulin pumps are generally considered medically necessary: they allow significantly better control over juvenile diabetes and help to prevent further complications of diabetes. Both diabetes and HIV/AIDS become significantly easier to manage when one is on the most advanced treatment; lack of treatment leads to complications and a much earlier death. In the first world, there is significantly better and cheaper access to treatment.

However, there is a significant lack of funding and advanced treatment for HIV/AIDS outside of the first world. Nokuthula and the PAs were noting that their work is becoming much harder because many NGOs are unable to provide the same amount of funding. As the economy has tighten, funding for HIV/AIDS treatment is decreasing. South Africa has also fallen out of international focus for HIV and AIDS relief: it is no longer considered to be in the same amount of desperate need. Southeastern Asia is now the area with the fastest growing rates of infection; in the aftermath of the World Cup, the positive image of South Africa has made it less of a target for international aid. While in many ways the positive post-World Cup image is a boost for the country, the image does ignore the economic disparity and poverty that still exists throughout South Africa.

So there is a beginning reflection on the state of HIV and AIDS in South Africa and on some of what I have seen and heard about it. There is still a lot more to say, particularly about the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, the social issues that are adding fuel to the epidemic, and the work being done by theologians and activists to combat all of these issues. (So stay tuned…and feel free to ask questions that I can perhaps address in later postings!)

Fear and the Beloved Country

3 08 2010

“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, not give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much”

The refrain of “Cry, the beloved country…” runs through Alan Paton’s 1948 book of that title. His book poignantly tells the journey of a pastor who travels to Johannesburg to find lost family only to find his only son being convicted of murder. But the book is really about fear: what fear causes people to do, how it affects everyone, and what can happen if one tries to confront one’s own fears. Paton later reflected on the above passage in his 1987 Introduction:

“This passage was written by one who indeed had loved the earth deeply, by one who had been moved when the birds of his land were singing. This passage suggests that one can love a country too deeply, and that one can be too moved by the song of a bird. It is, in fact, a passage of poetic license. It offers no suggestion as to how one can prevent these things from happening.”

Much has changed since Paton wrote his famous book. It was published at a time when racism was growing in South Africa but before the regime changing elections that ushered in apartheid. Paton died in 1992, two years before Nelson Mandela was elected president and at a time when the political landscape of the country was still in flux. However, the effects of fear that Paton reflects upon in his book still ring true in South Africa today.

I can understand Paton’s reflection; I have fallen deeply in love with South Africa from the view of Table Mountain and the blares of vuvuzelas to the dry flowing hills of Pietermaritzburg and the roosters leisurely walking along the sidewalk. Traveling alone and in a new context, however, brings its own sets of fears: getting around a city at night, calling a cab, taking the public train to Stellenbosch, picking up the phone and calling my first contact, meeting new friends, going to a new church alone. There are fewer “safety nets” to which I have grown accustomed, and sometimes it is all-too-tempting to stick to what quickly became familiar territory. This is especially the case when you read about crime in South Africa. Fortunately, the other advantage to traveling alone is that this familiar territory quickly becomes suffocating; within a day, I was ready to pick up the phone and call someone and was ready to hop a taxi and explore beyond what was close.

As my travels continue, I am very aware of my fears and the decisions I am prone to make because of them. Reading Paton’s book has helped me to become more aware of these fears and to be more willing to confront them. The results of acting solely based on fear are far too disastrous to allow fear to consume me. Paton’s description of Jo’burg made me fearful of setting foot in the city: the general idea being that Jo’burg is the city from whence no one ever returns. Pair that with the list of “DON’T’s” found in every guidebook entry on Jo’burg and I began to develop a growing fear of my three weeks in Jo’burg. But much of this fear simply has to do with the fact that Jo’burg will be my third arrival on unfamiliar turf, my third time of having to adjust to a new place. There’s a part of me that wants to go back to Cape Town, until I realize that once I settle into Jo’burg, I will probably learn to love it as much as I have grown to love Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town.

The other advantage to facing my fears has been that I have talked to others about my travels and concerns. This has been immensely helpful, especially when I was told that the area where I am staying is one of the safest. Further, people have said that while crime in Jo’burg is a larger problem, you have to always remember that most people remain safe and the majority of South Africans are good people. It’s exactly the same case as when I moved to Chicago! As long as you stay smart and keep your fear in check, everything should be fine…

Contextual Bible Study in Ladysmith

31 07 2010

Within a day of arriving in Pietermaritzburg, I started my work with the Ujamaa Centre for Contextual Biblical Studies. Having been told I would be picked up between 8:00 and 8:30, I was awake and ready to go by 8:00 though expecting to wait until 8:30. It was definitely a day of running late—or on “South African time” as it is called here. Skhumbuzo arrived at 9:00, but when we arrived to get materials at the University, he realized he’d left his memory stick at home so we had to take a detour to pick it up. By a little after 10:00, we were on the road toward Ladysmith, arriving at the small town’s library around 11:30 (the group had long been awaiting our arrival). The transition from Pietermaritzburg to the rural area of Ladysmith marked my first encounter with the poverty in which many South Africans live. It was a huge contrast to the life I had seen in Cape Town; the houses are small, most about the size of one bedroom. They are generally made with mud and many have straw roofs. When I met with Bongi Zengele, who coordinates the Solidarity Program for People Living with HIV/AIDS of the Ujamaa centre, she told me that this poverty is the reality of many South Africans and that there has not been a fair redistribution of resources in the years after liberation. While many of these homes have electricity and television, the people who live in them want real houses.

So, we had arrived (late) in the meeting room of the town’s small library where a group of fifteen had been waiting for us: there were four women and the rest were men. Though I was the only person who did not speak Zulu (the language in which the workshop was conducted since not everyone here could speak English), it was still a great experience. We started with introductions, and I was invited to introduce myself in English and have what I said summarized to the group. This was the first time that this particular group was meeting, so the main goal of the meeting was to explain what contextual Bible study is and to conduct a needs assessment of the group. The Ujamaa Centre does not want to simply impose themselves or their methods onto a group; instead they want to promote an organic theology that the participants themselves develop through their engagement with their community and the Bible. After the introductions and a lengthy explanation from the Ujamaa staff, the group read from Exodus 3:7-10:

Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’

Skhumbuzo used this text to introduce a model of Seeing (God observes the Isrealite’s suffering); Judging (God does not approve of this); and Acting (God will deliver God’s people). This becomes a way of engaging with the problems faced by a community.

After lunch, things got more interesting (it becomes hard to follow one person speaking in a different language): they broke into three small groups in order to answer questions revolving around the church communities to which they belonged: where is your church; describe it; what it its biggest problem; how does this relate to the larger community; is this a political, economic, social, or religious problem? After the groups discussed, they came back together to share their conversations. There seemed to be some confusion with the process at this point, but Skhumbuzo followed up each response with clarifying questions. Sometimes, this produced a good deal of laughter. Everyone seemed very engaged with the process and excited to come back for the next meeting in a month.

On the drive home, Skhumbuzo told me that in the third group (during which I had sensed the most confusion) the church members had been described as being “outside the community” but that when someone from the church died the community would give them space and welcome for a funeral. They then said that their biggest problem was not having their own building, and when Skhumbuzo asked Why?, they had replied that they needed a space to hold funerals. The laughter had occurred because they had just said they had been given spaces to hold funerals: so why was this a major problem?!

Overall, Skhumbuzo was excited about this group, saying that they had already made good connections between the roles of the church, community, and society. I had sense a good deal of excitement in the group; they seemed eager to participate and share their ideas, even at points when I detected confusion. I’m not sure I will get to interact with this group again, but it was good to start my time here by seeing the beginning of the process. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this process progresses and makes further connections with Bible study.

A Whirlwind Welcome to Pietermaritzburg!

29 07 2010

My time in Cape Town came to an end on Monday, when I boarded a plane bound for Durban, a large city on the East Coast. From Durban I took a shuttle (it arrived an hour and a half late!) to the Emaphethelweni Dominican House of Pietermaritzburg. Arriving in Pietermaritzburg was a huge shift from Cape Town: the first thing I noticed was the temperature difference—it’s much warmer here (about 70 degrees)! It’s also much dryer: winter is the wet season on the west coast and the dry season on the east coast. But the biggest change is moving from a big city to a small town: there is no longer a “Western” feel here, which is in many ways a welcome change: I feel like I am getting a true South African experience. I’m also staying with the Dominican brothers, which means I am getting to interact with students, many of whom have grown up in South Africa. It’s been a bit of an adjustment, but I feel like I am definitely getting what I came here for.

And that extends to my project as well! Within thirty minutes of my arrival, Dr. Gerald West came by to welcome me, give me some general details, and walk me around the campus. “You’ve come at a great time,” he told me, “because everything is just starting back up after the break.” He told me that thee should be lots to do and that if I ever found myself bored to just prod him or other staff members. Then, he introduced me to Skhumbuzo Zuma, who works with the Ujamaa Centre for Contextual Bible Study and is a student/staff at UKZN (University of KwaZulu-Natal); the next day, when Dr. West would depart for a conference in Germany, I would be going out with Skhumbuzo to observe a Contextual Bible Study in action. Things seemed off to a great start! [More on this to come!]

Dr. West then gave me a tour of the campus, showing me the library and eventually arriving at the home of the Theology faculty. As we walked, we ran into several students and staff members to whom I was introduced. Dr. West also suggested several classes that I could sit in on while I am here so that I can see how the work of Contextual Bible Study also makes its way into the classroom. I must admit that when I left Cape Town, I was somewhat apprehensive about having enough to do in Pietermaritzburg, but I felt welcomed with open arms. It was clear that there was a lot going on and plenty of things for me to do while I am here. Perhaps my excitement can best be summed up by one of the faculty members I met: “You’re only here for a month? That’s no time at all!” It was a relieving comment to hear after having the thought going through my head: “I’m staying in one new place for a whole month.”

So, I’m excited about the month to come. I’m really enjoying getting to know the brothers at the house, and I am slowly adjusting to the new pace of life. Moving from one city to another is difficult—especially when going from somewhere big (with lots to do outside of research) to somewhere much quieter. I had a slight moment of homesickness the other day, after returning from a busy day of Contextual Bible Study. It mainly revolved around my food situation: we had hot dogs and fried chicken for lunch, hardly vegetarian fare. So, I came home hungry and tired with the realization that I had no idea if dinner would be any better: at Emaphethelweni, all of our meals are prepared. This is nice because I can eat with a community, but it’s difficult for someone who has grown accustomed to planning and preparing his own meals. But, I am getting vegetarian options prepared to accompany my meals here, and now that I am operating on a fuller stomach, I have a bright and excited outlook for the month to come!

But on that note, do keep in touch. My internet is slower here (probably meaning no photo uploads), but I love hearing from you all!

Going to Church

24 07 2010

My experiences attending worship services have been diverse and interesting.

Best photo I could take of the Old Lutheran Church

On my first Sunday, I decided to attend a morning service at the Old Evangelical Lutheran Church (nearby and English speaking) and evensong at St. George’s Cathedral. To briefly interject here, I had been warned that one of my biggest difficulties with attending church services would be the language barrier because many services are not conducted in English. This may have been one of my biggest surprises/adjustments to life in South Africa: though almost everyone speaks English (and it is the lingua franca in terms of business), most people do not speak English as their first or primary language. This means that on the street or in a coffee shop, it is usually the case that most conversations are not in English. None of the church services I have attended have used printed orders of worship: bulletins contain information about weekly events, but the service is conducted orally (“Now we will sing…”). Hymnals usually do not contain music, only the lyrics to the songs; the Presbyterian church I went to used overheads for music.

My most interesting reflections have come from the sermons I heard preached. I was surprised by the sermon at the Lutheran Church, as the older pastor had seemed quite genial at the start of the service. The congregation was small (the pastor blamed the cold weather and the World Cup final) but seemingly diverse.

In front of St. George's Cathedral

The sermon, which used Romans 6 as a starting point (and only as a starting point) was about how we are all sinful and need to avoid the (undefined) demands of the flesh. Eventually, he spoke about how Jesus died for our sins. Throughout the sermon, he threw in a lot of Bible references, and I was quickly lost in exactly where the sermon started and where it was trying to go. In some ways, the sermon seemed too simple, and I could not help but wonder if every sermon he preaches had this same message since it was not particularly tied to the original passage. The sermon felt very distant, like he was preaching from a script that he had to use. I was forced to call to mind how last year I was told to be conscious of how I adopt a “preacher voice” in the pulpit: I think this pastor did this to an extreme. He never seemed to speak as himself, from his own experience, using his own voice.

The service at St. George’s was more formal and Anglican, but the sermon was also in my opinion lacking.

St. George's Cathedral

It seemed to flutter and again I got lost and eventually distracted by the vuvuzelas blasting in the background in preparation for the final game. The preacher did say something that caught my attention: people often quote scripture as the “word of God” but they lift the words out of context. He then said that the word of God must be read and found in context. The evensong sermon the following week was about the healing of the paralytic in Mark and spoke about interruptions; overall, it seemed to stick closer to this text and also took into account specific situations such as the World Cup and xenophobia.

Perhaps I have a Presbyterian bias, but I think my best worship experience was this past Sunday morning at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, a member of the Uniting Presbyterian Church (which has a partnering relationship with the PC(USA)). The crowd was diverse, and on the whole, there seemed to be a greater number of younger people in the congregation. A common practice seems to be giving testimonies, which are similar to a testimony back in the States (I think) with perhaps a slightly less evangelical edge to them. This story was about a young man’s experience going with his boss to the Germany vs. Argentina game and being the only person in his group cheering for Germany. What I was most struck by was that he asked us all to move to the front pews at the end of the testimony, which we did. It was definitely a much more communal experience of worship when we were all invited to sit together.

In the courtyard in front of the church (I didn't snap a photo of the church)

I was particularly excited that the pastor was a woman because I had been given the impression in my first few meetings that it was very rare to find female pastors. I really enjoyed her sermon, which felt similar to what I am used to hearing in the States. She referred to both C.S. Lewis and Walter Bruggeman, and her sermon stuck to the texts that we had read—mainly focusing on Genesis 18 and the story of the messengers announcing visiting Sarah and Abraham. She made references to personal experiences and to the spirit in South Africa during the World Cup. She focused mainly on the hopelessness of Abraham and Sarah and about the need to trust in God’s promises.

So, overall, I’ve been to several churches (more tomorrow: I will go to St. George’s in the morning for a full service with Eucharist).

St. Mary's Cathedral (Catholic)

People have been friendly: I was encouraged to return at every church and was even formally welcomed at the Lutheran church (they had a parishioner who must have been specifically assigned to greet visitors, find out where they are from, and report to the pastor!). Each experience has been different, which is helping me to slowly paint a picture of the church in South Africa; and this is giving me a window into biblical interpretation in this sphere.