Heart Ripples

Through My Eyes: 10 Things to Love and Learn in South Africa

 

Through My Eyes

“Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.”

Khalil Gibran

1. Languages

I love that South Africa is referred to as “The Rainbow Nation.” The cultural diversity in this country rivals that of America. There is one difference though; the diversity here is mostly indigenous! Each indigenous tribe practices its own customs, and speaks entirely different languages. Add the Afrikaners, English, Indian, and Chinese populations, and immigrants from various African countries (to name a few) and you’ve got a rainbow of culture under one South African sky.

The nation has 11 official languages, reduced from the former 13. There are many more unofficial languages. Within one language, there can be multiple dialects with such variousness that they can be interpreted as distinct languages all their own.

Where I live, in Limpopo province, I have encountered 8  languages: Sipedi, isiNdebele, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Shangaan, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. This means that I can travel an hour away from my home and find that the language I’ve worked so hard to speak (Tshivenda), is not understood. It is rare that other people outside the Venda culture speak Tshivenda, as most natives claim it is the most difficult language to learn. On occasion, you will find people who are fluent in multiple tribal languages. In my 10 months in country, such encounters have been sparse.

I can greet in multiple languages, but am only mildly conversational in Sipedi, and minimally fluent in Tshivenda. English was introduced as the medium for cross-cultural communication, but I’ve mostly encountered fluent English speakers outside of the rural communities in which I work.

Storytelling in isiZulu at the Human Rights Festival by Alliance Francaise de Durban. The day's festivities also included French entertainment and food and performances by acts from throughout the African continent.   This was also the venue of my chance meeting with the Ambassador of Switzerland (unfortunately I was dressed only in a swim suit at the time).

Storytelling in isiZulu at the Human Rights Day Festival by Alliance Francaise de Durban. This was also the venue of my chance meeting with the Ambassador of Switzerland (unfortunately I was dressed only in a swim suit at the time).

In the province of KwaZulu-Natal, which houses the city of Durban, isiZulu is spoken. When I hear isiZulu I melt- especially when the men speak it! It is melodic and powerful and delights me in more ways than one.

Shangaan language incorporates sounds like whistling through the teeth, and reminds me of birds singing in the morning.

IsiXhosa is the language of Eastern Cape, and Nelson Mandela’s mother tongue. It is the language of clicks, and its music could make foreign bystanders move to dancing!

The variety of languages presents some obvious challenges for the nation. In my own work, I have experienced some of these challenges. It is easy for meanings to become skewed or lost in translation. Additionally, progress is a slower process than when communicating with American colleagues in the conference room of a sky scraper back home.

There is one consistency I’ve observed in my cross-cultural communications: Energy is a Universal Language! Enthusiasm, Belief, Positivity, Confidence, Compassion – all transmit frequencies to which other humans, as bodies of energy themselves, are innately receptive. It is amazing that in some of my victories no words were even needed. What a lesson for someone who loves to talk!

To learn more about South African languages, visit this link:

 http://www.southafrica.info/about/people/language.htm#.U1on-TX8K1s

2. Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, “Tata Madiba, Father of the Nation” epitomizes transcendence. His past includes the practice of the non-violent resistance methods of Mahatma Gandhi. However, Madiba eventually took to arms to combat the heavy restrictions placed upon blacks by the Apartheid’s Nationalist Party. These violent measures resulted in the loss of many civilian lives and ultimately led him to a fate of 27 years imprisonment. During that time, Mandela used his isolation as a temple for spiritual and moral nourishment. He shed resentment and anger which had limited him in his previous efforts for an equal South Africa. In 1990, Mandela was granted freedom, and emerged from isolation not only as a free man, but a free spirit. Through peaceful negotiations, Mandela would successfully advocate for the end of Apartheid. In 1994, he became the first democratically elected president of the new nation.

“No one is born hating…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

-Nelson Mandela

On December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela ended his tour on planet Earth. I madiba newspaperwas in South Africa’s capital city of Pretoria on the night of his death announcement. An hour after the announcement, I was in conversation with a black South African man, aged 30. I will never forget my surprise as the man said to me:

“I am glad our father has passed now. Now we can move on from the reminder of Apartheid. We can quit living back then in our minds. It is over. It is all over.”

The morning after Mandela’s death announcement, a group of my fellow volunteers walked to the Union Building in Pretoria. When we arrived, we found a group of people marching, dancing, and repeating the famous anti-Apartheid cry, “Amandla! Awethu!” (isiXhosa/isiZulu expression meaning, “Power! To the People!”). The group was a unified mix of blacks and whites who had gathered to celebrate the great works of the nation’s lost father.

Blacks and whites unified at the Union Building on the morning after Madiba's death announcement.

Blacks and whites unified at the Union Building on the morning after Madiba’s death announcement.

I choked back tears as I sounded along with group, “Amandla! Awethu! Power! To the People!” Here I was standing on the ground which Nelson Mandela stood 20 years prior and he gave his inaugural speech as the president of a nation in the infancy of democracy. It was surreal. The

Union Building. Pretoria, South Africa. Site of Nelson Mandela's inaugural speech as president of South Africa.

Union Building. Pretoria, South Africa. Site of Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech as president of South Africa.

effervescence of honor accompanied my mind’s echo of the words from that famous speech; the speech I had recited two months prior at our swear-in ceremony as official members of the United States Peace Corps South Africa project:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our

United States Peace Corps swear-in ceremony as the 28th group of volunteers working in South Africa.

United States Peace Corps South Africa swear-in ceremony, September 2013.

 

darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

                  -Marianne Williamson

The day after Mandela’s death, orders from the US Embassy required that all Peace Corps volunteers evacuate and abstain from travel to South Africa’s capital cities (of which there are three: Pretoria, Cape Town, and Bloemfontein), and Johannesburg, where memorial services would be taking place. Following orders, I booked a bus from Pretoria back to my home in Limpopo. On the bus, an elderly white woman sat next to me with a newspaper in her hand.

The woman’s hand stroked the front page of the newspaper; a picture of Father Madiba. Moments later, tears streamed down her face. “Are you okay?” I tried to console.

She lamented, “It’s just… Our father. He is gone. He was our leader. Our role model. Blacks, whites….he was a father to us all!”

3. Animals

free roaming lion

 

 

 

 

 

Contrary to popular belief of folks not from Africa, I do not walk through village neighborhoods alongside zebras and elephants. Most of the wild game runs freely on private game reserves and in national parks. However, my colleagues who live in more remote parts of South Africa commonly encounter hippos during their trips to nearby rivers in which villagers wash their laundry.

Where I live, cattle and goats roam freely, often presenting hazards as the

Tzaneen, Limpopo, South Africa. At a conference, this monkey and his friends teamed up to steal our sandwiches during tea time outside the conference hall.

Magoebaskloof, Limpopo, South Africa. At a conference, this monkey and his friends teamed up to steal our sandwiches during tea time outside the conference hall.

taxis race down the rocky mountain roads. It is not unusual to see mule-drawn carts transporting the locals to their nearby farms. I always encounter monkeys and baboons during my voyages through the Venda mountains to my nearby town. When staying at nearby camps, it is an absolute requirement to keep the windows locked and the food stored away to prevent being ransacked by hungry monkeys and sneaky honey badgers!

I have been lucky enough to spend a great deal of time roaming with the

Blyde River Canyon Lodge, Mpumalanga, South Africa

Blyde River Canyon Lodge, Mpumalanga, South Africa

wild things! I recently stayed at Blyde River Canyon Lodge, at the world’s third largest canyon. It is renowned as one of the most stunning and spiritual places on the planet. A local shaman says one of the nearby mountains of the Drakensberg Mountain Range is where God lived when he created the world. The energy of the place is electrifying, and after three days there I felt a sense of ethereal connectedness that I haven’t yet been able to describe in words. Each morning, I awoke bright eyed and bushy tailed, and as I drew open my curtains and exited my room, I was greeted by wild zebra. Near Blyde River Canyon is the land of Timbavati, which is home to the mysterious white lion, which only appeared in nature in 1970! There is a movement to save the white lions as they have become nearly extinct since their discovery just over 40 years ago. Their existence is still a perplexing mystery to nature experts worldwide.

(For more information on the mystery of the white lion, please visit this website: http://www.whitelion.org)

Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

The most thrilling experience of my South African life was a week stay at Thorny Bush Game Reserve, bordering Kruger National Park. I am told that people can travel to Kruger and never see Africa’s Big 5: Rhino, Elephant, Lion, Buffalo, Leopard. At Thorny Bush, I stayed with locals who are friends of the owner of a private camp. The front yard of our lodge was the natural habitat of Africa’s Big 5. I recall one night, on which I stood in the darkness, sending a message on my cell phone. I heard a loud exhale and rustling just a few meters away from me. I hurried to fetch a spot light and was astounded at what I saw! An entire herd of elephant were eating on our lawn! That night, after cleaning up the ruins of a honey badger’s intrusion into our kitchen, I fell asleep to the sound of lions roaring in the distance.

Africa's Big Elephant. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

Africa’s Big Elephant. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

 

During our safaris at Thorny Bush, I observed lions mating, was nearly

Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

Africa’s Big Lion. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

scared out of my dress by a large rhino sighting, laughed as I watched buffalo wallow in the mud, and had become so accustomed to hanging out with giraffes that they seemed as common as domestic pets.

The most astonishing event of the week was when we suddenly stopped our safari vehicle for the sound of

Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

Africa’s Big Buffalo. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

an oncoming stampede. Elephants bustled past us, trumpeting furiously. We followed them into the bush. Suddenly, we began to see large tree tops swaying in the distance. “They’re excited!” said our guide, “This is very unusual behavior.” One by one, I watched tree tops disappear as the mad elephants uprooted them and trampled them down. Later, our guide stopped the vehicle to examine elephant excrement, in which she found traces of marula fruit. It is believed that the marula fruit has intoxicating properties to which the wild elephant behavior is commonly attributed.

Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

Africa’s Big Rhino. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

 

Africa's Big Rhino. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

Africa’s Big Rhino. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

 

As common as a house pet in the African wild!

As common as a house pet in the African wild!

 

On safari, we spotted this mother cheetah with 5 cubs. It is extremely rare to see more than 3 cubs as once as they are the prey of other animal gods of wild.

On safari, we spotted this mother cheetah with 5 cubs. It is extremely rare to see more than 3 cubs as once as they are the prey of other animal gods of wild.

On our last safari, we stopped at dusk for a drink. After finishing up our cocktails and laughing about the drunken elephants, we set out for adventure again. We’d been searching for a leopard all week, but to no avail. We rode into the night as my friends told me they had been visiting Thorny Bush for 43 years and had never witnessed the animal behavior we had seen in just those few days. Suddenly, our driver began to speed around corners. The only thing lighting our way through the wild of Africa’s bushveldt was our two small headlights and a sky full of stars. The wind excited me as it ripped through my hair, and I was feeling some intoxicating properties of my own previous cocktail. We wondered, “why is our guide driving so furiously?” I laughed about it being our final joy ride of the week, and then suddenly we came to a halt. We sat in darkness, and I could only hear whispers from our guide situated two seats in front of me. Slowly, we crept around a corner, and found ourselves positioned atop a hill overlooking a dry river bed.

“There she is…” I heard someone whisper. A member of our crew turned on his spotlight, and shone the light into the river bed. Seductive eyes of a big kitty cat peered back at us. Casual, cool, and undisturbed by our presence, the leopard lie alone in the rocky terrain.

Her quiet contentment emanated a lesson of independence and a value of solitude- a lesson that I’ve come to cherish most in life after venturing into the African wild alone.

Africa's Big Leopard. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

Africa’s Big Leopard. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga

 

 4. Ubuntu

I like to think of myself and my fellow Americans as warm and welcoming people. The truth is, in even the most hospitable of households back home, we Americans are simply outdone by South Africans. As one of the Peace Corps goals is to enlighten Americans as to the traditions and ideals of other nations, upon my return to the US, I aim to instill a higher commitment to hospitality in my American counterparts. I also challenge myself to exhibit that commitment in my own behavior.

As a visitor in South Africa, it is unacceptable to visit the home of natives without joining them for a meal. This is true across the spectrum of cultures; I have visited with friends from various tribes, Afrikaners, English and Scottish South Africans, and beyond. Even in some of the poorest parts of the country, families have happily served their only morsels of food, sometimes consisting only of porridge.  To decline food is an absolute insult to the host. This has resulted in an ongoing fluctuation of my weight as South Africans love bread, meat, and starchy vegetables. While these are foods I had mostly avoided back in the US, my personal preferences aren’t worth offending the overly affable cooks in my host country. I’ve learned to roll with the changes; loving myself 20 pounds heavier and 20 pounds lighter; I’m still me just the same. I never thought such a day would come when I could be comfortable in my own skin with such plumpness underneath.

The hospitality goes beyond meal time. Natives want to ensure your safety, show you around to local landmarks, help you map out your journeys, keep your glass of brandy always full, and will even arrange drivers to escort you from point A to point B. These gestures are not something I feel like I had to earn, they were invitations extended to me upon initial meetings!

I recall an adventure in Durban that delighted me. I was leaving a restaurant on the pier, and was stopped by a happy group of people my age who were hyped up on cocktails. After being introduced to everyone in the crew, it was decided a private driver would escort us to a local reggae club. When we arrived at the club, the driver, Max, escorted us inside, brought us our drinks from the bar, remained sober while swinging and dipping me along to the beats, and then drove us safely home. Max is a Zulu man in his 50s, and I felt protected in his presence. The next time I was in Durban, I asked the concierge of the place I was staying to call me a private taxi. Twenty minutes later, my ride arrived. A man in his 50s stepped out of the car with a huge smile.

“Max!” I exclaimed. I gave him a big hug. My friend and I told Max we wanted to find a nice jazz club for the night. Not only did Max drive us there, but he accompanied us inside, gave us a tour of the venue, asked if it was to our liking, introduced us to the staff, and even joined us in dancing in between his trips to accommodate other folks who were venturing out for the night.

When my friend and I decided  we wanted to journey to another venue with some folks we met, Max refused. “No, it is time to go home,” he said. “It is late, and you aren’t from here. You are going home.”

I felt like my father had just spoken, and I told my new friends, “I’m sorry, I can’t go. Father won’t let me.”

On the way home, Max explained his reasons for making his decision had been out of protection for us as foreigners in his country. I asked him why he cared so much- he could have ended his night and returned home to his family upon our request to stay out. He told me, “It’s ubuntu.”

Ubuntu is an African concept which has many meanings. One interpretation is, “I am because we are.” It implies a strong humanitarian sense and protection of your fellow man. I had heard the term many times before, but honestly considered it a lost concept in the hard knock world of Africa. Max proved to me that the spirit of ubuntu is alive and well. My friend and I then nicknamed Max, “Durban Dad.” To which Max responded, “No, no. Durban Dude.”

Another friend of mine from Durban venerates ubuntu poetically,

“Without ubuntu life is nothing. Ubuntu is like purified water.”

5. Butterflies

In Africa, there is never a time of year in which butterflies are not adorning the open air with their colors. On days that the mind weighs heavy with challenges to overcome, a cloud of butterflies can swirl around me, bringing me fully into the present moment.

My mind stops churning as I smile in wonder and adoration. Concerns dissolve and my attention is brought fully into the Now- the space of clarity, simplicity, and pure potential.

The butterfly’s reminder: Patience and Process. It is a reminder that things get better when we take our time. In life, as in nature, there is a season for everything. The culmination of a revolution requires a certain ripeness of all people, ideas, and resources involved.

As a visionary, I tend to see the fruits of my labor before the labor even begins. This is how I know what I am pulled to do in my life. Having visions among foreign cultures and foreign languages could mean I’m only a dreamer- unless I embrace the patience required for Doing. It seems counterintuitive to some, “How does one Wait and Do?” It is this simple:

Keep the Vision.

See the people and events unfolding perfectly, and wait for the elements of the vision to reveal themselves to you in the present.

This means that the vision lives and breathes in my every breath. It is a life force all its own; it has its own energy.

Feeling the vision means that I am always aware that at any moment, the right person or resource can present itself, and because I’ve been waiting for just that, I am prepared to act when the time arises.

A caterpillar doesn’t stress about becoming a butterfly.

It just does.  

A security officer in the village shopping center startled me when I looked up from inspecting this fallen butterfly. He was confused by my odd behavior, and my Whiteness in this region of  South Africa. I explained to him that butterflies are symbolic...for Change.

A security officer in the village shopping center startled me when I looked up from inspecting this fallen butterfly. He was confused by my odd behavior, and my Whiteness in this region of
South Africa. I explained to him that butterflies are symbolic…for Change.

6. The Symphony

No, I have yet to enjoy a symphony or musical in South Africa, though it is a pressing to-do. For my birthday, I’ve promised to take myself out for an evening of proper theatre. For now,  a symphony of insects sings me to sleep each night and fills me with love as I am stirred from my sleep in the wee hours of the morning; voices whispering in my ear, “Wake up, Amanda. Write it all down.”

My heart beats in tune as the roar of insects exhibit nature at its finest; intrinsic perfection by simple being! It is a reminder that I am in the midst of being my own orchestra; honing in on opportunities of the Now, connecting on a real level with people who coincidentally enter my life, as Higher Purpose artfully weaves them into a grand composition for the betterment of South Africa and beyond. Nature can be such a motivator!

This also reminds me of a message on a bottle cap of Magic Hat beer I drank just a few weeks before moving to South Africa:

“Be your own orchestra”

Two beers I drank prior to that one had caps which read:

“The world needs your deeds”

“You need to write more”

you need to write

My last symphony. My favorite artist, Trey Anastasio, of Phish, performed with the National Symphony at the JFK Center for Performing Arts in Washington DC just weeks before my Peace Corps departure. As Washington DC was the city that birthed my Peace Corps decision, and JFK was the founder of the Peace Corps program, this was the perfect Blast Off!

JFK Center for Performing Arts, Washington DC         Six weeks before my Peace Corps departure, my favorite artist, Trey Anastasio, of Phish, performed with the National Symphony Orchestra. As Washington DC was the city that birthed my Peace Corps decision, and JFK was the founder of the Peace Corps program, this was the perfect Blast Off!

Trey Anastasio with the National Symphony Orchestra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Burlap Sack and Pumps"  Sporting the appropriate look to complement those famous Trey lyrics! The burlap sack and leopard pumps were my first fun adaptation to African fashion in preparation for the journey ahead

“Burlap Sack and Pumps”
Sporting the appropriate look to complement those famous Trey lyrics! The burlap sack and leopard pumps were my first fun adaptation to Africa inspired fashion in preparation for the journey ahead

JFK Center for Performing Arts. Washington DC

JFK Center for Performing Arts. Washington DC

Recently, when unpacking a suit case, I found another one of those bottle caps. I don’t remember it from before, but I’ve never encountered Magic Hat in South Africa, so I know the cap followed me from home. It reads:

“Peel off your skin to see we’re all kin”

The number of times that message has centered me as the only white female in rowdy South African village! I like to describe such perfectly timed synchronous happenings as “orchestral coincidence.”

 

7. The Kekana Family 

This Sepedi and isiNdebele speaking family hosted me for my initial two months in South Africa. They are the quintessential family! Despite having worked during the Apartheid for a white woman who wouldn’t allow her to sit in the same room as her, Koko (Sipedi term for “granny”) welcomed me with open arms. She is a wise and strong woman responsible for gaining British sponsorship to establish the first creche (pre-school) in her village. She taught me lessons about the power of love and forgiveness which helped me transcend some of my own personal limitations, thus changing my life.

Koko’s husband is a retired church deacon. I was grateful to attend his retirement party. At the function, I visited from one guest to the next learning about the great works of Mr. Kekana. Stories included a testimonial from a physically disabled man who wasn’t allowed access to schools on account of his condition. Mr. Kekana led a victorious fight for the man’s right to education. Years later, the man recalls how his life was forever changed thanks to Deacon Kekana.

 

Me and Mr. Kekana. In the Kekana house, it was common to have conversations in 5 different languages happening at once (isiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Tshivenda, and English). This is an effect of family heritage and Africa's blend of cultures.

Me with Mr. Kekana. In the Kekana house, it was common to have conversations in 5  languages happening at once (isiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Tshivenda, and English). This is an effect of family heritage and Africa’s blend of cultures.

 

Their daughter, Rachel, is the most selfless person I know. In defiance of her demands as an educator, single mother, and caregiver, she always makes time to check on me and ensure my safety when travelling back for visits. And she never misses an opportunity to get a crowd rolling in laughter! Her son, Pope is a  musical genius on the djembe drum and performed with a Peace Corps volunteer at our host family farewell function.

I have had enlightening conversations with with all of the brothers, sisters, cousins, and even young children of the Kekana family. Cousin Alfred may well be a future leader of South Africa. His inquisitive mind has made him a sponge for knowledge, and he grasps concepts of great social and moral magnitude with such grace that I can hardly believe he was only 15 when we met!

Me and Koko. I am wearing traditional isiNdebele clothing, made by Koko.

Me and Koko. I am wearing traditional isiNdebele clothing, made by Koko.

 

Back in September, I departed from the Kekanas for my permanent work site. After a night of dinner, toasts, singing, dancing, and spontaneous erupts of “Amanda! Awethu!’ (a play on my name, discussed in previous posts), the family would see me off. To my surprise, the entire family arrived on the morning of my departure. They thanked me and prayed for my safety. Just as I thought it was time for goodbye, each member, including the cousins, scurried to their cars and pick-up trucks (carrying multitudes of family members in the truck beds), and launched a convoy to my departure point. As I stepped out of the car to wait for the Peace Corps van to fetch me along the dirt road, I began to swell with love. Each member of the family exited their vehicles and began dancing and singing songs of praise which serenaded me until I was packed into the Peace Corps van and their images faded in the distance. The last thing I heard before landing in Venda was the sound of Koko’s whistle she blew with triumph as I rode away to my new life.

 

 

Kekana family seeing me off as Peace Corps vehicle pulls away, taking me to my permanent work site. A caravan of family accompanied me as I travelled to my departure location; literally everyone and their cousin, blowing whistles and singing praises as I drive away to begin my newest new chapter.

Kekana family seeing me off as Peace Corps vehicle pulls away, taking me to my permanent work site. A caravan of family accompanied to my departure location; literally everyone and their cousin, blowing whistles and singing praises as I rode away to begin my new chapter.

8. The Youth

The glow in their eyes when you reveal to them that they meet all of the requirements for greatness. The spark you can literally see catch fire when they feel inspired!

During my first school visit in South Africa, secondary school youths were told they could ask questions about me as an American. Their immediate response to this welcome was:

“What is your deepest fear?” 

What can you not live without?”

At that same school, I noticed a carving in a student’s desk which read:

“There are many challenges in life. Being happy is not one of them.”

The youth are like old souls that have been here before. They work harder

than most adults I know as they care for younger siblings, fetch water from rivers, haul wood in wheel barrows, wash their laundry by hand, plant their food, and boil water for their bucket baths.

Meet Promise, one of the shining lights happily planting seeds in the organic food garden at Ekurhuleni Orphan Center, a Seeds of Light project. www.seedsoflight.org-orphancenter

Meet Promise, one of the shining lights happily planting seeds in the organic food garden at Ekurhuleni Orphan Center, a Seeds of Light project. http://www.seedsoflight.org-orphancenter

In the US, I would sometimes hear the complaint, “Look at all this work I do without a thank you or show of appreciation!”

Folks, I am talking about 10 year olds who don’t have a choice but to work  this hard for survival, and many of them are not even hugged-even if they do have parents at home. In the US, kids are often put on a pedestal; the source of pride and center of adoration. In rural South Africa, kids are commonly treated as inferiors. Even when they have proper families, it is customary that kids eat last at dinner.

I remember being upset about late arrivals for my Saturday youth empowerment workshops. My Peace Corps supervisor shed some light on this for me. I was recently moved to a developed township near the school at which I volunteer. The roads are paved, I have a functioning shower, and the houses in the neighborhood rival those in the wealthy suburbs of America. Things are different here. A few kilometers away, however, there is a lack of water, a lack of food, and no roads. This is from where my group of youths are coming. I learned that the youths wanted so badly to attend my workshops, but didn’t know how to negotiate the time with respect to their Saturday work duties of securing food, water, and clean clothes for their families.

The amazing thing is that, in many cases, the youth is undeterred by their work  load. Day after day, they arrive at school, open minded, eager to learn, and beyond grateful to receive my praise and encouragement. Hugs are now on demand since my recent hugging flash mob.

Love Lights of Ekurhuleni Orphan Center applying their new skills in permaculture

Love Lights of Ekurhuleni Orphan Center applying their new skills in permaculture

My friend, Barbara, inspired the idea. “Amanda, think about when you were young. At night, your mother bathed you, put you in pajamas, and hugged you. These kids don’t have pajamas. And there is no one to hug them.”

There are exceptions-not all youths are orphaned, but a vast percentage are. Most of them live in poverty, and all are required to carry out these “adult-like” duties before starting the day, or enjoying free time (for many free time doesn’t exist). School, and my Saturday workshops, are a get-away for them.

They also Get Life. They are awakening to the truth that health, safety, and a future to desire is in their hands. Twenty years after becoming a free country, South Africa is plagued by domestic abuse (this includes spousal, children, and rape; the nation leads the world in reported rape crimes, though only 7% of reports end in conviction- a legacy of cultural acceptance and gender inequality perpetuates the horror), poverty, disease (highest HIV prevalence rate in the world), and lack of resources. Together, we are diffusing fear.

There is a Nelson Mandela in embryo in each one of them, and the more they are reminded of that, the more empowered they feel, and the more convicted in cause they become. There is nothing more satisfying than to watch a young person become aware of their own power! Well, yes there is; watching them conceive plans to tap into that power for a higher good.

Since I began working with this group I’ve watched their aspirations shift from wanting to be famous and having nice cars and flashy phones like the Americans they see on television (yes, despite poverty, nearly every South African household has a functioning television-I will write later about the most popular shows and the lack of positive role models available to the youth. I will say that many of their idols are American stars that glorify fame and money and exhibit zero social responsibility or even awareness of life outside the bubble of narcissism). Now, the youth is anxious to demonstrate leadership within their community.

A course in becoming our own heroes

A course in becoming our own heroes

When a majority of the group decided they wanted to help others who don’t have access to food, I asked them how they could do it. Their first suggestion was to give food to the hungry. I was real with them. I insisted our plan must be something we can and will do. How can we give what we don’t have?

I then shared the story of “give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish…” Their eyes lit up with sparks when they learned that by teaching, they could help others eat for a lifetime.

I committed to coordinating known leaders from the community to train the youths in permaculture, a sustainable gardening technique which requires minimal resources. Its benefits include food security, income generation, and household cost reduction. When I attended a leadership forum this month with two world renowned development pioneers, I learned that the facilitators trained a group of people one week prior in permaculture; coincidentally, the trainees are from my region in Limpopo. A Divine Plan at Work.

The ladies of my Takalani Empowerment Project

The ladies of my Takalani Empowerment Project

This is a culture where the youth is scolded and often beaten by educators and family members. Corporal punishment is now illegal in South Africa, but remains ubiquitous in schools throughout the country. For those of you who believe, “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child,” I am talking about beatings with pipes, hoses, and sticks, and being grabbed and twisted by body parts for offenses such as not being able to read. And then we wonder why South Africa is perhaps the most violent country in the world which is not at war. Positive reinforcement is such a foreign concept that educators at conferences and even the majority of callers to news radio programs will beg, “If we don’t beat them, how will we control them?”

I’m not saying I have all the answers, but my Siyabonga persists at excelling in his academic performance, participation, and enthusiasm since the one day I saw him drawing in class as I lectured. Most teachers would have punished him-some by extreme measures. Instead, I praised his drawing talent. The young man doesn’t have a mother or father at home to take an interest in him or pat him on the back. The fact that I noticed him, and acknowledged his worth created a strong unspoken bond between us. It is one of those relationships that hardly requires words. The love is palpable, the mutual respect is real, and the results are quantitative. He went from a non-performing student to a top performing student in one week. That thing about Energy being universal, well, it’s real. Love happens to transmit the highest frequency of all. I get to experience the truth of this everyday.

Gentlemen of the Takalani Empowerment Project

Gentlemen of the Takalani Empowerment Project

I’ve been asked by numerous people who follow my writing, “Amanda, what or who inspires you?”

Here in South Africa, it’s the youth! I’d be nothing without them. That word, “ubuntu,” I fully understand now. Feeling ubuntu through experience is the only way to truly taste its nectar.

I shared the story of Siyabonga with a teacher I recently met when she asked me how I get the children to behave.

“Oh, wow!” she shrieked. “I’ve never tried that!”

“Yes,” I reply, “when you take stop and praise them, it will startle them. They will be shocked! They aren’t used to it. Isn’t it that some of them have no one to notice them?”

“Yes, it’s true,” she agrees.

“When you notice them, they will feel respected. Then they will respect you. They will want to please you. Siya even wrote a paper about how he wants to make Amanda happy.”

She shrieks again, ‘Oh, wow! Oh! Wow!”

“Yes, it is love,” I affirm.

Our paths home diverge, and as she walks in the other direction, I turn around and stop her. I look her square in the eyes as our faces hover inches apart. “They won’t fear you. They will respect you. It is different. And it works,” I exhort.

We stand in silence for a few moments and I let her feel the energy of my Conviction.

“I’m going to try it!” she excites. “I will use it tomorrow!” she laughs and shrills with ethusiasm as she walks up the road to her home.

Last week I experienced my happiest moment while with the youth. After a discussion on leadership, the youth came to a consensus that being in a leadership role does not mean that you will make good decisions for others. Good decisions are a choice regardless of your societal status or prescribed role. I prompted the group to complete the following statement:

“When I am a leader, I will do these three things…”

I was overcome with joy when the youth’s responses demonstrated not only an awareness of community need, but a tangible passion to meet those needs. After the session, three girls scurried to my desk positioned under a tree on the school yard.

“Amanda. When will the people come to show us how to help people grow food?” Tshililo, an 11 year old girl asks.

“I made a phone call today. We will try to arrange in 2 weeks, but I am not sure yet,” I respond.

“What if the people we want to help will not let us help them?” she asks. A legitimate question. I have had to answer this question from within myself as part of my own work here in South Africa. At age 11, this young woman knows people.

“Then we find someone who wants our help!” I assure her.

“Ok. But Amanda, we want to help someone today!” Tshililo and her two friends, Lucia and Ndivhuwo chime in.

“You do!?” a surge of love and gratitude runs through my veins. I get chills

Young leaders of South Africa

Young leaders of South Africa

and I can feel the moisture trying to surface from my tear ducts. A part of me- the mind-piece which challenges and doubts the purity that exists in the world had wondered if I would ever be able to instill a passion for service in others. Here, Now, the day had come. “Do you know what you want to do for someone today?” 

To my fancy, Tshililo immediately fires back, “Yes, I want to help someone read and write.”

Lucia and Ndivhuwo chime in, “Yes! Yes!”

Who do you want to help read and write?” I ask.

Each of the three girls instantly offer names of struggling learners in the Grade 7 English class that they want to help. It is as if they had been thinking about this for some time.

I lean forward and look each of them in the eyes. My hand rests on Tshililo’s shoulder and her exotic eyes look lovingly into mine. She wears a half smirk as if she knows what she’s just done to me- nearly bringing me to my knees, my heart beats harmony as my soul performs a victory dance. “Ladies…” I push back tears, “You just made me the happiest person today. I am so proud of you! You are amazing!”

We make a plan, and I float in a love bubble as I observe them carrying out their goals during the next class.

Wow. How did our goals as a group shift from popularity and flashy objects to helping someone else right Now…”today“!? The days of wondering if I am teaching these ‘kids’ anything ARE over. I can feel the credence erupt as we affirm in our Saturday workshops:

“Ndi vhu matshelo ha Afrika Tshi Phembe!”

“I am the future of South Africa”

“What happens to my country is up to me!!!”

To view a 4 second video of our Saturday workshops, follow this link:

https://scontent-a-cdg.xx.fbcdn.net/hvideo-ash3/v/t43.1792-2/1922551_10152305211922464_929884760_n.mp4?oh=2a23ff61ec0f64116d4fd201b375efa8&oe=535EBE83

9. Durban

Durban is a port city in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. After being in South Africa for a few months, I found myself in the midst of the month long end- of-year holiday between December and January. I had zero interest in visiting Durban, as I foolishly assumed it would offer me no more than surfers and sand. I was completely wrong.

I ended up in Durban last January when other travel plans fell through. Within my first 24 hours of touring, I had been engaged in some of the most profound conversations of my life, I received my first Japanese language lesson (all of which I forget), blindly walked into a parade of traditional Zulu dancers, met multiple writers, stumbled upon a two-story art studio and mingled with the artists, meditated to the sound of the Indian ocean, and was surprised by what I can only assume was an instinctive discovery of a historic South Africa jazz club, home to some of the most prolific jazz musicians of the previous decades!

Durban!

Durban!

 

Durban has become my home away from home. My productivity and sanity while in South Africa rely partly on a commitment to rejuvenation of mind, body, and spirit. Durban provides all of these things for me. I am free to solo silent disco down the beach front, and free from the judgements of traditional tribal elders of the village which create a constant conscientiousness in my daily life.

Durban!

Durban!

 

Having discovered an air and water show during my last visit, I paraded down the entire stretch of sand along the ocean as I watched jets perform tricks in the sky above me. In my ears were the loud sounds of Phish’s new Wingsuit album. In my mind, I planned all the next moves for my development work, as my body boogied along to the words, “It’s time to put your wingsuit on.” Considered odd, or not, I was the personification of Soulshine! The only bystander that interrupted my bliss was a man, with the polite request:

“Excuse me Miss, can you spare a Rainbow?”

Wingsuit! Durban!

Wingsuit! Durban!

Moyo's Pier, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Where genius stirs.

Moyo’s Pier, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Where genius stirs.

Moyo’s pier is the new house of the rising sun for me as I sit and organize people, events, and ideas in a plan for Revolution Evolution Africa. During my last visit for The Time of the Writer Festival, I spent many nights in conversation with peers from the Zulu tribe which included writers, entrepreneurs, developers, and researchers. These folks have become more than my friends-they will be my professional counterparts well beyond my Peace Corps service. One of these amazing people gifted me with a shirt from his very own clothing line.

Our Talking T-shirts, my friend's clothing line.

Our Talking T-shirts, my friend’s clothing line.

 

10. The Wild

Modjadiskloof. Site of the world's largest Baobab tree.

Modjadiskloof. Site of the world’s largest Baobab tree.

Africa is The Wild in as many ways as any one thing can be anything. Recently, I confided in a South African friend about some reservations regarding the environment in which I live. His exact response was,“Stay tough, little lady. It’s Africa. That’s the only way you survive.”

In Afrikaans, there is a common saying, “Afrika is nie vir sissies, nie,” meaning, “Africa is not for sissies.”

It is true. What I share in my posts is only a small glimpse of life here. Someday, long after I depart from Peace Corps service in rural South Africa, perhaps I will publish more details about the day- to- day risks of living here. To maintain my vitality and enthusiasm, and to deter folks back home from incessant worry, I now choose to keep those details my lonesome secret.

There is one thing about this country that cleanses my mind and heart even on the most disheartening of days: the pristine landscapes of Africa’s wild.

When I am confounded by contradictions of value within a single value system, when I am beside myself over the apathetic attitudes which perpetuate some of the most heinous violations of humanity, when I wonder if I have reached my threshold for tolerance of aversion, adversity, and single mindedness, when I question whether a revolution of consciousness is possible in a world whose leaders embody egoism and disorder, the lay of South Africa’s land baptizes me, and I become whole again.

Mpumalanga near God's Window

Mpumalanga near God’s Window

Peering out from a mountaintop, I see birds flock together. I see the roots of some of the oldest trees on the planet twist and curve in defiance of the changing foundation beneath them. I learn again, and again, that one day long ago, before we were men with egos and women of vanity, we were free. Africa’s wild makes me aware; it makes me remember my truest essence: I am a free spirit, bound by nothing. And we are free spirits swimming the boundless seas of potential. As I continue to communicate with the world through the energy of love, we will together remember who we are; we will twist and curve in the defiance of a changing world, and stand bold and strong and Pristine.

 

 

Blyde River Canyon, Mpumalanga

Blyde River Canyon, Mpumalanga

 

 

 

Thank you, Africa! 

revolutionary

Disclaimer: The content on this webpage is mine personally and does not reflect the opinions or positions of the US Peace Corps or US Government.

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We Can Be Heroes

We Can Be Heroes

The youths agree, “a hero is someone who helps or saves others because he/she cares for people.”

When asked them to name one person who is a hero, the response was, “the hero is me!”

Thus began a session on developing plans to utilize each member’s unique skills and talents to contribute to a community need. Brilliant!

Africa. I am Free.

Africa. You pulled me.

For my edges once curled- pieces of wholeness hid within.

The familiar, the comfort, the predictable, once the prison of my soul,

How could there be empathy locked within a prism of the known?

Africa. You pulled me. Now it is We.

 

Africa. You stretched me.

For my mind once reaching- lessons once and twice learned,

I’d been there, I’d done that, Oh! A mind needs more,

How could there be vision along roads traveled before?

As if you knew you’d teach me, you stretched me.

Africa. You stretched me. Now I see.

 

Africa. You blessed me.

For my passions once yearning- space, time, and harmony,

The distractions, the illusions, the material mundane,

How could there be liberty trapped within delusions of safe?

As if you believed in me, you blessed me.

Africa. You blessed me. Now I am Free!

 

 

 

&nbs

Attunement and the Art of Fearlessness

"Amanda, "To the People!"

“Amanda, “To the People!”

 

 

South Africa Peace Corps Update Months 8 and 9
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
 -Nelson Mandela
The look in his eyes is calm intensity. I can sense thrill beyond the windows to the mind-space, where it vibrates with still vigor. He meditates his next careful move.
I watch him. I feign calmness to reciprocate his composure. Am I fooling him? I can’t be sure, but a mask of confidence may create the illusion I’ll need to hide the uncertainty within. So I do it. I feign and study the game pieces, anticipating all the ways my next move can lead to failure.   I cannot remember how those chess games of childhood’s past ever ended. My dear brother seems to think we always gave one another an equal challenge.
  Recently a friend photographed me tip-toeing my way between life-sized black and white chess pieces. When sharing the photo with family and friends, I added a caption to reveal my current state of mind; “Carefully planning the next moves for the Takalani Empowerment Project.”   My brother, Jesse Daniel, responded by stating, “It looks like you are the queen in a giant game of chess.” I admitted I hadn’t thought so creatively about the photo. However, what I realized moments later would become the new season of my life –
Attunement and the Art of Fearlessness.
***
None of it matters. I know this down to my core as I push open the front door of my home. The sultry air within the walls has had all day to grow hotter and hotter under my tin roof. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve stepped into this hot bake oven after a long day, there is always a part of me that forgets the discomfort.
During that walk up the mountain in the afternoon sun, as beads of sweat drip down my chest and my hair becomes matted and wet, as I wonder if I’ve applied enough SPF 90 to protect my skin from the unforgiving sun of the Southern Hemisphere, as I push along the incline while balancing bags of books on either shoulder, as I decline propositions from interested men, as I return smiles and answer questions of curious children, as I remember to stop, bow, and greet elders who cross my path, there is a part of me, in the back of my mind, which thinks I am on my way to comfort-a place where I can lay it all down and let it all go. The truth hits me in the face as I walk into a room which is barely breathable.
Immediately, I remind myself of my fortune. Other volunteers would love to have the amount of space that I have. Not a day goes by that I don’t express gratitude for my accommodation. However, those gratitude exercises are serving aspects of my life and my flow in the universe which have no effect on the temperature of Northern Limpopo. So, gratitude in tact, the truth remains that in all of this space there isn’t a comfortable place for me to dwell for now. One could hope for rain to cool things down, but don’t hope too much, for the heavy rains create more work.
No, there’s little relaxation involved in moving furniture, finding enough towels, pots and buckets to prevent the loss of valuables and ensure a dry spot to sleep, or sit. I walk inside, and affirm, “Home Sweet Home.”
I place my bags on the floor and replace my free arms with large water jugs. I walk across the yard, the sun still tormenting my skin, and turn on the outdoor tap (my Peace Corps colleagues would tell you the outdoor tap is a luxury). I fill the five liter jugs. I carry two in each hand back to my house. I repeat this exercise a second and sometimes third time. I have only had a water outage twice since arriving (again nothing compared to my counterparts) but want to be prepared. In this heat, one needs a full water filter, water on reserve, and enough to cook, bathe, and clean.
On occasion, the mind-piece which compares, judges, and sometimes creates pain from life’s situations, will activate. “What would my mother or my friends think if they saw me in these conditions?” I throw it away as soon as the chatter arises. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters.Upon release, I scan my home and my mind, asking myself how I can create the most comfortable environment right now, within the discomfort, so that my energy is free to thrive. What steps can I take right now to create harmony from disharmony? And if none of this matters, what does matter? As I deflect my attention from the heat, images of children dance in my head; one in particular, Siyabonga.
  The young man is age 12. He wrote an essay about what he does after school:
“I fetch my sister from creche (pre-school). I go home. I fetch water. I feed my plants. I pick plants for dinner. I boil water. I cook food for me and my sister. I go to play soccer. I come home. I boil bath water for me and my sister. After I bath, I do my homeworks, I pray. I go to sleep.”
   I think of Siyabonga often. Many times I dream about him. At first he seemed outgoing and confident. Then, one day I talked with the youth groups about their families.     I learned Siyabonga does not have a mother or father at home. He stays with his grandmother who doesn’t seem able to fill the roles of a conventional mother or nanny as I am accustomed to relating to in the US. After sharing his circumstances with me that day, something changed. I don’t know if it was my response, or perhaps Siya just felt vulnerable-like his social mask of confidence had been torn away, leaving him raw and exposed. It concerned me to see his lightheartedness seem to disappear. I noticed him being disengaged during classes. He was not alert to the class activities, but always working on something in his notebook. Walking around the stuffy classroom of nearly fifty kids on another day of sweltering heat, I looked over his shoulder. He was drawing.
     I’ve seen students (referred to as “learners” in South Africa until they study at university) receive lectures, scolding, and punishment for drawing during sessions. I decided about a month ago that I would not be taking that approach. I’m a believer that it is the quality of my attention which can create a “good” or “bad” from a situation. If I control the quality of my attention-what I attune to- then, and only then, am I fulfilling my responsibilities as prescribed by life. So, I lean over until he feels my presence. His eyes look up at me. Those pretty, squinty brown eyes that look more tired by the day look into mine. At first I feel his anxiety as he anticipates a scolding. When I look back at him and smile, he settles in his chair with a look of confusion. I point to his drawing as our eyes stay locked. I lean closer and tell him, “You are really good at that.” His confusion withers and I feel him at ease, and maybe even pleased. I turn and walk away, continuing my session on what the English word, “purpose,” means.
   The next time I collected class work, I noted Siyabonga’s participation in class had increased, that he was completing all of the assigned work, and that he is actually quite good at writing English, despite living in an exclusive Tshivenda speaking home. As it is my goal to see a leader in everyone, despite strengths, weaknesses, personality types, or behavioral factors, I keep a profile of all my kids. I note various details about them so I can attune my attention to their specific and complex attributes as individuals. Once someone begins to climb out of the shell and reveal a little light to me, I write “LEADER” atop their profile. This indicates to me that we’ve identified areas to hone and build upon. I wrote Siya a personal note in his book, just as I had done for all the others before and after him. I praised his work- even his drawings- and let him know I believe he is a leader. I knew he was awaiting my feedback. I had watched him the day before excitedly await the return of his notebook as I passed back some of the others. “Tomorrow,” I told him as I smiled inwardly at his enthusiasm.
   Two days later, I held an empowerment workshop for the group. It was my second successful workshop as part of my Takalani Empowerment Project. “Takalani” is a Tshivenda term meaning, “be happy.” While it is the name I am commonly referred to as within my community, it has taken its proper place as the name of my project. The name reminds me of my first school visit in South Africa.     I sat in a student’s desk while observing class at a rural school in Mpumalanga. My attention drifted to the carvings in the wooden desk. The first carving I read said, “There are many challenges in life. Being happy is not one of them.” I was taken back when I saw it. Here I was on the property of a school where children lack shoes, proper food, and even parents, and some young shining light carved this! Several weeks later, I would receive the name Takalani. However, because I am keen on my individuality, I still introduce myself as Amanda. I’ve sacrificed so much of my culture. Please, let me keep my name.
Amanda is often mistaken for “Amandla” however, which is an isiXhosa term meaning “power” (isiXhosa is the language of the Xhosa tribe of the Eastern Cape, and also the mother tongue of the late Nelson Mandela). So sometimes I am “Amanda”, often “Amandla,” and more often I am playfully referred to as “Amanda Awethu.” Awethu is an isiXhosa term meaning “To the people!” During the Apartheid regime, opposition groups would shout, “Amandla! Awethu!” at their gatherings. The evolution of my name to “Amanda Awethu” has fostered a deeper meaning for me regarding my purpose in South Africa.
  My parents named me after an American country western song by Don Williams. Imagine my surprise when South African natives began singing the words to me, “Amanda, light of my life. Fate should have made you a gentleman’s wife.” Never in my wildest expectations had I dreamed of country western music being alive and thriving in South Africa. It is actually quite popular here. I can recall the neighbors of my former host family regularly blasting Dolly Parton. I’d swell with warmth as the sound of her voice conjured fond memories of my late grandmother, Lulu (what were the chances of feeling so close to home, so far from home?). A brother of that host family surprised me further one day by stating, “Amanda. Worthy of Love.” He had investigated the meaning of my name because South African names often have significant meanings themselves.   Thus, Amanda Awethu, or “Worthy of Love. To the people.”   In fact, my intent here is to instill a sense of self worth in the people I serve. However, I hadn’t thought about the name correlation at all until I came across a note I wrote on the inside cover of a small pocket journal, “For to teach self love, One must Be self love.” Amanda Awethu. It could not have been planned better unless by God Himself.
Back at the Empowerment Workshop, I began my session with some yoga to get the group livened up and separated from whatever concerns or troubles they may be carrying with them. One child in attendance was nine year old, Awle.     Awle is suspected of having HIV. I am currently building a relationship with his father to guide them in a decision making process which can lead to proper diagnosis and treatment. I must be cautious in my approach however. The father is very traditional and has been known to completely shut down when confronted with the concern over his son’s health. It was only five years ago that he buried his wife. She was age 27. She had symptoms that were described by Awle’s father as “allergies.” The allergies progressed into a large mass on the side of her head. Traditionalists, the family did not seek assistance from physicians, but attempted to remove the mass at home. She died one week later.
People with AIDS often develop large masses on the head and throughout the body. The growth is referred to Kaposi Sarcoma, an AIDS related cancer. According to his father, Awle has the same “allergies” as his mother. Awle’s full Venda name means “rest in peace.” (At this point in the reading, I’d like you to take a few moments, pray for Awle, and send all the hope you can muster for this delicate situation).
     As we move through yoga poses, I encourage smiles from the group. “And we smile at the sky. And we say, ‘I love you, life!’”     “I love you life!” The voices of nearly thirty participating children ignite my spirit. I stand there, my own smile to the sky, my eyes taking in the sunlight reflecting off the green leaves dangling from the tree branches above. “I love you life!” their voices sound again, and I can hear their smiles. A surge of love runs through me. It enters me from nature’s light shining overhead, and from the sound of those voices surrounding me. We become childlike in unison. For this moment we are suspended in carefreeness, and the harshness of our environment cannot touch us. We are Fearless, if only for now.

"For this moment we are suspended in carefreeness, and the harshness of our environment cannot touch us. We are Fearless, if only for now."

“For this moment we are suspended in carefreeness, and the harshness of our environment cannot touch us. We are Fearless, if only for now.”

 The workshop opens with a recap of information we discussed during the week. Staggering truths about the health and safety of the Limpopo province present a wake-up call to these youths for perhaps the first time in their lives. It is not an easy thing to do, but if I don’t tell them, who will?
  In Limpopo, 17% of the population is documented as HIV positive. This figure cannot account for those individuals who choose not to get tested. In my personal experience, I have learned that the number of people who choose not to know must be high. I have conversed with many women who are a few years younger than me. “It’s too scary. I’d rather not know,” they tell me. The older populations are even more averse to finding out. The idea of prevention, intervention, and simple regard for others’ lives whom they may infect seems to have never occurred to them. This is especially sad as in 2014, early detection, proper medication, sound living habits, ample monitoring, and safe sex can mean a typical and comfortable life span for an HIV or AIDS patient, with minimal chance of further spreading the disease. Somewhere in the psyche of these communities, a link is missing. Is it an absolute lack of value for human life? Before gaining the courage to investigate the answer to my burning questions directly from the community, I gathered data from other experiences.
   Taxi ride or roller coaster? The public transport options in South Africa are commonly referred to by the locals as “death traps.” In fact, when I tell locals that my transport option as a Peace Corps Volunteer is a public taxi, their faces actually lose color and you could hear a pin drop. These vans seat about 12-16 “legally,” and usually don’t depart for any destination until that number nears 20; this may or may not include the children and babies which bounce on the laps of the elders who look after them. The sight of a child’s car seat would likely mystify the rural populations as much as an UFO sighting. The only seat belt available is in the front passenger seat, which I plea for every time I find it necessary to take the taxi (lucky for me, I have met many locals who are always willing to provide me with a lift when possible).
    My first taxi ride alone resulted in the passenger side mirror breaking off as my driver collided with the taxi van in front of us. The glass shattered through my open window and landed in my lap and in my hair. The driver was in a hurry to weasel his way through the thick traffic which had accumulated due to an auto accident ahead of us on the windy, mountainous, N-1 through Venda. I prayed for dear life for a safe arrival after negotiating with myself over the perils of continuing the ride, hitchhiking (prohibited by Peace Corps), or exiting the taxi and seeking help. I was new to Venda. There was no one I could call at the time.
    Traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in South Africa. Every Saturday, at least one person I know attends a funeral of someone in their community. Losing a head of household means increased poverty on the home front, fewer meals, and even fewer medical consults. Despite this disorder, people still refuse to get tested for HIV, and the babies bouncing on the laps of community elders will grow up looking at car safety belts as foreign objects. In nature, scientists observe that chaos brings about evolution. In rural South Africa, I sometimes wonder if I’ve transmuted worlds.
  From my chaotic experiences within the taxis, how can I evolve? What can I attune to to advance from these scary situations? I can challenge myself to increase my fluency in Tshivenda so that my safety talks are better received. I can work with local media on safety campaigns. When using attunement as a tool, there are no limits. And when seeing through spectacles of potential, one can effectively channel the right energy to the right places.
  Craving understanding about the community’s value of life, I decided to learn more from the people within the culture. I could stew about my first-hand frustrations, or I could release them to the Universe, and attune to the fact that some new stimulus is needed for evolution, and that I am not afraid to be that stimulus. I am already here, aren’t I? Let me then be used to the fullest of my capacity. I’ll not come this far and leave purpose out of the equation at any moment. My project counterpart became a vehicle for some progress in the unlayering of the issue.
     Mr. Hope told me he presented our goals to some key community members, including the school faculty. He said that most people seemed to shut down when he explained part of our efforts would center on HIV in the community. “They didn’t even want to hear it, “ he told me somberly.
   “The whole world knows though, Hope! It is not like it is a secret! They can choose not to talk about it, the truth remains; South Africa has the highest number of HIV infected people in the world!” I am firm and unwavering in our intent. By my watch, as long as I am here, departed from my culture, comfort, and safety, the issue will remain in the spotlight.
Whatever reasons for the community to avert their attention from the HIV/AIDS crisis, I know it is based in fear. But fear of what? What could be scarier than the death sentence of untreated illness? What could be so frightening that inaction takes precedence over the available choice of life? Another man from the Venda region would give me insight into the confounding attitudes about HIV.
  I met him a couple weeks ago. A cancelled phone call with a coincidental acquaintance from the past led me to a glass of wine at the lodge where I was staying. Seated next to me was Fulufhelo, whose name coincidentally translates to “Hope” in the English language. Fulu inquired about my Tshivenda fluency and thus began the explanation of my purpose in Venda (the region of Limpopo in which I serve, inhabited by the indigenous Vhavenda tribe). He was curious about why an educated and professionally apt woman from the US would choose this kind of work over the abundance of options available to me. I explained further, and then Fulu shared his story with me.
    In perfect English he explained that he had come from a privileged background, his father being an owner of a professional South African football team (soccer). He resides with his wife and kids in the city a few hours away from the Venda region. He and a group of peers are venturing into entrepreneurship, but want to do something which compels more than their purse strings. Fulu shared, “Someone asked me recently, what is my purpose? What is the one thing I could wake up and happily do each day without thinking about the money? I couldn’t answer it.”
 We continued talking, and I shared with Fulu about the resistance I’d encountered during my recruiting efforts for project counterparts from within the community. “It seems there is a lack of sense of social obligation,” I told him. “People aren’t seeing a better South Africa is satisfactory reward. Many cannot understand why I would ask them to do something without receiving money for it.”
"Johannesburg’s notorious Old Fort Prison Complex, where thousands of ordinary people, who wanted only equality for all mankind, were brutally beaten.  Many of South Africa’s political activists, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu were detained here. Where is South Africa's sense of social responsibility now that freedom has been won? What would these former activists say about the current prevailing attitudes about social justice and service?

“Johannesburg’s notorious Old Fort Prison Complex, where thousands of ordinary people, who wanted only equality for all mankind, were brutally beaten. Many of South Africa’s political activists, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu were detained here. Where is South Africa’s sense of social responsibility now that freedom has been won? What would these former activists say about the current prevailing attitudes about social justice and service?

Fulu suggested that I may encounter less of these attitudes if I approach financially thriving youths (age 25-35) rather than those out of college seeking employment. This is not an easy undertaking however, as 46% of Limpopo is unemployed. However, I thanked Fulu for his brilliant contribution, and for pointing my compass in a new direction. I was grateful for his input; freshly attuned with my gift of new Hope.
    The following day, Fulu provided me with a ride to the school for the second workshop with the youth. On the ride over, it was decided that I would soon deliver an empowerment session to his network of peers. All of them are financially sound and have an understanding for social responsibility. Some of them are working and developing projects of their own within nearby communities. I told Fulu about my recent interaction with the program manager of Operation Hope.     I met the program manager at a Peace Corps training funded by PEPFAR (The US President’s Emergency Action Plan for AIDS Relief). The two-day intensive illustrated the process of ensuring sustainability of the volunteer’s project.
  Operation Hope pairs aspiring entrepreneurs with professional mentors to bring their ideas to fruition. The core goals are increase in jobs, improved economy, and community building. Fulufhelo, “Hope,” agreed that it would be a good idea for me to introduce him and his peers to Operation Hope.
To my surprise, Fulu decided he would stay to observe the workshop.   During the session, we discussed the work of Nelson Mandela. The group agreed Mandela, like Jesus, performed his great work simply because he cared for others; nothing forced them to heroism- they were driven by love and vision. We agreed that a hero can be anyone who helps or saves
others simply because they care for people. In fact, anyone in our group could reach hero status. Their eyes twinkled at this discovery!
Next, we discussed the youth’s feelings about statistics of disease and crime in Limpopo. Having vowed never to assume a leadership initiative from a root of fear, I decided to shift the group’s focus to the joys of performing good works. We collaborated on a vision for a healthy and safe South Africa. We made plans to use our unique skills and talents to perform a good work in the community. One young leader, Azwi, said she would use her speaking skills to talk to people about HIV. Her plan included gaining the support and resources this would require. She even made a list of organizations she would contact. It was brilliant- never mind that she is 13! The next day, a synchronous occurrence affirmed it a good approach to first acknowledge grim realities, then attune our attention to progressive outcomes, while creating a positively charged atmosphere as we developed plans for our future.
     I stood in front of Mr. G’s book shelf positioned in the corner of the sitting room of his home. He and I met September 2013. I had just read an article about the plight of the honeybee.
The article discussed the bee’s role as pollinators of a majority of the world’s food sources. Colonies of bees continue to collapse at rapid rates, creating a threat to the availability of sustenance for the human race. The article provided one explanation for colony collapse. It is fact that bees attune to the earth’s electromagnetic field (EM field) to navigate from their pollinating work back to their hives. The bees also rely on the earth’s vibratory rate to maintain their vitality and efficacy in the ecosystem. Bees’ receptivity to the information and cues stored in these forces of nature (EM field and vibrations) allow them to fulfill their intrinsic purpose. The higher purpose, unbeknownst to the bees, is keeping the human race alive. (What if amidst all of the busy-ness of human endeavors there is also a grander and more mysterious purpose of our existence?).
  The article suggested that increased industrialization and technology use have compromised the bees’ receptivity of the electromagnetic field, and the earth’s vibration. There is a suggested interference with the bees’ attunement to the once perfect guidance of nature. After reading the article, I took a trip to my nearby town.
  During my voyage around town, I stopped at a used book stand. I stood before the stand, inhaled, and exhaled deeply. I asked the Universe (or God- remember these are interchangeable terms for the same force, explored further in my book) to guide me. “Show me what I need to know,” I whispered. I walk to the stand, skim the titles, and then there it was. My hand rested on a book with bees forming the shape of a heart on the front cover. On the back cover, I learn the book is about a woman writer and a venture in traditional healing in South Africa. I purchase the book.
The next day, I attended a conference back at the nearby lodge. After the sessions, I ventured to the lounge for a drink. A handsome man drinking gin and tonic noticed my American accent and sparked up conversation. After explaining my purpose in South Africa, I asked Mr. G. about his own endeavors. “I’m a bee keeper,” he said. “I own a business. I transport bees to various farms so they can pollinate. In the off seasons, the bees make honey we sell to local restaurants and grocers.”     I reached into my purse and remove the book I’d bought the day prior. I place it on the bar. He looks down at the book. He cracks a smile. We laugh at the coincidence. I then opened up to him about the book I’m writing about my adventures in inner peace, outer peace, and world peace, and my keenness for synchronicities which seem to guide my endeavors. He then agreed to interviews regarding the attunement of bees to the earth’s energy field (many other bee coincidences before had revealed the need for this research to me). This would become the beginning of a great friendship which gave me insight into the connectedness of all things in the universe.
 Having gone to a racially integrated, rural South African school, Mr. G. would also provide perspective on the challenges I face as part of my assignment.   So, on that Sunday after the second empowerment workshop, I stood in front if Mr. G’s book shelf. I once again asked the Universe to guide me to the right book. Mr. G. and I had just been discussing my approach to overcoming adversity and resistance from the community in order to spawn evolution toward healthier living behaviors. He did not however offer a recommendation, and stated, “I haven’t read any of those books in years. They’re all random finds at a used book stand.”   My eyes skimmed for a moment, and then I made a selection. I opened to a random page. The first words I read were:
   “The non decreasing behavior of a black hole’s area was very reminiscent behavior of a physical quantity called entropy, which measures the degree of disorder within a system. It is a matter of common experience that disorder will tend to increase if things are left to themselves. One can create order out of disorder, but that requires expenditure of effort or energy available.
“…The positive energy of the outgoing radiation would be balanced by a flow of negative energy particles into the black hole” (Stephen Hawking. A Brief History of Time).  
When I read these words, I instantly drew a correlation to my strategy as stimulus for evolution within my host community. Attunement as a discipline can keep my energy free and focused on the creation of order within a disorderly system. Just like with Siyabonga; when choosing to focus on his talent rather than his seeming defiance of my efforts in class that day, something changed. With little effort, the positive energy poured into him that day, balanced by the negative energy being completely tossed aside, sparked a positive response. No energy was expended by placing attention on aspects of the situation which could have been perceived as negative. No time was wasted on scolding or punishing, just a little time spent in praise, and within days, he proved a top performing student. This was real life proof that what I read in the book from Mr. G.’s shelf was very relevant. As I reread the words, “the positive energy of the outgoing radiation would be balanced by a flow of negative energy particles into the black hole,” a memory of another day of coincidence came to mind.
   It was April 27, 2013 (what is known as Freedom Day in South Africa-which I only discovered recently). I was sitting under a tree listening to the sound of Lake Michigan. I had just resigned from my job in preparation for six weeks of travel and farewells to family and friends leading up to Peace Corps departure. I decided to spend this particular day alone, saying goodbye to one of my favorite places in my beloved Chicago-the place I’d called home for the past several years. I journaled about some of my last moments at the lake with some very special people. I finished my journal entry and began walking home. As I neared Belmont Harbor, I received a phone call from a dear friend.
    I picked up the phone and sensed distress on the other end. I decided it was best for me to have a seat on the nearby bench to continue the conversation away from the rush hour noise. My suggestion to bring peace and clarity to my friend was meditation. It was apparent he needed to re-attune himself, releasing pain and negatively charged energy, and focusing on the opportunities presented by the situation. I urged the importance of being free from beliefs which only bound and limited his growth. I was able to provide such insight because I’d spent a year undergoing a similar process. He told me he would try the suggested meditation and we ended our call. When the line went dead, I noticed some graffiti on the pavement situated about 12 feet in front of the bench on which I sat. “LIVE FREE,” it read.
April 27, 2013, known in South Africa as "Freedom Day." Photo taken at Belmont Harbor, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Photo taken April 27, 2013 at Belmont Harbor, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Coincidentally, April 27 is known as “Freedom Day” in South Africa, which I only discovered after moving here.

“What a perfect conclusion to the phone call,” I thought, as I continued home.
   I walked down Belmont Avenue on this busy day in the city, but was not attuned to the people or the traffic. The sun was shining, the weather was warm, and I was grateful to see new life budding on tree branches after a long winter. Soon it would be summer- Chicago summer, how I would miss it! But, as long as I had that moment, I would take in as much of the summer-like day as I could. Suddenly, I saw a beautiful woman weave her way through crowds of people and walk right up to me. In her hand was a pamphlet on meditation.     “What a coincidence!” I exclaimed. I explained I had just finished a conversation about meditation. The radiant woman laughed about the synchronicity. Later, she would tell me she marched past all the other people on the street that day when she saw me.
   “You just looked different. I could see you are open. I was pulled to you,” Yu Jeong explained. She told me she was from Seoul, South Korea, where the meditation center was headquartered. They now have centers all over the world, including South Africa. This entire scenario being full of coincidence, I decided to try their meditation technique.
The technique is different from most meditation I’ve done. Instead of absence of thought, this technique requires the acknowledgement of negative thoughts, often memories from the past. Many times our past experiences create thought patterns or beliefs which create chains around us, binding us from the freedom to live fully, explore our potential and passions to the fullest, and keep us from loving ourselves and others on a non-conditional basis. Often these beliefs about ourselves and the world are not true; they are simply the byproduct of previous experiences which can never be relived. These beliefs only mirror the level of emotional and mental awareness of a person that existed in our past, and not the person we are now. By throwing away these beliefs, one can truly live, and Live Free. The meditation exercises the release of those negative beliefs, releasing the energy to the “black hole of the Universe,” as illustrated in meditation sessions.     The meditation would prove beneficial for me, but challenges would arise which would test my progress.
On March 17, 2014, nearly a year after learning more about how to live free and the use of attunement, I wrote the following in my journal:
  “Nothing about this experience is getting easier. The newness of being a stranger of another color in a village of people not accustomed to integration has worn off. The newness of my life situation has worn off. The stares, the differing concept of privacy, the sexual harassment, the requests for money and clothes off my back has not stopped. I just attempted a walk around the village for some stress relief, but turned back within 10 minutes. The roads are packed with people of all ages and the stares have pushed me back into a cocoon. I don’t want to be interrupted from my attempted peace or decline anymore propositions from the men. I just want to be!
 I know things are getting hard when I have to force my smiles. Yes, it was just time to return home and remind myself that no one has forced me to be here.     Nothing becomes easier though.
Currently, I’m battling resentment. I arrived to my workshop on Saturday to find only one person had arrived on time. This happens after my ride fails to pick me up. I hauled ass down the mountain and paid for a taxi to arrive on time. After waiting 40 minutes and only five others arrived, walking at record slow paces, and stopping to chat with others before they report to me to sign in, I decided I was leaving. This wasn’t the first time I chose to spend Saturday away from friends and colleagues to volunteer my time for a habitually late group. “It is a disease among my people,” my Venda friend, Londi, would say, “we can’t be on time. You say 10, we know it is 12 before anyone arrives.” In many cases, awareness is the catalyst for evolution. Not in rural South Africa. But my personal issue with this is about respect.    
Part of my distraction from peace and privacy is the fact that it is considered rude to not greet everyone you pass in the village. Greeting means to have a conversation. Natives often claim this is why timeliness is impossible. As a visitor in the community whose soul purpose is to build leadership from within the region and create a self sustaining imprint beyond my presence here, it is crucial that I am respected, respectful, and obliged to the culture. A trip around the village in which I am closed off to interactions could be detrimental to my purpose. As I recently decided I will not extend this assignment beyond 2015, my every move must be filled with purpose. There is no room for action – or inaction – which could stagnate progress. I would be lying to say I have not erred on occasion.  
  With all of these cultural rules to abide by, I sacrifice a great deal of my individual freedom. However, I know that freedom can be had anywhere, depending on how I tame my mind and to what I attune. I even swallow my pride when neighboring women laugh off the harassment I encounter from men. To them, it’s just how things have always been. The locals are shocked when I educate them on women rights and harassment laws in the US. Some women derive empowerment from the information while others look at me like I’ve insulted their way of life. At times I feel little reciprocity in the exchange of culture. I’d be lying to say this does not irritate me, as part of the Peace Corps mission is culture exchange. What is beyond irritating to the point of perplexing is the seeming contradiction of the value of respect from within the culture.     Not greeting is disrespectful. Not answering questions about your personal life such as religion, relationships, and even sex means that you are not an open person. However, no- showing planned commitments, arriving late without reason or apology, cutting in line at a shop, bank, or dinner, and spreading HIV are commonly acceptable.    
As I write this, the role of attunement in evolving human consciousness becomes even more needful for me personally. If I spend time creating pain or frustration from what is, then I am absolutely wasting my time here in South Africa, and in my life. For my own sanity, to live each moment with purpose, and for the hope of evolving minds of these children I’ve grown to love, I’ve got to toss the negativity into a black hole, allow the Universe to guide me to those I can reach and those who can help me reach, and radiate positive energy throughout my endeavors. And beyond all the complaining about personal privacy, I’ve got young minds wide open, hanging on my every word. If I don’t attune to that first and foremost then I’ve failed miserably-myself and all of these children.”    
  After writing that, I received a message from Fulufhelo. “Amanda, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about people going sour once HIV/AIDS is mentioned. It is all around us though. Our family and friends are dying. I recently went to a funeral. Everyone said it was liver disease. We all knew it was AIDS, but no one said it. I don’t have all the answers, but I feel like we have AIDS fatigue. We don’t want to be defined by it.” Now I have some answers from a voice representative of South Africa.   What do I do with this knowledge?
 Trying to evolve minds within a community that is too afraid to confront the issues which plague them is not an easy task. Further, recruiting dependable counterparts to bring forth change has proven challenging. Where do I turn? When asking questions such as these to the Universe one night before bed, I fell into a dream about lions.
   The next day I wrote down the details of the unusual lion dream. After writing, I took a trip to the nearby lodge to clear my head.       I sat with a couple I had met a while back. They are from the US and also have a daughter named Amanda. Amanda and I have become friends. Our friendship led me to a book about how the cells of our body react to our thought processes (a treasured source of information, fully relevant to research for my book and my purpose in life beyond South Africa). Amanda’s mother is coincidentally referred to as “Lulu,” the name of my late grandmother, and their birthdays are one day apart.   When I walk into the lodge on this day, the couple extends an invitation to me to accompany them to a private game reserve, and “see some lions.” I decided then I should investigate the dream symbolism of lions.   In my research, I found the following explanation:

 

“The lion symbolizes increased community responsibility, cooperation, cunningness, fearlessness, expert timing, and he shows us rest is needed before continuing.”
Thorny Bush Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Thorny Bush Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. Mpumalanga, South Africa.

The next morning, I vowed to Fearlessness. I shall not be paralyzed by the same element which has allowed the entropy within the community I am here to lead. After writing about my intent to relinquish my fear and trust the Universe would guide me to the right people and places, I received an email notification from an online subscription to a Deepak Chopra network. The subject read: “On Becoming Fearless. A 21-Day Meditation Journey.” I smiled at the coincidence.
After boiling bath water and hiking down the mountain, I was relieved to find an empty office at the school. At least today, I would have a desk to sit at while I worked.
Halfway through the morning, a man arrived in an athletic suit. A patch on his right shoulder read, “love Life.” Love Life is an HIV/AIDS outreach organization. I had heard about them, and intended to make contact. But here, the Universe had placed a loveLife facilitator right in front of me. I learned he was from Venda, educated in engineering, and had decided to work with loveLife because of an inner pull and sense of social responsibility.
I flipped through the program material and was elated to find many synchronicities in their approach to battling the epidemic by creating a sense of self worth in the individual. Through a process of throwing away old, limiting beliefs and the resulting negative energy, positive outcomes could be achieved. Khuliso and I firmed up plans to meet on a weekly basis and collaborate on projects. I will also be meeting with his three counterparts.
A few hours later, I left the office. I ventured into a village shop that I’ve only been in once before. A voice behind me spoke, “We meet again!” I turned around to see Khuliso standing there. He introduced me to a woman wearing the same suit as him. She is one of the counterparts I will be meeting with on a weekly basis. As they walked away, I read the patch on their jackets. “love Life.”
Then, I heard an echo of children’s voices, “I love you, Life!” In that moment, I removed the mask of confidence. Only truth was exposed underneath. I am simply Fearless.
As I watch my new counterparts walk away, I whisper, “Siyabonga,” to the Universe (the name is an isiZulu term meaning, “thank you”). In a few long days, I would be off to Durban, in the land of the Zulus- a place where I could lay it all down and let it all go.
***
Days later, March 24, 2014, an email from the “On Becoming Fearless” meditation challenge would include a Nelson Mandela quote:   “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
“Again you can’t connect the dots moving forward; you can only connect them moving backwards. So you have to trust the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust something -your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
-Steve Jobs
Disclaimer: The content on this webpage is mine personally and does not reflect the opinions or positions of the US Peace Corps or US Government.

Dreams, Callings, and Coincidences: South Africa Months 6 and 7

You may rarely end up where you intend to go, but you may often end up somewhere you need to be...

You may rarely end up where you meant to, but you will often end up somewhere you needed to be…

Dreams, Callings, and Coincidences: Update from South Africa- Months 6 and 7

“But it wasn’t a dream. It was a place. And you were there…and you were there…and you were there too!”

Overwhelmed? Maybe if this were at a previous time in my life. The timing of all the challenges and opportunities before me is perfect. I’ve had an ample adjustment period. It is not so much that I am blending in as part of the culture as I am in total acceptance of the world around me.

Yes, call it a lesson in unconditional love for life. This love has freed me to be a part of something much bigger than only my personal and professional aspirations. Like earth debris in the wind, I flow with the forces that push and pull me to the places I am needed, settling for a while, as preparedness enables my imprint on life. And then again the wind blows, lifting me, carrying me, and scattering me, only to land me for another moment in time, for another impression in someone’s mind-maybe even in their hearts.

I’ve had recurring dreams nearly every night for two weeks. I’m always in a faraway place; sometimes another country, sometimes a familiar city, sometimes my grandmother’s old neighborhood. I am always moving; traveling sometimes by bus, sometimes by plane, often a car, and more often a bicycle. I’m always off to do some seemingly urgent work of significance that can only be described as a calling. I stop temporarily in homes I recognize and some I do not, in hotels, hostels, and airports-and sometimes in huts or shacks in foreign lands.

In all the dreams, I am saying goodbye to people in my background; sometimes a farewell, sometimes a “see ya later.” It is always evident however that wherever I am off to, they cannot come with me. It is as if my subconscious is severing ties to old relationships which no longer serve a purpose, or recognizing the importance of physical separateness from some of my nearest and dearest as a means for mutual growth. Yes, one thing I’ve learned in my journeys, both dreaming and waking, is that there is hidden value in time, space, and distance-value humans often run from, but don’t let me get ahead of myself.

In the dreams, there are those who re-enter the scene- as if to stay. They only re-enter once the familiar scenes dissipate. They linger with the new and uncertain aspects of my dream world. In waking life it may be they are distant friends or coincidental acquaintances. But one thing seems consistent; they arrive and appear to me ready to flow, drift, and effortlessly imprint the world, as if by calling.

There is often chaos under the surface of my dreams. In one episode, I was fare-welling childhood friends in my parents’ backyard in rural southern Illinois. Upon the farewell, I heard gun shots in the distance and watched gun smoke surround the town. In another dream, I am standing before a pyramid in Egypt, noting every detail and marveling the complexity of the structures, and then drones appear and missiles fly into the pyramids. Sometimes I am flying away on a discreet mission, and other times I am speaking in foreign languages in dimly lit rooms of small homes in India.

In all of the dreams, I am on a mission; answering to a calling, always physically detaching from the familiar, though maintaining the deeper abstract bonds with those I love.

There is never any reservation about coming or going. I just do it. An inner stillness soothes me. In my waking life, I have described this peace in a former journal entry.

It was over a year ago, on December 22, 2012. I was traveling by train from Chicago to southern Illinois to see my family for the holiday. It was a few months before I found out where in the world I would be asked to go as part of the Peace Corps assignment, as part of the Universe’s design (“Universe” or “God” – whichever term you prefer- I am referring to the abstract yet real force at the core of our existence, which has the power of creating perfection in our lives when we choose to quiet our obsessive human mind and all its thought compulsions which stress, judge, and leave us never at ease for long. In my book, I will explain my interchangeable use of the terms further, but for now, insert your term of choice for the force you know I am describing).

On this day, December 22, 2012, it was becoming real to me that I would soon take departure from my family and friends for a minimum of two years. At that time, I had accepted the possibility of landing in a place without access to any form of technology; thus anticipating extremely limited communication: no phone, no facebook, no blog (as you now know, I got lucky). I was making peace with this possibility as I wrote the following:

“I get a little sad thinking about the fact that in less than six months I will not be in real time communication with any of my loved ones. But I think it can be a valuable time for growth.

When a person dies, it seems their example, their teachings-their legend take on new meaning forthose left behind. It is as if all the values the person stood for are no longer shadowed by the person, but illuminated in the world- in the hearts and minds of those left behind. Perhaps death, or absence, allows for reflection which is not possible when the person is still around. When people have no choice but to reflect in order to feel close to the one they’ve lost, that is when the legend resonates truer, fuller. That is when people stop and think, ‘Oh! This is how she would encourage me’ or ‘this is what he’d say in times like this.

I’ve been a coach, a mentor, a sister, a daughter, a friend, and always a cheerleader. What happens when I am gone? In my absence, I can only hope for the value and gifts that death brings. I can only hope that the silence will pull those I’ve left behind to move on without me, yet With me. What a unique opportunity I have to die in my waking life.”

–end journal entry–

Today when I am asked by friends when I’m coming home, I don’t know how to answer that. All I can say is, “the world is my home, everywhere I go, here I am.”

Our actions and contributions in love and life are our conversation in times of absence. There is no better conversation than a life that speaks for itself, and there is not a piece of me that works without a piece of my loved ones in the sweat and the tears.

Our actions and contributions in love and life are our conversation in times of absence. There is no better conversation than a life that speaks for itself, and there is not a piece of me that works without a piece of my loved ones in the sweat and the tears.

 

Our existence is beyond the physical world. It is my belief that this human life is a mere experience- a short one in the grander scheme. And while I would love to wake up to familiar smiles, and the smell of my mother’s food, or dance to country music with my dear grandma, or hear the sound of my father’s laughter, and watch the youth of my family grow, I am whole right now-even in my physical separateness. I feel, sense, and know, that my imprint in their lives will be best kept as my spirit flows freely to where I am needed. Our actions and contributions in love and life are our conversation in times of absence. There is no better conversation than a life that speaks for itself, and there is not a piece of me that works without a piece of my loved ones in the sweat and the tears.

When the voice within me spoke, “Come this way,” I knew it was best for me and all those affected by my decision.

During the recent holiday season I had my first bout with loneliness. The summer temperatures and absence of all the festive traditions which are characteristic of an American Christmas and the lack of Hanukkah parties with friends had me feeling aloof. I was adrift in a sea of time, wondering if the snow and the lights and the food and the family were only a dream I once had.

A few days before Christmas, my mother called and we sang Christmas carols together. I time traveled home in those moments; realizing I can be there whenever I want. Mother put me at ease. Mothers are so good at that!

When I hung up the phone, I climbed into bed under my mosquito net. I was forced to remove all of my clothing due to the heat. I acknowledged that this was only the first Christmas away from my family, and next year would be no different. A gust of mountain wind blew open the curtains of the window over my bed. The light of the moon reflected off my skin and I glanced up at the night sky. “Yes, those are the same stars and that is the same moon that rise and fall in my parents back yard. Connected. We are always connected.”

The next day, I met a man visiting his family in the village for the holiday. He was confused by my presence, whiteness, and fluency in Tshivenda. When I explained the work I’ve come to do, he stated, “Oh, like a calling.” I was surprised at the use of this word to describe my aspirations.

The next day came. It was December 22, 2013; one year after realness of my departure had set in, and here I was, the lone mukuwa (Tshivenda for “white person”) in a foreign land, in a village celebrating the month long holiday break from responsibility. With much time on my hands, I was free to roam and better acquaint myself with my community. It was a challenge. I found streets abundant with drunken men by 8am each day- often making proposals or shouting inappropriate comments which they assumed I could not understand. I’m not sure they would care if they knew I could understand. I grew tired of hiding in my house or fleeing to the nearby town and decided to venture to the cafe down the mountain for some journaling therapy. I sat and wrote the following:

“Living in the village is a huge test of my spiritual strength. I am irritated still each day. I am patient with me, because I know if I keep working at it, I will be untouched by the differences. I need to remind myself that this is a gift. No one asked me to be here. I chose to. I do think spending time with various cultures and listening to their views of this country and the communities I serve has fueled ideas of how different I am from the community. While this may be true on the surface, I must choose to see beyond that-to simplify-to see on a basic level people are the same. I also must commit to seeing things differently. I am not going to impact anything if I allow the past of this country and other people’s experiences and perspectives to dirty my pure lens. No, if I do that I will not bring forth change. There is no playing small. So, I must be a stranger at all times; seeing things differently. It is the only way to transcend stereotypes and the past and create something brand new.”

“I used to talk about seeing with my new eyes. That’s exactly what I must do to create new. Maybe that’s what I’m being called upon to do…”

"I used to talk about seeing with my new eyes. That's exactly what I must do to create new. Maybe that's what I'm being called upon to do..."

“I used to talk about seeing with my new eyes. That’s exactly what I must do to create new. Maybe that’s what I’m being called upon to do…”

At this moment, a young man interrupts my writing and sits next to me. I can see him peek at my journal. Part of me is irritated by this. I release the irritation as he asks me “What are you writing?”

That mind-piece again wants to tell him, “None of your business,” because the mind-piece gets annoyed by folks being so interested in everything I’m doing. Some people even look in my shopping bags as they pass me; they stick out their hands and pull open my bag to see what I’ve purchased. My private American self is wildly irritated by this. However, I decide I am willing to accept people as they are, and love them unconditionally. I understand these folks are not trying to infringe on my privacy, but they are just curious, and their culture’s concept of privacy is a world apart from my own.

Choosing to accept people as they are, I decide to open up to the young man and engage with him, “A book,” I reply.

“About what?” he asks.

“About my life,” I reply.

He then begins to ask about my story. “Why do you stay here? Most of the white people live in the cities.”

“I work for the United States government. I am a volunteer. We assist developing countries in meeting their national priorities. I will be assisting with community development, education, health…”

“You are a volunteer. So you don’t get paid?” he asks.

“No, only to eat,” I respond.

“What about your family? Are you lonely?” he continues, “You are a woman, so you know you have to get married. What about that?”

I tell everyone I’m married to avoid proposals and advances. So, I stick to my story, “There is someone, but he lives far away,” I explain.
“Oh, so you both decided to do your own thing?” he asks.

I have grown tired of my story at this point and tell him, “I don’t need to be married now.”

Being single at my splendid age of 29 is nearly unheard of in Venda culture. His look of confusion makes me laugh. He does not understand, but accepts it. He then asks, “Not that you must compete, but your friends in America, aren’t they making lots of money at their jobs and having things and you are here not getting paid?”

I explain to him a little about my career and previous professional endeavors. He gives me a puzzled look, wondering why anyone would leave it all behind.

“I’m crazy,” I tell him with a smile.

“So you decided you are not worried about money and this is what you want to do?”

“Yes,” I affirm.

We talk further, and I enjoy listening to him speak. He’s sharp and ambitious. At the end of our conversation I ask for his name.

“Mbidzo,” he tells me.

I practice saying it a couple times and jot his name down in my journal. He is curious, and looks over my shoulder as I write. “So I remember,” I explain.

“Here,” he points to the top of my page, “write ‘calling.’ In English, my name means ‘calling.'”

Another smile forms on my face. “Like a calling in life?” I ask.

“Like God is calling you,” he replies.
Wow. The last words I had written just before he sat down were, “what I’m called to do…”

 

"Like a Calling in Life?"  "Like God is calling you."

“Like a Calling in Life?”
“Like God is calling you.”

***

Before I left for holiday travel, I asked the Universe and affirmed that new teachers would enter my life to prime me for the work of 2014. Days later, my first teacher appeared- a successful rural South African native who currently lives in Johannesburg. He is the son of the family who got me acquainted with SA culture back in July. Here we sat at the home in which I spent my first two months in country, having our first conversation. We discovered that the last few books we read were the same books! This is a rare find in a country which has libraries in only 8% of its public schools and only 5% of families read with their children. Not only was Simon able to provide depth in interpretation and application of our shared knowledge, but his spiritual alertness allowed him to answer questions in my mind on nearly every aspect of my humanness- as a sister, as an aunt, as a woman confused about whether love and a family will ever fit into my unconventional life, as an ambassador of peace, and as a model for a nation’s youth. All the questions which seemed to burn beyond my peace were answered- a clear canvass yet again; Absolute Potential.

Next, I would spend Christmas night listening to traditional American carols and having dinner with a man who is from the poor communities I serve, who is now working at Harvard Medical School. His story revealed to me the possibility of transcending limitations in this part of the world. Once again, Absolute Potential!

The only familiar face I saw during holiday travels was my dear friend and former co-worker, Craig. This was also by grand design, as he was visiting from the U.S., and this was his first time home in five years. I received such encouragement from he and his family for my efforts, despite our many conversations about the corruption and apathy which is prevalent throughout the societal, political, and cultural systems of this beautiful land. But within conversations of realism, my friend says to me, “Don’t let other people’s experiences influence you. Maybe you can do things differently, and even if you do the same things, maybe no one has done it the way that you will.”

Absolute Potential.

Craig’s brother, with whom I closely bonded encouraged repeatedly by stating, “You may rarely end up where you intend to go, but you may often end up somewhere you need to be,” (referencing Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul).

A few days later, I landed in Durban by default. My other two preferred travel destinations were impossible to coordinate at the last minute.

Upon my arrival I met Rob. He caught my attention immediately. As I laughed about some of the day’s coincidences, he remarked, “You’re one of those high vibration people.”

Part of my life’s exploration and research for my book is concerned with our vibrations as organisms. The earth has its own vibration, which bees and other insects use to pollinate and sustain life on this planet. When humans vibrate at high frequencies, we are said to enjoy a state of grace, good health, and experience the flow of all we need to us at the right time. Establishing such a vibration is a lot of mind work and a great balancing act. It is extremely rare that I meet someone familiar with these ideas. And before Rob, I had never met anyone so well studied in these areas.

Rob shared as much as he could from his 19 years of spiritual and metaphysical studies as we adventured for four days enjoying one coincidence and lucky happening to the next. When my Durban stay came to an end, I joked with him that he was either an angel sent to me to encourage me on my path, or he was a most perfect imaginary friend I had dreamed up.

“I’m not sure you’re even real!” I’d laugh with giddy for moments on end.

Soon it was farewell to the road and my final teacher of the journey. I arrived back to Venda in a state of pure love and gratitude for the teachers which I had called.

And here the winds have carried me, I settling like earth debris in a sea of absolute potential… And I now the teacher.

Am I overwhelmed? Not in this dream.

World's Biggest Boabab tree in Magoebaskloof in Tzaneen in Limpopo Province, South Africa. The large and resilient tree reminds me that there is no playing small here.

World’s Biggest Boabab tree in Magoebaskloof in Tzaneen in Limpopo Province, South Africa. The large and resilient tree reminds me that there is no playing small here.

***
“But it wasn’t a dream…it was a place! And you were there…and you were there…”
-Dorothy, Wizard of Oz

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

-Dr. Wayne Dyer

“The connections between causes and effects are often much more subtle and complex than we with our rough and ready understanding of the physical world might naturally suppose.”

-Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul

Disclaimer: The content on this webpage is mine personally and does not reflect the opinions or positions of the US Peace Corps or US Government.

Stranger – South Africa Month 5

“…always looking beyond what is already there, measuring life only in increments of impermanence, and then death. But as I die, I realize I was dead already.”

 

I struggle to see through fog as I gather my surroundings. I don’t know how I got here, but I am here. The sights are familiar. The emerald colors swirl around me and take on the form of tree tops, extending from some of the oldest life that is earth. The mountains surrounding me from all angles remain my greatest teacher since arriving in this strange land. Or maybe it is I who is just a stranger.

Either way, I’m saddled into this ride, bending and curving around corners with no ground in sight. My feet dangle below me as my bottom stays firmly seated in the small roller coaster car. I am alone. In this moment, I feel nothing. Not excitement and not a fear. And then something arises. I remember; I got here by choice-by conscious decision and intent. This is what I wanted. And then I awake, in a stupor of serenity.

Sometimes the stupor is the most powerful of dwelling places. My head removed for a while, I am free to be, to flow, to ingest the world without judgment. I co-exist without a head to resist what surrounds me, and without that mind-piece as a barrier to the richness of all that occurs.

I can recall a life quite cozy not long ago. All my needs were seemingly met and mundane desires gratified at the drop of a hat. But even in that comfort, there was a piece of mind constantly reaching for the next, and the next.

A runaway train inside of me, controlling my every move- seeking, reaching, filling up, but never full. While writing this, it’s as if I’m describing a monster. Maybe I am. A monster that gobbles life too quickly to taste and be grateful for flavors. It is frightening. That thing could have run my whole life. I can picture it now: always looking beyond what is already there, measuring life only in increments of impermanence, and then death. But as I die, I realize I was dead already.

One thing about this stupor, is that anything that occurs, whether favorable or not, can be appreciated. Yes, life looks much different through spectacles of gratitude, even when you and your every move are the spectacle of the community.

It is inaccurate to think by my change of environment (moving far from anything familiar) I have somehow squashed the monster. It had nothing to do with where I was or what I was doing. It will feed on anything, anywhere, anytime. I became a stranger well before South Africa.

My current life situation is the effect of tearing away layers of paint to see what the original looked like. Tear away the stories of the past, for they are not the story of me. Tear away attachment to experiences which can never be relived, tear away pressure to fulfill expectations which were created by a mind less mature and less alive than I’d become, tear away heart-less commitments without regard for what “they may think.” To tear it all away, and just be…like those mountaintops. When I tore it all away, I found something amazing.

I was only a small piece of the original painting. Surrounding me was a canvass of world that I had never seen before.

Somehow bitter cold Chicago mornings became bliss. I’d gaze lovingly from the train windows to bare tree branches and appreciate the sketches they’d create against the gray sky.

In my stupor, I’d effortlessly choose to believe in the purpose of my surroundings. The distressed man on the bus would become the object of my smile, and our conversation would leave him in his own hopeful stupor. Coincidence would reunite us later to find his circumstances somehow improved. Scenarios like this became a common theme.

Sometimes things would go differently. Two months before I departed for South Africa, (the day I resigned from my job), I refused to give money to a woman on the train. I tried to offer her information on resources, to maybe provide a more sustainable impact. She ended our conversation by screaming, “I hope you die over there in Africa!”

No, not the send-off one would hope for, but a gift nonetheless. I learned something valuable that day. Not only did I realize it is not always ME who has something to offer, but that sometimes ugly is beautiful (and let me be cliché here, because I believe the quality of attention given to something can demean its value, not simply use and time…clichés are like used records…I digress), and Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.

The disgruntled woman that day taught me that getting rattled is a choice. Her words did induce tears, and that monster mind-piece asked myself why I commit to connection and humanity when so many people could not care less about the effort, or value genuine concern. I released that noise as quickly as possible.
When I tore away all those layers, THIS was the Original. I’ll not have some ugly words on the train send me running for new paint. No, I’ll remain untouched.

How fortunate was I for an occurrence like that to help me look within and check my status! What a gift. Beauty…the Beholder.

Later, I silently blessed the woman with peace and clarity. That was a nice use of my time. It saved my heart from beating rapidly and spreading negativity by sharing a story of, “you won’t believe what happened to me…” No, I was just given a gift. In the stupor, you are never the victim.

I’ve met other strangers on my path. Recently, I was educated by an incredibly intelligent and vibrant man. It so happens that he has been living with AIDS for over 30 years. David Patient was diagnosed as ill in the early 1980s before medical professionals knew what AIDS was.

David and his colleague have since won a National Geographic award and various international honors for their victories in sustainable development, and are called upon to help execute UN health initiatives.
Some of his first words to my Peace Corps group were, “AIDS has been my greatest teacher.”

Strangers see things differently. And sometimes the world benefits.

I heard recently, “reality is perception.” I feel this truth from a place of experience. I can CHOOSE to view the world and life’s situations in any way.

I proved this by placing myself in an extremely unfamiliar and often ugly environment. Everyday is a roller coaster, but as a stranger in a stupor, I always get to see the beauty of the Original painting.

It’s a gift I want to make contagious!

Journalings: An evening with Zen and the Art of Africa

"Beyond thought-that’s where purpose meets art and and exudes effortlessly to the parts of the world that have eyes and ears for it."

“Beyond thought-that’s where purpose meets art and and exudes effortlessly to the parts of the world that have eyes and ears for it.”

…Outside to the mountain breeze and the incredible full(ish) moon in the vast, vivid, mountain sky, speckled with clouds of every size and shape. My spirit delights as the clouds roll by the luminous light. Between the clouds is pure, clear night sky with stars of which I can see every twinkle and flicker as their energy dances along with the Universe. There’s a soundtrack too!

Insects make their sounds in harmony, a symphony of perfection conducted by the Universe itself.

And I…I am in the center of the Universe.

Oh! I gasp a deep breath as the moon disappears behind a cloud, its light still glowing behind it, creating shapes for one’s imagination to tickle and toy with.

And then I tickle as something hops, hops, hops, and hops near me.

A large toad has joined me, to stir in the cool night air of the Venda mountains; I marveling the moon, now back in full view, and the hoppy creature off to feast for the night.

How strange that in one breath, I’m in full gratitude of nature’s symphony, and in another breath, I’m fancying the ways of this toad, off to lick up and gulp down the very creatures creating the night’s song. Ah, but that’s just it. Song and Dance. They feed each other.

This is Life. And it is Bliss.

The insects know not of the joy their Be-Ing brings me. It’s not even a thought. To pollinate, to procreate, for a moment in an unknown Score. And what a lesson therein lies.

Beyond thought-that’s where purpose meets art and and exudes effortlessly to the parts of the world that have eyes and ears for it.

Thank you for giving me the stars, and the moon, and the bugs, and I…

…I in the center of the Universe. And the Universe in the center of me!

Oh, and then a long Breath, and in go smells that trickle sensations… through my sensories which my senses had not yet sensed, on this night of Oneness.

It’s tough to leave it to go inside for bed. But I am grateful, for I know, the sun rises and falls again tomorrow. What a gift! And I…

…I in the center of the Universe, and the Universe in the center of me.

Off to bed We go.

A Love Story

Eyes awaken, and I’ve fallen in love all over again,

Each new day there’s that fresh face to gaze into,

Smiling back at me, whispering, “Let’s Dance,”

Even subtle changes of your shifts and movements steal attention from my mind’s noise,

In that stillness, you reveal to me, as if for the first time I’ve seen you…your ways. Your song, your dance…

I overflow. This is true love. Life! It is you!
Obliged, I join you,

Dancing, you always in the lead,

What art…fresh, unique, creating endlessly by moment, by moment,

You open new worlds to me and take me to places I’ve never been,

When patience runs thin, you grasp my hand and whisper, “something new verging discovery…Wait for it…”

And I come away, changed and new,

Over and over and over and over you take me like the first time.

I overflow. This is true love. Life! It is you!

Again I fall, again and again I fall.

In love. In life.

My Own Back Yard- Settling into my South African Home

November 7, 2013
Dzanani, Limpopo
“I’ll never wander any further than my own backyard” (Dorothy. Wizard of Oz).

That’s exactly where I wandered today. When greeting strangers passing by, I was surprised by a familiar face.

Maititsi is the sweet Zimbabwean who does my laundry on Saturdays. Her name means, “God’s Mess.” I’ve been concerned that my weekends have not allowed me the time to get to know her. Today was our day. She took me by the hand and led me to her one room home, in the middle of a mountain range, with the most stunning sunset I’ve seen in Africa. I had no idea my own backyard was this celestial!

Maititsi, the sweet Zimbabwean who does my laundry on Saturdays. She is carrying home the day's purchase the African way, hands free, with impressive balance, as she hikes over rocky mountain terrain on her way home.

Maititsi, the sweet Zimbabwean who does my laundry on Saturdays. She is carrying home the day’s purchase the African way, hands free, with impressive balance, as she hikes over rocky mountain terrain on her way home.

 

Despite her living conditions, she offers to buy ME “cool drink” while we visit. Maititsi is learning English from me as she teaches me Shona (indigenous language of Zimbabwe), while we communicate in Tshivenda. She works 7 days a week paying college tuition for her 3 children. She is also building a house on her own! There are just no words…

Walking home with the biggest smile I’ve ever smiled, I turn around every couple minutes to look at the sunset behind the mountains on which I stand, asking myself “Is this real…am I dreaming?” Then a young boy rushes to his gate to inspect me…to see if he’s dreaming…a white person at his doorstep. I greet him in Tshivenda, and he asks me, “U bva gai?”

“America.”

“Wooooow!” The excitement in his whisper gives me goosebumps as I stand there having sweat entirely through my clothes on this 100 degree day.

“You’ll see me again!” I tell him. We stay suspended in our smiles for a minute before I run home to beat the dusk.

You know what, I would be lying to tell you this was even the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd crazy beautiful thing that happened today that has never before happened in my life.

My cup overflows. Gratitude

Little Victories: South Africa Month 5

"Maybe this time we can win."

“Maybe this time we can win.”

November 12, 2013

 

Dzanani, Limpopo, South Africa

As  recorded in my journal today:

Shonisana, a six year old girl, is absent again today. Maybe I should have been more proactive by now. Today I am urging the principal of this school, Mrs. R, to allow me to make a home visit.

The response is hesitation. “We have to be wise in our approach,” I’m told.

Discussing the illness of children with parents is a volatile undertaking. There are many cases before Shonisana.

I suggest to Mrs. R. that we each take some time away from the matter, and state my intent to return to her office for discussion in 30 minutes.

During my break, I ask three educators about the child. I already know the mother left her behind about a year ago. I am told that if the child is absent again tomorrow, perhaps I can visit the home.

I want to visit her home anyway. I want to see how she lives and what she needs. I want to be shown the ways I may give. I want to know how she is spoken to and what her meals consist of, if she is hugged at night. Does she laugh and play and smile when she is not at school sniffling through cloudy eyes, forcing smiles and not holding her head as high as a being who knows her worth, as someone who feels loved and unique? God, is it I am falling in love with Shonisana? My heart screams that I must take away the dark blocking her light.

Universe, I trust you’ll reveal the ways I may give.

It seems each new day I meet someone, or some situation, which calls for my touch. My experience, personally and professionally, could lend itself to all challenges which roll before my feet. Parts of me challenge my heart’s song:

“You can’t tackle everything. Who do you think you are…there are problems everywhere…you aren’t big enough to do it all…”

I shed these pieces as soon as they arise. As I wrote a few weeks ago, entitled, Grateful Dead:

“I can feel it fall away,
The old, the dead,
Pieces of me are not pieces of me are no longer pieces of me,
Truth leads and the skin is shed,
Suddenly it’s different paintings inside of my head.”

Yes, even the words I spoke at Peace Corps swear-in, from Nelson Mandela’s Inaugural speech urge, “There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking-”

Fifteen Minutes Later. Mrs. R. called me to her office to discuss the girl. With a loving look in her eyes she tells me, “maybe this time we can win.”

I will be off to visit the child’s home within the hour. An educator, Mrs. M, will accompany me. Thank you, Universe.

We arrive to the home to find the only caretaker is a grandmother, Jules, who is also ill. Jules invites me to sit on a chair under a tree. I learn that the child has been to the clinic but was sent home without treatment. I request to see Shonisana. Jules commands the other children to fetch her.

A few minutes later my dear child appears, sobbing. She looks thin and her lips are gray and cracked with dehydration. She coughs and I can hear the congestion in her chest. Her head hangs, eyes to the ground, as if shamed for some reason. She peeks up from the ground and our eyes meet. She is wondering what the makuwa (white person) is doing at her home. I give her my smile to let her know it’s okay. She forces a smile through her pain as her shoulders remain slumped. I open my arms to her. She is hesitant at first, but then comes to me. In this moment, I feel true love the way I haven’t felt since holding my baby niece, Sophia, in my arms. I kiss Shonisana on the head and wrap my arm around her as I inquire with the granny about her condition, using Mrs. M. for translation when necessary. By the end of the conversation, I’ve sat Shonisana on my lap. Her hand rests in mine.

Unfortunately, nutrition education is lacking in rural South Africa. I learn Shonisana has been sick for three days with no fruits, vegetables, and only salty water from a borehole. I learn about her most recent medical visits.

Yesterday, I sparked up conversation with a Venda woman because she wore a shirt which indicated community activism. She works in home based care. I’m visiting her at her project location tomorrow. Perfect timing. I get permission from Jules to bring some items to their home later today and to have a medical professional visit the home tomorrow. She graciously accepts my offer.

I leave the home and walk faster than I ever have in 110 degree heat, up a mountain to gather items: thermometer, chamomile, water, fruits, vegetables, organic juices, lip balm, a watermelon…and oh yeah…that stuffed giraffe my mother, Theresa, gave me before my SA departure. I pack everything onto my back and into my arms to race down the mountain, into a taxi, and back to Shonisana.

I step off the taxi, with my headphones on. Music from an Edward Sharpe radio station fills my ears. The lyrics delight me, “We’re all Jesus in Disguise when we’re High on Love.”

Mrs. M appears in a Nelson Mandela ANC wrap and a sun hat. We begin our walk over the large stones on the rocky mountain road. She takes the 5L water jug from my grip and begins to speak.

“I believe that sickness comes from stress. From being lonely. From being afraid…”

Amazing. Indeed, I’m in the right place. This is exactly the perspective I’d hoped to enlighten in my counterparts here. And in this moment, I realize, we’re already there. Half the battle. Mrs. M. continues, “the young girl is wondering, ‘Where is my mother? Does she care…? You see, and so she made herself sick.”

We arrive at the home and Shonisana is waiting by the gate for us. Her face is clean, and she’s in fresh clothes. She is beautiful.
We take our places under the tree again. The grandmother, Jules, joins us, also looking fresh. I provide fruit for all of us and begin pulling the items from my bag.

I reveal the items intentionally and individually. First, the thermometer. I take Shonisana’s temp, while explaining to Jules how to properly do this on her own. I am pleased the child does not have fever. I explain at which temperature Jules must immediately seek medical attention, and the importance of frequent monitoring until I send a nurse tomorrow.

Next, I remove the lip balm. I look at Shonisana and exclaim, “It is special, just for you!” Mrs. M. translates for me, and the child looks up at me with a curious smile and a nose crinkle. Her shoulders are more erect than I can recall seeing before. I remove the cap of the balm and place the soothing cocktail on her little lips. She is happy.

I then explain the value of each food item I’ve brought and ways to prepare.

Next, I remove the stuffed giraffe. Shonisana smiles again. I hand it to her and explain, in broken Tshivenda, that my mother gave it to me from all the way across the world in America. She is happy.

Lastly, I remove the watermelon from my bag. The entire family exclaims, “Oh! Oh! Ndo livhuwa nga maanda! Nga Maanda, Takalani!”
Takalani is my Venda name, prescribed by my tribal counterparts. It means, “be happy.”

I ask to carry the items inside for Jules, and she allows me. On our way in, Mrs. M urges that I name the stuffed giraffe for Shonisana. “I want her to name it whatever she wants,” I respond.

“It will be more special for her if you name it,” Mrs. M and Jules agree.

I thought about it for a minute, and then I knew. The one person who helped make it possible for me to even be in South Africa, the most compassionate woman I know, the woman who gave me the giraffe…my own mother, “Mme anga, Theresa,” I decide.

Jules laughs and repeats, “Theresa.”

“Can she say it?” I ask motioning to Shonisana.

“Theresa,” she speaks it perfectly.

We take pictures and I hug the child goodbye, and give her brother a playful pinch. I can see, she is happy. During goodbyes, I stutter when trying to speak her name.

“It’s okay, Mrs. M. says, “she goes by another name, ‘Omphulusa.'”

“What does that mean?”

“To be saved,” she replies.

Silence surrounds us for moments.

Before our farewell, I show Jules and Mrs. M. the pictures we snapped today. They are pleased. The two women farewell in advanced Tshivenda, as I admire the day’s pictures myself. I burst into laughter. This disrupts their conversation. They look at each other and giggle, pointing at me, “She is happy!”

Mrs. M. and I walk down the path to the gate as the nearby gardeners and Jules watch us leave, exclaiming, “Ndo Livhuwa nga maanda, Takalani! Ndo Livhuwa nga maanda, Takalani!”

On our walk home Mrs. M. tells me, “She already looks better. She feels love today. Tonight, she will sleep well. She won’t be lonely. She will hug her giraffe and be happy.”

Little Victories.
***

The first time we saw Shonisana's teeth! Smiling just a few days after our Little Victory.

The first time we saw Shonisana’s teeth! Smiling just a few days after our Little Victory.

The next day. This morning, before I could even make the phone call myself, my friend who coordinates the mobile clinics for Venda had sent me an instant message asking how I am doing. I call her to tell about Shonisana.

She made a visit to the girl’s home. The child is now receiving proper treatment and should be in good shape within 48 hours. The grandmother, Jules, is also receiving treatment, food supplements, and dietary education.

Ruth, my friend from the mobile clinic, will meet with me next week to collaborate on plans to rollout nutrition workshops for parents throughout the district. Another Little Victory. Today is definitely an ace! And it’s not even 3pm here.

I’d also like to add that Ruth was a chance meet. I decided, spur of the moment one day, to participate in a 12k walk with community members. It was two days after I wrote, “It’s People,” in which I discuss HIV/Aids in the community, and state my intent to tackle the issues surrounding the problem by employing the methods revealed by the Universe. After the 12k, I mingled with the crowd, introducing myself in Tshivenda. I met Ruth, who also coordinates health outreach and education for the district. Two days later, we were collaborating.

I’m more than optimistic about the work here. And I thank you for all the encouragement from home.

Disclaimer: The content on this webpage is mine personally and does not reflect the opinions or positions of the US Peace Corps or US Government

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