An African Celebration

So, there is one day shortly before I left South Africa that I need to tell you about.  I left Hands at Work on Monday, May 2 and flew out of OR Tambo Int’l on Tuesday, May 3.  On the previous Friday, my colleague Sam told me that one of the community organizations Hands at Work partners with, Senzokuhle Home Based Care, wanted to have a little farewell before I left.  It was decided that we’d meet at the house that’s being built for Ernest and his siblings, who I introduced to you back in March.  Seeing as it was a Sunday afternoon, I expected a few of the care workers I’d gotten to know.  Not quite.

What followed was something that I only expected when the Academy finally recognizes me with a lifetime achievement award.  Almost all of the care workers (close to twenty) were there.  They were wearing traditional Swazi celebration dress.  Sam and I were seated at a “head table”.  To begin , Ernest welcomed everyone to his home and then we all thanked God in song.

What followed, I really didn’t see coming.  Some of the children who were cared for by the women you see in the above photo stepped up and delivered speeches about how the care workers had helped them in their lives and what it meant to them.

The girl pictured below was one of the participants.  She’s an orphan and an amazing, amazing girl.  She’s one of the youth leaders at the care center and a brilliant student.  In fact, Hands helped her apply to the residential girls school opened by Oprah Winfrey.  Unfortunately, she was past the maximum age for new students to be accepted  but this girl is living proof of what kids can become with the even the most minimal support.  I think of her often.

Four of the boys performed a traditional African miners dance, where the men keep rhythm slapping their rubber boots.  They also sang a traditional African accapella song.  Here I am with the boys:

The “piece de resistance” was the traditional dance performed by the care workers.  Check it out here.

After this, we had a delicious traditional dinner of fried chicken, pap (maize meal), cabbage and veggies in sauce.  As you can see, it was enjoyed by young and old.

It was definitely a bit overwhelming.  To be honest, I thought of how ridiculous celebrities must feel when people give them so much praise and attention.  I certainly did enjoy the attention and recognition.  But I can see how earlier in my life I might have felt guilty about it, like I didn’t deserve it or that I had kind of manipulated things to bringit about.  But not on that day.  On that day, May 1, 2011, I just felt thankful.  During that day, I thanked God that I had been part of the work the care workers had been doing for so long and will continue to do.  And I was thankful for the hope and courage the children had given me.  It was something so much bigger than me, or Hands at Work, or the care workers.  I accepted it as a gift.

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Back in the YYC

So, my first blog post since my return to the land of plenty.  It’ll be four weeks tomorrow since I got back.  A month.  It’s gone pretty fast.  Here’s an update on things with me.

I am blogging to you from the comfy confines of my friends Shaun Leanne’s house.  Seeing as I returned almost two months earlier than planned, my house is still rented until the end of June.  So, Shaun and Leanne graciously offered to put me up, or put up with me, for awhile.  It’s been a nice transition to back home.  Seeing as I’m still pretty weak and lacking in energy, it’s been nice to not have to put my house back together.  As well, I have a nice room in the cool basement and am enjoying the flat screen.  It’s funny how I spoke to earnestly about the benefits of not having television in Africa and how its absence enriched my life, and then promptly found myself binging on SNL “Best Ofs” on Netflix (another welcome amenity here).  They have two boys, 3 and 7, and they are good fun.

I’m feeling a little better but, as mentioned, still feel nowhere close to normal.  I’ve also had trouble sleeping, which was the case for the last while I was in Africa as well.  So, I’m tired all the time but have trouble sleeping, go figure.  Anyway, I saw my GP a couple weeks ago.  She ordered a slew of blood tests and also a “specimen” to check for parasites.  I see the doctor again today for a physical and to hear the results.  I’m also booked for a consultation with a sleep clinic in a couple weeks.

So my time here has been mostly focused on resting, which, much like my last few months in Africa, is getting old.  I’ve connected with some people but my social agenda has been pretty limited. The highlight so far was probably my third day here.  George Snyman, the founder of Hands at Work in Africa, spoke to my school and we showed a slideshow of the kids and houses (finished and in progress) that my school funded.  It was a great celebration of the school’s involvement.

As far as other news, I’ve spoken to the boys a couple of times by phone.  They seem to be doing well although our phone conversations have never been too in depth.  It’s kind of like,

“How are you?”


“How’s school going?”


Then I basically hassle Mthandazo about not looking into university yet.  To be fair, he still hasn’t received his birth certificate, which he need to get his ID number, which he needs before he can apply.  At the same time, I sense some hesitancy in him.  I think I underestimate how intimidating this process is for him.  Going away to university will be a massive step into the unknown for him and there is so much between where he is now and getting there.  Last time we talked he said that his school now has info on university programs and applications so I’m hoping he’ll get some support there.

So, I’ll blog more later on my last few days in Africa and the transition back to life here.  ‘Til then I’ll leave you with one of my favorite photos.  This is a little girl from the creche in the boys’ village.  Her name is Gugu and her expression really captures her personality.  She had this little bounce to her walk that always cracked me up and she was always shouting and laughing with this mischievous sparkle in her eyes.

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Farewell Africa

So, I’m at the East Rand mall in Johannesburg, killing some time before I head to the airport for the journey home.  The last week or so has been a blur.  I had the boys down Easter weekend where we attended my colleague Busie’s wedding to another Hands at Worker, Stephen from Australia.  The weekend with the lads was good and I’ll post more about it soon.

This past weekend was also busy.  Friday morning was my “farewell” from Hands and it was a bit overwhelming.  Saturday I went to my last PSL soccer match at Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit with a bunch of young people who’re connected to Hands.  Again, I’ll tell you more about them another time.

Sunday was quite the day.  One of the care worker organizations, Senzokuhle Home Based Care, had a farewell celebration for me.  This was totally overwhelming.  It was held at the site of the home that’s being built for Ernest, Sthembiso, Thobile, and Bawanile.  The house is pretty closed to finished, just some touches on the roof, plastering the interior and installing glass and doors.  Almost all the care workers were there, dressed in traditional Swazi costume and they performed traditional songs and dance.  Some of the youth I’ve come to know made speeches and Colani and Mandla, two boys we did some renos with, did some “miners’ boots dancing” and singing.  I was sat at a head table, feeling like the king of Kensington.  The whole time, I couldn’t help but keep thanking God for bringing me here and allowing me to be part of this community and so many stories.  When I heard  16 year old Colani talk about how he would “be in prison or dead” without his care worker, Christina, it was all becoming a bit much.  These African women are the hands and feet of Jesus, period.  I think I’ve finally come to grips with what James was going on about in the Bible about “true religion”.  To get to know their stories and those of the children personally has been the greatest gift to me.  I remember an American guy named Jed who was here with Hands told me this quote he liked, “Some people in life have titles.  Others have testimonies”. These women are clearly part of the latter.

South Africa and Hands has given me so much.  It’s a place where you really, really have to go beneath the surface.  But it is so worth it.  Anyway, I will try to share more during my stopover in London, provided I’m not too horizontal by that time.  The last week has overtaxed me and I’m already feeling beat give five hours before my flight.  But, I’ll have plenty of time to rest when I get home.  I can’t wait to see YOU!  I mean it.


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House warmings, movies, and disappearing acts

Well, I’m heading into the home stretch here.  First of all, my flight back home is confirmed.  I’ll be leaving Johannesburg the evening of May 3, then arriving in Calgary via London the following evening, May 4.  I was concerned about not being able to lie down for about 36 hours as I have a nine hour lay over London.  I was thinking about staying over night to break up the trip and get some sleep.  However, someone here told me about this “pod hotel” they have at Heathrow airport.  It’s modeled on these tiny Japanese commuter rooms where you get a bed, sink, and shower and they rent it by the hour (four hour minimum, which is a little reassuring, if you catch my drift).  So, I’ve booked a room for six hours.  I’m hoping it’ll help break up the trip as I’m still pretty weak right now.

So, at this stage I’m looking forward to going home.  I really want to get to the bottom of what’s going on with me and why I’m still so weak and tired.  And of course, I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends again and recovering at home.  I think there will definitely be some challenges in adjusting to life back home.  Rather than just the cultural change, I think the hardest adjustment will be leaving life here with Hands at Work.  I found living in a community with people of all ages and cultures difficult in my first few months here but now I have come to value it about as much anything else I’ve experienced here.  Living simply, sacrificing for each other, and just the slower pace of life will be all things I’m going to miss.  I’ve realized just how much I feel the need to be busy back home.  I can remember how a free evening would often feel strange, to have nothing to go to after work.  Though the days are busy here, everyone just kind of hangs out in the evenings and on weekends and there’s always invitations for dinner or a braai at someone’s house and people just popping over and hanging out.  I’m going to miss the mornings we spend together as a community or in my small group.  Again, I found the community prayer and worship uncomfortable at first but now I look forward to it.  Being forced to live alongside someone I wouldn’t choose to is actually quite liberating.  Back home I think I’ve tried to live my life independently of others; to not need to rely on others or, probably just as much, not be relied upon.  I know I’m going to have to create these kinds of connections in some way or another back home.  I’m determined not to lose the lessons I’ve learned here.

Another thing I’ll miss is how nothing is ever really routine here.  Even going to town for groceries is interesting in some way in the people I’ll see or how things are done or the hustle and bustle of the veggie stands on the streets.  I have really met the interesting people here.  For example, on Friday I had to go buy and deliver some concrete for the builders working on the second home for and orphan headed household that my school in Calgary is sponsoring.  I bought the cement, had it loaded into my “bakkie” (pick-up truck) and took it to the kids’ house.  The builders weren’t there, though they said earlier in the week they would be, and the kids also weren’t there.  Considering walking with my backpack wears me out, carrying a 50 kg bag of cement about 20 meters and repeating this exercise nine times wasn’t a good idea.  The primary school was just getting out and kids were starting to walk home.  I rounded up a few 12 or 13 year old boys and offered them 5 rand a bag to carry the cement.  About six of them teamed up and before long, all the cement was stored away.  Some resorted to rolling and pushing the bags toward the end and I realized this might have been a bit too much of a task for some of them.

So, on my way home, I tried to take what I thought was a shortcut to the main road.  I wasn’t entirely sure about it, so I asked a couple guys standing on a corner.  One of them, a guy with a shower cap on, said he’d show me they way if I could give him a lift.  He turned out to be a 19 year old guy named John but his friends call him Scara.  He was going to KFC to busk as a mime.  Seriously!!  He had the white make-up with him and everything.  He was hungry so we stopped on the way for some maize porridge and meat and he told me about his life.  He lost his mother when he was nine and his father abandoned him and his siblings.  He was taken in by neighbors, where he still lives.  He said fourteen of them live in a three room house.  He kept asking me for money, which is always awkward.  After I told him what I was doing here in South Africa, he kept saying, “I’m an orphan, you need to help me!” I learned he doesn’t have an ID so we exchanged numbers and I said I’d look into getting some help for him on that issue. The next day he sent me a message to call him but I couldn’t get hold of him.  It’s seriously overwhelming how many young people in the communities around here have the same story, minus the miming of course.

So, last Wednesday was a big day as I saw the boys’ house for the first time in the daylight.  I’ve attached a couple pictures.  The house looks good, though they still need a couple things.  I have a wardrobe here at Hands to bring them which will help as all their clothes are in a big pile in the corner of the bedroom.  Nonetheless, they are both really happy to have a new house.  This is the first time that Sipho has slept in his own bed and that seems to be the highlight for him.  To put into perspective how important the house is for them, about three weeks ago there was a massive storm at night and the wind actually tore the corrugated steel roof off their old mud house.  Took it clean off the beams.  Mthandazo found it meters from the house.  I can’t imagine how it would have felt to be woken up to your roof being ripped off your house.

I also saw the second house, which is in progress.  The walls are almost done and the roof will soon be put on.  It’s unlikely it will be finished by the time I leave but it should be close.  On Sunday, me and the four kids the house is being built for, Ernest, Sthembiso, Thobile, and Bawanile, all went to the mall to play games and watch a movie.  We saw “Rio” which is a 3D animation.  I kept looking at little Bawanile during the movie as I think the whole 3D thing kind of blew her mind.  We had some Chicken Licken after and it was a good day.

The only wrench in things this past week was a phone call I got from Mthandazo on Sunday night.  He said that Sipho took off on his bike on Saturday and hadn’t come back yet.  He hadn’t said anything to Mthandazo or his friends, he just disappeared.  Mthandazo figured he went to be with his Mom and siblings, who recently moved to the big township, Kan’yamazane, about 30 minutes by car.  Mthandazo just called me to tell me that Sipho was back and that he was indeed at his Mom’s.

He spent the recent school break at his Mom’s and I think he might be conflicted about where he wants to live.  Ultimately, I think being with his Mom is best but there are some issues.  First of all, Sipho’s mother kicked him out of the house in August, claiming that he was crazy.  He roamed around for weeks before going to stay with Mthandazo, which is around the time I stayed with them. When my colleague Busie contacted his Mom, she didn’t seem concerned about him, only saying that he needed to go to a witch doctor to be “cured” of his mental illness.  So, I don’t have any idea about where things stand with his Mom now, though I think she probably wants him to stay with her.

The other issue is that Sipho has good structure in his life with Mthandazo.  He has good, positive friends in the village and he’s doing well at school.  Kan’yamazane has a good deal of crime.  Also, Sipho’s older brother is often in trouble.  The bike that Sipho took off on was given to him by this brother and it’s likely that it was stolen.  So, I’m concerned about school and the influences that Sipho will be exposed to if he goes back home.

In any case, the boys are coming to stay here for Easter weekend and I think it’ll be a good opportunity to talk about the issue of Sipho taking off and where he wants to live.

Well that’s all for now.  Talk to you again soon!

Mthandazo and Sipho Playing Cards for the Camera

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All Good Things Must…

I’m typing this blog on a Word doc at 2:31 am Monday morning.  I want to cryogenically seal off my room at this moment as, for the first time in months, I would describe the air temperature as “perfect”.  As of last week, fall is in the air here in the lowveld.  The day time temp is now around the mid twenties but it’s not just that.  There is far less humidity and the air is nice and refreshing.  Friday actually felt quite cool and I wore a hoodie during the day for what had to be the first time since September.  The highlight of this new season has to be night time.  The air is nice and cool and I was almost in tears the other night at the sheer joy of being tucked away in warm blankets with the nice, cool air nipping at my nose.   It’s now official that I don’t do well in the heat.

So, after seeing the doctor on Friday, I’ve made the decision to come back home at the end of this month.  My blood tests were all normal for thyroid, kidneys, blood sugar and white blood cell count. The normal white blood cell count means that the mono virus is no longer abusing my immune system in the way it was back in January.  According to the doc, this rules out all the typical culprits.  So, the next step is to see an internist to do some detective work on this little mystery.  I could do this in South Africa but, as I think I mentioned in my last blog, I have to pay out of pocket for medical expenses here so things could get a little pricey.  Plus, being here and spending most of my time lying around my room is starting to drive me mildly crazy.  It’s time to try lying around back home.  Of course, it will be great to see family and friends again but leaving people here that I’ve grown very close to will be tough.  But I can’t see not coming back here in some way or another.

It’s hard to describe my time here.  “Amazing” and “incredible” seem too cliché and shallow.  Maybe the best way is to say that I feel like a very different person than when I left home last August.  My understanding of what God’s calling me to is sharper and more purposed and that is something I am determined to walk toward.  Life just seems so much clearer now.  I’ve realized how distracted I become back home how consumed I can become with myself.  I’ve realized the power of a community where people really try to live for each other and how a common purpose can triumph over all the stuff that comes with living and working with people of all ages and just about as many cultures.  There is a unity here that I’ve never experienced before and it has changed me.  Maybe the biggest change I’ve felt is such a pull towards God.  The bible has just come alive for me here.  It’s hard to explain.  My faith is no longer an intellectual argument or philosophy.

I haven’t told Mthandazo and Sipho yet and that will be a difficult conversation.  The next couple weeks will be about seeing what can be put in place for them before I leave.  The second house we’re building for Ernest and his siblings with the funds from my school in Calgary is ticking along nicely and I’m hoping it might be finished or at least very close by the time I leave.  I’m hoping I feel strong enough in the next couple of weeks to be able to visit all the communities and people I’ve worked with in the past eight months.  I’ll try to introduce you to some of them in the next little while.  Well, I best hit the rack for the night.  Talk to you soon.


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ID Action and the Doctor’s Office

So, a few things to share today. First of all, I can happily report that our boy Mthandazo’s multi-visit journey through Home Affairs in pursuit of his ID appears to have been a success. As reported in my last blog, he and his mom had to return to Home Affairs this past Monday to complete his interview aimed at proving that he is indeed who he says he is. He passed the interview and now simply needs to wait about seven weeks to receive a spanking new, official birth certificate. From there, applying and receiving his ID number should be a formality. Yee hah! The next thing we need to do is to look into the process and options for post-secondary. I think I’ve mentioned before that he wants to be a teacher (and Geography, at that!) so we need to figure out where and how that can happen.

In other news, I returned to the doctor’s office yesterday. She’s concerned that I’m still on the shelf. I had some blood work done and should get the results today or tomorrow. If yesterday’s blood work doesn’t point to something, the doctor here is recommending a whole battery of other tests. All these medical costs are out of pocket as my emergency medical insurance doesn’t cover ongoing treatment of this sort. I have certainly gotten a taste of the more desirable half of two-tiered health care. Because I can pay to access private health care, I can usually see the doctor the same day, or next day at the most. She’s always been extremely thorough, has called me personally to explain test results, and gives her cell number out on her office voice mail. On the flipside, I waited for hours and hours with a child at a community clinic that is only staffed by one or two LPNs. However, the fact that South Africa has community clinics puts its health care way above the other countries Hands at Work operates in.

In any case, I’m told all the possible tests that I may need done will likely cost many thousand rand. It’s beginning to look like an early trip home might be in the since I am a card carrying member of Alberta Health Care. As well, though I’ve been reluctant to admit it, I think I would ultimately recover better at home. My accommodation here at Hands is very comfortable but I have a hard time sleeping in the heat. That being said, things have cooled down considerably the past few days and May pretty much marks the start of winter. It’s also tough being here and not being able to really be part of the work. Lying around all day has been so frustrating. I still have almost three months here, which seems like forever. The past seven months have been life changing and I don’t really want to go. At the same time, it’s been over four months since I was diagnosed with the mono and I haven’t gotten much better. Anyway, I will make the decision when the time comes.

In other news, my friend Emily had me and the other certified soccer nut here at Hands, Jaap the Dutchman, over to watch Champions League. Man United beat Chelsea 1-0. It was such a treat to watch the game. It’s nice sometimes to be cut off from things like TV because when I do get a chance to watch a game, it’s a real event. Everything is so “instant access” back home, it’s good to yearn for the sight of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ruddy Scottish docklands face and Didier Drogba’s constant pouting. Anyway, I’ll update you on what tomorrow brings.

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ID, Please!

Greetings again from South Africa!  Just a few things to update you on.

The saga of getting a national ID for Mthandazo (Thembo) continues.  A couple of weeks ago, he finally found out why nothing has come of the application he made last May.  Apparently, the birthdate he submitted was only six months after his older brother, Bongani’s.  So, given that they stated having the same mother, this was a problem.  It’s quite common for people, especially older people, to not have a clue of their birthdate.  It’s less common among people Mthandazo’s age but still an issue.  How he and his older brother ended up with birthdates so close to each other, I don’t know.

So, this meant that Mthandazo had to go back and get some new documents with a new birthdate.  What, from a Canadian perspective, was kind of strange was that the Home Affairs department of the government just basically told him to pick a new birthdate.  But then again, what options does the kid have?  His brother already has his ID so it’s easiest for Mthandazo to just find a new birthday.  The government gets criticized a lot here for their inefficiency and corruption, which they deserve.  At the same time, you can see the challenge in trying to do things like a census or ID registration.  I read recently where India is trying to register and ID all of their citizens.  I can’t imagine being tasked with that!  Over a billion people with probably the same challenges as here in Africa!  Eish!!

Anyway, Mthandazo got his new documents as was ready to head back to Home Affairs.  He had to bring his mother, who lives in a different community,  and really wanted me to take them.  I wasn’t well enough to go, so through the Care Center in his community, we provided transport money.  Well, one day his Mom showed up but forgot one of the documents he needed.  They planned to try again this past Tuesday but his Mom didn’t show up at all.  This probably makes her look like less than a stellar parent but there’s more to things than that.  She is what I’d describe as a “very village” person.  By, this I mean that she has lived most of her life within 40 or 50 kms of Nelspruit, where the government offices are, and has only been there a handful of times.  Frankly, I think she’s scared of being in the city and after I tell you about our experience at Home Affairs this Thursday, I think you’ll see why.

For the past month, the government has put a focus on processing IDs so that people can vote in the municipal elections that are coming up in the next few weeks.  People were advised to apply by the end of March, which was this past Thursday.  After his Mom didn’t show on Tuesday, Mthandazo was really, really worried that he wasn’t going to get his ID, therefore not be able to sit his Gr. 12 exams, therefore not be able to apply for college, therefore… you get the picture.

So, on Wednesday I decided that somebody here at Hands at Work had to take them.  The problem is that getting to where Mthandazo lives and then where his Mom is staying is not so simple as firing up a Google map or saying, “turn left at the Mac’s, then right on Woodfordshire Crescent”.  There are no street signs and many people live in places that, at some point,  you can only reach by foot.  So, my colleague Dan from the UK agreed to drive but I was the only possible person who knew where to find them.  So, packing a pillow and lying in the backseat of Dan’s Mitsubishi SUV, away we went.

We picked up Mthandazo, then his Mom, and made our way to Home Affairs in Nelspruit.  We got there at about 9:45 am and were treated to a line up that went out the building and around the block.  These were just the people waiting to get into the building, not the ones waiting in Home Affairs.  It was chaos.  People trying to skip the queue, to talk their way in with the security guards.  So, to make a long story short, we were there all day.  I hung out in the backseat for a few hours and then Dan and I talked our way into Home Affairs.  Mthandazo was in line for his fingerprints, already for about two hours.  This was at 2:00.  By 5:00, he finally got his prints done.  Then he had to go to another floor for an interview with him and his Mom (that’s why she had to be there).  The tragic thing is, at 6:30 they told him they were closing and he head to go home.  The poor kid and his Mom!  They looked disappointed to say the least.  In any case Dan and his wife have to go to Home Affairs on Monday for their own visas so they’re going to take him and his Mom.  Anyway, please say a prayer for them that things will go smoothly on Monday.

I surprisingly didn’t feel too bad being out that whole day.  Just really tired.  As long as I was sitting, I didn’t feel bad at all.  I still can’t stand for very long and any activity, like washing the dishes or having a shower, requires a nice lie down after.  I don’t feel like I’ve made too much progress but I’m definitely not feeling worse.

Unfortunately, Zambia is now out of the question.  But really, I’m just hoping to feel better so I’m back on my feet.

Well, that’s about all for now.

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