Monday, December 17, 2007

A Daughter is Forever

A daughter is forever. Tired as I am of travel, when my second daughter, Erika, needed help to drive her car from Minnesota to Texas before Christmas, I agreed to go.

(Picture: Somewhere in Missouri in the remnants of an ice storm)

We made a road trip together once before. When her husband Dan finished army basic training and was sent to California, her father and I didn’t want Erika making the thirty-four hour drive on her own. We figured three eight-hour days with a ten-hour thrown in somewhere along the way would work. (My British friends, who consider a four-hour journey to be a major undertaking, are shaking their heads in dismay.) Erika, who was eager to be reunited with her husband after ten-weeks of separation and only eight hours together at his graduation from basic, talked me into two fourteen-hour days and one six-hour final sprint.

We took a picture before setting off from Indianapolis. When we got in the car, Erika turned to me and said, “Mom, I want you to know that no matter what I say to you between here and California, I love you.” I agreed that any tension between us was travel related and not to be taken personally. In return I told her that any music she chose would be fine for one CD, but no repetition without mutual agreement and no two successive CDs that were not my style.

We had a ball. We alternated music with audio-books and took a picture in every state to commemorate the journey. I drove mornings while she dozed, and she drove into the evening as long as her wifely heart pulled her west. Of course the further west we got the more widely spaced the motels, but we always seemed to be approaching the last chance by 9 or 10 P.M. We marveled at the gleaming Bonneville Salt flats; gaped at the deep valleys and green forests around Lake Tahoe; and both fell in love with Monterey Bay at first sight.

The trip from Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Killeen, Texas was not so far—only seventeen hours according to Google, but Google didn’t allow for snow and ice in Kansas. We did it in two days with a couple cats who spent more time curled up in their nice soft litter box than in their carriers. Once again we listened to audio books and took pictures of ourselves in every state. This time Erika SMSed Dan in Iraq several times a day and sent an e-mail from the motel outside Wichita. Killeen is not Monterrey; I can’t say that I fell in love with the strip malls at first sight. But Erika (and the cats) are glad to be out of Minnesota's December cold and back in their own house.

My older daughter, Katie, has a daughter of her own now. Isabella toddles toward us with big smiles and extended arms. She says ‘kitty’ and pages through her board books. She climbs the stairs and descends on her belly. Katie cuddles her, plays with her and stays up in the night with her when she fusses. I watch and think back on Katie and Erika at that age. How much is still ahead for my daughter and granddaughter as their relationship grows through the years. It is just beginning, because a daughter is forever.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What is a home?

Those of us who have moved from place to place often struggle with this question. For the Hardys home has been where the four of us were together, but as the children have grown up and established their own homes, that definition falters. I hate the modern obsession with the accumulation of ‘stuff’, but…

In the autumn of 1977 we purchased a piece of property together with Steve’s parents in Northwest Wisconsin. We called it ‘BI” because of it’s location on Birch Island Lake. We found a local builder, and my mother-in-law and I picked out carpeting, paneling, appliances, etc, in the weeks before Steve and I left for Brazil. That house has been the still point in our frequently changing universe.

Christmas 1980 I saw the house for the first time. Katie was almost two. Erika was a baby, and I was still suffering from post-partum depression. I remember standing in the paneled dining room, looking out the large front windows into a snow-covered woods with the thought in my mind, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend time in a place like this.” At the same moment something inside whispered, “You will spend time here. This place belongs to you.”

What a gift from God it has been! We lived here for almost a year when we returned from Brazil in 1982. Steve spent that winter in a cast to his hip, having torn his Achilles tendon playing racket ball on New Year’s Eve. I spent it playing ‘Pioneer Woman’, caring for two small children and hauling wood since the primary heat was an Earth Stove in the basement. (We have since installed a furnace!)

The house has been a vacation home for the rest of the family when we are out of the country. There is an annual Hardy reunion on the beach in summer, and we always choose Christmas here over my family home in Indiana because there is a greater chance of snow.

During our years in Indianapolis, we didn’t get up here nearly as much as we would have liked. When we did, I always felt torn. As much as I travel, I am really a home-body. I hated to have to pack and leave Indianapolis to drive to northern Wisconsin. But once I was here, I hated to leave. When we returned to Africa in 2005, we sold our house in Indy and consolidated. Now that our possessions in South Africa (mostly borrowed or temporary) are packed in boxes, we have only one home.

Here at B.I. is Steve’s baby-grand piano, a wedding present that was practically the only furniture in our first apartment. A carved coffee table my aunt brought back from India in the 1950s sits between the couch from the graceful old house we had in Cambridge, Minnesota and the dark red, wing-back chairs I added in Indiana. My great grandmother’s china cupboard stands in the corner next to the oak dining table I finished myself. Over the fireplace hangs the lighted stained glass window from the house where Steve’s parents lived more than fifty years. The rug we brought home from Ethiopia is in the bedroom. A Swazi weaving hangs near Janet Wilson’s painting of the hen protecting her chicks from So That’s What God is Like and Grandma Larson’s oils of where she grew up in Door County, Wisconsin. My daughters’ wedding pictures are displayed opposite the needlepoint I was working on when we lived in Mozambique. Everywhere I look are items that remind me of people and places that have been important in my life. It’s ‘stuff’, but its value cannot be measure in dollars for an insurance company.

We have had to call the volunteer fire department for chimney fires on two occasions in the past thirty years. I consider those incidents God’s little reminders of how easy it would be for him to take this place if I let myself get too attached. Instead, he has surrounded us with guardian angels. We have never had a break-in, despite the house standing empty much of the time. Mom and I have lived quite happily with the choices we made thirty years ago, even though the girls think the paneling is unbelievably retro. We did replace the carpeting when Erika started sneezing because the rubber matting had disintegrated to dust, and I’m shopping for a new refrigerator while I’m here.

Home. A still place between the worlds. Thank you, Lord.
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Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Last July (winter where we lived in mile-high Johannesburg, South Africa) it snowed for the first time in twenty-six years. My friends called each other in the middle of the night. “Look outside! It’s snowing!” Long before morning the wet, white stuff had stopped falling. The children at our church’s Holiday Club made muddy snowmen imitating the ones they had learned about in books. When I first saw the dusting on the ground, I thought it was heavy frost. On closer inspection, I realized, “No. That’s snow. I knew it was cold in my house!”

Now I am ‘home’ in northern Wisconsin (with central heating.) Saturday morning I skated on our lake. Even though the ice was thick and solid, it was disconcerting to watch the sandy lake bottom glide by a meter below my blades. Late morning it began to snow—not a couple centimeters, but inches and inches of white powder that draped the pines and made our woods look like we had just stepped through the back of a magical wardrobe.

Last year it never snowed until we had returned to Africa, so I was very out of practice Sunday afternoon when I clamped on my skis. The sky was a deep blue-gray with the promise of more snow to come. The only sound was the swish, swish of my skis along the trail and my verbalized instructions to myself when my inexperience landed me in a heap. (I’m a librarian by training. We all talk to ourselves.) I came home to colored lights on the porch, a glittering tree between the windows, a fire on the hearth and the promise of Christmas to come.

Several years ago I wrote a book entitled Between Two Worlds. Will I ever stop feeling caught in that place? In Johannesburg now it is warm and sunny, and my friends sip coffee outside Mug and Bean and plan their Christmas braai (barbecue, to my fellow-Americans.) In Wisconsin the snow is falling again, adding another three to five inches to Saturday’s unmelted six. My greedy soul wants both worlds. Whichever continent I am on, I feel perpetually left out of what I am missing on the other side of the world.
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Friday, November 30, 2007

Telephone to Jesus

I am now in the U.S. (My agent tells me I am the most traveled author she knows.) Last week was our Thanksgiving holiday, a time to be thankful for more than just turkey and dressing.

I am amazed at my little granddaughter, who just passed her first birthday. Bella’s laugh bubbles over with joy and innocence. She has never known pain worse than bumping her head on a chair as she toddles around the room, or loss more than a few hours separation from her mother. She sleeps cozy in her own crib, tucked in her clean pajamas, confident that when she wakes Mommy will be there with milk or Cheerios or pieces of Graham cracker. Daddy will be there to play or give her a clean diaper. Bella makes weekly visits to the library and has a whole shelf of board books at home that she can look at any time. (So far she is more interested in turning pages than in listening to the story, but she already recognizes her favorite illustrators.) She has a membership at Como Park Zoo and will probably have another at the Science Museum in a couple years. She is surrounded by two parents, four grandparents and uncounted friends who adore her.

Bella doesn’t live in a group home with twenty-five other children vying for adult attention. Nor does she have only a big brother or sister to find food for her. She doesn’t go hungry on Wednesday before Thursday’s distribution of groceries at the center. Bella’s trips to the doctor are for check-ups and vaccinations, not to treat the skin sores or thrush so common with HIV. She takes a multiple vitamin once a day, not frequent antibiotics or foul-tasting anti-retrovirals.

A lot to be thankful for.

Bella lit up when I sang “Telephone to Jesus” for her. It’s a favorite with the orphans at Saint Francis.

Telephone to Jesus;
Telephone to Jesus;
Telephone to Jesus every day.
Jesus says he loves me;
Jesus says he loves me;
Jesus says he loves me every day.

The children draw circles with their index fingers as though they were dialing an old fashioned rotary telephone. It doesn’t matter that none of them has ever seen any phone but the mobiles everyone carries in South Africa. The children hold their imaginary phones to their ears as they grin and sing ‘Hello?’

Their world is so far from Bella’s. Lord, may the children of South Africa and the children of Minnesota ‘telephone’ to you today and feel your loving arms around them.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Research and Imagination

Sometimes I am accused of having a vivid imagination. At other times I feel like I have no imagination at all. I don’t come up with these story ideas on my own. My imagination requires an outside stimulus. Like the rainy day a group of Ramblers took me to see Water Break-its-neck Falls near New Radnor (‘new’ meaning in the eleventh century). A mossy rock hung over the ravine and immediately I knew that was where she was when… But in that case… and suddenly there was a whole part of the story that I hadn’t known about before.

From my reading, “Sir” is not an inherited title, and there were very few in Wales at this time who bore it. But I’m stuck with Colin’s father being “Sir Stephen Hay” since I called him that in Glastonbury Tor. So how does a brute like him come to have the title, and what does it reveal about the man he once was, or might have become? My imagination is still working on that one.

Being in Wales has been very stimulating. Words and phrases come to me, and I write them down—things like “Bits of blue shone like satin through rents in the dirty rags of cloud.” (I missed the exit to Llancaiach Fawr trying to remember that one and ended up in Merthyr Tydfil, which I always think of as Minas Tirith even though they aren’t anything alike.)

On the coast near St. David’s I wrote: "It was something in the quality of light that I noticed first, something more open and exposed that said somewhere in the last few miles I had stepped off the porch of the world and onto the front lawn. Beyond the meadow that sloped away to my left was not a mere valley before another green, grassy hill, but something completely Other--the Sea." Since Colin’s story doesn’t have anything to do with the sea, I’m sure I won’t be able to use that one. Sigh.

That will be the challenge—to let all that I have researched inform the background of my story without taking over and turning the book into “See what neat stuff I learned in Wales?” It can be hard for a writer to leave out the pet passages whose only fault is that they don’t happen to be relevant. It’s the story that must come first, and in all this spectacular country, it is the story that my imagination must find.
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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Stone Table

As soon as I arrived at Pentre Ifan on the west coast of Wales, I thought, “Aslan’s stone table.” You will remember in C.S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, that the great lion Aslan is sacrificed by the witch in the place of Edmund, the traitor, on a stone table. Then magic “from before the dawn of time” brings him back to life.

The stones of Pentre Ifan have stood in this meadow overlooking Newport Bay in Southwestern Wales for 4000 years, guarding the communal burial mound of a Bronze Age community. The 40-ton megalith rests on three vertical stones, two at one end and one at the other. A forth stone stands between the two verticals but doesn’t reach the table. Originally a mound of earth would have risen over the stones, and a circle much like Stonehenge surrounded the site.

The next day I found my way to Tinkinswood in the southern Vale of Glamorgan. Tinkinswood boasts a gracefully curving entry and has a small room underneath for Prince Caspian and the others to conspire for the freedom of Narnia. (I always had trouble picturing them meeting under a dining room table even if it was made of stone.)

A mile or so away, Maes y Felin (or St. Lythan’s) Burial Chamber stands dramatically on the horizon. Some sources say it’s more modern—only about 3000 years old, but others date it from the Stone Age 6000 years ago. There is a “spirit hole” in the back of one stone although we can only guess at its meaning or purpose.

All of these “tables” come from before the dawn of time—or at least the dawn of history. Which is your candidate for C. S. Lewis’s inspiration for the Stone Table? Or would you like to suggest an alternative site? Did Lewis ever tell us? So far my internet search has not discovered the “right answer.”

Once again, you can see more pictures of these sites and others in my research in Wales at .
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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Researching in Wales

I’m in Wales for three weeks to research a sequel to my novel Glastonbury Tor. The students I'm staying with have given me lots of insider information, gotten me a library card, provided a city map, highway atlas, directions to the bus and train and Sunday lunch with a family from the local church. Besides, there is someone at the end of the day who asks how it went and rejoices with me. Much better than a hotel. (In case you are wondering how I got such a good deal, I met the mother of one of the girls in Ethiopia in April, and she offered the house.)

Research has taken several forms:

The public library has much more relevant information than anything I have found in the U.S. or Johannesburg, where Welsh history after they lost their independence in the thirteenth century is assumed to be the same as England’s. Here I have found a couple books specifically on Tudor Wales and one (Land of my Fathers by Gwynfor Evans, originally published in Welsh) gives an enthusiastically Welsh nationalistic point-of-view.

Saint Fagan’s National History Museum of Welsh Life is a fantastic open air museum full of houses and other buildings from throughout history. I was glad to be on my own so I could linger over the seventeenth century and earlier, taking detail pictures and asking questions of the interpreters. I skimmed, or skip altogether, the nineteenth century miners houses and a twentieth century pre-fab. Six hours at the museum was enough to miss the last bus home, but not enough to see everything. I intend to return if I have time.

The Welsh Banquet at Cardiff Castle proved to be more eighteenth century to modern than I had hoped, including a very funny Tom Jones routine. But the food was great--honey mead (traditional Welsh staple), seaweed wrapped in bacon (“Welsh sushi”) and the lamb cawl (broth) I have been reading about. I arrived early and asked lots of questions of the presenters. One told me to use her name to see the attic and cellars (not usually open to the public) at the sixteenth century house where she used to work.

The Ramblers Association has groups all over the country that organize walks on Britain’s wonderful network of country lanes, national parks and public right-of-ways. While searching the internet for ancient hill forts and standing stones, I found a group walking yesterday from Cefn Onn Park (two stops up the rail line) over the Ridgeway to Rudley and back—a total of six miles. They were twenty or so, very friendly and full of information about where I should go and what I needed to see. The morning was gorgeous with views of Caerphilly (Caerffili) Castle and Pen y Fan (the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons) in the distance. I kept stopping to use my digital camera or take notes on red hawthorn berries and green, mossy trunks, etc. I soon had a reputation as that American woman who is researching a book. I think they were disappointed that I’m not rich and famous, but over lunch in a seventeenth century pub, I got the names of several must-see places to go when I rent a car next week.

I rounded out the day meeting a group of international students for the Guy Fawkes fireworks at Caerphilly Castle. Twenty-five thousand people stood on the wet grassy bank to watch the extravaganza reflected in the moat with the lighted castle in the background. Nothing to do with the sixteenth century, but lots of fun.

Then there are the flights of inspiration that occur, walking down the street to catch a bus or train. Of course. Why didn’t I think of that before? It’s so perfect. I’m praying for lots more of those inspirational moments as I carry my explorations further into the Vale of Glamorgan and beyond next week. Confession: I’m scared to death of navigating these narrow twisty roads on my own. At least I am already used to driving on the left.

(You can check out some pictures at . I haven’t yet figured out how to incorporate them into a blog.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

African Nights

[This entry has nothing to do with children or HIV. It does have to do with travel--lots of travel--5,300 miles of travel.]

When our Johannesburg flat was sold two months before we were to leave for overseas, it seemed like a good time to pack the car and visit theological schools in Southern Africa associated with our organization, SIM.

We left Johannesburg for the Zimbabwe border-town of Beitbridge, taking our own pillows in an effort to make the many beds feel a bit more like home. We were armed with a guaranteed internet reservation from Holiday Inn International. Zimbabwe is disintegrating as anyone who pays attention to African news knows. (We saw last night that they are now out of toilet paper. Fortunately we did not have that problem.) There was no guarantee on the price of dinner however--US$30 per person for the buffet. No options. As Steve said, with 1500% inflation, they have no concept of what thirty US dollars means.

I don’t think Holiday Inn International knew about the air-conditioner in their Beitbridge hotel. If the rattling had been constant, we could have lived with it, but it kept going on and off. Every time the banging stopped we woke in the sudden silence. Every time it started up again, we were jolted back to consciousness. Steve turned it off, and we slept in our sweat.

Nights two and three of our trek were at Rusitu, a Bible College an hour off the asphalt in the Eastern Highlands overlooking Mozambique. (See the entry “Zimbabwe.”) We slept the sleep of exhausted travelers, only vaguely aware of roosters and of RJ boiling water at four A.M. before the electricity went off so we could have hot water from a thermos flask for morning coffee.

Nights four and five found us in a guest flat at Theological College of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. A few years ago they were able to buy a former hotel for a very decent price. How many theological schools do you know that have dance floors in their auditorium? I think they are still using the old hotel sheets, most of which were about 18 inches shorter than the beds if not rotted through. Our second night we spent more than four million dollars on a pizza and three cans of Coke with a friend. The friend had to go home to get more money because he hadn’t brought enough. Of course, that was Zim dollars. The pizza was surprisingly good. (Now if they can just solve the toilet paper problem…)

The next day we waited an hour and a half in line to cross into Botswana. The little border post has its hands full trying to cope with crowds of Zimbabweans crossing daily to do their shopping. (I hope the Francistown shops have stocked enough toilet paper.) Nights six and seven we relaxed in a comfortable hotel in Maun on the edge of the lush Okavango Delta. The air-conditioner worked without banging, and the bill for dinner did not run into the millions.

Steve didn’t need much convincing to take a small detour to see game, but he regretted my encouragement to follow the signs to the giant baobab tree in Namibia’s Caprivi National Park when our Toyota Corolla got stuck in the sand. It took two lots of German tourists to pull us out. At least we didn’t spend the night. Do you have any idea how hot and dry that part of Africa is in October? Let’s just say we didn’t need any of that toilet paper Zimbabwe doesn’t have.

In Rundu, Namibia, we spent nights eight and nine in the house of a retired school teacher from U.K. who has come out to teach teachers. She has a PhD in education and is no doubt turning Namibian education up-side-down with her creative methods. One evening we ate dinner and watched the sunset at a restaurant overlooking the river that divides Namibia from Angola.

Night ten. Etosha National Park. We should have stayed five nights. We saw nineteen lions--more than in all our twelve years in Africa put together. Our home away from home was a short walk from the waterhole overlook. The bed was heaped with a white, feather-filled duvee and surrounded by gauzy white mosquito netting. It was all very romantic by candlelight when the lights went out. Somewhat less than romantic was the incessant beep of the air-conditioner resetting every time the current flickered as they tried to get the generator going.

In Windhoek we had twelve-year-old Caitlin Gunning’s room. The walls were plastered with magazine cut-outs and photos of her friends. The house was lively with five children plus a cousin studying for exams.

Our thirteenth night was definitely not bad luck. We relaxed in a room filled with antiques, and enjoyed a private dinner of bobooti and roast vegetables on a vine-graced veranda overlooking a river valley in Western Cape. I wondered about the choice of burnt orange for the sheets and towels until I opened the tap in the claw-footed bath and saw the iron-rich water that came out. Burnt orange. Good choice.

With more than five thousand kilometers under our belts, Cape Town seemed awfully tame. We stayed, as we always do, with Brazilian friends in Parow. Five nights in the same bed felt like luxury. Steve thought he was going to get all his reports written. Yeah, right. He and Lucio spent more time talking than either one of them spent writing. The night South Africa played the rugby World Cup final Steve stayed up to watch. It was past my bedtime, but I followed the course of the game with the rising roar from every house in the neighborhood, and there was no doubt who had won when the car horns and fireworks began.

On the twentieth day of our journey we loaded the car and headed across the southern strip of the continent to Tsitsikama National Park. I was a bit hesitant when Steve announced that the only accommodation available was forest huts with shared ablutions. They did have toilet paper, and the toilets flushed, so I can’t complain. The huts were tiny A-frames tucked under a tangle of vines with only room for two beds, a built-in table and counter, and a little braai/barbecue grill on the front porch. The rain held off while we cooked our boerwors and warmed our can of beans. We turned off the lights by seven thirty and were lulled to sleep with the roar of the surf a hundred meters away.

We made an early start. Good thing. South Africa is a large country. It is a long way from Tsitsikama to Kokstad, KZN. The national road is narrow and curvy, and stops for construction were frequent. The needlepoint canvas I had stitched across Zimbabwe’s wide-open spaces, sat untouched in the back seat. Eleven hours later we arrived exhausted at a little farmhouse surrounded by flowers and filled with antiques. The spring water ran clear and cold, and a large dog slept on our porch as though our security was his job for the night.

Tonight we stay with friends on the hill above Pietermaritzburg. Their garden, bright with lilies and bougainvillea, looks very civilized after the deserts, mountains and rolling pastures we have been through on our trek. Tomorrow we are off to Johannesburg and after that...

I won’t be able to take my own pillow to Wales while I research a sequel to my novel Glastonbury Tor (Kregel, 2006), but I do intend to sleep every night in the same bed.

Friday, October 19, 2007


What is successful learning? Is it being able to parrot back the information on a test or does it imply something to do with understanding?

This afternoon I read stories at an after-school program in Windhoek, Namibia. The elementary school children were enthusiastic about So That’s What God is Like and Lulama’s Long Journey Home. They asked for more and more until my voice was scratchy. A dozen stayed, looking at books and reading them for themselves after others had gone outside with a rugby ball. When they were ready to put the books away, I moved to the other room to help with homework.

A twelve-year-old girl was studying for her sixth grade social studies test. The three types of marriage are monogamy, polygamy and polyandry. A family is a group of related people usually sharing a common home. In some cultures you become an adult through gradually assuming responsibilities. In others, like the Namibian Herero culture, a girl cannot wear the traditional Victorian dress until she has been through the ritual at age 20 of being introduced to the sacred fire and the ancestors.

The twelve-year-old in front of me could tell me all about what would happen when she turned twenty, but she kept reading ‘international’ for the word ‘initiation’ in her notes, and it was difficult to coax meaning from her rather than a series of sounds that represented her memory of the words she had copied from the board at school. “Prevent egone independent” was her remembered version of “provide economic dependence” in the list of social values of the family. I’m not quite sure what that meant either but it seemed to have something to do with the family providing for children who were not old enough to work and earn money--age 14, according to Namibian law, as I learned today.

Brazilian education used much the same rote memory teaching methods when we lived there. I remember our foster daughter, Queila, being indignant when she didn’t get any points for her answer on a test. She was convinced she should at least get partial credit for her word-for-word quotation from the book. After all, the only word she had left out was the word ‘not.’

“Will you be here tomorrow?” the Namibian girl asked me today when it was time to go home. She was a lovely little girl, eager to do well, committed to memorizing everything in that notebook. But no one has ever taught her to think, to question, to integrate what she is hearing with what she already knows. No one has given her experiences that will fix what she has learned in her mind to remember beyond tomorrow’s test.

“No,” I replied, as disappointed as she was. “I am only visiting.”


[We have been out of internet range for several weeks, and internet access (and therefore this blog) will continue to be sporadic for some time.]

My children grew up in Mozambique where in the beginning I went every day to the government store that sold in foreign currency to see what we would eat that day. The wide streets of the capitol were practically empty of traffic with so few functioning vehicles in the city. “Functioning” might mean having to push it and pop the clutch to get it started, but hey, it works!

In those days Zimbabwe was a delightful place for holiday with its gracious hotels and state-of-the-art game parks. And then Mugabe dismantled the vast commercial farms. Now Zimbabwe must import wheat from Zambia raised by the same farmers previously driven from Zimbabwe. With inflation at upwards of 1500% and fuel rationed, we saw more ox-drawn plows than tractors and more donkey carts and wheelbarrows than cars in the five-hour trip from the boarder to Rusitu in the Chimanimani Mountains of the eastern highlands. Zimbabwe still exports electricity from the Caborra Bassa Dam for precious foreign currency, but her own citizens live with rationing and sporadic cuts. In Rusitu the lights come on from about 11 P.M. to 4 A.M. Our host cooked super on an open fire. He rises regularly in the night to do photocopying for the school, use the computer, bake bread and boil water to store in a thermos for morning coffee. The seminary students got up at midnight to enjoy a video.

In Bulawayo we had dinner with a family from the Theological College of Zimbabwe. Dinner was made from canned goods brought by family from South Africa since the local grocery stores are as bare as ours were in Maputo in the 1980s. Their children attend a private Jewish school although there are barely enough Jews left in town for the minimum needed for formal prayers.

Many whites have left Zimbabwe, but those who remain are staunchly committed to their country. It is a commitment difficult to maintain in the face of foolish decisions on the part of a government that seems more intent on plundering the country than taking responsibility for its future.

It seems to me that our friends would have every right to complain about the situation and lament the world their children will inherit (if they are not disenfranchised altogether because of their skin color.) Instead, they rejoice in the marvelous opportunities their children have to learn lessons that couldn’t be learned any other way. “Our children are so lucky,” is their attitude in the midst of the trials. They read with the four of them every night and discuss history, biography and culture. Their children will grow up educated regardless of the state of the schools. May they be prepared to live for Jesus in whatever kind of world they find themselves.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Potchefstrom Children’s Literature Conference

There are no children here. We are scholars, teachers and librarians meeting at one of South Africa’s historic universities to discuss children’s literature in South Africa. The group is more multicultural than I expected, although white mainstream academics dominate the sessions. At least they aren’t all male. I have been struck by what this country has in common with the post-colonial experiences of Canada and New Zealand—small markets, multi-cultures, lost in global markets dominated by U.S. mainstream culture. It takes courage to invest in letting local voices be heard.

One session dealt with books on HIV. I was familiar with most, but got some new titles that I want to track down to read and review. Issues brought up included balancing dire warnings to avoid HIV and offering hope for living with the disease. Unfortunately, research doesn’t show the dire warnings having much effect on behavior. There is a desperate need for books in general that show children of the majority population—black—but how do we then avoid implying in our HIV-related books that AIDS is a black problem?

The most valuable part of conferences like this is undoubtedly the relationships—finding others who are passionate about books for modern African children and hearing what they are doing. The Family Literacy Project started out to empower non-literate women to prepare their children for reading success by teaching them to talk and interact with their pre-schoolers, not a traditional part of African culture. Too often the non-literate see themselves as helpless and inadequate. The project convinces these mothers that they are the first teachers with a significant role to play in their children’s school success. Of course, the emphasis on reading has led moms and grandmothers to want to learn to read themselves. We saw a delightful picture of a pot simmering on an open hearth and behind it a five-year-old and her grandmother each leaning against a post engrossed in a book. Another project, Stories Across Africa, is collecting “text-lite” stories with African contexts and producing tiny, beautifully illustrated book sets in multiple languages.

Mother-tongue, cultural pride, community participation, gender respect and the spread of HIV are complicated cultural issues with long histories and patterns of thinking behind them. This week I met some dedicated people who are struggling with those issues on behalf of a new generation.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Teaching the affluent

Last week I taught creative writing to fifth through eight graders at a Catholic girls’ school in one of the wealthy northern suburbs of Johannesburg. I can hardly condemn their isolation when I myself graduated from Tudor Hall School for Girls in Indianapolis. Saint Brescia’s has a lovely campus with lawns and gardens watered by an automatic sprinkling system. The girls stood politely and recited their welcome and their thanks to me in unison. Their green blazers and straw hats reminded me of old sepia photographs of Cambridge and Oxford University students a hundred years ago. Most, but not all, were white. It was hard to imagine that they lived in the same city as the kids in Tembisa or at Saint Francis. As far as their experience goes, the girls of Saint Brescia’s are as far from Tembisa as the children of Indianapolis, even though I could drive the distance in forty-five minutes. (Make that an hour and a half in Johannesburg rush hour.)

We had a fun time talking about showing the setting and characters instead of telling the reader about them. The teachers were enthusiastic. The girls eagerly bought autographed copies of The Wooden Ox. The war in Mozambique in the 1980s is as distant to them as the Holocaust was to me at their age.

At the end of two days I spoke at a dinner meeting of librarians and English teachers from similar schools. “How can we get children from affluent white homes to be concerned about the problem of HIV?” one asked. (“How can we get affluent Americans to be concerned?” I wanted to ask in return.) Story is the best answer I have to offer, short of coming here and meeting people personally—something affluent suburban South African whites are often terrified to do. Whether it is accounts of real people or fictionalized representations of what real people go through, stories show readers that the people they have read about or seen on the TV news are more than statistics. Their pain doesn’t go away when the TV camera is turned off. Their hopes for the future, their dreams of love and hunger to be valued are similar to the reader’s hopes and dreams. What does the boy whose face lit up when I read Just Me and My Brother in a dirt yard at Arebaokeng have in common with a girl in a crisp uniform or with a child riding the school bus in Webster, Wisconsin? They are all made in the image of God. When one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts. The question for me is, how can I use story to show that reality to all three children?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Maputo, Mozambique

6- 7 September, 2007

“A luta continua” was the Mozambican political slogan during the civil war. “The struggle continues!” It was written all over this city when we lived here in the 1980s. Seventeen years have passed since we moved away. I remember sitting on the plane ready to take off, making a list of things I wouldn’t miss: potholes, garbage in the street, the sound of gunfire at night, etc. After filling a couple pages in my notebook, I felt guilty and made a short list of things I would miss—a very short list—mostly people. Many of those people have scattered in the intervening years, but we had lunch with AndrĂ© and Adelina Malombe, our closest Mozambican friends, and shared the ups and downs of both our ministries and our family lives.

How the city has changed since peace came in 1992. In our day 97% of Mozambique’s food was imported. Every two or three months we went grocery shopping—in the neighboring country of Swaziland. Soon after we arrived in Maputo we were excited to see a restaurant with a big sign: Pizzaria. But when we went in, the waiters didn’t know what ‘pizza’ was. I don’t recall whether they had any food that day or not. It wasn’t uncommon for a restaurant to have nothing but bread and broth to serve, not even butter to put on the bread. Communist laws didn’t allow for the dismissal of employees just because there was nothing for them to do.

Today the city is full of restaurants catering to South African tourists come to enjoy the beach. Shops and markets overflow with fruits and vegetables, blue jeans and athletic shoes, instead of the few carefully arranged items they used to hold, marked “Sample only. Not for sale.”

The sand road to the seminary at Laulane has been paved. The training school we helped to set up is undergoing a face-lift in preparation for a new group of students arriving in January. Our SIM colleague, Mattias Hoffmeyer, now lives in the mission house. The cushions of our old couch could use recovering. We slept in what was once our daughters’ bedroom and ate at the dining table we used to race each other around, making a game out of collating Theological Education by Extension materials. Even one of the German shepherds Mattias keeps could be the twin of our Snoopy.

Our years in Mozambique were undoubtedly the most difficult of my life so far. (See my novel The Wooden Ox to get a feel for the stress of those days.) But there were good times, too. The black paint of the chalk board we used for school is still on the wall of the garage although it is flaking, and the girls’ last math assignment can no longer be read. The mango tree still towers above our roof where Katie used to terrify me by hanging by her knees three stories above the cement yard. The sidewalk where Erika learned to ride her two-wheeler still circles the house although the branches of the lemon tree have grown low, and she would have difficulty riding under it even if she hadn’t grown taller than her mother.

As I walked down the hall to leave, my eyes grew moist. How easy it is to focus on the difficulties of those days and forget the taste of passion fruit from our vines, the brilliant magenta of the bougainvillea hedge, or the sound of children’s laughter in the back yard.

The neighborhood children no longer shout “Mae da Catarina” when they see me. The ones who played with my girls have grown up and moved away. Undoubtedly some have contracted HIV. The political war ended in 1992, but a spiritual struggle for the people of this land is still going on. “A luta continua!”

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Library Relationships

“Hello. How are you?” a little girl in a blue cotton school uniform greeted me as I came into the Tembisa township library.

“I am fine. And how are you?” I replied. Whether she had exhausted her knowledge of English or was simply overcome with shyness at that point, I’m not sure, but she giggled and turned away.

I am becoming a familiar figure at various community libraries. The librarians at Kempton Park, the old establish “white community” library, have grown accustomed to my search for picture books with children of color. They presented me with some appropriate books from the ‘withdrawn’ shelf. I read them at Saint Francis, at Tembisa Baptist, and at Arebaokeng After Care. The books found a home at Arebaokeng since those children are the most enthusiastic readers outside the libraries.

Dondo is the lively children’s librarian at Tembisa West. He has been writing stories of his own little girl, an unusually brilliant, curious and creative child, according to her doting father. Located near the community college, Tembisa West Library has a large study room and a special collection for the use of students. It is the newest of the three libraries in this area with a collection much more geared toward African users. That makes it the best place for me to find picture books that aren’t about pink-skinned blonds. It is a favorite after-school hang out. One afternoon this old librarian (me) was delighted to watch little boys racing across the vacant lot to see who could get to the reading room first.

Yesterday when I stopped by to return my last batch of books, Portia greeted me. I had met her at Dondo’s young readers club. She wanted to show me what she was reading—a giddy story of American eighth graders. There are some things kids have in common the world over even if the Southern California setting is a far cry from a Johannesburg township.

I stopped at the main Tembisa Library yesterday as well. I hadn’t seen Poppy, the children’s librarian, since I posted pictures drawn by the kids in her readers’ club on my internet site. She had gotten my note with the URL and said the children were excited to view their pictures on the library computers. She has decorated the wall of the children’s area with the originals.

Poppy once took me to read stories at a local pre-school. As a thank you the children sang a song for me. “I want to know, do you love my Jesus?” I was able to assure them that I do love their Jesus very much. In the car afterwards Poppy and I talked some more and discovered that we are sisters in Christ. “You mean you are born again?” Evidently she expected only a superficial Christianity.

It is frustrating just as these relationships are beginning to blossom to be leaving for several months. Poppy asked if I could help with a special reading celebration next week, but I will be away. She introduced me to a young man, Martin, who is an aspiring writer. I gave him information about the writers club I belong to (mainly white female retirees), but I can’t take him with me to introduce because I won’t be there again until February.

Living in more than one world can be frustrating when I feel like I am never fully a part of any. But it is also enriching. This week we will be with former students and Mozambican colleagues in Maputo. Later in the month we will visit Brazilian friends we have been close to for nearly thirty years and missionary friends we met in Ethiopia in 1976. Heaven will be a fun place when all my worlds come together in one with all eternity to enjoy the relationships.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Gumboot Dancing

Monday I realized that, given all the travel I am doing in the next few months, Tuesday might be my last day at Saint Francis for a while. I had already invited Sally Gilbert, an SIM colleague, to join me with the idea of her taking over. I read a book from the My First Steps to Math Series (Chicago, Children’s Press, 1986). It went over very well with the five and six year olds who feel very good about themselves when they successfully put together that if Little Six finds four nuts on the ground and two nuts under the log, there are enough nuts for each of the six chipmunks we met on the previous page to have one. Sally read Handa’s Surprise, a favorite, full of animals and fruits that the children can identify.

Since it was my last day for a while, Teacher Louise decided the children should sing. They sang a little thank you song very nicely, but what they really wanted to do for us was gumboot dancing. Teacher Louise comes from the coloured (mixed race) culture. Teacher Pumla is Xhosa, and she has been teaching the children to dance.

Gumboot dancing is something that grew up in the mines as African men from different cultures came together and adapted their dance traditions to modern life. Gumboots are the rubber boots the men wear underground. Dancers often wear hard hats and blue coveralls like they would in the mines. The boots make a great sound when slapped in rhythm. So dancing involves stomping and bringing up your foot to slap the boot or bending low to slap between stomps. Pumla (a woman of “traditional African build” as Alexander McCall would say) introduced some moves you might see in a Western club—moves like my mother described in the 1960s as coming straight out of Africa. She was right.

Needless to say, gumboot dancing is lively. I have seen groups of men performing at Gold Reef City, the mine-themed amusement park in Johannesburg. But this was kindergartners having a ball. They didn’t have hard hats or even gumboots, but tsheir enthusiasm was delightful. I will miss them while I am away.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Just Me and My Brother

I read one of the Bright and Early books for Beginners today, Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb. The children at St. Francis where I read in the morning are fluent in English. They drummed on their knees in time with the rhyme. The children of the same age at Arebaokeng in the afternoon have very little English. When I read Teeth and Tusks, they chattered enthusiastically to each other about the animals in the pictures, using languages I don’t understand. But Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb (dum, ditty, dum, ditty, dum, dum, dum!) communicated very well. I was still hearing chants of ‘dum, ditty’ half an hour later as they sat on their little plastic chairs in the dirt yard, trading books to look at as fast as they could go through them. If I accomplish nothing else, perhaps these children will at least have a love for books.

The book I chose for the older children was Just Me and My Brother (Jaws/Heinemann, 2004). It has more words per page than the books I choose for the little ones, but the older children go to school in English and understand most of what I say. As soon as I announced the title one of the boys shot up his hand. “That’s like me,” he said. The story is about the emotions and challenges of children living on their own. It was my last story of four and at times I wondered why I was bothering as I shouted over the noise of restless little ones, who didn’t want to miss out even though the story was beyond them. But afterwards while the children looked at books, I noticed a boy of about twelve in a corner of the yard, totally oblivious to the confusion around him, engrossed in Just Me and My Brother.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


When I set up this blog, the computer asked me for a title. I hate titles. I never give my chapters titles. My books either have an instant title in my head from the beginning, or I keep lists of endless possibilities before settling on what feels ‘right.’ I went through more than a dozen possibilities for Glastonbury Tor when I discovered that Glastonbury, my working title, was taken. Some were pretty bad. Between Two Worlds was originally The Iron Cricket, which had a nice ring to accompany The Wooden Ox, but my character Lisa wasn’t the only one to think crickets are gross, and the book designer wanted to know, “What can we put on the cover?” The Outsiders was suggested, but any of you who know young adult literature will realize that that would be like naming my new romance Gone with the Wind. The publisher and I finally settled on Between Two Worlds.

But on-line software does not allow you to develop possibilities over time. The screen demanded my answer NOW before it would set up my new blog. (“It’s easy. Only takes five minutes,” the screen insisted before I clicked .)

Lindiwe’s face gazed at me from the cover of Beads and Braids on my wall. She is not only the narrator of that story about making peace with her angry, orphaned older cousin Grace, but also of an unpublished story about realizing that God loves her even when bad things happen. All the children to whom I read are affected by HIV in some way. Many, like J and W, are orphans on their own or with relatives. Others have sick parents or siblings, while still others are themselves infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). And since I propose that this blog be primarily about the children, I called it Lindiwe’s Friends. May the affected children of South Africa find many friends.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Beginnings: why I would start a blog

I must have been twelve or thirteen years old when I read The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. It left me with a passion for life and for writing about it, and I promptly started my own journal. Anne had modeled sharing your deepest feelings and emotions, not just telling about your day. I remember describing a fight with my parents and splattering drops of water over the pages because tears seemed appropriate. Some pages in that loose leaf notebook have pasted pictures of “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”’s Illya Kuryakin cut out of the newspaper entertainment section. It’s odd to see my teenage heartthrob in the role of a crotchety old man cutting up dead bodies on NCIS. He must be much older than I am.

Chinese friends gave me a beautifully covered blank book as a high school graduation present. I used it as a journal at the month long School of Leadership Training camp at Cedar Campus in Cedarville, Michigan, where I met Steve. Of course, I didn’t know I was going to meet my life partner. At the beginning of the journal I was making it a point to sit on one of the front rows in teaching sessions to be sure I wasn’t distracted by the back of a certain someone’s head in front of me. I guess that’s the thing with a journal—you never know where it is going to take you or what will turn out to have a significance you hadn’t anticipated.

When I started dating Steve, my journaling stopped. We were living in different states and writing weekly letters in which I poured out my deepest feelings and emotions. Who needs a journal when you have a winsome Christian guy ready to listen? Marriage, children, the mission field. I was writing regular letters to my parents and prayer letters about our ministry. I didn’t have time for journaling.

Then I began writing fiction. Making up stories was much more exciting that the humdrum of daily living even if it was in such places as Ethiopia, Brazil or Mozambique. “You should write a book about your life,” people sometimes told me. But what would I say? We were never kidnapped by rebels. No one ever chased me on a snowmobile. We hadn’t lost a child or suffered terrible hardship.

“Every writer should have a blog,” someone told me recently at the Cape Town International Book Fair. “It’s how you maintain contact with your readers. You write about little things that strike you during the day.” That sounded like a waste of time to me. Why would anyone want to read about little things that strike me during the day? Besides, I’m too busy trying to finish this novel.

But yesterday after I read the manuscript of my story “The Magic Place” to the children at Arebaokeng Center in Tembisa, two teens hung around to talk. “I love reading and writing stories,” J said. “If I wrote a story would you type it for me?”

I laughed. “If I can read your writing, I will type it for you.”

J was orphaned when she was eleven. She was lucky; she has older brothers. Her friend W has been the head of her household, responsible for her younger brother, since she was thirteen. Both girls are now tenth graders. They go to a Zionist church and think that stuff about God is “really beautiful.”

It occurred to me that there are people who are not interested in “little things that strike me during the day,” but would be vitally interested in the children to whom I read stories at Saint Francis Care Center or in the South African township of Tembisa. Maybe someone would even commit to pray for these children.

A blog is not a journal. For one thing it is much too public, but I will try to write once a week. I will not keep you informed on my whole life or up-to-date on ministry prayer request. (If you would like to get our electronic prayer letter, please let me know.) I will talk about the children, books in Africa or my own writing, and perhaps from time to time, our travels. If you are interested, come back and read.