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.