Thursday, December 18, 2008

Not in South Africa anymore

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas. Brazilians stick cotton balls on their trees. South Africans spray 'snow' in the corners of shop windows to simulate what they see of the Northern Hemisphere. But this year we get the real thing and lots of it. It was twenty-four degrees below zero Farenheit last week. (That's thirty-three below Celsius.) Today feels almost balmy at ten above (negative twelve Celsius). (Well not quite...) I look outside my window and know I am not in South Africa any more.

(I am trying to figure out a new computer so you probably won't hear from me again until after the holidays.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Jesus and the sick children

A few months ago a community nurse in Malawi wrote Hannelore, the children’s ministries champion for our mission (SIM), asking for pictures of Jesus with African children.

“I work as a community nurse,” Helen wrote, “visiting the sick and handicapped in their homes...around Blantyr, Malawi.... About one quarter of my patients are children, some of them orphans, some are handicapped, and some are living with HIV. Just two weeks ago one of my children, a girl of 13, died from severe heart failure.” As well as monitoring the child physically, Helen and her colleagues had told her about Jesus, his desire to be her Saviour and to take her to heaven.

Helen was hoping to find a picture of Jesus with a sick child. She wrote, “I would like to be able to give a picture to each sick child, so that they have a visual reminder that Jesus cares for them.”

The letter was forwarded to me since she also asked for a book “about an African child who is suffering from AIDS.... if there is one.” I was able to refer her to Lindiwe’s List for books about HIV/AIDS for African children, but none of those books contained a picture of Jesus with a sick African child.

Hannelore informed me that there were some funds available. I have been an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in South Africa, so I posted an invitation on their site. From the illustrators who applied, we chose Siobhan Blundell . Just because she lives in Africa doesn’t mean that Siobhan has first-hand contact with black African culture. It took some going back and forth for her to understand that we didn’t want an upper-class, suburban African home.

Helen had some specific ideas of what she wanted: a mat, not a bed; mosquito netting as an important part of fighting malaria. It wasn’t hard to make the child in the picture pass for either a boy or a girl since children of either gender often wear very short hair. We wanted a cross to be a reminder of how great Christ’s love is and what he has done to make it possible for the sick child to join him in heaven. Siobhan worked it beautifully into the window and surrounded it with the light of hope.

The picture is finally finished and will soon be available for workers all over Africa to download to use with children. We anticipate posters in clinics and small cards to send home with sick children as Helen originally dreamed. We may even print note cards as a fund raiser for supporting churches. But the most important part is that sick African children understand that they aren’t forgotten. Jesus, who healed the sick when he walked the earth, who shared their suffering when he died, who blessed the children; this Jesus wants to adopt them into his own forever family.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


This coming week is American Thanksgiving, a harvest festival that remembers those who came to this country for religious freedom and honors the indigenous people who reached beyond their cultural comfort zone to help them adapt to their new home. (Hmm. That sounds like it should lead into a challenge to reach out to immigrants in our neighborhoods, but it doesn't.)

You don’t need me to tell you that Thanksgiving should be 365 days a year. God says, “He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.” (Psalm 50:23) That means that when I practice giving thanks in all situations, I not only honor God; I establish a habit of looking for what he is doing, and that makes it more likely that I’ll see his salvation at work.

A while ago I began writing down something every day for which I am thankful. It has to be something specific from the past 24 hours. I look for an answer to prayer, a person God has brought into my life, an event where I see his hand, or a gift he has given me. Some days I could fill the whole page, but other days I stare at my notebook, trying to come up with something unique for which I really do feel thankful. I don’t want to fall into a habit of just going through the motions of honoring God. I love being able to look back at the list and see concrete things that God has done for me—especially on those days when I’m struggling to see him at work.

Last week I spoke several times at the Global Impact Conference of Faith Missionary Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. The last time we participated in this conference we felt under-used. Believe me, they have made up for that! It was an exhausting week. Steve was teaching workshops for academic deans in Latin America, so the speaking and relating to donors (and potential donors) all fell on me. By the time I got home to my snug house in the Northwoods, I was nearly catatonic. This morning I looked back over some of the things I wrote on my thanksgiving list last week:

All those hours in the car by myself getting there before non-stop people
A good group of missionaries, representing a variety of countries and ministries
Old friends like Gail, and family like Aunt Millie
Enthusiastic Sunday School children, praying for the boys and girls in Africa
Retired missionaries like Betty who have spent their lives in service
Families who opened their homes for meetings even though they didn’t know me
Strangers who asked to be on our mailing list
Younger women (not just little old ladies!) who are meeting weekly to pray for missionaries

This morning I lolled against the pillows and ate my breakfast in bed. On my thankful list I wrote “A week without pressure.” So what are you thankful for today?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

International Bazaar

“That one, Mom. Beads and Braids. Buy that one!”

Friday night we held a bazaar in the fellowship hall of Faith Missionary Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Various booths were set up with goods we missionaries had brought from around the world. Participants had to get a ‘passport’ and insert ‘stamps’ from the various countries represented. They exchanged U.S. dollars for GICC (Global Impact Conference Cents) at the ‘bank’ with good-looking teens in suits and ties. The ‘customs official’ even pulled a few people out of line for searches, and I heard an alarm go at one point and the intercom announce a ‘code red’. A dog wandered in and out among the shoppers and sniffed the live chickens in one corner. My Mozambican colleague and I in the Africa booth pinned up a sign that read, “We are speeking English” and chased away a couple pesky beggars.

Peg jiggled the baby doll tied to her back and bargained freely with her customers, arguing that their initial offers wouldn’t feed her family. I spread my books on a cloth on the ground and sold only in foreign currency (U.S. dollars.) It wasn’t really black market. It was more like our days in Mozambique when the government ran a store with imported goods sold only in dollars or South African rand. I told all the children how smart they would be and how well they would do in school if they practiced English by reading my books.

The fun part for me was the children who had been to Vacation Bible School and contributed for the books I left at Arebaokeng and Thembisa Baptist Church. The children recognized the cover of Beads and Braids from the VBS promotion and wanted their own copy. Last Sunday I spoke in their Sunday School class and told them about the children whose mothers and fathers had died. Some of those children live with grandparents like the ones in Our Gran. Some of them live on their own like Toto and his brothers in Toto in Trouble. That story was told in detail to at least one mother in the car on the way home from church. “Mrs. Hardy wants to write stories that will make the children say, ‘That’s just like me,’” her son told her, echoing my exact words.

Whenever a child at the bazaar bought a copy of Beads and Braids, I signed it and wrote on the title page, “Pray for the children of Africa.” I hope they will.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Proud to Be an American

Tuesday, November 4, I was the first person in Jackson Township to cast my ballot. I have voted before, although not in every presidential election. We were disenfranchised a couple times because of postal systems that didn’t get absentee ballots to us in western Brazil, and later, Mozambique until too late to return them on time.

What moved me most in this election was the first-time voters—a Sudanese ‘lost boy’ who just became a citizen, young people eager to make a difference, and older African Americans who finally felt like their voices mattered. Those who took their children to the polls or to the victory celebrations because they wanted them to be part of history made me think of the day Nelson Mandela was elected in South Africa. Our church in Kempton Park held a prayer meeting in the early morning before members went to stand in line together to participate in South Africa’s first democratic elections.

Today the whole world is celebrating with the United States. There is dancing in Kenya as well as in Chicago. Many hope that a new face in the White House will mean a real change in American attitudes, someone who will work for peace and justice for all.

It’s not a job I would want. I couldn’t organize a women’s retreat much less run the country. The issues of the economy, the war in Iraq, and America’s role in world leadership are so huge that there is no way Barak Obama will solve it all any more than Nelson Mandela could provide instant jobs and housing in a post-apartheid era.

Election morning brought an e-mail from an African American friend. She didn’t endorse either candidate. She challenged us to pray for whoever won. What progress might he make if those who voted for him or against him committed to pray twice as much as criticize?

I look at president-elect Obama and all the excited young people enthusiastic for his cause and pray there will be no Monica Lewinski among them. I look at his beautiful and gifted wife and pray that her abilities will be used, her presence will inspire and that their marriage will stay strong. I see those two precious little girls and wonder what life will be like for them under the magnifying glass of public scrutiny.

I join Kersten in asking you to pray whether you voted for Obama or not. Pray for his relationship with God, for his family, for his advisors, for his policies, for his relationships in Washington and with world leaders. Pray for the physical and mental stamina that will be needed to carry him through the next four years.

Tuesday we exercised our right to vote. Now we must exercise our responsibility to lift up our leaders before the King of kings.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Being grateful

When is it easy to be grateful for a major leak in your basement water pump?

1) when you are home (as opposed to being away for weeks or even months...)

2) when you have just ripped out the old carpeting and the new hasn't yet been installed.

When is it easy to be grateful for a flat tire?

When you find it Saturday morning instead of Sunday morning on your way to church and your granddaughter's second birthday party.

Not hard at all.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Who's at risk?

We were out to enjoy the autumn leaves on the last nice day before the weatherman told us rain and high winds would strip the trees. The sky was blue and the air was crisp as we drove along the edge of town toward the park by the river.

“Down this way—” My mother-in-law pointed to a short street that ended abruptly on a bluff overlooking the park. “—there’s a cul-de-sac where kids come to take drugs. Our friends often find stoned teens asleep in their front yard.”

I was shocked. Here? In the small Minnesota town where my husband grew up? The town where we lived when our girls were in junior high that one of our Indiana friends described as “living in a Norman Rockwell painting”? It didn’t seem real. I’m not naïve enough to think there is no crime in small towns even though when Mom sold the house Steve grew up in, she hadn’t locked the door in so long that she couldn’t find the keys. Unfortunately, crime is everywhere. But I grieved for the despair of teens that would get sucked into such as destructive life.

We parked our car near the low bridge (as opposed to the high bridge that the highway uses to cross the river.) Two small children played on the climbing frame under the watchful eye of a man who might have been their grandfather. I thought of the delight of my own nearly-two grand daughter who is getting more articulate by the day. “Playground” is now part of her vocabulary, and she shouts it enthusiastically whenever she sees one.

Mom and I walked down an asphalt path across the lawn and followed on into the woods where it turned to dirt and scattered leaves. But I couldn’t get those stoned kids out of my mind. Was this a pleasant walk along the river bank far from the noises and smells of traffic and the garish lights of strip malls? Or was it an isolated spot to take drugs or have sex with no one around to say ‘no’?

The young people our friends find asleep in their yard were once as small and vulnerable as Bella. They came to the park to climb on the playground, throw a ball or shuffle through the leaves to Grandpa. Then somewhere along the line, despair took hold.

African children aren’t the only ones at risk.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

God is still on the Throne

The reason we were in UK in September was Steve’s meetings with Langham Partnership, the trust that uses the income from John R. W. Stott’s books and other donations to provide books for majority-world pastors and seminary students, hold preaching workshops and scholarship future church leaders from around the world. The meetings were held at Farnham Castle, the seat of the bishops of Winchester from the 12th century to 1962.

The earliest buildings at Farnham were begun in 1138 by Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror and abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, the setting of my novel Glastonbury Tor. Henry helped to put his brother Stephen on the throne in the time of Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael stories, then briefly switched sides to support their cousin, Matilda, in the civil war that followed. Ultimately he negotiated the treaty that ended the conflict.
Henry of Blois wasn’t the last powerful bishop of Winchester. Nine were Lord Chancellors. According to the castle website, “Most of the monarchs of England from King John to Queen Victoria visited or stayed at the castle.”

Bishop William of Wykeham (1366-1404) would no doubt have approved of the educational endeavors of Langham Partnerships. He founded New College at Oxford and a college at Winchester for “poor” middle class scholars. Both schools had a revolutionary impact on the education of the time. Later Bishop William Waynflete (1447-1486) continued that interest in education. He founded Magdalene College, Oxford, that later gave us C. S. Lewis of Narnia fame.

Since 1962 the castle keep has been open to the public and the bishop’s palace run by the Church of England as a training and conference center. We stayed in the “new,” half-timbered part of the palace built for the courtiers of Tudor Queen Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century when she fled London because of a plot against her life. They have been remodeled with en suite bathrooms that the prior of Llantony and Henry of Blois would have envied.

One evening a string quartet played in the large hall. It was a private event, but when the Langham group went out for dinner, I decided I had eaten quite enough for one day and drank my cup of soup sitting on the floor of the gallery out of sight, but where I could enjoy the music.

The stock market began its plunge as we arrived in Farnham, making us all wonder what the impact would be on charitable giving and with it scholarships for majority-world doctoral candidates. The colleges founded by the bishops of Winchester have endured nearly six hundred years, impacting each new generation. Despite world financial markets, God will continue to work out his plans for the leadership of his church around the world. His character has not changed, nor has his plan to reconcile the world to himself. May Langham Partnership continue to play a significant role in that plan.

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(I can’t resist sharing pictures. See my Picassa album.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Return to Wales

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According to the date my digital camera attaches to my photos, it was the tenth of November, 2007 when I drove my rental car down the one-lane road between the hedges into the Llantony Valley in southeast Wales. That day I said to myself, “This is it. This is where Colin Hay is from.”

I was spending three weeks in Wales researching a sequel to my novel Glastonbury Tor. At the end of that book Colin goes home to Wales to reconcile with his drunken and abusive father. If I was going to write about what happened when he got there, I needed to know more about Wales. (See my blog entries for November 4, 9, and 18, 2007 for more about those weeks in Wales.)

A few weeks ago in September 2008 my husband, Steve, had meetings in England in the middle of a long trip to various places on that side of the Atlantic. To break up his trip, he suggested that I fly over and join him for a few days. “You can show me some of the things you researched last year.” How could I refuse?

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There aren’t a lot of choices for accommodation in the Llantony Valley (or the Vale of Ewyas, as it is called on some maps). It was either the Abbey Hotel or the pub down the road. We chose the Abbey Hotel in the ruined 12th century priory. The prior’s quarters are still standing although roof lines indicate that they are partially rebuilt. The hotel has four rooms, one on top of another in the tower. We stayed in the bottom room, up a steep winding stair from the prior’s small, vaulted hall. Residents of the other rooms had to come down a similar stair to use the only bathroom—located on our floor. Dinner was traditional recipes served in front of the fire in the hall. (Sorry, no swan’s tongues.)
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During the day we hiked the hills around Offa’s Dyke, explored tiny, ancient churches and drove up over the bluff to Hay, the town of books, with its streets lined with used book shops and other goodies—and an internet connection in the public library.

With a geological survey map and the guidance of locals, we found an ancient Celtic hill fort near the entrance to the valley and a mystical circle of stone slabs in a field below it. In the center of the hill fort were two raised places looking remarkably like burial mounds. I had an idea for something similar in the story, but dismissed it because forts were civic centers, not burial places, to the ancient Celts. Seeing these, it occurred to me that although the original residents would not have buried there, later inhabitants of the valley might have seen the ring of earth as a sacred place suitable for burying chieftains. So it may work in the story after all.

I have a wonderful husband, who traipsed through spring-soggy fields with me, sheep dung and all. He drove the car home from the next valley, freeing me to climb through the heather and gorse over the top, imagining what Colin would see, hear, feel and smell as he approached his home after a year away. I didn’t get much time to write on this trip, but I certainly enjoyed the ambiance.
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(The priory was very photogenic. You can see more photos in my Picassa album.)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Proud moments

This blog entry has nothing to do with Africa. Neither does it have anything to do with children except those who grow up and make you proud. My daughter Erika ran her first marathon in Baltimore on Saturday. I say her first because despite the pain, she is determined to run another—just not next week.

My little sister Jill ran with her. I emphasize that she is my ‘little’ sister. She is much younger than I am—almost two years—that’s why she is able to run marathons and I am not. This was her second. She has been a major encourager of Erika in running as well as in many other aspects of life. Jill had a cold and could hardly talk. “There’s nothing like a good run to make me feel better,” she assured us the night before.

Erika shaved her legs. “Just in case I pass out, and they take me to the hospital,” she explained.

Erika’s husband, Dan, also ran. He is army-buff, and after graciously waiting at the start with Erika and Jill among the eleven-minute milers, they never saw him again until the end of the race.

Jill’s husband Kent, my husband Steve, daughter Katie and her almost-two Bella, and I came to cheer. Katie made a poster. I bought balloons so our runners could find us in the crowd. (I considered the balloon that said “Hope you’re feeling better” but wondered if the humor might be missed by some.) Bella waved pom-poms. Kent threatened to stand on the other side of the street and pretend he didn’t know us.

We saw our runners in the long line for the porta-potties, but we lost them in the crowd at the start. By the time we had walked the three blocks to the point where they would pass at the seven-mile mark, the front-running Kenyans and Ethiopians were already running by.

We cheered and waved to all. There was the large red-headed man in a kilt and the elderly man running in a cream tuxedo. (Okay, maybe he wasn’t exactly elderly, but he was definitely older than I am and by the end of twenty-six point two miles, he seemed to be feeling his age.) There were the “Marathon Sisters” in green T-shirts and the Baltimore crabs complete with feelers on their heads and red claws on their hands (at least at the beginning.) Everyone cheered the man pushing a three-wheeled chair with a disabled child in it. Somewhere in there Dan passed us, slapping the palms of excited little boys. Then Erika and Jill came by, bouncing with enthusiasm and waving their arms to be sure we saw them.

We grabbed a Starbucks and headed for the thirteen mile point. We thought we would be clever and stand on a bridge over the road, but that put us with our backs to the sun, and Dan never looked up while we screamed his name. So we moved down onto the roadside, and Erika and Jill came by, still bouncing, if not quite so much.

It was a two-mile hike to mile eighteen, and Kent and I took off complete with balloons, sign, pom-poms, and it turned out, the diaper bag. I was wearing loafers. (Hint: When you go to a marathon, wear sneakers even if you aren’t planning to run.) Dan had already passed by the time we got there. Erika was having trouble keeping up with Jill’s pace. Her legs were cramping despite the sports jelly beans and a salt pill. They decided to separate.

Jill ran on. Erika stopped to talk to us, stretching her legs and trying to work out the cramps. She was determined to go on. I gave her a kiss good-bye. When I licked my lips, I tasted the salt from her cheek. Then Kent did a very special thing. He took off to run with Erika “for a while.” He was wearing long pants and a sport shirt. His computer was in a backpack on his back. (The system where we were supposed to be able to track our runners electronically didn’t seem to be working properly.) He also had the bag with the change of shoes and socks Jill had thought she might want and whatever else. At least he had the right shoes.

That left me with the sign, the balloons, the camera, my purse and the pom-poms stuffed in the diaper bag to traipse back across Baltimore. It wasn’t the most up-scale neighborhood which I was more aware of without Kent. I only started to get really nervous when I saw the building ahead ringed with razor-wire on every floor. It turned out to be the ‘Correctional Adjustment Center’ which I suspect is a euphemism for ‘county jail’. I said a quick prayer and didn’t stop to rest until I reached a green park in the historical (i.e. restored) section near downtown.

Thanks to cell phones, I found the others at about mile 25.5. By this time the runners were on their last legs with the exception of a few relay-racers who passed at a sprint from time to time. The guy in the tux was still jogging along although the tux looked somewhat the worse for wear. Dan passed on a pace to make his four-hour goal. (He did. He clocked in at 3:59:20.) Jill passed a long time later, not quite so bouncy as when she started.

Dan finished his race, got something to eat, skipped the line for free massage that was clogged with 5k runners, and headed back up the hill to find us.

When Erika came, Kent was still running with her. He had skipped the loop around a lake that they did at the top and picked her up on the way back, secretly relieved when she decided she needed to walk for a bit from time to time. He gratefully dropped out when he saw us.

Then came the second very special part of the race for Erika. After running his own twenty-six point two miles, Dan took Erika’s hand and ran the last mile with her. We weren’t there to see them cross the finish. We were still traipsing down the hill carrying a sleeping Bella.

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What is it about a marathon? There is pushing your body to the limits of its endurance. There is meeting a goal that a hundred pounds ago you never thought you could. For us on the side, it is proudly cheering people we love and being there for them when they hurt.

And then there is the party afterward. That’s the part Bella liked best. She’s always a good one for a party.

Maybe it’s a lesson on life. A friend died recently of cancer. At the funeral they handed out forks. You know after dinner when they collect the plates and tell you to keep your fork? It means dessert is coming. “The best part is still ahead,” Joanne’s family said at the funeral, “when we get to heaven.”

I’m with Bella. I’m looking forward to the party. But first I have to run the race.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Saying Thank You

“Our mum was Gran’s little girl,” I read to the five- to seven-year-olds in Sunday school at Solid Word Bible Church (Indianapolis, Indiana). “She was very sick, and one day she died.”

“She died?” asked one little boy incredulously.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s why the children live with their gran.” I was reading Susan Binion and Kathy Haasdyk’s lovely book, Our Gran . “Many of the mommies and daddies in Africa have died,” I said. “Some children live with their grandparents like the ones in the story. Some live with aunties and uncles. And some live alone with their big brothers or sisters and no grown ups at all.”

“I have a big sister,” the little girl at my side said. “She’s fifteen.”

“How do you think it would be if your big sister were the one who had to find food and clothes for you?”

She looked at me with large brown eyes.

“He’s mean,” said a girl with fluffy pigtails, pointing to a picture in Bully, part of the Key Reader series from Shuter and Shooter Publishers. “Read this one.” So we read about Bennie who pushed Lulu because he was scared he might catch AIDS from her. But all the other children were Lulu’s friends, and it was Bennie who was all alone on the playground until he said sorry to Lulu.

The African-American children at Solid Word don’t understand the causes of AIDS or the devastation it has brought to so many African families. They don’t know anything about the economics of programs for orphans and vulnerable children or arguments about condoms. They brought their nickels and quarters (and their parents wrote checks) to provide the books that I left in Tembisa. They raised over $600 in Vacation Bible School and were rewarded for reaching their goal by getting to slime the pastor with apple sauce dyed green.

After I had thanked the little children I went to the third, fourth and fifth grade class. I passed out the thank-you notes some of the children in Tembisa had written.

“Teke for the books. We salud you. God wit yoy,” one child had written.

An older boy wrote, “I would like to say thank you for everything you have brought to us even the books so that we can read and gain something from that books… I wanna say thank you very much, if we have a word in a dictionary I would thank you with it.”

English reading practice is important if these children are going to succeed at school and later in jobs in their economically challenged community. Some put addresses on their thank you notes. The American students were eager to send post cards. Who knows? Those postcards may be a little more motivation to read English for African children orphaned by AIDS. And writing them may make American children a little more aware of a world in need of God's love.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Drops in a Bucket

As I look back over the past three years spent in South Africa, part of me feels like a failure. I have contributed very little to solving the overwhelming problem of AIDS or meeting the needs of the millions of orphans it has left behind. Have I accomplished anything?

Three years ago I went to Africa with the plan of writing for children affected by HIV/AIDS. One book ( Beads and Braids ) has been published by a South African publisher. Two stories are being published by a Kenyan publisher, who has also accepted a third for a future anthology.

I hoped to train Africans who worked with children affected by AIDS to write stories for them. That hasn’t worked out so well. Those who work directly with the children are too busy to write. They are seldom readers, and as Sindiwe Magona says, “You can’t infect someone with a disease you don’t have.” I have taught three workshops in Kenya that were enthusiastically received. Participants were educated Africans, many of them teachers, with a passion for books and for children. At least one story (and possibly more) will eventually see publication. These stories have not been specifically about HIV, but I am pleased to have given these writers tools they will be able to use in the future to for Kenyan children.

The first month I was living in South Africa I got an idea for a young adult novel that I have been working on ever since. I had hopes of finishing it before I moved back to the States, but the last readers I gave it to had so many concrete suggestions that it is going to take me a bit longer to get it into shape to submit to a publisher. But it WILL get there. A year ago I wasn’t so confident.

As I have read to the children in Thembisa and Alex townships and attended the Cape Town International Book Fair, I have been constantly on the alert for books for children and young people that deal with the present realities of HIV and AIDS. As a librarian it occurred to me that others working with African children need to know about these books. I have created an on-line list of recommended books for after-school programs for orphans and vulnerable children like the ones I worked with. I called it Lindiwe’s List after the main character in Beads and Braids. Lindiwe’s Little List pulls out books appropriate for reading aloud in township pre-schools. I review more than forty books for children about HIV, many, but not all, of which are recommended on Lindiwe’s List.

This annotated bibliography may be the most significant thing I accomplished in the last three years. I would love to see other people who work with African children joining Goodreads and making their own recommendations or commenting on the books I have reviewed.

The problems associated with AIDS and vulnerable children in Africa will not be solved by my efforts, but I have added my drops to the bucket that others too are working hard to fill.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Farewell to Tembisa

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This was my last week taking books to Tembisa. Our South Africa visas expire next week, and my husband, Steve, has a new assignment that will involve lots of non-Africa travel, so we are moving back to the U.S. I swear that the little grand daughter waiting in St. Paul has nothing to do with our decision. Well, not much anyway…

The Vacation Bible Schools of two Indianapolis churches raised funds so that I could leave books with my kids here. Exclusive Books at Rosebank Mall has a wonderful children’s section with lots of Africa-oriented books. They gave me a ten per-cent educational discount that stretched the gift. I was able to leave a plastic bin with more than a hundred books in each place.

Steve came with me this week to carry the bin. The pre-schoolers at Arebaokeng adopted him as ‘Baba’ (Papa or paternal uncle) and he was soon surrounded by little ones pointing at the pictures in their books and wanting to pat his beard, his leg, his bald spot, or just to be touched and held.

Charmain, a woman from our South African church also came along and took pictures. (See Picassa.) She has gone with me once before and is wonderful with the children, especially the little ones. She is looking for a job, but as long as she doesn’t find one, she would like to continue coming to Thembisa to read with the children. It is hard to pray fervently that she would find that job...
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We presented the boxes of books at the two centers. I have grown used to the kids’ enthusiasm, but for Steve and Charmain it was all new. They noticed how quickly the children finished their food—rice, vegetable stew in a beef sauce and beetroot salad. They returned their plates to the kitchen and washed their hands. The chocolates I had brought as a farewell gift for each child mostly disappeared into their pockets for later since we have a rule of not mixing food and books. Each child chose a book and sat down to read. The new books on snakes, mammals and football were eagerly snatched up. One girl picked the worn copy of Cinderella that was donated a couple months ago. She stood to one side, totally engrossed, reading aloud to herself. I think she has read that book every week since we got it, but her reading is getting more fluent—just like the little girl in Niki Daly’s Once Upon a Time.

I asked the students to choose librarians to see that the books were put away neatly at the end of the day. At Tembisa Baptist they quickly agreed on Andile and Zindlhe. At Arebaokeng it was a little harder to narrow down the eager volunteers to Gregory, Sipho and Maria.

Gregory, who is about fifteen, wrote me a lovely thank-you note. “Dear: Mrs Hardy, I would like to say thank you for everything you have brought us even the books so that we can read and gain something from that books. And I would to say God bless you and have a nice ride to United State of America and maybe someday we will go there and see that country. And one day you will bring us a new books one day. I wanna say thank you very much, if we have a word in the dictionary I would thank you with it. From: Gregory at Arebaokeng Children Day Care centre.” 
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Although I have read Bible stories from time to time, I have never shared the gospel as such or given an invitation to accept Christ. All the children are at least half orphans. Most have lost both parents. Some live with grandparents. Several are heads of households, caring for younger siblings. There is so much more they need to know to succeed in life. But I think they have seen that one mulungo (white person) cares about them, and they have learned that there is a lot of interesting stuff in books.

I will be keeping my eyes open for books they would enjoy. In April and May Steve has to return to Southern Africa; I’ll come with him. It’s nice to know the good-bye is not permanent.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Reading in Township Crèches

Look for:

Children of color
African setting
Books the children can relate to that show African culture in a positive light
Lively pictures that show something different on every page
Large pictures that are easy to focus on


Culturally North American or European books
Books that caricature Africa or Africans
Funny rhymes that get lost in translation
Too many words on a page (unless you are planning to tell the story with the pictures instead of reading all the words)
Busy pictures that are confusing to little ones
Format too small for everyone in the group to see
A ‘cute’ storyline designed to appeal to older children or adults rather than little ones

When you read:

Use lots of expression
Point out interesting things in the pictures
Interpret the story through the pictures
Ask questions about the picture

Invite the children to participate by:

Identifying something in the picture
Finding something you ask for
Making animal noises
Mimicking an action
Repeating a key phrase together
Identifying with something ‘just like me’ or different from me
Reviewing lists or steps in the story

Reading in Alex

Friday I led a workshop at Rosebank Union Church in Sandton to train readers for crèches in the near-by township of Alexandra. (To read about my visits to Alex with fellow-SIM missionary Ruth Maxwell see my blog entries Alexandra Township and Return to Alex.)

Friday’s seven participants are already involved or plan to get involved in Rosebank’s extensive programs in Alex. One even has a journalism background. That one I want to recruit to write stories for the children.

I took along a stack of favorite read-alouds like Handa’s Surprise and Lulama’s Long Journey Home. Yes, I felt somewhat foolish reading aloud and interacting with a bunch of adults as if they were four-year-olds, but the point was to demonstrate how to involve children in the reading and not leave the words flat on the page. By their smiles and answers, I think the trainees got the point.

The one man, Moses, works with older children and teens in Rose-Act, a “Saturday school” where volunteers help children with homework and teach remedial classes so they can better succeed in school. The hope is to recruit some of these older children to help in community-run crèches, reading, speaking to the children in English and just playing developmental games like pitch and catch. What a great idea—facilitating community members reaching out to their own! I can’t wait to get together with those student volunteers when I come back in April and May.

(In case anyone is interested, I will post Friday’s notes.)
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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Keeping Secrets

I remember what it was like Before. I flew over the ice like a swallow on the wind. Music filled my whole body, and I soared like a bird above the city of Johannesburg—Egoli—place of gold. I dreamed of gold medals and going to the Olympics someday.

But that was Before.

I was only a child, too young to know that life can collapse as fast as a skater can lose an edge and tumble to the ice. It hurts to fall, but you get up, and you keep skating. You smile for the judges, and you don’t let them see the pain. That’s what winners do.

But sometimes, the hurt is too much, and you can’t get up. You can’t keep skating.

Then you lose.

* * *

So begins my novel Keeping Secrets about HIV in a middle class family from the Johannesburg suburb of Kempton Park where I live. My friend Ruthie won’t like it because it’s sad, but the ending is hopeful and (I think) very powerful. I’ve been working on it for most of the last three years. It has been through its second round of peer critique when I give it to other writers or people who know the situation and ask for suggestions. It finally seems to be coming together, almost ready to submit to a publisher. That’s none too soon since our volunteer visas expire in three weeks and we return to North America.

Sometime in the next three weeks I need to visit an AIDS ward at Thembisa hospital. Cicely wants a scene between the time Sindi’s father goes to the hospital and when he dies--to better show the closeness of their relationship. This morning (on my way back from early morning practice at the ice rink) I figured out what happens in that scene. I am familiar with U.S. ICU wards. I have been in African hospitals in Kenya and Mozambique and visited AIDS hospices here in South Africa. I have even been to the clinic at Thembisa where they do voluntary counseling and testing. But I have never seen a ward in Thembisa Hospital. I don’t know what it looks like or smells like. I don’t know what Sindi would see or hear while she sits at her father’s bedside. I’m pretty sure visiting hours are more strict than they were at Abbot Northwest in Minneapolis. There’s so much I need to know if my African audience is going to say, “Yes. She understands.”

I’d like to find someone to go with me to Thembisa Hospital. Maybe someone from the Arebaokeng children’s program on Tuesday….

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Prayer of National Confession

Although the United States may have been founded on Christian principles, from the beginning we were a nation of sinners. Both Daniel (Daniel 9:4b-19) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:5-11) model confession of the nation’s sins as they seek revival in the land and the restoration of righteousness and justice. On this Independence Day holiday pray Daniel’s prayer and at the ellipses (…) insert some of our nation’s sins that have troubled you, such as those suggested.

O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.

Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame--the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. O LORD, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the LORD our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.

We have aborted our babies and abused our children.

We have substituted material things for quality relationships in our families.

We have demeaned marriage and broken our solemn vows.

We have filled our minds with violence from television, movies and video games.

We have worshipped our bodies and physical beauty.

We have glorified celebrity instead of character.

We selfishly believe we deserve to satisfy our every whim with the result of rampant obesity and credit card debt.

We have neglected the poor and put new sports arenas ahead of affordable housing.

We have put the profits of American companies ahead of treating AIDS in the Third World.

We have enslaved the economies of poor countries by making huge loans to corrupt rulers who fill their own pockets rather than serve their people.

We have based our trade agreements and international policies on what will bring the greatest profits to our own pockets instead of freedom and justice for all.

Puffed up with the pride of our own righteousness, we have meddled in the affairs of other nations and brought the ruin of war on them and ourselves.

Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.

(Excerpted from an unpublished manuscript entitled Honey From the Comb; a resource for Scripture Guided Prayer by LeAnne Hardy)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Remember Your Mothers and Fathers

When I came into Arebaokeng Center, I could hear Nomlhanlha’s voice raised in the garage classroom. It sounded like some kind of lecture. The upper primary children, some of them already adolescents, sat quietly, heads bowed, hands clutched in their laps. “Remember your mothers and fathers,” Nomlhanlha admonished, and there was not a sound from the usually rambunctious group.

I made my way to the tiny room where twenty younger children clustered around a heater. I shed layers of clothing in the over-heated space where the staff tried to compensate for the chilly winter outside. We read our stories, and I carried my boxes of books to the garage where the older children were finishing their hot meal.

The somber mood was gone. They laughed and joked and enthusiastically grabbed the books on sharks and crocodiles I had brought to replace the beloved snake books that went back to the library. One fourteen-year-old lifted his leg high to show me the eight-inch seam rip in the crotch of his trousers. The white of his underwear showed beneath. He pointed to a chubby teenage girl who has recently joined the group. “She did it,” he said with a laugh. “She wants me.”

“Remember your mothers and fathers,” Nomlhanlha had said. All these children are orphans. Most of their parents died of AIDS although AIDS is not usually a criterion in these programs. A needy child is a needy child. “Remember your mothers and fathers.” No doubt this kind of sexual joking was the cause of her lecture and yet the joking goes on. Adolescents are so sure it won’t happen to them

“Remember your mothers and fathers.” But will they?

Monday, June 23, 2008

String Mops and Golden Hair

I was worried about European fairy tales giving African girls the idea that blond = beautiful; I am not blond; therefore I cannot be beautiful. (See my May 29, 2008 entry.) Last week two girls, maybe ten years of age, showed up at the after-school club in Tembisa with string mops. If they weren’t new they were at least very well washed. The girls arranged the mops on their heads so that the long gray strings cascaded down their backs. As they delicately brushed the strings back from their faces I was reminded of the torn, cream-colored cashmere shawl my mother let us have for dress ups when I was a child. Gold metallic threads glittered in its long fringe. When I put the shawl over my head, I held my chin higher. I glided gracefully across our basement playroom. I felt beautiful, although I no doubt looked as ridiculous as a child with a mop on her head. The Tembisa girls strutted more than glided. I’m hoping they were imagining rock stars instead of Cinderella. Or maybe that isn’t an improvement…

Monday, June 9, 2008

Return to Alex

Tuesday I went back to Alexandra, the township where I visited before with colleague Ruth Maxwell and the team from Rosebank Union Church. (See the blog entry for April 27, 2008) We made a second visit to Takalani pre-school. When we arrived in April the children were just exiting the building to use buckets on the porch as substitute toilets since the neighbors were not excited about that many ‘extras’ using their public toilet. This time we saw three new toilets being installed for the pre-school. A group of men hacked away at a cement patio to make a little niche to hold the sewer pipe. Of course the new toilets are in the next courtyard where the babies stay. The pre-schoolers will have to go around other houses to get there, but hey! It’s better than buckets!

We dropped off some toys and food supplies, and I read We All Go on Safari; a Swahili Counting Book. We skipped the Swahili since it isn’t a Southern African language, but the kids had fun counting in English and identifying the different animals.

At the next place we also dropped off supplies. Maria, who runs this little pre-school, wants to reach the poorest of the poor. She only charges fifty to a hundred rand (US$8-15) per month, depending on ability to pay, and provides a hot meal for the children. There were forty-two of them plus three workers in a sheltered courtyard about 10 by 15 feet. The floor was on a couple different levels, neither of them smooth or even. Two tiny, windowless rooms on one side provide a place for napping children. I suspect they also serve as family bedrooms at night. Oh, yeah. One toilet. Maria is making plans to add toilets and close in the courtyard a bit more from the cold Johannesburg winter. Rosebank Union Church with will do what they can to help.

I read Our Gran and We all go on Safari. I was struck that not only do the children enjoy the books, but the workers seem to be encouraged by someone coming with an interesting activity. Part of the tiny courtyard was taken up with a jungle gym, hung with laundry and a few storage boxes, although they didn’t stop children from climbing. In one corner a tattered sign hung from a string: Music area. Five feet away in another corner a sign read, ‘Art area.’ I didn’t see any particular difference in the two cramped corners, but the signs said to me that this woman with little formal training is trying to put into practice what she has heard about how to run a pre-school. Her heart is huge. The need is tremendous.

Ruth is trying to recruit people who would be willing to go into the many similar pre-schools and day care centers in Alexandra Township on a regular basis. A child psychiatrist in the church said, “Read to these children every day, and you will change their lives forever.” Seeing the enthusiasm of my Tembisa kids being read to weekly, I can imagine it is true.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Surprise Workshop

I found out Friday that I was teaching a writing workshop on Saturday. It is my husband, Steve, who is good at thinking on his feet. (He’s in Bolivia right now where he was scheduled to teach a three-day workshop on he-knew-not-what, presumably something related to his field of theological education. They kept saying they would get back to him on the exact topic.)

In contrast to Steve, I am the sort who over prepares. My manuscripts go through 6, 8 even 11 drafts. I can’t stop fiddling with a presentation until the moment I give it. I’m always certain it could be better, afraid I will make a fool of myself by having completely missed the boat.

I had discussed with Dondo, the children’s librarian at Tembisa West Library, the possibility of a writing workshop for people who would like to learn to write for children. We were motivated by a writing competition by one of the local publishers. The competition has a deadline of June 30. True, we had originally discussed last week and this week for a two-Saturday course, but then he found out it had to go through the library committee, and I took off for Cape Town and Blantyr. I thought we had postponed the whole idea. I called Friday to see if he had been able to arrange anything for June. It’s a good thing I called.

“Yes, we are expecting you tomorrow morning at 10,” he said. (“Tomorrow” being the 31st of May.)

“Oh,” I said, thinking quickly. “How many?”

“We have five signed up.”

Five is not a bad number to work with. It isn’t hard to get each one involved. There is time for everyone to share his writing. They form their own relationships to encourage one another.

So I went—straight from the ice rink and my early morning practice with a stop at Mug and Bean for a hazelnut latte since it would have taken too long to go home in between. (It’s a tough life, I know.)

I think all told we were more like ten, although some who arrived early had to leave, and Dondo kept recruiting anyone who came through the doors of the library that he thought should be interested in writing for children. I merged a session from my Kenya workshops on “What makes a good children’s story?” and another on “Plotting your story”, and we didn’t quite get through all the material, but they were excited about what they got. They want to meet again in two weeks, and it sounded like they plan to recruit new members to our group. So we will probably do a lot of repeating, but have a core who knows where we are going and will come prepared with the exercise I gave them.

This is something I have wanted to do in South Africa for a long time, but it has never quite come together before. I want to ask, why now, Lord? Our visas expire in two months, and we are looking at moving back to the U.S. But we plan to take chunks of time back in South Africa, and I have to trust that the Lord has his own timing.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fairy Tales in Tembisa

I have never been a fan of Disney retellings. Well, maybe when I was ten. I do remember enjoying The Sleeping Beauty although LeAnne the Literalist even then was very aware that the little boy at her christening could not possibly have been the prince who woke her if she slept for a hundred years. And LeAnne, the Lover of Literature, strongly disapproved of the Disney Company completely changing the ending to Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” and refused to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But my aversion to such things is not necessarily shared by the children to whom I read.

This week someone gave me two boxes of used books. Although we are in Africa, the source was white, and I carefully sorted the books into stacks of appropriate, inappropriate and questionable. One of my goals is to offer the children positive images of themselves. I look for books that show children of color and African settings, and avoid books about little white children in America or Europe. Animal stories are popular, but ‘wild’ works better than Old MacDonald’s VERY non-African farm.

I put into the trash the books that were so fragile they would undoubtedly fall apart in the first set of eager hands. There was one about clothes whose author didn’t seem to realize that not all his readers had blond hair and blue eyes. Into the ‘too white’ stack went the European fairy tales with their fair-skinned, blond-haired princesses. I was about to bundle them into the box with the lily-white rejects when I remembered how popular the library’s copy of 101 Dalmatians in Zulu had been last week. I’m not sure where the children have seen them, but they seem to be familiar with all the Disney characters. Several of the fairy tales were in easy-to-read versions. Reading practice is a redeeming value, isn’t it? I put the fairy tales into the bins I carry to the centers.

Tuesday I read aloud the newly-donated, highly-illustrated book on Different Kinds of Snakes. As expected, the boys fought over it afterwards—that and the board book in the shape of a truck! But three little girls of about ten years of age, pulled their chairs close to the book bins, and read Disney’s Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty and the other fairy tales one after another, carefully sounding out the words. Wednesday a girl who looked about fourteen, pretended to tuck the worn copy of Disney’s Cinderella into her jacket to show me how much she loved it and wished she could keep it.

What is the attraction of European princesses? Part of it is no doubt the familiarity of the TV images. There is a certain satisfaction in being able to read for yourself the story you have already seen. The fairy-tale world has no more relationship to the reality of the children of Tembisa than to my reality growing up in Indiana. It is as unreal as the world of talking animal stories.

The children’s enthusiasm was fun to see. I went back to my reject box and pulled out another half dozen books. Hopefully I won’t warp their little psyches with the beauty=blond myth by letting them practice reading on a Disney fantasy.

[Although I hear from various people that they are reading my blog, on-line comments are rare. I guess I don’t write much that is controversial. Maybe some of you have some input on the appeal of European fairy tales to people of color, or why including them in my Tembisa book boxes is, or is not, a good idea. I’d love to hear your thoughts.]

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Lord is My Shepherd

Today I read Tim Ladwig’s Psalm 23 to my children in Tembisa. The text is straight out of the Bible, but the pictures show the inner city of Newark, New Jersey—not so very different from the inner city of Johannesburg.

When the Psalm says, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” the painting shows a crossing guard with her stop sign on a high pole, helping the children to get safely home from school. My favorite is the view through the window into a lighted kitchen where the children are having dinner with their grandparents. Outside in the darkness lurk the dangerous-looking characters we saw on the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ pages while the text says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Last night there were riots in some of the informal settlements (i.e. squatter camps, aka shanty towns) of Tembisa and other townships around Johannesburg. Foreigners were targeted. Not white, American-types like me, but Mozambicans and Zimbabweans, fellow-Africans who are political or economic refugees. In tough times it is easy to blame outsiders for your troubles, and right now the seven million Zimbabweans illegally in the country due to Mugabe's election antics make good scapegoats.

I called Tembisa before I went today. “No, it is fine,” Flora said. So I went. I don’t know what these children saw or heard last night. I can’t guess what they might experience tonight, but the message of Psalm 23 seemed especially apt.

On the way to school, the children in Ladwig’s book pass a church with a big stained-glass window of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. When the last verse says, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” the picture shows a similar window over the children’s bed. This time instead of a lamb, Jesus holds the children, and instead of trees and streams in the background, there are the streets of the city that we have seen throughout the book.

We talked a little of God’s protection in Tembisa. I don’t know how much the children understood. It was a particularly chaotic day with no adult but me. Some of the boys were loud and rambunctious, but they seemed to identify with the details of Ladwig’s paintings. We read the psalm aloud together. I pray that tonight they will remember.
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Monday, May 19, 2008

Sindiwe Magona’s Passion

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“You can’t infect someone with a disease you don’t have,” says Sindiwe Magona, author of The Best Meal Ever (Oxford University Press, 2006) among many other books. She isn’t talking about HIV, but about a love of books.

Sindiwe is a spry little Xhosa woman. (She told me someone was tall, then admitted with a wave of her hand, “To me, everyone is tall.”) She is passionate about books; she’s passionate about the importance of fathers; she’s passionate about not leaving litter behind. She used to produce anti-apartheid radio programs from New York City, and I can’t imagine her being less than passionate about that.

Sindiwe is a marvelous storyteller who throws herself into her tales from African folklore and from modern life. The Best Meal Ever is about children on their own with nothing to eat. The oldest sister puts on a pot of water, and one by one the younger children fall asleep, their stomachs filled with hope rather than actual food. In the morning a neighbor arrives with a bag of groceries, and the little ones wake up to a satisfying meal.

“How can teachers who don’t read teach children to love books?” Sindiwe Magona demanded at a recent retreat of South African children’s writers and illustrators outside Cape Town. “You can’t infect someone with a disease you don’t have,” she said again.

I think of my children in Tembisa, running to help carry the box of books from my car. I hear the murmur of their voices as they sound out words, and see the ones who linger even when the cook calls that the food is ready. I can’t solve South Africa’s housing problems. I have no comprehensive plan to stop crime and violence in this country. My activities are only a drop in the bucket in the battle against HIV/AIDS. But there are two ‘diseases’ with which I would like to infect these children: a love of God and a love of books. With these two passions they can change the world.

[The above picture was taken on a hike at the retreat. Sindiwe is on the right.]

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Alexandra Township

“Our gran is beautiful.” So are the children of Alexandra township. Thursday I accompanied a team from Rosebank Union Church to Alexandra, a crowded slum with an estimated 34,000 shacks about 20 minutes from my home.

I read stories in two crèches. (The French word for ‘crib’ is used here to designate a day care center or nursery school.) Susan Binion and Kathy Haasdyk’s Our Gran was a big hit. (See my review in the previous entry.) Unlike my afterschool programs in Tembisa, these children knew virtually no English. I read the book in English and showed the pictures. Their teachers read the Zulu version and elaborated with enthusiasm. I told, more than read, Pamela Duncan Edwards’ Roar! A Noisy Counting Book because I knew the clever poetry would be lost in the translation. The children counted fleeing animals in English and roared enthusiastically along with the little lion cub who scares all the animals off although he is only looking for someone to play with.

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The team from Rosebank includes three young women who are HIV positive and keep an eye out for those in the community who need help. They visit during the week and assess needs. When the nurse comes on Thursday they are ready to direct her to the most critical needs. From their own experience of recovering health because of ARVs (anti-retrovirals) they can be a great encouragement.

The first home we visited the patient had died that morning. She was so afraid that someone would find out she had HIV that she refused to be tested and get help. We stopped to pray in the home of the neighbor who had told us about this woman and found she had a 22-day-old grandbaby. Both the granny and the baby’s mother are HIV+, but determined to live healthy and productive lives with medications. Everything possible has been done to protect the child, but it will be another six weeks before testing will show whether this precious little girl has the Human Immunodeficiency Virus in her blood or not.

Our guides directed us up a narrow alley, through a courtyard to a 9’x9’ shack nearly obstructing the way to more houses beyond. In this tin cube lived a grandmother with her severely handicapped grandson and his 10-year-old sister who, according to neighbors, does all the housework. We left a blanket and a stuffed toy as well as a food parcel, and the team made plans to research day care for the handicapped in the area and look for a push chair (stroller) so the child can get outside. Given the way the Lord has brought what is needed at exactly the right time in the past, I thoroughly expect someone to show up at the church this week to donate a push chair.

In the novel I am currently working on, my character Mboti, who lost his job when his HIV status became known, does the kind of work these young women do. He is intended to be a model of living positively with HIV. I went along for the home visits as well as to the crèches in order to research my character, but in the process I grew in my respect for the incredible work these women are doing and the tremendous difference that churches, partnering with local communities, can make.
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Monday, April 21, 2008

Our Gran


“Our gran is beautiful.” So is Susan Binion and Kathy Haasdyk’s new picture-book Our Gran. Kathy’s soft water-color illustrations bring to life Susan’s three African children living with their grandmother since their mother died. Gran goes to the ladies’ meeting every Thursday afternoon. “She always comes home singing.” She and the children go to church on Sunday and “always come home singing.” But the day the children’s mother died, their gran didn’t smile or sing.

The problem of AIDS orphans is all too common in KwaZuluNatal where Susan Binion and her family live as TEAM missionaries serving at Union Bible Institute. For generations elderly Africans have been cared for by their grown children, but in these days of HIV, too often those adult children have died, leaving their parents to care for the next generation. The elderly might raise a dozen or more grandchildren with little or no income. This book pays tribute to those hard-working grandmothers.

Our Gran has a special place in my heart because I know both Susan and Kathy (an SIL missionary recently returned to Canada.) The model for the grandmother is a dear Zimbabwean lady, the mother of a friend in my church. My friend’s wedding picture even appears in some of the illustrations.

The book is aimed at pre-schoolers and includes discussion questions appropriate for any child, not just those who have lost their parents. I have read it with groups of elementary school children in Tembisa who embraced it enthusiastically, especially when I showed them copies in both Zulu and Xhosa that they could read for themselves more easily than the English.

Africa needs many more books like Our Gran that reflect the contemporary world and speak to the hearts of ordinary children.

To order contact :
Union Bible Institute Literature Department
PO BOX 50, Hilton, 3245
South Africa
Phone: +27 33 343 4547
FAX: +27 33 343 1795

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Writing for Kenya's Children

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Violence is an acceptable way of solving problems.
Those people are bad.
Friends can’t be trusted.
Those I love can’t protect me.

One by one we listed negative lessons that Kenyan children learned in the violence that followed last December’s elections.

I drew a line down the board. “What are the positive lessons we want them to learn instead?” I asked.

“Good people still exist!” two students practically shouted. “And some of them are from the other tribe,” someone added. We went on to talk about hope, trust, the power of difference and ways of portraying such themes in stories.

I was deeply moved as I listened to fifteen women, talking so excitedly about the needs of Kenyan children that they practically ignored me, their teacher. They came from different ethnic groups, some 'at war' with one another, but they shared a passion for Christ, for children, for books and for their country.

The next morning we prayed together for the God who heals the broken hearted, who is a father to the fatherless and a defender of widows to use us to share his comfort. As we broke for tea in the afternoon, one of the women received an SMS from her office to avoid Ngong Road—new violence had broken out.

I am not one to panic. I have lived in the midst of a revolution in Ethiopia and a civil war in Mozambique. I am well aware that the media plays up the most dramatic scenes, and Nairobi was probably not going to burst into flames that afternoon. Although the women all expressed the same sentiments in their words, more than one described her stomach twisting in fear. “Not again! Dear God, don’t let it be like before when bands of thugs went house to house asking what tribe you were from so they could decide whether or not to kill you.”

A good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, I tell my students. But this story doesn’t yet have an ending. Kenya’s political problems won’t be easily solved. And what difference will a political solution make for the poor and the hopeless who blame other ethnic groups for their problems? I wonder about the personal ending for these women. Some are teachers; some work with relief organizations. One has HIV and came to the workshop only days after leaving the hospital. Will the refugee children still in the camps be able to unlearn the lessons their experiences have taught them or is Kenya doomed to repeat the cycle of violence in the next generation?

We don’t know the ending to the story, but we can talk to the One who does.