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.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

More Maputo Memories


Our closest missionary friends in Mozambique in the mid-1980s were Lucio and Rosalee Guimaraes. The Guimaraes family arrived from Brazil the year before we moved to Maputo. No one told them that the road from Nelspruit was too dangerous to travel even in daylight. I can only imagine the guardian angels surrounding their car as they drove through the war zone with their three young children, arriving in Maputo well into the night. (The first time we drove that road was after peace had come in the early ‘90s. The girls counted 108 burned out vehicles. Erika’s comment about having grown up in Mozambique during the war was, “Do you mean we were having an adventure and didn’t even know it?)

The Guimaraes girls were the same age as ours. Lucio, like Steve, was committed to leadership training. We four adults prayed together once a week, and the children turned every occasion to be together into a ‘festa.’ It wasn’t uncommon to hold ‘theological education conferences’ around the grill in our backyard with a Mozambican Methodist theologian who had married a Brazilian girl. I taught Rosalee’s children English, and she taught mine to read and write the Portuguese Katie and Erika had picked up in conversation.

Lucio and Rosalee now live in Cape Town where he pastors a Portuguese church and gives pastoral support to Brazilian missionaries in Southern Africa. Their daughter Eunice and her husband Marcos (the son of good friends of ours in our Brazil days thirty years ago) joined them to teach music and Sunday school.
Easter weekend we traveled to Cape Town to welcome the next generation—Davi Guimaraes Rodrigues.
* * *
Our closest Mozambican friends during those same years were Andre and Adelina Malombe. They paid a formal call to greet us our first week in April 1985. Adelina was an enthusiastic and gifted Sunday School teacher. Andre was assigned to teach with Steve, who soon discovered he was working with one of the most gifted teachers he had ever met even though Andre had only an eighth grade education.

The Malombes soon became our closest African friends. Their children were welcome playmates of ours. We arranged scholarships for Andre and Adelina at the Brazilian seminary where we had worked. Both finished bachelor degrees and eventually earned Master’s degrees from a Brazilian distance learning program while teaching in an Angolan seminary. Over the years we have remained close friends.

March 30 their son Elias was married. African weddings are long drawn out affairs with a church ceremony and day of festivities with the bride’s family one day and a second feast with singing and dancing the next day at the groom’s home. We drove across from Johannesburg for the second day of festivities.

Elias married a girl in the church whose mother is the director of women’s work for the southern region of the country. She too grew up in a strong Christian home. Many young people these days find it difficult to separate the economic development of the country from the lifestyle of sex and alcohol that they see on television or from the South African tourists who flock to the beaches. Elias and his bride have a challenge before them to build a godly marriage in a world very different from the one in which they grew up.
* * *
Born in Brazil, raised in Mozambique…My children have grown up. They too have married and Katie has given us a grandchild. It is not surprising that their playmates have grown up too. But I look at Elias and see a little boy delighted by pin-the-tail-on-the donkey at a long-ago birthday party under the mango tree in our back yard. I look at Eunice and think of four little girls, dancing and laughing long ago in a crumbling city of broken glass and random night-time shooting.