Monday, March 30, 2009


Refilwe means 'gift' in the Tswana language of southern Africa. The name also describes a Christian children's home north of Johannesburg. Some of the children are orphans, some are half-orphans and some have simply been removed from difficult situations by the state.

Refilwe is run on the cluster foster-home plan. Carefully screened godparents bring their own children to live in one of the three-bedroomed brick houses strung like beads along the river bank. They share their home and family life with a handfull of foster children. Each household has it's own vegetable garden. The community also runs income generating projects like livestock and a plant nursery. The clinic and the creche serve the near-by informal settlement (squatter camp) giving all a chance at a better life.

I went to Refilwe to talk with godparents and teachers from the creche about (what else?) reading with children. The godmothers arrived first, and we had an informal time. Most of their children are school age; many are teens. We talked about turning off the television, reading aloud with the younger ones while the older ones listen in, leaving good books around for children to pick up, and modeling an eagerness to read. One of the godmothers mentioned a book her teens had been passing around that had led to spirited discussion--a good reason to promote reading among the children.

When the creche teachers arrived, we discussed why read at all, and I demonstrated ways of involving small children in the story. They were thrilled with the books I brought as examples. Rosebank Union Church, who sponsored my visit, will work with them on a project to get books for the program.

The creche had been having story time once a week. "We could be reading three times a week," the director commented in the discussion afterward. "Or maybe even every day right before lunch." If she follows through, the lives of these children will be changed forever.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

New Life

It is in those major transitions of life that we missionaries most miss being 'home.' I remember my heartbreak when my grandfather was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. I missed his funeral and that of my grandmother. I also missed my brother's wedding.

I was present two years ago when my first grandchild was born, holding one of her mother's feet while her husband held the other and she pushed for all she was worth. I saw baby Isabella's thick, dark hair crowning. An indelible image is stamped on my brain of that tiny infant only minutes old, eyes scrunched shut, fists waving, complaining of the coldness and brightness of this new world as the nurse washed her. Where were the warm, secure walls of her mother's womb?

Bella's baby brother, Alexander Robert, arrived at 12:35 A.M. this morning. He is almost two weeks early--strong and healthy and eager to begin his new life. I talked to Katie a few hours later by Skype--a luxury my own mother in Indiana didn't have when Katie made her appearance in Campinas, Sao Paulo. Katie sounded alert and happy. She was busy bonding with the little fellow. Bella wasn't there yet and hadn't yet met her new brother. I wish I could see her eyes when she does. I keep trying to picture him and all I see is Bella, waving her tiny fists, or wrapped in a blanket with a little knit cap on her head.

Alexander wasn't supposed to come until the middle of April. I changed my original plans to spend April and May in Africa so that I wouldn't miss the event. I even moved my return flight up when his arrival seemed eminent, but it didn't work. I'll be with them in a few days. Am I disappointed that I'm not there now? Maybe a little. Mostly I'm just thrilled he's safely here!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Picture books and Macaroni and Cheese

Two local grocery chains supply soon-to-be-out-of-date food to the Rose ACT programs. Wednesday Ruth brought a large cardboard box of frozen macaroni and cheese dinners from Pick and Pay to the grannies meeting.

The Wednesday grannies are more in number than the group I met with at the Baptist church. There were 24 ladies and one gentleman. They usually meet under a sheet of plastic stretched across a junk-wood frame between two buildings, but the man who owns the space forgot to move his car this Wednesday morning. So the ladies lined up their plastic garden chairs along the wall of the neighboring house where the shadow fell a few feet into the brick drive.

Twenty-five people all in a row make quite a line. I stood in the sun and read my stories, walking from one end of the line to the other to be sure everyone saw the pictures and understood what was going on. Imelda, who might have translated, was busy heating the mac and cheese and despite their assurances, these ladies didn't seem as educated or fluent in English as the Friday group. I was less confident that they would understand someone merely standing up front talking in a language that wasn't their own. But they laughed appreciatively as Lulama tricked the baboons, the python and the lion and at last made her way home to her mother's arms. They nodded agreement when I explained my reasons for reading with their grandchildren.

When I had finished, one woman asked, "What do you do when the children are older and don't want to read?" Too often the TV stays on all the time, and modern young people don't want to listen to their granny. I will need to think through some appropriate suggestions for reaching the older ones.

I wish I could give every one of these grannies a $2 copy Our Gran. They cooed delightedly when I read it as an example of how a story can help to introduce a sensitive topic. It describes them and all they do for their families. Together they had 129 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren, although not all of those were living with the grandparents. And Ruth told me that the lady with the most grandchildren (23) wasn't even there!

Imelda and Selina brought plates of mac and cheese as fast as the capacity of Imelda's small oven allowed. I found a seat in the shade along the wall, reminding myself how nice the African sun should feel after a Northern winter, and how good my tan would look when I returned to Wisconsin. After all, at this altitude the sun isn't what it can be in the lowfeldt.

The woman next to me pulled a small plastic storage container out of her bag, and slid most of her portion of mac and cheese into it to take home.

"For my grand daughter," she explained, saving only the last couple bites for herself.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ubulhe Pre-school

The children were still at lunch when I arrived at Ubuhle Pre-school with Poppy, the Tembisa children's librarian. We sat on small wooden chairs in the main room. Through an open door we smiled at forty or more children seated at low tables, eating samp (hominy grits) and beans from bright plastic plates. As they finished, they came to greet us.

First came three little girls. They were probably four or five years old. Their hair was braided in tight cornrows. Two were obviously twins. "Good day," they said in turn, their brown faces exploding with grins as if they had dared one another to actually speak to the visitors in English.

"Good day," I said although it is not an expression I normally use. "How are you today?"

"I am fine," they replied in unison, pressing against the wall and dissolving in giggles.

A little boy came up the steps from the garage/lunch room. He held out his hand for me to shake. "Good day," he said clearly.

"Good day. And how are you?" I asked him.

His huge brown eyes went blank.

"Say, 'I. Am. Fine'," one of the little girls prompted him, enunciating each word separately.

"I. Am. Fine." He nodded his head with each remembered word.

After that they came more quickly, thrusting eager hands for Poppy and me to shake and reciting the words of greeting they had learned. Some needed prompting by the bigger girls. Some managed all by themselves.

While we waited for the stragglers to finish their lunches, we went on to "My name is ___. What is your name?" They all understood the question, but only the most confident could be enticed to say, "My name is" in front of the answer.

After that we talked about the colors they were wearing. (What is it about little girls and pink?) And body parts.

Still stragglers at the lunch table. I didn't want to start the stories without them.

We stood up and did actions with those body parts. We played London Bridge, a totally new game to them, but one that aroused lots of giggles.

The last children finished their samp and beans and came to the tiny classroom. While the smallest slept on a mattress in the corner, we read Emeka's Gift and counted all the things in the market that he considered taking to his grandmother. But he had no money, so he didn't buy her anything.

"Child, you are the best present of all," his grandmother assured him when he told her.

My librarian friend, Poppy, translated the last bit to be sure the children understood the concept of how precious they are. I'm grateful that she and Annah, the wife of the Assemblies of God pastor and owner of Ubulhe Pre-school, value these children so much. May they be precious to someone at home as well.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Letting Go

Years ago in Mozambique my daughters were concerned about the girls across the street who had no toys to speak of. We went through our things and chose some toys to give away. The neighbors were thrilled, but my daughters were upset later when they saw their former toys left out in the rain and not cared for. Nusha and her sisters were used to doing wonderfully creative things with leaves and sticks and pieces of elastic that didn't need to be put away when they were done. I had to remind myself as well as the girls that when we give something away we have to let it go.

Monday at Tembisa Baptist I asked where the book bin was that I had left in July. It took them a while to find it, making me think it probably wasn't being used on a weekly basis as intended. Eventually they came up with it. The plastic lid was missing, but there was still a large collection of books in good condition. (Maybe too good.) Unfortunately, there were also coloring books and crayons falling out of their boxes, small toys and stray craft supplies--not what the book bin was intended for. When we give something away, we have to let it go, I reminded myself.

Tuesday I returned to Arebaokeng. I was warmly received. The children pulled the plastic chairs into the front yard, and we read a counting book set in Nigeria that I had borrowed from my friend Ruth. Nlhanlha, the young pre-school teacher, sat with us and translated for the ones too small to know any English. She couldn’t find the bin, but brought a stack of books she uses, including many of the ones I had left. She complained that the school kids take the books home to read and then don’t bring them back.

When the school children arrived, they brought their chairs and gathered around before they even went for their meal. There was a larger group than usual, including a number of teens. I read the Easter story and was surprised that more knew what Easter was about than in the group at the Baptist church. They were a bit vague, but by the end of the story they knew we were celebrating that Jesus is alive. “Let’s have more stories about God,” said one of the older boys.

I gave them a short lecture about bringing back the books they took home. “They belong to all of us. When you bring one back, you can borrow another.” I’m not sure they understood the concept, but I tried.

During the reading time, I saw a boy with a plate of mealie porridge and stewed chicken eating with his fingers in the traditional way while he leaned over almost double to read a book spread on the cement at his feet. In the 'old days' when I brought the books from home, I insisted that they finish their food before they took a book. But they aren’t my books anymore. I bit my tongue. I’m glad he wants to read. I'm trying to learn to let go.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Saturday's Cool

"Saturday's Cool" their T-shirts proclaim. If you say it fast, it sounds like something your kids probably want to avoid. But four hundred and fifty learners grades five to twelve are eager to participate in the Rose-ACT tutoring program run on the boarder of Alexandra Township by Rosebank Union Church, Hurlingham, South Africa. There's even a waiting list of a hundred and fifty to pay the fee of sixty South African rand a term (about US$6). Classes are taught by 115 volunteers, about half of whom are from Alexandra Township, home to most of the students. Many are graduates of the program. I arrived in time to wade through the jam around the "library"--a tiny office lined with bookshelves and bins of books.

"This is nothing," said Anneke, the Dutch volunteer who works for IBM during the week, and runs the library on Saturday. "You should have seen it a few minutes ago!"

The dance club was just getting started after the academic classes ended. Later I checked out the science club where learners were engineering balsa wood structures for a coming competition. There's also a chess club.

I was there to meet with student volunteers who help in various creches (pre-schools) and after school programs in this community deeply affected by poverty, unemployment and HIV. There was a good bit of confusion getting started. (This is Africa, after all, and a North American like me needs lots of flexibility.) But eventually we were eight teens, Anneke and me. We read sample stories and talked about what to look for when choosing books to read to little ones and how to interact with them in the reading. (See my notes.) Although a couple looked like they were wondering why they were there, most were interested. One girl came to find out about reading with her five-year-old brother. It was exciting to see eyes light with understanding as if a proverbial bulb had been turned on.

During the week the facility is a technical college. The room echoed terribly, and it was hard to carry on a discussion, but I read Rosie the Brave and demonstrated different ways to involve listeners. It is the end of term or I would be eager to go back and meet with them again. I would love to hear them practice reading with each other. Next time...

The Rose-ACT website is being up-dated but check it out for more information. The entire program has one paid employee.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Alexandra Grannies

There was a line hundreds long outside the Alexandra fire station.

"That will affect numbers at the grannies support group," my SIM colleague, Ruth Maxwell, told me as we drove by. We suspected the government was handing out food packages and making sure everyone knew which party was in control of this bounty before next months elections.

Sure enough, numbers were down. Eventually six older women and one man joined the young ladies who work in home care in the area. One woman brought a grandchild who hadn't gone to school that day due to a tummy upset. Some spoke fluent English, although they lapsed into South Sotho when they spoke among themselves. All understood me well enough to laugh heartily at Marjorie van Heerden's Lulama's Long Way Home and nod their heads to my reasons why reading with their grandchildren was a good idea. (See Reading with Grannies .) They even knew the locations of, not one, but two public libraries within walking distance, and we talked about how to get a library card and borrow books for free as long as you return them on time. (South African libraries are still into heavy overdue fines.)

Ruth had told me that one of the women, Nkele, is an acknowledged artist in the community. Her creativity was obvious as Ruth brought out a box of fabric scraps and asked for ideas how they could be used to raise money for the group. I am going to be talking with Nkele about possibly illustrating one of my stories. Ruth has contacts who know how to write grants for such projects, and using a local artist will make it a good project for the church.

While the ladies sorted through the scrap box and exclaimed at their finds, Bonolo, Nkele's nine-year-old granddaughter, poured over the sample books I had brought. She told me her name means 'soft'. I thought how soft and cuddly her parents must have found her when she was new-born. Now her father is dead and her mother is very sick--an all-too-common story. Bonolo has a loving grandmother, reaching out to her neighbors and fighting for her family's future. That's why Ruth, Selina, Octavia and others consider it a privilege to stand along side them in their struggle.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Back to Tembisa

Africa. It's never quite what you expect. I arrived in Jozi Tuesday evening exhausted from two long flights. Wednesday afternoon I headed to Tembisa. I knew my way. I've been to Tembisa Baptist Church dozens of times. But that place by the train station where I always leave the asphalt to follow the dirt road along the tracks to the church--they're paving it, and there is no way through.

Paving is good.

No way through is bad.

Of course, there must be a way around, but I haven't been that way before. Try this street. No. They're paving there too. That one? More construction. The streets don't go in straight lines and form predictable squares like back home in the American Midwest. They twist and turn, and there is no point in looking at the street signs, because no one uses their names anyway. They use landmarks like the BP station I'm looking for. Except they have closed the BP station, and the sign is no longer there.

"That must have been it," I realize when I come to where the road goes under the railroad tracks that I wish I had been able to follow. I turn around for the fourth time.

When I arrive at the church, I get what I am expecting--an enthusiastic welcome. Kids spot me through the fence when I get out of the car and come running. We have a round of hugs and hand shakes. (Even the smallest African child knows how to shake hands politely.) They flutter after me as I greet the adults who cook their hot meal and keep things running at the center. They show me the cement slab and brick walls of the new church. And when I pull out the books sent by one of my friends at Solid Word Bible Church, they pounce like kittens on a ball of yarn. Fortunately there aren't a lot of children today probably due to the rain. There are enough new books to go around and soon a row of children, each engrossed in a new book, sits on the steel girder that waits on the floor of the new sanctuary for the engineer to raise it to hold the roof.

"Let me read to you," one girl says. So I listen to part of The Wild and then to a whole lot about sharks and some of another book.

We read until the raindrops begin to splatter on the pages, and we start home. The children scatter on foot. I get back in my borrowed mission car.

"If I turn left at the former BP station," I reason, "I should come to the road that passes near the library."

Bad idea. Did I mention that the streets don't make straight lines and right angles like they do in the Midwest? Twenty minutes later I have no idea how to find either the library or the Baptist Church, much less the road home.

A lot of my white friends would be nervous about coming to an African town like Thembisa alone. I'm not, but "Lord, please get me out of here before dark."

By the time I find the library, it is closing time--too late to visit my librarian friend, Poppy--but it IS still daylight, and from here I know my way home.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Reading with Grannies

Why should an African grandmother raising children orphaned by AIDS bother to read to them?

Next week I'm returning to Johannesburg, South Africa for three weeks. I'll be visiting the two after-school programs in Thembisa where I read books when I lived there. I'm anxious to see how the library bins I left behind are being used as well as to spend time with all my young friends. Hopefully I can be an encouragement to the children's librarians working in Thembisa.

I am especially excited to have been invited to share with some African grandmothers and godparents of orphans in near-by Alexandra Township. Most of these women have no pension or social security. They expected that their grown children would care for them in their old age. Instead their children have died, leaving them responsible for young grandchildren. Community organizations attempt to come along side these families, not only to help with practical matters like groceries and filling out government forms for assistance, but also to provide the respite of simple day care and advice on raising children in a modern world that is very different from the South Africa in which these grandmothers grew up. I will be very surprised if any of these grannies owned a book as a child or had someone read to them. They may have had a granny who told them stories, but that role in modern urban culture has been taken over by the television even in the poorest of homes.

So why would an African granny read with the children she is raising?
1. Reading together builds a close relationship with that child who has lost the security of parents. It is a way of spending focused time and saying to that child, you are important to me; you have worth as a person.
2. Reading together prepares that child for success in school as he sees how much Granny values reading and learns some basic skills and concepts. And success in school will translate into better jobs in adulthood.
3. Reading with children opens doors to conversations about faith, good choices and even the process of grieving. This is the most African of reasons since traditional culture has long used stories for teaching and indirectly solving conflicts.
Of course, I will flesh out each of these ideas, and we will have fun reading some favorite books.

I hope these grannies will catch some enthusiasm for sharing books with the children in their lives. If I can get even one to sign up for a library card, I will have achieved the ultimate success!
[Picture is from Our Gran by Susan Binion, illustrated by Kathy Haasdyk (Pietermaritzburg, UBI, 2007)]