Friday, April 17, 2009

Needed: another Nelson Mandela

Elections will be held next week in South Africa. When we lived there in the 1990s the country was a budding democracy brimming with hope. Newly-elected President Nelson Mandela encouraged people of all races to form a rainbow nation that would work together for peace and prosperity. The bid for the 2010 soccer World Cup grew out of that dream.

But cynicism has obscured the rainbow. Political corruption is treated as normal and no reason not to be a candidate for president. There are well over a million orphans in the country as a result of rampant AIDS. Incest and child rape are all too common. While I was in Johannesburg last month, taxi drivers went on strike in fear that a more efficient bus system might put them out of business. They dragged commuters from private cars, beat them and forced them to walk to work.

Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness....
(Psalm 72, verse 1)

So prayed King Solomon when he ascended the throne of Israel after his father, the great King David. He anticipated an international influence that would be the envy of modern leaders.

All kings will bow down to him
and all nations will serve him. (verse 13)

And on what did he base that international reputation?

For he will deliver the needy who cry out,

the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight. (verses 12 to 14)

The needy cry out in South Africa. The afflicted look to government agencies and too often find no one to help. More than five million South Africans are living with HIV/AIDS today, many weak and close to death. And as to violence--Johannesburg has one of the highest murder rates in the world. How precious is the blood of the people in the sight of those on next week's ballot? More precious than the wine of power? More precious than the friendship of the oppressor next door? More precious than a Swiss bank account? South Africa needs rulers at every level, endowed with justice and the righteousness of God.

Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel,
who alone does marvelous deeds.
Praise be to his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory.
Amen and Amen. (verses 18 and 19)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Granny Evelyn

Alexandra Township outside Johannesburg, South Africa, has little in common with the Northwoods retreat where I now live. I used to think it was so crowded nothing green could grow there, but this picture shows there is at least one, no, two trees in the area. In the background is one of the notoriously violent hostels built to house workers brought from the African homelands to the city to fill job needs under the old apartheid regime. I have been told that more than two thousand men live in that building. Surrounding the hostel are small houses. Some are reasonably comfortable, but to pay the high cost of the mortgage (or bond, as it is locally called) multiple shacks were built in the yard and rented out. I described one of these courtyards when I visited Imelda.

Granny Evelyn lives in a similar courtyard. She is one of the grannies from the group at the Baptist Church that I talked with about reading with their grandchildren. Besides her own grandchildren, Granny Evelyn does child care for a dozen small children whose parents are trying to make a living in this challenging environment. My friend Ruth dropped off a box of chocolate Easter eggs for the little ones to enjoy. Eleven teenage orphans living on their own will stop by in the evening for the hot meal Granny Evelyn prepares.

Only a few grannies came to the meeting that day. They talked about how to grow the group. "You can be a granny without being old," they said. "Can the younger grannies come?" These older grannies have a lot to teach younger grannies like me about unselfishly giving of ourselves.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Like a weaned child

"Do my eyes look funny?" I asked my husband.

"No," he said.

I wasn't sure if that was a relief or not. The lids felt puffy, and when I ran my finger across them, the skin was rough. Were they red? It's hard to see your own eyelids even in a mirror.

Maybe it's just part of the aging process. Most people don't think I look as old as the calendar says I am, but after all I am... never mind.

I had already tried a couple different lotions instead of my usual eye cream. Maybe it's an allergic reaction. I stopped putting anything on the lids.

That was in Africa. I returned to North America and lingering Minnesota winter to help my daughter with her new baby. My lids still felt like they were covered with tiny scales. They itched. I caught my second daughter looking hard at them.

"It's like I'm allergic to something," I explained, "but what?" I stopped using makeup altogether.

Then it hit me. Years ago during the war in Mozambique, I used to break out in a periodic rash on my arms and legs. As time went on, the rash would spread to my chest and neck, driving me crazy with the itch. One morning after being hit with a particularly stressful situation, I woke with my face so swollen I could hardly open my eyes.

Could my swollen eyelids be caused by stress? But I had a wonderful time in Africa! I'm glad for this time with my two grandchildren. Yes, but for weeks I have been pushed just slightly beyond my comfort zone. I love talking about books and children and encouraging those who are on the ground working directly with African children at-risk. But the groups I spoke to were never suburban housewives. The setting could be be a challenge, as the echoing room at the Saturday's Cool or the long line of grannies on the shaded side of the alley. The meeting wasn't likely to start at the scheduled time and ended....? Africa is nothing if not unexpected.

Even here with my daughter, I am not home. It isn't my kitchen or my laundry. Babies and toddlers don't keep to my schedule. I must be constantly alert for how to be helpful without being an interfering mother-in-law.

This morning before anyone else was up I read from Psalm 131,
I have stilled and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child with its mother,
Like a weaned child with its mother is my soul within me.

A picture of my granddaughter curled up on her mother's lap in her penguin pajamas. She grasps the bottle of milk that she only uses at bedtime now. Her mother's arms are wrapped securely around her. She is content.

Like a weaned child with his mother is my soul within me. Let it be, Lord.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


I had forgotten how tiny a newborn is. My new grandson swims in the smallest onesie. He waves his little fists in the air, not yet coordinated enough to get them to his mouth to suck except by chance. He scrunches up his eyes and opens his mouth to search for the nipple. His vulnerability melts my heart.

He already made his first trip to the library. Big Sister has been part of a play group/story time there since she was five months old. Baby Brother beat her--he was only three-days old his first trip to the library. He is not yet choosing his own books to check out, but Big Sister freely quotes Masie and Curious George.

I am an early riser, and the added incentive of jet-lag from my recent return from Africa has had me downstairs at the computer long before others rise (except when I find Mommy and Baby doing the early-morning feeding thing and have the chance to send Mommy back to bed.) One morning I had been up for several hours when I heard the pitter-patter of little feet on the hardwood floor and a cheerful, high-pitched "Morning, Grammie!" That was special since normally Big Sister wants only Mommy in her drowsy waking moments.

Daddy has taken a couple weeks of paternity leave, a twenty-first century privilege. Yesterday he was seen holding the baby with one arm, balancing the bottle with his chin while typing on the computer with his free hand.

I think of the pregnant teen Imelda introduced us to in Alex. Will her baby have two healthy parents or will Daddy abandon them and Mommy sicken and die? Will he have enough food in that tiny shack by the open drain? Will the girl's father I met be a model of strength and self-control or will he exert his power to drink away their small income and beat his family? I saw no books in the home. It will be a miracle if his mother gets him a library card. Will he go to one of the creches I have visited where loving teachers read and sing with the children and prepare them for school in a challenging new world? Maybe he will attend Saturday's Cool and catch an enthusiasm for learning. What kind of chance will he have in twenty-first century Africa? I wish I knew. I am grateful for those like my friend Ruth and her colleagues who are working day-by-day in small ways to make a difference in his life.

Monday, April 6, 2009

New Pictures

I have added pictures to some of my March blogs. Take another look at Refilwe, Picture Books and Macaroni and Cheese, and Alexandra Grannies.

Friday, April 3, 2009


One day last week I went back with Ruth to Imelda's in Alex. We took cakes to serve a group of businessmen coming to look at the grannies support project with a view to getting involved financially. While Ruth and Imelda talked in her small combination living room and kitchen, I enjoyed the sunshine outside.

I counted eight doors opening onto Imelda's courtyard. Ten doors opened into the neighboring courtyard where three little girls played with a naked babydoll. Imelda's house has three rooms and running water. Many don't. In the middle of each courtyard was an small, sheet metal building that reminded me of an old-fashioned outhouse. That's what it was, only these outhouses had flush toilets--one per courtyard. Behind each outhouse was a tap over a wash tub for everyone in the courtyard to use.

Imelda took us to visit a pregnant teen. We left the car in the stony courtyard of a tuck shop/bar. Imelda led us down a narrow ally with a gutter of putrid water running down the middle to the shack where the girl lived. The girl's father was there, as was her sister, and her sister's two small children--one a darling little girl with a pink T-shirt and a charming smile. The room can't have been larger than nine feet by twelve, but it was cramped with a fridge, a small chest freezer with a microwave on top, a tiny, black and white television and an oven/two burner cooking unit on a chest of drawers. The lounge furniture on which we sat consisted of a backless wooden bench in front of the curtain that separated the bedroom.

We walked out into the street for a little privacy. Ruth asked the girl about her first pre-natal visit to the doctor. It had not been a positive experience. Imelda will offer to go with her next time. Ruth promised to help with baby clothes when the time comes--a small token of hope in a desperate situation.

Imelda is concerned about her teenage son. She has talked with him about her own status and the dangers of promiscuity. He shakes his head. He isn't willing to postpone sexual gratification until he finds a life partner. I wonder about this teenage girl. She may have never slept with anyone except the father of her baby, but how many women has he slept with? What is his HIV status? How can we convince teens that sex is worth waiting for?