Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Moved to new address

I’m home!  From now on you will need to go to if you would like to continue following my blog.  I look forward to hearing from you there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Reading just for fun?

The after-school program at Tembisa Baptist Church doesn’t have the sponsors that Arebaokeng has. They aren’t even sponsored by the church, which charges rent for the use of their old building and office space in a converted house on the property. But they run a crèche and feed a hundred children a day.

Friends from Grace Baptist Church, Kempton Park, continue to visit one morning a week to sing and play games with the little ones. I don’t think anyone has been reading with the school-aged children since I left.

When I returned last week, I brought my computer so the kids could see a slideshow of the pictures we took before I left in July 2008. I say “we” because they went off with my camera and took better candids than I would ever have gotten! Now they crowded around the computer and squealed with delight at the faces of themselves and their friends, some of whom you can see in the slideshow at the top of the left column.

I read The Christmas Story since tinsel and garlands of evergreen already decorate the shops here. We also read Lulama’s Long Way Home and laughed at the little girl’s clever ways of getting away from the dangerous animals she meets as she tries to find her way home.

“What was the point of that story you read?” one of the caregivers asked when the children were settled with books from the bin I left in 2008.

“It’s just for fun,” I explained. She looked disappointed. “But reading aloud in English helps them to learn the language, and on this page we practiced counting with the silly baboons.”

She nodded.

I continued. “I want them to think of books as fun. The more they read, the better they will do in school.”

A light passed over her face as though reading without a learning agenda was a new and pleasant idea to her.

It was mass chaos as the children read, exchanged books to read some more, or crowded around me to share their reading skills or just to touch my hair. “See how much they enjoy it,” I said. “Why don’t you pull the book bin out every week?”

Just maybe it will happen.

***Please note*** I will be discontinuing this blog after this trip to South Africa. You can continue reading about My Not-so-ordinary World at where I am already posting.  I hope to hear from you there!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

St. Francis Nursery School

This week I returned to St. Francis Nursery School in Boksburg.  I used to read there regularly back in 2006 and 2007.  I turned the project over to a colleague when I went to the States for a few months.  That colleague has now returned to U.K. so I thought I would stop by to see if anyone would like a story or two. 

The children were in the yard when I arrived.  As I approached through the garden Teacher Ruthie burst from the door, squealing like a three-year-old and running to greet me.

Unlike the community programs where I usually read, St. Francis is an institution—a home for abandoned babies and children rescued from emergency situations.  Most of the children are HIV positive, more than one discarded on a garbage heap by a parent too sick to take care of them.  A few are fostered, but keeping the children in an institution is a way of being sure they get the medications they need.

All these children are new since I was last here.  The ones I read to have “graduated” to Epworth, a home for school age children about forty-five minutes away.  Ruthie and her former colleague Louise go twice a year to visit “their” children, taking presents and spending time, trying to provide some continuity of relationships in the lives of the children.

Ruthie and I sat on the bench in front of the school.  “That one was found locked in a shack without food.” She pointed out a little boy about four.  “The neighbors called the police to break down the door when they heard him crying for days.  No one knows who his parents are or even his real name.”  When he first arrived, she told me, he would crawl into the suspended barrel on the playground and not come out.  Now he plays with the other children.

She pointed to a little girl, older than the others.  “She has a little brother.  We are looking for someplace where they can stay together.  Both parents have died.  The relatives rejected them because of their status.”  She means their HIV status, still a cause of fear and stigma here.

Ruthie is one year away from finishing a BA in early childhood education.  She wants to be a government inspector to monitor pre-schools and nursery care.  I just hope that doesn’t take her away from direct contact with the children.  She has such a big heart.

***Please note*** I will be discontinuing this blog after this trip to South Africa. You can continue reading about My Not-so-ordinary World at where I am already posting.  I hope to hear from you there!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Stimulating Minds in Alex

“Why do we read?” I asked the combined fifth-grade classes at Rose-Act’s Saturday’s Cool. This supplementary educational program for grades five through twelve serves the desperately poor township of Alexandra, near Johannesburg.

“To learn new things,” a boy said promptly, and I knew this was going to be a fun class.

“To find out about the world,” another said.

“To learn to spell.”

“It stimulates the mind.” (That one I definitely was not expecting.)

“To learn better English.”

“Hmm. Why do we need to learn English?” I asked.

A Zulu boy on the front row raised his hand. “To talk to people from other parts of South Africa,” he said. This country has eleven official languages. Several were represented in the class. Without English, that Zulu boy would have trouble communicating with the Tswana girl sitting next to him.

I told them about Litt-World last week and how people from Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria could communicate because we understood English. “When you know English, you can’t just talk to people in South Africa. You can talk to the whole world!”

I had brought a stack of books, many from their library, to have a contest between the two classes. “Which book would you use to find the meaning of a word?

"I want to know if the tree growing in the yard of my new house will have fruit. Which book will I use?

"My neighbor has just found out she has HIV and she wants to know—” They had grabbed the book before I even finished the question.

After class the kids took my camera. (I get the best pictures that way!)

Later I went to the bookstore with Anneke, the Dutch woman working for IBM who is the volunteer librarian for the program. We had money to spend! It was given by the Vacation Bible School of First Baptist Church, Webster, Wisconsin, USA. Books are expensive in South Africa—especially the nicely illustrated information books we wanted. The money didn’t go as far as we would have liked. But the enthusiastic readers in the fifth grade were excited to know there would be new books in their library.

***Please note*** I will be discontinuing this blog after this trip to South Africa. You can continue reading about My Not-so-ordinary World at where I am already posting.  I hope to hear from you there!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Joy in Alex

I drove right past the Johannesburg College, Alexandra Campus on London Road. The slum of Alex stretched to my right. Warehouses rose along the road to my left. When I was sure I had gone too far, there was nothing to do, but turn around in the crumbling lot of a business and retrace my route through the heavy traffic. Believe me, I was saying a lot of prayers! But I found it.

The security guard held out his book for me to sign and say where I was going in the complex. “Actually, I’m not going in. I’m here to meet someone.”

“Someone from outside or inside?” he asked so suspiciously that I was afraid he would tell me to move my car.

“Someone who works with Rose Act, the group that is here on Saturdays.”

The guard smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. Rose Act has a reputation around here.

Soon Anna arrived, a tiny woman with a big smile. She is probably no older than I am, but has led a harder life. I gave her the cloth doll I had bought in Kenya. The plan is for her neighbor, an accomplished seamstress, to use it to make a pattern so some of the ladies in Alex can make a South African version to sell. Then Anna hopped in the car and we were off to read stories in crèches.

“Turn right here. Left at the stop sign. Left again. Now right.” She directed me through the narrow streets of Alex.

Our first stop was Sindisa’s Creche. Sindisa is a relative. Her house is in a newly built section of town close to the highway. This house was obviously built with a pre-school in mind. There were three large classrooms in back. The children were nicely washed and cleanly dressed. They sat still, without shoving. Of course they weren’t quiet—not after I brought out Water Hole Waiting and they spotted the monkeys on the front—but they listened politely and all their noise was shouts of recognition of what they saw in the book.

Second stop was Takalani. Takalani means “Be happy” in the Venda language. It is also the name of the South African version of Sesame Street. But this crèche consists of two cement block houses up separate alleys. I have read there a couple times before and was enthusiastically received. The children understood less English. Their teacher translated a little. Mostly the children just laughed and shouted the names of the animals they saw.

Dudonza is even further up an even narrower alley in the shadow of the huge barracks that once housed two thousand mine workers. Now no one knows how many crowd its rooms. Shacks line the outer walls of the barracks and spill into the street. The children here speak almost no English although a sunshade has been put over the tiny courtyard and the floor leveled and tiled since the last time I was here. The Dudonza children had a hard time identifying the hippos and giraffe in the pictures, but they shouted out the next number in the counting book Emeka’s Gift.

So much joy from one morning’s wandering through the alleys with a bag of books and a friend to show me the way. If I still lived in South Africa, I would be tempted to do it every week.

***Please note*** I will be discontinuing this blog after this trip to South Africa. You can continue reading about My Not-so-ordinary World at where I am already posting.  I hope to hear from you there!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Back at Arebaokeng

The Arebaokeng community project has a crèche (daycare / pre-school) and an after-school program for children who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS.  When I lived in South Africa, the children were cared for in an old house.  The dining room/classroom was a garage.  On cold days the little ones crowded into a tiny bedroom with no furniture.  When it rained, the center had to close because the roof leaked so badly there were puddles all over the floor.

Arebaokeng has the sponsorship of Spar, a prominent South African supermarket chain.  They have just moved into a new facility with three classrooms, dining hall, kitchen, office space, a wide veranda and playground equipment.  There is even a promise of computers to come.  And best of all—the roof doesn’t leak!

It was a delight to return and greet old friends.  I read Jane and Chris Kurtz’s Water Hole Waiting to the little ones.  They loved identifying the different animals, and Mama Monkey’s repeated, “Wait!” 

With the older ones I read The King’s Fountain by Lloyd Alexander.  It is the story of a poor man concerned that the king is planning to build a fountain that will divert water from the city so the people and animals will be thirsty.  He asks the scholar to go and explain to the king the damage that will be done, but the scholar is so caught up in his lofty ideas that he can’t get involved with the practical.  The poor man goes to the merchants who know how to speak cleverly, but they are too afraid of the king.  He goes to the strong man, but the strong man is all action without thinking through the consequences.  At last his little daughter convinces the poor man to go himself.  In the end his simple honesty convinces the king not to build the fountain.

Some of Alexander’s language is a little hard for these township children whose English is anything but fluent despite their schooling in English.  They weren’t sure what a fountain was.  There was no picture in the book since the fountain was never built.  Their teacher Liza and I had to come up with a place in the city where there was one they had seen. The lesson I wanted them to get was that even an ordinary person like them can make a difference if he has the courage to speak up and tell the truth. 

“Perhaps someone will say to you, ‘Those people are from Mozambique or from Zimbabwe,’” I explained.  “’Let’s go and hurt them.  They aren’t like us.’”  (Unfortunately the xenophobia that erupted last year is at the point of exploding again due to the pressures of unemployment.) I continued, “If you are like the poor man in the story, you will speak the truth. ‘They are like us inside.  It isn’t right to hurt them.’  Even though you aren’t big and important, you can make a difference.”

The children wanted to know where I have been for so long.  They have no concept of how far America is.  “I’ll be back next week,” I said. Liza suggested that they write letters for me to take to America.  I told them to include a return address if they would like an answer.  Contact me if you would like to respond to one of these eager children.

***Please note*** I will be discontinuing this blog after this trip to South Africa. You can continue reading about My Not-so-ordinary World at where I am already posting. I hope to hear from you there!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Musing on Litt-World 2009

Litt-World 2009 is over. Last week I:
  • pondered the implications for my WIP (work in progress) of novelist Davis Bunn’s workshops on writing the breakout novel.
  • took avid notes on the process of editing from a gifted Filippina editor, Yna Reyes.
  • lined up three possible workshops where I can teach skills to Africans who want to write for the children in their communities, including one in Kisumu, Kenya, the heart of last year’s post-election violence.
  • discovered interest in my HIV story “God Loves Me When I Hurt” from publishers in India as well as Burundi, Ghana and Kenya.
  • found promising writers from Nigeria and Indonesia who are eager for on-line mentoring.
  • enjoyed catching up with former student Nerea Thigo of Kenya (pictured).
  • laughed at the ingenuity of Czech publisher, Alexandr Flek, who set up a web-based club of Beta testers and donors to raise funds and field test his new translation of the Bible—essentially the first in 400 years. 
  • marveled at the faithfulness of the publisher who prints 2-500 copies of significant titles for the small population who reads Croatian.
  • enjoyed the gasps of Africans seeing the Great Rift Valley for the first time.
  • ate way too much, stayed up way too late.
  • Wished I had a video camera to capture Robin Jones Gunn and Alice Lawhead really getting into it with the African singers and dancers who helped us celebrate the last night.
It was a stimulating and exhausting opportunity that won’t come again for another three years.

The sun sets over the Great Rift Valley as our bus returns to Brackenhurst Conference Center from an outing to Lake Naivasha.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Litt-World 2009

November 2004 I sat on a beach in the Philippines pouring out my passion for stories for children affected by HIV/AIDS to David Waweru of Word Alive Publications in Nairobi, Kenya. We were both attending the Litt-World Conference sponsored by Media Associates International. Litt-World is a bi-annual conference for Christian writers and publishers from the majority world. My conversation with David Waweru led to the first of three writing workshops in Nairobi. It also led to some pretty major changes in my life. I came home from the Philippines and told my husband that I wanted to move back to Africa to be in the right context to write for these children. He graciously said, “Lets go for it,” and we spent 2005 to 2008 based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

This week I am back in Nairobi for another Litt-World conference. I look forward to getting together with former students who have become friends and to meeting new people concerned with writing for children in cultures from Albania to Zimbabwe. I will be meeting with another publisher who has expressed interest in some of my stories to find out what the next step is. I don’t expect this Litt-World to be quite as life changing for me as my first, but I am praying that I would build relationships that God can use for the Kingdom.