30 May 2007

johannesburg - answering the question of where

On July 9th, we’ll board a plane that will stop in Chicago, Frankfurt, and eventually (we hope) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Joburg, as it’s locally known, is a meandering melting pot of all things Africa. It is a sprawling metro area, with an incalculable number of residents, somewhere between 5 and 12 million at this point, depending on who you talk to. That includes the famous township of Soweto, as well as a modern-looking, dilapidating downtown area home to the tallest buildings on the continent of Africa. There are lush, rich, gated suburbs, and more informal settlements (squatter villages and shanty-towns) than one would care to count.

Johannesburg is the commercial capital of Africa, accounting for up to 1/5th of South Africa’s GDP. Johannesburg is home to the busiest airport in Africa, the largest dry port (a port not on a body of water) in the world, Africa’s largest stock exchange, and the aforementioned tallest building in Africa, the 50-story, 731 foot tall Carlton Centre.

Entering downtown Joburg, you find a bustling African market, a wonderfully third-world place where you can buy fresh fruit, bootlegged CDs, or a meal cooked right in front of you on a grill that looks like it was once an oil drum. If you listen closely, you will not only hear all 11 of South Africa’s official languages, but you will pick up the native tongues of immigrants from Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Uganda, and many more. All have come here because life here holds more promise than life at home. It is difficult to believe that a squalid shanty town could be an improvement over anything, but Africa is still plagued by corrupt, totalitarian governments, extreme drought, and numerous wars that escape the conciousness of the western world.

As I mentioned, most of the immigrants find their way into squatter camps, usually without proper toilets, electricity, or running water. An excerpt from a 2004 newspaper story tells of the issues of one such place in Johannesburg:
Diepsloot, on Johannesburg's northern edge, is a densely-populated shantytown where rows of shacks made from corrugated iron, wood and plastic line dusty streets.

Mahowa (33) has been living in her two-bedroomed shack for the last four years, with her husband Gotlieb, a truck driver, and her 11-month-old son Gotlieb jr.

"Things have improved in the area, but the sewers are still overflowing in the streets," she said. "It gets cold in winter and because my son was a premature baby, I can't use my paraffin stove to heat my house. I have to use plenty of blankets," she said.

Like most of Diepsloot's residents, Mahowa was lured here by the prospect of jobs. For many of the women, a paying job can be found as a domestic worker in the wealthy mainly white suburbs of Johannesburg.

"The thing that scares me the most is fire," Mahowa said, clutching her baby. "If the surrounding shacks catch fire, this is where we will die because there is no way we will be able to escape," she said.

A fireman who is frequently called out to the area said the close proximity of homes made it difficult for big lumbering fire trucks to manoeuvre, resulting in frequent stoning by the community because of their impatience.
The standard of living in the squatter camps is disturbingly low. As many as 40% of Johannesburg’s citizens are unemployed and many live in the shanty-towns, with very little hope of ever moving out. This, as you might imagine, breeds an impoverished and desperate population. And a desperate population is prone to becoming a criminal population.

South Africa, for all of it’s natural beauty, is a very ugly place when it comes to crime. To give you an idea of the crime rates, let’s compare South Africa (pop 47 million) to California (pop 40 million).

In California, home of Compton and Oakland and the Crips and Bloods, there were 2503 murders and 9392 rapes in 2005.

In South Africa in 2005, amongst the beauty of Cape Town and the lions and elephants of Kruger National Park, there were an estimated 18,000 murders. Worse, estimiates for the number of rapes varied between 876,000 (police figure) and 1.2 million (POWA figure). That is one every 26 seconds.

South Africa is a desperate place. It is a very different place. Joburg, in particular, is set apart. It is the most feared place in South Africa and, mysteriously, it is the place that continues to swell with newcomers,anxious to capitalize on the enormous potential of Egoli, the City of Gold.

It has been said that Cape Town has beauty and serenity to relate to; Durban has a warm ocean to relate to; the only thing Joburg can relate to are its people, and therefore it is the people that are the city, and the reason why the city will never stop beating with new opportunities and the potential for growth, which hasn't even neared the breaking point.

We are about to join the people of Johannesburg, in the richest, poorest, most beautiful, most terrifying place in South Africa.

Surely, an adventure awaits us.

26 May 2007

austin's spider house - and a quote to consider

We’re in Austin today.

I like Austin. It’s an idealist’s city. “Real” Austinites believe in public transportation and environmentalism and the power of local business. Real Austin is slowly disappearing, as more of Austin reminds me of Dallas every time I find myself here.

So, we’re in Austin today. Stef is at UT, with some of her choir students who are competing in a State Choir competition of some sort. She loves her kiddos and this is her last day with them as their teacher. Among all of the things that she is going to miss, they will be among those at the top of the list (along with our dog Joburg, consistent hot showers, general safety, and of course our family, which includes those who are family by birth and the family we gained in rebirth).

I am spending my morning at Spider House, an Austin classic. It is a coffee shop, vegan haven, patio bar, place to be the “real you”, and place to be whoever you’ve always wanted to pretend to be. It’s really a wonderful place. It’s the kind of place that Austinites come to from time to time to remind themselves of their identity,their uniqueness.

Take an old house with real wood-paneled walls, add dim yellow lighting throughout, fill it with eclectic furniture - leather armchairs and booths from a diner, rickety rocking chairs and mosaic tile tables - and quietly pump in some Bob Dylan music from what seems like 1926 and you might get an idea of the place. Don’t forget to turn what was once a backyard into one big patio, complete with fiesta-bulb lighting effects and the same meandering decorating scheme. Really, a charming place.

I have a dimly-lit, wood-paneled room to myself, as well as a slice of vegan pumpkin loaf and a bottle of water. I feel progressive somehow just by sitting here. (We may have just uncovered the reason that Spider House is so popular.)

Anyway, there is a quote on the wall that I wanted to share with you. Mind you, there are many quotes on the wall...and drawings, and curse words, and handwritten messages to future generations. Among the declarations that “PJ wuz here” and “I’m having triplets” and a picture of Vladimir Lenin telling me that I’m “lookin’ good, comradeski”, there really is a scribbling that I want to share.

Maybe it’s a song lyric or a line from a movie, I don’t really know. But I like it:

“You knew what you wanted and you fought so hard, just to find yourself sittin’ in a golden cage.”


I don’t know what that means to you. I’m not sure I know what that means to me.

It sounds to me like a man laying on his deathbed. And maybe an angel or a devil or old friend comes into the room and starts to go over this man’s life with him. They reminisce about junior high romances and “the one that got away” in college. They talk about his life’s work - maybe he was a banker or a salesman or a famous writer.

They smile as they talk about his family and all of the memories. The man’s brow furrows as the angel or devil or old friend starts to talk about more memories, only the man doesn’t remember these things at all. Slowly, he comes to the realization that he really missed quite a lot. His son’s graduation or his daughter’s dance recital, some friend’s wedding or another friend’s funeral. He hears the angel or the devil or the old friend talk about how much he worked and yearned for the things of the world and how he wanted them so badly - or at least he thought he did. And now, laying here alone, except for the company of this angel or devil or old friend, he begins to realize that all that he fought for surrounds him. And it was nothing more than a prison all along, a beautiful, shimmering, hard-earned prison.

I see the angel or the devil or the old friend kiss the man on the forehead gently, whisper something into his ear, and then softly glide out of the room. The man closes his eyes tightly, straining under the weight of his painful realization. When they open again, they are full of bitter tears. And as they pour down his face, our window into his world fades to black.

Like I said, I don’t know what that quote means to you.

We’re in Austin today.

21 May 2007

responsibilty - answering the question of why

Stefani didn’t know what to expect as they pulled up to the squatter camp. It was enormous, containing tens of thousands of the most beautiful, most impoverished people she had ever seen. It was dirty, the red African earth ground into dust that covered everything from the tin shacks to the children playing just outside of them. It was foul, smelling of rotting garbage, human waste, and rotting humans, wasting away.

She had been there once before, as part of a programmatic outreach. This, however, was different. She had been asked to return by the local HIV/AIDS outreach. She had been asked to bring a couple of the other Americans with her.

“Please come back,” the woman had said, as her rosy cheeks shined against her deep brown skin. “You must listen to the stories of these people. You must touch their hands and faces.” It was not so much an invitation as a compassionate command.

As the handful of white faces she had brought with her began their journey into the jungle of tin and cardboard, into the tangled morass of disease, hunger, and infestation, they seemed to realize that this excursion was not part of the usual mission trip. This was well beyond ordinary.

Now deep inside the squatter camp, they were deftly led by a guide who obviously knew the place well.

They stopped in one shack after another, each one smaller than the last, each one with it’s own distinct, strangely unpleasant smell. All of the shacks, different as they were, had one common element. Each held a human being devastated by the AIDS virus.

Inside, they would be introduced and smile as best they could. The haunting eyes of the bones and flesh staring at them from the bed, however, rendered any attempt at felicity to be blatantly forced.

The Americans listened to the stories of these wondrous, forgotten, dying people. They sat at the bedsides of people they had never met - and they cried as the devastation seemed to travel from the bones of the dying into the hearts of the well. Prayers were said for the victims, the tears pouring from the Americans eyes more powerful than any words they could speak.

For hours, the handful of white faces saw things that few like them will ever get to see. They saw what AIDS looks like when it is real, when it has a family and a name. They witnessed what AIDS looks like when it leaves children alone, drawing in the dust. They touched the hands of the disappearing. The wept with those who were too weak to mourn any more. And as they climbed back into the van, to leave that haunted shell of human destruction, they were absolutely silent, save for a few sniffles and the sound of tears rolling down a few weathered and tired cheeks.

Recently, I asked Stefani to describe that experience with only one word.

“Responsible,” she forced out, emotions welling up. “We are responsible. How can it be like that? I wanted to crawl into the bed for them. I wanted to be the one in there, coughing and dying so slowly. I wanted these innocent people to walk, to live. Why me? Why them? I wanted...” her voice trailed off for a second.

“I wanted to die there for them.”

She said that she was completely overwhelmed. Based on her tears almost two years later, I’d say she still is.

“We are responsible,” she whispered again. “We are responsible.”


People often ask why we decided to return to Africa, where the idea to move came from. It came from that experience. It came from hundreds of others like it. It came from the heart of a young woman who could not shake the voices of the past, who could not deny the responsibility that we have in Africa - as Christ-followers and as fellow human beings. It came from the whispers of the dying in the shacks of that squatter camp and from the red letters of the bible which will not allow us to forget the dismal people who are living in squalor as a result of simple circumstance and geography. The call to move came from the laughter of the children of the squatter camp, unaware of the life they are doomed to, still hopeful that something better exists beyond the crumbling walls of their village. It came from the belief that we may be able to sustain that hope. It came from somewhere deep within, where the beauty and love of Jesus Christ compels us to believe that a difference can still be made, that no one, no matter how sick or poor or dirty or lost, is beyond redemption. We are going...because we are responsible.

09 May 2007

pride, shame, and the nature of blessings

The man we will be working with in South Africa, Pastor Willie, taught me (Kyle) an invaluable lesson about pride, shame, and the nature of blessings while I lived with him in 2004. We were responsible for feeding hundreds of people every week. Our budget to do so was usually nothing. So, every week, Willie would get on the phone and call everyone he knew.

"Can you spare a chicken?"
"Do you think you could donate some cornmeal?"
"Don't you have a couple of bucks for us here to help with the feeding?"
"Anything you have, we will accept with pleasure."

No shame in asking, he said. Sometimes there are great blessings floating out in the air - you must simply do the work to claim them.

After making all of the calls, we would make a trip to the local grocery store. In reality, we would show up at the back of the store, the loading dock. There, we would ask for, and recieve, all of the expired foods that the store could not sell. We would take the food - week-old sushi and rotting vegetables - and take a portion that was needed to make the meal for the night. Then, we would tell the community that they could each have one sack-full. Never was one morsel left over.

Willie did not consider any of it begging. He considered it surviving. He considered it claiming the blessings that were set aside for that community. Never did he worry about what people might be saying behind him. Never did he allow personal pride to deter him. With Willie, there is no shame in serving people that the world has forgotten - no matter what it might require of him.

And with Willie, there has never been a week that the poor people of that community have not been fed.