Last Weekend In South Africa

It’s been a while since my last blog post and much more has happened than I can possibly fit into one post. I’ll try, however, to hit the highlights. Earlier this week Jenna and I began a project to refurbish the main building at the plot. After a long conversation with Piet, we were galvanized into action. We have spent this week assessing the condition of the building, taking measurements and compiling lists of what we need. Then, with the donation money that Jenna had raised, we set about getting what we needed in town.

First, we went to a hardware store run by a good Catholic man who had given St. Martin’s discounts before. He and his employees were more than willing to help us. The owner gave us a great discount, making our large purchase very cheap. We bought five 20L buckets of paint for the building. Two were of white paint for the base coats, while the other three were pink, blue and teal. We also picked up a small bucket of yellow. With these we spent several days painting the exterior of the building and the interior of the dining room. The paint that had covered the walls was cracked and in many places there were wholes exposing rough cement. And the color was boring and rather dreary. Now, after the new paint job, the building looks vibrant and much more childlike.

After we finished, I went over to Br. Dominic to ask him what he thought. He told me a little girl came over to him and, looking at the walls, said in Zulu, “it is beautiful here.” Brother said she expressed it better than he could. The change is striking. The bright colors can now be seen from a distance as you drive along the main road perpendicular to the one of which the plot is situated. Now, the building looks like what it is; a place where children come to play, to be fed and to be happy.
We finished the painting in record time because of the caregivers’ willingness to help. It was encouraging to see how eager they were to help beautify the place where they work. The final touches we put on the building came (literally) at the hands of the children. Jenna came up with the brilliant idea of having the children put their hand prints in different colored paint on several parts of the wall. The kids loved it. And it really contributed to the beauty of the building.

We also bought sheets of glass and replaced the broken windows in the dining room (and several other places). The windows in the dining room had been broken when the plot was broken into and the computers stolen a few months before we arrived. Now the place looks much better and safer for children.

On one of our first days at the plot one of the program managers showed us a pile of informational dvds on how to provided good care, how to conduct home visits and work with children. Unfortunately, the plot had no way of showing these training videos to the caregivers who are in need of this information. So, Jenna and I went out looking for a projector. We found a very nice one at a shop and managed to get a discount when we explained what we wanted it for. Now the organization will be able to show training videos to the caregivers as well as educational and entertaining material for the children. To accommodate this, we painted one wall of the dining room white and placed an order for blinds (which won’t, unfortunately, arrive until after we leave) so that the room can also be used for viewing.

Yesterday was our last Saturday at the plot. I really can’t believe that my time in South Africa is almost up. It will be hard to leave all the people I’ve met and all the friends I’ve made here, especially after this Saturday’s events. For our last days at the plot, they decided to organize a farewell party for me and Jenna. The children came from Kwa Thema, Jabavu and Witkop as well as Kwa Zenzele to bid us farewell. They performed traditional dances and songs for us. Léopold Senghor, the Senegalese poet, politician, cultural theorist and first president of Senegal wrote about Africans and African culture being intrinsically poetic and rhythmic. Rhythm and poetry flow through and permeate all parts of an African’s life. After attending Mass in South Africa and having these children perform for us, I understand what he was talking about. It amazes me how good these kids, who have very little formal training or practice, are at singing and dancing. It is wonderful to behold.

At one point during the festivities, one of the administrators introduced two girls who had made cards on behalf of all the kids at St. Martin’s for us. It was very touching to hear them, and others, talk about what we had done here and how thankful they were. After the event closed, Jenna and I were swarmed by kids and caregivers who wanted pictures with us before we left and who hugged us or shook our hands, thanking us for what we had done for them. It was very emotional and heartwarming.

The day ended in a very fitting way, as many of my first days at the plot had been, with about a dozen of the little children crowding around me, clambering on my back and wrestling with me. It’s exhausting but good, childlike fun, which produces smiles beaming with joy on the faces of the children. That is the greatest reward for and greatest result my time and my work here in South Africa.

Today, after hours of work, finally put the finishing touches on the website that I’ve been building for the organization. It is fairly simple, but a lot more visually pleasing and user friendly the previous, never used site. I hope all my readers will check it out! I’ll include the link to it and the Facebook page I also made.





This week began with Jenna and I spending Monday evening at the home of an Our Lady of Mercy (the church adjacent to the priory in Springs) parishioner.  Maria works with the catechism class at the parish.  She is one of the many Portuguese South Africans in the Springs area.  She very kindly invited us to come over her house for dinner and to watch the Portugal Germany game.  Although Portugal got slaughtered, the evening was very enjoyable with good conversation and good Portuguese food.

The next morning Jenna and I departed for our four day safari in Kruger National Park, the 7,580 square mile game reserve in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, which borders Mozambique.  A driver from the safari company picked us up in Springs for our 5-6 hour drive to the north eastern corner of South Africa.  There were three other passengers in the bus with us with whom we spent our entire four days.  One was a young women in her early thirties from Germany who had been attending a biology conference in Cape Town.  The other two were from the Netherlands.  One was in her late fifties while the other was the 24 year old ex-girlfriend of the older woman’s youngest son.  Apparently, they still get along very well. We enjoyed our company very much and the five of us got rather close.  The next day our group was swelled by the addition of two guys from India and a young couple from Ireland.  They all made great safari companions.  We got to Kruger around 1 o’clock in the afternoon, but our camp was about an hours drive further into the park.  Just on our drive to camp we saw giraffes, elephants, impala and water buffalo.  That first night we went on a sunset drive and saw more giraffes, elephants and rhinos.

For the next three days, we woke up at 5 a.m., had a muffin and climbed into our safari vehicle for our morning drive.  Jaryd, our ranger who was probably only in his mid-twenties, would hand us each these giant poncho things that were quite warm and hot waterbottles, a very British thing.  Our morning drives would last about 3 or 3 and half hours, after which we would return to camp for a hot breakfast and free time to nap or check out the gift shop until 2:30.  After a brief lunch, we would depart for our afternoon drive until the 5:30.  Dinner at 7:30 was quite fancy.  It was a three course affair accompanied by unlimited wine.  Our last evening at camp, the main course was an ostrich fillet.  It was one of the best steaks I have ever had.

Our drives were wonderful because the animals are everywhere; you can be within feet of some of God’s most interesting and most beautiful animals.  One hyena came up to our vehicle and started sniffing it.  Jaryd said that they like to chew on cars and that one dislodged with license plate.  Of the Big Five (the five most dangerous land animals), we saw four, elephants, rhinos, water buffalo and leopards.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see any lions.  But we did see cheetahs and wild dogs, which are quite rare.  Both species are endangered and there are only about 220 of each in the entire park.

Here are some pictures of what we saw!














Yesterday, Jenna and accompanied Fr. Raphael, a Dominican priest, to Soweto.  Soweto (the name is an abbreviation of South Western Townships), is comprised of many different townships outside of Johannesburg.  The city is famous for its history of resistance to the Apartheid government.  We first visited Regina Mundi Catholic Church, which used to give refuge to South Africans hiding from the police.






The church housed many meetings of activist organizations.  During one of these meetings, the church was surrounded by the police who ordered the people gathered to disperse.  When the activists, mostly students, refused, the police fired warning shots into the windows of the church.  Then the police entered the church and started firing at the crowd.  Bullet holes can still be seen in the walls and ceiling of the church. 



The Communion rail was broken from the mass of students trying to escape from the violence.  One police officer brought his rifle butt down violently on the altar, breaking off part of stone.


Next to the altar hangs a beautiful painting of the Madonna of Soweto.  Our Lady sits holding the infant Jesus while beneath her in the shape of an eye is a view of Soweto with a crucifix in the center that represents the church’s location.


One of the windows that was damaged has since been replaced.  It depicts the Annunciation and was donated by the first lady of Poland.


Leaving the church, we followed the path of the Soweto Uprising of 1976.  The students of Soweto schools gathered together to march to Orlando Stadium and draft a memorandum of complaints they intended to hand to the government.  The immediate cause of the march was the imposition of Afrikaans language as the medium of education.  This was heavy burden for blacks to bare, since few knew the language.  Afrikaans, seen as the language of oppression, combined with the Apartheid Bantu education system, which separated blacks into an inferior educational system, was the last straw.  Thousands of primary and high school students gathered and marched peacefully towards the stadium.  But there were met by the police who ordered them to disperse and then began firing teargas and real bullets.  Many children and innocent bystanders were killed.  The youngest victim, Hector Peterson, was only 13.  Near the spot of his death there stands a memorial and museum in his honor.  We visited the museum and learned a lot about both the uprising and about Apartheid in general.

A few streets over from the Hector Peterson museum is the house where Nelson Mandela lived.  In 2009 it was turned into a little museum.  The house was built in 1945 and Mandela moved there in the next year.  He lived there until his arrest in 1962.  When he was finally released from prison in 1990, Mandela moved back to this house.  He only stayed for 11 days, however, because his popularity made privacy there impossible. 



Behind the house in a small garden stands an Australian tree planted by Mandela himself.  The Mandela family buries the umbilical cords of the all the children born in the family to alert the ancestors to the birth of another family member.


The wall of one side of the house is riddled with bullet holes from when the police would shoot at the house.


After leaving Mandela’s house, we drove to the other side of Soweto to an area called Middlelands.  Piet, the pre-novice, who lives in Soweto had gone home for the day so went to his visit his home.  His mother made tea for us while Jenna and I went with Piet to get some lunch.  As we walked down the street, which was full of school kids on their lunch break, all the children starred at us and waved, smiling and saying hello.  Piet told us that we were celebrities in his neighborhood.  We didn’t look like the “normal” white people that they had seen.  I guess it was pretty obvious that we aren’t from around these part.  We walked by Piet’s primary and high school on our way to the Kota shop.  Kota (derived from the quarter of a loaf of bread that it uses) is a very popular food in the townships.  It is made from bread and then filled with various topics including chips (aka French fries), ham, Vienna (pork hotdog), Russian (a bigger pork hotdog thingy), bacon, fried egg, archaar (some kinda spice with Mango) among other possibilities.  I naturally ordered the one with the most ingredients.  It looked like this:


Delicious, but quite the challenge to eat. 



More Home Visits in Kwa Zenzele

This morning Jenna and I went on our second round of home visits.  I accompanied the same social auxiliary I’d gone with before, Pinky.  Today all of our home visits lay in the half of Kwa Zenzele where there is no electricity.  This portion of the township is especially poor, with very high levels of unemployment and sickness.  The first home we visited was a little shack made of metal sheets and propped up on the inside by wooden posts.  When we first approached the house, I thought it was a supply shed or something like that.  The inside was incredibly cramped.  There were piles (I can’t really call them shelves) of cooking supplies and some food in the middle.  One corner looked to be full of yard supplies.  The other third of the shack was almost completely taken up by a bed comprised of two dirty mattress on a metal frame.  In the bed lay our client.  He was a young man who looked to be in his twenties.  He weakly reached out his hand to shake mine and Pinky’s.  He coughed frequently.  But he seemed to be happy to see us and laughed a little with Pinky.  She told me as we left that he has HIV.  Last week when she visited him he was much worse.  Then, he couldn’t talk or even move.  Now he is receiving treatment and is doing well enough to talk, and he even walked about a little before we arrived.  But his body was still thin and weakened from the disease.

At the next house we visit there was an old woman.  She is 54, but looked more like 70 because of her hard life.  She is a new client, never visited by the social auxiliaries, so Pinky listened to her story.  She lives with her granddaughter, who is 18 and has a part time job, which does not yield enough to support them.  The old woman is disabled.  One of her hands, as she described it, doesn’t work.  Pinky recommended her for a disability grant.  In the meantime, she will be sent food parcels.  The woman wanted to add her signature to the paperwork Pinky brought, but she had never signed her name before.  Another caregiver who was with us held her ID paper in front of her so that the old woman could see how to spell her own name as she signed it.

We only spent a few minutes at the last house we visited.  The woman who lives there is receiving treatment for HIV.  A boy, who must be 5 or 6, walked by quietly hanging his head.  Pinky called him over to introduce him.  I said hello to him and asked him how he was in Zulu.  But the boy only shook my hand before going to hide in the house.  I was heartbroken when Pinky told me that he also has HIV.  Its very hard to see such innocence living in this poverty and infected by a terrible disease. 

I wonder what can be done change this state of existence.  There are no jobs to lift the people out of poverty.  St. Martin’s is the largest and almost the only employer in the area.  The Project employs about 70 caregivers, many from Kwa Zenzele.  But the problem isn’t just that there aren’t any jobs.  The people don’t want to work.  I’ve talked to Br. Dominic about this several times.  He thinks one of the greatest problem is that South Africans are unwilling to work.  They’ve grown dependent on the government and used to having things provided for them.  Brother has tried to employ them or to give them land to grow crops, but they won’t.  They would rather have St. Martin’s grow the food and give it to them instead of having to grow it themselves.  Most of the men employed by St. Martin’s, as farmhands, handymen or help are foreigners from Zimbabwe, Mozambique or Lesotho.  Brother tried to hire South Africans, but none were willing to work.  It’s a difficult situation.  Giving handouts only makes the people more dependent, but without the food or government grants many, including innocent children, would starve.  Jobs need to be created, but mindsets and lifestyles have to change as well. 

There is a similar problem with disease.  The other prevalent social ill in Zenzele is HIV/AIDS infection.  The disease is one that has plagued South Africa even as it emerged from Apartheid and progressed into the most developed sub-Saharan African nation.  Infection peaked in 2004 and had been thought to be declining ever since.  But, as I discussed with Br. Dominic the other day, infection rates are again climbing.  Efforts to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS by sterilization or condom use have not succeed.  And, after talks with Piet and Br. Dominic, conversations I’ve heard and all I’ve seen here, I think I understand a part of the problem.  Promiscuity is rampant, widespread, deep-rooted and socially promoted.  As Piet has told me, it is very common for people to be “dating” more than one person at the same time and having multiple partners.  From the age of about 12 you are looked at as very strange if you aren’t dating someone.  People think there is something wrong with you.  In the townships, promiscuity is even more widespread because people aren’t working.  Instead, they drink and party a lot.  The fact is, government and foreign programs haven’t changed this kind of lifestyle, and they haven’t addressed the core issue needed to prevent the spread of the disease.  Unfortunately, HIV/AIDS treatment also faces many challenges.  People don’t want to be tested.  They are afraid of being positive or it being known that they are positive.  Even when people do get tested, they are often reluctant to take their medicine.  They will get the medicine, but grow tired of taking it, complaining that there are too many pills.  I hope and pray that this kind of culture that exists especially in the townships will be transformed. 

Weekend Update

My apologies for the lack of posts over the last few days.  We lost electricity on Thursday night because of the cold and the wind.  Yes, it does actually get cold in South Africa.  Its winter now and it has felt like it for the last few days, especially at night.  Electricity only returned to Springs this morning.  On Saturday the pipes also burst, meaning we were without water for Saturday and part of Sunday.  We’ve been living and eating in darkness.  It hasn’t been enjoyable, but good for me.  I’ve gotten a small glimpse into what it’s like for the poor in the townships.  Of course, we were really much better off.  Friday night I picked up some wine and we had a candlelit dinner that looked almost like 5 star restaurant.  The experience has made me realize how blessed I am. 

On Saturday we had our first soccer tournament.  The children and the caregivers were divided into four teams, each wearing a different type of jersey brought by Jenna.  There was a St. Martin’s team, wearing the yellow jerseys with the Dominican shield and cross.  There were two teams with Avon high school jerseys (one blue, one white) donated by Jenna’s high school.  The fourth team sported Providence College Women’s Soccer jerseys.  We played three games so that every team got a chance to play every other one.  Then, the teams with the two best records played a championship game.  Unfortunately, my team lost in the championship game to Piet’s.  It was a hard pill to shallow, losing to Piet after all the smack I’d been talking to him.  The winning team members were given gray PC soccer jerseys as prizes. 

Around 1 o’clock, we headed back to Springs and back to no electricity.  I had planned on doing laundry because I was in dire need of clean clothing.  My plight has only increased.  Hopefully I’ll be able to do laundry tomorrow.  After returning from the tournament, we had lunch.  There wasn’t much to do without power so Piet, Jenna and I went for a walk around the neighborhood.  We talked about all kinds of things, South Africa, America, politics, Afrikaners, vocations, our pasts and our plans for the future.  It was a good talk. 

Sunday was Pentecost.  We accompanied Fr. Lewis, one of the Springs Dominicans who teaches at the Veritas Catholic High School in the city.  He was celebrating Mass at the Kristo Nkosi parish in Kwa Thema.  The Mass was our first real experience of a native Mass, with the liturgy mostly in Zulu and Sotho.  Lasting three hours and filled with singing and dancing, the liturgy was very different from a Mass in America or Europe.  Although the Mass was so different from how it is celebrated in the West, it was still full reverence and focused on worshipping God.  I got to experience the true kind of inculturation of the liturgy that Pope Saint John Paul II wrote about.  Native singing, dancing and culture were taken up into the Mass and infused with new life, with Christ, while the Catholic faith was defused into the culture.  For us Americans, such dancing and types of singing would not fit into the liturgy, they would be distracting or irreverent.  But among Africans, these are the most beautiful, devoted and reverent ways to give praise and worship to God and the sacrifice of the Mass.  It was an eye-opening and valuable experience for us to attend.

After Mass, we returned to the House in Springs.  Having spent an hour or two shivering in the House without electricity, I decided to go outside and lay in the sun where it was much warmer.  It was pleasant to just lay there napping for an hour or more.  As the sun set, however, we began to grow a little restless so we went into town.  But most shops close early on Sundays so we returned after driving around for a bit.  Then, with a stroke of Americanism, I suggested we go to McDonald’s, which was, of course, still open.  Piet, Jenna and I spent about three hours hanging out in the classy establishment.  We introduced Piet to apple pie, which we was not a fan of.  I’ve also succeeded in getting him to use “wicked.”  He’ll now say things are “wicked good” or “wicked bad” of, my favorite, “wicked weird,” because he has a hard time pronouncing “weird.”

Home Visits and Playing with the Children

This morning I accompanied Pinky, one of the social auxiliaries at St. Martin’s, on her home visits in Kwa Zenzele, the township that is closest to St. Martin’s.  Kwa Zenzele is a very poor township hard hit by HIV.  There are large numbers of orphans and employment is practically non-existent.  As a social auxiliary, Pinky visits homes to determine what kind of aid the occupants should receive.  At the first home we visited, we met with an elderly woman who is receiving treatment for some illness.  Several other women (presumably her daughters) were at home while a boy about 1 or 2 years old and a girl of 6 or 7 starred at the funny looking white boy who was sitting in their backyard.  Pinky explained to the woman in Zulu that I was an American here to observe what life was like in the townships and help at St. Martin’s.  She seemed pleased that I was there.  Brother told me later that they appreciate our presence because they see people from outside who care about them. 

Taking leave of the old woman, we walked to a second house.  Entering, we found an old woman holding an infant with another boy about 2 or 3 years old by her side.  Pinky explained to me that the old woman lives there with her 4 children and 4 grandchildren.  There only appeared to be 3 or 4 rooms in the house.  The first was the “living room.”  Small and furnished with a few sofas, it took up about a third of the house.  From the living room I could see a small kitchen and two rooms, about the size of walk-in closets, which completed the building.  No one in the house works.  Pinky brought the baby over to me and we held her.  The infant is only 7 days old, a beautiful girl.  She wrapped her little hands around my finger and brought it towards her open mouth for a bite.  I’ve always loved babies, loved holding them, watching their big beautiful eyes looking out at the world with wonder.  It is hard to know that that little girl will grow up in crushing poverty, without working parents and with little food, clothing or opportunity for a better life.  At least she has St. Martin’s.  St. Martin’s brings the family food parcels and somehow got the electricity paid for so that the grandmother can cook.  I don’t know where they would be or what would become of them without St. Martin’s.

The last house we visited was inhabited by a brother and sister only.  The girl is 21 years old while the boy is 17.  Their mother recently passed away and there is no father.  They are orphaned, without work or income.  St. Martin’s provides them with food parcels, but that is not enough for two young adults.  Pinky told them that they can get a foster care grant of 850 Rands (about $80) a month each.  With the food parcels, this will be enough to scrape by, but barely.  In order to apply for the grant, the two need their mother’s birth and death certificates.  Unfortunately, these were left in Bloemfontein where the mother died.  The children will have to retrieve these or apply at the Home Office for replacements before they can get the grants.  I looked down at the boy’s feet and noticed that his shoes didn’t match.  One was a brownish dress shoe while the other was something like a Converse.   

After returning to the plot, Jenna, Piet and I went for a run.  I better start dropping pounds soon because running sucks.  When the kids finished their lunch, a group of them form around me.  At first we just kicked the soccer ball around for a few minutes.  Then the little rascals remember that I had picked them up before.  All hell broke loose.  For the next hour and half I was mobbed by roughly 20 kids, jumping all over me, grabbing my legs and arms, clinging to my clothing and yelling in Zulu for me to pick them up.  I was exhausted from running and playing soccer, let some of them hang from my arms, while others climbed onto my back.  It didn’t take long for me to be worn down.  I knelt down to get some relief.  The kids kept climbing over me and started playing with my hair, which fascinates them since it is different from their own.  After a breather I inadvertently invented a new game.  I broke free of the throng and tried to get the kids to play soccer.  Instead, it turned into a game of everybody chases Joe.  I did this three or four times.  I’d let the kids swarm me for a while then when they least expected it I’d dart away and they’d chance me until I got too tired to run any more (which didn’t take long).  I’m glad that the kids have taken such a liking to me so quickly.  It is exhausting, but rewarding to see how happy they are chasing me or jumping all over me.

A Very Cultural Day

Today I was very immersed in South African culture.  After arriving at the plot we had a meeting with the program directors and overseers to plan out in greater detail our work at St. Martin’s.  Wednesdays and Fridays are to be sports days where we will facilitate soccer and netball.  On Saturdays we will have tournaments with prizes of jerseys, jackets and sports bags for the winners.  Monday and Wednesday mornings Jenna and I will accompany the social auxiliaries on the home visits they conduct in Kwa Zenzele.  The social auxiliaries visit the sick in the township to assess their situation and decide how best to assist them. This will be challenging, but I hope eye-opening experience. 

After our meeting, Jenna and I accompanied Br. Dominic and the St. Martin’s board members to the home of a woman who works at St. Martin’s.  Her son died a few days ago and we went to console her.  It felt strange going to the home of a woman I didn’t know to console her for the loss of a son I also didn’t know.  But Br. Dominic invited me and I’m glad he did.  When we arrived at the house, we went right in without knocking while my companions sang something in Zulu.  The mother was sitting on a mattress placed on the floor with blankets over her.  There was a brief prayer.  After the prayer, we were seated and talked (mostly in Zulu) for a while.  The chairman of St. Martin’s got up several times and told stories about how we all must leave this life at some time and that her son had now gone home.  As Brother explained to me earlier, tears are not shed at funerals or at these consolation visits.  Rather, they are a time to celebrate the life of the one who passed away.  Some sort of juice and biscuits were brought for us to eat while a picture of the deceased and his brother.  He must have been in his twenties.  I later learned that both sons had died of HIV/AIDS.  Each of us knelt down and clasped her hand or embraced me, offering our condolences before we departed.  

 Returning to the plot, Jenna and I went over the kitchen to see if we could help.  The cooks and caregivers asked us if we had ever had Mogudu before.  When we asked what that was they laughed and brought us over to the pot on the stove.  Lifting the lid, they told us Mogudu was cow intestine.  Jenna and I were not particularly eager to try this popular “meat,” but they insisted.  We each had a small bit of the rubber, greenish-brown looking substance.  Honestly, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting, a little salty, but not as revolting as I’d thought intestine would be.  That being said, I don’t think I’ll be ordering it at a restaurant anytime soon.

"You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so, you learn to love by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves." – St. Francis De Sales