YAGM Retreats

10006958_10153971062685074_92670092_nEmily explains why retreats are so vital during a YAGM year:

Alright, big revelation comin’ at ya. You might want to sit down.

Here it goes:

YAGM is hard sometimes.

Woah, right?

Ok, enough with the attempts to be witty. Seriously, though. YAGM is tough.

Yes, I get to live alongside wonderful people in a beautiful place for a year. Yes, I get to learn so many things about a new country and culture. Yes, I have seen elephants and sat on the beach.

However, I am also living so far from home that I actually have no idea how many miles really separate me from my family. I am living in an area where the first language isn’t English. I am forced to go outside of my comfort zone just to do something as simple as get groceries. I am forced to face the remnants of apartheid head-on whether I like it or not. I see the beauty of this country and its people, but I also see the oppression and heartache.

Sometimes, all of these things weigh on me and my spirits. There are times when I just want to vent and let it all out. Luckily, I’m not the only person called to live and serve here. My YAGM year came with a built-in set of best friends and shoulders to lean on.

I honestly don’t think I would survive this year without the love and support of my fellow YAGM-SA family. However, we are pretty spread out across the country and it can get pretty expensive to talk on the phone all the time. This is precisely why retreats are so important.

For those of you on Facebook, you may have seen my pictures from our first retreat in November as well as our most recent one last week. Those albums are full of gorgeous pictures of beaches, mountains, good food, sunsets, and more. To many, these pictures make it seem like the words “YAGM retreat” are just code for “fancy vacation.”

In one way, retreats could be considered a vacation. We leave our homes (sites), venture to unknown places, and take a bit of a “break” from our everyday lives. We meet up with great friends, have fun, and eat wonderful food. However, that is not the point or reason for these retreats.

YAGM retreats serve as a time of community, reflection, discussion, spiritual discernment, and more. We have incredible conversations about our place in YAGM, South Africa, the United States, and the world. We bask in the rapid-fire English conversation and make jokes that only other YAGMs would understand. Our hearts, spirits, and souls are rejuvenated and reawakened. Generally, we leave with a new sense of calling and excitement to get back to our sites and communities.

So, yes, we have spent time on the beach, hiking in the mountains, and seeing elephants. However, we have also dealt with questions like “What is the power and privilege that I carry with me and how does that affect my life back home and here in South Africa?” and “How do I even attempt to say good-bye to people who have helped shape my life and who have welcomed me into their lives?”.

Trust me, discussing questions like these aren’t easy and don’t exactly fit into my definition of a “vacation.” However, they are necessary conversations to have and I wouldn’t choose to have them with anyone other than my lovely YAGM-SA family.

In my experience, YAGM retreats have been life-giving, incredibly fun, challenging, definitely needed, and much, much more than a “fancy vacation.”

Smudges

I have decided
I love smudges in my journal.
Imperfections of the moment,
They used to aggravate
my carefully hidden OCD inclinations.
I used to hate the way they marred
memories, quotes, treasures.
Ugly scars distracting
from the aesthetic I had so carefully planned.
But the grease stain
From curious fingers just turned three years old,
The smudged ink, barely penned,
Painted across the page
In the haste to leave on time,
The touch of curry in the corner
Remnant of multitasking gone awry,
The five-year-old’s inked masterpiece on the last page
Now hold memories.
Mischievous smiles, nervous laughter,
Quickly flared anger, more quickly still extinguished
By the apologetic eyes of little brothers
Speak to me from the smudges.
Marring perfection, gently reminding
That nature is not perfection.
That life is simply the messy bits
The smudges, strung together
Sewn into and onto our beautiful reality.
They are scars.
Scars holding stories.
And now I find myself wondering
How I can create more.

by Rachel Swenson.

Rachel lives and serves in Vryheid, South Africa, where she lives with her host family, including her host brothers.

Where Does Food Come From?

Elle (right) taught the YAGM group how to eat mangos at the November retreat. She brought many mangos from her backyard to share with everyone.

Elle (right) taught the YAGM group how to eat mangos at the November retreat. She brought many mangos from her backyard to share with everyone.

Elle learns from her community about eating locally and seasonally:

You can plant anything in the ground up here in Venda and it will grow. Anywhere. In your yard. Along the road side. Anywhere there is beautiful red earth.
Our backyard is a garden. The whole area is ready to house plants that feed our bodies. In September we were growing beetroot, onions, and green vegetables. When we harvested the onions I was shocked to see that we had grown over 50 onions that were now sitting in a bucket in our outside kitchen. Once we cleared the lot of onions, we planted the whole lot full of corn. There is still green vegetables growing on the ground around the stalks, and my aunt will still emerge from the edges with handfuls of green leaves to cook. We planted the corn in early December and they have grown well above my head now. I am excited to eat them soon!
There are so many corn stalks. As they grow I wonder how many this will produce. It is not just one row; there is a full garden of them. I asked mama what we were going to do with them all, eat or sell. She told me “we eat them.” I asked, “All of them!?” She looked at me like I was crazy. She told me no. We take the rest and send them to become ground into mielie, grain that we use to make pap. Our corn supply does not just feed us for now, but also for the future. Pretty amazing.
My snack at school always consists of a peanut butter sandwich and either a fruit of veg. Last year (Oct & Nov) I brought an apple or mango with me to school. This year I have carrots with me. Soon it will change to corn. It is interesting to see the shift in what I eat depending on what is available to me. It is not necessarily what I want, but more of what is currently growing.
Avocados are going to be in season soon. I am really excited for that time. My attitude on food is changing. Last year, if I wanted an avocado I would go to ALDI and see if they had any. If they didn’t and my craving was still going strong, I would find another grocery store to purchase a tasty avo. Now, I wait. Knowing that they are growing on the trees and will soon be very fruitful (I can see them beginning to grow on the trees around the neighborhood), I wait patiently to fill my belly with their goodness.
In the beginning of learning where food comes from I wanted some avocados and corn. We had them a few times when I first got here and then I did not see either of those enter the house for over a month, and I was starting to want to munch on them. On a trip to the grocery store with my mom, I asked her if I could get some avocados and corn. She looked at me and said, “Have you ever seen me buy those?” I was really confused. No, I hadn’t. But if you don’t get them from the store, where did they come from?
I have also learned that the fruitfulness of your trees can vary. Some years they produce a ton of fruit, and others not much. I didn’t know this upon coming here. Innocent me just saw a bunch of mango trees in everyone’s yard and thought since ours was producing a TON that clearly everyone else who had a mango tree was gorging themselves in mangos too. This lesson only occurred to me when my mom told me to fetch some litchis from our tree out back. There were not many litchis on it. My backyard neighbor saw me and told me to hold on. I waited and he came back and handed me a full bundle of litchis through the fence from his tree. He gave them as a gift and made the comment that last year our tree was really fruitful, but this year not so much.
Along with vegetables and fruit, we don’t buy precut meat from the store. We do buy beef from the meat butchery down the road to use for parties or braais (barbeques). But usually a brother will bring over live chickens for mama and Titi to fix, which eventually get put in the freezer for later. They cut the neck, soak them, boil them, pluck them, and then take the insides out (not to throw away because we do eat the chicken gizzard, liver, and intestine) and then divide up the meat. It all goes in a bag and into the freezer for my aunt to cook for our daily meals.
What we do buy at the store is what we don’t grow. Peanut butter, cereal, tea, bread, butter, eggs, yogurt, apples, sauces, spices, beans, muffin mix. There are a few other things that we occasionally buy, but most of what we eat is grown or bought from neighbors or friends, not the store.

Coloured

Abby writes about her community in the Cape Town area:

Coloured

IMG-20131011-00096Nope, that’s not a typo or a slur. That’s a racial category.

This blog post is, in truth, far overdue. I’ve struggled with how to write it, because the story of the coloured community is not my story to tell. I shudder to think I might give you a “single story” (check out the TED Talk about single stories here) of the coloured community in Cape Town, but you cannot fully accompany me on my journey without learning about whom I am accompanying.

Coloured is a racial category in South Africa. The simplest definition of the coloured community is “neither white nor black” or “mixed race.” But in all honesty, that gives you a dull gray blurry picture of a vibrant, colorful, beautiful, complex community.

The majority of the people I live and interact with in Cape Town are coloured. The majority has a mother tongue of Afrikaans, but many are English-speaking. The majority is Christian, but many are Muslim. Their literal skin color varies greatly, as does their lineage.

Historians posit that most people in the coloured community have ancestry from Northern Europe (the effects of the Dutch and English settling in the Cape), Southern and Western Africa, and indigenous populations (as in the Khoi and the San who were the original inhabitants of this geographic region). However, they also have lineage from the sad history of slavery in this area. During colonialization, slaves were brought to the Cape from many different countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar, India, Mozambique, and others).

So, there were all these various cultures from all these various places that were combining and changing and creating new cultures in this area.

And then, the apartheid years changed everything. Pass laws. Group Areas Acts. All of these landmarks of an era of discrimination required the people of South Africa to be racially categorized. And the Afrikaners who were making the laws also came up with the racial categories. The categories included White, Black, Asian, and Coloured. Coloured indicated anyone who did not fit into one of the other categories, including people of all the ancestry I mentioned above.

The coloured community during apartheid was given some benefits that the black community was not. They were in no way equal to the white population, but they mostly had better access to education, jobs, public services, and housing.

Since 1994 and the end of apartheid, this country has undergone so much change and faced so many challenges. The sad fact is that there is still a lot of racial segregation- it is just no longer enforced by the government.

The coloured community in the Western Cape still feels that they face discrimination from those in power. As Lindsay Johns, Coloured blogger, wrote “It seems that colouredness has been unpalatable both to the old Afrikaner regime and now to the unashamedly Afrocentric ANC.” Or there was my host mom, who said, “It used to be we weren’t white enough to be White. Now we’re not black enough to be Black.”

They are frustrated, often disenfranchised, and dream of a country that practices what it preaches in terms of racial equality.

They are my family, my coworkers, my friends. They are my community, and they are coloured. I hope that in the next six months I can share more of their stories.

Sunday Church Service

Elle writes about a recent worship service at her site:

It was a hot Sunday morning and the room was full. During the service a woman got up to give an item. She sat in front of the congregation and sang a song that she had written on a piece of paper that she was holding. All that accompanied her song was the soft humming that came from some in the congregation as we sat swaying and listening to her musical offering. When she was finished we clapped and a song struck out as we sang her back to her seat.

Then as we sang another song a group of men made their way to the front to offer their music. They sang a song from the hymnal in great harmony. I followed along as my mom pointed out which one they were singing from. When they finished, we again bursted out into song. This song lifted people from their seats. The Spirit took some from their chairs and moved them into the aisle. I was on the end of our row witnessing a little girl dancing in the aisle. Then a woman joined her. Then two other women and a man danced their way to join in the joyous event in the aisle. I beamed and danced watching and singing. One of the women noticed and invited me to join their circle. I instantly jumped in and joined their stomping, dancing, singing, and shouting as we praised God with the voices and energy of the congregation.

It was loud. People were singing as loud as they could. One woman we were dancing with had a whistle she was blowing. Others were clapping. People were using their books as drums to hit and make loud praise. Women (including myself) shouted and cheered as we sang and danced.

Church lasted three hours on that hot Sunday. But I did not notice. The Spirit took hold of that Sunday and it was holy, full of praise and joy, restoration and peace. 

Emily’s Top 10

Emily (on right) tries South African mangos for the first time.

Emily (on right) tries South African mangos for the first time.

Emily sums up much of the YAGM-experience in her list of 10 things:

I love making lists. On my desk, I currently have an old to-do list, a more up-to-date to-do list, a list of addresses, a list of people to whom I have sent postcards, and list of blog ideas. Sometimes, I will even make a to-do list filled with super easy things like “Eat breakfast” just so I can make a list and cross things off.

A couple of days ago, I started a list of the things I love about YAGM. While I have only shared my top 10 with you, there are approximately 732 other things I could add as well. :)

 10. YAGMs are constantly trying new foods.

I would have never thought that I would fall in love with a sandwich piled high with French fries, cheese, an egg, and two kinds of meat, but here I am, ordering kota (the sandwich I just described) almost every week. Many people are proud of me because I will try almost anything, as long as I’m not told exactly what it is until after I take the first bite. Food is not only a fun thing to try, but it is also an excellent way to connect with people and a community.

9. I can now appreciate simply “being.”

Yes, I am an American. Yes, I studied Business Finance and Accounting in college. Yes, I like to get stuff done and be super productive. Yes, I have finally realized that “getting stuff done” may not be the most important thing in life. Some of my favorite days have been “unproductive” in the American sense, but filled with wonderful conversation and time spent with others. Surprising, I know.

8. Being able to find comfort in the discomfort.

This is one that took me a long time to appreciate. Trust me, being a YAGM is usually anything but comfortable. I have been thrown into more uncomfortable situations than I can remember. However, I have noticed that those situations are the ones that I learn from and appreciate.

7. I have been forced out of my comfort zone.

To piggy-back off of the last point, YAGM has completely and totally forced me to go way outside of my comfort zone. Exhibit A: Small-town Minnesota girl (that’s me) living in the largest township in South Africa, with a population of over 1 million people (that’s Soweto). Enough said.

6. YAGM has taught me so much about myself.

Through all of the challenges, joys, random experiences, conversations, and simple everyday life, I have learned more about myself than I thought possible. I have learned more about how I see myself as a Christian, as a friend, as a white woman, as a privileged American, and especially as a part of the greater global community.

5. I have learned how to rely on others.

Throughout my whole life, I have been pretty independent. I have always been able to do things on my own without asking for much help. Well, if I tried to keep that same mindset as a YAGM, I probably would spend the whole year sitting in my room doing nothing. In order to simply live in a new country amongst a new community, asking for help is a must. To be honest, I was afraid to do so for the first couple of months. I got through, but since I have started asking for help, I have learned so much more than I ever could have imagined.

4. You can learn a new language.

The YAGM Southern Africa program is fairly unique in the fact that no language training is provided at the beginning of service. Why, you may ask? Well, between the 10 volunteers here, we are attempting to learn 6 different languages. Yep, 6! South Africa is a wonderfully diverse country, so naturally a lot of languages are spoken. For me, personally, language has become simply fascinating since I moved here. In my little neighborhood, I have met people that speak Zulu, Sotho, Venda, Tswana, and Xhosa as their first language. While this could create major confusion, people are incredibly helpful in translating things to English when I need it, while also trying to teach me some of the native languages.

3. I have made so many new friends.

Between my friends in my host community and my fellow YAGMs, I feel almost overwhelmed by the love surrounding me. First of all, in my host community, I have fellow volunteers, other co-workers, neighbors, and children of all ages that I now call my friends. Although they all know I will leave in only a few short months, they have all welcomed me into their lives and I will be forever grateful. Second, my fellow YAGM-SA family is truly my second family. When we are together, the air is filled with laughter, discussion, discernment, tears (of joy and heartache), and so much love. I cannot imagine going through this experience without them and I know we will stay friends forever.

2. YAGM makes you think.

Woah. The thinking that I have done. Seriously, I didn’t know my brain could handle all of these thoughts! Not only has my experience made me think about simple things like new foods and languages, but my time here has made me think about social justice, race issues, gender equality, economic justice, and more. I joke sometimes that ignorance really is bliss, because sometimes it is hard and frustrating to wrestle with these thoughts. However, I am extremely grateful for experiences that bring up these difficult thoughts, because now I feel the need and passion to work on these issues alongside my global brothers and sisters.

1. I now feel truly connected to the global church.

Seeing what YAGM has done here in South Africa as well as the impact made by fellow YAGMs around the world is absolutely incredible. I feel blessed to be a part of the greater church, but I feel even more blessed to be a part of God’s greater kingdom here on earth. I have seen God in so many unexpected places, and I now know that our Lord’s presence is truly being felt around the world.

The Mandela Legacy, part ii

DSC_0538

Katie Justice served in YAGM in Southern Africa in 2012-2013. Below, she shares the impact of Nelson Mandela on her life:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”  -Nelson Mandela

Hearing the news that Tata Mandela passed away on December 5th, I can honestly say it took me by suprise. I sort of thought it wouldnt because of the fact that he became really ill during my year in South Africa and was close to dying. Hearing that he had passed made me realize what a great human being he truly was and how there will never be another Nelson Mandela in our lifetime.

Madiba (as he was affectionately called by the people of South Africa) has always been an inspiration for me. His struggle to bring human and equal rights to all is one of the many qualities that I have admired about him. The quote above to me defines what God’s love in the world should look like when practiced. He also realized that for South Africa to move forward from the dark memories of Aparthied, forgiveness and reconciliation is the gateway for working together as a family.

The quote above always reminds me of the purpose that God has laid on my heart. Forgiveness, reconciliation and the struggle for equal rights for all is something I will continue to strive for and I hope to see achieved in my lifetime and, as Madiba said himself, if need be Im prepared to die for.

Tata Mandela, Thank you for continuing to inspire me and many others around the world. You have served your country well my friend. May you rest in peace and celebrate with Our Father Almighty in heaven.