A Light Shines in the Darkness

DSC01181Alex writes about the gift of light during a recent storm:

“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”    – John 1:5

It all began one cold, windy and a very rainy Saturday morning when I awoke to the sounds of thunder in the distance and rain gently tapping on my bedroom window…

Quiet. The occasional faint pitter-patter of drizzle on the corrugated iron roof would perk my ears up. Then more quiet. The only sounds above a whisper that reached my house over the course of a 34 hour period, from 2am Saturday morning until 12pm Sunday afternoon, were of families chatting and laughing as they cooked their meals over fires or gas stoves.

The reason behind this silence and darkness was that the electricity had been snuffed out from a most terrible and great thunderstorm. A thunderstorm so great it had the capabilities of shutting down the electric grid across an entire collection of villages. In addition to electric damages, there may have been some emotional damage as well. That is to say, I wasn’t scared out of my wits at all. No, that’s a lie. I was scared to death by the lightening and thunder, which decided to have a light show and make awesome cracks and rumbles just above my house.

Adding to my uneasiness about the thunder, I began feeling lonely and isolated as the silence penetrated my mind. I just needed to hear something other than rain and to be with someone other than me. Please, just anything other sound than rain pelting softly on the roof, which only made me extremely sleepy. Anything. On top of it all, the gray of the clouds muddled my spirits. So, I began humming, whistling and singing tunes to myself to brighten the day. Or so the theory goes, but only would temporarily lift the spirits. The occasional “moooooo!” of a cow or a “baaaaa” of a goat would interrupt the day’s silence, then nothing.
I did manage to walk over to a neighbor’s house through typhoon of wind and rain in search of social interaction and to use her gas burner stove to heat some water. To say in the least, I was extremely grateful for both. We chatted for a while about the weather and how crummy it was outside. I laughed as she joked, “Eish, we are just here and it is so cold and we are without electricity. Yoh! You can’t do anything other than just to sleep”. A wide smile then spread across her face and she gave a laugh, as if stating our shared feelings made her feel better. I certainly felt better from her smile and laugh.

She had a puddle building outside of her house, which I became quite worried that it would seep into her house. She, however, was not worried in the least. I guess she had been through worse or similar weather than what we experienced that day. Besides, what do I know? I’m only here for a year.

After a while of some well-needed social interaction and a time to heat up some water, which I was extremely grateful for both, I went back up the hill and back to my house. Despite the comfort of having friends and neighbors around me throughout the quiet day, however, a feeling of eeriness settled over my mind.

On any normal day, the village was filled with a vibrant social hubbub from the chatter and the laughter of people going about their daily business. Walking to the local water taps to fetch water or over to the tavern to buy bread or to play a game of pool are a few common activities in which people regularly participate. These sounds of normalcy, of people going about their daily business with family and friends, then radiate throughout the entire community. No matter where you stand across the village: its streets, yards and into the living spaces of each household, one can here these most common and comforting sounds of Masealama’s people. A social buzz filled with the dynamics of friendship, family and of people finding a place within their community. For me, the regular village sounds of conversation and laughter have become a source of comfort not only in observing these things but being an active participant in village life. I too enjoy making jokes with friends around the village, playing pool and feeling present in today’s world.

This day, however, was different. No one was walking around or doing any activity, really. It was as if everyone had up and moved out of the place, which rendered Masealama a “ghost town.” And who would want to? It was raining cats and dogs outside and it was pretty cold, too. The heaviness of the rain was just too powerful a force to keep people from going out at all, including myself. It seemed to me, both from experiencing this “ghost village” during the storm and speaking with people about it the next day, that many people in Masealama had the same mindset. The mindset of staying in and getting cozy, that is. Familiar village sounds as powered by electricity, such as the rhythmic beats of house and techno music of the nearby tavern, were silent. There was little doubt in my mind that the rest of the day, into evening and deep into the dead of night could get quite dark, lonely and cold.

When afternoon shifted to evening and when night quickly set upon the world, I realized that the next few hours had the potential to go well, or not so well, to put it plainly. The transition from the grey and cloudy day into night was moving very fast, as night does here usually, and I was given a limited amount of options. Here in Limpopo, electricity serves many numerous purposes for people. For instance, with electricity you can perform many different functions such as: turn on a light bulb, charge a cellular phone for communication purposes, keep your food cool with the refrigerator, watch television, and magically and instantly turn on a stove burner for your most immediate cooking needs and much, much more. Oh, the wonders of electricity!

Besides, what were I to do if this was a regular occurrence or if this were every night like it is for many people around Masealama? I began to collect every light-emitting object around the house.

Not only was I going to survive this impenetrable night, I would embrace this opportunity to learn and be thankful for what I had. Thankfully, I had candles. Thankfully I had matches and a little dry wood, despite the damp conditions, to start a fire. Thankfully I had tin foil, food such as potatoes and canned food and a metal grate upon which to cook. Uffda I had fun putting this all together. Though fun for the first night, I’m not entirely sure how many more days the fun would have lasted. I now feel like I have greater appreciation for those who, day in and day out, live a life relatively free of electricity.

The people of Masealama are a social safety net for me. When I feel lonely, others are around for conversation and to allow for me to heat some water. When I feel isolated, others are around to comfort me and teach me valuable lessons on companionship and hospitality. Wherever there is darkness, there is the light of thankfulness, resourcefulness and companionship. Thanks be to God.

“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”   -John 1:5

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A Day in the Life of a YAGM

Alex with the Youth Center in the background

Alex with the Youth Development Center in the background

Alex describes a typical day for him as he serves in a rural village in the northern part of South Africa:

At the break of dawn, at around 6:15am I’m up and at ‘em! Every morning I awake to the sound of the “cocka-doodle-doo!” of roosters that belong to my neighbors. Not to mention the great and colorful variety of birds, of which not two have the same chirps. What a tapestry of sound it is to be woken up by! I slowly gather myself to make coffee and sit down to write letters or  read a book to prepare for the day. Before long, after a couple cups of coffee and a few spoonfuls of strawberry yoghurt, muesli with raisins, and a banana, it is almost eight o’clock and I am in a frenzy to get to the crèche, the local daycare centre. Along the way to the crèche, I greet and am greeted by anyone and everyone in the village: children on their way to school, women walking their children to the crèche, people fetching water from the local water tanks, and elders taking their morning walk. I start with a friendly “Thobela (Formal hello)! Le kae(how are you)?”, the person will then respond with a smile and a “Ah, Thobela! Re gona (I am fine)! Le kae?”. Such a greeting is short and joy-filled. It always makes my morning just that much more bright. A short distance from the crèche, around eight am, I am greeted by the sounds and workings of my day ahead. Crying babies to be attended to, the screams and yells of children playing on equipment and, what especially makes the caffeine from my coffee seem a little more special, are the laughs and loud chatter from the women I work with at the crèche. What a joy! By one o’clock p.m., I am finished at the crèche and take the five-minute walk up the hill to my house. I’ll spend a  couple of hours around the house refilling my water bins, due to no running water in the village, cleaning the house or more reading and writing. After the time at the house I will go to the Youth Development Centre, and spend time playing games with  more kids. Children are around Masealama at all times of the day, and that has been such a joy. Our group of eight ELCA volunteers in South Africa for the year 2012-2013 work through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). Specifically for my time in Masealama, this means any number of things. I have been spending time at church on Sundays, attending Youth League (council for youth members) meetings, and singing in the local church choir. I have also enjoyed singing in a youth church choir through the Turfloop parish, which is in the nearby town of Turfloop. Singing in the choir has been a great way to meet others my own age and with similar attitudes! Traveling to nearby cities, such as Polokwane and Tzaneen has been a great way for me to get to know the area and to become more culturally adjusted.

Land of Grace

During In-Country Orientation, Alex learned about traditional Zulu life and got to try milking a cow.

YAGM participant Alex speaks of the grace he encounters in his new community:

As I wandered along the dusty road to the Combi (taxi) stop in Masealama, I peered across the wide valley that stretches into the vast Limpopo wilderness.  This ancient land is dotted with trees and aloe vera plants and is flush with dry, thorny brush.  In terms of wildlife, not too many large and dangerous animals live in these parts, except for cattle, a few species of extremely poisonous snakes and spiders, and smaller animals such as goats, dogs, and cats.  A few hours drive to the east is Krueger National Park where people go to see the large ones! Lions, rhinos, and leopards, “Oh My!” Alongside these creatures, people have succeeded in making a living around this area for thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years.  The sheer length of time that people have lived with one another in this area alongside lions, rhinos, and leopards, is difficult for me to comprehend.  Africa is indeed the cradle of humanity.

To be honest, these past couple of weeks have not at all the easiest experiencies I have ever had.  Though I have only been in Masealama for a short period, fatigue and frustration have come easily to me.  I constantly have to ask for help and direction from others, leaving me feel ignorant, weak, and vulnerable.  I can’t even speak the regional language of Sepedi, which places a huge roadblock in the way of my efforts to communicate with most people.  Though many people here do speak English, it would be much easier for me to communicate if I were able to speak Sepedi.  Not to mention, I do not know anything of cultural norms such as greetings, child rearing, religious beliefs (both outward and underlaying) and how to cook and eat food.  I’m trying to learn the language and other aspects of culture but that will be an ongoing process.  I am not very used to feeling as helpless as I have been here.

Despite these feelings of helplessness and loneliness, I have had guidance and grace from members of my community to fill my journey with humor, learning, companionship, newfound friendships and most of all, love.  I am extremely thankful to those who have showed warmth, grace and humor with me as I have struggled to adjust.  From my experiences, it seems that struggles, although in various degrees of seriousness during the situation, can be filled with humor.

While I awaited the arrival of the Combi for about thirty minutes, my friends stuck out the wait with me because they felt that I shouldn’t wait alone.  So we hung out, had a few laughs and fake-wrestling matches.  What a great and simple time it was.

In another instance, I attempted to wash my clothes in the washing machine the other day, which seemed to be simple enough.  Just load, turn the washer to the right setting, and then unload, rinse, and hang on the clothesline.  Seems easy, right?  Well I had no idea that if I did not turn the drain nozzle all the way to the right, water would spill all over the floor.  As expected, the process did not go completely right and I succeeded in spilling water all over my bathroom floor.  The woman helping me laughed and laughed as I struggled to clean up the water and prevent more from spilling out of the machine.  We spent a few minutes sloshing over the drenched floor with rags to sop up the residual mess.  Although I seemed flustered, she did not seem to mind in the least.  Why should it bother me?

Friends, grace and love are wonderful things.  Without them, we would go around constantly mad at one another for miniscule mistakes such as spilling water onto the bathroom floor.  The woman who helped me could have been frustrated and angry with me for spilling water on the floor, but she chose to laugh, shake it off, and join in on the clean up.  Wow.  How can I incorporate that sense of forgiveness into the small moments of my own life?