South Africa Trip - Diane's Journal
Diane Simon - Thrivent Builds with Habitat for Humanity Alliance Strategy Office
Sawubona (that is good day in Zulu). After more than 24 hours of air travel, we made it to our final destination on Saturday shortly after noon, South Africa time (seven hours ahead of Central time in the U.S.). Flights went better than I expected and I discovered that I could take a bath with wet ones :-) The airlines did a fabulous job of keeping us fed and comfortable. My husband Tom and I, along with Thrivent Builds Worldwide coordinator Greg Foulke, met up with half of our group in Phoenix, Airzona and we were easily able to identify one another by our bright red Thrivent Builds Worldwide t-shirts and the big smiles on our faces. We traveled together to Heathrow airport in London where we met up with the rest of our team—10 folks from a Lutheran church in Canada—to continue our flight into South Africa. Within a very short period of time we realized we had lost our innocence of the Midwest. As we sat and waited for the rest of our team, two guards walked by us with machine guns in their hands and their fingers on the triggers. Despite this bit of an awakening we were able to find our Canadian friends in this very large airport, because like us, they had their red Thrivent Builds Worldwide t-shirts on. We could not help but notice how many people looked at us questioningly, wondering who this group of folks were. Some actually got brave and asked us what Thrivent Builds was, and it was fun to share the great news about the alliance between Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and Habitat for Humanity International. We also really enjoyed sharing the fact that most of us were members of Thrivent Financial, and we were volunteering our service to help the caregivers of orphaned AIDS children so that they could provide adequate shelter to their children. The AIDS children are mostly cared for by their grandmothers—called Gogos in South Africa—as the children's parents have died of AIDS.
Flying into Durban in South Africa was breath taking. As we began to descend I could see the hills of the Valley of 1,000 Hills and the Indian Ocean, very near where we would be building our homes. We were met by our local contacts at the airport and whisked quickly to our hotel so we could take a shower and rest before getting back together with the team for our first dinner together. On the way to the hotel we were once again struck by the fact we were no longer home. The cars travel on the opposite side of the street in South Africa. I did OK as long as I didn't look out front window—I was sure we would be hit.
Getting acquainted with the land
Our first full day was spent getting acclimated with the area we would be calling home for just over a week. We got to walk along the shore line of the Indian Ocean and pick up some sea shells and enjoy the sunshine. It is beginning of winter in the Southern hemisphere so the temperature was about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Just amazing to be in a beautiful country enjoying the picturesque landscape and forming new friendships with our fellow team members. We closed out the day by eating at a restaurant in the Valley of 1,000 Hills.
Cinderblocks, handshakes and Gogos
For our first build day, we traveled about 45 minutes from our hotel in Pinetown to the Shongweni Valley where we were greeted by the Lutheran pastor of a church that has been recently restored in the Valley by members of Christ Church in Phoenix, AZ. The restoration was done as an add-on to a recent Thrivent Builds Worldwide trip. We shared in devotion and prayer with our fellow Lutherans from South Africa. It was very moving as we looked around and met some of our partner families. Two of the families were recent Habitat homebuyers and one was from the home we were building today. The other recipient is a 92 year old women caring for 4 orphaned children. She could not make the trip down into the valley, but the Pastor promised she would visit the site in the afternoon.
We made our way to the build sites after meeting the families. We will be completing two homes this week with our team of 20 and about 10 Zulu volunteers. It was an incredible day. The homes are being built on one of the hills in the valley and the scenery surrounding these homes is like nothing I have ever seen before. I know we hear the word breathtaking quite often, but truly at times it is breathtaking and I feel God's presence as we are high on the hills overlooking large cliffs and Zulu homes in the valleys below.
We worked very hard as we are building cinder block homes. In just a few short hours we had 3 rows of blocks up and had a bit of a competition going between the two teams we split ourselves into. We of course had to break for tea at 10:00 as is customary and it was great to interact with our Zulu volunteers. By now we know a few Zulu words and phrases and our volunteers are very patient with us as we practice the new words. We also learned that the Zulu have their own handshake and we all have had fun learning and experiencing this incredible bonding with our new friends and partner families.
Our 92 year old Gogo did visit our site and there was a bit of a silence as we watched this woman get out of the car and greet us all at our site. It turns out that Greg, Tom and I are building Gogo's home so it was even more special for us. As I said it was a brief time out and back to work. We built until about 4:30 p.m. and by then we had put 5 rows of block up for each home.
I think the thing that stuck me the most today were the kids. In the morning we had just one child on site whose mother will be future Habitat homebuyer, but as the day continued and the kids returned from school our site was taken over by the kids. Each one as beautiful as the ones that come before them. All had the biggest smiles on their faces and wanted nothing more from us than a hug or a handshake. It is incredible to me that I witnessed these lovable and caring children among some of the worst living conditions I have ever seen in my life. But I was also moved to know that my membership in Thrivent Financial for Lutherans is affording these kids a better life.
New muscles, 'Mums' and vaccinations
We just got in from our third day of building. We left for the build at 7:30 a.m. and we did not get back to our hotel until 10:00 p.m. It was a long day, but so worth it. It is unbelievable to me how you can take a team of 20 people who had practically no experience in building cinder block homes and as of today we have 10 rows built on two homes. The Lutheran Bishop of South Africa joined us in building today as well. He is so very thankful for all we are doing in this village. I just love when we have visitors come to the site. They are in awe of all that we are accomplishing and have a hard time believing that we would leave our jobs and families to come so far to volunteer.
It is very hard work. Today I actually found muscles that up until today I have only seen on pictures that show the human anatomy. The funny thing is it is also the best work because it reaches your soul. We are now becoming very familiar with the local volunteers working on our site and although we only share a few common words, we laugh with each other. Laughter is our universal language and believe me - there is alot of laughter on our build sites.
I have met a couple more of the children who will be living in the homes built by the Thrivent Builds Worldwide teams that came before us. They are incredibly happy children. We take pictures with our digital cameras and then show them on the picture windows and they just love looking at themselves.
We have an amazing team and although we are split between homes the sites are close and we see each other at tea (beginning to really enjoy my 10:00 tea) and at lunch. The reason we didn't get back to the hotel until 10:00 p.m. last evening and is because we went to an animal reserve where we went on a safari. It was wonderful being out in nature in this beautiful country. We even did a bit of night driving so we were able to see animals in their habitat even after dark.
I marvel at the sites we are seeing. I shared with my husband Tom that it is like taking things I have seen in the U.S. and magnifying it by 100. Sugar cane is a big industry here and the sugar cane fields go on for miles and miles. It is harvesting season so they actually do a quick burn of the field to be harvested and then come in and cut the sugar cane by hand. I can not imagine the manpower it takes to harvest these large crops.
We are learning more and more about the AIDS epidemic that they are dealing with here. 40% of the pregnant 'Mums' in the Durban area are HIV positive. Women between the ages of 15 and 30 have only a 50% chance of survival. The vaccinations needed are just now making there way here and the government is putting a program in place to roll out the vaccinations. It is so difficult to sit and listen to this information knowing about our health care system in the U.S. The only way I am finding my way through this is to go to the build site and work as hard as I can to get our homes complete so we can move our partner families into better conditions.
Today as I talked to the three children moving into on of the homes they shared they will be moving in with their Mum and three other children. I find it so amazing to see the excitement on their faces as they watch us build the homes. It is like a castle to these children, they can hardly wait. We also learned that one of the families we are building with has a child who is paralyzed. This is the home Greg, Tom and I are building - and remember the Gogo is 92 years old. In the other home there is a 20 year old women moving in with her Gogo and we discovered today that she has AIDS. She still shows up on site everyday and helps call the water we use to mix the mortar. She may not move as quickly as many of us on site, but it is important to her that she contributes...and she does.
School children, a special delivery and Zulu dancers
We started out the day by visiting a school in Shongweni Valley. As we approached the school we could hear the children in their rooms, some singing and some reading. We were met by the principal and they quickly got out chairs and placed them in the center square of the school. We all sat down and the children came out of their rooms and lined up forming a horse shoe. After everyone was lined up they began to sing and I can honestly say I have never heard anything like it in my life. There were children ranging from kindergarten to the eighth grade and they were all singing. Most of these children are orphan children just like the ones we are building the homes with this week. I was overcome with such strong emotions. The songs they sang were lovely. I didn't understand a word they were singing as they sang in Zulu...but it touched my heart.
As they sang there was one little guy who just kept looking at me. He would sing and smile and I had to continue to wipe tears from my eyes. When I was finally able to control myself I gave him a quick wink and he got the biggest smile on his face so I winked again. He tried really hard to wink but it didn't quite work so I winked again and this time it he did it. He kept singing his little heart out and we continued to wink at each other. A couple of other team members picked up on this and he started to wink at them also. It was truly priceless.
I was so humbled as I sat and watched the kids sing and the oldest boys in the school sang and performed some Zulu dances for us as well. I was struck with the feeling of how blessed I am as a person and how blessed my family is. I discovered that the Lutheran Pastor we have been working with met with the principal of the school yesterday to get one of the children in his congregation into this school. The only thing that was holding her back was a uniform. I could hardly believe the story, but the family could not afford the required uniform so the girl was unable to attend until the Pastor met with the school principal.
After the children returned to their classrooms we met with the principal and her staff. They were very thankful to us for stopping. Several of our team members had brought a few school supplies and soccer balls and they were so grateful. I found this very difficult to listen to and I wanted nothing more than to open my wallet right there and give them a few rand (South African money), but we were all instructed to only give the few gifts we brought. It is a delicate balance between the hand out and the hand up.
We left the school and returned to our build site. It was very quiet as we all tried to process what has just occurred. Things began to return to normal about an hour or so after we got back. Our homes are progressing so well and we are all finding our own niche on site. Some are getting really good at breaking the block small enough to fit into the empty space and others are getting good at setting the blocks into place. Some of our group split off and finished up painting one of the homes that was completed last month so the partner family can move in tomorrow.
We were all making a really hard push to finish up one of our tasks when one of our team members was pulled away by another team member. All we heard was "Jean (who is a retired nurse) come quickly there is a 16 year old about to deliver a baby." We weren't really sure what was going on but shortly after another team member returned and shared that a young woman was about to have a baby about 3 homes down. When Jean got there the woman was laying on the ground in the grass and she could see the baby was crowning. There was a mattress laying on the ground so they moved the woman to the mattress and within minutes Jean had delivered the baby. The Gogo was so thankful to Jean and she shared through a translator that if Jean was not there the woman would have had the baby by herself. We also discovered this was her second child. I again realized what a sheltered life I have led. You can read more about this story on Habitat's Web site.
Once we all had time to talk with Jean about her experience it was time to pack up our site and go to see some Zulu dancing. It was exciting to watch and they have very high energy. I enjoyed watching and taking pictures with the dancers afterwards.
Daka, dedications and Gogo's home
We have come to the end of our build week. As we gathered for our morning devotion the group already had mixed emotions. Some were eager to get back on the build site to continue to finish "our" homes, while others were sad as this would be our last trip into the valley. The Valley has become our second home.
When we got to the site our now very popular resident nurse, Jean, went to visit the Gogo of the woman whose baby Jean delivered the day before. The Gogo shared through a translator that they have named the baby and in English it translates to Happiness. We were all so very touched by the selection of the name. Although there were a few in our group jokingly suggested maybe the baby should be called Martin Luther. The mother was still in the hospital, but both were doing fine and expected to be home that afternoon.
Our teams are feeling much more sure of what we are doing on the build sites so we immediately got to work mixing the 'daka' (mortar). Yesterday Greg was being exceptionally messy with the daka. He would throw a shovel full just as someone had put water on the pile resulting in splashing of daka all over team members - and I was the benefactor of most of it. I even got a taste of it. I was laughing as others were trying to throw the daka at Greg. I grew up in the middle of an older brother and younger brother so I know a bit of pay back. I patiently waited for the right moment, then picked up a heavy shovel full of the now slushy mixture and threw it right at Greg, getting his shirt, shorts and shoes covered with daka. By this time the daka was ready and others lost their opportunity to get Greg back, but they had a long evening of planning. Finally, the other team members had their payback time by putting daka up AND down Greg's shirt...and a splash of water was added for good measure. He was a great sport about it, but was rather jumpy on site the rest of the day.
We all became a bit more anxious as morning turned to afternoon and it was time to clean up the site. We were ready to begin a dedication ceremony as well as blessing our two homes. At 2:00, we all walked over to a completed home which was painted by part of our group. When we got there we discovered many of the children from the valley had gathered also. Ben, the volunteer coordinator for the Habitat affiliate began the dedication and turned things over to Pastor Majola. We all sang a song in English, then the Zulu people gathered sang a song in Zulu and at the end the key was handed to the woman who was the proud owner of a new home. There was not a dry eye in the crowd as we all shared this glorious moment with our new family. Through a translator the woman shared her thanks and appreciation from her and her family.
Mary Lynn Sheldon, who had been on a previous Thrivent Builds Worldwide trip to this area, had also been touched by her experience with Pastor Majola. You can read about it in her story called The Master Weaver (PDF, 69K).
We continued the ceremony by walking back to the homes we worked on for the week. Although they are nearing completion, they still have work needed. So we did a home blessing with members from the partner family and the community as well. It was amazing to see the community support given to these new partner families. I mentioned earlier that the 92 year old Gogo will be moving into the house with 4 our her 'great' grandchildren. Both the children's mother and grandmother have passed away from AIDS. Two of the young adults from the Gogo's family showed up for the blessing, but Gogo could not as she was not feeling well. There were many hugs, tears and songs as Bishop Dave and Pastor Majola shared a blessing. After the blessings the local children sang a Zulu song and shared a Zulu dance with us. They are incredibly flexible and their voices beautiful. It is great to see this tradition of song and dance being passed down to this generation of children.
Just as we were ready to leave for the day, physically and emotionally drained Pastor Majola invited us into the valley to see where Gogo currently calls home. As we made our way deeper into the valley we saw many homes in need of major repairs. We even saw mud houses as we parked and needed to finish our journey on foot. Gogo's two great grandchildren led us down to their home. As we came upon this shelter they announced we were there and Gogo came out of one of two doors in the dwelling. I can not even begin to describe the shelter Gogo came out of so I have attached a picture. We discovered while we were talking that Gogo lives in this shelter with an uncle and a disabled grand daughter and that 3 of the children are unable to live in the home due to the condition. On the site of the home we saw homemade cinder blocks. We discovered that the young woman that came to the blessing was actually making the blocks. She knows that Gogo does not have much time left in this life and she began to fear in May for her family upon Gogo's death. She began making the blocks in hopes she would make enough to build on a room so they could all be together and she would raise the younger children. Again I could hardly keep myself together as I listened to the story. It truly is a blessing from God that this family will move into a new home in just a few weeks. We chatted a bit more with the family and then made our way back to our bus. It was a quiet ride home as we all needed to reflect on all that had taken place this last build day.
We are fortunate in that we get one more day with our new found family and friends as we join Pastor Majola and his new congregation in a worship service tomorrow.
Zulu dancing, worship and Thrivent Financial membership
This is a final Sabona.
We spent our final day, Sunday, with our now extended family in a worship service at Ntshongweni Lutheran Church. It was a quiet bus ride into Shongweni Valley as we all realized this would be our last team ride together and the last time we would all experience this lovely community together as a team. As we drove up the last hill and past the place where Jean delivered a baby, past the home that was dedicated on Friday and finally past the two homes we had constructed over the past week I was moved by all that our team had the opportunity to experience over the week.
We arrived at the church shortly before 9:00 and the service began about 9:30. Pastor Majola greeted all of us and then what followed was the most amazing worship service I have ever experienced. Two very different cultures came together and sang and prayed as one. As our CanAm (Canadian and American) team prayed and sang the songs in English our new Zulu family sang in Zulu, it was incredible. Well, maybe we didn't sing or dance as well as our Zulu family, but we gave it our all. The Zulu have an amazing talent when it comes to singing and dancing. We were all in awe of what our ears were hearing and our hearts were feeling.
There is such spirit among the Zulu. Some live in the worst of worst conditions yet they come together and sing and give praise on a daily basis for what they do have. I remember thinking before I arrived in South Africa that once I saw the children I would feel so sorry for them that I would end up wanting to bring home at least 40 orphans. During my week with these people I learned that they aren't looking for us to feel sorry for them. This isn't what the people in Shongweni Valley want or need from Thrivent Financial members. What they need is exactly what our team gave them this past week and what our members can give them in the future. And that is to use the power of our membership - specifically our volunteer network - to give of our time and talents. I really felt that during the week our team was the hands and feet of our Lord and I feel extremely proud that my membership in Thrivent Financial allowed me to have the experiences I had over this past week. Many times throughout the week people would give thanks to Thrivent Financial the organization and I would say back to them we should be thanking ourselves because it is all of us that allow Thrivent Financial to create these kind of programs. Therefore, we should be looking each other in the eyes and thanking all of us and all of the other members of Thrivent Financial for making the investment in our organization. It is through those investments and our membership that we can put our faith in action through programs like Thrivent Builds Worldwide. I learned just how valuable my membership in Thrivent Financial is this week as I worked side by side with fellow members and our Zulu family. As we volunteered this week we gave this community a hand up, not a hand out.
So I close with HambaKahle (Go well)