Friday, May 30, 2008

More similar than different...

I was speaking to a group of seventh graders today about the United States and South Africa. We compared populations, units of measurement, identified our capitals and learned how to read time zones on the map. I highlighted parts of their culture that they should be proud of like their Ubuntu way of life, being bilingual and their traditional music and dance. In a gentle manner I also squashed some of their ideas of the United States for it is only fair for them and us. We are not all rich, beautiful and thin. We have HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy and single-parent households. When I asked them what is the biggest health concern and number one killer of people in South Africa every hand in the room went up. It is no secret. In some populations 30% are infected. So why does it continue to spread at the rate that it is? It comes down to two reasons: education and choice. People either don’t know how to protect themselves or they choose not to. Poverty will always play a part but it’s an indirect reason: too poor to go to school, women choosing unprotected prostitution to feed their children, husbands paying for unprotected sex while away from home for months at a time working to support their families. Culture plays another indirect role: young women and girls think that having sex is what they are supposed to do, prostitution is legal, it is socially acceptable for a man to have extra-marital relations. So where am I going with this you might ask? Well, the biggest health concern and number one killer in America right now is obesity. 30% of our population is overweight and another 30% is obese. Like HIV/AIDS and it’s many opportunistic infections (TB, pneumonia, thrush, meningitis and cancers), it is the complications from obesity that are killing Americans everyday. Type 2 diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, liver disease and many kinds of cancers are what take their toll and eventually lead to the death of our obese population. Why are we so fat? Is it poverty? It is true that much of our more affordable foods like pasta, hot dogs, boxed macaroni and cheese, and Ramen noodles are not good for you. Is our culture making it more socially acceptable? Cars have bigger drink holders for the “Big Gulp,” schools prepare meals from cardboard boxes straight from the freezer and our very own government subsidizes corn which directly aids in the low prices of pre-made, hyper-processed, frozen foods which are loaded with high fructose corn syrup. Can we blame it on education? Maybe we are not spending enough time in schools exploring or requiring teachers to live by example. Would it make a difference? If you ask any obese American what they need to do to drop the weight they probably know the answer, diet and exercise. But there are nutritional details that can make or break the numbers on the scale that many adults aren’t even aware of. And there are lots of infected South African who know that HIV/AIDS is spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner but they also think that sex with a virgin will cure them. For those fully educated and aware of all the risks associated with obesity and HIV/AIDS there is a choice to be made. In the heat of the moment, whether it’s sexual or a food craving how many people will choose to abstain from the burger and fries and test the salad?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Experiencing death...

In the United States we primarily go to funerals for the people we are close to whether it’s the deceased or living family members. Here in South Africa the family unit is so wide and social networks tightly knit that funeral attendance is a regular event for many. Like anything that occurs on a regular basis, attending funerals is typical weekend goings-on. And with it comes an unavoidable sense of immunity or numbness. Today, and over the past week, I had the honor of being included in the services and family events surrounding the death and burial of someone from my host mother’s chruch
Tuesday evening we gathered for an hour-long prayer session at the family’s home. Upon arrival we greeted the male family members sitting outside the home. The young women were caring for the children of the house, washing the dishes from dinner and tending to the on-going fire that keeps the water hot. As other women were leaving the home we took our turn to enter and greet the mother of the deceased who remained inside to mourn. The following evening a group of twelve women from the family’s church gathered at their home to make the dress that would cover the body inside the casket. I followed my Mom down a long indoor hallway, illuminated only by the light of dusk outside. We turned into what appeared to be the kitchen. There was a refrigerator and a table and chairs that had been pushed aside to make room for a large blanket that was spread on the floor. There was no room to walk for every chair and inch of floor space was occupied by someone or something. There was lots of shiny white and light blue cloth being folded and cut in all sorts of ways. Everyone was doing something different and no one person seemed to be calling the shots. It wasn’t very long before I was cutting out shapes from a newspaper pattern and snipping fringes on the edges of the cloth. I couldn’t make out from the pile of cloth what exactly was being made. I simply followed my directions and did whatever they asked of me. Some were cutting long strips from the blue, some were cutting slices in the white, another was folding and cutting little diamond shapes and others were weaving the strips into the main cloth. There was nothing perfect about this dress yet the attention to detail in making it look as beautiful as possible was undeniable. Four hours later after much laughing, talking, singing and greatly enjoyed fellowship the women spread out on the floor for the first time the entire dress nearly completed. I couldn’t believe what I saw. They hadn’t even pulled out a needle and thread until the very end to tack on a few things. The entire dress was made without sewing. It was amazing. Once the dress was complete the women proudly and with honor splayed it out on the floor for the family to see. I found myself standing in a circle of over twenty people tightly squeezed into this little room to pray and sing over the dress that would be buried with the deceased. The following evening there was another prayer service at the family’s home which I also attended.
I awoke this morning at 5:30am to my Mom calling me to take a bath she had already prepared. Funeral services must begin by 6:00am so that no one is in the cemetery after 9:00am. It’s a village rule I have yet to find out the reason why. With the sun still low behind the mountains and the sky dark with night we began our trek to the other side of the village to the home of the deceased. I took my seat in the back row against the inside of the green, canvas army tent. My Mom sat up front with the rest of her church members. As daylight appeared more and more people began to arrive. The tent filled up quickly but with stacks of plastic patio chairs available the rest of the yard was free for the sitting. The service started promptly at 6:00 with a song and the arrival of the family. For almost an hour priest after priest shared words from the bible and lessons on life. With it all in Sepedi I drifted off into my own land of thoughts. I could see through the rows of heads to the people sitting out in the rising sun. Faces were half shadowed by the crests of their foreheads and the bridges of their noses. Women’s head cloths shone bright with color and the shaven heads of the men reflected the sun. Songs were sung, people spoke and messages on the casket flowers were read. At the close of the service the female church members paraded out in song as if choreographed and lined the way to the hearse as the elder men of the church and priests led an inner procession with the casket being carried by the male family members. We followed silently behind the hearse as it made it’s way through the village to the cemetery. My Mom and I were at the end of the line and as we entered through the gate of the cemetery I could see the snake of people had more than tripled in size from when we started. The family sat under a sun tent surrounded by almost three hundred people. There were more songs, prayers, readings. I thought about my friend, Beth, who passed away soon after I arrived here and how I have longed for some closure on her death. The young woman who had died was the same age as myself. She had died of AIDS. When they lowered the casket into the grave this wave of sorrow came over me. She was too young to die. She didn’t leave behind any children but when the family took turns saying their last goodbyes with a handful of dirt there were a number of young adults making me think she was one of many children. A hand reached out through the crowd and took mine and guided me with all the women to surround the family. The men gathered on the other side of the grave. It felt odd to have another such occasion where the men are separated from the women. It became clear when the men created two long lines behind the huge pile of dirt and four shovels. The sound of the first shovel of dirt was haunting with it’s heavy, hollow sound on the casket. One by one they took turns shoveling the dirt into the grave. There were no words spoken except for the women singing. I then remembered the dress I had helped make earlier in the week that was to lay over the body inside the casket. Even I had a part in this powerful moment. The adjacent gravesite was also fresh with bright red dirt from the day before. As we walked away I couldn’t help but notice the nine newly dug holes that will be filled in sooner than they should.
I’m living in a country that is all too familiar with burying young people. It may be a regular occurrence but it doesn’t make it easier. Human beings are not equipped to outlive their children. I can’t think of a generation that has endured more hardship then the South African elders of today. Not only did they persevere through apartheid but now they are raising their grandchildren and carrying the burden of leaving them while they are still young. It’s time to start saving today’s youth from this terrible disease. I don’t have the solution or the power to change the world. But if I can offer anything I’m doing it right now. Emerson wrote “To laugh often and much… to appreciate beauty to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better… to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Friday, May 2, 2008

Being Grateful...

This is my host Mom and her Grade R (kindergarten) class in Leyden.

Each day brings with it a new lesson and a new perspective on life. I have spent a day at four different schools so far, one high school and three primary schools. To draw an accurate picture is impossible. To list the challenges would take forever. All I can say is that every child sitting in a chair at a desk in any school in America is extremely fortunate to be where they are. I have yet to visit a school with a computer. I've sat in on classes with over 70 students crammed into the classroom. I have visited a sixth grade classroom where the students couldn't find the country they live in on a map. I've talked with teachers who's voices are full of desperation for resources and basic teaching materials. As an educator my heart breaks for these teachers who are so hungry for knowledge and direction but are getting no support from their government. The whole education system here is an unfortunate state of affairs. The legacy of apartheid continues to show it's ugly face in the schools of rural black communities. Bantu education was the "black education" during apartheid. It was full of corporal punishment, rote memory, "cramming" and unfairness. The victims of this terrible and haunting system are the teachers of today's youth. They are doing the best they can with what they know and have. But think about it... how can anyone become a good teacher if they never had one themselves? How can someone learn to be a good teacher if the teachers teaching them to teach are also results of bantu education? It's truly a vicious cycle that is bigger than any one generation. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this problem and trying not to take it on as my own. It is beyond the power of one person to change what the past four hundred years has left behind. But with each day brings new hope and hope can start with one person. I have so much to offer in this area. I have already helped some teachers create lesson plans and activities to make teaching and learning more fun. My secondary project will definitely be focused on education. The details have yet to surface but I have faith that the who, what, when and how will become clear. I have set it as an intention. I know the answers will present themselves at the perfect time.
Hermann Hess said, "Whether you and I and a few others will renew the world some day remains to be seen. But within ourselves we must renew it each day."
Thank you Allie for sending me this quote on the back of one of your letters. I ripped it off the envelop and it hangs on my wall providing me with new hope everyday.