"You see, you have your possessions, they take up all your time, here in the townships we don't have as many things so we spend our time taking care of relationships."
-A Xhosa woman from Kayamandi
I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa this winter break on a two-week mission trip through the Gordon Recreation and Leisure department. As a senior Recreation and Leisure Studies major I have heard about South Africa a lot in classes freshman year and later from Dr. Gin who travels there frequently.
It is one thing to hear about a place, to read books and it and see it on film, it is quite another to actually go there and experience it. This trip combined my interests in recreation and community development in the powerful context of cross-cultural experience and helped me gain a better understanding of both the South African culture as well as my own, and the importance of relationships everywhere.
Our hosting organization, Monte Christo Ministries, was located in Paarl a city near Cape Town. Monte Christo focuses on partnering with individuals and other ministries in South Africa and internationally to care for the poor and disciple Christian leaders within their communities. Ken Van Wyk, one of our hosts, described this as "Kingdom work."
We spent a number of days at the Monte Christo farm, located near Porterville. The farm is used to support the ministry financially as well as to grow the produce needed for the food center that MCM runs, their ultimate goal is to feed 5,000 people per day. The farm is also used as a retreat center and a venue for Christian camping programs that make extensive use of the low ropes course installed by a team from Gordon three years ago. Some of the kids who come there for camp experiences have lived their whole lives in crowded apartments and urban areas in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
During the two weeks we were there we had the opportunity to attend three different churches. We spent New Years Eve in this Dutch Reformed Afrikaans-speaking church where we sat silently, listened to a sermon in Afrikaans and then waited while the church bell rang at midnight.
We also attended a Xhosa speaking church in Mbekweni, a black township near Paarl, where the service was anything but formal. Our last Sunday before returning to the States we attended a large contemporary church in Cape Town called The Lighthouse. All of these were very different church experiences and spoke to the diversity within South Africa.
We spent a morning exploring the ropes course that the last Gordon team had built and took some time to complete the TP shuffle as a team, it was a bit of a challenge as our luggage was still lost and a few of us didn't have great footwear for challenge course activities.
One of our projects while we were at the Monte Christo farm was building a trail up into a gorge on the property. We spent several sweaty afternoons shoveling sand, lopping brush, building ladders and, much to the joy of one of our leaders, Nate Hausman, chain sawing a number of trees. The result was a walk able trail with a fantastic view that our hosts Ken and Connie hope will serve the farm as they use it as a retreat center and a camping venue.
I think I heard somewhere that sunsets in Africa are spectacular, whomever I heard that from wasn't kidding. Ken and Connie took us up to the ridge at the back of the farm to watch the sun set one evening and point out the different towns that we could see.
We went to a festival in Cape Town celebrating the "Second New Year," a holiday that takes place on January 2nd. We spent some time walking around the city and watched part of a parade made up of bands and dance groups. Everyone had brought lawn chairs and blankets to sit on to watch the ten-hour parade. We came across this mural of Nelson Mandela on our way to a marketplace.
After leaving the parade we visited Table Mountain, one of the iconic Cape Town landmarks. The mountain is often covered with clouds and there are a number of legends explaining this, including one about a pipe smoking contest that is still continuing to this day. We were able to experience both the fantastic view as well as a few minutes spent in the middle of a cloud on top of the mountain.
Although with the end of Apartheid the South African government agreed to provide housing for all of the people living in crowded townships, these shantytowns are still a very present reality in South Africa. We drove through Khayelitsha, the largest township in the Cape Town area, home to between 500,000 and 1 million people. It was strange to see Table Mountain in the background and reflect on how different those two places where. One with a beautiful view, tourists, and a gift shop, the other with people who lived out their lives in a crowded, city of shacks with only basic utilities.
We went to church in Mbkweni, a township near Stellenbosch at the end of our first week. We had the opportunity to meet people there from Zimbabwe, Malawi, and other countries throughout Africa who were now living in South Africa. The sermon was in English, but all of the prayers were in Xhosa, an African language that includes several different clicks which are represented by Q, X and C.
The Swedish prime minister was visiting their township that week so we helped them clean their church in preparation for their visit. The Prime minister's photo was proudly displayed on a bulletin board by the door along with a photo of the Obama family.
During out second week we spent two days putting on a program for some of the local farm kids in the Porterville area. The first day we spent playing games at a grape farm with about thirty kids ages 3 to 15. We played some soccer or "football," a classic favorite. We also played some new games including Frisbee golf, Alaskan baseball, and capture the flag. The kids also taught us a few games that they liked to play. We might not have completely understood them since none included competition or elimination, staples of many of our American games, they did enjoy watching us try to imitate the songs and actions that the games involved. There wasn't much shade, however our snack breaks included freshly picked grapes, which more than made up for the hot sun.
The second day with the Porterville farm kids we spent at the Monte Christo farm using some of the elements on the ropes course, swimming in the swimming pool, slipping on a South African style Slip'n Slide and playing more Frisbee golf. Kylie and I spent the morning with a group of older girls. The girls were very determined to do the TP shuffle, and got very good at switching spots on the log by the time we finished. I had never had the chance to lead a debrief with a group that didn't speak very much English and enjoyed acting out the highlights with the girls after we finished.
I enjoy art, so when we spent a day in Kayamandi working on building a running track and painting a mural at the Kuyasa community center in Kayamandi, I was glad to get the opportunity to paint. Kuyasa is a community development organization that runs a number of different programs in Kayamandi, a township of about 33,000 people living in one square mile. Some of their programs include a music performance group, music lessons, art lessons, girls and boy's basketball teams, computer skills classes, a food program, after school tutoring, and a sponsorship program.
Emily, Kylie and I spent the day painting sea creatures in one of their kindergarten tutoring rooms at the center.
At the end of our stay at the farm we spent a morning on a game drive with our hosts Ken and Connie. We saw lots of African wildlife, including a pair of "baby" elephants who happened to be as big as the truck we were in.
After we left the farm we spent a few days in Paarl and got to visit and work with some of the other Monte Christo Ministry projects and partners. We spent a morning working at the Monte Christ food center and visited a community center that focused on AIDS care. We also got to meet Karl Ray, Julie Ray's brother and his family. He told us about the work he was doing using basketball as a way of ministering to men in local prisons. Some of the men who he had worked with had gone on to coach teams in their communities once they were released from prison. It was really incredible to the empowering role that sport can play in community development work.
Monte Christo partners with a sports ministry program and while we were in Paarl we got to spend a morning hanging out with kids at a soccer tournament. It was strange to see how strikingly similar it was to Saturday morning soccer games anywhere in America, but also how different it was. Most of the kid's parents were not there, none had shin guards and some did not even have shoes. One of the kids broke his arm during a game. He came back from the hospital a few hours later with a temporary cast. It was hard not to think about all the kids we had seen in the townships wearing ragged temporary casts.
Our time in South Africa was over far too fast. Before I knew it we were saying goodbye, promising to email new friends and saying that we would see each other again. Since returning home there have been times when relationship building does not seem as exciting and important as it did while we were there. It is easy for me, like the Xhosa woman pointed out, to spend my time taking care of my material possessions and the things that keep me so busy here. Seeing how willing the kids we met in Kayamandi were to open up to us, and to share their lives with a bunch of strangers from America, made me recognize just how tightly I hold onto the things I have and the comfortable routine that I live in and how I sometimes close myself off from those around me. This trip challenged me to live more simply, to evaluate how I relate to other cultures, and to spend my time investing in the relationships I have in my community here at Gordon.