Sunday, October 30, 2011

Journey's End, Saturday 29th (and Sunday 30th) October

There. Home again. Odyssey completed: six young people safely returned to the care of their parents after a truly extraordinary week.

We left Jo'burg in the midst of a dramatic thunderstorm -- the airport (indeed the aircraft) lit up by lightning. There was a small delay both on the ground and in the air, so that we arrived in Dubai after the eight hour flight, about an hour later than scheduled. But that didn't matter at all: it just meant that we had a little over two hours there on stopover, rather than three. Given that it was the early hours of Saturday morning, we were quite glad not to have to wait longer.

At Dubai we did some further souvenir/duty free shopping before boarding the flight for home. We left at 8am local time, 5am English time, for the seven and a bit hour flight to Birmingham, and touched down around 12.45pm. It was exciting, via the inflight information screen, to watch the cities on the flight path map become more and more familiar: Basra and Istanbul giving way to Budapest, then Frankfort to Hamburg, to London. It took us some time to get through passport control and baggage reclaim, and it was almost 1.30 before we emerged into the arrivals hall. All the families of the young people had come to meet us: how lovely to be hugged on arrival as well as on departure. We had a final team photo outside Birmingham International and said goodbye to one another before heading our separate ways.

I've no doubt at all that in all our various cars, and later at home, the same kinds of stories were being rehearsed by us all to our loved ones -- stories of faith and hope and love, of inspiration and transformation, of challenge and achievement, of the great privilege of finding ourselves so at home with Christian brothers and sisters on the other side of our world. Wonderful.

Today, Sunday, Ros, Helen and I have begun the task of telling those stories to a wider audience by using the sermon slot in the 10.30am Sung Eucharist in our Cathedral. How funny to look back a week to the very different style of worship we shared in at the Family Day. We won't meet tonight as a Youth Fellowship, but will do so next week, when we'll use the time to prepare some more considered reflections on two future occasions, one next month and one in October. We are clear, all nine of us, that this partnership has real potential for development: we, in Lichfield, can make a real contribution to support our companions in Matlosane; and they, in the process, can renew us for mission.

Heading for home, Friday 28th October

This morning was a slightly surreal affair. A slow farewell.

We were collected from our hosts with all our baggage at about 8am, and went first to the Cathedral, After unloading the heavy luggage, we then headed for a zoo at Stilfontein, so that we would have one last chance to see lions close up. And we did. But time was so short that we didn’t actually enter the zoo. We parked up on a verge on the outside, and peered through the wire fence at a magnificent pair of lions! We then turned the minibus around and drove the 45 minutes or so back to the Cathedral.

We were there just before 11am, when members of the Cathedral’s youth fellowship were due to meet up with us for cold drinks, so that we could say our farewell to them. About a dozen of them came, but since the Isogong YF is in fact an 18-35 group, rather than an 11-18 group, it wasn’t surprising that many of the faces we’ve got to know best (Miles, Kintse, Rorisang) weren’t able to be there. But it was good to see Serame and Boitumelo, who had first met us with Miles and Kintse at the airport a week ago. The two of them, with Tsepo and one other young woman whose name I didn’t catch came on to see us off. We gave them some small souvenirs of our Cathedral, and did a formal thank you to the Dean, Edward Sithole, who has been an absolute star. I hope it might be possible to get him over to the UK at some point, to see how Cathedrals work in places like Lichfield.

Then, after a team photo outside Tsogong Catheral, we (19 of us!) set of, via a Wimpy, in a full minibus of 14 plus driver and an accompanying car of four, for the airport. I think I wasn’t the only one for whom the most emotional part of the day was driving through, and then out of, the township. It’s an extraordinary place, heaving with life and energy, despite extreme poverty. Housing and education are inadequate, and yet there is an inspiring spirit there. I never felt intimidated in the least, or at risk – and if anyone is reading this with the possibility of future visits in mind, even involving younger children, I’d say ‘Do it!’. I was so sad to leave it behind as we turned onto the motorway -- several of us were quietly wiping away some tears as we went.

The meal was our last chance to express our gratitude to our hosts. We reached the airport at about 3pm, in very good time for our check out and there were the inevitable sad goodbyes. Rita (with Peter, host to Ed, Tom and myself), Dean Edward, Raini (host to Helen and Millie) and Mrs Mapefane came to see us off. What lovely people they are. There was much hugging and swapping of Facebook addresses, and promises to meet up again.

Check in was fine, even though I’d misplaced the electronic print out ticket (no-one from Emirates batted an eyelid or turned a hair… my passport was enough to confirm the booking!). We got through security and passport control in no time, and are now spending 90 minutes or so in the departure area, waiting for boarding and catching up on last minute souvenir and present buying.

Friday, October 28, 2011

At Pilanesberg, Thursday 27 October, Trip Day Seven

Pilanesberg is huge. It’s only the fifth largest game park in South Africa (Kruger Park is easily the biggest), but it’s 55000 hectares in size (which is about the size of the Diocese of Lichfield I think... haven't had a chance to check!).

Our guest house was only a few minutes’ drive from the entrance to the park, and a safari truck came to collect all 17 of us at about 5.45am. By then we’d showered, dressed, packed and had a first, light breakfast.

We were in the park pretty much on the dot of 6.00am, as it opened. Our driver was excellent: she provided just the right amount of commentary when we stopped to observe the animals. (She told us, for example, how the zebra graze alongside two particular kinds of deer, for mutual protection from the lion, because the zebra has an acute sense of sight, but doesn’t hear or smell so well and these deer have acute senses of hearing and smell, but don’t see so well.)

Over the course of the next three hours, we saw some wonderful things: four white rhino early on, ambling beside (and in fact straying onto) the road we were driving along; more giraffe, zebra, springbok and wildebeest than you could count; warthogs and hippos; and then wonderfully, towards the end our the drive, three lions (a richly maned maled and two sleek females). They weren’t very close to us, perhaps 150 yards away, but we had them in sight on and off for 10-15 minutes, and with binoculars you could see them perfectly clearly. We had seen no elephants, which seemed odd to me (I’d seen plenty in the same park a year ago), but we’d found two of the Big Five and much else besides.

At 9.00am we returned to our guest house for a fuller, second breakfast. By this time our friends had seen enough for one day. They had all visited Pilanesberg many times before (though not all had experienced a guided tour), and knew that they would be able return pretty much at leisure. So, bar Pappy, our driver, they settled down to a relaxed morning together, while we, from Lichfield, got into our own minibus for a second helping.

The day was warming up, of course, which tends to drive the animals into the shade. They are most visible when they’re on the move, and in the middle of the day they move much less. But I was still hopeful we would at least find some elephants. Incredibly, we didn’t. Nor did anyone else we spoke to among our fellow visitors. As we left, bemoaning our misfortune to the gatekeeper at the exit, she observed that everyone was leaving disappointed that day. It wasn’t clear whether for some reason (disease? commercial interest?), the elephants had been removed from the park at present; or whether all 200+ had simply congregated in some remote and inaccessible part of the place.

But we did find plenty to enjoy, including buffalo (our third sighting among the ‘Big Five’). We found two large families of hippo – and this being South Africa’s spring, they had babies with them. There isn’t much which is cuter than an infant hippo. We saw young zebra too, which was also lovely. There were exotic birds and a baboon or two.

We could have spent the whole day there without any trouble at all. But we were due for an evening meal at the Bishop’s House in Klerksdorp, several hours’ drive away. So we reluctantly gave up on the elephant hunt at about 1.30, and headed back to the guesthouse via a brief stop at a trading stall to do some haggling.

Our Ikageng friends had attempted to cook up a surprise for us. They knew of a lion park just south of Sun City, on our route, where they had taken their own families on previous visits to Pilanesberg, and where they had not only been able to see grown lions up close, but had been able to pet cubs, and be photographed holding them. They hadn’t told us about it, but simply drove to the place – only to find that it had closed in February this year. ‘We wanted to surprise you’, Peter commented memorably, ‘but we have only surprised ourselves’.

We stopped for a late, late lunch at a burger bar, and arrived at the Bishop’s House in Klerksdorp at about 6.30pm. Bishop Stephen himself was at the ‘braai’ (pronounced ‘brigh’). Again there was a surprise for us: all the adults we have got to know this week were assembled. Our hosts were all there (in two cases, we hadn’t expected to see them), and others who have contributed to our hospitality during the visit. It made for a lovely ‘farewell’ occasion. Bishop Stephen said some kind words about our visit before we ate, and about the importance of the partnership between our two Dioceses. He urged us to visit again (‘our hands and our homes are open to you’, he said), and urged me to bring a bigger group for a longer stay next time! I was able to say how much the visit meant to us and how grateful we were to all of them, how intense and therefore transforming the experience had been for us all, and how hard we would be trying to tell the story of what we’d seen and heard when we got home. Edward, the Dean, added some further words, and then the Bishop invited others in our group to speak. Ed and Helen acted as representatives of us all and spoke movingly about what the visit had meant to them. There were enough tears flowing by the end of that round of speeches to suggest that the goodbyes today, Friday, could be distressing. But who would wish it to be otherwise?

The food was wonderful, and in the African way, we didn’t hurry. But by 9.00pm it was time for us to leave, as Klerksdorp is 40 minutes or so from Potch and Ikageng. Helen and Amelia went directly with Raini; but the rest of us got back into the van and were dropped off in turns. We were all safely ‘home’ again for our last night with our hosts by 10pm.

To Pilanesberg, Wednesday 26 October, Trip Day Six part 2

It’s clear that the school visits were challenging for both groups: for Ros, Tom, Holly and Hannah, who went with Mike (H and H’s host) to the primary school where he’s the principal, and for Helen, Ed, Ruth and Millie, who went with Ntuku to the secondary school where’s she a head of department.

It would be better if you heard that story from them (check -- though the group hasn't had a chance to write up their experience as I type this on Friday 28th; it may well be uploaded on that site later today) since I wasn’t there. But for Ros, Tom, Holly and Hannah, the challenge was chiefly to do with being split up, placed with four classes, and being left, quite alone, to ‘teach’ for a double period – just over an hour. They rose wonderfully to the occasion by the sound of it, each improvising in their own way. They were struck by the motivation of the pupils to learn and by their discipline. For Helen, Ed, Ruth and Millie, the challenge had more to do with the social and economic deprivation in the midst of which the school they visited is set. They had a chance to speak to teachers and to pupils, and learned for example about the high teenage pregnancy rates and the low recent rate of university entrance (despite the high aspiration of the students to go there).

Both groups had returned from the school visits by 2pm and we were soon on the road north, to our motel -- stopping only to visit the site of a Boer War cemetery and the site of a British run concentration camp for captured Dutch people. Astonishingly, this meant not captured Dutch soldiers, but non-combatants, women and children, of whom hundreds died.

The journey north took over three hours, with barely a stop, and we were all quite tired by the time we arrived. We traveled with eight Ikageng friends: three couples (including Mike and Anna, Peter and Rika our hosts), the Dean and the bus driver. It was a small way of expressing our thanks to treat them to this overnight trip.

There was then a hiatus, as we sorted out some confusion over rooms. The guest house we stayed in is brand new. Indeed, it is not yet finished. The builders were on site, still laying tiles, landscaping gardens and so on. The place opened for guests less than a month ago, and we were the first big group. The first issue was that rooms we were shown were all doubles (which were fine for the three couples with us), when we were expecting 11 to be twin beds. It took several hours for a solution to be found, which involved seven of us being off-loaded to a separate property about 3 minutes drive away. In the end, the management found 11 separate beds for us, across 5 separate rooms. It meant that we occupied 9 rooms in the end, one more than we had originally booked, and we were only charged for the 8 – which was typical of the effort the staff went to, to make our stay a good one. In the meantime, we’d had a delicious evening meal.

The other issue was bugs. The rooms were neither air-conditioned, nor pest-controlled, and all of us found ourselves doing battle with insects of various kinds. It became an nice joke the following day, as we prepared to head for the game park. Ahead of the Big Five, which we hoped to see, we drew up a list of the Bug Five, we wanted never ever to see again: spiders, cockroaches, mosquitoes, fleas and crickets. Escaping bugs involved various strategies: the following morning we heard how Ruth and Hannah had changed rooms twice, how Millie had seen a huge and poisonous looking spider in her room but chose not to mention it to Holly, who would have been the more frightened; how Helen and Ros wrapped themselves in tablecloths because their sheets were flea-ridden and how Ed and Tom had gone on the attack, with Deet spray, shooting on sight.

Thankfully, it was a short night: we were up at 4.30 to prepare for the safari.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

School visits, Wednesday 26 October, Trip Day Six

I’ve just waved off Ed and Tom. They’ve gone with Hannah and Holly’s host, Mike, to meet up with the others. This morning’s programme involves two school visits and there is really only space, both for transport and other logistical reasons, for eight of us to participate. So I’m staying behind to work on the blogs and the budget instead.

Mike himself is a primary school principal locally. He’s kindly taken Ros, Tom, Hannah and Holly with him, while another member of the Cathedral congregation, Ntuku (a female head of department at a local secondary school) has rounded up Helen, Ed, Millie and Ruth for a morning with her. Not much has been planned, but it’s clear our team can make a useful contribution in the area of English language and culture, talking with pupils at the two schools and engaging in discussion with them, perhaps also doing some reading in English with them, one-to-one.

I’m sorry to be missing out and can’t wait to hear how it’s gone. But I shall spend the morning in the office of my host, Peter, getting our blogs up to date and reconciling our budget. The next 24 hours will be the most expensive of our visit, without a doubt, and I’d like to be clear how much we’ve got left in our kitty!

The plan is for us to drive up to Regensburg this afternoon, a few hours to the north, to get to within 30 kilometers or so of the gamepark. There will be 16 of us, I think: several of our hosts, including the bishop and the dean, are coming with us, which will be lovely. We’re booked into a motel there overnight, and in the morning we expect to take part in a guide-led drive on safari. It’ll be a desperately early start: the best sightings in the wild usually happen before the sun is hot, so we’ll hope to be on the tour by 6am at the latest – the sun rises at about 5.30.

I thought I’d write today’s blog in prospect, rather than in retrospect, because I’m not sure when the next internet access will be available. It could well be that the motel tonight will have wi-fi, but if not it could be Friday, at the airport, before we can bring our blogs up to date. It seems crazy to be focusing already on the end of the trip, but the next 48 hours will whizz by.

Facing the horrors of apartheid, Tuesday 25 October, Trip Day Five

At lunchtime yesterday, Tuesday, we reached the half-way point of this trip. We’re all agreed that time is doing that paradoxical thing it does when you’re in the midst of an intense experience: it has both sped up, and slowed down. We feel we’ve been here no time, and we feel we’ve been here for ever.

We spent the heart of the day at two museums: the Hector Pieterson Museum and Monument in Soweto, and the Apartheid Museum in Jo’burg. We can’t say we enjoyed it – it was harrowing; but it was good to do, of course.

The Hector Pieterson Monument marks the spot where a 13 year old boy was shot during the 1976 Soweto Uprising, when about 15000 school children (mostly secondary school pupils, with some even younger and some older) took to the streets in a highly organized demonstration, against the government’s new directive that Afrikaans replace English as the medium of instruction. Their objection was partly educational (how can you learn maths well, if it is being taught in a language you barely comprehend?) and partly political (how can you tolerate the language of your oppressors?). The students had a clear goal – to present a petition to the authorities after processing through the streets. But the police tried to disperse them, and what began with stone-throwing by the students and the use of tear-gas by police, ended with gunfire and a number of deaths including Hector’s (but also at least two white civil servants, beaten to death by the crowds).

The monument features an iconic image of Hector, still alive but barely, being carried in the arms of an older pupil, with his sister howling in grief beside them as they run. There’s a gentle fountain, representing the tears which the catastrophe provoked, flowing into a shallow pool of water, representing the blood which was shed, in which sit stones to represent those thrown by the pupils. There’s then an avenue of olive trees, chosen for their symbolic associations with peace and healing, leading across a square to the museum. We were treated to a skilled re-telling of the story out on the square by a volunteer guide, before entering the museum for an hour or so.

That first day of uprising on 16 June was the start of six months of constant protest, which in turn heralded almost three decades of unbroken agitation to bring down the system of apartheid. It marked a new generation adopting a more aggressive response to the injustices of their situation, compared to the relative passivity of their parents. At the end of the museum is a small courtyard, in which bricks lie on a shale bed, each one marked with the name and dates of a young person who died in 1976 alone. Among the bricks were more than a few which bore Afrikaans sounding names: van Zyl, Botha, de Klerk. In some cases, the individuals concerned may, like Pieterson’s family, have changed their name to present a more acceptable face to the ruling class. But some were no doubt Afrikaaners: on the 17 June, the white students of Wit University had risen up in solidarity with their Soweto neighbours.

Our young people were inevitably moved by the recognition that those who had died in this struggle were precisely their age – late teens mostly. And I was moved to realize that I was that age, then. Had I been living then in Soweto not Derby, I’d presumably have been on the streets too. The nearness of the events interpreted in the museum was brought home to us by the fact that Hector’s sister is not only still alive, but works at the museum as a guide. Indeed, we saw her: recognizably the same woman as the one in that photo.

After a brief diversion past the houses of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (who grew up living only a few hundred yards apart: two such extraordinary men, offering such noble leadership at such a critical time in the life of this nation), we drove to the outskirts of Jo’burg, to the Apartheid Museum.

The entrance to the museum was bold: each entry ticket is randomly marked as ‘white’ or ‘non-white’, and visitors are thus segregated. We entered by two different gates: the whites enjoyed the more comfortable architecture and the fuller interpretation; the ‘non-whites’ made do with minimum. We all met up within a few minutes, after just 50 metres or so of space, but it was a telling start all the same.

There is currently a temporary ‘Mandela’ exhibition as well as the permanent one, so we began there. It chronicles his life, from his birth to a tribal royal house in a deeply rural and conservative area, where the name he was given at birth (Rolihlahla) means ‘the one who will disturb the existing order’, to his early ANC years, his imprisonment and release, his role in the negotiation of the new constitution, his presidency and his retirement. I was especially pleased to see the rugby shirt he’d worn at the 1995 world cup final, won by South Africa – an act iconic enough (because the shirt has such Afrikaans connotations) to have inspired the film ‘Invictus’.

The permanent exhibition walks the visitor through about a century of history, from the discovery of gold in the area which has become Johannesburg. For a time, Jo’burg was one of the world’s leading multi-cultural cities, with no segregation beyond the choice of its citizens to live alongside family and friends. It was only after the Boer Wars, in the early 20th century, that segregation began, which led only after the second world war to a government policy of apartheid. The system was at its most virulent in the 60s, when the black population was subject to over 150 laws severely constraining their freedom of movement, self expression, self-determination and education. Political movements were banned, and ‘pass cards’ had to be carried at all times – failure to present a valid card led almost always at once to prison.

The exhibition is well conceived. The brutality of the subject is reflected in the design: you have the sense of walking round a prison, which it isn’t actually. There’s extensive use of contemporary news footage, which I found particularly moving. Our group was thoroughly engaged in the story – so much so that our hosts had often, at both museums, to move us along. At our own pace, we might have needed another day to complete the visit! No-one got bored or fed up with the displays, even though it was after 2pm by the time we emerged from the museum and we’d not had lunch. We did, admittedly, have a sense of ‘overwhelming overload’ by the end of the afternoon.

After a late, late lunch at a local Wimpy we made the return trip to Potchefstroom, where we’d hoped to visit the Boer War cemetery and the site of a concentration camp built by the Brits for our Dutch prisoners. It was closed by the time we got there, so we now hope to visit it on Friday morning.

Instead, we drove straight to our hosts for the evening meal. Food has played an important part in this trip. We’re eating more than we should: there is a feast for us more than daily. Our host on Monday night was Mrs Mapefane, a member of the Cathedral congregation who lives out in Klerksdorp, about 30 minutes drive away. Last night, we were with Mrs Nyokong and Mrs Makele (two sisters of Mr M, with whom Ed, Tom and I are staying). They live in Ikageng and there was something poignant, for me, about the way that, at the end of a day exposed to the disturbing history of black-white relations in this country, we sat out in the yard of the Nyokong’s simple township house, as a group of nine white visitors, savouring the delicious meal prepared with typically generous hospitality by our black hosts, and feeling utterly safe under the night sky.

PS: Apologies that these posts are text only at present: the internet connection speed isn't permitting me to upload images. These will follow, I hope!

Laying a dung floor at Matlwang, Monday 24 October, Trip Day Four

This morning presented one of those opportunities which only comes around so often, but which is just what we hoped this trip might offer. We were able to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty alongside our partners, in a thoroughly practical way: laying a dung floor in a new church build in a small rural community about an hour outside Ikageng, called Matlwang.

Tom, Ed and I left our house at 8.15am with Peter, our host, who had already collected Hannah and Holly from his sister’s house just a short walk away. We were all crammed into the car for the ride to the Cathedral, where Ros and Ruth, Helen and Millie joined us shortly after.

About eight members of the Tsogong Youth Fellowship had already gathered and we set off for Matlwang together in two minibuses, first along the highway, but then for the last half hour along dirt tracks and lanes. The Tsogong team included Miles, Serame, Boitumelo and Kentse who had first collected us from the airport on Saturday; plus Gadifele, Rorisang, Beautiful and Tshepo. Two adults from the Cathedral here also came along: Raini (who is hosting Helen and Millie) and Dikeledi.

When we got to our destination, we found four local Christians already hard at work – a man and three women. This year, the Anglican congregation in Matlwang has erected a small building, with stone walls and a corrugated iron roof to replace an earlier smaller structure made entirely of corrugated iron. It is a bigger space for worship, no doubt, but it must still be a squeeze for the 100-150 who gather there Sunday by Sunday.

Until this morning, there was just a dirt floor. They told us that that’s no good, when the congregation is singing and dancing: they kick up a great cloud of dust, which inhibits them!

When we arrived, the local team were busy mixing a sort of binding mixture of water, soil and dung. We stood around for a while, to begin with, unsure quite what level of involvement would be welcome from us. But within 30 minutes, we were fully engaged: mixing the stuff, loading a wheelbarrow, carting it into the building, emptying it onto the floor and then, with our bare hands, smoothing it like plaster on a wall. It dries within 24 hours, apparently, into a firm surface. We sang a bit as we worked, and inevitably made all the ‘pooh’ jokes we could think of, and stopped worrying about how dirty we were getting. By 12noon, we’d run out of mixture ingredients, and had to down tools, with about a quarter of the floorspace done.

We were then summoned inside by Raini for a song and a prayer, which felt like a proper dedication of our work. We prayed about God doing the building and about our being spiritual stones in the temple of God’s Spirit.

This was also the place we decided to photograph members of the group with the front page of the Lichfield Mercury (and Eddie, our mascot bear). It's probably the most remote community we will visit. We're hoping the Merc might publish the image with a story about the trip when we get back.

Then it was back into the minibuses for the return journey, desperately trying to get ourselves clean with babywipes and hand-sanitiser. The wise ones among us had brought a complete change of clothing, but most of us were having to make do. Lunch had been prepared for us at the Cathedral and after we’d eaten we took the chance to look inside the building. We’re now slowly gathering at Peter’s house, with the Tsogong fellowship, to sit by the pool and chat. It’s a shame that the sky has clouded over for the first time in the last three days.

Tonight we’re off to Klerksdorp for an evening meal, so this afternoon can be leisurely. It’s welcome after a hard morning’s exertion.