Into the Mud: Inspiration for Everday Activists: True Stories of South Africa

Into the Mud: Inspiration for Everday Activists: True Stories of South Africa

by Christine Jeske

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Unbelievable circumstances. Believable hope.

If we follow media accounts, the continent of Africa may seem to be little more than AIDS patients, malnourished babies, child soldiers, and a failing attempt to imitate the West. Though Christians today are increasingly concerned about injustice and human suffering, their effectiveness in Africa is limited by only

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Unbelievable circumstances. Believable hope.

If we follow media accounts, the continent of Africa may seem to be little more than AIDS patients, malnourished babies, child soldiers, and a failing attempt to imitate the West. Though Christians today are increasingly concerned about injustice and human suffering, their effectiveness in Africa is limited by only knowing this "bad news" and the trite, feel-good solutions sometimes bandied about in response.

Into the Mud takes readers below the headlines, into real stories of real people living neck-deep in some of Africa's most difficult issues -- but with hands, minds, and hearts rooted in God's kingdom. Each of the interwoven stories and related discussion questions addresses a broader issue of missions and development, including evangelism, literacy and education, microfinance, health services, urbanization and refugee assistance, and more. Reflection questions at the end of each chapter help readers to apply lessons from the chapters to their own ministry contexts.

Where the world sees despair, author Christine Jeske sees God writing stories of hope. Study groups, development students, mission teams, and everyday activists alike will be challenged by her stories to enter more deeply into the thick of life's mud.

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Moody Publishers
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

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into the mud


Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2010 Christine Jeske
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8024-5879-7

Chapter One


"Truth is holy, and truth-telling a noble and useful profession; that the reality around us is created and worth celebrating, that men and women are radically imperfect and radically valuable."

The curtains in my bedroom turn from grey to sunrise peach. Dogs bark, calves bleat for food, and someone is hammering. There's a smell of smoke from a wood fire and the hum of water boiling for my husband's tea. A chill in the air draws me back under the covers.

The woodstove belongs to our neighbors on the left. They are the laborers who clean our landlord's home, drive his tractor, dig postholes, and shovel calf manure. They use sticks to beat the grass for snakes as they walk and eat cornmeal porridge with shebo vegetable sauce. They speak Zulu, and while "African" might seem a more politically correct word, in South Africa they generally go by the simple term "black."

Our neighbors on the right are "white," but in every sense they also consider themselves South African. They have a five-foot wide-screen television. The father is known locally as "The DSTV guy." He drives around with his black employee making installations and repairs in five-star hotels andthe homes of the wealthy. Their children play cricket and will leave for boarding school when they're thirteen. They have three vehicles plus a four-wheeler, three motorcycles, and a horse. They invite us for braais where they roast big slabs of steak on a barbecue fire.

Between them, there's us, with our electric stove, the refrigerator, and our flush toilet. Our children speak just a few words of Zulu. We attend a Zulu church and see Zulu people every day, but on weekends we invite foreigners and whites to our potluck dinners. We drive a four-wheel-drive truck and a motorcycle. We own a lawn mower, a vacuum, two cameras, and two computers worth more than everything in our Zulu neighbors' homes.

This little South African microcosm that I call home is a constant reminder of the way the world works today. There's a strange juxtaposition of my white landlord, his son raising Holstein calves, the Zulu laborers with their bathtub outside for washing clothes, and me with my overseas bank account. It's a world where every choice I make will be viewed by neighbors on every side, and a world where I can make the deliberate choice to stop and notice my own neighbors too.


I planned to move to Africa straight out of college. I imagined a purity of life in eating cornmeal I pounded myself, carrying my own firewood, and reading by candlelight. I attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which happened to have an excellent African languages and literature department and a class that had gained some local fame. Harold Scheub, a wiry American with more energy in the classroom than most college students on a Friday night, taught a class called "African Storyteller." The class was often among the first courses on campus to fill to capacity at five hundred students. I had little intention of diving too deeply into African studies, but hearing rave reviews, I tried to register on a whim.

I got in.

And so began my love of the stories of African people. This professor had carried a tape recorder up and down the African continent recording stories from anybody who talked-grandmothers, traditional healers, chiefs, and children. To me, this was a new way to see Africa-not as a dark continent of cannibals and lions, or as a suffering continent of malnourishment and HIV victims, but as a treasure field of dignified people, brilliant and beloved by God.

I craved more. By the end of college, I had completed majors in English and piano performance but had also squeezed in classes like "Survey of Africa," "Malnourishment and World Hunger," and "Subtropical Agriculture." I started applying for the Peace Corps, but instead I married my husband, Adam, a Spanish major, and we headed to Central America together.

For the next eight years, Adam and I pieced together service opportunities in Nicaragua, China, and the United States. By the time we moved to Africa, I was seven years older and the mother of two preschoolers. As much as I still dreamed of raising my children in a remote village, teaching them to live by candlelight and hand-hauled water, we decided we should start with a country that had English as a major language and a government that didn't march soldiers with automatic weapons down our streets. Finally in 2006 we found a job in South Africa, a country on that continent I had dreamed of for more than a decade. With that first memory of the African storyteller class always in my mind, I expected Africa to drip with culture-grandmothers telling folktales around fires, children singing and dancing to centuries-old music, generations held together by traditions passed along on spoken words.

However these stories were nowhere to be found in the South Africa I encountered. A South African woman my age told me frankly, "No one ever told me stories, especially not about Africa." A fifteen-year-old didn't know that elephants or impalas ever roamed free in her country. Holding my old copy of Indaba My Children, a five-hundred-page collection of traditional South African stories written in 1964, I considered chucking it across the room. Why had people misled me to believe that these stories still meant anything to a people smothered by the forward push of time and Western culture?

The Zulu people I met in South Africa wore T-shirts and jeans. They aspired to have jobs as graphic designers and taxi drivers. They believed a strange mix of secularized ancestor worship, often as distant from its origins as Easter bunnies from the crucifixion. Most difficult of all, I found no local spokespeople for their culture. I met plenty of outsiders talking about black people. Even in our job as managers of a microfinance organization, I found myself coming at the South African people instead of moving with them. For all our well-intentioned efforts to provide a hand up, not a handout, we were joining a world of foreigners trying to solve Africa's problems.

After eighteen months in Africa, I still felt disconnected from the people we had come to serve. One day I resolved to sit for over an hour in silence to consider why we came to Africa. Finally, that afternoon I wrote six words on a scrap of paper in bold letters. It was a Bible verse I had sung since my childhood in Sunday school: "Seek first the kingdom of God." Not "seek a successful project." Not "seek the end of poverty, or HIV, or orphan-headed households." Seek the kingdom. So I started looking. I remembered another Bible verse about the kingdom of God: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). If I wanted to see God's kingdom and His blessings in action, I decided I had better start with the basics and hang out with the poor.


What I found when I started seeking, at least on the surface, still included a lot of brokenness, fear, and dirt.

I remembered reading Chinua Achebe's classic African novel Things Fall Apart in the first survey of Africa course I took in college. The book introduces as its protagonist a well-respected village man. He is a fighter, a hunter, and the head of a large family. Then a missionary comes to his Nigerian village. The rules of society shake and crumble. The African man loses his identity, his stability, his will to live, and the book ends with his suicide.

I talked about this book with a friend when I visited her in Zambia. We discussed the legacy of colonialism and what hope there is for Africa in the global economy. Now centuries have passed since the trade and colonialism interrupted the delicate balance of local economics and subsistence living. While plenty of people still live in mud-brick homes, their psyche is forever altered by knowing what lurks in the world beyond a television screen. We attended a rural Zambian church and listened to American Christian hits on the radio in this country that proudly calls itself a Christian nation. We talked to young Zambians, and I heard the same dreams I heard among South African youths. They weren't dreaming of owning more cows or raising more peanuts. They wanted to get a job, a computer, and a ticket overseas. Christianity, Western goals, and a global economy have penetrated even the most isolated corners of these African countries, and there's no going back.

All this left my head spinning. What is South Africa, and what are the countries following in its wake, if not beaded garments and pounded grain? Postcolonial realities and globalization are sweeping away traditional Africa, and what will fill the void? My American friends back at home see Africa in the news as a continent of AIDS patients, malnourished babies, and child soldiers. If we follow the stereotypes in the media, the African continent is little more than a desperately failed attempt to imitate the West. Is this Africa's only choice? If there's no going back, is there any way forward? Does it all end in the mass suicide of an entire continent of cultures?

When I began writing this book, things weren't looking hopeful in my corner of Africa. As an American who had lived in KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa for just under two years, I found the news and gossip of Africa intriguing and unsettling. The national power company had just initiated "load-shedding." Due to major gaps in the power company's budget and planning, the company suddenly announced massive electricity shortages. The solution they chose was unpredictable, sweeping power shutoffs that caused chaos and uproar. Factories sent their employees home early, stoplight outages created hours of jammed traffic, and people waited stranded in mall elevators. While most developing countries have grown accustomed to unpredictable shortages of electricity, water, and other services, this hit South Africa as a step backward. Conversations everywhere turned to dire predictions for this country that could produce 20 percent of the world's gold and hold 40 percent of the continent's telephones but couldn't manage to provide its people with electricity.

Eventually the electric company phased out the power cuts, but this relief arrived just in time for worldwide skyrocketing food prices-new fodder for complaint. All this came as a hard blow to a country where the thrill of freedom had worn thin in the fourteen years since the first free elections after apartheid. Black economic empowerment, integration, and a black middle class sounded great in theory, but for the people still jobless in the countryside, it was easier to see the increase in the cost of living than any improvement in quality of life.

Meanwhile South Africa watched Zimbabwe, its neighbor to the north, stumble and collapse. In that country, inflation rates topped 10 million percent. In 2008, yet another election failed to oust President Robert Mugabe from his twenty-eight-year dictatorship. Three million Zimbabweans, a quarter of the country's population, had emigrated by February of 2008. Four thousand immigrants were crossing the border into South Africa every day. As these immigrants crowded into historically tribally charged slum neighborhoods, a wave of xenophobic violence swept South Africa in May of 2008. Zimbabweans and other African immigrants were beaten out of their homes, "necklaced" with burning tires, and trapped by fear wherever they turned.

If one chose to look further, Kenya, usually seen as more stable and developed than some of its neighbors, was spinning in tribal violence. Sudan had been treading genocidal ground for decades, Somalia was in anarchy, and wars festered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Few other stories of Africa ever made international news headlines.

As the months passed in South Africa, I watched the near collapse of two different foreign-based nonprofit organizations. I puzzled over the reasons. It was more than the gaps in staff skills or administrative shortcomings. I saw a broader lack of understanding by the overseas donors and visionaries. Too often those writing the newsletters and publicity for their organizations turned to shock-value horror stories, paired with oversimplified solutions. They felt forced to make donors feel like their money made a difference, quickly and quantifiably.

A local South African newspaper asked me to interview residents of a small town, asking theft thoughts on South Africa's progress over the last ten years. The answers hit everywhere on the spectrum. One respondent described her view as "very, very negative." Those looking at the physical surface pointed to decayed roads, unofficial segregation in housing patterns, corrupted local governments, and plenty of crime. They were looking for a way out. Not surprisingly, many with the economic means to leave for Europe, Australia, or the United States were taking those opportunities. A countrywide survey showed that in 2007, 39 percent of South Africans said they were seriously considering leaving the country, as opposed to 18 percent in 2000.

Still other residents described the last decade in South Africa as "very, very, very positive." One man described changing race relations, saying, "Fifteen years ago it was 'I'm over here and you're over there.'" Another man said, "There's a good spirit here now." And another woman pointed out that while still only "a very small proportion" of both blacks and whites venture into social circles of the opposite race, the world was changing for the better here. "What you've got to get your head around," she said, "is that it's not just blacks or whites, but the whole mix."

What I saw in common among those with positive answers was a Christian perspective. Instead of focusing on the quality of roads and the price of cornmeal, they were looking for internal changes in the hearts around them. Those looking for Jesus amidst this turmoil saw Him, and nothing could dampen the hope they saw in Him. They saw church members breaking down cross-cultural barriers, women who lived in poverty themselves volunteering among their sick neighbors, and teachers working tirelessly to create a better world for young people.

One educated white woman explained that she grew up reading North American Christian books and sermons that are largely available in South Africa. "It was as if we were looking to America for what God was saying to Africa." Then she went to a conference in Zimbabwe that changed her life. As part of a tiny minority of white attendees, she and her husband had their "minds blown away." Pastors from Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, and other countries across the continent preached "what God was saying to Africa." The woman returned home and began assisting a Rwandan woman in organizing reconciliation seminars for South Africans of all races. Later, her husband would die of knife wounds inflicted by a burglar. Still she refused to give in to pessimism and began accepting speaking engagements telling her story of forgiveness. When I asked her about crime in South Africa, she said, "Don't talk to me about that. I believe we live in a safe area. I believe South Africa is great, and God is doing great things here."

There were people like her, who saw hope in the Africa that God made. They saw, like my friend in Zambia, that there was no way back. But they were looking for the way forward.


Christians stake their belief system on one God who created every culture and every individual. That God has a view of how each person's specific circumstances-no matter how broken and disjointed-can grow into something beautiful. Christians believe that God entered the world as a human being, right in the middle of a specific time and place that in many ways reminded me of what I saw in South Africa. Jesus was born in a Jewish family under Roman rule. The Jewish people had once been politically and economically strong, but then had suffered years of occupation and oppression. They maintained laws and norms that for many had become no more than routine, and their identity as a people was shaken. What many of them hoped for from Jesus was a solution to their oppression, a political upheaval to reinstate the independence and greatness of their nation.


Excerpted from into the mud by CHRISTINE JESKE Copyright © 2010 by Christine Jeske. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

Here’s evidence that with God’s help all things are possible. These remarkable stories of South Africans who overcome economic, social, and spiritual oppression through faith are testimonies that missionary efforts are bearing incredible fruit. Two thumbs up for a great book.
- Tony Campolo, author and sociology professor at Eastern University

Most of the success stories we Christians tell each other are inspirational tall tales. Even when the facts are technically true, we ministry people generally edit ourselves in such a way as to dazzle -- and raise money. So then, both the good news and the bad news is that Chrissie Jeske’s collection of stories about the common, unmiraculous transformations of common, unmiraculous people is both rare and remarkable.  If you are looking for some honest hope in a world full of trouble, here it is.
- Bart Campolo, author, speaker, and leader of the Walnut Hills Fellowship

Africa is a rich, harsh, diverse land not made for sissies! In this riveting book Christine Jeske invites you to experience, and possibly wrestle with, the many massive burdens encountered by authentic 21st Century Africans. With their few creature comforts and minimal Western luxuries, they draw us into the reality of living out Christ in the midst of trials, tradition, and tribulation. The “mud” of each story in this book forces readers to examine the impact of God’s Living Water to cleanse, clarify, and cultivate. This is a book we should all read; it expands the mind and softens the heart.
- Rona Miller, executive editor of Christian Living Today (South Africa)

God is calling his people to a strange joy, the kind that comes only by borrowing the discomfort of others. Some hear the call; many do not. Christine Jeske hears it and passes it on to us. You don’t have to love Africa to hear the invitation. Africa’s stories are like all stories in the world's hard places. The invitation is to accompany one another in the pilgrimage of faith.
- Michele Rickett, founder and president of Sisters In Service and co-author of Daughters of Hope and Forgotten Girls

God made the first human by breathing into dirt. Jesus healed a blind guy by picking up mud, spitting in it, and wiping it on the man's eyes. Jesus interrupted a death penalty case by drawing in the sand as people dropped their stones, and He told a bunch of religious folks if they want to enter the kingdom of God they need to play in the dirt with the kids. The Scriptures are full of stories of a God who is not afraid of dirt, who is just as likely to show up in the sewers of the slums as in the polished halls of the temples. Christine Jeske has felt the mud between her toes and has seen God at work in the dirt. This is a book of dirty theology. It's about a God who is not scared of getting dirty, and invites us to join him in the mud. May we have the courage to roll up our pant-legs and follow.
- Shane Claiborne, activist and author of Jesus for President

Into the Mud tells the real stories of Africa. These are not the tragic stories, fairy tales, or classic cliches of many novels. Instead, they are the stories of Africa today--of people struggling to better their lives, or finding hope in God and community. Jeske's openness with her own story invites the reader into the realities of walking with your neighbor. This book will be valuable to individuals and groups in examining their preconceived notions of development and developing nations, or as they prepare for a cross-cultural experience.
-Pamela Crane, water project manager for Blood:Water Mission

Into the Mud is an engaging picture of how to enter another culture from the position of a learner and a fallen human being but still with a view to bring about positive change. Christine Jeske’s carefully chosen, well-written stories all have lessons to be learned and are followed by questions for discussion and reflection. I recommend this book highly for those thinking of cross-cultural ministry, be it short or long-term.
-Jim Tebbe, Urbana Director

Jeske presents a number of compelling narratives that serve as a powerful reminder that the kingdom of God is not found in worldly comforts and pleasures, but rather in the mundane, anonymous struggles of ordinary people trying to make  sense of the complexities of life. Jeske does a wonderful job of navigating through complicated issues of race and class in the developing world in ways that are accessible and personal, and with a distinctively Christian foundation that adds depth and meaning beyond the  difficult circumstances described in her accounts. A much-needed example of grace and humility in the way Western Christians respond to global needs.
- Matt Koschmann, assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado at Boulder

Into the Mud is an adventure from cover to cover! A young mother from Wisconsin rides her motorcycle across the South African countryside, searching for the Africa of which she had dreamed back on her college campus. What she finds instead is more than colorful folktales and exotic music--she finds miracles of faith and God’s love at work in the “mud” of extreme poverty, violence, racism, and disease. This book is full of love, hope, and inspiration, and it is sure to launch a huge Christine Jeske fan club. I’m already eager to see her next one!
- Don Mosley, founding member of Jubilee Partners and author of With Our Own Eyes

Through raw, honest, careful, and dignified re-telling of still-in-process stories of people in South Africa, Into the Mud shows how our Creator and Redeemer enters into the pain of people surrounded by injustice in order to provide comfort and strength as these everyday heroes encounter and embrace faith, hope, and love. I was inspired and deeply moved.
- Benjamin Homan, president of Food for the Hungry

Jeske offers winsome, colorful exhibits of God’s grace and Kingdom movement in a landscape of globalized juxtapositions. Into the Mud reminds us that indeed, every story is a travel story, as the journey of becoming and hope are inextricably woven together in the face of everyday people. One need not have traveled to the southern tip of Africa to appreciate a literary arousal of the senses as the author walks the reader through the social and physical topography of the Zulu nation. Of course, if one has traveled to this mountainous region of South Africa, these stories ring with authentic detail and perspective. A wonderful read for anyone who wishes to understand this nook of our planet or who just long to hear more evidence of God’s redemptive work in the muddy places of life.
-Gary T. LaVanchy, adjunct instructor and discipleship coordinator at Wheaton College

Beautifully and engagingly written, Christine Jeske brings us deep reflections and poses important questions from the front-lines of ministry to the poor in southern Africa. Through a series of sensitively written, engaging, and evocative stories of ordinary people, a mosaic of Africa as it is today emerges before our eyes -- complex, deeply Christian, caring, and humane. The key issues of mission, poverty, development, and justice surface through these compelling lives. This is a book that you must read.
- Bryant L. Myers, professor of international development at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development

If Jesus loved to use story in order to teach the crowds, then it is clear that Christine Jeske is surely one of his disciples. Into the Mud sings in well-writtennarrative the glories of God in a context of hardship and joy, suffering and victory. It's one of those books that beg for the page to turn in order to discover what happens next. Christine walks us through the South African dust in dry season and the mud in rainy season, and in the process we discover Christ and His coming kingdom-- sometimes with great challenges, but often with rewarding surprises. I urge you to journey with her into the mud and straight to the heart of God.
- Scott A. Bessenecker, associate director of InterVarsity Missions and author of The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World's Poor

Christine wrestles with some of the world’s greatest problems but offers glimpses of hope in a landscape of need, seeds of reconciliation in a history of brokenness, and stories of enduring faith in the most unlikely places. Using moving vignettes, Christine Jeske accomplishes what the statistics fail to do--plunge us into the grit and reality of the world's largest issues and move us to action. Jeske is a master storyteller and this outstanding book contains stories that need to be told.
- Peter Greer, president of HOPE International and co-author of The Poor Will Be Glad

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Meet the Author

CHRISTINE JESKE has spent seven years working in microfinance, refugee resettlement and development, and holistic missions with her husband Adam. Their journeys have taken them from Wisconsin to Nicaragua, China, and most recently South Africa where they taught at the Evangelical Seminary of Southern Africa. Christine¿s work has appeared in a number of publications in both the United States and South Africa, including Relevant Magazine and Neue Quarterly. She and Adam now live in Madison Wisconsin where she continues writing, teaching Economic Development for Eastern University, and visiting Africa when possible. They have two children.

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