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"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.
NOTICING THE STORIES NO ONE TELLS
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.
NOTICING THINGS FALLEN APART
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.
NOTICING THINGS FALLEN-AND RISING AGAIN
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.
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Chapter 1: Noticing Things
Chapter 2: Into the Mud: Sofi
3: Where are the Mothers: Thembi
Chapter 4: In This Together: Phoebe
5: Open for Business: Nikiwe
Chapter 6: The Good Soil: Madondo
7: Mixing and Mangling: Ernest
Chapter 8: Just in Time: Phakamile
9: the Blooming Flower House: Charmaine
Chapter 10: Beautiful Language:
Chapter 11: Distant Voices: Sabelo
Chapter 12: Remember Us
Contact info for developmental agencies and tips on how to become involved in holistic missions.
Posted February 26, 2010
I am so glad I had the opportunity to read Christine Jeske's book Into the Mud. This is a collection of stories written by the author about real people, real lives of South Africa.
This was an amazing book. I loved the author's writing style, and the stories she told touched my heart. It was so easy to understand, and she did an excellent job telling stories about the people of South Africa. Reading this book has shown me a culture I've never experienced myself and given me ways to pray for the people there as well as those serving there to spread the Good News. I really appreciated the way the author told a story and then was able to make an application for the reader's every day life. Also, I liked the study questions at the end of each chapter which would make it good for group study. You can find out more about the book at the Into the Mud site. (I think the cover is great too!!)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Moody Publishers as part of their Blogger Review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
Posted August 2, 2010
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Posted February 26, 2013
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Posted February 3, 2012
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