All posts by Erin Mueller

Wrapping up Week 2

On Thursday, students were at their placements wrapping up their work there. I think they have had valuable experiences overall, serving alongside staff at the Ihata Shelter and Heideveld Clinic. I will read more in their journals and final reflection papers!

Thursday evening was an optional free activity through VACorps: a concert at the Baxter Theater. Ernesto and I went and had a great time! The singer – Tankiso – was AMAZING, as was her four-man band. She sang all original songs (minus one that was written about her), that ranged from traditional Xhosa and Sotho ones to those that were in English. Themes included the struggle of the people here, femicide, empowerment, and oppression. As I said, it was an amazing experience for which I am very grateful!

Thursday night was very wild, weather-wise. The rain was heavy off-and-on, as were the winds. I thought I would awaken to fallen trees and crumbled buildings, but all was fine! You can see the construction project next door to my flatlet is coming along nicely. 🙂

Friday was a free day. I got together with Sheila, who was my “home stay mom” for six weeks in 2012. She took me to lovely De Grendel Wine Estate where we chatted for a couple of hours while we tasted several delicious South African wines. (Check out our view of Table Mountain!) It was a special time to reminisce and catch up.

Saturday morning we will depart early for our 3-day Garden Route Tour (see photo of itinerary if interested). I’m not sure if I’ll be able to post while we’re on the road, but trust that we are having a good time together and are in great hands exploring this beautiful country!

Learning Lots & Savoring Moments

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent by students working at their placement sites: the Ihata Shelter and Heideveld Clinic. It is hard to believe there is only one more day at these places. Some students have commented on how they’d like to have more time serving there. We wrote cards of thanks today and will deliver small tokens of our gratitude tomorrow. This really is a special bunch of young adults!

We met after the placements each day at what has come to be known as “Café Oliver.” In addition to talking about experiences at the placements, home stays, and life in Cape Town, Wednesday included playing Catan.

I am pleased to report that the new homestay is working out well for the students who went through that ordeal. They get to learn a bit about life here through the eyes of the 8-year-old boy and his dog who reside there. I will return to Good Hope Studies to deliver a letter they wrote to their former hosts explaining their experience. It seems like very important feedback, and I appreciate the students caring about future guests in their home by doing this. Like I said, a special bunch!

I also was able to book a return visit to Langa Township to accompany our student who was ill when we visited on Monday. (That’s where the cool elephant art is.) Thankfully, after going to the doctor yesterday and getting meds to treat a sinus infection, she is on the mend. We are in such good hands here in Cape Town, for which I am very grateful! It is a lot for families to send off their dear ones to such a far-away place. I hope any worries of safety have dissipated by now. We all are doing well, learning lots, and savoring each moment as our time is moving along.

 

Two Days — Two Tours

Sunday we had a historically interesting and stunningly beautiful tour of Stellenbosch. Monday we had a historically interesting and stunningly beautiful tour of Langa. Across these two days we experienced two very different tours.

Sunday in Stellenbosch: It was a perfect day weather-wise…sunny, clear, and around 21 degrees. Our friends William and Ibrahim were our guides, and we set out around noon. We drove east out of the city to the Cape Winelands. The Mediterranean-like climate is perfect for growing grapes, and the hillsides are abundant with vineyards. Being that it is the end of autumn/early winter here, the leaves were golden, particularly with the sun shining brilliantly down.

William slowly strolled us through the old center of town where we admired the gleaming white buildings and Dutch architecture. We saw the posh boutiques, vibrant galleries, sidewalk cafes, many churches, an old trading post, and another slave lodge. The streets were lined with oak trees, first planted by the town’s founder in the late 1600s. We rejoined Ibrahim and drove through the lovely University of Stellenbosch campus where around 30,000 students attend. Quite idyllic indeed.

Next we set out toward Paarl, still awaiting our alleged wine tasting. The region is famous for its wines, particularly pinotage. We drove for quite some time, listening to stories of the area, the mountains, and the rich history. Finally we arrived at The Spice Route, where we could choose to sample wine, but also craft beer, chocolate, pizza, and biltong (similar to jerky). We now understood why William brought us all this way – some 27km past Stellenbosch – there was something for everyone!

We sat and watched the sun go down, remarking on how it must be one of the most beautiful views in the world. With Table Mountain about 65km in the distance, we marveled at the beauty around us. We drove back to Cape Town quite content, thanking William and Ibrahim for a truly lovely afternoon.

Monday in Langa: It was a less-than-perfect day weather-wise…windy, rainy, and about 15 degrees. Our new friend and guide, Zuzeka, lead us through the streets of Langa Township, her home. She shared how she was born and raised in Langa, and she still lives there today. She is working toward become a third-grade teacher, and once she finishes her education, she will teach at a primary school in Langa.

Langa was originally created as a settlement for working men. Then during apartheid, it became a Black township (primarily Xhosa) with harsh living conditions. She said it is a “small” township (by township standards) with around 70,000 residents today. Local guides like Zuzeka proudly take tourists through Langa, and you can read more about our specific tour company, Siviwe.

As in 2012 when I did a similar tour with students, we began our experience at the Visitor Center and saw the lovely pottery and other handcrafts made at Langa. A large new theater was built in 2013, and Zuzeka said many performers share their talents with local audiences in it. She added that architecture students built it out of reclaimed materials. Now the rain began, so we put up our hoods and set out through the streets of Langa.

We visited the various types of living structures in Langa, as Zuzeka called them the “low class” hostels and shacks, the “middle class” government apartments and small homes, and the “high class” private homes. (She said she lives in a middle class home, and, although she called the high class homes “Beverly Hills,” they were still modest by our standards.) She explained how payment works, meaning if you pay rent, or only for utilities, et cetera. We went inside a hostel and shack to see how people were living. They were dark and cold, though a lot of human ingenuity was on display. People creatively and resourcefully live in Langa.

There are shops (groceries, barbers, clothing, driving schools) in Langa, mostly housed in shipping containers. There are services (doctors, libraries, schools, police) in Langa. We stepped into a dark shack where traditional African beer is made from sorghum, maize meal, and water. We sat around the fire and heard stories about celebratory rituals (manhood, marriage) when the beer is made by the women. We got to taste the milky beer, somewhat reminiscent of kombucha.

We stepped into a brighter “5-star shack,” the home of Shooter, called that for his “shorter” height (his actual name is Shadrack, and he has been told he resembles Morgan Freeman). He described how he moved up from a cramped hostel-type setting into his shack made ingeniously out of recycled materials. He described how fires can swiftly tear through the shack communities, how wires are strung from shack to shack to share electricity, and Zuzeka told us he moved his daughter out of the community to protect her. He was a man we all quickly admired.

We walked on and saw the sheep heads on tables where they had been prepared. This site was not one I wanted to see again, but it is an important part of the Xhosa culture that I respect.

We found a cheerful preschool full of rambunctious children, stepped in out of the rain, and played with them for awhile. The teachers must be weary after tending to them from 0700 to 1800 Monday through Friday.

We went inside a lovely home where a woman has a catering business. It was warm and smelled of wonderful things. We were fortunate to be able to purchase small bread rounds for 3 rands (or filled with egg and mayo or chicken and mayo for 4,50 rands). We happily ate these warm delights.

We returned to Cape Town with new images in our minds. We heard rich stories from Zuzeka of hardships and struggles, deep connections and traditions, and the triumph of the human spirit. She told us to never give up, despite our circumstances, and that sure means a lot coming from her: a truly lovely young Xhosa woman, working hard to better her life, yet staying tightly and proudly connected to her community.

Two days, two tours.

Wow Wow Wow!

Today we were true Cape Town tourists and rode the hop-on / hop-off bus ’round & ’round and up & down majestic Table Mountain. We were so fortunate to have a sunny, calm day, and it felt as if we were on the top (of the bottom) of the world!

We began with a return to Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden where we got soaked on Monday. We enjoyed the panoramic views and tree top canopy. Next we ventured on to the World of Birds where we walked through enclosure after enclosure of every kind of bird on the planet it seemed! We also saw guinea pigs, lemurs, and various monkeys. Wow!

At this point we were in need of lunch, so we set our sites on Camps Bay and the Hard Rock Cafe for the “free” burger included with our bus ticket. By now it was nearly 15:00, so we opted for Ubers to get us quickly up to the aerial cableway on Table Mountain. We already had our tickets, so we went straight to the cable car queue. Before we knew it, we were ascending what felt to be straight up in our cable car, complete with rotating floor! Wow!

We marveled at the views and meandered along the paths for over an hour. We were so fortunate to have calm winds and relatively clear skies, along with a nicely timed ride down at sunset. Wow! The bus took us back to the waterfront, and we Ubered to our respective homes.

It was a day full of beauty and contrasts. This truly is a unique and spectacular part of the world. We all highly recommend that it gets on your “places I need to go” list! Here are just a few of the incredible scenes from today. I’m sure each of the student’s social media pages has many more incredible shots. 🙂

Friday Happenings

Today was a bit of a mixed bag. We got the home stay issue resolved, and the two students were moved to dorm-style rooms in the Obs (near me) for the weekend. Monday afternoon they will settle in with a new family. The folks at Good Hope Studies were very responsive when we met with them this morning. (It was cool for me to be back at their compound in Newlands as that was our home base for our 2012 program.) And, we had fortunate timing when we moved out the guys in that the couple was not home. I appreciate how supportive GHS has been – as well as how gracious the students have been – throughout this ordeal!

We met up with the VACorps staff and dozens of other students for our afternoon outing to the cheetah encounter. One of our students wasn’t feeling well, so Oliver from VAC took her to the doctor. We were sad to have her miss the cats, but the good news is she has some medicine to get all better! Her host family insisted she rest – as I’ve said before, we are in very good hands here!

We drove – by a caravan of minibuses – to Somerset West, and the students patiently waited to pet the cheetahs. They got some good pictures of each other, which I’ve shared here. Then VAC took us all to Triggerfish, a cool brewery, for some libations. We drove home to a beautiful sunset and enjoyed our driver’s fun style.

Tomorrow is a free day, and we hope to ride the hop-on/hop-off bus (complete with a stop at Table Mountain!) all together. Thanks for thinking of us and following along! 🙂

Thoughts on Forgiveness

Today while the students were at their volunteer placement sites doing good work, I finished reading, A Human Being Died that Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid, by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. She was born in 1955 in Langa township, which we will tour next week, and is a psychologist who has focused her work on forgiveness. She was appointed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1996. You can read more about her here. I’ve known of this book for some time, and recently Dick Hill reminded me of it. I regret not reading it sooner.

In today’s post, I thought I would share some messages from her remarkable book, which is based on hours of interviewing Eugene de Kock, “the man whom many in the country considered the most brutal of apartheid’s covert police operatives, ‘Prime Evil'” (p. 4). Here is the guiding question: “How can we transcend hate if the goal is to transform human relationships in a society with a past marked by violent conflict between groups?” (p. 15). (In order to better understand the context, you may wish to read a brief synopsis of Apartheid.) She answers, “This question may be irrelevant for people who do not have to live as a society with their former enemies. But for those whose lives are intertwined with those who have grossly violated human rights, who sometimes even have to live as neighbors with them, ignoring the question is not an option.” (p. 15)

Through her many hours of conversation with de Kock, along with her own recollections growing up in Apartheid, Gobodo-Madikizela helps her readers understand this: “If memory is kept alive in order to cultivate old hatreds and resentments, it is likely to culminate in vengeance, and in repetition of violence. But if memory is keep alive in order to transcend hateful emotions, then remembering can be healing.” (p. 103)

She continues in chapter 7, titled I Have no Hatred in my Heart, by describing the victim’s triumph: “the decision to forgive can paradoxically elevate a victim to a position of strength as the one who holds the key to the perpetrator’s wish…the victim retains that privileged status as long as he or she stays the moral course, refusing to sink to the level of evil that was done to him or her…forgiveness does not overlook the deed, it rises above it.” (p. 117). She described experiencing this sense of triumph when interviewing de Kock.

Gobodo-Madikizela acknowledges that what happened through the TRC may not generalize to other contexts. Still, I believe that the powerful stories told and lessons learned surely have application, both in our individual and collective lives. To forgive is empowering; to show compassion to our enemies is transforming. It is not easy, nor does it come quickly, but it can repair human brokenness, again both individually and collectively. I will carry her lessons with me as I move throughout this country, as well as when I return home.

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Milkshakes off Main Road

Today the students returned to their placement sites, and they had (mostly) good things to share when we met to debrief. Those at Ihata Shelter are coming up with fun, crafty ideas to do with the children there. The two students at the Heideveld Clinic got to observe some interesting sounding procedures in “theater” today. We met at a cute cafe in Obs to check in, which is where the group photo was snapped. We enjoyed processing the day and other important feelings over snacks, cappuccino, and milkshakes. Yum. Then we went to the market, ATM, and post office together, successfully crossing busy Main Road (twice!). The students accompanied me back to my flatlet to wait out he traffic before Ubering back to their home stays.

Speaking of which, they are having mixed experiences with their hosts. Aysia and Paige are with a couple who is relatively progressive in their thinking. On the other end of the spectrum is the couple with whom Vadim and Ernesto live. Frequent racist and judgmental (in a variety of domains) statements are voiced. We are working through this and have avenues of support here if a change in location is needed. Mo, Kaelyn, and Sarah are with a Muslim family and are experiencing a bit of Ramadan. So much is learned about culture through home stays, but it can be a challenge at times.

The weather was fairly nice today, breezy and in the mid-60s, which Capetonians consider cold (it is winter after all). The mountain remains a bit elusive, as seen in the photo behind my flatlet. There is construction next door which has sounds of clanging and singing. We definitely aren’t in Portland anymore! 🙂

Placement Ups & Downs

Today the students went to their placement sites for the first time. They will spend six days serving in the community of Heideveld, a suburb in the Athlone part of Cape Town. Over 90% of the population of Heideveld is coloured, the local term for multiracial. Our driver, Ibrahim, told me that about half of the residents were displaced from District Six, which was a residential area of Cape Town that was forcibly disbanded during Apartheid. We will learn more about this as we continue our time here.

Five students selected the Ihata Shelter for their placement site. This women’s shelter strives for a society free of gender-based violence. Women and children can reside there for six months where their basic needs are met while they heal and grow. The students got a tour of the facility, but also of the impoverished township. They were able to interact with little ones, and tomorrow they will be more involved in counseling settings. It sounds like they had a great experience today, and I’m excited to hear more as they continue to serve!

Two students chose the Heideveld Community Health Clinic, a government run facility. We arrived at a crowded clinic and passed through the metal detector. We saw many waiting to receive care in several different areas. Loyiso, our placement coordinator, had informed us that people arrive early in the morning to be triaged, receiving a green, yellow, orange, or red code, indicating the severity of their needs. Those coded as green may not get seen in the course of the day. Unfortunately, the site supervisor for our students is out this week, and the day was not productive. Loyiso will be there tomorrow to address the students’ learning objectives, and if it seems they will not be met, they will likely move to Ihata. I appreciate our students’ flexibility, as well as those on the ground working on our behalf.

We are in good hands here and being well looked after by our host agency, VACorps. Thanks for following along!

 

Getting Our Gumby On

Today we set out for the KirstenBosch Botanical Garden, hoping to learn about the amazing flora in South Africa. We were able to visit the inside exhibits, but we had to abandon our plan to stroll the grounds. The reason? Downpours! Best reason ever to have to end our visit, as the rains are desperately needed here. By the time we reached our minibus, we all were soaked. To the bone. We are happy that us Oregonians brought the rains. 🙂

After a quick stop at the students’ home-stays for dry clothes, we made our way to the city center and the Slave Lodge. This is a powerful museum about the history of slavery in South Africa, as well as how modern day still has stories of exploitation and victimization. It was a moving exhibit that opened our eyes. I am certain that we will continue to think on what we experienced.

Tonight is a cultural outing with VACorps, so we shall see what that holds. I appreciated the students’ flexibility today – Gumby is a good mascot for us!

Cape Town Welcome, Part 2

After fun at the waterfront (check out Kaelyn & Aysia jamming with the musicians!), we headed to Gold for our multi-course meal. We enjoyed tasting foods from various parts of Africa, and the entertainment was amazing too (check out Mo dancing!). Our djembe drumming skills are coming along nicely, I’d say! When we walked outside of Gold, there was a light rain falling. Even though this means our Table Mountain plan for tomorrow may be disrupted, it is much needed and was a comfort to us all.