Category Archives: Success

Prejudice & Racism | Sometimes Unconscious, Always Unconscionable

No one likes to admit to or think of oneself as prejudicial or racist.

There is no such thing as prejudice, racism or bigotry. They are mere fabrications of an elite and liberal media!

At least this is what a former student of mine in effect argued to his class of peers several years ago. From his Deep South, predominately white, and socioeconomic sheltered childhood, to his burgeoning young adult affinity with Joel Osteen’s prosperity Christianity and Mike Huckabee politics, this young man became near incensed on several occasions during the semester when he felt our collective, yet honest class discussions on matters of race and stereotypes was unfounded, merely perpetuating long since left behind racial antagonisms.

My student’s opposition to discussion merely supported David Shipler’s statement in A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America–

“Fears and assumptions, often far beneath the surface prevent honest discussion from taking place. When it comes to race, we do not know how to talk to one another.”

Regrettably, this young man’s denialism and lack of awareness of the often subtle and nuanced versus overt prejudice and racial bigotry still pervasive in many parts and communities of the United States isn’t exceptional, but rather, representative.

For instance–and what prompted this blog to begin with–the December 2013 issue of The Costco Connection, contains a section entitled “MemberConnection / Changing the World,” in which several short paragraphs highlight individual Costco members’ social development non-profits.

One piece entitled, “A Dream Made Real,” focuses on “The O’Brien School for the Masai” situated in rural Tanzania, yet begun and operationally managed by a woman and her daughter from Hinsdale, Illinois.

CC

According to Fran Schumer, Costco Connection writer, the O’Brien School “stands as a testament to how one (read: American) woman, with the aid of family, friends and anonymous well-wishers, can transform a village.

Schumer quotes the school’s founder, Kellie O’Brien, as saying, “Living in a dung hut does not determine who you can become in this world.

Translated: “Rural Tanzanian Masai live in genuinely shitty houses, but this unfortunate reality need not restrict their evolutionary and prosperous development! With our help an entire (read: uncivilized or backwater) village can be transformed–i.e., ‘developed’–and from this benevolent act of ours future Tanzanian leaders will be educated and shaped by our (read: white, American) core values and worldview.”

The issue I’m focusing on is not whether international aid or kind and well-intentioned donor benevolence, in this case a gift of education, is wrong or misplaced. After all, and understandably so, few, if any resource struggling people would look a gift horse in the mouth, including the Masai community where the O’Brien School is located.

Rather, my focus revolves around attitude or perception toward people different–especially, so-called “needy” people.

Should it be of any importance, I self identify as bicultural. That is: I am a white, Texan, North American, Protestant, middle-age male, who spent many years of childhood and adulthood in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

It’s because of my shared white identity that this blog is intentionally and disproportionately pointed at my own “white America,” maybe, even, especially, “Christian America,” the likes of Franklin Graham, who frequently spews vitriol against anyone “non-Christian,” especially Muslims and Islam.  This blog speaks particularly to the white elephant of “white attitude” toward difference.

I hope it goes without saying, that despite my stated focus above, I believe prejudice and racism to be a universal reality (common to all of the world’s people) and circular (e.g., blacks discriminate and are prejudicial against whites, too).

The relevance and particularity of speaking to white America lies in our to date disproportionate global power/influence in all matters social, economic, media, political, military power, etc.

In The Costco Connection, both the writer and the non-profit founder express disrespectful attitudes toward the “different other”–a community of Masai in Tanzania–attitudes that are paternalistic and prejudicial, yet also most likely unbeknown to them, i.e., they’re unaware, unconscious of their prejudice.

Their personal attitudes toward and perceptions of the “needy Masai,” is in full public display because of their choice of words and manner of expression in a printed magazine.  It could be argued that it also reflects negatively on a corporate institution because Costco’s editorial team failed in its censorship responsibilities prior to the publication of its December issue.

Perhaps most revealing in terms of attitude, however, is O’Brien’s reason for why she and her daughter founded the school in Tanzania–

There comes a point where you go from success to significance.” Translated: After you’ve made your millions–enough to live comfortably for the remainder of one’s lifetime without formal employment–it’s time to focus on your legacy.  If you can help needy people living in needy countries, so much the better!

As I read this short piece I wondered whether O’Brien ever paused to consider whether or not a traditional Masai or African house, aka, manyatta or rondavel hut made with mud, dung, sticks and thatch is considered a negative and inferior existence to so-called European architectural development by those who live in them, as she intimates?

An atypical African rondavel

An atypical African rondavel

For example, Frances Colenso, wife of John W. Colenso, nineteenth century bishop of the Church of England in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, remarked in an 1880’s letter to a friend–

“The (Zulu) Chiefs, who have some of them never been in a square house before, did not appreciate the comfort of it at first—they thought their round huts with a fire in the middle much more snug, and described a square house as a ‘collection of precipices’ with a hole in one of them where the fire was laid.

Similarly, yet thirty years prior, an American missionary by the name of Hyman A. Wilder, wrote to his U.S. constituents–

“When we tell them (Zulus) of the advantage of civilization; & of the happiness & comfort & skill & wonderful works of christianized (read: civilized) nations it seems to excite only a brief stupid amazement & reverence, but awakens no emulation, no desire to be different from what they are.”

It’s a fact that early colonial and missionary effort included teaching Africans “practical information on sitting in chairs, eating off plates, and building square houses.”

Regrettably, what used to be widespread and overt racial antagonism, such as depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning, has subsequently become more insidious, cloaked in jokes, quips, even political satire.

sticker

Two “small” and personally experienced incidents, which reflect how prejudice slides below the overt racism radar, occurred in South Africa and sadly involved a person who should live above the line of decency: an American pastor, as well as executive director of a Christian non-profit focused on vulnerable children.

During a visit to South Africa he was introduced to our domestic (house helper) worker. Since his last visit we had hired a new lady, because the former domestic wanted to relocate 550km back home to her husband and child, whom she had left years previously in search of work in Johannesburg. After being introduced by my wife, this man’s scoffing comment to my wife (in front of our African friend) was, “How many of ’em have you gone through?”

"One of 'em" - our friend Precious

“One of ’em” – our friend Precious

On a separate occasion, this pastor/ED met with my multiracial colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.  The director of the children’s research and development non-profit was soon-to-be visiting the United States and planned to include a trip to Houston where this man lived.

My Belgium director friend enquired of the pastor/ED whether he would have any trouble proceeding through Houston’s airport immigration check-point with his dual Belgium and South Africa passport. The response was, “You won’t have any problems. But it would be easier if you were black!

My hoped for purpose in writing this blog is similar to the author of American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict.  That is, it is not to condemn white America, white Europe, or white any country, but to facilitate understanding between people, which in turn, hopefully, will lead to greater awareness of our respective life realities, and lead to a new spirit of mutual responsiveness and empathy.
World Solidarity / Unity

World Solidarity / Unity

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Ride The Hashtag -or- Live To Serve?

This blog is not about on-line shopping or social media, although I begin there for introductory purposes.

Similar to Wal-Mart, most people either love or hate Amazon.com. I “love” Amazon, although I understand and appreciate the reasons many people, especially small, family run businesses, or cash-strapped states do not.

My “love” for Amazon developed during my years in South Africa, when local costs were often two to four-times Amazon’s cost. Given internet connectivity, it was convenient and a big cost-savings to order items and utilize Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping to a soon-to-be visiting colleague or international volunteer, who would, then, slip the items into checked luggage for hand delivery to me in Johannesburg. Given Amazon’s generous A-to-Z Guarantee, plus outstanding customer support, shopping was more secure than purchasing items from local vendors in a market culture that generally did not value customer satisfaction.

A recent like of mine, is Amazon’s iPad App, which frequently displays the following cart message:

— “Your shopping cart lives to serve, give it purpose.”

I like it because it’s easily transferable into a Viktor E. Frankl kind of message–Live to Serve. Or, “Help Be a Giver of Life Purpose and Meaning.”

It’s beyond the scope of this short blog to suggest the how and the many ways–with your own unique skills set, life experience, education, and resources–you might best facilitate in others both life purpose and meaning, but I offer one general input: If your own life, both personal and professional, demonstrates a passionate, singularly focused, altruistic life purpose of “living to serve” others–whatever your vocation–then you’ll discover that you’re on the right path and in the right direction to helping others with their own struggled search for purpose and meaning in life.

A less noble alternative to Living To Serve is Riding The Hashtag.

While I envy, somewhat, Gary Vaynerchuk’s “success,” both his obvious millions and his entrepreneurial expertise, I wouldn’t consider it a life legacy compliment if someone wrote of me, what David Segal wrote of him, “If reducing all human interaction to purely transactional terms isn’t your style, you probably should avoid Gary Vaynerchuk . . . He has dedicated most of his waking life to a single puzzle: What will sell more stuff?”

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A Means To Minimizing Jobless Embitterment

As one of North America’s 13 million jobless, or one of the world’s 200+ million, I can identify with both the ease and allure of embitterment.

What I can not attest to is whether it’s worse — more painful — to be jobless in an affluent country like the United States, or in an economically impoverished country.

My hunch is that joblessness, like poverty, is experientially worse in an affluent, so-called developed country like the United States.

Why?

A common malady of many well-to-do and religiously minded people (the two are more often than not one and the same, especially among Christian America) is a seemingly ageless assumption and stereotyping that associates misfortune, illness, unemployment or under-employment, and welfare with either or both laziness or divine retribution (aka, getting what you deserve) for an immoral life.

Combine this assumption with the everyday and all-day exposure by the economically struggling and politically disenfranchised to what appears to be everyone-else-but-you prosperity and privilege, and it’s easy to understand the psychological pain, as well as how the green-eyed envy monster transfigures into a blazing red devil of frustration, anger and resentment.

Of course, it’s of some sick and sad kind of comfort knowing one’s not alone. Today’s NPR newscast announced Kellogg laid off 7-percent of its workforce, or 2,000 employees. Three friends of mine, all of whom are highly educated (MSC, PhD, JD), highly experienced professionals, likewise recently lost their jobs. It’s numbing enough of an experience to lose one’s job, but one of them suffered the ultimate “surely it only happens on TV” injustice of being informed of his termination and being immediately escorted by security personnel off the business premises — all within the span of a few minutes (allegedly in case he might be tempted to exact revenge by taking company secrets out with him).

On many, if not most days, it’s very difficult to find a silver lining in jobless misery. Yet, I have found one thing, one simple exercise, if it can be called that, which believe it or not does help a little in staving off a sometimes near overwhelming case of the blues. As many of you know, even the smallest or temporary of positive emotions help in re-engaging life and the pursuit of happiness/meaning.

The act is simply this: Each time you receive a customary rejection letter, or as likely in this present recessionary climate, each time your application (which you spent one, likely several hours of your time and effort on) goes unacknowledged and forever unanswered by an organization or company that didn’t deserve you anyway, try to picture some kind, and needier-than-you person receiving word s/he got the job.

Verbalize your thankfulness, hell, even celebratory clap your hands if you want — even if it is just to yourself (WARNING: If you’re really getting down and into your solo celebration, thinking no one’s watching, be certain someone is — see the last 15-seconds of Sara Bareilles’ music video “Gonna Get Over You” as evidence).

The point is: Just go through the motions and the effort of being thankful that at least one job seeker is a happier, less discouraged individual.

A case in point: Last week I met a woman who was a recent, I’m imagining mid-level management hire. Come to find out she’s a divorcee and single parent of three young boys. Even without knowing any details of her family’s financial/economic status, you can be sure of one thing: With three boys she’s a struggling to keep it together single parent.

If I had been a competitor for her recent job, I would find some consolation knowing she got the job, and not some freak big penis jerk like Andrew (Allen Covert), in the Adam Sandler movie Anger Management.

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6 Habits of Effective & Influential People | Lessons from a South African “Domestic”

A few months after we relocated to Johannesburg in January 2003, the buzzer at our front security gate sounded. I looked out to see an elderly South African man wearing blue coveralls (typical uniform of manual laborers). I walked out and we greeted. He worked as a gardener for neighbors a few houses down, and wondered if we, too, could use outside help. I quickly discovered he was speaking on behalf of a son, Eddie.

This gate-side conversation initiated a relationship with a Northern Sotho young man and his family, which spanned eight years, and would have continued until “death do us part,” if not for my family’s emergency need to relocate back to the United States. As it is, we speak by phone twice a year.

mokoborofamily

This blog is too insufficient a tribute for this young man who gifted mine and my family’s life. A meaningful friendship was improbable, really, because Eddie spoke and understood little English and I/we knew no Pedi (Northern Sotho), his mother tongue. We communicated in either hand gestures, several word sentences, or when something was really important and required detailed instruction I would solicit translation help from a friend.

An example of a typical communication between us is detailed in my blog “Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the ‘F-word,'” part of which I repost below:

One morning I went outside to water the garden and could not find the water hose attachments. I asked Eddie if he knew where they were. His face told me “yes,” but the difficulty was telling me where and what happened to them.  Eddie spoke hesitantly, communicating a short, crystal clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is beyond repair. Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed made out of sisal, were the culprits responsible for destroying my hose attachments.

We laugh when we recall how Eddie informed us that his day’s work was done, and that he was leaving for home. Typically my wife might be busy in the kitchen cooking dinner, unaware Eddie was either in the doorway or right outside the kitchen window. He would startle her by loudly, almost shouting, “I GO!”

Unlike many, whose talk exceeds their walk, Eddie, in the absence of a command of English communicated by life example / demonstration. What follows are six habits, or disciplines of Eddie’s that daily communicated a highly effective, highly principled life, which I imagine Stephen Covey would agree with.

First, slightly different from Mayor Bloomberg’s Secrets of Success of “arrive early, stay late, eat lunch at your desk,” Eddie demonstrated a work ethic of “arrive on time, eat lightly – healthily – drinking only water (during work hours), work steadily and persistently, and leave on time so as to prioritize self-care and family care.”

I’ve known no harder work in my life than Eddie. Instead of motivating him to work, I had the opposite problem – getting him to take a break, or take an afternoon or day off.

Eddie2

Second, break down or divide the oft-times near-overwhelming mass or totality of a large job or assignment into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Of the three locations we lived during these eight years, Eddie always established a routine for each task at each place for each week, resulting in a showcase yard and a pristine house.

Third, one’s perspective / attitude is everything!

Depending upon which study or news source you read, upwards of 71-percent of working Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs, and some of us are without jobs.

Despite officially being defined as a “domestic” – defined in South Africa as anyone working 24-hours or more per month for a household – Eddie demonstrated pleasure and pride in each day’s work, irrespective of how menial the task might be. He’s especially been my inspiration these days, since assuming my family’s many daily and so-called menial tasks of home management.

Fourth, be willing to assist the organization and/or your colleagues when necessary (without complaining or drawing attention to self) by doing or getting involved in tasks that technically either lie outside your own job description or that seem beneath your status or dignity to perform.

Initially I hired Eddie to work outside in the garden. Upon relocating to Pietermaritzburg from Johannesburg, our inside house-helper was unable to relocate with us. I felt it would be disrespectful to Eddie to ask him to assume inside duties, in case he viewed this as “woman’s work.” After moving, my family initially went about doing all household chores. No more than a few days passed before Eddie insisted on assuming both inside and outside responsibilities – insisted by simply doing, before we were able to; never a word being spoken.

He did what needed to be done. He did it without complaint. He worked as if striving for perfection.

Fifth, choose teachable moments to demonstrate or communicate desired change in leadership or organizational process, rather than reacting by engaging in embittered backbiting or lobbying.

I’m quite sure Eddie thought my family and I were wasteful, as in spending needless money on “extras” that we had no real need of. After all, you don’t develop a habit of counting pennies unless you need those pennies.

We had several hunter green, plastic patio chairs. Being plastic and relatively cheap it wasn’t uncommon for them to break. One day I tossed one chair in the trash because the arm of the chair broke in two, length-wise. I took little cognizance one day of what Eddie was painstakingly doing. Later that evening when my wife and I sat outside on our patio (verandah) for a cup of coffee together, as we routinely did, I noticed that Eddie had taken an ice pick, plus copper wire, and had effectively sewn the chair’s rip up. He first poked a series of stitch holes along each seam of the crack, then he took the wire and sewed the two pieces together. The finished result was not only a stronger-than-new chair, but also a lesson to me to be less wasteful and more resourceful.

chair4

Sixth, never be too busy or self-absorbed that you are insensitive to the needs and struggles of others within your circle of concern.

Develop the discipline of sharing time and showing kindness (respect) to the least visible, lowest profile (status) people within an organization – even to their children, or especially to children.

Eddie and his family, will always be to my children and our family the 9th to 12th members of our now blended family, yet who just happen to live in South Africa. All the more so, since Eddie named his second child after me!

We feel such affection toward Eddie and his family because he/they invested time, effort, hospitality, laughter and meals with us, and especially with our children – this, despite having negligible disposable income, plus their total home space being no larger than most moderately affluent Americans’ master bedroom.

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Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation – Part 1

People used to smoke (a lot) . . .

I grew up and traveled when international airlines had “Smoking” and “Non-Smoking” sections. At least once, my assigned seat was the row before the smoking section began. If you’re too young to remember that period, imagine how your eyes and nostrils might burn after a trans-Atlantic flight.

I used to smoke . . .

Cigarettes during my 5th grade year (okay, the occasional cigar as an adult, too, particularly on mens’ only, multi-day hikes, where we envisaged ourselves as wannabe-as-tough Bear Gryllses).

My first puffs occurred in the dense and protective cover of Limuru and Tigoni (Kenya) hedges and maize fields. My smoking accomplices (may they never be found out!) and I preferred local Sportsman cigarettes, because they inspired our budding masculinity, their slogan was catchy and cool – “Ni Sawa Hasa!,” and, not least in importance, they were about the cheapest on the market.

sportsman2

I got caught smoking!

One day several Luo friends, my little brother of 3 or 4, and myself were hiding in a large and wild Lantana like bush (the exact name eludes me) situated in an undeveloped expansive area between our house and Lake Victoria. We liked the Lantana like bushes because not only were they secretive and fort-like, similar to corn fields, but you could chew on its minty leaves after smoking, effectively masking our smoking misdeeds.

Foolishly my friends and I decided to light up a single Sportsman. We were sharing it between us when my brother said he wanted to try it. Obviously I said, “no,” to which he smartly (he’s a lawyer now) blackmailed me with, “If you don’t let me I’ll tell dad and mom!”

I suddenly had a brilliant idea. Instead of letting him pull on our cigarette, I lit a match and quickly put it in his mouth. Unfortunately, instead of completely encasing the lit match with his mouth as he should have, effectively snuffing the flame out, and giving him smoke to coolly blow out his mouth and nose like we 5th grade sportsmen were doing, he left his mouth wide open, burning his lip.

He immediately bolted screaming from the bush in the direction of home, and upon arrival did . . . well, you know what! When I arrived home it wasn’t long before my mom informed me that my dad wanted to see me. He was in his wood shop with his protective eye glasses sitting atop his head, and a craftsman pencil wedged between his ear and side of head.

Surprise of surprises! Contrary to my fearful expectations, my dad didn’t verbally or physically launch or lurch at me. Instead he began personally confessing to his own prior smoking habits, and sweetened it by sharing that one or more of my siblings had similarly experimented with smoking. Instead of punishing me, he simply told me that he would not tolerate any more of my hiding and conniving. If I was intent on smoking, so be it, but he insisted I start smoking in public and among friends and family.

Well, wouldn’t you know it! He cured my 5th grade smoking habit! By de-criminalizing my activity, he de-incentivized me from wanting to smoke further.

Years later, and five children of my own, I’m grateful for this early (and wise) parenting lesson. It’s all too tempting as a parent, when your own life stress is near bowing you in half, and your child’s sudden discovered misdeed(s) adds extra strain to life and living, to reactively lash out punitively.

Sometimes that might be necessary and appropriate (the punitive part; not the lashing out). Many more times, however, it seems more productive to take a moment and share your own personal struggles and mistakes, thereby decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing your child’s mistakes.

As with my own smoking experiment, a calm and measured response just might provide your child with a new felt sense of self-worth and a nurturing seedbed for re-engaging life and its challenges, rather than a big, fat branded “L” on the forehead.

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It Seldom Is What It Seems

Meryl Streep “had a farm in Africa.”

In the third-grade, I had a friend in Africa.

I don’t remember much about him. And, it’s probably good we didn’t grow up together. For in that short span of a year, we got into enough mischief as it is. I remember a passing Kenyan motorist loudly knocking on my family’s front door one darkening evening, and speaking angrily with my dad because the two of us had “accidentally” thrown a rock at, and struck, his car.

I also remember us sitting on my bed playing the “I call dibs on” game, only instead of calling dibs on cars or motorbikes, as one might do during long car rides to pass the time away, my American expat friend and I called dibs on lingerie-clad only women in a Spiegel or Sears similar catalog. Ironically, as I googled the spelling and meaning of “dibs,” I discovered one definition is “a game played by young gentlemen, in which you call dibs on any young lady that takes your fancy.”

Anyway, after having kids of my own, and trying repeatedly over many, many occasions to instill in them a more critical assessment of the real lives of their school friends’ alleged lives (in contrast, for example, to what is stressing my child, but which they think will make them happy – aka, my kids’ claim that ALL their classmates have this-or-that latest and most fashionable item, seen the newest R-rated Blockbuster movie, eat at a restaurant daily), it’s in parenting moments, especially, that I remember this friend of mine in Africa.

The reason being?

He used to brag all the time about owning multiple this-and-that, and more than once promised he would share some of his “multiples” with me. What I hoped for most was one of his “multiple pellet guns” (he claimed to have 4+), because my siblings were all into guns and hunting at that stage in my upbringing. Need I mention that I never saw, let alone benefited from a single “multiple” of his?

For some reason, this young friend of mine felt the need to put on airs; to pretend to be a much better, more attractive version of himself than what really was; to be better than and superior to me; to convince me through imaginative boasting that his life was A-OK, even better than my own.

That was a preamble to the “IT” of my blog’s title. Let me define “it” by reference to a somewhat humorous story told to me yesterday by a just returning-from-vacation-in-Tahoe, weekly-book-discussion-group-friend, who, himself, is a successful professional.

I’ve never been to Tahoe, but based on a former high school Facebook friend’s photos from two weeks back, plus Tahoe’s own promotional website, it must be an almost 8th wonder of the world, especially during peak seasonal periods of the year.

What evidently struck my friend more than Tahoe’s natural scenery was the prolific plastic surgery scenery!

What made me chuckle when he recounted his time, was his re-enactment of the much more senior male companions to their much more younger and artificially sculpted women. He mimicked decrepit, hobbling about old men, who evidently were doing their darndest to deny and delay the inevitable.

The “IT“, then, is the false (or at least half-truths) projected reality that so many of us become proficient in living and acting out in life. So much so, that over time it becomes our accustomed and unconscious “real life.”

Sadly, even embarrassingly so, individuals more grounded in “actual” and “real” life readily discern our transparent dissemblances.

Obviously, and to some extent, our fakery is a coping mechanism; a way, life habit, mannerism, or even life style, that we’ve adapted in order to deal with the pain or incongruencies of our only too real and everyday (and past) lives.

Perhaps, it’s somewhat analogous to comedians. I wouldn’t presume to characterize all comedians, but among celebrity ones, such as Peter Sellers, John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Sam Kinison, et cetera, their biographies are frequently painful reads, where humor became a lifeline; a coping mechanism adopted unconsciously, perhaps, in order to see the light and breath of another day.

In five weeks, my book club will discuss Stephen Covey’s dated, yet timeless “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.” I’m curious as to how “success” will be defined and communicated.

More importantly, perhaps – alluding to Victor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning – I wonder if individually and as a group, we’ll feel emotionally safe enough with one another to risk being vulnerable, candid and authentic by sharing with one another whether our lives to date reflect a contentedness with life and the meaning we’ve found in it, or a persona to deflect attention away from our vulnerabilities, struggles, addictions and inner emotional hurts and wounds.

What about you?

Are you more persona than person?

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Consigned to Work for a Young American Family, a MuVenda Woman’s Enduring Gift

Allow me to tell you about Selinah Mahamba of Tshitavha/Sambandou; a village 30-minutes drive north of Thohoyandou/Sibasa, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Vho Selinah with our first born, Daniel.

Vho Selinah with our first-born, Daniel.

Preamble – 

Imagine that you are a black or “non-white” person (South African context), consigned by historical fate to live during either the era of US slavery or South Africa’s apartheid.

Think about what it was like for black people living in those times and contexts. Imagine that every day, and in every conceivable way, you’re forced due to life circumstances to view yourself by and through the mirror of coercive subservience to a white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

If you’re not fond of or good at imagining, then rent The Help. Watch it! – either alone or with friends. But if with friends, choose those who won’t make snide remarks throughout, thereby cheapening the movie’s powerful portrayal of the inherent humanity of individuals who have suffered immense less-than-human injustices, and of the corresponding inhumanity of those who enacted such injustices.

Watch it several more times over the next few months for good measure. Perhaps other movies exist, which equally depict what life is like for individuals forced to work for – and please – people, who hold such prejudicious and contemptive power over them.  If so, I’m unaware of them.

As John W. Blassingame noted in The Slave Community; Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, whereas whites were historically privileged (had de facto and de jure power) to shape their identity upon the social mirror of the savage and heathen black or red “Other,” in America’s slavery and South Africa’s apartheid context, black people were by fateful default consigned to view themselves by the mirror of coercive subservience to the white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

Complimenting this is Edward Said (1935-2003), author of the pioneering and foundational text, Orientalism. He convincingly argued that identity is not natural and static (i.e., fixed, pre-determined). It is constructed and inseparable from the disposition of power and powerlessness within societies.

Story –

My family of (then) three lived in Thohoyandou, Venda, South Africa from 1989 to 1992; a brief, yet important span of time in South Africa’s history, in that, Nelson Mandela went from being decades’ long political prisoner to freed man and future head of state.

We were naive young North Americans, who arrived in town with an over-inflated optimism of the good and change we might bring to the Venda people (A characteristic naiveté of most North Americans, I believe. A result, perhaps, of our heritage, in which we’ve erroneously come to believe we are the par excellent God-nation, a “city upon a hill,” as Puritan, John Winthrop unknowingly popularized in an early 1600 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.”). Fortunately for us, the VhaVenda are (and were) extremely patient, kind and forgiving!

After three years we relocated to South Africa’s southeast coastal region, yet in leaving Venda, we were only too aware that instead of us changing a place and a people, it was they who had changed our lives.

Although I could list several prominent individuals during this 3-year period (for example Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend) – in terms of their effect upon and mentorship of our lives – this blog is singularly about one individual, Selinah Mahamba.

Vho Selinah, somewhat like Mother Teresa but without the global recognition, is an a-typical VIP and mentor, in that, her life is void of any distinguishable secular “success indicators.”  She was a de facto single mother of four, who recounted being shocked when her husband arrived home unannounced with a second wife and then she throwing this woman’s belongings out of the house, and who struggled daily to keep her children fed. She spoke no English, and we were only just learning TshiVenda – one of South Africa’s eleven official languages.

At the recommendation of a Venda caravan camp manager (now a Protea Resort) we hired her as a “domestic worker.” Each weekday exacted a minimum 2-hour roundtrip on public transport for her, plus 7 hours work at our home – where she cooked, cleaned, washed clothes and cared for our two children – then returned home to do the same for her family.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

We employed several inside/outside “domestic helpers” during our time in South Africa, most of whom became second family to us. My wife remarked one day how amazed she was (and respect felt) at the strength, resilience, and kindness-of-character of domestic workers, in that, they tolerated the daily whimsical and sudden and unaccountable changes of demands, moods and behaviors of their many and varied (all races), mostly under-paying employers.

Vho Selinah demonstrated few, if any of the “public persona refinements” typically evidenced by formal education (my written loquaciousness, for example!:), yet lack of formal education and opportunity is not synonymous with lack of potential, or lack of ability, or lack of intelligence. She possessed all of that and much more.

One (of many) enduring gift of Vho Selinah to my family was in her mentoring my wife in Venda/African methods of “being” and mothering; specifically how to “sling” and tie one’s child to one’s back, so as to be able to lull a child to sleep, to feel and gauge the well-being of a child’s heartbeat against one’s back, and be able, then, to go places, meet people, and re-engage daily responsibilities, whatever they might be.

My family and I are forever grateful that a portion of our identities have been crafted and shaped by Venda mirrors!

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa - Johannesburg

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa – Johannesburg

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

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