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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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Out of the Mouth of Babes

Early 2008 my wife flew from Johannesburg to Durban, South Africa with our eldest daughter.  The purpose being to celebrate/commemorate her completion of high school.  They were gone four nights.

An hour prior to their scheduled return flight, and together with daughters E (then, 7) and L (4), I left our beautiful 100-year-old rental house with its Jacaranda tree in Kensington, for the 20 minute drive to OR Tambo International Airport.

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We were travelling east on Langermann Drive in our Chrysler minivan and nearing the intersection robot (street light) at Queens Street.

Our 4 daughters. Louisa in pink.  Erika far right.

Our 4 daughters. L in pink. E far right.

Since leaving home, L, who was seated in her car seat directly behind the driver’s seat, had been in a kid’s happiest of places – an imaginary world of make-believe events and conversations.

As I slowed to stop, it was as if the van’s slowing timed perfectly with her exhalation of breath, during which she exasperatingly, almost exhaustedly so – like Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh – uttered from her created world the following statement –

“I guess I still love Jesus!”

At the time my family attended a non-denominational church called Bedford Chapel.  I don’t have any idea if the preceding Sunday had induced or provoked this internal dialogue, but it did provide my soon-to-be colleagues at The Sinomlando Center for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, endless laughter and pleasure.

The reason being:  Once I shared this story with my colleagues, forever thereafter “I guess I still love Jesus!” became their daily barometric means of expressing how they felt physically, emotionally, et cetera.

We had just been awarded a major 3-year, multi-million dollar United States Agency for International Development President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief grant, which meant work responsibilities skyrocketed overnight.  We were endlessly over-working, over-extending ourselves, yet at the same time loving the shared challenge.

Few Sinomlando personnel had cars, so almost daily I would give a ride to Lois, Nokhaya or Cliford.  When I stopped to pick up the two ladies, in particular, as they were seating themselves and closing the van’s door, I would ask, “How are you this morning?”  They loved to turn, smile, and with a heavy sigh say –

“I guess I still love Jesus!”

Try it!  Like Green Eggs and Ham (and Sam), you might like it too.

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Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend

Let me tell you about my former friend Peter Khosa.

Peter was a refugee from Mozambique, who I first met in 1990 in the small town of Malamulele, in what is now Limpopo Province, South Africa.  Peter was managing a non-profit food relief project for thousands of people fleeing Mozambique’s civil war.

Peter distributing food to two refugee children.

Peter Khosa distributing food to two children.

Peter’s English was imperfect, yet eloquent.  He was the hardest worker I have known.  In order to support his immediate family of six, plus, family in Mozambique, including parents, Peter bought an old 4×4 bakkie (pick-up truck), and made weekly trips of 900+ kilometers to purchase bulk fresh produce, including cabbage, onions, potatoes and citrus.  His wife, Rosa, then sold the produce for minimal profit in two local open-air markets.

Peter & Rosa's "bakkie" (truck) and vegetable stall.

Peter & Rosa’s “bakkie” (truck) and vegetable stall.

 

Peter's family

Peter’s family

Peter died in 2007 of brain cancer – a disease he fought for five years.

Peter Khoza

Peter

I take this opportunity to share how Peter affected and shaped my life.  I am a bi-cultural person, who was born in the United States, yet grew up in Africa.

In addition to his ethos of hard work, Peter was extremely truthful and candid.  He didn’t put on airs of niceness merely to please (or deceive). Two cases in point:

One day in Thohoyandou, Venda, my wife and I had several unexpected visitors.  Offering hot tea or coffee, plus something to eat, was a Venda cultural expression of respect to visitors, and my wife did this with our three Venda male visitors.  Not long into their visit, Peter also unexpectedly showed up.  After greetings were exchanged my wife brought Peter something to drink and eat without asking, but upon offer, Peter politely declined.

tea

His “cheeky candor” became a topic of light-hearted discussion among our Venda guests. “Oh, but you have to accept it, Peter!  We have just ‘trained’ Mme a Daniel (mother of Daniel) in the ways of our culture and now you’ve gone and sown confusion in her mind.”  Peter responded, “But I’m not hungry!  Why should I accept and waste food and drink when I have no need?”  Discussion continued over cultural differences between such close neighbors as the Venda and Shangaan people.

A final example of Peter’s candor.  One late afternoon he, along with his wife and a friend of hers, arrived unannounced at our house.  I had spent the afternoon making what I believed to be an excellent potjiekos (=small pot food), an Afrikaaner “stew” cooked in a three-legged, cast iron, Dutch rounded potjie (cooking pot), which is slow-cooked on an open fire.  A hint of what is to come . . . I had been taught the “art” of potjiekos cooking from a fellow American, although in fairness to him, my culinary skills should not be blamed on anyone but myself.

On this occasion I recall making a potjiekos of chunks of fresh beef, white onions, potatoes, slices of mango, and a generous dash of red wine.  A secret of good potjiekos – so I’m told – is in choosing the right ingredients, on correctly layering the ingredients, and on slow and precise cooking.

A potjie on an open fire.

A potjie on an open fire.

We invited our guests in, and despite their insistence that they were not in great need of food, I served them my “delicious” potjiekos, anyway.  My wife and I then sat across from them at the dining table.  We engaged in conversation, all the while I kept expecting them to comment on how delicious my potjiekos was.  Affirmation never came. Food consumed, they excused themselves.

We walked them to the front gate and their bakkie.  As they were driving off and we were waving, Peter suddenly did a 360-degree turn.  He drove up alongside us, stopped, rolled down his window, placed his hand on my arm, and smilingly stated, “My friend, when you come to my house I will teach you how to cook!”  With that he rolled the window up and drove off into the darkening night, leaving a cloud of fine red Venda dust in his wake.  He was true to his word.  Another day, another time, he made me Portuguese style food, including a large steak, topped with two or three medium fried eggs, served with a generous portion of “chips” (french fries), a side salad, and a large glass of Coke.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

In addition to Peter’s candor, what some might mistake for impoliteness, he also frequently demonstrated affection and vulnerability.

One time I spent several nights at Peter and Rosa’s house. One evening, just prior to dinner, he suggested we take a walk in the neighborhood.  As to its relevance, you decide, but know that Malamulele is mostly, if not entirely, a “black town.”  Its city center consisted of a few small shops and cafes. Neighborhoods included a mixture of face-brick homes with tiled roofs, to rural looking thatched rondavels. Needless to say, a white man walking in the community, while not unheard of, was not common.

"Three Rondavels" in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

“Three Rondavels” in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

At some point during our stroll, and as Peter pointed out different features of his community to me, several fingers of one hand softly held my own.  It was then him leading me around the neighborhood.

Black,+white+handshake+hands

I’m as “American male” as the next person, and it took a few seconds or minutes, I can’t say exactly which, before I was able to come to terms with this newfound, and highly cultural “holding hands experience.”  After my inner macho man-ness was convinced that the experience did not awaken any latent gay feelings of pleasure, and that no bystanders were aghast, I actually appreciated the feeling that came from knowing Peter took my hand because he felt a close kinship with me – that I had become to him like a brother and family.  Holding hands then became to me something of a badge of honor.

Concluding thought:

All of this is to say . . . I miss close friendships and “connectedness” like what I shared with Peter.  A friend who is kind yet candid, who offers you his best hospitality and troubles himself to walk the neighborhood with you, taking your hand, and showing you what you might not otherwise have seen or experienced.

I’m almost three years into Austin residency and I have yet to feel much connection to this city and its people.  I’m sure the fault is shared by me.

Initially, and as a newcomer, I sought some measure of connection through the tradition I grew up in, that is, church and the Christian community.  In those faith communities my family and I frequented, I did find “nice” people, yet my family’s experience suggests one becomes an “insider” by coming to them, reaching out to them, and it helps significantly if you have disposable and leisure income, which can enable you to participate fully in all social and “ministry” events.

I find it somewhat ironic that in what many people call “Christian America,” my family have had as many if not more invitations to dinners, parties, house dedications, and even offers of job networking from Hindu and Muslim neighbors and friends, including our girls’ school friends’ families, than from full-time pastoral staff of my own faith tradition or members. Obviously, there are a few exceptions to this generalization.

 

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Breast-Feeding, Elephant Ears, and Basking Lizards | Meanderings of an American-African Mind

The mind is an amazing thing.

Do you know what I mean?

One minute you’re sitting alone or with others, thinking or discussing one thing or the other, and the next thing you know a random, sub-conscious word, thought or optical image diverts your thought processes to what appears on the surface to be an absurdly different topic altogether.

A case in point:

It’s a sunny yet relatively “cold” day today in Austin – high of 61F.  I’ve placed my seedling tray of tomato plants just behind our all-glass front door, so they will capture the light and warmth of the sun.  As I bent over to position them in full sunlight, I felt the morning sun’s warmth refracted through the door and on to my face, neck and arms.  The warmth and its soothing sensation, combined a moment later with the pleasured taste of a Starbuck’s Americano, drunk while sitting and looking out on an awakening neighborhood, somehow combined to trigger distant yet still close-at-hand memories.

I remember numerous happy childhood days at Kisumu’s Nyanza Club swimming pool, particularly, how good it felt (and feels) climbing out of cold water, then immediately lying face down on a sun-warmed border of the pool. 

From 3rd Wimpy Kid Movie

Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Do you have similar recollections? Can you feel even as you read these words the sun warming your cold body, head to toes?  

This remembrance somehow linked to and triggered in my mind an idiomatic Venda expression for “I need to go to the toilet,” of which, the relevance to water and sun will soon be evident.

One day I asked my Venda tutor, “How do I tell someone, ‘Please excuse me, I need to go to the toilet?'” He thought a minute then replied, “In formal Venda you simply say, ‘Ndi khou toda u di thusa,’ which simply translates ‘I need to help myself.'”  But, he said, “If you want to speak ‘deep Venda’ then you can say, ‘Ndi khou toda u kumbedza tswina,’ which roughly translates ‘I need to blind a lizard.'”

lizard

As you likely are doing now, I chuckled, yet think about its contextual accuracy.  Most Venda people still rely on foot power and foot paths.  Distances are quite far, and if you’ve traveled abroad, you know that relieving oneself outdoors seldom conveys any similar degree of uncouthness as it does in the United States. Given Venda’s proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn, imagine that it’s a 39-degree Celsius day. You’re walking along a foot path when morning tea catches up with you.  You stop to relieve yourself in the shelter of a rocky and sparsely vegetated hill, and lying just before you is a basking lizard!

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Regrettably, all language lessons were not that painless.

The most embarrassingly painful Venda language learning remembrance for my wife and me was over the simplest and most frequently used daily expression – “hello.”

Our mistake?  Young when we arrived in South Africa, we asked an older – you would think more informed – white colleague how to greet, instead of asking someone from Venda.  As our colleague drove us to Venda from Johannesburg, a then six-hour drive, he told us, “Oh, it’s easy.  If it’s a man you say ‘Ndaa’ (masculine tone). If it’s a woman you say, ‘Aaah’ (feminine tone).”  So for the first few weeks, if not months, every man and every woman we greeted with either an “Ndaa” or “Aaah.”  Regrettably, what our colleague neglected to tell us is that only men greet with “Ndaa” and only women greet with “Aaah.”

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

We each received many strange and smiled looks when we greeted people.

My most painful related remembrance is of a woman I gave a lift to.  As she entered my bakkie (equivalent to a pick-up truck), I articulated in my most feminine tone and pitch, “Aaa!”  She must have been desperate for a ride, because rather than leaping out the window, she chose to remain with this seemingly crazed white taxi driver.

My wife’s faux pas was more painful, perhaps.  Soon after our arrival in Venda there was a peaceful coup, and our immediate neighbor in Block G, Thohoyandou (=head of the elephant), a general in Venda’s “air force,” Gabriel Ramushwana became president.  Rather then relocate from Block G to the substantial presidential compound situated mid-point between Thohoyandou and the white suburb of Sibasa on the hill, he chose to live with and among his people (there’s a lesson in there for all current and want-to-be politicians).

It wasn’t long, then, before the president’s yard was fitted with razor wire and a 24-hour military presence, much to our young son’s pleasure.  As President Ramushwana was exiting his premises one morning, and my wife was simultaneously closing our gate, she greeted him properly through his open car window.  It caused him to stop and respond kindly, “I see you’ve learned to greet properly in Venda!”

SA's 9 provinces & a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

South Africa’s nine provinces and a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

An important thing you should know about many, if not most of South Africa’s eleven official languages. They are tonal. Practically, this means one word can have multiple meanings depending upon tone and inflection. An example in Venda: “thoho” can communicate either “head” or “monkey.”

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

A personal example of a language miscue related to tone and inflection: It was a hot summer day, and as I arrived at my meeting destination a group of Venda ladies were sitting under a large shade tree.  We exchanged greetings, after which one of the group said something incoherent to me.  I attempted to say, “I didn’t hear well or clearly.” They all immediately yet politely stifled laughter, which, of course, told me my language effort failed miserably.  One of the ladies rose to her feet, walked over to me, and politely told me, “You have just told us that you have big ears like an elephant!”

censoredbreastfeed

A more U.S./European view of breast-feeding – taboo

Speaking of women and language learning . . . my mind again, as if it operates independently from intentional thought, skipped to a different page of memories.  This time a page of memories related to two breast-feeding incidents. Breasts and breast-feeding are viewed in wholesome (pure) and healthy terms in Venda, as in most parts Africa.

African woman breast feeding

African woman breast-feeding

Our arrival in Block G, Thohoyandou, Venda in early November, 1989, caused quite a stir, I’m certain.  The reason being: South Africa, even its so-called “independent” black homelands, existed within a canopy of legislated segregation or apartheid. It was more scandalous than normal for races to mix.  Yet here we were a young, white couple setting up home in what was effectively a new “black housing development.”  Within days of arrival, welcoming guests arrived at our front gate, including two pastors of local churches and their wives – one of whom, had recently given birth.

My wife quickly learned the cultural role of providing “tea” and some form of “pudding” (sweet pastry).  Midway through their visit, the one pastor’s wife decided it was time to feed her newborn.  This was no big event, except for two complicating factors:  In likely her first-ever visit to a white person’s house she had worn her best dress, which was beautiful, yet impractical for nursing purposes, in that, the neck of the dress extended up near her clavicle, making “breast extraction” near impossible.  Secondly, she was a very buxom woman.  These factors did not deter her from trying, though – and repeatedly so!  Given that we all were sharing a small living room space, her efforts and failures became increasingly pronounced as time went on.  Much to all of our relief, I’m sure, the senior pastor finally voiced our discomfiture and what was evident to all of us – “Shame, she’s having trouble getting the pipe out.”

A final humorous story related to language and breast-feeding.  My wife grew up in the Dominican Republic, and is fluent in Spanish (and German).  Inspired by a college professor, she chose – actually, we chose – to raise all five of our children bilingual.  Upon arrival in Venda our eldest, a boy, was a year old.  After two years living in Venda and among the Venda people, he had learned a lot, but also “absorbed” a lot – specifically, the reality that many infants and small children received milk from their mothers’ breasts.

One evening we invited an elderly American couple over for dinner.  They were assisting in the management of a relief project at the time.  She, like the pastor’s wife, was quite a buxom woman, and sitting immediately to the right of my son at the dining table, he couldn’t help but notice.  Given the sights and cultural experiences he had absorbed to that point, he very innocently verbalized midway through dinner to my wife – fortunately in Spanish – “Does she have milk?”  It was obviously a moment of great discomfiture for my wife, but fortunately an anonymously embarrassing moment, which today we remember with great laughter.

Concluding thought: 

Meandering minds and their on-the-surface incoherent and dissonant linkages with past memories and associations frequently result in fond and kind remembrances of happier and simpler periods, events and relationships in life, which if we’ll allow them, just might warm up, encourage, what to that point in time or day we might tend to label as struggle, despondency, heartache or melancholy.

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Birth-dates | Memories of Celebration & Loss

In case the world doesn’t know yet, please ring the bells.  It’s my birthday!

Birthdays symbolize and celebrate the fact that individuals have a history.

One of my eldest daughter's birthday.

Our eldest daughter’s 17th birthday.

In this blog I share a few memories from my own life history, plus an exercise that demonstrates the importance of memories.  I hope the exercise “I Remember” helps you re-experience happy occasions, or alternatively emotionally process through and beyond painful memories of loss.

Life celebratory dates are met with a mix of emotions by people.  For instance, I have learned over the years that December 31st is not a good day, to put it mildly, for my mother-in-law.  Although it marks a traditionally celebratory day (wedding anniversary), it’s also a painful 24-hour period, in which she’s acutely conscious of memories of lost love (husband’s death from leukemia) and of shared life and opportunities missed.

I remember my 7th grade and thirteenth year of life in, Texas.  My parents had returned there from Kenya for sabbatical. It must have been an emotionally laden and formative one, given the number of memories associated with it, but then again, middle school itself is the onset of a burgeoning adolescence for most teens.  

Memories include: walking to school with wet, long hair and then having to comb out icicles; learning CB radio lingo and having my own CB handle; having a much older high school girl catching me off-guard outside a church youth event, telling me she has this “thing for kids from Africa, do I know what she means?,” me naively replying “yes,” and then before I know what is what experiencing the sensation of a warm, wet and all-engulfing mouth; hanging out with an “exemplary adult” who not only introduced me to the world of adult magazines, but who wore his character on a T-shirt declaring “If all else fails, I still have my personality”; and drawing circles on a Texas map of the route I intended to take when I ran away from home, because I was adamantly opposed to my family’s return to Africa, given my happy acclimation to U.S. culture and life.

What about you?

Are traditionally celebratory dates mostly joyous occasions? Or do they evoke disproportional anguish and pain of memories past, such as a loved one’s death? A marriage dissolved? A child’s estrangement? The onset of a debilitating illness or addiction? A loss of a way of life and/or vocation?

Some Sinomlando staff and I (3rd from right).

Some Sinomlando staff and I (3rd from right).

Over the past decade my life has benefited from working with people, who comprise and relate to a South African research and community development non-profit called The Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa, http://sinomlando.ukzn.ac.za/.  Sinomlando is a non-profit psychosocial memory work and human rights initiative begun in 1994 by a Belgian professor of History of Christianity at the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, Philippe Denis, and a colleague, Nokhaya Makiwane.

Political satirist Zapiro using photo of June 16th massacre of school children as theme for a new South Africa tragedy - HIV/AIDS

Political satirist Zapiro using photo of June 16th massacre of school children as theme for a new South Africa tragedy – HIV/AIDS

Sinomlando seeks to redress the damaging effect of violence and HIV/AIDS on African children and their families through memory work and oral history. Sinomlando, an isiZulu word for “we have a history,” utilizes a slim memory manual in book form for its training of memory workers, entitled Never Too Small To Remember, the title of which is intentional in that we advocate for traditionally “silenced voices” – aka, children, but also women – to contribute their voices and stories.

Should you have interest to know how you can either contribute financially or become a partner member of Sinomlando’s work, contact them directly at “contact us”: http://sinomlando.ukzn.ac.za/index.php/en/contact-us-mainmenu-36.

June 16 (Soweto Uprising), 1976, massacre of 176+ South African students for protesting Afrikaans as medium of instruction.

June 16 (Soweto Uprising), 1976, massacre of 176+ South African students for protesting Afrikaans as medium of instruction.

Memory work utilizes many different exercises in enabling individuals to share their history and process life trauma. “Memories of Loss” and “I Remember” are two. Given that birthdays are hopefully more celebratory than remorseful, I share how to do “I Remember” because it can be used for painful and joyful remembrances.  With your spouse, partner, close friend, immediate and extended family, church or any other small group that constitutes a “safe place” for you, share with each other answers to the following four questions.

NeverTooSmall

The final question is particularly important, in that, it’s where participants express feelings associated with specific memories.  The start to healing or coming to terms with a specific loss and struggle in life, is most often  preceded by a verbalization or sharing with someone, as in, for example, the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, where the first step is simply having the courage to acknowledge one’s addiction/problem and need for help.

I REMEMBER

 Share a remembrance, a memory.

(Examples: a wedding, the birth of a child, the death of a family member, etc.)

Share on what occasions you most often remember these events.

(Example: for my mother-in-law it’s December 31st)

Share what you typically do or think when you remember these events.

(Examples: I sing songs, I look at photo albums, I get in a “sour mood”, I cry inconsolably)

Share what emotions these memories provoke in you.

(Examples: I feel relief, pain, sadness, distress, etc.)

Thank you for sharing in my birthday by allowing me to share something of my own history and life story, as well as that of The Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa!

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20 Do’s and Don’ts of Assisting the Jobless

Do you care enough to help the jobless?  If so, at what level are you willing to help – Maze Help or Mentoring Help?

Let me explain how I view the difference.

Finding work, or helping someone find work, is often likened to simple navigation of a maze, consuming as little as 15-minutes of your time, but certainly less than a few hours at best.  This short expenditure of time and effort I call “maze help,” aka –  charity help.

jobmaze

If you intend to contribute meaningful help to someone seeking re-employment, then the analogy of mentoring a visitor or immigrant in acclimatizing to his or her new environment is more apropos, I believe.  The reason being that joblessness is frequently a seismic crisis, precipitating significant life adjustments.  Helping someone through and beyond job loss could possibly consume tens of hours of your time spread across days, weeks, and in a recessionary climate, even extending to months.

I have experienced both analogies.

As job seeker, I have been the recipient of well-intentioned friends or acquaintances, who offer “maze help.”  Regrettably maze help is most common, and I define it as snippets of time and energy, requiring minimal personal inconvenience, and often assumes the form of verbal or written statements such as – “I really don’t know of anything at present, but I will certainly let you know if I do hear of a position that might be suitable for you.”

“Maze helpers” seem to view the act of helping as simply an act of charity, as Jon Picoult notes in his article “The Jobless Won’t Forget Your Help.”  Promises of help are made by well-intentioned individuals, who either don’t want to be troubled beyond the time and energy it takes to write a reply email or make a phone call, or who feel insecure and ill-suited to help you for whatever unknown reason.

helpinghand

An example of “Mentoring Help” occurred in 2008, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  A local non-profit I worked with gladly accepted the offer of an unpaid, six-month German intern.  As national director of a newly funded USAID training project, I was not charged with orienting this intern, nor did I feel I had the time to do so due to project compliance requirements.  Nevertheless, shortly after this intern’s arrival it was apparent that we had not done enough in helping him acclimate to our city and country.  I could have simply offered him “maze help” in the form of an email or phone call or a quick cup of coffee, sharing condolences about his struggles but little else, yet I knew this wouldn’t suffice, nor was it the right and decent thing to do.

He needed mentoring/orienting help.  So for the next few weeks, plus periodically, then, over the next four months, I invested time and effort in helping him make a positive transition through the attending acclimating-to-South-Africa crisis.  I picked him up and took him to the bank, helping him transact money.  I drove him to town where he bought an A/C adaptor for his laptop, as well as groceries.  I invited him for several meals, and facilitated a doctor’s appointment when he became ill.  I informed him of “safety tips” (turn your cell phone off during taxi rides, so you don’t advertise it to would-be-muggers), and acted as his sounding board when he was lonely, frustrated, and processing more information and newfound experiences than his single brain could manage.

howcanihelp

After reading this blog I hope you still want to help!  Jobless people need your help, yet not if they feel your help is merely acts of charity. “Charity help” merely accentuates your fortuitousness of economics, life, education, inheritance, et cetera, and makes people in need feel correspondingly more shameful (=failure).

Below are 20 suggested Do’s and Don’ts on providing practical assistance to jobless individuals. Please feel free to contribute additional ideas, or to add commentary to those listed.

DON’TS:

1.  Don’t assume anything.

  • Don’t assume a person doesn’t want help simply because they haven’t asked for it.  If you have an interest in helping, don’t wait for the jobless to ask you. Take the initiative.  Risk investing 30-minutes to an hour of your time and the price of two cups of coffee (Yes, be sensitive to their curtailing of expenditures and buy them a cup of coffee!).  Your initiative will be appreciated and remembered.
  • Don’t assume the jobless will tell you exactly what they need.  After all, they, like you, have self-respect.  They feel awful being in need already; don’t make them beg for your assistance if you’re already willing or in a position to help.  Rather, ask if and how you might be of help.  Cite specifics within the parameter of your kindness and willingness to help:  e.g., tuition assistance for continuing studies or merely meeting once monthly for coffee. 
  • Don’t assume a person’s joblessness is due to laziness, ineptness, or any other self-made mistake.  Think the best of a person until fact proves otherwise.

2.  Don’t assume every job seeker’s reason for unemployment is the same.  I list this separately because it is purported that, despite the illegality of discrimination against job applicants for a status of “unemployed,” it is still widely practiced.

3.  Don’t “false promise.”  Offer help only if you will keep your promise.  Otherwise, candor is preferred – e.g., “I’m sorry.  I would like to help, but I don’t feel I’m in a position to do so at this time.”

4.  Once committed to helping, don’t disengage without informing the person, preferably with an explanation and in person.  Disengagement without explanation, leaves open the question of “why,” and risks further adding to a job seeker’s unwarranted, yet shameful sense of not measuring up, or of somehow being deserving of one’s predicament.

DO’S:

5.  Assess your motive for helping prior to offering help.  If you don’t, it’s possible you will communicate a patronizing (=treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority) versus compassionate attitude.

6.  Think sensitively before asking questions, because the questions might merely transfer additional anxieties on to the job seeker.  Examples: “Did you manage to secure any job interviews last month?  No? Really!”

7.  Allow individuals to vocalize frustrations and struggles without correcting or criticizing them.  Strive to provide a “safe place” (a figurative place of trust that is free from ridicule) where the jobless can air any and all feelings of insecurity and struggle. Listen. Affirm their feelings. Occasionally offer their words of struggle back in the form of a question – e.g., “So, what I hear you saying is that you’re struggling with the reality that your wife will ‘better you’ in terms of pay and position?”  Talking is cathartic.  Often time answers to problems and a willingness to re-engage life arise from those emotional outbursts.

8.  Offer the jobless unused air miles for airfare purchase toward job-related trips.

9.  Offer to help offset expenses related to continuing education or skills training.

10.  Offer gift vouchers to coffee shops or restaurants, which they can use toward job search purposes, such as informational interviews.

11.  Offer or help them find a temporary work opportunity, even if it’s a more volunteer than paid type situation, which will help mitigate discrimination as an “unemployed” candidate when submitting job applications.

12.  Offer to review resumes, cover letters, and provide input on job search strategy.

13.  Invite and accompany them as your guest to Rotary and such meetings.

14.  Offer to be their elevator pitch recipient.

15.  Offer to role-play the interviewer.

16.  Write them a LinkedIn recommendation and/or endorse their skills.

17.  Offer to assist with expenses of enlisting a top-recruitment firm.

18.  Assist and affirm them in identifying their transferable skills.

19.  Offer to teach them basic skill sets of yours (e.g., Excel, web page development).

20.  Offer to child-sit for job interviews, or merely to provide a self-care outing.

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Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the “F-word”

In our era of high-tech gadgets and high rolling entertainment I’m struck by how prominently small, simple, and insignificant past events figure into consciousness and identity.  An example of mine are memories associated with checking the mail or post.  I’m not referring to the typical U.S. residence mailbox, situated right outside most front doors, but the mailbox you rent on a monthly or yearly basis at the post office.  I still remember distinctive experiences, sights, smells and sounds of many post offices in places I lived in Kenya and Tanzania as a child, and in South Africa as an adult.

For instance, when we lived in Thohoyandou (= “head of the elephant”), Venda, South Africa, our post box was a ten minute drive up the hill to a mostly white suburb called Sibasa.  The reason I reference “white suburb” is that my family’s experiences in Venda included both “apartheid South Africa,” as well as a free Nelson Mandela, yet pre-1994 constitutional democratic South Africa.  Thohoyandou was a mostly “black” town in Venda.

Neighboring Shangaan women sitting at a post office.

Immediately adjacent to the Sibasa post office was an OK Bazaar (grocer) and a PEP store (comparable to a Dollar Tree in the U.S.).  In deep, traditional Venda culture, when a young girl or a woman greets a man, especially an elderly man, she shows formal respect by at minimum kneeling on her knees, averting her eyes and head away from direct eye contact with the man, positioning both hands together and with them outstretched and curled upward “losha(ing)” (greeting) with the Venda feminine greeting “Aaah.”

A Venda woman's respectful posture of greeting.

A Venda woman’s respectful posture of greeting.

The man is expected to cup his hands together, perhaps, even, softly clap them repeatedly (if you’ve seen the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the bumbling scientist, Marius Weyers demonstrates this when greeting the Bushman Xixo or his given name Nǃxau ǂToma), and with them on the outside of his right thigh, respond with “Ndaa.”

One day as I exited the Sibasa post office, a young girl in bright and beautiful Venda traditional dress and I encountered each other face-to-face on the sidewalk. Each time we tried to sidestep and get out-of-the-way of the other, we simply kept moving in the same direction and impeding each other’s forward momentum.  I won’t forget what occurred as we both simultaneously saw the humor in our respective and awkward positions.  I simply smiled and greeted her in Tshivenda. She, on the other hand, immediately prostrated herself full-length on the red clay-dirtied and people congested sidewalk, and extended to me the highest and most respectful of Venda greetings.

Venda hands in greeting.

Venda hands in greeting.

Yes, one could read into her “respectful display” a racialized political context, from which she merely acted out of abject fear of a white man.  On the other hand, I’ve chosen to remember it as a memory snapshot of how a young Venda girl chose to acknowledge and respect me, a stranger (the “wow effect”). I wish I could inform this young girl today, what an impression she made on this “mutshena” or “mukhuwa” (white or white person).

As a transition story from post office to coarse cultural language memory is a post office and coarse language memory I have from my childhood years in Kisumu, Kenya (the same place I reference in my blog “Fly fishing for sheep and slingshotting for ‘ndeges.'”

A daily family ritual, as it were, was to drive downtown to the post office and check the mail.  My favorite “check time” was evening after dinner – in the absence of TV, the drive to town served as a surrogate.  I recall how my five siblings and I competed for who got to check the mail, much as we also competed for who got to have their piece of pie in the pie pan, instead of a dessert plate, because then it meant you might have a few extra crushed graham cracker crumbs or sweet pie filling residue.

Lest you mock the importance we placed on the mail event, and its lasting place in my memory hard drive, is the fact that this occurred prior to the age of internet and email, and therefore mail was our primary means of news and “goodies.”  By goodies I mean American food care packages from family in Texas, or even a letter from my aunt, who used to send me envelopes stuffed with stamps for my stamp collection from places all over the world that she collected from work.  Or as I’m told by my parents, the first and only letter written by my dad’s dad, who worked for decades at an agriculture and feed store, and wrote to inform me – an aspiring fourth or fifth-grade millionaire chicken farmer (I sold my broiler chickens to my parents) – the prices of chicks, feed, and poultry supplies, from which I then devised my get-super rich-schemes.

On one particular night time mail run, I recall sitting in the front across from my dad, and as we neared and rounded one of Kisumu’s many traffic roundabouts, belting out for all the car’s occupants to hear Neil Diamond’s “High Rolling Man,” specifically the refrain “Hot damn, hot damn, hot damn, you know that he could.”

My parents, well, especially my mom, but on this occasion my dad, too, clear their throats when they’re undergoing and experiencing uncomfortable situations (an example of my mom’s quick onset of throat obstruction was at a viewing of the movie In Her Shoes, which my wife and I watched together with my parents at Bedfordview Mall, South Africa.  My mom’s throat clearing occurred during Cameron Diaz’s toilet stall sex scene). By the way, in case you’re wondering, yes, despite any ribbing of my parents I’m very grateful to them for the examples they were and continue to be.  They will celebrate sixty years of marriage in 2013.

A Kisumu roundabout.

A Kisumu roundabout.

When I started belting out loud the refrain to “High Rolling Man” my dad first cleared his throat, then proceeded with eyes averted straight ahead, to say something to the effect, “Uh, um, son, do you know what you’re singing?”  It says something as to the Puritan-like sensibilities I grew up with, as well as to the time period of my childhood, but I honestly was naive to the possible inappropriateness of the words I was singing.  I don’t remember us laughing about it then, nor was I punished, but it’s humorous to think back upon now.  Especially in light of the following two “swearing stories” that occurred in South Africa years later.

During postgraduate studies my mentor and primary instructor was a South African, but of Scandinavian descent. He could regale people with stories, both historical, as well as with a combination of “creative thought” and energy.  Of the latter, possibly, he frequently told students that the Zulus had to create words to fit mostly British sport and culture.  For instance, when soccer arrived on the scene, they simply called it “e-football,” and when cricket arrived, “e-cricket.”  Golf was a particular problem since few if any non-whites played the sport.  What the Zulus consistently heard white players saying during rounds of golf was “dammit.”  So, according to my professor, golf came to be referred to by Zulus by the “Zulu word” “e-dammit.”

When my family and I moved to Johannesburg in 2003 we, like the majority of South Africans, urban and rural, rich and even poor, employed a part-time outside yard worker. “Eddie” was from Tzaneen, a city in the north-eastern part of the country.  He spoke Pedi (northern Sotho) and little English.  I spoke mediocre Venda, but not Pedi.  Due to rampant crime, my wife insisted we get a few dogs.  We found a few “township dogs” (mixed breed) on the outskirts of Soshanguve township, situated 25 kms north of Pretoria.  Both dogs were less than one year old, and despite our efforts to prevent them, they chewed up everything, including a large dog bed made from sisal, which was advertised as “dog chew resistant”!  Hah, I have pictures to prove the fallacy of that marketing assertion.

One morning I went outside to water the flower bed and could not find the attachments for our water hose. Eventually I asked Eddie if he knew where they were.  His face told me “yes, ” but now the difficulty was telling me where or what happened to them.  I do not presume to know whether what I am about to tell you is a culturally and socially accepted expression among all South Africans or not, but I can tell you it is very common, nor is it looked aghast at, as it would be, and is, among conservative and “Christian” American.  Eddie spoke hesitantly and communicated this short and very clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

One of the culprits!

One of the culprits!

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

About a year later, I was advocating for a group of young women, who were part of a HIV/AIDS home-based caregiver support group, started by a retired Zulu school teacher, Thokozile, or simply “Thoko,” as a service to her community of Emdeni, Soweto.  These ladies were remarkable in their compassionate care and commitment to help people and families infected and affected by HIV/AIDS for little financial remuneration.  One day a year or so after working with them, I received a call from Thoko.  Her voice didn’t sound itself, but at the same time I was not immediately concerned or alarmed.  I answered the phone “Hello?”  She replied, “Scott?”  I said, “Thoko, is that you? How are you?”  She answered, “Oh, Scott, I’m f#@cked up.”  I had never heard that expression used by persons referring to themselves before, and so did not immediately clue in to its implied severity.  Sadly, Thoko passed away before that week ended. She was telling me, in effect, “Scott, I’m beyond repair. Goodbye.”

Thoko, fourth from right

Thoko, fourth from right

I end this blog with two thoughts. Why is it that many North Americans, in particular, especially many among my former community of meaning – “Christian America” – still chafe so painfully under the discomfort of swear words, when many to most of them frequently or regularly use slang or “Christian cursing” themselves (e.g., effin’, dang, frickin, darnit, gosh dangit, dadgummit, heck, shoot, shitzu, fudge, etc.)?  And, why do sensibilities about coarse language loom so disproportionately large compared to far more serious “real sensibility” issues like child and wife abuse, hunger and homelessness, child trafficking, racial bigotry, ad infinitum?


			

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