Friday, July 26, 2013

My Visit to the Mountain Kingdom


Hey y'all!

I move a resolution that we ignore the lack of posting that seems to best characterize my blog in recent months. All in favor? Opposed? Looks like the yeas have it! Well done. Moving on...



... to Lesotho! So I spent the better part of this week visiting the Mountain Kingdom and I must admit, I would have gladly stayed longer to explore! After months of nagging my boss at HOPE Africa to send me to the small country bordered on all sides by South Africa, she finally relented and I had my bags packed before she could finish saying, “Pack warm socks!”

(TRIVIA: There are technically only two other sovereign enclaves in the world, that is, countries surrounded on all sides by only one other country. Can you guess which ones? Please note: “Guess” is not an antiquated synonym for “Google.”)


HOPE Africa supports St. James Mission Hospital in the mountain area called Mantsonyane, which is where my friend Jared is volunteering. It has a remarkable history that dates back 50 years. Today it serves a catchment area of more than 70,000 people spread out over many small, rural villages throughout mountainous terrain, many parts navigable only by foot or horseback. With a small budget and only three doctors, the hospital does a pretty incredible job serving the needs of the communities, relying heavily on its many health clinics and healthcare outposts. From what I could tell in my short time there, the large amount of work gets done because a few employees and volunteers recognize the great need of the people and dedicate their time and energy to meeting those needs despite the many challenges. For example, the primary health care unit has one week before school starts to get every child under five years old in the district all their immunizations. For some of the most remote areas not reachable by vehicle, this task requires health workers to carry a cooler box with the medications and visit every village on foot.

   


Oh yeah, it’s also really cold. A vast majority of the homes in the region are traditional stone and thatch huts heated by wood fire. They’re also experiencing one of their worst draughts in years, with no rain since February. On one of our excursions, we walked on a footbridge that crosses a large dam that supplies water to the people of the Mantsonyane area. Looking down from the bridge, all I could see was a tiny trickle of water; the rest was bone dry. The sight would have been harrowing in any context, but knowing how much these communities- made up primarily of subsistence farmers and their families- depend on this precious resource made the sight absolutely heartbreaking. 

Encouraging though, was the work that we were able to do with the hospital leadership staff in two days of meetings. With the hospital’s 50th anniversary celebration approaching in October, the goal of our partnership is to help revitalize St. James’ and promote primary and preventative healthcare, which could help relieve much of the stress of overcapacity and waning resources it's currently facing. Father Chris, an Anglican priest and consultant, led the process of constructing a strategic plan for 2020 based on the vision of the hospital and its existing strengths. The process was long and tiresome, but as I’m learning, sustainable community development can’t rely on quick fixes in the same way fad diets can’t realistically keep the weight off. Over time, measured and fervent commitment to community empowerment with both eyes fixed firmly on justice is the only course of action that will yield development worthy of pursuing, particularly that pursued in the name of our Creator.
Lots of strategic planning going on in this very cold room.
As a country, Lesotho has one of the world’s highest HIV rates, with the UN describing 40 % of the population as “ultra poor.” From what I could see, few people living in Mantsonyane outside of the hospital have electricity, modern machinery, or running water. And while the realities for the people there are likely shocking to me and the people I suspect most likely read this blog, what was most astonishing was the warmth and hospitality we received there despite all the obstacles the people of that community face day in and day out. Every person we encountered, with little exception, met us with a bright smile and welcome conversation. The sight of it would likely be alarming to most New Yorkers! 


I must admit, the information I gleaned from this experience far exceeded that which I contributed, a common sensation in mission work. When discussing this with Father Chris, he reminded me that the challenge volunteers (particularly American volunteers) routinely face is refusing the culturally-informed pressure we place on ourselves to do, when the task is often just to simply be. Be present to those around you. Be a listener. Be a blessing to others. Measurable outputs like number of houses built or trees planted are what we often look to in order to gauge how much we’ve “helped others.” But I think the true work of the missionary or the volunteer or the Christ-follower is not to help others, but to live in kinship with others- particularly those who appear altogether unlike ourselves. It’s not to reach out to them, but to open our hearts and let them into us. Thats the hard work that cultivates the fertile ground where compassion is sown- and I’m talking real compassion, the boundless, Jesus-y kind. 

Today I read a quote, "God created us-- because He thought we'd enjoy it."

And I think when it comes to making this world more like what we believe God intended, a place where everyone gets a fair shot at a life lived to its fullest potential, compassion is both our scarcest and most vital resource. 


Though I didn’t write a blog post about it, here’s a link to what I had to say about Reading Camp- which was one of the best weeks of my life. And below are some pictures. Enjoy!








All my love,

holly

Monday, May 27, 2013

Check out my tumblr!

Hello all! Please forgive my absence. I've been here and there and everywhere trying to absorb the goodness and comprehend the complexities of this incredible country that insists on kicking me out at the end of this volunteer year. Why do we need visas, anyway? Nevermind. That's not an argument I want to willingly enter... While I toil away at how to sum up my post-Easter activities, I'll just drop off this little photo album I've been collecting for you all to enjoy: http://hollymilburn.tumblr.com

This is just a small collection of the photos I've taken over the past year- all on my iPhone! Oh Apple, you might not pay your taxes, but you sure make great products... #conflicted.

Anyway, please enjoy and know that I haven't abandoned you!

all my love,
holly

Monday, April 8, 2013

He is risen; he is not here.

I love Holy Week. I love spending seven days completely absorbed by a story that begins with a triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and ends with a miracle of rebirth, hope, and love. But as creepy as it may sound, my favorite part of Holy Week has always been the middle bits; you know, the part where someone else touches your feet, wiping off the grime and filth that we acknowledge is the result of our journey as the broken. I never can get over the fact that the disciples couldn't keep watch for one hour. One hour. I am consumed by grief when Peter, sitting glumly around the fire, denies his friend over and over again. I want to hug the poor women who diligently make their way into the graveyard, grieving and hopeless, to properly prepare the body for burial- the body of a man who they thought was going to transform the world, but instead lies limply and unceremoniously after being publicly humiliated and killed. Every year I look forward to hearing these stories. It sounds so sick, doesn't it? But it's fascinating and heartbreaking and true and baffling and relevant all at once.

Maybe I like it so much because we so often glaze right over it. It makes sense. We want to hear about the exciting part where Jesus says, "It's cool, guys. I'm back. I got this."* The Resurrection is exciting and beautiful and pretty critical to the life on which we base our faith. But the ugly middle parts are what always hit me hardest. How can we be so cruel and terrible to each other day after day? Poverty, violence, bigotry: Whether we sit idly by or we actively perpetuate harm to others, we're all complicit. On a personal level, the middle parts to me represent the parts of my life that I tend to mitigate or muddle through; like grief from loss or the ugly truths I don't want to face. But yet, that's where I find God to be so near. That's where I'm asking for God and reaching out and trying so desperately to feel God's presence like a warm blanket shielding me from the cold wind. And the Creator is always there when I ask; when I really ask with my heart, when I really seek to be wrapped up in God's love. God always finds me.

I didn't get much of a typical Holy Week experience this year. I spent most of it in the Northern Cape on a HOPE Africa project visit. The visit itself held a hopeful message for Easter; one of employment for many women living in pretty severe poverty. With this project, HOPE Africa is working with government to see that the people pictured below, and many others, are paid for work they are currently doing on a volunteer basis. On this trip, I saw a lot of African countryside and felt inspired by the work these women do for nothing other than the good of their communities. 


But, as you can imagine, I was really excited to get back in time for Good Friday so I could mourn for Jesus. (Again, I realize that that sounds disturbing). I planned to spend the long weekend at Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery in Grahamstown as soon as I found out I had Friday AND Monday off- thank you South Africa and your reverence for public holidays! I love the monastery and the community of brothers there and of course it's nice to see Steve and Cameron, too :-) The project visit was a long driving trip, though-- around 30 hours in a car-- and I made it back to Cape Town with just enough time to shower, pack, and catch my flight. Never fear, though. I made it in time to do the usual panic and clear security as my plane geared up and dreary-eyed flight attendants explained the proper operation of complicated matters like seat belts and dangling oxygen masks. And despite running on about an hour and a half of sleep, I was ready. Jesus was going to show us how to die and be reborn into new life. And we were going to have a big ole welcome back party for him on Sunday! 

But then I missed Easter. 

Yep. I made it as far as the bottom of my peanut soup on Holy Saturday evening before my fever skyrocketed and tonsillitis reared its ugly head. For the next four days I slept mostly and made a big stink out of taking medicine, but reluctantly did three times a day with the polite nudge of my all-star nurse, Stephen-- who also moved my return flight back a few days until I had fully recuperated dontchaknow. The day I left Grahamstown was the first day the sun had appeared from behind heavy rain clouds in almost a week. One of the Brothers even made the joke that I had brought Cape Town winter with me when I arrived! 

Despite the cold rain and the minor tonsillitis issue, I had a fabulous weekend. It was worlds apart from the sunny picnic in Central Park of last Easter (particularly because this was the first year I didn't attend church on Easter Sunday). But in some ways, this unusual Holy Week helped me to appreciate the happy ending slightly more. Because even though I missed the first Alleluia and the lighting of the Paschal candle, the rain still ended. The sun still came back. The nasty lesions on my tonsils went away. And oh yeah, love conquered death yet again. 

"He is risen, he is risen!
He hath opened heaven's gate:
we are free from sin's dark prison,
risen to a holier state;
and a brighter Easter beam
on our longing eyes shall stream."

-holly

*I hope not to offend with my colloquial description of Christ's death for our salvation. I simply blog how I speak, which is often rarely more than negligible chatter.  

Friday, February 22, 2013

If your face shine upon us, then we shall be safe.

South Africa has found itself the topic of many an international headline as of late; in both encouraging ways as with the creation of a new political party meant to counter the pervasive corruption and poor governance of the current party in power and in more disturbing ways as with the horrific rise of rape and violence against women, including the murder committed by Olympian and national hero Oscar Pistorius. Not surprisingly, it seems the more shockingly violent news items have commandeered conversations both on local media outlets as well as conversation around the office coffee maker.

One story in particular seems to be stealing an inordinate amount of my attention lately. Anene Booysen was a 17 year old girl living in a small, sleepy town called Bredasdorp- one that I've visited more than once, finding nothing particularly remarkable about it, apart from its proximity to the more desirable beach destinations of the Garden Route. But on February 3rd, the town was flooded with news cameras and reporters when her body was found brutally beaten, raped, and abandoned.

Anene's attack has sparked a wave of public protest calling for meaningful dialogue into the causes of rape and how to keep women and girls safe. In South Africa, on average, a woman is raped every four minutes. In fact, various media reports last year named South Africa as the world's rape capital, and said women were more likely to be raped than educated. A 2009 Medical Research Council study found that one in four South African men admitted to raping a woman.

Here's an article that shows that, despite the shocking regularity with which gender-based violence occurs here, the people of this beautiful country refuse to condone or diminish the problem: South Africa: The World's Rape Capital. The amount of public demonstrations, from university students to inter-faith prayer groups, have been heartening and hopeful. See below some pictures from the silent vigil that I attended with fellow HOPE Africa employees on the steps of St. George's Cathedral on Ash Wednesday.

What we all know, but must not forget is that there's nothing particularly racial nor South African (nor Indian) about gender-based violence. It's a worldwide problem that affects us all as a human race. For members of faith communities, this is about respecting the dignity of God's creation as we have all been made intentionally and uniquely by a loving creator. As Christians, we're called to care for one another and love our neighbors as God loves us; which includes caring for the victim and the perpetrator, the raped and the rapist. 

My heart is heavy thinking about the pain Anene Booysen experienced in her last hours and I pray for the repose of her soul in God's hands. I also pray for the men who hurt her because I think to commit such heinous violence against another human being, a person must be experiencing some pretty terrible pain themselves. I pray for those who knew and loved Anene and probably miss her terribly. If they're angry (which I understand), I pray that they find peace and healing. I pray for all the rest of us because, if we haven't yet, we'll all be touched by anger and violence at some point in our lives. And I believe that when we hurt each other, it hurts God the most.







Loving Creator, you teach us that healing and a fresh start are always available to those who truly want to embrace your way. Give courage to all those whose lives are scarred by violence. Give healing and hope to those whose bodies have known terror and violation and to those who have terrorised and violated others. Send your spirit of compassion that those in torment will find your peace.
We ask it in the name of Jesus, our brother and our friend,
Amen

-holly

Monday, January 21, 2013

Christmas at the Bottom of Africa!

Admittedly, I was a little worried about what to expect from my first Christmas away from home. Sure, I've done Thanksgivings and Easters with wonderful friends in different parts of the world, but Christmas is a different ball game. No stockings? No snow? And most importantly, no Mom's homemade biscuits and gravy?!? I know. I can hardly say it out loud. But alas, Christmas in the Western Cape was an undeniable success thanks to these folks...



I don't know how we did it, but we managed to get seven of the eight YASC missionaries serving throughout Africa down to Cape Town for the holidays. Arriving from Kenya, Tanzania, Lesotho, and Grahamstown, the group spent the first few days, including Christmas day, in a beautiful beach town called Struisbaai. After the whirlwind of transition that has characterized our first few months in Africa, this holiday really hit the spot. We were able to relax, share stories, and simply enjoy one another's company in one of the world's most beautiful places. 

We spent most of our time in Struibaai being proper beach bums. And looking at the picture above, can you blame us? As has been true for me in the past, holidays have a way of revealing how much rest I actually needed when perhaps I didn't realize it in the midst of the general chaos we call life.
Episcopal footprints in the sand
One of my favorite South African pastimes is the braai. In the states we would call it a BBQ or a cook out. So between beach naps we managed to put together a pretty successful Christmas Eve braai and Christmas morning brunch. It's safe to say I've never BBQ'd on Christmas Eve before! But when in South Africa...

The braaimaster at work on our Christmas Eve dinner
Our Christmas morning brunch

My heart was full of love and gratitude for friendship as the sun set on my first African Christmas
Christmas Eve at Cape Agulhas: the southernmost tip of Africa and where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.
After Christmas, the group came to stay with me in Cape Town for about ten days. I live in the Anglican student community house at the University of Cape Town and since the students have been gone on summer vacation, the house has been dreadfully empty. So I couldn't have been happier to host my friends for that time! 

Hiking in Kirstenbosch Gardens
Celebrating the fourth Sunday of Advent in Bredasdorp
New Year's Eve Concert featuring Hugh Masekela!  
American friends meeting my Cape Town friends!
No trip to Cape Town is complete without a hike to the top of Table Mountain
Fortunately, we managed to squeeze in a couple of South African sundowns between shenanigans. I wonder if there is a place on this Earth that puts on a better sunset than Cape Town...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Let it be known: The Archbishop really knows how to throw a party!

Last week Archbishop Dr. Thabo and his wife, Lungi Makgoba, hosted over 200 children at their home for the Annual Children's Christmas Party. The event happens every year near 1 December to recognize World AIDS Day. The kids, most of whom have been affected in some way by the AIDS epidemic besetting South Africa, came from Anglican homes all over Cape Town. HOPE Africa helped plan the event and I'm happy to report that the day was a huge success- evidenced by the fact that, after running around all day with those kiddos, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow!





Great photo bomb.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Holy smokes! Have I really been in Cape Town for over two months without a single blog post?? Shameful. Well, it looks like you have a lot of catching up to do!

First of all, my plane landed safe and sound. *Shew*


I spent the first six weeks doing a homestay with the delightful Robertsons. I don't have words for how grateful I am for their warmth and welcome. Theirs is a hospitality I won't soon forget.

My work at HOPE Africa is still evolving, but as I learn more every day about the work being done throughout the entire province by this tiny office, I get more and more energized to contribute.

Within my first week, I got to do a project visit to a hospice facility in the impoverished fishing town of Hawston. HOPE Africa also works with a food garden in Cape Town's largest township, Khayelitsha. Both are pictured below.


Here I am with two employees from the Hawston Hospice Care Center, Rev. Ran Chase and Bishop Barbara Harris. The latter two were in the country celebrating the anniversary of the ordination of women. Bishop Harris, the first woman ordained bishop in the Anglican Communion, was the keynote speaker.

Don't be fooled. The carrots are delicious.
We also have a project in Arniston, where I'm pictured below with my little friend, Phoebe. I'm not exactly sure what the project is, but you can probably see why I want to learn more!


Here is a picture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and I at St. George's Cathedral. I wish I had had the presence of mind to say something profound, but all I could come up with was, "Do you know Brenda Husson?" Of course he does. And he had some really lovely things to say about St. James' Church in New York City :-)

So far, my favorite South African experience was getting to go to Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape to visit friends and colleagues JaredCameron, and Steve. The visit was one part of "The Great David Copley South African Tour for the Ages." Well, that's what I'm calling it anyway. My boss, David Copley, made it down to South Africa and Lesotho to visit all the YASCers down here at the bottom of the continent. In one trip, he visited all four of us in our placements, organized a film crew to document some of our experiences, and even attended the ordination of Africa's first female bishop! (I got chills writing that...)

It was really great not just to spend time with good friends, but to see them doing incredible work in their placements. Here are some pictures from the trip...

Jared, Me, Cameron, Steve





Despite working all day with first graders at his day job, Steve spends his downtime volunteering with children in a nearby township. We got to meet some of the kids (pictured above) and I was a goner. Those kids stole my heart.


If I spent the rest of my life here in Cape Town (hypothetically-speaking, of course, Mom...) I don't think I would ever get used to this incredible mountain. Right here, in the middle of this vibrant city, is Table Mountain. I see it every day and just say my thanksgivings to God "for by him all things were created..."

Table Mountain. This picture was taken in the middle of my jogging route. Every morning I run here and am blown away by the natural beauty of God's creation. One morning, I just had to stop and take a picture. It would really be selfish to keep this to myself, of course.

Speaking of Thanksgiving... I made my first turkey this year! And it wasn't half-bad (if I do say so myself)! It was a little tough being so far away from my family on my favorite holiday, but having wonderful friends and colleagues made it a very special day anyway.

When I'm not roasting turkeys, I eat apples and peanut butter as a snack almost every day. Evidently that's not a common combination in South Africa. After much resistance, I think my colleagues are actually starting to warm up to the idea! Maybe.. No? Okay. 

And because God has given me much more than I deserve, I even got to attend a "Friendsgiving"on Sunday. Here is a picture of a Thanksgiving tradition one must never forget: the drawing of the hand turkeys.

It's hard to sum up nearly three months of life changing experiences in one (not obnoxiously long) blog post, but it's a start. And most of you have my email address, so please be sure to send me guilt-inducing messages if I wait so long to update next time!

Lots of love from the bottom of Africa (and my heart),

holly