Epistle 2 (Mar. 7, 2008)


Kid Version:

Hi guys!

I hope you are doing well. I have been quite busy since I last wrote. I’m still working at the place where teachers can go to get help and at the after school program. But I’ve started doing some other things as well. One day a week, I go to a preschool that has about 35 kids. How many students are in your class at school? The children are all very friendly and fun to be with, but it’s hard because they don’t speak any English at all and I don’t know how to say “Hey! I’m not a jungle gym!” in Xhosa, the language they know. So I’m trying to learn as much as I can in Xhosa. Here are some of the things I know so far. Can you try to say some of them?

*Molo. “Mow-low” – Hello (when you’re speaking to one person).

*Molweni. “Mow-lwen-ee.” – Hello (when you’re speaking to more than one person).

*Ngubani igama lakho? “Goo-baw-nee ee-ga-ma la-ko” – What is your name?

*Enkosi. “En-ko-see” – Thank you.

For a big challenge, can you look on the internet and find out how to say goodbye in Xhosa? (Hint: there are two different ways.) Maybe your parents can help. I’ve also started working once a week at a hospital where children who have a terrible sickness called HIV can come and get medicine. Many people in South Africa have HIV, and it makes me very sad that even kids as young as you can have it. But there are also many people here working to help people who have HIV and their families, and that makes me very happy. Have you ever felt happy and sad at the same time? It’s quite confusing, isn’t it? Another thing I do once a week is go to a Bible Study with some older people. Most of them are Grandmas and Grandpas, and I like listening to them because they have different things to say than people my age do. What do you like best about your Grandmas and Grandpas? That is all for now, but I will write again soon. Please let me know how you are doing. I would love to hear about all the things you are learning and seeing.

I miss you!


Sarah Jackson

Grownup Version:

Hello, everyone!

I hope this email finds you well. I apologize for not writing sooner. I was waiting for things to pick up a bit so that I’d have something to tell, but of course, they picked up quite suddenly, as things are wont to do. So here’s a bit of an attempt to catch you up with the last month or so.

Life has settled into a good balance of routine and variety. In the mornings, I am still working at the Centre for Social Development at Rhodes University. I have joined two volunteer programs, each of which I do with several Rhodes students once a week. These have been great in allowing me to get out into the community outside of downtown Grahamstown. On Monday mornings, I go to Luzuko preschool, which is in the township. There are about thirty-five students, none of whom speak any English. This makes introducing games and activities challenging, but it does mean that I might be able to follow in my brother’s (enormous) footsteps and get a career in acting because of all the charades I’m doing. On Thursday mornings, I go to an ARV Clinic at a hospital. Once a month, the children in the program, who are all HIV positive, come to get antiretroviral drugs to slow the disease and to help keep their immune systems working. Our job is to keep the kids entertained while they see a doctor. Because of the ARVs, they are generally well and in many ways are like the other children I have played with in different parts of the world. However, it is impossible to fully forget that they will live with HIV and its medical, social and financial implications for the rest of their lives, however long those end up being. HIV has so fully soaked into the fiber of this place that a typical weekend activity for some people is going to funerals. It is good for me to be involved with such an unfortunately big part of life here, but the juxtaposition of how much I enjoy being with the kids and the terrors of the disease is as jarring as good and evil always is.

When I am not at Luzuko or the ARV Clinic, I am doing lots of administrative projects at the CSD. This is not always my favorite part of the day, but being in a town where unemployment is at 75%, I’m reminded that I am in the minority to even have a job to be doing, and I am learning that it is a rare luxury to not be bored by my work. Also, it’s been helpful to remember that service is by definition something that some people do that other people don’t want to do. That said, most of the time, I do have quite a variety of projects and I’m learning about many aspects of Early Childhood Development in this community. I have been able to visit quite a few schools, which has been fascinating and helpful in getting a picture of what the CSD actually does. In addition, there are several bigger projects that I’m looking forward to, like helping to organize activities for preschoolers during a city-wide science festival. I still love the people with whom I’m working, and I am finding more and more that it’s an honor to be working at a non-profit that functions as well as this one does.

The work at the after school program has been such fun. Already I’ve seen improvements in their reading and math skills. The most exciting thing for me is that there has been this sudden and tremendous flood of enthusiasm for reading. The oldest boy, who is 11 and could barely read at the beginning of the year begs us to read with him every day now and he even read a story to the rest of the class. It not surprisingly reminds me of my time as a TA in the Kindergarten class at my school, when I helped those kids as they first started reading. And I still maintain that watching someone begin to translate what is on a page to actual words that they can say is one of the Top Five Most Beautiful Things in the World. Another result of this exuberance in the classroom is a play of the Three Little Pigs (and the Two Big, Bad Wolves – we have a lot of boys) that started out as a random idea from one of the girls and has turned into a more serious production which we’re hoping to show to the parents at some point. It’s been a treat to take a break from counting and struggling with the difference between b’s and p’s and teach them how to be in a play. So essentially, the monastery is the perfect way to spend my afternoons. There are moments of complete frustration, of course, but on the whole, I feel challenged and happy there.

Many of you have asked about how learning Xhosa is going. Well, there is the proverbial good news and bad news. The good news is that I can now speak for about two minutes straight in Xhosa. The bad news is that this is what it translates to, more or less:

Hello. How are you? Fine, how are you? I’m fine too, thank you. It’s hot. Yes, come, let’s eat. Today tomorrow Monday. Sit down. You’re welcome. Say please. Stop. Where are you from? I want bread. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen. Children, I speak Xhosa. I agree. Sleep well. Hooray, you are playing. Savior. We are laughing. But I don’t understand. Happy Birthday. What is your name? God. Church. You’re beautiful. I’m trying. I’m sewing. Keep quiet. Have a good weekend. My name is Sarah. My last name is Jackson. Mom dad sister brother. I don’t know. One two three four five. Dog cat. Good job. Come here. Look. Stay well. Go well.

However, one of you said that I “get to learn another language,” and that sums up what I feel about the whole process. Never once have I felt like I have to learn Xhosa; it is 100% a privilege. I have been having many lessons in Xhosa, mostly unofficial, from the people I work with. But just last week, I finally got a tutor through Rhodes University. Her name is Thandeka, and she’s wonderful. We will be meeting twice a week, and the sessions are quite intense, but she doesn’t mind me stopping her every few seconds to ask what something means. I am very excited for this.

I’ve found that in some ways, my experience learning French has made it a bit difficult for me to suddenly get thrown into a new language. I’ve taken French since I was five, and have gradually learned the particular vocal and muscular acrobatics that are required for that language. Now I’m trying to make sounds that have never come out of my mouth before, and often, a bit of French slips in. The hardest part, though, is that I know how rewarding it is to be able to actually have a significant conversation with someone in another language, and I am so eager to be able to do that in Xhosa that I want to skip the years of practice that it will take to get to that level. It is a great lesson in patience and humility.

Learning French has also helped me too, though. I am used to being in environments where I understand very little of what is being said around me. Also, it’s not as frustrating to me when the explanation for a particular grammar rule is “because that’s what we say,” because through French, I’ve already learned that words are like people – arbitrary. Often they just are the way they are and you simply have to learn to live with them, and once you do, you often find you quite enjoy them. And every so often, on my very good days, I get a glimpse of that magic that makes Language itself so beautiful. When the elements of sound, writing and ideas swirl and bubble long enough for communication to occur. There’s a Magic there that is reminiscent of the kind that was at work at the very beginning of the world, I think.

Many of you have also asked what I do when I’m not at work. Gradually, my evenings and weekends are filling up with a range of activities. Thursday nights, for example, are Taco Nights at our house, and we invite basically everyone we meet. This means that there is a fascinating combination of people, resulting in a myriad of different kinds of conversations, though we almost always at least touch on politics and religion. I’ve also gone to several concerts and last weekend, Matt and I took the kids from the after school program on a day hike to a dam, where we swam and ran around. We all loved it, although they suggested that on the next hike, we should take a car. Note taken.

One of my favorite times of the week is on Tuesday nights, when Matt and I go to a Bible Study with a group of mostly elderly Anglicans. I spend half of the time finding them all terribly endearing and the other half of the time being profoundly moved by them. When you’ve committed to something for the rest of your life, it’s so helpful to hear stories from people who are likewise committed about what the road ahead could look like. The occasional unplanned catnap or off-key hymn from some of the members only add to the add to the experience.

Another of my regular activities is attending different churches. On Sundays, Matt and I have been visiting different township churches where we know people. Everyone has been extremely welcoming, and I really think when people here sing, they tap into some deep, rich earth-song that is probably always going on, but we’re not always aware of it. At times, I’ve disagreed with what I’ve understood of the sermons. Mostly, I have been astounded again and again how broad the Church is. Sometimes I think the only thing more diverse than the Church is God Himself.

While I enjoy visiting new churches, I do believe that it is important to have a home church. I have two: the Anglican Cathedral, which I attend occasionally on Sundays, and once or twice a week for evening prayers, and a Presbyterian Church, which I attend on Sunday evenings. This last one is most like Whitworth, my church at home, and it is comforting to sing songs that I know people at home could be singing at about the same time. The preaching is solid and the congregation welcoming. (Also, I love the Anglicans, but I have a new appreciation for denominations that actually include “Please be seated” in the service. There have been a few rather embarrassing incidences . . .)

One of the projects that I will start working on at the CSD is writing and illustrating a children’s book that will be scanned and put onto computers at a technology kiosk in a community center in the township. I’ve been mulling over ideas for this book for a while, and my main goal for this project is to encourage children to do art as well. But since even basic paints are often a luxury, I want to illustrate the story using only found materials. As a result, I’ve been experimenting with various natural media. I’ve developed a process of straining mud to make it very fine, which I then allow to settle and concentrate. Then I paint with it. I have three different earth tones at the moment, which are in my closet hiding from our zealous cleaning lady. I have also found large chunks of flat bark that have come off of the many gum trees in the area. They vary in color, but are perfect for small sketches in ink or watercolor pencil. A recent survey found that 65% of families in South Africa have fewer than five books in the home, partly because books here are horrendously expensive. There is a clear need for children’s books, especially in the mother tongues, and I have a dream of one day being able to speak enough Xhosa that I could write and illustrate a story for the kids in this community.

Alongside dreams often come frustrations, and there have been several as I’ve settled into life here, some more serious than others. The first is the weather. I have never lived in such an unpredictable place. I wake up in the morning, and it could be sunny and very hot. But by late morning, it will have started to drizzle, and by mid-afternoon, there will be a full-fledged thunderstorm. My co-teacher Ntombekaya and I have an ongoing joke that whenever it rains, it’s my fault because I’ve either worn my flip flops which have no traction when wet, or my glasses. She hates being wet and on rainy days tells me she’s going to throw me out the car window.

A major frustration for me is how to handle conversations with beggars. I firmly believe that everyone’s story deserves to be listened to, regardless of whether it is true – I wouldn’t have been an English major if I didn’t. There are a million reasons why a person might need help: his (most of the beggars I’ve encountered have been boys or men) donkeys, his means of income, are roaming the township, and they will be taken away if they are not fenced in; he is blind, and cannot provide an income to pay for his kids’ school fees; he drank in public and got a fine and if he doesn’t pay, he’ll go to prison. I don’t give money to them, but I will give them a sandwich if they want. But there is such a desperation behind their requests that often a simple no is only the beginning of a long conversation that will result in disappointment and anger on his part and annoyance and guilt on mine. It seems like if I’ve taken the time to stop and treat someone like a human, they need to respect me and my decision to say no to them. There are times when I need extra help loving people.

A third frustration is that I am in a country absolutely saturated with beautiful people and I can’t paint them all! I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a conversation with someone and I’ve thought to myself, “Oh, that’s the expression I want to remember this country by. Oh no, wait . . . that’s the one. No, that one!” (And trust me, the Grade 1's and I have been working very hard on our counting, and I’ve gotten quite good, so there really must be a lot of paint-worthy people!) This, of course, is not a problem if I just change my attitude and understand that we’re both in a constantly shifting painting already, and that all I have to do is sit back, watch, and be grateful.

On a logistical note, I wanted to apologize. Several people have pointed out to me that when I gave you my cell phone number, I didn’t give you the country code as well. So from the US, the number to dial is 011 27 71 197-9304. Thank you to those of you who have written, emailed or called. It means a lot to hear your news and to know that you’re thinking of me.

Now, as a special reward to all of you who have made it this far: there’s MORE! I have put together a website that will allow you to access my Epistles, my letters to the Mission Commission at my church, some of the photos I have taken so far, and select sketches and poems from my journal. With my emails bordering on thesis-length, I though it would be more convenient to have all of that information on a website to avoid cluttering your inboxes. I will still send these emails, though, unless, as always, you’d rather I didn’t. (Though frankly, if that’s the case, I’m not sure why you would have gotten this far.) The website can be found at http://sarahjackson314.googlepages.com.

Please know that I’m thinking you all, and I hope you are well. I miss you a lot.