Becoming Chris Kamalski

"There's a Writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us" ~Don Miller

Tag: Soshanguve

1000 Words: Township Life (Submersion Experience).

I haven’t been able to find adequate words yet to describe my experience this past week in Soshanguve, and actually in fact have felt overwhelmed and drained with the implications that are building in my experiences so far through this apprenticeship.  More is coming, but here’s some of what I’ve been chewing on recently:

Do I have friends who are poor? (My friend and local pastor, Tom Smith)

I set out to see poverty in India and came face to face with poor people.  Despite my good intentions to personally observe and respond in India, I was at best a ministry tourist.  Equally important, I had not acquired this knowledge from the poor themselves.  I had not submerged myself as Jesus had submerged Himself in our world through His incarnation.  Good intentions, I have found, were not enough. (John Hayes, Submerge, p. 47).

There is hope for the rich, insofar as they act and serve in solidarity with the poor and oppressed.  In their being converted to God, rich and poor are converted toward each other.  Their main emphasis, ultimately, is on sharing, on community. (David Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 104)

The concept of neighbor can no longer be solely geographical.

Township walls are textured contrasts in beauty.  Lawrence, my host in Soshanguve, posing like a rock star.

Township walls are textured contrasts in beauty. Lawrence, my host in Soshanguve, posing like a star.

Does the fact that the amazing corn I was served is found directly next to the Outhouse have anything to do with its goodness?

Does the fact that the amazing corn I was served was found directly next to the Outhouse have anything to do with its goodness?

Tony, looking kind and calm.  Don't be fooled-He could fold me like a pretzel through his MMA training!

Tony, looking kind and calm. Don't be fooled-He could fold me like a pretzel through his MMA training!

Old beer bottles making an artistic statement.

Old beer bottles making an artistic statement.

My fascinated next-door neighbor would stare at me each morning.  Bet he hasn't seen skin as pink as mine before!

My fascinated next-door neighbor would stare at me each morning. Bet he hasn't seen skin as pink as mine before!

Gutted semi-truck cab parked on a street we strolled down.

Gutted semi-truck cab parked on a street we strolled down.

Busi and Colletta rocking it hardcore, as always!

Busi and Colletta rocking it hardcore, as always!

Oupa, my roommate, NOT waiting for the bus.

Oupa, my roommate, NOT waiting for the bus. He has nicknamed me 'Bafana!'

The other main activity of our time in Soshanguve.  Walking with the boys.

The other main activity of our time in Soshanguve. Walking with the boys.

Vignettes Through Submersion (Words Fail).

Vignette |vinˈyet|noun 1. a brief evocative description, account, or episode. 2. a small illustration or portrait photograph…
Lawrence, my host (and fellow 'sharer' of his twin bed) in Block KK.

Lawrence, my host (and fellow 'sharer' of his twin bed) in Block KK.

  • Hospitality is consistently re-defined by our friends in Soshanguve.  Lawrence shared everything he owned with me: His twin bed, best food, ‘bath’ (Small, round, plastic tub filled with boiled water on his floor), love for house music, ability to cook (We enjoyed avocado on white bread for breakfast one morning).
Relatively new aluminum outhouse.  Reminded me of APU Mexicali days!

Relatively new aluminum outhouse at my house. Reminded me of APU Mexicali days!

  • The smells of the township are so vibrant: Fresh pap (corn maize) cooking, trash burning, dust swirling, strong detergent cleaning.
How we submerged as men within the community.  Passing the hours on the stoep with the boys.

How we submerged as men within the community. Passing the hours on the stoep with the boys.

  • Time stands still in Soshanguve.  We sat on the stoep in front of Granny’s house for hours each day, laughing about anything and everything.  Men seem to stay outside in conversation or activity (We often played soccer or simply walked around) while the women were busy cooking and cleaning in the house (Gender roles are entrenched as ‘normal’ within this society).
I spent each morning sitting in a barbershop stall near a major intersection in Block KK, watching the neighborhood begin its day.  Listening to the taxis honk for passengers was strangely lyrical.

I spent each morning sitting in a barbershop stall near a major intersection in Block KK, watching the neighborhood begin its day. Listening to the taxis honk for passengers was strangely lyrical.

  • In January, I spent a week in London visiting new friends just prior to heading down to South Africa.  One Saturday I walked through Portobello Road towards Notting Hill, stopping at a famous roundabout in front of the Notting Hill Gate, marveling at the modernized activity all around me. Contrasted with the busyness of life at a local intersection in Block KK (Friends selling bread, taxis picking up passengers through rhythmic hooting of horns, women lighting coals to cook and sell corn on the street corner), these two intersections tell parallel stories of the development of our world.
Our local walking buddy, Alex, posing in front of a tuck stall that sold amazing lollipops.

Our local walking buddy, Alex, posing in front of a tuck stall that sold amazing lollipops.

  • Somewhere early in my travels, I let go of the idea that local food is to be avoided for sanitary/health reasons.  I have subsequently enjoyed local delicacies far and wide (Manzana Lift in Mexico, Quatro Staggioni pizza in Italy, the greatest cherry lollipops here in Sosh).
Shacks in Sosh exude character simply through their paint color.  Beauty personified.

Shacks in Sosh exude character simply through their paint color. Beauty personified.

  • Cliched as it may be, everything in Africa is colorfully vibrant.  The shacks throughout the townships are a gorgeous mismash of primary colors almost haphazardly painted.  It’s as if the colors were exploding artistically from the paint brushes, and testifies to the pulsating ‘life’ that is found throughout Soshanguve in particular.
Our nightly ritual at sunset.  Walking to buy electricity for the evening.

Our nightly ritual at sunset. Walking to buy electricity for the evening.

  • Food for each meal and electricity are purchased as needed, usually for the next meal or evening’s light.  Everyone walks to the local neighborhood tuck shops for just enough provisions for the evening.  At sunset each night, a whole crew of us would make an event of the walk to the local hardware store to buy light for the nightly festivities.  It was so relaxing and fun!
Dryers are non-existent throughout South Africa.  Granny's well-used clothesline.

Dryers are non-existent throughout South Africa. Granny's well-used clothesline.

  • I have always hated laundry with a passion, and can’t wait for the day when I can bargain with my wife over the release of this chore.  But something about the reliance on the sun’s daily provision of warmth to dry my clothes outside has made this an enjoyable activity these past few months.  Seeing colorful clothes flapping in the breeze in each yard brings a smile to my face nowadays.
The apprentice crew (+ Doug) with our host families.  Grateful for this shared experience!

The apprentice crew (+ Doug) with our host families. Grateful for this shared experience!

  • We were (are) loved as family these past few days, and our return has already been requested by many of our host families.  They have taught us so much by opening their homes, families, and lives to us.  Living together inescapably shapes a person.
Outhouse beauty (Alt caption: Township servilletes are readable!).

Outhouse beauty (Alt caption: Township servillettes are readable!).

Submerge.

Granny's Family (and likely, my host home) in Soshanguve

Granny's Family (and likely, my host home) in Soshanguve, the local township near Pretoria North.

Submerge |səbˈmərj| verb [ trans. ]: descend below the surface of an area (usually of water). Synoymns: immerse, plunge, sink.

Sub-merging [is] going beneath the surface of a consumer society’s demands and aspirations and finding life with Christ among the poor…Cities exert disproportionate influence in shaping twenty-first century culture.  As author and teacher Ray Bakke observes, cities operate as magnets that draw in the world’s people and as magnets that “breathe out” urban culture everywhere as the desirable norm…[We are] unprepared for and unaccustomed to the pressing level of urban poverty.  Nearly 1 billion people in the world, one-third of urban residents, live in slums.  Even more alarming, slum populations are growing faster than any other demographic sector.  More than ever, seeking the welfare of cities means being prepared to seek the welfare of the poor (John Hayes, Sub-Merge, pps. 14-16).

I am writing this in the middle of the night (literally) Monday morning, a few hours before I need to wake up and begin my 11th (!) week of life, mission, and service here in Pretoria, South Africa.  I’m up mainly because I just spent a few precious moments on Skype (bless all technological geniuses!) with my family (Hello Gerdts’, Linda, Woods, Fullmer’s, and of course, Kamalski’s) as they gathered for a Southern-style Easter.  But I’m staying awake a few minutes as I feel the Spirit beginning to shift my heart towards the major experience of these next few days, namely that of submerging into, and living with, friends of our community who stay in Block KK of Soshanguve.

I haven’t written much about ‘Sosh’ yet, and frankly, don’t intend to at this juncture either.  Soshanguve is the local (one of many, and encompassing a much larger urban sprawl outside of Pretoria) township about 20 minutes outside of Pretoria.  South African townships, in the most general sense, were former areas in which the urban (largely black) poor lived, often near Afrikaaner or British South African (white) suburbs/cities.  Think of them as complex slum/rural/poor neighborhoods, although that generalization isn’t entirely helpful either, as there are nice portions of the township as well, and many of the Blocks in Soshanguve have running water, sewage, and electricity (although these ‘features’ may be somewhat different from modern, ‘Western’ ideas of adequate services).

Do think size though.  In an impossible estimation, most people consider between 1 to 1.5 million people to live within Soshanguve.  I’ve posted previously about my experience in Soshanguve participating in the funeral services for my roommate Johannes’ brother.  I simply can’t do justice to the immensity of need, human life, and activity that pulses through Soshanguve (and the innumerable similar townships in every major urban center worldwide, including areas within California that we would potentially call ‘urban ghettos (I don’t like the stereotypes associate with this name):’ East Palo Alto, East San Jose, The Tenderloin, Compton/Watts, Santa Ana, portions of Riverside.  What has been humbling to consider are two diametrically opposed factors: Our world is much different than the world I typically inhabit, and my reality often prohibits me from even being able to see with honesty how others live. I don’t write this in a judgmental fashion (either upon myself, or on the ubiquitous category of ‘others,’), and yet I wish to learn, grown, and open my eyes to the wider world (even to our ‘neighbors’ nearby in Sosh).  

In an effort to open our eyes, our apprentice community will be spending the next three days living with our friends out in Soshanguve.  We have no ‘purpose’ other than to simply ‘be with’ our friends, living life as normally as possible with them.  We will (try and) help them cook, clean, run errands, tidy the house, and travel with them to complete their daily business.  We’ll sleep in their homes, share meals (and the post-meal dance party!), and communicate as best as we possibly can.  We’ll be treated as royalty, as hospitality is a deep art form throughout South Africa, particularly within the township.  We’ll be uncomfortable at times, we’ll stick out like sore thumbs, and we’ll be exposed to our own sense of well-being, warts and all.

I expect these next 48 hours to be profoundly impacting, and hopefully a taste of what true incarnation (living with and among) looks like.

More to come, and prayers would be coveted!

Granny's neighbors across the street in Block KK, Soshanguve.

Granny's neighbors across the street in Block KK, Soshanguve.

A Grief Observed.

One of innumerable shovels used to fill the endless graves of Soshanguve today.

 

 

 

 

One of innumerable shovels used to fill the endless graves of Soshanguve today.

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Gen 3:17-19, ESV)

I have (especially at this time of night) no creativity or vividness that adequately describes the scene I participated in this morning at our friend Oupa’s brother’s funeral in Soshanguve.  In fact, much of the weariness that I feel this evening stems from a deep sense of the injustice of death. God was devastatingly accurate in describing the reality of death once sin had crept into the world–truly, death is a curse through which we all carry its sting.  The pronouncement given to Adam in the Garden has such a sense of finality to it–that mankind is now cursed to death and separation in all aspects–from life with God, to eternity spent in the midst of His creation, to the all-too-brief moments we have with those we love most deeply.

It was only this past weekend that our brother Oupa (my roommate and fellow Apprentice) was traveling back home to visit his sick brother, hoping against the possibility that he was infected with the HIV/AIDS virus.  Less than 24 hours pass in which he finds out that not only is this true, but his brother has passed away from an AIDS-related illness that hastened his death!

Death and grief have been companions in my community of friends these past few weeks, as my first girlfriend way back in high school, Kelly Shaffer (now Ortiz), just passed away tragically at the tail end of Valentine’s Day weekend from an infection that claimed not only her life, but the life of her unborn daughter.  I just sat next to Kelly and her wonderful husband, Greg Ortiz, at our recent 10-year Prospect High School Class of 1998 reunion a few months earlier, and throughly enjoyed my evening due largely to the conversations I had with my old friends.  Hearing the news from old high school friends as I am literally around the world was almost too much to bear, and has affected me more than I am aware these past few weeks.

Thus, in seeking to draw near in support of my brother and friend Oupa this past week, we anticipated supporting him this morning during the funeral and burial proceedings out in Soshanguve.  We had been prepped that this would likely be a ‘deep culture’ experience for us, meaning that we were entering into a world far different from our Western experiences with death, grief, funerals, and saying goodbye to departed friends as a community.  This proved to be vividly accurate as the morning progressed.

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My brother and roommate Oupa, at Granny's house in Soshanguve (and about to laugh like a seagull!)

We arrived at 7:50am to the rhythmic pounding of drums and the melodic harmony of African choirs from the local AIC church that Oupa’s mother is a part of, joining them several hours into their first of two services.  Quickly we were seated as ‘guests of honor’ under a large tent that had been erected in the back patio area of Oupa’s house in Block FF of Soshanguve, joining into an ongoing collective experience of grief expressed through mourning song, thoughtful reflection, and passionate preaching calling Oupa’s community to hope in the coming resurrection of Christ (Oupa himself invoking some of the most impassioned preaching!).  A circle of woman dressed in ‘uniforms’ (choir robes) would dance and sway around the casket in prayer, chanting, and ‘call-and-response’ type song in-between each person who shared.  It was fascinating–as if they were calling forth and invoking a deep sense of mourning over the loss of Oupa’s brother, as well as the effect it had on the community he had recently departed from.  What was most impactful to me was the fact that these dear brothers and sisters knew how to mourn–and were unafraid of tears, wailing, and hopeful song in the midst of tears.  

After a few hours of this, we proceeded to a local cemetery in Soshanguve for the burial portion of the service–hundreds of church members, neighbors, family and friends in a long funeral procession of cars, buses, and flatbed trucks.  Arriving at the cemetery, it was chaos as we descended upon this corner of the cemetery in which 15-20 simultaneous burials were taking place.  People were walking from all directions towards the burial areas, trying to find their parties.  In the midst of this were multiple Hearse cars trying (in vain) to move through the throngs of people to deliver the caskets to their designated graves.  We just started walking in the same direction as everyone else. A conservative guess would estimate maybe 3,000-5,000 people in this immediate area–it felt in a weird way like we were all walking towards a concert.  It certainly was musical enough–almost every burial had its own choir chanting or singing to the rhythm of tambourines and drums, as far as the eye could see.  Beautiful, overwhelming, chaotic, moving, grief-filled.  A collective sea of mourning, at the ‘peak’ hour of the week for burials throughout Africa.  Dayna Cermak, a staff member with us, casually mentioned at one point that she had heard that there are about 150 funerals a weekend in Soshanguve.  Simple math would tell you that if our services were ‘common’ with about 300 people at them, this would tell you that about 45,000 people are mourning the death of a loved one EACH weekend in Soshanguve, let alone throughout innumberable communities in Africa.  

All of a sudden, the reality of the AIDS pandemic, which so often is just an ominous story on then news, or a collection of ‘too crazy’ facts, became starkly real and personal.  Somewhere between 5,000-8,000 deaths take place each day as a result of HIV/AIDS in Africa, depending on which set of statistics you subscribe to.  Regardless of this number, as we watched the casket lowered into the ground, the women in Oupa’s family came forward to drop a handful of earth over their son/brother/husband/father.  Quickly the men grabbed shovels and began flinging the sod over the casket, almost in a roughly cathartic way intended to heal.  At one point, I was handed a shovel and even asked to jump in, which was crazy.  Song, prayers, wailing accompanied this frenzied effort.  It was as if the entire community needed to move in action at once, as if their collective movement brought forth a deeper sense of mourning and grief. 

I was overcome with the reality of death, and couldn’t shake the shedding of tears, nor the thought that “This is not what God intended for His people.”  There is nothing normal, right, just, or necessary about death.  It comes and steals life from those God has breathed His very breath into.  And a day is coming in which death will be no more.

Tonight, I cling to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55: That there has come (and will come again in fullness) a day in which “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”

I live in the tension between those worlds tonight.

-Chris

P.S. My friend Joe Reed has shared his thoughts about today as well.