Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Miss America" the expat

Hi everyone!

Wow - where has October gone? I can't believe I've been here over a month already. I guess that means I should fill you in, eh? (Yes, people totally say "eh" here - more on language later.)

I'm living in Rondebosch, which is in the Southern suburbs of Cape Town and where the University of Cape Town is located, nestled in the foothills of the majestic Table Mountain. I live in St. Paul's Anhouse - the UCT Anglican student house - with 12 students. My room is very small, but I have it to myself which is nice. We share a nice large kitchen with plenty of refrigerators/freezers, cabinet space, and two stove/ovens. We also share just two showers, which is sometimes inconvenient, but my schedule is pretty different from everyone else's so I can manage. 

St. Paul's Anhouse - my home for the year
I've covered practically all of my wall space in photos and memorabilia
Even though it's the Anglican student house, not everyone is Anglican or even Christian. One of the women in the house is a Muslim from Tanzania. She has a husband and a child there and is in a PhD program here so she can get a good job where her husband lives. Mad respect for her independence and ambition. Three of the students in the house are from Zimbabwe - there's actually a pretty huge Zim population here. The rest are from different parts of South Africa. It's been cool getting to talk to some of them, and everyone has been really nice and welcoming. One even let me borrow his University student id and password to access wifi on campus. 

The school year here runs February-November so everyone will be leaving for their summer holiday soon. During that time some people will stay for graduation in December or will stay for internships or jobs. It's kind of strange getting here just as everyone prepares to leave. Some of the students will be back in February but a couple are graduating or moving out.

I work in Kenilworth, another Southern suburb, and I take the train to and from there everyday. Monthly train passes are R250 which lets me save a lot of money (it costs R10 for a single trip). I'm still getting used to thinking in rands instead of dollars, as well as Celcius instead of Fahrenheit and the metric instead of the imperial system. Everyone here says the US likes to be different even when it's more confusing. They are not wrong.

My ride to and from work each day - each ft. impressive graffiti
Our office building used to be a home for retired bishops and is a large gated compound. It houses HOPE Africa, Growing the Church, Anglican Alliance, Anglican Youth, and Green Anglicans. I was here over a week before I realized that I shared a building with another American missionary and Sewanee grad from Nashville! Her name is Nicole Corlew, and she works for Growing the Church. She's been here for three years and recently married a South African man. There are so many Sewanee connections here. In fact Bishop Neil Alexander (Dean of Sewanee's School of Theology) joked that I could stand on a street corner in Cape Town and yell "Sewanee," and people would come running. This doesn't seem far from true; when I wore my Sewanee hat last week, Carol asked me about it and told me she had completed its Education for Ministry program. 

The HOPE Africa office building in Kenilworth
My coworkers have all been incredibly welcoming and helpful. Ignatius (Iggy) was in charge of getting me settled; he picked me up from the airport, showed me how to use public transportation, took me shopping, and laughed at me during my first grocery store visit. I realized that grocery stores and names for foods are not the same everywhere. Not only that, but it's incredibly difficult to determine what brands to buy and what reasonable prices are. Please, if you ever know someone who has newly arrived in the country, offer to go grocery shopping with them.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about the title of this post... On my flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town my seatmates were a lively (read: drunk but harmless) duo who started referring to me as Miss America. I was amused by it and told Iggy about it, and he still calls me that sometimes.

The HOPE Africa staff after our silent retreat
There is so much more to tell you, but I'll stop there for now. I promise to post soon about the work I'm doing and some of my adventures here so far.

Friday, October 9, 2015

learning to leave well

So much has happened in the last few weeks that it’s been hard to find time to write about it or even to know where to start. I’ve decided to break my reflections up into a few posts because there is just too much to tell you, starting with preparing to leave.

I spent the days before I left in a whirlwind of packing, taking care of last minute details, and saying goodbye to family and friends.

My friend Brooke grew up as the daughter of missionaries in Haiti. As such, she knows well the experience of saying goodbye to friends she’s come to know and love - there and in the States. Just before I left, she admitted that she hasn’t always dealt with it well, but her mother taught her the importance of “leaving well.” Rather than distancing yourself from people, feeling angry or isolated, or shutting down emotionally, it is important to express gratitude and leave in such a way that leaves bridges intact. Missionary work, after all, is ultimately an exercise in bridge-building.

I left my position as an Americorps VISTA and those I worked with in Grundy County. My year there was hard and rewarding. I experienced the frustrations that come with bureaucracy, nonprofit work, and small town politics - often complacent and slow to change. But I also grew - personally and professionally. I learned to find creative solutions to obstacles and to be more flexible. I learned to listen more than I talk and to ask for help. I made new friends, built bridges, and expanded my community. The experiences I had will translate well into my YASC year and beyond, and I’m grateful for all of them - the good and the not-so-good.

I also left behind the Sewanee community where I’ve spent five years. I said goodbye to other young alums, student friends, and beloved professors and mentors. It is hard to realize that a place will continue to grow and change without you, that life will happen even if you aren’t there to witness it. It is infinitely harder to leave something good for something uncertain, to wonder whether you will find the same love and support and community that you are leaving behind. It is on this point that Dr. Pamela Macfie reassured me that if we find community, it is because we cultivate it, because we seek it out, because we draw others to ourselves.

I left behind familiar places, favorite spots for reflection and playtime, the many holy grounds where I’ve encountered God. I checked things off a bucket list - including a 22-mile hike of the Perimeter Trail surrounding Sewanee’s 13,000 acres.

I said a series of goodbyes to family and friends - some filled with laughter and others with tears - people I’ve known and loved my entire life, or gotten amazingly close to over a few short months. I received heartfelt notes that will continue to encourage me this year, a glass vial necklace filled with Sewanee soil so I can “take a piece of the Mountain” with me, and hours worth of music for listening on the plane and throughout the year. It became abundantly clear to me that I am well loved and will be well missed, and I’m grateful to have people in my life wonderful enough to miss as well.

Of course, I will see these loved ones again, and these goodbyes and this leaving serves in a way as practice for the real task at hand:  learning, loving, and leaving South Africa well over the next year.