Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bridges Academy and South Africa's Townships

By far, the most impactful (not a real word, I know) part of our time in South Africa was working with the kids at Bridges Academy, supporting the staff at Bridges (both the Academy and the Retreat Center), and our trip into two of Cape Town's townships - Phillipi (Fill-i-pee) and Sweet Home.

We had our mental ideas of "service" seriously challenged on this trip. Because we were there as individuals and friends of one of the teachers, we had a very different experience than any of the groups that come through. We were there without a personal agenda, prepared to fill in however they needed. Jason spent his days shooting photos- of the kids, of the staff, of the school, of the retreat center, of Bridges' programs in the Townships. (For those of you just tuning in, my husband is a photographer with a Master's degree in his field.) In the past, from his experiences on missions trips, he's gotten so used (because he's 6'4" and built like an offensive lineman) to being put to work doing physical labor. In this case, however, what they really needed were his specific skill set - the things he does every day. And his contributions were so much more valuable to them as a photographer simply because it was a major need they had at the moment.

Bridges Academy

My days were filled with doing odd jobs around the school - things that needed to be done but kept getting pushed down the priority list simply because... well... there's a ton to do. I just kept my ears open during the day, and found odd jobs to do - organizing the library (literally pulling every book off the shelf and deciding what to keep, what to sell and what to give away), organizing TWO craft closets from hell (just like the books - deciding what to keep, what to give away and then putting them back in a way that makes sense), taking inventory of the kids "tekkies" (tennis shoes) so they'd know what sizes they still needed before they gave the students new shoes, typing up the students annual letters to their sponsors in the States. I even sowed up a big stuffed monkey that was about to go to a new home in the townships. Just whatever needed doing. In the afternoons, after school, I worked with the dance team and the choir. I gave command singing performances all over the school because the kids kept asking, and really, how do you tell African orphans no? I filled some needs they had artistically, bringing fresh material and ideas to kids who were just so hungry for more. And you know? They turned around and taught me. In fact, they totally and completely challenged everything I know about how people learn music. They sing organically. Music is so much a cultural birthright, and has so much value, that they sing (literally) all day long. Life is truly like a musical - and they'll break into song and dance purely for the joy of it.

That's me with (from L to R) Yanga, one of the House Moms (I can't remember her name!), Nantando and Azile. These three girls were the ones who were constantly asking me to sing for them, and whom I would make sing for me in return.

Thandi and I. Thandi wants to be a dancer. :)

Steph after school in her classroom, playing her guitar and singing "Erosion" (her scientific play on "Free Falling") for Yanga, Azile and Nantando.

Di (the Retreat Center Director, choir director and all around amazing person) fully believes the arts are healing, and with all that these kids have experienced and seen, you better believe they can use as much time in the arts as possible. In fact, if we can find the money and the time, I will be going back sometime in the next year for about five or six weeks to stay with Steph and direct/choreograph a musical. The kids are hungry for it, and it's something that I could literally do in my sleep (not that I'd be sleeping, I'm just illustrating a point that it would be so easy for me to fill that need.) Because if it helps some girl cope with the death of her parents, or heal emotionally from being raped in the townships, then it would be selfish of me not to give in a way that has always come so naturally to me.

Easily the most powerful day we had there was our visit to the townships. Susan Wadley (who founded Bridges of Hope and Bridges Academy) took us in with her for the day so Jason could get photos, and I think that both of us were forever altered. You see, I've seen extreme poverty before - in Mexico, Central America, Egypt - but nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced in Sweet Home. Let me give you a quick recap of our day (because I could go on about it forever). We met Mamalu (who works with Bridges and identifies potential students in the townships) and all of the recent matric's (graduates) for lunch outside of Phillipi. To hear how Bridges Academy changed their futures (they're all going to college or trade school) was so inspiring!

Far left are Susan and Mamalu, with the recent "matrics" from Bridges Academy.

From there, we went to Beautiful Gate, a safe compound outside of Phillipi that provides community education programs for families, and houses children with HIV/AIDS. Babies with AIDS - rip my heart out. Anyhow, Beautiful Gate is not a part of Bridges, but allows Bridges to use their facilities for meetings and new student interviews.

Next we went into Phillipi, which in the last few years has developed enough that it's now a "nicer" township. That means there are some permanent structures there, and not just huts. Bridges raised the money to build the first church in Phillipi, and as such maintains a permanent office there. They also use the church facilities for some of their programs - CHE (Community Health Evangelism) and OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children). We picked up Susanda (another Bridges staff member), and she took us to another township, Sweet Home.

On the financial scale of townships, Sweet Home would be at the bottom. There is no formal school in Sweet Home and there are no permanent buildings. It is a township in the saddest sense of the word. In Sweet Home we went first to the home of McCloud for a home visit. The family has fallen on the hardest of times (the government screwed up their financial support), and the family (husband, wife, husband's sister and eight children under age 12) live in a two bedroom shack made of metal roofing and lined inside with scrap pieces of plywood and cardboard. The family gave up their one chair and wooden bench for us to sit on and piled onto a twin bed to visit with us. This was looking at the face of poverty, and this is the environment that the students at Bridges come from (only the students at Bridges have no parents and live with other family members).

The McCloud family in their home.

After our home visit we went to the Sweet Home OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) group. They meet several times a week, and it's a safe place for these kids where they build friendships with others who have the same experiences, play games, and have Bible study. They also use OVC to identify students for the Academy when it's time. There must have been 25 children of all ages in the OVC at Sweet Home and I wanted to take ALL of them home with me. It just broke my heart.

Sweet Home OVC group. This little girl could not stop dancing - I just fell in love with her and wanted to take her home.
Photo by Jason.

We also went to the "Kresh" (preschool) in Sweet Home that has developed out of CHE (Community Health Evangelism). This is an affordable preschool and micro business that has really become successful. Anyhow, I got to visit with the babies for a while, and turned into a human jungle gym. Melt my heart.

Playing with the babies at the Kresh. They LOVED my sunglasses!
All photos by Jason.

After we finished all of our visiting in Sweet Home, we went back to the church at Phillipi to attend the OVC program there. After being in Sweet Home, Phillipi felt like an upscale resort. The financial difference from one to the next was shocking. The OVC group in Phillipi is even larger, maybe 40 kids, and they ran it entirely in the Xhosa language. It's amazing, though, if you listen to tone and vocal quality, you can still get a sense of what's going on, even if you don't speak a word of the language.

Phillipi OVC group.
Photo by Jason.

I think we were both forever changed by our day in the townships. Coming back to Bridges, and seeing all that the kids are provided with, courtesy of Bridges and their individual sponsors, I had a new appreciation for the schools. They are fed regular, quality meals, the have a safe place to sleep, people to care for them, and a quality education. Plus they're way out in wine country, which is SO beautiful. Most importantly, though, they're safe, and their futures are being changed for the positive in so many ways. I mentioned this before, but feel I should mention it again - Bridges has a 100% graduation rate. That's incredible!

But mostly, I think, I was there to support and encourage my friend. To make sure she ate regular meals (she's so busy that she'll grab a handful of trail mix and call it lunch). To know that someone back home has actually met her kids and understands a little bit of what she does day in and day out. Did you know that Steph is not a paid employee? She raises support from family and friends for her living expenses and teaches there for free. This is someone with Bachelor's degrees in Biology and Chemistry, a Master's in Chemistry and a teaching credential. And she volunteers her life and her education for these kids because she loves them. Plus, she also volunteers to coach both the boys and girls soccer teams (for which she is also beyond qualified). I've always been proud to call Steph my friend, but let me tell you, I've also found even more respect for the path that she's chosen to walk.

If you want to know how you can support Stephanie Cowell, Bridges Academy, sponsor a student, or just help us get together some needed items that we're sending to Bridges in March, please let me know by Facebook, email, or in the comments section below. I'm happy to get the correct information to you!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Cape of Good Hope!

Hello again, friends! Here's my second blog installment of our visit to South Africa! If you missed the last one, CLICK HERE and go check it out!

I am just about ready to put into words our visit to Bridges Academy and the Townships (and it's only taken me 8 days to sort them out!), so be sure to check back here this weekend for that one. Until that one is up, though, here are my favorite moments from our weekend stay at the Cape of Good Hope!

The Beach at Muizenberg with the Cape Peninsula spread out behind it.

The famous beach huts at Muizenberg behind Steph and her awesome roommate, Katie. I wish I had noticed when I took it that Katie was looking down. C'est la vie!

A delicious lunch at this super bohemian restaurant in Kalk Bay, Cape to Cuba. Yes, that is the image of Che Guevara on the glass doors. Which reminds me - have you ever seen The Motorcycle Diaries?

L to R: Steph, me, Katie after our yummy Cuban lunch!

Boulder's Beach in Simon's Town!

Boulders Beach is a must visit at the Cape because of the PENGUINS that live there!

Yep - they play at the beach all day and come up into the trees to sleep in their little homes at night (I'm not kidding, folks!).

We spent the night in Simon's Town at a CHARMING Guest House called the Cheriton B&B. We all wished that we could stay for several days longer. And with a view like this, who wouldn't?

Jason and I on the beach at Boulders.

Katie and Steph on the Cape Peninsula in the Cape of Good Hope National Park.

Steph and I on the Cape Peninsula. Love the woman in the background - or is that a man?

Look at how spectacular this is over looking the Cape and the Indian Ocean! Did I mention that one side of the Peninsula is the Indian Ocean and the other is the Atlantic? They meet at the Cape of Good Hope which was once called the "Cape of Storms".

I OBVIOUSLY missed my calling. Cover of Vogue, here I come! (Note the extreme sarcasm.)

Steph's car, Little Blue, has got some serious junk in her trunk. I love that Katie is in there!

We journeyed down to the water from the cliffs and saw some Baboons on the way (YES - Wild ones with blue butts and all! I was so excited!). Jason was doing some serious shooting out here.

Steph and Katie enjoying the sun and the tide pools.

Have you ever seen WILD ostriches before? We have. And yes we were that close, probably not the safest. We also saw wildebeest and springbok and all number of antelope-y creatures, but sadly, no zebras.

This was the photo I was able to get of Jason and I at the Cape of Good Hope. Fortunately, Steph has a much nicer one on HER camera.

Where's Jason? It's just like "Where's Waldo?", but with my husband instead. And this is one of the reasons I love him. :)

Yes, my feet have set foot on the Cape of Good Hope. Have yours? They SHOULD!

Steph and Katie enjoying the Cape.

I love this photo of Steph and I at the Cape of Good Hope. :) It's almost as cool as our photo on Camels in front of the pyramids. Well, okay, not really, but close...

View of the Atlantic Side of the Cape. Promise me you'll go there someday. Promise!

So that's our weekend on the Cape! We brought back a lot of photos, a few souvenirs, some great memories and a rockin' sunburn - I'm still peeling a bit. (Mom - I was wearing SPF 55, slathered thickly on, and I still got burned - the African sun is INTENSE!) Plus, we drank a LOT of South African wine (all whites, nicely chilled - it was too hot for reds). Thank you, Steph and Katie for spending the weekend with us!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Love from Cape Town

Okay... I confess... we've been back from South Africa for four days (this is day five), and I'm only just starting to THINK about blogging. I've been feeling guilty that there hasn't been a blog yet, but I haven't been able to find the right words. In fact, I've only just started to go through my pictures from our trip, and it made me start to cry. Cry good or cry bad? Both. Because the fact is, like my visit to Egypt four years ago, I'm still processing it all. I had such an amazing time - but I saw some things that will be forever imprinted on my heart and my mind. And I'm not sure that I'm quite ready to talk about them yet. Not just yet.

So, for this post, I'll keep it light. For those of you who are wondering what we were doing in South Africa, here's a quick recap: My dear friend Steph is a teacher, and for the past four years she's been teaching in Africa. The first three were at the American High School in Egypt (for the children of diplomats and wealthy Egyptians), the last year has been at Bridges Academy outside of Cape Town. Bridges Academy is a boarding school for Orphans and Vulnerable Children out of the Townships in Cape Town, where all of the students accepted are provided a quality education in a safe, beautiful location, all free to them. And in the years since Bridges Academy opened, they've have a 100% graduation (matriculation) rate. That's unheard of! It's an amazing school, and Bridges of Hope is an incredible organization - as soon as I have the words to really tell you about our experience with the school and their organization, I will. In the meantime, however, here are some of my favorite photos from our first weekend in the Western Cape.

Views of the back of Table Mountain from the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.

Views of Cape Town from Kirstenbosch.

Jason doing his thing at the V&A Waterfront. To see his final images, click here.

Steph and I encounter a giant beaded Elephant at the V&A Waterfront.

South Africans for some reason have a particular interest in Native Americans (whom they call the "Red Man" - I'm not kidding folks) and the American West. In fact there's a restaurant chain with TONS of locations that's ALWAYS busy called SPUR - and it's "Red Man" and American West themed.

We enjoyed a Braai (barbecue) and a night in Camps Bay at Steph's friend Sara's house. We woke to storm clouds that would impede our plans to go to the top of Table Mountain, but here's the view of Camps Bay from Sara's apartment.

In the Nemo tank at the Two Oceans Aquarium.

Some of the many colorful houses in Cape Town's Bo Kaap neighborhood.

Steph and Sara in Hout Bay.

Tug Boats in Hout Bay.

Yachts in Hout Bay.

At a vineyard outside of Paarl (very close to Steph's house) where we went to do some wine tasting. If you look carefully, the garden area surrounding the Scarecrow is planted to look like the South African flag.

Ever since I started doing all the gardening at the ranch, I've become very observant as to how and what others plant. I loved this combo of Dwarf sunflowers and Dahlia-blossomed Zinnias.

Jason and I before wine tasting at Fairview with the wine country of Paarl and Franschoek laid out behind us. One of the Fairview wines, Goats do Roam can be purchased in the States at Trader Joes if you're interested in a little taste of South Africa!

At Fairview, where they make Goats do Roam, they have (fittingly) Goats. This one was super hungry and literally dove right in!

So that's the recap of our first weekend in South Africa. What I didn't post about was our Friday visit to the Lion Rescue right near Steph's house (incidentally, did I mention that Steph lives in a house on a Wine Farm?!). That's because I forgot my camera when we went there (I know... lame...), but fortunately for you, Jason created an entire post about it! So, go check it out and check back here soon for another installment of our South African adventures!