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The generous spirit of southern Africa
June 22, 2007
PIETERMARTIZBURG, South Africa/GABERONE, Botswana — A trip to southern Africa gave members of a Learning Tour the opportunity to witness generosity and grace in the face of issues such as racism, poverty and injustice.
Mennonite Church Canada organized the Africa Learning Tour to connect Canadian Mennonites with its ministries in Africa. Led by Rudy and Sharon Dirks, the tour group traveled across South Africa and then to Gaborone, Botswana – and back again. Along the way, they visited a variety of townships, ministry locations, and churches, immersing themselves in the history and culture of the land. For the Dirks, the trip was a journey home; from 1996 to 2003 they served as Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in Botswana. They now pastor at Niagara United Mennonite Church.
Witness workers Dan and Yvonne Snider-Nighswander in South Africa and Glyn Jones and Susan Allison-Jones in Botswana organized meetings and activities for the tour.
Each morning began with devotion from Forty Days in the Desert, a book by Steve de Gruchy, Director of the Theology and Development Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. One evening, the group met de Gruchy, who equated the effect of the Apartheid movement on Black South Africa with the effect of North America on the rest of the world. This was a sobering thought for Lorraine Mueller, who was appalled by the contrast between the poverty of southern Africa and the general wealth in North America. “What once seemed normal (in North America) now seems outrageous,” she said.
In Old Naledi, a squatter settlement, exuberant children flocked to the visitors, providing a bright contrast to dusty streets and a landscape dotted with cement-block homes. A walk through the community introduced the group to a woman in her outdoor kitchen making maize patties to sell, and a smiling young man who was eager to pose for a photograph. The children sang their national anthem for the tour group, who responded with a rendition of “Oh Canada”. Rudy Enns admitted that he “got choked-up and glassy-eyed” from the experience.
In the South African township of Mpophemeni, the tour group visited the Masibumbane HIV/AIDS mission and its community garden project. There, organic crops of beans, corn, squash, melons, lettuce, cabbage and other vegetables are raised to provide healthy food for local people and to generate some income.
At Project Gateway, the group witnessed resourcefulness at work. Based in an old jail facility that once housed apartheid protestors – including Mahatma Gandhi – the centre is dedicated to improving the lives of those in Pietermaritzburg and surrounding areas. It offers a wide array of services from HIV/AIDS counselling and an orphan daycare to student residences, a homeless shelter and entrepreneurial training. Students engaged in Canadian Mennonite University’s OuttaTown program in South Africa spend part of their time at Project Gateway.
The healthcare challenges facing southern Africa took on special significance for the tour group when three of its members grew ill. Although illness passed quickly, the sick Canadians knew they would recover, unlike locals who do not have the same access to medication. “I have people to take care of me, food – a comfortable clean space,” Mueller said.
In Botswana and South Africa, Mennonites have been asked to work with local churches – the African Initiated Churches, or AICs – rather than planting Mennonite congregations. The Learning tour had the opportunity to attend a few AIC congregations and experience the spirited nature of African worship. Music, drums, dancing and services lasting two hours or more were the norm. In a single service at Spiritual Healing Church in Botswana, approximately 30 men and women were baptised by immersion, children were dedicated and communion was shared.
At Head Mountain of God Church in Old Naledi, church members gathered around the tour group and fervently prayed out loud for them. They prayed together, but not in unison. Each person spoke whatever was on his or her heart in Spirit-led prayer. As the group was leaving, the pastor approached Rudy Enns with a word from the Spirit regarding his health, surprising Rudy and the others with the accuracy of his statement. “A reminder…that God speaks to us in unusual and unexpected ways,” Rudy Dirks writes.
Mueller was moved by the gracious and welcoming spirit of the African people. “They were so appreciative that we would come across the world to see how they live and worship.” She has made a point of sharing her adventure with others through photographs and stories, delighting in the opportunity to “return” to Africa.
Sidebar: Learning Tour invites new understanding of aboriginal concerns
Lorraine Mueller credits the Africa Learning Tour and a new understanding of Apartheid with raising her concern for aboriginal issues here at home in Canada. Shortly after the tour concluded, she participated in Mennonite Central Committee’s Aboriginal Neighbours Workshop series. Mueller found significance in an aboriginal artefact discovered near Clear Lake that was many thousands of years old. “There is a depth to their history on this continent,” she said. “We need to be more aware of that.” She was appalled to learn that Canadian treatment of aboriginals informed some of Apartheid’s structure, but found encouragement in the steps being taken toward healing between aboriginal and non-aboriginal cultures.