Wednesday, November 9, 2016

...says sala kahle.

“I cannot say goodbye to those whom I have grown to love, for the memories we have made will last a lifetime, and will never know a goodbye." - Unknown

It has been an absolutely incredible experience living and working in Swaziland, but today, Grace and I informed the office staff of our decision to leave Swaziland and head home. To say that this experience has been incredible is actually a gross understatement of what it has been but then again what we have witnessed here within ourselves and our community borders on being indescribable. If I could walk the border and describe all that we have experienced in one long-winded paragraph, it would read like this. 
A year and a half ago we came to a small country with a bus full of nervous excitement, wild expectations and fast friends. We studied for months the culture and language, learned the ins and outs of our service, and stayed with an unfathomably welcoming family. We set forth on our own, leaving behind our new family and separating from our friends into communities only a few kilometers apart in distance but seemingly days away in reality. Awaiting us was a new equally welcoming family and a house to make a home of for the foreseeable future. Our community held limitless opportunity thanks to the efforts of the organizations and people we worked with, and limitless it proved to be! We taught HIV/AIDS prevention and education using basketball, dug and planted gardens, restored and added to  an aging library, supported local women chicken farmers, handed out a ton of teddy bears, updated the hardware and software of a high school computer lab, made Vaseline with a group of bomake, built a new playground for community children, held a basketball camp for local kids and worked to renovate a church. Now, as we’re due to depart, we have new sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, and friends. 
This is the point where I'm not sure how to continue…the words dance around in my head amongst the memories I’ll never forget but every time I reach for a word I see a smile on a face, hear a voice of wisdom, smell the morning after a rain, taste the chicken off the braii, or feel a high five from a small hand. I know Grace feels the same way. The truth is that we have received far more than we could ever hope to give back through our work. We owe a tremendous thank you to all of you who have supported our work here with both time and money. Every effort you made had a lasting impact on our community and on Grace and I. We are so blessed and thankful to have those that love us supporting those and that which we love.
Finally, we are forever indebted to all of the authors of those unforgettable memories and experiences that escape the words to describe them. We have come to know some truly wondrous people here. None of our work here would have been at all possible without the help and support of our community members and our families. We will always cherish our time spent with family playing cards or having a braii, with community members laboring together in the hot sun, with our church family worshipping on Sunday's and slinging plaster on Saturdays, and with our friends enjoying a good hike and a night out. 
Once again, the end emulates the beginning and we find ourselves saying goodbye to those we love. We love you all, from beginning to end, so let me just say this. Salani kahle bongani betfu na bomdeni betfu, sitawubonana masibuya. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

...embraces the 'Canes.

Alden (Bafana Bonkhe "Bonkhe"):
Sean and Grace invited Ryan and I to share about our trip to South Africa and Swaziland with everyone.  I’m considering it a partial payment to them for planning our trip from the tops of Table Mountain, one of the 7 wonders of nature, to the valley of KaLanga. Thanks again for everything!

​Our trip started in Cape Town with a long list of “must do’s” from Sean, Grace, and Coach Smith who had studied in Cape Town for a summer.  The list ranged from hikes that would overlook Indian and Atlantic oceans, eateries, and chocolate candy bars.  We had great weather on the first day and hit the ground running by hiking Platekchlip gorge up to Table Mountain.  We were able to catch a cable car (closed due to wind conditions) with some maintenance workers and a few tourists down the mountain.  Then we pushed onward up a neighboring peak “Lion’s Head”.  A great hike thanks to the “tingly” feeling you get when climbing a ladder or a cable on the side of a cliff and the views of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak.  On the descent one of the only clouds rolled over Lion’s Head and helped us to picture a lion laying down facing the bay.  We explored the waterfront, national stadium, and eateries for the rest of evening.  Day 2 we took our shot at local transport, in the form of a train, to Simon’s Town where we hungout with the penguins before heading down to Cape Point which far surpassed our expectations.  We hired a taxi and 27 year park ranger veteran who gave us a personal tour of the light house that overlooks the shipwreck beaches, the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and the Cape of Good Hope.  We had to leave before we could completely explore the southern tip of Africa to get on the last train to Cape town.  Day 3, we took an uber around the coastline to Hout Bay to hike Chapman “Chappie’s” Peak.  The road up to the hiking trail has been the scene for numerous BMW commercials and is a popular place for cyclists and sport cars to test the turns.  The trail up to the peak was 2.5 km, straight up hill, with no switchbacks, just like the rest of the hikes we had done in Africa!  The trail was lined with fields of flowers and burned bushes that led to a magnificent view of Hout Bay and wine lands.  The hike finished on the beaches of Hout Bay, protected by two peaks and we rewarded ourselves with fish and chips.  Day 4, we finally slowed down and enjoyed a day in the vineyards of Stellenbosh where we sipped wine with the impalas, zebras, and a stampede of ducks on their way to go eat the bugs in the vineyards.

​After Cape Town we flew into Swaziland and spent the evening inflating basketballs, planning camp games, a tournament, and of course all the coveted giveaways.  The next morning, we arrived at SOS ready for a day of hoops.  The kids trickled in after their chores… or skipped their chores to play before their house mothers came and got them.  Our planning the previous night led to a morning of organized chaos, teaching some new moves but primarily playing games with prizes as giveaways.  Ryan even played freeze tag with younger kids and girls, which he beautifully demonstrated by crawling between a 3-foot-tall child’s legs.  We wrapped up the morning session by sending all the participants home with shorts, socks, shirts, or jump ropes.  When we returned in the afternoon for the tournament all the players were “dudded” out in their Union Heights jerseys and even wore shoes so they could wear their new nike elite socks.  Some spectators scaled and spectated from the 15 foot fence surrounding the court.  The games were all evenly matched but it was the Red Lions who took home the championship led by an mvp performance by Lwazi and they each got a pick one of the coveted NBA jerseys that had been on display for the tournament.  All of the players got to keep their Union Heights jerseys for telling us why they loved to play basketball or showing us their favorite move so everyone was able to go home a winner and we rolled home exhausted and sun/wind burnt.  Sunday we went to see a playground, library, and church all projects that Sean and Grace had invested in and added some cool twists to.  We were confused when we arrived to church if we were going for a sermon or another basketball camp because all of the SOS children at church were wearing a uniform, an arm sleeve or some other prize from the previous day’s camp.  The churched welcomed us through song, d├ęcor, and DANCE.  They showed us all the work that they had accomplished through the gifts sent for Grace’s birthday.  We ended the day with a chicken braii at the homestead prepared by our bosisi, bhuti, and make.   The next morning, we said our good byes to the family and headed for Malalotja picking up Hannah and Shar to max-out the capacity of our tiny Hyundai Accent.  We ascended the mountain into a cold cloud, not the weather we were prepared for.  We enjoyed a night of good food, drink, friendly wagers on games of Exploding Kittens, and hot showers.  We awoke in the same cloud but were able to escape it at points as we walked through the park with the impalas, zebras, and multitude of wild flowers to a couple of waterfalls.  We dropped Shar off with her spoils from exploding kittens before going to have a relaxing evening of food, drinks, and fire at Malendelas.  Swaziland was proving to be a much easier trip than what I ran Ryan through in Cape Town.  The next morning Ryan navigated the Hlane game park in our new Toyota Avanza.  We saw a glimpse of baby Reggie the Rhino’s butt before returning to the pond to wait for wildlife.  During lunch a threesome of fat hippos waddled up to the pond to hangout before we took off on a guided tour of the park to see the lions.  On the drive we got to see lions, rhinos, hippos, elephants, third legs, and impalas.  Later that evening we entered the human game park, the Happy Valley Casino, where we all won hundreds of… rand.  After a long night of stealing the casino’s money Ryan, Bingo, and I ran up Sheba’s Breast into and finally out of a cloud.  It was a lot like looking down on the Smokies as everything except the mountain tops were in a cloud.  When we got off the mountain we took off on a man’s trip to Execution Rock which was quite exhausting after Sheba’s Breast earlier that morning.  We explored every drop off at the top trying to decide which rock they used to send the witches off.  Upon our return to the car we grabbed a 6-pack of refreshing (skunked as Ryan described) Sibebes and toured the grasslands that were filled with zebra, wildebeest, impala, and warthogs.  That night we got hit with a nasty windstorm that caused us to retreat to our rooms and I got an education on tiny houses.  The next morning, we were up with the sun, 5:30 and went back to KaLanga and had one more good bye with the family before going to Manzini where we luckily caught the pro shuttle to Johannesburg and of course had a pit stop to pee with the cape buffalo, wildebeest, ostriches, and rhinos.

​Ryan and I were so blessed to have gotten this opportunity and thankful to all the families and communities that welcomed us.  Thanks again!

Ryan (Vusu Musi "Vusi"):
It all started with a 5:30 AM phone call.  I have to be honest any phone call being made or received at the crack of dawn is usually bad news.  We were so close to immersing ourselves into a life that we had read about, heard about, and constantly talked about, yet that morning at 5:30 AM we never felt so far away.  
Upon touching down in Johannesburg I picked up the phone and tried Sean again…
… “So unfortunately I have some bad news”, I say as Sean picks up the phone this time.  “Unfortunately we both didn’t make it on plane.”  But that is not my story to tell….

In every dream journey, there comes a moment when you have to quit living as if the purpose of life is to arrive safely and methodically at death.  You have to go after a dream that is against the status quo.  You take the road less traveled.  You go big or go home.  You make a bold decision that will change the path of your life.  You take the leap of faith.  
I wish that this story was mine to tell, but again this doesn’t describe my career driven walk of life.  However, this is how I would describe Sean and Grace’s journey as I saw it from afar.  
Perspective seems to move you beyond the superficial and taps into the emotion we all want to feel.  Hearing and seeing are great but easy.  The perspective I’m referring to gives you an opportunity to feel, to really experience the emotion that can accompany an endeavor.  This trip was my opportunity not only to just hear and see, but to really FEEL.
I felt FULL…Sean literally can cook a mean breakfast!
I felt COLD…so by 90s and dry, I’m pretty sure they meant low 60s, cold, and unbelievably windy.
I felt LOVE…every single person I met genuinely made me feel like I was a blessing in their life.  They were so welcoming and excited to have us.  Little did they know that we were the ones who were blessed through experiences such as playing basketball with the kids of the SOS village, enjoying food and fellowship at the family braii, and worshipping God with the community at church.  
I felt SPEED BUMPS…I thought that driving on the opposite side of the road would be the most difficult task of the trip, but really it was identifying the Swazi speed bumps littering the road.  Good thing Sean was a wizard in terms of navigating the country.  Sorry to those who rode in the back though.  
I felt NERVOUS…betting wagers on Exploding Kittens often times felt like do or die.  Who knew that all in with deodorant, body soap, and a few rand could be so intense.  
I felt JOY…there is nothing better than experiencing life with close ones.  Whether we were sharing gorgeous hikes, cold sibebes, or magnificent wildlife reserves, great company is what made each experience memorable.  
I felt THANKFUL…to spend time with Sean and Grace.  Going in I thought the highlights would be the magnificent scenery, wildlife, and culture of Africa.  Really though there is nothing that could beat the opportunity to do life with Sean, Grace, and the extended Swazi family.  
I felt in AWE…as we visited the playgrounds, the library, the SOS Children’s village, and the church. I was left in awe of how much of a positive impact two lives have had.  Selfless service seemed to light up the world of others everywhere we went.
There is no way I could do what Sean, Grace, and the other selfless volunteers are doing in Swaziland, but I am so grateful that they and their Swazi families welcomed us with open arms and provided a life-changing experience!!  

Friday, October 21, 2016

...has fall break visitors!

Sawubona sisi.

Grace and Sean fluidly roll some version of this sequence to their friends, family, or familiar passerby's. Translated, I think it means:

Hey sister, 
How's it going? (Wait for greeting...)
I'm doing fine.
Yup (followed by smiles).

From a distance, around 4500 nautical miles, I have admired my sister and brother-in-law for whatever it was they were doing over there in Africa... Swaziland... But, admiration is only smoke without understanding, and the short week Dad, John, and I spent allowed for a small, but actual awareness of what our Swazi family members were up to.
By the way, it only takes a day, so they aren't really that far away - with the proper transportation. We arrived in the King's airport on Saturday morning, after a series of flights... I sat and slept in the middle of Dad and John the entire trip - most dream of such fortune.  We walked through Passport control and were immediately greeted by Sean and Grace. We hugged out hellos, and headed to Hlane National Park.

Day 1 - Saturday

Saturday started in the late morning, as we had just arrived. Dad took control of the driving with Sean navigating. As the road rules are inverted with left being right and right being left, the key to success is to stay left, find a road partner to follow, and listen to Sean, who holds an intimate knowledge of Swaziland's roadways.  Waiting on us in Hlane, was a setting of relaxation. Wooden chairs outlooking a small lake held the potential for a wild encounter. Although we did not see the hippos that chose that day to break routine, we did encounter a lone Crocodile, noisy birds, and Swaziland's prize lager - Sibebe. Success.

After, Hlane, we headed to Grace and Sean's home, where we met Babe and Make. Their welcome was warm, heartfelt, and full of a patient kindness. We got settled, changed clothes, and headed to the S.O.S. Youth Center for basketball. 

Basketball was exciting for all involved. No doubt Sean, or Sipho as he is known in Swazi circles, provides these children a highlight with his basketball program. The kids knew the rules, called their own fouls, and managed the ten-foot goal with success; useful techniques such as the lob, baby hook, and even the granny shot made appearances.

Highlights from Day 2 and 3 - Sunday and Monday

Some highlights from these two days included Sunday Church. We walked to 11:00 AM church Sunday morning after banana pancakes for breakfast. Jack Johnson melodies. Breakfast, by the way, was quite phenomenal every morning in the Collins' home. Anyways, church was excellent. The pastor spoke of maturation with Christ and used memorable comparisons.  During the service, John and I were presented with gifts from the church, and were asked to say a few words... We pretty much nailed it, not really, but everyone was very nice to us regardless...

After church Babe hosted a brie, and we enjoyed several fine dishes. Apart from the chicken, the cabbage dish was my favorite, and I never thought I would say that about cabbage dishes. So props Make.

Monday morning was preceded by a sampling of Exploding Kittens (a card game), Acoustic Jams (brought to us by John and yours truly), and Sibebe and friends. On Monday, we had fried eggs and potatoes for breakfast... boom. Then we headed to visit Grace and Sean's playground site. At the site we were greeted by willing helpers, as Sean and Grace worked on the wall that greeted children to the playground site. Grace had fashioned some sensory games and Sean worked on the artwork and wording for the playground. During this time, Dad, John, and I entertained some small children with playground antics and rudimentary soccer (futbol) skills. This one child would not stop fake crying, so Grace put him in timeout.

Day 4 - Tuesday

Grace made banana bread for breakfast! During which the crew shook off the night before, and Sean determined that public transport was the right move for John and I. As Grace and Dad packed the car, Sean took us to the road to hail a Kombi. We watched a few of these taxis pass, while Sean was signing direction to vehicles as to our direction. Not really sure of what was going on, the McCord brothers tried to look natural...

Sean succeeded and stopping a Kombi headed to Manzini; however, the driver was off-duty, and we got our own private transport, according to Sean this was rare, and although we made great time, we all agreed that this did not count as a true public transport experience - John and I did not mind so much. After exploring the city, we headed to Lidwala where we found a kind of oasis for volunteers and other backpackers. Full of zeal at our success with sort of/kind of public transport we headed out to hike Sheba's Breast, a mountain. The hike was straight up and although it started off painful, the toil was worth the view.

On the way down, we were encouraged by a band of baboons who became very interested in the interlopers who had briefly borrowed their mountain. Grace informed us that they may try and feign a charge and we were to stand our ground... this was after she informed us that they could easily rip our arms off... Dad went first, while Sean hooted at them from our position on the low ground. Once back in Lidwala, we had some needed showers and met up with Nolan, Hannah, and Shar - three volunteers of the highest quality. We all packed into the car and headed to the Milan for pizza. The trip consisted of some wonderful pies, excellent stories, and Dad busting through a police blockade; we owned the night!

Day 5 and 6 - Wednesday - Thursday

The next morning we awoke and went for breakfast in Mbabane and met Simiso, one of Grace and Sean's Sisi from their first homestead. Afterwards, we headed back to pack up and relocate to Malandelas.  At Malendelas we checked into our room and walked around the House on Fire. Like Lidwala, the accommodations were top notch, and for the rest of the night we sat on the porch locked in conversation. Oh, and we ate another delicious meal.

We went to bed full, and in the morning we headed to the park. A Swazi park is pretty much the same as just being dropped off in the wild.  In the wild, we were surrounded by zebras, impala, "wild beast", crocodiles, and some sneaky hippos. We nervously navigated the hippo trail where we heard the not-to-far-away grunts of the hippo family that were supposed to be in the water... they were not. It was not until we were back into the car that we actually saw the hippos leave the area we had just vacated and splash into the water.

After the park, the crew headed to the market and got lunch at the Mug and Bean. Afterwards, John, Sean, and I went to the cinema.  As Grace and Dad had headed back to Malandelas, we took a Kombi back. This time, we received a more authentic experience, as we picked up school children and made multiple stops - I sat in the middle.  We ended the night with another wonderful meal, which was a consistent theme throughout the trip.

Looking back on the week, I am confident that I could not do what Sean and Grace and the other volunteers are doing in Swaziland - I would miss home too much, I'm lame - but I was overwhelmed by the welcome we received from Babe, Make, and the community in which they live. Some other things I was thankful for on this trip... quality breakfast, loving pastors, the high ground on hippo trail, early sunsets, spare ribs, emergency breaks, and new family halfway across the world.

Friday, September 30, 2016 still building but playing a little too.

We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing.” -Charles Schaefer

Well…we’re still building. In fact, we’re building even more! In the past three weeks we have built 4 playgrounds around the Lubombo region, and started a fifth one just today. That's a quite a few long hot days and nights sleeping on concrete floors, but it has definitely been worth all the effort, including the day it tipped 101° in Ntandweni. I'm a little biased, but I would say our playground at the neighborhood care point in Maphatsindvuku has been the best so far! That's completely outside of our doing though, we had a lot of great people come and give their time, energy, and spare materials during our two day build. 

We built a smaller version of the playground than what was initially designed because most of the kids are between the ages of 3 and 5, but they play harder than most kids their senior. Now, instead of playing with shoe cars and imaginary tea sets, they have swings, a tire swing, two mini towers, and soon some fun and games on a learning wall! It's been a long time since we facilitated and participated in the playground training in July but it's all come together now and it's a wonderful thing. I really don't know how to explain what it's like seeing kids playing on something built specifically for them for the first time, some of you parents out there will undoubtedly remember, but it's a fascinating thing to see a group of happy kids start defining themselves through play. Some are adventurous, fearless, and bold while others are timid, cautious, and careful. Some become great pushers while others become great swingers. Eventually they all level out, the bold helping the timid figure out the ladder, the swingers reciprocating the efforts of the pushers on the tire swing. (The tire swing is apparently much less intimidating, I seem to remember most injuries of my childhood on the tire swing however…) The whole playground becomes a beautiful chaos of tiny children with huge smiles. A cacophony of laughter and screams and short siSwati phrases that seem to me to say “Let's do that again!”. It's amazing to watch, exhausting to get in the middle of, and wonderful to reflect on at the end of the day. We can only really say thank you to all those people who came out to help us, brought us something to make the job easier, or let us play with them for a couple days while we worked around them. (We’ve learned beep beep is the best child speak for excuse me)

Speaking of thank you’s though we had another great time this week as we passed out 500 bookmarks at the primary school! It was the final cap to a very rewarding library project, and the bookmarks were distributed just in time because we got a call earlier this week saying the librarian is ready to commence the check out process! (Keep our librarian in your prayers because supervising that process for 500 students and teachers with no experience is a Herculean task, one which she is so excited to take on!) We handed out the bookmarks grade by grade at assembly with the help of a few teachers and it was a great sight seeing proud children with bookmarks overhead ready to read! So thank you very very much to Make Collins and all of the family and friends who helped craft and put a little love in 500 bookmarks! Siyabonga kakhulu kakhulu!!!