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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - Ladies Man

As one of the oldest in a large family, I quickly learned there are advantages to infant siblings. Namely, that they are a good way to get the chicks. For whatever reason O'Tool babies tend to be much more adorable when they are young, and steadily become more annoying/repulsive as they grow older. So you really need to take advantage when you're young. Unfortunately, I didn't learn this when I was still small and adorable. Fortunately my parents proved fertile enough to allow me to take advantage of the fleeting O'Tool adorableness vicariously. In other words, as a teenager, us older boys used the small ones to attract female attention.

There are few times in life when you have a camera when you need it. Today was one of those times. The sequence of photos below will tell the story. Lerato-a 2 year old girl, and Tumi-a 2 year old boy, decided to join us for homework time today. Obviously, Tumi is more intelligent than I was at his age. He's learned how to turn his own charm to his advantage, thereby eliminating the need for younger siblings. See the progression below. Ladies, you tell me if you could have resisted.

Lerato - As you can see, it's no wonder Tumi felt such attraction.

Tumi - Simply irresistible.

The idea in it's formative stages

The part where most chicken out


And who hasn't been here, me neither

Not sure if he's gloating, or planning for next time

A picture is worth a thousand words.

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - Bad News/Good News

Normally on the blog I try to get a good mix of lighthearted anecdotes along with stories of the more serious aspects of our ministry. While I hate to throw such heavy reading on you twice in a row, that’s the reality of life here; you never know when you will receive news that can rock your world. Following is a story that may break your heart. I know it does mine.

The Pines capacity is currently 24 children. We had 22 until one of our boys went to live with his father in December. Some quick math will tell you this left us with 3 open spaces. This is not common, as normally we are forced to turn people away. We decided a couple weeks ago that we should pray for God to fill us to capacity while bringing just the right children whom we could serve best.

Warning: Prayer can be a dangerous thing. Within 24 hours, Lois received requests to take in 7 children. There were three children in one family, whose mother and father had both been admitted to the hospital for undisclosed care. Another set of three came from a family in Hani Park. From previous updates you may remember Hani Park as one of the roughest places to live. The mother of these children is in hospice care, meaning her outlook seems grim. The last child was needing care, but we are not sure what the reason was.

After some discussion, we determined we could handle these, as most of them would only be here on a temporary basis. That afternoon the first three arrived. These kids stayed only for a few days, when a relative from another province arrived to care for them while the parents remained hospitalized.

When the day passed without any word on the other children, Lois contacted the social worker to see why the children hadn’t arrived. Social workers here each are assigned to a zone, and then they also work a rotating schedule for “emergency” situations. Lois learned from the social worker that had initially contacted us that it had been determined that the single boy had a place to live, so by providing a food parcel, he would be cared for sufficiently.

The other three had not come because when the social workers arrived to fetch them, no one was home. Lois queried as to what would be done, as obviously the situation hadn’t just corrected itself. She was told that now another social worker was on the “emergency” list, so word would be passed along. After a couple days and additional calls, it was clear that the case was not proceeding.

Then came one of those days you wish could be forgotten. The Pines received a call from the hospice that was caring for the mother of the three children. They requested that we come help, as tragedy had struck. When Brian & Lois arrived in Hani Park, they learned that the oldest child, a 9 year old girl, had decided that life was no longer worth the struggle. She had committed suicide by laying down on the train tracks. In addition, she had tried to get her 7 year old brother to join her, even to the point of attempting to hold him on the tracks with her. He was able to struggle and escape, but her life was quickly ended.

That day Brian & Lois brought the boy-Ndephewe, along with the 15 month old sister (whose name I can neither spell or pronounce), back to The Pines for care. Thankfully, the mother was in favor of this, and seems grateful for the assistance. The Niehoff’s also assisted with the funeral plans and preparations, as funerals are, or have become, very important to this culture.
Ndephewe, as you would imagine, remains traumatized by the event, having witnessed his sister’s suicide, and having narrowly escaped himself. He is willing to talk about what occurred, which seems to be a step in the right direction. We have learned that children can be tremendously resilient, as so many of our kids have seen and experienced more than we can even imagine. He has adjusted to life at The Pines very well. Already he is enrolled in Dunamis, the Christian school our children attend, and appears to be thriving. The kids here do a wonderful job accepting and helping the new kids as they arrive, and he is already assisting in the normal mischief of the boys his age.

The baby arrived malnourished, with sores on her face and body. The sores are already healing and she is showing more strength every day. While she is almost a year and a half old, her development is similar to Drake-our 5 month old. The mothers are doing a great job caring for and nourishing her, and we are confident that God will bless and bring her to full strength quickly.

Last Saturday the funeral for the older sister was held. I attended with several of our older children and one of the mamas, who came along to care for the baby. At first, Ndephewe seemed tentative, even a bit shy. It’s hard to tell whether that was because of the somber event, or because of his return home. After a half hour or so, he warmed up and soon was running and playing with the other children. Oftentimes, funerals become a social event. It seemed as if Ndephewe forgot completely what was going on and just enjoyed being back with the children he knows. Again, tragedy and death have become such a part of the culture that it seems so commonplace. There isn’t a person here that hasn’t experienced the death of a close friend of family member.

As a member of The Pines, and possibly as the only Caucasian, I garnered more than my share of attention. While not on the program to speak, they carved out a few minutes for me to speak. I was not notified of this beforehand, but after spending almost a year here, we’ve learned to be prepared for about anything. It gave me a wonderful opportunity to share the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. I noted that life is full of news, both good and bad. While we were gathered because of bad news, God has given us the best news anyone can ever receive-assurance of eternal life in heaven. Given the impact of death on this culture, it is imperative to make a decision on your eternal destiny today. Regardless of where you live, no one is promised the next breath, let alone another day or year.

As I said, funerals are a social event. The speaking, preaching, and singing went on for several hours, and the crowd continued to grow. Soon it was time to head to the cemetery for the burial. Transportation is at a premium, and we had the biggest vehicle around. I started getting requests for a ride a good hour before we left, and by time I got back to the van, a crowd had gathered and I had to fight my way through to the door. I made sure The Pines children got in first, then there was a free for all. After we got to the cemetery about a mile away, I counted the passengers. In a 12 passenger van 28 adults had packed themselves in, along with the 8 children from The Pines.

After another hour or so of singing and speaking at the gravesite the burial started. I had wanted to get a few photos, but right as the shovels arrived the battery in my camera died. I was quickly handed a shovel and pitched in to help. No one leaves the graveside until its filled. As soon as I started to throw dirt, about 10 people rushed over with their cell phones to get a photo. Apparently it was a novelty for me to be involved in the process. I don’t write this to minimize the tragedy-throughout the whole day I couldn’t forget why we were here, and what circumstances had led us to be burying a child who should have been just starting life. One of the most poignant reminders of life in South Africa came at the gravesite; on one side – a row of empty graves waiting for the next child, on the other – a row of freshly filled graves. And during the entire graveside ceremony there were 4 guys about 50 feet away digging more graves.

For whatever reason, God blessed me and allowed me to be brought up in a loving home, a home where Christ was preached. I was raised in the richest country the world has ever known. And this girl from the day she was born barely had a chance. Our heart’s cry out to God that we can continue to reach people and restore hope to a society where it is not known. Not just reach people with food, clothing, shelter, and education, but reach them with everlasting hope-the joy of knowing Jesus Christ as a friend and Savior.

P.S. After the burial it is customary to provide a meal. Maybe that’s another reason why funerals garner such a crowd. I’ll be the first to say I was a bit tentative coming in, but was I ever wrong. While the food was definitely African, and prepared African-style over an open flame in big pots, it was delicious. I’m going to have to get the recipe from one of our mamas.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Mpemvana Boys

In our December update we told how we were able to take many of The Pines kids back to their old neighborhoods to visit friends and family. On our blog I shared a brief story of the three boys from Phomolong, a township about 30 minutes from Welkom.
When we arrived, the three boys were greeted warmly. The oldest, Tankiso, in particular seemed to be a favorite of the entire community. Everyone who saw him had to run over and pinch his cheek or give him a big hug. I’ve never met an 11 year old that seemed to have as big a fan base as this boy.
For anyone who knows him, it is easy see why he seems to be a favorite. While only 11, he is very mature and responsible, yet still able to have fun. The three boys have two olders sisters, ages 17 and 14, who still live in Phomolong as the social workers have deemed them able to fend for themselves.
Even though he is not the oldest, it is clear Tankiso has taken it on himself to care for the younger two. Anytime someone is doling out candy, toys, clothing, etc...Tankiso makes sure his brothers are not overlooked.
While my dad was here he noticed during Bible Study that when candy was given for correct answers, Tankiso would eat one piece, then save two. It seems he was making sure to keep enough to be able to share with the two younger boys.
On our way through the township to find the boys home, we found the oldest sister. She directed us to the auntie’s house because the mother is no longer living at the same place as when we received the boys a year ago. The three boys were removed because of neglect and poor living conditions, and it seems things have only gotten worse since then.
When we reached the auntie’s house, there was a big celebration, as this was the first time any of them had seen the youngest since the boys had been removed from the home. Two aunts made a point to thank and bless my mother, whom they thought was the one who had been taking care of Tumi. Over and over they kept saying how we had “saved his life”. Of course, since the boyscame to The Pines at the end of January last year, we weren’t the ones here, but there is little doubt that if they hadn’t received the care they did, Tumi would not be alive today.
Once things calmed down just a bit, someone thought to go find the boy’s mother. While they were removed for neglect and poor living conditions, apparently things had only gotten worse, and the mother no longer lived in the same house where the boys were from. After a few minutes, while everyone else was still enjoying the reunion, the mother arrived.
It was clear from everyone’s reaction that this was not a happy home. When they realized she was there, Tshidiso (5 years) instantly broke into tears and went to the oldest sister. Tankiso moved back behind one of the aunts, almost as if he was hoping she wouldn’t notice him. Tumi was oblivious and didn’t even seem to recognize her.
The mother took Tumi and held him, but for all anyone could tell, he thought she was a stranger. Eventually, the other two boys responded to prompting and hugged her, but the awkwardness was evident to all, and the hug didn’t last long.
Tankiso quickly excused himself and asked me if he could go down the street to visit some friends. I followed along just to make sure things would be ok. Again, I was amazed at the reception. Everyone knew this guy, and everyone seemed to love him.
Eventually, we had to declare our intention to leave. A crowd had gathered of probably 75 people, and it seemed that the festivities would have lasted all day if we hadn’t insisted it was time to go. We have learned that goodbyes are a process, so you have to plan ahead and get the process started early. This time was no exception. The crowd migrated from the auntie’s yard to the road, then surrounding our car, then to a neighbor’s house, then again back to our car.
Finally, we were able to get everyone loaded up. On the way to the township, my dad had purchased a Coke for the boys. I had noticed that Tankiso wouldn’t drink, only giving it to Tshidiso and Tumi. When it was time to go, I saw him pull out the half-full bottle and give it to his older sisters. Apparently he had been rationing it so there would be enough to give to them.
Perhaps because of the uncertainty of life goodbyes have grown into such an event. We didn’t know at the time, but it would be the last time the boys were able to see their mother. We received word in mid-January that she had passed away.
Funerals are also quite an event. While our family was out of town, Brian & Lois Niehoff made sure to be involved. We learned that in this culture, if you are a twin there are special funeral customs. First, the funeral must start early - as in 4:30 am. Brian was certain that since nothing happens on time, he could arrive at 5:00 and still make it. When he got there at 5:00, everything was over and they were already serving lunch.
Culturally, it is customary for the family of the deceased to provide a meal. Since the mother was a twin, we found out they only had half a meal - dumplings and vegetables only, no meat.
Another tradition is that the surviving twin will climb into the coffin first, then climb into the open grave. I guess that is supposed to extend the life of the survivor. When we expressed to the housemothers our surprise at some of these customs, they were also surprised until learning she was a twin. Once they knew that, they responded as if all this was as it should be.
The week leading up to the funeral, the family requested that the boys stay in Phomolong. They wanted to ensure that the boys would be there for the funeral. Since these children have been entrusted to our care, we were leary of leaving them. In an effort to accommodate the family, we allowed the boys to spend the afternoon and night before with the family as long as one of the housemothers stayed with them. When Brian and several other Pines children arrived the next morning, he found the boys were still sleeping. Apparently the family had decided that 4:30 am is too early for the boys to get up, so they were allowed to sleep through the whole thing.
One blessing we experienced is that the other Pines children took the opportunity to speak to many people about their eternal destination. The 14 year old sister in particular was very concerned. She told them that she wanted to be sure she would be in Heaven, but she didn’t know how. Several of the kids shared with her that the Bible says Heaven is a free gift.
They explained that you don’t have to do anything to merit eternal life. It is simply an issue of belief. You have to admit that you are a sinner and accept that Jesus paid the punishment for your sin. Once you do that, God accepts your debt of sin as paid. The sister said she would do that, and with the kids there, she prayed, asking God for eternal life for herself. While the life these children have led is difficult, what greater blessing than to know for certain you will be in Heaven.