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Friday, April 24, 2009

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - Helping out the Number Seven kids

The day after our bout with the stomach flu was our Grocery Day here at The Pines. Since we were still feeling some minor aftershocks we were hoping to catch some time off. With that in mind, we completed the shopping first thing in the morning and by 10:00 I thought there might be time for a nap.

Just as we were stashing away the foodstuffs we were told there was someone here to see us. We went outside and found a young girl named Susan. Susan is about 14 years old and lives in the informal settlement about a mile up the road from us. An informal settlement is, in effect, a squatter camp. There is no electricity, plumbing, or running water. It is just a collection of shacks that have been thrown together by these people who are looking for a place to live. It is a very transient community, as most of the inhabitants are immigrants from Lesotho and frequently the return there, move in with other family in the area, or find better housing somewhere else. The settlement is referred to as Number Seven, since it is located in the vicinity of the #7 mine shaft.

The children of #7 attend school at the same school The Pines kids initially attended. Since Brian & Lois moved here in May of 2006 we have been in contact with these children, and although it has lessened somewhat, we still attempt to help them when possible. Susan had come looking for us because the tin shack that was her home had burned down the night before. Susan lives with her aunt, Alice, and two younger cousins. When she arrived she said that Alice had been taken to the hospital with burns and that they had lost everything except the clothes on their backs.

Another new co-worker of ours - Phil Carmichael - and I got in The Pines van and drove back with Susan to inspect the damage and see how we could help. When we arrived at #7 we found her 8 year old cousin was only wearing a flimsy, worn-out dress that was a few sizes too small. Cold weather had just arrived in the Free State the previous day and temperatures were in the 50's with a strong wind making it feel cooler than that. Susan herself wasn't dressed much warmer.

We quickly went to the shack site and it was immediately obvious that everything had burned. We found remnants of clothing, cooking utensils, and a box spring amongst the smoldering rubble, but that was about it. Susan said the fire had started while they were cooking, and in the pile we found a pan half full of rice with the remaining rice scattered and burned on the ground. The pan itself and a metal teapot were half melted. The climate in Welkom is very dry, similar to the panhandle of Texas. The frames of these shacks are ancient wood scavenged off old mine buildings. The tin is tacked onto these using the old nails that have been saved and straightened. Often rooms are sectioned off using old blankets or sheets. When these structures catch fire they tend to burn very quickly and with intense heat, and the fact that the insulation in these homes consists of wadded up newspaper only exacerbates the problem.

Susan said Alice had been burned trying to save some of the items from the shack, but her English isn't terribly strong and we were pretty sure some of our communication wasn't completely accurate. We offered to allow Susan and the girls to stay at The Pines but they refused. They have another aunt that also lives at #7 and elected to live with her. We spoke with this aunt and she agreed that it would be ok. Seeing that the girls had no clothes or food we determined that The Pines could help in that way, at least until Alice was back and we could sort everything out.

The 3 girls got back in the van for the return trip to The Pines and the aunt came along to help. Once we arrived at The Pines Lois began searching the clothing storage for items that would fit the girls. I found Mama Irene and she agreed to help the girls bathe and warm up. I then began to put together a food parcel for the family. When we moved here we were able to obtain some old comforters from a hotel that was remodeling and since then they've been put to good use. They were used to wrap fragile items during shipment, some of them have been given as gifts to various individuals, and now we were able to use some of them to help keep these kids warm.

After a couple hours everything was ready and the girls were outfitted with new clothes, shoes, toothbrushes & soap, blankets, jackets, and food & sweets. Each girl also got a new stuffed animal. While they had just endured such a difficult trial it seemed from their faces that it was their Christmas morning. I'm sure that they've never been given so much in their lives, and these are things that we Americans have discarded in some way or another. Our ministry here isn't simply to relieve physical needs and suffering; that would quickly become overwhelming. The goal of our work is to reach souls with the love of Jesus Christ, and the message that "God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but will have everlasting life". We give, not because it is heartbreaking to see such tremendous need, but because God has given so much to us. He asks us to share His love with a lost and dying world. It brings to life the truth of James 2:15-16. My question to you is, have you ever truly seen that God gave His Son to pay for your sins? Have you asked forgiveness for your sins and are you trusting only in the grace of God to take you to Heaven?

If not, why?

If yes, what are you doing about it?

Later that day we saw Alice and found that she hadn't been burned, or at least not in any serious way. She had been taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure, and because she had shown some symptoms of shock. She said that the fire had been started by a man at #7 who for some reason held a grudge against her or the family. He had disappeared after the fire, so it's safe to assume she's probably right.

As an interesting post script, I have a story about some kids who are doing something about their faith. The children of some family friends of the O'Tools back in Iowa had collected money to send to the work here. The total came to $20. We received it in our account at the end of last week. Susan and the next oldest girl attend school but their uniforms were lost in the fire. The $20 that this family sent is being used to purchase new uniforms for the two girls. Something that may seem so minor to many has become something so big to this family. We are thankful to the many back home who give so generously, and often sacrificially, to allow our ministry here at The Pines to exist and continue. You efforts are appreciated now and will be for eternity.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - African Revenge

Recently we experienced one of those "Oh, yeah. I forgot we live in Africa." moments. Since we've moved to South Africa, we've been asked several times by the locals if we intend to visit Africa while we are here. At first this made no sense to us, since it seemed rather obvious that by our presence here we clearly were intending to visit Africa. It was eventually revealed to us that since South Africa offers the possibility of so many modern conveniences many do not actually consider it a part of "Africa". I say "offers the possibility" because South Africa is truly a land of many dichotomies - within the same square mile you'll see modern office buildings with high-speed Internet, cell phones, and BMW's right alongside tin shacks without plumbing or electricity.

Amber & I had taken a Saturday afternoon trip to the hospital to visit one of the church members who had fallen down some stairs and shattered her leg above the ankle. On returning to The Pines, we noticed that all indications pointed to the fact that we had lost electricity. This is not an uncommon occurrence. The most telling evidence that we've begun adjusting to life here was our first reaction; she noticed that the sprinklers were still running and said "at least we still have water".

Usually when we lose either power or water it comes back within 12 hours. This time there was no such luck. We went from Saturday to Monday without electricity. Shockingly, it isn't really that big a deal. Brian was able to hook up a generator to keep the refrigerators going in the kid's flats, and there was enough power to run a light bulb in each flat as well. In our house, we transferred some of our food to the kid's freezer and lit things up with those old-fashioned Hurricane lamps.

I remember when I was a child the Des Moines area had a severe ice/snow storm in November. The power was knocked out for a couple days. Exactly nine months later there was an article in the Des Moines Register about the maternity wards at Methodist, Mercy, and Lutheran. Apparently there was such an influx of new deliveries 9 months after that blizzard that they were forced to call in reinforcement doctors and nurses from Omaha. I can assure you that won't be the case here. The Niehoffs are already expecting in August (a girl) and the O'Tools won't be expecting as a result of this power outage for a variety of reasons - not the least of which is mentioned in the title of this article.

About last night 2:00am Amber had the irresistible urge to make a visit to the loo. This I was blissfully unaware of. Unfortunately, by 5:00am it had struck Meredith and she was revisited by last night's supper herself, only from the other end. Amber decided to make a quick trip to town (remember, our power was out this whole time) to take advantage of the warm water at the local exercise place. While she was gone Drake woke up and I received a wonderful surprise when I lifted him out of bed. His diaper had leaked and he was covered from chin to knees. I quickly put water on to heat on the gas stove, then stripped him down and put him in the tub. Simultaneously Meredith had another episode on the bedroom floor and my hand learned that African paper towel isn't as high of quality as in the US. About that time Amber got back all refreshed. It was also about that time it hit me.

One side note, none of us ate the same food last night for supper, so we're certain it isn't food poisoning. All indications it is one of those 24 hour afflictions you hear tell of. We're all hoping so. African Revenge is a dish best served not at all.

Friday, April 17, 2009


The following was read on the local Christian radio station. These are thoughts that we should take to heart.

Isn't it funny how a $10.00 bill looks so big when you take it to church and so small when you take it to the Mall?

Isn't it funny how big an hour serving God looks and how small when spent watching television, playing sports, sleeping or taking a lunch break?

Isn't it funny how long a couple of hours are spent at church but how short they are when watching a good movie?

Isnt' it funny how thrilled we get when a football game goes into overtime, but we complain when a sermon is longer than the regular time?

isn't it funny how laborious it is to read a chapter in the Bible and how easy it is to read a 200-300 page best-selling novel?

isn't it funny how we believe what newspapers say but question what the Bible says?

Isn't it funny how people scramble to get a front seat at a concert, but scramble to get a back seat at church?

Isn't it funny how we can't fit a special service into our schedule even with a yearly planner, but we can schedule for other events at a moments notice?

Isn't it funny how we look forward to that big date on Friday night, but complain about getting up for church on Sunday morning?

Isn't it funny how we are rarely late for work, but always late for church?

Isn't it funny how we call God our Father and Jesus our brother, but find it hard to introduce them to our family?

Isn't it funny how small our sins seem, but how big their sins are?

Isn't it funny how we demand justice for other people, but expect God to give us mercy?

Isn't it funny how much difficulty we have learning the gospel well enough to tell others, but how simple it is to understand and explain the latest gossip about someone else?

Isn't it funny how we can't think of anything to say when we pray, but don't have any difficulty thinking of things to talk about to a friend ?

Isn't is funny how we are so quick to take directions from a total stranger when we're lost, but are hesitant to take God's direction for our lives?

Isn't it funny how so many church goers sing "Standing On The Promises" but all they do is sit on the premises?

Isn't it funny how we sing about heaven, but live only for today?

Isn't it funny how people want God to answer their prayers, but refuse to listen to His counsel?

Isn't funny how people think they're going to heaven but don't think there's a Hell?

Isn't it funny how it is okay to blame God for evil and suffering in the world, but it is not necessary to thank His for what is good and pleasant?

Isn't if funny how when something goes wrong, we cry,"Lord, why me? but when something goes right, we think, "Hey, it must be me! ?

Thursday, April 9, 2009


For those who were wondering, the post about cutting children's limbs open to count the rings... notice what day that was posted. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused. This is not an actual procedure. Children do actually go to the doctor who guesses the child's age and tells the court, who then makes the final determination. Knives, scalpels, or other cutting instruments are in no way involved in this process.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bursary Update

Last week I posted about our plans to travel to Pretoria to help one of the students we work with apply for a Bursary, or scholarship. We left Welkom Thursday about noon and arrived in Pretoria about 5:00pm. We had arranged to stay at a guesthouse, the South African version of a B&B. It turned out to be a very nice place and we enjoyed the stay. It was the first time JT & DJ had the chance to stay in a place like that and I think we all had a great time.

After arriving Meredith, Drake, the boys, and I took some time to swim in the pool. Then I spent a couple hours working with JT on his interview - practicing with sample questions, helping refine some of his responses, and hopefully giving some input that would help during the whole process. The boys had a room adjoining ours, and when Amber woke up at about 2:00am, she could still hear them talking and practicing what he would say during the interview.

The next morning the boys & I were up and ready to go at 6:15, and after a quick breakfast we left for the University of Pretoria. Fortunately, before coming to Africa we were advised to get a GPS. It has been invaluable during our trips to fetch teams at the airport and do other business in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Traffic was heavy on the way, but we were able to make good enough time to get the boys there before the 8:00 deadline. JT was the only one invited to apply, but his cousin DJ went along for moral support and to help keep us informed throughout the day.

After dropping them off and making sure JT had all the preliminary things completed, I went back to pick up Amber and the kids at the guesthouse. We then spent the day at a local mall, burning some time until JT completed his tests and interview.

The bursary required applicants to submit their class results. JT is ranked #9 in the entire Free State, so his scores looked quite good. Because of his results he made the first cut and was invited to participate in the day of interviews and tests. The scholarship is offered by a company named SASOL, and we learned there were several different categories of invitations - Accounting, Engineering, Human Resources, etc... JT had been invited as a Chemical Engineering applicant. All students were required to interview with two managers in the chosen field, as well as a HR rep. In addition, each had to take three tests - English, Math, and Learning Potential.

At about 2:00 we arrived at the university, since I had used up my tolerance for malls after the first 30 minutes. We ended up waiting for another couple hours as he finished up the English test. Meredith & I took this chance to check the oil, water, air filter, and other vital organs of our car. When he finally finished he refused to tell us about it until he completed a last bit of paperwork. This took about an hour and a half.

Finally, on the way home JT filled us all in on the day. He at first acted very disappointed, but his cousin could tell he was just pulling our leg. We eventually figured out he was joking as well, and the two of them shared a pretty good laugh at our expense. JT felt that the interview went very well. He says the Math test seemed pretty easy, as did the Learning Potential test. He wasn't able to finish the English test on time, but from talking to several other students we gathered that most of them didn't finish it either. A lot of them didn't seem to have time to finish any of the tests.

We did receive some conflicting information regarding the odds involved. One story is that they had been holding interviews all week and over 2,000 young people had been invited, with 85 scholarships available. Another story said that in the Chemical Engineering division, 235 people had been invited and 1 in 3 of those would receive scholarships. Eight years ago the daughter of one of the teachers at the boy's school received this bursary. She has since been able to study at the University of Cape Town, apparently a well-known university worldwide. She has also studied in Germany, London, and the US as part of her training. JT said this would be a full ride scholarship, providing tuition, accommodation, and food funding. I asked how often you have to apply and he said once you get it you keep it, as long as your scores stay high enough.

Within the next several weeks they are supposed to hear back as to the results. We are praying that this enables JT to change his future and the future of his family. Clearly, God is in control and nothing will happen outside of His working. We discussed with the boys that God's way isn't always our way, so we leave things in His hands. Pray with us that whatever happens God would be honored.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - Bursaries

Today Amber & I will be going to Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa. We are going along with Meredith & Drake, and two of the boys from Thabong that I hold Bible Study with. Jakuja (JT) is currently in grade 12 and studying for Metric. Metric is the final exams of all students in South Africa and if a student does not score highly enough they have to repeat grade 12. These tests also work the same as ACT's or SAT's in the US, and good scores are a requirement for university entrance. Needless to say, grade 12 is a stressful time.

JT and his friends have all committed themselves to their studies and are all rated at the top of their class. In fact, JT is rated #9 in the entire Free State. In South Africa they publish everyone's academic results so each student knows where they rank in regard to their peers. Personally, I think that's a great motivator and it has proved to be in the case of these boys. The 4 boys currently in grade 12 are some of the hardest workers I've ever met. They get up before 4:00am every day in order to arrive at school before the teachers. The principal has actually given them a key to the school, something unheard of in a culture so riddled by crime, theft, and vandalism. They want to stay ahead of the teachers so when they learn something in class it will actually be review. JT was unanimously voted Student Body President, a position very important and time consuming. Yet every afternoon after school lets out, he along with the other 3 boys, oversee an additional 2 hours of study time available to all the grade 12 students. During this time they make themselves available to help others with their studies. In addition, they arrive at the school at 6:00am on Saturday mornings and usually stay until 6:00pm, studying and helping other students with their studies.

Due to their family's financial situation these boys will not be able to attend university without outside help. Here in South Africa they refer to Scholarships as Bursaries. All the boys have been applying for these, but it is very competative with few bursaries available. It is also quite difficult for first year students to receive these bursaries. JT has been personally invited to attend testing and interviews for a Chemical Engineering bursary, but the interview is located in Pretoria - 4 hours from here. Unfortunately, they had no way of getting to Pretoria as they have no car and bus tickets would have been too expensive.

We initially considered purchasing a bus ticket, but he would have to be there at 8:00am Friday morning, so lodging would be a problem. In an effort to help, we decided to drive JT up to the application process at the University of Pretoria. We are also bringing his cousin DJ along to help with the logistics and to encourage him. We'll be staying in a guesthouse tonight with the boys (like a B&B or hostel) and then we'll get JT to the university with plenty of time to get comfortable. He will be taking a series of tests and participating in a personal interview with 3 members of management for the company offering the bursary.

We ask that you lift up JT and the other boys in prayer as he works to change his future and the future of his family. He would be the first in his family to attend University. Pray for us that we could be an encouragement and use this time to help bring these boys closer to Christ. Both JT & DJ have come to know Jesus as their Savior, and we all continue to study God's Word together so we can learn how to be more like Jesus. We know that God has plenty of money and can provide in any way He sees fit. We just hope that in the meantime our lives will be pleasing to Him.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - For everyone who loves Carnies

Most everyone has been to a carnival/amusement park/state or county fair. One staple of all those wonderful events is the Carnie that guesses age or weight. As our life in Africa progresses, I continue to be amazed at the things we learn. For instance, from time to time we get children at The Pines that don't have the necessary papers to identify them. Papers such as birth certificates, government ID's, proof of citizenship, etc... seem to disappear before we are given the children.

Just such an instance occurred recently. We have a boy, Tshidiso, that we have assumed to be about 5 years old, and he has been here since January 2008. He, along with his 2 brothers, are in the process of being transferred to Foster Care, which in South Africa means pretty much permanent placement. This is an exciting time for us, as we have really grown to love these boys. These three are the ones whose mother passed away in January.

Part of the process of transfer from Place of Safety to Foster Care status requires that specific ages and birth dates be assigned to children whose papers have been lost, or never existed to begin with. I was under the impression that one would just take said child to the local Carnie, who would then guess the age of the child, and that would be that. I think you will be as surprised as we were to learn the process is not quite so simple.

First, the child is taken to a physician in the area. We are lucky enough to have a doctor willing to see our children for free. At the doctors visit, the surgeon cuts either the child's leg or arm about halfway through, which allows them to see the growth rings in the muscle and bone tissue, basically just like a tree. They are then able to determine exactly how old the child is. It also lets them see which years in which the child was healthy and received good nutrition, and it shows the years that were difficult, again, just like trees where you can see which years were wet, dry, and various diseases or blights the tree experienced.

The doctors assure us that with the appropriate medication and technique, the child feels no pain. They are bandaged up and are not allowed to be too active for about 2 weeks afterward. Also, they are told not to swim for at least a month. Tshidiso was quite disappointed to learn this, since swimming season will be ended here by the time the doctor releases him to swim again.

After the operation, the doctor fills out a report and submits it to the local judge, who then makes the final decision as to the exact birthday that the child will be assigned. At this point new documents are provided to the child and the child's caregivers, which allow the child to receive government grants, obtain employment some day, and apply for additional documentation like passports, driver's licenses, etc... Although it seems like an inconvenience, I'm sure one day Tshidiso will be happy to have been through this procedure. Like I said, I never knew this was possible. If you are as surprised as I was to learn of this medical procedure, or if you already knew about it, send me an email. Our address is