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Monday, June 28, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - Keeping Ben Busy

The following letter is from Ben Stangl, my cousin who is here for the summer.  He summarizes the last few weeks very well, so I've gotten his permission to publish his letter to family and friends here on my blog...

Greetings from South Africa, Weeks 1-3

For those of you not familiar with the details of why I am here, this is a brief description of the work I am involved in. Restoring Hope International (RHI), is an organization focused on breaking the destructive cycle of AIDS in South Africa, specifically in the Welkom area. What is their approach? RHI field staff and qualified South African house mothers will raise abandoned and orphaned children in safe, family home environments. The necessities of clothing, food, and shelter are not the only things provided, but also moral training on godly living and which may result in an aids-free portion of the next generation of responsible South African citizens. I am here with Brian and Lois Niehoff and my cousin Louis and his wife, Amber O’Tool working on the construction of Restoring Hope Village where the children’s homes will be and the Niehoffs and O’Tools will be living.

I am now almost a third through the eleven week visit here, and as with most events in life, it goes without saying that the time has flown by! During my trip over, I tried to stay awake as much as possible in order to sleep the evening I arrived. That really did the trick against jet lag, and I dragged myself out of bed the very first morning to begin my contribution at RHI’s property. Since then I have been worked hard enough to continue to sleep well (which comes as no surprise to the family), but the second night I did wake up with a start. It seems it was lunch time back in the US according to my stomach!

As I mentioned, the work here as been labor intensive, fairly steady, and almost exclusively the construction of a fence/wall around the property. The fence consists of 220 lb slotted posts which sit a meter apart for six, 50 lb slabs to be stacked between. Everything is made with concrete, which is also how the posts are secured in the ground and slabs are secured in the post slots. This poses a significant daily workout for me after a year of sitting in classes! However, Amber’s good cooking has kept me at a steady 80 kg.

The construction of a fence around the property of even institutions in the US would not come as a surprise. But here, there is a bigger picture to be seen. Let me take a step back…

The city of Welkom at its peak production in the 80’s produced %15 of the world’s gold! The low income labor that flocked to Welkom for the jobs in the mines live in Thabong, a township outside of Welkom.  Since then, most of the mines have drastically reduced production or closed altogether and have left many unemployed South Africans (as opposed to the white population of Afrikaners).

Townships consist of low to no income housing with dirt roads and small brick houses or tin shacks. Sometimes a yard will have both, as the families, broken as they may be, live so close that the lines between, for example, brother and cousin are often blurred. The Welkom township residents are now left in a worse state of unemployment than other townships because the employment opportunity that attracted them there in the first place was not sustainable.

RHI has employed two young men, DJ and Brilliant, ages 23 and 19, respectively, who live in Thabong. Their wage is a customary 50 Rand per day, under $7. To give some perspective, chap stick runs about 5R and they must spend 12R for daily transportation. These guys were part of a Bible study Louie led during their senior year in high school last year. Now that college is on semester break, many of the other guys have been back and helped out various days. I had the opportunity to attend the one Bible study that they have had since Louie has returned, and their topics included sanctification and the difficulty we all have in ‘doing the good that we would’ instead of the ‘evil which we would not’ as Paul puts it in Romans 7:19. 

The conversations at work also reflect their growth as new believers. For example, what about tithing? Can you imagine trying to sustain yourself if %10 of your income could only buy chap stick? After transportation, a tithe, and keeping your lips moist, you’ve spent just under %50 of your income!

So, all this to say that the poverty that pervades South Africa can lead to the behavior that Agur anticipated in requesting that he be fed with food convenient for him “lest he be poor, and steal.” (Proverbs 30 :9)
Back to the fence…

The wall is just high enough that I can’t see over it, but of course, Louie can! This leaves no view of the facilities that will be maintained within to the casual passers-by. This is security measure number one. Number two is the metal, padlocked pedestrian gates and automatic car gates. Security measure number three includes bars on the windows and the doors that must be unlocked before you may even reach the final deadbolt. The final, yet most important security measure turns out to be man’s best friend, yet somehow the South African’s worst nightmare! Louie has a German Shepherd and Brian has two other dogs.

These security measures I have just described are what you expect to find- everywhere. Or shall I say everywhere but in the townships. When you live in poverty, you do not posses enough things worth stealing, and the little that you do, must be carried with you at all times. In town however, people may go so far as to have razor wire or electricity ran around the top of the walls, and the motorcycle dealer even releases snakes (some sort of constrictor) onto the show floor after hours!

For us, when we were constructing the fence, we could only get enough supplies delivered that we could install in one day. Concrete supplies are not valuable once they have been installed! However, copper is and other metal is. The land surrounding the property used to have street lights, until they were cut down and taken to salvage!

Now that the property is secured, it is ready for the arrival of the container and we can also feel more comfortable that our next construction project will not be tampered with.


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