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Friday, December 31, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - The Water Park

It's been quite some time since I've shared any personal stories on this forum.  Granted, there have been small anecdotes, narratives of ministry, and assorted other yarns here.  But for quite some time there has been a veritable drought of sorts on the exciting chronicles of life.  Mainly that has been because our lives have been, relatively speaking, quite boring.  It has mainly consisted of getting out of bed, going to work for Louis, taking care of children for Amber, spending some family time together in the evenings, then putting the kids to bed, finishing up random office chores such as sermon preparation or RHI business, then going to bed ourselves.  In an effort to please the tens and tens of people who read this here journal, and in the spirit of sharing a bit of the goings-on in our life, I will now attempt to make a short story long.

In August, just before the arrival of our first team, we took our car to be cleaned.  For various reasons and in many ways we tend to stick out from the crowd.  This time it was our strange accent that gave us away.  "A strange accent from the Midwest?" you ask yourself.  "But I thought no one from the Midwest other than those from Minnesota or Wisconsin had strange accents?"  And you would be correct in these thoughts.  But when one lives in South Africa, as we do, and when South Africans speak English as they do, which they do, then we who have excellent pronunciation and good diction (except for my lisp which my Aunt Theresa was first to point out but which my grandma says is there!) sound strange.  Did you catch that?  In other words, people can tell we aren't from around here.  Such was the case on this particular bygone day now in question.

As we paid for our car cleaning the lady in charge asked why we were here.  Normally people are completely astounded, as Welkom is a major destination for no one.  The travel books have this to say about Welkom: "Welkom is known for it's light traffic, due to the many traffic circles instead of the more traditional intersections.  Also, 90% of all birds native to southern Africa can be found in this area.  Other than that, there is no reason to go to Welkom."  Many people include various expletives when asking why we have come to this area.  It is only compounded when they learn we are actually Americans, since almost everyone's dream is leaving this town to live in America some day.

Once we told her we were in town to build and run a children's home, she warmed right up to us.  Her name is Suzanne and both her husband and brother are in sales at various local building materials suppliers.  She gave us their contact information and told us to tell them they better give us a good deal "or else".  Well, turns out Suzanne and her husband Ignus are new Christians, are about our age - at least about my age.  Amber is in another generation altogether, but we try to include her as much as possible.  Amber's only real difficulty is understanding all this newfangled slang, so we have to be careful.  She also can't believe how these computers really make her adding machine seem "a bit out of date."  But she's a trooper and tries her best to fit in.  All this to say we've been able to make some new friends, and it works well for them too, because they lost almost all their old friends when they gave up their old lifestyle.  They also have three children that are close to our children's ages.  Shaznelle is 7 and she and Meredith get along famously.  Schalk (pronounced Sk-all-k) is 5 - Meredith calls him Skunk and the two girls spend most of their time avoiding him.  Leanae is about 6 months.

Well, Ignus and Suzanne knew of this water park on a farm about 1.5 hours from here.  Since we also enjoy water parks, we agreed to make a day of it.  The only caveat is that apparently the place is quite popular, so much so that one must arrive at least 30 minutes before they open to get in line so you can be one of the first into the park and stake out one of the prime plots under a tree, near a picnic table, and within sight of the kiddie pool.  Parents understand the value in this.  If you're not a parent, maybe one day you'll understand.  Ignus was adamant that we arrive early in order to claim the best location in the entire park.  Since opening was at 7:00am, this meant that we had to leave Welkom at 4:45am, an admittedly ridiculous and outlandish hour.  But we grudgingly agreed to do so.

One advantage to living in the Southern Hemisphere is that our days are at their longest right now.  By rights South Africa should be split into two separate time zones about two-thirds of the way through the country.  But in an effort to keep things simple, some wise person, at some point in years past determined to just overlook this time zone thingy and make the country one big zone...which is nice.  Either this same wise person or another wise person decided that this country would also not participate in the greatest of US traditions known as Daylight Savings.  This means that in December-February our daylight starts roughly at 4:45am as well, giving us ample light in which to make our pilgrimage to this water park.

Well, things went swimmingly for the first hour of our trip.  Then, as we neared the juncture where we would turn from the main road to head toward the water park, near disaster struck.  It was early, my clock was a bit off from awakening and becoming active at such an hour.  My body apparently decided it was time for my bowels to wake up as well.  Only problem was I didn't know this until it was almost too late.  There was very little warning, and I mean very little.  There was a brief period of desperation as I internally discussed whether to pull over or whether I had enough intestinal fortitude to make the next town.  Ignus and Suzanne had told us that we would stop in a small town for ice and the signs showed that town was close, so I decided to make a run for it (pun intended).  Of course, it was at that time when we came right up behind a car that was out for a very early and very, very leisurely morning drive.  My forehead broke out in a sweat as...well, you get the idea.  And then I come to find out that someone had played a cruel trick, as the aforementioned sign that showed we were drawing near to our planned stop was misplaced.  It said Orkney  -  20km.  At least 5 km later we passed a second sign.  It said Orkney  -  19km.  I'm not sure how that happened, but it wreaked havoc on my already fragile psyche.

Amber must have noticed the beleaguered look on my face, the distress radiating from my body.  She graciously asked me what the problem was, why I was so distraught over the slow driver, and why these two misleading road signs were such a big deal.  I had to explain my problem - and do it in a most dignified manner.  So I resorted to proper medical terminology, you know, diagnosing my condition with that word that starts with "D" and ends with "rhea".  Now, apparently Drake has entered that stage wherein he hears everything said, then repeats it to himself over and over again.  He also is in this cute stage where he likes to sing to himself.  So he spends the next 10 minutes singing "Diarrhea, diarrhea, diarrhea."  In case you were wondering, this didn't help at all.

Well, finally I can see the town in the distance, even passing a sign that had a food, gas, and toilet icon - oh, the blessed toilet icon.  I thought since we were planning to stop anyway I could disguise myself by using one of my precious children as a diversion.  You know that children always need to use the facilities on a road trip of any length.  That way I would be saved the embarrassment of explaining to our new friends why I was so desperate to stop.  Alas, this plan was all for naught.  I couldn't take Meredith with me, and there was no way I could keep an eye on Drake whilst also...  So I had to throw the car into park, make a dignified sprint to the restroom and find out it was a one-holer and that one hole was occupied.  At this point there was no dignity left (and must not have been much to begin with if I'm posting this story).  I needed to make sure whomever was occupying that stall was aware that there was a growing queue for use of same.  So I proceeded to knock both politely and urgently, so as to convey that I was a nice enough guy but please hurry.  And it must have worked, because presently the stall was vacated, but not for long.

But now this unforeseen delay had set us back maybe 5-10 minutes, and Ignus was clearly feeling pressed about our prime real estate awaiting at the water park.  We quickly loaded back up and hit the road.  Drake continued to serenade us with his new song for another 10 minutes, only this time it was more funny and less distressing.  Soon we turned off onto a back road that would take us over the bridge, through the woods, and to our destination.  After about 5 miles on this back road we come around the bend and see that we wouldn't be going over the bridge or through the woods, at least not that day.  We've had quite a bit of rain, and the river was waaayyy over it's banks and flowing swiftly over the bridge.  So Suzanne quickly gets on the phone with the water park, asking if there is an alternative route.  There is, but it is back about 40 miles, with about 25 miles being gravel roads.

Just before we are about to turn around and head that way, another carload with a family clearly prepared for a day of aquatic excitement rounds the bend.  On seeing the road unpassable they share a quick Afrikaans conversation with Ignus and Suzanne, in which our party learns that this new family knows a back way, shortcutting our trip and possibly allowing us to arrive in time to preserve this coveted picnic spot.  Although it's possible that this family could be part of the plot to delay us and prevent our attempts to claim this small tract of land as our own.  Being the intrepid adventurers that we are, we decided to follow this new family to wherever the road might lead.

We quickly learned not to be so loose with our usage of the term "road".  This shortcut, while "short", didn't exactly "cut".  It was simply a dirt path through fields, mine property, underbrush, and veldt.  Only this "dirt path" was also suffering the same affliction that plagued the river, and had nearly plagued me - it was more wet than it was supposed to be.  The dirt had become mud and the ruts had become small ponds.  But we quickly became thankful for all the ruts, because the water congregated there and left small patches of land high and dry. If we had been on our own we would have turned back.  As it was, there were three cars, and three strapping young men driving said cars.  I was confident that if we got stuck we could probably work our way out somehow.  That is, if we weren't stuck in one of the several puddles that also had downed power lines lying in them - in that case it would have been every man for himself.

As we navigated this treacherous pathway we had to be careful to watch the road ahead as well as the road directly in front of us.  Because we passed 3 vehicles coming the other way, but it was only a one lane dirt path.  For most of the way it was closed in tightly on both sides with various indigenous African underbrush.  So you had to look for a spot in the road where there was enough gap in the growth to allow one or the other to pull off, making way for the two to pass.

Finally, after much difficulty, we reached the water park.  It had 1 big tube slide, 2 small waterslides, a wave pool, three small pools of various sizes and depths, and a warm pool - why it was warm don't ask me, just know that it seemed to be popular with all the children.  In addition to the pools there were several exotic swings, merry-go-rounds, and other miscellaneous play equipment.  There were several chalets, a campground, and many trees with picnic tables and grills nearby.  In fact, in my opinion, there were several attractive locations.  But fortunately, our extremely early departure, combined with a washed out bridge and the accompanying brave venture through the mud overcame the slight delay I had caused to allow us to arrive before the crowds and claim the prized setting.And we spent the rest of the day swimming, playing games, watching the children and did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals and fruit bats and large chu... Amber pulls the plug on this narrative

Monday, December 27, 2010

Lerato & Monica

We've had the girls a week now and one thing we know for don't have to speak the same language to recognize personality.  And these two have it in spades.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - Church Meetings

At the beginning of December we began a new ministry - we began church meetings in the Sunrise section of Thabong.  Sunrise is the home of DJ, Sam, JT, Bridge, and is near several other people who have been part of our ministry in the past.  It is on the far side of Thabong, the newer section.  Newer in the US usually means nicer; this is not so here in a township.  Newer here typically means mostly tin shacks with brick houses being added as the government housing projects catch up to the sprawl.

Sunrise itself has been around for awhile, and as far as residential areas in the township, it is relatively safe and calm - key word being "relatively".  There are frequent fights, stabbings, break-ins, and drunken brawls.  The gangs of Sunrise often fight with other gangs, specifically the guys from Straighteen.  But the people of Sunrise generally band together as opposed to other sections of the townships where it's every man for himself.  I get most of this information from talking to the guys and other people we know around here.

Within Sunrise is a school named Nanabolela.  According to Bridge this is the 2nd worst ranked school in Thabong per the last published matric results.  We're talking about probably 15+ schools, so it's a bit of a distinction to be ranked so low.  In addition to this, we've heard the school itself has a reputation of both gang-related and demonic activity.  Bridge and I met with the principal of this school and he agreed to allow us to use the rooms on Sundays for meetings and outreach activities.

There are several logistical challenges.  Most of the rooms are relatively small, probably accommodating 75 people if we really packed them in.  Due to vandalism all the rooms have been stripped of any electrical wiring.  Every room is covered in graffiti.  When we arrive each week the room we use has somehow gathered a whole new coating of dust and piles of rubbish.  The school does have chairs, but it is another weekly task to collect them and sort them, as several are broken and most have been scattered over the school property.  But the fact that we have a place to meet each week is a blessing.

The first week we had 25 people.  Of those 25, 7 of them were young boys from the neighborhood whom we had never met before.  Actually that isn't true.  We met them about 15 minutes before the service, as they had come over to the school property just to engage in some sort of hooliganism.  DJ went over and told them they needed to leave the property or join us in church.  Of course, they left immediately.  But to our surprise they went home, cleaned up and returned to the school with a couple more friends for church.

Two of those boys have been at the other two services we've held, and each week they're back with a couple different friends that they've invited to join them.  The second week we were at 27, and then our third week we ran up to 33.  We haven't yet had a concerted effort to promote the church within the surrounding neighborhoods, and God is already given us a good start.  Most of the people coming are former contacts of ours or family of DJ's.

Without electricity we've been using a battery powered keyboard for music.  It's during a ministry like this that I understand how blessed I am to have a wife who is willing and able to improvise in many areas, especially musically.  We have slowly introduced songs, having a repertoire of 9 songs after 3 weeks.  Hopefully soon we'll have figured out an alternative to the electrical problem and be able to have some more versatility with music, such as projecting the words so everyone can see them.  We've only grown a small bit and already we've realized the expense and logistics of printed song sheets is not a long-term answer.

I am the preacher and we have started studying through the book of John.  The first week the theme was "Introducing Jesus".  Week 2 brought the life of John the Baptizer and a theme of "Promoting Jesus".  The third week was Jesus' first miracle and a theme of "Proving Jesus".  This Sunday will be Jesus' reaction to the idolatry and commercialization of the temple, bringing a theme of "Worshipping Jesus".  From there we'll see what happens.  John 3 is coming up and I'm excited about working through that.  Right now we view the church ministry as our tent-making outreach.  Our day job is building an orphanage, and in our free time we do all the work to prepare for Sunday.

One thing that's nice is that each week I've had a few hours with mind-numbing, brainless jobs.  During that time I'm able to chew over the passage that I'll be teaching and get in some good meditation.  The problem is that when I come up with something I want to remember, I have to write it down.  So Brian's house now has sermon notes under the tiles, on the plaster outside, and on scraps of wood laying around the house.  God has been good to allow me to multi-task during the week.

This does bring up a great need here.  There are too many opportunities for just the Niehoffs and O'Tools.  We need help.  Right now there are a few teams and several short-term people scheduled for 2011.  But there are still some open dates if you are interested.  And rest assured, no matter your ability (or lack of it), we'll be able to find something to put you to work.  Don't ever doubt that God's working to build His kingdom.  You can be a part of it, just by investing a bit of time and money.  What could be better than making an eternal deposit with temporary blessings?

And if there is anyone out there who is seriously considering long-term ministry, contact us.  We would love to share with you the opportunities around here.

Pray for us and the Niehoffs as we work with this church outreach, and for the guys as they help us.

Oh, and one more story:  I mentioned that the walls are covered in graffiti.  I don't exactly have a Ph.D. in Informal Arts, but I've seen enough exhibits on bridges and boxcars to know that most isn't appropriate (although as an interesting side note, you can always tell the difference between big-city artwork and the redneck Iowa craft).  Well, before our first service I didn't take the time to properly tour the gallery in our chosen room.  After the service I noticed I had preached the entire service standing in front of a sharpie depiction of a scantily clad female.  Fortunately, it was relatively small and amongst all the other exhibits proclaiming who had been there, which disk jockey is the greatest, or who is enjoying the company of whom there was enough clutter that this one didn't particularly stand out.  The next week I made sure to strategically place my portable white board over that section of the gallery.

The third week it wasn't a problem, because the room we had been using and had cleaned up was now blocked with a freshly welded set of bars.  The bars were there because the room was now filled with fencing materials.  The school needs new fencing because some drunk person had been showing off on the road, tried to peel out, lost control and blew through the gate, destroying both the gate and several sections of the existing fencing.  So we had to find a new room to clean and straighten.  TIA:  This is Africa and you never know what will happen next.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - OUR FIRST CHILDREN AT THE VILLAGE!!!

Lerato, age 10, and Monica, age 6 are cousins and both girls' mothers passed away this year.  For the last few months they have been staying with an uncle in a situation that has been less than ideal.  There are 6 other men living in the house with 
no women, although to this point it seems that nothing terrible has happened.  He has been trying to keep them only for the small grant he receives each month for foster care.

At The Village our first house is nearing completion.   Many man-hours have been invested and we are almost ready. Since things aren't fully completed the two girls will be staying with the our family until the house is finished.  In the meantime we continue to make arrangements for their full-time care.  Dunamis Christian School is holding a place for them, and we have several leads for housemothers.  Lois and Amber have sorted clothes, found backpacks and school supplies, and prepared Christmas gifts for the girls.

Soon Lerato and Monica will be experiencing the same outpouring of love we have experienced over the past year during the establishment of Restoring Hope Village.  It is through your faithful prayers and support that this day is possible.  These two girls, along with many others will soon be shown of the love that God has given us.  We are privileged to be the hands and feet of Christ, and your representatives to those who so desperately need Him.

Your partnership in ministry is essential.  Many of you have already joined us in the work.  Here are some ways you can continue to partner with Restoring Hope:

   Continue to pray for the ministry here.  Pray for the children, our church outreach ministry, and ongoing work at The Village.

   Consider a 2010 year end donation.  As 2010 draws to a close, consider a financial gift to help us finish our goal of $8,000 to ensure we are prepared to care for the children God brings us. We are over halfway there, and hope to reach our goal by the end of the year.  You can give on-line at or mail your gift to the address below.

   Sponsor a Child.  We have had several people already sign up for sponsoring a child.  To learn more about our sponsorship, contact us at  

   Join a team.  We have several teams and visitors already scheduled for 2011.  If you are interested, please contact us at

Join us in thanksgiving for God's wonderful provision and blessing throughout this past year.

Restoring Hope International
PO Box 372, Ankeny, Iowa 50021 · 515.963.6794

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - A New Chapter for Okuhle

Okuhle is a young girl we've come to know during our ministry here in South Africa.  In the past we've shared her history and stories about her.  You can read those here:
Okuhle's history
Okuhle's growth

Last week we went to Dunamis Christian School, the school we have partnered with in the past and with whom we plan to work as we receive children at Restoring Hope Village.  We went there to see the end-of-term awards ceremony.  While there we realized Okuhle wasn't and we asked about her.  We learned that in October she went to live with her step-father and his wife in Hani Park.  This man is the father of her youngest sister and Okuhle has known him for a large portion of her life.  He was not present with the family when her mother died, but has since returned to the area.  At the time he wasn't in a position to care for her for various reasons.  Okuhle has always had a strong bond with him and in the past we've taken her to visit him.  Most of the time it was because she wanted to go and share the gospel with him.

In the past year he was married.  Currently he is employed in one of the few mines still in operation here.  The reason they live in Hani Park is because he is originally from Swaziland, therefore not able to get SA citizenship and unable to get a proper house in Thabong.  You'll remember Hani Park is a squatter camp made up almost entirely of tin shacks.  However, in the past year there has been much development and most of the dwellings now have access to electric services.  Some brick houses have even begun to be constructed and a couple streets have been paved.  In fact, Okuhle's father has laid out a foundation for a house on their little tract of land.  Of course, that could be years or possibly never for something to come of that.

After learning of her new living situation we wanted to follow up with her and make sure everything was fine.  We were able to track her down and sit down with her for a long talk.  During that talk it was evident that she really enjoyed living with her "parents".  She has a good relationship with both - she herself told us that sometimes she is afraid she is too good of friends with her stepmother so that she wouldn't be as strict as Okuhle knows she should be.  We found out that her parents have given house rules that she has to follow and chores to do.  It appears they are taking a real interest in her life.

Ironically, since October she has been attending school at Nanabolela, about a mile away from her house.  This is the same school in DJ and Brilliant's neighborhood where we have started meeting for church!  That could really help us open some doors for ministry into that school.  We asked if she would like to attend church with us and help Amber teach Sunday School.  She really wanted to but knew that she would have to ask permission from her father (another great sign that they care for her).  He granted his permission and last week she was a tremendous asset at our very first service.  She knew the songs and help us carry the tune and she actually taught the children their Bible lesson.

We let her know that if she ever needed anything to give us a call.  Last Saturday I got a text to call her (cell phones are prepaid and most people never have credit on them - they can send a free message asking for a callback).  I called and she said she didn't feel safe.  Both her parents were at a funeral and 4 girls from the neighborhood were giving her a hard time.  Normally we wouldn't just come running for something that seemed so minor to us, but given the circumstances and the realities of township life, we thought it best to check on things.

We learned that a neighbor boy is "dating" one of those girls but now apparently has eyes for Okuhle.  This of course made the original girlfriend jealous so she and her friends started tormenting Okuhle - really, nothing too big.  It was a blessing though, because it gave us a chance to reinforce some of the teachings we had tried to instill in her before.  First, stay away from boys because they are only looking for one thing.  This was actually the second boy who had shown interest in her.  The first received a visit from Okuhle's father which squashed things (another positive sign that her new parents are truly caring for her).  The second thing we were able to talk about is biblical conflict resolution.  Both Amber & I were thrilled with her response.  She already knew some of the verses we talked about, and it is clear she is still studying her Bible.  The next week while I was working at The Village I received another call from her that those girls were back, but she said she was praying blessings on them and they left her alone after a bit.  She was very excited to tell us that it had worked!

Okuhle has long craved a family relationship.  To see now that she has what looks like one is such a blessing.  Many of you know that she has a younger brother and sister.  The brother has been with relatives in another province since her mother died - a long story.  The young sister was very sick and still requires significant medical care with a strict regimen of ARV's (HIV medication).  So for now it appears Okuhle will be the only one to live with her new "parents", but she still cares for her siblings and checks up on her young sister.

It is exciting for us to see that Okuhle still has a passion for Jesus, still reads her Bible and takes notes in church, and is witnessing to the friend that she has made since her return to Hani Park.  Please continue to pray for safety, protection, and spiritual growth for this young woman.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - Hospice Holiday Party

Lois and Amber have been going to Hospice in Thabong once a week for several months now.  At the center, they have children whose care giver is in Hospice care come in two times each week.   They go every Tuesday and play games, tell a Bible story, sing songs, and do a craft.  It has been great getting to know these children.  Since they are from the township, most of them have very limited English, so the teachers have to help out with translation, but in any language, love goes a long way.  There are usually 8-9 children, ages 4 & 5.  

The end of November was the last Tuesday to be there until after the New Year.  South Africa is on a calendar school year so a few of these children will not return next year and will head to school.  On that day we had a Christmas party for the children.  It was so much fun to watch them enjoy it.

We told them the Christmas story, did a craft, opened presents, and provided them with a lunch of hotdogs and chips.  Brian's parents are here right now and his mom also made beautiful cupcakes to celebrate Jesus's birthday.

After opening gifts, each child would stand up and say "Thank you very much, keep it up, shine."  There is one little boy that doesn't talk and the teachers aren't even sure if it is possible for him to.  After he had opened up his gift, he stood up and said the little thank you speech.  Both Lois and Amber looked at each other.  Apparently his gift ment enough to him for him to speak.

We don't know how God will use this once a week outreach, but we just want to be faithful to sharing the Gospel with those who might not ever hear it.  It's possible that since these children are here because their guardian is in hospice care, they may end up being some of our first children at Restoring Hope Village.