Overcomers

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Everything about our entrance process is geared toward making students turn and run in terror.  I know that may not sound very inclusive or missional, but terror, dread and hyperventilation is the aim.  First, we give them a test that includes a great deal of deduction, reasoning skills, and frankly, information that they have never seen before.  Then, we ask for teacher recommendations from their current teachers.  Finally, we put our students through the most difficult part of all, an interview in English–their second language.  In the interview, we try our best to banish all ideas of fun and food by emphasizing the hard work, long hours, and intensity.  Some children quit the process on the spot.  Others, hear every word, lift their chins and say, “I will try!  I cannot promise I will succeed, but I will try.”  Even more rare are the students who look at us and say, “I have been waiting for something like this,” and then begin to interview us.

When I talk to people about how hard it is to get into my program, they typically criticize me, smirk, or begin a lecture on God’s love.  I have even had missionaries come to South Africa and get angry with me because of the structure and rules that make the boundaries of our program.  The underlying idea behind all of these comments is the same:  Nicole, this is too hard for these students.  Give them a break.  You don’t have to be this mean.  Most of the time, I don’t respond.  Why? The response is simple: I’m not being mean.  I am being kind.  Our program is by far the hardest academic training that these students will ever go through.  When we get them, they typically cannot  subtract properly or underline the main idea in a paragraph.  As a matter of fact, few even know what a main idea is.  They all have beautiful penmanship but cannot compose a sentence.  Coming to our program with its expectations, academic rigor, long hours, and reduced breaks will be overwhelming.  Generally, the first year of the program, students feel that they are going to drown.  It takes more than intelligence to overcome that feeling.  It takes a special blend of grit, intelligence and industry that few people have.  For a sixth grader to work hard enough to go from a third grade education to a sixth grade education in a year or two is not easy.  You have to be an overcomer, and that is what my students are.

Our students come to our program with little knowledge and end up going back to their primary school classrooms to teach both students and teachers the concepts that they are learning with us.  Our students are chosen to represent the district at science consortiums and are given positions of leadership once they arrive.  Our students debate other schools in their second language and win.  Our students face a drunken community, jealous friends, and abusive caretakers and are still determined to win.  They are praised for their hard work, promoted for their leadership, and admired for their endurance.  They simply will overcome.

Every year, we cut our students’ break times short.  We have so much work to cover that several extended breaks get in the way of progress.  So, we usually take a bit of break time for instruction.  One year right before our “working break,” I was dismayed to hear that one of our student’s mother died over the weekend.  I was devastated for her.  Her mother was her only caretaker and her death was sudden.  Two days later, with her aunts trailing, this student appeared at the Learning Center door.  I thought, “What is she doing here?”  I looked at her, asked her if she was okay, and hugged her. Then, she said, Ma’am, I am here to work.  Even I thought, “Work!  Your mother just died.”  But, I said, “Great!  We missed you yesterday, get started.” I, then, walked outside to speak privately with her aunts.  They claimed that she insisted on coming.  She said that she could not afford to miss any work and wanted to come.

In the face of such grief and devastation, this student chose to learn.  She later told me that she loved her mother, but her mother knew that being a part of this program was going to help her succeed in life.  She did not want to disappoint her.   Our students make choices like these every day.  Some prevail, others fail, but we know what it takes to be an overcomer.  Each of our students has something to overcome, we just help them know that they can.  We are building leaders, but more than that, we are raising overcomers!


Saving Dolphins

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The Dolphin Circle is a famous landmark in Plettenberg Bay.  Actually, it is a traffic circle that is punctuated in the center with a statue of two dolphins intertwined in a downward dive. Most pedestrians and motorists in this small town will pass or encircle the statue at least once a day, which makes it a popular and unforgettable fixture in our town. As I drove past that point on Saturday morning, I noticed that the landmark was marred. The sight of orange cones signaled caution for an impediment that was nonetheless unavoidable: a police truck had crashed into the dolphin circle. Poor dolphins!

As any rational person, I thought of how horrible an incident this was, and then quickly began wondering and reasoning what could have happened. Unfortunately, Plett history guided my first conclusion to assume a couple of police officers, following a familiar Friday night pattern, were driving the vehicle under the influence of alcohol.  After talking with some friends who had heard numerous stories, we all came to the same conclusion – the officers were drunk.

Sadly, a long history of police corruption and inebriation exists in this town and in the country. In fact, the accident immediately reminded me of another incident involving a fellow missionary and a local police officer. As she was driving one evening, the cop ran into the side of her car. He emerged from his vehicle in a state–slurring words and behaving aggressively.

Of course, these specific incidents are rare, but they highlight a disturbing fact about the local culture. Under the legacy of Apartheid, Blacks and Coloureds were permitted to pursue only a few professional careers: teaching, nursing, and policing. We still see evidence of this today in the young students who come into the Learning Center. During our interview process, we often ask the children what they would like to be when they grow up. Although we always get a few that say they want to be doctors, the overwhelming majority of girls want to be teachers, and the great abundance of boys want to be policemen. This is because the only “professionals” they see in their community are teachers and policemen. These are their role models. And what terrible role models some of  them are!

People in the U.S. have recently been horrified by the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown of Ferguson, MO, at the hands of law enforcement. Yet, in South Africa, it is commonplace for people not to trust the police. When a policeman shoots a suspect, there are no long investigations or public demonstrations. If convicted murderers here only serve a few years of their long mandated sentences, how much more do police officers get off the hook?  A prison guard recently told me that when inmates step out of line, the guards beat him down, many times to the point of hospitalization, in order to teach a lesson. He was actually a little proud of that fact; there are no repercussions. The police get away with that and much more.

The continent of Africa has long been known as quite possibly the most corrupt region on the planet. However, the children don’t see what goes on behind closed doors in the government, and they are not keenly aware of the economic effects suffered because of bribed politicians or greedy officials who pilfer aid money. What they do experience is the haphazard approach toward education by many of their teachers. They also see policemen in their communities commit the crimes they are supposed to stop, and they hear about the numerous stories of policemen robbing people or sexually assaulting women. And then there’s the traffic circle! What examples are these children supposed to follow?

This is why we are here fighting to not only teach these young people the right way to go, but also to be an example and show them the right way to go. This is the face of the modern missionary.  Churches all around; sometimes, the gospel is preached. What we try to do is live the gospel, and that is extremely rare. These children need to see men and women who walk in purity. They need to see men treat women with respect. They need to see people who don’t lie to or cheat other people. They need to see Christians who aren’t filled with the Holy Spirit on Sunday and filled with box wine and beer on Friday and Saturday. Do we need Americans to come to South Africa and become policemen who are role models? No! But we need people to be the salt and light in a place that is desperately searching for it. Whether you come here yourself to be that example, or support the people who do, we need you in the game. We have to do more to not only lead youth to follow the standards of Jesus, but to defeat a culture of sin and complacency in order to improve the lives of the people in this region. We must do it to protect the children and give them a legacy of hope, and in the process we may even save that precious landmark—the dolphins!


Precious*

March 11, 2006 283

She always stood out in a crowd.  I’m not sure if it is because she looked so white in the sea of black and colored children with her long brown hair, hazel eyes and splattering of freckles across her face.  It could have been the fact that this seven-year-old child just seemed somehow grimier than the rest of them, as if she could use a good scrub both inside and out.  Whatever the reason, Precious was always noticed by every volunteer, missionary and worker that came to visit our Friday afternoon program.  She had a mother–a known prostitute slowly dying of AIDS.  No one knew who her dad was.  No one cared.  For me, I chose to ignore her.  I rarely get involved with the children everyone sees; I look for the overlooked.

Then, one day, a one line note Precious wrote made its way to my desk after a session on physical boundaries and purity.  The note stated: “I have had sex. A lot.”  As soon as I read it, I went to find her. I immediately went into ‘Mama Bear’ mode.  “Precious, I got your note.  Do you want to talk about it?”  She looked around and claimed she had never written a note.  “Precious, didn’t you write this?” I said, showing her the short missive.  “Yes, but I was lying.”  With that she left the room, looked back at me, and muttered something in Afrikaans.

Several months later, I was headed into town and I saw her standing on the side of the road with her mother.  Her mother, well beyond her prostitution years, had begun to prostitute Precious to any man– truck driver, drunkard, or degenerate– willing to pay for her daughter’s favors.  As an American, I didn’t know what to do.  I couldn’t get Precious to admit to what was happening. I couldn’t call in the police.  All I could do was watch and wait.  Then, expectantly and suddenly, Precious’s mother died.

When I heard the news, I took a deep breath and thought the drama was finally over.  It wasn’t.  On the day of the funeral, a long forgotten uncle from a bigger city showed up, saw Precious, and decided that he could use her to increase his income.  He roughly told the family, “I’m taking her.”  I got the call to run to the village and stop him.  Without thinking and without Michael, I drove to the village and grabbed the child as the uncle was filling up at the gas station.  “Sorry, I don’t know you!  You aren’t taking this child anywhere.”  He gave me a smile and gave up the fight rather easily with the proclamation that she wasn’t worth the trouble.

Precious went home with me that night.  She only uttered two words to me, “thank you,” and she cried for the entire evening.  I tried to console her, but her grief was too heavy and too private for my well-intentioned intrusions.  That was the only evening she stayed with me.  The next morning a white South African family came to pick her up.  First, they were going to adopt her, but she was too much and too wild for them.   Then, an American couple wished  to adopt her, but she had too much baggage and too much pain for them to love.  Finally, a missionary couple took her in.  I thought they were perfect–not too young and not too old with older children of their own.  She would be their baby–prayed for, doted on and spoiled.

A few months later I saw Precious running freely through the township.  I asked her, “What are you doing here?  Why aren’t you at home?”  She looked me in my eyes like an adult would and said, “I can live with them on the weekdays, but on the weekends I must come live in the village.  They don’t care if I stay here.  I make the rules in that house!”  She knew that I did not like her leaving her new family to run the streets from which she came.  However, she was not my child, and I assumed they knew what they were doing.  Then, the rumors began to surface that Precious had seduced her new “father,” and he had been caught in a compromised position with her.  So, Precious held all the cards.  What happened?  How could an 11-year-old seduce a grown man?  I still don’t know.

After a while I lost track of Precious.  She ran the streets, drank, and partied with various men.  Then, I heard she had a baby–a boy.  Much like her mother, no one knew who the father was.  No one cared.  Later still, the people came to me and said, “We know that you love Precious, but you know she is sick!”  Sick, in Africa usually only means one thing.  Precious had AIDS.  I prayed for her.  I petitioned God for her, and I heard she recovered.  I thought God had performed a miracle.  I was wrong.

A month ago, I was at a 5:00 AM prayer service at our church, and for some reason I was moved to talk about and pray for Precious.  The next day, I received a phone call from Africa.  Precious was dead.  When I asked how, I was told the message said that she died from her own sin.  My heart broke.  Did Precious ever really have a chance?  Ravaged, in the end, by AIDS, Precious was doomed by her mother’s legacy and her own propensity to follow it.  How could I have stopped this cycle?  I don’t know.  I have lived here long enough to see children throw away their lives, and adults turn away from seeing their misery. Sometimes, we think that it is best for us to just mind our own business, but best for whom?  Is it best for the broken-hearted, or is it just easier for us?  I now know that I can no longer afford to turn my eyes away and hope that the problem will take care of itself.  It doesn’t. It won’t. We started this ministry to heal the broken-hearted and to offer hope to the desperate.  I find this  needed now more than ever, which is why Goshen must continue to be a beacon of light in the darkness.  All-in-all, I don’t know how I will save the next Precious, but I do know that I am going to try.

*Precious’s name and picture have been changed to protect her identity and family.