Friday, March 30, 2007

Helen Keller

We went to see The Miracle Worker last week. It was the major production at Providence College, and Kyle Burgess (semi sort of adopted son living with us: from Zimbabwe; attending Providence) played the part of Helen's half-brother.

(Kyle at Christmas)

Now Lois and I are watching the movie version on NPR with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Or I should say Lois is watching and quilting, and I'm listening and typing. Even this movie, so stirring and predictable (when I have the play fresh in my mind), is hard for me simply to sit and watch. The Final Four tomorrow evening is another matter!

One line out of the play: "Obedience is the gateway to learning": one line stands in sharp contrast to what we think today about raising children. Certain strands of that older way of thinking repel me: the idea that one must break the child's will in order to train the child is not one I endorse.

We have gone to the opposite extreme today. In Winnipeg there is a group of youth who steal cars for kicks, and recently have started trying to run down pedestrians and joggers as part of the game. As we try to work out how to respond to this situation, one realizes that many factors are at work: broken families; schools that no longer engage the children involved; the factors are almost predictable.

But the courts have added their own bit of lunacy to the picture by treating the epidemic as a case of children who just need a scolding. One of my colleagues referred to the practice in New York City of treating juvenile crime more seriously: working on the assumption that, if young offenders are punished severely at the beginning, they are less likely to enter a full life of crime.

I don't know the practice she is referring to, but one sees a kind of basic logic. Children learn early and quickly. If their first lessons in crime and law is that their actions receive a light sanction, they internalize that lesson and build on it. For Helen, breaking the cycle of tantrum-enforced misbehaviour was the first step into unlocking the world for the rest of her life.

I don't know what should be done in Winnipeg to reduce car thefts. Diagnoses are easier than constructive action. But the benefit of discipline is part of the answer -- for me individually, and for the U.S. and Canada as a whole.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Minnemingo

May 29, 1968: Dale and I had finished our final exams at Messiah. He was a senior, and I a freshman. We decided to celebrate the end of semester by going out on the Minnemingo (Yellow Breeches Creek, running through the campus) on a canoe. Dale might tell this story differently, and remember different details than I do. The event in itself is one; our memories partial and fragmented.

I remember going upstream for a short way; but the creek was high with Spring flooding and running fast. We turned around to go the other way, downstream. I don't know how we planned to return against the current. Maybe we meant to walk back, as indeed we did in the end.

We paddled with the current until we came to a bridge at the edge of the campus, where a branch across the river confronted us at water level. Normally one would have passed well underneath it, but the creek was high! I remember Dale yelling, "Lean left!" I called back, "What?" And we tipped right, into the water flowing swift and deep.

I do not swim. I took seven years of swimming lessons (1958 to 1965), growing up in Zimbabwe. I was told that I was the only one to leave my junior school (Hillside, in Bulawayo) as a non-swimmer. Not one of my proudest achievements.

The water was deep, probably five to six feet in general. Dale was in the back of the canoe: he grabbed the branch that tipped us and pulled himself out. I was in the front of the canoe, and grabbed the canoe. It took several times pulling on the canoe (tipping and re-tipping it) before I managed to support myself with it and float on down the stream.

I remember little of that experience, except that it must have lasted about a half hour. The creek wound through the woods near Grantham, and the road which crossed where we tipped ran relatively straight. One, two, three bridges. At the first, we tipped. At the third, Dale finally caught up with me. He found two men fishing nearby, who both had training in lifesaving. One brought me to safety and the other pulled in the canoe.

Another bystander offered us a ride back to the campus, but it was evening, I was cold and wet and felt like I needed to walk -- both to compose myself and to warm up. We walked several miles back to Messiah, where the ladies in the dining hall were kind enough to find a late supper for us.

I have wondered often enough about that branch, the spinning canoe, and my flailing arms. I turned 18 the next day. Now that our sons have passed 18, and I watch young people of that age take life in their turn, I understand my own actions a bit better. We didn't think. Eighteen-year olds often don't! But we lived through it, and Dale and I are connected forever (whatever "forever" means) by this shared fragmented memory.

A postscript: years later Messiah College bought and moved the covered bridge from the place where I was pulled from the river to Messiah College itself. So now the third bridge rests close to where Dale and I began our canoe trip.

I thought of all of this again when Dale sent me an email yesterday. I end this post with Dale's email and poem. (To see more poetry that Dale has written, click here.)

The Email:
For what it's worth, here's my feeble attempt to commemorate our infamous canoe trip. Dale

Parallel Worlds

If we hadn’t gone canoeing that spring day,
if we had worn life vests or been more careful,
if we had both been strong swimmers,
if my friend had been the one to catch
the tree and work his way to shore…

On the other hand,

if neither of us had made it to shore or
I had run more slowly along the swampy bank,
if there hadn’t been a house with two skilled men,
if they hadn’t acted so quickly and wisely,
if my friend hadn’t been able to hold on…

But in our universe,

we took foolish risks and cheated death
and in that bond maintain a long friendship,
though we still disagree about important things,
demonstrating that neither of us is unnecessary,
that we aren’t wasting the universe we’re in.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

More About Sikalongo from September 2003

A couple of posts ago I wrote about travelling in Zambia. I was looking again at the digital pictures we brought back and wanted to add them to this blog, looking specifically at Sikalongo. We drove out from Choma to see my first home. Lois and I, Vaughn and Nevin piled into the Merc and headed off.

My memory says that we took the Great North Road (the main road to Lusaka) to the turn-off for Sinazongwe, a tarred road that runs down to Kariba Lake. This is not the route that my parents described to me from the days before I remember, but it was the way we were told to drive if we wanted to get to Sikalongo. The road passed through increasingly hilly country as we neared the edge of the escarpment. Sikalongo sits close to the edge of the great plateau running along the centre of the country: the highlands. Beautiful country.
This hut along the edge of the road was one of the more remarkable for its location; for its construction it was unremarkable, revealing the gap between wealthier folk in Zambia and ordinary villagers living in the rural areas. Zambia is 50 percent urbanized, so this scene is both ordinary and beyond the experience of many city folk.

Then we turned off the main road and headed across country, on a track that our sedan could only barely negotiate. A 4X4, all-wheel drive would have been most welcome!

When we say the anthill, which had been raided for brick-making, I knew we must be getting close to the mission school. Bricks mean buildings, and brick buildings often mean schools. The anthill of course also is a common feature of the Zambian countryside: huge hills built up by successive colonies of ants.

The sign signalled the presence of the primary school, but of course there is also a secondary school, a Bible school, and a clinic: in the middle of the bush one finds people living and working together and building a life for each other. They take real pride in what they have built, and look forward to what they might be able to become.

The school still bears marks of the mission that once was. The church, the schools, the clinic: all grows out of the work of many people in the past, including my parents, whose names are so well remembered there. The trees are typical. Wherever Europeans settled in the days when they settled Zambia and Zimbabwe, they planted trees: gum (eucalyptus) and jacaranda and others that I don't know. The trees remain.

The grave of Dorothy also remains. The cemetery is well cared for. I found myself really quite grateful for this courtesy. We live across the ocean, but we know that people who do not know us remember our name because a daughter and sister's remains lie in the earth nearby, where they can see the grave site.

Part of the story is that Zambians are generally more aware of death than North Americans. Death is a constant presence in their lives, and they know also that we are all bound together in death and in life. Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.

But no grave can have the last word in anything (not even the empty tomb). The last word is beyond the skies, and the sun shining through the leaves and flowers of the trees catches something of the beyond.

We spent a few hours there on this trip. We need a week at least: to watch and hear people; to walk around and see the country (not just a few buildings and the space between them). I am surprised as I look at the pictures to feel a kind of homesickness for my first home, a place where I do not expect to ever live in again. At least the beauty there is part of the world God gives us, and points us to a recovery of beauty beyond.

Monday, March 12, 2007

That Car

This is a car. This is a car to remember. When we arrived in South Africa (August 2003) we had three days to get a car and head north to Bulawayo. We went to a car dealer recommended by a friend (without whose recommendation we would indeed have been stuck): the car above was the result. A 1988 Mercedes Four-door Sedan. Looked wonderful. Wasn't.

We made the mistake of setting the amount we thought we could afford, and bought a car for that amount. We sold it when we left in December -- back to the dealer for close to the original price. It all worked out in the end, definitely a better deal than trying to hire a car for five months. But oh my goodness, what a car!

I could write about the roads instead. We travelled over good tar roads and rough dirt tracks. We drove from Johannesburg to Gaborone to Bulawayo, then north to Livingstone and Choma. We drove back south through Botswana to Jo'burg. Then 16 hours West to Windhoek, out to Swakopmund, and back to Jo-burg (but going the long way round. not through the desert this time). So we made the car work.

At first it seemed like a good deal. Nevin wrote in an email that we could never afford a car like this in Canada. Later we could add that we wouldn't want to. Driving north to Bulawayo went okay: we had cruise control and air conditioning. The car was a bit sluggish, but not bad. After seven weeks in Bulawayo we headed north -- 280 miles to Victoria Falls. And the trouble began. We had had new brake pads put in while in Bulawayo: they squealed the rest of the time we had the car. But far worse was the petrol (gas) problem.

We were half way to the Falls when the car lost power and coasted to a stop: quite a helpless feeling on a relatively deserted road in a country with almost no fuel. we looked at the motor, not knowing what we were looking at, then Vaughn and Nevin wondered aimlessly down the road to look at the road and the trees. Within five minutes a car appeared -- a couple with their daughter, on their way back from taking pictures of animals. He was a naturalist-photographer. More importantly, he showed me how to open the fuel line, blow into it to clear it, suck on it to get the petrol flowing again, and replace the line. I did this about 10 times between that first stop and the Falls. We stopped in Hwange, the only town between Bulawayo and Vic Falls, where they blew out the fuel line with an air compressor. Didn't work.

The Falls deserve their own post: enough to say that no human problems with running a country can dim its glory. It truly is an amazing sight. Lois and I had a cup of coffee, while Vaughn and Nevin went to watch the sun set through the spray and haze on the south side of the Falls. At sunset we crossed into Zambia, car and all.

The experience led to a surreal exchange with the Customs Officer at the Zambian border. "This car is registered in your name." "Yes." "But you are a visitor in South Africa." "Yes." "But the car is registered in your name." "Yes" "But you are a visitor in South Africa!" "Yes." I don't know how many times we repeated this; it evidently bothered him. I felt like saying, "That's their [the South Africans'] problem; don't worry about it", but managed to say nothing. Finally with an expression of disgust he stamped the papers and sent us on into the Zambian night.

We were headed about three miles into the country to a well-recommended collection of rondavels, where we planned to stay the night. About a mile short, the car stopped again, and I fiddled in the dark to try and clear the fuel line. Then a pick-up arrived, with load of helpful Zambians on the back. They clustered around, pushed me aside, and fiddled less expertly than I (but with the lights of the pick-up shining on the motor). Then one of them bumped a plastic piece attached to the radiator, snapping it off and spraying hot, hot water everywhere. By the time we had given them all the loose foreign exchange we had (US$5 and 100 Rand) for their help (I use the word loosely), we felt frazzled and limped into the Rest Camp.

The next day I nursed the car on into Livingstone, where a garage owner located a replacement for the broken piece (ordered and then rejected by a local Merc owner!) and drilled a hole in the petrol tank cap (to let air in so that it wouldn't stop on us -- brace try, but wrong answer to the problem). Then we headed on to Choma. Half way there we were able to verify that the fix didn't fix the problem.

In Choma, the mission mechanic (Given Mweetwa: pictured at the top of the blog) spent his off-day -- eight hours on a Saturday -- diagnosing and fixing the problem He replaced the fuel pump: that wasn't it. He then removed the petrol tank through the trunk and found that the filter at the tank was so rusted as to let very little through. He cleaned the filter gently with a toothbrush and paraffin (kerosene), since there were no replacements here in Choma. And that problem was fixed. All the way back to Jo-burg.

In Johannesburg we had a mechanic give the car a thorough over-haul. What he didn't know was that our tires were bad. We had two flat tires on the way to Windhoek -- the second about an hour from the half-way Rest Stop at Kang. As we sat, watching the sun set and knowing we were stuck in the desert, a big new Merc truck pulled up, and picked up our luggage and tire and us and took us to Kang. I got a tire sent up from Gaborone by country bus (no Merc tires there: special order only), had the tire put on the rim, and got a ride back to the stranded Merc. Soon after Lois heard me and Vaughn come driving in: she heard us before she saw us thanks to our squealing brakes.

The next day we set off for Windhoek (day three of what should have been a two-day trip). About an hour out of Kang I stopped to check the tires. They were fine, but when I tried to start the car there was nothing. General electric failure. I guess the Jo'burg mechanic didn't find everything. We should have realized we were in trouble when we entered the Kalahari two days earlier. The air conditioner gave out, and the heater came on. We couldn't turn it off, so we drove through the desert with the heater on, pointed out the open windows -- our contribution to global warming.

Pushing the car didn't work. The first vehicle that came by did what they could, but no luck. The next car by was headed towards the Rest Stop. They took me back to Kang. When I walked in the owner looked at me and said: "What are you doing here?" I said, "General electrical failure." He found an electrician, and provided us with a jeep to take the electrician back to the car, where Lois and the boys waited. They had five hot hours in the more than 40 C (104 F) sun.

There the electrician re-did the connections to the battery, rewired the alternator, and bridged three fuses that had blown out. We had our air conditioner back! We gave him all the Pulas (Botswana's currency) we had left, and headed off for Namibia. When we found a proper garage, we had all of the work re-done, and in Windhoek spent another 2,000 Rand on repairs so as to drive safely back to Jo-burg. But I never did quite feel safe after that.

One can draw lessons. In our time in Bulawayo 1988 to 1992 we drove mission vehicles -- all paid for by the church. This time we experienced life more like many residents of Zimbabwe and southern Africa, driving what we could get. We also discovered how ready people are to help. We never waited more than ten minutes for help, although we were in unpopulated areas. The Kalahari is not where you want to break down!

I remember Nevin's comment in another Rest Stop the evening after the general electrical failure. With five hours waiting in the desert, and another three hours driving to the Rest Stop in Namibia, where we stayed that night, we had finished all of the water and other drinks we were carrying. Just before we went to bed, Nevin said: "You know where Jesus says, 'I'm the living water'': I think I understand better know what he meant."

And I remember the car. Next time we won't ask, "What can we get for this amount of money?" We'll ask, "What does a reliable vehicle cost?" The memories are good, but I don't want to repeat them.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Memories of Zambia

October 2003 we made it into Zambia, for one short week. Far too brief a time, but it was good anyway. The country, or at least the geographical place where I was born. We entered at Victoria Falls and drove the few miles from the border to Livingstone, where I was born so long ago.

The car was packed, and Vaughn wasn't the only one scrunched up to fit. The driver (me) had the best deal: at least until we had fuel problems and I had to get out every ten minutes or so to clear the fuel line (unfasten fuel line, blow in, suck out, try not to get any fuel into your mouth, get back in car and drive for another ten minutes).

Soon enough we were rewarded with a chance to view the Falls -- the evening we arrived, from the Zimbabwean side; the next morning (while our car was worked on, but not entirely repaired) from the Zambian side. Here is a rare pose from in front of the Falls (Zambian side here) -- rare because he became our family photographer for the trip.

As we got further into Zambia, we saw the jacarandas. We had been too early for them in Bulawayo, but here they were in full bloom. We only had to stop twice over the 120 miles to Choma to clear the fuel line (the car's and mine). At one of those stops we took a picture of the jacarandas: introduced by White settlers, these trees are gorgeous, but also greedy. They drink up too much water in the semi-arid conditions of Zimbabwe. During good rainfall years in Zambia they are welcome.

In Choma we stayed at the missionary guest house (just as in Bulawayo, but more modest than the former children's hostel: space for six to ten guests instead of 20 to 30). Lois and the boys went into town and found (among other things) this tailor working on the side walk. They brought him some material, and he made shirts for the boys, which they have worn with delight many times since.

Nevin also searched in Choma for a good drum to take home. He had checked in Bulawayo for a good drum, and learned that the best drums came from the Tonga in Zambia. We found one near the end of our stay the a cultural centre in Choma. That drum had its own adventures later.

Then it was off to Sikalongo. The 20 miles I remembered were not accessible for a car, so we went around, about 30 miles instead. We had trouble finding the run-off from the tar road on the track that crossed the final six miles or so to get to the mission and school, my first home. So we stopped and I asked directions. My parents tell me that when I was three I had some Tonga, but I can tell you that at 53 my Tonga consisted of "Hello" and "Thank you". The people I talked to did not have much English either, but we managed, and we found the road to Sikalongo.

There of course lies a grave. Dorothy. My sister, who died before I was born, and has always been part of my consciousness.

I discovered a curious thing at Sikalongo. My parents, uncle and aunt, and grandparents have all lived in Zambia or Zimbabwe at different times. Our family is known well enough throughout the Brethren in Christ Church there. When I would say my name, I was always identified as part of my family: walking like my grandfather and father, and with the red hair of my uncle.

But at Sikalongo, when I met the headmaster of the secondary school and said my name, he said: "Oh yes. Your parents were David and Dorcas Climenhaga. Your sister is buried there." And he pointed across the schoolyard towards the cemetery. One of the teachers took us for tea (actually, Fanta orange and cake) in his house. He told us that his brother had lost a child the year before, and that they used the same verse at that funeral: Suffer the little children to come unto me.

Back in Choma, then, it was little surprise to meet a 10-year old boy named Climenhaga Hamaseele (son of the Overseer for the church in Choma). The effect of leaving one's own flesh and blood in the ground has a powerful impact, even after 55 years. There, in that place, I was with people who remember my mother and father, not just the rest of the family.

The week was over. We headed out of the country, but this time crossing the Zambezi at Kazangula instead of at the Falls (and so avoiding Zimbabwe on our way back to South Africa). There was no bridge into Botswana, so we crossed the river on a ferry. Our confidence was not increased by the news that a couple of weeks earlier the ferry had been overloaded with passengers, turned turtle in the water when a badly-loaded truck drove on to it, and drowned about 100 people. Of course I was the one to drive our car onto the ferry -- and me with me water phobias! The authorities carefully kept all passengers off (of which this time there were only about 20).

So we crossed the Zambezi, entered Botswana (drum and all), and left the land of my birth. So short a post omits watching Vaughn and Nevin play soccer with young children at the guest house, struggles with the car (to which I will return in the future), church in Choma, so many things from my home. I keep a flag of Zambia in my office, remembering the land where I began life on this earth.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Memories of Zimbabwe

I have decided to continue the process of recalling our sabbatical, June to December 2003. I say "our" (although it was technically "mine") because this was a last intentional family trip: Vaughn (then 21) and Nevin (then 17) joined us in a trip back to south and south-central Africa, so formative a part of my own growing up, as well as for our family.

While we were in Bulawayo we stayed at the Guest House, where years before there had been a children's hostel. It was both a delight and a bit surreal to live where I had lived in the 1960s.

While we were there we learned to know Mrs. Shumba. She had lost her home -- evicted for not paying the last $100 or so on her mortgage. She had cataracts and was almost blind, and had ignored the warning notices. (Long story: that's the short version.) She stayed at the Guest House while looking for a new home, and she and Lois became fast friends. Here she is singing with her children (who were part of a group called "Divine Appointment"): "Thula Sizwe" -- a song by Freedom Sengwayo, to comfort the Ndebele people.

We drove out to Matopo Secondary School, where I had lived and taught in the early 1970s, and where our family lived in the late 1950s. Matopo is deep in my consciousness: the place where I used to climb rocks, teach school, try to understand what it is to become an adult.
Elephant Rock is on the way to Matopo. Remarkable rock with remarkable resemblance to the elephant. Ndlovu. Over half of the 3000 acres of Matopo Mission is granite rock above the ground. This is just one of the rocks, so engraved in my memory.

We drove to get around. We bought a Mercedes Benz for what we could afford: wrong car for driving around Africa! Here a someone who worked for a local businessman siphons petrol into the car -- the only reliable source of fuel in a country where the economy had once been so strong. You could still get what you need in 2003, but foreign exchange helped. I could write many stories about this car, and may yet. But here the petrol is the problem, not the car. It managed its way out to Matopo and back, although the roads were so much worse than they had once been. In the late 1980s we could drive out easily. in 2003, the 30 miles took about two hours of careful driving around potholes and following the occasional tire tracks beside the road instead of in it.
We also re-connected with Mike and Lyn Burgess (third generation Zimbabweans). Mike and I taught together at the Theological College of Zimbabwe (1988 to 1992). He and I are age mates. We turned 40 together in 1990, just a few months apart.

Here he is 53, as am I in the picture below. Life in Zimbabwe is hard. Combined with health problems, it makes Mike look so much older. I noticed that many of my friends in their 40s and 50s had grey hair. Had I seen one or two like that, I would put it down to their genes. But so many: life in Zimbabwe today is hard.
Kyle is standing with them in the picture -- 16 years old. Now four years later he lives with us in Manitoba, going to school at Providence. A small chance to find a life beyond the loss of opportunity in Bulawayo.

I'm standing beside my house, or what was once my house. Two pictures from 30 years apart. Left: during our visit in 2003. Below: when I taught at Matopo in 1974. The house has changed a bit, but not as much as I have. Except that I don't feel all that different: married, children, a whole different life; but the same essential person inside.
It was so good to be in Bulawayo and to visit the Matopos. The beauty remains; the people are wonderful, amazingly strong and resilient. Click here for the sound of the region beyond the pain, or here for a website maintained by the Ndebele people in exile. But the country is also full of pain. After six weeks, knowing we had only a week left, I told Lois I didn't know if I could stand another week. And our friends there have endured almost four more years. Some wounds are too deep to talk about.