This is How we Know what Love is

Nonjabs, Wendy, Me, Anna, Karabo (Sam and Gugu couldn't make it.)

Nonjabs, Wendy, Me, Anna, Karabo (Sam and Gugu couldn’t make it.)

This week, the iThemba Ladies had a Valentine’s Day party (albeit a bit early!). David was away with his 8th graders on camp, so I saw it as an excuse to be as girly as possible. Anna, our Danish short-termer helped decorate and made the amazing dessert, and Karabo helped with games. We also watched part of the HBO series “The Number One Ladies Detective Agency”, about a Botswanan detective. It was fun to get to spend some time with some of the fabulous ladies I work with!


I confess, I do like Valentine’s Day (and of course any excuse to eat chocolate). But there is an odd juxtaposition of cheesy, obtrusive Valentine’s Day marketing and the mourning, fasting, and reflection that marks the start of the Lenten season for me this year. A lot of Valentine’s Day is just consumeristic fluff, using love as an excuse to sell things. But Lent is a time to reflect on real love. 

image001February 15th is “Black Friday” in South Africa– another day that has connotations of American spending-frenzies. But Black Friday in South Africa has nothing to do with Walmart sales. It is a day created to raise awareness about rape in our country. People are encouraged to wear black to show their support for rape awareness. According to the website, a rape is said to be committed in South Africa every four minutes, and only 12 percent of reported rape cases in South Africa end in conviction.* This statistic is illustrated in the experiences of the iThemba discipleship fieldworkers, who all know children in the community who are victims of rape.

When faced with the realities of our broken world, I am glad for Lent. I am glad for a set time to reflect on Christ, who came to earth, bore our sorrows, and suffered so that we can all experience real love and freedom. Join me in praying that Mpumuza will experience the real love that comes from Christ this month-– and wear black on Friday!

(*the sociologist in me is skeptical of those exact stats, but I do know that South Africa has one of the highest rates for rape in the world).


We celebrated thanksgiving here in South Africa with 15 other American missionaries. Thinking back over this past month, I certainly have a lot to be thankful for!

David has a job teaching 8th and 9th grade math at Grace College, a local high school in Hilton.

The view over the sports fields at Grace College. You can see the Drakensberg mountains from the school, and sometimes in the winter, you can see snow on them.

The view over the sports fields at Grace College. You can see the Drakensberg mountains from the school, and sometimes in the winter, you can see snow on them.

The admin block at Grace College, the high school where David will be teaching Math. Also, it's where I went for high school.

The admin block at Grace College, the high school where David will be teaching Math. Also, it’s where I went for high school.

The Jabulani Kids Club Christmas party was a success! We had over 260 kids (and a bit of a panic because we only had supplies for 200–but it all worked out).

There were so many kids we didn't have enough crafts, so the little ones just danced during craft time.

There were so many kids we didn’t have enough crafts, so the little ones just danced during craft time.

The kids waiting for Baba Christmas to come. We had over 260 kids attend.

The kids waiting for Baba Christmas to come. We had over 260 kids attend.

Baba Christmas (as Father Christmas is called here) dancing for the kiddies.

Baba Christmas (as Father Christmas is called here) dancing for the kiddies.

I work with an amazing group of people. They inspire me everyday with their enthusiasm and dedication. We just had a fun day at uShaka Marine world as a reward for all successfully completing the 6 most important tasks we had in the past 6 weeks. We had lots of fun on the slides, and then some of the iThemba guys started playing volley ball in the pool (and managed to get all the kids singing and dancing and playing, too). One mother thought that we were a professional volleyball team!

The iThemba team...and the ball that made people think we were professional volleyball players??

The iThemba team…and the ball that made people think we were professional volleyball players??

Somehow I don't think this one needs a caption.

Somehow I don’t think this one needs a caption.

Praise God for how he has provided for David and I in these past 3 months here in South Africa. 

What are you thankful for?

Real Life Hero: Gretta


Gretta and Sbukosezwe creche with the APU team

“Eh, it is so quiet here today without my students, Steph.” Gretta said to me yesterday when I dropped by to say hello. Gretta runs a creche (preschool) in Sweetwaters with over 90 kids. She does an amazing job of keeping them all in line, and helping them learn. The students she was talking about, though, were the 6 college students from Azusa Pacific University, who had been helping her out in the morning for a few hours every week. They would spend the morning playing with kids, and doing whatever Gretta needed done, whether it was fixing her broken tire swings, making her compost heap, or cutting out decorations for her Christmas party.

Gretta started teaching at creches over 20 years ago. She started at this creche in a tiny one-room building over-flowing with children. But through her prayer and perseverance (and partnership with iThemba), she now has a large two-room classroom, with a store-room and kitchen. iThemba has been partnering with Gretta’s creche for the past several years, and it has been so fun to see her good work with the kids and faithfulness be rewarded.

You have to do it because you love the children.” Gretta always explains. “You cannot do it for the money, because we are not paid very much at all.” Gretta, who was widowed this past year, spends her spare time in her gardens (she has three on the property of the creche). She grows veggies for the kids in the creche and the community. One of Gretta’s dreams is that the community would be inspired by her creche and gardens and start to serve each other.

When the APU students left on Thursday, she cried as she said goodbye to them. “You have been such an encouragement to me. I love you so much, I will call you my sons and daughters. You must go back to the US and tell everyone about Gretta, this short and stout lady who is working at Sbukosezwe creche.”

When I saw Gretta yesterday, she had made a bracelet to remember to pray for “her students” from the US. I am so inspired by Gretta’s example, and I know the APU students were also touched by her generous love, her hard work, and her dedication to the community.

Sometimes it is easy to complain, and it is difficult to give of ourselves to others. These next few weeks will be very busy for me, as we get ready for camp, for the Jabulani Kids Club Christmas party, and for the teens thank you dinner. But I think of Gretta with her 90 kids at her creche everyday, and I am inspired to keep giving and going.

  • Praise God for the great work that the APU students did with Gretta, and in the community these past few weeks. 
  • Pray for strength and energy these next 3 weeks as the end of year events start piling up.
  • Pray especially for good weather next weekend, since we have the Christmas Party, and a lot of the activities need to be done outside! 
  • Pray for Gretta, that God will keep giving her strength, and will use her to inspire the community around her. 

A Reason to Celebrate

The view from the top of Mbubu mountain. In the picture is Mpumuza/Sweetwaters, the area that iThemba works in.

I don’t usually give people lifts. Partly because I want taxi drivers (as evil as they are) to have jobs. And partly because South Africa has extremely high rates of hijacking. But today there was a lady struggling up the steep hill next to my house (which I know all about, since I walk up it to the grocery store about once a week), and it was also 89 degrees outside. She jumped in quickly and thanked me profusely.

“Oh, thank you Ma, thank you for the lift. I am just going to the top of the hill. You can just drop me by the Crossways pub, Ma. Eh-heeh, Ma, this weather is so crazy! We will all get sick! First it is freezing, and now it is so hot!” My little skedlemba car scooted up the hill in first gear as we chatted about the chance to finally do our washing, and how nice it was to see the sun, but how steep this hill was when walking, especially in the heat. She was a beautiful Zulu lady, with a huge purse and a shopping bag. She noticed me glancing at her bag.

“Oh Ma, can I tell you why I am so happy today?” I nodded. “Oh! It is because it is my birthday today, Ma! And this is a cake that I was given by Madam. I am thirty eight today.” She chuckled with happiness and clutched her cake box. “I am the only one of my friends to make it to thirty-eight. All my other friends have passed. It is because of the sickness here, the HIV. But, I am thirty eight, because Nkulunkulu–I mean, God–has heard my prayers and preserved my life. And in two years I will be forty! Then I will have a big party. To make it to forty years will be so great.” She sat back in the seat and grinned.

I thought of women in American who dread the big “40”. I wished they could meet this lady, who understands that life is a gift.

This week was David’s birthday. The big “23”. 🙂 We are having fun celebrating his life, with guitars, braais and breakfast in bed. Whose life can you celebrate this week?

Praise God for the gift of life, and for a reason to celebrate this week!

Pray with us: For the many people in Kwa-Zulu Natal, specifically the Sweetwaters/Mpumuza area who are infected with HIV/AIDs. This week I was in a Life Skills class with some iThemba guys, and in the discussion it became clear that many students in the class had common misconceptions about AIDS: that you can be cured of it if you take ARV’s, that sleeping with a virgin will get rid of the disease, that only older people can contract it. Pray for the iThemba staff who work with these teens. Pray that the teens will learn the truth and live wisely. 

Teens Camp

Teens Camp 2011

Teens Camp 2011. Maybe this year you’ll help send a teen to camp! 🙂

Did you ever go to a Christian camp as a teenager? Did you ever get that feeling, like God was right there listening to you and speaking to you? Of course, we all know that God is always with us, continually speaking and challenging us–but I think sometimes we don’t listen as well in the busyness of our daily lives. Camp can be a time to disconnect from our normal routines and hear what God wants to say to us.

iThemba sends 50 teens to a three day camp every summer (in the winter we do a kids camp). Our goal with these camps is to create a safe environment where teens feel comfortable sharing what is going on in their lives, a place where they can hear the word of God–and of course a chance to have a whole lot of fun! The campsite iThemba uses is at the beach, and some kids and teens have never seen the ocean before, even though it is only an hour away from where they live!

The beach!

The teens are divided into groups (“cabins”) and stay with their counselors 24/7–at meals, during the speaker and worship, during games. This helps them form relationships with their leaders, and hopefully helps them to feel loved and safe. It is on these camps that many times iThemba fieldworkers see remarkable breakthroughs in teens they have been working with for a long time. Sometimes teens who have never opened up start sharing about their difficult home situations, or abuse they have suffered. Sometimes teens make the decision to commit their lives to Christ for the first time. Teens who go on these camps recieve follow up and discipleship year-long through iThemba Life Groups (Bible Studies) and church.

iThemba does not like to hand out things for free, so they do charge the teens a minimal amount to come on camp. But, the full cost of taking a teen on camp is paid for by sponsors, who volunteer to “adopt” a teen. These sponsors pay for the teen to attend camp, and pray for their teen by name during the week of camp. This prayer is so important–it’s what allows the Holy Spirit to move so mightily during these camps!!

Would you consider sponsoring a teen this year? The cost per teen is R600 or $80  or  £50 which includes transport, food, accommodation, crafts, a Bible, toiletry pack…and an experience (for them) that is out of this world. 

How? In the US, make out a check to Restoration Hope. Include a note with your name, email address, and that the check is for TEENS CAMP. They will then transfer the money to South Africa. We will send you your teen’s picture and prayer requests via email. 🙂 Mail Checks to Restoration Hope P.O. Box 5583 Brandon, MS 39047. Or give online through their website (with the reference YOUR LAST NAME and TEENS CAMP) by going to  

In South Africa, you can do an EFT to: iThemba Trust Sweetwaters. First National Bank. Bank Street Branch code 22 08 25. Cheque account number: 62154083407. Reference: Teens Camp and your SURNAME.

Here’s a video that talks about iThemba kids camp. Teens camp is very similar! 🙂

Saving Drowning Babies

The iThemba staff who attended the lectures given by Francis Njoroge.

One day a missions worker in Africa went down to the river to bathe. While she was there in the water, she heard a cry and discovered a baby, floating in the water, just barely alive. She quickly grabbed the baby, and brought it to the edge of the river bank and gave it CPR. The baby coughed and spluttered out some water, and lived. The next day at the river the mission’s worker discovered yet another baby drowning. Quickly, she jumped in and saved its life. She soon discovered this was a common problem, in fact, each day, there were about 3 babies drowning in the river, and the number was steadily increasing. She mobilized her overseas funders to come help set up a “Save the Baby” operation. Soon, there were trained workers who could rescue the drowning babies, (which were increasing every day). There were T-shirts, facebook pages, and photos of the desperate babies floating in the river plastered all over the internet. Her “Save the Baby” operation really started to take off.

Here, Francis Njoroge, the international development consultant from Kenya who was leading this class on development work, paused. He looked around at the class of 45 American college students from Azusa Pacific University, and at the row of iThemba staff who were attending the lectures sitting in the back.

“This is what we do, right?” he continued. “We see a desperate need, and our hearts are moved, and we jump right in to save the people in the situation. It is easy to get people excited about relief work. People like to know they are giving out food to hungry people, they are saving lives of children, they are building orphanages–people like to give things. And the people you are helping love you. You get to be a celebrity, people leave the food donation center singing. But, do we stop to ask ourselves: Why? Why are all the babies in the river in the first place? We can pour our money into relief work, but unless we get at the root causes of things, we are not really helping, are we? And unless we are empowering other people to use their God-given resources and abilities, rather than depending on the West, we are making the problem worse. If the “Save the Baby” operation runs out of money, will anything be different in that community than before they were there?
But, if the missions worker had taken the time to walk to the top of the river, and discover the reason why all the babies were in the river, and spent her time and effort helping the people to change that situation, then real change would have occurred. Even though, while she walked to the top of the river, there may have been some babies that were not saved. And that is a difficult, difficult truth.”

Francis Njoroge has worked with World Vision, Tear Fund, and other Development organizations all throughout Africa–mostly in Central and East Africa. He comes every semester to South Africa to teach the Community Engagement course for the APU students who are studying abroad here. iThemba is now working with 6 of the APU students for the next three weeks. (Which is another way of saying I get to hang out with the APU students for the next 3 weeks! :D) It is great getting to work with a group of college students that come into iThemba’s work with such a great foundation.

I learned a lot from Francis’ lectures. He was full of inspiring stories– about groups in Sudan who are self-sustaining and don’t need the relief food sent to them because they are working together as a community. Of a group in Kenya that had a dream to own their own land, and met and prayed and worked for 5 years on Tuesdays until it happened. About Christians in Sudan following Jesus’ example and meeting with the Muslims in their area to work together on developing their community. Stories that are all about people discovering their God-given gifts and becoming motivated to use them, rather than expecting the West to step in. We all have a long way to go when it comes to putting these principles into practice. But praise God that even we can have our attitudes and mindsets changed.

  • Praise God for a great 3 days of lectures with the new iThemba staff, and for our great group of APU students.
  • Pray for these students as they engage with the community– working in a creche, helping at the community center site, and leading Life Group Bible studies. Pray that they will learn, grow, encourage others, and be open to listening to God’s voice.
  • Pray for iThemba teens camp (Dec 12-14th). Pray that we will find a good speaker, and that the 50 teens who need sponsorship will be sponsored.


Walking Down a Long Road

David helped with worship and leading games

This past week was Spring Break for the kids and teens in Sweetwaters/Mpumuza. During the holidays, many kids are unsupervised, this means there is more time for them to get into trouble, but also leaves them vulnerable to abuse.
iThemba runs a Holiday club during the Spring and Fall breaks to give the children and teens something fun to get involved in, and also to reach them with the love of Jesus. This year, the kids club was an underwater adventure theme, and focused on the story of grace found in the book of Jonah. They played games, had face-painting, made lots of fishy crafts, and learned memory verses! The teens did the “True Love Waits” curriculum and were challenged to live lives of sexual purity, and depend on God to fill them with His true love. It was a huge blessing to get to help organize this event, and write the curriculum for the kids club, but the best part was working with the amazing iThemba team.

Playing the “Fishing Game” to learn the memory verse

It is tempting to run a club like this, and want to give a huge alter call and “claim statistics” on the number of kids whose lives are changed due to this club. But, while a holiday club can be a special one-time event–and we pray that it really did impact the teens and the kids lives–real life change happens over a long period of time, not because of a once-off decision. One time events like this fit into the larger story of what God is doing in these kids lives through the commitment and dedication of the discipleship field workers.

Sizwe, one of iThemba’s “fielders” at Holiday Club.

These “fielders” as they are affectionately called, have weekly Life Groups (Bible Studies), meet the kid’s families, and go to great lengths to help disciple these kids and teens. The fielders see their work as walking down a long road with the kids, not just pointing them in the right direction. Sometimes this means visiting a teen every afternoon for a month because of poor choices they are making. It means texting and calling kids on the weekend, or on our day off, just to see if they are doing okay. It means praying, not just for one, but for the hundreds of kids they are in contact with every week. This is a huge commitment. And it is not easy. Sometimes fielders get to see the fruit of their labor– teens who are now leading the Saturday kids club, kids who are now being respectful to their parents–but sometimes fielders will pour into a kid for a year, only to find out this person has been secretly getting into trouble behind their backs. You don’t do a job like that for the money, you do it because you feel called by God, and he is giving you the desire and the energy.
The great commission is a call to go about our every day lives, and as we are going, to make disciples. Who is there in your life that God is calling you to walk down the long road of discipleship with?

Praise God for the great work that the discipleship fieldworkers do, and pray that God will bless them, give them wisdom, energy, creativity and insight into the lives of these kids and teens. Pray for them as they follow up with kids/teens from the Holiday Club.


Restoration Hope Team from Mississippi playing with kids at Mountain Home Primary School

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” Ephesians 5:11

Do you ever just look at your to do list and think–“Lord, how is this going to all get done?” This past week we had a team coming to work with us from Restoration Hope, and next week we have a visit from 40 Azusa Pacific University students for the morning, followed by a 3 day Holiday Club.

And last weekend I got sick. Which was great, because I slept all weekend…but also meant when Tuesday rolled around and the RH team was about to show up and the office was a mess and we didn’t have enough tea (or tea cups for that matter)…I didn’t feel like I was ready at all. But, as soon as my fellow team-mates from iThemba walked in the door, they all said, “What can I do?” and before I knew it, the office turned upside-down as people mopped up the kitchen floor, cleaned the bathroom, set up chairs, and figured out how a filter coffee machine works. (I don’t drink coffee!)

I am so thankful for the team that I work with. They encourage me with their service, with their helpfulness and support, and with their kind words (as well as anonymous chocolates).

The team from Restoration Hope was also an encouragement–seeing the team members who just dove right into whatever we were doing,hearing their prayers for our team and the work that iThemba does, having one RH team member read the words of Paul from Ephesians to us (“he makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love”) and then singing “Oh Come Let us Adore Him” in Zulu and English– these are moments that encouraged me.

Who in your life can you encourage today with a word, a note, a gift, or a hug?

Please join us in praying for Holiday Club this coming week. We are expecting over 200 kids for the morning program and over 50 teenagers for the afternoon. Pray for good weather, for open hearts, for energy and enthusiasm from the leaders, and for the presence of God to be felt by all who come. Pray also for safety and protection for the children–many walk to the venue from far away.

Jesus Parade

“Shoooosholoza!” Sizwe called out, and the band of children that were trailing behind us like the Pied Piper echoed “Shoooosholoza!” and blew their vuvuzelas. Balloons bobbed in the bright spring sunshine, hands clapped, feet stomped through the muddy dirt paths, and all along the way we called out, “Wozani! Come!” to the children who stopped their playing to stare at our parade.

We were quite an interesting bunch. David had his trombone (this was a lot more involved than marching band–hiking up hills and dodging cows and muddy rivers while playing requires much skill), Justina had the guitar, and the kids all had balloons or vuvuzelas. A huge banner announced, “Jabulani Kids Club! All children Welcome!”

It was our day to advertise, so we met at the school where we usually have the club at 9am, gathered all the kids together and started out. We began by singing praise songs, but the one that the kids liked the best was “Shosholoza” (the song South Africa sings at soccer and rugby matches, also made famous in the movie Invictus), so we stuck with that. One old gogo (granny) thought we were all marching to go vote. Nope. This was not a political parade–it was a Jesus parade. By 10am when we returned to start the kids club, our numbers had doubled. The kids still had tons of energy, but all us leaders were pretty exhausted. 🙂

Pray for the children who attend this Kids Club– that they will grow in Christ and their hearts will be changed. Pray for the teens who help to lead JKC– that they will be great leaders and role models.

Planting for the Future

The trees waiting to be planted at the community center.

“We need oxygen to stay alive,” said the teacher. “And trees give us…” “Oxygen!” the children shouted back. “If you cut down a tree, you are cutting down your life,” the teacher continued. Welcome to an iThemba Life Skills class during Arbor Week celebrations!

iThemba partners with various schools in the area to teach Life Skills: a required subject in South Africa that covers topics from how to get a drivers license and the importance of hygiene to more serious topics like how to deal with HIV/AIDS, rape, or incest. iThemba has permission to come and teach these classes–from a Christian worldview–and it is an amazing privilege for the discipleship workers to get to know these kids and follow up on what is going on in their lives.

Children at Nobanda school stand proud after planting their tree.

This week was National Arbor Week, South Africa’s celebration of indigenous trees and plants. Through a local businessman and our permaculture gardening initiative, iThemba was donated indigenous trees for all the different schools where we do Life Skills. The iThemba Gardening team came in to do a special lecture on the importance of sustainability in the Life Skills classes, then the kids got into groups and planted trees on their school property. Even though it was a cold, very muddy, very wet week, the tree plantings took place!

This is very exciting, because even though some people have a romanticized idea that everyone in Africa lives “at one” with nature, the fact is most people here (like in the US!) live with a very short-term view of things. Thus, there is lots of de-forestation due to  cattle farming and firewood. Grass is burnt during the winter because it makes it grow back faster in spring–but it also gives off lots of pollution.

In the Life Skills classes, the iThemba staff talked about the need to throw away rubbish, and even recycle, rather than just burning the rubbish. However, the area of Mpumuza is in an interesting position–because it is technically owned by the chief, the municipality does not come and collect the rubbish in the same way they do for the town of Hilton. There is a lot of bureaucracy and miscommunication between the two governing authorities, and many times the rubbish is not collected at all! It made me realize I take it for granted that in Hilton I have easy access to recycling, and sometimes I don’t even take the time to do it.

Me and my little indigenous tree!

The week ended with an a celebration at the site of iThemba’s community center on Arbor day. Right now there are only foundations at the site, but all the iThemba staff, along with the construction workers from the site, planted an indigenous tree along the boarder of the property, and drank hot chocolate under a shelter on the site!

Hot chocolate after planting our trees.

 When Helping Hurts (by Corbett and Fikkert) points out that poverty is not just financial–it is emotional, spiritual and intellectual. This week I was reminded that it is a symptom of poverty to only see the short-term and live in the immediate, grabbing for ourselves whatever resources are closest, rather than seeing the long term effects of our actions. We in the US are just as impoverished as our South African neighbors when it comes to how we steward the environment God has entrusted to us.

The pile of muddy shoes at the office when we returned from the community center–the red clay at the site is pretty sticky!

  • Pray that the people of Mpumuza would be able to find a solution for how to safely and cleanly dispose of their rubbish, and that people would take pride in their community.
  • Pray that we all (South Africans and the US) would be able to take a long-term view of things—that we would see the consequences of our actions in everyday life, and we would not take for granted the resources we have been entrusted with.
  • Praise God for providing us with trees to plant!
  • Praise God that David’s South African Qualifications Certificate arrived! He has several follow up meetings with teachers this week, and is presenting on how to use Geogebra, a maths education program, to a group of teachers this week.
  • Praise God for how well Justina (short-term volunteer from the UK) is fitting in, and for her amazing work teaching English in these schools.

(For more pictures, visit iThemba’s facebook page. Search for iThemba Projects.)