Category: Missionary wanderings


Vagabond obituary

The vagabond is dead. May the sudden haste at which this news arrives find forgiveness, readers. For swift was his demise, and in irony, as with the slow passing of time, the slow fading of his weathered face found its end in one frantic moment at the end of a sentence.

The vagabond was a man of the mind, born of it and defined by it. He was spiritual and sincere. He was fearful and free. He was designed on a question, and he was murdered by its answer.In his place must rise another, though none can take his place. Though another will use his platform, his words will linger on. As will his soul where he was left. As a specter on the streets of Bangkok forever. I will miss him.

**To my frequent readers, I apologize for unfulfilled promises (such as part 2 of my short story which was supposed to follow my previous post – like 6 months ago) and ask that you check in here again some time to see what is comes next – out of the ashes of the vagabond‘s demise.**

To all of my itinerant readers, an explanation for my absence. Here are a few reasons for the long break in my posts (three months).

1) I started a new job as a mechanical engineer/software developer for an energy engineering company. My time and energy has been absorbed in learning my new trade. I decided during my adventures in 2012 that I wanted to be a programmer and a software developer. I have thus spent large portions of my creativity and energy in learning C#.Net; SQL; Visual Basic and a myriad of other languages whilst I attempt to create software to perform optimization in the context of simultaneously linking up a machine control software and a fluid mechanics solver for real time application.

2) The vagabond settled down to a stable job and home, this prompted much thought and existential wonder as to whether the vagabond was still relevant to his identity. The answer is yes – since I still remain spiritually vagabond. This spiritual vagabond ethos still very much applies to my world and context.

3) I was writing and attempting to finish the story I started in this post: The man with the iron fist which has subsequently been renamed as “Under This Dome of Pretence . I finished the first complete draft of this short story 2 weeks ago. I will contemplate publishing sections of it here.

I have added a new post below and thus the vagabond is back:

We are all in a contest of who can shout the loudest. In Thailand there is a bird that lives its life in the cage of its enthusiastic master. It is called the Nok Krung Hua Juk – the Cage Bird Head Mohawk (a loose, literal translation as close as I can figure).

As I walk down a small, busy soi with my friends and colleagues Sam speaks to me in sincere elucidations. I step aside as a pickup drives past, dodging the Thai kids playing football on the street, the motorcycle scooters cruise past and I take a moment to covet the cool wind that one enjoys on a motorcycle ride in the Bangkok heat. Sam’s speech pauses and his eyes dart leftward as he makes the translations to English in his mind – he tells me about this eccentric and bemused local bird. His father  from the South of Thailand used to own one he tells me. It has since been given to Sam’s friend owing to the erratic, high attention, maintenance required of those who indulge themselves in the fringe hobby which gives such high value to the bird. “10 000 baht”, Sam goes on to say when I ask him of the birds value. “In my home town you see the owners on their motocycle with their bird-cage in one hand” Sam tells me. These birds take part in the sport of Bird Shouting – where they are pitched against each other in featherweight exhibitions of their vocal prowess.

A lucrative and more or less illegal gambling ring of old men and bird hobbyists surround the cages as they ‘shout’ at the top of their lungs – both the old men and the birds – aiming to see who can shout longer and harder through their wooden cages.

“What do you call it? Ha ha – like walking your dog – walking their birds? But it’s on a motorcycle so – riding their birds?” Sam muses as he explains some of the nuances of the business. “They need to improve the bird’s voice” he says. “They have to get used to all – all the … all -”
“all the noise and busyness going on around them” I complete his sentence, his 2nd language momentarily failing him.
“Yes, so that they can improve their voice”

The gambling rings in Thailand are a sight to behold. The best example I’ve personally witnessed being those old laughing and jeering, cheering men of Lumpinee Boxing Stadium who watch and gradually get louder and more cacophonous as the Muay Thai fights edge closer to their final-round conclusion. Many who visit the iconic fighting stadium for the first time note that it’s almost more entertaining to watch the boisterous, leather-skinned gamblers than to watch the two bare-chested men in the middle trade teeps and jabs and knees and elbows, jostling for position with the noise of their own heart pounding in their lungs harder than the stamping feet of the crowd, or the drone of the gyrating ceiling fans.

Well the birds, the Nok Krung Hua Juk-s need to get used to this commotion otherwise they’ll lapse into a quiet and shameful silence as their foe shouts them down and their pleading owner counts his last handful of cash disparagingly.

Then it struck me like a Muay Thai knee, as I listened to my colleague Andrew and a yellow-toothed old Thai banter about property prices behind me and the birds chatter at each other across the soi – I realised that we are all somewhat like this Nok Krung Hua Juk. We all need to find our voice in the commotion that would unsettle us and quiet our resolve. I have been like this bird repetitively in my life. Now more than ever – because now I must return to my home country and start the next phase of my journey unto an occupation doing something I deem meaningful.

This time in South East Asia and the hard and noisy years before have been my time on that motorcycle with my Master – the time draws ever nearer when I must enter the ring and use this voice my experiences have given me. I’m sure we are all the same in this – we need times of commotion and noise to give us a voice. We also need a trustworthy master to take the handle bars and guide us through the noise and then when we are loud enough, to put us toe-to-toe against the sort of challenges that make lives worth living, and metaphors worth making.

Everyone wants to know more about my travels and experiences in Asia, why haven’t I written so much about this specifically? Maybe I feel as if there is too much pressure, there is so much to write about and I have felt that I could not possibly do justice to the experience of it all and so have shrunken away from the task. No more though, I must and will share these experiences and they will shine through for what they are. Onwards then:

One of the first experiences that I must share is the experience of isolation. One of the reasons that I was comfortable with going on this long, interesting and new adventure on my own was that I thought myself to be one of the best subtypes of personalities to handle being alone and isolated for long periods of time.

I am an introvert and a thinker meaning that I spend most of my time, even when in my home country on my own digesting what my senses and intuitions have told me through the day. After a long day at work or varsity I have always enjoyed retreating to my own lonesome space to relax. Often during university vacations and school holidays I would almost entirely disappear in the eyes of the public – even somewhat to my closest friends so as to totally escape for a time while I ‘recharge’ mentally and spiritually (and sometimes physically). Thanks to a functional family and great social network (not twitter or facebook, the irl one) I am also no social recluse or am I otherwise socially dysfunctional, I just seem to enjoy being alone between social encounters more than most of (or at least half of) the population.

Not everyone could be a hermit or manage living alone in an isolated setting, I figured that if anyone could though, it would be me. This in part gave me the confidence to go on this Asia trip on my own – I was also interested in testing this theory out.

Now two months later I believe I have tested the theory out to at least some extent. I must explain the type of isolation I’m talking about here though, I am not far away from people, all I ever need do is stand on the balcony of my apartment at almost any hour of the day or night and I can see people moving about, so it’s not difficult to find people. Only one main thing separates me from these people though: language – English vs. Thai. I had expected there to be a second separating factor namely ethnicity, being a farang, a foreigner with curly hair and differently shaped face, however this has really not bothered me or seemingly any Thai people. We all seem to get on fine.

I am also not isolated from new friends and caring people, my missionary work colleagues have been the most welcoming and friendly people one could ever hope for when abroad, often translating and writing down meal orders for me to help me get my food, helping me when I was sick with a light case of bronchitis, referring me to attractions and teaching me how to use the taxis and trains when I first arrived. These new friends have made the difference for me and had I not had them the isolation would have been too severe.

The real isolation I am talking about comes through on the weekends, when I don’t have like-minded friends (and girlfriend) to share things with. I’ve found that the old saying really is true that nothing is fully enjoyed until it’s been shared (hence the facebook and twitter, etc. phenomenon). Even for the most reclusive introvert, a fair portion of the enjoyment of any thing or experience is in sharing it and one’s joy in it with someone, more so if they are like-minded and enjoy it as well.

I was fortunate to start dating the illustrator last year and since most of this year has forced us into a long distance relationship, we cultivated good communication habits early, speaking on instant messenger apps everyday and using google and skype video and voice call software once a week or so. She has been my greatest link to my home and my support system simply through the consistency of our communication (and her affection). Continued contact with my family and my good friend TUE on messenger apps and email have been significant in keeping me happy as well. It is so so key, I have found, to stay connected to the people that made you who you are.

The first major take-home I’ve gained from my adventure so far is the importance of friendships and relationships. Smart people like Viktor Frankl and Jesus and Ravi Zacharias have said this before me and now I must attest to their absolute truth in this – that relationships are a KEY factor to human happiness and purpose. Frankl includes the experience of love (importantly both given and received) as one of the 3 things that gives a man purpose in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Jesus’ teachings and those of the apostles who spread them have their foundations in the relational nature of mankind, even depicted in the relationship of God as three persons in one – God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus being the same spiritual entity but having a relationship nature as well (mind melting stuff). Zacharias includes relationships among the 4 things one needs to be happy (also included in this list is a sense of wonderment – hence the popularity of movies and fantasy and fiction).

What do I miss most about South Africa? – my girlfriend, friends and family. Thankfully my girlfriend will be here to visit me and help me enjoy all there is here in just 1 weeks time. And TUE may possibly be visiting in November.

* writers note: this is simply a section of writing a produced half written to myself a week ago. I could have adapted it for the blogosphere audience but decided to leave it as it is because any delays might become permanent as I tend to procrastinate such administrative edit-like practices. It also introduces a few ideas that I don’t conclude. I’ll get to them another time.*

This morning I am fasting until supper time, I sit now in the cafeteria area at st. Andrews village where we are staying and holding school for the Vietnamese kids. They are not what I expected at all – I thought that they would be poor kids taken out of poverty like the one’s I spent the first half of the year working with, they showed up last Sunday with Galaxy tablets and iPhones, gouchi bags and DC shoes and so my perspective changed – welcome to first world missions. Most of these kids are from high class families in Vietnam, one of the kids that I am personally responsible for as an example has a father who owns a hotel on the beach front of Ha Long – the biggest tourist destination in Vietnam. He showed my a picture on a post card:

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There is a range though, Andrew (I’ll call the youngest kid Andrew as a code name) doesn’t seem to be as well off as the rest of them. He uses a cheap little Nokia cell phone, his parents may have sent him off with it as opposed to a more expensive phone, but I doubt it. He is a total technogeek. All of these kids are, but about 30% of them are in deep, not daring a trip to the bathroom without their tech in hand. Andrew is a fascinating little 11 year old though. I’ll get back to him but first I must mention Douglass (another code name). Doug is also an 11 year old but this is a troubled kid. A friend of mine also ministering as a missionary here is convinced he’ll be a ganglord with a baseball bat leaning over a disloyal worker in a basement one day later in life if he carries on on this path we’ve intersected him on. He seems to lack a conscience and is totally self involved – meaning that he will do all that he can get away with. He erupts into a vicious grin once in a while after he has just teased some other kid or somehow managed to inflict pain upon someone else. A few times I have arrived and found him grinning next to some kid with a sad expression. Doug laughs as he explains to me in broken English that “hahaha, no nothing happen ha ha *insert Vietnamese shouting and pointing in a mocking fashion towards the sad kid* ha ha, nothing happen”. We’ll continue to try and show this kid love and discipline.

*Writers note: these are all great kids though and let it be known that I grew very fond of them all and am eager to watch their progress through life. Many of them have really great potential and I was privileged to be a part of their journey in reaching it.*

Journal 2012-06-12
I spent time in the Buddhist tooth relic temple today in Chinatown. This was the first Buddhist temple I’ve ever been to. I was politely asked to remove my hat as I approached the inner doors by a guide lady. She couldn’t speak English but the hand gestures were clear enough and she smiled with her eyes when I removed my hat and stuffed it into my back pocket.

I took many photos, it was difficult to do so though because of the strange lighting. Most of the temple is dark with bad lighting of the overwhelming- red and gold in the architecture and statues of the 100 Buddhas around each of the 20 or so larger Buddhas. Then there is a very large Buddha guarded on either side by golden guard statues with angry expressions and angry weapons in their hands. This big Buddha is completely gold in colour with a hand raised as if to bless those in the room and a smirk to rival any other. There are lights shining brightly onto this Buddha from all directions reflecting off of the statues gold with the effect that any attempt at amateur photography yields only an overexposed blur. I’m sure they do this on purpose.

I had a long conversation with a serving lady in the temple who has been a Buddhist for about 15 years. She tried a few Japanese religions before becoming a Buddhist. She said that she had been searching for happiness and truth (in her own words) and truth (which was implied – being the foundational aspect of Buddhism – the search for and ascent unto pure truth). She said that she had found all of this in Buddhism and that she had a sharper and quicker mind since becoming a Buddhist. I smirked inside as she begrudgingly and slowly attempted to put this idea of her quicker mind into words.

Half way through our conversation she stopped and stepped aside to help a young man in a trendy blue v-neck and a backpack to a little red card which he then wrote the names of his family on (5 Mandarin symbols). He took the card and placed it amidst flowers at the base of a little glass lantern and she instructed him in placing it upon a table where it joined 25 other lanterns – “he is acquiring a blessing for his family” said my guide lady friend as she returned to me, having observed that I waited for her and for this little ceremony to be completed. As I enquired more of her and her religion she invited me to study more on the topics I asked about. I told her that I had been searching for the same things as her – “peace, happiness and truth but that I had found it in Jesus Christ” and that I believed there was some truth in Buddhism but it wasn’t all true, as opposed to Jesus’ teachings. The conversation continued and she invited me to the library upstairs where they keep literature and the teachings of the Buddhas. There is also a monk scholar there who she recommended I speak to. I hope to take her up on this suggestion. I would like to hear what a fully fledged Buddhist has to say on matters of truth and spirituality.

Ahh wow, Singapore – this city gets me, it understand me. It provides a 24 hour Starbucks 10 meters away from a pristine and perfect subway. It has clear and clean walkways for pedestrians and cyclists. It has the beauty of high rise buildings with their lights, blue tinted windows and gun-metal grey architecturally alluring angular walls, reaching for the sky in pure prideful self indulgence (buildings are tall here because they can be, that is all) and an atmosphere of forestry due to the beautiful green grasses, South East Asian trees and the many twisting lakes and rivers winding through the bright streets and shining cars and busses. This is what strikes me most and first about this country compared to South Africa, nothing is dusty. I haven’t seen dust in my 3 days here so far – everything is clean and nothing is any less than its true colour. Everything seems to be bright. The gray roads even seem to shimmer like silver and the sidewalks like precious stones.

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Singapore city (c) JSB

Thud thud thud, went the sound of my feet as I took my first run through this concrete jungle this morning. I woke up early enough to take a 30 minute run and be back at st. Andrews village before breakfast. My brand new New Balance running shoes were perfect for the occasion, new like everything else in Singapore. This city is a shopping mall. Actually it’s like some grand city creator opted away from the cheaper brands and walked straight into the designer city chop, picked Singapore in it’s expensive packaging off of the top shelf and payed for it with a Platinum Credit card. Unwrapped it from it’s pricey plastic wrapper and placed it in the ocean for the amusement of the Chinese, Indonesian and other South East Asian people. This city is fresh like a Samsung Galaxy S3 right out of the box, comes with its batteries pre charged and like an Asus Transformer: Primed to go.

I run out through the automated booms unnecessarily guarding st. Andrews village from one of the safest places on earth. I take a left through a group of Asian school kids making their way to school for morning classes. I keep my pace up, measuring my stride by my breathing, not growing tired simply because of how entertained my mind is at the people, streets, buildings, grasses and Singapore river which has now come up beside me as I move through the streets. I am amused, I am very amused. 1.3 gadgets per person as I get to a bridge girded by purple flowers, I have never seen such a technology integrated culture before. I am reminded as I join the runners walkway next to the river of two nights before when in my jet lag I took a walk to an all night Chinese diner through dark alley ways and obscure corners in the shadow of the government housing apartment skyscrapers with my eight thousand rand tablet loosely in my hand, not a fear in the world. My South African nerves took a few minutes to calm and then the safety of this world sunk in. Thud thud thud, the feel of my feet hitting the perfect pavement still reverberating through my body as I pass old Chinese men and women stretching in Tai Chi stances against the railings by the river. I make a mental note: “stop to stretch in a tai chi fashion when you’re too tired Jeremy, that’ll be cool”.

“I should probably turn back” I think to myself, 07:55, I read the time on the watch of a 5 foot tall Chinese lady runner because I can’t understand her Mandarin when I point to my wrist in the global sign language of the developed world, noting that 25 minutes have passed and I’m getting quite far from my base. I don’t want to stop though, this is too good. A perfect running experience, the pain of the air straining through my lungs and the developing stiffness in my calves are a dull backdrop to the sights, sounds, smell, atmosphere of where I am. Dull like the streets of Pretoria – a whole nother world, more than a world away.

Soon I’m in the city, and an hour later I’m finally back at st. Andrews village. Having gotten lost in the city and circled around with the help of locals until I finally found myself in a familiar area and on my way back to Patong Pasir, my Singaporian home suburb.

“Glorious” I sms to a friend back home in South Africa. That run was glorious. This city is almost perfect. Only three days in and I am enthralled with what I have seen.

This school can be a major challenge at times. The word ‘challenge’ is a euphemism of course – sometimes it can feel like a nightmare. Schools like this feel like black holes sometimes, just sucking up the light you bring without compassion or mercy.

The latest struggle has been to simply have afternoon classes. The first quarter went very well in terms of classes in that I was able to give classes three times a week every week to the grade 10s, 11s and 12s. With much discussion and observation I tried to diagnose the situation in the school with regard to maths. The school had come to us reiterating again and again that maths maths maths was really the key problem here. Their other subjects were ok, maths was the real need.

So the problem has always been simple. The situation and ‘why’ behind the problem has been more complicated. This is always the case though – finding problems with the world and ourselves is easy – but determining the practical ‘why’ behind the problem is hard. Root cause analysis is difficult. It is the only way to truly solve a problem though.

So the first ‘why’ that the teachers and I came to agree on was that the basics were a problem for the students. They still needed to grasp those foundational concepts of negative numbers and integers and even basic arithmetic. One afternoon class I stopped in abject frustration and went through this with the top class in the school – Grade 12A:

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Board work (c) JSB

So despite the depth of this problem, it gave purpose to my lessons in the first quarter – knowing exactly what to teach them. I drew up worksheets with problems designed to guide the students into understanding. These went down very well and I was encouraged numerous times as I would literally see the moment when the concepts would click in the minds of students who had been blind to them for so many years.

Now this quarter has been a little different. I came back from the holidays after the first quarter with a lot of enthusiasm to really do things well – but I was stopped right in my tracks. Something was getting in the way of all of my classes – the reason for which I only discovered 2 weeks ago. It turned out from a conversation I had with a teacher who I have befriended at the school that there was trouble from the government after the results from the first quarter. All of the teachers giving matric subjects were tasked with coming up with some kind of plan to fix the situation. Most of the teachers’ plan was to have more after school classes – at the times when I would usually give my classes. So the problem was simply communication. Now I have no quarrel with these after school classes because it’s a great thing. Teachers taking more responsibility for their job and working at getting their students to where they need to be, but I wish I had been told earlier so that I could have made alternative arrangements and not been in the dark wondering why things weren’t coming together for so long.

After I found this piece of information out I started thinking of a new plan and came up with this:

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Maths Poster (c)

In speaking to teachers and students I came upon another major problem and ‘why’ behind the maths problems in the school. Students in the area have struggled to find a safe and dedicated place to do their homework and studying. The idea dawned on me that we needed to try to create a studious atmosphere where students could come and spend time in their books and get assistance from myself and the other VET volunteers (my colleagues) not only in Maths but in whatever work they were working on. The second problem has always been communication. In the first quarter, the only way to get students in your class was to chase them down and struggle and fight to remind them of their class that afternoon. We needed a better, clearer and less time consuming way to communicate with the students. This poster would do the trick. Finally, we needed a venue for this initiative. The Media Centre is a classroom that once looked like this:

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and that now looks like this:

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Kwa-Dinabakubo Media Centre (c) JSB

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Kwa-Dinabakubo (c) JSB

There was still one problem though that put this new plan of mine on hold. Chairs. We had managed to organise tables, we had painted the room. We had cleaned it. We had managed to get some encyclopedias and build a few bookshelves – but we didn’t have chairs. There could be no class until we had chairs. I put a status up on my personal facebook as follows:

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and God provided. The next day or a few hours later I received an sms from a generous person offering to donate R1000 toward chairs for the media centre! I promptly got onto the internet and made a search for school chairs. I came across an advert on Gumtree and got into contact with the seller who I negotiated with and with a discount and an extra R100 of my own I came away with 30 second hand school chairs. With a rented trailer and a borrowed car (with a tow hitch) I delivered the chairs to the school and finally the classes could begin!

Yesterday (May 29) I finally made copies of the poster and pasted it up all over the school. The idea for this class to be held at 15h30 was so that the class wouldn’t get in the way of other classes held by other teachers and also so as to act as a deterrent to all except those students that wanted to come and work. That day many students showed interest and that afternoon our first three students showed up to work and ask questions. Finally – I could assist and teach some students once again after more than a month of struggling against the system in this rural environment.

Today though I must confess that I am frustrated and a little put down. We arrived at school today to find more than half of the posters that I had put up torn down and defaced. Why would they do this? One puts in so much effort only to have it thrown back in the face. Of course I understand that students will be students and that the environment of violence, disrespect and hopelessness around them all inspires such acts of insolence – but still, this is demotivating.

In any case I will not be deterred and I will not be stopped, I fight for principles far above those which try to destroy our work and so as I write this today at 13h20 on 30 May, our class will go on and students will be helped. For the glory of God who inspired all of this and who has helped to make it all happen.

Peace. Jeremy (aka Jack Figure)

* Note from the Author: these are merely my thoughts. Some of them not put together or explained all that well. Read with grace.*

Readers, supporters, friends, family, internet trolls: I am off on a journey to South East Asia. Welcome. Here are my thoughts:

The idea snuck up on me like a ninja in the night. I’m not sure when I first began to dream of travelling to the East. It may have begun when I read a book by Sam Sheridan who travelled across the globe learning the fighting trade. Boxing in the USA, Brazilian Jui-jitsu in South America, wrestling in Russia, Tai Chi in China, Muay Thai in Thailand.

It may also have been the Kung Fu movies I love – crouching tiger, hidden dragon; The forgotten kingdom. It may have been spurred on by my love for martial arts and my training in Kickboxing (etc).

Mostly though – I think it was a fascination with their philosophy. Eastern philosophy has something to it that it’s western cousin just can’t quite capture. Something spiritual, something beyond logical constructs which paradoxically form illogical constraints that dull the honest search for wisdom. A wisdom beyond ontological argument and Niche scepticism. Eastern philosophy at it’s best is the oasis in the desert of the western paradigm.

Now I stand ready to take this single step so as to begin my journey of a thousand miles. Confucius would be proud. My visa is in the works, my airplane tickets are bought and payed for, the money I’ll need for this mission is raised… Just one month from now, I am off.

I will be travelling with my own philosophy into a completely new world drenched in the philosophies of a different sort to those I’ve grown up around. My philosophy is a christian one. The philosophy as taught by Jesus of Nazareth – as such; I go with a mission to make His glory known, simply through living as a man moved by His truth, glory, love and hope. I will be involved in education in Singapore and Thailand through local churches and mission organisations. In Singapore I will help to teach and influence Vietnamese School students and in Thailand I will offer myself as an aid for Thai students to learn conversation skills in English.

There is more though.

I think I have one very specific calling (among others)- to write. Not necessarily right now (I am not wise enough or skilled enough just yet), but one day – I must fulfil this mandate to write of what I discover – mixing experience, philosophy, apologetics, politics, history, science, technology and theology. I must discover the essence of Buddhist transcendence and Hindu fragmentation and learn to apply Christian truth to Buddhist culture and Hindu practices. If Jesus isn’t applicable in all places – he isn’t applicable at all. I must learn and apply different perspectives, like filters, to this analysis of Christ and his message so as to free my philosophy of the peripheral and base it on the essential. I believe the whole truth is right here in the bible – but it is clarified when one applies and examines it across contexts – therefore I must make an effort to experience other contexts. I believe the truth of the gospel is applicable to all people and across all contexts – but to demonstrate this I must widen my understanding of the world and it’s people. I feel as if God has something to show me, some story for me to discover and some perspective to gain from which to write about it. To a large extent that is what this trip is about. An investment into preparing myself for the work I must do for the kingdom of God and for the kingdom of the world as time takes me on this train ride onwards through my life.

“Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.” – Confucius.
“And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil” – John 3v19.
“Again therefore Jesus spoke to them, saying “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life”” -John 8v12

Please stand with me in prayer and support as I go off in this light to discover and learn;

Regards,
Jeremy (aka Jack Figure)

Dear friends and family

The past few months have been dense with learning experiences, challenges (spiritual, emotional, physical) and God. I arrived here 3.5 months ago and this fact surprises me every time I think upon it because it has felt a lot longer. I think part of the reason for this is that back at University time really flew, especially in final year as a Mechanical Engineer, the continual deadlines came at me each week and the mounting pile of work and concepts to comprehend meant that I was always on the move.

Students never stop moving. They are a passionate demographic. Whatever they are doing, they are generally doing it with everything they have. I always felt as if I needed a few more hours each day; the effect of spending a long period of time with the constant feeling that one is short of time leaves the impression that time passes by very quickly. In contrast to this, life here in the valley is still very busy, but only to a fair and manageable degree. In University I needed 28 hours per day, here I need 24 hours per day and so my life feels balanced. This is what I have been searching for and have gone in search of this year – balance.

I would describe the work that I am involved in here as two part time jobs. The first is as a Maths teacher at Kwa-Dinabakubo Secondary School and the second is as a general project team member where I assist with the weekly teaching and other projects that go on in any way that I can. Usually this includes video camera and multi-media work. We try to record each teaching and message that is given in both video and audio to put on CDs and DVDs. I also am the only one around with a car available and so another duty of mine involves taking people where they need to be for the different programs.

The school work is my main concern though, this job has become very close to my heart and is a vital part of this year of mine as I try to ascertain what to do with the years that follow this one. I am testing a hypothesis; I want to know if I can truly make a life out of teaching. I am considering acquiring a diploma in higher education and becoming a travelling teacher, spending a few years at a time (up to 10) in different countries, starting in the East (Japan, Thailand, South Korea, etc.).

So far the hypothesis is being proven true. I still thoroughly enjoy teaching and find that teaching comes naturally to me. As I step in front of a class and begin to open my mouth; it is as if a switch gets flicked and I go into ‘teaching mode’. I have learnt that I thrive in an atmosphere of organised chaos where maths lessons become more of a dialogue than a monologue by the guy in front with the chalk in his hand. I find that my training in engineering has prepared me such that I am able to answer questions even on new areas with just a few minutes of quite thought – giving me the freedom to provide a free sort of classroom environment. One in which every mind is engaged constantly.

I also know the value of discipline though, having learnt that without a certain amount of discipline one becomes shackled by one’s own languidity. I spent the first few weeks at the school walking around with a stern expression and a stiff gait, demanding respect from the kids. Thus when I arrived in my first class, the first impression was already one of someone who won’t take nonsense. This backdrop then gave me the freedom to introduce a less strict atmosphere into the class whilst retaining control. I enjoy a good joke, whether made by myself or one of the kids in the back row, and I believe this helps to build upon that relationship I hope to foster with the learners. In the end I want them to feel comfortable to come to me with maths questions, and life questions. On this front I have had some measure of success already. There have been 4 or 5 kids that have opened up to me and who I have done my best to guide in one way or another (with God’s help).

These are some of my thoughts on my mission thus far. Peace and grace to all my supporters. Thanks for the support. You are making a difference.

Jeremy (aka Jack Figure)

I began to work in Kwadinabakubo Secondary School just 3 weeks ago now. I hoped to be like Keating from Dead Poets Society. I think I am making head way.

First, an introduction to Kwadinabakubo Secondary School. One eventually gets used to saying the name, though it took me a few weeks. I have discovered something interesting about the rural third world, something old school and satisfying: when one is curious about something these days one need go no further than a simple Google search and the information is yours. In the third world however, you don’t get people with blogs or websites, so the information just simply isn’t on the net.

Crazy right?

Hence the resurgence of journalism. When Google fails, interviews become your search engine. Having just read an Isaac Asimov Sci-fi detective novel, I can’t help but feel a small sense of adventure when I seek information in this way. In any case, I digress, what I’m getting to is the meaning of the name of Kwadinabakubo Secondary School. When Google searches yielded nothing helpful, I began asking people in the area about the name. It turns out that the name comes from a traditional Zulu chief who ruled the area long ago. His name was Dinabakubo, translated literally as “To anger someone”.

So back in the history of this place was a boy who made those around him angry, yet rose to power and ruled an entire district. I hope I discover more about this story.

The school is a government township school, meaning that poverty grips the school with a corrugated iron fist and it shows. The school grounds are classrooms scattered over fields of knee-high overgrown weeds, sparsely interrupted by patches of red KwaZulu-Natal dirt. The kids adhere to a relaxed school uniform regulation, wearing as much of the uniform as they were able to acquire for themselves. Gray long pants and a white shirt, every 5th kid with a tie, every 10th with a school jersey and every 20th adorning a blazer. In classic South African style however, every kid has perfectly shined black school shoes. Every kid has a cloth they dearly guard and pull out at each available moment, placing each foot on a ledge to maintain that shine, ankles exposed, I’ve only seen 2 pairs of socks so far.

There is no bell and when the government disallowed corporal punishment, they put no alternatives in the hands of the teachers meaning that if there were a bell it would scarcely mean anything to the hoard anyway. When I first arrived, I though it was break time, but this is simply how things go all day in Kwadinabakubo. The problem is mostly with the teachers though. The kids are in class when their teachers are there, but my oh my how the teachers adhere to African time…

I am one of three volunteers who are working with CAPRO here with this mission to the school. I am joined by Ayanda and Sinesipho who teach English, they are beginning to set up a literacy program where they can identify and help the students who have managed somehow to hustle their way thus far through the school system thus far without being able to read/write/speak/understand english

I am teaching Mathematics. I am loving it. I can honestly hardly contain my excitement and enthusiasm following most school days. I have become that guy that loves his job. I always wondered if that was too high an aspiration to aim for, but here I am, each day as I walk from my final class over the weed patches, black-jacks clinging to my jeans, back to my car, I grin with a deep sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. I am working on the front lines for God, I am living out what I proclaim to believe (the teachings of Jesus), I am shaping young minds, I get to talk of interesting things all day and thrive off of a dynamic environment.

The beauty of a public/government school to someone like me is that I am free to do things my way:
– One must rely on an ability to think quickly on one’s feet, the labour of detailed planning is made unnecessary by the chaotic freedom in a school like this.
– The dynamic environment is extremely stimulating, being forced to juggle mathematical concepts, 40 different personalities, an improvised lesson and discipline all at the same time. One must constantly seek to hold 40 people’s interest, maintain order whilst allowing the small amount of chaos that catalyses the learning process and make sure to teach from the perspective of those whose attention one holds, one must teach and explain to their level.
– I absolutely thrive in this chaos.

The privilege of seeing that spark in the eyes of a kid as they suddenly grasp something that has been a mystery for years is invigorating. As they exclaim “oooooooohhhh!” and suddenly the motivation is shrugged off and they attack the next problem on the worksheet with new confidence. Knowing that you have just made an irreversible difference in a kid’s life like this is special. And I won’t grow tired of it quickly.

As relationships with the kids grow, other opportunities open up too, I shared a very enjoyable conversation on religion, apologetics, practical philosophy and Jesus with two matric kids just the other day.

Please leave any comments or questions you may have, I will respond as soon as I can,

PEACE.

Jack Figure (aka Jeremy)

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