With maraca-like speed

And so we dance. – Kellylee Evans

Graduation ceremonies in the States are like saltine crackers in comparison to the graduation ceremonies in Limpopo. For every bit our graduations are dry, predictable and a little bit square, ceremonies in Limpopo are bursting with color and ceremonial flavor.

It was our last day at Tiyani Clinic. When we arrived, all the community health workers we had trained last week were already in the center of the clinic courtyard dancing with summer-storm fervor. In contrast to the starch, navy blue uniforms they had sported during their training session the day before, today they were each decked out in their finest traditional wardrobes. Brightly colored striped dresses and long beaded necklaces swung around and around their bodies as they bounced and spun. On their hips, the women wore large tasseled belts that moved with maraca-like speed as they shook around the circle.

celebration dancing

A few of us jumped right into the spiral of dancing. We all marched around the circle together, shaking our hips as fast as we could, until the head nurse called for us all to sit down.

The day continued in a stream of dance. When each woman was called up to receive her certificate for completing our training workshop, the music was turned back on, and she sashayed her way down the aisle. There was a sense throughout the courtyard of dance being the only adequate way to greet good news.

* * *

Throughout this summer, whenever we have gathered together with our community partners in Tiyani or for an appointment at the University of Venda, each meeting has been structured around three main things: an agenda, tea time, and a vote of thanks.

Though I can’t speak for all of South Africa, or even all of Limpopo, people in Thohoyandou, it seems, love agendas. Whenever we arrived at a group gathering, within the first five minutes someone would hand us an agenda detailing the proceedings for the next couple of hours. Without fail, each of these agendas included “tea time” about halfway through the proceedings and concluded with a “vote of thanks.”

The first time we ever heard about votes of thanks was back at the beginning of the summer, during our orientation day at UNIVEN. During lunchtime, our main faculty administrator from U.Va., Dr. Dillingham, addressed the group of us and said that it was customary for guests to end a gathering by taking a few minutes to thank their hosts for having them and to extol the virtues of the meeting. “It might seem a bit formal to us Americans, but here in Limpopo people are just very explicit about expressing gratitude,” she explained. “Would anyone like to volunteer?” I couldn’t help but smile. What an exquisite thing to value. My hand shot up in the air.

For the rest of the summer, whenever we had to give a vote of thanks, it became my job. On a couple of occasions people just wrote my name into the schedule and I wouldn’t find out until I arrived at the meeting myself that I would be giving the vote of thanks for the day. I loved it though. The whole summer I was plagued by a continual feeling that our team of students could never, through our research, give quite as much to the people we met in Limpopo as they had given to us. So I relished these opportunities to thank them. At times it felt like the only truly worthwhile thing I had to offer.

* * *

The ceremony was winding down and all that was left on the agenda was “Message from a Graduate” and “The Vote of Thanks.” As the young community health worker took the microphone and began to speak she said:

“Greetings to you all in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, hallelujah, amen!”

“Hallelujah, amen!” chorused the audience of community health workers in reply. The rest of the young woman’s speech was in Tsonga, but every couple of sentences she would shout, “Hallelujah!” and the women in the audience would respond, “Amen!”

As I went up to the main stage to give the vote of thanks, I turned to the audience and observed the looks of polite attentiveness on each of the women’s faces. I thought about how funny I must look to them, dressed in the style of the elderly women in their communities (we found out very belatedly that only the grandmothers in their village wear floor-length skirts) and lacking the festive accessories that one ought to wear at celebrations like this. I thought about how little they had asked of us during our stay, and how relatively little we had to offer them in return.

And so I began, “Greetings to you all in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, hallelujah, amen!”

Each one of the woman’s face lit up in surprise. “Hallelujah, amen!” they cheered.

I told them how much I admired them. In the meager bit of “Church English” that we all shared, I told them that I thanked God for having met them and for having been able to spend the summer learning about how they care for their communities. I told them that the greatest blessing of my summer had been to learn that women like them existed, that they had renewed my faith in community health work and had given me hope for the future. After I finished each thought I would say, “Hallelujah!” and the women would respond with a hearty “amen!”

When I sat down again, I was shaking. After a summer of holding focus groups, teaching lessons, blogging and giving presentations, I suddenly had nothing left to say. After a summer of looking for the right words, I had found them in the most familiar of places: hidden quietly in plain view of a shared faith.

Hallelujah, amen.

CHIL 473


Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

A revolution of the heart

“Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.” – Nelson Mandela

Limpopo is the poorest province in South Africa. It falls into clear last place for all the areas of the 2011 South African Census, save a few times where it lands is an almost indistinguishable second-to-last place behind the Eastern Cape. These indicators include:

  • The highest proportions of people aged 20 years and older with no schooling with 17.3% (nearly twice the national average).

  • Only 50% of houses have electricity for cooking, heating and lighting

  • The proportion of households with access to refuse removal by local authority/private company at least once a week: 21.8%

  • Highest unemployment rate at 38.9%

  • Lowest average household income of 57000 ZAR a year (the equivalent of ~5700 USD)

Statistics about poverty are shamefully unmoving. In my experience, they manage to obscure our understanding of poverty more than they hone it. Though it is necessary to measure poverty to be able to sustainably address it, they way that we talk about these numbers becomes crucial to their capacity to retain any meaning in people’s lives.

I personally find it very hard to talk about poverty in a genuine way. As well versed as I am in its indicators and its consequences, it is incredibly hard to make poverty relatable. Like the plague, we know it ought to be avoided but we’re unsure whether its so bad that we should do our part to protect everyone from it or if we’re just obliged to take care of ourselves and our loved ones.

The existence of poverty begs the question of what we are entitled to. Is the fact that you own private property more significant than you living in a country where you can own private property? Does the fact that you qualify for medical insurance mean you deserve it more than others? How impressive is your bachelor’s degree if you didn’t have to pay for it?

I can imagine that a quick answer to many of these questions would be something along the lines of “I worked for it.” And you’re right, I believe! Or at least you are partly right.

You are right that it is hugely significant that you could work to gain something that would better your life. The right to work is necessary but not sufficient to eliminating poverty. The right to productive work is.

One of the most important pathways to productive work is education, and the University of Venda represents just that in the lives of their students. In the poorest province in South Africa, UNIVEN offers a way out of poverty to some of the young people in their communities by offering more affordable tuition than almost anywhere else in the country. All of the students that we have worked with this summer belong to the most popular program at the university, the School of Nursing.

If you were to transplant nurses in Limpopo to the States they would be a closer equivalent to Nurse Practitioner-Midwives than to nurses. These young men and women are trained to do everything–and I really mean everything. One of the first conversations I had with our friend Rendani, I asked him what his clinical curriculum had been like.

“Well for starters,” he said, “I’ve already delivered more than thirty babies on my own.” I was floored.

“Thirty?!” I asked, incredulous.

“Thirty,” he answered, amused at my disbelief.

Whether they themselves are religious or not, the nurses and nursing students that I have met in South Africa practice Christianity in the sense I feel it most to be true:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

The only thing that I am sure of is at this point is that the challenge of grappling with poverty is not so much a question of the head as it is of the heart. To borrow again from Dorothy Day:

The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?



The call to creativity

The names in this post will be changed to protect students’ privacy.

There was no fog in London until Whistler started painting it. – Oscar Wilde

“Next up we have Claire Constance, from the University of Virginia. Claire, we hear that the thing you do best is spoken word poetry so we would like to invite you up on stage to battle one of our own students, and see who comes out on top.”

I gave Lufuno and Hulisani my you’ve got to be kidding me look. They both laughed, slapped me on the back and started shoving me towards the front stage.

It was a Wednesday afternoon and we were at the University of Venda weekly open mic. Hulisani had made a point to tell the students who ran the open mic that his friends from the US were going to come and participate, so they had planned the setlist so the acts alternated between U.Va. and UNIVEN students. And now it was my turn.

I’m not a very competitive person. I’m all for challenging myself and trying new things, but I’ve never been the person who was going to fight you for the last slice of pizza, let alone go head-to-head against you in front of a crowd to prove which of our poems was better.

I looked out at the sea of tables in the auditorium, then smiled weakly at my opponent.

“Dakalo, you’re first!” The MC roared, “show us what you’ve got!”

My opponent spoke like a dancer: his words were choreographed perfectly. Each line of his poem two-stepped into the other, and when he was all finished, it was clear the crowd was having such a good time they were just about ready to jump up on stage with him.

“Next up, Claire Constance from the University of Virginia!”

I was handed a microphone. I paused to look out at everyone and grinned.

“Hey, everyone, thanks so much for having us here today. Dakalo is going to be a tough act to follow but if you’ll hear me out, this poem is called ‘Rules’.”

As I began to recite my poem, I was overwhelmed with a deep feeling of gratitude. All summer I have felt foreign. I have felt how I would imagine a house plant must feel: both uprooted and walled-in at the same time. Not unhappy, because I still have more than I really need, but out of place all the same.

Finding that place where you belong, brought to you by XKCD comics.

Finding that place where you belong, brought to you by XKCD comics.

But somehow at this open-mic, that all went away. Here was something that we all understood. What’s more, here was something that we all respected: an art that combines storytelling and musicality. For the the first time that summer, I felt like I was a part of the UNIVEN community; that instead of being their guest I was their friend.

* * *

This week I have been reading Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. The book, on the whole, tries to grapples with why art is important to us by offering a variety of different answers to the question, “What is the point of art?” My favorite section of the book begins by asking a compelling question:

Can we get better at love?

Romantic regrets, brought to you by XKCD comics.

Romantic regrets, brought to you by XKCD comics.

For most of my life, I thought of love as something more or less a fixed quality. Love, being one of those universally important things, was good wherever and whenever it arrived. As something that we all both want and need, I saw it as a great equalizer, something which would be hard to edit and potentially impossible to revise, given that it was buried so deep in the archeology of our hearts.

But in the past few years I have begun to understand what Oscar Wilde’s Basil Hallward meant when he said to his friend Lord Henry Wotton “You like everyone; that is to say, you are indifferent to everyone.” Love, it seemed, was not above context but required context. To love everyone or everything was to misappropriate the emotion entirely.

The Bible has plenty of swell things to say about love. However one of my favorites is 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.”

Armstrong and de Botton define art’s mission as “to teach us to be good lovers: lovers of river and lovers of skies, lovers of motorways and lovers of stones. And — very importantly — somewhere along the way, lovers of people” (103). They provide a response to this mission with another age-old question:

What is it like to be a good lover?

True vulnerability, brought to you by XKCD comics.

True vulnerability, brought to you by XKCD comics.

And the answer both to loving art and loving those who are most dear to us, they insist, is in a combination of attention to detail, patience, curiosity, resilience, sensuality, reason and perspective.

The Catholic Church teaches that “we show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation.” In other words, we show our love for God at least in part by how we love people and the planet.

* * *

After I finished reciting my poem I came back to my table where Lufuno and Hulisani were still sitting. They both wrapped me in big hugs.

“Wow,” Hulisani said shaking his head, “That was was just…wow.”

I laughed,  “What, Hulisani, you surprised that I write poetry?”

“No, I’m surprised you write poetry well.” I feigned horror.

“What’s that supposed to mean, Hulisani?” Lufuno jumped in.

“What he means is you write poetry like you’re from Venda!” Hulisani nodded his head in agreement. I beamed. Though I was still suspicious that the crowd had voted me the winner of the poetry battle as a gesture of respect to me as a visiting student, I couldn’t hide my delight.

This was the goal after all: for the art and the love to be one and the same.

Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

You’ve got to be kind

Live a life of kindness. – Lilly Constance

The names in this post will be changed to protect students’ privacy.

At the end of each week we take turns presenting that week’s progress to the faculty at UNIVEN.  Each presentation is carried out by one U.Va. student and one UNIVEN student and a couple weeks back it was my and Lufuno’s turn. Lufuno didn’t have much experience using PowerPoint so we spent an afternoon familiarizing him with the program. Then we put together a presentation on the work that our child development group had done that week.

The morning of the presentation Lufuno and I met up before everyone else to practice our spiel and go through how we were going to switch off between slides. As we sat on a bench outside our meeting space the following scene unfolded:

Lufuno–earnest, humble, and one of the top nursing students in his class–was sitting rigidly on the bench, facing straight ahead intently focused on memorizing the bullet points on each of the slides. Alternatively, I–enthusiastic and comparatively unconcerned about the task at hand–was trying to make Lufuno relax. I sat facing towards him and every time Lufuno asked a question I would try and make eye contact with him or smile encouragingly to let him know that we were on the right track. But to my growing frustration, every time I tried to make eye contact with Lufuno he would avert his eyes or look the other way. It finally became too much and I just burst out laughing.

“Lufuno, you know, in the States when we’re trying to show someone that we respect or support them, we look them in the eye.”

Lufuno whipped around and this time he did look at me, mouth open, eyes wide.

“Wow!” He just laughed and laughed. “Here, when I want to show some one respect or support I would never look them in the eye.”  The both of us shook our heads and let out sigh of relief as it became apparent that each thought the other had been behaving strangely.

“Alright, out with it Lufuno, what are other things that I do that seem strange or awkward to you?”

He gave me a pained smile.

“Ahhhh well, you see…” He broke into laughter again.

What followed was a long conversation between the two of us about cultural differences in interpersonal interactions. In particular with greetings and farewells, it seemed that there were a lot of subtleties I had missed out on the first time people had been trying to teach me how to greet people of different statuses or genders. In particular, it seemed that when I said my general “Aa” (“hello” for females) to people I had been bowing in the the wrong direction. Instead of bowing slightly to the right–the signature of the female greeting–I have been bowing slightly to the left–the signature of the male greeting. Talk about botching first impressions. Though most of the people that we met were very forgiving of our communication slip-ups since we were foreigners, it suddenly dawned on odd me how my attempts at greeting people must have seemed: “Hello, my name is Claire, and in case you were curious, I swing both ways.” Maybe I exaggerate, but the unrestrained peal of laughter that Lufuno let out when I demonstrated to him how I had been greeting people for those first couple of weeks seemed to imply just that. Yet despite all this, Lufuno was incredibly patient with me, and from that point on in the summer he always went out of his way to offer me small lessons in Venda culture.

This week I read Thirst, a collection of poems by Mary Oliver that she wrote after the death of her partner of over thirty years that chronicles for the first time her discovery of faith. I have always been a fan of Mary Oliver but wanted to read this collection while I was in Limpopo because I felt her literary travels through the landscape of sorrow might offer an interesting parallel to life in a foreign country. One of the poems in Thirst that struck me the most was called “In the Storm.”

"In the Storm" by Mary Oliver

Though one might think that when traveling in a foreign country you would be most startled by the exotic, I found that I have been most moved by the commonplace: the meals people cook for us, conversations we’ve had or any of the many times people spontaneously break into song.

I suppose what I’m really saying is that I continue to be surprised by kindness. I think that more often than we like to admit, we look at kindness as a kind of currency: something that you give to people in exchange for something else. Because of this, we are always somewhat taken aback by kindness that we don’t “deserve.” We’re almost suspicious of it or assume that there must be some kind of ulterior motive. My entire stay here in Thohoyandou has been a continual lesson in the miracle of kindness.

Kindness, to me, seems to be the language of solidarity. The Catholic Church teaches that loving thy neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. Though on one level this means that we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers wherever they may be, I think that this is also just another way of saying that we cannot put limits on when and where kindness is due. Yes, we can prioritize foreign aid; yes, we will always have the opportunity to be systematic about how we invest in developing countries, but we don’t have room to compromise kindness.

I’ll leave you with my favorite lines from God Bless You, Mr. Rose Water by Kurt Vonnegut. It comes as part of a baptismal speech Mr. Rosewater is preparing for his neighbor’s twins:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

Visiting Tiyani Clinic with our UNIVEN Partners.

Visiting Tiyani Clinic with our UNIVEN Partners.

Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

How to be a good ancestor

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.  – Stanislaw Lec

I'm the one in the top left who you can barely see because the sun has made her a blinding shade of white

I’m the one in the top left who you can barely see because her skin is reflecting the sun.

I am embarrassed that we are more than halfway through the summer and I have not yet dedicated a blog post to the University of Venda (UNIVEN) students we have been collaborating with throughout the entirety of this project. Though it is easy to become possessive of the research we have been doing since we spent much of this past academic year in preparation of this project, our ultimate goal is to be able to hand over the reins to people already living in working in Limpopo. Why is this important to us?

In the past couple of decades, Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) has emerged as one of the most prominent public health research frameworks and social change mechanisms in practice. Championed as “a collaborative approach to research that equitably involves all partners in the research process and recognizes the unique strengths that each brings,” it “begins with a research topic of importance to the community with the aim of combining knowledge and action to bring about social change to improve community health.”

"The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate desserts" - C.S. Lewis

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate desserts” – C.S. Lewis

The goal of someone who is doing CBPR is similar to that which C.S. Lewis tasks the modern educator: “not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” Public health and medical research has a terribly long history of taking advantage of people for “the sake of science.” Much of the past half century in public health research has been spent trying to justify this kind of scholarship in the face of the emotional-historical scars left behind by disasters such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Willowbrook Hepatitis Study. With this in mind, the essence of CBPR is probably best summed up echoing the words of George Bernard Shaw: “I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” In other words: CBPR aims to erase the formal lines between the researcher and the researched to empower communities to take charge of ensuring their own well being.

“I'm not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead - ahead of myself as well as you.” - GBS

“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” – GBS

Though my team did not write the procedures for our project using strict CBPR methodology, it is these principles that have guided our collaboration with the University of Venda. Though we have spent plenty of time with our student research partners during the week preparing focus groups, writing curriculum and practicing our lesson plans, we have spent almost an equal amount of time just trying to get to know them better. We’ve had cookouts and performed in talent shows together; we’ve written poetry and sung songs while waiting for our bus to arrive to take us to Tiyani Clinic. We were even given Xitsonga names by the Tiyani clinic staff that our UNIVEN friends starting using. Mine was Topisa meaning “When she speaks, people listen”—a name that had the unfortunate effect of making me stutter much more often in public.

In last week’s post, I discussed the details of dignity–its form and features and what it might look like if we were to encounter it face-to-face. This week, as an extension of that discussion, I want to touch on how and why we must preserve dignity.

In public health, we talk a lot about this idea that “health is a human right.” As intuitive as this principle may sound, its worth was not internationally recognized until September of 1978 at the International Conference on Primary Health Care at Alma-Ata, USSR. The first tenet of the Declaration of Alma Alta is as follows:

The Conference strongly reaffirms that health, which is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, is a fundamental human right and that the attainment of the highest possible level of health is a most important world-wide social goal whose realization requires the action of many other social and economic sectors in addition to the health sector.

The Catholic Church maintains that, “human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met.” So if we assume protecting dignity also ensures the health of communities then the question we must ask is how can we best protect human rights and responsibilities. The answer, I believe, comes to us through the life of Jonas Salk.

"What makes your heart leap?" - Jonas Salk

“What makes your heart leap?” – Jonas Salk

Self-proclaimed bio-philosopher and inventor of the polio vaccine, Salk went down in history not for his biomedical innovation, but for his philosophical outlook.

“Who owns the patent on this vaccine?’

‘Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Salk was raised to believe that each person was responsible for making a difference in the world. However as he aged, he came to believe that we aren’t just responsible for making any kind of positive difference in the world, but one that will outlast our life times. In this 1985 interview with Richard Heffner on The Open Mind, Jonas Salk offered the following framework for how we must live our lives:

The most important question we can ask ourselves is:

“Are we being good ancestors?”

Conversations about ancestry tend to have somewhat of an archaic tinge to them these days. If ancestry comes up at all, it’s in occasional conversations with grandparents or when your friend happens to mention that their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great uncle was a duke or some vaguely important diplomat. If we talk about ancestry at all, it is in the context of who our ancestors were, rather than whose ancestors we will one day be.

What is missing from the majority of modern day discussions on human rights is this question of ancestry. Jonas Salk’s call to good ancestorship asks us to consider what it means to be human. Do our lives just have meaning in the present while we are living them, or can they retain meaning after we have passed? A sense of ancestry tries to get a feeling of inheritance. The opportunities and resources that we are privy to today do not truly belong to us; they have been passed down to us by many generations of our forbearers. And with that in mind, we have a responsibility to protect these opportunities and resources so they are available to generations to come.

It is hard to convince the general public of this. For instance, much of what we have inherited in the field of public health are things that have become such ordinary aspects of our daily scenery that it is hard to imagine people ever got along without them. Storm drains, stop lights, sidewalks and even our view of the night sky have been passed down to us from generations before us who fought to pass laws and start programs that would ensure the public health in a sustainable way. But because we were not involved in safeguarding their existence, it is very easy to take them for granted.

This past week, I have been reading He Leadth Me by Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, a Jesuit Priest who spent 23 years in Soviet prisons and Siberian labor camps. Similarly to Viktor Frankl, through his time in captivity Fr. Ciszek often reflected on the different preconditions of dignity and how one can find meaning in life in devastating circumstances. Not long after arriving in the Siberian work camps, Fr. Ciszek had the following realization:

It suddenly occurred to me how little I had ever had to worry about such things in the past. Even in prison, such things as food, shelter, and clothing–poor as they might have been–had been provided for me…Now, as I watched the thieves and criminals providing for themselves in a universe with its own set of standards and “justice”, I began to wonder about my own survival. The children of this world, surely, were wiser than the children of the light. How would I survive among them? For them, nothing existed beyond this material world and this moment. They survived because they learned how to survive. They were masters of the art of survival. Outside the bounds of civilized behavior or conscience , they preyed upon anyone weaker than themselves and revenged themselves upon society by crimes of violence and theft. In their view, society owed them something. So they took it. It was as simple as that. (Ciszek 86)

What I find most interesting in Fr. Ciszek’s reflection here is the relationship he proposes between time and dignity: that an ability to plan for and live beyond the present moment is the defining difference between the art of survival and the art of living.

Fr. Ciszek one year after his release from the Siberian work camps

Fr. Ciszek one year after his release from the Siberian work camps

Another way of expressing Fr. Ciszek’s point would be to say that to protect human dignity we must protect each other’s sense of ancestorship–our relationship with history and with home. Being a good ancestor calls for a deeper sense of belonging. That our human inheritance does not just consist of honoring the lives of all of those who have come before us, we also must work to honor the lives of those still to come.

Goethe and a Flight Lesson

There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.  – Dostoyevsky

Viktor Frankl (26 March 1905 – 2 September 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. On the night he thought was his last, Frankl turned to his friend Otto and said,

Listen, Otto, if I don’t get back home to my wife, and if you should see her again, then tell her that I told of her daily, hourly. You remember. Secondly, I have loved her more than anyone. Thirdly, the short time I have been married to her outweighs everything, even all we have gone through here.

Viktor Frankl with his wife, Tilly, before they were transported to Auschwitz

Viktor Frankl with his wife, Tilly, before they were transported to Auschwitz in 1944. Tilly did not survive the year.

Frankl believed that “love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire” (Frankl 38). But what allowed him to hold onto this believe so fervently amidst the moral deformity of the Holocaust? In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s autobiographical testament of his time in Auschwitz, he offers this explanation: “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man­, ­his courage and hope, or lack of them­ ­and the state of immunity of his body will understand that sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect” (75). To illustrate his point Frankl details for us his theory on the record high death rate in Auschwitz during Christmas 1944 to New Years 1945: that prisoners died because they had expected to be home before Christmas. When they realized this was not to be they completely lost hope in life beyond the concentration camp.

Lithograph by Leo Haas, Holocaust artist who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz (public domain)

Lithograph by Leo Haas, Holocaust artist who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz (public domain)

Last week, when reflecting on community engagement, I discussed how the sacrament of the present moment allows us to be stronger community members by enhancing our awareness of our connectedness to others. However, in his psychoanalysis of Holocaust prisoners, Frankl offers a different perspective: “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future…And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task” (73).

The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. As far as threats to human dignity go, the Church includes abortion, euthanasia, cloning, the death penalty and war. I feel that it might be necessary to also add time poverty.

time poverty

Time poverty, according to Maria Konnikova, is “what happens when we find ourselves working against the clock to finish something.” For someone who is financially comfortable, poverty of time is merely an unpleasant inconvenience. For someone whom lack of time is just one of their many burdens, time poverty becomes much more serious. Especially when you take into account that time poverty tends to bring about what Konnikova calls bandwidth poverty or, “the type of attention shortage that is fed by [financial poverty and time poverty].” She offers us the following example:

If I’m focused on the immediate deadline, I don’t have the cognitive resources to spend on mundane tasks or later deadlines. If I’m short on money, I can’t stop thinking about today’s expenses — never mind those in the future. In both cases, I end up making decisions that leave me worse off because I lack the ability to focus properly on anything other than what’s staring me in the face right now, at this exact moment.

And so we begin to see how our need to look to the future for hope and our need to be present in the moment for peace come into conflict. It is clear that we need space in our lives to develop healthy relationships with both “now” and “later” and that a lack of space to do so is detrimental to our overall well being. That poverty, in whatever sense we are discussing it, is not a static issue.


In the past week, my research team has visited Tiyani twice to conduct focus groups with nurses and community health workers (CHWs) from the surrounding area. Though I am not directly a part of the CHW study, my project partners and I got to help our other teammates out with implementing their focus groups. At the beginning of each session, we would go around the circle and ask each woman their name and how long they had been working. Most them had been CHWs for at least five years, some as many as fifteen. It was not until later in the day that I found out that none of these women are paid for rounds they do in their communities each week. They just do it because they believe it’s important.

The Catholic church teaches that our human dignity comes from the fact that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. Or, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, dignity is the idea that:

desmond tutu

We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.

Maria Konnikova’s research on time poverty seems to make it pretty clear that having a deficit of time in one’s life makes it very hard to cultivate a sense of dignity or to honor that of others. However, throughout Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl insists that “he who has a why can bear almost any how” (Nietzsche).

The experience of camp life shows that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions as psychic and physical stress…everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (Frankl 65-66)

Frankl writing

How can one begin to argue with such unfettered faith? Frankl offers us a no-holds-barred answer to the question of how to find dignity in suffering. Or (much) more simply, how to rationalize giving time to that which we might not logically have time for.

However, though I am deeply moved by Frankl’s words, I must return to the “almost” in the Nietzsche quote of which he is so fond. He who has a why can bear almost any how. Though I am humbled beyond belief by the grittiness of Frankl’s faith, I fear the depth of responsibility that he takes for his own well-being can almost makes us forget the severity of his aggressors’ actions. Ultimately, I still believe that the choices that we make are determined by the choices that we have. That spiritual freedom is only a possibility for those who have a concept of the spirit. That even though people like the community health workers that we met in Tiyani this week will always give me hope that people will do good and be good whether or not they have the time to do it, it is our responsibility to not make that choice a burdensome one when we can.

All that being said, sometimes the most we can do is assume the best of people. In this heartening TED Talk. Victor Frankl makes his case for why we should believe in others by offering us Goethe and a Flight Lesson:

If you are starting, here, wish to get here, say east, and you have a crosswind you will land here, so we have to do what we pilots call, eh ‘crabbing’ he told me, C-R-A-B. You have to head north of that airfield, and you have to fly that way, see? As if you’re headed in this direction. If you are heading here, above this airfield, you will actually land here. But if you head here [airfield] you will actually land here [below airfield]. This holds also for man I would say! If you take man as he really is you make him worse, but if we over estimate him–if we seem to be idealists–are overestimating and overrating man, and looking at him that high, here, above, you promote him to what he really can be.

Viktor Frankl with his second wife, Elanore, who he met 1947.

Viktor Frankl with his second wife, Elanore, who he met in 1947.

Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

UBUNTU: Dorothy Day, Zulu philosophy and laying bricks

 The final word is love.
Dorothy Day

Life in Thohoyandou is like doing a never-ending crossword puzzle. Each day brings a new set of obscure clues that aren’t obviously connected at first, but as soon as you figure out one clue, you get a little bit of insight into another. For instance, figuring out that our shower had a temperature other than viciously cold or scaldingly hot allowed me to stay in the shower long enough to both wash my hair and do my laundry. Additionally, realizing that in Tshivenda you pronounce the letter combination “sh” as “ch” made addressing the University of Venda Professors less intimidating and made learning the language easier.

shower laundry

After landing in Johannesburg the morning of June 27th, Andrea and I made our way to a hotel near the airport to rest for a couple of days while the remainder of our nine-person team flew in from their various layover points. We left for Limpopo Saturday morning in our overly fancy rental cars (they were out of Dodges so they gave us Audis??) and got to Thohoyandou just late enough at night to play the extremely terrifying local traffic game of dodge-a-person as pedestrians appeared seemingly out of nowhere to cross the road in the dark.

This past week has been simultaneously like adjusting to becoming famous overnight and being the awkward new kid at school. Everywhere we go, people we meet ask to take pictures with us, but those same people fall over laughing at our pronunciation of basic Tshivenda phrases. At every event we attend, we are treated we the utmost levels of hospitality and kindness, but the ever-present fear of committing some sort of cultural faux pas never quite lets one be at ease in a group.

All that being said, it has been an incredible first couple of weeks and in between meetings with faculty and students from the University of Venda (our primary research partner), writing our child development curriculum and learning to navigate a foreign grocery store, I have been reading The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day.

dorothy not a saint

Dorothy was arguably one of the most radical Catholics in history. She was a co-founder of the newspaper The Catholic Worker, a publication that espoused Catholic social teaching and was the catalyst for the Catholic Worker Movement, a group of catholic communities that believes “the Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” The Catholic workers were famous for their houses of hospitality and Dorothy spent much of her adult life serving the poor and homeless in these houses demanding that “we must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.”

the catholic worker

As someone with a keen interest in community health, I am struck by what a clear message Dorothy teaches about the necessity of community engagement. “It’s the people who are important, not the masses,” she insists. That, despite what modern individualism may lead us to believe, “[w]e are our brother’s keeper. Whatever we have beyond our own needs belongs to the poor… we must give far more than bread, than shelter.” Instead, she invites, we must give ourselves.

But how to give ourselves? asked the well-meaning but seriously impatient college student, flipping tiredly through Dorothy’s diaries on her bedroom floor.

As it turns out, Dorothy Day was a big fan of the sacrament of the present moment. Discussed extensively in “Abandonment to Divine Providence” by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, the sacrament of the present moment is championed as the entry point to God’s will and the necessary nourishment for a fulfilling life. In the words of de Caussade,

The present moment, then, is like a desert in which the soul sees only God whom it enjoys; and is only occupied about those things which He requires of it, leaving and forgetting all else, and abandoning it to Providence.


a black out poem about the sacrament of the present moment by yours truly

Last weekend when my teammates and I were receiving our cultural orientation from the faculty in the Community Engagement Office at the University of Venda, we were told that we must conduct all our work using ubuntu as our research framework. Ubuntu, Zulu for I am because you are, is the premise that guides all community engagement efforts here in Vhembe district of Limpopo. Ubuntu, like the sacrament of the present moment, requires respect for humanity and celebrates the inherent goodness of people. They both offer us a more expansive definition of hospitality by saying, “what I have is not mine alone but to be shared with whoever is present.”

Furthermore, both of these ways of living emphasize the idea that our individual choices affect greater forces of change. Dorothy Day believed that, “each act of love, each work of mercy might increase the balance of love in the world. And she extended this principle to the social sphere. Each act of protest or witness for peace— though apparently foolish and ineffective, no more than a pebble in a pond— might send forth ripples that could transform the world.”

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden also was famous for teaching his players about the importance of attention to detail. On the first day of practice, when his freshman recruits were raring to get on out the court and show their new coach what they could do, Coach Wooden spent time teaching them how to put their socks and shoes on correctly. After a half hour of showing them how to align the heel of their foot firmly into the heel of their socks, how to keep their socks from crinkling inside their shoes and how to tie their shoes so the sock wouldn’t bunch up, he would face his team and say:

You see, if there are wrinkles in your socks or your shoes aren’t tied properly, you will develop blisters. With blisters, you’ll miss practice. If you miss practice, you don’t play. And if you don’t play, we cannot win. If you want to win championships, you must take care of the smallest details.

John Robert Wooden (October 14, 1910 – June 4, 2010) was an American basketball player and coach. Nicknamed the "Wizard of Westwood," as head coach at UCLA he won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period—seven in a row— an unprecedented feat

John Robert Wooden (October 14, 1910 – June 4, 2010) was an American basketball player and coach. Nicknamed the “Wizard of Westwood,” as head coach at UCLA he won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period—seven in a row— an unprecedented feat

What Coach Wooden understood was the importance of working on the little things to prepare for something bigger. And that doing so requires a focused mind and an open spirit.

Public health derives its strength from doing little things for the long term. In fact, our entire project this summer is ultimately just a pilot study and thus is only the very beginning of a potential avenue for change in these people’s lives. To be able to engage communities meaningfully, public health students must remember what Dorothy day called “the sense of the small effort.”

“People say, ‘What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.”

I am deeply grateful for this single-brick of a project. If nothing else, it will have taught me to take more care when putting my socks and shoes on in the morning.

Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Do Be Do Be Do

To be is to do – Socrates
To do is to be – Sartre
Do Be Do Be Do – Sinatra

― Kurt Vonnegut

Christianity, to me, has always been just as much about family as it has been about faith. My religious upbringing consisted of two parts dinner table conversation for each part doctrine, and I don’t have any memories of going to church on Christmas with my family because our Uncle Bud (a.k.a Father McCloskey), a Jesuit priest, would just do mass in the living room for us on holidays. Saints were people that my mom and grandma called up for favors and the Pope was a man kind of like the president: I knew I liked the greater organization that he governed but that didn’t mean that I felt obliged to agree with his every proclamation.

Though certain currents of Catholicism were lost on me growing up, others held me rapt. From a young age, I was captivated by the distinction that Catholics make between social service and social justice: that the former responds to the effects of a problem while the latter responds to the cause of a problem. The idea that you could heal broken people by healing broken systems seemed to me like one of the most true ways to love a person; that when Catholics asked how they could do the most good in someone’s life, they were really asking how they could do the longest (or most sustainable) good.

Studying public health has been in many ways a commitment to asking how I can do the longest good for people in need. Tonight I will be traveling to Limpopo, South Africa with a team of graduates and undergraduates from U.Va. to spend five weeks piloting a child development training program for nurses from the Ministry of Health in Limpopo.

When it comes to offering people a means of ensuring the longest good in their lives, child development programs are public health’s Lionel Messi: slight in their appearance but colossal in their impact. What happens during the early years is of crucial importance for every child’s development. It is a period of great opportunity, but also of vulnerability to negative influences. Efforts to improve early child development are an investment, not a cost. Available cost-benefit ratios of early intervention indicate that for every dollar spent on improving early child development, returns can be on average 4 to 5 times the amount invested, and in some cases, much higher.

The nurses at the Limpopo Health Department in Limpopo, South Africa, currently have no standardized methodology by which they can assess the developmental stage of the children that they care for in their communities and no systematized approach for intervention. This would be a significant problem anywhere, but in Limpopo, this disparity is exacerbated by the fact that 39% of the population is under 15 years of age and it is also the province in South Africa with the highest proportion of children living in poverty (83%). Both of these factors contribute to Limpopo’s concerningly high under-five mortality rate of 55 deaths per 1,000 live births, which is 1.2 times higher than the rest of South Africa.

I am very hopeful that we will have good turnout for our training program this summer and that my team will learn a lot from the nurses about what aspects of our curriculum will be most relevant to their work. But it’s easy to get ahead of myself. Though the public health student in me wants this summer to be about collecting good data so we can conduct a good needs assessment when this is all over, I will have to make a continual effort to be open-minded to the cornucopia of people and perspectives that are coming together to work on this project. And that is where this blog comes in.

The Catholic Church highlights seven main themes of their teaching on social justice: life and dignity of the human person; call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation. Throughout the course of my time in Limpopo, I want to study these themes and reflect upon how their meaning comes to life in the context of the people we meet and the places we go.

This week I have been been reading The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. The book is about a young English boy named Peekay who is growing up in South Africa just as the seeds of Apartheid begin to take root. Peekay has dreams of growing up to be “welterweight champion of the world.” A dream which, because of his small size and proclivity for trouble, actually has a good enough chance of occurring, according to the Improbability Principle.

On the road to becoming welterweight champion of the world, Peekay meets Hoppie Groenewald, train conductor and boxing champion who passes on to him what proves to be transformative advice:

Say always to yourself, “first with the head, and then with the heart, that’s how a man stays ahead from the start” (103)

Peekay calls this ‘the power of one’–the power of ”one idea, one heart, one mind, one plan, one determination” (103). As I head off to South Africa in less than ten hours, it’s hard not to be taken with the simple elegance Hoppie’s limericked advice. Why bother spending part of my time abroad studying themes that I’ve learned “with my head” since a young age?

Peekay loves boxing vocabulary because “the words and the terms had a direction, they meant business.” Similarly, I have loved social justice doctrine because to me these are the words in Christianity that can most clearly be turned into action. However, though conceptually I know that “loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world” or that “we are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences,” I have had scant opportunity to live these ideas out in any other context than the socioeconomic environment of Northern Virginia.

I am unspeakably blessed to have grown up with the family, friends, resources and opportunities that I have been given; they are such that they have allowed me to go on trips like this one and write this blog for the Internship in Lived Theology. And though one must not rely on travelling 8,115 miles from home to gain a deeper understanding of values that they hold most dear, to borrow from St. Augustine, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page.”

And so I am off to South Africa: to read about social justice more deeply and to do so “with the heart.”

Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.