Friday, April 27, 2012

Soccer in SA

There are two major passions that I have watched God develop and use in my life in unique ways I would have never have imagined.  One passion is the love for science and the other - the love for soccer. 
In Chariots of Fire (which I have never actually seen all the way through, but have heard the story plenty of times…), the main character makes the statement “I feel God’s pleasure when I run”.  Well, I can easily say I feel God’s pleasure when I play soccer.  (I also often feel God’s pleasure when I run, but this is more temperature and location dependent.)  When I play I can’t stop smiling.  The game is beautiful.  A perfect shot, a perfect pass, a perfect save – it should be appreciated like fine art. 

Luckily, everywhere I have lived, I have been able to meet up with new people and build relationships over the common passion of futbol.  Here’s what this has looked like in Cape Town both for me, personally, and with my kids at Bridges.

Last year I started playing with a 5-a-side women’s team out in Cape Town.  I would drive out every Wednesday night.  The level of play was pretty low, but it was so nice to kick the ball around and be on a team again.  That team fell apart and blended in with a new 5-a-side team and league that plays every Thursday night at a the Hellenic Club next to Greenpoint Stadium (built for the World Cup in 2010 - such a beautiful stadium!).  We’re different from the other teams in our league in that we are from all over the globe – South Africa, Columbia, Sweden, and the US.  It is such a nice group of girls and we work so well together as a team.  I love playing with them and seeing how both friendships and on-field team dynamics have been building and solidifying.  I have loaded up the Bridges van with groups of students who wanted to cheer on our team and it has been magic!  It’s so fun to play for my students and to be supported by singing and dancing and be fueled by their enthusiasm!  My students are so encouraging and full of joy and they love passing it on to others.  My team loves it and keeps asking for them to come back.  I’ve also enjoyed that that is part of my life I can share with my students and involve them in.  It also helps the girls to see a high level of women’s soccer that they can strive for, and shows the boys that girls can actually play!  I’m going to keep rotating through groups of cheerleaders and bringing them out as often as I can.

Also last year, we started up the first real soccer program at Bridges.  We only had 11 boys at the school from grades 8-12, and not all of them were keen to play soccer, so we picked up a few girls as well.  Thandazwa played in every match with the boys and Mimitha joined in toward the end of the season.  We also filled in the team with two of the house parents and myself… Some days it was fun to coach the team and other days it was really frustrating.  I could tell some of the older boys were hesitant to be coached by a girl, thinking I would be too easy on them during training and basically make them play ‘like girls’.  This battle to win their respect as a coach was frustrating, but in the end, they still wanted me to play on the field with them, so I guess that meant something.  One of my favorite games last year was playing against Bridge House, the rich prep-school about 5 min down the road from Bridges Academy.  There was a very clear color line between the two teams (them being white rich kids, our team being black poor kids from the townships).  Our team looked very rag-tag – mismatched uniforms, a huge range of age and size, and that we were made up of both boys and girls.  They did not take us very seriously at first, but later changed their mind as we whooped them!  We also had a huge crowd of Bridges students cheering us on with drums and everything.  It was beautiful. 

A coach from a local club team noticed that our team had some girls playing for us and asked if any of them would be interested in playing for them.  They followed up this year and signed 7 girls on to their squad!  Mimitha, Thandazwa, Nelisiwe, Nangamso, Asanda, Bongeka and Asive have been going to practice in Paarl two times a week and games on the weekends.  Thandazwa is a star.  She is naturally talented, but has improved so much after having consistent coaching and playing with other girls.  She is so tough and is developing some amazing skills.  The other girls are new to soccer and are also improving tremendously!  They come back from practices talking about how much fun they are having.  It’s such a great opportunity for them to interact with other girls their age and to be involved in a serious sport.  I have been the most impressed by Nelisiwe.  She is not the sportiest of our students but has LOVED playing.  She talks about her friends on the other team and is developing into a defender not to be messed with… The development of women’s soccer in Africa is very close to my heart and I love to see my girls getting involved in it and loving it!  I have been able to see a few of their games and have really treasured driving them home afterwards and re-capping the games with them, encouraging them on things they are doing well and giving them ideas on how to improve.  It’s actually nice to NOT be the coach in this situation but to see it as something we can share together as players. 

We are just starting up the season of Bridges Academy soccer and have a few matches scheduled against Bridge House soon.  We had a practice Wednesday afternoon that I absolutely loved.  The boys all worked so hard and took the practice seriously, but enjoyed it as well.  Their passing and communication was great and they pushed hard through the whole practice.  One of our best players is Lunga – one of our new Grade 7 students this year.  He has so much energy and ball control and can read the game incredibly well.  I didn’t feel any of the lack of respect I felt last year for being a girl coach and can’t wait to work more with this group of boys.  I was so encouraged and am hopeful for what we can do as a team this year.

A couple requests to throw out – We had a bunch of soccer cleats donated from groups that have come from the states in the past and I was able to hand them out to almost everyone on the team, but there are still a couple boys who couldn’t find cleats to fit (most cleats were for kids and we have high school boys).  If you know of anyone who has used cleats they want to get rid of - especially men’s size 8.5-10.5, let me know.  Also – it would be nice to have a whole team set of matching soccer socks – preferably white or blue, and shin-guards (I don’t think we have ANY of these, and they are much cheaper than doctor’s bills for broken shins).  If anyone would be able to donate any of these, please also let me know. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Unexpected - January - LA to Cape Town

It is now the end of term 1 which means that I’ve been able to slowly extend my brain power to more than just planning lessons. It’s given me a chance to reflect a bit more about the last couple months. It has been a great year so far but I have been pretty consistently overwhelmed trying to keep up with planning for the 7 different courses (that's a lot)I have been teaching. I’ve had quite a few moments of wanting to break down crying because there is too much work to get done and not enough hours in the day to do it. Somehow though, it has gotten done and no epic disasters have taken place. I had to smile thinking about how tough these 3 months have been, but how God has embedded little blessings in between to remind me that the hard work is not in vain. I need these constant reminders at unexpected times to show me that this isn’t just a job – but something I’ve been specifically called to – and that God is supporting me and giving me strength along the way to do what most of the time seems overwhelming and impossible.

One of the most obvious examples of these reminders was on my flight back to Cape Town from LA in January. I was flying with Emirates and had an 8 hour layover in Dubai from 7 at night till 3 in the morning (not exactly prime sight-seeing time). I was psyching myself up for jumping off of a 14 hour flight and exploring the city at night for as little money as possible. Right before I got on the flight in LA, I was getting last-minute ideas of what to do and see in Dubai from my friend Boxa in Cairo via text messages. He said he was going to try to get me connected with some of his friends in Dubai but I didn’t see how that would happen because I would be completely disconnected for about 30 hrs as soon as the flight took off (I still have a ghetto not-so-smart phone). As soon as I put my phone away, a girl who was sitting across from me waiting for the flight said, “You look really familiar…”. It was my friend Michelle Barnett’s good friend Kelsey. We eventually figured out the Michelle connection and that we went on a building project to Mexico together through Rockharbor about 4 years ago! Kelsey works for a non-profit in Uganda called the Kwagala Project that helps combat sexual violence and human trafficking (check it out! - We quickly made plans to explore Dubai together and got on the plane to find our seats at opposite ends of the plane. I was feeling so relieved to know that I would have a partner in crime to explore the city with (you can be a bit more adventurous in pairs than alone) and was feeling a lot less anxious knowing that God was taking care of me on my travels.

When we got to Dubai, I turned on my ghetto phone and was surprised to see that it actually worked in Dubai! I had a message from Boxa connecting me with his friend Maged who agreed to meet up with Kelsey and me to show us around the city. My expectations for my time in Dubai were already far exceeded by having an adventure buddy, but when Maged rocked up in a convertible BMW I had to laugh. He drove us around the city stopping at all of the must-see places and showed us a fabulous night out on the town! I had never met Maged before but we had tons of mutual friends from Cairo and he was so wonderful to unquestioningly spend about 5 hours taking care of two strangers en route to Africa. He dropped us back off and I got to the airport right on time. I was feeling very well taken care of and full of peace in heading back to Cape Town – knowing that God was with me and providing for me in ways I would have never come up with. I was in such a content happy place that the 8 hour flight from Dubai to Cape Town did not seem nearly as daunting as it had before.

Oh, but the story is not over… I step up to the ticket counter to check in and the attendant said, “Ms. Cowell, we have upgraded you to business class”. I almost started laughing. I couldn’t stop smiling – like this whole thing was a little secret between me and God. There was now officially no question that God had my attention – He was taking care of me and was paving the way for my next round at Bridges. I felt like he was saying, “You’re doing the right thing. Keep going”. I’m certainly not suggesting that God’s blessings are always in the form of business class flights or convertible BMW private tours around Dubai with surprise new/old friends – but I think because this was the last thing I was expecting it was that much more powerful.

It’s funny looking back at this 3 months later and realizing that I did need that reminder and still do. I need to remember that I may be doing enough work for 2 or 3 people, but I’m doing this for a reason bigger than myself. Even when things seem impossible, God still wants me to know that He’s with me and that He will provide me with what I need to get through the things He has called me to. And He has!!! Over and over I’ve made it through every “impossible” situation that has arisen. I look forward to many more unexpected blessings to come – maybe not as posh as what I saw in Dubai, but always at the perfect timing and in the perfect form. I only hope that I’m not so focused on the tasks ahead that I can recognize them when they come!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Short Run to Freedom

I think one of the things I have learned the most since moving to South Africa is how disgustingly prideful I am. I feel like I am constantly having to suck up my pride, which is certainly nothing to be proud of because it makes me realize how big of a beast my pride is... Thankfully this is something that I'm learning and growing in. Here is my most recent pride-sacrifice --> blessing I have experienced...

This morning there was the annual Freedom Run at the Drakenstein Prison (about 3 mi from Bridges Academy). This is the last prison where Nelson Mandela stayed before being released in 1990. There is a statue in front of the prison of Nelson Mandela in the same pose he had when walking out of the prison. (If you are looking for a nice long read, check out '"The Long Walk to Freedom" - Nelson Mandela's autobiography)

Because he was in prison for a total of 27 years, the longest race of the Freedom run is 27km. It counts down, not in km but in years so the 10k marker would say "17 years", counting down to the 27km finish or 0 years (FREEDOM!!!). There is also a 10k run and a 5k walk/fun run. 19 of the Bridges Academy students, one house parent, and our school principal had signed up to do the 5k run. I have been running with a running club in Stellenbosch for almost a year now and Saturdays are our long runs (15 to 42 km). This week I was planning to do the 27km race, but was too late and missed the registration date. I begged someone on the phone to do the 27, but he said, "you can still do the 5k!" and I laughed a little and said thanks and hung up. (I have turned into a running SNOB...ew.)

Then I started thinking about it and went ahead and signed up to do the 5k with my kids. While driving from home to the school, I had to drive past the 27km run and pass one of the guys I usually run with. We had to distribute shoes to some of our students who didn't have "tekkies" (running shoes) for the race (once we got there - saw that about 25% of the kids participating did not have shoes...).

We all warmed up for the race together - I led them in a little jog and stretch, but the kids added their own flair to it with a bit-o clapping and singing that I certainly would have not come up with. While we were waiting for the race to start, they started playing games all together - in 1 group in Xhosa - involving singing and dancing and a bunch of other kids came up and just watched. Then our kids invited them in to join and I wanted to hug all of my kids. I really get so proud of them sometimes. They are so good with younger kids, so inviting, loving... They explained the games to the other kids and made sure that they all felt included. I couldn't stop smiling

Then the race started. I took off with Bongeka and Zandile (one of our new grade 8 kids). Zandile stayed with me for atleast the first km, then decided to start walking. Soon after, I saw Ayanda walking and told him to run with me. He ran with me the whole rest of the race!!! I was running fast for me (that's not saying a lot, but I do run pretty often and Ayanda probably only runs when we do stuff like this). We ran through the farms and barracks at the prison and looped back around. At the last km, he said "Yoh!" and started walking, but I convinced him that 1 km isn't too bad and he ran through the end. We then cheered on everyone else that came through. (I kept running to the guy with the microphone telling him specific things to say to our kids like "Hey, Bridges Academy girls - if you don't run through the finish line, the bus is leaving without you!" or "Bridges Academy - no walking! Either run or dance it out!" It was pretty great...)

There was live music (cheesy Afrikaans pop)and some little stands around after the race. Our kids found one that were giving away free prizes for playing a game. Our kids (like most kids/human beings) love free stuff, so they grabbed me because they needed to have an adult with them. So the "game" ended up being to look through a bank brochure and be able to find the answer to the question "How much do you have to pay to use another ATM" and win a pen, pad of paper, and a lanyard to hold keys. Real fun... The kids were a bit disappointed. Then the guy (realizing that his advertizing attempts were sadly lost on our demographic) said "Yeah, so tell your parents about our bank so that they sign up with us". Jokes on him, they don't have parents! So in the car on the way back I heard the kids talking about that line and laughing. I told my kids that I thought of telling the guy, "That's me, sir", but I didn't to save on a long explanation. They said I should have said it.

Once again, I am reminded how freaking much I love these kids and how blessed I am to be doing what I'm doing. Running a 27k would have been great for my ego, but running a 5k was great for my soul.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Step Up

One of the great things about our students this year is that we have a pretty big graduating (matric) class of 8 students (4 boys and 4 girls). Last year there were only 2 matrics (both girls) and it made for a bit of lopsidedness in terms of student leadership. (As an update – both passed and should be starting university!!! Well done girls!) This year’s group of 12th graders (and 11th graders) have so much potential to take on responsibility and lead the younger kids. I’ve been seeing it a lot from the boys so far and am hoping to see it more in the girls in the coming months.
Odwa, one of our students who has been here since the school opened, has taken an extra step up. At the end of last year he was pushing the limits a bit, toying with the difficult decision to be a positive leader, or a leader of mischief and ruckus-causing… So far, I have been incredibly impressed by the maturity he has brought with him to the beginning of this school year. Over the summer he had his Xhosa tribal initiation ceremony. It’s a full-on National Geographic- type coming of age ceremony involving fending for yourself for days in the wilderness and yes, some blood-letting… I don’t know everything that goes on, but do know that once someone has gone through this process, they are no longer seen as a boy, but are accepted as a man by the tribe and expected to act as one. I can see that Odwa has taken this quite seriously in the way he dresses (he arrived at the school with an off-white dress coat, dress pants, and a newsie hat), the way he respects his elders, and in his general attitude toward others. He used to always want to be in the middle of mischief and now he is focusing more on his studies and is by far the most polite student at the school. Keep it up!


If this were Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the magic word of the day, nay, year, would be “Change” (cue loud yelling from everyone including the couch). Bridges Academy has undergone a tsunami of change in the few months I was away. I have never been a fan of change, but so far things have been running smoothly in an awkward, bumpy, way. Aside from the obvious leaving home and moving to Africa thing, here are some of the additional changes:

The first major change was in school administration. The head teacher, Jenni Feldman, who had been here since the beginning of Bridges Academy resigned. In her place, we took on two Peters – Peter Pederson and Peter Sawyers. I have been able to see Jenni and her family of Feldmans pretty frequently, but they live about 40 min away, so I can’t see them too often unfortunately. Jenni is pretty amazing. I’ve admired her organization, confidence, and ability to play about 50 roles at the same time since I met her 3 years ago, and have even more of an admiration for those abilities now that we are trying to sort out how to attempt to do all the tiny things she used to do at the school. When she left the school, the Feldman’s left the cottage next to the Academy, so that is where Cece, Kristy and I are living now. It is a great house, and is starting to feel a little less strange. I’ll probably always think of it as the Feldman’s house with some great memories of family dinners attached.

The two Peter’s are wonderful. Peter Pederson is the school’s head – so he is taking on more of the principal roll. He is also teaching some classes and is doing a fantastic job. He is settling and sorting out problems as they come up. He is incredibly kind, genuine, and is very passionate about teaching these kids and seeing them succeed. Peter Sawyers was at Bridges a couple years ago and was already familiar with most of the kids before being hired on this year as a full-time school chaplain. His job is to encourage, emphasize and guide the spiritual aspects of the school. He is incredibly joyful, always encouraging, and so creative. He has done a great job so far at planning activities for the school, organizing our morning devotion times, and making sure everyone is doing ok.

In other staffing changes, we are missing two other faces from last year – Annette, the grade 7 teacher who took on a new position this year at a local school, and John, our counselor. I’m hoping to still see a bit of both of them hopefully some time soon. We also hired on some new teachers, Sarie (an Africans math teacher) and Washington (a Zimbabwean religious studies and English teacher). Both have been so nice to work with so far. I am very lucky to work with such a great staff of like-minded people. All of us share in wanting provide the Academy students with the academic, social, and spiritual tools they will need to have a great future and stay on the right track.

We have also lost some students and gained some students. Just after I left at the end of September, there was an incident at the school involving three boys, an altercation, a pair of scissors, and about a 12 inch gash in one of the boy’s face that is now a dramatic scar from his hair down to his chin. Needless to say, the other two boys involved were expelled and are not at Bridges this year. I was sad to hear about the incident, and sad that the boys had done what they did. Both students had great potential, but made a very poor and scary decision that ended their time at Bridges.

On a positive note, we have welcomed an absolutely delightful new 9th grader from Gugulethu named Bongeka. She is so sweet and has joined in the rankings of “best smile” at Bridges. She has had a great attitude and has made friends quickly. She is very bright, participates in class, loves reading, and is just a great kid. I’m so glad she’s at the school and that I have the opportunity to teach her! Today we also had another girl come from Philippi to take her placement tests for the school. She may be joining us later this week!

The Retreat Center is also undergoing a heap of change. We are surrounded by construction on the pool, property road, kitchen and basketball court. There is a constant layer of dust on everything, but things are getting done quickly and look great so far! The Duncans also have some friends who came from Cali and have been working on beautiful paintings around the retreat center.

Last change for now– I do miss my friends Maia, Leeanne and Emily who I had the pleasure of teaching and serving with when I was last here. It is always hard to start over again meeting new people and building new relationships, especially when you miss old friends. It really has a much different vibe without them. Still good, but in a different way.

As much as I pretend I don’t care much for change, there is something very refreshing about it. It often is paired with loss, which is never easy, but I trust that God knows what he is doing and I know that good things are coming and are already here. Bring on the change!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Getting Here

After an incredibly restful 4 months back home (so much more could be said here to fill in the 4 month blank, but I'll leave it at that), I took off from LAX the evening of Jan 10th to start the journey back to Cape Town. I had an uneventful flight to London, then on to Cairo for a 24 hr extended layover.

I got in to Cairo around midnight on the 12th, and left around midnight on the 13th. Khaled the driver (for those of you who visited me in Egypt know Khaled well) picked me up so I was met by a smiling familiar face. I got dropped off at my friends Jen and Emily's apartment and crashed hard. I woke up early to the call to prayer from the mosque across the street, had a nice day of going to the gym, my favorite coffee shop, a massage from the Moroccan hammam, my favorite fruit stand, a yoga class, and practicing my arabic and and chatting it up with some of the familiar faces at all of the aforementioned places! I got to meet up with some friends that I taught with later that evening at the ACE club and left from the airport from there. That's where things got a little more interesting!

I was saying my goodbyes at the ACE when my phone rang. It was Khaled. I started apologizing for being late getting out to the front of the ACE, but he interrupted me and said, "No! I'm not there! There's riots on the Autostraud and I can't get there to pick you up!" So, that meant I had to grab a cab from the street, convince him to take me to the airport, and use the meter, and take the Ring Road instead of the Autostraud. It took some frantic arguing with none less than 4 cabs before I was on my way with a driver who was not sure how to get to the airport. Eventually we got there, a bit later than planned, but I made the flight and all was well for flight #3.

My flight from Cairo left a bit late, and landed a bit late in Johannesburg. I picked up my luggage and went through customs. I then had to re-check my luggage (a very large, heavy and awkwardly packed backpack) quickly and get my next boarding pass before my next plane left for Cape Town about 40 min later. I made it through the process and went to my gate. There were very few people waiting there, which should have concerned me. I then heard a final boarding call for my flight and looked again at the empty gate and my boarding pass. I was at the right gate, but...what? the time was wrong, and the NAME was wrong. I am not nor will I ever be Mr. Cotton.

I ran to the gate where my flight was supposed to leave from and explained my situation. The first question they asked was, "Well, who checked you in?" Uh... Their solution was to have my bag taken off of the Mr. Cotton's flight (which I ended up on) and for me to pick it up and re-check it with the same person who checked me in to begin with (retrace my steps from my 20 min sprint through the airport earlier - with a busted Achilles, mind you...), and have him re-check me for the next flight (Mr. Cotton's flight) if I could take care of all that business before the flight actually took off. To spare the boring details, I retraced all the steps and not one went smoothly. The man at the baggage said he would just cancel the order to take the bag off, so pretend I was Mr. Cotton, and the lady at the check in desk (clearly not the man who had checked me in) was having her own issues that day. But, I made it on the Cotton flight and made it to Cape Town! My luggage didn't, but I wasn't surprised. I really was just happy to be where I was supposed to be.

The luggage did get there later that evening - perfect timing when we went back to the airport to pick up another teacher.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Old Friends in New Places

One of the greatest ways I have been blessed again and again is by being surrounded by wonderful people. I have an incredible family (with each member quirky in our own ways), and a great bunch of loving, unique friends scattered all over the world. I have had to say bye to people so many times not knowing when or if I will see them again.

In my 2 weeks back in South Africa, I have had the chance to spend some great quality time with 3 great friends from the past (and one new friend).

Exhibit A - Jen and Joe Welsh – Two close friends from my first two years teaching in Cairo. Jen is my go-to definition of hospitality. I don’t know that I will ever meet anyone who can beat her in that category (see my “Steph’s Cairo Life” blog on Christmas in Cairo from 2 yrs ago). She is one of the most unselfish people I know and is so full of love to those around her. We got to be great friends pretty early on in my time there, and I got to watch as she met, dated, and fell in love with Joe, the witty Welshman who was teaching at our British sister-school. They are such a great couple and I loved spending time with them. They got married in 2008 (luckily the wedding was in California and sparked an epic road trip with my friend Sarah to make it there) and moved to Malawi to teach shortly after the wedding. Well, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes moving to one of the poorest countries in the world and a trip to Cape Town to deliver a baby in modern facilities! So, perfect timing – Jen and Joe were in Cape Town for a while to deliver their baby boy, Caleb! Joe picked me up from the airport, and we headed over to visit Jen and Caleb. It was sooooooo good to see them! They took me home (to Bridges) and I got to show them around a bit of the property. Joe left last week to head back to Malawi to teach, but I got to visit Jen again this last weekend and have some great talking time. She is such a good friend. Such a refreshing, honest, real person. I do miss our conversations so much, and am beyond thankful that I had the chance to spend some more time with her in such an unlikely situation. She is heading back to Malawi in a couple days, and I don’t know when or where I will see the Welch’s again, but I know I will. (inshaallah)

Here are some pics of Jen, Joe and Caleb, and of the Cairo crew at their wedding.

Exhibit B – Sarah Guhrung – Sarah is a friend I met during my first visit to Cairo to coach at Wadi Sports Camps in 2005. We had many adventures together with another coach, Lori, that summer. The 3 of us were a force to be reckoned with. Sarah is from Germany, but was living in Florida to attend college. She stuck around in the US for a bit before moving to... Cape Town! Crazy! Her brothers are also living out here. We actually hung out while I was here a couple months ago, and have met up a couple times since I’ve been back. She introduced me to a great church that I have gone to for the last 2 weekends, and a great beach! Ah, summer in January… It is so good to have an old friend nearby and I look forward to hanging out with her in the months to come!

Here is a picture of Sarah, Me and Lori on top of Mt. Sinai back in 2005

So, the moral of the story (stories?): God is really good. It’s little “coincidences” like this that put a smile on my face, like God is sitting there saying, “Don’t worry. I see you. I’m taking care of you.” A good reminder that I am blessed and that God is bigger than I usually think he is.