“My wife went there, and I still didn’t get it,” said Swanjord, a Balaton resident who was one of 28 people who visited South Africa in January on a mission trip with the Southwest Minnesota Synod of the ELCA.
The mission was both a learning experience and amazing opportunity, Swanjord said. “I feel very lucky. We went to a very rural place. It was a lot different. I think I was the only person from Balaton to Canby that went on the trip,” Swanjord said, although his wife had been on an earlier mission to the same region about two years ago.”
It wasn’t a typical mission, Swanjord said — more of a fact-gathering trip. As the Minnesotans traveled through rural parts of Kwazulu-Natal, a province on South Africa’s east coast, they were learning about the issues facing people there. Their eventual goal is to form partnerships with African churches and communities, and share their knowledge on subjects like farming.
There were no handouts, Swanjord said, although the people on the mission did do their best to be helpful while in Africa.
Swanjord said in one community he visited, he helped repair looms at an historic mission building that had been converted into an area crafts center.
One of the mission group’s main focuses was how to help establish agribusiness in poor and rural areas, Swanjord said. South Africa is going through a slow process of repatriation, giving land back to people who were dispossessed to make room for white farmers. Although the country has made some strides since ending apartheid government in the 1990s, Swanjord said many black South Africans still live in poverty and have no ownership over their ancestral lands.
“From about 1910 to the 1980s, there was a steady process of stripping people and not allowing people their rights, including the right to their home place,” he said. Now, “In the main, the government and the heads of ministries are black South Africans, but a lot of the banks, industry, the infrastructure is held by whites.”
“There’s a great need, but at the same time there’s an optimism,” Swanjord said. “It’s different, probably, than anyplace right now.”
Swanjord said there are Lutheran missions in South Africa that own land, and are trying to decide how best to use property. Small farms or vegetable gardens are one use that could generate income for communities, but first they’ll need agricultural education.
“We’re trying to think how we can collaborate with them,” he said. “Maybe through extension workers, or helping people get loans, helping them to manage the land.”
“As we left the first community we visited, we saw a small co-op take off with maybe 15 acres for a cooperative market garden,” Swanjord said. “There’s a lot of talk about chickens, and having small flocks for communities.”
Other challenges facing South Africans include a high rate of HIV/AIDS infection, and lack of resources like electricity and water.
“South Africa is a First World country,” Swanjord said, but you don’t have to go far from the big cities to go “off the grid.” In a large part of the country, he said, “There is no grid.”
“People walk to get water, and stand in line,” he said. Swanjord said he saw a lot of water pumps at regular intervals, but few of them worked.
During the last 10 days of the mission, the group split up to spend time with host families in different communities.
“You learn so much,” Swanjord said. The people in the parish he visited were Zulu, and most lived in small communities where raising cattle was the main way of life. Although there were few cars, little electricity and running water, Swanjord said the landscape and daily life weren’t all that different from farming communities at home.
“The land was kind of like east river South Dakota,” Swanjord said. “It’s mostly open, with some rain but not all year long. It was beautiful grassland.”
Because transportation and utilities are scarce, the day begins very early in the morning for most people. Children get up and wash and dress to go to school, which could be several miles away on foot, Swanjord said. Meanwhile, the rest of the family will look after the animals and do other chores and farm work. Later in the day, you can see small pickup trucks and vans acting like taxis, carrying people and goods to market or back.
“It’s a civilized existence. They just don’t have the services we do,” Swanjord said.
“The people are very optimistic,” Swanjord said, despite the struggles of living. “There’s tremendous joy. I would say it’s a very strong culture, to be able to emerge from a hopeless political situation . . . and still be planning and taking care of the new generations.”
The area has a very strong Lutheran presence, Swanjord said. Norwegian and Swedish missionaries began coming to South Africa more than 100 years ago, and in most cases got along better with the people than the more military British, Swanjord said. While he was in South Africa, Swanjord said he was struck by the depth of faith he saw.
“The older women in the community - they call them the gogos, which is kind of a nickname for the grandmothers - they’re just powerful in the church. Every Sunday you can hear these beautiful harmonies, and you hear this voice of often an elderly woman, leading the choir.”
And once, that faith came full circle back to Minnesota. While visiting one mission church in the process of being renovated, Swanjord said he looked up into the steeple.
“The bell was swung back, like it was ready to swing, and written on it, I could read: ‘Rock Congregation, Northern Lutheran Church of Minnesota, Hills, Minnesota, 1892,” he said. The bell was likely donated sometime around the 1950s or later. “It was wonderful to see this connection with a town that I know . . . How the bell is still doing what it should do.”
The synod is continuing to learn and discuss partnerships with South African Churches, Swanjord said. It’s a wonderful thing.
“It encourages people to know more, it encourages people not to be alone, neither the South Africans nor the southwest Minnesotans. We should know each other,” he said.
Don Swanjord and art professor Lois Peterson of Gustavus Adolphus College are shown at a South African tourist site near Rorke’s Drift in the province of Kwazulu-Natal. The costumes the local people are wearing represent the historical dress of the Zulu king and his family.