“How’s Africa?” “What’s it like?” “Tell me about South Africa.” Phrases I’ve heard before, when I went home for Dec. holiday. Impossible questions to answer? Imagine if someone said to you, “tell me about the United States.” Well, do you tell them about the weather in California or Boston? Tell you. Tell you what?
Maybe you want to know about the rolling hills that expand the length of the horizon; hills that twist and wind through the valley of Embo, that surround the community of Molweni; the hills that I look upon, that give me a view of contrasting realities. Maybe you want to know that I do not live in the “bush”; there are no lions or giraffes or elephants wandering the streets. In fact, most people I know have not seen and most likely will never see these animals. No, I do not live in the “bush”. I live in an affluent neighborhood, on a beautiful piece of land, with gardens tended by Bheki; a place where the lights turn on and water flows through the faucets. I live in the 1st world.
Perhaps, you’d like to know that those running this country believe that a shower after sex can prevent HIV/Aids; that the government doesn’t seem to be doing much about the HIV/Aids pandemic; that approx. 42% of people in KZN are infected with HIV and that statistic doesn’t include the many who haven’t been tested; that the health minister believes beetroot is the answer, is the cure for Aids.
Do you want to know about the Kloof parishioners, who, 2 years ago, set up our little cottages to welcome us and make us feel at home; who have been supportive and interested in our lives and the work we are doing; who have invited us into their parish, their homes, their lives?
Would you like me to tell you about Lindo? Lindo, who, in my first year teaching English, was in Grade 3; a little boy, who seemed to never be paying attention, who I didn’t think knew one word of English, yet, when I gave them an oral test, he aced it, teaching me that kids do listen, they do respond; that despite the days they jump on desks, sing and dance during a lesson, and do everything but work, something is getting through to them; you must be persistent, you must never give up on them.
Or, if you like I could tell you about the time I went to a funeral with Eunice? I sat on a little wooden chair in the corner of a small room, with the deceased body and seven Zulu women sitting on straw mats and mattresses, wailing, lamenting, praying; where a small child fell asleep in my arms and didn’t wake, even when groups of 12 or 15 people would march in, singing, dancing, clapping, banging drums, paying their respects; for 4 hours I sat, I watched, I listened. It was sereal.
Maybe you would like to know that every Monday I eat dinner at Robyn and Shirley’s home; a couple who has invited us in, fed us, and given us a sense of family; or about the Carpenters, who have also extended their generosity and hospitality to us; that Dr. Carpenter is the only doctor for the surrounding valleys, or that his wife, Mary Ann, pours every ounce of her energy into caring for those with HIV/Aids; or that I have befriended their daughter, Ruthie, and in turn, she has befriended me.
Do you want to know that our dog Thembi ran away last year, or that I run in the neighborhood across the street, that we have security gates and barbed wire fencing surrounding our home, that the police probably won’t pull you over for speeding, but the cameras will get you everytime, that the stores close by 7, and traffic lights are called robots?
Or maybe you’re interested in the Shezi family; 14 children, staying with a Gogo(Grandma); 5 of the boys leave home at 4:30 in the morning to walk 3 hours to school, uphill, so they can learn, so they can be kept occupied during the day, so they can eat.
Should I tell you about serving lunch at St. Leo’s? It might make you cry to know that for some children the only meal they eat is the plate of rice and beans served at 10 that morning; and that on some days I would be looking down, scooping plate after plate of rice, blisters forming on my fingers, only to realize the pot is suddenly empty; only to look up to find children still waiting to eat, to see the disappointment on their faces, the hunger in their eyes, as I tell them, there is no more food; they will have to wait for tomorrow.
I probably shouldn’t tell you about Michael; wandering, lost, confused, homeless, lonely, searching for a job, searching for food, searching for a warm place to sleep at night, searching for a friend, searching for life; do you want to know what it’s like to feel someone’s hunger; to share in their disappointment; to feel their loneliness? I hope your answer is no.
Have you ever heard the voices that ring out from the St. Leo’s church choir? You do not have to understand a language to have a spiritual experience, to feel like you are sitting with angels. Have you seen the children of St. Leo’s dance? Amazing. The Zulu culture is rich with strength and rhythm. I can feel the sounds of their songs beating in my heart. Would you like to know that the children of St. Leo’s were fascinated with my veins and even more amazed when they discovered, that they too have veins?
Do you want me to tell you about Thabisile? A precious girl, with big ears, yearning for life; one day, you pray that she lives; one day, you pray that God peacefully takes her; a 9 year old should not have to suffer from Aids. Would you like to know about Beauty? She died of Aids, leaving 4 children behind. Orphans. Would you like to know about my friend Cynthia, who has been at the Respite Unit since Jan. and will now be admitted to another hospital for another 6 months? She has XDR TB. She is warm; she is friendly; she crochets; she has lungs infested with ugliness.
What do you want me to tell you about? Do you want to know that at work I was gluing bead earrings onto little dolls? Doesn’t sound very important, does it? Well, I will tell you that for every doll that sells, the proceeds go to help care for those at the Respite Unit; that the proceeds help supply Ncami with an income. Have you seen Nokuthula’s fluffy necklaces? Some probably have 10,000 beads; one by one they are strategically placed. Have you seen Margaret’s embroidery, Baba’s pottery, Janet’s crocheting, Zibhuyile’s painting? Every bead earring, every string of beads, every stitch, every stroke of the brush, is food on the table, a light, a child’s education, a mother’s love.
Do you want to know about the time I polished a floor with cow dung and helped make Zulu beer? Do you want to know that Themba taught me how to make phuthu, jeqe(steamed bread), stiff pup, beef curry and chakalaka? Do you want to know who Themba is? She is an amazing woman; teaches Grade 4 at St. Leo’s, is the mother of 4. But what’s truly amazing to witness is the compassion she showers the children with. She knows them all; their joys, their sorrows; who’s orphaned; who’s sick. She knows. She cares. She loves.
I probably shouldn’t tell you about the time Nkanyiso and Nosipho spent (more or less) 3 weeks with us. Why? Because their mother, Eunice, was too sick with Aids to care for them and there was nobody else to watch them. What a special time it was; baths, dinner, laundry, breakfast, uniforms, baking cookies, making eggs, stories, pillow fights, pajamas, hugs, kisses, love.
Perhaps, you’re more interested in amasi, sour milk, that’s poured over phuthu; or byble meat, the squishy texture of the stomach lining of a cow; or the time I heard two goats being killed, only to see their heads later on.
Would you like to know about my walks home, and how, at the railroad tracks, reality hits? I continue, alone, walking up the hill into my neighborhood, andeverybody else follows the tracks, some to paper thin homes, corrugated tin roofs, candles for lighting, paraffin stoves, outhouses; into the valley of Embo; the valley that I look upon everyday. Perhaps you’d like to know about the sun that rises over this valley; a beautiful array of colors; it’s true what they say about the African sun; it is beautiful; it is hot; the African sky; indescribable.
Do you want to know about the boys at St. Theresa’s Home; their smiles, craving for attention, yearning for someone to listen to them; to share a story with; seeking love?
What do you want to know about? That I have not mastered the Zulu language; but I continue to learn everyday; and that in a craftshop I learned new ways of crocheting and beadwork, made cards, silk-screened shirts, formed relationships, shared smiles and laughter with people of a different race, of a different culture.
Do you want to know that in the same moment I have felt compassion and anger; tears and joy; loneliness and belonging. Under African skies, I have fetched water from a tap, bathed in a basin, warmed up by a paraffin stove, sat for hours upon hours upon hours in rural South Africa, waiting; waiting for what? I don’t always know; waiting to eat, waiting to serve, waiting for bed; just waiting, waiting to follow the other women, to learn from them; to belong, to be accepted in a place where I undoubtedly stand out.
Do you want to know that all things are possible? They are. With faith, hope, and love, they are. Faith that God watches over hungry children; hope that one day Aids will not destroy families, communities, lives; love; an unconditional love that unites and binds us, humans.
So, what do you want to know about? Ask and I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you that my answer is love; because love has formed unthinkable, unimaginable friendships and relationships. I have given love and received even more. Because with or without electricity, shoes, Aids, water, TB, a garden, a dog, the hills, beads, beans, sunrises, singing, shelter, dancing; with or without all these things, love is possible. Love. Love. Love.
South Africa 2007