When asked about my greatest challenge here in South Africa, most people expect me to say AIDS. Living in the country with the highest rate of AIDS, where 5.6 million people are infected, 300,000 die each year, and 1.9 million children have been orphaned by the disease, I can understand why one would think AIDS is my greatest struggle. But the right answer isn’t always the expected one, and the truth is that my greatest challenge this year has been my relationships- my relationships with my patients, my community, my co-workers, God, and myself.
In the beginning of the year, it was easy to fall in love with all of the patients in the Respite Unit and get attached to each of them. But by April/May, I could feel myself pulling away, writing home less about the patients and more about camping trips we went on. I knew I was detaching to protect myself from further pain and heartbreak at the loss of another friend. I told myself to not waste this precious time, to reengage and reconnect, but I just couldn’t bring myself to follow through. My heart was too weary. It took both time and the support of my community (AV and South African) to move past this and dive fully into Respite again. This process required me to embrace death, and to stop fighting an impossible battle against an inevitable part of life. I have by no means mastered this embrace, but I have started down the path and it has taught me to love and cherish every moment and every breath we have together.
As soon as I began to make peace with death, I was able to bond and reconnect with patients. This was an awesome feeling to rediscover but it also reintroduced me to each unique struggle that my patients and friends have encountered. “This is all so unfair,” they’d tell me. “Why me?” No one deserves the pain of AIDS, nor the shame that too often accompanies it. But it’s all the more heart-breaking when you learn that someone was born with it, or even worse that they were raped before they hit double digits- that they didn’t have a hand in their own fate, that they were sent into battle before they could even hold a sword.
When I sit with patients and hear these cries, I feel their words echo within myself. I yearn to provide them with any words of comfort or hope, but everything I think or say sounds hollow and empty. The truth is that it is wildly unfair, and though my patients never seem to, I become angry with God. So I demand answers. Where is God? Why her and not me? Why allow the suffering of children- innocents who should be sleeping over at friends’ houses instead of in hospitals? I have no answers to these questions yet so I apologize if you were expecting a neat and tidy ending to this. But while my relationship with God has been challenged beyond anything I expected this year, I am trying to remind myself that a challenge is not always a bad thing, but rather an opportunity for growth. These experiences have undoubtedly led to growth, and I am now flexing spiritual muscles I never knew I had.
This growth has contributed to my least expected, but at times most challenging, relationship: my relationship not with, but to myself. That may sound a bit strange but I often feel as if there are two Kellies. There is pre-SA Kellie and post-SA Kellie, and there is also first-world Kellie and volunteer Kellie. I see these dichotomies in my interactions with family and friends back home and ‘family’ and friends here. I see it when I think about the new pair of shoes I’ll put on my Christmas list and in the face of a patient who asks me for the shoes off my feet because she has none and has to walk long distances for water and firewood. I feel it when we go out to dinner with the Augustinians at a fancy, expensive restaurant in Hillcrest and the next day bring food to a rural town where people line up with old dented pots or butter containers to get just a few scoops of rice and beans. Again I have no answers as to how to reconcile these two Kellies. I know I can’t (or won’t) forsake everything in the name of solidarity to try to live like the Zulus. It’s simply not feasible in America. Plus I have plans and dreams: I want to go back to school, which certainly doesn’t lend itself to a vow of poverty. But at the same time I know I can never forget what I’ve seen, and I can never unlearn what I now know. I can only hope to take what they’ve taught me home, and to put these words and feelings into practice as often as possible.
This year has honestly been the most challenging, formative, and incredible year of my life. Despite the past 5 paragraphs, my relationships have also been my greatest joy this year. I’ve learned to embrace the African philosophy of ubuntu: that a person is only a person through another person. I would not be who I am right now if not for each person I met this year and every relationship I formed. My roommates have been invaluable to me, and while we’ve certainly had community struggles, I know I could never have survived this year without them. The patients are a constant source of happiness and inspiration for me, and I know I will carry every one of them with me for the rest of my days. Our interconnectedness and dependence on each other as humans has never been clearer to me. Though relationships are challenging at times, I believe that these bonds are what ultimately see us through life’s much bigger challenges, providing us with the strength to fight on.
South Africa 2012