Nothing has gone exactly as we planned. Sleep is a necessary but sometimes limited commodity. My body has not adjusted. The mind swimming with images of despair coupled with hope are dizzying. David, my roommate, has been my comic relief. In his deep southern drawl that reminds me of home, commentary about his socks and the day’s events are sometimes surprisingly astute and reflective. Looking around our room, we are reminded that we are in Africa. The electrical system is primitive and the appliances are a little different –not other planet different, but certainly other cotenant different. For no apparent reason, sometimes the power will just go out, even if the weather is perfectly clear. The system will just overload. Locals say it will be out for days, but we have only experienced a few hours.
Our mission this morning is colored blue. Breakfasts are beginning to run together. Most days it is cereal, breads, fruit, yogurt and deli meats, but one morning, I cannot remember which, it was English-style with eggs, mushrooms, sautéed tomatoes and sausage. It was really good. We pile up into the cars and head to Tabitha in our usual caravan. We take multiple small cars so we do not draw attention. Crime is terrible in Africa. Everyone with money lives behind gates and walls and there are car guards at the malls and restaurants. When we arrive back at Tabitha, the kids are dressed in their best. They are hyped but orderly. Each child was being placed in groups by the color of a star marking their foreheads. The teacher explained this was so they could look out for each other. It was another several picture of community. Reflecting on the contrast between the children at Tabitha and in the crèches, I have settled on the reality that the children at Tabitha, while certainly in the same stratosphere of being underprivileged, have tasted love like candy. They crave it. While there is a deep sadness in their little brown eyes, there is a glistening of childlike hope that seems to grow. Twenty-Three souls piled into two compact cars and a small truck with a covered bed. The vehicle looked like it had never been cleaned, but there are much bigger concerns than clean cars. I was driving for my first time in Africa. I’m not a good driver in America. We tried to make our multiple near head on collisions fun. The kids in the back had smiles that were larger than their faces. None of the children had ever been to a movie. Never. The girls said the kids piled into the back of Tabitha’s covered Ford Ranger sang the entire way. “Down by the river, where nobody goes, there’s a big fat mamma, washing the clothes.”
If they saw a police car they would say “Police, Ah Ah Ah.”
If they saw a motorcycle, “Mo-to-cycle, Ah Ah Ah.”
If they saw an ambulance, “Am-bu-lance, Ah Ah Ah.”
Eric, the teacher who lives at Tabitha who works with the older kids, turned away from the screen and joked that the movie would be played on the back wall of the theater. They knew better. When the movie started, their eyes were glued. It was like the pearly gates were opened and they had seen heaven. What will it be like when these orphans really see heaven and they take their crown from God? The only brief interruption was the popcorn, candy and orange Fanta. The Fanta created the need for the toilet, but they were hurrying. I grew up watching the Smurfs, but watching these kids watch the Smurfs was better. On the way back, the tune of their song changed to the annoying Smurf song, made more tolerable by their excitement and accent. I took pictures of the Tabitha truck in front of us while I was driving by sticking my arm out of the sunroof with Angie’s camera. My favorite image is of the truck driving through a row of the purple painted Jackaranda trees that are now beginning to shed their blooms. When Pyron got his group out of the car, he turned up the radio and the kids from his car joined with the others and were dancing to the techno thump of Party Rock Anthem. The beat and the kids were jumping.
The afternoon plan was to be back with iThemba and see the mentoring projects in the community. We heard from field workers Mlo, Sizwe, Bex, Lindelani and Syv on this foggy afternoon. I have never been to Seattle, but I would imagine the weather we have experienced is comparable. The workers are on the frontline in Sweetwaters. It sits in a beautiful valley as multi-colored houses zig zag along the hillside. Animals roam freely and clothes are dried outside on sunny days. The field workers share Christ and serve as healthy role models for the kids in the community. The children they help are often unfairly burdened as the leader of their homes. Most have little or no food, and the food they do have is typically sugar and starch with a few vegetables they grow. No meat. Many are being raised by their Grannies because their parents are dead. Burials take place outside the homes. These brick marked piles of earth are constant reminders of the fatality they soak in daily. Voodoo-style ancestry worship is tangled with Biblical principles, and turning to Christianity will mean being ostracized by family. In the Zulu culture, if one breaks the ancestral chain, they are told their siblings will be lost. Ancestors, not Christ, are perceived to be the bridge to God and animal sacrifice is widespread. Many of the homes have the horns of goats butchered in the name of religion over the doorway. One can feel the evil that radiates from the valley. Animal skins made into bracelets presented by Zulu witch doctors snake around the wrists of the elders. The young iThemba workers, mostly in their twenties, lead small groups and have activities with the children and youth. They are Christian soldiers no different than those we sent to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, but theirs is a spiritual battle and their mission has eternal significance.
After they shared in a group setting, I had one on one time with Syv, which is short for Syvion. Syv is a senior field worker originally from Swaziland, an easy car ride to the north. He speaks Zulu and English fluently. He is dark skinned and wears a Pain Stewart style hat. The children benefiting from his ministry come from extreme poverty where crime, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, AIDS, drugs, alcohol abuse, and death are an everyday struggle. The burden is heavy in his eyes. As it does periodically, the attorney surfaced and I questioned him about his family and his background. He is engaged again to a girl from the community. Syv is handsome and carries himself with dignity. The biggest issue in Sweetwaters, according to him, is the lack of role models in the lives of the children, who are seeking acceptance through immoral behavior. It sounds familiar. I was curious how people afford drugs in this impoverished community, and he explained that they grew their own marijuana plants and created a potent drug by combining it with crushed ARVs and rat poison –a Zulu crystal meth. I prayed for Syv. I prayed for his marriage, for the youth of Sweetwaters and for his perseverance. He smiled big.
After leaving the church grounds, we piled back into cars and headed to Sweetwaters to see the ecofriendly community center IThemba is raising money to construct. They need $450,000. I was in the car with Debs again. She loves her work and interacts socially with coworkers on occasion, but her family is in the UK and the type of work she does can be isolating.
When we arrived at the site of the new community center in Debs tiny Jazz, it was raining and our view of the valley was obscured by the fog. I have never been in so much fog. The ground is compacted red clay that sticks to my shoes. In this type of weather at home, we may have gotten stuck in Pyron’s truck, but Debs little compact car somehow got us where we were going. The chief of the Sweetwaters tribe donated the land to iThemba, which would be like if the Choctaws gave land to First Baptist Jackson- basically unprecedented. We were told God stories all week, and this was one of them. Someone had put a metal structure on the property that looked like a huge cargo shipping vessel with a window that could be raised like a concession stand’s back home. It was painted with happy, colorful pictures that were faded from the weather. We were invited in by the staff of iThemba into the box and joined hands in a circle and prayed for the community center.
The little kids at Tabitha are called Gummies. While most were believed to be HIV positive, in reality, there are only a few. All have incredible stories. Each is as different as the children themselves. Tabitha kids are typically found by “mobile moms” that care for the child headed households in Sweetwaters or by the ladies that are providing much needed medical care to the sick. Siblings buried alive by their mentally ill mother have been rescued. A child left at the foot of her dying Grannies bed is now thriving. Sammy, a fat, happy little girl is a walking miracle. She is running and playing. Brandy Hester tells her story on the website of Restoration Hope:
Sammy was left orphaned when her mother died from AIDS. Sammy’s only remaining relatives took her in and she was added to the already overwhelming number of children in their care. When their resources were exhausted, Sammy’s providers had to do the unthinkable. She was placed in a corner and left to die a slow death of starvation. A little life ebbing away in a corner of a dark mud hut.
John 1:5 says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That beautifully describes the turn in Sammy’s story. God’s light came to Sammy in the form of a woman bent on saving lives. As she peered into the darkness she saw a one-year-old child literally weighing only pounds and breaths from death. Her medical training told her this child was too far-gone, but the Light inside of her refused to believe that. Sammy was brought out of that darkness and slowly nursed back to health.
On the surface, taking a group of preschoolers to McDonalds would seem like a minor deal. You may think traveling over 9,000 miles for such a thing is absurd. I would have totally agreed before our time in South Africa. A big part of our mission is to build relationships. You cannot build relationships over the phone or by sending a check. It takes physical presence. While stories of poverty and the complicated dynamics of the global orphan crisis have great value, until you have wiped its nose, it is only words on a page or images on a screen. The workers need to know their vocation has value. The children need to know there are Christians who would leave their families and their world to go on a long journey just for them.
The kids savor their food. They lick the ketchup from its little white container. On other days, the caregivers must be very careful that certain children do not overeat because of the psychological trauma caused by starvation. Today is not one of those days.
While the kids are eating, a couple of the guys and I take Tabitha’s truck to fill it up with gas. It takes over $100. Gas stations in South Africa are all full service. While we are there, we have it detailed. The truck has never been washed. Stains from years of service remain, although a team of six men hand washed the vehicle. We are proud to have served them in this small way.
After we returned the children to Tabitha, we drive outside of the city to spend the afternoon shopping for souvenirs. Weather permitting we will spend Friday in Sweetwaters, which I am told will be emotionally taxing. As usual, Jason chooses an incredible location to eat. I feel guilty, although the food is cheap by American standards. The setting is beautiful. Eating out in Africa is an event. You are never rushed. No one is trying to turn a table. Our setting is picturesque. The sun has come out and there is a slight breeze. A waterfall can be seen in the distance. Zebras graze through the meadow. Strange flowers decorate the exterior of the cottage converted to a restaurant. There is a lemon tree behind the building. Like the people, the wild African lemons have a thicker skin than we are accustomed due to their harsh climate.
By: Craig Robertson