We’ve been a bit remiss in our blogging so I will apologize now for length…
First off— Team South Africa Durban is not quite an accurate name. We’re in a Zulu tribal area in the central Drakensburg Mountains called the AmangweValley. It is about two hours drive north west of Durban which is a large port city right on the coast. Since we’re in the mountains and it is winter here we get very chilly nights, but we make good use of our hot water bottles and have lots of fuzzy blankets. Then during the day the sun is out and it feels like a typical summer day in Seattle. It’s a very rural area—rolling hills of dry grass filled with every shape and size of cow imaginable. Houses are mostly mud or cement block with thatched roof or corrugated metal. There is electricity but no running water, and roads are abysmal. Getting around is actually really easy. You just stand by the side of the road and hold up your finger, then 15 passenger vans which people call “taxis” drive around taking people to town or other parts of the valley. We’ve had some adventures just getting accustomed to village life—lesson number, one wear a wedding ring to deter proposals, lesson two, always check waterbottle for bugs or you may swallow an earwig, and lesson three, be flexible about toilets or lack there of…
We’ve been spending the last six weeks volunteering for Thembalethu Care Organization, a Christian hospice and palliative care non-profit. It was co-founded by Betsy Meyer a UPC missionary, and it works with women from the AmangweValley to provide home based care to the very sick as well as running two soup kitchens for kids in the area who aren’t receiving proper meals at home. The valley has one of the highest HIV rates in the world with 37-47% of adults testing positive. Many of the patients Thembalethu serves are battling HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, or cancer. The work is such a true and pure example of God’s kingdom coming to earth as these women go around their communities seeking out and serving the most vulnerable and sick. Hannah and I have had a chance to go on home visits with the nurse, where we sit while she checks in on their health and well being. Then we share some scripture and pray for the patient. We’ve also spent time helping with organizational things for Thembalethu, teaching English lessons to adults, and running holiday camps for high school and primary school aged kids. This last week will be spent painting a mural and running a few training days for local pre-school teachers.
Our schedule is very flexible, but I’ll give you a run down of what a typical day has looked like: We wake up around 7 or 7:30 (timing depends on whether we’re going to bucket bathe) then drink your first cup of rooibos tea with breakfast. Walk the twenty minutes from our host family’s house and get to the Thembalethu center around 9. Pray together for the day and drink cup of tea number two while we wait for people to show up. Then do whatever is going on that day with a nice long lunch break and likely time to just sit and read. Around 3 or 4 walk home or up the hill to admire the view for a bit. At home you put on layers of warm clothes to prepare for evening chill, read or play some bananagrams and have cup of tea number three. We eat dinner with our family every night and then after dinner sit under a warm Zulu blanket and watch the news and a couple South African soap operas with the family— we were really surprised that the family had a TV at first, but it actually really helps us learn names, and it comes in handy in conversations with people since soap operas are really popular. We’re definitely functioning on “Africa time” here. If you arrange to meet at a certain time you can count on people to consistently be thirty to sixty minutes later than that. It is a world away from the frantic pace of college life. We’ve both felt very blessed by the freedom from stress and rush, settling happily into a spacious “routine”. I know that realistically things will be busier again upon returning home but we’re both hoping to bring home this wider perspective of how artificial time constraints are.
The warmth with which people have welcomed us here is breath taking. If people know only a little English, it is generally “Hi”, “How are you”, and “I love you”. Hannah and I literally doubled the white population here in Mandabeni upon our arrival, so, needless to say, we stick out A LOT. It’s a bizarre experience to have strangers want to take a picture with you. The stares can get tiring, but often enough they are accompanied by a warm smile that it feels worth it. As I’ve learned more of South African history and current state it blows me away that these people, with every right to hold a grudge, welcome us with above and beyond any hospitality I’ve ever experienced. In spite of clear continued inequality in the country they seem to love the fact that two clueless white girls form America are wandering around their community, riding taxis, going to churches, and just admiring the beauty in this place. It’s truly one of the clearest examples of grace I’ve ever experienced. We’ve done absolutely nothing to deserve love from these people. It’s humbling to see that. I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps a piece of why God brought us here is to give these people a chance to feel seen and admired as we just accept their hospitality with open hearts and gratitude, accept it as the grace that it is.
With such lovely people and the natural beauty we’re surrounded by, it’s easy to see this place as a peaceful rural haven (if perhaps a little rustic), but then you ask ANYONE about their family and there will be close family members lost to disease or accidents. And we’ve learned that over 80% of the valley’s income comes from welfare grants from the government to children and the elderly. Sitting in the room with a sobbing HIV positive 14 year old girl right after re-reading the beatitudes, I think that what had before been a mental understanding of this scripture became a much deeper understanding in my heart. There is a vulnerability and desperation which my privileged life prevents me from ever fully knowing. The hole meant to be filled by God has been partially patched by worldly comforts and illusions of self-sufficiency. These people on the other hand are wide open in their relation to God. Our prayers for them always include at their core a hope that these tremendously sad circumstances be used to bring them closer to God’s love, that they allow them to more fully understand his power and their need for him.
At the same time it raises a lot of questions—how could an all powerful all loving God will this to happen to some of his children. Then you look a single valley over and it’s full of green irrigated fields and luxury resorts. South Africa is defined by the word contrast. It’s hard to see such clear inequality with no simple solution.
As we come into our last week we would love your prayers for a smooth transition and wisdom and love as we say good bye to people. Please join your prayers with ours as we pray for the patients of Thembalethu and for the home based care workers themselves. Also pray for Betsy, Eugene and their son Joshua—they just adopted a two month old girl named Khanya into the family!
Thanks for all your love and support from home! It has meant a lot to us and we look forward to getting to share more with you all in person soon.
Brianna and Hannah