I(along with Kara K)am back from South Africa and Swaziland-- physically. But there is something inexplicable about that corner of the world that's made me crazy in love with it and I can't quite leave it behind. I've heard so many people say that Africa gets in their blood...they weren't kidding. It's not the awe of being 3 meters away from a pride of lions eating a wildebeast. It wasn't the curious taste of chicken feet (don't eat the toe nails), crocodile stew, ostrich pie, giraffe sausage and worm (surprisingly tasted like salted licorice). I think it's the people.
My complicated love affair with these people began at a church in the Daveytown Township (just outside of Johannesberg). Some serious soul-singing. Some serious depth. Maybe it's the music that first tugged at my heart-- layers of heartfelt harmonies, rythms and dance. And the mealand conversation afterwards, lovingly prepared for our group of 10 Canadian women (despite never having met us) confirmed that I was definitely infatuated.
Their pastor, Pastor Eric, was a role model to me this trip. I would be missing a big piece of our experience if I didn't talk about him. He joined us during the duration of our trip, leaving his wife and 2 young sons behind. He acted as our pastor (and it seems he is the pastor to everybody in South Africa and Swaziland-- he is known and respected by what seems to me to be the entire population!!!), our interpreter (I'm pretty sure that he sometimes had to re-invent what we said to make it culturally appropriate. We Canadians are kinda crazy, I think), our comic relief and our cultural navigator. He has a heart for bringing life-giving gospel to everyone around him.
We headed to Swaziland, dissuaded the border crossing guards from making us give them bribery money, and practiced our isiswati greeting: Saobona! WE met a remarkable woman, Halisile. In a country where women are not allowed to own property, she had a vision from God of starting a low-cost preschool (children in Swaziland cannot go to elementary school without going to preschool. And they can't go to pre-school if they can't afford school fees-- which means at age 4, many children already have been denied any hope for an education and little hope for a viable future). Her father, the elder of the village of 2000 people, Phonjawe, caught her vision and gave her land. From there, Halisile had a tiny school room built-- 3 meters by 3 meters-- and 40 little students. The name of her school: Big Things Begin Small.
I feel it's important to note that many of her students have HIV/AIDS (15% of the child population, according to stats). That means that many of her students won't ever grow up to be adults. I think one of my most meaningful, painful interactions over the past 2 weeks was an afternoon spent holding a tiny, lethargic 6-year-old (I thought she was 3), who went from playing Ring Around the Rosie with me enthusiastically earlier in the week, to barely being able to lift her head. The reality is that she has in her blood an inevitable death sentence. Despite this reality, Halisile finds it crucially important to educate. Because she truly believes that God wills it. (I wish I had faith like that).
Now that Halisile's plans to establish a pre-school are well underway, she has been making plans to use her schoolyard as a place for adult eduation courses, for Pastors to get theological training, a feeding centre (Swaziland has had drought and famine for a long time now) and to start a sewing co-op. Somehow (and I'm not sure how) she was connected with our organization-- Missionary Ventures. The South African MV director, Coralie (who also joined us and was also a crucial part of this experience), is a gentle force to be reckoned with and has been able to support Halisile in fullfilling her vision. To support and jump-start her vision, our MV team brought 5 hand-cranked, motor-less sewing machines (there's no electricity) and two of our Canadian women taught basic sewing skills to 15 Swazi women. Eventually, these Swazi women will be able to sell their hand-made crafts and earn an income. This "Threads of Hope" co-op is incredibly important in a place where finding a job is near impossible, where women are often dependant on unfaithful husbands to provide, and where women have not necessarily been given the opportunity to learn a skill.
Our presence in this little community did not go unnoticed. Some of us had a chance to visit the Under Chief (the Chief was summoned by the King and could not meet with us). Our organization-- Missionary Ventures-- will most likely be given a plot of land to continue community development. To show his appreciation, the Under Chief gave us a live chicken.
I had the fun priviledge of discussing HIV/Aids with these warm women. How the heck is HIV/AIDS a fun topic???? Games. These women sure know how to play. Through games like "Button, Button, Who's Got the Button", I was able to talk openly about how the virus works, the injust social stigmas we find ourselves stuck in, and joined them as they taught each other facts and fiction about HIV/AIDS. I was able to engage in a few conversations with women living positively because of these games, and I praise God for those times.
My mom might be cursing God for those times. One woman, Priscilla, with whom I spoke, works for World Vision, right beside the school. She and I discussed the HIV/Aids crisis in-depth and I'm very nearly convinced to return to Swaziland to start a clinic. During the week, I had learned that the nearest place to get antiretroviral medication (which although does not cure AIDS, can extend your life for a very, very long time) is Manzini-- a city which costs 20 Rand ($8) to get there and back. Although the meds are free (a very recent and very hopeful improvement in a place where 43% of the population is infected and the average life expectancy is 33 years)-- many people can't afford the transportation costs to go to the city once a month to get their meds. I was frustrated by this barrier. It seems so easy to set up a small clinic to dispense meds. Anyways, it seems that Priscilla is of the same opinion of myself: easier access for people living with HIV/AIDS. And not only meds, but counselling (people won't be likely to take meds if they are unwilling to accept that they have the virus or if they believe myths such as having sex with a virgin will cure it). And not only counselling, but a feeding centre (it's useless to take this medication on an empty stomach). She asked if I would come back and support the community to start a clinic. Although I made no promises to her, I must admit-- I'm extremely tempted. And that was my mom's fear: that I would want to go back.
I've already started weighing the pros-and-cons. Established relationships in the community- cheque. Have land- cheque (almost- I think Missionary Ventures has something like this on their radar in the future). Have some experience in counselling- cheque. Today, I sat with my friend Ashley in a coffee shop outlining a vision of how we could help make this clinic happen. It's exciting to realize that this clinic could be a real possibility. Our current goal is to simply continue establishing the connections made in Phonjawe and discern how committed we would actually be to this venture. I guess my fear is that it's a pipe dream, and if it's not a pipe-dream that I will eventually lose my current motivation. But I guess that's where Trust and Prayer come in. Time will tell.
Uh oh. This post keeps getting longer and longer and longer. Sorry-- I process through writing. And this trip has certainly given me a lot to process. I haven't even touched on the miles and miles and miles of government-subsidized shacks I saw Daveytown (our Torontonian Rooming Houses almost seem livable in comparison; although, to their credit, their new subsidized housing, in my tentative, humble opinion, might be better than ours-- a small house on a plot of land).
Nor have I talked about the biggest lesson that I learned-- the resiliant hope and trust in God that the people I met (both in Africa and on my team) hold. These people must genuinely, literally must pray "give us this day our daily bread"...I have a lot to learn.