There are two stories I will share with you from our Community Stay weekend. What was planned…and what actually occurred. There is a phrase we often refer to in Africa – TIA or “This Is Africa”. It’s thrown around a lot when things don’t go exactly as planned / plans change last minute / miscommunications occur that result in different outcomes to what you expected etc. (Those who have travelled or lived in Africa will know what I mean! :-)) It’s something I have come to relax into in Africa, to not be surprised when plans change right at the last minute, to be very adaptable, flexible and just roll with whatever comes your way. This weekend was just one of those moments… 🙂
Before we are sent out on our Community Stay we spend a lot of time preparing in terms of what to expect from a practical and spiritual perspective. We talk through situations we might face, how we should handle these things, what sort of church experiences we might have in the community and we are told about the family members we will be staying with.
I was paired off with Jessica from the United States for the weekend and we were advised that we would be staying with Bethany for the weekend. Bethany is a 14 year old girl who lives alone. Both parents have passed away. She has an older sister who lives in another town, far away. Bethany comes to the care point each weekday for her daily meal. And a care worker visits her house every day to check in on her. Our TIA moment occurred on the Friday afternoon when we arrived at the Care Centre to meet our families. Bethany was not there. We proceeded to drive to all the houses to drop off the other volunteers. As the final drop off, we arrived at Bethany’s house to find her out of town for the day visiting her sister. Long story short, getting to the bottom of the story Bethany was uncomfortable having us stay with her for the weekend. So our plans changed. We did have the opportunity to at least visit Bethany in her home on the Saturday afternoon. Here is some of her story:
We arrived at Bethany’s house on the Saturday afternoon. The house was busy with many of Bethany’s friends popping in and out of the house. As we do on home visits we made ourselves comfortable in the shade outside the house. We began chatting with some of Bethany’s friends who were outside the house. Sitting in the yard you cannot but help notice the two mounds of dirt at the rear of the yard; the graves of her mother and father. A haunting reminder every time she steps out of the house that at 14 years old she has been left all alone.
After sitting outside the house for around 10 minutes, Bethany had still not come out of the house. Thelma, the care worker we were visiting with called Bethany to come out of the house. Bethany reluctantly came outside and joined us, sitting shyly, eyes to the ground, no eye contact was made. We sat for a while whilst the Thelma made conversation with Bethany. It became very clear very quickly just how shy, withdrawn and wounded Bethany is. To look at her from the outside she looks like a normal teenage girl, but to get a glimpse into her soul there are scars and wounds that I cannot even begin to imagine. We were able, through translation, to hold some brief conversation with Bethany, however at no point during the conversation could she make eye contact with any of us. My heart aches for her. I longed to be able to make some sort of connection with her, to acknowledge her pain and loss, to try and communicate with her that someone cares, someone hears her, someone is prepared to just listen. Language is always a challenge and it can be frustrating not being able to communicate directly however it is amazing how much you can communicate with someone through looking deep into their eyes. But we did not even have this opportunity. It was a tough home visit. It was actually quite strained and awkward and felt like we did not actually achieve anything from being there.
This situation nags at my heart. I can’t help but feel there is unfinished business here. I would like to continue to try and build relationship with Bethany. I hope to be able to regularly visit in this community during my time in Africa and have decided to make it a priority to attempt to build a relationship with her. Perhaps by consistency, by just regularly showing up, I can show her that someone cares. Watch this space. I hope to be able to provide further updates on this story.
Prayer request: I would love you to join me in prayer for her – that the care workers that visit her daily can connect and build a deeper relationship with her, and that I might also have to opportunity to continue to build a relationship with her.
Plan B Community Stay
So for our impromptu plan B community stay we found ourselves staying with an amazing care worker called Thelma.
Thelma is 29 years old. She is the firstborn of 9 children as follows:
Thelma – 29 yrs (and has a 12 yr old son)
Sister – 27 yrs (is married and lives in another town with one child)
Sister – 25 yrs (2 daughters, 5 yrs and 1 month – loved having a baby in the house to cuddle!)
Brother – 18 yrs
Sister – 16 yrs
Sister – 12 yrs
Sister – 10 yrs
Sister – 6 yrs
Brother – 1 yr (he did not like the white people!! We could not go near him without making him cry!!)
Thelma still lives in her family home with her Mother, and 8 of her siblings. The second born sister is married and has moved away. Thelma has an 12 year old son. And the third born sister has 2 children (including a 1 month old baby who was very cute to cuddle!!). So altogether there were 12 people living in the house. The father works and lives in a town a few hours away. He comes back to visit on a regular basis however was not home the weekend we stayed.
The house had a small living/kitchen area. The three oldest children and the mother each had a bedroom. The younger children all slept on mats in another small room attached to the outside of the house. There was an outdoor kitchen/cooking area, a long drop, and we even had a tap in the yard with town water. The house had electricity. So altogether it was a rather comfortable community stay experience!
When we go into the homes, the families are instructed to not treat us as guests, but rather to treat us as siblings. That means we are to help with chores, cook, wash, clean etc. Just to participate in normal life!
The first night we arrived, with the change of plans, meant dinner was already cooked for us. On the menu was chicken necks and pap! African’s certainly know how to cook up good chicken and the necks were surprisingly tasty! By 8pm we were experiencing our first bucket bath (of which we would become very accustomed too – bathing 3 times a day! I have never been so clean in my life :-)) And shortly thereafter finding our way to bed. We offered to sleep on straw mats on the floor, however Thelma kindly offered to share her double bed with us. So the THREE OF US were in for a VERY COSY few nights 🙂
An amusing side note – Thelma would answer her mobile phone all through the night! In Africa phone calls are free between 12am – 5am, so as African’s do, they take advantage of the free calls and call one another at any time during the night!! One morning Thelma received 3 phone calls all around 4am!!
Saturday morning started around 6:30am with the morning household chores. We swept the yard, swept, mopped and polished all the floors in the house, cooked and ate breakfast, did the washing up, and also did the weekly clothes washing (physically on par with our bASH 5 hour challenge ;-), who needs boot camp in Africa! ;-)) By the time we finished all the chores at 11:30am we were exhausted!! At this point we had some lunch, and then were able to play with the children in the yard for a couple of hours.
We took some balls with us and a skipping rope. As soon as we would start a game in the yard, all the neighbourhood children would start to come and join us. So we would end up with 25-30 children in the yard playing games!! It was great fun!
For the afternoon we went walking around the community to visit the homes the other volunteers were staying with. Our Care Worker needed to check in on them and it was nice to be able to have a brief catch up and see how everyone was going. We then dropped by Bridget’s house as described above.
When we arrived home it was time to cook dinner. The menu was pilchards, cabbage and pap. African cooking was an experience. I think I have had my oil and salt quota for the year!! And I must say that pilchards are definitely not a favourite dish of mine. Again bathing and bed followed fairly quickly after dinner as we were exhausted!
Sunday morning we had to rise early before church, to get the morning’s chores done and cook lunch for when we returned from church. Again we started the morning sweeping the house, scrubbing the floors, doing the washing up and then preparing lunch which comprised of rice and chicken. We were blessed not to have taken live chickens with us (we got out of it easy taking frozen chicken pieces :-)).
Community Church was amazing! The church was called Swiss Mission. Thelma described the church to us as Presbyterian. The parts I likened to a Presbyterian church were the Hymn books we sung from at times and the prayer book (pretty sure we recited the Apostle’s creed and the Lord’s prayer in Tsonga).
What I loved most about church was the passionate worship! To frame up the picture for you we walked into a small building with plastic chairs set out. One half of the room was chairs for adults, the other half had smaller chairs for the children. There were approximately 50 people there in total (adults and children) and the majority of the adults were females (with the exception of the pastor and two other men in the congregation). There were no instruments or any singers leading worship as such. Different people in the congregation would take turns leading out in songs, and there was plenty of dancing too! The actual singing and dancing went for approximately the first hour and a half of the service. As visitors to the church we were invited up the front of the church (we even had to dance to the front :-)) to introduce ourselves (common practice when visiting any African community church). The pastor then gave his message using us as the sermon illustration! He was talking about people going out within our communities and abroad to serve God. He had a very good grasp of the English language and so whist he was preaching in the local language, he would interject with brief updates in English during his message so we could partially follow along. More singing and dancing followed and 3 hours later we finished church 🙂 It is always such a blessing and privilege to worship with other believers in such a different style and context but serving the same God! I was so inspired and encouraged by the tenacity of African worship. It was fantastic!
After church we enjoyed our HUGE lunch of rice and chicken (felt like I ate my body weight in rice!). The massive carb overdose led quickly to an afternoon nap!! Following our nap we played again with all the neighbourhood children for about 3 hours until it got dark. For one of the games we tried to teach them duck, duck, goose. However goose was just not working for us. As soon as we changed goose to chicken we were set! Got to love cultural context 🙂
As it was getting dark it was time to cook dinner. The kitchen is outside so it’s helpful to have some light! Whilst we had been playing – one of the sisters had killed/plucked/cleaned and prepared the live chicken we were to eat for dinner (I had seen the chicken arrive…and was pleased to have not been asked to help with the process!). Again chicken and pap were on the menu! We were responsible for cooking up the chicken. I think it’s the first time I have eaten chicken liver and intestines (they don’t waste anything! And consider these the best parts thus why we were given them!) The intestines were not too bad. The liver on the other hand I managed to swallow fairly quickly!
It was Sunday night and our last night at the house so we stayed up later with the family, and helped out with some of the homework with the kids.
School in Africa for most of the children starts at 7am. So from 5am on the Monday morning the house was a flurry with activity with everyone washing, ironing and getting ready for school. We started chores again at 5:30am sweeping the yard, house, scrubbing floors, washing dishes and a bite of breakfast before heading back to the Care Point to meet up with all the volunteers and care workers before heading home (with 2 hours of impromptu gardening at the care point before we headed off!).
It was an absolute privilege to be able to spend the weekend getting a glimpse into the life of one of the amazing Care Workers who are such an integral part of the Hands at Work model – this is local community ownership in full action! Thelma is only 29 years old, so not too dissimilar from my own age and yet our lives are worlds apart. Thelma is such a strong and inspirational woman. I very much look up to her! She volunteers her time day in and day out Monday to Friday (and has been doing so since 2007) caring for the orphan and vulnerable children in her community (equivalent of a 9am-5pm job in our culture). She leads the Care Point in Welverdiend and the team of 14 Care Workers. She is not renumerated in any way for this work, its entirely volunteer work. The only income she receives is the 208 Rand (approx.. $26 AUD per month) government child grant each month for her son. This is not enough money for food, let alone even begin to cover costs of school uniforms for her son or any other living expenses (for perspective, a pair of school shoes is approx. 200 Rand).
After hours and on the weekend Thelma spends the majority of her time then cooking, doing chores and providing for her own family. She is my HERO in the true sense of the word! This woman does not stop! Aside from the 1 hour we took to rest on the Sunday (and she was even completing some paperwork during this time) there was no relaxation/leisure time. And yet, she has probably never known anything different. I am completely challenged by her life and her heart to serve and help those in her community – her enthusiasm, dedication, commitment, faithfulness and her tireless work ethic. It was such an honour to be able to spend the weekend with my new sister. This will not be the last time I stay with my new family!
If you have made it this far you have done well! Apologies for the long post! I am still trying to process and come to terms with all I have seen and experienced. I don’t even feel like this post has done any justice to all I experienced. But hopefully you get a glimpse 🙂