The South African Series

The Prodigal Sister

In my bathroom at home we have a three foot tall stack of magazines. Architecture Digest, Essence, Relevant, Time, you name it – it’s in there. And in one of these magazines, it was suggested that readers venture off the beaten vacation path and give a try to ‘serving vacations’ or whatever the term was. The idea was to vacation like a “Hollywood star”, and in doing so, you could spend six weeks of your life pretending to be Angelina Jolie or Madonna by handing out bottled water to orphans or digging trenches for widows in war-torn areas. You could see the world and still “make a difference”.

In a completely different issue of a completely different magazine, I the columnist decried the notion of these ‘serving vacations’ because they did very little to affect lasting change in the area that the vacation-monger found him/herself. To paraphrase: these Westerners, usually green-minded American college grads or backpacking Europeans get the benefit of feeling good, spending a few dollars or Euros here and there, but do not have the necessary (government, corporate, etc.) backing to affect any sort of real change. In some cases, it’s better that they never came to the village at all.

So which is it? Is it a good idea to go on a feel good mission in impoverished areas or eschew the notion altogether, rather spending ones money on liquor and hotel bills in Miami or Ibiza? This is the quandary in which I find myself, now that I’m back in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa after two years. Did I make things worse, better, or have no net affect at all those three months I spent here in 2011 on a short term mission’s trip? (Which is the Christian equivalent of these vacations spent in service.)

When I walked into the church/clubhouse/soup kitchen in Qolweni, many of the people were surprised – and pleased to see Marshall and I again. Mavis, a big woman with an even bigger smile hugged me tightly.

“Ohh sisi, I never expected to see you again!” she giggled.

“Ah. But why not? I told you we would come back!”

“But that’s what many Americans say. They say they will come back, and they never do.”

All of my favorite ladies were there: Thandiswa, Fezi, Mavis and two other women I’d never met. I was eager to pass out gifts that I’d picked for them individually, but as I understood it, I couldn’t do it just then because they were not all the same gift. If I didn’t time it right, it would only serve to breed discontent amongst my friends.

Why did she get a hat and an umbrella, and I only got a pair of shoes?

(If you’re thinking that this line of thinking is juvenile and asinine, you’d be right. But that’s village life for you.)

That’s the point though, isn’t it? The first thing I failed to realize during my initial trip was that I needed to truly understand nature of whom I was working with, and what the mindset of the people was/is. And that’s an endeavor that needs a hefty investment of time. Had I spent more time developing proper relationships instead of busying myself with “work”, perhaps I would have been less crestfallen when I enquired after my favorite kids, most have who had not shown up for the big ‘gala’ (traditional song and dances performed by the kids, and refreshments provided by me.)that the ladies had planned for us.

“Where is Camagu (pronounced ts-a-mah-goo)?” I asked eagerly, peering through the crowds of third graders and younger. He should be in 7th grade by now.

“Ahhh, Camagu? He doesn’t come for after school anymore. His attitude has changed.”

“I think he even stopped going for music lessons,” chimed in someone else. That was a pity. Camagu very truly loved to sing. He had a lovely falsetto.

“And what if Siya?” I asked eagerly. She was 15 last time we were in the country. Beautiful and bright, she talked wistfully of visiting Paris one day and becoming a lawyer, perhaps.

“Ahhhh… Siya? She is now pregnant. She is going to have a baby.”

That was a shame, I said with genuine sadness. The ladies in the circle didn’t seem to share my grief. That was the way life was in the township, after all.

“And she is so skinny, so the pregnancy looks cute with her small body!” one said enthusiastically.

I was scared to ask about my next pet-child, but I did, nonetheless. Kweikwei was the four year old boy that Thandiswa had rescued two years back in a pseudo adoption. This is where Thandiswa’s face finally curled up in a deep frown.

“Kweikwei’s mother came for him last year,” she spat.

“Really? Why?”

I was alarmed. If you recall, her boyfriend was hooked on drugs and would burn then-four year old KweiKwei with cigarettes and glowing metal pokers that he stuck in the fire at night. His mother never bathed him and rarely fed him. Thandiswa huffed in answer to my question.

“Well, she thinks maybe I got a grant, so that’s why she came to take her son away. I told her without his birth certificate and ID card, I can’t do anything with him,” she said, speaking quickly. “She talked and talked until I told my husband to get her away from my house! But I told Kweikwei even if it’s midnight, he is welcome in my house.”

I nodded and told her I was proud of her, and that I hoped God would bless her.

By then I realized that Charlotte had not yet arrived. You may remember Charlotte? She was the prettiest of the bunch, with honey brown eyes and caramel colored skin. Her hair was always crafted in curly braids or some sort of weave. I inquired after her whereabouts. They said she was coming from the Shell station. When she arrived, I was taken aback. She had aged 15 years, if not more. And her two front teeth were missing. Had her husband knocked them out? I dared not ask.

I reached out to embrace her and told her how great it was to see her again. She smiled wearily and replied in kind.

“Here are some things for you and your girls,” I grinned, passing her two big bags.

“Thank you, Malaka.”

“How are the girls anyway?”

“Oh they are fine,” she assured me. “Have you seen my teeth are gone?”

“Yeah. Yeah! I saw that.”

She laughed ruefully and I didn’t press for an answer.

(I later found out that she had lost her teeth to cavities and opted to have them extracted.)

I went home that night with a heavy heart, and those were not the emotions I was expecting to harbor after all this time. I expected to feel elated – at peace, perhaps. But instead, I felt like a failure. Like I had come and preached hope and not followed through to make sure that hope was realized. I had paraded my “perfect” family in front of this lot, and quietly implied that “you could have this too, if you worked hard at it”, and not provided the tools. Sure, I could join some NGO or other organization and slap some contraceptives in the girls’ hands and some tech device in the other and call that “progress” – as many of these groups in their hubris are prone to do – but that still doesn’t cover the real need for a lasting, dedicated relationship with the people. And they know it too.

Besides, the mother in me would never allow myself to go down that path. She knows you need to be there every day with your child, to nurture and watch over them with vigilance.

I never thought I’d see you again, Malaka. I’m so happy to see you again…

That cut me, and it cut me deep.