It’s People: The Work Begins – South Africa Month 4
“If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”
It is becoming apparent with each new day that this venture will not get any easier. The more I become part of the people I am here to serve, the more I am exposed to the cold hard truth about the poverty of the community. I do not mean poverty in the economic sense of the word, for that is only a fraction of the lack here. No, it is deeper than that, and an even larger battle in which I’ve taken up arms. It is poverty embedded and engrained in the culture; factors which go beyond residual effects of oppression, and perhaps could partly explain the success of such an overtaking. It is something hidden; buried for decades. Something for which I am committed to digging and scraping at until the crevice comes clean, and fresh is allowed to flow in, and there, that’s when the real work begins. That’s when we build up a way from which there is no backward or re-entry- The Way Forward.
I could feel it from the moment I stepped foot on Limpopo’s earth. Something brought me here. Something in the universe prepared and cleared a path for my arrival. I could write for days about the falling away of puzzle pieces which had previously been forcing a fit into my life (I will reserve that for the book). One day, a voice inside of me spoke, “Come this way.” I refer to this experience as “Satori” (a Japanese term meaning “to see into one’s true nature”).
As I experienced this feeling of truth, the visions came. I saw the way. I saw myself here, now, doing the work. I observed myself as if this were a life I had already lived. No feeling or experience has ever been more profound. I start my days with gratitude now as Satori is the space in which I predominantly dwell.
So, when the days grow more difficult, Satori keeps me going. That, and I find life burdensome to only know of troubles lurking in the world, and not springing to action to bring some light to places of disgrace and despair. I guess for me, it is the ultimate display of my gratitude for the fortune of love, opportunity, awareness, and talent that flows to me.
I’ve played games of competing with and distinguishing from my fellow humans. I’m blessed with action oriented wiring and a sharp mind, and thus played to capitalize on these gifts- in a worldly way. There was always a piece of the puzzle missing. I would write about this; trying to fill my emptiness with creative prose which only talked about contributing to the world. Finally, a day came when I decided the gloves were coming off and the game was over. It was time to live; to lose everything and thereby gain the world.
Wild Coast. Eastern Cape, South Africa. Clearing the mind to prepare for the hard work ahead.
So I sit on the grounds of a rural South African school digesting the cold hard truths I’ve learned about the people I will serve- the people I’ve made “my people.” This expression empowers me to think in original ways to ease the pains here, but in a sense that it induces an internal realization that we are somehow connected. Nothing has brought this truth to light more so than the reality I most dreaded facing: the presence of HIV in the community.
Make no mistake, the culture here differs greatly from the US. Thus, it is easy, if working from a human mind, rather than the spirit within, to judge, criticize, and silently ridicule a people for such drastic differences. Every meeting or event (professional or social) starts at least thirty minutes after the scheduled time, before getting on task at the office, it is expected you have a full blown, casual conversation (not just small talk) before you can politely suggest taking care of business, the taxis are overcrowded vans with no seat belts, starches seem to be the only thing on the plate when invited to eat traditional cuisine, and I’m not considered a complete woman for my lack of cooking skills, laundry duty, husband and children (I’m far too old in South Africa to be alone…so if I can do my own laundry and cook porridge, perhaps my misfortune will turn around…a most endearing speech when coming from the community elders, but tends to strike a nerve when coming from peers). All of these things can-and have-frustrated me as I experience occasional feelings of isolation.
I am the only white person in the village, and there are some days when it’s hard to smile, even to children, when I’m referred to as “mukuwa” (meaning “white person” in Tshivenda, the language indigenous to my region in Limpopo). Some days I want to rush home to reflect on the day’s learning and build my heart back up after coming face to face with sad realities here. I can’t ever just rush home. No, in rural South Africa, you are expected to greet everyone you pass while walking through the village. Greeting means to have a conversation, and as the mukuwa in the community, people want to know who I am, what I’m up to, and when I will be visiting them in their shops or homes. Lucky for me, I thrive on meets, greets, and random connections. But there are those days…when I’m fighting back tears to race home to my meditation chair, herbal tea, and yoga mat. Even on those days though, something simple reminds me of how much I craved this very experience, and that it is an absolute blessing to be here.
Every move I make is watched by everyone-even what I eat and how I chew my food. Staring must not be considered rude here-and I’ve just gotten used to it by now. But there are those days when I crave blending into a crowd and feeling lost in the turbulence of life. Those days are far from now. I embrace even this though. It is not the fault of “my people” that they are shocked by my integration. No, that thing of the past called “segregation” set the stage for the isolation I experience. However, this isolation is a painfully joyous blessing which I welcomed into my life. I am always reminded, just as quickly as I forget, why I made that choice.
One of my favorite pastimes is to go walking in busy parts of the village and turn faces of bewilderment into boisterous laughter and delight as the mukuwa not only greets, but converses in Tshivenda. The eyes of villagers light up as I say, “Ndi Masiari” (good afternoon). They are in total shock that not only is a mukuwa here, but she speaks the language. When they suspect I am superficial, they try to stump me with less common greetings. I more often than not pass the test. When I reply, in Tshivenda, with various compliments, small talk, and well wishes, the joy exchange raises to such a degree that my eyes swell with happy tears as I leave my new friends to walk home.
The days can grow lonely when you’re without a counterpart who shares your affinity for quick action, healthy food, and commuter safety. These differences are peas compared to what unites us-what proves I am among “my people.” The revelation dawned on me during a recent journal entry:
“In the morning assembly, my eyes searched for the children who needed my smile-the ones with sickness in their eyes or confusement worn on their sleeves. Two weeks ago, my Peace Corps colleague talked of the physical signs of HIV/AIDS. During my school visits, I had wondered what were the causes of the skin blemishes and discoloration. I think part of me wanted to believe that it was something-anything-other than HIV/AIDS. It is almost too difficult to write about
Yesterday, I interviewed an educator. She affirmed that the skin abnormalities I see are indicative of the illness. My heart completely breaks in two. My human mind had wanted to pretend the issue was not relevant for my community, to hide from the statistics and training which I had to complete to even get to this point in my work.
This is our Grade 2 learning environment in rural Limpopo, South Africa.
Last week, I saw a memo lying on an educator’s desk. I picked it up to see what I could learn. It was the school’s HIV/AIDS policy, providing etiquette regarding the enrollees infected and affected by the illness. That is when reality started to set in.
I finally grew a pair and decided to talk about it-to face the facts of what I’m up against here:
There are at least two children under age 9 who are positive, and there appear to be others. It is known that some of the sick children are receiving no treatment. Others have lost one or both parents to the illness.
Last year, a 10 year old girl went home with a headache. After not seeing the girl in class for a second day, a teacher inquired with the girl’s sister. “She is home sick” was the response. The principal and teacher immediately made a house visit. They found a house with no parents, and the young girl lying in bed, alone, too ill to ingest food. She was immediately taken to the hospital. It was too late. She died three days later. There was no family at the funeral. The school buried the young girl, as both her parents were perished due to AIDS. The parents themselves were too young to die. The next time I think I’m lonely, my stomach will turn.
Why is the illness so rampant? Apart from the obvious reasons, fear is the answer. The fear of knowing and the fear of others knowing perpetuates inaction. This inaction is doing quite a lot: killing parents, children, strangers, spreading the illness, and making an infected young adult’s first sexual encounter (a memory most of us can look to with fondness) a deadly one. These are all things that can be avoided just by knowing the truth. Wow. What night and day: fear and truth.
My People are a mirror to myself.
My people are a mirror to myself. I did not want to know the truth about the presence of the illness. My Fear of being paralyzed by an issue that seemed bigger than me paralyzed me anyway. My work here, what I’ve made my business, is to ensure every person I encounter is improved, or opened up in some new way, by my touch. I am not minding my business if I allow fear to immobilize me, or send me into hiding. But because I felt fear and observed its manipulation of my own behaviors, I can understand my people.”
After writing that journal entry, I did something I do often. I picked up a book, held it in my hand, and whispered to the Universe, “show me what I need to know.” I opened the page, and there were the words I had written a few months ago, notes from some awakening reading, by author Eckhart Tolle:
“The teacher and the taught together create the teaching.” A sign. Indeed. A sign.
I am on the right path. I am grateful for the awareness of how such an abstract experience like fear can connect a people, and how that painful element which makes us somehow the same is also the door through which resolution comes.
I see it now. As we struggle to heal, the healing is the struggle. As the Sufi poet, Rumi wrote, “the cure for pain is the pain.” Pieces encompassing my mind shatter and fall away.
I have my work cut out for me. A mere effort will not suffice for my own peace, nor in the grand scheme of contributing to the evolution of mankind. No, I took up arms with intent to win.
I’m going to follow through with my intent by employing the methods the Universe reveals to me. How perfect is that Universe anyway? Just when I think I’ve had a limiting moment of fear, it reveals the purpose and meaning behind it all…I had to venture to such a space, to “create the teaching.”
While writing just now, I am interrupted by an educator, Mrs. R. She explains to me that in Tshivenda greetings, even if you did not have a good day, you say it is good anyway, “Ndo twa zwavhudi.”
“Same in America!” I exclaim, “you have the worst day of your life and say, ‘I’m fine.'”
She laughs loudly with her round face, loving eyes, and perma-smile. “Ah, it’s people…” she repeats in a thick South African accent, “it’s people…are the same,” and walks away.
Reminders are everywhere. Little things like this affirm that I’m on the right path for fulfillment of my purpose. Now, I must put down my pen to meet with the school’s governing board. As I do so, I think, “yes, but I know I will rush over there and be waiting around for 30 minutes before anyone arrives.” I take a deep breath, and smile, and remember, “It’s People.”
Hours later- the date in the memo for the meeting was wrong. After waiting 45 minutes and being the only one arrived, I was dismissed by the principal to go on home.
Why do I do it? If you could see how bright the youth wants to shine here, you would get it.
“Eager to Learn” is understatement.
“Eager to learn” is an understatement. It is not a lack of brains, insight, or willingness to evolve that has created the state of my people. It is something else which I’ve not yet discovered. Rest assured, I can feel it in my veins, and hear it whisper in my ears as I admire the purple and pink hues of the African sky above the Venda mountains, “I will get there.” And when I do, we’ll just keep walking, because that’s when the real work begins.
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