“Twisting, turning, diving down,
Falling slowly to the ground,
This is how I came to be,
In this place of misery,
Can you see me dying now?
Lying twitching on the ground,
This is what it was to me,
In this place of misery,
Can you save me from this death?
Can you save me from this mess?
Can you come and rescue me?
From this place of misery,
This is where I’m meant to be,
It’s just like a home to me,
Why can’t you just leave me be?
In this place of misery…”
Poem by Nathan Ryan
His name translates from the indigenous African tribal language as “rest in peace.” He was a real boy. His perma smile and zest for new learning fooled me, or perhaps I just didn’t want to see the truth. The reality was he was sick. I was forced to admit it when the educators took some time to introduce me to “the ones who need help.”
The educators decided to introduce me to Rest In Peace after I requested permission to visit the home of a young girl who
had been missing from school for two days. The young girl’s name translates to English as To Be Saved. Against policy, I used funds from my small monthly subsistence to provide nutrient rich food and herbs for the girl and her family. I also coordinated home health education and care for them. When To Be Saved returned to school, the educators reported seeing her smile for the first time since they had met her. “We see her teeth now,” they said. “And she plays with the other children. It’s because she feels loved now.” The young girl had been abandoned by her mother and was living with an elderly relative who was too inflicted with illness to provide proper care for the many children living in her home.
There were many reasons for the children being left behind to care for themselves. Often, the parents were deceased because of AIDS. In other instances, the parents were teenagers who were collecting government grants to care for their children, but never assumed the responsibilities of parenthood. Some parents had taken jobs hours away in the cities, and returned to the village only sporadically throughout the year. In some of these cases, elders were available to care for the children. When elders were not available to care for children, the children learned how to care for themselves and their siblings. I saw this latter scenario often among children who had not yet passed seventh grade (Grade 7). In Rest in Peace’s situation, things were a bit different. Rest In Peace had a father at home, but no mother.
Earlier in the school year, I had requested to see Rest In Peace’s father. I was convinced that with my intermediate fluency with the tribal language and my loving nature that I could somehow guide the father to a treatment program for his son. My superiors cautioned me. While it seemed the entire community understood that the boy was suffering from AIDS, the illness which is often unspeakable by the very traditional African peoples, I was not immediately welcomed to discuss the matter with the boy’s father. It wasn’t until the educators saw To Be Saved smile for the first time that they entrusted me to have sensitive discussions with the families of my youth group.
For privacy purposes, I will refer to Rest in Peace’s father by the name of George. He wore a gentle and warming smile that was obviously the older reflection of his son. When we first met, he arrived promptly at our agreed upon time. I wasn’t expecting this. In my few months in South Africa, no meeting had ever begun less than thirty minutes late. When George approached me on the school yard that Saturday morning, beads of sweat were running down my sunburned face as the youth group and I sounded our mantra repeatedly, “Ndi vhu matshelo ha Afrika Tshi Phembe! (I am the future of South Africa).”
I could sense that my use of Tshivenda made George very happy. We made our way inside an empty classroom and sat across from each other at a student’s desk. We discussed his son’s recent absences from school. He told me the boy had allergies. I asked about the boy’s mother. George told me that she became ill with allergies and died five years ago. After battling the allergies for some time, the mother developed a tumor on her head. George’s family practices traditional medicine and they decided to remove the tumor in a home procedure. The mother died a few days later. She was age 27. It is important to note that many people with HIV develop tumors which are indicative of Kaposi Sarcoma, which is an AIDS related cancer. Five years after the death of his mother, Rest in Peace was experiencing the same symptoms as his mother-symptoms George referred to as “allergies.”
I had to be gentle in my approach to suggesting a plan for the boy’s wellness. I explained to George that I worked in health care in the United States, and discussed the meaning of confidentiality. I explained to him that my good friend has researched health issues in South Africa for many years, and that he has been living a normal and healthy lifestyle despite being HIV positive for 30 years. George then told me that he would be willing to do anything that I may suggest to help his son, Rest In Peace. He never admitted that his son was HIV positive, but was very interested in learning more about my friend’s success in thriving despite the virus. We agreed to be in touch again in the very near future. However, the next several times I attempted to contact George, his phone was unable to receive calls.
Looking back now, I recognize strong similarities with this story and an ordeal I was experiencing at the time. Shortly after I met George, I experienced a minor assault by a male stalker near my home in the village. I went to Peace Corps headquarters in Pretoria to report the incident and speak with a counselor. Peace Corps then arranged for me to move to a new home in my community. Upon settling into the new home, I noticed that my eyes began to itch constantly and my lids were swollen each morning I awoke. Although my home was in a region of the community which was situated farther from the taverns full of drunken men, I still had to travel up and down the mountain to the busy regions of the village when making my way to and from work. During those walks, sexual harassment was a daily guarantee. My patience wore thinner by the day. I found it difficult to kindly decline all of the proposals and demands made by the men. I choked back a lot of unkind words and I rationalized the behavior. In this very traditional African culture, women are revered mostly as servants, and the men I passed everyday believed with all of their being that this was right. I didn’t regard these men as bad people, but every cell of my body tensed up as they approached me each day. My body began speaking what I chose not to say with words, and so the allergies intensified, my throat swelled, my chest hurt, and simply breathing became increasingly difficult by the day.
I remember trying to confide in an educator about the harassment. She was a woman in her 50s. She told me, “you just want to go home.” I was not happy with this response. I had foolishly expected more understanding and support from my colleagues. This was unrealistic. This woman was also grounded in traditional norms, and saw no problem with the behavior of men in the village; this was all she had ever known.
To positively interpret a negative experience is an actual process.
As one who regularly experiences the power of positive thinking, I understand that the quality of one’s attention is a major determinant in the quality of one’s experiences. Thus, I wanted to stay focused on positive interpretations of my environment. I guess I forgot a very important thing: there is a major difference between choosing a positive perception of experiences and suppressing emotional and psychological reactions to experiences. To positively interpret a negative experience is an actual process. It is a process which requires a great deal of honesty with one’s self. In that honesty, is also a requirement to allow whatever emotions one feels to be recognized and actually felt. In looking back, I realize that is one step of the process I found to be very difficult. In fact, when I realized I needed to identify my emotions, my growth seemed to stagnate.
I remember writing to my mentors explaining that I felt overwhelmed and blocked. I remember that it took a lot of guts for me to write to them admitting my vulnerability. Here I was in a role of a leader, assigned by the Universe to inspire and empower. Would I not be the teacher I had intended if I succumb to perceived weakness? I was being too hard on myself. This was nothing new. Being too hard on myself has been a pattern in my life since my formative years. The “striving for perfection” pattern is one I know all too well; it is also the pattern of rejecting who I am and what I’m doing in my life as just not quite good enough. I embrace and love that perpetually seeking and challenging aspect of myself, but I still wish to release its extreme and destructive nature.
When an attitude is evolutionary it allows for growth. My attitude of requiring self perfection at all times was destructive. What is perfection anyway? Without flaws and mistakes there is no learning. Without pain, one can never really feel the depths of joy. I’m just grateful that I can be vulnerable with you now in a way that allows me to finally transcend the darkness, grow, and continue the journey.
My mentor, David, responded to my email immediately. I don’t know how he manages to spread so much of himself in so many directions at once. He’s a master-a real role model. David’s suggestion was for me to peel the emotional onion, first by naming the emotions I felt. This is where my healing process became stagnant. It is very easy for me to make compassionate rationalizations for the injustices I see, but being able to name whether I was feeling sad, angry, fearful seemed impossible for me. I was so blocked from feeling undesirable emotions that I had convinced myself that I just didn’t feel anything. I battled with myself over this.
My interpretation of our human existence is far beyond the physical realm, and so full of love and belief in the infinite and eternal nature of spirit that it seemed silly to me to dwell on human emotion. Here’s a secret about me that you may not know: sometimes I forget I’m human. I am a spiritual being having a very human experience, but right now I’m human nonetheless. What sort of experience can one have if they deny the very nature of the experience? This is the equivalent of attending a musical performance, and then talking throughout the performance about how wonderful the musicians are, and leaving having never really heard the music. Upon this realization, my inner voice pleads, “please, powers that be, help me experience this human life in its fullness. Let me feel the ‘bad’ emotions too. Let me not dwell on these emotions, but prevent me from hiding from them.”
I made my way to Pretoria to the Peace Corps medical office to meet with doctors and visit with a counselor. I wanted to speak with the counselor more because I thought we were making progress. The Peace Corps Medical Director refused to allow me counseling beyond my third visit. I wasn’t sure why. I’d known other volunteers who made regular visits to the counselor since they arrived in South Africa 14 months prior. This was only the third time I’d spoken with a counselor in 14 months. After separating from family and friends, enduring sexual harassment on a daily basis, watching dead bodies being pulled from vehicles at a host family wedding, and having experienced one minor assault by an intoxicated stalker, I only saw the counselor three times. My projects were making rapid progress and I had recruited some brilliant young adult leaders for Takalani Empowerment Project. I was collaborating with journalists and researchers throughout the country, and partnering with development organizations to learn paths for progress beyond what I learned in Peace Corps training. South Africans and Americans were reading my blog and learning new things about one another’s culture. My blog was recognized by the US Peace Corps as an example for cultural understanding and exchange. I was told by superiors that I’d accomplished more in one year than many volunteers do in two or three years. I don’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to see the counselor for further sessions, but I accept it because it is that decision which led to the unforeseen twists and turns that make this story one of expansion instead of loss.
After consulting my superiors and mentors, it was decided that the most sustainable decision for my health and safety would be to return home and plan my next steps independent from the Peace Corps program. Peace Corps could offer me no safer living arrangements, nor allow me the time or cover the cost for alternative therapies which I felt could replace the futile pharmaceutical treatments they’d prescribed for the allergies and asthma. I was told that I qualified for a separation status which would not interfere with my ability to receive the education benefits for graduate school that Peace Corps volunteers earn. After I’d made my decision based on this information, I was told-days later, just before signing my paperwork to leave the program- that I would be forfeiting the education benefits. When I arrived back home in the US, Peace Corps sent me a bill for $200 stating that they’d somehow overpaid me. Oddly enough, now back home in the US, the allergies and asthmatic symptoms persisted. It was evident finally that it wasn’t the pollen in the air, but other psychological and emotional irritations which were causing my health to decline. I let it all build up. I ignored all of the undesirable emotions, let them accumulate, and they begin to express themselves physically. The emotions made my eyes and throat swell, and made it difficult for me to make it through the day without an inhaler.
Heartbreak and Coincidence
I was torn about returning the US. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with family and old friends. By this time, it had been 14 months since I’d seen any of their faces, and I hadn’t spoken to many of them since my departure in 2013. I just knew I had a lot of unfinished business in South Africa. A great deal of progress had been made in those 14 months, and I was not willing to abandon those projects. However, if I continued working under my current physical, psychological, and emotional conditions I would become less effective and my health would dwindle.
I cannot recall the experience of any emotion on my last bus ride from Pretoria to the land of the Venda. I don’t remember if I was planning the words for the following day, when I would inform my youth group of my departure. I don’t recall if I was stressed about having to pack all of my items and leave the village within 24 hours. I do recall not wanting to leave. I played with the possibility of just staying in country and working independently, but new immigration laws required that I return to my country of origin to reapply for a visa since my current visa would expire along with my status as a Peace Corps volunteer. Even if kicking and screaming, I was headed home to the US. My bus pulled into Louis Trichardt, the town near my village in Limpopo, just south of the Zimbabwe border. I would need to take a taxi from Louis Trichardt to my village. I was hesitant.
I didn’t want to face reality. I was already feeling guilty because during my time in Pretoria, I missed the memorial service for an educator who worked at my school. She was a sweet woman who wore the light of God in her smile. I decided instead of taking a taxi directly to my village that I would spend some time in Louis Trichardt. I stopped in to have lunch at restaurant.
The waitress escorted me to a table situated on the outdoor patio. I thanked her in Tshivenda, “ndo livhuwa.” A young black man, about my age, was seated at the table behind me. He commented about my use of an African language which is used only by the Venda tribe in a very small region of South Africa. He introduced himself as Markus (name has been changed to protect privacy) and we decided to share a table with one another. He told me his mother had just died a couple days prior. Mark and I bonded over our shared passion for creative expression and social responsibility. We discussed ways to combine efforts in the future to serve the community. My cell phone rang. I stepped away from the table to receive the call.
The principal of my school was on the other end of the phone. She informed me that the memorial service for the educator went well. She then told me, “Your child is no longer.”
She was talking about Rest In Peace. Immediately, I felt ashamed for my recent absence from the community. A voice inside my head told me that it was my fault he had passed, and that I had failed to do enough for the nine year old boy. I don’t remember my response over the phone, but I do remember not crying. I thought it was very odd that the news of losing this child who I spent every day with, and who was a very active participant in my empowerment workshops, did not evoke tears.
I made my way back to the table to sit with my new friend. When I mentioned the name of my school’s principal, my friend’s chin dropped. He handed me his phone and told me to watch the video he’d prepared for me. Then my chin dropped. In the video, I watched children from my youth group dance in remembrance of my new friend’s mother. The educator from my school who had passed away was his mother. We knew in that moment that forces from an unseen realm had united us. We felt that these visions we shared of collectively empowering the Venda community were supported by those who had recently left us. While it was heartbreaking to accept that after this profound meeting, I would have to depart for the US, I felt knowingness that the same forces which brought us together that day would unite us again in the future. Markus and I found solace in our coincidental meeting, but I buried my shame and guilt over Rest In Peace deep within me.
Two days before I got on the plane to leave South Africa, I found myself in conversation with a man in Johannesburg. We shared our ethos in work and life, and when I informed him that I had plans to launch an online magazine, he told me that he had 17 years of experience in publishing, having worked for The Thinker, one of South Africa’s most renowned magazines. The man said he would be happy to support my project. This coincidence was a profound sign that despite the recent twists and turns, I was still on the right path to fulfill my life’s purpose.
With plans to travel abroad later this year to continue bringing light to the third world, my emphasis now is on personal healing and laying a proper foundation so my international humanitarianism will be a healthy and sustainable lifestyle for me. Yes, I intend to go back to South Africa. I intend to go out into the entire world. This time, I do it with the understanding that the pain of the world is a catalyst for light work.
I recently met with Jennifer, an oncology nurse who works at a children’s hospital. She shared with me that many of her co-workers question how there can be a God when innocent young children are suffering so severely. Jennifer reminds her co-workers of the great movements which are initiated in response to such loss. Adversity forces humanity to more creatively and more devotedly seek ways to evolve towards healthier, happier, and more harmonious. This is true regardless of one’s belief or disbelief in God.
Nothing can bring Rest in Peace, or Markus’s mother, or these children who’ve lost their battles with cancer back to us, but their deaths were not in vain. In their absence, we surrender to the reality that life can be painful and seem unfair. Embracing the duality of existence, and welcoming the twists and turns of life, we allow ourselves to feel even the unwanted emotions. Then we remind ourselves- for every darkness there is light.
For all who rest in peace, there are many to be saved.
“Lovers love death because it keeps them moving beyond limits.”
If a human being dares to be MLK or Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa, or Malcom X…dares to be bigger than the condition to which he or she was born, it means so can you. And so you can try to stretch, stretch, stretch yourself.”
Disclaimer: The content on this site is mine personally and does not reflect the opinions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.