Wind ruffles the peach flower petals in Jenny’s Sunday Best bonnet while elderly Mrs. Matthews sniffles at the breeze. Buttered hot dog rolls and immaculately sliced watermelon are passed across the picnic table with polite offers of soft drinks. The three older women swap recipes for egg salad as the shade tree’s leaves rustle softly overhead. It’s a perfect 28°C on a lazy Thursday afternoon and somehow I’ve found myself in the midst of retired, feisty freedom fighters. It’d been months since the initial invitation and plans had finally fallen together to spend an afternoon together. Vivian rolled up in her white sedan that had seen better days and cheerfully told me that some of her friends would be joining us as well. By the time Jenny and Mrs. Matthews had squeezed into the car in all their flowery-bonnet-hatted glory, I had quite resigned myself to the idea of a quiet afternoon out with the Golden Girls. But somewhere between the hard-boiled eggs and puff pastries stories slowly slipped into conversation… “We hid several of them at the Youth Center, right in plain sight! Disguised as visiting volunteers, they were.” “I only went to prison for a little while because they kept confusing me with another lady, sent her to prison instead. Poor girl. They didn’t need proof, just wanted to scare people into being quiet.” “The police knew me by then but thankfully we got away without any raids, they’d have for sure done us in.” Jenny slyly drops me a wink across and for a moment the strong willed and zealous younger woman shines through. She’s no longer past sixty, but young and passionate and willing to do whatever it takes to fight for what is right. Yet the ordinariness of the three women around me feels like a piece of hope. If they could change their world, why not us? Apartheid was ended when everyday people got involved and started standing up against injustice. They had families, careers, homes to lose yet still they did what they knew was right for themselves and their nation. They were inspired by injustice, stood their ground, fought, won, and still managed to make it to glorious retirements full of picnics and friendships and flowery bonnets. It makes me wonder, how much could our world be changed if each of us found something worth standing up for—and actually did something about it? Speeding down side streets on the way home, Vivian looks sidelong at me and laughs deeply. Getting caught is no worry. “They can’t scare me with prison, I’ve already been there!”
Rachel shares about being a Brave Little YAGM:
Since arriving in South Africa I’ve read many thought provoking, educational and inspiring books. But none of them have moved me quite like “The Brave Little Fish,” a story read in the Grade 6 class I help out in. In the story, a bored young fish tells his mother that he wants to leave the only stream he’s ever known to see what “lies beyond the mountains.” He says:
“…I’m tired of swimming in circles. I want to see the world; I want to see what’s happening elsewhere. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life swimming round and round in this spot. I want to see if there’s another way to live in this world. Once I have learned, I will come back and tell you about it.”
I was literally choked up in front of the entire Grade 6 as the teacher read this story. It might as well be called, “The Brave Little YAGM.” I wouldn’t go quite so far to say that life before S.A. was nothing more than swimming in circles, but the fish’s desire to ‘see if there’s another way’ resonated with me like crazy. The teacher had the kids imagine ways that they can break away from their own ‘boring circles’. They shared things like: be the first in their family to pass Matric (High School), not become pregnant as a teenager, and go to University and get a job to support their family. Pretty inspiring and humbling as I discern my own vocation…
As I swim through the foreign seas of Mabopane, the people I meet along the way never fail to teach me what it means to be brave. My friend often uses the phrase “Ke tlaba strong”…I’ll be strong. She described it as the equivalent of when I say “I’m fine,” but am actually not fine at all. Since learning the phrase, I’ve noticed that the teachers at the crèche say “O tlaba strong” …you’ll be strong… when kids fall and scrape their knees and such. In either form of this phrase, there is no choosing whether or not you’re going to be strong and courageous. Even if you don’t want to be, you just WILL be. I mentioned to one of the crèche teachers how tough I’ve noticed all the kids are. She responded, “Well, they must be.”
I don’t know how the story of the brave little fish ends, just as I don’t know how the story of the brave little YAGM will. But I’m continually grateful for a community at home that sent me away to explore with such grace. It’s a blessing to be a part of the beautiful things that God is already doing in Mabopane.
Jen writes about expectations and Christmas in another part of the world:
It’s a scorching 34°, the sun is shining, summer is just heating up…perfect timing to take out the snowflake-covered Christmas decorations. Wait, what? Snowflakes? Snowmen? Picturesque cottages all nestled in snow and pine trees? With all this heat I doubt even a snow cone would last very long.
All I can say is I feel incredibly sorry for the poor man in a fur-lined Santa suit as I’m sweating in my shorts. He deserves and raise and an ice cream cone.
When I came halfway around the world I guess I expected things to be a lot more different. Don’t get me wrong, South Africa is incredibly unique and vibrant in its diverse cultures, long history, breath taking landscapes, and mix of languages. But no matter how far away it is, Westernization still plays a huge role in modern culture here. It can be seen in the music on the radio (the same I blasted this summer around CA), the hair extensions that look like smooth European hair, face bleach creams, and, yes, even the visions of Christmas. Pictures of snow and pine trees for the holiday sure didn’t originate here, that’s for sure. Oh, and I still haven’t heard anything about Kwanza.
While as Westerners we may not have planned for our culture to be broadcast around the world that doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening. There are always gains to be had from learning about other cultures, but what about when it is one-sided? We rarely see African movies/music/stories/photos (other than those of hungry children and safari animals). What is lost in the process?
There’s no way change what’s happening but we can make it more even—to take the effort to listen to what’s happening around the world, hear their stories, learn from their experiences.
Maybe it’s our turn to return the favor and simply pay attention.
Another thing that community impacts is control. When we were cooking our Thanksgiving meal, I worked really hard not to hover over everything that was happening in the kitchen. You can ask anyone at Tessa’s house though, I was definitely stressed. This was for two reasons. One, I really wanted everything to turn out delicious for our group and I found myself making stuffing and carving the turkey (two rather important things I’ve never done before). Secondly, and more surreptitiously, I realized how attached I am to the way things happen in my family for Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite part of the holidays. I love the way my family does Thanksgiving, and as I watched dishes being whipped up differently than I would have done them (while sweating over my potential failure), I was hurting that I couldn’t hold on to the comfort of normalcy. Then something amazing happened…everything turned out absolutely delicious. Nothing went wrong despite all my worrying. In fact, I played a much smaller role than my ego would like me to think. And even better, I got to taste life from other traditions, and everyone had something special to contribute. It’s impossible to compare to any other Thanksgiving I’ve had, but it really was a Great Thanksgiving. Not just from the awesome food, but the people, the conversation, the many gifts around, everything about it was incredibly special. And so I left with a new understanding of this year of service, new goals in mind, and deeper friendships than I had mere days ago.