The end of this year – and the decade! – marked the conclusion of my first full year in South Africa. Twelve months ago, I never could have predicted that I would be flying to Cape Town for a wedding, or applying to a masters program in African studies, or joining a family reunion at the same farm where Judy and I reveled in fresh-made dairy last year.
All of these events and more impressed on me the greatest blessing of my Peace Corps service: becoming like family with the people here.
Pitching in for my church’s Christmas celebration opened my eyes to how thoroughly Peace Corps service has inducted me into community life. Arriving at 6 am for cooking duty, I slid into the kitchen activities like a fish into water: chopping vegetables, trading Zulu quips, and “dishing up” the goods in an assembly line of ladle-wielding ladies when the congregants arrived.
For this year’s farewell, my school splurged on catered food – a welcome relief from the 12 hour cooking duties usually required of teachers when serving a massive crowd. We recognized the graduating Grade 7 learners, as well as Grade R (the equivalent of kindergarten), with awards for outstanding achievement, plus traditional dances choreographed and performed by the learners themselves.
It was my delight to also attend the award ceremony at the local Christian school, especially so that I could cheer on the young ladies of the local children’s home – both of whom won character awards!
December is wedding season in South Africa – much like June for residents of the northern hemisphere. A few days after school closed, I hopped aboard with the Christian school’s principal, Sylvia, and her husband Hennie, for a long weekend in and around Cape Town.
I had struggled to arrange my own lodging and transport from the airport to the remote wedding venue, but then came a providential reply from Carla, an occupational therapist who met me briefly at church while visiting our corner of the mountains. She hosted me for the weekend, including a night at the microscopically small, and monumentally beautiful, beach town, Rooi Els:
Before we hit the road, Carla and I paused to pray for a safe journey.
At our first rest stop, we discovered how abundantly God had answered that prayer!
No sooner had we parked at the petrol station, than we noticed a punctured tire. For the long, rocky dirt road that separated the venue from civilization, it hadn’t troubled us. Only in the shadow of an auto service store did the problem assert itself!
As the cherry on top, a carload of gentlemen wedding guests had elected to fill up at the same station. These stalwart gallants generously provided us with the free service of replacing the tire on the massive “bakkie” (truck).
When we loaded in for the next leg of the journey, we agreed by mutual consent and with little discussion to pray again.
Mercifully, we cruised through to Cape Town without further incident, where Carla’s family hosted me for the night. Then she rose at sunup the next morning, braving commuter traffic to shuttle me to the airport! I marveled at the graciousness of foreign friends, folding me into their lives for a stress-free weekend of celebration.
Back at home, with school closed for the holidays, I was free to visit local friends:
Before my official holiday leave from Peace Corps began, I invested a week in churning out graduate school applications. Three straight days, where I emerged from my room only to jog in the evenings, must have concerned my host family: They started knocking on my door with plates of food and even invited me to accompany one of their sons to a party! My head was swimming with secondary research and resume bullet points by the time I packed up for the journey to Northern Cape.
Maryna and Petra collected me in Upington after an overnight bus ride from Johannesburg – an efficient but grueling transportation method! I think I’ve slept better on airplanes, but it was well worth the grind to celebrate my second Christmas in South Africa with the family.
On Christmas Day, we celebrated Petra’s union with Preben, a gregarious and service-hearted car mechanic who almost deserves her. Her brother hosted about 40 relatives at his farm for a relaxed yet elegant occasion:
The day after the wedding, the ladies of the family humored me with some impromptu portrait sittings. I dashed off the sketches for the younger cousins without too much trouble, but bogged down over catching Marieka’s likeness… maybe because we were the best acquainted, from our camping trip last Christmas.
They made a lovely and varied gallery of models:
On the heels of the sunrise, we trekked into the wilds of Augrabies park for an amateur rock climbing expedition. Johan, a cousin, former soldier, and current missionary in Malawi, led us deep into the canyons with a rope knotted into a loose lasso as our safety net.
When we reached rocks overlooking a waterfall, we thought our adventure had climaxed. To our amazement, Johan then produced a harness and a daring proposal: abseiling down the cliff face!
On the road back to KwaZulu-Natal, we visited Maryna’s brother and his wife at their farm near Groblershoop:
On my way home, I encountered an incredible outpouring of love and Christian hospitality at Alabanza, a ministry hidden in the peaks outside Pretoria. With no further introduction than a phone call that same morning, I rolled up to a hot dinner and private cabin. (My mother laughed at me for exulting over the presence of a washing machine – but, seriously! How many log cabins have their own private laundry?) They even cleaned my shoes for me after I stepped in a mess – basically the modern-day equivalent of washing your neighbor’s feet. Then a staff member drove me to my next connection… blessing me with an easy, offhand manner while sharing the story of his personal conversion from a life of crime and drugs to following Christ.
Since South Africa operates on a calendar year, December farewells a legion of one-year positions while January brings in a flood of new volunteers. In the week before school began, I met many of the new doctors and therapists who will be serving their mandatory post-graduation year at a rural hospital.
On January 8th, I celebrated my birthday with the local family dearest to me. It was the best gift I could have asked for, sharing a candlelit dinner with them at their beautiful home.
A young lady at the children’s home launched this year into a new adventure: attending high school in the nearest city! To farewell her in style, we gathered all the boys and girls together for sweets and a dance party.
One of our church’s translators recently returned from a Christian training program in Swaziland, bubbling with new ideas for children’s ministry. This year I volunteered to assist him with ages 8-12 – which will make for amazing language practice: He conducts the lessons entirely in isiZulu!
Despite the good gifts of travel and wonders of the road, it was a relief to return to site, where I could unpack my bags and relax into my own space again. This tiny place has received many different monikers over the past 18 months: a house, a hut, a garage, a shoebox, a flat…
These days I think of it as a studio, a small space set aside for God’s work to be done in my life.