The weekend after schools closed, I joined a local Christian ministry for hosting a short-term mission, or “outreach” team. Our guests, fifteen young men from Pretoria, made even the typical Peace Corps accommodations look glamorous: They pitched tents on the hillside in front of the Youth Center, with nothing but the spigots on jojos (massive rain water barrels) for showers.
Introducing them to the wonderful world of my local community brought back memories of my early days here, when I was still puzzling out and goggling at the mind-blowing ministry and development work unfolding around every corner.
It felt strange to be a veteran in comparison.
Visitors from Pretoria
The day after our guests arrived, we were trundling to church in a fleet of white pick-up trucks when we passed congregants waiting for a lift at the hospital.
We popped a few kids in the back – nothing unusual in this culture, but this time the little guys found themselves crammed in with half a dozen strange men.
Two of them promptly bawled. We had to extract the crying tots to prevent further damage.
The evenings were special times: a huge braai (barbecue) with buckets of sausage to feed the crew, a sunset overlooking Swaziland, and singing worship songs in English, Zulu, and Afrikaans.
I rejoiced that this was the Lord’s blessing on South Africa: bringing people from so many different cultures together.
Most of the team peeled out before the crack of dawn to make it back for work on Tuesday, but one carload lingered to polish off the remaining carpentry projects. While they measured and hammered, my friend Ayanda invited me to indulge a favorite hobby: live portraits!
The youth from the Youth Center lined up, willing victims for my artistic endeavors:
Home Away from Home
A few months ago, a friend asked me what was my favorite place in the United States?
I chewed on the question without arriving at a satisfying answer. There’s no one spot in my home country that holds my heart so much as belief in the ideals that the USA represents (natural rights, rule of law, representative government, etc).
My favorite place in South Africa is an easy one, though: It’s the balcony overlooking the valley behind my friends’ house, hidden away in the hills.
On a recent visit there, I thought I was stealing away for a quiet moment on the roof…
…but, to my amazement, the dogs scooted right up the narrow metal staircase after me! These hefty German shepherd/husky crosses are light on their feet. While I doodled, they dozed in the setting sun, unperturbed by the drop just inches away.
Phumla, a Grade 12 student, arrived in the evening to discover me at the stove. “Please teach me to cook,” he said immediately. Thus begin a stumbling lesson in Zulu, which he patiently tolerated, even though his English ability far outstrips my Zulu.
As he meticulously chopped vegetables and followed each of my instructions to the letter, I ventured to ask why he wanted to learn.
“Because I’m staying alone now,” he answered frankly. He’s eighteen years old, applying to study engineering next year with the help of a local NGO.
The dish was supposed to Mexican, but we substituted purple-skinned yams with yellow flesh for sweet potatoes, carrots for tomatoes, white beans for black… The only thing really Mexican about it was the guacamole that we heaped on top. Neither Phumla nor their friend and housekeeper, Auntie Joanah, complained.
After the meal we prayed together — and Auntie invited me to visit her church!
Holiday in George
Flying domestic in Africa is refreshing compared to the TSA slog: no body scanners, no liquid restrictions!
Having experienced this wondrous freedom during a layover in Ethiopia, I had to hide a smile in airport security when I overheard a distinctly American accent twanging, “Do I have to take my shoes off?”
My South African friends couldn’t relate – they were bemused when I snickered over this story. Apparently the celebrity South African comedian Trevor Noah skewers our airport trauma in one of his skits (data restrictions prevent me from verifying this claim, but let me know if you check it out!).
We began the weekend with a visit to the venue for Talitha’s upcoming wedding: an idyllic spot, with gracious staff serving a sumptuous dinner of oxtail and lamb shank. The groom’s family launched us on an energetic hike up to the mountains on Saturday, then entertained the staff on Sunday morning with our workout routine attempts.
Peace Corps service has been making me fit in spite of myself!
George amazed me with its concentration of natural beauty. Talitha and her brother Ruan seemed blithe to it – maybe the majesty wears off after getting acquainted for twenty years – but I was bowled over by the 10 minute drive to the beach, 5 minute walk to the mountains, 2 minutes to the botanical gardens…
The family spoiled me with incredible hospitality — and an invitation to share special moments in Talitha’s wedding preparations:
At the beach, Talitha’s uncle introduced me to a South African specialty: beef liver wrapped and fried in crispy fat. Since his opening sally demanded whether I was an adventurous eater, I could hardly decline!
It has a richer flavor than chicken liver, but it’s not the weirdest food I’ve ever eaten.
Talitha has a gift for making memories, her mother said. Very true: On my last morning, hours before flying home, we stole a sunrise at Victoria Bay.
It merits its reputation as a top tourist attraction. When we pulled up, the rosy light of early morning was dusting the cliffs like fairy fingers while white-capped waves cavorted with the sand.
Talitha had packed us a picnic basket of coffee and “rusks” (South African biscotti – dry baked cookies, not too sweet, for dipping in hot drinks). We settled on the steps for a frank conversation about whether the sun actually does always rise in the east, admiring but not envying the slick-suited surfers in their ongoing battle with the frigid tide.
Tears threatened when my friends pulled me close for one last hug at the airport. After their unrestrained hospitality and seven days soaking in George’s beauty, the intervening week before Talitha would return to join me in KZN felt too long.
As my flight climbed to cruising altitude, I marveled at the mountain range gusting by below us. Airborne, we sailed over the jagged peaks in a matter of seconds, but I knew these were the very ranges that the Voortrekkers labored to cross in covered wagons almost a hundred years ago.
The passage prompted philosophical pondering: Was this the fate of past troubles, to be surmounted in time with the effortless serenity of perspective? Is this what it is to one day leave our earthly troubles behind us?