All His Good Gifts: Mid-Service Training & Travels

All His Good Gifts: Mid-Service Training & Travels

Happy New Year – and happy eighteen months of service in South Africa!  Before I share the many treasures the Lord has granted me over the holidays, let me catch up with the memorable moments from my final school term of 2019.

Like the wire cars that the neighborhood kids construct from litter and soda cans, the months after Sarah’s visit comprised many familiar elements – but adapted into new shapes and patterns. If I had ever entertained the notion that a year in KwaZulu-Natal could suffice to acquaint me with all my site had to offer, this season convinced me of the contrary.

The first week of term found all the Education Volunteers absent, as we answered the call to our Mid-Service Training. This combination of health check-ups and resource training sessions marked the halfway point of our Peace Corps service.

With a considerable distance separating us from the city, some of us were wondering what would occupy us during our off hours…but the lodge did not disappoint!

Though I enjoy the excitement of a new adventure, it’s always joy that wakes in my soul when the green hills of KZN rise to greet us on the road home. The final term promised few weeks of teaching (seven weeks instead of the usual ten to twelve!), but many more opportunities to explore the community:

Last year my friend Petra urged me to enlist in the ranks attending the local Global Leadership Summit if at all possible – and this year I signed the dotted line! With several local teachers, including the local Christian school’s entire staff, I invested a weekend at a church in Richards Bay, absorbing messages on vision, adaptability, and communication. It resolved as a watershed event for my 2019, a revelation in my approach to relationships.

Years ago, my family attended this same conference in Virginia – so it delighted me when my favorite speaker, Patrick Lencioni re-appeared! Other highlights included a UK advocate for foster homes, an Indian businessman taking a heroic stand against corruption, a former member of the British special forces, and a Chinese immigrant preaching the gospel of rejection, but there’s something about Mr. Lencioni’s  blissfully uninhibited, stream-of-conscious commentary that always wins me in the end.

In late October, the brass heavens yielded and poured out rain on a brown and thirsty land. My learners and I celebrated by memorizing the first lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Rain in Summer“:

How beautiful is the rain!
After the dust and heat
In the broad and fiery street,
In the narrow lane,
How beautiful is the rain!

This photo can’t do justice to the lushly verdant color that illuminated the morning after summer’s first heavy rain

Maryna always makes me welcome me in her home – she is my model of plentiful giving in times of scarcity, resilient faith under difficult circumstances, and boundless creativity. I pitched in with some admin support to help her untangle pillars of paperwork in her art classroom while she and her family entertained me royally.

The learners impressed me with their ingenuity when heavy rains flooded the sidewalks at school: First they planted stepping stones; then they scrounged up a plank of wood to act as a bridge – seizing my hands to help me across.

Wondering whether they would all return in the new year, I made a point of snapping shots for my own mini-yearbook:

Ekukhanyeni Children’s Home has flowered into one of my favorite places: The girls humor my Zulu conversational efforts, and dive into whatever activities I have concocted with interest and good humor. Once we explored ancient genealogies and mapped Abraham’s family tree. Other days we practice for their exams in subjects like Economic Management Sciences – a blend of bookkeeping and social studies. Whenever I surprise them with a visit, they run to greet me with open arms.

afternoon tea with friends at my home!

On their way back from the beach, Sydney, Ayanda, Talitha, and a visiting medical student dropped by to gift me with my first hostessing opportunity! My shoebox-sized house doesn’t boast much in the way of accommodations, so we perched on the porch and snacked on tangerines, almonds, and coconut shavings (a present from Sarah’s visit).

For table decor, I spread out the Zulu beads that my principal presented to me on my first day at school (for the annual Heritage Day celebration): a colorful capture of youthful zest and feminine beauty.

It was sweet to share my space with them, and to repay in small measure their many bountiful acts of hospitality towards me ever since I arrived here.

The threat of a flash flood closed schools across the province and trapped me in my shopping town – where the teachers of the local Christian school sheltered me for the night! The next morning, the rising sun painted exquisite shades of light and dark over the most prosaic subjects: water tanks and backyard rocks

Mme. Xulu’s mother hosted us for tea!

With the school year winding down, frequent early closures gave me the opportunity to encounter undiscovered corners of the community. Our foundation phase (grades 1-3) Head of Department, Mme. Xulu, invited me to call on her mother: a warm-hearted lady with a crystalline English accent, cultivated by years of working with English-speaking families in a nearby town.

We munched the classic Zulu tea: slices of bread slathered with butter and stacked with “polony” (similar to bologna), plus a glass of “cool drink” (soda), while Mme. Xulu explained that all her extended family occupied the neighboring houses! “My three fathers and their children,” she explained – meaning her father and his brothers. The Zulu family tree involves an intricate distinction between generally embracing every relative with terms we would reserve for the immediate family, and then indicating by rank and number each individual’s birth order and paternity. As we drove away, we halted frequently to greet her cousins, including an adorable set of twin girls.

Sylvia and her family adopted me one weekend, when my host family urged me to find other accommodations while they hosted an intensive church event. I rejoiced in the opportunity to support Sylvia with school admin tasks, bask in the sunsets overlooking Swaziland, and collect more stories about my friends and mentors from their early days of living and serving here.

With most of South Africa operating on a calendar year, I experienced the strange sensation of life transitioning around me while I remained stationary. Friends packed their bags, changed jobs, and prepared to get married – or give birth!

We await a spate of babies due at the opening of 2020, including three from the local Christian school, and one for Tarryn’s family!  As her right-hand lady, Zama masterminded a ‘casual backyard baby shower’ – which emerged as a fairy wonderland of balloons and rainbow cake:

The ladies at school sprang a surprise on my dear friend Talitha: They lured her into accompanying a “birthday cake” for delivery, supposedly for her principal’s husband…then showered her with well wishes for her December wedding.

Dr. Coreen arrayed Talitha in the domestic version of the armor of God (Ephesians 6), including an apron and wooden ladle! I owe my outfit to Zama: finding me bereft of material for the yellow and white theme, she volunteered this exquisite frock from India!

We made the most of Talitha’s last days before she followed her next adventure to a new home in Cape Town:

It stirred a curious nostalgia, surveying the familiar furniture of Talitha’s home and reflecting that it would never be the same place again – the building would remain, but the people who gave its character would disperse, never to wholly reunite…until perhaps we meet again in a resurrected life.

The opening of December meant the closing of another chapter: Zama’s year of volunteering at the Youth Center. For her last weekend, Zama consented to sit for a portrait – my first charcoal sketch in Africa! We jammed to soothing music and swatted mosquitoes while I wrestled with portraying her elegant braids and luminous eyes.

“Better you than me,” I warned her, with respect to transporting it – vine charcoal will smudge at the slightest touch.

“But,” Zama reminded me, “it’s the sensitivity that makes it beautiful.”


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