November 14, 2007

"Ndifuna wena"

It’s amazing how the biggest of breakthroughs can be marked by the smallest of moments.

It happened to me last Thursday when I was taking a break outside the clinic and talking with some of the young mothers (pictures below) on their way back from high school (how you can be both a student and mother at the same time boggles my mind). They stopped to talk to me – that alone thrilled me to no end – and I realized as we started talking that we were actually exchanging moderately complex thoughts and understanding each other. We were doing it with body language, tone of voice, and a combination of English and Xhosa (Xh-english? Eng-osa?) but we were actually communicating something more complex than, “hello, how are you, I’m fine.” I entertained by attempting to read their Xhosa-language play they are reading in class; they asked me where I went to school (that stretched our language capabilities a bit too far). As we sat there, I could have almost forgotten I was sitting in a shantytown in South Africa; it just seemed like I was hanging out with friends, which, I realized, I was.

As I was sitting there, one of our tuberculosis patients motioned to me because she wanted me to get her pills. The TB patients are some of my best friends in Itipini because I see them every day and taking care of their health is something I can do. I have become invested in all of them but I’m not sure what they think of me. Since I was busy declaiming Xhosa poetry, I told this TB patient that someone in the clinic could help her. She said, rather insistently, “ndifuna wena,” which is Xhosa for “I want you.” That I understood what she said was glorious; that she meant it was affirming of the work I have done. I got up and got the pills.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected struggles I’ve faced here has to do with my usefulness. Things seem like they run so smoothly without me it’s hard to know where to fit in. All I want is to be wanted and feel that my presence is worthwhile to someone. I learned – in very direct, Uncle Sam-esque language – on Thursday that it is. There have been some other little moments like this lately and people are now relating to me as a co-worker and friend and familiar presence rather than as a guest. In return, I’ve realized that these people are genuinely my friends. I may not be able to pour out my deepest fears to them or call them up on a Saturday night but we nonetheless have a relationship that is real and significant to me and, I hope, to them.

Progress comes in incredibly small increments. But when it comes, it is fantastic.


Anonymous said...

Jesse - another great post! Your ability to tell the stories of your Mthatha experience makes your blog a must-read for me. Please know that you and the people of Mthatha are in my thoughts and prayers.

Jody said...


Conversations in a second language are awesome. It's unbelievable how fun it can be. I experienced this to no end last year: figuring out how to get to the beach from an elderly Sicilian when he spoke no English and I spoke no Italian, negotiating the purchase of the soccer jersey I'm wearing right now in French with a Belgian sales clerk, and buying a sandwich in Berlin from a very perky German cashier. There really is no similar experience.

Sounds like yours have more meaning, however, as these are people you know, not just incidental retail workers.