January 24, 2008


As my time in Itipini continues, I am building closer relationships with people that are similar to the friendships I have with people in the U.S. or Canada. We are united by a unique set of experiences we have shared over time and have a specific set of memories we can associate with the other. Rather than being friendly with everyone in Itipini – though I still am – I am friends with specific people because I know them as individuals.

One person I’ve become close to is Noxolo (her name means “peace” in Xhosa). I first met her when she volunteered to be the support person for her brother Fumanekile, an HIV/TB patient I unsuccessfully tried to get on anti-retroviral drugs last fall/spring. The three of us went to several doctor’s appointments before Fumanekile’s condition deteriorated so much that he had to go to the hospital where he died.

I see Noxolo a lot because she helps out in the kitchen and sings in the choir. She has also shown particular interest in the development of my library and will take as many books as I’ll let her have. Over time, we’ve developed a friendly relationship, helped, no doubt, by the fact that her English is not bad. Even though we don’t have a lot in common – we are the same age but I don’t have three children or HIV, for instance, and I'm not a sixth-grade drop-out – we manage to joke and laugh together when we see each other.

I am now such a familiar presence in Itipini that I can just walk into the kitchen, sit down on the bench, and start chit-chatting with whomever happens to be around. I don’t take this for granted and I enjoy every opportunity that comes by, as, I think, do the women who work in the kitchen. (I enjoy the company; the enjoy laughing at my fractured Xhosa.) But it surprised even me the other day when I walked into the kitchen, sat down, and Noxolo immediately started serving me a plate of food. Normally, I only get food when I ask for it and I only ask for it when it’s clear there is extra. Since I couldn’t turn down the generosity (and, c’mon, I was hungry), I accepted the food, trying not to remember that the pre-school children actually hadn’t eaten yet.

The other day I was in the kitchen and became captivated, as I normally do, by two young boys who are the sons of two of the ladies who work in the kitchen.

Bongamusa and Simnikiwe

Eventually, as frequently happens, we ended up on the ground playing together. One of the women in the kitchen told me I’d get my clothes dirty and I said I didn’t mind. Noxolo said something like, “You don’t care because you don’t have to wash your clothes by hand. You have a machine.” She made an exaggerated and amusing pantomime of the hard work she has to do to clean her clothes and the easy job of it I have. I shrugged and admitted this was true. (I figured it wouldn’t help to mention that my cleaning lady sometimes does the laundry for me.)

Even as I become “one of the gang” and more a part of the “furniture” of Itipini, it helps to be reminded that there are still significant differences between me and the people I aspire to serve. That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, though.