May 18, 2009

Playing with Live Ammo

I don’t kid myself: for most people in Itipini, my impending departure won’t matter all that much. They’ll still get the same kind of services from the clinic, more or less, regardless of my presence or absence.

The people I’ve found myself spending the most time thinking about lately are the people of all ages and both sexes I’ve come to be closest to. If they feel my absence half as much as I know I’ll feel theirs then I have some sort of obligation to help both of us achieve some sort of satisfactory “end.”

One person is Simnikiwe, a child I’ve written about before. I think I’ve played a big role in his life these past few years, especially since his father died unexpectedly last October. Indeed, as you can see from this picture at the funeral, I was standing next to Simnikiwe as we watched his father be buried.
Knowing that I’d be leaving, I’ve intentionally tried to distance myself from him these past few months with modest success. He spends much more time in pre-school and has lots of friends his own age he chooses to play with. Still, on Friday I sat down with his mother and him and made sure he understand that I was leaving and not coming back. He said he understood but how do you communicate such a final concept to a four-year old?

Another person I knew I needed to speak with was Vuyelwa, a young woman I started helping a long time ago. She was the centrepiece of the sermon I preached last September when I was raising money. I had given her some money to start a business selling second-hand clothes and for a while it seemed to be going alright.

I haven’t ever written a follow-up post about her because soon after I returned in October, the business rapidly crumbled for numerous reasons I won’t take the time to explain here. I responded poorly to the situation and basically didn’t see her after October. I let myself be wracked by guilt about the whole matter and tried not to think about it.

I had heard she had moved to a village outside of Mthatha. On several occasions this year, I had thought I should go see her but I had awful thoughts about how she was living and what she was doing and I couldn’t bring myself to face what I believed to be my failure.

But I happened to be driving in that direction on Saturday and felt clearly I needed to see her. I tried calling her on her cell phone, not expecting the number to still work or that she would want to see me. Shockingly, she answered on about the second ring and said I should definitely stop by. A few phone calls later, I managed to find her and we sat down to catch up.

It was a good conversation and she took the news that I was leaving relatively well. It also put me at peace about a number of things. She doesn’t have a great life - she has no job and there are no prospects in the little village - but she is living in a good home, is teaching Sunday School at her church, can support two of her three children (the third is with the grandmother), and is more or less eking out a living. She’s late for a CD4 count and recently went to the doctor for another reason and didn’t tell him she had HIV so she might have to work on coming to terms with that.
Here she is with her Sunday School class. The child in the red shirt is her son, Bongamusa. I’ve written about him before but hadn’t seen him in months. So I was shocked when he came running out of the house, shouting my name, and tackled me around the knees. He’s a talkative little guy, unlike a number of the children around her who are pretty shy about speaking Xhosa with a white guy.

I was relieved when I drove away from Vuyelwa’s and relieved that I had been able to talk with Simnikiwe. These are just two examples of the kind of conversations I am trying to have before I leave. They are difficult. And they remind me that as a missionary I am playing with live ammo, as it were. These are real people with real feelings and my departure is not some sort of abstract resume line - I worked two years in a shantytown in South Africa - but in some cases is a difficult and hard-to-accept blow to the lives of real human beings who are my friends. It might be different if they had had a sense all along, as I did, that this was always going to be a temporary thing for me or if they had a sense how far away North America is and how hard it is to get to South Africa to visit. But they don’t. And they are not nearly as mobile as I am. They are stuck here while I get to fly freely away. It is one last reminder of the vast power differential between us.


Anonymous said...

wow. Prayers ascending. You pray for me 2. my blogging will be inferior by design.