May 7, 2009

Shedding a Burden

I have felt very busy lately in Itipini. Not to the point of being overwhelmed but such that every minute of the day seems to be occupied, moving from one situation to the next. It is such a contrast to what it was like when I first arrived and it has made me feel very competent, which is an unusual feeling.

What I hadn’t realized until today, however, is that I’ve been carrying a tremendous burden around these last few weeks while also being so busy. Up until today, virtually no one in Itipini knew I am leaving in the not-too-distant future. The burden I was carrying was the obligation of sharing difficult news in a tender and honest way. As I’m in denial about the fact of my departure, I’ve been putting off sharing that news for several weeks.

But I booked my plane tickets this week and that was sort of what told me I needed to go public with the news. Because there are so many people in Itipini who will be affected by my departure and I wanted to do them the favour of telling them all individually or in as small groups as possible, that meant numerous similar - painful - conversations.

I began before the clinic day began when I told Dorothy and Mkuseli in the clinic. Dorothy gave the sudden shake of her head I’ve seen her give when she learns someone has died. Mkuseli looked like I was telling him I’d killed his mother. “Bad news for Itipini,” he muttered darkly under his breath.

After the clinic day was over, I gathered the rest of the staff together and told them. My pulse was racing and I was as nervous about this as I ever have been about addressing a group of people. This conversation was almost entirely in Xhosa; I’ve been laying awake late at night lately figuring out the right vocabulary. I talked about wanting to be in two places at once. I talked about how there is a season for everything. I stressed the finality of it all and that this was not a temporary break but a pretty permanent termination of my work in Itipini. Remarkably, by the time I go around to my future plans they were smiling a little bit.

I next headed downtown to see Vuyelwa, the young woman I’ve invested a lot of energy in helping her get started in the hair-styling business. Her mother is on the staff so I knew she’d find out when she got home and I wanted to tell her in person. As the words were coming out of my mouth - actually before I even said anything - she could tell where the conversation was going. “No, no, no!” she cut me off and clearly wanted to end the conversation. I plowed ahead. She was kind of smiling by the time I left.

Later, after we had finished reading “The BFG” for the day, I told my English class. I have never had their attention fixed on me as carefully as it was at that moment. I tried to meet each one of their gazes individually as I spoke. The ones who’ve been with me from the beginning were the most disappointed, I could tell. A few wanted to know what was in it for them. “Don’t forget to buy us blazers before you go!”

It was a draining series of conversations and I still need to announce it publicly tomorrow morning after our Friday morning education session. But I realized as soon as I told Dorothy and Mkuseli that a huge burden had lifted from my shoulders. No longer did I have to worry about this piece of news. For better or worse, that burden is now on the shoulders of all the people I told today. I’ll help them bear that load - I spent some time in the middle of the day privately talking with Mkuseli about the news - but it is no longer mine to bear. I feel guilty about dumping this on them but it’s a relief.

Parting may be such sweet sorrow but preparing to part is just sorrowful.


Judi said...

Thanks for writing about this difficult day, Jesse--I understand the shock and sadness people feel in hearing that you're leaving. The work in Ititpini will be different after you go. I'm glad you still have a good number of days together as you all adjust to this "new reality."