Find Your Own Little Corner


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South Africa 3 November 2006 (continued) I am in the Sweetwaters township near Pietermaritzburg and Durban, South Africa. My morning with Gugu has grown and blossomed as both of us lose track of time. She is telling me about yet another ACAT programme—Home-based care groups who give more spiritual hope and practical nursing to aids victims. I think it’s a great idea and get all excited as she pulls out a folder to tell me more details, when her daughter reminds her of the time.

“Oh! I’m supposed to be taking you to see Jonathan. We must go! I’ll just be a moment!” She disappears down the hallway and I find my way back to the living room. I find one corner is set up as a sort-of shrine to her three dead sisters. I gaze at their graduation photos as Zulu Gospel songs play softly on the stereo.

I hear a car honk and go to the front door. Gugu is sitting in the driver’s seat, motioning for me to come on. “How did you get out here?” I ask. She grins. “The back way.” In the car beside Gugu I tell her that Something Beautiful is beautiful inside and out. “She sings to remember her mother.” Gugu looks out the window and says, “Yes. Her mother had a voice like no other. People came to church just to hear her sing.”

Gugu’s little car tackles the mile-deep potholes bravely, crawling out each time, only to head back down into another like some moonrover. I’m in my usual contented state of ignorance—not knowing where we’re going or who Jonathan is. So I ask, “Who is Jonathan?” She looks at me like Aubrey did earlier that morning—as if I should know these things. “My brother. He’s a chief.”

I think, A Zulu chief! Colorful National Geographic photos of warriors with shields and swords dance through my head. As if reading my mind, Gugu says, “God has His hands full with us Zulus. We’re an aggressive race, and have always loved to wage war more than to make peace.” I’m trying to place this statement into some kind of context. I think how valuable it is to know oneself, to know one’s race, one’s nation. I think of my own background and say, “My country, where I was born—America—I think we are this way, too.” But as usual, Gugu is mining a far deeper vein. She skips over my statement as if she never heard it, and says, “My hope is, because we are so good at war, that we will fight this one bravely, to the death if need be, but never surrender to despair.”

Her words silence me. I think of Ruth, my Hanna in the Poland novels—a real-life hero who endured the Nazis and the Soviets and decades-long persecution for her faith, then died in pain, her body twisted and broken by MS. The feeling I had when in the same room as Ruth, is the feeling I have now, in the car beside Gugu. Angels unseen, all around us. Heaven just around the corner. God’s pleasure. His glory.

She says, “Is there anything you have asked the others, but haven’t asked me?” It is an odd way to formulate her question, but it reminds me of my #1 question: “How do you cope?” Her answer: “Just day by day. And I make some days just mine, when I go off by myself and listen to what I’m thinking about.” She pauses. “When my sisters died, I felt such a big emptiness in my soul, I didn’t have the words. I didn’t cry when I found out, but. . . . One day is enough. For three months my sister was lovely and alive and strong, then one day death loomed like a big shock, and the next day, she was gone. Any long-term plans I might have had are not a priority anymore. I try to take each day as it comes, to be thankful and strong for that day. For example, it would be too much to wonder who will pay for the school fees of my grandchildren. I couldn’t handle that.”

We pull up to a stone house with several potted shrubs standing guard along the path beside the house. Gugu gets out of the car and walks up to them like they are runaway children. She starts mumbling under her breath as she picks off dead leaves, then sticks her finger into the soil. “Looks like they’re waiting to be planted,” I offer. She straightens up, “Don’t worry,” she calls over her shoulder at the plants as we walk toward the doorway, “I’ll liberate you soon!” I smile, realizing I’ve just witnessed Gugu the Garden Guru in action.

In Jonathan’s house we sit on couches. Young men pass through the room going places. They greet us. A little boy comes out one door, wearing a school uniform and Gugu teases him about something in Zulu. We are late and Jonathan is supposed to be somewhere else, yet he joins us and sits with me for a half hour as Gugu peruses his bookshelves and finally chooses a thick Amplified Version of the Bible, announcing to us both, “This one I’m stealing.”

Jonathan is short and thin, but I can see the family resemblance to Gugu in his eyes—sharp and non-committing, but also, weary and sad. His hair is graying slightly, but it’s hard to tell how old he might be. His shoulder muscles burst through his T-shirt sleeves. His back is broad. I think, he looks like a small ox, or a wrestler. He could be 50 or 60.

I’m nervous because I have no idea what the protocol is around a Zulu chief. Should I say, “Sir”? He’s not royalty, or maybe he is. It would account for the deep well of integrity Gugu and Something Beautiful seem to draw from. Another young man enters, asks a question, Jonathan answers, and the boy is off.

I thank him for his time and say he must be very busy as a chief. “No, I am not a Ngosi, I am an Induna, a sort-of assistant chief. I prefer to call myself a community leader.” My head translates, Township leader. I see my opening, thinking, He’s humble, on top of everything else. “Of Sweetwaters?” I ask. He nods. I say, “Carol from Canada, at Tabitha Ministries, told me how cooperative the indunas were who helped her.” He blinks and looks at his watch. I try again, “. . . with the survey of child-headed households.” He nods slowly. I ask, “Were the results a surprise to you?”

Instantly the interview plummets past superficialities as Jonathan leans toward me, the passion deepening the timber of his voice, “The results should not have surprised me, but they did. Some families think all aids orphans are also infected, so the children are shunned and isolated, and so have that to deal with, on top of everything else. Some of the orphans are homeless, but I have some very large families who keep taking children in, even though they are quite poor.”

I ask him what his greatest needs are. “We have some clinics and caregivers, but the situation doesn’t change. We still need more training in how to deal with HIV and aids. I want to make more use of the 16-year olds and train them, too. The young people can be trained, but sometimes they can’t do the nursing work because of something basic, like not having plastic gloves. In my view the isolation caused by aids is as painful as the disease itself. More training and more information—that’s what we need.”

I ask how many of the homes under his care are touched by aids. His answer falls like a bomb in our midst: “Seventy percent. Funerals are on Saturdays. I spend all day attending funerals. It’s like the Saturday occasion. On Saturdays I don’t schedule meetings anymore because there are always funerals. Last Saturday I had six.”

I ask him what he sees as his biggest challenge. “If we can get homes for the orphans, identify the infected and get them treatments.” He pauses. “We are at war. The government has not yet realized we incur deaths like in a war. This government doesn’t see that our political violence cost fewer people than aids.”

I am listening to Jonathan, watching Gugu devour her stolen goods, but I know she keeps one ear tuned to our conversation. I judge them both to be anywhere between 45-60. No matter, they grew up under apartheid. And now truth and reconciliation are constant companions, foregiveness like a fine wine, to be poured out every day again.

I think back to the previous evening. One thing that will not let me go is something Aubrey said from his couch in the living room with Bitty’s family antiques. “We are like the Nazis.” At first I thought I must have misunderstood his South African accent. He pronounces the word like the Dutch do, nasees. How could this humble, unassuming servant of a man be like the Nazis? “What do you mean?” I asked. “The Germans said after World War Two that they didn’t know what was happening during the war. That’s how we are about apartheid.” I was truly floored. In Holland, there is such a loaded connotation behind the German Wir habben es nicht gewusst. The Dutch don’t buy it. And anytime they hear the Germans claim the sanctuary of ignorance, they shake their heads in disgust. I was tempted to pin Aubrey down about that. “How could South African whites not have known?” I asked, trying desperately to keep the condemnation out of my tone, out of my heart. For I have grown to admire Aubrey and I almost envy his proximity to a world where making a difference is so easy to define. Aubrey said, “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m confessing the truth. Sure we all had black maids, but the media coverage given to apartheid in the rest of the world was much more extensive than what we saw here. We didn’t know what you knew.” I left it at that.

But now, while talking to Jonathan, Aubrey’s words return to haunt me. Less than 15 years ago Jonathan and Gugu were probably fighting–and organizing their people to fight–for freedom, doing the very things Mandela would have done, had he been off Robben Island. This process of constantly forgiving, or reconciling to such an extent that former enemies–even former enemies ignorant of one another–now can work alongside as comrades-in-arms, is being forged at the moment in South Africa while blacks and whites battle in a new war, one where the enemy is much less visible, but a million times more deadly.

Jonathan: “At least in a real war people die instantly. Here, money is slowly drained away—the savings accounts for future generations’ school fees—and people die slowly and painfully.”

I ask Jonathan how others can help. “Anything—food parcels, clothes, anything for the orphans.” I ask, “What is your dream?” He says, “An old-age home to include the elderly and the orphans—so they can take care of each other. Our views, my emotions, are hard to express. Losing hope can’t get a better life.”

I hear the rooster crowing in the late afternoon. I see family photos spread everywhere. A calendar. A stereo. Joathan’s voice: “We are trying. I tell my people, ‘Do not think your life is ending here.’” Then he looks up at me. Our eyes lock as he says, “One thing you can do. I just met with the head of one of our high schools. He has several members of my community, students who are orphans and are very poor and very smart. They want to study science and maths. Despite the disasters in their lives, they are doing well at school, but they cannot study further because of lack of funds.”

I ask how much. Technical College costs 5,000 rand (€550). Jonathan: “Getting out of poverty is so difficult for orphans. They have the double stigma of HIV and being orphans. There is no funding. Without education, they have no future.”

Silence descends like the fog outside. And then Jonathan says, “I’ve got no hope.” I catch my breath. He jumps out of the couch and starts pacing back and forth in the living room like a lion in a cage. I ask, “How do you cope?” He replies, “I cannot do everything. You find your own little corner and do what you can.”

Of the 5,500 people under Jonathan’s care, he says 128 have died from aids. This year.

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