Panning for Gold


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This particular hut has a blind grandmother. She’s been blind for eight years, she tells me. “I regret I can’t see the orphans properly.” It turns out she used to live with eight orphans, but other relatives took some of the children, leaving these four. I count the folded blankets piled in the corner; there are only three.

I turn to the eldest, who is 12. She explains that both their parents are dead. When I ask about school, she looks down, ashamed, and admits she no longer attends. “I have problems at school. We sold everything of our parents to send me to school, but it was not enough.” What this really means is that despite selling off the few mementoes these children had of their parents, they cannot afford to pay the €3 in school fees for even one child.

The grandfather died of TB. There is no income, no way for any of them to bring in any money. In town I met a grandmother who worked as a maid. Here in the village, this blind gogo can do nothing. What can the children do here to earn an income?

The grandmother wants to say something to me. Salvation translates, “I have a problem, but really thank God that the children have lived this long.” This tells me that these children are either dying of starvation or dying of aids. I look more closely at their faces, but can see no lesions. It doesn’t mean they’re not HIV+, born to HIV+ parents.

The grandmother picks up the story where the 12-year-old left off. The children are cousins. “My first daughter passed away and had beds and kitchen units which we could sell off to pay school fees and buy food. There are no relatives here, one neighbor helps. My daughter had finished school. I see her in my grand-daughter’s eyes.”

At that moment a large white rooster strolls into the hut and crows. I say, “He’s a little late.” When Salvation translates, there are giggles. What is this place in time where laughter still can be heard among such pain and despair?

The blind grandmother says her prayer is that “God may allow me to live until the stage where these children can work themselves, that God may keep me alive. I thank God so much. One of these children is always sick. This child has the problem.”

I look at Salvation. So few people ever actually bring the words “HIV” or “aids” into their mouths, as if the words themselves would curse those who say them. Instead, they call it TB, or malaria, or like this woman, say, “The problem.”

The gogo continues, “We have no medicine or help from a hospital for this pandemic.” I think, So she knows enough to call it a pandemic. The Problem Pandemic.

My eyes have adjusted to the smoky darkness. The only light pours through the same door the rooster keeps wandering in and out of. I have taken the toddler onto my lap. From close up I can now make out the aids lesions on her face. The sweater she wears unravels at the sleeve. I rub her icy feet with my hands, massaging the circulation into action. When I ask how old the children are, the gogo recites the ages faster than the children: 10 months, 9 years, 10, and 12. Everyone laughs at how the gogo’s mind is sharper than the children’s.

I ask the children about what they want to be when they grow up. It is getting harder and harder to ask this question, but it seems to open a door to hope and dreams, so I keep asking. One girl wants to become a nurse.

We stand to leave, and the grandmother asks us to pray for them. Salvation looks at me and I pray for their protection from evil and from harm. I pray for their healing. I pray that the God of all comfort would wrap His arms around them. Salvation leaves a sack of corn behind on the floor. The grandmother says, “I had eight children. I am so surprised by how when one died, the others followed.”

We get back into the truck and drive until the dirt track disappears. We can see more round huts in the distance and Salvation heads toward them, cutting across the hardened earth. We have picked up two more teenage girls to join our original 19-year old. They are just coming along for the ride and will stay in the truck during our visits. They act like it’s a picnic and sit in the back of the truck, all talking at once and bursting out in laughter with every pothole Salvation doesn’t manage to miss. I can’t help but smile with them. When Julia and I were in the back of the jeep Erik drove during our last trip to Botswana, we used to wish for sport bras, as we called out, “Milkshake!”

This is what it was like, the contrast of despair and then these people would get me laughing and singing and even dancing with them.

The next round hut I enter is standing beside a half-built one, so I can see it is made of bricks and wood. In this hut there is the tiniest of fires, one flame only. During our visit, one of the five girls feeds the flame a single twig at a time. The girls sitting on the ground and leaning against the curved walls tell me their mother died two weeks earlier. I lean over from my small wooden stool and take their hands, offering my condolences. It is a Dutch thing to do, I realize, as I see the surprise in their faces to be touched in this way. Or maybe it’s just that I’m white.

There are nine of them living together, six from the same mother and three from her sister. Of the nine children, there is only one boy. He is at school. I ask how they pay the school fees and one of the teenagers says they pan for gold. I look at Salvation to see if I’ve understood correctly. He nods. It’s a two-hour walk to the river where they sometimes find enough gold dust to pay the school fees for their brother.

I ask for their ages. The five cousins are aged 4, 4, 18, 18, and 21. I ask about their prayers and needs. “That God may bless us when panning. That we would find the grace to manage this home.”

I ask if they receive help from anyone, and they say the church helps them buy beans and “mealie.” The church also assists with school fees. “Most of all, they pray for us.”

The wind is blowing the wrong way and the hut is full of smoke. My eyes water and I can’t help but cough. Two of the teenagers spring to their feet and start fanning the smoke away from my face. You see? So attentive.

We walk from their home a short ways to where a hut is being built by three men. I take photos of the bent wood and grass and wet clay filling in the walls. The girls with us don’t even look at the men. I’m watching for some sort of interaction, looks, something, but there is nothing. We have had to leave the truck a good distance away because the terrain was just too rough. Now as we walk back, I look up at the hills in the distance. There is such a still beauty to this place on this day with the heavy sky all around us. I see a woman with a child, walking away from us toward three high trees, the only trees for miles around. Both the woman and her little girl are carrying containers of water on their heads.

The drive and the three visits have taken most of the day. Salvation asks if I want to make more visits. I say no. I feel so relieved that the visits are over, again, I’m ashamed. In the car on the way back to home, I ask Salvation what can you possibly say to encourage such people? He says he uses the Word of God and tells them, “You are not alone. God says, ‘I am always with you.’ In hard times God is there to give you hope.” He says this to the caregivers, and they say it to the families in their charge.

I’m thinking if the caregivers are as poor as the orphans they visit, what exactly can the caregivers do? Salvation says they can pray with the family. If they ever do have anything, a little food or soap, they bring these things with them. Once a month in town there is a meeting of all the caregivers and they talk about their visits and encourage each other.

I ask Salvation about his own personal circumstances, and he describes his two-room house. “At the moment my church is not able to support me and my wife. I can’t demand more than people can afford to give.” So he works in a brick factory. “I thank God for my wife. She loves God and is so encouraging. She’s really a blessing.”

I listen to these words as we drive by a shack with a bright sign out front: Glengarry Bottle Store. It looks more like something I would see in Ireland. Salvation talks about his own dream of building a home, but cement is too expensive. I ask about his views on local politics. “The mayor is a good man. People are starving. People keep voting him in, despite the twisting of votes. If only Jesus could be our mayor.”

Back in the hotel, I have a few hours before Katherine will pick me up to go to Pastor Philip’s home for dinner. On November 7 I wrote: Just woke up from a 2-hour nap, the smell of wood smoke still in my “jersey” and my hair. I spoke this morning on Galatians 5:1, about not losing our courage to walk in freedom and not succumbing to fear. I felt and feel like I am the one who must be taught. A terrible cold grips the land from the night until now. I catch myself dreading what is left of my trip, instead of straining to listen, as I did in the beginning. I count off the remaining visits to rural homes (2-3), days (1), and hours (less than 24) until I can relax. I so look forward to returning to South Africa, where I can email and speak freely. This all seems so cruelly unfair—to have the aids pandemic the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa suffers under and also suffer the injustice of a wretched government policy that increases school fees and breaks down homes and gives the false hope of life-saving medications that never show up on the shelves.

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