I have been thinking about what Gugu said about listening. (See end of previous post The Silent War.) Maybe just listening is enough. I took it as a compliment that morning when I interviewed her, but I think it might be something much deeper and more universal. Sometimes strangers, friends, or family ask me, “But what can we do?” That’s when I’m lucky. When I’m unlucky I get a sermon about the hopelessness of Africa and how the money you have given to an organization has been wasted or stolen, so you don’t give anymore. What can we do . . . about aids? What can we do . . . about the children—theirs? Ours? They don’t listen. They don’t care. We don’t listen. We don’t care. Maybe just listening is enough. What would happen if western politicians just listened, just came alongside and really listened to their African counterparts? What would happen if we really listened? Intercessory prayer is about trying to see the ones we pray for through God’s eyes. Our hearts open and in doing so, we heal and change. Wouldn’t just listening change us, too? The ones being listened to, and the ones doing the listening?
South Africa 3 November 2006 (continued) I have spent the morning with Gugu as she explains her take on the aids pandemic. She asks if I am willing to meet someone. I nod with my mouth full of her daughter’s mouth-watering scones. I will do anything, go anywhere, trust this woman in any circumstance. I see her as a prophet, a leader in the true sense, a wise woman with vision. ACAT is lucky to have her. And besides, she has taught her daughter how to cook these scones from another planet.
“I want to call my 14-year old up here from the other house. You said you were interested in hearing the children’s voices. She has a baby.” I blink at Gugu, doing more math—13 maybe 12 when pregnant, depending on how old the baby is. Then I swallow and say, “Yes, no, of course. I’d love to meet her.” I tell myself the fact that she is exposing one of her children to me must mean she trusts me. Then I remember. When she said “my 14-year old” she was referring to one of her sister’s orphans whom she has adopted.
“What is her name?” I ask. Gugu says, “Nobuhle.” “What does it mean?” “Something Beautiful.” “And her baby’s name?” “Something Else Beautiful.” We both smile. At what? The innocence of a name by a 14-year old. Gugu adds, “You can ask her about losing her mom while she was pregnant.”
My next question is out before I can stop it. “Is she HIV+?” The look Gugu shoots my way tells me I’ve overstepped my bounds. I remember the TEAR people in Holland and Aubrey here warning me about the taboos—I mustn’t ask people directly if they’re infected. But I had thought a woman as eloquent and well-versed as Gugu would be above the stigma. I remembered her own words about the distance between head knowledge and heart practice. Family, her own family, her child, her own sister’s orphan—maybe this was too close to home.
Still, she answers me, but only after a pause that makes me wish we could be friends for life. “Yes. We had her tested. Both she and the baby are not infected. And we had her tested for other things, too.” I think venereal diseases. Gugu says, “Imagine my shame when one of my own family members, a girl her age, became pregnant. It was as if all the talking I do with these girls, all the teaching, all the prayer, had been for nothing.” Again, Gugu’s honesty knocks me off balance. I scramble for a response and say, “But it wasn’t your fault.” The words sound weak and hang between us.
A phone call and five minutes later a girl who walks like a dancer slips into the office as Gugu introduces us, then leaves us alone. I am aware of the open ceiling and that Gugu and her daughter will hear whatever we say. I put the thought aside and focus on the heart-shaped face before me. Her eyes are wide. She truly is something beautiful. I wish she were a boy so we could start off talking about football. “Do you like football?” I ask, hoping. “No madam,” comes the shy response. Well, I had to try.
Then, of course I know what it is that will put her more at ease. “You have a lovely baby,” I say. Magic charm. She smiles and bounces him on her knee. His chubby cheeks match his chubby hands and chubby knees. I put out my finger and he grabs hold of it as I smile at Something Beautiful. “What is he? Six months?” She nods.
I lean forward and say softly, “It cannot be easy, being a mother without your own mother?” She says, “It is a little bit hard.” Her eyes will not hold mine and we both keep looking back at the baby, as if he might have more answers than we know.
I ask, “What do you do when you miss your mother?” She says, “When I miss Mom? When I need something I talk to Auntie.” That would be Gugu. I try again, “But what do you do when you want to feel close to your mother?” “Oh!” Her face lights up as she finds something to offer me. “I sing. I sing the songs she used to sing, and I sing for my baby.”
I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. “A physical therapist. I would like to do massage therapy. I want to make people feel better.” I ask how she will manage that with a baby. “I will take him to the crèche and go back to school. Auntie says she will help, and so will my Granny.”
I think, I’ll just keep asking questions until she stops me, so I dig a little deeper, asking about her Granny’s reaction to her pregnancy. “Granny said, ‘No matter what you’ve done, I forgive you.’” The answer sideswipes me. Something Beautiful blinks at me, so confident in her integrity as a member of this African Queen matriarchy.
I ask about school—she studies maths, science, English, Zulu and biology. I ask about her long-term goals? “In five years I want to have my own practice and take care of my family and Auntie.”
I thank her for her time and she stands to go. The baby is fussing. As she passes me, I reach out a hand and take hers. “And stay away from the boys, huh?” I know I’ve clicked into Auntie mode myself, but I can’t help it. She smiles at me, a little embarrassed, “Of course.”
Gugu comes back into the office and we talk about what it means to own our dreams. “If a dream is clear, I can always find my way through, and not get sidetracked. When I train people we talk about writing dreams down onto a piece of paper and keeping the dream alive by seeing it every day. For some people it is an amazing achievement to grow your own garden. Self-esteem is so crucial. The black empowerment movement gave us many opportunities, but none of it is obtainable if we don’t build self-esteem on an individual basis. Whatever we’ve been through as South Africans, whether it is surviving apartheid or HIV, self-esteem is needed for that survival. We need enough self-esteem to keep working, otherwise the stigma will swallow us and you lose who you are.
“Under apartheid we were nobodys. Now with HIV it is the same—we are dirty. I try to build others’ self-esteem by teaching them how to harvest their first bunch of spinach. You should see them, planting the seeds, and a few months later, picking spinach. They were so happy, sizing the leaves, comparing, visualizing what their mothers would say. A garden empowers people. It’s theirs. They don’t need to ask permission. And it’s a challenge to work in a group.
“Why agriculture? There is such a lack of knowledge in the townships. I went to a conference with people from Germany, the UK and all over Africa. The only thing the Africans had in common was our ignorance. I realized how being uninformed, especially in the rural areas, is accepted as the norm.
“Apartheid brain-washed us. Women were beaten up by their husbands and we accepted that as a sign of love.
“I do agriculture, but what I mainly do is people development.” Gugu tells me hope stories: • “One woman in her late 50s planted beans. I saw her a year later and asked, ‘Are you selling your beans?’ She said no. ‘For now I’m still enjoying giving them away. All my life I had to say thank you. ACAT has helped me give and hear thank you.’ Giving away 40 kg of beans was worth more to her than the money! • “Another woman used her first profit from selling what she grew to buy a cup of tea with sugar. This was a great luxury for her. To hear someone call tea a luxury. It sounds like a very little thing, but it is a very big thing. • “Youngsters who hold a Bible for the first time and open it and read. Being allowed to have their own Bible. • “Young people picking spinach. Knowing they will have this skill of growing a garden for the rest of their lives.”
I ask Gugu about her own training. She did community work for five years. “I trust God for every step and day, linking the Gospel to what happens every day. The practical Word of God is so important. I cry a lot and I laugh a lot.”
I ask about her aids workshops. “We talk about how to get it, how not to get it. How to live with an HIV+ family member. I link nutrition and family care.”
And for the children? “I tell the 9-12-year olds, ‘Nobody has a right to touch your body. Your body is your body. If somebody has touched you, first talk to your mother or teacher or minister. Sometimes they just don’t know whom to talk to. Although kids these days are more aware because of TV.”
I ask, what do the children say to you? “They don’t want to hear ‘I’m sorry, don’t cry, everything will be ok.’ Kids say, ‘You don’t know how I am feeling.’ I’ve also heard, ‘People avoid me, don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything. I want someone to say, “I’ll listen if you want to talk. I don’t know what to say to you, but I care about you.”’” I realize she is quoting her own adopted children now, her sisters’ nine orphans.
“Gugu, what is your prayer?” I ask.
“God, give me love for these children.”