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Words by Others

Mid-way along the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, For I had wandered off from the straight path. How hard it is to tell what it was like, This wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn Even the thought of it brings back all my old fears. A bitter place, death could scarce be bitterer. . . .–Cantos I of Mark Musa’a translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, I: The Inferno

I remember something that came to me last night. The weakest run away. The strong stay and fight. But ultimately the ones too weak to run are strengthened the most. So to be weak is to be strong. Also, an invitation to others to write. There was a contest and instead of just my writing an entry, I was supposed to tell others to write in.

There are several texts that have helped me get my bearings these last weeks. One is this excerpt from Dante. The following poem by Burnside I quoted on our Christmas letter to some of you. Here is the full text with the boldfaced portion showing what I included in the card, his words taken as mine.


I’ve visited the place where thought begins: pear trees suspended in sunlight, narrow shops, alleys to nothing

but nettles and broken wars; and though it might look different to you:

a seaside town, with steep roofs the colour of oysters, the corner of some junkyard with its glint of coming rain,

though someone else again would recognize the warm barn, the smell of milk, the wintered cattle shifting in the dark,

it’s always the same lit space, the one good measure: Sometimes you’ll wake in a chair as the light is fading,

or stop on the way to work as a current of starlings turns on itself and settles above the green,

and because what we learn in the dark remains all our lives, a noise like the sea, displacing the day’s pale knowledge,

you’ll come to yourself in a glimmer of rainfall or frost, the burnt smell of autumn, a meeting of parallel lines,

and know you were someone else for the longest time, pretending you knew where you were, like a diffident tourist, lost on the one main square, and afraid to enquire.–John Burnside

South Africa 2 November 2006 (continued) I am still with Gail Trollip at her Tabitha Ministries Hope Centre in Lidgetton, near Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. As Gail comforts Princess Rebecca on her lap, Isabel Malan joins us, bringing her puppets. Tabitha Ministries is much more than just this home for abandoned HIV babies. Last year more than 2,000 children saw Izzy’s 13-minute puppet show about HIV and aids.

I lean forward, eager to hear from someone else who uses story to reach others’ hearts. Izzy says after each show she talks and listens to the children to find out what they know and challenge them with the assurance that there is hope and a future for children who have lost parents, and for children who survive rape and molestation.

Her story is for 9-12-year olds. Afterwards she asks the teachers to leave and she talks with the children about dating and sex. “What is a good touch? What is a bad touch?” This way she can help identify the abused. She invites the children to open up through the puppets, who say, “Come and have a chat.”

When I ask Izzy what about the children’s voices, she quotes them, “I have a sore heart. My mommy died.”

Izzy and her team work with social workers and the children they suspect are victims of abuse may be placed in a community house for abused children or the child protection unit. Many are so traumatized they cannot describe what has been happening to them until months after they are removed from the abusive environment.

I listen to the language we use, the language of the previous paragraph, and translate it as if it were for a children’s book, listening to the children’s voices in my own heart.

Gail speaks up here and tells of girls she has met who were thought to be mentally ill, but actually were so severely traumatized by chronic sexual abuse that they appeared unstable. “There are desperate needs.” The two women tell me rape and abuse are on the increase. I ask why. Gail says, “There are many theories. One is that we have so many dysfunctional young men because they had no strong male leadership, no lessons in norms or morals. Apartheid caused men to live away from home and work elsewhere. This destroyed the family structure. It’s the nature of migrant labor that there is no father figure, creating an unstable family unit.”

I ask Izzy about what has shocked her in the schools she visited. • Seeing children take chewing gum out of their mouths and watch it being eaten by others • Male teachers hitting on girls (why she asks the teachers to leave when she talks with the children about good touches and bad touches).

Tabitha Ministries also sponsors teen weeks for 13-15-year olds when 16 leaders chosen by their peers learn about HIV, aids, the Gospel, sexually transmitted diseases, and where babies come from. Schools invite Izzy and they have had great success in rural schools, especially. “We teach the children to see themselves in a new light, to commit to a new life and Light. We tell them, ‘You can wait to be married. You can wait to be sexually active.’” After the week, these 16 leaders go back to their schools and teach their friends.

I ask about Izzy’s puppets. They have been sitting slouched on the chair between us. When she picks them up their backs straighten and they look my way. There is a black girl called Hope, a white boy called Future, and the nasty green octopus called Inchikeety (which means aids) that spits. When he spits, water is thrown onto the crowd. The story revolves around the protection of an ants’ nest and the character Antibody, who eventually dies because Inchikeety sneaks into the nest. At the end, Hope says, “I’ve lost my aunty. My heart is very sore. If you want to talk, come forward.” Future says, “Sometimes people misunderstand. Come explain how you feel to Hope.” Hope often corrects Future. Future is bubbly and doesn’t think things through. Hope is soothing and wise.

Izzy says the adults cry during the show and the children sometimes scream and shout at the characters. She changes the script slightly for different ages. Among the 4-9-year olds she heard, “Aunty Isabel, what I’ve learned is you must not make sex.” Among the 16-17-year olds there is often crying as they talk about their fear of being infected. They ask Izzy to pray “to keep us safe from sex.”

I ask about the children’s questions. Izzy says the 9-12-year olds ask about sex, and about homosexuality—“How do you have sex with homos?” They want to know about condoms—“Do you really have to wear that?” They have a fear of getting sick, too. Some have told her during sex they were not sure what was being done. “He says it’s all right, is it all right?” They are scared when the lights go out.

When I ask Izzy how she copes, she says, “You can’t do any more than what your heart is given. Sometimes all I can do is ask a child, ‘Can I hold your hand?’ You pray for God’s compassion to be in your heart. I hope I am laying a foundation for the future generation. In some ways it’s already too late for the teens—they’re dying already.”

How did I feel as we drove away from Hope Centre? I’m trying to remember now, eight weeks later. I remember standing with Aubrey in a small shop, eating a grilled cheese sandwich. Neither of us said much. I think I was still trying to get my mind and heart around the idea of this war where an invisible enemy strikes down men, women and children—into the millions. When I read about Dante’s forests of despair and wild animals of fear, I recognize the place in the reaction of my emotions, the ever-present tears. But always he is leading to that first ray across a hill above, a thread of hope, as described in his 13th Canto:

The hour was early in the morning then, The sun was climbing up with those same stars That had accompanied it on the world’s first day, The day Divine Love set their beauty turning: So the hour and sweet season of creation Encouraged me to think I could get past. . . .

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