How do you sum up three and a half months of engaging full-on in another country? By the weeks spent serving the communities? The number of soccer games we played (and the number of times we had to fetch the ball out of the river)?
The number of clicks I tried to speak while learning the Zulu language, sounding more like I was smacking on gravel? The number of sunburns this Seattle girl got soaking in the light?
No, nothing as concrete as numbers I think—Africa has never been about maintaining hard and fast ways of measuring one’s time. I needed something less tangible to account for my time, something more like experiences. Something like the ways God grabbed my heart and mind and showed me brief glimpses of His truth, as through a steamy window that I can’t quite make out, but which makes me gasp when I realize there’s a whole other life outside of what I had been living in.
Time in Africa is not measured with the rigorousness of the American standard. There is always “time” to do anything—for time has no start or end. It is boundless, not tied to meal times or transportation systems. There is no social call worth cutting short or activity worth ending in the name of “time.” And as someone who is addicted to her to-do lists, this new mindset forced me to realize that of course relationships and unforeseen activities come before my self-determined obligations. People have always been first.
And when I think of the lives of those vibrant African people, I think of one word: repercussions. I saw the repercussions of alcohol, of drugs, of humor, of an astounding lack of hope and an astounding amount of joy. I saw the women shuffling into HIV clinics with their little ones in their arms after waiting hours for the medication, medication for the suffering that might not even be their fault. I saw both a lack of God and an abundance of Him.
I saw many, rotating scenes. Scenes of murder and theft and rape. Scenes of churches vibrating with songs I’m sure will be sung in Heaven. Scenes of rosemary fields smelling like the hope of women’s income. Scenes of 21 children in a daycare the size of my bedroom, tackling me with yogurt hands. These hopeful, fallen, human people need Jesus in a way that I don’t think I can give them. There is no easy solution to their suffering—that’s the problem. But I can’t fix the alcoholism or stop the crime or protect the people I met now that I am gone. I can’t rescue them—savior is not in my job description. And how saddening and painful and wonderful it is that I cannot stop someone from living a difficult life. There is someone who can save and protect and look after His own, and thank goodness it isn’t imperfect me.
This country defies any adjectives I could use to describe the physical beauty of its land. It boasts a diverse landscape with the towering Drakensburg Mountains, lush green game reserves and white beaches. This diversity is precious in a place renowned for its history of crippling apartheid and racial injustices. It wasn’t until 1994, only a year before I was born, that Nelson Mandela’s campaign and presidency began to break apart the hardened inequality and hatred, making way for reconciliation and forgiveness—forgiveness that came by listening to one another’s stories. Not simply hearing, passively nodding heads in agreement, but real, interested, dedicated listening. Because people’s stories and experiences are the most worthy occupants of our time. Stories of being forced to move towns because of their skin tone, stories of imprisonment for fighting for equality, stories of pain and hope and reconciliation. The healing nature of forgiveness was the cord holding all of the stories together, unifying a nation used to fragmentation. When people feel heard and as if their stories are significant, something in them begins to change, to shift. They become empowered to share and commune with others.
South Africa calls itself the “rainbow nation,” celebrating diversity and the multiple ethnicities and races which co-exist. Its motto is “diverse people unite.” But it is also a rainbow nation in that it holds a promise from God. He promises to be their savior, since I can’t. He promises to be their light when even the strong African sun shies away. He promises to never leave them nor forsake them when everyone else has. He promises Himself to them—uniting the diverse.