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Archive for April, 2012

“Jesus was not born here but sometimes he comes in through the little holes in the walls and sits on that chair” – Sandile Dikeni (Shack Chic)

The Elder

An old man sits in a shaft of light at the front of the small mud hut; his brown hands clasp the spine of his battered bible, motes of dust gently orbit his head and the butter-yellow sunlight sets his hair aflame. This one-roomed, thatched mud hut is a church located in rural Nyathi, situated roughly an hour outside of Bulawayo. The old man is the church elder. The road to this village shows the many years of Mugabe’s rule: Dumi, a local urban pastor, laughingly refers to it as the Christian road because it requires a certain degree of sharing. All that remains of the road is a car width of pockmarked tarmac flanked on both sides by stony brown soil. Two cars race towards each other down the central median, and at what seems like the very last second, veer off on to opposite sides to let each other pass. Cyclists, chickens and pedestrians scatter to the left and right, skidding over the gravel and into the grassy verge, in a last ditch effort to avoid an untimely demise.

To church

We are here to visit this small church, its elders and congregants. They do not often have visitors and we are welcomed with clapping hands and toothy smiles, and are then led down a path between straggly mielie plants to the tiny church. We all stoop to enter and are asked to sit on what turns out to be pews made out of mud packed around a wooden frame. The rich, red soil is sturdy and I am surprised that it carries the weight of three or more people. At the  corner-edge of the pew I sit on, I notice a thin column of grainy sand standing about 15cm high, a nest of ants has fashioned this delicate tower, and it has somehow survived the many bodies which have sat here.  The walls of the church are pitted and the backsides of noisy yellow bees waggle in and out of the holes. The room is scented with the smoke of a thousand fires, which has seeped into the mud on the walls, and soaked the clothes of the worshipers.

I can’t stop looking at the old man – his skin is lined and leathery, and whiskers grow out of his nose and ears. Both his hair and the stubble on his chin have grown grey. For all the years I have worked in rural areas, this is the first time I have seen such an old man. I am used to seeing young boys, teenagers and the occasional middle aged man. Even though apartheid in South Africa is long over, its legacy remains: men move to the cities to find work and seldom return, so the rural areas are populated by women and children. As each of us visitors stand to introduce ourselves, a small girl wanders over, and settles herself comfortably across the old man’s knees. I don’t know if this is her grandfather or simply a male relative she feels at home with. I feel quite overwhelmed as I watch her; there are few children in rural South Africa, and indeed many parts of South Africa, who will have this experience, as men are no longer central to family life.

As the small band of Christians begin to sing, the sun filters in through the small square windows at the front of the room, while the open doorway behind me reveals full purple clouds hanging over the mielie field and huts. It is 11am and the sky darkens as the thunder rolls and lightning streaks the sky. Fat drops hit the earth releasing fragrances long stored in the soft, loose soil. It has not rained for months and they say our visit has broken the long dry spell. I love the fact that I am sitting in a far away place; the roar of the city forgotten, its sounds replaced by the tinkling of cow bells and the wind sifting through the mielies.

The Rain is Coming

Why are we here? We haven’t brought anything with us; in fact, it is our hosts who offer us delicious platefuls of pumpkin, mielies and squash, leaving the taste of honey and wood smoke on our tongues. So what is the point? As I listen to both Kent and Wessel, two team members, share and encourage this small church, I realise that sometimes it is simply being with people that is important. We travelled 1850km to sit and talk and share a meal together; most of us virtual strangers but linked by faith. Did we have to travel to Zimbabwe to do this? Could we not be doing it in some of our rural areas in South Africa? Yes, we could. But I know that our visit was important for these Zimbabweans; people in flux, people who are assured of very little in this life.  We know of their plight, we know of their fears and they know that we care.

The days that follow are filled with various activities, and the meeting of people from all walks of Zimbabwean life. I spend a morning at a local orphanage which is home to a number of small, beautiful children; some were abandoned at birth – unclaimed by relatives after their mothers died giving birth, some were dumped in bushes or isolated places – left to die, one is paralysed from the waist down – involved in a hit-and-run and then given over to the State when the father was unable to care for her. The American’s travelling with us are here to tell the kids about Jesus and to tell them they have a great destiny. Sally asks them questions to gauge their knowledge and they answer with ease, even when I am stumped, and my lack of biblical knowledge becomes apparent to me. These kids are bright, they are funny and they love to dance – I don’t doubt they have a great destiny. In the hands of Jenni and the mothers of the orphanage, I can see that these kids are loved, and because of this they are gentle with each other. At lunchtime the older kids help the younger kids to sandwiches and juice, only helping themselves, once the small children are seated and fed.

Andre playing with one of the boys

That afternoon I find myself in an unfinished brick building in a suburb reminiscent of a South African township. We have been invited to attend a women’s meeting where we will share a few words with the ladies present. One of the many things I love about Africa are the voices of women in song – loud and clear they seem to carry all the sadness, love, jubilation and hope of Africa as a whole. I stand amidst a sea of singing women and my skin prickles and my eyes water. These women are so firm in their faith, so convinced of God’s love and as I watch them I get the same feeling that came over me in the tiny mud hut of a church in Nyathi – Jesus is here, perhaps sitting on a chair or leaning in the doorway. He’s not loud, he’s not the centre of attention – he’s just here.

The boys

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Thomas Baines Print

Bulwayo. As the name of this Zimbabwean city gently floats from my lips, my mind conjures up images of colonial style maps decorated with roaring waterfalls and teeming herds of buffalo. Heavily laden sausage and flame trees awash with blood orange blossoms stand beside acacias, their pods clattering in the wind, releasing a familiar scent into the air. I’m in a foreign land, one not dissimilar to the one I have come from, and as the sceptics would like us to believe, one which South Africa could closely resemble in a few years time. I have joined a group from Glenridge, a local Durban church, travelling to Zimbabwe to spend time with various churches and people living in the city of Bulawayo.

Our journey begins in the manner of most long trips; a 3am start which finds friends and strangers stumbling around a car park, steaming mugs of coffee in hand, as bags are packed into trailers and seats selected with care. Is it wise to sit behind a 5 year old who is clearly used to being awake this early? No doubt, I will find out the answer in time. Our drive is long and we wind our way up past Johannesburg and into parts of South Africa I have only ever heard of. We live in a beautiful country; the trip between Louis Trichard and Musina is breathtaking; rocky outcrops rise up alongside us and faces materialise out of the stone. The quirky baobab tree is as prolific to this area as the palm tree is to Durban; tall, skinny, leafy ones; short, fat, squat ones; and enormous ones, trunks wider than our van, limbs reaching up into the sky and providing shelter from the midday sun. The sky is as wide and as blue as an ocean, clouds foamy and white.

After a sleepless night shared with a millipede at a wonderful little bush lodge, we arrive at the Beit Bridge border post at around 8.30am. We pass easily through the South African border, and drive over to the Zimbabwe side, a no man’s land of desolation. Our van is immediately surrounded by men trying to ‘assist’ us with the immigration process, but we are with old hands and are quickly whisked inside and find ourselves at the front of an empty queue. It begins to fill up quickly though, and we have to watch out for random individuals who simply walk past all those waiting, and squash themselves in between you and the person in front of you. It is hilarious watching the South Africans, eternal abiders of queue etiquette, who fall into two camps: those that falter when it comes to confronting the offender, and those that protest passive aggresively. The first group simply look nonchalant and unphased by the interloper’s actions, while the second group attempt to reclaim their space in front of the offender.

Outside a group has gathered around a large van which is overloaded to the hilt with all manner of paraphernalia; the trailer is being unpacked by the border police and each item is painstakingly being pulled out. As we watch this scene unfold a red bakkie races past and we all admire the furniture on the back. Suddenly it screeches to a halt as Rob, one of our team members, flies through the air and onto the tarmac, his head cracking the floor. We all stand stunned for a moment and then a flurry of activity ensues – the bystanders watching the van being unloaded simply turn around and become spectators to a new human drama. The driver tears out of the car to check on Rob and reveals that he had been looking “over there” – and vaguely points in the direction of the immigration office. Thankfully Rob is not badly hurt, although shaken, and we manage to load everyone into the vehicles and head off into Zimbabwe.

The landscape is not unlike South Africa so I do not get a sense of being in another country until we come to our first road block. The road block appears to be a standard Zimbabwean operating procedure and it becomes abundantly clear that being a police officer is the number one form of employment in this country. Everyone is professionally dressed and quite assured of their knowledge of their country’s laws, even when blatantly incorrect. In the space of 20km we have been stopped roughly 10 times, often a small discussion will be held outside of the van by our driver (and team leader), Clint, and the officer on the rules of the road and the status of our “tourist” vehicle. Seemingly a permit is required, although this was denied at the border. Clint has been gifted with a golden tongue and twinkling eyes, so we are more often than not on our way, the officer left standing bribe-less, but smiling.

On arrival in Bulwayo we head to our host family’s home and are directed to the house they are in the process of building. It is set in what must have once been an affluent suburb; the houses are huge with overgrown gardens and unkempt verges – clearly municipal services have not been in operation for some time. There is something quite lovely about the haphazard roads and creeping foliage; it is as if nature is trying to reclaim its space. We make our way up a steep drive way and are greeted by Adrian, Ingrid and Bruce; the men are covered in dust and we realise they have been working furiously to finish the house for our arrival. And it is beautiful. Built out of the stone found on the land, it is a two story home, with many rooms waiting to be filled by both stranger and friend. They have built this home specifically to accommodate people from all over the world who come to Zimbabwe on mission trips. Outside are another two rooms; in one a large rounded rock formation merges with the bathroom, and the other has a wooden deck with a spectacular view of the leafy green belt that houses this suburb. I’m absolutely amazed by the generosity of this family. Even though they have built this house with the intention of housing guests, it is also to be their family home. It is not yet completely finished but they have given it over to us – and I’m sure by the time we leave it’ll be a little weathered and worn.

View at the Houghtons place

A large table made of heavy Rhodesian teak dominates the main eating space and the kitchen and living room all merge into each other, allowing for free flow of people and conversation. A wooden patio hosts another large table and people begin to secure positions as the biltong, nuts and snacks appear. This is a far cry from mission trips of yonder and I can’t help but feel thankful that I am not standing over a fire tending my billy can of beans. It’s an interesting mix of people from different churches, ages and backgrounds and three Americans who have joined our team.

I’m not really sure what to expect on this trip. I’ve been in a strange state of mind these last few weeks and this has led me to get into a van, with mostly unknown people, armed only with the knowledge that I was heading to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

(to be continued: part 2 – Jesus was not born here)

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