This is a time of transition in many parts of South Africa. We are slowly moving from our “winter” to a time of renewal, blossom, and growth. The spring season is upon us after months of dry and dusty earth. Winter months commonly bring about the burning of fields and grasslands, leaving them blackened and charred. The end of a dry winter is also a time bringing about windy and blustery conditions. With spring, the rains have begun falling over the past couple weeks and the lush green landscape is beginning to envelope the scenery. Green shoots of grass poke up through the blackened earth alongside small, colorful flowers while the budding trees are exploding with fragrant blossoms in purple, yellow, pink and white. Even as some of the weather patterns are predictable, others leave you shaking your head.
A couple weeks ago, Brian and I were driving the 5 ½ hour trip back to Pietermaritzburg from Johannesburg. As we drove over the winding Van Reenen Pass (interesting fact: the village boasts the smallest church in the world capable of a full house of 8 people) outside of Harrismith, we glimpsed the Drakensburg Mountains. A smile came over our faces as they were top to bottom blanketed white with snow. We had seen snow on the mountain tops previously during this winter season, but never their entirety. We continued traveling and as we came to an area near Mooi River, about 45 minutes from our home, our smiles got broader and our heads shook with disbelief. The sides and middle of the road were covered with a fresh layer of snow. Fifty or more cars were stopped taking pictures of the isolated scene with some bundling up snowballs with ear to ear smiles stretched across their faces. As we peered to the left we saw an entire, open field layered with a couple inches of snow. The field was filled with hundreds of people running, playing, and enjoying what they knew would be a short-lived cover of snow. Some were making snowmen, but my favorite scene of all was seeing three or more games of soccer being played by the children in the snow, slipping and sliding as they went. A few kilometers later, there was no more snow to be found, but as we drove the rest of the way home we could not stop thinking about what we had witnessed. Where did this fit into our “preconceived notions” about South Africa? This just simply did not fit.
As foreigners, I wonder how many times we have images or depictions about what Africa, specifically South Africa is all about. Is it simply a place dominated by HIV/AIDS, poverty and reconciliation from apartheid; or a rural place filled with the Big 5 safari animals? Are our notions based on the media, books or stories we may have encountered growing up? And what do we do when we are faced with our mental picture not fitting into the reality? I am not suggesting that I have enough experience to dispel or correct all of these beliefs, but I do find myself experiencing so many different perspectives and ways of doing things that I couldn’t have imagined. A small example…as I went up to a counter recently to pay for an item (in a rural area) I was confused as to what was going on. People were not lining up “properly”, but rather fanned out approaching the cashiers in a big group all at once. Where’s the order, I thought, but somehow everyone else seemed just fine and had the system all figured out. Eventually I paid and moved on, but then remembered what a gentleman named Pastor Jabu told me a month before. He mentioned the idea of community and how being in straight lines or front to back just didn’t fit into this circular, inclusive way of living together. The traditional homestead is another example of community. The Zulu term for the traditional homestead layout is umuzi which consisted of two concentric fences of thorn trunks. The huts would be located inside the outer fence (according to family position/status) and the cattle in the inner circle with a smaller enclosure there for the calves. Hmm, I thought…makes perfect sense now why paying at the register in my preconceived notion of “order” didn’t fit from a historical and cultural perspective.
There are so many times I could reflect on where these predetermined ideas about my surroundings and my observations have been challenged. Just as with every culture one may live in or visit, the important element is to spend a vast amount of time listening, learning, observing and asking questions. The premise of the volunteer program we are coordinating has this similar belief as we walk alongside and accompany our companions here in South Africa. There are so many new ideas, ways of doing things and perspectives to be gained from our friends and companions. All of us here serving with ELCA Global Mission are challenged each day to see, to experience and to learn about the culture of our South African companions so we can truly accompany, mutually exchanging with one another in the journey.
Just like a new season, we and the volunteers continue to transition as we blossom, grow and are transformed by our service in South Africa. Our images, ideas and notions are in turn expanded, enriched and clarified. I have no doubt there will be more “snow day”-type experiences we will encounter to make us smile and say…I never could have envisioned or imagined this! But what a gift.