Throughout my life I have heard frequent stories of my adventurous uncle, Maynard Konkol. Maynard, who was one of my father’s older brothers, was born in May of 1951 and was known for “breaking the mold” of typical Konkol family expectations. Instead of settling down to raise a family in central Wisconsin, Maynard was inspired to pursue an alternative path, travel the world, and contribute to social development projects alongside various rural communities around the world.
Following Maynard’s graduation from the University of Wisconsin in Platteville, he applied to serve with the United States Peace Corps, and was eventually assigned to the city of Maseru, located in the Kingdom of Lesotho about four hours southeast of Johannesburg, South Africa. From 1977-1979, Maynard applied his bachelors and masters degrees in soil and crop science at the Lesotho Argicultural College (LAC), which is located on the outer edge of the city. In addition to Maynard’s high priority of building relationships and cultural immersion, his service at the LAC helped create numerous sustainable development projects, and his work has since been shared in the text, “Imperial gullies: soil erosion and conservation in Lesotho”, written by Kate Barger Showers, who is a senior research associate at the Centre for World Environmental History at the University of Sussex in England.
When Maynard departed Lesotho and returned to the United States in 1979, he decided to spend a few months assisting my father as they built a new home, after which Maynard would plan to accept a new job in soils research at Iowa State University. My older brother was nearly two years of age at time, while I was only ten months old. Instead of hiring a construction company to work through the various construction phases, my father, uncle Maynard, and other friends and family worked cooperatively and tirelessly on nights and weekends to lay a foundation and assemble the home which my parents continue to reside in today, over thirty years later. Following each day of work, Maynard – who was known to be “green” and environmentally conscious long before it was trendy to do so – rode his bicycle to my Grandmother’s home each day to eat and sleep.
On September 17, 1979, following another day of hard work on my parent’s future home, what appeared to be a typical day of construction progress turned into an event that members of my extended family would never forget. Maynard’s daily commute to my grandmother’s residence was cut short when he was struck by an oncoming vehicle less than a mile from his point of departure. He died that day at the tender age of twenty-eight. While I was clearly far too young to understand the seriousness of the heartbreak, my family and their friends were crushed by the news. Maynard had traveled into distant lands around the world that many in central Wisconsin had never heard of, yet his life came to an abrupt close only minutes away from his childhood home. My father, whose bond with Maynard was especially strong, was wounded in ways like never before. Only moments after seeing Maynard peddle down the road, an accident would change everything. Not only had my father lost a brother, but also a life-long best friend.
At numerous occasions during my childhood I viewed various photos of my uncle Maynard during our family “slide shows” in the living room of our home. I can still remember the clicking sound of the slide projector and the smell of the buttered popcorn! I loved to hear of Maynard’s amazing and adventurous travels around the world, especially those which took place in Europe and Africa. Also, I could not help but laugh and smile at his bright-white long hair, stylish 1970’s clothes and glasses, and classic guitar. It would not have been difficult to find him in the remote villages of Africa! Through it all, I remember thinking about the far away places he visited, and how it all seemed like a world away. As a young man in rural central Wisconsin, I always wondered what it would be like to actually visit some of the same foreign places where he served. Amazingly, that day would eventually arrive.
Once Kristen and I were placed in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in order to serve as Country Coordinators for the ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission program, I immediately knew that one day I would travel to see where my uncle Maynard spent much of the final years of his young life. I wanted to visit the Kingdom of Lesotho, walk through the streets of Maseru, and of course, explore the Lesotho Agricultural College and learn if anyone remembered him, or if there were any stories to share. I wanted to hear the sounds of the streets, the feel of the soil, the smells of the plants, and close my eyes in order to visualize what it may have been like for Maynard nearly thirty years ago. As Maseru is only a six hour drive from our home in Pietermaritzburg, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would be able to make the opportunity a reality.
A few months ago, after nearly eighteen months living in South Africa, Kristen and I finally took advantage of an opportunity to travel to Lesotho and visit the LAC. As one can imagine, the opportunity to listen to stories about what my uncle may have experienced was a truly amazing occasion, for while I had never truly “known” Maynard, I felt a sense of connection that could not be rationally explained. As we were led through the area by one of the local LAC workers, I was able to see some the areas with my own eyes that I had once viewed only through photos and slides in the comfortable confines of my parent’s living room. The sights, sounds, and smells were wonderful, and it was an amazing occurrence that I will never forget.
As I write this reflection, my parents are sitting in my own living room here in Pietermaritzburg, as they are currently visiting South Africa for the first time. Kristen and I have spent the past weeks alongside them listening and learning, and of course, experiencing numerous sights and sounds of South Africa. As their time in the region comes to a close in just a few days, tomorrow will most likely be a major “highlight” of their journey. We plan to rise early in the morning and travel the six hours to Maseru in order for them to experience some of what Maynard had experienced so many years ago. I have no doubt that it will be an emotional experience, especially for my father. Over the past weeks I have heard numerous stories about Maynard and his time in southern Africa, and I believe our journey into Lesotho will be something we all will never forget. With all the excitement in the air, I doubt there will be much sleep tonight!
As I reflect upon this entire situation, there is simply too much running through my heart and mind to even try to capture and share in written form. Through it all, I am amazed by how my life has worked out in such a way that I am now able to visit places that I once dreamed unimaginable. And not only that, I am incredibly thankful for the love and support that Kristen and I have received from both of our parents, and how they are all willing to travel thousands of miles to come and visit us here in South Africa. When I sat in my parent’s living room so many years ago and watched the various slides of southern Africa roll by, I never could have imagined that one day I – a “small town kid” from Amherst Junction, Wisconsin, would be walking through the same areas. These days I am reminded that with God all things are possible, even if they do not seem probable.
While my parents are usually thousands of miles away, over the past weeks they have been sleeping under the same roof as Kristen and I. There are times that I have to pinch myself, as it often seems so strange! As I watch them move around the country meeting and greetings those whom have so gracious welcomed Kristen and I to this beautiful country, I have been thinking a great deal about the connectedness of family, which is something a great deal of South Africans consider at length. While those of us from North America do not pay much attention to “the ancestors” and all who have come before us in life, these recent experiences retracing Maynard’s footsteps alongside Kristen and my parents have reminded me that we are all products of those who have come before us, and our opportunities arise because we “stand on the shoulders” of family and friends who first paved the way. In a sense, I am beginning to believe there is no such thing as the “self made person” or the “do it yourself” individual, for we have been given opportunities, gifts, and abilities as a result of our environment and social settings. Yes, a large deal of success and happiness is based upon individual effort, but I am certainly beginning to believe that our nurture – the way that we were raised and the situations we dwell within – have a great deal of impact. While I like to believe that I have worked hard in order to “earn” the opportunities which I have been given, the reality is that they are more accurately a result of the undeserved gifts which I have received by God through my parents, those who walked this Earth before me, and of course, those whom Kristen and I are now blessed and honored to accompany.
I never would have imagined one day being able to live in South Africa, and I most certainly never would have imagined one day being able to visit where Maynard once lived. And of course, I never would have imagined that my parents would be willing to step so far out of their comfort zones to come and visit! Nevertheless, Kristen and I are here, and we have many people to thank for this amazing blessing. I thank God for our parents, the various congregations who support us through faith, as well as family and friends around the world who continue to think of us, pray for us, and encourage us in numerous ways. And of course, today I especially thank God for my Uncle Maynard. I thank God for the ways in which he – and so many others like him – did so much for so many and how he inspired others to follow his lead. And perhaps most of all, I pray that one day Kristen and I will be able to honor the blessings we have received by inspiring and supporting others just as so many others have done so for us.
As we come to a close on the year 2009 and look forward to 2010, may we all live our lives in a way that honors those whose who have come before us, and may we provide inspiration for those whom will eventually come after.
With peace and love this day and always,