Report from South Africa

by Heidi Sturdy

September, 1991

“Saubona!” This greeting is a Zulu saying meaning “I see you!” The women would yell this across the fields as they saw one another walking. They would continue to yell conversation to each other from yards away, usually with their bundles on their heads. It would be unusual for them to walk to each other because that would take them off their course. So, as they walked, they talked, and then when they were almost out of sight, they would again yell, “Saubona!” meaning, “I see you!”

To think back on my trip, it hardly seems real. For the longest time it was just a blur, a dream. Now that I’ve had time to reflect and bring myself back to reality, I realize more and more what an incredible country South Africa is. I would like to take a little time to tell you about the people and places that I saw.

Generally speaking, the people were warm and welcoming. They all asked what we Americans were doing in their country and what we had seen and what we were doing, considering that we were not on “holiday.” The days all began quite early. There was only one day on which we were not up before 6:30 am and we would be in meetings until about 8:00 pm each night. That wouldn’t have been so bad if, after the meetings, we ate dinner and went to bed, but bed usually came around midnight or later, especially for the girls because we would stay up to talk and laugh until the early morning hours.

We spent three nights in the black township of Mamalodi with various families. Cathie Weborg and I stayed with the Kabinde family. The family consisted of mother, father, and four children. They considered themselves to be poor, but they were better off than some of the other families in the township. They had three bedrooms, a bath (with hot water), and a toilet We were lucky to have a family with those “comforts.”

We stayed up late talking with our wonderful family. They were interested in what America was like; if we could get their oldest daughter, Martha, a scholarship for a school in the States; what we thought of our government; and how we viewed South Africa. One night after Cathie and I got “home” from a day of meetings, Henry and Elizabeth (the parents) and Ntombi, the youngest daughter of seven, wanted us to go visit some of their friends. First, we went to the home of one of their neighbors. When Henry had told them that he had two white American girls staying in his home, eating his food, and drinking from his glasses, they wouldn’t/couldn’t believe him. They told him that they wanted to see this “amazing” thing for themselves.

It was about nine o’clock in the evening when we finally went to their home. It was a small white-washed house with no indoor plumbing and with cardboard separating the bedroom from the living room. There we met two sweet older people and a few grandkids. We went to shake their hands, and the man wouldn’t look me in the eyes. At first, I didn’t understand because, in my values, he is my elder and to be respected. Yet in his eyes, even though he was more than forty years my senior, I was white, therefore, he was not to look me in the eyes. Each time he laughed he covered his face in embarrassment. When we drank from his glasses, he watched. every sip we drank. It was incredible.

I asked him if I could take a picture with him. When he said yes, I sat down and put my arm around him. After the picture was taken, he had tears in his eyes, and he asked Henry in his language, “How is it that I am blessed enough for a white to come into my home, drink from my glass, put her arm around me, and treat me like a human?” Here I was, in this dear man’s house, and he says he was blessed! Let me tell you, the blessing went both ways! The grace of this man overwhelmed me. I will never forget what his face looked like when he was saying that.

Then came a definite reality check. We left that home and began to walk to the home of some fellow church members. As we were walking, Henry said that it was a little too late to be walking the streets but that he felt more safe with his wife with him. Then he looked at Cathie and me and said, “Well, if we get any trouble, just tell them that you have a gun.” Both Cathie and I thought he was joking. We were about to laugh when he continued in a most serious tone, “They’ll believe you. Everyone in Mamalodi believes that the whites all carry guns.” I stopped, shook my head knowing that there was no way that I could ever carry a gun. What kind of country thinks that every white carries a gun? This one, I thought, and we continued to walk—in silence.

We also spent one evening in Johannesburg with a woman from America who is in South Africa for a year, working with the homeless children. The homeless children are all male and black. They are cold and hungry, and most have lice and/or scabies. Ann and I were the only ones who wanted to walk the streets with Amy, the woman from the States. We met many homeless boys, two of whom stick out in my mind, probably because they stuck to us like glue. They constantly wanted to be hugged and talked to. They kept asking us to take them back to America with us. They, like the other boys, are addicted to glue. They take empty plastic orange juice bottles, fill them with shoe glue, and inhale to get high. Being high makes them less hungry and cold, but it provokes many more fights. Especially about blankets.

Sepo and Leon, the two boys who followed us around, asked Ann and me if we knew Jesus. “Yes,” we replied. They then said that Amy told them about Jesus and that they thought they knew him, but they didn’t understand why this was happening to them if there was a Jesus. Sepo then said, “If Jesus comes back, he will come to the streets like us. Amy says that Jesus helps the poor and hungry, so he will come and help us.” Even in a terribly oppressed eight-year-old, the faith in Jesus is overwhelming.

There is so much more to tell, different stories, different scenes, different people. Unfortunately, that would take a life time for me to tell. I think of different and new things every day. One thing I can assure you of—this trip was something that I will never forget. The mixture of pain, confusion, compassion, and, most of all, love will never leave my soul. In the beauty of the country and the beauty of the faces, I saw the beauty of my friends who helped me make this trip!