A return to South Africa, three years after a life-changing visit

This goes beyond the fact that I’m now reunited with one of the world’s most underrated cuisines and can now enjoy easy access to pap and wors, peri peri chicken, and biltong. I’m thrilled to be back because this place helped me learn some of the most valuable lessons in my life.

Three years ago, I came as a volunteer at a care home for orphans and vulnerable children, right in the middle of one of Central Johannesburg’s roughest neighborhoods. A couple things really stood out to me the last time that I was here.

The first was that Central Johannesburg had a really seedy reputation that locals were all too eager to blame on the Nigerian gangs and drug dealers that had set up camp in the area. In many instances, the reputation was earned. I heard stories of not just wallets being stolen, but entire buildings being hijacked. I also heard about horrible things happening to young girls as young as six or seven.

Needless to say, if it was an area unsafe for locals, it wouldn’t be ideal for me to go out and wander. That kept me cooped up a lot.

That made me realize a second thing- time went by, oh so slowly. I’m way more accustomed to complaining about time moving too fast and there being not enough time to do everything, but suddenly I had an influx of it. I also had limited internet access and little ability to communicate with Deanna, who I had been just dating at that time for a little under a year. That made my countdown to when I would be able to see her move at a snail’s pace.

That environment turned the center into a monastery for me. Without the ability to go out much, and with massive amounts of open time during the day, I began to practice various methods of prayer and meditation. When the kids got home, I saw that as my opportunity to turn those spiritual exercises into something tangible, and I spent a lot of time and bonded with all of them, from the four young boys who were new to the center, always playing outside my hallway, to Neo, Lindo, Margaret, Bonani, and all of the older teenagers.

I wondered about the kids growing up in such an environment and realized the many negative influences around. The battle for a more positive future hinged on there being a strong influence for positivity that was even more encompassing.

Through all of that, I learned a really valuable lesson. How to be present, and how being a presence is the most important thing you can do for somebody, no matter who you are.


Deanna and I arrived in Johannesburg on a Friday morning. Since we got married, I knew that one of the things I really wanted for us to do as a couple would be to take a trip to Johannesburg, and to introduce her to the kids and the staff of the care center.

I’m a strong believer in this- when you have a strong experience that so profoundly changes you, whether that’s a trip or a new belief or a volunteer project, it’s important to invite the main person in your life into that. It might not be the same experience for them that it was for you, but it allows them to see the thing that changed you and to understand that change. Is it expensive sometimes? Sure. But it’s also costly to drift apart as a couple as each other evolves.

Thanks to my support from the University of Oregon and Deanna’s job allowing her to take some time off this early in the year, we were able to make it happen this year.

Ever since I left South Africa the last time, I knew a return trip was imminent. Still, it had been three years. I could only imagine all the changes. Some kids had left the center. The four new four-year old boys were now seven and a whole lot more grown up.

We arrived at the center to quite a welcome. We were greeted by its director, Pastor Mike, and his wife and daughter-in-law. They helped us get situated in a set of newly renovated visitor flats, and shortly after settling in, we took to playing with the kids.

The center was much larger than it looked from the outside, and just like old times, the courtyard in the middle seemed to be the axis around which most activities and playtime revolved. Some of the older ones were kicking around a soccer ball, playing some variation of monkey in the middle. They were Napo, Solomon, and Sifundo, three of the boys I had came to know the last time, all looking a little bit more vertically stretched out.

Deanna’s job as a child therapist really allowed her to tap into the world of the younger kids more easily than most. Throughout her stay there, we did art therapy exercises with them, and through the process, we got to hear more than a few of their stories.

“When my brother died,” a girl explained a drawing, “me, my sister, and grandma were really sad. Then I wrote a poem. I still felt sad, but my sister and grandma were happier after reading it.”

Things have changed a fair amount since I was last in South Africa, and the changes continue to surprise me. In just a matter of three years, its become way easier to get around. Even though the country’s economy has drastically worsened around that time, living there seems much easier this time around.

Technology helps. A lot. The care center now has wi-fi, and while it isn’t very good wi-fi, it makes it far more easy for me to get around. And there’s Uber. It’s nice to have in the U.S., but it’s a total blessing in a country where before, there wasn’t much of a public transport method of getting around. That’s allowed me to take Deanna to some more fun parts of the city while she’s been here. Zoo Lake. The Sunday Market. Also, I’m no longer in-between jobs, and have a little more of an income that I can use to fuel things like Uber rides and outings.

It’s clear that if things were like this the last time I was here, I would have had a very different experience. I would have probably gone out more, and met more people in the area. I would’ve found numerous things to do around town.

As much fun as that would’ve been, I’m glad my experience then was what it was. It helped me to learn some really valuable things.

And I’m glad that by the time those things were available, it was in time for my next visit, with Deanna. That allowed it to be a smoother experience for her. Within our first 24 hours here, I had done a round of groceries, gotten settled into a room, secured wi-fi access, and gone out to eat around town. Last time, that took me close to two weeks.

Some more of the big changes around the center revolve around its personnel. Many of the kids who were here last time have grown up and aged out of the center, or have moved out to live with relatives. A lot of the staff from the last time have moved on as well, taking on different jobs. Instead, I’ve been introduced to a lot of new people working here, many of whom I’ve bonded with.

It’s been a reminder of how much can change in three years.

Of course, I’m the one coming back three years later as a married man, taking my wife along with me. And three years ago, I was all about the constant need to see new places. Coming back represents yet another change.


Time flies. That’s been one of the most obvious things from this past visit. At times I can sit in the courtyard, watching the pink walls, feeling as if I had transported back in time three years. Then one of the kids will walk by reminding me that this isn’t the case.

Bonani is now the oldest guys at the center. He’s been here for many years. He’s still around the same height as he was around the time I saw him last, maybe just a couple inches taller. But, he’s somehow managed to really bulk up. I asked him about it and he cited rugby as the reason behind his new frame.

Of course, him being the oldest guy means that some of my other buddies had grown up and aged out of the center. While I was thrilled that they’d gained some independence, I was also a bit sad that I wouldn’t get to see them.

Then, a few days ago, I walked out into the center’s courtyard and found Lindo.

Three years ago, when I was asked to supervise homework and study time, Lindo put more effort into getting out of work than it would have taken for him to actually do the work. That was totally my style back then, so I took an instant liking to him. “Don’t you worry!” he would always tell me. “I am going to do fine,” he reassured me whenever I would remind him of the consequences of not studying.

I invited him into my guest flat for some tea, and we wound up talking for a few hours.

He moved out of the center last January and had secured an internship. He had swung by the center to pick up some paperwork.

“It’s tough man,” he told me about the new internship. “I’ve got to take a taxi all the way from where I’m living, then switch and take another taxi over to Parktown, and then the work is just getting started. But it’s what I have to do to be closer to getting a job.”

We continued to talk for hours about all that’s changed. He told me about what the other guys who had left the center were up to nowadays. He asked me questions about being married and I did my best to answer them.

He then told me the story of how he got robbed a year ago.

“These guys came up to me and I saw they had a knife. I told them that they were not going to rob me. I told them this. You can stab me but you are not going to kill me.”

“That sounds like a line from a movie,” I told him, knowing he had the tendency to exaggerate.

He rolled up his sleeve and showed me his large scar. The knife went all the way through. There are some things you can’t exaggerate.

I told him that he now owed me a visit in the U.S..

“Don’t you worry, I’m coming,” he assured. Lindo, the eternal optimist. “Next year.”

Then he added, “maybe two more years. It takes a while to get a passport and to save.”

Optimism, chased with a little bit of pragmatism. Things change in three years.


I knew there must have been many instances where people would visit the center once, have a life changing experience, and leave never to return. In my case, my life changing experience was about learning the value of presence, so it would be pretty terrible not to return.

I had hoped to do so sooner rather than later, knowing that kids grow up fast. But it takes a lot of time and money to get from the U.S. to South Africa, so it had to be three years.

I know myself well enough to know that there will always be a part of me always on the lookout for the next adventure, in search of newness and discovery. But along the way, I’ve come to value faithfulness just as much. Return trips are now more important to me than they’ve ever been before.

I suppose a lot really does change in three years worth of time.

Philippe Lazaro2016, 5Cees