MY LAST DAYS AT 5CEES
My hard goodbye to South Africa
At the start of my time in South Africa, it felt like I would be there for an eternity. I made a tally of the days I would be there, almost ninety days, which is how many my visa allowed. The beginning of my stay went by so slowly that I didn’t think much of how it would actually feel when it came close for me to go home.
When I returned from my short stint in Zambia, however, going backto the U.S. was readily on my mind. I had just a few short weeks left, and they seemed to pass at light speed. One Sunday, it occurred to me that I would be home in less than two weeks, and that brought about a mix of emotions.
I walked through Hillbrow, shrouded in safety thanks to the cloud of preschoolers that surrounded me. Zesuliwe and one of the twins held each of my hands. I wondered if they might be safer walking through Hillbrow without me.
Still, it was a Sunday morning, and even Hillbrow took it a little bit easier. Sunlight flooded in between the high rise apartments, and I thought about how I would miss some bits and pieces of Hillbrow. Yes, I probably wouldn’t miss the inconveniences and having to always be on guard, but I knew that one day in the U.S., I’d recall the tin sign in front of the nearby fish and chips stand and feel nostalgic all over.
I took a deep breath and helped the kids continue to walk while avoiding a small scatter of broken glass on the sidewalk. It was a great day. The kids and I were walking back from church, accompanied by the care mothers. All the girls were wearing bright pink. We looked like a sea of fluorescent cotton candy.
At the same time I was bursting with anticipation about seeing Deanna again, and what our lives may look like when we wouldn’t have to negotiate our relationship over an ocean’s worth of space. It would be wonderful being able to see her, hear her, and talk to her at a moments notice. It would be amazing to go on dates again and enjoy simple activities.
Some of the things that made me the most excited to return home were ultimately simple things. I thought about being able to walk outside in relative safety or being able to drive myself somewhere that I wanted to go mid day.
There would be things that made it difficult to leave and there would be things that made it easier, too. Either way, that time was rapidly approaching, and I hoped my last few days could go by as slowly as my first few days.
When the last day finally did come, it was overwhelming.
I got up and took a shower and started it the way I did most days. I went into the kitchen and said good morning to the care mothers. I was treated to one more mug full of sweetened rooibos tea and a bowl full of porridge.
The older kids were still in school, but Teacher Magret invited me to spend the daytime of my last day with her in the creche, the preschool where the youngest kids were gathered. I went in and caught them all in the middle of snack time. With me in the classroom, Teacher Magret spent more time entertaining me than the kids.
“You will have to come back!” she announced. “Next time, we may even have to go to Harare!”
“Yes, that would be nice,” I agreed.
“Are you all packed already?” she asked.
“I am. I didn’t bring very much to begin with.”
“I am so different!” she laughed. “My son and daughter are going with me on a trip in one month, and look!” She showed me a notepad listing out all the things she was planning to bring. “I’ve changed this list so many times!”
We were interrupted when at least one of the kids became noticeably gassy.
“Who was that?” Teacher Magret interrogated the class.
All the kids started to fan their hand in front of their noses as if they were trained to do this.
“Who keeps poofing?”
All the kids stared back blankly. Then Zesuliwe volunteered somebody to take the blame.
“Lesego!” she shouted softly, and slowly lifted a finger towards him.
All the kids seemed to catch on and follow suit, and everybody started either looking at him or pointing at him. Lesego, hilariously, did nothing except continue to stare ahead blankly, blinking.
“Lesego!” Teacher Magret looked at him. “Why are you not saying anything?!”
After the kids were all done with their lunch, Teacher Magret let me read to them out of one of the books. As I read, I took a visual survey of all the kids in front of me. Zesuliwe. The twins, Simphiwe and Sibusiso. The Zulu boys. I knew that these kids would all be missed a lot when I was gone. I hoped to return to see them again, but I realized that even if that were to happen, they would be much larger and quite different by that time.
I picked up the thick cardboard children’s book and started to read in cadence. The kids were fully attentive.
“We’re going on a bear hunt, going to catch a big one! We’re not afraid! We’re not scared!”
“You’re reading so slow!” teased Teacher Magret.
Later on, after class at the creche, I made my way back to my room. In the hallway, in front of me, were Lesego, Thabiso, Tsiamo, and Daddy… the Zulu Boys, just like old times. They were all in a row, and it seems that they knew I would be leaving soon. They stared at me for an extra long time before extending their thumbs.
The sight of those kids standing in a row did it. Leaving was way more difficult than I would’ve anticipated a month or two ago.
Would I ever come back here? I started to wonder to myself. Of course! There was no way I couldn’t! I thought ahead to the future.
I had no idea when or how a return trip could happen, I was out of money and had a life back in California that beckoned. Then I thought about the kids I had right in front of me… they grow up faster than I do. To me, a year isn’t very much time, but when you’re five or six, a year is a serious chunk of time. It’s funny how life works like that.
Two years– the arbitrary number popped into my head. What if I gave a return trip a shot in two years? I had no idea what my life would look like two years from that point. Maybe I would be married by then. Maybe I wouldn’t be traveling as much because of work. Maybe when that time came, it would be a refreshing break from those new routines to reawaken the parts of me that had come alive in South Africa. The parts of me that learned how to be deeply intimate with God, and how to make myself available for others.
Still, two years was a long time and not much time at all. Neo would be an adult by then. The Zulu Boys would be six to eight years old… and they’d probably speak English by then. Same with the twins. Bonani and Lindo would be nearing adulthood. If I didn’t make it back in a timely manner, I’d have trouble recognizing everybody when I did!
At the same time… South Africa is so far away, and it costs quite a good amount to get there. A return trip would take some advanced planning.
But I knew when the time came, it would have to be something I kept on my radar. It had already occurred to me that to the kids, I wasn’t an aberration from the usual. They’d seen volunteers come before, stay a little while, play with them and bond with them. Some had stayed as long as I had. Longer, even. But, it was inevitable. Eventually they’d have to go back home, and the cycle of life as usual continued for the kids. There was something sad about the thought of how often the kids had seen this happen. I wonder at what point you grow calloused, numb, or cynical to the phrase, “I’ll be back!” How many times does this promise have to be broken to lose its meaning?
I didn’t want that to be my legacy with the kids. On the outside, I kept my lips shut, avoiding those three words. I’ll be back. I avoided saying them because I knew the resolve I had on the inside was strong. I would do everything I could to make a return trip. I wondered how often people had made good on that promise in the past. Perhaps a return trip may even be more meaningful than the first. Especially with all that I learned about being a presence for others while at 5Cees.
Presence can’t be a one time thing or an empty sentiment. It’s got to be backed up with action.
Pastor Mike and I had one final conversation to debrief my time at the center.
“I really hope you got something out of your time here,” he told me. “I hope it wasn’t a waste of your time.”
I came to South Africa thinking it would be the first stop in a series of travels as I figured out how to rid the world of human trafficking or extreme poverty or some other major human rights crisis. I hit a wall instantly when I realized it was hard enough for me to take care of myself, let alone millions of others. But spending time with the kids made me realize that helping others isn’t meant to be a dramatically heroic act. More often than not, people who attempt to play savior only end up making more of a mess of things.
Instead, I realized how important it was for people to have other people in their lives that help them become better people. It was both enlightening and frustratingly simple. Real change happens slowly, so slowly. Sometimes I wish that all it took was bursting down the door of a brothel to free a kid from sex trafficking, or sending a kid to a good orphanage to make sure they had a proper childhood. But the traumas and scars and damages from being abused, from losing parents, from being around crime and gangs constantly go deep. It takes much longer for that sort of rescue, that sort of healing to take place. It takes a lifetime’s worth of patience. And, ultimately, it takes presence. There’s no real substitution for that.
I started to explain some of this to Pastor Mike. I told him that my time in Johannesburg made me realize that no matter where I ended up, being present was the best thing I could offer people. I knew that I wanted to constantly look for ways to be present for people throughout my life. In hearing myself say this, I realized I was ready to return to the U.S. to put some of this into practice, or at least to figure out how to do so.
Pastor Mike seemed convinced, even though I’m sure he was only able to follow a portion of what I excitedly conveyed to him. He offered to pray for me, and he ended this prayer as he always did, with his signature closing, a slow and deliberate, “Amen… Amen.”
In the evening, Robert took me to O.R. Tambo International Airport. Although I continued to avoid saying those words, “I’ll be back,” the kids pretty much did it for me.
“You must come back! You must!”
I’ll always love the way they speak in strong statements.
“I’ll miss you,” sent off Margaret.
Solomon and Lindo walked with me out to my car, and each gave me a big hug before I got in.
On the way out, I took one last look at the lights of Hillbrow. That was some experience.