I am ready for a Northern Irish Christmas.
This past week, my little head has been busy conspiring and has therefore filled up with thoughts of family, friends and unashamed Christmas songs blaring merrily from those outdoor speakers which are installed – or at least, brought into use – annually in Portadown town centre. Granted, Portadown town centre isn’t maybe the first place one might dream about when living at the bottom of the world and presently sitting indoors to escape the 30oC heat.
Last weekend, I hit a wee wall. Not a big wall. Just the type of wall that persuaded me to stay indoors for the weekend – it was raining at the time, don’t worry, I’m not that negligent of this dandy sunshine state – and refuse to see people. Annette and I had gone to the cinema on the Friday night for some light escapism. Annette chose a nice film. Very nice. Its name? ‘Prisoners’. After 12 days straight of being in prison, we went to see ‘Prisoners’. I’d recommend the film (though Hugh Jackman has most definitely moved on from Jean Valjean) but it is not light escapism. It’s really rather creepy and then we drove home in the middle of a (wondrous) thunder and lightning storm.
Please don’t get me wrong. I keep waking up out of dreams in which I’m back home, and every time I dream those dreams, I feel very cheated to be home so soon and so far away from this country, at that. But I think my head has tuned itself into the fact that my time here is drawing to an end, and it’s been preparing me for the journey home. So maybe getting excited about a Northern Irish Christmas is the best way to adjust to no longer being among the sheer wonders of this land. Regardless, this has been a spiel, so I’ll move on to more tangible tales.
On Sunday, I travelled with Janina and her husband to a Black township called Samora Machel. I haven’t told you about this place before, and I really ought to have. Samora Machel is a large Black township located about a 10 minute drive from the rehab in Mitchell’s Plain. Janina and I first visited Samora in September, during our 3 day ‘getaway’, and went along to a cell group (Bible study) held on a Saturday morning. This cell group had been started a few years ago when it was held in a shack. I’m told that, some days the rain battered the shack so hard while the group met, that the people had to shout above the noise. Today, though, the group meets in the Tsoga Centre. The Tsoga Environmental Education Centre is quite a lot more than a building. Built in 2009 through donations, the Tsoga centre actually sat in a state of abandonment for 3 years – reportedly being used by tik addicts. Today, though, there is no evidence of such misuse.
There is a straight road through Samora Machel. Lining the road are shack upon shack; shebeen upon shebeen, and litter abounding. That day in September, the cell group decided against sitting in a little room and praying about their community, and rather walked around their community praying about their community. Janina and I walked along with two lovely Black men – one of whom is called Mzi. Pronounced ‘Mmm-Zee’, this man is a sheer delight. On two out of the three occasions I’ve met him, he’s donned a fantastically bright yellow blazer, and on three out of three of these occasions, I’ve told him never to stop wearing that very blazer. Samora Machel, itself, does not appear to be a bright or potential-filled place. Walking around as the only two White girls, seeing men lazily strewn along street corners and women busy with babies aplenty, bound by blankets to their backs, it was a little difficult to acknowledge God’s presence in that place. But seeing Mzi’s blazer – as simple a motif as it is – and the brilliance of his smile and energy, it was evident that love actually is everywhere. (To unashamedly quote one of the ultimate Christmas movies – thank you, Hugh Grant.) In coalition with Mzi’s yellow blazer, the aforementioned Tsoga Centre is spectacular. It’s state of the art. It’s just across the road from the stacks of shacks, and it stands out like the best sore thumb that ever was. Walking inside, there is a dance studio to your left – one that I only wish my best, entrepreneur/top dancer on the globe, friend could hold classes in – and right in front of you is a large hall, wooden-floored and walled with beautiful rustic red-bricks, with separate little glass-fronted rooms running off from the sides. About a month ago, I had the absolute privilege of attending Mzi’s birthday party, and we sat in this hall while local singers stood at the front – complete with microphone and speakers – and sang, rapped and wished Mzi a happy birthday in innumerable shapes and forms. (This also included some interpretive dancing on a platform up above us.) Why I failed to mention this cultured celebration before now, baffles me. I apologise. On Sunday, a church based in Cape Town named LifeChurch, held a service in this very building. The pastor spoke, and a local translated each word into Xhosa. White and Black merged and praised.
This week wasn’t so prison-filled, and I think God made it that way. On Monday, I slept in until 11am – I had completely and utterly conked out, much to the shock of Janina when she knocked on my door at that time, enquiring as to whether or not I’d be joining them presently in the car to prison. Germans just don’t do ‘sleeping in.’ I’m pretty sure it’s an unfathomable concept to the German mind. Even after a relatively quiet weekend, I think my body had had just enough. Tuesday was my allocated day to teach my very own lesson in prison. I had prepared. I was ready. Tuesday morning came, however, and prison was ‘cancelled’ due to a search being held. I didn’t complain too much, and I’m very sure there’ll be another opportunity to teach before my time’s up.
Wednesday and Thursday were spent at the rehab at Mount Hope. I hadn’t been there in a few weeks due to my visits to the Worcester women, but it was good to be back. Janina had appointments on Wednesday evening, so I stayed at the new and improved girls’ house that night. The girls have moved out of their former house to another one, just a few houses down the road, closer to the rehab where the boys stay. They now have a swimming pool in their front garden, but alack and alas, it’s filled with not-so-easily-identifiable objects and murky water.
While I was helping to fold a wild amount of bedding at the rehab yesterday – for reasons yet unclear to my fellow-folders and I – a new girl arrived at the rehab. She sat quietly folding alongside me and I became increasingly aware that I really ought to introduce myself. I edged a little closer with my pillow cases, and before I could start, she asked me:
“How long have you been here?”
As tempted as I was to conjure up some long-winded backstory to my being at the rehab, I decided that that was neither helpful or very nice at all, so I explained where I was from, and that I was not indeed actually a struggling addict. Her face dropped a little. She told me that she had a two year old boy, and wouldn’t be allowed to see him again until the end of the month. She also explained that she’d wanted to smoke her last cigarette before being admitted to the rehab, but her mother hadn’t bought her a packet as she had requested. I was a little lost for words to string together. The rehab isn’t an easy place to be. But then again, rehabilitation isn’t easy, either. The minimum stay for a recovering addict is six months. There are strict rules. But I’m quite sure that she can make it. And given that the other three girls are currently completing their time at the rehab, and even have jobs at this stage, there are encouraging stories aplenty.
On Wednesday night, I was asked to take the ‘life session’ with the three girls currently living in the house. Given that I had escaped teaching my prison lesson thus far, I shared a little segment of it with the girls – it’s that same little fraction of Habakkuk. As well as that, I realised that girls are girls, and girls like to share their little hearts and stories with each other. I may not be an addict, but I have at least one thing in common with these girls: relationships. Girls are so very relational. We define ourselves a little too often by our relationships with others – not only with members of the opposite gender, but with friends and family, too. We find it difficult to stand alone. So I shared a little bit of my experience, my story, my relationships and how I came to be in South Africa; how my relationships inadvertently paved a little path to South Africa.
Sharing your story is humbling. The concept of ‘having a story’ is often an odd one. I probably haven’t ever been asked what ‘my story’ is quite as often as I have in the past few months. At home, we meet new acquaintances, and as quickly as we’ve met them, we’ve befriended them online and are left to read their ‘stories’ ourselves, if we wish – in the comfort of our own homes, in front of our computer screens. (Actually, why wait? We can even read them on our phone screens, while sitting in front of our new acquaintances. I present to you the creepiness of having Facebook on one’s phone.) And, perhaps it’s down to the fact that we know most of the stories of those we see every day. While I’ve been here, I’ve been on my own. I came to South Africa alone. As an individual. It has been one of the most surreal times. When I travelled overseas before, I went with people – whether it was one or two, or a whole group – and could thus define myself through them. Even when I went to Scotland, Joanna and I sort of came as a package – despite studying at different universities, people would often be baffled if only one of us showed up somewhere; the majority of the time, I was also called ‘Joanna’ and Joanna, ‘Zara’, as it reached the stage where it didn’t really matter. The long and short of it being, when I came to South Africa, I was expected to stand on my own two feet, and people didn’t actually have any knowledge of who I was or what my life had consisted of before now.
Sharing with the girls, then, was really special. And girls definitely appreciate each other’s ‘stories’. (When’s the last time you walked into Starbucks and the majority of tables were filled by men catching up with each other’s lives? Women like to talk. I’m not trying to start a war – men have stories to tell, too, and tell, they should. But I do think that History demonstrates the public platform on which men have been able to tell their stories; maybe women just favour their quiter, private platforms, within the intimacy of coffee shops, living rooms, and telephone wires.)
Today is a quare day. Today the countdown begins.
It’s officially 7 days until the Porter family land in South Africa. And I could not be more excited for the loveliness that shall ensue.
Until then, I really ought to make the most of my last few days in prison. And I promise to tell lots more stories as these last little days progress. And I also must promise myself that when those dreams of being back in Northern Ireland soon become a reality, I won’t feel that my time here was wasted. Thank you for following me this far and for shrouding me in prayer. Here’s to the final 20 days of South Africa!