She came to church during our after-school program on Wednesday. Her head hung so low, it was almost dragging on the dry, winter dust. The baby on her back almost overpowered her fragile body that is buckling under debilitating illness. She came because she was desperate.
In her own language, she shared with our local volunteers that she’s at rock bottom. There’s no money, no food, no family, no health, no home, and absolutely no hope. Her name is Zihle.
We praised her for coming to our family when she needed help. We invited her to stay, and to come back. And then I broke the rules in a culture where sickness infests with shame and eye contact is disrespectful. I put my hand on her sorrow-filled face that has been overcome with a condition that her body cannot fight off, and I said, “Let me see you.” I brought her eyes right by mine. And I said, “You are beautiful.”
And she broke. She cried that messy, snotty, uncontrollable cry.
She cried, and she stayed. Slowly, as she fed her child and as she watched the other children dance and play freely, beautiful Zihle’s head rose higher and higher.
The next day, we sat outside of the tiny, rented room that she had just been displaced to, along with her baby and her sister. Beautiful Zihle wept and she shared her story of being a perpetually homeless orphan whose body betrays her youth. Her greatest dream is to bring her 8-year old son home from his father’s because his father is a dangerous, abusive alcoholic. She just can’t make the journey alone due to her weak condition.
No food, no bed, nothing to stay warm for the winter, nothing to cook with, and nothing to cook… but mama wants her baby home safely.
She does not cry for her health, her hunger or her hard-knock life.
Africa cries for the family to be together.
Sunday morning, I greeted Ruth at church as usual. I look forward to this strong African queen’s powerful smile every week. Again, breaking through cultural norms, she looked into my eyes with every ounce of her. Her strong jaw quivered, and her eyes filled the moment our eyes met.
Without hesitating and without proper greeting, she said, “Kacy, my sister’s baby passed away at 6am. She was two days old.”
Speechless. She still came for church and for Sunday Lunch because she needed to share it. She brought her nephew, the big brother of that lost little sister. We watched that gentle little boy create weapons with sticks and pulverize anything in his path in the Sunday Lunch yard.
She is not looking for sympathy, handouts or a solution.
Africa cries for our family together.
As strong Ruth, encouraged just by being in the safe embrace of Sunday Lunch, helped the other mothers serve the meal that day, I notice sweet Esther separating herself at a picnic table. Esther typically has 3 babies tied to her body and/or in her arms, plus one 12-year old son. With sickness and physical disability, no family to support her yet so much family for her to support, Esther is often overwhelmed and shut down.
This time is different though. This isn’t blank-faced, checked out Esther. This is sweet, sweet Esther openly weeping. Tears I’ve never seen stream down her weary face.
She called Ruth over to help translate, and the women explained that Wandile was the source her consuming grief. This undersized, angel-faced boy is riddled with anger and has seen more in his life than I think I could ever fathom.
His bitterness is toxic and is breaking the already fragile will of his mother. Wandile is not ready to be the man of the household, yet he always has been… and has 3 underdeveloped babies and a sick mama. He’s demanding “his portion” of the meager monthly stipend Esther receives and showering her with condemnation. He recently wrote his mother the most cruel hate letter that his little broken heart could concoct.
Esther was starving to the point of being hospitalized with her infant in January and overwhelmed to the point of wanting to surrender her children to social services just months ago. But in those moments where so many lives were in danger and so many broken parts were surfacing, she never shed a tear. She bore those burdens like the rest of Africa does.
That day and that letter left Esther doubled over with tears streaming.
She is not broken by the unbearable daily burdens.
Africa cries for her family to be whole.
Those tears are the real Africa. And they are you and me.
Those are the tears of the Father, the ones that will be wiped away soon.
It’s become normal for me to walk into unfathomable depravity, indescribable desperation, and insurmountable need. It’s life for so many here and all around the world. People learn to live without food, without warmth in the winter, without health.
Death is a part of life here. The funeral industry is one of the most prominent businesses. Survival tactics replace coping skill. Tears are not part of the equation. There’s no time or space to break, or you might not be able to keep going.
But there were so many tears this week.
I believe those tears came because, somehow, someway, the Way, the Truth and the Life broke through the unbreakable in these women. They came into the presence of His Family, and wept the same tears the Father weeps.
The circumstances are fleeting. But the Family is forever.
There is so much more to beautiful Zihle, strong Ruth, and sweet Esther’s stories. I’ll try to fill you in soon. But all of them smiled at the end of their tears. All of them were able to grab onto something greater than themselves after they released those tears. All of them came to our next after-school program to participate and serve in a Family that is bigger and goes beyond their circumstances.
Africa does not cry because of her circumstances. She cries for her Family.