South Africa is a place of extremes. Extreme poverty. Pervasive sickness. High crime rates. High unemployment. Despair and sadness are constant companions. They lie in wait, always lurking, waiting for the moment when tragedy strikes or when things go wrong.
But beyond the despair and the tragedy, always present, always strong, fierce, and beautiful, is love. Love is what sustains those whose suffer. Love is what gives people the will to live, to fight. Love keeps despair at bay, and hope alive.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Never before has this verse from Corinthians resonated so much but here and now, as I am in the middle of a second year volunteering in South Africa. Love, in its infinite forms, is all around, always.
Love is patient for those who lie in beds day after day in the respite unit at the Hillcrest Aids Centre. As they fight off disease and infection, separated from their love ones. As they wait in endless queues in overcrowded hospitals and clinics in order to see a doctor, or collect a prescription. As they take medication with such severe side effects that they will feel sicker for months before they start to heal. This is patience. The will to stay alive, to battle for life, for those you love, and a life you love.
Love is kind when these patients receive treatment and compassion from the respite’s hardworking and vivacious care workers. They alleviate aches and pains. They listen to stories, and ease fears. They comfort and console -their kindness is endless. They treat their patients with respect and love: laugh with them, cry with them, touch them and hold them when others are afraid to. They heal bodies and souls.
Love does not boast or envy for the teachers at St. Leo Primary School. Teachers like Mrs. Themba, Mrs. Maduna, and Miss Mthethwa always go above and beyond for their students. Inquiring about issues at homes, making sure they are healthy and taken care of. They do all this without incentive, without being asked, or paid overtime. They take time away from their own children and families to ensure that their students have what they need. They are loving, caring teachers, who do far more that what their jobs require, and ask for little in return – simply that their students grow up to be healthy and happy.
Love is not rude or self seeking when living in a supportive community. As Augustinian volunteers, Jenn, Katie, and I are committed to living in community. We must always live and make decisions with one another in mind. We share with each other our thoughts, feelings, happy and sad moments alike. We invest in one another and care for one another. We try our best not to be selfish, but to be open and present. When we succeed in doing so, we better understand our experiences here, and become more valuable to the people we serve.
Love is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs for the South African citizens who have embraced equality and shunned discrimination in order to work towards a peaceful and united future. Times may be tense and tumultuous now and again, but progress is made everyday. There are many who were once victimized but refuse to be weighed down with anger and resentment. Instead, they embrace positive change and live with hope for tomorrow.
Love always trusts, hopes, and preserves for the children of St. Leo’s and the boys of St. Theresa’s home. They are young and innocent. That is not to say that their lives have not been touched by tragedy, because most of them have endured unimaginable hardships already. The physical and emotional toll is heavy, yet they are still eager, spirited children. Many are able to laugh and play despite their struggles. They are sweet and affectionate; they crave love and attention more that anything, and for that reason, I have a real purpose here. They have hopes and dreams: to be a nurse, a social worker, a businessman, a solider, and a pilot. They are hopeful, energetic, and inspiring individuals.
Thus, although a year of volunteer work in South Africa will inevitably be marked by moments of sadness and despair, what truly shines through is the love and the hope that surfaces in spite of it all.
South Africa 2009