Looking back on 2009, I’m unquestionably drawn to my most memorable experience of the year, and one of the most important of my life. More than just recall it, I’m trying to figure out, months later and on the verge of a brand new year, what it is that I actually learned from it.
It would be easy to tell you that I learned a great many things in South Africa. That I had opened myself up to goodness and realizations. That I had become a better person for having been there.
I want to tell you that because it seems the right thing to say. It’s the expected conclusion; the polite transference of an experience from one person to others who may or may not have a similar experience. I want to tell you that what’s been done has filled me, but the effect has been the opposite: I have realized that, in many ways, I am empty.
Or, rather, I’ve been made aware of just how much space there is within me to be filled.
I’m a teacup of water that finds myself poured into the sea. A birthday balloon slipped from the wrist and twirled into the fullness of the sky. I’m the combined glory, the mixed blessing, of a single grain of sand that’s suddenly found itself offered a return to the beach. One in an infinite assembly. No more. No less.
What I want to tell you is that I am not the same, but I am not distinctly better. I am different, but not necessarily improved. I will only be better, I will only be improved, if I do more.
I have a responsibility now, and with the opening of this door a potential pact is made. You can look through and convince yourself that you know what’s on the other side and continue to live your life as you always have, or you can walk through and actually discover it.
The first option guarantees a safe return; the latter… well, that is the trade-off that must be made. True ignorance may be bliss, but to attempt to reclaim ignorance is an intentional evil. I cannot pretend to not feel what I have felt. I cannot shrink into a shell and pretend to not have seen what I have seen. If I want to look into my own eyes in the mirror until the end of my days, I must honour the truths I’ve been handed.
I must do more, and I must ask you to do the same.
These people have given me far more than I could ever have given them. I have so much, and yet in many ways I have nothing. According to common logic on my side of the planet, many people in South Africa have “little.” Yet, in reality; in experience; in purity of purpose; in an authentic understanding of joy; in an honest struggle to thrive despite being given so few reasons to be able to; they have infinitely more than I do.
Too often we count our worth through the materials we hold and horde. They, without materials, express their love in kindnesses. In honour and recognition. In sincerity. In a reluctant hope and a noble, personal type of joy.
Our true meaning simply cannot be held in our hands. Now I fully understand the reality of being “spoiled.” The focus is not on the fact that something has turned bad, but in that it once was good. The tragedy is in all the potential that was never realized. It’s not the intent that was spoiled, but its possibility. It’s not a loss of the present, but of the future.
They’ve shown me the beauty of small mercies. I remember six hungry workers, nestled in the shade around bowls of grain and one large bottle of Orange Fanta, who with only enough for themselves and despite their hard-earned hunger would not hesitate to offer me something to eat.
They’ve show me the weight of the smallest joys. Ostensibly inconsequential to many people I know, but to these children an experience of joy: the amazement of hunting small mouth-blown bubbles. Glimmering spheres of light bobbing in the thick African sun, captured and then freed with a tiny plastic paddle from jars the colour of candy.
After a day’s voluntary work we’d pass small bags of Jelly Tots into their hands. Then would come the moment of resistance, the expression that says “is this really for me?” before turning to run away and deliciously rip into their prize. Each piece was examined and valued, turned between two tiny fingers, held up to the light and inspected like a jewel, before being almost ceremoniously placed into the mouth and then slowly savoured.
This is the power of a packet of candy.
And this is something we’ve forgotten. We don’t teach this to our children. And when we grow up we have long since forgotten it.
The power of water, cradled in ice and preserved in a bottle. To pass one of these vessels on, to a woman who normally must travel, then pump, then lift and carry it home, usually upon her head, is not anything as arrogant as a gift to her but a burden to me. She walks a mile and takes 50 pounds home; I turn a faucet. The physical weight may be hers, but the heavy realization of the imbalance in our world is mine. Then to see her face, proud and upturned, and to see her drink, quickly, on a day so hot and dry that water tastes as sweet as honey, is more of a joy to me than any gift that’s ever been placed into my hand. Her “thank you” humbles me.
For Eunice, a mother of three and a bedrock of strength, who, despite my soft hands and weak back and obvious lack of skill, left her work to not only show me how to do mine, but in the process of teaching me completed my task for me. Digging a hole, a seemingly rudimentary task, into the rock-hard soil: after my two hours and six inches, Eunice, in a flourish, showed me how to break and remove the last two feet in about fifteen minutes. Requiring nothing, in exchange for nothing more than a smile and the look of bafflement on my face, she returned to her building. The fact that my resulting celebration of her and mockery of myself meant so much to her is a clear testament to the fact that glory grows differently there.
For Nelson, the quickest kid in town. Fourteen years old but looked eleven. The first to lift a sandbag, unafraid of ridicule or mockery from his friends for being the first to talk to us. The joker. A kid with an undeniable intelligence that transcends language.
When I asked his name, he said, “I am Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa.” Fearlessly, he stuck to it.
Later on, “No, really, what is your name?”
Smiling, “I am Nelson Mandela.”
And so Nelson it was.
Nelson worked tirelessly, each day, always smiling. He could not be deterred. Proclaiming himself as the former President of South Africa was about the extent of his English. Somehow, he had that line down perfectly but any other kind of conversation didn’t seem to work. And so a new method of communication was found: a nod to signal the passing of a new sand bag; pointing around to determine where his house was; fingers and hands to calculate his age; and, perhaps the most important of all, the silence. The purity and power of quiet, agreed-upon work. No words at all.
The last day I had a child’s soccer jersey, maple leaf-red and shocking white, with “CANADA” emblazoned across the front. I took it to him and said, “This is thank you.”
Pointing around; to the sun, the sand, the brush and mountains and lemon trees; to the cattle paths and brick huts and wisps of cloth caught in the reeds; to the long, dry, horizon; the harsh beauty of South Africa; I pointed around and said “South Africa, you live here.”
I looked into his eyes, pointing to the jersey, “Canada. I live here.” He nodded, and holding the jersey to my chest I passed it over to his. And that was all.
Finally, we must do more for us. Because when one person suffers, when any one of us is impoverished or unhealthy or forgotten, we are all diminished. Our light dims.
There is one thing I know that I have learned: as Anne Michaels said in her novel Fugitive Pieces, “I know now that I must give what I most need.”
Love. Compassion. Acknowledgment. Health. Safety. We can never truly experience these while they are denied to others. If we do nothing, we harm ourselves equally. For what we give them we give to ourselves, and what we deny them we deny ourselves.
The last day, packing up the trucks to leave, Nelson and his band of compatriots were standing on the side of the road like every other day: waiting to wave and stand in the road, watching us watch them until both of us descend under the dusty hills into a fog of truck trails.
I hugged him and, shaking my head back and forth, said, “This is our last day. We won’t be here tomorrow.”
Grinning, always grinning, he nodded and said “Yes, tomorrow.”
“No, we won’t be back here tomorrow. We fly away…” The flat palm of my hand ascending into the sky and pointing up. As if my hand gesture could explain to him the meaning of a plane when he’s scarcely ever been inside a truck.
The thought that Nelson would come back the next day and we wouldn’t be there leaves a hole in my heart that will never be filled. Because I cannot explain to him that we won’t be back. Because I cannot know if he understood. Because I will never know if he came back the next day.
Because I can’t explain that I will never forget him.
My face grew hot. “No, we are leaving. We won’t be here. I want to say good bye.”
A grin. A nod. “Yes, good bye tomorrow,” he said.
“Yes,” I said,
“Good bye tomorrow.”
All images © Tom Oldham Photography