Faces of Africa: A Talent
March 21, 2008
When I ask Joyce if she has anything to tell Americans, she says, “Maybe they will help us with something that they have. Anything!” She goes on to describe the falling down, leaky-roofed house where she teaches some children with disabilities from her community. She calls it a “rubbish house.”
This isn’t the kind of message I was hoping for. I barely know Joyce, and here she is trying to guilt me into giving her something. She’s fishing for handouts. She sees an American and all she can think is get get get, I tell myself.
But later when I looked over my notes from our conversation, I realized something. If anything sums up Joyce’s attitude, it is not get get get, but give give give.
Joyce is a fifty-year-old grandmother who leads a group of women in a sewing project. They sew whatever sells, from school uniforms to curtains to the frilly pinafore dresses popular among Zulu women. Recently, they connected with a designer who commissions them to sew handbags, who then markets them internationally. Joyce says her favorite part of the work though is teaching.
At the same time, Joyce opens her home to a few surprising guests the community has left behind. Each morning, four children arrive at her door with notebooks and pencils. One boy’s eyes point in opposite directions. Another’s hands curl inward. Another limps.
“Their minds are very slow,” Joyce says. She teaches them basic reading and writing, but mostly, she says, “We sit and talk. Or they’re so happy if I just give them a needle to try sewing.” Each evening the children return to their homes, and no one forces them to come to her. “But if I say ‘You mustn’t come tomorrow,’ they still come.”
The youth know love when they find it. In a community where public schools aren’t prepared to handle disabilities and support programs do not exist for the parents of children, the little bit she offers goes a long way. Joyce doesn’t condemn their families, she just explains quietly, “At home their families treat them like ‘nothing people.’”
When she can, she feeds them what she has, whether it’s soup, vegetables or just cornmeal porridge. Compared to many neighbors along her deeply rutted dirt road, Joyce’s family is fortunate, and she knows it. Her husband runs a shop, providing a relatively stable income, and they even own a car. My two year-old blurts out to my embarrassment when we arrive at her mud home, “Why there a car there?” He’s old enough to notice there aren’t usually cars in this neighborhood.
But Joyce counts more blessings than the financial. “God takes care of me. Especially God gave me very good children.” She has four grown children, three who have moved to cities to find work. “They respect their parents and others in the community. My sons give me 100 rand [$14] sometimes and say ‘buy shebo’ [a dish made with vegetables, which the poor generally can’t afford.] They don’t get drunk or buy drugs.”
Her generation is keenly aware of the many youth who don’t fare so well as her sons. “This is a time for poverty,” she says. “If mother is folding hands, everything is going bad. A mother must watch over her children and all the community.”
When I ask how Joyce finds energy to accomplish what she does, she replies, “It’s my talent from God. I’m not looking for money. I just do this because it’s my talent.”
The word talent is a fitting choice. Her life is a perfect example of Jesus’ parable of talents by another definition. Talent in Biblical terms meant a coin, and the story Jesus told was about three servants, each given some number of coins—talents. Some invested theirs to earn more, while one buried his in the ground so it would not get wasted.
Compared to most Americans, Joyce doesn’t have many coins, and it wouldn’t appear that she has much of anything to give. But she of all people has earned the right to give the message Americans: “Help us with something. Anything.”
Ways to Pray:
For neighbors, families and social systems to support children with disabilities in poor areas.
For people in America and other wealthy areas of the world to give from their heart, in ways that make an impact on the poorest people of the world.