I stepped on African soil and fell in love. Love like this: cool water on hot skin. Love like this: quick flames on dry grass. Love cool and peaceful, love overwhelming and chaotic. Mountains explode from the grass like a volcano’s eruption frozen in time. The air is vanilla and wood smoke, a byproduct of the fields they burn every winter to cut their losses when it’s time for wildfires.
We land in Johannesburg, the capital of South Africa, in the middle of the afternoon. We proceed through customs and exit the airport precisely at sunset. Orange through the smog, blood-red and yellow, like the end of the world it burns our eyes. The wind is cold and bites our fresh young faces. I’m 17.
We are there to serve, but what does that mean? Days later I will meet the eyes of a father who knows his children will die of the disease he gave their mother, and I will understand that my service alone is nothing but a raindrop in a hurricane.
What most people don’t understand about South Africa—what I didn’t understand until I saw for myself—is that racism did not begin and end with apartheid. Racism is cancer. It comes in many forms, many kinds of tumors. Sometimes it is curable; sometimes not. If left untreated, it kills. The cancer that has infected South Africa for many years is not one defeated with one dose of legislation-chemotherapy. It will take many treatments to cure this nation. The cure is coming but before it comes, thousands more will die of the disease.
There are many immigrants to South Africa from the rest of the continent, and they tend to lose their identities—some South Africans simply consider them “blacks.” Some of the whites who hire them treat them fairly and pay them a good wage. Most do not. We hear stories of drunk white men staggering into the camps late in the night to rape daughters and shoot dogs. We are to minister in these camps that we, politically correct, call informal settlements. The Africans call them squatter camps. This camp is about a hundred yards from a neighborhood full of white people’s houses. They have grass and sprinkler systems, driveways and flower beds. Surrounding the neighborhood is a white wall, on top of which is a chain link fence, crowned with coils of furious barbed wire. The message is clear.
We gather and pray before we head out. The quiet young man who will translate for my group has a name I cannot pronounce, and finally he laughs and says I may call him by his baptized name, Innocent. He’s 16 and speaks nine languages. His parents can afford shoes and tuition, so he goes to school for nine hours a day. I start to make a joke about how it must be terrible to spend so much time in school, when I notice his face, and the pride he takes in education. I bite my tongue. That first day I bite my tongue over and over till it bleeds.
We’re there as Christians. This frightens me; I’ve never been one to talk about my faith. In the midst of my frightened silence I meet Ele. She’s a brilliant, intellectual surprise in this camp: she is 24 and studying to be an electrical engineer. We spend 15 minutes discussing Macbeth and Julius Caesar. She also likes John Wayne. Her long hair is twisted into rope-braids, and she tells us she is captive in this camp. When we leave, Ele asks if I am going to forget her. I will not.
We take a wrong turn and find a river of sewage. A girl follows us, laughing, and guides us away. Her name is Belina and she’s 17. She takes us to meet her aunt, who doesn’t say much and tries to hide her loose breasts as she feeds her baby. Belina teaches me to dance like an African, with arm gestures and fiercely pounding feet. My Midwestern upbringing is scandalized and liberated by the freedom and joy in their dancing.
Mid-afternoon, they are touching my hair. First it’s the little girls, then it’s their mothers. My hair is a miracle to these children, with their rough-shaved scalps. A bold mother asks if it’s real. Her friends laugh at this, but I don’t understand the joke. I shrug self-consciously. “This is just my hair, I don’t know, I haven’t showered in a while,” I say. A quiet one in the back says something, sharply, in another language. Innocent says: “They think you have hair of gold. They think you are rich. They wonder why you are here if you are rich.” I protest. I try to tell them that gold hair is not valuable, that you can get gold hair in a bottle, home in America. As I speak I begin to understand what wealth and privilege are: my blonde hair is natural, but if it were not, I could buy some dye and change it in half an hour.
Each of us has fallen deeply in love with this place. Love like this: sunset and moonrise. Love like this: two fists and shouted words. Love daily and inevitable, love violent and protective. The women teach us to do laundry. My laundry has never been clean like it is here, laid over the bones of my wrists, scrubbed till my wrists are raw and my clothes shine. The men teach us not to judge drinkers. Fathers with eyes darker and deeper than any I’ve ever seen; the tee-totaling that I’ve been taught from birth suddenly seems hollow. I would buy these men alcohol if I had the money. I’m embarrassed of my religion in this place. I don’t know how to justify the pain I see. I don’t know how to comprehend the deep distrust my skin ignites.
But this changes. We meet a group of eight women and strike up a conversation. An hour later I finally understand my faith. I am preaching, telling them why I believe in grace. I am explaining hope. I believe this for the first time. When I come home, people ask me how it was. How can I tell them?
When I come home I don’t eat for two days.
When I come home I dye my hair brown.
I cannot forget the kisses of children who never learned to wipe mucous away. These children know so little about love.
Love like this: blood-red sunsets over a red-blooded nation. Love like this: mountains exploding from plains and hearts breaking from overuse. Love true and final, love true and healing.