Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles entitled “Faces of Africa,” bringing you real life stories of South African people every two weeks that will run in the Revolution section. Christine Jeske and her husband recently traveled to the region as missionaries and writers. More than just stories of personal struggles and the tough situations facing many African people, you’ll find ideas here on how to think, pray and react to God’s work across the world’s poorest places.
The Blooming Flower House
One morning, an American nurse visiting South Africa decided to take a new side road home from the AIDS hospice where she had been volunteering. She had heard rumors of a woman, very sick, possibly abandoned, living down that road. Carefully steering her car over potholes and ruts as deep as her axels, she hoped to avoid what would be a third flat tire this month. Little did she know, God was protecting more than her car that day.
Not a mile from the hospice, the road disappeared beside a tiny house. She stopped the car and took the keys from the ignition. She paused, staring at the yard scattered with leaves and weeds. There was something strangely lonely about the house.
Meanwhile, inside, a withered body lay on a bed. She was awake, though she knew not what time it was nor how long she had slept, nor when she had last eaten. Over a month now, probably. Her elderly mother brought water sometimes, poured it slowly down her throat, but offered no food to spare for the dying woman. She knew faintly that it was Thursday. Yes, just that morning she had for some reason been moved to pray. She did not know what disease caused her sickness, or whether treatment existed. She knew only that death hung close. “Lord, if I don’t get help, I will die this weekend. This is the end.”
But now, was that the sound of a car door? By some strange force, she lifted herself to sitting and peeked out the window. A woman, a white woman, walked toward the door.
A stream of light flooded into the room. The woman sank back onto the bed at the sound of the door. The nurse knelt beside the bed, clinging to the wrinkled hand of that jumble of skin and bones, whispering, soothing, now praying. Yes, this body was alive. And she was weeping.
It is this moment that Charmagne loves to tell and retell. “She prayed for me,” she says. “She didn’t do anything else. Just prayed. And promised to come back.”
She speaks in English so clear it hides the fact that she never learned to read or write. But she tells little about the hospital visits, the ARV drugs, the healing of her physical body, or the pounds she has regained. What she speaks about is God, and the healing of her soul.
“You know the next day, the day after the nurse came, I woke up and looked at my curtains. I said ‘these curtains are so dirty.’ And I walked outside. I saw the sun and the sky, and how bright the world is. Honestly, the nurse still hadn’t done anything for me. I hadn’t eaten in a month. But I stood there and it was like walking in heaven. I just saw everything new and I kept saying ‘It’s so beautiful.’”
Since then her life has been about letting that beauty grow. The nurse would visit again and again. One day she brought paint to make bright red and white stripes down Charmagne’s door and shapes around the windows that welcome visitors like blooming flowers.
The day I met Charmagne she wore a bright red sweater, and even after six months of steady weight gain it hung loosely from her shoulders. With black slacks and her kindly wrinkled face, she reminded me of my own grandmother. She has two grandchildren, but I would guess her age at no more than 50.
The darker elements to her story are typical of HIV in South Africa. Her own mother lives just three houses up the road, but still doesn’t know Charmagne is HIV positive. “We discussed it once and she said, ‘No, Charmagne, not you. You don’t have that disease.’ I don’t tell her any more. She doesn’t want to know.”
Charmagne shows me a photo of her nephew, a man in his 20s. She describes her horror when she found him nearly by accident one day, hidden in a back room of her mother’s house. Refusing to get tested for HIV, he came there to die. Charmagne’s own mother shouted away a nearby church’s pastor when he came to insist that the young man get treatment. The young man died more than a year ago.
Charmagne’s family still isn’t sure what to do with her. Her mother visits occasionally, not mentioning the months she ignored Charmagne, refusing to give her own daughter food. Charmagne shares what she has been learning of God. She prays especially for her mother and her son, who will be released from a several-year prison term soon. She wants to build a house for him and his children. Her alcoholic daughter-in-law often locks Charmagne’s grandchildren at home while she goes out drinking and sleeping around.
She does not give up hope for them. “I know God changed my own life. I drank all the time when I was young. I lived a terrible life. I tell you many of the people I knew have died now. Some shot, some sick. But even when I was drunk, I would go in the toilets because no one could find me there. And I would pray.”
Her latest prayer is for the means to start a sewing business, in addition to learning to read and write. She had a sewing machine years ago, but it was stolen. “I’ll save until I can buy a sewing machine. God has answered all my prayers so far. I just wait and know he will answer the next ones too.”
Ways to Pray:
– For medical professionals, that they not become overwhelmed by the great demands of HIV, but have energy and compassion for each individual.
– For the breakdown of stigma around HIV—that people would get tested, discuss it openly, and find supportive family and friends.
Ways to Learn More:
– Thrive Africa (www.thriveafrica.org) works with communities in South Africa to provide education and a Biblical prespective on HIV prevention and treatment. They also train locals to become pastors and ministers in the region.
– You can learn more about the Jeskes and their ministry to South Africa at their homepage www.jeskelife.org.