This is a post I’m not sure how to write. These stories get to the deep places of my heart – the places that hurt to remember. The places where I shook my fist at the LORD and told Him He wasn’t fair. That His love wasn’t good and I didn’t know how to move forward after what I saw. Yet in the middle of shaking my fist and slamming it into the hard packed African dirt, filled with thorns and prickles, deep down I knew that His love was good and for the first time in my entire life I understood a real depth to how different and incomprehensible His love truly is.
One of the stories I forgot to tell in the previous post was that of a girl who was disabled. Every day a few different team members travelled with one of the young men in the community, a driver, and sometimes a second translator, and delivered food to a home in the community. During our nightly debrief this often times came up as something that shook one of our kids to their core. I decided to wait until the end of the week, in all honesty, because I was scared. I secretly hoped we would run out of home visits and I could avoid it.
When we were rounded up on Thursday, I knew my running was done. I put on a smile and braced myself for the worst. “This is one of the worst homes in the community” our translator explained. “Great” I thought, “this is what I get for trying to avoid things.” “Mueller” my more rational side reasoned “this is one of the poorest places in the world. Did you really think you were going to get an EASY home visit?”
This family in particular was struggling because they were complete orphans. Four children had been raised by their extremely abusive grandmother after their parents died. This woman was so abusive she crippled her granddaughter, leaving her unable to walk. Because Swaziland is a male-dominated culture, we were surprised when we were told she was considered the head of their household. The oldest of the family is actually a guy, but he was mentally disturbed, we were told. Now, here in the States, mentally disturbed harkens images of dangerous unstable people. I decided to wait until we actually arrived to see if it was safe for us to be there with our kids.
As we arrived, I saw a beautiful young girl probably about 19 or 20 sitting outside on a cement wall. She had a walker in front of her and longingly looked towards the road. We pulled up, unloaded, and I immediately felt drawn to her. I asked if I could sit next to her and was given permission. An overwhelming urge to hold her hand came over me, and while it felt awkward, I knew I needed to give her love through touch, knowing so much wounding had been done through touch. She briefly told us her story, told us how we could pray for her and agreed to show us the room where they sleep.
She awkwardly maneuvered her walker over the rocky terrain and opened the door. Trying to mask horrified faces, we encountered a disfigured man, sitting in a pile of his own excrement, eyes glazed over, and rocking back and forth. I saw flashes of shame, anger, defensiveness, and protection flick across this young woman’s face as we gathered inside their cramped quarters. The quarters were so small we couldn’t even all fit inside the building. We circled hands and prayed over the family. A fierceness came over me as I called on the LORD to provide for these precious children of His. I claimed His promise to be their provider and protector. Following up my prayer was one of our high school boys. Overcome with the scene, he wept as he cried out to Abba on their behalf. My heart wept along with him, knowing that he wasn’t alone in the depth of hurt over this family.
After a time a prayer, we said our goodbyes and loaded up the bus. We were going to be hosting a clinic the next day and we promised the young lady we would get her there to see the doctor. When you promise a Swazi, you better come through because they will remember it forever. As we got in the car I looked at our translator and asked why no one from the community was protecting them.
We had heard stories of people knowing they had been given food, firewood, or water, and taking it from them because no one was there to stop them. Infuriated, I tried to keep my tone from accusing but convey how upset I was. I looked at our translator, who is also the pastor’s son, and said that the Church was the one who needed to look after them. He sheepishly agreed and said that if anyone looked after them they would expect payment.
Anger flashed across my face and simmered in my eyes. “You promise me right now that YOU will look after this family. You keep check on them and make sure they have what they need. YOU are the church and it’s your responsibility as well. Meanwhile, I will pray God brings someone with a heart to do this more often without expectation of payment. Do you promise me? And do you promise me you WILL get this woman to the clinic tomorrow?” I knew that if I got him to commit to a promise, chances were more likely he would at least attempt to follow through. He reluctantly agreed after making some feeble excuses. Satisfied, I let it be.
The next day we helped a ministry run a clinic at a local school near our carepoint. Hundreds of kids and adults gathered around us when we arrived and got ready to be seen by the doctors. While sometimes unconventional and tough to swallow, this ministry is serving the Swazi people in a way I never could. They provide basic life saving treatments, medicines, screenings, and advice that no one else does. They also perform HIV/AIDS tests and counseling. We knew it was going to be a hard day but I don’t know we knew HOW hard.
We were divvied up into different groups. Some of our team was taught how to test for HIV, others were playing with kids, and I had a group in a room where we were handing out clothes/ toys to the school kids and then to mothers and babies. Somehow I ended up as the bouncer – bringing one child in at a time and then being handed babies who I then passed to other team members to fit with clothing items. It was hard and heart breaking but my undoing moment came when I was told to pick a number and only allow that many more babies inside. I quickly scanned the line and noticed three mothers and babies outside. “Three” I said. “We’ll take three more.”
My Swazi translator communicated to the mothers and a look of relief passed over their faces. By the time I had gotten all three babies through, another long line of mothers had showed up, holding their babies, begging me to give them a hat, onesie, coat, or something. I literally had mothers trying to shove their babies in my arms because they knew I was the one who could give their baby something it needed. I had to shut the door on mothers who couldn’t provide basic things for their children. I had to tell them no.
More mothers came and I looked at one of the guys in the room and told him I couldn’t do it. I could not shut the door on a mother who was desperate. I couldn’t say no. And then I walked out of the room. My heart breaking into a thousand pieces. I walked out.
The rest of the day passed slowly, each of our kids and leaders breaking at different moments. We took a lot of walks and spent a lot of time on the bus that day. And then she showed up. Promise kept, we got our friend to the clinic and she saw the doctor. He fitted her with an SUV type scooter and I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as I saw her given a mobility she had never had. It was all worth it in that moment. All of it.
Night quickly descended and the clinic turned dark except for the few portable lights in the rooms with the doctors. We were in darkness playing in an open field until the bus returned from taking a few of our Swazi friends home. It was getting late for us – about 6pm and finally the bus came onto the school grounds. We rounded our team up and I went to find one last person. When I found her, we started walking towards the bus when I stubbed and then caught my foot on something sending me stumbling.
Searing pain shot up my foot and leg as I tried not to utter a curse word. I hobbled to the bus, thankful for the cover of darkness. I climbed inside trying not to show the pain in my eyes or let anyone see the blood drain from my face as I looked down and saw skin hanging off the side of my big toe. “Just don’t look. Don’t look. Get back to the house and don’t look.”
Twenty minutes felt like an eternity and I was finally able to climb down and go into the house to examine the full extent of my wound. I noticed that my sandal was sticking to my foot. Nauseous, I pushed the nagging thought of the fact that I hurt my foot at an AIDS clinic to the back of my mind. I looked down and saw blood. All over and under my foot. I limped to a chair and fought the knot of tears in my throat. I sat down, took my sandal off and tears silently started falling down my cheeks. One of the team leads came in, saw my foot and ran over. “Rachel! What happened!!!!” “I cut my foot. and I don’t know on what.”
Jen and another team member quickly grabbed the first aid kit, filled a bowl with water and began soaking my foot. The water turned a sickening pink color and I grimaced as dirt, rocks, and blood were cleaned from my wound. Obviously, water wasn’t enough to clean it. I bit my lip and prepared for the hydrogen peroxide. I have never felt searing pain like that before in my life. I prayed I would pass out so that it would be over.
“Rachel. What did you cut it on?” Jen quietly asked. “I’m not sure, I think a rock.” I replied. “I know, Jen. I know I need to get tested when I get home. It’s okay.” I assured her. “Oh Rachel. How did this happen??” The concern filled her eyes as I recounted best I could from a surprise stumble in the dark. She bandaged and taped my foot. I wiped my tears and hobbled to put a sock over it. The kids all looked at me unsure of how to act. I feebly attempted a joke and the tension eased.
I laid on my sleeping bag and squeezed my eyes shut. A few more tears fell and I told the LORD I was just glad it was me and not one of our kids. I didn’t try to bargain or reason, I just accepted it and knew, that in a few months time, I needed to get an HIV test.
I’m 90% sure I didn’t hurt myself on something that infected me, but when the majority of the people that day were testing positive, it would be dumb to take chances. So in two months I’ll go to my doctor and ask for something I never thought I would have to. The reality of the danger of being in this country began to sink in. I wasn’t even the most at risk. I breathed a prayer of thankfulness and protection for the countless men and women who interact with Swazi’s on a daily basis. Those people are legitimately in harm’s way because of the unexpected accidents. And yet they continue to do what they do because of the LORD’s great love and His call for us to live our lives in abandonment. These are the people who are true heroes. **disclaimer, I’m not saying all Swazi’s have HIV, I’m only communicating the dangers of working in a country with the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world.**
Wow. I didn’t even get to the most broken part of my week. I guess there’s an Africa Part 6!