Saturday, August 31, 2013

anne : africa, pt.3

What do I know about South Africa?

Nothing, really.  It's my first whole day here; grasping for placement and context  I am frantically piecing together the article I read in Time about Oscar Pistorious, the Wikipedia research on Welkom I did while I was packing and bits and pieces from the Nelson Mandela Morgan Freeman / Matt Damon movie that I never actually watched. 

That's a pathetic commentary on my knowledge of current world events, let alone world history. 

To sum up these bits of popular culture + mission trip preparedness soundbites,  here's what I know:

South Africa has a lot of crime
South Africa is home to 3 million orphans
South Africa is also home to an AIDS crisis
South Africa has extreme wealth and extreme poverty side by side
Also, refer to soundbite #1

Not very much.

At Amber's suggestion and our eager response, Loren and I are going to visit a creche, Anne's creche. I don't know who Anne is.  I feel like I know what a creche is from reading the French parenting book Bringing Up Bebe. The creche is located at a hostel. I feel like I know what a hostel is from my high school WWII/European reading frenzy.  I also feel like the European intrepetation of hostel and creche may be quite different in this Africa place that we are diving into.

We wave goodbye and climb into Amber's car and drink in the sights as Amber drives and explains.  We drive through normal neighborhoods that leave one wondering if you are in Southern California or Africa.  Amber flies on the wrong side of the road and it's hard to not duck and cringe when we see oncoming traffic.  The parks are overgrown, but that could be Detroit: my mind is constantly drawing comparisons to what I know and understand. 

She drives on, on, out of town.  The fields are grassy and flat and ominously empty.  Here and there a few tall trees stand, lumped together in an odd, unplanned way.  Amber explains that the hostel was built for miners.  I feel proud of my Wikipedia knowledge that Welkom was home to a large gold mining community at one time and I don't have to ask what they were searching for.  The hostel isn't for miners anymore, just low income housing. 

We are suddenly in front of a long, low building, like a machine shed.  I see brick buildings in the distance and know we've arrived at this hostel community. 

Amber says we can go in and meet Anne and stay and help for a bit.  We make our way through a rusty metal gate and up a brick sidewalk.  Amber opens a wobbly door and marches through a classroom of little black cherubs who are playing with two young women.  We have no idea who or where Anne is, so we keep following, through the surprisingly bright classroom, out into a courtyard with jagged, broken concrete and sunlight and trees.  I glance around the courtyard and see doors, probably leading to other classrooms. 

Amber purposefully enters one room and I see Anne for the first time.  Of all the people we will meet while in South Africa, I don't know yet that she will make the biggest impression and her story will be burned on our hearts. 

Anne is large and welcoming and she is surrounded by about 25 kindergartners.  Her hair is parted straight down the middle, no nonsense, but her eyes twinkle and you quickly understand why her little charges adore her.  There's crying and it's a baby and I am surprised to see an entire nursery of little babies at one end of her classroom.  There are ancient pack and plays lining one wall and a makeshift divider to keep the babies from the classroom. 

Amber smiles at us and says I'll see you in about an hour, okay? and in a panic Loren and I realize what we hadn't understood before:  we are being dropped off.  We are going to be on our very own out in this old mining community with a woman we don't know and one hundred and fifty beautiful little kids. 

Well, neither of us signed up for this trip to be wimpy and weak, so we suck it up like big girls and try to figure out what to do for an hour.  Anne is capably teaching days of the week and colors and we feel like weird observers, outsiders, Americans with clothing far too nice and big eyes that betray how sheltered we've been.  I climb over the divider and meet this lil man with huge brown eyes and chocolate skin and I miss my Eli badly and squeeze him tight.  There are other little babies and we feed them bottles and play with them, trying to piece together who these kids are and why they are here. 

Anne says we can help the kids with worksheets.  Everything she teaches is from her heart and from her own hands.  The work sheets are just pieces of plain white paper.  The children are to write Monday in English and then a blue house with four windows. Anne is very specific and there is no coddling.  Equal opportunity to succeed, but only if you follow the directions.  I watched her praise a child with four really sub-par windows in his house, and then firmly direct another child who had drawn two really phenomenal windows to go add two more.  She is strict and kind and warm and exudes love.  The window incident made my heart warm to her and I watch her cheerfully teach with so little and carefully, meticulously file all of the homemade paperwork in a file for each child. 

Anne speaks French and Sothu and English, easily moving between the three, talking animated and enthusiastically with the children, then explaining things to me and Loren.  She waves her hand at the brightly colored walls and the cheerful banners and tells us that a team from the States came and painted her classroom for her.

On the other side of the room a woman is working at a table in a makeshift kitchen of sorts.  She is preparing a snack for the children and I offer to help her cut up the oranges.  She is shy and calls me sister and waves me away, then hesitating, asks if I want to offer the oranges to the children. 

I take the tray and at Anne's beckon, head over to the children.  They are a little chocolate squirming mob all around me and Anne booms out at them to mind their manners and suddenly there is a line and ladies first take their little bit of orange before heading out for their recess.

Thank you Lohd, thank you teacha, each one choruses dutifully and scampers out into the cracked concrete courtyard.

We ask to go play with them and Anne heartily approves.

Out on the playgound we find a small broken swingset, some tires, weathered grass and gleeful exuberant children.  I am awed at their cheerfulness and stunned by the poverty. I sit on the grass and they crowd around, touching my hair and I teach them high five, down low, on the side, too slow. My hand is numb and they aren't anywhere near being done with this new game. 

I learn that these children are really lucky ones, they have homes in the brick hostel buildings and their parents have jobs.  They don't have anywhere to go, though, while their parents are working and if it weren't for Anne, they would be all alone. 

I can't get enough of these happy kids and Anne's beautiful heart and later will beg Louis and Amber to let Daniel come back with me to the creche. 

Anne asks him to teach a fire safety class because as the weather gets cold, the kids often burn themselves on buckets of coal, makeshift little furnaces in their houses. 

Daniel is great with kids and they love him. 

Don't hide, go outside, he says, and a whole little chorus shouts back

don't hide, go outside!

Daniel is also great with adults and he asks Anne questions I wouldn't have even thought to ask; we are intrigued by her love for God and people and her strength and why she is out here in the slum version of the boondocks, an obviously intelligent and savvy lady.  She lets her assistants take over and takes us on a tour of her creche and community.

Anne is a widow;  she is a mom to six.  When her husband died, she packed her family and came from Lesotho by bus to Welkom for a promised job.

The job was a lie, Anne explains, matter of fact.  It's obviously water under the bridge to her now.  It paid 500 rand a month and the equivalent of $50 is not nearly enough for a brave grieving mamma who needs to support her six little people. 

So she is in the promised land of Welkom, needing a place to live, running out of money, and she hears that someone is going to be renovating the old hostel buildings into housing; Anne gets a ride out to the community.

I can't even explain it, I just knew that God wanted us here.  I walked into that apartment and I just knew.  I said, I'll take it. 

She moved in with nothing and immediately started a little creche, or daycare.  She allows people to pay her in increments and with volunteering and only recently received a small grant from the government. 

She is talking to us in a cluttered office, stacked with books and typical teacher-fare.  I notice a booklet on her desk, The High Calling of Motherhood and smile, knowing my mom owns one too.

The building would be condemned in a moment back home;  she is so proud of the doors she made herself for the tiny boys and girls toilet rooms.  I took a picture. 

A guy with some tools and materials could do Anne a world of good in an afternoon. 

But she isn't about an amazing building, she is about bringing order and beauty to this little community.  She is about bringing Jesus to kids who desperately need hope.  She has chosen to cast her lot here with them, living among them and making a difference. 

She walks us out of the Genesis Creche, out into the field, a dusty street.  There are the brick buildings in the distance and she says she will show us her apartment.  She mutters a phrase in Sotho as we pass three young men loitering.  They look up and nod at her with respect.

Daniel asks what she called them and she says destroyers.  There is evil all around and you can almost physically feel the oppression, the poverty, the hopelessness. Daniel and I compare notes later and agree that we would have been scared silly out there if Anne weren't so obviously respected. 

There are chickens running, rusty cars, laundry hanging out and incongruous satellite dishes. 

In America, we have government programs to assist children who are falling through the cracks;  that's a globally rare situation and I'm realizing with wide open eyes that humanitarian aid in South Africa is largely provided by believers.  If Anne weren't here. . .

there wouldn't be any happy little lunch line. 

No happy songs.

No reading and manners and grace and truth.

Later I will be able to contrast the wholeness of these children with the emptiness of others and I will realize again what a monumental role Anne is playing in their daily physical safety, their psyche, their eternal destiny. 

She looks more beautiful to me by the minute.

We are suddenly at Anne's apartment, stunningly clean, with her patch of yard mowed and a courtyard next to her apartment cheerfully painted in acceptable graffiti with an occasional Coca Cola splashed on the walls.  Her first creche was in her apartment and then the courtyard.  Outgrowing that, she began renting the building where she is now. 

Her door is painted a cheerful blue and she welcomes us into her tiny dwelling.  Pictures of her children,  most in college and grown now, are everywhere.  She has so little and yet she is happy and fulfilled, pouring her life out and making a difference where she is at.

I think of her often, struggle to put her story into words that will do her justice, to capture how mightily God is using her. 

I stumble and fail and type and rewrite and think

Anne started a creche.

Anne had a mighty faith.

Anne trusted God to meet her needs.

It doesn't tell the story. 

You would have to see it and drink it in yourself, to see the garden that she's planted, the way she incorporates mothers into her teacher pool so that they can help the school keep running, the little handwashing stations and the fences she carefully built herself with bricks she found along the roads.

There are other Annes in the world.

Anne is not letting your tragedy define you.

Anne  is pouring your life out right where you are at.

Anne  is loving the least of these.

Anne is vision and clarity and hoping for the future.

Anne is applying God's Word and living it.

I want to be an Anne.

{Anne, in purple, with her little chicks around her}


  1. Beautiful! I LOVE the way you offered us all the opportunity to DO, right where we are. We can be an Anne, and we don't have to wait until we go.

  2. Wow, this is beautiful. Thanks for sharing your experience and "bringing" all of us along with you for that moment.

  3. Beautiful. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

  4. Incredible. I want to squeeze those adorable kids. I want to be an Anne right now.

  5. I love your blogg Haley I love you!! Guys A lot