Saturday, July 28, 2012


Our friends call it “The Conception Tape” – just to rile us.

“Are you sure this is the tape of her birth, and not when she was conceived?” Dave Smith, my husband’s best friend asked, the first time he saw it.

Mario and I had seen too many “birth tapes” where we awkwardly watched the delivery of the much-awaited child into the world.  “Really, folks,” we’d think.  “We have to eat dinner with you after we watch this...”  So we vowed that there would be no such visual splendour of the birth of our baby that we were expecting in the late June that year.   When I went into (pitossin induced) labor AT THE END OF JULY Mario kept the lens cap on our video camera during the birth. 

We were expecting a boy.

Mario had had two boys, David and Joe, with Cathy (his first wife).  I had had Vince with Randy (my ex) and we were newly married, expecting another child...too scared to say we wanted a girl out loud. 

When she was born (after a harrowing labor) my midwife, Arlaine, looked into my eyes and said “Guess what you have?”

Mario could not stop crying.  He was a mess – tears flowing from his strong face, his hands at his mouth as he stared at our new baby being delivered. 

“A boy?” I said, loudly enough for the tape to record.  Arlaine shook her head. 

“A girl?” I asked, nearly shouting.  It was too good to be true. 

Arlaine nodded, and Mario looked at me, overcome with emotion. 

“A GIRL!?” Mario finally embraced me, weeping uncontrollably.  All you could hear on the tape was Mario’s muffled sobs and me screaming: “Oh, Mario!  Oh, Mario!” 

It sounded obscene.

Still, with translation, people could put together how excited we were – the excitement of having a girl after three boys.  The excitement of a daughter....

Whatever was said about daughters being exciting was twice as true with Alicia.  Alicia had a way of being supercharged with excitement.

In shopping malls, she befriended funky people, who followed us as I tried to train her that this was not cool.  She knew no strangers.  Once in a health food store, we all popped in for a frozen organic yogurt, served to us by the quintessential hippie.

“JESUS!” she greeted him, near tears, going to hug him. 

“I’m not Jesus,” he said, glaring at me.  His look was hard to misread- control your kid. 

Alicia could not - would not - be controlled. 

She was a unicorn in the world of daughters- a beautiful dancing mythological creature, leaving sparkles and rainbows in her wake.  Controlling her was not so easy. 

“Alicia,” I told her on a week-long vacation to Hawaii when she was six years old.  “It’s important not to shout to people that a totem pole is a false god.”

“Well, it is,” she said, looking at me squarely in the eye.

“Yes, honey, but we’re in Hawaii.  There are these totem poles everywhere,”

“And if people worship an idol made of wood then they’re stupid,” she said.  

I sighed.

“It is their history,” I tried a teacher’s tactic.   “They don’t worship them anymore, it’s just their history.”
The next day, at a National Park, Alicia pointed at a large carved totem and yelled, “Look Mom!” I steeled myself, preparing for the rest of her synopsis.

“HISTORY!” she yelled.  Mario and I looked at each other, relieved. 

So it went with her. 

As she grew, she had exciting spurts of color that used to drive me nuts. 

“Mrs. Rodriguez,” I would wince every time I saw a teacher approaching me in the lunch room.  Not only were we co-workers, but they were teachers of my teenage daughter.  I knew the condescension of “Mrs. Rodriguez” when it pertained to one of my kids....

“Your daughter spent the bulk of exam time in the bathroom with one of her friends,” her teacher told me, incredulous as I was. 

“What were they doing?” I asked, fearing the worst. 

“I cannot run to the bathroom to see what your daughter is doing and run an exam in my classroom at the same time!” She said, satisfied that she got to deliver the line she had rehearsed. 

“Cassandra broke up with her boyfriend,” Alicia was telling me on the way home.  “That jerk!  He broke up with her during recess and ‘SURPRISE!’ he now asked Kayla out!  She couldn’t stop crying.”

I was less concerned with Cassandra and Kayla (don’t worry, I changed the names) and more concerned about my daughter passing her classes.  School, she seemed to think, was her social universe, with a little academics mixed in. 

“Alicia,” I began.  “Dad and I spend a lot of money for you to go to school, not to be a counselor to your friends in the bathroom...”

“Yeah, well who will be there for Cassandra?  Her mother? Her Father?  No one gives a ______ about Cassandra!”

“Language!  Please!  I’m just saying that....”

“Well, if I had to do it all over again, I would do the same thing!” she sat back, angrily in her seat. 

How could I argue?  She knew part of me agreed.




Then, it was a certain person who changed everything, while we were separated by oceans. 

“We are going to name her Harmony,” Alicia told me, as she and her boyfriend, Brian heard that their baby they expected was a girl. 


She sounded like another unicorn. 

“That’s a really cool name,” I said.  I was trying not to sound surprised, worried or too much like the mother that she said I forfeited the right to be.  My daughter would be having a baby with a boy I hadn’t even met yet, and she seemed not to care much what I thought. 

I prayed to be the best mother I could inside of the situation, and finally, we scraped up the airfare for me to go back and be there for the birth of this child.

I saw her walking toward me, my little girl I had given birth to. 

The girl who shouted at totem poles and counselled friends in the bathroom.  The girl I nursed until I went back to work, reluctantly leaving her with a child care provider while I worked the night shift.  The girl who brightened my world by being a star athlete when I couldn’t keep my balance.   I saw her waddling toward me, nine months pregnant with long hair, blowing in the wind. 

There she was, my little girl, who I hadn’t seen in a year, and now was going to have a baby.  I burst into tears and wept on her shoulder. 

“It’s okay, Mom,” she said. 

“Where did you go?” I cried.  “You’re all grown up.”

She stroked my hair, and I wept for ages.  There, outside the hospital I am sure that people were passing us, thinking that we had just lost someone dear to us and I was grieving.

Brian and Alicia
“Where is he?” I finally asked, looking for Brian. 

“He’s parking the car,” she said.  

I think it touched her that I was crying.

First came Harmony ( a unicorn that leaves glitter and rainbows in her wake) and then came Alannah (the happiest baby in the history of the world).  My daughter, a little mother, has evolved into a mother herself, feeling the joy and heartbreaks of her own daughters...and will see more to come.

In those early days, we called her “Quicksilver”, a constantly moving element that cannot be contained by walls or spaces.  

She can’t. 

Today, on her twenty-fourth birthday, I am overcome, once again, at my love for her.  She has never been predictable, but she has always been bright and beautiful.  She glitters when she walks, and makes everything look so easy.

As her mother, I have learned to appreciate her for who she is, rather than who she isn’t.  Today, I look back and say, “What a unique gift!” and I mean it.

She is my daughter, a unique gift to me – and to this world.  

The day after Alannah was born

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief! who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad;
Say that health and wealth have missed me;
Say I'm growing old, but add-
Jenny kissed me!

Leigh Hunt wrote the poem “Jenny Kissed Me”, read to me aloud by my freshman English teacher who had to wipe away a tear when he was finished.  The reading had a profound effect on me and I wasn’t sure why.  Maybe because Jenny was so special that she bestowed on Mr. Hunt the blessing that only she could have: a kiss of acceptance in a cold world.

I woke up this morning and stared at the ceiling fan, a four-paddle affair that was in the shape of a cross. 


Two days ago I found out that Monica died.  I have been out of focus since.  I feel disjointed... running from one harried activity to anther just to fill the space in my heart that can’t believe this.  Monica was in her thirties, leaving behind two kids under ten years old.  She was getting better.  What will Dumisani do?  What will their church do?

What will I do?

Monica, after all, was special.

She was a blessing. A delightful, funny, cheeky, brave, complicated friend. 

My friend.

When I came to South Africa, Monica accepted me.  Even though she was at first a little wary of me –new to this continent and full of reckless zeal to build Christ’s church any way I was allowed to.   Soon enough, though, I made her laugh and she relaxed into comfortable acceptance of who I was.

 I loved her.

She wore large bright earrings and had the most beautiful smile.  She talked in a deep voice and walked with a confident swagger that made you know she knew who she was.

One morning, as she walked toward the church in a flawless white dress, I snapped a z and said “Giiiirrrl!! You look smokin hot!”  She smiled, shyly.

I was  quickly corrected by a (very caring) friend who over heard me and took me aside. 

“You don’t know this, since you’re new,” my friend said.  “But ‘girl’ means that she is your permanent live-in servant.  It’s a little derogatory here.”  Things are so complicated because of the Apartheid hangover...

She could tell by my reaction that I was shocked. 

I went back to Monica, explaining the differences in our cultures – after all, “GIIIIIIRL!” was a greeting given to Gail by Oprah.  Given to your bestie when you were being playful.  Monica giggled as I explained nervously. 

“I knew what you meant,” she said, smiling.  “I knew what you meant because you’re different.”

She was married to Dumisani - a tall, statuesque guy that had the command of a room as soon as he walked in.  We were fast friends. 

“Timna means ‘ours,’” Dumi said, holding his baby daughter in his arms the first time we went out to lunch.  “It is a name we chose especially for this one.”  He looked at Monica who smiled back at him.  I was transfixed on them.  Their eyes sparkled at one another, very un-African like!  I loved the way they related to one another, as equals and as friends and romantic partners.

Dumi and Monica became sounding boards for us as far as the culture went.  They were a Xhosa couple, living in Diepsloot.  It surprised me, simply because Dumi seemed highly educated and greatly respected by the community. 

One day, after taking them home, they invited us in for tea.  There was a bed and a an area used to prepare food in a small room that they called their home.  They were the first Diepsloot family that ever invited us into their space. It was a high honor.

“Why do you live here in Diepsloot?” I asked, maybe a little too boldly for the first time I was in their house.

“We have no choice,” Dumi answered honestly.  A teacher, Dumisani was just short of his master’s credential, leaving his employment opportunities less than what he could make a decent living on. 

“Where we are from,” Monica said, answering the deeper question.  “There is the ocean right outside and our families all live nearby, but there is no work.”

The thought saddened me.  Still, as I got to know them better I was encouraged with the way that neither of them seemed bitter about it – and not defined by their address.  Instead, they reached out to their neighbors, bringing the gospel to the desperately poor - people who put our faith to shame. 

One night, our church had a celebration where all the different home groups were asked to host a table of ethnic food, prepare a dance or presentation to perform and dress in ethnic clothing.  While our home group became Mexican for the evening, Dumi and Monica’s became Xhosa.

 Monica was dressed beautifully, but when it came time for her dance, she broke free into a very bold dance and song that made everyone stop what they were doing and watch her.  She sang powerfully and loud. Her motions and movement were much like the Hawaiians when they did the hula, but imagine the hula with more power and determination.  Shortly afterward, the electricity went out, and we all went home.  We made a joke that Monica was so smokin' hot that she short-circuited the power. 

We hung out a lot.  We worked side by side, especially in the Diepsloot community. Everytime she saw me she said, "Hey, Giiiiirrrl!!"

Jo called me right after I made dinner on Thursday, and gave me the news.  Jo (short for Joanna) employs Monica’s sister, Apilele, and heard from her that Monica had succumbed to a short illness that had come at her hard and fast.  She had gone to the Eastern Cape the Tuesday before, yearning to be with her mother and her family there.  She checked into hospital and said she was feeling better the last time I talked with her (on Monday).  Now, I type this, less than a week later and have seen and felt the devastation that losing Monica has brought. 

Dumi (finally in a profession he loves) was interrupted Thursday night as he was teaching to meet Mario, his sister and his brother and me in the school courtyard to be told that his partner and friend had gone to heaven.  His sister delivered the news to him, and he broke into sobs that were loud and heart breaking... I couldn’t look at him.  I buried my face in my poncho and thought of their children, her sisters, her mother....all of her friends. 

This morning I woke up thinking of her.

I was drawn to the image of the cross above me, the rock I have shelter in.  Jesus’death and resurrection makes so many things possible, but most of all, it assures me of the eternal life that we will share. 

I know I’ll see her again. 

Still, the death is damn unfair.  It is a waste of a bright, warm woman who wasn’t afraid of life.  She glowed with excitement about the smallest of things.  She laughed with her whole body and loved with no boundaries.  She was a mother to orphans, to anyone who came in her front door.  The last detail seems so insignificant: she was my friend. 

It hurts to lose her.  It hurts to have death invade a life lived so out loud.

Still, Monica lives....

Monica thrilled me when we met,
Dancing Xhosa and singing along.
Death, you thief! You came and stole her-
Tore her from unfinished song.
Say she’s taken, say she’s gone;
Say her family will weep and gather;
Say our hearts will break, but add-
Monica lives – and you don’t have her!

Monica (in white hat) was the life of any party.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Craig, our lead elder congratulates the graduates
Nonlanla leads the Paradigm Shift
graduates in song!

When I was growing up, sometimes I would complain about how little we had.  I was convinced I was one of the most deprived children on the planet, going without regular soft serve cones from the Snow White or Cocoa Pebbles on our breakfast table.  Having four other siblings, sometimes we would commiserate together, loud enough for my mother to hear. 

“You think we’re poor?” she’d say, when she’d heard enough.  “Get in the car, I’ll show you poor.”  We knew better than to speak, then.  We obediently got into our station wagon and drove to the “other side of town” – the part where only the migrant families lived.  There, we saw small homes, mostly constructed of cinderblocks, some with windows that had been cracked and held in place with masking tape.  Children played outside, sometimes, in raggedy clothes.  After a few views, my mom would say “How would you like to live here?”  Silence from her children, who were so boisterous only a half-hour before.  Sometimes I cried going home, thinking of how selfish I was.  My mom had a way of making us shift our eyes and focus on what really mattered.

“How would you like to live there?” My mom never knew how much the words haunted me.  It encouraged me to shut my mouth about my perceived hardships and look outside of myself.  The thoughts haunted me my whole life, and haunt me still.

The poor, even Jesus said, we will always have with us.  And there is never enough - never enough -help to alleviate all of the hardship; all of the hunger;  all of the want in this world.

So, my heart for helping the poor has been with me since I was a very young girl.  Only very recently, my idea of helping the poor has changed.  Here, poverty affects 80% of the population.  Poverty mindsets are crippling.

Paul Jennings
Our friend, Paul Jennings is a business man who decided to start a program called Paradigm Shift last year.  Modelled after the concepts similar to Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Paul saw an opportunity to do more than just provide blankets and food parcels to families who were struggling in the nearby township of Diepsloot: he would be part of reshaping the way they saw money. 

Grameen Bank, founded by   Muhammad Yunus, enabled millions of Bangladesh citizens, almost all women, to buy everything from cows to cell phones in order to start and run their own businesses. Most of these women had nothing, as in only a few possessions, so could never qualify for loans at conventional banks.  He saw something extraordinary: if the women were of noble character, and promised to pay back a small loan, they usually did.  He taught them how to budget, brand and run companies without any previous business experience.  It was a relatively new concept when it started, called  micro-credit.   The success of Grameen Bank with their microloans and microcredit has inspired similar projects, like Paradigm Shift, around the world. 

Yesterday, in front of our church, Paul stood and announced the first graduating class of Paradigm Shift Business School.  They stood; wearing caps and gowns, and sang to us, in celebration of their accomplishment. 

The class of seventeen students had just completed the Entrepreneur Survey Training course, which included training in branding, pricing, record-keeping, advertising and budgeting.  The training was done by other business owners and entrepreneurs in our church.  Normal people who had begun their own businesses would come home from work and spend Monday evenings at the Junxion Center, pouring themselves into these folks, so that they could start their own businesses and succeed.    

The thought warms me: until yesterday I never knew how many were involved.  After church, Paul and his wife, Margie, hosted a party that celebrated the start of these businesses.  Grown men and women, in caps and gowns, were all smiles, declaring that the course was already changing their lives. 

If you can imagine a thousand dollars changing generations...   it breaks the imagination.  For a poor person in South Africa to borrow money (even eight thousand rand) is impossible from financial institutions.  To lend, banks need to make sure you are not a financial risk.  This involves collateral that the poor don’t have, but are desperately trying to get.   It is the private programs, like Paradigm Shift that are providing the opportunity to those with nothing to change the outcome of their lives.  It involves mentoring and training and commitment from busy business owners to break the cycle of poverty.  It is too exhausting to do, without God. 

Yesterday, Paul and Margie didn’t look exhausted from the whole process.  They looked all lit up inside.  They made me feel all lit up inside.  Our whole church felt like we were part of something huge...and we were. 

Around here, the poor are much more poor than those kids on the other side of town.  Here a widow and her child have real possibilities of starving.  This is why programs like Paradigm Shift are doing more than “helping the poor”.  They are helping generations of people overcome the cycles of poverty. 

Paradigm Shift is one of the reasons I am happy to be here and part of a church that realizes that our social responsibility goes hand in hand with our spiritual responsibility for this world.  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Avulekile Amasango

The day that little Alekwa died Chila brought in water from outside to pour her a bath.  She had heard that the water would chase away the fever, and it was the only thing she hadn’t tried.

“There is no need for bathing,” her mother said.  “She was bathed yesterday morning and has not urinated or produced the bowel movement.”  Mama looked sternly into her young daughter’s vacant eyes.  “Chila, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Mama,” Chila said, filling the stainless steel tub. The baby tub had been a gift from a neighbor before the baby was born; a second-hand one that was perfect for a child.  In the township, the babies came fast and someone was always needing things for them.  Chila considered herself lucky to have this one.

“And the water is not heated,” mama said, when she realized what she was doing.  “Even the white doctors say you should heat the water.”  There was no use speaking to Chila.  Mama could see that her worry had stopped up her ears.   

Mama shook her head as she watched her daughter, slowly filling the tub with the water from the 25 liter bucket.  In all of her years helping the young mothers deliver their babies and nurse them afterward, she knew the look of death.  This shameless death would not go away with water.  This morning, death had silently entered their dwelling, a tin shed, and sat with them there now, as if he had come for tea.  There was nothing to be done, and it was sucking out the hope inside of Chila.  Here was her daughter, making a tub for death and the baby to get in together. 

“My daughter,” Mama said, touching her elbow. 

“Mama, let me do this,” Chila was stirring the oil in the water.  “Alekwa is like fire when I touch her.”

“Fire should not be put in cold water.  At least let us heat it, my child.”

“Yes mama,” and Chila sat back on the bed to cradle Alekwa again.  Chila looked into her baby’s face, swollen with fever; her little eyes closed.  

The hospital had let the baby come home, and the nurses told Chila that the child would continue to recover with the powders.  Instead, shortly after arriving home, Alekwa vomited the powders over and over again and the fever began to rage.   

Last night Chila had called for her mother, who brought the ancient herbs and mixed them dutifully as she had done for a thousand babies.

A thousand babies who were not her granddaughter. 

Chila was convinced it was her mother’s grief about the fever that made the herbs be undigested as well.  As the night went on, she crawled reluctantly in to bed.  The taxis would not run until the morning, and there was no one with a car that would take her back to the government hospital.  

No doctor would come.  

Mama also laid beside Chila and Alekwa, and they all didn’t sleep together.  

Dogs barked from outside; the men came home from the shebeens, stumbling into doors that partially welcomed them.  Fights.  Music.  Radios.  Dwelllings were so close together that every sound could be heard. 

Chila was filled with sorrow.  Her neighbors had come to earlier in the evening to pray, but they all saw the same thing: the thing that Chila was refusing to see.  The child was not getting better. 

Mama got out of bed and welcomed the early sun with a song:
Avulekile Amasango!
Ay, Ay, Ay
Ay, Ay, Ay
Yo ho, Amen!

“Mama,” Chila whispered.  “Don’t begin to sing.  There is still warmth in her body.”

Mama stopped singing, and saw in her daughter a dizziness that came with sleeplessness.  “When did you last sleep, child?”

“Mama, don’t sing yet.”

“Yes, my daughter, the time for song is now.  The child can still hear.  We must sing together.” Perhaps the baby would choose not to go to heaven.  Perhaps the song would break the fever.  Perhaps her daughter may praise God, no matter what. 


“Mama,” and Chila cradled the child, and wept again. 

Mama stared at both of them for most of the morning, and she did not sing, even to herself.  It was her daughter’s shack and she must respect her daughter here.  It wasn’t until and Chila went outside and came back with water that Mama had said anything. 

Now Chila was back on the bed, cradling the baby and not weeping.  There were no more tears left to weep, and even Chila could see death finishing his cup of tea at the table.  Mama stirred the hot water on the paraffin stove and when a song came up in her, she swallowed it back down.

“Now you can bring her,” Mama said.  Chila stood up, and Mama looked up at her daughter, just as the tiny arm dropped lifelessly from her bundle.

Chila stared at her kneeling mother, and the tears came again, for both of them.  They lay Alekwa in the tub anyway, and she floated like a puffy little ball, brown and perfect. 

Avulekile Amasango!
Ay, Ay, Ay
Ay, Ay, Ay
Yo ho, Amen!

Chila looked at Mama as they screamed the dirge, choking with sobs and emotion that finally came to recognize that death had actually taken little Alekwa.

Soon the neighbors would hear them and they would come to sing as well. 

Chila wrapped the clean, lifeless body in a towel and dressed her in the white Sunday dress for the trip to the morgue. 

Mama rose to fetch more water; there would be a need for more water for tea.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


The Liberty Bell’s Inscription:
Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof
Lev. XXV X
By Order of the ASSEMBLY of the Province of PENSYLVANIA [sic] for the State House in Philada
Pass and Stow

Fourth of July is an American birthright.  It was inherited by we Americans who have been fortunate enough to sing the victory of our founding fathers’ brave decision to declare us as a free nation in the face of a powerful sovereign.

It is in the peak of summer that we celebrate the original Declaration of Independence being finished and signed by a few of those founding fathers.  It is there, with bar-b-ques and pools and cold drinks that we celebrate, later watching fireworks that remind us of the wars that were fought for our independence. 

It was a gutsy move back then... thirteen colonies and their leaders (then at war with Great Britain) signing a formal document that said they regarded themselves as independent states, and no longer British Colonies.  It was as if they were saying that regardless of the outcome of the war, the states were independent.

 It was high treason.

After Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration on July 4, a handwritten copy was sent a few blocks away to the printing shop of John Dunlap. Through the night Dunlap and his two man staff printed about 200 (a small feat in those days) for distribution.

Four days after it was signed, the Declaration of Independence was taken to be read publically to all American citizens.   

In Philadelphia, a man named  John Nixon read it out loud (mainly because of the quality of his voice)  in the yard of Independence Hall on July 8 (not the fourth).  Although Philadelphia is the most renowned reading, other public readings also took place on that day in Trenton, New Jersey, and Easton, Pennsylvania.

Bells were rung to announce the reading of the document and to summon the town to come.  The most famous of which, called the Liberty Bell,  still hangs (cracked) at Independence Hall.

The truth about the Liberty Bell is that it was not made (or rung) correctly.  The bell itself was cracked the day that it arrived in Philadelphia, and was twice recast by local workmen John Pass and John Stow, who signed it for all the world to see.  But that day, as on all days since, the Liberty Bell was rung regardless of its defects, to call all citizens to come and hear...our version of liberty. 

I love the story of the Liberty Bell.  It shows that here, on earth, there is no such thing as perfect liberty.  Perfect liberty exists when freedom reigns without any contradictions.  The founding fathers owned slaves, denied women (and the poor) the right to vote, and regarded children as property.  Their version of liberty was that they be free from tyrannical reign.

Still, their leadership inspired a reaction that fueled Americans to win an un-winnable war against the best-equipped army in the world at the time.

After hearing the Declaration, crowds in many cities tore down and destroyed signs or statues representing British reign or royalty. An equestrian statue of King George in New York City was pulled down and the lead used to make musket balls.

That’s the way we roll.

Happy Fourth of July.  

Monday, July 2, 2012


Me and Mario in Sudan

My story of immigration is not about me coming to America – it is about me leaving America.

There can’t be an entry without an exit (in the realm of immigration) and that seems to be the greatest lesson I’ve learned in this area. 

To me, immigrants were sickly, thin people making their way from the old country on a ship and being processed on Ellis Island.  Quarantined for typhus or pneumonia or the flu.  I never thought the term would apply to me, an American girl, formerly content to stay in her home country near her family. 

It wasn’t until I visited Africa that I realized that my life and my future dreams were seriously altered.  It was in a Malawian village, sitting on a ground filled with ants, surrounded by village children, that I realized I was born for this.  I was trained from the day I was born until that day to get my American butt off its comfortable chair and give myself to the work that everyone here was doing. 

When we came to South Africa, it was because of Oliver Tambo.  Not the man, the airport.  Our friends, a  team of Christian missionaries (they’d kill me if they saw me use those words...but it is the best way I can make people understand what we do) invited us to be permanent part of the work they were doing into Africa.  The airport was the hub to get everywhere – in the South of Johannesburg.   Their invitation came after several trips we took in and out of Africa; and it made sense.  

It was already in our hearts.

Let that be the first part of my immigration story.  The second part is that once we decided to come, we were introduced to the un-welcome mat of a government bureaucracy that had taken on a stance that they loved visitors, but were careful with immigrants. 

The bureaucracy I am speaking of is the one that is responsible for processing all applications for residency, simply called “Home Affairs”.  It sounds like such a friendly place, doesn't it?  It even has the word "home" in it.  We were first welcomed as “Temporary Residents” once we submitted a ream of paperwork : chest x-rays (to prove we didn’t have active tb), blood tests (to prove we didn’t have HIV/AIDS, tb, or all the strains of hepititus) and inoculations (against yellow fever, tb and all the strains of hepititus).  This we had to do before we were welcomed as TEMPORARY residents into South Africa, with a visa that lasted four years.  After staying for three years (without getting paid by any agency here or at home) we had to declare whether we would be going home or staying – if the latter, we would have to apply for PERMANENT residency. 

Once we had permanent residency, we would be able to collect an income (a small one, but it would help to supplement  Mario’s retirement), get a bank checking account and obtain an I.D. number (similar to a social security number).  The desire to become permanent residents fought with the desire to go back home....

Both made sense.

On one hand, we were doing our life’s work in a country we loved and felt “planted in”; on the other hand, we had four kids, five grandchildren and siblings and parents in the States.  Ministry vs. Family.   Ask any foreign missionary and they will tell you that family is the greatest pull back home. 

Even more than Mexican food.

We  had to follow the whole application process all over again, complete with an interview.  We submitted the same paperwork twice in Pretoria and Johannesburg and it was refused at the counter.  Why?  Our American doctors signed off health checks on 8”x10” paper, rather than A5 (a slightly skinnier and taller piece of paper which is standard here). 

We submitted a package again in Bloemfontein (in the Free State – 4 hours away, but with greater efficiency in their employees) and found that our fingerprints had been returned by the F.B.I. as “unreadable”.  The man who took them in Johannesburg had smudged my thumb.  We had to re-submit, and I yearned for a digital fingerprint machine, just like the one we had back home....

By the time our second round of fingerprints came back from the F.B.I., our medical exams had expired by one week.  Another denial of paperwork. 

We had our South African doctors do the exams and the x-rays again (all at our own expense) and made ourselves ready for another trip to Bloemfontein. 

We were greeted by friendlier people, but still steeped in the same bureaucracy that was there for our first three applications.  We had to wait in line for three hours until someone took pity on us. 

I was seething by the time we got our interview. 

“Is this the way you treat applicants?” I wanted to say.  Mario threatened me not to say anything.  He’s usually right about these things. 

“So tell me,” the man (who drew the short straw to be our interviewer) said. “Why did you not apply in Johannesburg?”

“We did,” Mario said.  “They gave us an interview date three months away.”

“Ah,” he said.  “Yes, they are busy there.”  He leafed through all of our paperwork, held up our x-rays to the light.  “Ah, Janet has some scary lungs!”

My heart stopped, and I looked at him.

“I am joking!” he said, bursting into laughter.  “We don’t need these x-rays, just the report!”  He put the x-ray back into its sleeve, after giggling some more. 

I looked at Mario, who was politely laughing with him.  Mario has a way of knowing what makes people feel respected.  I thought the guy was taking some poor guy’s job who had lost it just for being white. 

Typical government employee....

I do not love South Africa’s government.  The once strong, powerful and longsuffering ANC (African National Congress) is now an inefficient entity plagued by corruption. 

When Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, the ANC was strong.  Everyone expected a drastic change in the country; his most zealous supporters admitted that they wanted him to somehow avenge the deaths of all of the fallen soldiers who had fought against the evil Apartheid system  by firing every white person in government positions.   He was expected to replace the all-white cabinet with his cronies (all capable people).  Instead, he built a transition government where people kept their jobs regardless of their skin color.  It somehow encouraged competency in all areas, even though the transition was understandably rough. 

As things progressed, the presidency was handed over to Thabo Mbeki and eventually our new president, Jacob Zuma.  Black Economic Empowerment is a standard for hiring in all government positions now.  It is very similar to America’s Affirmative Action of the 1970’s and ‘80’s (a moral initiative to redress the wrongs of the past), but it is designed to help the majority of the people, rather than the minority.  It was created to bring the black majority into the economic mainstream, specifically government jobs. 

While a noble idea, BEE is not a pragmatic one.  It does no one any favors and makes the inside of South Africa crippled by a different kind of inequality and injustice.  Practically speaking, it means that simple processes, like immigration, become unnecessarily expensive and nearly too frustrating to complete. 
So, we were given permanent residency, almost two years after we first applied.  We had to renew our temporary residency before we received it, since it would have expired while our applications were being considered for review...and we would have been here illegally then. 

I love South Africa.  I love its people, its sights, its sounds and its dysfunctional family (there are 11 National languages here).   I feel called to be here, working alongside my beautiful husband, where we do work that is service-oriented, but we have been given grace to do.  For some reason, the people here love us back...and we have made a home here.

Now, when I meet an immigrant, I have a different kind of empathy for them.  They have left behind their home, not just moved here from nowhere.  They have left families, comfort foods, weather, music, and their culture. 

On the 4th of July, I’ll be freezing my butt off in my new adopted homeland... and missing my family.