Thursday, February 28, 2013


This is the last in a series I call
 "Top Ten Things I Would Have Never Said in America"  
I know it's long, but it's worth it.  

Me and Portia outside of the Junxion Center

1.  My best friend lives in the township.

When we first moved to South Africa it was to join a larger team that was already here – a team of people who worked into all of Africa- rugged folk that drove 4x4’s and said things like “All for Jesus” and lived it.
We did a “trial move” before we moved out here permanently- South Africa was a place we had only visited and we were advised to see if we could really live here.  The last nine posts have illustrated the “subtle differences” between life in the USA vs. life in South Africa.

On our trial move, we hunkered down in Joburg and started attending Junction Church, a cutting edge church that had its population split right down the middle: half were folk from Northern suburbs (the upscale neighborhoods that surround us) and half were from Diepsloot (the local township). 

I have not stated the obvious in my last posts: the disparity between rich and poor; white and black; have and have-nots here in South Africa was a bucket of ice water in my face.  It was shocking and terrible and most days I screamed within myself; demanding why the world around me wan't as shocked as I was. 

Junction Church seemed to be breaking through economic, social, and racial barriers more than any other church we  saw here.  We learned so much in that first year about the whole country.  Our teachers came mainly from the eldership. 

Portia and Thembe's White Wedding
The Junction eldership (the people who steered the church) were as diverse as its membership – I had never met a team so different in personality and giftings.  One of the elders, Thembe, we had previously met when we did a trip to Malawi.  Thembi and his family lived in the “church house” – a place that was on the site of our future church building.  

Thembe was from Zimbabwe, married to a young bride named Portia.  They had two children: Darely  (pronounced “Darrell”) and Ebenezer (Ebi) – young kids that clung close to their mother.  Portia was incredibly beautiful and it was easy to see that she and Thembe were very happy – despite having gone through an already challenging life together. 

“You are older than Portia,” Mario joked with him one day.  “How did you get her to marry you?” 

“I am secretly very wealthy,” Thembe joked back.  “Portia spends all my money.”

We relied on Thembe for something very important: he translated the Diepsloot culture for us.  Should we give money for someone who is asking us at church?  Should we not?  Why are funerals held on Saturdays?  What is the importance of tribal practices to the people vs. Christian beliefs?

Thembe never tired of our questions.  He had a slow, deliberate explanation for everything.  All the while he smiled. 

After our trial move we decided to come back and live in South Africa. 

When we came back to South Africa, six months later, Thembe was very sick.  He was remarkably thin and had contracted TB.  The whole church was concerned. 

“Thembe, you must get well,” Mario told him one day when he took him to the clinic.  “When you do, we’ll take you and your family to the ocean.”  Thembe and Portia had never seen the ocean – ever.

“When I get well,” Thembe said, weakly.  “We will go.”   

Six months later he weighed so little that Mario would carry him into the clinic when they went.  One day, during a visit, Thembe asked Mario a favor.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to see the ocean,” he whispered, weakly.  “But will you take Portia?” 

Mario came home weeping.  Two days later Thembe died.

All of Junction mourned.

A giant hole was left where he once was.  Then there was the issue of Portia – his young bride.  Darely and Ebi – his kids.  They buried him in Zimbabwe during the time of starvation under Mugabe’s rule, taking in supplies for the family.

We checked in with Portia every other day for weeks.  I would visit and just sit there, not knowing what to say.  I couldn’t very well ask her how she was.  She was messed up.

“What can I do for you?” I once asked her. 

“Pray,” she smiled.  “All we can really do for each other is pray.”

She meant it. 

Portia soon moved into Diepsloot.  The church house was being leveled in order to make room for the new building.  I wondered how she would do it. 

“See, there is the tap,” she beamed as she showed me around her new place.  She had a new home close to a tap.

Portia’s new home was a converted boxcar, surrounded by shacks in extension 9, one of the outer extensions.  It was big enough to hold her bed, her dressing cupboard, a couch and chair and a cupboard for dishes.  It was decorated tastefully, even having curtains just like ours.

“Did you get those from Georgine?” I asked.

“Yes,” she laughed.  “I saw you have the same ones at your place.”

“All of our curtains are from Georgine,” I said.  “We have a lot windows and when we first got here she covered all of them.”

Mutual friends; mutual interests; a shared love for God.  Portia and I slowly started to get to know one another better. When Diepsloot was out of water we would “fetch Portia” to get some.  We watched her come out of her shell  and take a job with ITCC, becoming proficient on the computer. 

She was coming into her own, we would say in the States.

“Do you want to come over one night and watch a movie?” I asked her.  We had a movie projector and I knew the boys would like it. 

“It’s too late for me,” she laughed.  “I fall asleep early.”

“I’ll pick you up at three and then you can spend the night,” I told her.  “Then when you wake up we can go to church together.”

She considered it. 

“Alright,” she said, once she thought about it.  “It will be nice to have one night out of the township.” 

The movie nights on Saturday turned into monthly times together.  Darely and Ebi became like adopted grandchildren to us.  We would have pizza making nights; hamburger making nights; KFC nights; parties for the boys’ birthdays… Parties for Portia’s birthdays. 

We especially celebrated when Portia turned 30.

“I finally have made it,” she laughed.  “Now when Craig calls up all the young kids under thirty I don’t have to go up there.”

I laughed at the stuff she would say.

“I’m getting fat,” I’d tell her.

“I’m worse,” she’d say.  We’d laugh together.

“I spilled my Coke Light,” I told her once.  “As soon as I bought it from Dischem I went outside and I spilled it.”

“That’s worse,” she’d say, laughing.

Portia had little sayings that made me guffaw.  One of them was “That’s worse,” meaning that life can’t get any harder than that moment.  It was always about something trivial, like spilling a coke or bread getting moldy. 

In our second year here, one of our scheduled movie nights found us without Mario.  He had gone home to be with our family; an emergency that worried me greatly.  Portia could tell.

“Let’s go pray while the boys watch the movie,” she said.  We walked out to the kitchen and Portia brought her Bible. 

“I have a verse for you today,” she said.  “It is from first Samuel, listen.  ‘And David said, "Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan's sake?"’(2 Samuel 9:1)
I listened. 

“I think when God considers us,” she said.  “He takes into account that he wants to be good to our family – He wants to show them kindness for our sake.”

I was touched in my heart.  Portia had already been praying for me. 

Friendship is something that is very sneaky sometimes.  It comes up behind you and supports you in a way that you grow dependent on.  You even start leaning on it, learning to trust it.  This is how friendship happens. 

I crossed over from “I feel responsible for Portia” to “Portia is a rather special friend” that night of prayer.  I started to ask her for prayer all of the time.  I would confide in her and she knew my hopes, my fears, and my dreams.  And I knew hers.

One of our sleepovers  
She hosted a group of ladies at her house every Thursday night:  prayer for the neighborhood.  She would participate in all-night prayer meetings; go to other ladies’ prayer retreats where they fasted for  a whole weekend.

“You put my prayer life to shame,” I once joked with her. 

“Don’t say that, Janet!” she laughed.  “I am not performing.”

She wasn’t…she was just inspiring me. 

The last sleepover we had with Portia was last Saturday, a night when Dumi and his kids came as well.  It was Ebenezer’s ninth birthday.

“You know Ebi has been having birthday parties at your house since he was three,” Portia said on the drive over. 

I couldn’t believe it; then I flashed back. 

I met Ebi when he peeked over Portia’s shoulder, too shy to lift his head.  Darely was still holding on the the edge of her skirt; now he looked just like Thembe.  I met Portia when she was twenty five.  She was a shy bride with two babies.  Now she was a confident young woman; a leader in her community.  A woman known for her integrity.

An inspiration to me. 

Portia loves me for some strange reason.  She has seen me weepy, angry, desperate, selfish and in traffic.  She trusts me, even though I have failed her more than once.  She prays for me as if she were my sister, my mom or my daughter.

In a way, she is all three.

When I told her I was leaving this year, she was very quiet.  We ate dinner afterwards, where she told me that I should have delivered the news after dinner .  We were both a mess. 

“How am I going to say goodbye?” I asked Mario, tearfully after we went to bed.
On our beach vacation in Scottburgh
“We’ll be back,” he said.  “You don’t have to say goodbye.”

I agreed, that we would be back, I just knew that our everyday lives would be different; on a different continent.  Saying goodbye to Portia represents saying goodbye to all that is right with South Africa and what drew us here. 

She represents a warm-heartedness and “surviving while smiling”.  She shines with special-ness,  under the toughest of circumstances.  She inspires me and has made me a better person; a better friend.

“It’s a shame you can’t take Portia when you go,” one of my friends said to me.  It is a shame, a shame for me. 

But removing Portia from South Africa would be like shoplifting a blessing from where she lives.  As I feel about her, so her neighbors feel in bucket loads.  They rely on her maybe even more than I do.  She ministers and teaches in her community; in our church; in her family.

She is the egoli of the egoli city. 

So I have to strategize how I will tear myself away, knowing that this kind of ripping means I will be bleeding profusely as I leave her.

That’s worse.

This smilebox is one I made of the years I have known Portia.                           Click on the arrow to play.

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