This is the field that I see from my porch, where the grasses are being burned to allow for growth of new grass

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Welcome to “The Kwaz”

On the morning of September 2nd I left Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal Province after 10 long, wonderful, and intense days of orientation on an InterCape Bus headed toward Estcourt. I got off the bus an hour and a half later, getting to my placement site before some of my fellow South Africa YAGMs had even left for theirs. I was picked up at the drop-off site (a gas station on the side of the highway) by Mama Mchunu, a gracious and calm woman who manages the KwaZamokuhle Diaconic Centre and who is also my host and site coordinator. I was then dropped off at the grocery store in “town”, Estcourt: a very small city with busy streets and almost entirely made up of stores of all kinds and of course the Nestle factory in the middle of town which, not that I mind, makes it smell of the instant coffee that is produced there. After my first glimpse of Estcourt we head to the Centre, where I will be living and working in the community. We drive on a highway for about 10 minutes and then turn down a bumpy dirt road only to turn off this more main road onto a smaller street covered in grass at the entrance of the KwaZamokuhle Diaconic Centre, which means, in isiZulu, the “Place Where We Try Our Best”.

KwaZamokuhle, a.k.a. “The Kwaz” as I found out SA alums like to call it, is located in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal, like Pietermaritzburg, in the North-Eastern part of South Africa. It is about two hours to the coast where the land meets the Indian Ocean, and about a six hour drive to Johannesburg. KwaZamokuhle is in a very rural area despite it’s proximity to town, with a very quiet and peaceful feel to the surrounding fields and hills.

When we arrived at the Centre, I unloaded my (way too many) bags out of the car and into what will be my home for the next eleven months. Unpacking felt truly wonderful after living out of a year’s worth of suitcases for almost three weeks. The flat that I’ve begun to call home is the perfect size for one person and has a bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a cozy living room area with a table, a desk, and some chairs for any potential visitors. Outside there is a porch with a bench to sit on and look out over the truly beautiful view of some fields and a gradually sloping hill that is shaped somewhat like a volcano.

The land here is mountainous as we are located at the foothills of the Drakensburg Mountains. Many of the mountains are shaped like mesas, which makes the land look somewhat like the Southwest of the United States. Even the earth and rock faces in the mountains are red like the red-clay earth in Arizona and New Mexico.

It is the end of winter here so the grasses in the fields are dry and yellowed. Soon, it will start to rain and everything will turn green. For now, the earth is parched and it often smells of burning. This is because it is burning season here, as many people have told me, and landowners will burn the tall dry grasses to prepare the soil for new crops to be planted in the Spring and to allow green grasses to grow so goats and cattle can graze freely. Where the grasses have been burnt the ground is black and the trunks of trees that haven’t burned entirely are scorched.

It seems like this could be the only place where Palm Trees and Pine Trees could live next to one another in the same climate. The variety of trees here truly amazes me. There are trees with short, thin trunks that sprawl out wide at the top seemingly to soak in as much sunlight as possible. There are trees with wide trunks and roots that are the size of large trees themselves, and have smaller trees growing out of them. There are orange trees, peach trees, pine trees, and palm trees, all living in harmony.

There are two birds that have built a nest out of mud in the corner of my porch.
They have split tails, like swallows and their wings are so dark blue that they’re almost black, but when the sun shines on them you can see that they’re not. Their chests are speckled with black spots and underneath are a dusty pinkish color. Their heads are the color of goldenrod. They make the strangest bird call, nothing like I’ve ever heard before, and I am amazed at the workmanship of their mud-nest. There are so many birds here, ones I had never even imagined. Every morning when I go anywhere, I walk past a grove of trees that is so loud with the sound of birds that I can almost hear nothing else. One day I saw a bird that was electric blue and iridescent. Today I saw some very small birds that were turquoise with grey wings. I only wish I had the names for this astounding variety of birds living here. It reminds me of my grandmother whenever I see interesting birds as I remember she so loved to stand in her kitchen and look out the window with her elbows resting on the sink to watch the birds go by.

On my first night at KwaZamokuhle, after I had unpacked and it was dark, around 9 o clock, I went outside onto my porch and I think I saw more stars than I have ever seen before. I was truly in awe of the beauty of it, and was thankful for the little to no light pollution where I am placed, in rural South Africa.

As I have now been here for two weeks, I am getting accustomed to the quiet and the solitude, but it is still a struggle for me to be so far from home and knowing very little of the language. However as the name of the Centre here reminds me, this is the place where we try our best. And thus, I am only expected to and I only can try my best to find my place and purpose here over the next eleven months. I am beyond grateful for those here who have surrounded me with gracious support as well as those at home who have sent me their love and are accompanying me along my way.

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A YAGM (Young Adults in Global Mission) year is a year that encompasses many things. First, it is a year of accompaniment, which the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) defines as: “walking together in solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality. In this walk, gifts, resources, and experiences are shared with mutual advice and admonition to deepen and expand our work within God’s mission.” Accompaniment is being in community with the people around you and allowing life to happen naturally. There is no leader and no follower, but we each are moving together through our journeys. Accompaniment can take all forms. You can accompany someone by having a conversation (ingxoxo in Zulu), going to church with them, laughing with them, crying with them, praying for them, or sending them letters. Each person who reads this is accompanying me on my journey. Everyone at home who sends me their love and support is accompanying me. And as a Young Adult in Global Mission I have agreed to live in accompaniment (solidarity, mutuality, and interdependence) with my community in South Africa. And, in all of this, Christ accompanies all of us on our journeys in life. As we walk, there is God our Parent walking beside us. As we weep, Jesus weeps with us. The Holy Spirit works alongside us as we go through life. This is accompaniment.

 A YAGM year is also a year of vulnerability. This year I will be making myself vulnerable to my community in South Africa, my fellow SA YAGMs, and to the world at large. In this vulnerability I may feel weak and unprotected, but it will give me so much more room to grow and feel genuine love and compassion for those around me. During orientation in Chicago we spoke about being a servant and becoming vulnerable in servanthood. It is one thing to serve others, but quite another to become a servant. Serving others still allows some measure of control (deciding who, when, where and how to serve), but becoming a servant eliminates that control and makes a person truly vulnerable in that embodied service.

Fourth, this is a year of simple living within a community.  As part of accompaniment I have agreed to live on a small stipend and have limited phone and internet access. I will budget with that stipend for everything that I will need, and I will live as a part of my community. Through a year of simple living I hope to learn what it is we really need to nourish our souls: a roof over our heads, an offer of food from a stranger, communion, compassion.

In this year I will be challenged to get outside of my comfort zone so that I can grow in mind, body, and spirit. Allowing myself to be challenged will help me grow in faith and better understand who I am. This is a year of discernment where I will learn more about myself and who I want to become through these challenges. I hope and pray to come out of this year having a better idea of what I could be both in my career as well as spiritually. 

My YAGM year is a year of both learning and making mistakes. I want to look at the world with wonder and simply take in all that I can take in. I want to learn the languages that are spoken around me and the way people speak to one another. I want to learn the history of South Africa and the reasons for how we got to where we are today. I also know I will make mistakes along the way, which I cannot say will be easy for me. However, I will make mistakes and from those mistakes will learn how to better live in community and accompaniment with my neighbors. 

Lastly, a YAGM year is a year of stories. There are stories that we tell and stories that we hear. We have stories of ourselves and we listen to stories of others and to God’s story. As these converge we have the story of us, and that is the most beautiful one of all. This year I hope to better understand this story of us and begin to learn how to tell it with joy, love, hope, peace, understanding, and thoughtfulness. 

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