We’re back in the states. After seven days in South Africa, we spent about twenty-four hours traveling to Michigan. We got home, unpacked our suitcases, started laundry, and tried to re-acclimate ourselves to our former lives before reality struck this morning.
Several hours later, I’ve already taught three sections of students and interacted with a number of people who wondered, “Well, how was your trip?” I’m really glad they asked, because as I answered people, I began to learn what impact this trip to South Africa has had on me.
It became rather clear early in the journey that our purpose, or at least my purpose, was to be an observer. This was a new role for me. Often I am a leader, presenter, director, and planner. This past week, I was a follower, listener, observer, and receiver. In this role, I was free to take in South African culture, to hear the stories of a variety of people, to let go of responsibility, and to bear witness to the contrast between my life in the United States and the lives of the people I met in South Africa.
First of all, although I often think I need more, I recognize now how much I have in contrast with many of the people I saw. For example, I complained at the beginning of my semester because the classroom where I teach didn’t come equipped with dry erase markers or an eraser, even though it did come equipped with a computer, projection, and wifi. I easily purchased a pack of markers and an eraser for less than $5, a textbook was provided to me, and I am paid a fair salary to teach under 25 students in each of my three classes. In contrast, my colleagues in South Africa have no internet in their classrooms at all — not even dial-up. They have a few mostly outdated textbooks, worn posters on the walls, drying up markers, and classrooms crammed with up to 40 students — and that was in a kindergarten class! And guys, despite the fact that they earn very little, they aren’t complaining. They are teaching and learning. The instructors are engaging their students. The students take pride in their work.
Yes, the contrast was palpable.
It was also evident in the ways that I noticed people interacting with one another. Each time people see each other during the day, they greet one another, “Good morning! How are you?” Even if they have seen each other several times, they still formally greet one another before they move on in conversation. This was a challenge for me! I am known to jump right in with “Hey, did you get my email?” For a week, I practiced acknowledging the person in front of me instead of the task that he or she could perform for me. The simple practice of speaking a greeting shifted my perspective. That, plus the fact that I had no real responsibilities, allowed me to see people and listen more carefully than I am typically apt to do.
In fact, I noticed today, here in Michigan, that I was looking at people in the eyes a bit more, listening a little more intently, worrying a little less about getting to the next task on my list. I hope it lasts.
The third difference I will note today is the energetic spirit I saw in the people of South Africa — particularly the black South Africans. Apartheid ended a number of years ago, but the differences and division between whites and blacks could not be more obvious. In one week’s time I noticed that black South Africans have less — less status, less power, less money, and less opportunity than the white South Africans. Yet they do not seem defeated. Their spirit propels them to walk great distances along red clay paths — rain or shine — to work and to school. They sit up tall in their classrooms, raise their hands high, and open their mouths to sing as they work, whether their tasks are menial or meaningful. Rather than seeming angry or sad, they exude joy! Their worship was filled with dancing, clapping, and even marching! They smiled, laughed, and played with one another — despite their seeming disadvantage. I was struck by this. I have not experienced the kind of disadvantage that all of them have experienced. I have led a life of plenty. I have not gone one day without food, clothing, or shelter in my fifty years of life. I have had every opportunity for education, employment, and entertainment that I have ever desired. Yet I am often discouraged, stressed, and even angry about what I don’t have.
So, you know what’s coming, don’t you? I opened my Bible study today and turned to the reading in Psalm 37. (I really can’t make this stuff up.) When I read the words, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart,” I pictured my new South African friends smiling, clapping, and dancing — delighting themselves in the Lord. They are happy and celebrating the fact that they have Him, regardless of the things that they don’t have.
I can learn a lot from these people. I think I have begun to.
Psalm 37: 23-24
The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way;
though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong.