Gondeni’s Lesson for All of Us

By Tess Scarborough

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Arriving in our homestay village was an experience different than any I’ve experienced in the past. I was feeling optimistic and excited leading up to the homestays but once we dropped off the first group of students, the nerves began to kick in. It’s like going to a theme park and being eager and excited until the seatbelt is fastened and the ride begins to move. I wanted to turn back and run, but I didn’t at the same time. Children awaited our arrival into our own village, Gondeni. Bright smiles flashed at us from all directions. As we got all of our bags, gifts, and water containers into the house, they “patiently” waited outside, trying to be quiet but whirring at what the presence of the makua (white person) could mean.  Our translator, Tshumelo, immediately threw us into the mix and told us to bring out some gifts to break the ice with the children. Not wanting to cause a huge scene, my group members and I decided to bring out just candy and stickers to start with. Once that wave of outstretched hands and pushing and shoving to get closer had ended, we reappeared with a brand new soccer ball. For some reason, when we were inside our living quarters, we just could not manage to keep the air inside the ball, and it kept deflating. We were worried about disappointing the kids but we shouldn’t have because once we brought it out, the game was on.

The children bombarded us trying to reach at our hands to hold on the way to the soccer field. By this time, I had already fallen in love with a young girl named (Magwani??) who was sweet, quiet, and playful. The three of us from the program were given a random assortment of kids to be on our soccer team, and I was pleased to find her on mine. My team was the first team off the field, so at first, I just got to hang out with the kids and try to break the ice a little bit. I don’t know why I do this when I’m uncomfortable, but I just started dancing and doing other weird things like squatting and jumping. It worked, I think. The kids started laughing at me and imitating my movements. We were called into the game, and I don’t think I got a chance to get off that field until it was time to return home for lunch.

We arrived back at the randvaal which is a local style of hut that is decorated with the traditional garment called a munwenda. Colorful lines cross over each other in a style similar to plaid if I had to describe it. Manure floors intersect with the clean white walls of the randvaal, and there is no smell that you might expect. For lunch we enjoyed an arrangement of pap (cornmeal dish that is reminiscent of porridge), two creamed spinach dishes in which to dip the pap, and frozen bananas and apples.

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After relaxing for a mere moment after lunch, we headed out for a walk where we would meet some of the other groups over a nearby “mountain”, which honestly felt like a hill to all of us Colorado folks. On the way there, a dog came snarling, barking, and sprinting at us from inside someone’s backyard. I froze, trusting the kids to act in a manner that was appropriate. One kid ran and the dog trailed behind them, snapping at their ankles. The dog was called off and returned to its home. The kids seemed unafraid and laughed it off. I pretended I almost didn't need new pants.

At the top, there was a beautiful view, and this is where we kept an eye for the approaching groups. The kids taught us how to forage these berries from the bush, and I was surprised how little nutrition must be in them, and how many you would have to eat to become full. We saw the group approaching, so we began our descent down. Children that couldn’t have been more than three years old were clambering down this mountain barefoot as if they have been doing it for years. Stepping on sharp stones and accidently getting too close to the thorny bushes and being side-swiped seemed to have no effect on them. There was no time for tears, it appeared, when it was playtime. When we reached the bottom and began playing, and to say the games were rough would be an understatement. They have this game in which if somebody laughs, the entire group surrounds them and essentially beats the perpetrator from all angles. The surprising aspect of all this was the overall mood of the children. The only time I saw someone crying or upset was when they got pushed out of holding my hand. To which, my hand was quickly returned. No tears were shed from the beating, covering the rough terrain, or gathering small berries to try and appease the normalized level of hunger.

This concept intrigued me. Back home in America, you see people who have everything, complaining about everything. Their food took thirty minutes to come out at the restaurant, traffic was crazy on their way to their cushy job, their air conditioner is acting up again. It seems as if these problems consume the worries and negative thoughts of an entire day, causing them to miss out on the joy all around them, waiting to be noticed. Here in Gondeni, joy comes from each other's laughter, a game of soccer, singing all together in unison to a game everybody seems to know, a sticker of Simba proudly displayed on their shirts or hands. Every single aspect of this life is hard. Getting enough clean water to do the cleaning, cooking, and drinking, being able to afford seeds at the market so they can hopefully grow a successful crop, praying no one gets injured or sick because a visit to the doctor is just ultimately out of the question. These are real problems, problems of life and death. Problems that put ours to shame. The less you compare yourself to others, the less you can pity yourself and feel as if you are falling behind. The more you focus on your family and friends, the more you can find all of the blessings you share within each other. Thank you Gondeni for teaching me this lesson.

Natalie Miller