By Marissa Nelson
Our hostmother, Joana, stepped into the rondoval with a tray of food and tea, she had the biggest smile on her face as though she had just been reunited with loved ones. We sat barefoot on the dung floor and greeted her in TshiVenda language. “Ndo livhuwa” we said to her which means “thank you” and she bowed to us then stepped back out. The four of us made tea as our translator, Pfunzo, explained to us that Rooibos tea is very popular in South Africa. The smell of the tea was a delightful relief from the overwhelming sting of cow poop. Joana gets paid to house and feed us which I’m sure lifts her spirits, but her genuine excitement to share her life with us was palpable.
She came back a few minutes later carrying another tray, this time with a meal. One of my peers had killed a chicken for breakfast that morning which Joana then plucked and cooked with a sauce that vaguely resembled curry. Pfunzo had explained to her that I am a vegetarian, so Joanna kindly brought me a separate bowl of boiled Mopani caterpillars. I graciously accepted them and put them aside as soon as she left. I didn’t want her to think her effort was unnoticed and I thought it was funny she considered them a vegetarian option. I had tried them earlier that day and did not care for them. They had a bitter taste and I couldn’t get past thelittle legs getting stuck in my teeth to try them again. She served us pap with every meal, which is a thick and sticky corn meal in a bread-like form. Pap is also very popular in South Africa and is used as a utensil to dip and scoop other food. I used it to scoop up the collard greens.
Toward evening time, we were corralled on Joana’s property by all the neighborhood children. The children seemed to continue pouring in from every tear in the wire fence around the homestead. There were so many of them and they were squealing with joy to see us. They sometimes referred to us as “Makuwa”, or “white things”, and it did not seem malicious but rather playful. They brought a couple drums and formed a circle where we were expected to sing and dance along with them. The kids had many rhythms and dance moves and we all struggled to keep up! My heart filled with love as these sweet little people welcomed us so quickly into their world. I could see past their torn clothing, their snot-covered noses, and their dirty feet. They were smart and creative and loving. Although they fought sometimes and pushed each other a lot, I could tell they all look out for each other and every single kid (in which there had to be at least 30) knew all the other kids’ names. It was inspiring to see such a tight community surrounding them.
That night, I laid down on the thin mat, which didn’t make a difference on the hard floor, and reflected on the day. Although I was not comfortable, I still felt a sense of peace and safety. The joy these people have amidst having barely enough water to last a week, a miniscule variety of foods, and little to no access to clothing or supplies, is inspirational. The people of the Damboni village are resilient, strong, resourceful, and kind. The school we visited seemed to take education seriously, the medical clinic director we spoke with cares a lot about the health of the community, and everyone shares a common passion for music and dancing. Ndo Livhuwa Damboni. Ndo Livhuwa Pfunzo and Ndo Livhuwa Joana for this experience. After settling into deep appreciation, I drifted asleep to the melodic sound of cow bells.