South Africa—I sit on the floor in a hotel room thousands of miles away from home, rubbing layers of mud out of my boots with citrus scented antibacterial wipes. I was cautioned to carry these wipes with me everywhere to avoid catching something on my first field visit to South Africa. I cycle through one, then two, then three, then four wipes, and the repetitive motions combine with exhaustion to put me into a sort of trance. As the dried, caked-on dirt stubbornly holds on to my sole, I think about the muddy trek earlier that day in Pietermaritzburg to visit Nonjabulo, the caretaker of orphans sponsored by IRUSA.
We walked and slid through a narrow dirt road and carefully climbed a hill that led us to the 28-year-old’s two-room home where she raises seven children on her own, ages four to fifteen.
As I replay the trip in my tired mind, I give up on cleaning my boots. The soil in South Africa refuses to wash away so easily, just as the memory of Nonjabulo clings to my conscience.
Don’t forget about us. Her last words to us echo in my thoughts accompanied by the still vivid background sounds of that afternoon: a rural orchestra of roosters and cattle, the tortured shrieks of a hog being poked at with a stick by a group of teenage boys, seven children giggling in and out of sight.
I said we wouldn’t forget. But as the words came out, they sounded like a promise and caught in my throat. She wasn’t asking to live in our memory.
I caught glimpses of hope in the form of tiny faces smiling brightly through the jagged edges of her home’s shattered windows — her home: tiny and worn, with the look of an abandoned, unfinished structure from afar. Yet inside its walls, a piping hot porridge cooked on the stove while some of the children crowded around a ten inch television watching cartoons. The others ran about outside near a lush vegetable garden that stood out against the otherwise barren yard. There was a warmth there: barely a house, but definitely a home.
Nkosinathi and Lindokuhle, two of her orphaned siblings, dreamed of becoming a police officer and a teacher. They wanted to serve their community, not fall victim to its corruption. I wished that they would never meet dangerous drugs like Whoonga, a widely popular street drug in Pietermaritzburg that contains stolen AIDS medication and rat poison. I knew the odds were against them, and that my wishes meant as much as a promise to never forget.
Standing there in the rain, I called out for Empathy and I felt like I couldn’t reach her. My life’s experiences laid out a path with too few bricks, and I stood there at the edge of what I knew. My heart stretched to fill the gap, and in that uncharted territory, I used landmarks I recognized to guide my way: love, laughter, hope.
Overwhelmed, I focused on my task. I took their photographs, carefully framing their perfect faces, wondering if their beauty came from their unknowingness or from knowing too much. I thought about sharing their faces online across different feeds, their photos more free than they. I held them in my frame a little longer.
I came to South Africa prepared with vaccinations and sanitizers to avoid catching something. What I was not prepared for, though, was that which would catch hold of me. A fever of a different nature–I don’t know what to call it, but it found me in Nonjabulo’s home.
I pack away my boots in my suitcase. I plan to track that resilient soil of South Africa wherever I go, for as long as I can, carrying with it all the stories I have collected along the way.