Growing up. For some, it just seems to happen one time. It is the day one graduates from college, the moment one says “I do,” and the instant one hears her baby cry for the first time. Or, it may just occur on a simple day like every other day. For instance, a young woman glances in the mirror, and notices her first wrinkle. She panics, but only for a second as her grandmother’s words ring in her mind, “My, my. Look at you, all grown up.” For others, like me, growing up does not happen all at once, but it is about becoming who one is created to be. Most of all, growing up is about finding my purpose and hope.
The process started one sunny day when I was a little fair-skinned and blond six-year-old, living in southern California. On this day, my mom had given me my weekly allowance to spend at the local toy store. Happily, I skipped down the aisles to claim my prize: a beautiful black baby doll with a sundress that resembled my own. Her ebony skin was happy and almost appeared warm; she was perfect.
My mom walked up behind me, stooping to pick up another baby out of the basket, she inquired, “ Jennifer, don’t you want a baby that matches your own skin? Did you see the little white babies in here?”
Appalled, I looked at my mom. “Mommy! This is my baby, Hope. She is beautiful and I am adopting her!”
During my fourteenth year, as Hope sat neatly in a basket with my once-loved toys of the past, I slouched in my world history class, in hopes to quiet my gurgling stomach. It was almost lunch period and the clock was ticking away precious time I could be spending with my middle school friends. Exasperated that the class was not paying attention due to the pre-lunch lull, our teacher shut off the lights.
Once she had our attention, she smiled and said, “Just a little food for thought.” She pushed play.
Brilliantly colored fabrics and huts panned the screen. Images of half-clothed children smiled and danced in front of the camera. The video soon zoomed in on their lice-infested hair, bloated stomachs, blistered feet, and infected sores. A narrator’s voice explained that most of these children had been orphaned by a pandemic sweeping the African continent called AIDS.
My heart was screaming in my chest, Please, do something! Ashamed of my innocent ignorance about the devastation poured onto these children, my eyes welled with tears. The lunch bell rang and my classmates ran to the door to join the lunch stampede. I, however, sat in my chair completely numb. My teacher tinkered around with the video player and finally asked if I needed anything.
I managed to smile, tear-streaks and all, “ I don’t think I can eat lunch if those little babies have no chance of eating today.”
A few more tears snuck out from behind my eyelids. My teacher smiled, “You have a lovely heart and that is a good thing. It’s okay to go get lunch. God has blessed you with what you have been given for a reason. You can use that to change things.”
The rest of the day was spent in a numb fog, as I barely even heard the bells. Finally, the sixth period bell rang, snapping me out of my daze. I dragged myself to my art class and sat with a blank piece of paper in front of me. My mess of emotions flew tears and colors onto the paper and by the end of class a beautiful African queen was staring up at me. She was every color of the rainbow. Red danced upon her brow, while blue painted her eyelids. Yellow accented her cheekbones and purple twirled through her hair. She was perfect, hopeful and complete. I was exhausted.
Years of paintings ensued, as Africa continued to be my main subject. Every time I came across a child that I could not physically help, I painted him or her. My mind raced with the images of the orphans, and I could not produce paintings fast enough. I won many awards through my art making and secured a spot in the art department of a southern California university. In my third year at college, I was offered a chance of a lifetime: to serve on a college team traveling to South Africa. My job: to teach art to the orphans.
Months of preparation brought us to the day when we finally arrived in Africa. To see the faces of children similar to those I had been painting for years was phenomenal. As we walked through the township of Kayamandi, children pointed and ran to us.
“Umlungu! Umlungu! (White people!)” they shouted excitedly in their language of Xhosa.
They held out their hands, and smiled for “sweeties.” Most people that briefly toured the township would feel a twinge of guilt and reach in their pockets to slip the begging children a leftover after-dinner mint from a restaurant, or their last stick of gum.
Shaking my head, I said, “No sweeties, but hugs.”
I did not travel over twenty-four hours, prepare eight months to teach, or dedicate eight years of creating art just to give out guilt gum to these precious children. I was not here to hand over a quick afterthought of a dinner mint; I was here to hand over some love. Love and hope for the children of Kayamandi.
After being in Africa for a few weeks, I met my dear friend Nothemba. She was beautiful. Wild cornrows framed her soft face and she stood straight and dignified. Nothemba served as my mentor, spiritual advisor, and best friend throughout my stay in Africa.
One day, I asked Nothemba to tell me her life story. The twenty-eight year old woman began to weave a poetic tale of her womanly strength. She shared of her adoration of her daughter’s birth when she was fourteen, her young love for her husband when she was nineteen, and through her tears, I learned of her tragedy at twenty-two from one fatal knock on the door. It was the Mafia, the Xhosa and Zulu African gang in search of wealth, fame and power.
“In Africa, we are a family, a community. We share love; we share life. My husband opened the door of our shack expecting to see a brother, but was confronted by a foe. The Mafia had come to our home. My husband was calm and told them to take what they wanted, but that was not enough for them. They shot him dead. They shot me too, the bullet glided right in front of my spine. I lay there pretending to be dead until they left. They took everything from us except what the hospital could spare: my daughter and me.”
Tears filled my eyes as I witnessed my friend’s tragedy told in her own words. I then asked Nothemba what her name meant.
A sparkle reflected through her tears, “Why Sissy, my name means Hope.”
My mouth dropped. I couldn’t believe it. I had been destined to meet Nothemba from the time I first picked up my baby doll Hope at six years old. I shared the baby doll story with Nothemba that day and made her a solid promise that if I adopted a little girl one day, her name would be Hope. She hugged me tearfully and I knew that I could never forget my promise.
In late March of this year, I learned of the fire in Kayamandi from other teachers I had served with on my team. It was as if the wind was knocked out of me, for these African friends of mine were like brothers and sisters to me. I quickly emailed my students and friends in Africa, finding out that 22 sponsored children from Horizon International, and one of my art students whom I have remained in close contact with had lost everything.
As Phumlani wrote: “ I am busy rebuilding and I got the material to rebuild. Since all my stuff got burned I have to start from scratch. I did get some support from other people for clothes…. the major problem now is house stuff like furniture: a table, chairs, bed, gas or paraffin stove since we don’t have electricity yet. Since I also lost my computer from that fire… I am stuck with school stuff and other work. I lost my art portfolio … so still confused on how to begin a new start. I will be grateful for your help my friend!”
A few weeks later in an update about rebuilding progress he shared, “in side of all these rusted shacks I can see hope in the eyes of many people…hope that some day they will move to better housing…. and poverty still remain as other issue in this community.”
Phumlani always had a big smile on his face when we would start art class, and joked with me asking if I thought he would fit in my suitcase, so he could come visit America, a place he has always wanted to travel. He, along with another 4,500 people lost their homes, security and shelter. But, the amazing thing about the African people is when tragedy strikes, they open their eyes and hope radiates within them. Hope fuels their fiery passion inside, for promises waiting to be fulfilled and for desire for a well-lived life. This is why I am proud to be a sister to these brothers and sisters in our world. This is what fuels me to do all that I can to empower them.
Currently, my life is here in the States, but Africa is with me daily. I have felt that from the time I was six years old, my growing up has been all about my mission to help children in Africa.
Now that I have met the children, I feel desperation to help in a tangible way. Years ago, my middle school teacher told me that I could use the blessings I had been given to help others. I keep painting for this reason. My current series of paintings is comprised of portraits of the orphaned children that I met and worked with during my stay in Africa, as well as scenic paintings of the African Bush and Townships. My goal is to send the proceeds back to South Africa to help with clothing, food, rebuilding and education.
I know that growing up for me is not about happening, but becoming. The act of becoming starts the life-long process of learning and gaining wisdom from experience. The process started one sunny day when I was six years old. Today the process continues, as I help one life at a time through my search to give and find hope in Africa.
Tonight, I invite you to make a difference in this South African community’s life. It will impact the futures of many children, showing their nation the kindness and compassion that wealthy Americans can have. I have never regretted giving what I can to those who need it more than I do. However, I have regretted the times that I don’t.
Join with me – “Siyathemba Kayamandi”…“We hope for a Sweet Home.”