a Though God moved in a huge way all throughout my time in South Africa, He used a little girl named Gunsi (pronounced Hoon-see) to center His story around. Here is the journey God took me on with Gunsi and her family....
The South African sun eased steadily higher, welcoming the morning and promising a gloriously warm day. I smiled as I held a steaming cup of tea in my hand and settled down for a minute of quiet before the busy day began. The clear day was a true blessing after the cold day before. I shivered at the memory. The sound of the steady ping-ping-ping! Of cold rain splattering on the creshe’s tin roof and collecting into ever growing puddles underneath still echoed in my mind. Rain wasn’t normal for the time of the year, yet the formerly hard, dry clay welcomed the moisture and promised grass in return.
I couldn’t wait to get to the preschool, or, as we called it, the “creshe”. Jacques, a South African volunteer a bit older than me, would be arriving any minute. We’d load the car with the creshe’s groceries for the week, and then head to Ikageng to pick up the kids who lived too far away to walk to the creshe. The children attending ranged from wobbly two-year-olds to confident six-year-olds, each with their own unique personalities I had come to love. Because of the cold weather, they arrived wearing between four and six layers of clothes each, their arms losing almost all capability to bend because of it. I smiled at the memory and, after hearing Jacques drive up, drained the last little bit of hot tea and hopped up to leave. The bright morning smiled promisingly at me, and as we drove away, I wondered what God has in store for the day.
The two weeks I had been in living in Potchefstroom, South Africa equaled a lifetime in my mind. From the moment I caught my first glimpse of the African coast from the plane, I knew deep in my heart that I was home. The kids that first distanced themselves from me, both because I looked so strange and because they had learned in their few years not to trust anyone too easily, now called me by name and shrieked in delight when I complied to the many piggyback rides they begged for. To these kids I was known by many different names. Some called me “Mamani”, meaning Aunt. Others, attempting my name, called me “Miss Preety”, a name that never failed to make me smile. My favorite name, though, was from a little boy named Amolahong. On the young side of two years old, he associated me with Mrs. Mimi, the lady I lived with there. Therefore, to him I was a second Mimi, and my heart melted everytime he stared up at me saying, “Shop, Mimi! Shop!” The slang word “shop” was the American equivalent to “good day!”, and this little one delighted in making everyday special to this second “Mimi”.
By noon, I sat chatting with the teachers and eating “bop”, a thick, pasty, grits-like grain that was a staple in every meal. Turning to Ms. Kedi, my favorite teacher, I asked, “Have you always liked kids, Ms. Kedi? I mean, what motivates you to come work at the creshe everyday?” She smiled and stared off into the distance for a moment before replying, “Everyday I wake up, and I think to myself, ‘I want those kids to have a good future, I want them to be successful.’ And everyday I come because I love them.” Her words took me aback, and I sat silently musing over them for several minutes. Something began to change in my heart then. A new realm of understand began to open up to me as I realized something - I wasn’t on a mission to South Africa. South Africa was on a mission to me.
The next day is one that will be forever etched into my memory. Wednesday were always busy and long with ministry activities, yet this one would stand out as sacred in my mind forever. As the afternoon rolled around and naptime came, Ms. Kedi called me over to meet a few people living near the creshe. They were beautiful, full of so much potential, yet stuck in a rut that kept them trapped in a cycle of brokenness that felt like an unsurpassable mountain to attempting passing. As we walked, I asked, “Ms. Kedi, are there any little babies living near here?” She looked questioningly at me, and I explained. “I mean newborns – very young children.”
“There is one I know,” she answered quietly, “living there. The baby is very small. Her mother drank during the pregnancy and drinks now. The baby is not taken care of. Sometimes I go over to the house to bathe, clean, and feed the baby. She is so tiny.” Gogo (grandmother) Ida called to us just then, and we turned to talk to her, forgetting for the moment about the baby. A couple hours later, I heard Ms. Kedi talking excitedly to someone, and then turned to call me over. “Here she is!” she exclaimed, “My baby – the one I was telling you about.” She reached to untie the child off her mother’s back, and the mother immediately turned and walked away, leaving her child without looking back. As I stared into the bundle of blankets and soiled clothes, my eyes met the little girls. She looked pitifully up and let out a single tiny wail. She was painfully tiny and thin. I reached out to take her as Ms. Kedy murmured something to herself and held up the baby's ‘bottle’. “It’s water with sugar mixed in,” she explained disgustedly, and bent to pour out the cloudy brown liquid.
“Eight months,” I kept thinking, but I couldn’t fathom it. She was eight months old and wore a tiny preemie onesie that had shrunk even smaller from wash and wear. No matter how much I tried to comfort her, the tiny little girl would wail in a strained, pitifully weak voice before the cry faded into silence, and she sat too weak to continue. She was soaked with pee straight through her layers and blanket, and her clothes, tiny as they were, swallowed her up. She broke my heart. Her mother never came back for her, but when the evening came, Ms. Kedi filled up her tiny bottle with milk for a second time and sent her with her ten-year-old sister to her mother’s shack. “If the baby could be mine for two weeks,” she said quietly, “I would feed and care for her until she grew fat. But the mother would never let her go.”
“Will she make it?” I asked. Ms. Kedi sighed before replying,
“She can, but she needs food.”
“Take care of her, Ms. Kedi,” I pleaded. “Make sure she’s okay, please?” She nodded, the two of us still staring down the road where the child and her sister had disappeared in the shadows.
Gunsi during her rough season.
From that moment on, little Gunsi gripped my heart and refused to let go. I told Mrs. Mimi all about her, and took her with me the next day to get the baby. Ducking into the shack, it took my eyes a second to adjust to the darkness. Blinking quickly, I saw two women with babies tied to their backs. A small child, about two years old, stuck her fingers into a mayonnaise container and licked it off her fingers. Mucus was crusted around her nose and eyes.
Metelepule.Then I spotted Gunsi. Though I wish it could have been, the malnutrition I had witnessed the day before was not imagined or exaggerated. It was real, and ravishing the child’s frail body. I was so thankful she had survived the night, yet I wondered how many more she could take. The mother, who couldn’t have been older than thirty, had given birth to eight babies, five of whom had died from neglect. Though she was given baby formula, diapers, and clothes for her child by the government, she sold them to make money for alcohol. I took Gunsi in my arms as she let out a single, pitiful wail. She was wet with urine, and was in the same clothes that she was wearing as the day before. I tucked the blanket around her frail little body and stepped in the light, my heart breaking all the time.
I cherished every moment with Gunsi, knowing I might not get another.Neighbors stared curiously at us as an Asian lady walked next to a blonde teen with a little brown baby in her arms down their red dirt streets. Back at the creshe, Ms. Dorah quickly made porridge for the baby while I laid a blanket down to put a diaper on her. The child was desperately thin. Wrinkled skin sagged on her legs that should have been fat and learning to walk, yet baby Gunsi could barely hold up her head. She looked just like the pictures of babies at malnutrition centers I had seen, only I was holding this baby in my arms and not looking at her in a photo. I wanted to cry as I watched her struggle to eat the porridge. She was so hungry, and yet she didn’t know how to swallow and choked on the food. “She was put in your path for a reason, Brittany,” Mrs. Mimi told me later. “You’ll have to ask God what that reason is. We will have to come up with a practical plan to help her.” I nodded silently in agreement as my head swirled with a thousand thoughts and plans, and pain over the little girl stabbed at my heart. As I told mom later, that day held my first heartbreak experience. Five children in little Gunsi’s family died when they ought to have lived. Yet I was determined that Gunsi will not be the next.
My purpose discovered.
My heart was full as I walked through South African stores to buy formula and baby items for Gunsi. As I purchased tiny warm outfits and searched for the most nutritious formula the stores offered, I prayed for the little one and thanked God for watching over her life. One of the most serene moments came the next morning when, after bathing little Gunsi and dressing her in her new warm clothes, I snuggled down to watch her drink a warm bottle with the nutrients that she so desperately needed. The other little ones at the creshe adored the baby, constantly crowding around to watch her sleep, eat, or just stare up at them with her big brown eyes. The little girls tied little baby dolls to their backs with blankets and fed them with imaginary bottles. The little girls had their babies, I had mine, and life was good.
All the children adored our baby girl.It didn’t take long for the teachers and other people in the community to fill me in on Gunsi’s mother’s, Emily, situation. Life hadn’t been easy for Emily, though the details of her past were never fully disclosed to me. What I did quickly pick up on, though, was the fact that she was outcast of the community. The grandmothers of the community looked down at her with scorn. Emily’s sister, Jane, was raising two of her surviving children, and was fed up with the way Emily was living. I also discovered that the little girl I had seen licking mayonnaise off her fingers in Emily’s shack was Gunsi’s two-year-old sister, Metalepule. As the teachers and I tried desperately to save Gunsi’s life, it became quite apparent that Gunsi wasn’t the only one suffering. Metalepule wasn’t desperately thin like her little sister, but as I interacted with the little girl over the next few days, I noticed that she seemed drugged. She’d stare right past me when I tried to talk to her, and seemed obvious to the world around her. When I mentioned it to Mrs. Mimi, she nodded sadly. “It’s the culture,” she told me. “When parents don’t want to deal with their children, they give them alcohol. It keeps them quiet and out of the way.” As I held Metalepule in my lap after bathing her, I breathed in the clean scent of her freshly washed hair and sighed. What was I going to do?
Gunsi and Metalepule
Ms. Kedi laughing with her baby. This is the last time I saw Gunsi in person.
The following day, Emily decided to come with Gunsi to the creshe. Metalepule ran after her as she walked. The little one wouldn’t let her mother out of her sight. We prepared a bottle for Gunsi and offered Emily and Metalepule bop and oranges. As Metalepule sat in my lap to eat, she never took her eyes off Emily. The other children finished their lunches and laid down to nap, yet Metalepule, thought yawning sleepily, wouldn’t close her eyes for a moment. I watched her fight sleep for over an hour as she kept her eyes fixed on her mom. Seeing this made my heart hurt. Metalepule loved Emily despite everything, and as much as it broke my heart to realize it, the love never seemed to be returned.
Emily feeds Gunsi.
As the afternoon shadows grew longer, Emily stoody up to leave. Metalepule jumped off my lap and was at her mother’s side in an instant. We packed some clothes and diapers for Gunsi and gave them to Emily with baby formula and a thermos full of warm water. Gunsi needed to be eating through the night, and Emily now had everything she needed to make it happen. Leaving the creshe that day, I felt more hopeful than I had in a long time. Maybe, just maybe, this would be the turning point we needed.
Three long days passed before I was able to return to the creshe. Gunsi was on my mind constantly, and couldn’t wait for Monday to roll around so I could get back to my girls. When the morning finally came, Jacques couldn’t get to the house soon enough. I spilled out my story to him in the hour it took us to pick up the kids, and by the end of it, Jacques’ heart had broken just as much as mine for Gunsi and Metalepule. Quickly ushering the kids into the creshe, I smiled as I imagined just how much Gunsi might have improved over the weekend. Then I saw the look on Ms. Kedi’s face. “She’s worse, Brittany,” Kedi quietly told me. “Emily took the clothes and formula and nappies to sell. All the water is still in the thermos,” she added softly. “I don’t think Emily fed the baby any of it.” I stepped back in shock, stunned and hurt. For a moment I stood silently, then shook my head. It seemed like we were blocked at every turn.
That afternoon, the teachers, Mrs. Mimi and I met to discuss how to best help Emily. It had become quite obvious that we couldn’t help the girls effectively if Emily wasn’t on board. Yet as we talked, the grim reality of the situation grew painfully clear. If we took the girls with us to the creshe during the day, Emily would have greater freedom to drink, which would lead to the girls being neglected that night. But if we left the girls with Emily during the day, they wouldn’t eat or be cared for. I truly believed Emily had a heart to love her girls, but I saw just what a monster addiction was to deal with on top of just trying to cope with life each day. I poured my heart out to the Lord, begging Him to save Emily and the girls’ lives. Even so, discouragement seeped quickly in as I listened to the creshe teachers fill me in on the parts of the day I didn't see. Emily complained to the neighbors that we fed Gunsi too much. “She cries now!” Emily had told them. “I fed her two bottles a day before, and now she wants to eat more.”
Just as red tape and government corruption has tied my hands, addiction and strongholds had tied Emily’s. Sometimes I had to squeeze my eyes shut and push on with life because the fact that a nine-month-old baby was the size of a preemie broke my heart. We had come to the place where we were basically helpless. Though I shrank from looking the fact in the eyes, I was beginning to understand that I needed to back out of the situation. Mrs. Mimi and the teachers gently explained to me that I would be leaving in a couple weeks, and they would not. They wouldn’t be able to deal with the many other mothers who wanted clothes and formula for their babies, and I knew how unfair of me it would be to put them in that position. And so, with a breaking heart, I committed Gunsi and Metalepule to the Lord, and stepped back.
The days to come were far from easy. Even so, God gave me a lot of grace to help me deal with the pain. Oddly enough, during this time, my heart began to break more than ever for Emily. My burden for her surprised me at first. Emily, the one who neglected her children to the point of death, the one who had a baby girl on the brink of dying yet wouldn’t feed her, and the one who drugged her toddler when she didn’t want to deal with her, was burdening my heart, and not from disdain, but from love. And so, one night I sat down to write Emily a letter, a letter that God would use change everything.
My friend, Yonella, and Gunsi
As the days passed, God’s role for me in South Africa developed more clearly in my mind. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that He was moving there, and day by day I fell more and more in love with South Africa. My time there had been such a journey – completely beautiful, though far from perfect and pretty. I felt insufficient and helpless, as in fact I was. Yet that is the beauty of it. Dominik, a volunteer from Switzerland, asked me one day what the main thing God taught me so far was. “It’s that’s God’s promises stand true,” I answered simply. “I could become really discouraged with how things are now, but I’m not. Immediately when I heard how Emily was worse than ever, God told me that His promises for her still stand, despite these circumstances, and no matter what.” And I believed that with my whole heart. In fact, I began to love Emily so much deeper then because I was believing more strongly than ever for her. As I wrote in my journal later that evening, “This journey has morphed from my heart breaking over Gunsi and a situation I was completely powerless to change, to believing for and loving Emily and her broken heart with a love so strong that only God could have given it. All the odds are against me, and the wall she has built around herself stands strong. I know it’s there. I know I can’t get past it, but I know that God is there waiting for her. And while my heart hurts, I know my God is in control.”
Ms. Kedi feeding Gunsi
As I was soon to see, God was far from finished. As the kids at the creshe napped one afternoon, I began talking with Ms. Dorah about a Bible study she was doing with Mrs. Mimi. As we talked, our conversation turned to Emily. Remembering the letter I had written to her several weeks earlier, I pulled it out and asked Ms. Dorah if she would be willing to translate it for me. The translation wasn’t an easy task, yet Ms. Dorah worked diligently over it for an hour before she declared it complete. I took a breath as we stepped into the street and began walking toward Emily’s shack, yet even then I had no idea just how much God was about move.
Stepping to the door of the shack, I heard a happy little squeal and turned to see Metalepule running toward me, arms outstretched. My heart melted as I scooped her up into my arms. It was the first time she had shown she recognized me, and her delighted giggle made me incredibly happy. Turing, I saw Ms. Dorah out of the corner of my eye. A natural born leader, she had, to my astonishment, gathered Emily along with several other ladies to read my letter. She took off in in a stream of Setswana as she read my letter and expanded or commented on certain points. I watched the faces of the ladies as she read. They had been hard, cold and reserved at first, but as Ms. Dorah read my letter, their faces softened and they began to lose the suspicious look they had toward me. By the middle of the letter, I studied at their expressions and knew they had accepted me. It was one of the sweetest moments in my life. As Ms. Dorah continued, a fifth lady came walking up the road with a bucket. When she got to where we were sitting, she turned the bucket over and sat down to listen. Apparently, word of the impromptu revival was spreading. As Ms. Dorah neared the end of the letter, I watched God begin to do the impossible. Emily stood up and began to walk toward me. Then, to my astonishment, she reached out to hug me. I returned the hug, yet Emily didn’t let go, and, as my eyes caught Ms. Dorah’s glace, she mouthed the words, “She’s crying!” From somewhere deep down, heart wrenching sobs began to overtake Emily, and she quickly let go and turned to her shack. Quickly setting Metalepule down next to Ms. Dorah, I turned to follow Emily. A single beam of light fell across her frame as she sat on dirt floor, her body wracked with heart wrenching sobs. Kneeling down next to her, I could almost feel her heart crumbling as I put my arm around her shoulder. I sat silently as she wept, and then, taking her calloused brown hand in mine, began praying for her. Barriers fell like her tears, and as her heart broke, she leaned against me and let be there for her, if only for a moment. When her weeping quieted, I took her hand again in mine and echoed what I had written in part of my letter. “Emily,” I said, “It’s true what I said. Our different backgrounds, countries or way we look on the outside really don’t matter at all.” She wiped her eyes as I continued, “In Jesus, we’re all like one family. That means in Jesus, you’re like my sister.” She looked up at me for a moment, and then squeezed my hand. Though I know she didn’t understand what I was saying, I know even more that God was moving.
Looking back over those weeks, one final memory stands out to me clearly. The day after the cold rain, the skies were bright and clear, and the kids were eager to leave the confines of the small creshe. With a teacher, I took them on a walk around the neighborhood, or rather, they took me. I had never been outside the creshe. When I came to Ikageng, the township where the creshe was located, I always stayed inside the fence, or walked to Emily’s house close by. Yet walking through the township that so many of the children called home was an experience I will never forget. Seeing their bigger picture helped me see mine, and my eyes were dramatically opened. Similarly, when I arrived in South Africa, I was thrust into a world where everything was new and strange and different. Yet I only saw a small glimpse of that world until I met Emily, Gunsi, and Metalepule. Then my eyes were opened and I began to see the bigger picture. I fell in love with Africa, and witnessed the amazing ways God was moving there. I met so many beautiful people and made lifelong friends. I thank God for my time there, and somehow, deep inside, I have a feeling that it’s not over yet.