I have all but forgotten what a lie-in feels like: Early mornings, late nights and everything in between spent under the scorching African sun, makes for a pretty exhausting couple of weeks. 6 o'clock starts aren’t as much a problem as having to endure, daily, the nagging from those I live with as to why I don’t join the sunrise jogging team! Every evening we spend an hour or two in someone’s home talking through the day’s events as we try to process the things we’ve seen, heard and experienced.
It has been quite draining physically, emotionally and spiritually. And yet, whilst I have found myself exhausted, I get up in the morning not because I have to, but because I know God has something new in store. Every day I am walking not only into the lives and stories of the world’s most broken people, but also deeper into the heart of the Father. It is an adventure through and through: exploring the heart of God. Living in cross-cultural community, encountering people in the most distressing situations, being invaded by the lives and stories of those you would otherwise never hear of, all of this offers God the most amazing opportunity to teach and to transform you. But nothing can prepare you for the kind of transformation that takes place through three days spent living in an orphaned household.
I think it’s the thing that everybody both looks forward to the most and worries about the most. For us it was the third weekend of our six-week orientation programme when we were driven out to a local community in which Hands serves and left to stay in the homes of the village’s most vulnerable people. I was one of the last to be dropped off and immediately upon getting out of the car Dan, our volunteer coordinator, handed me a couple of bags of groceries and Happy, one of the people I would live with, handed me a small child.
Luphisi is a small rural community about an hour away from the Hands at Work base in northeastern South Africa. The homes themselves are incredibly varied. Some of the other volunteers stayed in child-headed households, some with gogos (grandmothers). Some had just one or two children in the home and others had 14 sleep in the house.
As for me, I stayed with Sibusiso, Bongiwe, Siphiwe and their (large) extended family. Sibu is the man of the house. He is 26-years-old and left to care for his two younger sisters. Their father had died seven years ago and their mother two year later at which time Sibu left school to tend to his sisters. Their home is just a tiny house with three rooms, two beds, a mat, two chairs, two bowls and two spoons. One night we needed to use a fork--we had to borrow one from a neighbour.
This household in incredibly vulnerable with no parents or even grandparents present. Every night young men fresh from the local bar would turn up drunk at the front door and ask to come in. Here in South Africa, particularly in the communities, drinking is not the social norm. Rather it goes hand-in-hand with a lifestyle of criminal behaviour, the most prevalent of which, probably, is sexual abuse. And so I had to watch as men tried to invade a vulnerable home. Some asked me for money, others invited me to the bar. But most upsetting of all, I was completely ignorant of what was going on. Only when I got back and debriefed with some of the Hands family did I realise just how vulnerable Bongiwe and Siphiwe are, just how hopeless a situation they daily endure.
Somehow it was this coming face-to-face with the stark reality of life in Africa that made the weekend the most incredible few days. I had to learn to stomach whatever was put in front of me, even if their commitment to hospitality made them give me portions that could bloat a cow. You can always ask for less food, but you better make sure you ask before it’s on your plate. Once it’s there, it’s expected to end up in your belly, every last bit. I had to learn to follow Sibu’s lead as we attended a church service that almost entirely consisted of hand clapping. (There was so much clapping that the men brought their own attachable hand pads.) I had to learn to bathe with only a small bucket of water. I had to learn a lot.
Sibu, Bongiwe and Siphiwe didn’t speak much English, so I had to learn to communicate largely without words. Even so I found myself making the most incredible friends. A beautiful transformation of the heart takes place when you allow yourself to be invaded by the lives and stories of people utterly unlike yourself.
I eventually had to say goodbye. I left my Bible with Bongiwe and still check up often to make sure she is reading it. With it, I left behind so much of the apathy that I had arrived with. I can’t sit back and do nothing now. Not whilst I know that Bongiwe and Siphiwe still go to sleep every night in a home without a lock on the front door. Not whilst I know that Sibu is missing out on the education he needs because he considered his family’s needs greater. Not whilst I know that Bongiwe’s, Siphiwe’s and Sibusiso’s lives will only change when someone has the courage to be "beautiful feet" walking into their lives and leaving behind them footprints of eternal hope.
Adam Bedford is a 22-year-old university graduate from the UK who has signed up to volunteer with Hands at Work for a year. Read more about Adam's experience of the six-week Hands at Work orientation programme here.