My body is a desiccated shell, a dried out husk of little substance. For months, life has been ebbing, seeping from every pore as I lie here, barely able to move. Outside, the African sun beats heavily, shrivelling corn fields, scorching dry earth, turning my shack into an oven. Even so, I am chilled to the bone.
My family have been good to me. Caring for me in turn; loving me with gentle hands and calm hearts. Mashing my food, washing my clothes, sponging me when fevers burn and holding me through agonies. Aids is a cruel disease, an insidious thief that has stolen much. And yet, I have many blessings to thank God for. His peace, His grace, His mercy, His strength.
Through Him, I have learnt to be content, to appreciate things I never noticed before. The blustery breeze that brings tumbling clouds and healing rain. The laughter of children as they play, spinning hoops and chasing tyres down dusty tracks. The freedom to splash in the river, and float in its cooling streams. The joy of attending church and the fellowship of other believers.
Our church is a squat building of whitewash and mud, built a decade ago by labouring missionaries. A wooden cross is embedded in the wall and a warped board proclaims that “Jesus is King”. I no longer attend gatherings but if the wind blows I hear drifts of song floating across the village.
I fancy I hear them now, a melodic chorus of Kumbaya filtering through arid air. How I wish I had strength to join them. To see their smiling faces and sing with them. Joyce hears them too; moving to the window, peering out. An exclamation breaks from her lips. “You have visitors, Sipiwe.” I picture them weaving down the sandy trail, coffee skin glistening as they sway and sing and worship God.
Joyce bustles round, laying out mats, setting out mugs, raising my head with a folded blanket. “It’s the ladies from church. They’re coming to visit.” I nod, contentment oozing like healing balm, banishing loneliness and bringing joy.
They quieten as they enter the shack, a dozen of them squeezed into my tiny room. My heart soars as each greets me, holding my withered hands, touching my muddy cheeks, whispering messages. How I’ve yearned for their presence.
I lie relaxed, joyful as they prepare a meal. I haven’t eaten for days, but the savoury scent of onions and garlic sizzling in a pan energises me. My lips lift into a smile as they slice plump tomatoes and stir them in, followed by handfuls of chopped spinach and lashings of salt. The mixture simmers gently as my friends chat to me, their voices filling my space, laughing, joking, sharing the latest news.
My voice is weak but I manage simple questions.
“Where is Thuli?”
“How is young James?”
“Has Ethel had her baby yet?”
They answer me, their voices blending to a symphony of pleasure and delight. ”Thank you, God.” I whisper. “Thank you for meeting my every need.”
When the fragrance of cooking is mature, the ladies serve up heaped bowls of thick putu, slathered with rich stew. I ask for a morsel of bread dipped in gravy, a fragment to remind my taste buds of good cooking.
Replete and satisfied, my friends linger, prayers flowing, voices rising and falling. A mingling of spirits as we share our lives with each other. I long for them to stay, but Joyce sees I’m weakening and whispers to them. They cluster round murmuring goodbyes, stroking my shrunken limbs and then Nellie sings out a pure, sweet note. The sounds of Amazing Grace saturate my ears, inspiring, refreshing. I close my eyes as they sing the last verse.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun
It’s an amazing sensation, the feeling of strength coursing into my body. The plumping out of sunken hollows, the warmth of life flowing deep within. When I open my eyes, it’s not to my little shack, or my dear ones, but rather to a heavenly host and a multitude of believers. Old and new friends reach out in welcome and the dazzling glory of God encompasses us all. For a fleeting moment, I grieve for those I’ve left behind. “Lord, please comfort them.” I pray and then heart overflowing with joy, I turn to meet my King.
Putu is the staple diet of several southern African countries. It is a thick porridge-type mixture made from ground cornmeal.
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