“I Like Your Style”

Here is the latest post from BH alumjesse-zink Jesse Zink, who is finishing up his two-year missionary term in South Africa.  Check out his blog for more on this journey over the past two years:

Dear friends,

As long as I’ve been in South Africa, a wonderful woman named Hilda has cleaned my home each week. She’s so good that I must confess that even after nearly two years living here I’m not sure where most of the cleaning supplies are kept because I never have to use them. (And, yes, I will most definitely miss this aspect of life in South Africa.)

I found out last week that Hilda is HIV-positive. She had been sick with what she said was a sore throat and missed a few days. With less experience, I might have written it off as a cold but given the prevalence of HIV, it occurred to me that she might have oral thrush, a common opportunistic infection. But I didn’t quite know how to bring it up. Asking, “Hilda, do you know your HIV status?” is the obvious
answer but even at this late date it seemed a difficult thing to do.

I eventually stumbled through a conversation in which she openly acknowledged her status and eagerly accepted my offer to come to the clinic in Itipini to be seen. She had an obvious and severe case of thrush and I was able to get the medicines she needed for her. Her CD4 count is also somewhat low – that’s probably what allowed the thrush to take hold – so we did another one and hopefully she’ll be able to begin preparation for anti-retroviral drugs soon. She’s on the mend now and will hopefully be back at work soon.

I tell this story because I think it illustrates the position I find myself in with just over a month remaining in Mthatha – still uncertain about how to negotiate a cultural minefield in a different language but possessed of a great deal more knowledge and competence than I’ve ever felt previously here. It may have taken me a while to ascertain her status – and I’ve long suspected that she is HIV-positive but never felt quite right about asking – but once I did I felt pretty knowledgeable about what to do.

(I wish more people were so knowledgeable. Hilda first spent money on a private doctor and he gave her some throat spray for symptomatic relief. What a rip-off! I’m not a doctor and I could tell just by asking Hilda to stick out her tongue what was wrong. All the medicine she’s taking that is making her better comes from the public health system.)

Jenny, the missionary I work with, has been away this past month raising money in the U.S. That’s meant more work for me in the clinic, which has turned out to be a real blessing because the added responsibility has made me notice so many ways in which I am so much more able to actually do things that help people in substantive ways.  After endless months of mind-numbing frustration at my own incompetence in the face of so many obstacles, it is an indescribable feeling to see a situation, know what the solution is, and implement it.

There have been a handful of middle-aged men who’ve tested positive for HIV and tuberculosis in recent weeks. One in particular is named Zanethemba. When he first came in two months ago, he was on death’s door and could barely get around by himself. You could see in his attitude and body language that he had given up on ever being healthy again. I accompanied him to the doctor to start a TB prescription and made sure he got his CD4 count results. Now, after two months of TB pills and a daily injection, he’s still weak and thin but his attitude has improved markedly. He can make it to the clinic every day for his pills, which is my rough-and-ready measure of health. Seeing him with his South African rugby hat tilted (unintentionally) slightly askew, his walking stick in hand, and an ever-present smile on his face, I am (modestly) reminded of a Xhosa Fred Astaire. Yes, his road to health is still a long one and has many obstacles yet – that walking stick is not a prop but a necessary cane – but to have been a part of that change in him is a blessing.
. . .

Beyond individual cases like Zanethemba’s . . . , I find it difficult to describe just how enmeshed in the community I feel. I know I’ve written this before but even in the last few weeks and months, I feel like my involvement in this particular community has deepened and grown by several orders of magnitude. I don’t live in Itipini (and I’m glad I don’t) but sometimes I feel like I might as well given what a free run of the place I have, how well known I am to people, and how much people trust me. Dorothy, the nurse in the clinic, after watching me handle several patients at once, murmured under her breath, “I like your style.” Coming from a slightly crusty and slow-to-praise but totally wonderful older woman whom I adore, I took it as one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

I should stress that whatever competence I feel is relative. Any progress from zero, of course, feels tremendous. There are still countless situations where I feel completely and hopelessly lost and out of my depth. A few weeks back, as I was leaving Itipini at the end of the day, a friend from Itipini called. It was a short phone call.  “Jesse, come back – Sesi is having an abortion!” I was left holding the phone in my hand and wondering just what use I could be. Sesi is a young woman I know well and she was, I quickly learned, in the midst of a painful and traumatic miscarriage. I took her and her friend to the hospital and checked on them later. The hospital dealt capably with the situation and she was discharged the next day but it was a reminder for me of all that I don’t know and can’t do.

It is common in missionary circles to compare mission to a journey. I find this to be a helpful metaphor, not least because I find myself taking lots of actual journeys around town as part of my particular manifestation of mission. Zanethemba’s TB put him on a path I know well and I was able to journey with him and show him where he needed to go. Sesi’s path was one I didn’t know but simply by agreeing to go on the journey with her I think some kind of effective mission took place. I hope you feel you have been able to share parts of these journeys with us as well.

This metaphor works fine when I’m the one doing the showing and leading on our shared journey. Within the realm of my knowledge, I’m happy to lead. What I struggle with is getting people here to lead me on their journeys. So many people seem to look to me for advice and guidance that there can be this attitude that somehow I have all the answers and whatever I say must be right. I don’t think I’m
responsible for that attitude; I think it’s a result of the complicated race relations in South Africa and the history of mission in this particular community. As we journey together, I want to show people that sometimes – oftentimes – they know the path much better than me and that I should be the one being led by them.

(I’d also like them to journey with each other. Just this week, I met Zanethemba’s brother who has virtually identical symptoms to what Zanethemba had two months ago – weak, gaunt, coughing, no appetite. The two brothers live together. You don’t think Zanethemba could have noticed his brother’s condition and thought, “Gee, maybe he should do what I’m doing?” instead of letting him deteriorate to the point he’s at now? I am just now beginning a new journey with the brother.)

This is particularly important as I near the end of my time in Itipini. It seems downright unfair that just as I should be feeling so capable, it should be time to move on. It’s unfair not only to me and my sense of myself but mostly, of course, to the people here who don’t have the opportunity I do to just pick and move on to another adventure. After being in denial about it for some time, I’ve finally shared the news publicly with the community that I’ll be leaving at the end of June. Now that it’s out there, I’m busy avoiding any discussion of it altogether. That’s not fair to anyone, I know.

I hope you take time to continue to check my blog – http://mthathamission.blogspot.com.  In Jenny’s absence, I’ve had less time for writing but there is still a good deal of content about life here, including more stories like Zanethemba’s and Sesi’s; what it was like to tell people I am leaving; how infant formula relates to the grace/law distinction; a story about a great conversation I had; and much, more more, including, of course, lots of pictures.

I continue to be grateful for your support and encouragement. The loneliness and sense of isolation may occasionally diminish some but they never completely go away and your e-mails mean a lot. I look forward to the day when I can share some more of these stories with you in person and hear all about your life too.

As always, I am

Your man in Mthatha,
Jesse Zink
Episcopal missionary in Mthatha, South Africa

c/o McConnachie
P/Bag x5014
Mthatha 5100 South Africa

+27 79 840 7683

If you received this message in error, if you would prefer it be sent to another address, or if you know someone who should get it and doesn’t, please let me know. Please feel free to forward as widely as you would like.

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