The sun did not sympathize with the winter season. What should have been alive was dead, and the only green we saw was sewn into the fabric wraps women wore around their midsections as they carried their babies along the dirt road. Three of us walked in a dusty heat from the footbridge across a dry riverbed to Lindiwe’s homestead at the edge of the village.
Lavumisa is one of the most remote rural villages on the southeast side of Swaziland, a South African country unfortunately known for its gruesome AIDS statistics rather than its grandiose mountain landscapes, warm hearts or flawless starry nights. Swazis are forgotten people in a forgotten country, and the more removed someone is from the capital city of Mbabane, the more forgotten they become.
At a church service the night before, my missionary friends, Melissa and Jim, had learned about Lindiwe from a local nurse named Lisa. Lindiwe developed breast cancer two years ago, and as the country’s standard treatment offered, she had a mastectomy on her right side. There is no chemotherapy or radiation available in Swaziland. Nobody can afford it, and the hospitals don’t offer it.
Lindiwe is a traditional Swaziland mother who lives in a stick-and-stone mud hut with a thatch roof. Most of her family lives around her in similar structures, but only one was to be found inside her home when we arrived. Instead of sleeping on the customary bed of a rolled bamboo mat and a wooden headrest, someone had brought a mattress in for Lindiwe. Melissa, Jim and I, now accompanied by Lisa, another missionary, and a translator entered the hut and announced our visit in Siswati: “Ekaye!” To which she replied in English, “Come in.”
We crawled in the shortened opening and sat on the floor, filling up most of Lindiwe’s hut. Our translator asked how she was feeling and described to us how bad Lindiwe said her pain was. Her ankles were swollen and her arms full of lymphatic fluid. Because of the swelling, she couldn’t rest. Lisa checked her medicines to see if it was possible to increase them. Thankfully, she could. Hopefully that would provide a little more relief so Lindiwe could sleep.
Lindiwe’s daughter sat beside her silently, her face somber and her eyes never leaving the smoothed dirt floor. We took turns reading Scripture to Lindiwe and praying and asking her careful questions. How long had it been since she slept through the night? Did she have enough food? Were the pain medicines working?
As our visit came to a close, Lindiwe abruptly interrupted our translator, who paused before telling us what she had said.
“It’s not so much the physical pain she is suffering from,” the translator said. “It’s the loneliness.”
I silently commanded my eyes to remain dry, but my breath disappeared for a moment. In the last four years, I’ve witnessed physical pain and poverty. I’ve seen children in Uganda without clothes and with bellies empty of food but full of worms and disease. I’ve seen homeless men with infected wounds in Los Angeles. In India, I visited Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and wept as I stepped over frail bodies waiting on the staircase for a bed. My heart broke in Haiti a month after the earthquake as a woman named Michele told the story of her house collapsing on her, immediately killing her 18-month-old twins and crushing her legs. Her husband’s cries of grief would make almost anyone question God and humanity.
Tragic is an understated descriptor of all of these experiences, but as Lindiwe openly shared, it’s the wound loneliness leaves that often harms the most. Is feeling alone and forgotten worse than physical pain?
Last week, when I sat in Lindiwe’s homestead in Swaziland, words and prayers didn’t seem adequate. I walked away with hot tears inside my eyes, still stubbornly refusing to fall. It’s tempting to feel guilt for leaving when I could have stayed. Sure, my flight was the next day, but it’s just an airplane. There will always be more flights back to the United States. I could always take a semester off from school and remain in Swaziland for just a few more days, or weeks, or months.
But I didn’t stay. Melissa and Jim drove me to Johannesburg the next day, and I was back in Michigan two days later. Classes begin Wednesday, so today I bought my books and went to orientation and hugged my friends I haven’t seen in the few weeks I was gone.
In four years, I’ve needed to add extra pages to my passport, and each trip home is never easy. Some say short-term trips are a form of poverty tourism to satisfy a Western desire to help—that these experiences are more selfish than they are helpful. I’ve wrestled with that tension with almost every step I walk in a country that isn’t my own. Does 30 minutes really show love to a woman in such a painful place? Does three weeks? Three months? Three years? How much time does love need to matter?
These questions, for me anyway, have not been answered. But as a friend says, sometimes questions are more important than the answers.
Love is a concept too infinite for my finite understanding. Knowing I will not ever know the correct answer provides me room to either hope or doubt, and I choose hope. It is hope that helps me believe love sees Lindiwe and is presently restoring her even in the midst of her suffering. It is hope that causes me to remember Lindiwe is not forgotten, and she never will be. And it is hope that allows me to know there is a love that holds her in the dark Swaziland nights, when the lights on the mountains look like stars and the stars in the sky are the only things that shine down light.