A UMass faculty member who offered a tasting of South African Wines, a friend of ours from church, the father of a first year Amherst College student – each of these individuals back home in the US suggested we reach out to their colleagues, friends, and family in South Africa. We have tracked down these rather distant connections and are so glad we did. It has brought such richness and depth to our lives in South Africa. Our encounters have convinced us of the hand of providence in what we are doing. We can’t help but feel that our being here is part of a bigger plan.
One example of such a connection is the Keyser family, with the connection being through our friends Margaret and Jim at Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley, MA. We were interested in attending a service at Margaret’s childhood church, the VGK Congregational Church in Wellington – a town about 60 km from Stellenbosch. Margaret put us in touch with her brother, Zanephyn, and arrangements were made not only for a church visit, but also for us to join the Keyser family at a braii following the service. On a bright Sunday morning we drove through acres of spent grape vines, each field with its own combination of red and gold grape leaves, white flowered overgrown grass, and red soil. We arrived just in time for Zanephyn to usher us into the church and then he was off to join the other elders of the church. This Sunday was one dedicated to the children of the church, and the culmination of a week-long celebration of Family in which 1000 church members participated. The children had worked hard to prepare some singing (in English) and dancing (no translation necessary) and recitations of bible verses in Afrikaan by individual children and the following phrase by the entire assembly:
“Die Bybel is die woord van God, en die Woord van God is die waarheid.”
(The bible is the word of God, and the word of God is the truth.)
There were prizes awarded, a guest speaker who animated a bible story (we THINK it was the story of the Good Samaritan but our Afrikaan is not good enough to be sure), and we were given a pulpit moment to share a welcome from Wesley Church to this faith community and to give thanks to them for the role they played in making Margaret who she is and then sharing her with us. We were treated like celebrities by the ~ 200 children, many of whom wanted to shake our hands at the close of the two hour service. The churches vision statement declares its’ covenant to making each person who enters to worship, regardless of his or her background, feel welcome, and a part of this faith community. Despite our being the only whites in this group of 600-700 non-whites, we were made to feel so welcomed. How wonderful to see a group whose actions lived up to their rhetoric. The service filled us with hope for a brighter South African future than we had felt to date. In our University Town, we often feel a status quo of deep race divisions, poverty and an expectation of criminal behavior. In Wellington, we saw with gratitude that these children (South Africa’s future) will blossom when they are held with such love and pride by their community.
Later we sipped cool water as the family gathered at one of the several adjacent homes occupied by 4 of the 5 Keyser brothers and their families. These homes surrounded their family home, still occupied by their mother, now in her late 80’s but quite definitely, the queen of the roost. The braii began: three grills were set up, the wood fires started, and each one attended to by a brother or son-in-law sitting in a lawn chair with an umbrella overhead to shield them from the bright sun. Two sisters and various sisters-in-law busied themselves happily with brought dishes in the kitchen, and nieces and nephews and cousins played in the yard. Grandma, new baby, Mia and her Mom, Mom’s father-in-law, and Rich and I sat under the shade with fans, ice-cold pitchers of mint and lemon water, and a delightful recording of music to entertain us. Ten-month-old Mia’s dancing moves were most respectable, and she kept us laughing.
We tried to help, honestly, but each time we were shooed away – or given a clearly ceremonial task to make us feel better and encouraged to relax in the shade and visit. When the meal was ready, we joined the 20 family members at the table, were formally welcomed (again) and Rich was asked to say grace. This is what was served: a first course of cream of mussel soup, a dollop of curried chicken with rice, and then the main course– grilled spiced chicken, tender lamb chops, luscious beef steaks, choice boerwurst to
accompany a half dozen salads. Large platters of bread made from dough grilled on the fire and fresh corn-on-the-cob were passed around the table. We ate till we could barely move, and after the dishes were cleared, sat for another long spell before dessert of bread pudding with raisins was served up. When we realized we had been sitting and chatting about everything under the sun for several hours, we decided to say our reluctant good-byes. We felt so comfortable and sleepy, and so much at home, that we could have joined others on the couch for a little late afternoon nap, but we didn’t want to push our luck. We said our grateful good-byes and were welcomed to come again. We will definitely be back.
Another example of a providential intervention in our time here in South Africa is that of our breakfasts with the acting Rector, Dean Mohammed Karaan, an acquaintance of the father of a first year student with whom I worked with at Amherst College. It was to him that my first inquiry about a potential sabbatical was sent two years ago and it was because of his special intervention on our behalf, that we are at Stellenbosch today. We asked to set up a meeting with him just to say thank-you and to introduce ourselves, and after several false starts because of his terribly busy schedule, we finally were able to meet him in the only clear slot on his calendar, 7:30 AM for breakfast at an in town hotel, Coopmanshuijs.
Our first meeting was simply delightful, we were charmed by his gentleness, modesty, and intensity – and his delight in hearing us talk about our two favorite things: liberal arts education and olive oil. He confessed that it was most unusual for him to have gotten personally involved in setting up a visiting professorship but that, in addition to the coincidence of his being in the middle of a book about Turkey and our experience working there, “something in your first email resonated with what I had been thinking about educational models.” So here we are.
Our first breakfast was repeated at another hotel, the Oude Werf, where we arrived with lasers and molecular models and gave Dean Karaan a molecular overview of olive oil chemistry with hands on activities. It is our wish that our visits will continue during our time here as it seems he is working out something about his own platform for educational reform and our meetings are helping. We feel humbled that he has taken so much of his time to hear us rattle on. We get the sense it is meant to be.
It is our sincere hope that we will not miss the opportunities laid out before us. We want to be in a position to give as much as or more than we take, and to follow the path that seems like the right one. With the grace of God, we will do that.
Here’s a sunset photo taken last Friday which can’t help but fill you with the beauty and mystery of the Almighty.