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My Zululand; My Birthday

Under the boughs of the mango groves in the heat of the hot, tropical Zululand sun my mother labored long over me. It was August, the season of South African spring. My young father, just fresh out of medical school, and his friend Cliff Alwood were the only two doctors serving the Manguzi Mission Hospital. Remote, rural, and steeped in the guttural clicks and lore of Shaka Zulu and his language it was a place where Apartheid was only slowly encroaching.

My young parents beat it back with nothing but their faith and how they chose to live.

In the heart of the community – working, living, praying, serving, teaching – doing life alongside. And over nine of those months my mother’s belly grew large and stiff as stywe pap and she swayed to the rhythm of feet stamped and voices joined in chorus across mealie fields and in the chapel where my father would preach on Sundays.

Mr. Zondo’s cows were crossing a road and a passing Mercedes Benz slammed into one of them. The cow was killed. And the magistrate ruled that Mr. Zondo would have to pay R30 a month for the next year to make the Mercedes-driving-man whole again. The beautiful car had been damaged.

Sangomas swore that the spirits spoke to them and demanded sacrifice when a child was ill or a woman barren. And the people paid. The people always paid. They paid the malaria and the TB, they paid the wealthy and they paid those with white skins. They paid the government and the leprosy and they still retained pieces of themselves.

Mr. Zondo loved my father like a son and my father loved Mr. Zondo. You can stoop through the door way of a smoke-stained hut and eat over a three-legged cast iron pot using your fingers as utensils as you share stories of the day and for a moment you can be family. Our moment lasted three years. And I was born into the heart of it.

I don’t know if my mother was afraid to have me so far from home. I do know that she claimed the promise that the chosen of the Lord would not labor in vain or bear children for calamity. And my father tells me that half way through her labor she stopped pushing.

“Jo,” he said – “Jo-babe, you need to push. You have to push. She’s coming! It’s time.”

And my mother, he tells me, she grinned and waited before she bore down again and delivered me into his hands. Baby-catcher, father, missionary man. They say I screamed loud enough for my stoic Ouma to comment, “Yes, you can tell she’s her father’s daughter.”

Only later when I was in the yellow crib they had painted and safe under the mosquito netting he asked her why. “Why did you stop pushing?” And ever since I was a little girl my toes have curled up in delight at her answer. “Because I didn’t want it to be over.”

She loved me. She loved me so. As she ached and groaned and delivered me up into this world she was already savoring every moment with me. Her only ever daughter.

We would grow together and apart and back together again over the next 18 years and I would inherit her name, her passion for story, and her fair skin. But I would never be able to ask her about that moment. I would never have the chance to compare labors with her. But I would get to watch her be brave.

Eighteen years to the day after she gave birth to me, we would talk long about dying. And she would tell me, she was not scared. She would tell me, that this is love – to be trusted with suffering. She would labor long and hard for Him.

And a week after I turned 18, He would deliver her.

Thirty six today and I still bear the stamp of Zululand on my soul. I carry the rhythms of Africa in my heart and watch them celebrated in my sons. And I give her name to my firstborn and pray her courage for myself. My youngest bears her fair skin and Dutch genes and we celebrate wildly what she would have loved about them. Because birth-days are always about life. And life is always about Him.