This is a reflection that I was asked to write for a publication put out by the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. It was also published in Disciples World.
I watch the red earth puff up in little clouds around my pink sneakers as I climb the hill. My friend Themba walks beside me pushing my bicycle, and the dust barely shifts as he bounces jauntily from one bare foot to the other. When we finally reach the hilltop, Themba wheels the bicycle around, pointing it downhill and steadies it as I climb on. He sits behind me, the balls of his feet anchoring us into place.
“Asihambe! Let’s go!” My voice pierces teh air in childish anticipation. Themba lifts his feet and the cycle begins to descend. The hill rising to the right blurs as we pick up speed, and I cling to the handlebars, exhilerated by the air whistling around us. The road flattens, and the world begins to take form around us again as Themba guides the bicycle into my frong yard and touches down with his feet. We sit grinning from the speed, the rush of air.
My dad stands waiting for us, armed with a heavy Nikon camera. “Hold that for a minute,” he tells us as he adjusts teh lens. Click!
I gaze at the framed photofraph of me and Themba. What did it mean to grow up as the child of missionaries in southern Africa? I search our faces for an answer in our eager smiles, equally wide and white but Themba’s offset by his chocolate complexion.
In one sense, it meant nothing. I enjoyed riding my bicycle with Themba, playing dolls with Thembi, flying kites with my dad, walking to the shop to buy milk for Sineke’s mum and sweets for us, playing with bubbles in the bathtub, being sung to at night before I went to sleep. Being a missionary kid meant nothing more or less than being a child, going about my everyday life mostly oblivious of the political implications of my white American family living in a black area of KwaZulu Natal during apartheid. I knew that I looked different from my friends, that my parents were from a different country, yet I was a child preoccupied with the egotisms of childhood. My life was the only reality I knew, and I often lived without analyzing my life.
In another sense, growing up as the child of missionaries meant everything. It meant being visibly different from everyone else in our community. It meant moving between two cultures – that of New England, in the United States and Zulu and Ndebele communities in southern Africa. It meant seeing from a young age that people live and go about life differently, and these ways were simply different, not necessarily better or worse. It meant being exposed to disease and death as natural parts of life in southern Africa while they were foreign, almost antithetical to life in the United States.
I was fortunate to have the support and consistency of my family as I moved back and forth between cultures. Neither Zulu nor fully American, I could be a Gobledale, finding refuge and acceptance for both the Zulu and the U.S. aspects of my identity.
As an adult working as a missionary in India, I have become aware that my parents’ lives in southern Africa did not parallel mine. While Mfanefile, South Africa and Plumtree, Zimbabwe were simply my homes, places I belonged, my parents had to work to establish themselves in these communities, to learn what their role in the church would be and how they were expected to fill it. As a young person overseas, I now appreciate the challenges my parents faced living in places where they did not speak the language and did not know the customs. While I was free to attend school, play with my friends, have stories read to me before bed, my parents had to learn the intricacies of the cultural contexts in which they were to live and work as local church pastors. They had to deal with the politics and personalities of the communities in which we lived.
Growing up in southern Africa has instilled in me a great respect for the elderly, an appreciation for community and a longing to help others. Here in India, as I wonder how to navigate a cultural challenge or how to make space for myself and my foreignness while still being culturally sensitive and appropriate, I often try to remember how my parents lived in South Africa and Zimbabwe. I remember my mother’s time away at weekend revivals and have a fresh understanding of the jars of peanuts and raisins she would carry with her, so she would have something in addition to the stringy beef of the cow that was slaughtered for the event and the sadza and cabbage that would accompany it. I have a refreshed sense of respect for my father who stopped our car, as we headed home after a long day at a rural church, to see if he could help a man who had passed out on the side of the road. I often look to my parents as examples of people of integrity and courage, as role models for how I can be a missionary.
Working as a missionary myself has given me a newfound appreciation for what it means to be accepted into a community. Gazing at the photograph of me and Themba grinning from the seat of my bicycle, I realize that I took this acceptance for granted as a child.
A knock interrupts my thoughts. “Thandiwe, akka. Thandiwe, sister. It’s time for dinner.” I rise and open the door to find eleven year old Yuvaraj waiting for me. He takes my hand, linking his fingers in mine and leads me to the dining hall. My chest swells with the knowledge that he is a child who has accepted me as a part of his life. Now I know better than to take this for granted.