Eight months after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa, many us have begun to emerge from the lockdown experience and life begins to take on a semblance of normality. Some of us are glad to resume our activities, but it is also a time to reassess what is truly important in our lives. The pain of isolation has triggered reflections about how the loss of our freedom, fear, and limited physical contact have affected us. Levinia Pienaar shares her story about how she overcame dejection by seeking out the people in her community.
Two months into the lockdown, I was feeling quite despondent and had become absorbed in my own feelings and experience of isolation. By then, we were in Level 4 and I had not ventured out to the shops to buy essentials for some weeks.
One morning, I just couldn’t stay indoors anymore. I got into my car and took a drive around my hometown in rural Worcester. I ended up in a squatter camp, where I noticed a woman feeding the children.
Hope begins with our children
The children were hungry because the schools had closed during the lockdown. Most of them were between 9 and 15 years old. Many of these kids rely on school feeding schemes for their main meal of the day. I was curious about this woman who was more worried about the well-being of the children than her own safety. I got out of the car to talk to her. We had a long conversation. She inspired me to volunteer some of my time to mentor these kids.
We often forget how children are aware of so much happening around them but cannot always make sense of it. But perhaps, children are the best window on which to look out on the world and see what really matters.
One boy explained COVID-19 to me, saying: “Miss, you have to wash your hands properly, otherwise that virus will kill you.” As he said this, he showed me how well he was washing his hands with soap and water. For him, the virus was a real enemy that could take his family and friends away if they didn’t follow the rules to keep sickness at bay.
Another boy was far more concerned about the violence in his community. He asked me: “So Miss, when we are not naughty, will they stop killing people where we live?” How do you answer such a question? For him, the reality of his circumstances — gangsterism, substance abuse, and crime — were far more real than a virus that seemed more like a far-fetched theory.
Social distancing becomes nearly impossible when hunger bites. The kids didn’t have masks and making them stand at a safe distance was really hard, especially when the food comes. To focus their attention, we taught them some praise and worship songs and a simple choreography. I also have a very special connection with ‘Heal the World’ which I taught them as well. When I explained to them how the famous song by the late Michael Jackson is still relevant today – they were quiet. Yes, just quiet. I hope they took in the message that a better world is possible.
An opportunity for Christian unity
On 1 May, the lockdown regulations permitted an exercise period from 6 to 9 in the morning. Some people from my community decided to do a “walking prayer” on Sunday mornings. The churches were closed, so the activity became an opportunity to pray as a community while walking. Although it was wet and cold, I decided to join them.
We started the pilgrimage as an inter-denominational people of God. For me, it was an absolutely “Wow” moment, reflecting how COVID-19 had created the opportunity for something positive, to bring us all together. Our differences, the various churches that we belong to and the ways we worship no longer mattered.
What mattered is that we needed to pray for a cure for COVID-19, for our country, our people, and especially our young people, that they will not succumb to crime, gangsterism, or any other form of negative behaviour while the schools remained closed.
Now is the time to start again
On another morning when I was feeling particularly despondent about crime and corruption, I decided to visit Ouma Sophy, an elderly lady with whom I have always had a very close connection, to see how she was coping with lockdown. Ouma Sophy’s first words to me were: “How I miss going to church.”
Ouma Sophy explained that it was not just about going to church on a Sunday. She missed the communion she experienced in her congregation from the church elders, the rituals, and the people.
She said that God had allowed something similar in the time of Noah. When the people did not listen to Noah, their “boat started to get rocky.” When the rain began to fall, the people rushed to the ark, but it was too late. Similarly, Ouma Sophy said, the pandemic has succeeded in shaking our foundations. She was angry that people were more interested in stocking up on alcohol and cigarettes than focusing on family life and living in peace with one’s neighbours.
She was so distressed that she began to cry, saying that the lockdown had provided families with the perfect opportunity to teach the children and grandchildren about God, respect for oneself and love of neighbour, but so many people were missing this opportunity. Ouma Sophy said there was no more excuse for not praying together as a family, for not speaking with family members or the neighbour next door.
In her wisdom, borne from a long life of experience, Ouma Sophy said: “God gave me many chances in this life, through cancer and chemotherapy. I am sad that all this [the pandemic] is happening around us, but I am ready when God calls me.”
She was able to find some peace because she had taken the advice she now offered: That NOW is the time. Now is the time to make things right with family members. Now is the time to make peace with yourself and God. Now is the time to bury family feuds, hatred, and negativity.
Two weeks after my visit with Ouma Sophy, she died from COVID-19 complications. At her memorial service, I related her final message. Her grandchildren were there and they promised to respect her final wishes by seeking greater unity with God and to respect family life. There is hope in that.
As for me, I am still struggling to find the goodness in every day. Despite that, I am glad that I left the house and met special people who helped me to look beyond myself.
I still go out to the children in the squatter camp and try to give them a little hope by filling their stomachs and their hearts with a sense of respect for themselves and others. Perhaps by doing this, I am also giving myself hope to look beyond my own shortcomings and difficulties, by reaching out to others in their struggles.