Thirsting for Hope

Lavumisa, Swaziland

This land is broken – cracked and dry with gouges where water used to run. The ground crunches underneath weary feet, and a high sun overlooks the landscape, suspended alone in the sky. The only clouds are clouds of dust that hover around ankles as feet drag across the land, past rows of mountain aloe, around thorn bushes and cacti, far from the homestead – all in search of water. Any water.

The coarse and crooked branches of malnourished trees scratch the air, each leaf a muted green. Everything is covered by a dusty russet haze. The hills cause the horizon to waver – from afar they are just grey-blue silhouettes painted below the sky, but they are the same hills as the ones we are standing on: drumlins of dust and crumbling rock. The patches of grass and leaves on the trees are no comfort, no hope – they are so overwhelmingly outnumbered by the dry and the dying. The grave of a river splits open the land. Fractured by the drought, the riverbed looks like crocodile skin. Lavumisa was bled dry years ago, and its people bear the scars.

In the homesteads, you can see some of them sitting, wilting in the small shade of a hut. Some are fading from exhaustion, from sickness, from hopelessness. A mother nursing her baby; a grandfather sitting beside his ill granddaughter; a child dozing beside a haggard dog. It is midday: the sun is at its highest point, forcing them to surrender to its heat. As they sit there, they look out at their home, at what is theirs: stick and wire fences securing their land; a few small mud-and-stick huts, cracking in the heat and the sun; their clothes draped drying on the mountain aloe, or hung on wire between posts; their chickens wandering, pecking fruitlessly at the ground; plots of land, empty of growing crops; their children. They don’t have much, and yet they were still stolen from. The drought has taken so much from them.

Every day they have to walk for miles from their homesteads without the certainty of finding water. The sun beats down on their backs, the tauntingly blue sky stretches above them, their breaths don’t stir the still and stifling air. There used to be a river that ran through the centre of Lavumisa, with lush life growing around it. But now all that is left is a wide stretch of soft wet clay, with puddles and hand-dug wells scattered along it where people have dug for the water that lies below the riverbed. This water, clouded and brown, may be enough to survive on, enough to fill up a few pails of water – but is it enough to live on? Water is the foundation of all needs, the source of all life. Not only is it required to nourish and sustain the body, but it is needed for growing crop, for getting money, for getting the food that is needed – for sustaining the course of a life. They haven’t seen rain for three years. What kind of hope can they have for the future when the source of their most basic need is thrown into question? There is no certainty anymore. They are forced to forget the future and focus on surviving the day.

They persevere on.

A woman, her eyes shaded by a straw hat, walks her donkeys to the riverbed, bringing buckets to fill for her family – she has seven children to look after, waiting for her at home. Some of her children have never seen rain in their life, most of them don’t remember the feeling of rain as it falls from the sky onto their skin, or what it looks like as it falls and ripples the river’s water. She doesn’t want to talk, she moves from place to place in an unyielding rhythm that was written years ago and replayed day after day after day. She hasn’t seen her husband in a month, he works in the sugar cane fields hundreds of kilometres away. She is alone to provide for her children. But she endures – she lives every day like this. It is her duty, she has no other choice but to keep doing it. If she stops moving, if she stops laboring, scraping and striving for each drop of water, the wave of hopelessness looming over her might finally fall and drown her. So, her tired feet trudge onward. Squinting in the sun, she fixes her eyes on her destination and marches on – to the riverbed, and then home. Home to her children. When she arrives at her homestead, her hardened disposition shifts. She forgets the days of toil and the years of drought – she sees her children. Her children giggle and laugh around her, with smiles of defiant joy, bouncing and dancing with a limitless energy. They run about, playing hide-and-seek around the homestead, and she can’t help but smile and laugh along with them. She melts and her once-stony face glows with a warmth softer than the sun and sweeter than running water. The bare sky of hopelessness is streaked with wisps and clouds of unrelenting hope when she sees her children – they are her joy, her purpose, what makes the days of strife worth it.

Another woman, elderly, with a face dark and weathered from the sun and the years, carries a hoe in one hand and bush knife in the other. She walks to her plot of land beside the riverbank – it is riddled with thorn bushes and weeds, nothing grows here. She has come to dig up the weeds and thorn bushes, to burn them and the trees to make the land available for planting. The land is surrounded by a wire fence held up by sticks, and a plastic pipe stretches across it as the neighbouring plot tries to pump some water from the riverbed. She starts a fire to burn away the cut-down branches and thorn bushes, and collects strewn weeds and branches for the fire. Her bare hands are scarred and scratched by the thorns but her skin is tough. She is used to this work, she has been doing it all her life. But she is weaker and older now, she isn’t as able as she used to be. She can’t bend down to uproot the weeds from the ground, or hack down the branches of the dry and dying trees. And yet, she is still determined to cultivate the land, to see growth in a land where nothing grows. A child comes to help, so does a woman, so does a man. They help her by cutting down the branches and weeds for her, and uprooting the thorn bushes. They work until the sky bleeds upwards from the horizon then darkens and speckles with stars. This isn’t delusion, this isn’t naivety – the faithfulness and perseverance of their labour is an act of defiance. It is a battle against the hopelessness that grows like a weed in Lavumisa.

People are withering in this hopelessness, and yet there are still warriors of hope. Pastor Sabelo is one of those warriors. He bubbles and overflows with an insuppressible and inexplicable joy. He is faithful, patient, and unrelentingly hopes in his God’s perfect plans regardless of the circumstances that he is in. As the pastor of the only church in Lavumisa, the Christian Life Church, he has been a vital advocate for hope in Lavumisa for many years. He speaks with earnest excitement and wisdom, often broken up by infectious giggles, and a constant smile plays on his lips. His stories are miraculous: he has seen healing, provision, lives changed and hope restored. He has seen rain come after a 20-year drought. And he believes each miracle is because of the faithfulness of his God. He believes that his God answers prayers, and he continues to pray for the healing of the land and for the provision of the rain. As he walks by the riverbed, his head bowed and eyes closed, and a smile on his face, he prays, “Thank you, Lord, that you can take faith as small as a mustard seed and move mountains.” Suddenly, everything holds a new significance – the leaves on the trees, the perseverance and resilience of the people, the children’s defiant exuberance and joy. These are the mustard seeds of hope planted around Lavumisa.

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