I was lying in bed, sick again, staring at my dirty house, feeling overwhelmed. I was sick for 2 weeks and so ready for the energy to clean again. Then the phone rang. A voice on the line asking, “Do you need me to come clean for you?” I thought it must be my imagination, but amazingly it was the cleaning lady who works for a neighbor. It felt like a gift from God, but I somehow felt guilty.
Having a “house help” was something that I furiously resisted when first arriving in South Africa. To me it seemed like a continuation of the racial divisions and the white privilege of apartheid. I remember the first week I was here, we went to a park and I saw white children with black maids in uniform and big houses with black “house help” answering the door. I had flashbacks of “The Help” book and movie and told Ralph that “The Help” seems to be real life here.
Needless to say, I was excited to for “The Help” movie to hit South African theaters. I had visions of the film radically shaking up the social norms. When I found out it was not being shown mainstream but only in a few artsy, alternative theaters that cater mostly to the white crowd, I was disappointed and suspicious.
Why do all other big box office US movies make it in all the theaters here and not this one? Did this one hit too close for comfort in a nation that. despite political change is overall racially divided?
My “house helper” for the day showed up and I embraced her with a hug and said,”You hear God, how did you know I have been sick and in desperate need of help?” She pulled away in shock and the look on her face showed that she is not used to being embraced by her white employers, but the big smile on her face revealed her thankfulnessfor the warm welcome.
Lunch time came just as she was finishing up and so I asked her to join me, to sit with me and the kids at the table and eat together. Her face looked utterly stunned. She stammered and paused, finally saying, “This is the greatest honor. This is a really big honor. I have never in my entire life eaten at the same table with one of my employers.” This is coming from a woman in her late forties who was probably cleaning white people’s houses since the age of 12.
We began to chat and she opened up to me about her life. I learned that it takes her 3 hours to get here, though only 25 miles away, on trains filled with scary things she says are too terrible to describe. She lives in a township called “Khaylitscha”.
Until 1990 people in South Africa were confined to live in certain areas according to their race. The Xhosa tribe began migrating to Cape Town in 1983 looking for work. Scince 1983, more than 1.5 million Xhosa people have settled in this township called Khayelitsha (which means “new homes”). Today, 75% of these people are unemployed and illiterate.Two thirds of the population live in small shacks made from scraps of tin, wood and plastic.
When I told her God gave me the word, “Khaylitscha” 2 years ago while I was in the US and that I felt God said I would serve there one day she again looked shocked. Her eyes showed her inability to comprehend why God would be so bothered about her problem-filled community to speak to a white lady in the USA about it.
We agreed we must visit each others churches. We hugged and she left as a friend, not simply “the help”. That was it. Nothing big, nothing that seemed world changing. But Maybe, just maybe “The Help” movie logo is right, “Change Begins With a Whisper”, or a shared meal or a hug… sharing each others storiesc. Small acts of friendship across racially divided lines are a bit revolutionary…