“It’s a zebra!!!”
Not hidden behind barred gates or three inch glass but standing directly in front of me. I leaned in close, throwing all caution to the wind with this seemingly-harmless animal, ready for my friend to snap a pic. Whack! The zebra head-butted me right in the eye. Luckily, a swollen eye and a slight headache were the only consequences. But I didn’t care—I had a picture with a zebra!!!
After a 16-hour flight from the States to Jo-berg and a slightly nerve-wracking trip through customs, my host family found me: stringy hair, bloodshot eyes, hunched shoulders from an over-stuffed backpack, one sweaty hand gripping a passport and another rolling a suitcase…. But, outshining it all, a giant smile spread across my face and heart…. because—somehow—this clumsy 15 year-old blonde had made to South Africa!
To have fun with friends and to explore new places were my expectations for the trip.
I was wrong. So wrong.
My eyes were opened to so much more than simply eating exotic food or buying cool souvenirs. While initially my focus was tangible, tourist-y things, a true purpose revealed itself.
It happened in a rural, poor area at a small children’s home. Three young women and I prepared games, songs, crafts, and stories for these kids we knew nothing about. At first, we all stood around, awkwardly waiting for something. “Duck-duck-goose!!!” shrieked a little boy. In mere seconds, this universal game had us sprawled in the grass with laughter. Together. It’s joyful.
And yet, just a few decades earlier, segregation, violence, and bloodshed flooded the streets, destroying the lives of thousands. The past struggle was real and awful, but the present triumph over all discrimination hit me even harder. Now, the people of South Africa smile as they play a neighborhood game of cricket, no separation because of color of skin or of financial background. A meager chapter in my history textbook on apartheid transformed into a dawning realization of the strength and everlasting joy of a nation, a people who love. It’s powerful.
Though we came from millions of different backgrounds, we united as one family with no fears and no shame. What brought us together? Our smiles. Our laughter. Our hearts. Not only did one family open their home to us but they also wrapped their arms around us. Before we even exchanged names, our host had swept us into a giant hug. They showered us with love. We played together, worked together, loved together. It’s real.
“It’s a zebra!!!” soon crumbled away to “it’s a love” so joyful, so powerful, so real that it binds us all together. Like the zebra directly in front of me, love emanated from those around me; I just had to open my heart to see it. As my host mom said, thrills are momentary, but love is infinite.
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