Understanding the Real South Africa
“I came to South Africa because I was drawn by its beauty,” said Pan. Going deeper into the country, he realized that this paradise of beaches and vacation spots --- the white man’s world -- is but a very small part of South Africa. Ten kilometres away from this paradise are poverty, chaos, malnourished children, the poor and the sick, victims of domestic and political violence --- the daily reality of South Africa.
Pan walked into these communities. The more he walked, the deeper he became involved. He carried with him Master Cheng Yen’s constant reminders to treat others as your own family, and in seeing the suffering of others, to empathize and feel their pain.
One day, Pan took the dangerous step of going into the countryside to visit rural homes. He entered the home of a very thin old man. When the children of the old man saw him, they scurried away and hid. When they realized that he had no bad intentions, the children asked him: “are you going to kill our grandfather?”
Pan found out that, shortly before his visit, a group of young people had barged into the old man’s house and killed two of his children. Then he realized that the limping old man who was using two long branches to support him was the same age as he. The poverty and harsh life he had lived had made him look much older than his years.
In another of his visits, Pan went into a small shanty town and saw a mother carrying a baby girl. Beside the mother was a pail of murky water with larvae swimming in it. The young mother explained that this was the water that she drunk and used to prepare her baby’s milk.
The schools in this part of the countryside were mostly dilapidated. Roofs were built of tattered tin scraps. Children did not have desks and chairs nor pencils to write. There were no toilets and water. Some schools were merely sheds made from mud: some schoolchildren had their classes under trees and were exposed to temperatures below zero degrees Celsius during winter and more than 40 degrees in summer. For the children, there was no alternative. Seeing these dire conditions, Tzu Chi volunteers constructed boreholes to provide the schoolchildren with water, as a first step.
Still, there was much to do. The absence of medical facilities meant that small wounds became infected and eventually became ulcers and that minor ailments became serious conditions.
The Tzu Chi Path: Doing Together What Cannot Be Done
With the limited resources he had and so much to do, Pan slowly inspired local people to help. He and the first few local volunteers took a nine-seater van to visit the poor and the sick. Most of the way they took unpaved dirt roads. Their van’s tires were worn out most of the time and the wire threads exposed: punctures were common. On one occasion, looking in the rear-view mirror, the volunteers wondered why they could see fog at the back and none at the front -- only to realize that, pushed to its limit, the van was emitting fumes and smoke.
“The Tzu Chi path is not a smooth ride,” he said. Faced with these challenges, he never gave up. He firmly believed that setbacks are always opportunities to grow and strengthen your resolution to continue on your path and mission. Pan’s wife, Meilian, often worried when Pan travelled with the local volunteers. She said that once they travelled to the mountains and planned to return home by four or five in the afternoon. Eventually, she received a call at around eight at night that the group would be late because three of their van’s tires had exploded. The volunteers were finally only able to get home very late at night.
Pan recounted that, on one occasion, they had two flat tires. The volunteers carried the second tire and took a ride to the town. Going into a tire shop, the owner warned him: “No one goes in there!” While waiting, Pan saw a group of young men watching him and speaking in low voices. Sensing imminent danger, the local volunteers approached the men and spoke to them. Ashamed, they eventually left. Pan discovered that the young men had initially planned to rob him. The local volunteers warned and dissuaded them, saying: “He is our saint. You cannot touch him!”
Tolakele and Gladys were previously the poorest among the poor in their community. Pan taught them how to farm. This was the first step to training the local volunteers, who now number 5000, to start vegetable gardens: there are now 120. To enable the communities to be financially independent, Pan used the sewing machines donated by Tzu Chi and excess material from Taiwan garment factories to open 520 job training centres. These centres have improved the lives of nearly 4,000 families. The local volunteers get donations of rice and corn from the villagers; they cook these together with the vegetables and serve them to the orphans. The clothes and other handicrafts they make become the funds that they use to care for AIDS patients. Pan slowly taught them how to take care of the sick.
Pan reminisced and shared, “In these past 10 years, we have slowly known each other in a deeper way. They can already figure out what I think and I can also surmise what goes through their minds. When we were just starting, they actually tested my patience with work strikes, fights, name it!” Pan related that there was a time that Gladys picked a fight at the back, while he was speaking at the front. Gladys later explained that there was a member of the audience who spoke ill of Tzu Chi. At that time, she did not know how to explain and defend the foundation and so was agitated.
Resolving Hatred, Paving the Road with Love
When the number of local volunteers in Durban reached more than a hundred, Pan received a death threat. One day a local volunteer told him: “please do not come here tomorrow, the tribal chief said he will kill you when he sees you.” The threat came because the volunteers planned to go to an unsafe area. With not enough space in the van and because of the possibility that something might happen to the chief’s wife, Pan asked her to stay behind. At that time, the chief’s wife said nothing; but, because she had no ride to go back home, she actually cried by the roadside from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon. When he heard of the incident, the tribal chief was furious, feeling that Pan had not shown proper respect to their status.
Unmindful of the threat to his life, Pan instead went straight to apologize to the tribal chief. Pan said: “I heard that I had offended you and made you upset. I am very sorry.” Hearing the sincerity of Pan’s explanation, the anger of the chief slowly dissipated. He later said: “women are troublesome and annoying. Do not mind my wife!”
Gladys said that, in one black village, a small mud road separated two political parties. Often, there would be fights and murders. At the village entrance, there were heavy weapons owned by the military. Even the policemen did not want to enter the village for fear of being killed. But Pan once stood in the center of the road that divided the factions and shouted to both sides, encouraging them to co-exist peacefully.
One local volunteer who used to be a nurse experienced violence herself. One day, a group of men forced their way into her house, killed two of her nephews, raped and killed her daughter, shot at her eight times, looted and ransacked the house and then set it on fire. She was only saved by her neighbours. She had to recuperate in the hospital for six months. She did not report the crime to the police but harbored hatred and revenge in her heart. She was bent on killing and torturing these perpetrators. Her interaction with Tzu Chi though has dispelled this seething anger. She eventually stopped holding on to this hatred and became a person who teaches others to love one another.
Gladys said: “we have achieved making the community more peaceful and in harmony. Wherever we go, we influence others to live peacefully. Today the places that we go to are a lot safer!” Where Tzu Chi volunteers go, a road is paved inch by inch with love.
The Destitute Can Also Help
The South African Tzu Chi volunteers are a happy group. When they go out to visit their care recipients, they sing along the way Tzu Chi songs that they wrote themselves. When they are going uphill, the volunteer housewives – twice as heavy as Pan -- pull the others one by one. When asked if they were tired, out of breath, they reply in unison: “no, we’re not tired at all!” None are well-off, but, upon hearing Master Cheng Yen’s encouragement that, where there’s a will, there is a way, they believe into their hearts that the poor can also help.
Pan said he felt that he was running out of time. He needed more and more people to help him. Once the doors of giving and sharing were opened, many people were touched and inspired by Master Cheng Yen’s Great Love and joined the ranks of helping others. They came to realize their own blessings when they saw the hardships of others and learnt to cherish and create blessings for others. The biggest realization for these local volunteers was that, in helping others, they felt blessed. Initially, the local volunteers thought that, in helping, they were saving others. Eventually, they realized that they were in fact thankful for the opportunity to give. This had made their inner happiness come out of their bright smiles and in the songs that they sing.
Weeks before she died, one volunteer who had AIDS said that she had dreamt of Master Cheng Yen pouring water over her head and that all her pain was all gone. When she could no longer speak, her family would sing and chant prayers. On one occasion, she could not utter a word but continued to point at Pan’s Buddha bead bracelet. Eventually, the people beside her realized that she wanted to have the bracelet; she wanted to leave this world quickly and quickly come back. With the Buddha beads given by the Master, she believed that, on her way back, she would not lose her way.
Taking Care of People Forgotten By Society
Pan said that, from AIDS patients, “immense suffering can awaken others”. Once you enter the room of a terminally ill patient, the smell is unbearable. When you hold an AIDS patient to help them walk, filth comes out of their pants. Although prevention is being taught in schools, sexual misconduct is still proliferating. The number of South African AIDS patients increases every day. With AIDS adult patients dying, the number of orphans has also increased.
Even when their parents are living, South African children do not necessarily lead blessed lives. Pan said that one mother forced her 15-year-old daughter to sell her body to earn money to buy liquor for her. One day, this young girl was raped; she was in such a state of shock and trauma that she became mute and could not stop trembling. Another mother abandoned her mentally retarded daughter and left her in a small stock room outside their house to let her die. However, after the family saw how Tzu Chi volunteers took care of their daughter, they felt remorse and took the young girl back.
Tzu Chi cares for several AIDS patients left unnoticed in their dark corners. With Tzu Chi’s efforts, several South Africans have more than tree roots and bark to eat.
Today, Tzu Chi has 120 hot food stations. Without a roof to cover them, Gladys, Tolakele and other volunteers cook food outside. The children with AIDS gulp one spoonful after the other, eating their only meal for the whole day.
The Wild Grasslands as a Place for Cultivation
Pan always asks young exchange students from Europe or the U.S. who go to famous South African vacation spots: “Where are you now?” They would answer: “We’re in South Africa.” Pan disagrees and says: “No, you are in Europe or the U.S.” Surprised, these young people are then invited by Pan to see the “real South Africa”.
Once, a European exchange student went with Pan to the mountains to visit the care recipients. When the student saw a small boy trying to carry from a truck goods heavier than himself, the student was embarrassed to stand and watch. He helped the boy carry the goods. After this and four other stops with care recipients, the student saw how different Tzu Chi is from other charities. If charity means donating money or goods, the receiver’s life may not actually improve. It may even cause the recipients to develop a habit of waiting for external help. Tzu Chi’s way is to teach local people to fend for themselves. Tzu Chi aims to help the poor alleviate not only their own suffering but also that of others. When one gains inner happiness and helps others, every person becomes a seed that allows the whole world to attain happiness too.
Constantly Paying Attention to One’s Heart
Pan gives importance to the character and personal qualities of a Tzu Chi volunteer. Gladys and Tolakele were certified Tzu Chi commissioners only after 11 and eight years respectively of volunteering in the foundation.
When they were in the U.S., Pan would always remind and ask them: “you should pay attention to what you see. What is your mission? Did you see what you wanted to see?” They did talks in different places and Pan did not see them for a time. When they met again, Pan noticed that both had gained weight. The Tzu Chi US volunteers were taking very good care of them. Pan was worried that both volunteers were being spoiled by the hosts and reminding them: “I am very sad. I miss these local volunteers. They were with us from the very start and worked very hard for Tzu Chi but now they’re gone.” When she heard these words, Gladys could not hold back her tears and could not finish her meal.
Gladys was the very first Tzu Chi volunteer in South Africa. After a long time, it is understandable that she would feel above and beyond others and her status not the same as that of other volunteers. Pan would always remind her that she is not superior compared to the other volunteers. Pan would always remind himself: “Master Cheng Yen is very humble. I should never ever feel superior to others and feel above others. Otherwise, if arrogance would fill me, I would be in a lower place in their hearts.”
Actually, when Pan was diligently doing Tzu Chi work in South Africa, he felt he need not go back to Taiwan and see Master Cheng Yen. He said to himself: “I can do it myself, why should I still see Master Cheng Yen?” But then someone asked him: “why are you afraid to see Master Cheng Yen?” These words challenged him and forced him to go back to Taiwan. From the moment he heard Master Cheng Yen’s voice, Pan could not hold back his tears. He felt that all her teachings were meant for him. The sincere words of Master Cheng Yen sliced through his heart.
U.S. Helping South Africa Spread Love
The CEO of Tzu Chi in the U.S., William Keh, said that, ten years ago, the U.S. Chapter sent a ten-person team to learn from Tzu Chi South Africa’s experience. Seeing Pan’s hardships in doing Tzu Chi work, the team thought of sending resources to South Africa. However, Master Cheng Yen reminded them: “you cannot. Volunteers should rely on themselves and materials should come from local sources.” Because of this, Pan used his own resources to work hard and was slowly able to inspire local people to volunteer. Mr. Keh and Pan came to realize the wisdom behind Master’s words and her vision. If at the very start Tzu Chi South Africa had received outside help, there would not be 5,000 black Tzu Chi volunteers now. After 10 years, Mr. Keh asked Master Cheng Yen again if the U.S. Chapter could provide help to South Africa, Master Cheng Yen replied: “The time is now ripe. Yes, you may send help.”
Keh said that, over the next 3 years, Tzu Chi U.S. will build 13 small multi-purpose centers in Durban to be as places for the poor, the sick and orphans. The centres would also be places to inspire more people to help. He hopes that young people taking undergraduate or master degrees form teams and live in South Africa for a year or two and help in the areas of education, health and sanitation.
In March, Pan and other South African volunteers went to the U.S. to share the Tzu Chi South African experience. When Mr. Keh introduced Pan for the first time, he said that he had a heart that contains the innocence of a child, the courage of a lion and the perseverance of a camel. Pan used great sincerity in dealing with others and doing the work of Tzu Chi; he has persevered and shared 18 years of his life in service. He expects to spend the next half of his life in South Africa. This legendary Tzu Chi volunteer with the three hearts, who is half a South African, will inspire and lead more black volunteers to bring the mission of Tzu Chi across the African continent.
Article by Fay Chou
Translated by Peggy Sy
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