It was an incredibly hot day, I was sweating in my t-shirt and shorts; the noise of the wind in the trees was loud and yet there was little breeze lower down. I looked down the steep path to the dry, dusty ground in front of me, surrounded by a few homes of the people who lived in this very informal settlement.
Very aware of the expensive camera I was holding – not worried about breakage or theft, just aware that the price of it could transform this community – I flip-flopped down the rough-hewn mud steps past the scraggy, stray dogs and wandering chickens into a world I had never entered before, nor believed could exist quite so close to the shiny, wealthy metropolis of Durban.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen this before – on TV, in photos and magazines – I had just never experienced it myself, never smelt it and touched it. Always at a sanitary distance, through the coloured pixels.
It was, quite frankly, alien; entirely different, arresting.
It wasn’t the roughly-built, mud-walled shacks, with metalled roofs held on with rubbish; it wasn’t the bare feet in dust or the goats or the piled refuse in the stream nor the cooking pots in the street; it wasn’t even the dark, crowded-together, one-room houses that people called home or the visible marks of illness in the kids – although all of these things were hard to see.
But, the thing that really got me was seeing that real people lived there.
People who were trying to live with dignity, but still with many, deep needs. There was evidence of the toll that poverty takes on the lives of people who are trapped in its grip…sickness, hunger, thirst, vulnerability, violence, lack of choice, little opportunity…but these weren’t just abstract people the other side of the world, these were people in front of me. People with whom I shook hands; people I hugged and high-fived.
Real people. With desperate needs.
And, yet, somewhere underneath the pain there was something else. Poverty had tried to rob it, sickness tried to steal it, other people had tried to beat it out. But there it was, breaking through, in the light of their eyes, in the flickers of joy, the easy-coming laughter, the gentle touch. Still evident, still fighting.
The Imago Dei. The image of God.
You see, we are each made in the image of God. We are created equal, with inherent value and worth despite our circumstances; despite what has been done to us, in the face of pain and sorrow.
This is the image of the very same God who is fighting for them, defending them, passionate about them, deeply committed to them. Who breathes life and hope; who calls His followers to serve in many communities like this one around the world; the God who restores the broken and defends the weak and protects the vulnerable. The God who sent His son to bring ultimate, eternal healing to the whole of creation. Who came for all of us.
The God whose heart breaks at seeing His people live in poverty.
See, that was the other thing I sensed, standing there in this incredibly poor village, was God’s love for these people. I had a sense of quite how deeply He was committed to them and the compassion he felt for them – an inkling at His broken heart.
And my heart started to break too. But it started deep in my guts – a rising anger at poverty, a stirring commitment to change things and the realisation that my heart and hands needed to work together.
Because my broken heart isn’t enough.
While there are still communities, informal settlements and squatter camps like this one, there is much work to do and we’re the ones to do it. You and me together can make a difference.
The question that still lingers with me, as I process and ponder what I’ve seen, is one that I hope will never leave me, one which could change the world (sounds grand huh?!) and one I ask of you too
The question is simple.
Now that you have seen and heard, what will you do?
For all my sweat, my blood runs weak
Let me learn from where I have been
Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.
Mumford and Sons