We returned to Thembi’s homestead yesterday. We had to redo our interview because of audio disasters large and small, from chickens squawking to cars driving past on the main road to Thembi’s endearing mannerisms that frustrated us in the editing room as we tried to distill her story. I was annoyed that we essentially had to start all over, but I was beyond excited to see our Swazi mom again.
In the golden light of the late afternoon, Thembi began to dance for the camera. While she danced, I told her that I sing in church just like she does. She stopped dancing immediately, turned to me, and began to sing. As Jonathan and Jaz grabbed for their cameras, Thembi’s rich alto enveloped the homestead. “Every day, and every hour, you are faithful, O Lord.”
As Thembi sang, I tried to lock into the melody, transported to the Founders’ Room of the Af-Am House at Yale where we meet for Yale Gospel Choir rehearsals. My mind flickered to life with thoughts of harmonies and embellishments I might add to her song. But caught halfway between not wanting to ruin the audio and not wanting to ruin the moment, I stood stunned and silent, just listening.
Just before we left Thembi’s homestead a few hours later, we gave her a card we had signed to thank her for her time, love, and trust in this process. As soon as she opened it, she took off her glasses and began to cry. We enveloped her in a group hug and whispered words of love and thanksgiving, hoping our physical closeness might make up for the gross insufficiency of our words. We broke after a while, and she told us she would pray for us on our journey home and for our lives to come.
On the drive home, prompted by nothing other than the word “faithful” from Thembi’s hymn, one of the songs we sang last semester popped into my head. “For there’s no one else like You/Who is faithful, ever true/All my love, my heart, my life/ is a testimony.” I thought Thembi’s faith through tremendous adversity, of her strength of soul and body, of her love, her heart, her life. She will do anything and everything to ensure that people in her community don’t die because of fear of testing and treatment for HIV. And everything she does is a testimony to the power of a single person who refused to give up.
As we drove off into one of our last breathtaking Swazi sunsets, I realized I never learned the SiSwati word for goodbye.