“Change is pain, but inevitable”

2018-02-22 06:01
on the couchTarzan Mbita

on the couchTarzan Mbita

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Not many people remember it now, but the church famously known as the J.L Zwane Presbyterian Church just up my street, used to be referred to as: iCawe ese ndulwini, the Church on the hill.

And, as the Aids tragedy reared its ugly head in the 90’s, the church- being the first to open its doors to sufferers and families alike- was sarcastically referred to as: iCawe ye Aids, the Aids Church.

Then, as the leadership took the proverbial bull by the horns to address pertinent issues affecting the society which the church served, it morphed into being called: iKhaya lethu loku phambukela, a sanctuary of refuge and protection.

And with Gogo Nontobeko Sylvia Gija holding court, you will not find a better historian.

You also don’t know an affable little old lady who likes to keep good company and can hold a decent conversation as if you were a long lost friend.

She is also a dotting mother to her children Buliswa, Simthandile and Athenkosi and granny to Mfundiso, Sibonani, Thandekile and Mbali.

But the ease with which she reminded me of the days when the church was the arena of the Struggle during the dark days of Apartheid left me ablush.

Mam’u Gija, as she is preferably called by all and sundry, is a long standing member of the J.L Zwane Presbyterian Church situated in NY2.

I was there to gauge her feelings regarding the departure of the church minister and his wife, Spiwo and Zethu Xapile, after so many years at the helm, ministering to the flock.

As she talks, I get the feeling she is one of countless elderly people who possess a wealth of knowledge, but will probably take it with them to the grave since the younger generation never makes time for them.

Excited, she informs me that she holds the distinction of having spent nights, sleeping over at the mission house whilst Reverend Xapile was on church business overseas.

More about that later. As the resident of 71 Quickswood, aka Farmhouse, in Gugulethu’s NY71, she just could not resist the temptation to part with a little history about her house first.

It is a house unlike any other in Gugulethu, from the original design to the sprawling yard that: “If I had the money, could have turned it into an estate, with still enough space to build blocks of flats.”

Many people do not realise it, but Gugulethu, as we know it today, was previously a huge farm until it was bought by the Nationalist Party government to relocate Blacks from areas like Kensington, Simon’s Town, Retreat and other places as part of the notorious Group Areas Act.

After she and herb late husband spliced it in 1966, they were lucky enough to be offered the house by then administrator Rhosini(Goosen) in 1967. Hence the name: Farmhouse.

To her, it is a house of fond memories, if only because it is also here that their union produced their kids, and from where her hubby passed on in November 16, 1998, a date she remembers very well.

Born in District 6, she and her husband were brought up in the church and have always been staunch members.

“We were married in the church,” she tell me.

She narrates the story of the church just as she does that of their house.

They did not always have a resident, and they had to rely on the services of a Reverend Masinda, and had to alternate between Gugulethu and Langa.

“It was a system of being here, there, here and there...”

As a result, in the hiatus, the church became the subject of vandalism, burglary, with the windows deliberately broken, and the grass growing waist deep, the fencing stolen, while the church premises looked like a desolate wasteland.

“Since we focused our abilities mainly to the church in Langa, ours in Gugulethu seemed to lag behind in development and growth.

We prayed hard for salvation in every sphere of our Christian life, including for a minister who could concentrate his efforts on building our church.”

“... As if by magic, 1989 changed all that, and we were gifted Reverend Xapile. Yho aba bantwana. They were a young couple then, very young and energetic people.”

“They set about re-organizing the whole structure. Exactly the kind of person we needed.”

She says Xapile reconstituted the whole church structure.

“Since the were zero funds and finances, he assured us that he would do his utmost to help raise funds for the church ... He introduced the zones system, constituted by districts where each area was reconstituted for the welfare and fund-raising.

February was set aside for the culmination and reports of all funds raised.

“If anything, Xapile introduced the notion of accountability in the church. Soon, there was enough money to buy a private plot that was straddling the church and the mission house ... He would report back to us on all his visits to raise funds overseas.

“I remember that afterwards we embarked on a programme to rebuild the church, and so we had to demolish the old structure ... Millions were raised for the huge structure we see today.”

During the overseas trips, it was not lost on the elders of the church that he was leaving behind a wife and two young kids, Hlalumi and Nonkuthalo.

“I was asked to sleep over in his absence. The kids were very young then, in fact, everybody was young in that household ...”

What mostly stands out for her is the fact that whatever developments took place at the church, the couple brought the community along.

“”The feeding scheme, extra-classes for learners not only benefitted children of the congregation, but those from the surrounding community as well.”

Some children received offers of bursary and even went overseas. No matter how attitudes(towards the Xapiles) have changed over the years, you don’t forget goodwill like that. When they started here, success was just a pipe dream for most members, but as the church grew, so did ambitions grow, and people were inspired to get education and today, the lifestyle displayed by members is a manifestation of that inspiration ... They helped changed the lives of many people.”

Mam’ Gija says the impact that the couple’s departure is having on the older and, to some extent, the younger generation is not lost on them.

“Change is pain, but is inevitable. We, as the elders are happy with legacy they are leaving behind; progress, education and vision.

“I am very sad, but content that they are at peace with the whole process(of leaving). That they are not pushed, but it was a conscious decision on their part (to retire).

“They have been helpful to us elderly... the house visits to ask about our welfare, including to neighbours who are not even members of our church ... The groceries for the indigent among us.

In the years when the church took shape, the community had been used to listening to the tolls of the church bell of St Mary Magdaline Anglican Church to the south end of the same street. Until the Presbyterian Church installed its own clock-tower, which would chime whenever the time hit the hour.

“We assumed it was helping everyone keep time in the vicinity, until residents complained that it was tolling at the unholy of hours and it was switched off.”

The clock has fallen silence for years now. She says apart from that, they had been welcomed with open arms by the neighbouring community.

She also says a lot of other people have helped the church maintain its place in society.

“We are forever grateful to Zethu Xapile, her husband and other volunteers for their help in stemming the tide of despair during the years the Aids pandemic was ravaging our community. They gave voice to people who would otherwise have suffered and died as unknown ... They gave HIV/Aids faces of real people, gave all of us hope and a determination to live; something to look forward to... We will take the baton and sprint foward.”

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