By Debbie Roome
It was a simple little question. A matter of saying yes or no. Yet looking back, the answer changed the course of our lives.
It was 1992 and we had been living in South Africa for just over a year. We had four children under the age of six and number five would soon be on her way. Enter Ethel Zuma--a lovely woman who was working at our children's preschool as a cleaner. She was looking for accommodation, so we offered her an outside room in exchange for help with our ironing and housework. A few weeks after moving in, she approached us with one simple question. "I have a five-year-old son who lives with my mother in the rural areas. Can he come and live with me?"
Kevin and I discussed it overnight and, although slightly apprehensive, agreed. We felt it would be best for child and mother to be together and just hoped he would be well-behaved.
Derrick arrived shortly after, a quiet boy who couldn't speak any English and had never been exposed to modern city life. Our children accepted him straight away and slowly he adapted to our lifestyle. It was an amusing process, as he was terrified of us and insisted on sitting on the floor, never on the chairs. However, the TV and video machine were great attractions, as were the children's toys, and he began to grow in confidence. Within a year, he was speaking perfect English and attending the same Christian school as our children.
Ethel was comfortable with the part we were playing in Derrick's life and so we continued to include him in family activities. We took him on his first trip to the beach, and he learnt to swim in our pool. On special occasions he would come with us to a restaurant, and he started attending church with us.
When Derrick was about nine, we decided to visit his family home in Impendle--a rural area about ninety minutes from the city where we lived. The tar road soon deteriorated into a muddy track, and we bounced through potholes and drove cautiously through swollen streams.
Finally, after dropping into a valley, we wound among hundreds of round, mud dwellings until Ethel proudly pointed out their home--a cluster of four huts and a chicken shed on a scraggly square of grass.
The Zumas were excited to have visitors and showed us round their patch of land. One of the huts was the kitchen and communal area where they ate and socialized. Cooking was done on an ancient wood stove, of which Ethel's mother was very proud. The other huts were sleeping quarters for the grandparents and extended family.
It was immediately apparent that they had very little. No electricity, no running water, little food, and not much clothing. It was on that visit we decided to gather some goodies together for our next visit. Over the next few months we collected used clothing and stockpiled boxes of food. Ethel's mother had recently been hospitalized for malnutrition, so we concentrated on basics, such as cornmeal, peanut butter and beans, as well as treats, like biscuits, bottles of fizzy drink, and oats porridge and syrup.
It was an amazing experience taking our gifts out there. In many ways, I think we benefited more than they did. The expressions on their faces were priceless as they opened bags of clothes and unpacked boxes of food.
We have many rich memories of those days. I think of how Derrick used to trap rats and then roast them over a fire before eating them with our children. I think of neighboring families decimated by violence and AIDS and grandmothers struggling to raise a dozen grandchildren. I think of sharing the Zuma's joy over a newly installed tap that worked one hour per day and how they insisted on killing one of their few chickens and cooking it for us. They owned two rickety, old chairs, and we used those while they sat on a grass mat. Under the midday African sun, we shared bowls of tough, stringy chicken and cups of warm coke. Any conversation had to be translated by Derrick and Ethel, but we felt accepted and content in their company.
The years continued to pass, and Derrick became more and more a part of our family--a brother to our children and a son to us. If he misbehaved, we would discuss the situation with Ethel and, if necessary, a good hiding would follow.
It was a joy when he gave his life to Jesus and, as he moved into his teens, his gifts began to develop. He is very musical, and I taught him to play bass guitar and got him going on piano. By the time he was eighteen, he was leading praise and worship at school and church. In 2005, his last year at school, he was elected as a prefect, alongside our daughter, who was head girl.
That was also our last year in South Africa. We had heard God's voice calling us to New Zealand and knew we had to say a very painful goodbye to Ethel and Derrick, as well as the rest of our family. Kevin left three months before the rest of us, and here are some extracts from the card Derrick gave him that day.
"Dear Uncle Kevin,
It's been fourteen years since I moved in to live alongside your family! I have known you for most of my life and you have become like a father to me.
My quiet times in the morning were inspired by you. How you wake up early to pray almost every day with such a sincere heart.
Thank you also for your hospitality and for the many friends of mine that you have allowed into your house. And most of all, thank you for showing such goodness and love towards my family
May the Lord always turn His face towards you and give you peace. Thank you for everything.
Love from Derrick and Ethel."
In January 2006, our five children and I left South Africa, and Derrick and other close friends came to the airport to say goodbye. Suffice to say, it broke our hearts to leave him behind.
Ethel is now employed by my parents, and Derrick is working for a Christian media company. We keep in touch and hear he has bought himself a car and earns extra money by singing and playing the guitar at various gigs. Other friends tell us he has blossomed and is doing really well.
Our years in South Africa were not particularly happy ones, and on arriving in New Zealand, I asked God why we couldn't have come straight here from Zimbabwe. Why we had to spend fifteen years in difficult circumstances. His answer was immediate and clear. Those years were to give Derrick a chance at a better life. To lead him to God and help him become a man of influence.
I don't know what lies ahead for Derrick, but know that God has a definite plan for his life. A plan that we were, and are, privileged to be part of.
I often wonder how different and poorer all our lives would be if we had answered no when Ethel asked us that simple little question.
DEBBIE ROOME is passionate about writing stories that touch people's lives and point them to God. If you would like to write to Debbie, you can do so through the Letters page of this magazine.