I don’t know if many people out there know this, but in addition to my middle name Ann, I also carry a second middle name—Tsholofelo—that means “hope” in Setswana. I never really tell this story unless people want to hear, but at this juncture in life I think it’s best to share what we feel defines us and makes us who we are. From there, people can decide if they want to listen or they can just move on and the story-tellers among us will either tell another story or move on as well. Another way of putting this from Joy Williams’ perspective is that
Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories’ shadows—and they’re grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough.
I think what Joy means by not enough, is that we don’t think we can ever do the story justice. This is why we keep trying to tell better and better stories or we just give up and don’t tell anything at all.
I would like to tell you a short story about hope, some of you may know it quite well, but others of you may never have heard it before today.
The other day I emailed my dad and asked him some questions I had about our time in Africa—me as a baby and my parents as missionaries on their first assignment. My dad responded with some brief answers and last time we spoke on the phone I got even more details that I had never really thought to ask before. I’m lucky that my dad has been journaling my whole life and probably the bulk of his own. He can go back to his journals, packed neatly in boxes entitled Mike’s Journals that are at the back of the walk-in closet, underneath the stairs in my parents’ Indiana home.
One image of my dad that will be forever embossed in my memory is that of him writing, black or blue Bic pen in hand, recording with messy, yet very legible script, the events of the day, his feelings, an important accomplishment, etc. My English teacher in 7th grade, with much chagrin, realized I had adopted his calligraphy in the form of “a’s” that looked like “o’s”, but I didn’t care, in fact it made me secure that it had come from a writer who I admired and respected. It gave us a character—doubly speaking—unlike the rest.
My dad, recounting all of our adventures, from his point of view—a way to engrave our experiences in some way that wasn’t as fleeting as time on its constant journey around us—to ensure that our lives were not just passing by, they were being captured, recorded, and remembered.
I’ll use as much of his accounts and words as possible to try to tell a story that I don’t know very well since I am only just learning it.
In 1982 Mike and Becky, my parents, decided to pack up their bags and go to Botswana, Africa to a small village of about 900 people named Mabutsane. There, Mike and Becky traveled a lot visiting the twelve settlements they worked with. Sometimes my mom would go one way, hitching a ride with someone and my dad would go in a different direction with the truck and they’d meet up a couple days later. Until I was born, they spent most days like this. Since they were on the road a lot, many times they would put some supplies in the back of the truck and eat by the side of the road and camp out in the back bed of the truck to sleep.
My dad likes to recount a particular story about getting stuck on an old bush track for about three days when they ran out of gas. He kept going back into the nearby settlement each day to see if there was any gas, to no avail. One day when my dad was in the settlement, a car came by but it was diesel so they weren’t able to syphon anything out for their own purposes. On the third day, my dad walked into the town where he encountered a man that took him on a donkey cart to a nearby ranch to see if they could get some gas. The rancher took him back to the truck and filled the tank enough for my mom and dad to continue to the settlement, deposit the seeds that had been their mission all along, and then continue on to a town where they could refill their gas tanks. Since there had been a full load in the bed of the truck my parent’s habitual resting place shifted. My mom slept in the cab of the truck and my dad on the roof, hoping that no wild animals would attack him mid-slumber.
Their adventures were all part of a plan to work with the Botswana government workers and others from NGOs or other government workers partnered with Peace Corps, Dutch volunteers, Swedish volunteers, The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), CUSO International a non-profit doing humanitarian work from Canada, etc. Their target audience were the Basarwa (San or Bushmen, as some call them). They worked with different settlements that were being displaced as the Basarwa transitioned from a chiefly hunter/gatherer lifestyle to a much more sedentary life because they were being pushed in that direction, not because that is what they wanted for themselves. Some of the projects my parents were involved in were distributing drought-resistant seeds, conducting harness-making workshops and slow-cooker workshops, and ensuring that these remote area dwellers had hunting permits that would ensure their livelihood.
Of all these assignments, my dad recounts that his favorite aspect of his work in Botswana was just the act of visiting the Basarwa and validating their experiences, something that they were not getting from anywhere else. As they were pushed out of their ways of life, their experiences were not valued and the Bushmen were often thrown to the wayside.
My dad wasn’t sure when they found out my Mom was pregnant with me, but I have a feeling all those solitary nights in the back of a truck must have had something to do with my conception. At any rate, my father did relay some information about my actual birth, a year and a half into their assignment:
“Mom’s water broke during the night and we went to the hospital early. The two midwives informed the doctor, but you were born before he showed up. At 6AM. While the midwives tended to Mom, I just hung out with you until they got around to cleaning you up. We talked about a Setswana name and liked ‘Hope,’ (something the Basarwa had little of) so we named you that.”
Upon return to their village, my parents were no longer Mike and Becky but Rra Tsholofelo and Mma Tsholofelo, respectively—the naming traditions in the village meaning Father of Tsholofelo and Mother of Tsholofelo, since people are named for their first-born.
I asked my dad why he decided to leave Africa and if their experiences there still travel with him today. He replied that he had once read a book entitled “You can never go back home” and that’s the way it’s been for him upon returning to the States. He relayed further,
Our lives were forever changed by our experience [abroad] and the people we met and worked with. I often thought that I learned more than I taught, but that is probably a typical experience.
I was inspired to write this short piece after listening and reading a poem on the Writer’s Almanac that I have left below for you to enjoy. Hope and Love to you all as we journey together, carrying our burdens and joys our weaknesses and strengths.
Hope and Love
by Jane Hirshfield
the blue heron
slept among the horses.
I do not know
the custom of herons,
do not know
if the solitary habit
is their way,
or if he listened for
some missing one—
not knowing even
that was what he did—
in the blowing
sounds in the dark,
I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry.
with his long neck
folded, like a letter
“Hope and Love” by Jane Hirshfield from The Lives of the Heart. © Harper Perennial, 1997.
Reprinted without permission (mainly because I don’t really know how to do it with permission) (on the Writer’s Almanac for Friday, February 15, 2016)