“What characterizes holiness is this limitless readiness to serve others.” Alice von Hildebrand, ‘The Privilege of Being a Woman’.
Today is International Women’s Day. As I write this, countless panel discussions are being held across the world that includes powerful women. They discuss matters concerning women. What does it mean to be a woman? How can we advance our rights and take care of the equality issue once and for all? Organizations that promote feminism are having a field day today. It is, after all, all about women and our desire to take over the world. It is oftentimes about becoming the absolute masters of our own dreams and achieving these dreams at the cost of our maternal nature. Many people listen to these powerful women’s opinions and admire them. After all, what is not to admire? They are indeed powerful, having achieved much to attain their reputation and esteem in the worldly realm.
This story is about two women. The first woman was born in 1953 in rural northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Her father was a labourer on my children’s great grandparents’ farm. Her mother worked in the main house on the farm, doing the cleaning and washing. I’ve heard many things about her as her family has worked for my mother in law’s family for longer than they can remember.
“My sister is still working on the farm.” There is pride in her voice when she says this. Her name is Gertrude Kunune, or ‘Gertie’ as she is affectionately known. Does her name sound familiar to you? Probably not.
The second lady in this story is named Lindiwe Twala. She was born in 1973, also in rural northern Kwazulu Natal. Her grandmother raised her as her own parents abandoned her. When she was old enough, she came to the city to find work as a domestic worker. She has four children and three grandchildren and she takes care of all of them. She has been working in our house for the past seven years. Have you heard her name before? I would not be surprised if you didn’t.
Yet, both of them are two of the most powerful women in the world. And both of them were in my house this past week. Indeed, I am blessed because of it. Yesterday, Gertie, with her tiny frame, went about my house in the meekest manner conceivable. So meek was her movements that I had to remind myself from time to time that I wasn’t alone in my house. But in her meekness she managed to do what is in my mind one of the most profound tasks that can be done for my family… She cooked for us, one hearty dish after the other. Food that we could enjoy over supper last night. Food that I could put in the freezer for those days when supper is an impossible goal to accomplish. Food that reminds me that I am not the only caretaker of my family. I need help. I need community. I need Gertie. Yesterday, she took care of one of our most basic needs. And while she did this, she took care of my heart. Yesterday, she came to serve us as she and those before her have served my children’s ancestors for many decades.
“Gertie, you are such a gentle person,” I tell her, “I have heard so many things about you, all of them just good!” It is indeed true, her reputation precedes her. It’s not difficult to see this gentle quality in her. It is fact the first thing you observe. Her whole demeanour exudes pure humbleness and softheartedness. She clasps her hands together every time I hand her something or give her a compliment. Her sentences often include the word ‘beautiful’ when I tell her about my family and children and other everyday things. Her joy is as hopeful as the most glorious of dawns. She bends down when she greats my children and looks them in the eye. She shows genuine concern for my crying daughter, even though she just met her. Her ability to see an opportunity to do more work in my house speaks of an attitude of service.
“Ah, nonna’tjie, I have too many faults,” she says as she looks up from the floor where she is busy rearranging one of my kitchen cupboards. “I can only trust on God to help me. Every time I struggle, I know He is with me. Otherwise, how would I live?” ‘Nonna’tjie’ is an affectionate term Zulu people use to address their bosses’ children.
It’s very easy to spot insincerity when people say these types of things. You can see it in their eyes. They know they are supposed to say it as it proves them humble. With Gertie, you just know this testimony comes from a place deep inside her beautiful heart. Her eyes speak of humble receptivity and the knowledge that to serve is to love. It is what she has known all her life. Yesterday, in just a few hours in my home, she has set a standard of humility and service that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Not because of what she has done, but because of who she is.
Now, Lindiwe first came to my house two weeks after my son’s birth seven years ago. She has come three days a week ever since. She was an angel sent on my path during a time when I had little to no help with my son and in my house.
“Eish, Lindiwe, I’m really sorry for the state of the house,” I say to her almost every time she comes to work.
“It is no problem,” she always says with a laugh. Not once in the past seven years has she complained about the chaos that meets her most times she comes into our house. She just goes about her work, knowing from experience that chaos is part of the joy of having children. She loves my children like they are her own. She teaches them Zulu and plays with them. Often, she finds more joy in them than I do. She has a wonderful reverence for them.
“They are busy, busy, busy,” she often laughs when they make a mess that increases her workload. She never shows irritation or fatigue, even though she has to get up at three o’clock three times a week to take the long haul to get to work on time.
“Mam, my children are hurting me so bad,” she often says with tears streaming down her face, motioning to her heart. “I just don’t know what to do.”
“Lindiwe, I hear you. I’m sorry. It’s not easy,” I say as I stand next to her against the sink. Together, we talk about what it means to be mothers and we laugh at the comic side of it. Many times, we cry together and shake our heads in complete disillusionment. But more than anything, we pray. We know that if we were to go at motherhood alone, we would not make it. I need her help. I need her infinitely more than she needs me. I need her servant heart in order to show my children an example of serving. I need her sincerity that graces my house with the most pleasant of aromas. For woven into every intricate detail of her whole being is one trait that is incredibly hard to find these days… Humbleness.
Gertie and Lindiwe don’t know that today is International Women’s Day. They just went about their day like any other, working hard, serving and loving. They do not claim to be more than they are nor do they try to prove themselves. They have never claimed for themselves any rights or privileges, nor do they live with an attitude of entitlement. They live with authentic, profound strength every single day by just being humble, by the laying down of themselves for the benefit of others and by serving, serving and more serving. This sets them on a place much higher than the world. A place that the world is not able to understand or appreciate. A place that gives meaning to Matthew 5:5: “What blessing comes to you when gentleness lives in you! For you wil inherit the earth.”
Here is to all the humble women that I have the privilege of knowing. You don’t know that you are. That is the beauty of it. Yet, you are the most powerful women in the world. Two of these women were in my house this past week. Indeed, I am blessed because of it. And I love them for it.
And this is all I need to know now.
“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Why are you critical of this woman? She has done a beautiful act of kindness for me… I promise you that as this wonderful gospel spreads all over the world, the story of her lavish devotion to me will also be mentioned in memory of her.’ ” Matthew 26:10-13