Wendy Dugwame - An Inspiring True Story from my Journey to South Africa

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic
An inspiring true story about an incredible little girl who defies all expectations with an unyielding faith in God. This story highlights the life of the five year old child I met at an orphange in a poverty striken township inside of South Africa. For the first time the story of her suffering, faith, and triumph is brought into the light for all to see.

Submitted: August 11, 2012

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Submitted: August 11, 2012

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Nothing really prepares you for the first time your bus is stopped in rush hour traffic on a dirt road in the middle of a third world country. Namely because I had traveled over ten thousand miles away from the big city only to find myself having a staring match with a herd of obstinate zebras gathered in the middle of the street. Eventually they would tire of the bus driver’s relentless bellowing horn and move on to a distant watering hole, but not before one of the male zebras marked our bus as his territory.

Going into that day I thought I had some idea of what to expect having spent some time researching the sociopolitical climate of South Africa. It was 1997, and apartheid had only recently been abolished. The social and racial divisions were unlike anything I had ever seen or known. Driving through rural areas outside of Johannesburg I looked out the window of the fast moving bus completely perplexed. I noticed beautiful housing projects less than a few hundred feet away from occupied mud huts without electricity or running water.

As we drove into the city I immediately took notice of the way the locals looked as they walked down the dirt streets. All that I could see were the untold years of neglect and racial division that had left these people deprived of even the most basic of needs. The buildings looked as though they had endured an active warzone for decades. I had anticipated seeing long faces and a downtrodden people where over 40% of the population had diagnosed AIDS. My mind reeled in bewilderment as my eyes communicated a very different image than I had been expecting.

Everywhere I looked we were greeted by smiling faces waving at us with energetic anticipation. A people ravaged by the injustice of a cruel government, ridden with disease, afflicted beyond measure, the poorest of the poor, now defying all expectations with a joy that to this day is unlike anything I have ever seen. Like wildfire the locals spread the word of our arrival and took chase after our bus as we made our final approach to the orphanage.  

Going into that day I thought I would have some semblance of what to expect as we neared our destination. It didn’t take long before I realized that I in fact had no clue. As we pulled up to the building I noticed that it resembled a dilapidated hardware store. The walls of the orphans dwelling place appeared to be made of mud and clay. Structurally they looked paper thin and seemed that they could not withstand much more than a strong breeze. We would later learn that the orphanage had served as a makeshift hospital for well over a decade since the AIDS epidemic had begun. In addition to housing almost one hundred children the building also had beds for the infirmed.

From the moment we set foot inside the building all of the children that could came running to us overjoyed at our arrival. My team immediately rushed the children outside to play games and feed them whatever we had. The silence that followed seemed to invite me to explore and survey the conditions these children had come to know as home. Almost immediately I noticed that I couldn’t see a bathroom, a shower, a toilet, a sink, and for that matter any form of electricity or plumbing. The only light came from old kerosene lanterns that were scattered throughout the room.

As I walked through the dim structure I took notice of a little girl in the back of the room. She had been partially hidden behind one of the only interior walls. The moment my eyes met hers she sat up in her bed with a smile that radiated through the shadows. As I drew closer I noticed one of the only nurses sitting in a long chair who appeared to be keeping watch of the child. The little girl lifted her arms squealing with delight as I came within feet of the gurney that held her tiny frame. The nurse quietly began to explain that little Wendy was almost six years old, but that since she had acquired AIDS her outer body made her look like she was three at best. I walked over to the side of her bed, and before I could even speak her name, she stood up and leapt into my arms. She gave me a hug unlike any I had ever known and in the Zulu language began to say variations of “Thank you for coming”, embracing me tighter and tighter with each beautiful declaration.

From the moment Wendy hugged me I knew in my heart exactly why I had come to Africa. I knew she would want to join the rest of the children in the activities outside so I began to bundle her up so we could join them. Despite her sweet disposition I immediately noticed that she had a high fever and that the whites of her eyes were a dark yellow. Turning back to the nurse I expressed my worry and concern.

“Excuse me Ma’am, but this little girl seems to have a high fever. Can we give her some medicine before I take her outside with the others?” She looked at me confused as though she didn’t understand what I was saying. I didn’t know what to do, so I turned around and called Robin our interpreter over to see if she could explain the situation. Robin approached the nurse with an anxious smile and in their native tongue told the nurse what I had said. Still the nurse looked at us confused and then spoke in plain English.

“I understood you just fine.” She paused and began to speak in a much more somber tone. “I’m sorry I just thought you knew. We have no medicine here.”

I stood there speechless as I held this precious child feeling completely and utterly despondent. My mind began to race as I wondered if I had brought any baby aspirin with me. Surely someone on my team had brought medicine along with us. The nurse must have sensed my panic as she looked up in a brief moment of sadness uttering words that I was not prepared to hear.

“Little Miss Wendy is very sick. Most days she cannot sit up on her own, and lately she has been too sick to eat.” Her voice changed and I could see the tears begin to well up in her eyes as she said through a forced smile, “The disease has ravaged her liver and the doctors do not expect her to live much longer.”

Over the years I have gone back to that exact moment when that nurse spoke those words and I can still pin point it down to the very second. The very moment I felt my heart and soul break into a thousand pieces for Wendy Dugwame and those forced to suffer in this world. It was in that moment standing there holding such a perfect and beautiful little girl that I felt God remind me of why I had come. I pulled Wendy close to me doing my best to smile through my sorrow I looked in her strikingly radiant eyes and spoke from my heart.

“Ngiyakuthanda (nn g? yä k? tändä)Wendy.” The words in her language were a definitive ‘I love you’, and could not be mistaken for anything else. I watched her expression as her face turned from great joy to something else that I didn’t recognize. I would later learn that since shortly after her birth that her mother had not been allowed to show her any kind of affection for fear of contracting the disease. Wendy had never known her mothers loving caress, never experienced the warmth of her embrace, and had never heard those words spoken to her by her loved ones. This child had been forced to live a life devoid of any significant appearance of meaningful love.

Wendy turned to the nurse speaking softly but sounded to be asking a question. The nurse’s sadness turned back to delight as she smiled answering Wendy’s inquiry with a lovingly sweet tone. Once again I was not prepared for the words that were to follow. Yet again this child turned her attention to me, smiling as she wiped the tears that had formed in her eyes, and spoke words that melted my heart.

“I love you too, Jay-kub.” Her tiny voice resonated through my soul as she smiled and embraced me with all of her might. Everything inside of me wanted to take her place and give her the future that she so rightly deserved. My mind reeled with emotion as this tiny little girl held me with such love and acceptance. It seemed like in mere moments from my arrival she had welcomed me with open arms as though she had been expecting me. Little did I know that my observation wasn’t far from the truth.

The nurse had left during our embrace for what I assumed were her rounds to go tend to the needs of the others still inside. My attention had not left the treasure held tightly in my arms when I heard a commotion behind me. Some of the girls and members of the staff had come back inside to watch little Wendy’s display of affection. The staff crowded around me and began speaking to her in Zulu with rapid succession as Wendy began to shout back at each of them with a surprising exuberance.

I looked to Robin for answers as the staff began to tell her what had transpired. Robin tried to speak, but the more they explained the less she was able to maintain her composure. It felt like an eternity as I stood there watching their rapid fire dialect pierce our interpreter with each sentence. Robin finally held up her hand, wiping her tears with the other, and spoke one final phrase to the staff before doing her best to explain.

“What a precious child you have there Jacob,” She paused still clearly overcome by what she had been told.

“It seems that she has been expecting you for quite some time now.”

“Wait, what do you mean she has been expecting me?” I didn’t understand what she was saying, and I assumed maybe there was some kind of confusion about who this little girl thought I was.

“Well it seems that since little Wendy came to the orphanage she has been speaking of a man coming to get her someday.” I hadn’t noticed until now but two of the nurses were digging through piles of paper just behind us.

“She has told the staff here that this man would come to take her home to Jesus.” Wendy had just placed her head on my shoulder when I felt the gentle tapping of a hand on my arm.

“It would appear that you are the man that she has spoken of for many years now.” One of the staff had turned my attention to pieces of white construction paper that bore the name ‘Wendy’ in bold beautiful red crayon. There were dozens of these drawings all with the same central character, a tall white bald man with black pants, a green shirt, and perfectly white shoes. Still holding Wendy in my arm I shuffled through them in complete disbelief as I saw my new companion smiling at her drawings. Just when my mind could no longer comprehend the images being shown to me Wendy pointed to her pictures and then to me.

“That you!” She exclaimed through her thick Zulu accent.

In the days leading up to that moment our entire team had been practicing a play that we used as a means to communicate to the locals. The play was scripted in their native tongue and depicted the story of a sinful man who eventually finds Jesus. It wasn’t until that very morning that it was decided I would play the part of the man who would beat, whip, and crucify Jesus in the play. The role required a specific outfit that had been predetermined long before I had arrived in Africa. Sitting quietly reading my Bible that morning my leader Russ had brought me the attire that I would wear for the remainder of our trip during our performances.

 

As I stood there holding my gift from God, I looked down in complete amazement. I now understood why God had spoken so clearly to me that day He told me to come to Africa. I was wearing black pants, a green shirt, and was the only person in our entire group to be wearing all white shoes.

 

Everyone gathered around taking turns to hug Wendy as I continued to try and grasp what had just happened. Almost immediately I began to feel restless as my mind reeled trying to understand what this child meant by taking her to Jesus. I knew the awful reality of her condition, but I wondered if that meant I was to speak to her about Him. Just then our leaders called us outside to start our performance for the crowd of locals now gathered in the front of the building. I asked the nurse is she would mind accompanying me outside, and without saying a word she picked up an extra blanket for the child and followed me.

I had Robin explain to Wendy that I needed to show her something exciting and that I would be right back. Wendy reluctantly went to the nurse keeping her eyes glued to me even using what little strength she had to stand up when I was difficult to see. During the play I went out of my way to overact scenes for the children when I was forced to fall or do other physical movements. Each time I would hear her little voice laughing out with a contagious enthusiasm making it almost impossible not to break character and smile.

During the climax of our play I take Jesus into custody and begin ruthlessly beating Him. The scene ends with me nailing Him to the cross. I had worried that my depiction of this character might frighten Wendy and the children, but as I looked up I could their eyes eagerly waiting for more. As the scene ended, I took Jesus off the cross and place His body on the ground. At that moment you could see the sadness in some of the children’s eyes as they watched me and my soldiers encircle His body signifying His tomb.

As the music builds in the next act I could see their eyes waiting in anticipation. Signifying His resurrection all of the soldiers exploded outward to the ground with Jesus jumping up showing the crowd He was alive once again. The sea of locals that had come to watch us were now standing to their feet cheering in a deafening roar unlike anything I had ever heard.  

At the very end Jesus goes back to all of the people who rejected Him throughout the play. Finally Jesus comes to me, the man who crucified Him, and pleads with me to come to Him. In the presentation I struggle with the decision knowing the weight of my guilt kneeling down before Jesus in shame. The crowd began to shout words in Zulu for me to “Stand up”. I looked over to Wendy, catching her gaze, and as loud as she could she shouted “Stand up!” In the play I was supposed to turn my back to Jesus and one of my soldiers was supposed to accept Him instead. But it was time for the ending to be rewritten. I stood up embracing Jesus like a long lost brother. I saw the crowd jumping up in a frenzied exhilaration as their cheers consumed the crisp afternoon air.

Once the performance ended and we had prayed with many who had come to watch I made a beeline for my adopted orphan. As soon as I was a body length away Wendy threw her arms out towards me practically jumping out of the nurses arms. It began to dawn on me that I had yet to ask this kindly custodian of medicine’s name.

“I’m so sorry for being rude; my name is Jacob by the way.” I said with a smile.

“Ede.” Her face was completely emotionless.

“Well, it’s very nice to meet you Ede. Did you enjoy our performance?”

“It was just fine.” She spoke seemingly put out. Not wanting to push the envelope too far I thought I would maintain an upbeat position to try and find out more.

“Yah I’m sure it’s not every day you see a bunch of Americans act out the life, death and resurrection of Jesus all in about twenty minutes.” I chuckled to myself trying to see if she would respond.

“Take Wendy inside now, she needs to rest.” She replied sharply and turned around walking back toward the building clearly upset by something I did not yet understand. I knew that she was serious but I wasn’t sure why she had reacted so clearly perturbed by my line of questioning. I determined to find out and made my way back inside with Wendy still latched on tight.

On my way in I noticed that Wendy’s temperature had seemingly gone up. I felt such a sense of responsibility for this child, and was already dreading having to go back to our host home. I didn’t want to leave her, and I knew she wouldn’t want me to go. Ede waved at me from the back of the room to come and bring Wendy to her bed. As I got closer I could see that Ede was setting up an IV stand.

“Is that so Wendy’s fever can go down?” I asked desperately trying to start another conversation with her. Ede wouldn’t speak a word to me. I didn’t understand how she had gone from easy going to completely shutting me down. I knew the only ally in my repertoire was my degree of persistence. I didn’t want to end my time with them this way and was determined to turn it around somehow.

“Listen I’m very sorry if I have somehow offended you. I certainly never intended to upset you in any way, and I apologize if I have.” There was a long silence as Ede paused staring at the wall with a serious and solemn look on her face.

“You didn’t…You don’t understand.”

“I’m sorry, but understand what?” I replied.

“God is not here. He cannot be.” She spoke her words with such conviction that I almost felt any response to her statement would be inappropriate. Despite that fact even my deepest sense of propriety would not allow me to stop here. I didn’t understand her disposition, but I was determined to try. After reaching for my hand Wendy had closed her eyes and fallen to sleep with a faint smile still visible across her face.

“Ede, what do you mean He isn’t here?” I whispered quietly trying not to wake my sleeping beauty. “Didn’t today speak of God’s love seeing all of Wendy’s drawings?”

“Where was He before today?” She answered sharply.

“God has always been here. What makes you think He isn’t?” I began to see a resentful anger take hold of her once calm demeanor. My question lingered in the air as I looked intently at Ede waiting for her to answer. She turned her head away as I sat intently watching Wendy as she slept.

“She was only a child.” She spoke in a more controlled and softer tone still facing away from me. “She should not be here suffering in this place.” She turned around and faced me with a strikingly powerful gaze. “It is not her fault, she does not deserve this.”  

“Of course it’s not her fault Ede. She is just a child, and no child should ever have to endure this kind of pain.” I spoke from my heart desperately trying to find a way to dissuade Ede from her disdain of God.

“You just don’t understand.” She shook her head

“What don’t I understand Ede? God didn’t give her this disease.” Leading up to that day we had been taught that the children of Africa who suffered from the AIDS epidemic were given the disease in utero. It never occurred to me that anything else could be possible. It was in this very moment as Ede spoke that I now see where my life as I knew it changed forever. The moment she uttered those words it would do something inside of me that I did not have the ability to explain until now. I didn’t understand why Ede had such a seemingly hateful scorn towards the idea of God. I didn’t understand, that is, until she spoke.

“You are right. God did not give her this disease. Her father did.” 

 

Words would be inadequate illustrations of what I felt in that expanse of time. My world collapsed underneath the weight of her words now echoing throughout the room. I understood, but I didn’t and I couldn’t. I buried my head in my hands unable to maintain my composure, calling out to God for an answer. Almost immediately I felt His presence come into that room and quiet my heart. I felt oddly compelled to pull out Wendy’s drawings again. I took them out thumbing through each one noticing the detail that she had painstakingly put into each masterpiece. This time I saw something I hadn’t noticed before.

In each picture she drew herself walking hand in hand with the tall man she saw as me. They walked on a road that seemed to end in the sky. There in the clouds was something I had missed, but as soon as I saw it I knew exactly what it was. On each of her pictures she had drawn a man in a white robe with His arms open; the word “Home” written plainly on His garments.

“Have you seen the man she draws in the sky Ede?”

“What man?” She looked at me puzzled. I wouldn’t find out until several days later that Ede, a child of abuse as well, had opted to show Wendy tough love by refusing to look at her drawings or participate with her during their play time. Despite her best efforts I knew that Ede loved Wendy like her own when I saw the look that came over her face as she stared intently at each of Wendy’s drawings. Her face spoke her heart and I knew that she was saying everything I needed to know.

“I don’t pretend to have all of the answers.” I spoke with a humble compassion feeling God’s presence all around. “Wendy has believed from the day she came here that someday she would go home to be with Jesus. Her faith has sustained her and given her a hope unlike any I have ever seen. Whether you believe this or not God has used you to give her reason to have that hope.”

“But I do not believe in God.” She spoke softly through her tears.

“It doesn’t matter Ede. He believes in you.”

Somehow I knew in that moment that she understood exactly what God had wanted her to hear. I bent over Wendy kissing on her forehead, said a silent prayer, and stood up to make my way back to my group. There was one last thing that I needed to say before I left.

“And I know Wendy believes in you too.”

 

I rushed to my group leaders and asked them if we could come back over the next few days so I could check on Wendy. The staff had been speaking to them about all that had transpired earlier that day. They agreed that we would come back so we could all pray for Wendy once more.

For the next several days I found my mind constantly wandering to my sweet little orphan. I prayed for her as though she was my very own, and begged God to heal her of this wretched disease. That Sunday morning I had gone outside to read my Bible and opened up to Luke 16. I had read the story of Lazarus and the Rich man before, but now it seemed to jump off the pages and into my heart. Lazarus lived a life of great suffering and spent his days at the rich man’s gate begging for the scraps from his table. The part that spoke the loudest to me was when I read how the angel’s carried him to heaven when his life had ended.

I had struggled to understand how something so completely evil could happen to a child so loving and absolutely perfect. As I read on Jesus described Lazarus’ life as having been one of great suffering, but that he was now in the presence of a loving God where he would enjoy comfort and peace for eternity. It wasn’t easy to accept, but how could I hold someone in contempt for this offense when this child held no such fault in her heart against anyone.

“Jacob!” I heard my name being frantically shouted from across the campus. I stood up and ran to see what was going on. As I turned the corner I saw my leader Russ running towards me.

“We have to go.” He said still clearly winded from his all out sprint to find me.

“What’s going on Russ?”

“It’s Wendy. We need to go now.” He grabbed my arm and we ran toward the bus.

He didn’t need to say anything, I already knew. I wasn’t a doctor but from the moment I picked little Wendy up I could sense that her body was struggling to keep her alive. We rode in silence until we had arrived at the hospital where she had been sent earlier that morning. On Sundays we didn’t go out and do our performances, but ever since I had left Wendy’s side I woke up every day and put on the same green shirt, black pants, and white shoes. It wasn’t for me; it was my very small way of being ready to show her the love she had so freely given me. 

My eyes searched frantically for her as we walked through the sea of hospital beds. I began to fear the worst when I couldn’t find her anywhere. Just as panic began to set in I turned around and saw Ede resting in a chair next to her gurney. Ede confirmed the worst and explained that Wendy was in organ failure and had slipped into a coma earlier that morning. She didn’t have long to live.

I was heartbroken that I hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye to my Wendy. I found a seat on the other side of Ede and pulled myself as close to her as I could get. Grabbing her hand I softly began to caress her face whispering every loving word I could find in my heart to express. I bowed my head and in desperation prayed the only words I could think to say.

“God if any of my prayers have ever reached your heart. Please. God please. Hear this one now.” I squeezed Wendy’s hand as I prayed, “Wendy needs you here now Jesus. Please stop her suffering. God come to her and show her your unfailing love.” 

I felt my hand being squeezed back as I had spoke the last words of my prayer. I looked at Wendy and saw her eyes open ever so slightly. She was already smiling and I could see the happiness glowing through her pain. I wanted to reassure her that everything was going to be okay, but I knew what she needed most was for me to just be there.

“Well hello, my beautiful girl.” Her smile somehow grew even bigger as I said those words. “I’m here with you, and I won’t leave you until Jesus comes to get you okay?” Her expression changed and I could only assume that I had confused her with my overuse of English. I couldn’t have been more wrong as she looked to Ede then back to me.

“But He’s here already…I waited for you.” She whispered with a radiant smile looking at me with compassion deep within her eyes. She didn’t understand that I couldn’t see Him, but as soon as she spoke those words I could feel Him like never before. She motioned for me to come closer to her. I could see her struggling to breathe and I wanted desperately to find a way to take away her pain. She took a deep breath as I held her hand, looked at me, and with the most childlike innocence asked me.

“Can we go home now?”

God had in fact answered my prayer, but not in the way that I had expected. In my finite understanding of her suffering I believed that the only answer to prayer could be her healing. The faith of this child transcended any that I had ever seen or known, and it burned brighter than the sun. Wendy had given me the greatest gift I had ever received, and now it was my turn to repay her.

“Yes baby girl. It’s time to go home.” I smiled through my tears. “You go on ahead with Him okay? But I promise you sweetheart…I promise you I’ll meet you there.”

 

Sitting outside of my host home I looked out at the stars and began to reflect on everything that had happened since I had stepped foot into that orphanage. All this time I believed I had come to South Africa to give something of myself; to make a difference in the lives of others and now I found quite the opposite to be true. This tiny little girl in a mere fraction of time had shown me what simple faith could do in the face of the most painful of circumstances. In the valley of the shadow of death she had grown as the most beautiful and radiant flower ever seen proving that love understood no limitations or boundaries.

Wendy had fallen back into a coma shortly after I spoke my last words to her, but not before making her last statement. I have been told over the years that someone in a coma cannot sustain muscle contractions while they remain unconscious. Wendy didn’t seem to know that medical detail as her smile shined through the coma. I stayed with her as long as I could, kissing her head, and saying goodbye one last time before we had to head back. Just before we departed I noticed Wendy’s pictures hanging above her bed. They made me smile knowing that God Himself had shown up to bring His little girl home.

The stars were so bright and beautiful as I sat there pondering Wendy’s impact on my life. Suddenly as I gazed out into the night sky I remembered what I had read that morning about Lazarus. In my mind I could see Wendy in the arms of Jesus being welcomed home by all of heaven and His angels. I knew that she would finally be able to go play with the other children without any fear. That she would no longer know a life of pain or suffering. I knew that she would know the loving caress and embrace of her heavenly Father, and that she would understand what it meant to hear Him say ‘I love you’. Most of all I knew that one day I would see her again, and on that day she would be there to welcome me home.

“Hey Jake.” I heard Russ walking up from behind me.

“Oh hey…what’s going on?” I said as I wiped my eyes with my shirt.

“Sorry to bother you, but Ede just called.” I knew even before he said the words.

“Wendy’s home now.” He put his hand on my back trying to console me, but I didn’t have the ability or capacity to respond to him. As he walked away I sat there staring at the stars feeling a sense of peace wash over me. Wendy’s life and suffering had transformed me, and I knew that the person she was to me would live on.

We would later find out that another team had gone back to the orphanage several weeks later. It seemed that Ede had experienced a change of heart. She had begun playing with all of the children every day. She had started reading portions of the Bible to each of them at bedtime, and began to speak freely about God. It made sense now; Ede had to have been the one to hang Wendy’s pictures above her bed. Before they left one of the leaders asked Ede how she knew Jesus. She replied candidly.

“I met Him the day He came to take my daughter home.” Ede Dugwame was not a nurse at all. She was Wendy’s mother.

Looking up to the sky I couldn’t help but smile knowing that our little girl was home now. God had found a way to turn what was evil into something more beautiful than my heart had ever known. What I didn’t know was that my journey had just begun, but I knew that wherever the road lead that I would never be the same. I will never forget the way Wendy embraced me and welcomed me as a part of her family. I knew I was going to miss her dearly. I didn’t know how, but I knew she would hear the one last thing I needed to say.

“Welcome Home Wendy. Welcome Home.”


© Copyright 2017 Jacob David. All rights reserved.

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