Before ordination, I worked for a couple of years as a young adult missionary of the Episcopal Church in a shantytown community outside Mthatha, South Africa. The community was called Itipini, a word that literally means “at the dump,” which is an appropriate name for a community that grew up on the site of a municipal garbage dump. (Hence the name of my book about this community, Grace at the Garbage Dump.)
In 2012, after a complicated dispute, the municipality razed Itipini to the ground, displacing the scores and scores of families who lived there. (I wrote about that dispute when it happened in a series of two posts.)
Unless you knew what you were looking for, you would not have any idea that this was once a place where people were born, lived, and died. You can see the ruins of the pre-school and clinic in which I used to work. Perhaps the most prominent feature in the landscape is the palm tree, which stood next to the playground and which we watered every day with our mop bucket water. It would now tower over the playground—if the playground were still there.
I spent a lot of my time in Mthatha tracking down former residents of Itipini to find out what had happened to them. There is now what could be called an “Itipini diaspora” scattered around town and encountering these old friends in their new lives brought out a complex combination of emotions.
I’ll have more to say about those visits in future posts—as well as more on the series of events that led up to the razing of Itipini—but for now I am struck by how easily and how quickly a whole community can be wiped out—out of the landscape, out of our consciousness, out of our memories. No one wants to live on an old garbage dump. But when people begin to, it becomes a home for them. Destroying that home has not done a single thing to address any of the issues that underlay the decision to live in a place like Itipini. But by wiping it off the map, it has become that much easier to forget that these people even exist.
There is lots of debate in the church about what mission means and how we “do” it. But perhaps the first task of mission is simply to stand with our sisters and brothers when they say, “We exist. We are here. Do not forget us.”