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What My Trip To South Africa Taught Me About Motherhood (by Rachel)

LOVE this heartfelt post from a mother who recently traveled to South Africa!

Guest post from Rachel, a member of the group that recently traveled with me to South Africa

The first time that I saw Gogo, I was standing with my back against a crude brick wall, leaning into a pocket of shade under the hot African sun.

I heard her before I saw her. “Oh, thank you, Jesus! Oh, Jesus!” she was calling. And when she came around the corner, her wrinkled hands were clasped, her face tilted up toward heaven in praise.

She was wearing a navy stocking cap, a brown sweater, and long skirt—and she reached out to each of us American visitors as if we were her family, squeezing our hands and whispering her thanks to God that we had come.


“Gogo” means Granny in Setswana, and, truly, this woman is a grandmother to everyone she meets. Her heart is full of love, Spirit, and nurturing—in essence, motherhood. Being near her, I thought, This is why I came to Africa. I came here to meet Gogo.”

When I applied to go on the South African advocacy trip with Crystal, I was searching for a deeper understanding of motherhood. I couldn’t have put it into those specific words at the time—but now that I’m home, I can see more clearly what I was yearning for before I left.

I have always loved connecting with people in deep ways. I was a counselor at a camp for persons with disabilities throughout high school and college, spending long summer days in the mountains of Colorado with amazing campers who taught me about courage and endurance in the face of physical and mental challenges.

After I got married, my husband and I spent a semester living in an orphanage in El Salvador, planning scavenger hunts, playing rowdy games of Uno, and reading bedtime stories to children whom we grew to love like family.

When we returned to the States, I taught high school English for five years—a challenging career that I loved—while my husband went to school to become a pediatric dentist. Every summer we went back to El Salvador for a week or two to see the kids that we love.


And then in 2011, we adopted our son, Noah, and my life as a stay-at-home mother began.

After all of my experience with children, teaching, and service, I thought that the transition to motherhood would be easy. Famous last words, right?

I knew that it was a blessing to be able to stay home with Noah, but after years of connecting with people on a deep level, I felt lonely and unfulfilled much of the time. My baby cried a lot; my husband was in residency and we lived in a crummy apartment near the hospital without many other young moms around; and I missed getting to laugh with and learn from my students and colleagues every day.

I felt a bit trapped—not so much by my circumstances as by the dichotomy in my heart: I knew that my role as a mother was the most impactful role I would ever have, and yet I yearned for more.

Five years have passed, and we have since added another baby to our family, a spunky little girl named Sally. I have settled into my role as a mother much more, and I love spending time with my two little miracles. I have found meaningful work that I can do from home—I write for a motherhood website called Power of Moms—and I teach the teenage girls at church and reach out to friends and family as much as I can.


My life is so good and so full. And yet, at times I still feel that pull in my heart—the desire to learn more, impact more, give more.

I decided to apply to go to South Africa because I knew that I would meet people like Gogo. I knew I would gain new perspective and come home with more clarity, peace, purpose, and drive.

I wish I could write a book about the incredible mothers that I met when I was there—because that’s what it would take, a book! Meeting these mothers, hearing their stories, and witnessing the unique and powerful contributions that they are making within their spheres of influence—it filled my soul.

I realized that I can do hard things. I can and should make sacrifices to extend my love beyond my own family to others who need “mothering.” I can teach my children to see a need in our community and the world and do something about it. I can involve them and bring them along.

While raising her kids, Gogo worked at a soup kitchen and started several preschools for vulnerable children in her community. In recent years, her grown daughter Elizabeth has followed in her mother’s footsteps and started a “drop-in centre” out of Gogo’s one-room house. It started with 18 children, and it has now grown to 180!  

What began in Gogo’s tiny house has expanded. They’ve been able to receive government funding, build a small preschool next door, and hire a staff of dedicated teachers and caregivers. Vulnerable kids from the community come to Gogo’s house every morning to receive a bowl of vitamin-fortified porridge, and then they come after school to receive a snack, help with homework, and instruction in singing and sports. It’s like a Boys and Girls Club—Africa style!



It has become a family affair, with Gogo as the loving matriarch, Elizabeth as the powerhouse director, and even Elizabeth’s sons as administrators and cooks. Three generations of givers.


Truly, this family has been transformed because of Gogo’s example —this family, and an entire community of children.

After spending a day at the “drop-in centre”—witnessing the hope in the children’s eyes, hearing their singing and joyful laughter—my American friends and I gathered around Gogo as she sat in a lawn chair in the shade, reading her Bible. She hugged each of us and took us by the hands, looking into our faces and thanking us for coming. I will never forget the feeling of her wrinkled hands, leathery from a lifetime of loving and serving. With tears in her eyes, she read scripture to us and then said simply, “I cry because I am rich.”


I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity that I had to go to South Africa to learn from this hero-mother and many others like her.  

Since coming home, I have felt a deep desire to continue helping in South Africa through fundraising efforts for the amazing projects there, as well as to find ways to invest right here in my community—and bring my children along with me.

I don’t know exactly what those efforts will look like yet, but I am grateful to have been a part of a trip that opened my heart to the everlasting impact of mothers. I know that I, and hopefully my children, will never be the same.


Rachel Nielson loves birthday surprises, summer sunsets, and a handsome man named Ryan. She taught high school English for five years before deciding to be a stay-at-home mom to their son, Noah Atticus, who was born in August of 2011. His little sister, Sally Grace, arrived in July of 2014. Rachel and Ryan consider both of their babies to be miracles, as Noah is adopted and Sally was conceived through IVF. When Rachel is not caring for the littles or picking up the house for the 100th time, she writes  about motherhood, infertility, adoption, grief, and eating disorders at Power of Moms. Nothing gives her more satisfaction than capturing in words the deepest feelings of her heart.

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  • Jennifer says:

    This is beautiful.

  • Stephanie says:

    Rachel, perfectly written…it brought tears to my eyes! It was a blessing to get to meet you and I look forward to reading more about your future journeys in life.

    • It was wonderful to meet you too, Stephanie! Truly, the Take Action Team and the other advocates were as impactful to my life as Gogo and the other local leaders. I feel like everyone I met left a deep impression on my heart. Thank you!!

  • Jody says:

    Wow. Thank you so much for this post Rachel. How impactful the trip sounds like it was for you, and how impactful your words are regarding your experience and the wisdom you gained and shared from Gogo.

    I’m enjoying reading these posts from the perspectives of those who went!

    • It truly was a life-changing trip, Jody! Next time Crystal puts a group together, you should apply! You need to meet Gogo in person!!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Your encouragement means so much.

  • Naomi says:

    As a stay-at-home mom to two little ones, I so appreciated this post. My heart resonated with yours. Even though I have always wanted to be a mother, motherhood has been far more challenging then I ever thought it would be. I know this is one of the most important roles of my life, but I often long for more beyond the mundane of daily life. I am inspired to make a difference as you saw Gogo do in her community. I would appreciate ideas on how to do that with young children. My fear of harm coming to my children from strangers has kept me from doing something outside of the church.

    • Naomi, I am so glad to know that your heart resonated with mine as you read the post! Yes, being a mother is far more challenging than I ever expected! Oh I love it–but oh it is hard for me!

      GREAT question about involving young children in service. I need ideas too! I think Crystal has a post on her blog somewhere about ideas for serving close to home. Crystal, if you read this, can you share the link below?

      Some ideas I’ve thought of or heard about:
      -I have a friend who drives Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors once a week, and she takes her little children with her to deliver the food.
      -I’ve heard of having your children help you assemble kits for the homeless. So a big ziplock bag with a packet of toothpaste, toothbrush, hand warmers, a McDonalds gift card, etc. Then you keep them in your car, and when you see a homeless person, you or your child can give it to them.
      -I’ve heard of helping your kids and their friends plan a talent show fundraiser around the holidays, and they donate their proceeds to a great cause of their choice. Here is a link to explain how to do that:
      -This website has awesome resources for moms to teach their children character, values, and morals. She has some service project ideas as well:
      -Things as simple as shoveling snow or raking leaves for the neighbors is a great one too.
      -I also think it’s very important to help children notice people in their own sphere who may be hurting or who might need a little help. I hope to one day have a weekly or monthly tradition where we get together as a family, and I ask, “Who have you noticed at school/church/the neighborhood who is going through a hard time or could use a little extra help right now?” Then let them come up with a few ideas of how we could reach out and help. They might come up with simple ideas that don’t cost any $, or they might come up with more involved ideas that I will have to help them pay for, but I am okay with that. I think this will help them feel more ownership over the service that we do as a family and also help them to start to notice the people around them in need.

      I would LOVE more ideas! Naomi, please come back and comment and leave your ideas!! And if anyone else is reading this thread, please add your ideas as well!!!

  • Dawn says:

    Thanks so much for sharing Gogo and her family! I thank God for His amazing work in and through them. A blessing to hear of our sisters and brothers serving there.

    • Everyone needs to know Gogo!! I’m honored to have shared a little bit of her goodness through this post. Meeting her definitely changed me. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  • Jess says:

    Inspiring and precious. Thank you for sharing your heart and resolutely committing to further Christ’s kingdom while remaining faithful to your family!

  • Elizabeth Stratford says:

    Thank you for sharing this experience Rachel. What an incredible opportunity and Gogo sounds delightful. As a mother of seven I have always been too busy and consumed with the everyday to see the bigger picture. I’ve always said that wouldn’t it be better if we had the wisdom of a Grandma when raising children. ?

    • Rachel Nielson says:

      Yes, you have had your hands full just with your crew at home!! And yes, wouldn’t we all love the wisdom of a grandma when we are still in the trenches of mothering littles!! You are a wonderful mother and person–I am so blessed to know you and your family!

  • Shauna says:

    I love the Power of Moms sight. It was such a wonderful 3 day Mom Conference this past week.

  • Tana Henry says:

    This is beautiful. I truly hope that you will consider writing the book, and telling the stories of all of your encounters in South Africa. It seems to me that they need told.

  • Alisha says:

    This is such an inspiring piece of writing. I got pregnant during our first year of marriage, even though we had planned on doing everything and anything else but becoming parents.
    Our son is such a blessing to us. And when we found out he had Asperger’s, ADHD and Intermittent Explosive Disorder, it was a relief and blow to our confidence as parents all at once.
    Additionally, we have been struggling with my husband’s disabilities from his multiple deployments. So, we’ve been struggling with keeping things in line for our son and my husband; as they both have unique needs that must be addressed on a daily basis.
    When I was in high school, I used to volunteer at nursing homes and independent living facilities. I loved it! The conversations and relationships I formed were priceless!
    But the first few years of our marriage, I was trying to find ways to accommodate both of my loves with complete disregard to my own wants, needs and desires to contribute, give back and just simply find greater purpose. Over the last year, I have made some changes. My passion is in Psychology and I am hoping to gain admittance to a Psy.D. program. My goal is to provide services to those less fortunate in rural areas who are in need of mental health services.
    But in the meantime, I decided to run for Office via my Honor Society. This position has given me the opportunity to give back to my local community more than I could have imagined. And I have been able to show my son that giving back and contributing to one’s community can be very fulfilling.
    This year we will be participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project (which is a great way to get my son involved), creating Homeless Boxes for our local Shelters and laying wreaths for our veterans via Wreaths Across America.

    Thank you for this piece. It was so beautifully written!

    • Thank you for sharing your journey! You are an amazing mother!! I loved hearing about the ways that you are teaching your son to give back, while also filling your own soul and desire to serve.

      And I LOVE the idea of providing mental health services in rural areas. That is SO needed. You are an inspiration! Thanks for commenting!

  • Deborah says:

    Beautiful! You should definitely write that book! It brought back many memories from my 2 visits to South Africa and also the tiny mountain country there – Lesotho. The women there are the backbone of society and work so hard, and yet, have such joy. Lessons we can all learn coming from our very privileged American lives.

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