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.