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Rachel Nielson: What a trip to Africa taught me about motherhood

Rachel Nielson

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.

Photo credit: Shultz Photo School

“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 decided to go on an advocacy trip to South Africa, I was searching for a deeper understanding of motherhood. I couldn’t have put it into those 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 worked as a camp counselor for kids with disabilities in high school, spent a semester volunteering at an orphanage in El Salvador in college, and taught high school English for five years in my young adulthood.

Photo credit: Molly Hunter

And then, in 2011, my son Noah was born, 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 dental 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 job 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 genuinely love spending time with my little ones while also writing for Power of Moms, teaching the teenage girls at church, and reaching out to friends and family as much as I can.

Photo credit: Molly Landon

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 what I am doing in my home with my children matters. My heart ached when I saw children who do not have loving parents to care for them. I saw the sadness in their eyes, and I heard from their caregivers about the ways that their mental and emotional development are affected. It made me want to be a better, more invested mother.

Photo credit: Shultz Photo School

It also made me want to do hard things — to make sacrifices to extend my love beyond my own family to others who need “mothering.” I realized that I can involve my own children in this work. I can teach them to see a need in our community and the world and do something about it.

Granny Gogo was one of the best examples of this. While raising her kids, she 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 humble home for children who don't have anywhere to go while their mothers work long hours in the city. It started with 18 children, and it has now grown to 180.

Photo credit: Shultz Photo School

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 give instruction in singing and sports. It’s like a Boys and Girls Club — Africa style.

Photo credit: Shultz Photo School

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

Photo credit: Shultz Photo School

Truly, this family heroically and whole-heartedly embodies the old proverb "it takes a village" to raise a child.

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.”

Photo credit: Shultz Photo School

Since coming home, I have felt a deep desire to continue helping in South Africa through fundraising efforts for the amazing projects there. So this week at Power of Moms we are hosting "It Takes a Village," a fundraiser to finish a community center in Maubane, South Africa. This will give children a safe place to go — much like Gogo and Elizabeth's facility — while their mothers are at work in the city, hours away. Visit powerofmoms/africa if you are interested in learning more about how you can help.

I am grateful to have been a part of a trip that opened my heart to the everlasting impact that moms can have on communities. I came home with a deep desire to “be a Gogo” — to reach out to and mother children — my own, as well as others — because it really does take a village to raise, teach and protect children.

This article is courtesy of Power of Moms, an online gathering place for deliberate mothers.