They’d told me not to expect much. The old man, now well into his 90s, was failing, they said.
But I thought it best to call on him anyway, a traditional courtesy between African friends. The route led me off the highway to a small settlement in the hills, amid thorny acacia, hard on the Zimbabwe border.
There I found him, John Tshwene, my one-time language teacher and cultural mentor, sitting in the winter light by the shambles of his homestead.
When I opened the gate, I called to him in greeting, “How have you risen?”
He squinted toward me, shading his eyes from the glare, and answered in raspy wonderment, “I have risen well. Is it you, Father Proverbs*?” “Indeed, I have come to pay you honor after too long.”
As we set out to wander the paths of our friendship, a refrain announced itself. “It was splendid,” he observed. When we spoke of mutual friends, of travels and shared work, there it was again: “It was splendid.”
Even of unfulfilled dreams he paused and said in teacherly voice, “It was splendid.”
In our hour of repartee and laughter, it must have recurred a dozen times, “It was splendid.”
Though my researcher’s notebook lay open in my lap ready for the rush of impressions, deft details and quotes, when I returned it to my leather satchel and bid my friend goodbye, it bore only a single line to mark our conversation: “It was splendid.” And it has haunted me all the way home, even as I sit musing now beneath southern pines in Georgia.
A dignified African gentleman, of advanced years and failing health, whose village home lies on the barbed-wire border of troubled places, looks out over a lifescape and makes this confession: “It was splendid.” I would be grateful to be “failing” in this way. It was splendid.
*(“Rra Diane” in Setswana) is the name by which I was known in Botswana, since people observed that I had a special interest in their traditional sayings and referred to them often in conversation and in teaching.
Jonathan Larson and James Krabill are working on a book about Mennonite partnership with African Initiated Churches.
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