(Late last year, Natashia Hudson, a university student majoring in journalistic studies, asked Maxie if she could profile her as a final project. We recently were emailed her final paper….short of a minor obsession with Maxie swearing, which she NEVER does in reality, I think the portrait that emerges is strikingly realistic. I present my lovely fiance: Maxie Van Der Merwe!).
“Why must I sacrifice my comfort, my life, my stuff for someone else? Because…” Maxie van der Merwe stops midsentence and chuckles. “Ugh, this sounds like a Maybelline…” She quickly stops again, before shrugging it off and continuing like she doesn’t care what it sounds like anyway “but because they’re worth it. Because their lives are connected to mine.” She plays with the silver beads around her right arm while explaining patiently, slowly. “Why are we connected? Because we were made for relationships. Why were we made for relationships? Because God is a God of relationships…with Him, with people – that’s how we are wired,” she says, emphasising the word wired as if it’s the most logical thing on earth.
“That’s the only explanation I have. Otherwise I can just as well go and live on an island and look after myself.” 27 year-old Van Der Merwe looks like someone who would loathe being on an island by herself. Curled up in Seattle Coffee’s armchair, she chats animatedly, cell phone beeping every now and again, before jumping up when a friend arrives unexpectedly. While chatting to her friend, one can’t help but think of Van Der Merwe, founder, director and co-ordinator of NGO Pure Hope, as a social butterfly – not someone who earns her bread and butter by building shacks and “hanging” with criminals.
Pure Hope is a youth program created by Van dDr Merwe in 2007 for NG Moreleta Park church where students could come and work in areas of need for a year. She chuckles, “You know, a program for 18 year-olds to come and say, ‘For a whole year I’m going to commit working in areas of poverty and give myself.” In 2008, Pure Hope kicked off with 10 students, five carefully selected projects, and a few local outreaches and an international trip planned to Brazil. According to Van Der Merwe, the main idea behind Pure Hope is to build relationships and walk alongside people that live in utter despair and to ultimately restore dignity and create space for these people to be human.
The Pure Hope projects include “building relationship” in Mabopane with 120 orphans at Mama Mary’s orphanage, 70 abandoned and disabled children at Sisters of Mother Theresa, 100 people at Baviaanspoort Youth Prison, 30 children in an afterschool program in Danville and a shack-building project called One Life Shack Build.
This year, the Pure Hope team consisted only out of Van Der Merwe and five students. “So five people had to give to all these people and physically that’s just impossible – physically we can’t do it, it’s only God that can. Mother Theresa said ‘If you can’t feed a 100, then feed one.’ So, we build one shack. We go to these projects every week, become part of it and get to know the kids. We build deep relationships and try to give them another picture of the future and try and create space where people can see hope.”
A week after meeting Van der Merwe in Seattle Coffee, her enthusiasm and passion continues to bubble over as she sits on a red couch in her apartment, “It is that classical thing…you get angry about what you are passionate about, but I get angry because I see their faces and I know the kids. I get angry when I see Khetso and know his grandmother sent him with his little Checkers-bag down the street and said, ‘Voertsek!’ The police later picked him up. You cannot, if you experience these stuff every day, not do something.”
Her little apartment is warm and snug. The red couch takes up most of the space, romantic comedy and animation DVD’s are stacked by the television, and the walls lined are with hearts, “Grace” and “Peace” signs, and countless photos of smiling children, friends and family. It is very different from the spaces van der Merwe mostly spends her time. “This is where the crap comes in, because if we really want to see change, if we really want to deal with poverty and all these injustices, it takes your heart, your life and it takes of your everything.”
“And it’s extreme, and very difficult for me to live in. After a long day of blood, sweat and tears, I can come home and shower. But the guy for whom I build a shack must continue moving in, then try and make food on a fire somewhere, go and fetch water…it is a hard thing to live in.. This tension.” Van Der Merwe still remembers the conflicting emotions she experienced while building a shack for someone in an informal settlement opposite Woodhill.
“I thought, ‘You are shopping and we are sweating blood here.’ Poverty is poverty, even in the East of Pretoria – the oppression is the same. So I stand there looking over Woodhill…but then realise, ‘I also shop there, walk in those malls… So I can’t judge, I also live there. But how do I live in this tension of two extremes? But that’s what I want to do, create space where these two worlds can meet.”
While thinking back to her childhood, Van Der Merwe abruptly becomes serious when remembering her first real “significant moment.” She was driving with her father through town, marvelling at the amount of black people everywhere when an impatient white man nudged an elderly black man out of the way with his car. The man fell down on the sidewalk and “I almost got an anxiety attack inside the car and knew ‘this isn’t right’. This shouldn’t happen no matter who it is.” She stresses the last bit determinedly and fiercely – one almost sees little Van Der Merwe balling her fists. The bubble of Van Der Merwe’s narrow mindset burst.
Van Der Merwe started reaching out to a world that she never knew existed. After finishing matric, she decided to become a Bible teacher and work full-time in the missionary field. She shakes her head and grins at the memory of having to tell her conservative parents that she wasn’t going to study after school, but was going to use the money saved up for her to do a three-month bible course in Texas instead. She talks strong-mindedly about how her rights, wrongs, and narrow worldviews have changed since then. In America, the more she explored, the more she realised “Oh, crap! Everything I thought is real isn’t actually real.”
Van Der Merwe states firmly, her hand tugging at her multi-coloured scarf becoming still for a moment, “The deepest, deepest thing was established in me then…the fundamental value that humans are humans and that we are all equal…that is what I’m about.” She doesn’t say it indifferently; she says it as if each word is measured carefully before being allowed over her lips.
Trips to Australia and New Zealand followed before spending a year and a half in Durban teaching at the Discipleship Training School. During this time, on an outreach to Zimbabwe, she realised, “I’m not just a Bible teacher. If I’m not actively involved in poverty and where people are suffering, then I’m missing something…I was made to go and sit with that person, and just give them a little bit of hope.”
That is why Pure Hope exists. “I don’t get a moerse salary or a pat on the back every day. It’s not a glorious job because you bleed from inside, from your heart, because you have to fight the whole time for guys sitting in the crap.” When thinking of the impact they are trying to have through Pure Hope, her usually cheerful voice becomes solemn.
She speaks slowly and thoughtfully, “I met Impi on Monday, he was dead on Saturday. Here was this little boy sitting in the corner. His skin was hanging off him. All he kept on saying was ‘I want pie.’ His parents couldn’t give a crap, his aunt didn’t care to take him to the clinic and – after using his grant – left him at Mary’s (Mother Mary’s orphanage in Mabopane) when he was too sick.
Van Der Merwe’s strong voice begins to crack, “That’s not right – but if we at least acknowledge him, we acknowledge that his life wasn’t meaningless and had no significance, but touched and changed my heart and nine other people who got to meet him for a week and his story will continue to be told. If we can get their stories out there, their lives get meaning when it’s heard, valued and remembered and they become remembered as people.”
Van Der Merwe says sadly, “The problem is, you are always just a kid in Mabopane, you are always just a number on a list – you’re just a shack number.” She stops, looks up with her piercing blue eyes and smiles, “I want to remember these kids that nobody would ever remember because that gives their life value and meaning.”
Two weeks later, on an icy-cold and rainy Friday morning, a bunch of people is huddled together at NG Moreleta Park church. A few moments later, a 14-seater Toyota Quantum with a trailer pulls up. Van Der Merwe’s short frame, dressed in a bright red hoody, jeans tucked into her camel-coloured boots, jumps out from behind the wheel. Her long dark hair is pulled up in a rough bun and the excitement of the shack building that lies ahead shows in her twinkling blue eyes. She briefs the group with quiet authority.
Two boys from Mama Mary’s orphanage have turned 18 and are legally required to leave the orphanage. They are in Grade 9, however, and have nowhere else to go. Today, these two boys will each get a ‘home’. “The whole idea is to create a little space where they can do homework etc. And, hopefully, the rain clears up a bit when we get to Mabopane, I wouldn’t want to shock someone with a generator,” she teases before jumping in behind the wheel of the Quantum, indicating that the ‘mission’ has officially started.
The rows of shacks in Mabopane seem as lonely as the empty dusty streets. The dynamic group of people unloading equipment looks oddly out of place in block W 10 – the smell of despair hangs in the air. All clouds have disappeared and the sun beats down mercilessly as people start digging, drilling and sawing. Anxious faces seem to appear out of nowhere. A man on a shabby bicycle approaches tentatively. Van Der Merwe walks over, gives him a special handshake, and greets him warmly in Sotho before explaining what is going on. A group of toddlers are peering curiously from behind a fence and a group of mothers are also approaching. An old man is looking distrustfully at the group.
As the word starts to spread, the curious toddlers come closer and the old man gives a surprised smile. The women offer to help fetch water. Only the young man on the bicycle is showing no reaction. After a while, he says softly, “It’s good to see people care. People care – about us! Thank you. Thank you.” Van der Merwe shrugs it off, glowing, “It’s our family here. We love it.” The man looks her in the eye, gets on his bicycle, and simply says, “We love it too,” before driving away.
She rubs over the Ichtus-tattoo on her left wrist and says, “I don’t need to understand why all this is happening, but just know that God is good in the midst of all these things and somehow, someway He is the only one that can make something good out of this massive mess-up we live in where life means so little. I won’t quit. Because I believe in a different story. I believe that there is hope…and that you are a God of love and goodness and that there is something good in the world.” She fetches a ball, and starts playing soccer with the children in the dusty road. The children, their bone-thin arms and legs sticking out from underneath tattered clothing, are screaming with laughter as they run around kicking the ball with Van Der Merwe.
(Written by Natashia Hudson)