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When smiling feels more like a grimace

When smiling feels more like a grimace

Photos by Rebecca

Smile, wave. Smile, wave.

Sometimes – just to mix it up – I threw in a thumbs-up. But that small variation in the otherwise monotonous motions of driving hour after hour through Malawi did little to staunch the flow of disgruntlement seeping into me.

The smiles started to feel like grimaces.

It’s not like I don’t like people, but I myself felt less like a person and more like an attraction as we traveled through rural Africa. Couldn’t I just take a break?

So, I did. I looked straight ahead for a while. I put on big sunglasses and let the other people in the car take over, two passengers waving per car exceeds the requirements, right? Plus, while I was less than thrilled to take up the task, they were happy to do it.

Photo by Rebecca

Their enthusiasm must be a side effect of being new to Africa, I mused to myself. Me, on the other hand, with my infinite knowledge and wisdom accumulated over the last two-and-a-half years on the continent, scorned their friendly demeanours.

They’re just waving at you because you’re white, said the part of me tired of being a foreigner and longing to pass by unnoticed.

It was day three, hour five of driving at the light-speed of 20 kilometres an hour, that the Lord broke through the oh-woe-is-me wall I had constructed.

Did it matter why the kids chased the car laughing and jostling each other for position? Did it matter why people ran closer to the road to get in the range of a thumbs up? Did it matter why everyone called out greetings as we drove by?

What mattered were the smiles. What mattered was the excitement on their faces when I smiled back. What mattered were the giggles that erupted when I greeted them in their own language.

What else could matter?

How could I begrudge someone a smile? Why was I not walking around smiling 24/7?

Photo by Rebecca

What if there was a whole carload of people with my attitude cruising down the backroads staring straight ahead, ignoring the greetings and waves accosting the vehicle from all sides? Pulling into the village, they step out into a sea of people that seem to have materialised from nowhere, but have actually been the same people they’ve passed over the last few kilometres. The newcomers begin to speak about the love of Jesus - the love that all followers of Christ should exemplify - the love…that they didn't show?

If I were one of those villagers, I would not welcome me. If they didn’t want to acknowledge me before, why should I be friendly to them now? And even if I did stick around to listen, I would lose interest pretty fast upon realization that their words and actions didn’t match up.

As a Christian, I am an ambassador of Christ. All day, every day. And if I’m going to talk the talk, I better be able to walk the walk.

“As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.” - Proverbs 27:19

I took another drive the other day (albeit a lot shorter), and the greetings never got old. I even started initiating the greetings: smiling at those who looked unsure, waving at those who stood with hands by their sides. Their response was instant: joy, pure and simple. And their joy became my joy.

Never did anyone turn away; never did anyone pretend they hadn’t seen me. They always responded, and they always chose to respond with joy.

Smiling when out for a drive doesn’t feel like a grimace anymore.

Aching cheeks and a mouthful of dust from the open window just mean I’ve chosen to respond with joy. 

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