Sources of Joy: Vukani Cele’s Mother Turns 80

I’ve been focusing the blog this year on Sources of Joy, those people or experiences or memories or places that elicit profound joy in me.

Today’s source comes from South Africa.

I heard via email this morning from Vukani Cele, my exchange partner from 1995 who hosted me so magnificently in November and December when I was in Durban for COP17, the United Nations climate change conference.

Vukani opened his note with the following (Just so you know, “Mfowethu” means brother):


My mother turned 80 on Sunday, 15 January 2012. What a day! It was meant to be a small gathering just to acknowledge the day but no….it became a real party. Kids everywhere. Not all my family could make it because of short notice. My mother was so happy she just could not believe what was going on that day. You can imagine the food…Jeff, what a spread! For the first time in a long long time we met as family for something positive and not because someone had died. We have been meeting like that for many years in my family. It was such a beautiful start to the year.

In 1996, shortly before I left South Africa at the end of my Fulbright year, Vukani’s brother Xolo drove me to Mtwalume, the rural community in KwaZulu Natal Province where Vukani, his 10 siblings and he were raised (Vukani’s father had eight children by his first wife and four by their mother).

The times were not easy.

Vukani told me recently how his mother and father, both teachers, would gather the family, put the money they had earned on the table and go around asking each child what they wanted.

“This is what we have,” the parents would say.

The children would express their wishes, and the parents would do their best to meet them with what they had.

From this openness Vukani and his siblings learned about sharing and that his parents would do whatever they could to give their children what they desired.

Kind and generous, Mrs. Cele also displayed a wry sense of humor.

When I complimented her on how well she looked, she answered that it must have been because of the pills she was taking.

Meeting her then and seeing the area where Vukani grew up, learned to speak a rich brand of Zulu, and absorbed the traditions of slaughtering cows and goats and negotiating lobola, or bride price,  was, and remains, a treasured experience.

Seeing Mrs. Cele 15 years later at Vukani’s home as a surprise-he had not told me she was going to be there-made the pleasure even deeper.

After hugging and telling each other how glad we were to see each other again, Mrs. Cele explained me she would be soon turning 80.

She said that she knows she may not have long to live.

But, when her time comes, it will be all right because she knows her children are all right.

In other words, she is ready.

By that Mrs. Cele did not mean that she wanted to die tomorrow.

Indeed, she still wants to live.

But she has an acceptance of the inevitable end that will meet us all.

“That means you have lived a good life,” I said.

She nodded.

The wisdom, kindness and strength with which Mrs. Cele has lived in her 80 years inspires me, while the love she has brought to the world through her eldest son, who has become a brother to me, inspires the deepest gratitude in me.

The love she has given to her family has come back to her over and over.

Vukani and his two living brothers take turns hosting her until she decides she is ready to go back to Mtwalume.

Off she goes.

So, this morning, as I readied to head to downtown Chicago for work, I got a gift  in receiving the latest thread that Vukani has woven in our ever-deepening friendship.

And I got another one in reading and seeing the celebration of his remarkable mother,  who was born exactly three days after Dr. King in a land also filled with oppression and who has lived long and well enough to see it come out on the other side of justice.


2 responses to “Sources of Joy: Vukani Cele’s Mother Turns 80

  1. Sandra Hollingsworth

    Jeff, What a wonderful story. It brought tears and joy to my spirit. My mom turned 76 on Christmas Eve (you know it’s my b’day (53) as well) and she celebrated with us on Christmas Day. My mom’s walk is not as swift as it once was but she’s still in motion. And to have 4 generations in my home at one time is a true blessing. So I say Happy 80th Birthday to Mrs. Cele. May the generations continue the blessings, joy, & love that she gives.

    Love ya’

  2. jeffkellylowenstein3

    Thanks so much for your kind words, Sandra. I’ll make sure to pass them along to Vukani and his family.


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