We’re thankful to be camping in the Peria area and be meeting so many kind and hospitable people. When we visited a family with two young daughters, our girls were blessed to play with age-appropriate toys. This afternoon, we ended up at that family’s home who met us at both the Fairy Festival and the Rainbow Kids’ playgroup.

Mandy and Pat Downer have two daughters — Shasa (4 1/2) and Tierra (3). Tierra’s birth month is exactly the same as Calista’s, and Brioni’s and Shasa’s aren’t that far apart, which gave us an immediate special connection. David met Pat yesterday when he was working on a neighbour’s house.

When we reached the top of the long driveway, we found a mud-brick house positioned to catch the maximum sunlight. The house’s non-standard construction material is off-set by bright trims around the doors and windows. Colourful flowers edge the natural bush surrounds with a large vegie patch off to one side.

Murray's mudbrick house at the top of Shepherd's Flat, March 2011
The Downers said that it took Murray about a year to build this house, labouring almost every day.

No one was home, although the house was left unlocked. Nevertheless, the girls were excited when they spied the Downers’ play equipment.

Playing with the girls at the Downers', March 2011
While waiting for the Downers to arrive home, we enjoyed their little playground.

A sign for the future, March 2011
This little sign of Mandy's caught our eye (and captured our imaginations for our future friendships with our daughters!).

David and I had a good look around the outside of the house, allowing ourselves a brief fantasy of owning a similar, self-sufficient slice of paradise like this. We were just finished our nosying around when we heard a car making the slow ascent to the top of the range.

Mandy was arriving home with her daughters and her mother who is visiting from England. This is the time of Janet’s annual pilgrimage to see her Kiwi grand-daughters. She also stops in South Africa for two months to visit her sons’ families. Every year she makes this trip — entering her childrens’ lives voluntarily.

Although we were unexpected, Mandy greeted us warmly and invited us in. Brioni and Calista were asleep in the back of our truck, but Aisha made friends quickly as the thoughtful Downer girls generously showed off their toys and bedroom. Later her sisters joined the girls, and they played together happily.

Aisha and Shasa on the stairs, March 2011
Shasa and Tierra's bedroom is upstairs, and our girls loved climbing up to the loft to explore the toys.

We chatted with Mandy and Janet as they bustled around the house, doing chores like hanging the washing up and lighting the wood-fire stove. We drank mugs of red bush tea — a popular herbal tea here in New Zealand with its origins in southern Africa (think of Mma Ramotswe of Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency.)

Mandy and Pat are house-sitting this property while building their own house on the neighbouring 300 acres. When their neighbour Murray took up a position with VSA in Papua New Guinea, he invited the Downers to move into his house — for free! (So those who still aren’t sure about free rent, let me assure you that it exists — we’re seeing examples of it frequently!)

Personal details in Murray's house, March 2011
These beautiful carvings have been incorporated into the masonry over the sink. Personal touches like these are possible when you build your own house (by hand).

Personal details in Murray's house, March 2011
A large fishing trap was hanging from the ceiling over the dining table. Murray has collected a number of indigenous artifacts from his times working abroad.

When Mandy invited us to stay for dinner, David offered to do some cooking. He made a spicy mix of potatoes and kumaras from the garden with a tomato and onion sauce.

Mandy harvested kale from her garden, and this was the first time David and I have tasted kale. It has a mild spinach flavour and makes a pleasant side dish to almost any meal. Mandy and Janet said they’d been eating it almost nightly for weeks because they enjoy it so much.

The girls continued to play during dinner. Both Aisha and Brioni wanted to sit next to their new friend Shasa. I love seeing how our girls are learning to build friendships rapidly — like us!

Sometimes I am tempted to wonder how our itinerant lifestyle will affect our girls’ friendships when they’re older, but I’m learning to leave the future to the One who has created it. Surely we will be equipped with wisdom and resources to meet future challenges when they arise.

Mandy reading the girls a story, March 2011
When the girls became too rowdy just before bedtime, Mandy settled them all non-confrontationally by simply offering a story. (I can learn from wise women like this.)

Our time with Mandy, Janet and the girls was brief, but I feel a special affiliation with Mandy. She’s familiar with the language of the Bible and also spent the first eleven years of her childhood in Africa (Zimbabwe).

I’m yet to hear all the details, but looking around her home, I can see that Africa still occupies a large portion of Mandy’s heart. I feel inspired to one day pull my own African treasures out of storage and make them part of our daily existence.

We’re looking forward to seeing Mandy and her family again. On Saturday we’ll head back Shepherd’s Peak to join with others in celebrating Tierra’s third birthday.

I’m looking forward to meeting Pat. He was away tonight — out fishing with a friend. Maybe in the future we’ll be able to share more of our hearts with the Downers as our daughters play nicely together.