Molo! As a result of our primary schools being on holiday break this past week, we spend our fourth week in PE on holiday as well! On Tuesday the 24th, which is Heritage Day in South Africa (national holiday) we spent the day at Jerusalem, which is an informal orphanage run by a woman called “Mama Vinqi”. At Jerusalem there were about 35 children under the age of 13 and I believe about half of them actually live at Jerusalem. Jerusalem is Mama Vinqi’s home in one of the townships. It is an incredibly small house that houses the children. There is the main room where the activities take place, a small backroom where the beds are, and the smallest kitchen I’ve ever seen. All of the walls are made of concrete cinderblock. Up until a few years ago, the roof was made of thin sheets of metal. When the roof started to leak in, Calabash (the volunteer organization placing us in the schools, Emmanuel, and Jerusalem) paid for the roof to be replaced, so at least they have a stable roof over their heads now. On Tuesday we brought along new craft supplies for the children to use as well as homemade playdough. Part of the cost of going on this trip is to supply the volunteer organizations with some supplies. At Jerusalem the program paid for food for us all to eat on Tuesday as well as extra food to last Mama Vinqi and the children a while. Because it was Heritage Day, Mama Vinqi made us a hugely bountiful lunch that was distributed amongst all of the children and us. We also brought in birthday cake because one of EIU student was celebrating her 21st birthday! I think everyone enjoyed the day while we were able to serve others. Mama Vinqi and her staff were extremely appreciative and kind to us while we were there. It was too bad that that was our one and only day at Jerusalem.
For the rest of the week (Monday, Wednesday-Friday), we were placed at the Emmanuel Advice Care Center (EAC), which is a social services organization that helps OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children), in their community. Again, we planned lessons and different activities for the children during the four weeks while we were at Emmanuel. The ages at EAC were anywhere from 4 years old – 20/21 years old. There were about 30ish children there everyday, but it varied. All of the children that go to Emmanuel are either orphans (being cared for by grandparents, siblings, etc.) or they are vulnerable children (they are HIV positive, have TB, etc.). We weren’t made aware of the status of individual people, because they don’t have to inform us, but we just knew that a large majority of the children and staff of Emmanuel were HIV positive, but you would never have known. On Monday, we were greeted with probably the biggest warm welcome I’ve ever experience! Hugging as a way of hello and goodbye is very common in SA culture. The staff made us feel incredibly welcomed. On Monday we had the chance to go on “home visits” with several of the staff members. Not only does the Emmanuel staff care for the OVCs that come to their center, but they also do home visits in the township to check in with children/adults that have AIDS or another disability. The staff members have such an incredible relationship with everyone they work with and you can really see that they love what they do (even though they’re volunteers and don’t get paid). We were able to visit five different homes and meet five different families. It was probably one of the biggest wake-up calls for me that I have experienced yet on this trip. Everyday we drive through the townships on our way to the schools. We see the shacks, the poverty, and the overpopulation, but we have never stepped inside someone else’s home to hear their story. We met a young woman who I believe was HIV positive who has lost so many people in her family. She told us that just a couple weeks ago she had to bury her husband. She has had children and other family members die from HIV/AIDS and she continues to remain so positive. I can’t even begin to imagine the strength that takes. We met another family headed by an elderly grandmother who cares for her 28-year-old grandchild who I believe has cerebral palsy (just by observation). They live in such a small house and don’t have the resources to adequately care for the grandson. All day, every day, he lies on the floor because that is how he was born. The grandmother says that most nights she can’t sleep in her bed because she is too busy sleeping on the floor by her grandson’s side to make sure he doesn’t roll out the door during the night. I know how hard it is for parents and families of children with disabilities, but I never stopped to think about how the hardships are barely beginning for similar families in places like South Africa. Those home visits were physically (because we walked up and down the streets in the heat) and emotionally exhausting. I have a totally new appreciation for my family, my health, my education, my country, and my blessings. I swear, everyone should come to South Africa and visit the townships – your life will be changed! Paul, the guy who started Calabash Trust says that we are experiencing more of what South Africa is really like than many white South Africans who live here. Isn’t that sad? Even though apartheid has ended, most white South Africans haven’t even entered a township let alone done what we have done in five weeks. That is mind-blowing. For the rest of the week we spent at Emmanuel we really got a chance to get to know some of the OVCs – especially the older kids. They all have dreams of going to college, becoming a social worker, getting a car, and having a family. I have those same dreams, but it’s sad that mine are much more realistic and likely to happen. These kids come from families where nobody has gone to college or even held a real job. Yet these children continue to be so optimistic and positive about their future. On Friday, our last day, the staff made us an amazing lunch/farewell dinner. We also had birthday cake that Dr. Murphy brought in to celebrate Nisha’s belated birthday (since we weren’t there on Tuesday). The children sang for her and for us, which was unbelievably moving. Saying goodbye was pretty hard. I’ve never had to say goodbye to someone that I know I will never see again, and someone who I know will have a harder life than I can ever imagine. So far, this has been the week that has truly opened my eyes to all the things I am thankful for.
On a positive note, we are officially in the second half of our trip! Less than two months! 55 days!