Monday, March 12, 2012

Our Stay in Oshoek - Day 1

After a beautiful weekend around the Mpumalanga province, Monday morning came early. Aidan had had a bad stomach ache in the night and came looking for Gravol and water. Jason went out into the kitchen and found some Sprite for Aidan with which he washed down the Gravol and finally fell back to sleep. After some time, I finally fell back asleep but then awoke what seemed like moments later to my alarm clock. We had a meeting with all the volunteers here and we took some time to hear about what is going on in other African countries. For example, we heard about Nigeria where children live above garbage and sewage for much of the year, where in the wet season, the children walk on pieced together boardwalks to schools that flood and have no walls to keep out the driving rain. Sanitation is non-existent in these communities and the children just step out of the school room and go to the bathroom wherever they find to squat or stand. Many of the parents of the children that Hands is seeing are sex trade workers. Care workers often have to go and pick up the kids and walk them to school or they don’t get to school. Space is at a premium and often whole families live in shanties that are smaller than most of our pantries or linen closets. Now imagine that that family has a parent that is a sex trade worker. These children are seeing things and being exposed to things they shouldn’t be seeing. It seems so hopeless. Land is at a premium and where would a group of care workers secure land that would be accessible for these children so that they can reach out and care for them and help them to have a safe place, food to eat and an adult to watch out for them if they are alone. But there is hope...there are care workers who have use their own precious land for a care centre. There are care workers that help in overcrowded schools to make sure that kids are learning and getting an education when there are few teachers and so very many kids. And there is hope that as word of these who are giving so much from so little is spread, that others will catch the vision of what a home based care worker does and volunteer as well, or lend support or provide a place for them to meet.
After spending an hour or so learning about different countries and the needs and challenges, we hopped into a car with a Zambian man named Levy. We headed to a community called Oshoek, about 2.5 hours away, right on the Swaziland border. Levy has been working with a group of volunteers in Oshoek, encouraging them and supporting them as they started doing home based care visits. When we arrived in Oshoek, I was surprised by the landscape and area the most. The hills and valleys give way to mountain ranges and it as if we had woken up in the Alps or somewhere in Ireland. It’s green and lush, rolling hills and fertile lands as far as the eye can see. Homes are spread far apart and give the impression of small acreages or farms dotting the landscape. Cattle roam freely, even on the main roads. We are greeted at the small cement block building that houses the home based care office here in Oshoek. It’s two small rooms owned by a local church but rented to the volunteers as a base of operations. It’s close to the local primary school and to a medical clinic, as well as at a crossroads where school buses drop off and collect high school students. Every day, about 15 volunteers come to the centre at eight am. They meet together, sing, pray and plan out their visits for the day. Children are usually in school in the mornings so the workers often visit a few elderly patients or homes with small ones in the mornings. In the afternoons, the care workers go out and visit children that have returned from school. They check that kids living alone have something to eat, are making their way to school and getting their work done, and that no one is taking advantage of them. It’s a huge job anywhere, but in Oshoek, there are minimal resources for these workers that would aid them in their work. Food is scarce and children are vulnerable. The distances that they cover daily on foot took us up steep hills and rocky canyons, over fields and gullies. We drove in a 4x4 and it was a rough ride. The care workers take a taxi on the main road and then walk the remaining miles up and down the hillsides, in the heat, the cold, the rain. Every single day. These are not young women in breathable, wicking outerwear and climbing shoes...these are mothers and grandmothers,carrying babies on their backs and wearing whatever pair of shoes or boots they own.
This is definitely not an approved mode of transport - but, the bakkie, already filled with care workers and volunteers, gave Jason and Easton the opportunity to travel on the back for a short distance. The really frightening thing about this photo is that Bentley, snapped the photo with his camera held above the roof while driving! I try not to squelch the adventure and opportunities that come our way here but I quickly kiboshed this one out of sheer motherly instinct. The first visit we did was to the home of a young girl named Nicky*. She and her brother were orphaned when she was just 6 years old. Now, ten years later, she and her brother have been on their own, built their own home with sticks and mud, and found a way to survive on the small grant that orphans are given if they have proper identification papers, which these two did. When we visited, Nicky’s brother had just left a few days prior to go stay in a city about an hour away to try and find a paying job. In Oshoek, there just aren’t any jobs. No industry. No town centre. No shops. No jobs. It’s understandable that her brother, not in school any longer, would go on and try to make a life for himself and for Nicky by finding paid work. The hard part is that it leaves Nicky on her own and very vulnerable. It hit one of the girls on our team really hard that a girl in her late teens would be as vulnerable as a small orphaned child. It seemed that once a child was old enough to take care of themselves, it would get easier. But, as Levy pointed out, here’s a pretty girl without money who goes to school every day and back again on her own. Her closest neighbour is up the hill at least 500 m. She hauls her own water from a spigot that she motions to out of sight of the house over the next hill. Again, she does all this alone now and anyone watching her or knowing her story, would know she’s vulnerable. How long does a girl on her own turn down the offer to “help” of someone offering her soap or toothpaste or water, a ride or medicine. She’s vulnerable because she’s on her own but also because her needs are so great, they cloud her own need for safety. Thankfully, we find out that the care workers check on her every single day so that greatly reduces her vulnerability, not to mention her loneliness or despair at being all alone – morning, noon, and night.
That’s the heart of the work – telling the community that those that are vulnerable have protectors, advocates and those who will stand up for them when they need it most. The care workers, like many of their neighbours, are not able to financially support those around them, nor provide food or supplies for them on any kind of consistent basis. These care workers are just starting their work in Oshoek and it was really humbling to hear their passion for the work. They are all heart. They soaked up any observations we made, they put into practice the things they were learning and they eagerly leaned in on any teaching opportunity that Levy presented them with. If hearts could feed a community, Oshoek would be feasting.
This is the house that Nicky and her brother built together. It's simple construction - logs and sticks filled with cow manure and mud. It's a beautiful visual of the resiliency of these two children, orphaned at 6 and 8, and their ability to survive and work together to build a life for themselves.
The second home we visited was a family of a brother who was 17, and his two younger sisters. This family was living in dire circumstances in a tin shanty with very little in the way of protection from the elements or anyone who wished to harm them. Oshoek is mountainous and cold. Even while we were there, the winds were chilly and the morning mists enveloped everything with a cold grasp that lasted well into the afternoon when the sun finally founds its strength. This small family was suffering and in a downward spiral. Care workers learned of their needs and although they had no resources to help them physically, they did know a social worker that would help them prepare an application for a RDP (Rural Development Plan) house. These are homes that the government pays to build in an effort to build up rural communities with sufficient housing to replace insufficient. Considering that the shanty these kids lived in is still right next door and also, now inhabited by someone else in dire straits, the home they now have is an amazing upgrade. Their old "home" seemed unfit as a storage shed, nevermind as a dwelling place. The new home is solid. It is made of cement and cinder block with a sturdy tin roof and glass windows. The doors lock and there is a woodburning stove for warmth and for cooking. The kids were proud of their home and even though they did not know we were coming, the house was spotless and well cared for. You could tell they knew how fortunate they had been. It was nice to see the care workers pride as well in having helped this young family move away from the vulnerable place they were in to a house they could now call home and grow and develop in.
The last home of the day was the one that I watched Easton transform in.(more to come on this in a future blog) The home was a simple farm type home with a fence all around. There was a young woman with her two young children, a baby sleeping in the home and a 5 or 6 year old girl. She also was caring for her young nephew, a boy of about 8. Two years ago, Levy had arrived at this home to find this young woman near death, living in the garage of the home. The house does not belong to her, it is a compassionate neighbour that allows them the use of the home. At the time of Levy’s first visit here, the young woman seemed to be on death’s doorstep. She was very ill, unable to get up and of course, unable to care for herself or her very young children and nephew. Levy found that the nephew was cooking and caring for the children while also looking after his aunty, bringing her water and medications that she needed. He was six years old. Six. Who of us would let our six year old be responsible for making a fire, boiling water and cooking on it, even with our best supervision. Imagine this little guy doing it all on his own.
On this visit, this serious little man is the ripe old age of 8. He’s handsome in his ripped shorts, polo shirt and high top shoes with no laces and very little toes left on them. He’s not sure what to make of our group as we arrive but he remembers Levy as Levy begins to talk to him. Levy reminds him that when he last came by, the boy’s aunty was so very sick and ready to die but that the boy was her care giver and he saved her. Levy encourages the boy, telling him that he is the hero of the family story. We all watched as this serious little man became a grinning boy again, sheepishly accepting the praise that Levy was pouring on him. He stood straighter and his face brightened as Levy recounted the boy’s actions in caring for his aunty and his cousins and making sure all that needed to be done around the house was done.
Today, this family is still vulnerable. The house is not their own although the owner has allowed them to stay on while he has left the area for work. The aunty is still sick although she is on medication and feeling good at the moment. There is still too little food and not enough security to know if this family is going to thrive or even just survive, but what we do know, is that there is a small boy sleeping in Oshoek knowing that he contributes to his family’s well being with greater strength than men triple his age or older. That is the hope of Oshoek, that the next generation takes on the role of care giver and provider and gives all that they have to ensure the survival and viability of their own families as well as those around them.

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