Monday, March 26, 2012

Precious Water and Free Flowing Tears

I spent today in a community in the Clau Clau region of South Africa. I went along with a mixed group of people, mostly to introduce an international donor to the care workers that his foundation was supporting there. I've been to this community before so it's always nice to return and see familiar faces and test my memory for names and the Siswati language. We arrived in the yard that houses the care point for the care workers to meet and record their home visits to over eighty children per week. There are 390 orphaned and vulnerable children in this small community that are in desperate need of care. Today, we heard from the care workers who have to decide who amongst these children are the most vulnerable. They choose who is eligible for the essential services such as home care visits, school and a food security. I can't imagine the difficult decisions these volunteers have to face every day...such desperate needs and such limits to their resources. What is limitless is their heart, their passion for the work. If you haven't figured out through my writing so far, these are the heroes of Africa. Africans who in the midst of some very hard life struggles themselves, give so much to others. I'm constantly humbled and then humbled again. Carly Wegner, Dan (who you'll remember as my office buddy) and I went on a few home visits with two care workers today. Nomsa and Nora. In the heat, with umbrellas for shade, these women walk us up the hills and through the dusty streets and goat trails to the homes of orphaned and vulnerable children that they serve. It's just past one o'clock, when children are dismissed from school. The first yard we enter is empty and the house is locked up. At least, the one door is locked. The rest of the house is all just tin slats nailed along a frame. You wouldn't know if anyone was home if they didn't want you to. The door is the only access to the outside/inside of the house. We wait in the yard under the shade of the only tree and after just a few minutes, a small boy approaches shyly. His name is James. He's handsome in his school uniform of white collared shirt and navy pants. His clothes are amazingly clean and well kept - especially given the state of the house he lives in. He speaks quietly but his English is pretty good. He tells us he stays with his mother and two sisters but we learn from the care workers that his mother is very sick. She has finished TB meds and is now on anti retro viral medications. She has to go once a month to the nearest clinic, about 3 hours walk one way, from their home. A taxi would be about R15 (less than $2) but because they have no identification papers, no birth certificates - they don't have access to government child support and therefore have no income. James tells us about his school and his favorite subject, English. Dan tells him about his own family, I tell him about my boys and we chat a little bit about football teams. His favorite are the Kaiser Chiefs. I tell him I like the Pirates better because they have nicer uniforms. You can tell he is not buying it. He's 13 which surprises Carly and I. Only in grade four, he's smaller than Easton, who's 10. We chat for a little while with him and then his eldest sister arrives and opens up the house. She pulls out two huge drums that she tells James to bring to the road for water. The drums are bigger than he is. Dan grabs one and I grab one and we carry them down to the roadside to join the barrels, drums, wash buckets and pails of everyone else in the community. The community has been without access to water for weeks, almost three, and today, the water truck has been rumbling through the streets dispensing water into any kind of container that has been commissioned for the task. It would be impossible to haul the full drums back up the path to the house but we find out that once full, the drums are left with all the other containers. The people just come and bring buckets to the water every day and haul what they need for the task at hand and use it. Imagine sharing on a community scale something as precious as water. After we haul the drums for them, we cross the road and pass the house of Nora. She points to a girl on the path hauling two large wash buckets up to the road and introduces us to her. It is her niece, who now lives with her, as Nora's sister passed away a few years ago. The young girl drops one of the buckets and continues with one up to the road. I grabbed the other and followed a short distance behind her. She sees me when she turns to come back for that one and she gives me a relieved smile and "Siyabonga sesi." Thank you sister. I love that expression. We walk back together and I carry on with the care workers, while she goes on to the house and whatever other chores await a waterless household. We walk for a while up a small track through the grass to a house high on a hill. It's what they call an RDP house. Rural Development Plan housing. A house that is accessible for those who have identification papers and can show a need to have government assisted housing. The family living here has a mother and six children. Five girls and the youngest, a boy. His name, in Siswati, means "Jesus gave him to me". Fitting for a male child long awaited after five girls! The house has a large water storage tank beside the house with a tap that runs into the house. It's a luxury compared to what we've been witness to - but a luxury is something that by now I should know doesn't mean is affordable. The tank must be filled by truck and the water trucks charge a fee to drive up and deliver the water to these homes. Therefore, the tank is empty. The family can't afford the luxury of water. Sitting in the shade of a shack that may well have housed a family, it's hot and all this talk of water has me thirsting for some. I have about half of the water bottle that I brought with me for the day. I contemplate if I should drink it while it's still just lukewarm or if I should save it for later in the day, knowing it will be hot enough to make tea with by that time. I drink a bit of it - acutely aware of the resource I have at my disposal. We sit with this mother as she tells us the challenges facing her family. Lack of water. Lack of food. Lack of money. Her garden is large and it is what is sustaining them but it needs water to thrive too. She is also worried because after this season, she has no more seeds to plant. She is small and so lovely, laughing hard at a joke that Dan makes after having it translated. She has a beautiful smile and seems surprised by her own laughter. She's genuinely grateful that someone would come and hear her story and listen to her. As we leave, she thanks each of us and again, I am thanked as her sister. We head back to the care point and by this time, many of the children have arrived for their meal. The care workers have been cooking pap and "soup" all morning and the men we came with this morning from the base are now dishing out food to the kids. I love watching people serve others. It's not to our credit, we didn't make the food or prepare the plates or cups for the kids...but there is something about giving a plate of food to a child when you know it may be all they eat today, that connects you to them. It's emotional work as much as it is physical. It's difficult and rewarding, pleasant and wrenching. I watched the face of the man who was dishing out the soup, which basically was a thick gravy with chunks of potatoes in it, to the children. He would look each child in the eye and smile and nod and I could tell that he was feeling all that I have felt when in that position. The children are beautiful and well behaved, they don't compare portions or ask for more. Most are shy but more than not, they say "Siyabonga" or "Thank you" and nod to you. Some raise their eyebrows in the secret language of children that tells you more than you ever asked them to share with you - it reveals something to look a child in the eye and have them acknowledge that you have seen them. Really seen them. We sat with the children for a while as they ate and visited. I held a little girl named Amanda, of all things. It's possible that that is just what our English brains translated her name to. She is tiny, maybe 3. She's afraid of us but she doesn't resist when I pick her up. I begin to sing to her and she puts her hands in her mouth and is quiet but she seems to enjoy it. I sing a few verses of a song I picked up in a movie long ago. I sang it repeatedly to my boys in the early hours of morning when they would wake and just want to be held till sleep came back to them. I don't know all the words but the ones I do, I just sing over and over and she seems to like them. "If I ever find you, my joy will fill the air. Say it loud so I can hear you. I'm so happy to be near you." I sing her "You are my Sunshine" and then she begins to cry quietly again. I set her down on the tire next to me and figure I've exhausted my repertoire and I can't be certain it's not my singing that makes her cry anyway! I just sit with her, huge tears rolling quietly down her chocolate brown cheeks, streams of water shining paths on her dusty face. It's time to go and I shake her hand and say "Siyabonga sesi" and leave her there, watching us go. She doesn't seem relieved by our leaving either but it's time to go and I have to walk away with her sitting there. I love going into the communities and being with the care workers. This little one shows me the vulnerability of the children of her community. There are others just as vulnerable as she is. She's one of the lucky ones. Fed, visited and cared for by a volunteer who comes and makes sure she's been taken care of as well as possible. Lucky enough to have tears to shed in a village devoid of water. I don't think I'll ever understand this complicated country where children hunger and thirst for things that adults like me take so for granted. I probably will never understand my own self in it all either. I just pray that I keep the lessons close that I'm learning.

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