Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Meeting - 18th August 2004

After a fitful night's sleep, in which the barking dogs got tangled up in my dreams, the last thing I wanted to hear was three different alarms cutting through the cold air in our room. I pulled the duvet back over my head and tried to ignore them, and the resultant movement from the others in the room.  However, I'd momentarily forgotten that there was someone sleeping above me, and the bunk beds were very creaky.  I sat up, misjudging the height of the upper bunk, and managed to get my hair tangled in the metal mesh supporting the mattress. Ouch! Grumpiness layered on top of grumpiness! Not my best morning ever...

Through bleary eyes I managed to find some clothes. My room mates had headed to the showers but I decided that, for today, cleanliness was way overrated. I stiffly got dressed and went in search of a cup of tea. The clouds had disappeared overnight and I walked out of the church into bright sunlight. Blue sky and sunshine was just what I needed to shake off my earlier grumps!

The children had already arrived at the preschool and in the kitchen their breakfast was being served out. A great big vat of what looked to me like gloopy glue (but turned out to be mealie pap - corn porridge) was being scooped out and ladled into cups to be taken to the hungry children. I was glad we had bought breakfast cereal on our shopping trip, as I wasn't tempted by the pap!

We eased into the day, with more orientation with Gerrit, and some training. After lunch, finally, it was time for us to visit Asiphé, the orphanage for disabled children and those with HIV/AIDS. When I signed up for the Life Change Team, this is what I was signing up for - to spend three weeks with these disabled children, and maybe to be able to use my professional training as a speech and language therapist too.

Asiphé is in walking distance of the church compound, so we walked along the road in the sun, dodging the puddles in the red dirt road. We reached the compound and walked up the path towards a low building with a shady veranda along one long side. A woman was leaning on the fence, giving a bottle to a small baby with a very wobbly head. Gerrit, who was accompanying us, explained this was the youngest child in the orphanage - an 8 month old baby boy who had cerebral palsy.

We were then mobbed by a group of five children of various ages. They clamoured for our attention and dragged us inside the orphanage. Gerrit introduced us to Janet and Bryn - an English couple who were volunteering at the orphanage on a long term basis. They had been on the Life Change Team the previous year, and this piece of information filtered its way into my brain - this type of team could seriously affect your life, if you let it...

Gerrit then left us in the capable hands of Janet, who would introduce us to the children and house mothers. The 14 children, whose home we were in, had eaten their lunch and some of them were being settled into bed for an afternoon rest, which was their routine. We were shown the therapy room where they did physio exercises in the mornings, ate their meals, and played with some sparse toys. Bright murals adorned the walls - painted by a Dutch team who had visited the previous year. There was an ancient television set in the corner, with a video player too. The children who had mobbed us on arrival were now sitting here watching a children's video. These were the mobile children, three of whom had a diagnosis of HIV; two had hydrocephalus - their larger heads revealing their late diagnosis and treatment.  Another girl, about 8 years old, who was in a wheelchair was with them; she looked up quizzically as we walked in. We sat and talked as best we could to them for a while, resorting to makeshift signs and gestures to overcome our English /Afrikaans language barrier.

Our tour then continued. The older boys were all in bed, resting, so we didn't linger too long in their big dormitory, but made our way into the adjoining babies / toddlers room. The two mobile toddlers were put into bed - but didn't stay there for long! One little girl with cp was in her cot, and frustrated that she couldn't escape some of the team entertained her, while others tried to persuade the escapees to get back into bed. Then Denise, the first woman we had seen, came into the room, as baby Leroy had finished his bottle. She was heading to his cot, but Janet suggested that one of our team  members might like to hold him. I watched, with a pang of envy, as he was handed to the nearest team member to them. I was furthest away. But then, I realised they were cuddling and passing him on to the next team member. Gradually he got nearer and nearer to me, with me willing each person not to hold on to him.

After what seemed an age, he was next to me, and then being handed to me. What a gorgeous baby he was! Beautiful brown soft skin, fine black hair coiled into tiny tiny curls all over his head, long long eye lashes framing dark brown eyes, little rosy red lips. But holding him, I realised that he was unlike any other 8 month old I'd held before. For a start, that head was wobblier than some newborns I'd held. I was very conscious that it needed supporting all the time. I could also feel how stiff his arms and legs were, in stark comparison to his floppy trunk and neck. He was also not best pleased to have been a human pass the parcel and started whimpering in my arms. Instinctively I held him tight and started rocking him, quietly singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" under my breath, in time to my rocking arms. I felt him relax and he looked up at me with his big brown unfathomable eyes, gave a yawn and then fell into a relaxed sleep.

As there was no one else to pass him on to, I sank down onto the bed behind me, and sat looking at this tiny boy in my arms, zoning out from the surrounding conversation, wondering what story lay behind his short life. Such a precious baby, with no family to treasure him.

And then suddenly I was aware of movement in the room and snapped out of my reverie. It was time for us to leave, and I had to pass my sleeping boy over to be placed in his cold cot.

Walking back to the church compound, my thoughts stayed at Asiphé, thinking of the children I'd just met, the three weeks ahead that I would spend working with them - and most of all, that tiny boy who had looked deep into my soul with his big, serious eyes before he drifted off to sleep...

Friday, 28 March 2014

Getting our bearings

We had an hour to rest after our arrival, to make up our beds, sort our belongings and freshen up in the sparse toilet block which was shared with the children playing outside. Then we joined our hosts Gerrit and Ami in their house next door, for lunch and an introduction to the church, the children's ministry and the surrounding community, and the Afrikaans language which was used locally.

We were staying right on the edge of the township, and the church had responded to the needs of children living in poverty, neglect and all too often danger. They had set up three preschools - offering two cooked meals a day, basic lessons, a chance to play, basic hygiene - to children aged 3 to 6 living in the township, children who otherwise would be left to fend for themselves during the day, while their parents were working or sleeping off drugs and alcohol. In addition, they ran a crèche for younger children, and an orphanage for disabled children / children with HIV/AIDS. 

After we had eaten, we piled back into one of the minibuses, and Gerrit drove us into the township. We visited one family from the church who had recently moved into a new, breeze-block house, complete with an outside toilet - the height of luxury in the township. We then drove further up the hill, deeper into the township and stopped in front of a small, very basic wooden hut. This was the home of a lady who had lost her daughter to AIDS and who was now caring for her two grandsons. She very proudly welcomed us into her tiny home - housing metal bunk-beds, a table, a paraffin stove and a chair. We could only go in two at a time, otherwise there was no room. That little house was impeccably clean - we could have eaten off the floor. Even ten years on, I can still picture that house and its proud smiling owner. She had so little, had lost so much, and yet she was happy and content.

Gerrit then explained he would take us to the most dangerous area of the township - Rooidake, where the church ran a preschool. This area had the highest level of crime with drug and alcohol abuse being rife, and gun crime being a big problem. By the time we were there, the children had left for the day but we looked round the little building cowering behind high barbed wire fences. We had already been told that if we left the church compound we would need to be in twos at the very least, but if we wanted to volunteer at the Rooidake pre-school, then we would need to arrange transport with Gerrit, as it was too dangerous to go on our own. 

From Rooidake, Gerrit then took us down to the centre of town, so that we could buy food, as from the next day we would be catering for ourselves. So 13 very tired individuals descended on a strange supermarket, to try to decide what to buy! That was such a frustrating experience!! Everyone had their own ideas, but was too tired to negotiate our limited budget... Tempers started to fray, and all our individual irritations came very much to the fore! Not a pretty sight! Eventually the team leaders took control and we managed to purchase enough food to keep us happy and fed for a couple of days, although we had gone over budget, and would need to be more frugal on our next shopping trip if we were to make our money spread over the three weeks of our team! Gerrit had left us at the supermarket so we had to negotiate the crowded local bus back to the church compound. Fortunately we had a very helpful bus driver who dredged his school English back into use, to make sure we got back safely! 

We ate our evening meal with Gerrit and family, and finally sank into our creaky beds.  My three room mates fell to sleep before me, but even though I was bone-weary, my brain took a long time to switch off, as I processed all I'd seen and heard that first day in South Africa, to a background soundtrack of barking dogs coming from the surrounding township...

Friday, 14 March 2014

First impressions of South Africa – 17th August 2004

After a long night flight, containing very little sleep,  I could see from the flight map that we were getting close to Cape Town and sure enough, the captain came over the intercom to announce that we were beginning our descent. A shiver of excitement ran through me.

I was sitting in the middle bank of seats, so glimpses out of the window were briefly snatched when we made several turns on our approach to the runway.  I caught snapshots of rugged mountains, and a flat plain, with a wide expanse of ragged dwellings huddling together.  

Stiff and sore from a night in a cramped airline seat, we made our way off the plane, filling our lungs with African air – heavy with aircraft fumes, but revelling in being in a new country, on a new continent. Then through the airport we trudged wearily, waiting in long lines to go through passport control, and then waiting, waiting for our luggage to appear on the carousel. Not much different from any other big airport.

In the arrivals hall we were met by a smiley white haired little man, who ushered us outside into a steady drizzle, and on over to two white minibuses, which were our transport to our final destination.

We set off on our drive, and I greedily drank in the sights before me – glimpses of the back of Table Mountain, shrouded in cloud; the sprawling mass of corrugated iron that housed so many people in the Township of Khayelitsha; cows ambling by the side of the motorway; white ibis in the fields alongside Arum lilies.  I was very surprised to realise at this point that everyone else in the minibus, except the driver, was gently snoring! How could they sleep when there was so much newness to feast on?

Ahead of us rugged mountains almost barred our way, but the road snaked up steeply in a zigzag, giving us an amazing view back towards Cape Town looking over False Bay.  We then drove past baboons playing by the side of the road, before we slowed down, to turn off the main road. Off to our right there was another township, but in this one the shacks were constructed mostly from wood, rather than metal.  
As we descended into the valley, the houses became more sophisticated, made from breeze blocks. Soon we turned into a red dirt road and then into the church compound – Agapé Family Ministries.  Low wooden buildings were grouped in a rough L shape around a grassy area, where a group of about 30 happy children were playing.

One arm of the L was a row of class rooms and the bottom part was the church building which was to be our home for the next three weeks – a large hall, with four small bedrooms leading off it, each with bunk beds in.  

I sank wearily onto the bottom bunk, hitting the back of my head on the wooden frame, and the cold damp air of that room started to sap my excitement from me. What on earth was I thinking of, travelling all this way with twelve people I barely knew, to stay here for three weeks, in the depths of the South African winter, with no central heating, unreliable hot water?

But deep down, I knew Who had brought me here, although the why was as yet unanswered...

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Looking back to the beginning...

In my bedroom sorting today, I found a copy of my Christmas letter from 2004. The last (rather long) paragraph caught my attention:

"My other major travelling this year was to South Africa and I've left this until last as it had the most profound effect on me. Our family of churches run "Life Change Teams" to various countries, and as I read the literature about these teams, I knew that it was right for me to go on one this year.  The team I was part of was spending three weeks in August with Agapé Church in Grabouw, South Africa, which is on the edge of a township and serves the needy community it is based in, with a particular emphasis towards children. It is truly an amazing and inspiring place to be in. 

The church runs three pre-schools for children from the township, which provide a lot more than just school lessons - ensuring that the children are safe while their parents are working, and feeding them two meals a day. There is also Asiphé care centre which is home to 14 children with cerebral palsy/ head injury/HIV/ AIDS between the ages of 8 months to 14 years. This is a place of great peace and joy - most unexpected when you consider many of the children have been abandoned by their families, and some are disabled due to the actions of their parents. 

The children at Asiphé totally captured my heart - I so loved spending time with them, feeding them, doing their exercises with them, loving them.  For me, the highlight of the Team was the middle Sunday when we had a mega-service at the church: 13 children dedicated, 1 wedding, 7 couples renewing their wedding vows, 4 baptisms!  The four youngest children from Asiphé were brought to be dedicated and I had the very great privilege of holding baby L in my arms for this. I was totally overwhelmed with love for this baby, who had suffered so much loss in his short 8 months. 

At the end of our three weeks I was devastated to have to leave the children behind - especially my baby L.  Within three weeks of arriving home, I'd booked flights to return to Grabouw for three weeks, this coming February / March. My time there has changed me a lot, and given me different priorities in life. South Africa has definitely got under my skin, and I'm exploring opportunities to return for months, rather than weeks...!"

The beginning of our story, and looking to the future, having no idea how it would unfold. My head trying to keep my heart under control, but knowing my heart was full of mother-love for a little baby boy with cerebral palsy...