Thursday, 3 April 2014

Getting acquainted - 20th August 2004

It rained that night. Heavy rain drumming on the corrugated iron roof, echoing across all the neighbouring roofs; drowning out the barking dogs, the drunken shouts, all the other sounds of the township. And I slept deeply - my best night since arriving in South Africa. When I woke in the morning, it was clear the rain had kept everyone else awake!

That morning there were only two of us intending to go to Asiphé - others were keen to help with the pre-schools and crèche. Thirteen of us would only spread thinly across the five different children's work venues.

Hannah and I set off along the red dirt road. The heavy rain had excavated great craters in the red dirt road, leaving deep puddles, with river beds joining them together. But the sun was starting to shine through from underneath the clouds, and making the raindrops on the fences sparkle.

When we arrived at Asiphé there was only one mobile child there to greet us. Little M seemed like a little lost thing without her four playmates. The older two were at pre-school; the younger two at crèche. But M was pleased to see us, and reached for our hands and led us through to the therapy room. All the other children were here, some still being fed breakfast.

Our role was to help out wherever we were needed, and mornings were always taken up with physiotherapy exercises for these children - most of whom had some form of cerebral palsy or head injury. Lizzie, one of the house mothers, showed us how to do slow stretches of the children's tight limbs, taking them through their full range of movement. She demonstrated with K, the 8 year old girl who had been sitting in her wheelchair watching television two days earlier. 

Lizzie kept laughing in embarrassment at her English, which was great - no need for embarrassment. She then suggested that we choose a child and go through the same routine, while she talked us through it.  I paired up with a little three year old boy, C, who had a gorgeous slightly crooked grin.  He was very patient with me as I fumbled through the exercises - too patient for a three year old...

After about thirty minutes, we'd finished the routine, and we were encouraged to move on to another child.  Baby Leroy was sitting grizzling in his wheelchair. I was inevitably drawn to him, and Lizzie showed me how to remove the tray from his chair, so I could undo the strap holding him in, and lift him out and onto the floor. Rather than calming down, Leroy just kept crying. Lizzie encouraged me to work through the exercises anyway, even though he was very obviously tired. I persevered, and finally had worked through the programme. We both breathed a sigh of relief and I snuggled him on my knee. Once again, he turned his head in towards my body, and fell asleep.  I was ready to sit there holding him, but the house mothers tried to get me to put him down on the floor to sleep, so I would be free to work with another child. I'm a rebel at heart, and wasn't happy with the suggestion. I had an inkling that this baby had rarely been allowed to just sleep on someone's knee - usually put in his cot, on the floor, somewhere else, so that the someone holding him could use their time elsewhere.  I decided that, for once, he could sleep his sleep out where he had fallen asleep, and shifted my weight back so I could lean against the wall. For half an hour I sat like that, gazing down at this little scrap asleep in my arms.

Lizzie realised I wasn't budging so started talking to me, telling me a little about Leroy. How he had been given up for adoption at birth by his birth mother, but due to concerns about his health he was put in foster care so that tests and assessments could be carried out.  Had these concerns not been present, he would have been adopted as a newborn baby - there is high demand for babies with Leroy's ethnic origin. Sadly for Leroy, an MRI scan showed a large extent of brain damage and the diagnosis of cerebral palsy was made. With this diagnosis, adoption was no longer feasible for him - no one would willingly take on a child who would need such a high level of care for life - not when healthcare and education have to be paid for.  It was at this point, when he wasn't even four months old, that Leroy was taken from his foster family and handed over to Asiphé. According to the doctors, Leroy would never walk, or talk, or learn, he would be "like a vegetable", to use Lizzie's words, echoing what she had been told. But my two, albeit brief, meetings with this baby had already told me this last prediction was wrong.

Lizzie's attention was needed elsewhere, so I was left to my thoughts, all the while feeling the warmth of Leroy's little body close against mine. The more he slept, the more relaxed he became, his tight limbs becoming floppier, more normal. After a while he began to stir and slowly, reluctantly, opened his eyes. I decided to try a bit more physio with him. Wow! What a difference! His arms were still quite relaxed and he let me get his arms higher than earlier before he started objecting. I decided to try each day to get more movement, with the goal of getting them right above his head before it was time for me to head back to England. 

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