Just back from a wonderful weekend in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, a combination of my friend Bridget’s wedding and fieldwork for the Zoe Trust – and in the little space left, some romantic time with Niall….
We drove the 4.5 hours from Durban airport, the last hour on the pot-hole road to Ingwavuma, the remote hilly frontier with zulu villages dotted around – round mud huts with thatched roofs. Niall sped along, dodging cows, goats, pot-holes, mini-bus taxis and pedestrians. Finally we approached our destination, and our host Neil, awaited us in his bakkie with a few children to direct us the last 500 metres to his and Michelle’s home. They are a SA couple who moved in the area 4 years ago, he gave up his job as a shop manager and became the local pastor. As well as their 2 natural children, they have adopted 9 children and fostered 3 others, ranging from 1 to 14 years old. They plan to have a family of 20. Kids who have been abandoned at birth, or lost both parents very young to AIDS. At least one of the kids is HIV positive and Michelle carries around a little bag of medicines. The kids that are fostered are there because of abusive or neglectful home backgrounds (such as alcoholism).
The homestead – one main house with a large open plan living area and veranda, and three smaller out-houses, in the more traditional round style – sits on the side of a hill overlooking miles of forested hills and a big damn. It was happy and loving, with various kids running around, looking at us shyly, calling Michelle Mummy and holding her hands / sitting on her lap. I asked if her lap was not a hot commodity with so many small children, and she said that they found their own way, with some taking some space more than others. They also employ 2 full-time carers to share the load.
The children had a confidence and stamina about them, that was sadly lacking in several of the children we were to meet the following morning. Michelle and Neil explained that they decided to adopt rather than open an orphanage to ease the red tape but also and principally to give the children a real family, for ever – beyond their 18th birthday.
Michelle and Neil survive from their small church salary and donations from funders, mainly in the US. They are looking for sponsorship for school for 5 school-age children between 4 and 8. The little private school they set up with Bridget so far only caters for the first 2 years of schooling. The older kids, both her natural kids, and adopted ones, are home-schooled by Michelle. it is inspiring to meet people who have decided to immerse themselves completely into the service of others, with little concern for material welfare let alone gain.
Michelle has approached us for sponsorship of three girls – see picture called “Coetzee girls”. In Michelle’s words:
Lisa will be our youngest at school next year. She will be starting Grade R which is the first year. She is four years old and is actually starting a year early as she is very bright and already knows most of the Grade R work. She came to us at five months of age. She was found lying on a field just a few hours old, abandoned by her mother. Her birthday is in July which is in the middle of our winter so she was lucky to be found before she got too cold. She spent her first few months of life in various large Places of Safety before coming to us. Today she is a confident, strong willed, bright little girl.
Rebecca is six years old and came to us at the age of fifteen months. Her mother had Aids and abandoned her in the hospital shortly after her birth. She spent her first fifteen months of life in a large children’s home with over eighty other children. When she came to us she was very withdrawn and took quite a while to adjust. She is now doing really well at school and is top in her class, we expect her to do very well in Grade 1 next year.
Slindile is nine years old and has been with us since April this year. She was brought into the hospital very sick. She had TB, chickenpox and is HIV positive, she was not expected to live through the night. She is however a fighter and would not give up. We are asked to take her in because her mother and father had passed away and her seventeen year old sister was not interested in looking after her. She was put on TB treatment and ARV’s and is now doing really well. People cannot believe that she is the same child. She had never been to school before so started Grade R. She has done very well and managed to catch up to the other children. She will be starting Grade One next year.
Both Niall and I felt relaxed and happy in Neil and Michelle’s home and felt comfortable with the idea of sponsoring some of their children. While the children have already had the life-changing intervention in their lives, they will clearly benefit from going to school and thus require sponsorship. The only question is whether Neil and Michelle will somehow find sponsorship from larger donors and whether we should be focussed on kids who have not the opportunity of living in the large and loving Coetzee household. To date she has no sponsorship for any of the 5 kids who need to go to school in January beyond the first month – last year’s donors have not renewed.
On Friday, we were taken on a massive journey, in distance, time and emotions. We were expecting Niki and maybe one other person to be with us, but a veritable party set off with us. We felt truly honoured and moved by the effort Zisize (http://www.zisize.org/) and Niki personally put into our day trip. The party that left in Zisize’s rattling bus consisted of
– the happy driver,
– Nikki, a wonderful Welsh social worker who after meeting Bridget in Cape Town came to Ingwavuma ten years ago “to help” and ended up setting up their incredible charity – while still returning every year to UK for a few months to care for her autistic son and earn enough money from locum work to return to Ingwavuma. She has not taken a penny from the charity, despite it employing a dozen full-time local staff.
– Zisize’s mentor supervisor and 2 local mentors – young men and women whose job it is to support classroom teachers by morning and to visit families on the support scheme in their specific area by afternoon, on foot – homes often kilometers apart from each other. We picked up a third mentor on the way.
– Two young women, success stories of Zisize – to inspire us. One young woman is 17 or so and has been living in Zisize’s children’s home (Nikki’s house and another nearby) since she was rescued from an abusive home as a little girl some 9 years ago. She is now about to finish high-school and doing very well at school and in her personal life. Rebecca is 20 ish, and starting her 3rd year of social work studies at Cape Town University. She was 11 years old when with Zisize’s help her and her siblings left her difficult grandmother’s home – her grandmother had just too many mouths to feeds after Rebecca’s mother and at least another of her children died – leaving her to feed all the children on her old age pension. Zisize provided food parcels, emotional support and school fees for Rebecca to attend the local private school (the first one that Bridget set up). See photo “Rebecca”.
– A school teacher that we picked up on the way.
The aim of the trip was to introduce us to 3 families – one that Niall and I support already and two others of the type that require sponsorship.
The first family – the Mathengwas – was 1.5 hours away on a dirt road, with the last few hundred metres on foot. a beautiful location, high on a hill. a neat little homestead with 3 small rondavels. The family consists of 5 siblings aged about 9 to 22 and two babies from the 2 teenage girls. The parents both died, presumably from AIDS.
The young man of 22 left school ten years ago, having only reached grade 3. Apparently he had a fight with his Dad who told him to stop going to school. He had a lost and listless air about him, clearly bored out of his mind and apparently without a grain of hope or will left. The mentors were asking him why he does not attend the adult learning classes. he said he would. the teenager girls are due to resume their schooling in January, and their babies go to a creche. Their aspirations are to be nurses and drivers. They were delighted by the gift of bread (a luxury), sweets and biscuits, together with a tin container. Their possessions are near-non-existent, sleeping on the floor or old matress-less beds. They live off the Zisize food parcels and child-benefit they receive for the 2 babies. Babies are clearly an income generator. It was rather sad to see such listlessness and lack of hope. It will be interesting to see whether going back to school for the girls boosts their morale. The young man felt beyond reach, however awful a thing that is to say. He would need such input and need to be given opportunities. Niki explained that there is little they can do for him, as he lives so far from the centre, they can’t even offer him some work in the centre or to take part in forum theatre and other programmes they have. In terms of the Trust, it was hard to imagine a meaningful 2-way communication. However, I hope I am wrong. We are going to print out some of the photos we took of them and send them with a letter via the mentor. The mentor will help them to write back. Perhaps we can play a small role in motivating the young mothers and the smaller girls.
The second household was a huge contrast – not in terms of poverty – just as desolate. However the child there has somehow overcome his terrible conditions and kept his sparkle. Sibo is apparently 15 years old though looks about 11 or 12. After the loss of his parents a few years ago, he came to live with his mentally disabled uncle, for whom he has become a carer. He prepares his uncle’s food before going to school in the morning. Apparently he is doing well at school and he wants to be a doctor “so he can help others”. He showed us his room – neat and tidy – a contrast to the unkept den of the previous young man, and his cooking area – a few remnants of a fire. He was delighted with the football we gave him. He spoke straight to camera, unruffled by the crowd of half a dozen strangers around him. Zisize will monitor his situation, provide food parcels and if he does indeed show academic potential, look into funding him to go to a better school – with associated transport or/and accommodation costs. Zisize is also investigating whether the uncle is entitled to incapacity benefit – Zisize tries to fund families only in the short term – for the time it take to help them to self-sufficiency through government grants (impossible for these types of families – who need them the most – to access them without help to go through the red tape, deal with corruption, and travel the distances required) or in rare cases employment. This young man – see xxx pic – would be an ideal candidate for us. and given his vocation and his age, I thought of you Ben and Fredy…. I think that he would thrive with attention and would welcome correspondence. The uncle was around, seemed pleasant enough and did not say a word.
The third family was the saddest of all. A small house with three children (18, 15 and 12). Mother died, father not known. the house was reached by walking through some fields of maize – tucked away on its own way away from anywhere or anyone else. The family already receive Zisize food parcels and the mentor is trying to understand what is going on. the kids have to walk 2.5 hours to get to school. All three failed their year. Absenteeism seem to be a prime reason. The 15 year old appeared to be suffering from depression. She started to cry and apparently often cries for no apparent reason – though I felt she had reason enough! They said they missed school because they had to care for a sickly grandmother down the road. An aunt soon appeared with her 6 kids and sat near where we were with the kids. Apparently this aunt also looks after the grandmother. There was not a sense that school should take priority. Something felt very unsettling and we all went away with a sense that something is not right there – that there is some abuse or something. Is the aunt pilfering the food parcels? Zisize is clearly so far not getting very far in understanding what is going on, despite a social worker visiting and a conversation with the headmaster. Niki promised to let me know what emerges. They want to see if they can get some temporary accommodation for the 3 of them near school during the week – 5 hour round trip would be enough to put off most students. I shudder to think of the girls there, alone, so clearly in need of TLC.
When we got back to Ingwavuma, our spirits low from that last visit, we went over to Zisize’s children’s home. What a delight. What a contrast the children to those we met in the villages. Bold and confident and robust. Three young men – 17 / 18 came up to greet us. One has just finished school and is off to Canada for a year, at the invitation of a Zisize volunteer who took a shine to him. One held one of the babies in his arms, clearly something he does often. The baby is fostered – he suffers from foetal alcohol syndrome and his mother is alcoholic but on a programme. The 8 year old was sweeping happily. We were there to meet her youngest sibling who is apparently particularly bright and they would like her to go to the private school with sponsorship. We did not get much out of her – but then of course we all know that 4 year olds are somewhat temperamental.
We met another lovely 9 year old at the wedding, who is another candidate to go to the new private school. I interviewed him and filmed him playing soccer. In Bridget’s words: “there is one boy – Khethukuthula Shabangu – who fits this criteria. He lives with his mother and stepfather both of whom are unemployed. Neither of his parents finished school themselves, and his mother sells fruit and vegetables to survive. Lethu is the oldest child – 9 years – and has a little sister and brother. The family survive on child support grants (around R650 a month) and the meagre income Lethu’s mother gets from selling. His father takes whatever temporary jobs he can find in building or gardening.” I thought this boy could be a great match for Hannah and Barnie.
By way of explanation, each child can go to a government school, indeed have to by law. However, the standard of education is very low (e.g. 60 kids to a classroom, and despite Zisize’s efforts to improve the standards of teaching, many teachers still teach very poorly. Bridget and Michelle have recently set up a small private school – so far just one teacher. And they plan to expand to two teachers in 2011. In Bridget’s words, the private school: “Khethani School is the only private school in the whole of Ingwavuma where small classes and a much higher standard of education are on offer. Our magisterial district has consistently the lowest matric results nationwide (out of all magisterial districts) and this means that children – who are already up against the odds of completing school due to the fact that they are living with so much poverty, sickness in the family due to burgeoning HIV pandemic, are also afflicted with very poor standards of teaching in overcrowded classrooms. A good school education can set a child from this kind of background off to a great start – where there would be far more opportunities to get into tertiary education. A private school like Khethani aims to build up future leaders and children who have the agency to change their communities in the future. The focus is on quality – hence the fees being high in order to cover teachers salaries and resources.
Children who will be offered bursaries must have some sort of family or community backup to be able to help them with homework and have the kind of support that will enable them to attend school every day. For many children this is not a given. The school may potentially offer aftercare for such children, but currently this is not set up. Any child from a poor home but where there is some semblance of emotional support for the child – as I mentioned above for help with homework and regular attendance – will be eligible for help.”
At the wedding we also met Josef, a most charming young man who is now studying engineering. Bridget met him when he was around 10 or 11 and spotted his talent as she watched some kids do some drama. She took him under her wing, found a sponsor for him – Kim – and sent him to the private school she set up. She also introduced him to her adoptive family in Ingwavuma who adopted him in turn – socially, that is. His mother died when he was 13. His father died before he was born. He did a lovely piece for camera for us.
Otherwise, I should also mention that we met here in Cape Town last week Yolanda, the little girl Niall and I sponsor here through Alison, and her three friends, including Winnie who is awaiting sponsorship. A lively happy bunch of township girls – their horizons and futures forever changed thanks to Alison devoting an afternoon a month to take them hiking, plus sponsorship of their school fees and transport, and extra tuition as required. Above all, as she puts it, she believes in their greatness. Their mothers are domestic workers and road-side sellers – they want to be journalists and other professionals. I see little reason why they won’t achieve their ambitions. One of them recited her poetry (including to camera). Winnie got herself to the best local college as a prep for accountancy, her chosen vocation. Alison committed to pay her fees and travel expenses until a sponsor can be found. I hope that we can take Winnie on – perhaps a sponsor with a banking background.
In terms of the trust, I want to propose that we ask sponsors / lead sponsors of a group of sponsors whether they want to sponsor:
a) A child-headed household for all their basic needs, with minimal contact (though we will require a letter twice a year), or
b) Whether they want to sponsor a child to get a lift and attend at better school.
Then I think we should just give the number of individual bursaries to Bridget and let her and colleagues decide who gets the sponsorship, based on criteria we can provide (e.g. relative need, relative benefit gained by a 1-1 relationship with sponsor). Winnie is a stand alone. We can give Zisize the number of child-headed family sponsors we have. Then they can come back to us with profiles and we can match…….. Suggest we discuss at next trustee meeting. At the moment we have £360 committed per month on the spreadsheet, plus at least another £40 committed per month verbally. I want to keep at least £50 of that (part of my contribution for reserves) to add to the deposits we have. so at current rate of about £45 per child / family, that means that we have right now enough (assuming all pledges are genuine) for 7 children / families, minus the 2 Niall and I have been sponsoring, that is 5 new ones – or with an additional push once we get website up and post-launch, hopefully at least 6 new ones….
Everyone I have spoken to here about the Trust is extremely encouraging, saying that while it is such a drop in the ocean, how life-changing it is to provide education and personal attention. They all say however, how vital it is that the anchor person is trustworthy and provides the additional support and care – so I think we are incredibly lucky to be able to work with Bridget (founder of the small private school in Ingwavuma and staff of Zisize), Alison (friend of ours), Niki (founder of Zisize) and Hlengwe (director of Zisize). I think that Zoe would be incredibly chuffed to see all the activity and the coming together of all her family and friends to support the wonderful people we met, as well as others like them.
Now, to get this and all my other material, ready for Mylene for the website…. and to transcribe and organise the videos and recordings…..
To finish, here is a recent text from Winnie to Alison (will have lots more verbatim once I transcribe the videos we took):
“Hey Al just wanna thank u, u know i thank god every day for bringing u in my life. u like a second mother to me. you’ve supported me in every step of the way. you where there for just when i needed u the most. if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be where i am right now i never thought i could have a good education but u came and boosted my self esteem. you’ve shown me that there’s more to life than poverty. it’s like god sent an angel from the harven [sic] to guide me. and i promise not to disapoint you and will u thank ryan for me. i love you al.
Love to all,