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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.

ImageMeet one of our little girls. Last Thursday she went to pre-school for the very first time. A pretty memorable and important day in any child’s life, but in this little’s girl’s case, it was even more of a big deal. Our gorgeous girl has cerebral palsy in her legs and as a result, has difficulty walking. When she first arrived at Village of Hope, she couldn’t even sit up on her own. Now, after months of physical therapy and encouragement, she zips around the place with the help of a walker. She is determined that nothing should slow her down; she is an incredible problem solver and has learnt to negotiate potential obstacles like little steps over door frames or having to turn corners so that now she does it all with ease, seemingly not even having to think. What is even more incredible about her story so far is that she is now going to a ‘mainstream’ school. Here, we are taking that as a triumph and a massive symbol of hope. Her determination not to be slowed down by her mobility issues is winning the battle. As we walked away from dropping her off with her new classmates, all gathered round her and her frame, complete with pink basket and horn (which we later removed!!), I felt extremely proud of her. Her determination and perseverance through everything she has had to go through in her little life is an example to anyone – impossible can be nothing. 

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And the good news doesn’t stop there! On Sunday we as volunteers and our sports mentors were treated by Tim and Maz with a trip to see South Africa vs. Nigeria at the impressive Cape Town stadium. It was great to see how much the mentors enjoyed the evening, watching their heroes in action… even though South Africa had a shocker and lost 3-1. But with two penalties, two red cards, countless yellows, a hit crossbar and a fight, no one can say the match was boring. I felt incredibly blessed to be there and enjoy the evening too – the atmosphere really was incredible, even if my ears were ringing for an hour afterwards from the constant hum of the infamous vuvuzelas! 
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Another plus of the week is that sports clubs have properly restarted – yaaay!! 😀 It has been such a blessing seeing more kids back at our clubs this week, and being able to do life skills and Bible stories with them after so long. The mentors have had no problem slipping straight back into their well oiled coaching and deliver the sessions completely professionally and independently. The only slight sadness has been that some of our clubs have suffered in terms of numbers. At the moment, I think it is a combination of the kids not knowing that we are coming to do a proper session as they have not run in that format for so long, but also due to the start of the new school term. On Wednesday, our Netball pitch is right next to the library and though lots of girls passed by on their way there, not many came to play. While it is sad not to see them, and I miss their faces and laughter at the sessions, actually in the real world, it is such a great thing that they are being dedicated to their school work and putting in first. So I am attempting to put my selfish feelings behind me!

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I wish that I could end the blog post there, and that for once my weekly round-up only included the good. But unfortunately, as seems to be the pattern in this crazy world and especially this town, anything that is good seems to be followed by the bad and the ugly.  

 

             First off, there has been an outbreak of Typhoid in one of the communities near where we hold our Wednesday club. Typhoid is mostly contracted by drinking contaminated water and can be fatal if not treated. In a community without (crazily!!) access to clean water and proper sanitation, the spread can be fast. Even more crazy is that there is a vaccine that can prevent infections, which most people in the community that need it will never receive, but is readily available to people like me simply because I was born in a country where I have access to proper healthcare and the money to pay for it. We were just about ready to dash off and buy industrial sized bottles of antibacterial hand wash to take to sports clubs and apply to all the hundreds of kids that attend after each session, when it was pointed out that it would be as much use as a chocolate teapot. As much as we want to be able to prevent the kids from picking up the disease, actually washing their hands would protect them for all of 5 minutes. We can’t, as much as we want to, protect them, and it is extremely frustrating. All that we can do is protect ourselves and pray that the outbreak is controlled and those that do unfortunately become infected can be treated and restored to health. 

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Then, on Wednesday night as we sat outside on Tim and Maz’s stoop, enjoying a warm evening, the peace and quiet was ripped through by the sound of 5 gunshots, so loud that they sounded as if they were fired just a few hundred yards away. Then the news that a taxi driver had been gunned down in the community of Rooidakke, a few minutes away from our farm.

Though there had been a few months of quiet in the ongoing taxi turf war, over recent weeks it has started to heat up again, with shootings between the rival companies becoming more frequent. Just the day before, a taxi driver had been dragged off a bus in morning daylight and shot dead in front of many schoolchildren and one of our house mums. I can’t convey how it makes me feel to know that young kids, some of whom are probably part of our sports clubs and who we know by name, were witness to such a barbaric act. Our house mum told of how she had to hold some children back from running to see what had happened, and how many of the kids crowded round to see the man’s body. It is frightening to me that so many have lost that childhood innocence, even that they wanted to go and see, instead of wanting to get as far away as possible. To me it speaks of the fact that this is the reality of their life at this point in time. To them, death isn’t that uncommon, and violent crime like this is something to be observed.
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As if it wasn’t worrying and upsetting enough to think that some of our kids were witness to a murder and live in places where they could be caught in the crossfire, some of our mentors are living with this in their day to day life too. One of our mentors told me extremely calmly and flippantly about how he woke at 4.30am one night to open the door to a man holding an AK-47, asking for someone else who lives in the next room. Later that morning, the men got into a car and within hours there had been news of another taxi driver from the rival company killed. This is purely a revenge war – one side strikes and kills and the other takes revenge. Each time others are put at risk, children are left without a father and fear takes hold of communities. And with corruption amongst the police being unfortunately a big problem, those carrying out the shootings are largely being left to fight it out.

So, as you read this from your nice comfortable living room, please spare a minute to pray for Grabouw. Pray for peace and pray for protection over all our friends and children in the community, on the front line of the violence. Every day here we see glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth, but at the moment those glimpses are clouded by destruction and sickness.   

 

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Happy New Year?

At the beginning of December, I found myself driving down the mountain behind a bakkie that had a crowd of people crammed on the back. Every time the bakkie came to a stop or turned a corner, the people standing on the back wobbled dangerously and had to cling onto one another more closely. It was only when we came to a major junction and I came much closer to the bakkie that I recognised them. 4 girls that I know well from one of our clubs, all under the age of 14. Spotting me, they all started waving madly, laughing and smiling as if I had just arrived at sports with the Netball posts. Schools having broken up for the summer the week before, I assumed they were catching a lift down for a day out in Somerset West, enjoying their freedom. As we both drove off and I overtook the girls, still waving madly, I suggested this to the four mentors I had in my car. Yet again, they gave me a reality check: “They’re going to work.” 

Yet again I’d made a Western assumption. All the way through secondary school, I spent my holidays relaxing and spending time with family. I was fortunate enough not to have to work. Even when I got a summer job, I was much older, and it was always a way of earning money to spend in largely selfish ways – saving up for a new iPod, having money to be able to go out for meals… Never once have I had the pressure that if I didn’t go to work and earn money, there wouldn’t be any food for my family to eat. Sadly, as I realised that morning, many kids here don’t have that luxury. During school holidays, there is no option for them to be just kids. They have to go out to work in order to support themselves and their families, something they do without complaint or hesitation. I severely doubt whether I would have been so willing to go to work at their age, especially when learning of the nature of the work. The girls were on their way to search and pick a certain type of flower that grows in certain areas. The flower doesn’t grow in abundance so they will be lucky to get one large bag in the space of day, especially as there are so many others searching all day in the hot sun for the same thing. The pay? If they manage to fill that bag, they are given 50 cents. That’s less than 3p for a day’s work. 

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While the fact that these girls are able to find work to support their families is in itself a good thing, it has made me deeply sad that as a consequence they haven’t been able to come to sports clubs since school broke up in early December. Being holiday time, and most of the Xhosa community being either migrant workers or descendants of from the Eastern Cape, huge numbers left in early December to spend Christmas time with their family. As a result, sports clubs over the December period were a relatively quiet and much smaller affair. There were weeks where instead of the 200 children we would normally see on a Monday, we found ourselves only entertaining 40 children, sometimes less.   

While it’s been very strange, and my heart aches that some kids are absent because they’re working elsewhere, actually I found the “quiet” (in the loosest possible sense) time to be a blessing in disguise! For the school holidays we’ve not followed our usual format of a skill, life skill and Bible story and the clubs have taken on a much more relaxed feel. It was great to be able to have fun with the kids, just playing mini tournaments, or even sometimes silly shooting games, without worrying about the time left to cover all the content. I really feel like I’ve deepened my relationships with the Netball girls, just by going and being. Over Christmas when the clubs stopped completely and I was able to go on holiday to Cape Town for 2 weeks, I really missed their company, and I am super excited that clubs are restarting this week, with schools going back for the new academic year. 

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The restart of schools on the horizon has again thrown some home truths out there in the open. Just because it’s a new year, doesn’t mean that anything has changed for these kids. This week, we had a sports mentors planning meeting to discuss a new sports programme that we are in the process of writing for later this year. Afterwards, 3 of the mentors approached Tim privately, telling him they couldn’t afford to buy school uniform. Without the right uniform, they would be turned away from school. Another mentor passed on a handwritten note from another boy in the community who helps with our sports programme, telling of how his family has no money after having paid for a funeral for a family member, and again, without school uniform he would not be able to go to school. It brings you back to the reality of the lives these boys lead when you read a note like that. I think of my school days, and how I always had more than enough shirts, skirts, a decent pair of shoes. Not having any uniform to go to school in was never a problem that I came remotely close to. Yet, sadly, it is a real reality facing so many kids here. Again, like so much of the education system from my perspective, there are some crazy expectations placed on kids, almost disregarding their backgrounds and family situations. Kids living in shacks are expected to be able to live up to standards in place in schools catering for kids of families with millions of Rand in their bank account. Schools exist in the city where it is a requirement of all kids to own an iPad. What kind of crazy contrast is that to kids going to school an hour away that can’t even afford a set of clothes or shoes?

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Thankfully, Village of Hope is in a financial position where we can help these boys out and buy them their uniform. But there is so so much more need out there. Even after we’d been out getting the clothes for them, later that afternoon at sports I heard several stories of single parents in the community unable to send their child to school because they had no uniform. It would be incredibly easy to be overwhelmed by the massive needs surrounding us, and how “little” we can actually do as a few individuals and the wider project. But actually, as I constantly have to remind myself on a daily basis, we are little, but our God is big. And He can do immeasurably more than we ask for or imagine. So even though it can feel like we are doing little to meet material needs of those around us, actually I think we need to keep trusting that actually, we are making a difference in the wider community in other ways. There are other needs than just material needs. I think just the fact that we are there with the kids week in week out, even though it would have been much easier to stop the groups when everyone leaves, really speaks of our love and more importantly God’s love for them. Attaching a trailer/sleigh to the back of a bakkie, dressing someone up as Father Christmas, and going through the communities giving out sweets and little gifts shows the kids that we care about them, and because we do it in the name of Jesus, that he cares about them too. We may not be able to fix all their problems, buy them all that they need or make their lives better, but actually we can stand with them, support them and love them. And we shouldn’t under estimate the power of that stand. 

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Opposite Hillsides

Quite often it can feel like I am leading a double life here in Grabouw.  At 4pm, I can be out in the community, where people live in shacks and struggle to feed their family. At 6pm, I can be sitting by the beautiful country club lake, eating a meal which although inexpensive, will come to a total higher than the average family in the community I just left will have to feed their entire family off for the week. Because it is so easy for me to arrive and leave, it sometimes become surreal, and there have been times when I’ve caught myself getting less and less shocked and affected by the poverty I see on a daily basis. I guess that when it’s not you personally living in a shack, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, you can get to the worrying position of under-appreciating what people who don’t have the option of leaving have to cope with, day in, day out.

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“You’ll need to bring your own bedding, toiletries, training clothes, and things to eat with and off…” Our mentors immediately started laughing and looked at each other. Next week, 10 of them are off on a week long course in Cape Town, where they’ll get accredited training, accommodation and food for free. An amazing opportunity for the guys. But, being as we are, not completely in their world and from a Western background where we have wanted for nothing, we simply assumed that bringing their own bedding and toiletries, even training clothes, wouldn’t be an issue. That laughter gave away our oversight. Realising we may have made a mistake, we probed them for what was so funny. “Nothing, nothing…” It was only after some persuasion that one quietly told us, “I can’t bring my blanket, it’s too dirty”. Another one of our most dedicated mentors told us he wasn’t able to come. Again, after some persuasion, we found out it was because he “doesn’t have any training clothes”.

            Somewhere along the line, we’d merged our Western world into theirs. We’d assumed that our mentors would have sheets, duvet covers, pillows. Actually, the harsh reality is many of them don’t have proper beds.  We’d assumed that bringing toiletries for the shower, a toothbrush and toothpaste wouldn’t be a problem – after all, everyone has a toothbrush, right? But no, shacks don’t come with running water, let alone a shower, and not everyone here has a toothbrush or toothpaste.

I’ve been questioning myself over why we made that oversight. For me personally, I think it comes down to the fact that actually, life here in South Africa is very separate. Here at Village of Hope, we live on a hillside literally opposite Iraq, one of the most impoverished communities of Grabouw. Even though we could (provided you cut a few trees down) sit and look at each other, unless you made the effort to go there, it would be extremely easy to co-exist without actual interaction. There’s a reason why it is such a big deal with kids to see us “umulungus” driving or walking through their community. They don’t see that many. 

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In fact, that’s the case, from my perspective at least, in many other places here in South Africa; in very few places do the two extremes of life collide. Even then, the collisions are subtle. The guy in the car park who watches your car, standing in the rain while you eat at a restaurant across the road, all for R5 (30p) tip at the end of the night. The kid that asks for R1 as you walk across the beach to buy an ice cream. The guys who stand at almost every set of traffic lights, trying to sell the people in cars anything from feather dusters, to tax discs, to fruit. More often than not ignored and seen as a nuisance.

Truth is, it’s all too easy to put your blinkers on and forget about the people that live on that opposite hillside. It’s too easy to get caught up in our own ‘first world problems’, like is Spar going to have my favourite dip in this week?

Even though we’re out in the communities pretty much every day, clearly we are not immune to the perhaps unconscious “put-your-blinkers-on” condition.  The past few days has really awakened me to actually how little I know about the lives of our mentors, away from the sports clubs. Quite frankly, I don’t understand half, or even a fraction, of what their lives are actually like. I can’t understand because I’ve never known what it’s like to live in a shack when the rain in pouring down and the roof sounds like it’s about to be blown away. I can’t remember the last time I went to bed hungry. I’ve always had more than enough clothing for every season, every occasion. And as much as I shiver to think about it, the mentors know that. Their laughter showed it – they know that we live in another world on an opposite hillside. As much as we are their friends, and there is a lot we share and have mutual understandings over, there is a lot of their lives that we will never be able to fully appreciate. ImageImage

Today, we went about correcting our mistake. We have gathered toothpaste, toothbrushes, shower gel, water bottles and deodorant for the mentors. We’re tracking down blankets and bedding for those who don’t have, and from the bursting sports cupboard have training clothes for the mentor embarrassed to admit he had none. A small gesture, and no it won’t change the homes they have to go back to at the end of the week. But at least they go not feeling embarrassed at not being able to bring what little is on the ‘kit list’.    

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Recently, we have also been able to “pay” the mentors in the form of a small food parcel each week for the invaluable work they do running the sports clubs. We would not be able to run the clubs without them, and the thriving numbers demonstrate what a great job they are doing. Again, it won’t make a massive difference in the grand scheme of things, but it is at least something to bless them and their families.

We still live on opposite hillsides, but this week has really shown me how important it is not to sink into that mentality. The more you get used to something being the way it is, and it even becoming “normal”, the less you question why it is that way in the first place. That’s a dangerous place to be. 

 

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Kingdom Come

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On my first visit to South Africa in 2009, I remember someone saying that they could see many signs of God’s kingdom on Earth in townships. Though I don’t remember who exactly it was that said those words, I do remember being confused and doubtful that you could see God’s kingdom in places where people live in shacks, go hungry and have little access to toilets or running water. How could someone think that was what God’s kingdom would look like?

Though that trip was only 2 weeks long, after spending time out in the communities and with the people that live in those shacks, I began to spot those signs. When I first came to Grabouw, it again took time to recognise God’s kingdom in these communities. When you’ve been to visit sports mentors at home and can barely see their faces because it’s so dark, or you have to tread carefully through piles of rubbish, glass and used nappies to get to a sports pitch, it’s hard to spot Jesus. I think it’s a very Western perspective to look immediately at the physical; what people have or don’t have materially, and make a judgement on that. Too often, we neglect looking at the emotional needs of the person. Yes, the people here may not have a lot in physical terms, but in other respects they are richer than most of us. I have been blown away by how strong the sense of community is in some of the places where we run our sports clubs. Everyone knows everyone. We went looking for one of our sports mentors in Waterworks community last Friday, and even though it is huge, within 5 minutes we had found him, just by asking people we met if they knew him or where he lived. I imagine that if you told the people here that in England, people don’t even know their neighbours most of the time, they would think that was ridiculous. And it is really, isn’t it? Here, people look after each other’s children, cook together, talk together. One of my favourite things about driving through the communities in the bakkie is that everyone you see will wave, smile and shout “TIM!!!” at the top of their voice. Emma recently bought a car and we were laughing together the other day about how when we’ve been out in it, we automatically have taken to waving at strangers we pass and them waving and smiling back. In England, if you did that kind of thing, people would think you were weird and probably awkwardly change their gaze to avoid waving back. God’s kingdom can definitely be seen in the people and community here in Grabouw. No, they might not have a lot physically, but I am pretty jealous of how life is shared here.

If I needed another example to convince me of signs God’s kingdom here in Grabouw, nothing would make it clearer than our Sports Saturday event yesterday. Driving through the communities at 7.30am to pick up all our sports mentors to go down and set up early before the 160+ kids arrived, I was expecting the town to be quiet. Not the case. Though the kids were not being picked up till 8am by the buses, crowds of kids were waiting at the pick-up points from as early as 6.30am. When I drove by, they all started screaming, shouting and waving madly, the excitement apparently too much. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day!

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The kids were not put into teams based on where they came from, but by age. At the beginning of the day, it was a case of getting to know your team-mates, their names, where they played etc. Kids from different areas and backgrounds in a team. Those speaking only Afrikaans mixed with those who spoke mainly Xhosa. Sport has always been called a great leveler and unifier. ‘Invictus’ is a film all about the way in which the Springboks Rugby team was a great unifier for South Africa during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Yesterday, it was so clear to see the effect of sport in pulling people together. By the end of the day, teams were acting like they had always played together. Even here, that sense of community so strong in the townships, shone through. Sitting at that Country Club, watching all the kids playing, having fun and being given the chance to just be kids for the day, it was clear to see God’s kingdom here on Earth. It was pretty humbling to see what a blessing taking these kids to a decent pitch, putting a kit on them, and giving them a proper ball and goals to play with was.  I don’t really know how else to convey the feeling I got yesterday other than with photographs. If you can’t see God’s kingdom in these faces, look again.

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A Nice Problem to Have

Dare I say it? Summer finally seems to be coming here in Grabouw! Yippeee! The past few weeks it has been absolutely gorgeous weather and everywhere is turning so colourful with spring setting in. This weekend, we went camping in the beautiful Slanghoek valley and did a team triathlon to celebrate Emma’s birthday (her idea!). It is honestly one of the most beautiful places I have been in South Africa, and the weather on the Sunday was gorgeous – even if I did resent it being 30degrees when running through vineyards on sand! J In day to day life, it is such an amazing blessing to be sure every day that we’re going to be able to get out to sports in the afternoon with the improving weather. Hopefully, gone are the days when we had to sit on tender hooks and play weather forecaster every afternoon to see if we can make it out to the kids.

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As the weeks go by, we are really seeing massive increases in the numbers of kids coming along to our clubs every afternoon. When the sports outreach side of Village of Hope was started by Tim, it was apparently a good session if they had 10 kids come along. Now, it seems that word of the clubs is travelling like wildfire, and if you only get 10 come along to a session, we are surprised by such a low number! Even clubs which when I first arrived here were quite small seem to be growing week by week, none the more evident than with our Thursday club. 2 weeks ago, Emma and I had 8 girls come along to Netball, and yet this week we were amazed to see 20 girls come along, and more who showed up too late to play! Additionally, a new club that was started by some on the mentors on a Monday, which initially had small numbers, seems to also be growing week by week. Every day we hand out collector cards to the kids over 9 years old who come along to the clubs. Each week we have a total of 250 of the cards to give out, and incredibly we are now finding we get to Thursday and it’s a case of having to photocopy and find every single card in order to make sure we have enough cards to go around. Taking the under 9s into account, we are confident that we are reaching around 350+ kids across 6 clubs in 4 days. God is indeed doing some amazing work in growing the scale of the outreach here!

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Emma and I with our lovely Thursday girls

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40 girls at our Monday club

In there being such large numbers, we are faced with some obvious ‘problems’. When you plan for 20 girls and then 40 girls show up, the nice neat session plan that I sit down and write up on a Friday morning usually goes out the window and we have to adapt a lot of the practices so that the girls aren’t standing around doing nothing. “But didn’t you do ‘PE teaching’ as a degree?” I hear you cry! As much as my degree is being put to the test, and hours spent in Teaching and Coaching lectures, (which I thought I’d never get back) coming into play, we are of course talking about huge numbers, when you still only have 2 netballs, one set of netball posts and some bibs. And of course the fact that I don’t speak a word of Xhosa or Afrikaans. In that, I am always so in awe and grateful for the work our sports mentors. But, having “too many girls” is such an amazing problem to be faced with. As much as my degree is telling me that the hour we spend in the afternoon with these girls should run like clockwork, actually I think that more and more I am realising that just being there, having fun with the girls, however crazy that may be, is an incredible way of showing love and building up these girls. It appears that at the moment, whether it be down to the improving weather or just the clubs growing as word spreads, we are going to have to get used to dealing with big numbers and get used to thinking on our feet a lot more.

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Adapting drills with Chris, an amazing sports mentor!

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We also have an exciting day coming up this week – Sports Saturday! On the 2nd November, we are going to be taking 200 of the boys and girls who come to our 6 clubs to the Country Club, and have a day of Netball and Football tournaments. Village of Hope has run loads of these events in the past, and we have been telling the kids for weeks that one is coming up. Unfortunately, because there is no way we would be able to accommodate all 300+ kids over the age of 9 that come to our clubs across the week at the event, we had to cap the number at just 200, and make sure that we gave forms to the kids that we see week in, week out. Such is the popularity of Sports Saturday, that when it came to handing out the forms at the clubs, we were literally being mobbed as we tried to give the forms out. Kids that got the forms were over the moon, and it was hard to see the kids who didn’t look disappointed. We had to make sure that we explained to them what was going on, and that if they kept coming and were committed, they would be at the next one. On the forms, we had to make sure that we wrote in colour pens – it is not unheard of for these kids to go away, photocopy the forms and give them to their friends, so that on the actual morning as we go round collecting the kids, we may still be turning ones with “fake” forms away.

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It really showed to me what it means to these kids to be able to go to a one day tournament. Being picked up on a coach, driven to the beautiful scenery of the Country Club, being given a kit to wear, and playing on beautiful grass with real goals: most of us who have grown up in the Western world would take all of that for granted. These kids grow up in tin shacks, have only a few clothes, have to play on broken glass and sand every week and the only ride they get is the school bus or maybe jumping on the back of a bakkie. For them, this Saturday is really going to be like playing in the FA Cup Final at Wembley. I’m sure that, no matter how much planning we have done, it is going to be a pretty crazy day, but how amazing to think that whatever happens, just taking those kids to that venue and organising a day of sport for them is so much more than they are used to. I am super excited to be able to bless them and have a fun day! I look forward to writing about it in my next blog!

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Tim, Seb, and I with most of our Sports Mentors at the beautiful Country Club. The clubs wouldn’t run with these guys!

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Hopeless?

Last Monday, I held the most gorgeous little baby boy in my arms in the maternity ward of a Somerset West hospital. 1 week old. Abandoned by his mother only a few hours after she had given birth, without wanting to know whether she has given birth to a baby boy or girl. I struggle to think of another time when the brokenness of this world has been as tangible as when I was holding that tiny little life in my arms. Sadly, his story is not unique. Every year, 500 babies are abandoned by their mothers, unable to care for them, just in this area of South Africa. Babies being left in parks and outside hospitals, hours old.

            You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the situation was hopeless. As I held that baby I certainly did. But, I was proved so so wrong.

17 years ago, the Thembalitsha Foundation, of which the Village of Hope is part of, was started by one couple from their garage, after hearing God’s call. On Monday, I had the chance to go and visit 4 of the 7 projects of the foundation. Having seen the incredible influence of the Village of Hope on the community of Grabouw, and experienced the amazing work of ThembaCare, I was blown away by the extent to which the Thembalitsha Foundation is reaching people all over the Western Cape.

 Bosom Buddies, one of the projects, was the reason I came to be in that maternity ward. Every week, as new mums are about to be discharged, volunteers go into the hospital and hand out packs with all the things they need for their baby’s first day. Often these mothers will show up to the hospital in a taxi, give birth alone and then walk out of the hospital without so much as a nappy or even a blanket to wrap their newborn in. These packs, carefully prepared and colour coded for the sex of the baby, provide them with all the essentials, and the volunteers offer a friendly and congratulatory face for these women who may have not had any family around them while giving birth. We saw several mothers that morning, waiting to leave with their new gorgeous babies. While one had a husband who she said would care for her and her son, another had no-one except her own mother. Having the opportunity to bless these ladies with a pack and being able to pray with them and show them love was incredible. These volunteers I’m sure provide comfort in some form to these ladies, and often they find themselves praying for girls as young as 14 or 15.

What of the little baby boy? He had been paired with a ‘kangaroo mum’, who was visiting him almost daily in the hospital and spending time bonding with him. When he was well enough to leave the hospital, she would be taking care of him for at least 3 months before he was put up for adoption. Hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.

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 Our second stop on the “Themba Tour” was to The School of Hope, Athlone. Crammed into a small building, the project offers a second chance at education to young people who dropped out of school before finishing their Matric or Grade 12. They currently have 70 pupils enrolled, and over 200 on a waiting list. Here, education is a great leveller. Once you have gained your Matric, if you work hard, there is no reason why you can’t go on to further study, with scholarships available for top students. We met two pupils, both from Zimbabwe, who for different reasons had dropped out of school at a young age, only to then realise their mistake a few years down the line. School of Hope, they told us, has rebuilt their confidence and given them that second chance. Both now hope and strive to finish their Matric and go on to further study. School of Hope does indeed offer them hope. But, there is a real need for new premises. 200 young people just like them wait on a list for their second chance. Tragically, just a week before we visited, a young man had been mid-way through his interview to be enrolled when he dropped dead of a suspected drugs overdose. A young guy wanting to get clean of drugs and better himself through education. How many more like him could literally have their lives saved if School of Hope is able to expand and grow through bigger premises?

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Walking round the back of School of Hope, we came to our next stop on the tour – ThembaCare, Athlone. Unlike the ThembaCare that is just down the road from Village of Hope in Grabouw, this hospice is specifically for children and babies. Many, but not all the children here are HIV positive, and are referred here by local hospitals either to be started on anti retrovirals (ARVs) or to spend their last days. As with the precious little boy I held at the Somerset West hospital, it is not uncommon for children to come to ThembaCare having been abandoned in hospitals. We were told the story of one baby who was admitted into the local hospital by his HIV+ mother, who then admitted herself and unfortunately passed away. The hospital was not aware of her connection to the child and, believing the baby had been abandoned, passed them on to ThembaCare. It was only a few months later that the baby’s father, unaware that his wife had passed away in hospital, was finally able to track down his baby. I can’t tell you how hard it is to wrap your head around some of the stories that you hear here. We had time at ThembaCare to play with the little ones, and it always blows my mind that kids so young could have such unbelievable stories. I dread to think where they would be if ThembaCare Athlone did not exist. This place really is a safe haven where they can get love, care and specialist medical treatment. And within that, the stats really speak for themselves. When ThembaCare was first started, the number of children dying here was 97%. Today, incredibly and in only a few years, that figure is just 3%. Hope in the darkness.

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Our final stop on the whistle-stop tour of Thembalitsha was Graceland pre-school, in the stunning scenery of farms on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. In my opinion, the scars of Apartheid are never more apparent than when you take a closer look at the farms. There are still very clear hierarchies in place, and it seems that the people themselves are reinforcing the wrong views: farm owners are white, powerful and rich; their farm workers are black and poor; and the coloured people are in between. That might sound pretty unbelievable; as far as the wider world is concerned, Apartheid is no more, but unfortunately its legacy lives on. It is this segregated farming community that Graceland serves. Graceland aims to provide an education that helps kids get it right from the start. They are given pre-school education, but it was amazing to hear of how the teachers are dedicated to instil confidence and dreams in these kids from a young age. As the head teacher told us: “if these kids tell us they want to work on the farms like their parents, that’s great. We just don’t want them to think that’s all they can ever be.” It was incredible to hear how such a small place is striving to tackle the stereotypes and issues going on around them. Even things as simple as a set “hug time” during the school day, to allow an opportunity for the kids to show love to one another, and be shown love, seem like such simple and trivial things, but it was sad to hear how before this, a hug was alien to many of these children.

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P1020792Even more heartbreaking is the stories we were told about how these children, as young as 2, are already accepting and taking on the stereotypes and hierarchies lived in by their parents. When twins, also “coloured” but with much paler skin than the other children, started at the school, teachers noted how the other children treated them differently. The children were afraid to argue or fight with the twins, and generally treated them as if they were superior. Apparently, the behaviours of their parents had been picked up. Old Apartheid ways being communicated to a new generation. Fortunately, the teachers have worked hard to show the kids that they are the same as one another, regardless of skin colour, but it was a massive demonstration of how big a task they face. They are really tackling the problem at the root, in childhood, but it seems like it is going to take generations of children growing up with the message, and then passing that onto their own children, before there is long-term change. But, with Graceland, there is hope; change has begun. And if you needed more hope, the head teacher of Graceland, at the forefront of the battle and doing an incredible job was in the first ever graduating class of School of Hope. A girl, given hope through a second chance at education, going on to bring hope to the lives of kids.

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When I was holding that tiny baby boy, I felt heavy with the amount of brokenness in this world, and the lack of hope. Fast forward to the end of the tour, and driving back up the mountain to Grabouw, I was struck by the pure scale of Thembalitsha, and the incredible stories of hope. When I think about Village of Hope, and all the incredible work it has done by taking in children and then reuniting families, that seems like a lot of hope given to a lot of families. Then, I think about the 300+ kids a week we reach through sports, and that seems like a lot of kids being impacted. Add in the other ventures of Village of Hope, and that’s a heck of a lot of hope, just from one project in one town. Then when you take into account the 6 other projects, what can sometimes seem to us like small ripples on a very big ocean, seems to become more and more significant. I would love to know the figure of people that have been impacted in some way by the work of Thembalitsha. What started out as a God-given vision from a garage has grown to have massive impact on the Western Cape.

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If you needed another story of hope to be convinced, this week we also saw the conclusion of an incredible one. Two children, who were at the Village of Hope for 3 and 5 years respectively, through an incredible chain of events and in the ridiculously short time span of just 10 months, have been formally adopted by an American family of 5. These kids are literally being given a family, and a brand new life, full of opportunity, directly through the work of those at Village of Hope and Thembalitsha. If that’s not a story of incredible hope, I don’t know what is.

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Hope in the most unexpected places

Heroes come in many different shapes and sizes. Here in Grabouw, they wear blue uniform, carry rucksacks and walk many miles a day round the communities, blood pressure monitor and scales in hand. As I covered in my first blog post, this town, with an official population of 60,000 people, has one day hospital with opening hours between 8.30am-5pm, Monday-Friday. Appointments are given on a first-come-first-serve basis and people queue outside to be seen; people selling snacks and fruit just outside the gates do a roaring trade. It doesn’t matter if you walked miles to get here in the first place, if you don’t get seen before closing time, you have to come back another day.

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            Under normal circumstances, having a hospital with shorter opening hours than a supermarket is pretty shocking. Put into context of the number of people in this town living with either HIV/AIDs or TB (Grabouw has one of the highest new infection rates in the world for TB), and the situation seems pretty bleak. ThembaCare is another project of the wider Thembalitsha Foundation, based here in Grabouw, that I had the privilege of working with this week. First opened in 2007, ThembaCare is a 7 bed hospice for the terminally ill and for those whose lives have been devastated by HIV/AIDs. These 7 beds offer the only 24-hour care in this town of 60,000 people. I’ve been here nearly 2 months and I’m still not sure I can wrap my heads around those figures.

            The known HIV infection rate of Grabouw was cited as 34% in 2007. Now, according to Joyce, the project manager of ThembaCare, that figure is 18%. On paper, that might look like a good statistic, but there is not yet a cure for HIV. So, while you might at first think that people are getting better, actually people are dying. What’s crazy is that HIV is no longer classed as a terminal disease, but as a chronic one. Given the right anti-retroviral drugs, (now free in South Africa for those infected), there is no reason why HIV+ people can’t go on living a long and normal life. The problem appears to be not with actually getting the right medicine, but crazily, getting people to understand the importance of taking the medication, and even more so, being tested to find out if they themselves are HIV+. When I first arrived here and was given that figure of 34% as infected with HIV, I at first was staggered by how low it seemed. Actually, this is just the percentage of HIV among people who know their status.

            Last Monday, when playing Netball, one of our girls was caught in the face with a wayward arm and had a nose bleed. The girls immediately around her seemed caught between wanting to help guide their friend over to the bakkie, and being wary not to touch any blood. A nose bleed isn’t exactly a challenging injury to deal with, but suddenly I was aware that whereas in England I might just give the girl a tissue and demonstrate where to pinch her nose, here I was having to make sure that she did all the work by herself. Add in the fact she can’t have been older than 10, was quite upset from the bang and I don’t speak much Xhosa and it was a very frustrating situation to find myself in. Having seen the way in which the other girls seemed so wary, I sat there and was curious as to whether they knew if she was infected. Finally, I plucked up the courage to ask the girl’s English speaking friend, “Does she have HIV?” Her answer? “We don’t know”. Another problem is that so few people actually know whether or not they are positive. If they don’t know whether they are positive, they don’t get medication or any of the other support they might need to cope with living with HIV. What’s more, they don’t know if they are passing on the virus to anyone they are sleeping with, or anyone who might accidentally come into contact with their blood. Crazily, (yes, I’m using that word a lot today), a test takes just a few minutes and is easily conducted. Even more frightening is that once infected, a person can go 3-7 years apparently healthy, and who knows how many people they could have potentially also infected within that time. When it comes to HIV, knowledge is indeed power.

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            So why don’t more people get tested? If you knew you potentially had a condition that while not curable, could be treated so that you could continue a normal life, would you go get tested? Most of us wouldn’t think twice. Unfortunately here, there is such a negative stigma surrounding HIV that people are unwilling to go and find out their status. Myths and misconceptions surrounding how HIV can be passed on, contribute to a negative stigma, and people with the disease often being cut off from families and the rest of the community, needlessly. For example, some people believe that it is not safe to use the same toilet as an HIV positive person, or even to hold their hand. Unbelievably, there was a child who came to be at VoH due to a chain of events resulting from his positive status, and that of his mother. His mother was afraid to tell her family, who were looking after the child while she worked, of their positive status because she was afraid of how they might react. As a result and along with other factors, he did not receive the right medication and was hospitalised, ending up here at VoH. While he has since been reunited back with his mother, unfortunately it’s too common a story.

            With just 7 beds to care for such a big population, and not being able to get a real idea of how many more are suffering, it really is an uphill battle against HIV. The ThembaCare nurses are on the front line. While I had visited ThembaCare several times before, and seen some of the patients lying almost motionless in their beds, this week was a real eye-opener to the scale of the nurses’ work. On Thursday, myself and Cecile, a Dutch volunteer here for 2 weeks, had the privilege of being able to go out with some of the ThembaCare nurses on their daily home visits to patients. There are around 16 nurses working at the project, all of whom live in the communities themselves. Each week, they make around 25 home visits, reaching around 92 patients each a month! If they go on a home visit and do not reach a patient that day, they have to make the journey again later in the week. ThembaCare gets minimal funding from the health department, and keeps going on the drive these ladies have to be able to bring hope to people living with HIV in the community. They certainly don’t do this job for the money, and work long hours.

While Cecile set off on foot with some of the nurses to Iraq, I went with Zonke and Marlene in the car to visit some of the farms, slightly out of town. For our first visit, we drove up miles and miles of dirt track until we came to a small cluster of wooden houses with an amazing view of the valley. While the patient herself was not at home, we were able to hand over 2 months worth of medication to her mother. If it was not for these nurses making this journey, she would have had to walk the 4 or 5 miles into town to the day hospital to fetch her medication, or find money for a taxi (and risk being caught up in the taxi war). We visited another woman and her 3 year old son, and then visited Edward, a young guy working at a farm looking after the owner’s horses. He looked in good health, apart from some bruising on his face from being beaten up and robbed for his phone while walking home a few nights previously. I was amazed to hear from the ladies that just a few months previously, Edward was actually in a bed at ThembaCare, fighting for his life. It seemed crazy to me that this could be the same guy, now doing such a physical job.

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In fact, as Joyce told us and as was clear to see when going round with the nurses, while people were once being sent to ThembaCare to be able to die in dignity and under good care, more and more, people are making recoveries and walking out of the hospital. Incredible that people are literally being given their lives back through the work of these amazing women. These ladies are so dedicated to going out, day after day, fighting the elements, mostly on foot, because they know that without their patients getting and taking the right medication, they can easily slip back into bad health, and end up fighting for life. The day was an incredible eye-opener and I think even blew away some of the stigmas or misunderstandings I had about HIV. Before we went, I was expecting to go into peoples’ homes and find them literally skin and bone, motionless and effectively waiting for death. What I actually saw, and was amazed by, was that all the patients we visited appeared to be living normal lives and coping with their positive status. Some looked better than others and I’m sure that it’s not always the case that the look so well, but it certainly wasn’t the doom and gloom outlook I expected. I am without doubt that this would not be the case with ThembaCare and it makes me shudder just thinking about the fates of some of the people I met on Thursday, did ThembaCare not exist. I saw an incredible amount of hope, when I was expecting to only see grief and sadness. These women really are a shining beacon for loving your neighbour as yourself. What amazing examples they are of signs of God’s kingdom coming on Earth, and what incredible hope they are bringing to what would otherwise be a desolate situation.