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.
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.
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?
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.