Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Hugs & Tears At An Orphanage

While my intentions are not to paint an idealised portrait of South Africa but rather a realistic one, it is not without a pinch of guilt that I admit it might be a very incomplete one at that. Given the purpose of this blog which is to tell people about my own experience in South Africa, it inevitably fails to inform about the many not so rosy issues of this country, of which (child)poverty and HIV might be amongst the most palpable.

Our eye-opening visit to an orphanage downtown this weekend has made me face what I believe many unintentionally treat as a far-from-my-bed show (i.e. a Dutch expression that doesn't exist in English but I believe the meaning is clear and fitting enough to translate it literally here). And this is more than enough reason for me to share the following grim facts about these severe issues with you:

  • There are more than 2.5 million children in the world estimated to be living with HIV. 2.3 million are in sub-Saharan Africa, with Southern Africa being the most affected region. In South Africa alone, there are about 5.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS.
  • One in four children in South Africa has HIV. Contrary to the rest of Africa, where pneumonia and diarrhoea are the biggest death causes of children, South African children were most likely to die from HIV/AIDS.
  • It is estimated there are 1.9 million AIDS orphans with one or both deceased parents in South Africa, and that the HIV and AIDS epidemic is responsible for half of the country’s orphans. Some reports even estimate that the proportion of orphans that have lost their mother because of AIDS is over 70 percent.
  • According to a leaked report of UNICEF more than half of South Africa's children live in poverty. Today, South Africa is judged to be one of the most unequal societies in the world and its 19 million children are the principle victim.
  • One of the main reasons for the state of child poverty in South Africa is the legacy of apartheid. Racially discriminatory policies have resulted in very high levels of inequality, with many of today’s black children inheriting the inequalities and omissions of the previous government.
  • The HIV/AIDS pandemic also has an undeniable role to play in this gruesome story . As a matter of fact HIV and poverty go hand in hand, creating a neverending vicious circle. Families living with this disease loose a big part of their income to health care and this situation, in turn, deepens poverty. Moreover, children in households affected by this disease, are likely to miss school in order to care for sick family members or to earn money to compensate for the loss of income and by doing this, the chances are big that poverty is perpetuated into their generation.
It's sad it takes the tears of an innocent orphan child to realise there's a world beyond our artificial 'Sandton Bubble' which is what we, suburbers, call the gorgeous and well-manicured area we live in (which kind of reminds me of the Truman Show now I think of it). Of course there are enough signals of poverty in the streets of our city and we all think it's horrible to have to drive past so many beggars each day but still we don't do anything.

So that's why this weekend we decided to take action and drop by an orphanage suggested by a friend of ours. This Sisters of Charity orphanage is home to about 50 abandoned orphans from the age of 1 (and some even younger) to 5, most of them HIV positive. Upon entering the orphanage, a nun showed us the way to a mall courtyard where the children were playing on an inflatable castle. There was absolutely no one telling us what we should or should not do, as the purpose of our presence revealed itself to us as soon as we entered the courtyard. We had only walked a few meters and a small 2-year old came stumbling towards us crying his heart out, tears running down his little face and looking up at us expectantly. I bend down to look him in the eyes and ask what was wrong (although I had no clue if this little man even understood English). As soon as I was at his level, he stretched his little arms to grab my neck and did not let go of me for at least an hour. I tried to put him back down a few times but he started histerically crying each time, grabbing on to me with all his might. The same happened to our other friend who came with us, who had a little boy basically jumping in her arms and stayed there the entire time.

It is true what I'd been told about these kids before we got there. The only thing they actually really need is love and attention, and as they'd been abandoned at such a young age, (many of them because the parents are too poor to be able to provide for HIV positive children) they had been ripped off that priviledge. For a few hours all we did was hugging these children, dry their tears and play with them. And in a society where doing charity for many people usually means opening their wallet, it is as much a touching as a painful realisation that what many of us take for granted every day, is not only the easiest and cheapest thing any human can give but also happens to be the best gift of them all.

A trying to bring the kids together for a picture...definitively not happening ;-)!


We often wondered if our presence at the orphanage was making any difference at all, especially taking into account that many of these children were far too young to remember us afterwards. But every time I saw a smile appear on a teary-eyed face, my doubts vanished instantly.


The kids had imense fun putting our shades on, feeling like real rock stars!

Also, even if they didn't show it, I'm sure the caregivers were happy to have us help them out. At one point I noticed one woman sitting down, not paying any attention to the buz around her while gazing at the ground. She looked like she hadn't slept in years, only standing up once in a while to pick up a fallen, crying toddler or reprimand it if it was about to do or had done something naughty. I still don't have any children of my own of course so, therefore, I'm not used to taking care of small children, let alone 5 of them at the same time. Still, I wondered how they did it...3 nurses for 50 infants to supervise, cook for, help eating, change diapers, put to bed etc.? Thats crazy!

All right she wasn't acually sleeping here, she just has her eyes closed but still no wander she wanted to sit down!
Before going back home we helped the children with their lunch. But we soon discovered these kids did not need our help at all. As young as some of them were, they were impressively independent and managed to eat all by themselves (I swear European kids can learn from this!). And when we thought they needed our help to put them to bed after that, it seems the joke was on us. For, as much as they loved being tucked in a bed that wasn't theirs so it seemed afterwards, they had no plan whatsoever to stay there and as soon as we turned our back, the little monsters crawled back out. 

Although some kids managed to spread more food around them than put in their mouths, it was still really impressive how capable and independent they were!


"Look mama", one of the kids said, pointing his finger out the window and attracting my attention outside. The perfect moment for some of the kids to crawl back out of their beds, which made me realize this definitively wasn't the first time they did this ;-)!


We had only been a few hours at the orphanage but when we returned home we were so tired we felt like we'd just run a marathon. The experience however definitively opened my eyes and I promised myself I would try and find more charity projects to get involved in. Offering a helping hand and putting a smile on these kid's faces probably was the most rewarding thing we had done in a long time and I am now determined not to let it be a shameful onetimer...

15 comments:

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Julie said...

Hello!! What a nice thing of you to say! AND for me to hear ;-) !! Thanks and stick around!

Aiko Dumas said...

It seems like the kids had a great time with you guys, Julie! :) I feel sorry for those 1.9 million orphans who have AIDS. If only everyone in the world would learn about the negative impact AIDS has on kids. :(

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