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It's All About The Children


In Khayelitsha, South Africa, I am known to many as Mamazala.

How I got that name is a long story, and it involves my daughter and a young man she fell in love with who started calling me Mamazala, which is a Xhosa word for mother-in-law.

In November 2001, after months of fundraising and selling everything I owned, I headed to South Africa to volunteer for what I then thought would be about four months. I had always wanted to do something that fed my soul instead of my bank account and my daughters were then 18 and 20 and were only too happy to send me on my way.

The four months eventually turned into twelve months and I spent most of my time in Khayelitsha (New Home), a township of about 500,000 people 30 kms outside of Cape Town.

I volunteered in the Lizo Nobanda day center, a daycare for children with HIV/AIDS, run by the Sisters of Nazareth. The daycare presently has 50 children between the ages of birth and seven years. It is said that one in nine South Africans is HIV+, but it is closer to one in five in Khayelitsha, with 40,000 people having tested positive. The 50 children at the daycare are just a small fraction of the number of children in Khayelitsha who are actually HIV+.

Sister Brenda, a nun from Scotland, runs the daycare and much to our delight we became instant friends. From Monday to Friday I would get up at 6:00 and take a minibus taxi into Cape Town. I would get off at Strand Street and walk through the narrow streets of the city, up Buitenkant to wait under the overpass to the M3 where Sister Brenda would come by at 7:30 to pick me up. And we would be off - at 120 kms an hour.

In what we termed our confessional on wheels, Sister Brenda and I would talk about anything and everything, rarely about our day ahead but more about our lives. We'd always look forward to turning off the freeway into Khayelitsha because that was when life began.

By that time it was 8 a.m., and the fortunate people who had steady employment would have already gotten a taxi heading into the city but we'd see the rest of the township outside getting on with their day. First we would see dozens and dozens of men sitting along the overpass and by the freeway just hoping that someone would be looking for workers - to paint, build, pick grapes, haul garbage, etc. Then we'd see more and more people.

A lot of life in Khayelitsha is lived outdoors, probably because their shacks are so small. We got used to seeing people in all stages of dress - pajamas, satin robes, housedresses, boxers, and quite a few half-naked or naked children - people brushing their teeth, drinking their tea, eating their breakfast; children looking after children; goats, chickens, cows and dogs on the sidewalks, on the streets, in the yards.

One day I saw a young woman with a towel wrapped around her sitting on a bucket getting her hair done by a friend. During the school months, we would see hundreds of children in their uniforms - beautiful white shirts and vibrant colors - maroon, blue, orange, and purple.

When the weather was good, women would be sitting on the sidewalk doing their wash, laughing and chatting, and watching life go by. There were always people pushing carts piled high with firewood, furniture, cardboard or cans. On the busiest of street corners, there would be open grills set up with all kinds of meat being cooked - lamb, chicken, boerwoers (farmer's sausage). We'd see live chickens, sheep heads, drying meat, laundry, and all manner of things for sale: windows, furniture, wood, chairs, tires, mufflers, blankets, pre-fab shacks - everything lined the street. Sister Brenda and I were disappointed when it rained as the rain drove people indoors. The people outside in the rain would often wear plastic bags on their heads and assemble raingear out of black garbage bags.

Sister Brenda and I had the same philosophy about how we wanted life to be at the daycare - we wanted to pack as much fun as possible into every day. Joy and laughter became very much a part of being at the daycare. I have many happy memories of taking the children to the beach, out in the van just to drive around, for walks through the neighborhood, and enjoying ice cream treats. One special memory is of taking a dozen children to see the movie E.T. The movie theatre was in a large hotel/casino complex and even now I smile just thinking of how we must have looked, a nun, a white woman and a dozen black children who were running around - like ants - trying to look at everything at once and yelling to each other exuberantly. It didn't matter that the children didn't understand what was being said during the movie, they sat enthralled. I do think, though, that the biggest excitement of the day for them was riding the escalator up to the theatre. None of the children had ever been on one and it took some coaxing to get them all to take that first step. Busisiwe, in particular, was holding so tight to the railing that when we reached the top she was thrown to the ground, much to the amusement of the others, and then they all wanted to do it. They wanted to "ride it" again and again like a ride at the amusement park.

Children start to learn English once they are in school and most of the children at the daycare do not know any English. Some staff knew more than others. While sign language and body language worked very well in the beginning, I worked very hard at learning the Xhosa language and very quickly learned some essential phrases that I needed with the children: no, be quiet, come here, sit down, what do you want, what is wrong, stop that, and I love you. Outside the daycare, especially when I went to the shopping center, I noticed that people often greeted me by saying, "molo umlungu" (hello, white person), so I learned how to say, "molo umntu myama" (hello, black person), which would often be met first with shock and then with laughter. Introducing me as Mamazala would also cause much laughter and I was often asked "Whose mother-in-law are you?"

It was rare that I would walk through the streets of Khayelitsha and not see or talk with anyone. Granted there was the added attraction of being white, a rare commodity in any township, but almost everyone I passed on the street would greet me. Mind you, after I had been there for a while, it was rare that I would be walking alone. Whenever I walked out of the gates of the daycare, a cry would ring out, "Mamazala", and pretty soon children would come running. They'd want to know what I was doing, where was I going, and they'd keep me company on my errands. I looked forward to these times and sometimes felt like the Pied Piper as I would collect children along the way. When I was out in the car, people on the street would see me, wave and call my name. Children would run alongside the car for as long as they could calling to me. I'd often buy mesh bags of oranges, fill the car up with children and drive around the neighborhood stopping every few feet to let them give out the oranges. I delighted the neighborhood children by playing soccer and cricket with them with their homemade balls of plastic bags wrapped up in string, the children more often than not with bare feet. I bought Xhosa children's books and would sit with my back against the chain link fence surrounded by children reading to them in the 35 degree heat. The older children would help me with the more difficult words and even though I didn't understand what I was reading, they did. I think they took more delight in watching my face go through the contortions of pronouncing the clicks of their language than in the actual stories.

I experienced every emotion possible, sometimes all in the same day. During the year I spent in South Africa, I attended about 10 funerals, six of which were for children from the daycare. Four children died in a shack fire just beside the daycare. A mother and her son were killed instantly when a car failed to negotiate a corner by the daycare and ran into their shack. Two staff members had family die, and two mothers of the children died. One little boy at the daycare, Aphendule, was six years old when he got bacterial meningitis. Aphendule had never been sick and was always on the go, bright and eager, but he fell asleep in the van on the way back from E.T., which was unusual for him, and we knew that he wasn't feeling well. Despite hospitalization and antibiotics, he died four days later. I tried to imagine what his parents were thinking as they tried to cope with the loss of their beautiful little boy. Both of them are HIV+, as well as their three-year-old daughter Notiti, and I believe that they had always imagined that despite everything they would die before their children. Death has become very much a part of life in Khayelitsha.

I have been "home" for two months now and I find it almost painful to live here. It all seems unreal to me. I am overwhelmed by how much we have and by how much we throw away. I have also realized that here life gets in the way of living. Computers, televisions, phones, cars - all of the things that we have to make life easier - distance us from one another. We have become insular. We communicate by e-mail or phone. We have meetings about business. Rarely are we allowed to just "be". In Khayelitsha I was reminded with every breath I took how grateful I was, to be in this place, at this time with these people.

In my heart and in my head I now have many children and a very large family I think about: Zameka, Nomonde, Nomvulo, Nomvo, Sixolile, Thembakazi, Notiti, Tutu, Sam, Elihle and Thabo, all the children at the daycare, and Sister Brenda, and I want to do so much. From the moment I came back to Canada, I started collecting things to take back: diapers, baby clothes - and asking for donations. My good friend Nancy jokingly said that I have a cloth diaper habit and I'm working just to support it, and that's not far from the truth. I am working on a daybook about the daycare and Khayelitsha, using my photographs of the people and the township, and hopefully it will be printed and sold to raise funds for the day care. Even as I collect these things, even as I work on the daybook and try to raise awareness about AIDS in Africa, I struggle with the thought that what I'm doing doesn't have any meaning. But as much as I struggle with this, I do know that I don't want to be doing anything else. Life would certainly be a lot easier if I just went to work, went to a movie or two, had coffee with friends, and saved for my retirement. But I wouldn't be alive. When I'm here I'm just living; in Khayelitsha I am aware of every minute. Despite the fact that I find it hard to be here, I realize that being here is a necessary part of getting back to Khayelitsha and here is where I can get the most help for "my family". What I'm doing may be a drop in the ocean, but every drop, no matter how small, makes a ripple.

I learned many things about myself over the past year. Most importantly, my experiences in Khayelitsha reinforced in me the knowledge that it is connecting with people that feeds my soul. While in South Africa I read about Ubuntu, which means humanness or humanity. The philosophy of Ubuntu comes from the Nguni phrase umntu ngumntu ngabantu: A person is a person through other people. I am the person I am because of the people I have met throughout my life, and I am especially grateful for all of the experiences that have helped shape who I am today, especially this past year in South Africa. Every step I take brings me one step closer to once again feeling the African sun on my face, hearing the children as they run and play and the people as they talk in their beautiful language, connecting with people on a very basic level, and once again living out loud.

Luanna's Journal...

I returned to Cape Town, South Africa in July 2003 and found that there was a glut of volunteers at Lizo Nobanda, the daycare I had been volunteering at the year before. I knew Reverend Mash at St. Michael’s in the same area and went to visit her to enquire about volunteering somehow. Within seconds, it seemed, I found myself at St. Michael’s Primary School cleaning out their “office”, which had become a storage room.

It was so nice driving into Khayelitsha back into areas I was so familiar with, seeing familiar faces, and having the same kids spot me in my car and call my name: “Mamazala”. They were so surprised to see me back, to think that I would return to Khayelitsha of my own free will.

I went to visit all the staff at Lizo Nobanda and the kids at the daycare, and the kids I had come to know in the neighbourhood. I quickly got immersed in the life and the kids at St. Michael’s School though and found myself looking forward to every day. A computer had been donated to the school almost a year before but no one had been able to pick it up, so my first priority was cleaning out the room and setting up the computer.

Every day when I drove down Mew Way, I scanned the sidewalk looking at what was for sale. There were many people who would put things out on the sidewalk – windows, doors, wood, beds, cupboards, clothing – and I managed to find a desk and a bookcase for the school office. I then picked up the computer and got it connected to Telkom. Although this was quite a time-consuming process, it was nothing compared to keeping the computer connected to the internet and the phone connected. As I soon found out, the telephone cables between a particular stretch of poles (maybe because there were no houses around this area) often disappeared overnight – and sometimes in broad daylight. Turns out that the cable can be sold to a scrap yard for about R200, the scrap yard then resells it for R400 – and Telkom pays about R10,000 to replace the cable. My day would either begin with “Yay, the cables are still there” or “Darn, they took them AGAIN!”. This would lead to anywhere from two days to five days to get reconnected. I would have to negotiate with the Telkom operators, stressing that we were a business, that we needed the internet, that we needed the phone service. Pretty soon the neighbourhood made it know to me that they appreciated my efforts. Before I came, their phone service would be out for months every time the cables were stolen, so they were very grateful for my persistence.

I also helped the kids at the school learn English. Along with Mrs. Nyesi, who taught grade 1, and Candy, who taught grade R, I got to know the kids: Samkelo, Lukhangele, Sivuyile, Alisha, Buyiswa, Siyavuya and Vovu – to name a few. I had four pairs of sandals that had been donated by Amos and Andes in Victoria and I used these sandals as incentive for the kids to learn English. I announced the contest in the morning: a pair of shoes to the two people who speak the best English by the end of the term, and a pair of shoes for the two people who show the most improvement. At break, Lukhangele came into the office – where the rule was English only – and said: “Mamazala, you are very beautiful.” Ha! He knew exactly who to speak English to – one of the judges!

The kids and I spent a lot of time together during their breaks. I taught them Red Rover, Dodge Ball, Hot Box and Go-Go-Go-Stop! We had so much fun. The kids were quick to learn and it was so much fun to revisit my childhood. We spent one day cleaning up an empty lot across the street and made that our “unofficial” playground. We’d have to clean it up every time we went to play on it because it was also the “unofficial” meeting place for older kids in the evenings, and a dumping ground for all sorts of things.

I also taught them how to play Fish and on special occasions, four kids would come into my office to play Fish. The main rule was that they had to speak English during the game. I wish you could see the little video clip I have of them playing. I don’t know how it happened but they have all the mannerisms of seasoned card sharks. Some of them didn’t quite grasp the concept of keeping their cards hidden, though, which led to a lot of laughter.

As usual, I took many, many photographs and this time, with a special gift from my daughter Kaitlyn, I took many pictures with my new digital camera and then put them on the office computer so the kids could enjoy looking at themselves!

Eight months went by very quickly and soon my funds were low and I had to face coming back to Canada, but this time I was heading to a job up in the Yukon. My old friend Lois offered me a job and I quickly accepted. It enabled me to work for three months and head directly back to South Africa.

When I returned this time, I did some volunteer work with Baphumelele, an orphanage in Khayelitsha. Four staff members and the director were caring for approximately 20 babies, 25 toddlers and 40 older children and teenagers. This orphanage had the distinction of being visited by Elton John, Beyonce and Bono and because of their support, the orphanage was getting some badly needed help. A number of volunteers helped out and I met a number of wonderful people from England, Germany and the United States.

What follows is part of an e-mail newsletter I sent to interested friends at the beginning of 2005.

When I first started going to the orphanage I spent a lot of my time holding babies, changing nappies, feeding them -- and I loved it!! Nothing like cuddling a wee baby! The babies were kept in their cribs most of the time, changed infrequently and fed mostly on formula regardless of age. Their room didn't smell very nice and neither did the babies. The two staff were overworked and tired. Because it was school holidays, the twenty or so toddlers were also in their care, and they too spent most of their day in a crib or locked in a small room, left to their own devices. The staff spent most of their day cleaning -- the floors, the dishes, the walls, the clothes.

I wasn't too sure what kind of help I was to the staff; in fact, I know I created what they considered to be more work by bringing the babies out of their room and putting them on rugs on the floor, or in walkers, or in chairs. Much tut-tutting from the staff but I couldn't bear seeing the babies lying in their cribs. I did some ironing of baby clothes one day and questioned the use of it until I was told that ironing the clothes kept the fleas at bay, so staff end up ironing basket after basket of baby clothes.

Baphumelele is connected with a volunteer organization in Cape Town and at any given time there are a number of volunteers willing and able to help but no one really to organize things as Rosie is so busy. So we volunteers would cuddle the babies and toddlers between us, change them, feed them, play with them -- and then we'd go, and the babies and toddlers would go back into their rooms.

One particular baby, Baviwe, wasn't doing well at two months and it was with heavy hearts that we watched his frail little body struggle. He and his twin sister were in and out of hospital and one morning when I arrived it was to learn that Rosie and one of the staff had driven Baviwe and another child to the hospital but on the way (at the robots [traffic lights] as Rosie cried) Baviwe died. Rosie had come back to the orphanage having left the staff member and Baviwe at a nearby hospital. But Rosie didn't know what to do. The staff member was needed at the orphanage and yet Rosie couldn't stay at the hospital either, so I and another volunteer, Laura, said we'd go to the hospital to do whatever we could.

It was an unreal morning. Tiny Baviwe was just lying on a stretcher in a room completely wrapped in a blanket. Outside that room were moms with their babies waiting to be seen by a doctor. The nursing staff wanted Baviwe undressed and wrapped in plastic but after I undressed him I couldn't bear to wrap him in plastic so I first wrapped him in a soft blanket. Twice I carried him from one end of the hospital to the other passing hundreds of waiting people along the way as we went in search of the key to the "morgue", which they couldn't find. So back we'd go to the little examining room. I wondered if anybody wondered why I was carrying a little bundle wrapped in plastic. It was obvious that Rosie couldn't stay and so I stayed with Baviwe for what turned out to be another couple of hours as they hunted for the key. I held him and occasionally whispered to him, reassuring myself more than anything. Finally they had me bring Baviwe to their "morgue", which turned out to be just a small room with a bed frame in it with a door that locked and I placed his little body on the rusty frame and closed the door.

At the end of January Erin and her husband came to work at the orphanage. They are from the States and their church is sponsoring them for a year to partner with Rosie to improve the organization of the orphanage. The first change was to get more staff and then to try to organize the daily activities. The toddlers were now in a creche across the street so that left just the babies there during the day -- 15 of them. With five staff, the babies were divided three to a staff member so that each staff member became the surrogate mom. Erin wanted each of the staff members to bond with her children so volunteers were asked to find something else to do other than care for the babies.

It was so nice to come to the orphanage and see the babies out in the middle of the room with their "moms", playing, being fed, being talked to, and having their nappies changed at regular intervals. They still hadn't progressed to changing nappies when needed -- but we were taking small steps. Bottles were made up in the morning and organized according to time of feeds so that it would be readily apparent if a baby had been missed being fed. There was "bum time" with the babies out in the sun half naked to get the sun and fresh air on their sore-looking nappy rashes.

The toddlers and the babies are the lucky ones because they just moved into a new building. Unfortunately the older kids are housed in what used to be the old orphanage; the boys are in an extension, which is almost like a shack, on the large building, and the girls are upstairs. There is no electricity on the boys' side.

I busied myself with cleaning out a small room (about 6' x 6' x 12' high) that was chock-a-block with stuff, so much stuff that one didn't know what was in there. By the time I had removed everything and put it outside, I had five strollers (three were broken), four walkers, five travel beds, five small infant chairs, one car seat, boxes and bags of donated clothing, over 100 pairs of shoes, five single-bed mattresses, boxes of Christmas decorations, a large bucket of paint and two doors. I made a shelving arrangement with one of the doors and the frame of a desk that I found in a nearby yard and everything got placed back in the room, but this time with easy access to individual items. I also helped rearrange things in the "nursery", having four change tables moved close to the sink with the necessary soap, washcloths and towels nearby.

I had a discussion with the visiting doctor and nurse who come twice a week to the orphanage. We talked about how I might best help and it was decided that I would develop some educational material on child development for the staff. I was also to take pictures of each of the babies to place above their crib, with a second copy of their picture to be placed on their medical file, to help with identification. So that's what I'm doing. I've taken the pictures, gotten a list of names and birthdates, and am making a sign for each of the babies. I've also got the educational material organized and it's presently with a Xhosa friend who is translating it into Xhosa for me. Then I'll make some posters to put up for the staff. I've also started a bulletin board with photographs of babies, toddlers, staff and volunteers of Baphumelele.

In the meantime, I visited St. Michael's school and reconnected with all of my friends. The teachers Victoria and Candy are doing well, and they've added two more teachers but cut back on the number of children as they found they were getting too big for their small space. They've also started construction on the new school.

I also went to visit Liso Nobanda and had a wonderful time seeing Zameka, Nomonde, Nomvo, Nomvulo, and all of the children, but not Sister Brenda. Despite trying to connect with her we never got a chance to sit down and chat because she was on her way back to England and another Sister was taking her place at Lizo Nobanda. A lot of the children I knew from my time there were not at the daycare because they had started SCHOOL!!

My dear friend Nthuthu (Caroline, the cook) was no longer working for Lizo Nobanda and it took some time trying to reconnect with her. I went to her home many times but she wasn't there and finally I left my phone number at Lizo Nobanda for her to get in touch with me. She finally got in touch and we had a tearful reunion, which became even more emotional when she disclosed to me that she was HIV-positive, having just found out. All the times I hadn't been able to find her at her home she had been at the clinic waiting to see the doctor. She is now waiting to start anti-retroviral medication, which should happen within the next two weeks. Because she has no work she is having difficulty getting enough food for her and her son (who is 12), but I'm fortunate to be able to help her in that regard. She and a friend came into Sea Point one day to visit and we had a nice lunch and then went for a walk on the beach. She talked about telling her family that she was HIV-positive and her wish that one day she would be able to go back to the Eastern Cape to visit them. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, Nthuthu is on her way to the Eastern Cape because she got word that her father had died. Nthuthu will turn 40 on March 10th.

My friend Lois (from the Yukon) came to visit in January and we had a wonderful experience helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. While it was only a morning spent working on the foundation, I had an awesome time!! There's something about actually doing physical labour, seeing something come from your own hands, that is so rewarding. I mean, we only built up three rows of bricks and mortar, but it was a start and it was nice to be part of that man's dream home. As part of the process, the homeowner is involved plus other people who have received homes, and then there are the volunteers. I took a turn at passing bricks along a human chain, putting sand into wheelbarrows AND mixing the mortar -- that was the best in terms of building, but the really great part is meeting other people and being part of a collective moving toward the same goal -- it is so powerful! I am hoping that I'll get a call to come out for another "build" before I leave for Canada.

On a personal note, Elihle (I have been caring for her since she was six weeks old and helping her father learn how to be a father) is almost three (in June) and is growing quickly, speaking lots and -- what a shock -- has her own mind and a strong will to match!! She speaks English but understands Xhosa. She seems to enjoy her daycare, is eager to go in the morning but just as happy to come home when she sees her dad Samuel or I there to pick her up. She loves to be read to and loves to sing! She still struggles a bit with chest infections when she gets a cold but they are not as severe as they have been, mainly because Samuel has become an expert at assessing when she needs to go to the clinic and get medication. Samuel is well, working six days a week, and lovingly looking after my car (which I finally got from the garage on December 23rd!!! -- and R12,000 later).

It has been hot -- but it is the summer here -- and I'm definitely not complaining, although there were a couple of days there in the middle of January where I swear it was about 30 degrees in the middle of the night!! Elihle and spend most weekends at the pool impersonating fish while her dad was stuck in the car delivering HOT pizzas!


On a more personal note, my brother Jerry died at the beginning of January while traveling in Thailand. He lived in Seattle and made beautiful furniture, among other things, had a wry sense of humour (did stand-up comedy for a time), and was a wonderful photographer. One of my best memories of my brother, and I will be forever grateful, is the weekend I went to Seattle to run in a marathon -- my first (and last). Jerry didn't seem to be that impressed with what I was going to do and in fact we got into an argument about what I was supposed to eat the night before the marathon, him saying that I didn't need to be so bloody picky insisting on carbohydrates, of all things!!! On our way to thanksgiving dinner with his in-laws, he not very graciously drove me from store to store looking for bananas, but of course everything was closed -- it was Thanksgiving in the USA!!! Needless to say, that evening wasn't the best. The next day it was raining and cold. We had to get up quite early -- 6 a.m. -- to be at the start. Jerry knew the start and where to pick me up at the end. He and the girls unceremoniously dumped me at the start and said see you in six hours, ha ha. Anyway, the marathon started and off I went, feeling pretty good despite the rain and not being able to load up on bananas. I settled myself in for six hours of running and wistfully looked at the groups of runners around me obviously friends running together. I never felt so alone. As we were running along, probably around the five-mile mark, we were approaching a pedestrian overpass and people were crowded onto it to watch the runners. As I got nearer I thought I saw a familiar hat but didn't quite believe it until I was at the bridge and Jerry and my girls started cheering for me. From then on, every three to five miles or so, Jerry and the girls would pop up to cheer me on. At one point, I was soaking wet and cold, and my feet were aching with every step I took. Jerry came running up beside me with another t-shirt, which I quickly changed into, and a banana, which I ate in one bite! He and the girls then drove home, dried my marathon t-shirt, and handed it back to me the next time they saw me. After 19 miles I wanted to quit so bad and it was only because of Jerry that I was able to complete my one-and-only marathon because every time I saw him and the girls I felt a renewed sense of purpose and pride -- but unfortunately not energy. When I finished, in four hours and four minutes, I was exhausted but I was still able to see that Jerry was very proud of my run as he handed me some bagels -- and BANANAS!

We are the sum of our relationships (Ubuntu – a person is not a person without other people) -- thank you, Jerry.


So in two weeks I head back to Canada, to Victoria for a week (and I'm so looking forward to being with Lianne and Kaitlyn) and then back up to the Yukon to work at Hansard (and looking forward to seeing old -- and new -- friends there). I am so lucky it is hard to believe it sometimes. I have had the best life and a lot of it is due to my family and friends who continue to love and support me. Every day I am here is a gift.

Love and thanks to all.


Now I am back in Victoria, working full-time so that I can save money to return to South Africa, hopefully by the end of the year. I try not to think of South Africa because I find that it makes it harder to “live” here, so I reassure myself with the thought that every day I get through here gets me one day closer to going “home”.

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