Greetings From South Africa: Part 1

We are here! Today is day 7 and I can’t lie it’s been a bumpy old ride!
From the word “go” we’ve had things in our way and it is very much felt like something was trying to stop us from getting to our destination. So we started at 4.30am on Sunday 18th March and all in all we had one flight change, two flight delays and one missed flight and a journey that lasted 36 hours!

Today is the last day we have in the community and I had planned on trying to write something much sooner than this but it’s been very hard to know where to begin. So much has happened, so many feelings and emotions have been stirred and I have learned so much that this is not a simple A to B story!

The team we are part of is a real mix which is lovely because we are all in such different stages and walks of lives yet everyone is getting on really well and I will be really sad to have to say goodbye when the time comes. Lovely friendships have been made here and will be cherished.

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It would probably be good to start by telling you what it is like here. Hands At Work have a hub which is where all their volunteers (short term and long term) live. There are dorms for us short term lot but the the volunteers who have been here or who plan to be here long term have houses on a little hillside with a great communal lawn where their children run and play with squeals of delight. Their children go to the local schools and some have been here as long as eight years.

We have a large kitchen dining area and a porch that overlooks the hills and one of the local communities and it is a very relaxed and laid back environment.

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Our role is to go into the community to the Care Points where the children are provided with food and a safe place to hang out and play. Hands have 66 Care Points throughout Africa, stretching as far as Nigeria and the DRC. They go where many other NGOs won’t go, to the poorest of the poor in some of the most dangerous and corrupt areas.

We go to the Care Points with the care workers, who are local ladies from the community that volunteer with Hands At Work, and provide mentoring and a parental figure who the children know they can turn to. Equally these women assess the needs of the children by forming relationships with them. If a child is unwell or absent for instance, the care workers will follow this up and find out what is happening. Many of the care workers are children who grew up at the Care Points themselves and have come back to support the work Hands At Work are doing.

A typical day for the volunteer programme is to arrive early at the care point and help prepare the meal for the 40 or 50 kids who come after school. The school days starts at 6am and finishes at 2pm so they don’t eat lunch until after school is over. For lunch to be prepared there is a lot of water to fetch and carry, as well as the food needed for the day. The Care Point kitchen is an open wooden shelter so food and water cannot be stored on site. Then there is a lot of washing and cleaning of plates and cups, peeling and chopping of food, and then cooking. Normally once these chores are done we would go into the community for Holy Home Visits which are an integral part of the work Hands do. These create an opportunity for the care workers to assess living conditions and build relations with the people who live here.

All the children that come to the Care Point and receive the Home Visits are primarily orphans, living in either child headed households or living with a distant relative or even neighbour or friend. The homes where there are mothers almost never have a father figure either due to HIV/AIDS or because they have left the family (many men have multiple families and don’t stay around the help raise the children) or they might have moved further away to go and work in the mines in order to send money home.

I really struggled on Day One of being in the community. I was suddenly hit by how little time we have here and panicked by how little I feel I can do to help whilst we are here. My own feelings of humanity really took over and I battled with this for the next couple of days. We have a debriefing each evening though and I shared my thoughts and my tears that night and one of the long term volunteers here who joined us was very encouraging about the impact of short term visitors here. The children here have no childhood. They work hard to support the household they live in and much is expected of them both physically and emotionally. The Care Point is a place where they can be children and run around and play with people that love them. The fact that we choose to come from such a long way away to spend time with them really touches them because it is a sign that they are truly loved by people who don’t even know them.

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I’ve learned also that a lot of this trip is about watching and learning as well. The brokenness of South Africa is something we just don’t understand. We may know what apartheid is and have read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, but to actually see these communities which have been ravaged by pain and brokenness is to be truly humbled. The care workers here are strong women who show very little emotion and it is in the main part because they have learned to cover their pain and keep going, but also because they were oppressed by white power for so long that there is still no trust there for them. A large part of what we are doing here on our visits is to build relationships with these women too to help them break down those walls and know that they too are just as loved and cherished as the orphans they look after.

There is too much to say in one blog and I haven’t had a chance to tell about the amazing children we’ve met and the incredible potential and talent so many of them have. I haven’t told you about my boogie in a wooden shack with a care worker who for many days couldn’t even look me in the eye. I haven’t told you about the little girl who asked if I would be her mum because she doesn’t have a mum. These are the moments I am still processing but they are moments that I will share with you in the next blog.

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