Today was a cold day. In fact, it was the first day where I actually experienced something that would compare to the winter we have back home in MN. Of course, it wasn’t extreme for me, but even bundled up in my Northface and thick scarf, I shivered walking to the shuttle this morning.
As part of our visit to Cape Town, all of the CIEE students have an opportunity to volunteer with one of the many organizations here in South Africa. Today we were given tours of three of the possible locations: A TB clinic, a school called the LEAP school, or a missionary-type community called The ARK.
Our first tour was of the TB clinic, which houses people of all ages who are infected with an extremely serious case of Tuberculosis. Many of the patients had a form of the disease that is resistant to over 90% of the usual drugs used to treat it, therefore their lives become consumed with tests, treatments, etc. As the bus first entered the gated area, my first impression was something like the prison seen in the movie “The Great Escape”. There were many small buildings, each with individual gates at the door, locked and kept closed at all times. Also, outside there were little clumps of men and women just sitting around in the cold weather. All of their clothes seemed to be mixed and matched, as if it was a free-for-all to gather whatever you could find. I remember seeing a hat on one patient that was clearly a set with the hat on another.
As we entered the first building, turning a corner into what was clearly a children’s playroom, the sound of screaming kids hit our small group instantly. Once we even got close to the door, they flooded out and started hugging our legs as if they had been waiting for a parent to come home after work.
The first little boy to run up to me had a bad foot which dragged behind him, and a hand that did the same. However, he was not going to let that stop him from having fun with us guests. He instantly grabbed my two hands in his, and started to jump up and down. Finally catching on, I would pull him up, lifting him high into the air on his up jumps, making sure that he didn’t go crashing to the floor when coming down. As I looked around, the room was filled jumping and soaring children. Then, along came another boy, even tinier, who also started jumping.
I have never felt such need to hold another human being in my life. I just wrapped him up in my arms, holding on and rocking back on forth. My smile was stretched across my face, as was his, as we instantly bonded. Of course there was no use in trying to talk, as none of the children spoke English. That is the closest I have ever felt to being a mother…holding a child that needs nothing more than love.
I was holding a boy who was almost guaranteed to die of Tuberculous. But that didn’t matter.
When it was announced that it was time to go, the young boy looked so sad. I of course couldn’t explain to him why we were brought together then separated less than 5 minutes later. His legs squeezed tighter around my middle, and his brown eyes will always stay with me.
It was clear that his boy, and all of the children, had been torn away from people they loved time and time again. Nothing hurts more than to know that I was just another one of those people.
Our second stop was at a school for children that focuses on Math and Science. Called the LEAP school, they have an extremely intense application process, and mainly accept students who are living in extreme poverty, without parents, etc. When first presented with the idea of working at a Math and Science school, I thought of my father, who supports the teaching of Math and Science – especially to girls – because of the decrease of students studying those topics.
During our tour our guide explained that our job, as volunteers, would be to work with a small group of students (grades 9th through 12th). Not only would we help with homework and school, but also develop a relationship with them. He explained that many volunteers become mentors to the students, and develop into friends that the students can talk to about other parts of their life. More than anything, students allow the volunteers into their personal lives – more so than the counselors at the school — and usually listen to the advice and experience of the older university-attending students.
I found the LEAP school to be an interesting idea, but the boy from the clinic still wrenched at my heart through the remainder of the tours.
Our final visit was to the ARK. This is an entire community that provides a home for small boys and girls, single mothers, entire families, and anyone else. They provide drug-reabilitation centers for anyone in need, free of charge, and encourage all residence to work throughout their stay.
I was caught off guard by the mood of the ARK. Of course, because Cape Town is warm throughout most of the year, all of the common areas for the residents are outside. Today, however, as I mentioned, it was extremely cold. As we walked through our tour, so many of the residence just sat outside for hours and hours. I think that must be the worst part of living in poverty — having nothing to fill your day, and instead just spending hours thinking about how terrible your situation is. But, just like all of the Africans I have met, these people were extremely happy and optimistic about their life.
One women — she appear to be in her 80′s — chuckled at us as we walked by and said “I’m the youngest one here!”
A sense of humor can really take you a long way.
I haven’t decided where I’ll be volunteering, or if I’ll be volunteering. Once I figure out my final class schedule, it will be easier to decide. However, I know that the little boy I met today will always be in the back of my mind.
I’ll never forget how he wrapped himself around me, looked into my eyes, and played with my hair.
That little boy influenced so much that I will do in the future, and he’ll never know it.
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