Day 1 in South Africa and if I had to leave tomorrow it would already have been worth it. Day after day of working through budgets, administrative challenges, planning documents and it is easy to lose track of why we are here and what we are doing. Today was like a virtual slap on the face and made me think, that I have to do more, have to fight harder, have to invest more of me.
Atlantis is a man made district near Cape Town, established 40 years ago to encourage communities to leave the city and find work in manufacturing operations nearby. Today those companies exist no longer, leaving a scene from Hunger Games in its shadow..shanty towns, drug abuse, alcoholism, 80% unemployment…children suffering.
The welcome from the children we met would never give a hint of any of these hardships – girls clamoured for Justin Beiber songs, the boys talked of rap artists, danced the moon walk and enchanted us with their humour and gaiety. Armed with the high of life we moved on to visit a grass roots HIV/Aids centre – providing much needed emotional and physical support to people infected and affected by the disease who because of the social stigma cannot even tell their families of their illness.
6 women shared their stories, of the day when they shared with their children that they too were infected and that the daily dose of tablets the children had to take were not for the bogus ailments made up by their mothers, but actually Anti Retroviral Meds, necessary to keep them alive.
They talked and I could scarcely contain my tears as they spoke of the hardships endured, the hatred they felt towards their husbands who had infected them and how today, they could not even afford tea to drink as a group. With the help of their beautiful Pastor, they had slowly learned to forgive, to love their men again but most importantly, love themselves.
‘We are all women, we are beautiful, when people look at us they see AIDS not a person. We are people and we deserve to feel loved and beautiful’. Her words echo in my ears now, as I saw Johanna wipe a lone tear from eye…she had healed and changed so much from the emaciated woman who entered the centre a while back. But the wounds were still open and I could not help but run to her side and hold her.
‘All we ask is that you pray for us, just remember us. Normally I would hide these women from you, to protect them. All we need is for you to love and treat them like your brothers and sisters.’ The pastor’s large brown eyes bore deep down into her souls. She spoke of sleepless nights, worrying about how she was going to support her group, feed their children and keep the centre going.
Our hearts heavy, we left the centre and met another two ladies, Geraldine and Charmaine, who lived in a very low income low-rise apartment complex where children as young as three were caught and killed in crossfire between the drug-laden raging gangs. But they were soft and warm and loving and spoke so gratefully of the support of World Vision who would organize trips to the beach, to the local universities, just out of the complex to show these children that there is another side of life.
They once had a soup kitchen which meant that the children could at least count on one meal a day, but their kind benefactor, a local businessman suddenly stopped his support which closed the doors on this venture. We discussed long term solutions, and Oslyn from World Vision talked of a community garden that could provide a solution to the lack of food for these children.
What stood out for me, was the incredible love and generosity of these beautiful mothers, who despite all odds were committed to supporting all of the children of their neighbourhood – all they need is a gentle hand up – and they will do the rest.