#234 ~ Ithemba Projects: Day 1

This is neither a disclaimer nor a spoiler but rather a forewarning.

In taking up the challenge to write something every single day, I hoped I would learn to be comfortable with exposing my nakedness. Not externally, but internally. I hoped that in learning to speak candidly and honestly, to express my view of the world authentically, I would discover something about myself which would unleash the latent creative potential within me.

It would be very easy as I sit here in South Africa after proclaiming to all you readers (and I am blatantly aware that this exposure of myself is on a public stage, it is, in its own way a type of performance) that I am about to embark on a month and a bit of ‘aid work’, to become self-righteous and intimidated. To turn this experience into poverty tourism. This phrase was coined by a Haitian aid worker for people like myself who go on short-term missions, and return, transforming their ‘liberating, eye-opening experience of dire third world circumstances,’ into a form a self consolation. When we sit back and think – my, how lucky am I to have running water, a free (or affordable) health care system. To have parents, an education; how lucky am I!

It’s very easy to do this. I do it regularly when i’m in my own home, let alone in a country with the highest HIV/AIDS infection in the world. Yet the one way to combat this ‘exploitation of the poor and needy’ is to force yourself to examine what made you uncomfortable on your trip, and what still causes unease when you return home.

The unsettling feeling that grips your stomach when you see snot nosed children in an inhumanely cramped ‘creche’, or lying half rotting in refuge camps, stomachs swollen with kwashiorkor, should still bring bouts of nausea when you return home and see snot nosed children living in prison-like council housing, or lying half rotting in front of television screens, stomachs swollen with McDonald’s and Galaxy milkshakes, skin sallow, eyes illiterate and hair thinning due to poor nutrients.

As I write about my experiences working for Ithemba, driving through unpaved roads  whilst mist clings to the ground like an oversized blanket and black figures sway into headlights at the last-minute, hands raised in a laconic greeting, i’m not going to try to make myself sound like a hero. I’m not. You might even find me a merciless git, far too institutionalised in my Western upbringing to really act like JC and come along side people in the midst of their sufferings. But I will be honest. And even deciding to make that decision scares me, because it is forcing me to confront the unkindness and inhumanity within myself, and that makes me uneasy.

Ithemba Projects is passionate about beginning from the ground up, the foundations, because it is the young black children of Mpumuza who live in the rural and impoverished outskirts of Durban, who will one day form the emerging black middle class which will really see a change to the financial class system I wrote about earlier.

Currently Ithemba Projects funds a range of Drop in Centre Creches for local mothers between the hours of 8am-3pm. Miles away from the creches you probably send your children to, these establishments are a merit to themselves and their environment. They are clean, well funded, and blessed with nursery teachers who are loving.

Yet, I’ll be frank. It is one thing imagining the ‘adorability’ of little black babies, and realizing the ‘uncomfortability’ one may feel around them. Zulu children are absolutely cute. The millie meal ( a type of semolina) they eat, ensures they are fat, and round and squidgy just the way I like babies. They have huge brown eyes, beaming smiles, and round bellies that ask to be poked. Yet Sweetwaters has a ridiculously high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, primarily passed either through sexual intercourse, or breast milk. The running noses, upper lips swathed in mucus, the fingers that go from nostril, to mouth, to bottom just like any toddler would do, makes you pause, or abruptly recoil from a child who smilingly wants to touch you. These children’s immunity, even if they aren’t HIV/AIDS positive, is most likely dangerously low. Where HIV/AIDS is prevalent, so is Hep B, so are common colds which stop being common when there is no immunity to catch them in their tracks. So as a young westerner, aware, educated and conscious of health risks, you do pause. You do recoil from reciprocating an action of love, for fear of self. Fear of your own health. Jimney Cricket tells you it’s common sense, but JC asks, where is the love?

That was a hard lesson for me to learn on my first day working for Ithemba. My heart had hardened. Although I involved myself in singing and teaching songs, telling stories and playing games, I paused every time a child touched me, and wondered. Not – how sick are they? But firstly, would they make me sick? And that selfish thought gnawed at my stomach until I became emotionally sick. Nauseas at my lack of…selfless love?

Prayer for Day 1: That my heart would be broken with a selfless compassion for the broken, the needy, the sick and impoverished. That I would be fearless to come alongside and even suffer with them.

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