#235 ~ Ithemba Projects: Day 2

If you sleep with a virgin you will be cured from Aids.

As you drive from Hilton into Sweetwaters a large billboard sign greets you. !Qaphela! It shouts in bold writing, Sugar Daddies Destroy Lives. It might initially cause you to grin. Sugar Daddies in the UK and presumably the States, hold connotations of Playboy Bunnies and Hugh Hefners who thoroughly believe age is no barrier to ‘play time.’ The ‘purchasing’ of women’s affections through gifts, money, expensive luxuries, though the implications are dangerous, the term appears harmless, humorous even.

In Sweetwaters, and many impoverished communities that are plagued by the AIDs stigma, it is believed that sleeping with a virgin can cure AIDS. Perhaps the purity of an untouched girl restores the impurity of an infected man. Whatever the reason, the connotation of a Sugar Daddy in Sweetwaters tends not to allude to fancy holidays off the East Coast of America, and leans instead towards teenage pregnancies, HIV/AIDS infection, an aborted education, and future of, if not squalor, then dire need and dependence. Sugar Daddies really do destroy lives.

Aware of this predicament and the growing pressure on young Zulu girls living in Sweetwaters, Ithemba Projects runs a program called Home Visiting. It’s a process by which the children who attend the weekly running club, the Saturday Jabulani Kids Club or any of the weekly life groups, are given the opportunity to form closer relationships with the charity. It’s a chance for the Ithemba team to see them and their families in their home environment. To show the kids they are willing and excited to form familial and community wide relationships.

I never knew that fragmented communities really existed outside of London. It sounds naive, but we all have that ‘African proverb’ in mind: It takes a village to raise a child. You drive down the misty roads of Sweetwaters and the apparitions always raise a hand in greeting, calling, Sawubona, Ninjani, as you drive by. Courtesy demands that you also wave to strangers, and respond, Yebo, Siyaphila; We greet you also, we are fine. Sitting on a London Underground Tube, you don’t even make eye contact with the person opposite, let alone the workers at the train station. ‘Community doesn’t exist in the West, it’s an Eastern thing’. That’s the subliminal message that laced my mind more or less these past years.

Yet, entering the home of a secondary school student, tucked away in the winding paths of Sweetwaters haphazard geography, I saw my mistake. Ithemba staff make unplanned visits to prevent families from spending money buying or preparing niceties. Hospitality is fundamental in Zulu culture; even when one cannot afford to give, honoring strangers is a requirement and a blessing the inhabitants of Sweetwaters yearn to perform.

Though the mother welcomed us kindly enough, she hid in a corner, face to the wall. We sat and greeted her, and then an eerie choking sound came. I couldn’t understand what she was saying and turned to my colleague to ask – Is she laughing or crying? The gurgling, heaving sound filled the poorly lit room. Perched on the edge of a sofa, I realized that laughing sound was turning into hollow sobs.

I am so embarrassed. I am so ashamed. I don’t deserve this.

It was like a mantra that fell from this lady’s lips, eliciting tears from her daughter’s eyes. Where moments before she had been excited to show us her home, now, her face contorted between grief and shame, she was crying. I cried. I was so ashamed of myself. Ashamed that my presence could make someone feel so unworthy.

As her crying dwindled, our translator and colleague was able to explain she was embarrassed because she didn’t feel she was important enough to be visited. She was of no consequence, why should we come to her home. No one ever came to visit her. Here, situated in a sprawling rural township where one house ends at the doorstep of another, here, in the heart of ‘African community’ was the same loneliness and isolation that plagues the terraced street I live on. Here was the same loneliness that glares at my face as train doors shut and Metro papers are raised.

I don’t deserve to be visited, to be seen, for someone to care about me.

Yet, just by sitting for ten minutes in a stranger’s home, telling her how worthy and important she is in her community, to her daughter, in the eyes of God, a shamed cry turn into a grateful smile. Surely I didn’t have to travel to another continent to show someone that meager display of love, of community. Surely I could’ve knocked on my next door neighbors door, waved as I walked past their home on the way to the train station. Surely anonymity should not be present within community.

 Prayer for Day 2: That my eyes would be open to the loneliness and isolation that characterizes my home city, my university, my lectures. That I would be unashamed to greet and acknowledge strangers and remind them how worthy they are, by virtue of being alive.

 

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