Gingu Girl : I am Girl.
I entered South Africa with a cold. A trifling, sneeze of a cold, which filtered into my glands, up my nose, under my eyes and, coupled with the grim, misty weather, certainly made me feel ill. My own poor health made me fearful of being around other sick people, other sick children. The fear of contagion lurked behind me. Yet sickness is a fundamental part of aid work – it is why aid work exists.
After writing about my first day at Ithemba and thoroughly examining the uncomfortable inhumanity that resides within me, the lack of love that characterizes a part of me, I couldn’t quite live with myself. I was ashamed of my…prejudice and decided that that was not me.
Yesterday, I returned to the crèches. Visiting them and engaging the children in song and games is part of my weekly job description. Yet this time round, I was armed with a stack of tissues and a runny nose myself. I suppose , on reflection, I took my own illness as a gateway into compassion. If I was sick, and they were sick, then we could all be sick together.
For most of the children in the Drop in Centre they spend their day in two cramped rooms eating. If it isn’t their millie meal porridge, then it’s a snack of crisps, or their lunch. There are no stimuli, and for these children aged between 2 and 5, stimuli is vital. They yearn to play outside, to run around, to create games, hear stories, and tell songs. So I found myself, still swamped in the mist, sitting properly in these chairs feeding children their porridge on my own initiative, as one would any child. Tickling stomachs, and offering tissue paper. As I wiped one child’s nose, mucus mingled with blood fell into the sheet. I forgot about how sick I was then.
It is so frustrating, so painful trying to engage young children who are distant. Looking into the eyes of some of these toddlers, a brown abyss glares back at you. You can try and coax a smile from them – but their lips don’t twitch. In the West, parents are encouraged to tell their children how much they adore and love them. Yet in Sweetwaters, I wonder how many children are seen as a burden. The reason why their mothers never finished their education, why they have AIDS, why they’ve been disowned. I wonder also, whether displays of affection differ between cultures. Whether the lack of a hug, a kiss, or other tactile displays of affection can have negative effects?
Two days ago, I heard the story of a girl who was raped whilst on her way to one of Ithemba’s Life Groups. She was four years old at the time. The police were supposed to open up a case to find the culprit. They never did. Her family took vengeance into their own hands and ended up beating a man within an inch of his life. It was later discovered he was not the rapist. She doesn’t come to the Life Groups anymore. The Ithemba Staff member who told me about her story doesn’t know whether she remembers her ordeal. The counseling the State was supposed to provide never came through. Why would it – she’s one of many children. She’s from Sweetwaters.
There is a little girl at the crèche who has broken my heart. Her name is Girl. She looks between the ages of 2 and 4. She doesn’t have any physical signs of disabilities, but sometimes she just zones out. Whilst I was helping the children eat their lunch meal, her bowl of millie porridge sat loosely in her arms. “Eat Girl” I said in Zulu. The other children took it up as a chorus… to no response. She barely talks, just opens her large brown eyes and stares, blankly. I took the spoon, blew on the porridge and put it close to her mouth. As it touched the corners of her lips she broke into a grin and giggled. It was as though a light bulb had flashed across her face, as though she had woken up. And then it was snuffed out again.
I’m no psychologist, but I would say she has some kind of stunted mental growth. She has the look of someone who has suffered a traumatic experience, and never fully come out of it. Maybe she is just mentally slow…but that vacant brown abyss that gapes at me from her beautiful face tells me otherwise.
Prayer for Day 3: That a spirit of Justice would break out in Martizburg. That the children of Sweetwaters wouldn’t be anonymous in their sufferings, but the same care and concern that is shown for children the world over who have suffered traumatic events would be available for them. That their stories and experiences would be valued; that they would be protected. That they would know how loved they are both physically and emotionally.