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Teddy Bears, Pandas and Lions

South Africa 2 November 2006 I meet Aubrey at 7.15 a.m. We drive to the nearby small town of Lidgetton. On the way I bring up that I noticed with Mabongi’s schoolwork of yesterday that she may be dyslexic. He expresses frustration that this wasn’t picked up on at her school and tells me about children who don’t have school uniforms, so they don’t go to school. Their parents are too frail from aids to work. They live in a mud hut with sagging roof. A uniform for a small girl costs 110 rand (€12). For an older girl a uniform costs 180 rand (€20). A pair of shoes costs 100 rand (€11). Children may be allowed to go to school if they don’t pay school fees, but they must have a uniform.

The aids medication called ARVs are free for those with a CD4 count below 200.

Aubrey’s job is to visit children to measure the impact of ACAT programmes on children—he measures and weighs and speaks to them. He asks them why they leave school, and questions like mine: what are their favorite subjects. He tells me about ACAT’s philosophy of helping people to help themselves. This very efficient NGO believes in building capacity in people. “Not developing countries, but developing people.”

Aubrey tells me of a young man he knows who was in yesterday’s Place of Hope, but responded so well to the ARVs that he is now back in school. Good nutrition (no white bread and bologna or chips or soft drinks, but fruit and vegetables and protein foods like dairy, meat and fish), not re-infecting through resumed sexual contact with HIV+ partners, taking the ARVs—this is the winning combination which can spell life.

When I ask Aubrey how he personally benefits from his involvement with ACAT, his face lights up. “Now I can see I can do something to help.”

We arrive in the small town of Lidgetton, where we pull up outside a white building with barred windows. It used to be a boarding school, and now Gail, who is the wife of Hugh, one of the ACAT people, runs her Tabitha Ministries here. The name of the building? Hope Centre.

I think, I am surrounded by buildings named after hope. Is this like the difference between a church which is a building and a church which is a group of people who care? Will this building hold hope? I look around and see barbed wire winding its way along the tops of surrounding walls.

Gail is a small, elderly white woman. White hair, wearing some kind of Salvation Army uniform nurse’s smock with pins or medals on the shoulders. She shows me rooms with empty little beds on wheels, and rooms with little beds covered with colorful quilts, and murals and the names of children on the walls, and stuffed teddy bears, pandas and lions standing guard.

She calls them HIV wards as I slowly figure out where we are. This is a home for HIV+ children who have been abandoned. The children are very young—5 and under. So the little beds on wheels are for babies. The little beds with quilts and stuffed animals are for toddlers. I jot down some of the names painted on the walls above their pillows: Thobeka, Ingi, Bonga, Cebo, Siya. “We try hard to individualize the children,” Gail says, watching me scribble away.

Gail shows me the kitchen, and a room for psycho-motor therapy—whatever that is. She speaks like a museum curator, explaining the history of the building, the function of the wards. The High-care room is for newborns. “Newborns?” I ask, my voice rising in alarm.

I am only now starting to learn the rules of war in this zone of casualties. So it’s not just the people with multiple partners or the victims of HIV+ rapists. No, now we have toddlers and newborns. I knew this. I had done my reading, watched the DVDs, perused the press and googled the internet. I did my pre-trip research about aids, but here I am, struggling to place the head knowledge into my heart. And it doesn’t fit. Of course, babies born to HIV+ mothers get HIV. HIV+ babies. I knew this. Then why does the revelation sink in my stomach like lead now and give rise to nausea and panic? I do some more swallowing and scribbling as Gail explains the facility for permanent oxygen.

Then she says, “Our Amanda died here a few weeks ago.” I look up. Aubrey is watching me. “Amanda?” I ask. It is the name of my smart, edgy caring niece. Gail looks at me over her glasses. “Yes?” I blurt out the question, “Don’t the other children ask, ‘Where is Amanda?’” It is a cruel question, it causes Gail pain, I can see that. I want to take it back, but it is too late. She answers, “We don’t lie to them ever. We tell them she has gone to be with Jesus. You’d be surprised how strongly they react when children arrive and when they are gone. We keep his a home situation instead of a hospital. We are all part of the same family.” I smile weakly as we trot after Gail.

I see piles of blankets. At a loss for words, I say something about how clean it all is, and Gail beams. “Nutrition and cleanliness—this is how to battle aids.” She’s like a little sergeant, bustling past her troops as we greet women making beds and doing laundry and stirring huge pots.

Where are the children? I ask myself. We go downstairs and I see a play area and a garden with swings and tricycles. All empty. We walk by many rooms, one contains tables and plastic chairs, a blue mat in the middle, balls, a climbing corner. We walk down a hall that ends at a door with handle at eye level. “The door handles are high up so the children can’t let themselves out.” She reaches for my hands and turns them over. Her touch surprises me—soft, cool, tiny hands. “No open wounds?” she asks. I shake my head no, remembering my Julia had warned me of the same precaution. Gail says, “Fine. We’ll join them now for morning devotions.” I’m hoping “them” are the little ones who woke up under the colorful quilts. At the same time, I’m dreading a repeat of the scenes from yesterday. I don’t know how I will react if this is a roomful of bleeding toddlers in pain.

She turns the handle and pulls the door open. I take a deep breath through my mouth. Aubrey holds the door for me as I enter. I see adults sitting on chairs along the edge of a large room with carpet and high, open windows along one wall. The adults, white and black women, hold one or two babies on their laps. There is calm in the room. Toddlers walk and talk and play quietly on the floor like wildflowers in a field, swaying, then sitting down hard whenever they lose their balance. Gail motions to a chair and I sit down. She’s been saying the names of the people in the room, introducing me as “Anne from overseas.” I write some of the children’s names down: Brian, Futhi, Siga, Cebo.

My face bent over my notebook I feel a touch like a kitten rubbing against my leg. I look up and see a baby has crawled over to me. She sees my face and grins. I grin back and put away my notebook. I dare to look around and see Gail has taken a little girl onto her lap as she talks about a miracle of healing that happened to one of the little boys. “You remember when we all prayed for him.” The adults nod. I lean over and heave the baby onto my lap. She is surprisingly heavy. Maybe 15 months. I run my hand along her back and feel such tense muscles. I rub her back and lean into her warmth, a soft, sweaty warmth. I smell her hair, sweet like lanolin. I squeeze the pudgy hand, soaking up the details of holding a baby in my lap again, memories of my own babies so soft and near. I am thoroughly absorbed.

Gail is reading from the Bible. I look around at Aubrey who actually has two babies on his lap, one on each knee. He is used to this, I think. My head wants to talk about how these little ones will die soon. My heart will have none of it. I lean over and pick up a toy and make it dance before my little girl’s eyes. Lovely big brown eyes that go on and on when I look inside of her.

Now we are saying goodbye to a young woman from Australia who has come over for 3 months and volunteered her time to work at Tabitha. She leaves today for Sydney. We stand to pray a blessing over her. One of the boys—he looks 4—runs over and throws his arms around her legs. “Jesus! Jesus!” he calls out. Everyone smiles some more. Now I notice that I also have been smiling. Smiling in this room means getting smiles back. Gail laughs and says, “Brian, you want to pray?” He hangs onto the Australian’s leg like it is a tree that will never move. She is crying, poor girl. Her heart knows more than mine. Gail prays over her, and we all say “Amen.” The girl hugs everyone and words are said like, “Take care. God bless. Email.” Then she bends and starts picking up each of the 20-odd children scattered on the floor. Tears stream over the girl’s face. I watch fascinated as she loves the children. No one interferes or tries to ease her pain or talk her out of this monumental task. She could have just walked out the door, but instead she stays, weeping over every single child.

I cling to the toddler on my hip. I’m already wondering if I get to carry her around for the rest of our visit. Gail and Aubrey call to me from where they stand beside the door. “Anne?” I tell myself Gail is a busy person. She’s made time for me today. I need to try and be professional. Ha. I sit down and kiss the head of my little one, then gently place her onto the ground. She crawls away without a word.

Now my heart speaks. “Who are these children?” I ask. “Where are their parents?” As I ask the question, I know the answer, then say the word, “Dead.”

“No, not necessarily,” Gail pauses and we look out a window past abstract drawings in blue and orange and green with neatly penciled names at the bottom of the pages. “Many of their parents are the poorest of the rural poor. They cannot care for them. They may be dying themselves. They know we will keep them as comfortable as possible until they die.”

Her last “they” refers to the children. Her children. Until they die. My baby.

Luckily for all of us, Gail has moved on and is telling how she established Tabitha in 1998. She could see the pandemic looming so went to Zimbabwe to see what was coming. A waterfall of words wash over me: Training, home-based care, gardening, counseling skills, small-business development, pastors and church leaders. “You’re involved in all this?” I ask.

Aubrey explains that Tabitha is a partner with ACAT. They pool their resources. Gail’s staff visit schools, do aids information through puppeteering, drama, hold peer-group education weekends for teenagers. There is child care, mothering lessons, and what I have just witnessed, the Orphans and Abandoned Babies and Children home. Home. They make home visits, urban and rural. “Most of these people live way, way below the poverty line.” At Hope Centre they do training, counseling, wellness clinic, patient care.

We sit at Gail’s desk now. I pick up a photo of a baby. “Who is this?” I ask. “Solomon was our first aids baby.” The verb tense hangs in the air like a forgotten balloon.

Gail sends me across the hall to talk to Carol from Canada. Carol teaches high school chemistry in Ontario, but volunteers 3 months during her vacation to work at Tabitha. So she flies over, makes beds, cleans up vomit, holds babies, and this year, does surveys. “We wanted to find out the extent of child-headed households in the community—this is what you wanted to know, right?” Yes, I think, child-headed households.

“We were shocked by the in-depth study. So far I’ve identified 62 households ran by children. There may be a granny, but she may be blind or actually more of a burden than the younger siblings.” I ask for details, particular stories, children she remembers, surprises, stories of hope. It’s a tall order, but this will become my mantra for the rest of the trip. Carol tells me of 3 orphan boys who have lost their parents, granny and aunt. She has walked from house to house, asking children, “Who is caring for you?”

“Carol,” I ask. “How has this been for you, going into the homes like that?” She nods. “It’s been a great tragedy for me. I try to have food packages with me. Sometimes we have second hand clothing. I also try to help with school uniforms and fees.” I look at her and ask my famous, “How do you cope?” She says, “I try not to ask the question what am I going to do with the other 148 children. We’re in crisis here.”

She tells me how they go for quality not quantity. Those orphans they identify they try to make sure are properly cared for and fed. The focus at Tabitha is shifting from patients to community care and children, teaching the community how to cope, giving training sessions and workshops to community volunteers who return to their villages or in this case, to the township here called Sweetwater, and teach others how to care for the sick, the bereaved, the dying. Carol talks about the amazing bravery of gogos, the grannies who have buried their own children and now must raise another generation, save for their educations, dream of their futures.

I learn the word “induna,” which is Zulu for a sort-of assistant chief. Each induna has so many families under his care. The indunas in Sweetwater helped Carol immensely with her survey.

When I press for details, this is what I hear: • Household with seven teens. Shy, shell-shocked, no shoes. Lost their mother in 2003, 21-year-old aunt died in 2004, gogo died in 2006. Boys chased from school because they have no uniforms that fit and cannot afford the school fees. • Household where youngest is mentally disabled or extremely traumatized. The older children climb through windows and steal to stay alive. • 3 boys and 2 sisters living alone, going to school, neighboring gogo keeping eye on and caring for the kids. She paid their school fees out her own pension. School fees equal 50-63 rand (€7). This gogo says it brings her great joy to do the washing. She is blessed by the children, she says. The neighbors help by collecting money for the orphans’ school fees. Zoma is 15 and the eldest. The two girls are twins 9 years old. Carol asked Zoma about what he feels and he said, “I love this gogo because she is taking care of us. I pray for this gogo, that she will not die.”

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