There’s a little girl living in a village, not too far from here, that has my heart. And I don’t want it back.
Her name is Nema*. Physically, she has these big, strong hands, arms loaded with biceps, broad shoulders, and an even broader grin. She's this scrawny, fierce little 8 year old, who's had to be so strong in life - and not by her choice.
She and her little sister Ncombile*, who’s 6 years old, have lost both their Mum and Dad and now live with their Grandpa, aunts, uncles and cousins. Nema, Ncombile and their 13 year old aunt, Thandi* attend the Care Point at Siyathuthuka, where they receive a hot meal each weekday, can check in with their beautiful Care Worker Ma Sara* and have the freedom to run amuck with the other kids – something they don’t get to do often at home. Nema’s Gogo left the children at the beginning of the year to become a sangoma (witch doctor), leaving Nema and her sister open to even more vulnerabilities and without a warm, maternal presence in their home.
I met Nema during our time of orientation in March, when our intake group was split into pairs and invited to spend 4 days with a family from one of the communities we work with here at Hands. A lot of planning had gone into this weekend; spiritually, emotionally and practically, by many workers from the Hub, the Service Centre and the Care Point. Going into it, it felt a little like we were on the verge of something epic, important and very special…
And I wasn’t wrong.
You know those really great sleepovers you’d always beg your Mum for when you were younger? “But Mum, why can’t I just go over to their house after school finishes on Friday, play with them ALL weekend, and then their Mum can just drop me off to school on Monday?!” This fool-proof idea was flawless in my 9 year old mind. Well, 14 years later, I finally got the weekend sleepover I’d always dreamed of – dropped off on Friday after school and picked up Monday, once school started.
Spending this long amount of time with a family was such an incredibly eye-opening experience. When you visit a home for Holy Home Visits, you might spend a number of hours with the family, but still, nothing gives you a true insight into what their lives are like than becoming an adopted member of the family for a long weekend. You begin to see many of the struggles and dangers the family face on a daily basis – from the big concerns like food and safety, to smaller things like how much more difficult it is to do your laundry in a bucket. To paint you a picture: each pair going on these weekend stays brought along enough water to drink and food to eat, ensuring to pack enough to cover our own needs (to not inconvenience the family), and a little extra to account for the likely probability that the small rations we brought would be feeding the whole family for the weekend. Suffice to say, our small addition of food just about stretched the whole weekend.
I am so excited and honoured to know this little treasure but I'm equally terrified for her future. I want only good things for her and I'm so worried she'll fall into the trap of the strongholds in her community - into the culture of drinking and sex. Most 15 year olds in her community are pregnant - and half the time, it's not through the girls' choice. The stats in her community are heartbreaking - it is more likely for a girl to be raped than it is for her to graduate high school. Isn't that harrowing? There is a daily battle for our girls in this community between coming to the Care Point, finishing school and not drinking, versus the lure of their society.
It's especially after hearing stories like Nema’s that I am so grateful for the Care Workers who volunteer for Hands at Work. These men and women are the true heros in this story - often they have so little themselves, and many mouths to feed at home, but they volunteer their time and their love to take care of others less fortunate. It's mind boggling. The care worker for my girls, Ma Sara, has 9 children of her own, and 3 grandchildren, and she's been working with Hands for nearly 15 years. She has such warmth and joy about her - not a hint of bitterness at all. I'm so grateful that my girls have someone with a heart like Ma Sara’s looking out for them. Thanks to Hands at Work and the incredible involvement they have in Siyathuthuka, I know my little sister is being well taken care of – that she’s getting help for her homework, has a shoulder to cry on or arms to hug her when she needs it. Through the 3 Essential Services provided, she was able to have the door and lock replaced in her room – so now she has a safe and secure place to sleep. I know that she has access to the health care if she’s unwell, and a new uniform for school when she outgrows the one she has now.
But mostly, she has love. She’s a part of an incredible family at the Siyathuthuka Care Point who look out for her, care for her, and show her what love looks like. Through the bible studies, daily prayers shared and praise songs sung, she’s being introduced to this incredible Jesus who loves her more than words can describe, and who will be her friend, her protector, and her hope for a future. And really, that’s the best part.
*Names have been changed