June 24, 2009
“When I was 12, my mother passed away. My choices: stay in my house alone, or move to a relative’s house away from everyone I knew.” This is what I saw when I caught a glimpse of the paper being held up in front of the rest of the children. The girl who had written it was telling the class about her dreams and goals in life, and Ayanda, the Save the Children officer conducting the workshop, was holding it up for the other children to see what the girl had drawn: a stick figure standing at a crossroads, deciding which path to take. I was sitting in a workshop for children called “The Journey of Life,” a curriculum that Save the Children has used as a means of introducing adult caregivers to giving psychosocial support to children, but is now using for the first time to introduce children to ways of dealing with life’s challenges. Ncamsile picked me up late this morning and we headed down to Bhunye, which is in the Manzini region. The wind had been howling since last night…and I mean howling. I had been told that July in Swaziland would be windy, but I think last night was the first time I can remember being kept awake by wind and wind alone. It was a brilliantly sunny day with a cloudless sky, and as we drove up and down hills on the way to Manzini, the truck was hit with wave after wave of powerful wind, and Ncamsile said she felt like she was fighting a great battle against both the truck and the weather to get us there. We finally turned off the road and pulled up into a hidden group of small buildings and joined Ayanda and Gogo for the second half of their workshop with 15 out-of-school youth from the community. When we arrived, they were sitting in rows of benches, hunched over pieces of paper, and Ayanda told us that they were drawing their dreams and goals. Because the entire workshop was held in siSwati, I didn’t get to hear what the girl’s goal was; I just had that brief look into her past challenges.
We stayed there for the rest of the workshop, which was held in a small room painted the palest blue, and which was lit only by the sunlight that spilled in through two windows. The wind was blowing fiercely and pushed against the building again and again, rustling the curtains through the closed window and allowing for brief glimpses of the stunning scenery as the thin yellowed cloth flapped back and forth soundlessly. Some of the children looked at me slyly, turning their head slightly to get me in their line of sight as subtly as possible, but they would quickly snap their head forward again whenever I caught them looking. Most of them would look again a minute later and smile at me with a beautiful big grin and shy eyes. The crows of roosters came through the window to us occasionally, sometimes alone but more often in a chorus. Ayanda, Gogo, and Ncamsile shared the teaching responsibilities, and while all of them have great rapport with the kids, Ncamsile has a gift that seems to melt whatever shyness is in the room. It’s quite wonderful to watch her interacting with the children and getting even the most silent participants to talk. She walks up and down the room, making sure to include each child and give them a voice.
Ayanda called for a break at around 1:15, and the children rushed outside into the windy sunlight, and I followed them. Some of them were pressed up against the wall of an adjacent building in the sunlight when I came out of the room, blinking at me as I sat down across from them. Behind that building, there were three women sitting on blankets, wearing sweatshirts, skirts, and headwraps, shielding themselves from the wind and peeking out at us from behind the wall. When these older women caught sight of me, they broke into smiles and waved at me, and I smiled and waved back. One of the Makes (mothers) came over to me with a big smile and greeted me, and then said “Ngiyathanda!” I told her I didn’t understand, and she just smiled and repeated, “Ngiyathanda!” and leaned in and gave me an enveloping and long hug. I still had no idea what she was saying, but I hugged her back and smiled again.
We came back into the room and the children filed in behind us and took their seats again. Ncamsile and Gogo were in the front of the room making bologna sandwiches, which were just 2 slices of dry bread with one lone slice of bologna in between. They asked me to distribute the sandwiches to the children; one white and one wheat sandwich to each child, and before I knew it, an orderly line had formed in front of me. I started stacking sandwiches and handed two to each of the children, who waited patiently in line until it was their turn, when they would come up to me, extend one hand with the other hand touching their wrist, look up at me briefly with serious eyes, turn their eyes downward, and give me the tiniest of curtsies as they accepted their food. They took their meager meal without any complaints, and as I stood there watching them all taking bites of their sandwiches and sip their cups of juice in silence, I almost started to cry right there to see the extraordinary grace of these children. They sat and ate silently as Ncamsile and Gogo continued making sandwiches because, as they said, “it isn’t enough for them.” I went around to give the children a third sandwich, but there wasn’t enough bologna for everyone, so five of the children in the back of the room had to take just 2 extra slices of dry bread. Not one complaint was heard from any them, and a few of them even shared their meal with a few of the area children who wandered into the classroom. It’s likely that for many of these children, that was their biggest or only meal of the day.
Ayanda, Gogo, and Ncamsile talked more about challenges and obstacles in life, about overcoming them, and about finding happiness, and then they closed the workshop with a song. I surveyed the room and watched the children clap and sing the different parts in what was not the perfect pitch or tone, but which still had an indescribable beauty to it. Ncamsile and I left the building to a chorus of small voices wishing us to “go well,” (one tiny little boy advised us to look out for cows on the road, which is always good advice here) and we took off in the truck. We stopped on the way back at a small strip of vegetable stands off the side of the road, and we each bought a big bunch of bright, fragrant carrots that were so fat they were sticking out in all directions. The whole bunch was 5 rand, which is about $.60, and when I remarked that it was a good price for so many carrots, Ncamsile said that the price has gone up from 3 rand recently, so it’s actually more expensive for them to buy vegetables at these new prices.
Tomorrow I will go to another Journey of Life workshop that Ncamsile and Mandla will co-facilitate in the northern region of Hhohho, and I am looking forward to more of what these children have to show me that will transcend our language barrier.