It has taken me a while to get this blog post out. I have been wrestling with the best way to do justice to telling the stories of the people I met, the experiences we had and the ways in which God showed up in unexpected ways that were even more magnificent than anything I could have even imagined.
For those of you who are unaware, Swaziland is a small country, entirely landlocked/surrounded by South Africa. It has a fairly small population; however it has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the whole world – 26% of the population. From what I have seen of the countries we work in so far, all the locations we focus on have desperate needs in different ways due to Hands at Work’s philosophy to work with the poorest of the poor in the most vulnerable communities. However there is something that resounds about Swaziland, where the need just seems that much more desperate. I’m not trying to over dramatise this post at all, but the reality is that kids in Swaziland are dying. Period. And countless Gogo’s (grandmothers) are left to try and care for the hundreds of orphans that have been left behind by a generation of parents that have basically been entirely wiped out.
To lighten the mood momentarily, let me give you an insight into our journey to Swaziland via African public transport (which could almost be an entire blog post in itself!). We (Leyton and myself) left the Hub at 7:15am to be dropped at the local Taxi rank where we met up with Baba Vusi (who is part of our regional support team heading up the work in Swaziland) and Audrey (who is one of our Service Centre Coordinators in South Africa) to commence our journey as a little team of 4. The first Taxi was straightforward and quick (I might have even closed my eyes a couple of times as we darted between cars!) to arrive into the big bus terminal in Nelspruit at 8am. We located the Taxi that would take us to Swaziland and climbed aboard only to WAIT….and WAIT, and WAIT and WAIT for the Taxi to fill with people – standard practice for African taxi’s. FOUR HOURS later we commenced our journey onwards! (Not to mention our bus driver disappearing with our passports while we were waiting for 3 hours to “write down some details” which was a little stressful!) Anyway, passports back and we were on our way. This taxi took us through the border and on to the town of Manzeni in Swaziland, and again we waited for our connecting bus that would take us out to the regional area of Kaphunga where our work in Swaziland is based. Let’s just say, what should/could/would be 4.5 hour journey by car, was a 13HR EVENT via public transport which saw us arrive at Mama Nomsa’s house (where we would stay for the 4 days) by 8:30pm Tuesday evening, tired, hungry and ready for a good sleep (after a somewhat slightly scary/winding bus ride on crazy dirt roads in the pitch dark!)! Anyway we were very thankful to arrive safely and I have a huge newfound respect/insight for our team that travel regularly by public transport!
Three stories stand out for me from my time that I would like to share with you:
The story of a brother and a sister
In the lead up to departing for Swaziland, the song Hosanna had been replaying in my mind, specifically the line we sing “break my heart for what breaks yours”. It got me thinking about the words we sing to God in songs and how easy it is to get carried away in worship just singing words out of habit without really meaning them. However for this trip I had a real sense that my desire was to be freshly reminded of God’s father heart for His people, for His children. My prayer being for God to give me eyes to see what he sees and to once again break my heart for the things that break His. And that is exactly what He did.
Following our long day of travel, the next day at lunch time we headed to the first Care Point to spend the afternoon with the Care Workers and children. When we arrived at the care point, there were 5 smaller children hanging around inside the care point, and because I naturally enjoy connecting with the little ones more I started to play with these children. It quickly became a rough and rumbly game of tickling with children climbing all over me (I was outnumbered 5 to 1!). When it began to get a little too rough, and I tried to calm the kids down a little bit, two children stood out to me, a little boy (5yrs old) and little girl (3yrs old). What grabbed my attention was how starved for affection they appeared to be. As the games settled down, these two children would fight for position in my lap and then be content to just lie there and cuddle. The cheeky little boy would then tickle me again and it would start all over, but in those quieter moments these two particular children just wanted to be close.
I then found out their story. They stay with a Great Gogo (i.e. great grandmother), their only living relative. This Great Gogo is so old and frail that she struggles to even fetch water to cook for the children, let alone bath them or provide for any other of their physical or emotional needs. They were so dirty. The little girl had dirt all over her face and both the children’s clothes were filthy and torn. I can’t begin to guess the last time they had taken a bath or had their clothes washed. And yet when playing with them and cuddling with them, they had the most beautiful smiles.
They are too small just yet to understand the absolute vulnerability of their lives right now. Sitting watching them eat the meal provided at the care point and hearing their story I was almost brought to tears. These are two of God’s children, who are loved by Him as much as you and I, and for whom God has a plan and purpose for their lives as much as you and I, and yet through no fault of their own find themselves in such a vulnerable position in life.
I know I tell stories like these often, and I have seen and heard so many similar stories these past 6 months, but sometimes it is different. Sometimes God grips your heart with a story and you need to do something, it’s a hard feeling to explain. Audrey and I both felt we could not just hear this story and simply do nothing. The very fact that the children had not been bathed for a long time, complicated by the fact that even if they were to be bathed, they had no clean clothes to wear while their current clothes were washed/drying, and Swaziland is cold. It’s a very mountainous region that gets very cold in the winter months and the clothes they were wearing were not adequate. So we talked with the care workers and made a plan. A plan that involved the care workers purchasing an alternate set of clothes for these children and going to their home to help their Gogo bath them and wash their clothes. A week later I hear a report that the children have been bathed and are sporting clean and warm clothes.
These two little kids “my Swazi kids” have grabbed a piece of my heart in a very special way; a way that I cannot find the words to express. We may have been able to help address some very basic physical needs, but my prayers continue for their emotional and spiritual needs. And for their great Gogo, who if anything happens to her, I’m not sure what will happen to these two beautiful little children. My heart longs to see them again, to be able to cuddle them and show them just a fraction of the love that God their heavenly father has for them.
The second story I want to share with you is about an incredible care worker called Thulile who we had the privilege of spending our second day with. Thulile is one of two care workers caring for 25 children at our second care point in Swaziland (an hours drive from the first care point – one of the challenges of Swaziland being so spread out across a very mountainous region). Thulile can only be described as the ultimate example of someone who selflessly gives so much of her life to serve the most vulnerable kids in her community. And it’s clear from the rapport she has with the children just how much she loves them, and how much they love her! In fact we were able to go on two home visits in the morning, to a Gogo and a single mother both caring for a number of children and orphans who all mentioned how much the children loved going to the care point after school and how they didn’t want to ever go home / even wanted to go to the care point on weekends! A true testimony of the amazing work of care workers like Thulile.
A Beautiful Little Girl
On our last day in Swaziland as the sun was setting, we were able to visit one last beautiful little girl. She is 11 years old, and has some sort of physical and mental disability that has prevented her from walking and taking. To get around, she lies on her side and rolls. Over the years Baba Vusi has been visiting Swaziland this little girl has become a daughter to him, and it is beautiful to watch their relationship! The shrieks of excitement that come from this little girl as our car arrives and she rolls out with such excitement to greet Baba Vusi – its just beautiful to watch! She has an older brother who has built a set of parallel bars for her in their yard. She is now learning to walk. And is getting stronger by the week. I look forward to the day I can go back to Swaziland and see her run out to Baba Vusi to greet him!
The need is so desperate and yet there is always hope.