This message is all over Baylor’s Children’s Center for Excellence in Mbabane Swaziland, and it is a message I have learned to live by since first traveling to Swaziland almost 4 years ago. After meeting child after child who are born into this world HIV-positive, literally victims since birth, you start to lose faith – yet you look into their eyes and see hope so powerful it will blow you away.
On Monday, I returned from a 10 day trip to Swaziland with a group of undergraduate students from Butler and Purdue Universities. The overall theme of the trip was “orphan art” but the message to the children was definitely that they are loved – positive or negative.
I told my little four year old friend Elias that during his bedtime prayers last night he should ask God if my group could get upgraded on our Delta flight to Joburg. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. After over 24 hours of traveling (uncomfortably), we finally made it to Astrid’s guesthouse in Joburg and it is adorable! After reading and discussing Baylor’s article called “Epidemiology of HIV” by Meg Gwynne Ferris – we called it a night.
Five hour drive to Swaziland with 9 people and 24 huge suitcases full of donations stuffed in an 8 passenger kombi (Swazi minibus)…we were traveling Swazi-style!! Then, we arrive at our guesthouse in Mbabane only to find out that regardless of the 3 confirmation emails and phone calls, they have been overbooked. Typical. We find a guesthouse with some room (although not much – we are all spooning in full-sized beds and have only one bathroom). Did I mention that our one bathroom has no toilet seat and no running water?? Welcome to Swaziland ladies!!!
Prior to the trip, I was explaining to the girls that the lack of a sanitation system in the rural areas is an extreme public health hazard and that typically the people will dig holes (pit latrines) to go to the bathroom. Late this evening, I heard commotion and giggles in the other room. I entered their room to find a student with a flashlight and she was trying to find something to dig with… oh my goodness…
The students went on safari today but I passed so that I could take care of some business in eLangeni Village. They almost peed their pants when they saw monkeys crossing the road on the way to Swaziland yesterday so I wish I could have seen their faces when they were 4 feet from an elephant - but I have work to do. Swazi people are very formal and you must gain permission to access certain people and places in the rural areas. Luckily, I have worked in eLangeni village a couple of times in the past – so I met up with the Princess Chief and the Village Facilitator Bheki to finalize this week’s plans. I arrived at eLangeni during a community-wide meeting/multi-denomination church service. The leader of a particular denomination would preach and their followers would stand. I stood and tried to represent for the Catholics but the priest spoke in siSwati so I had no idea what he said! It was a beautiful afternoon. After the Princess Chief of eLangeni spoke, I met with her and the elders of the village and asked formally for permission for the SOHO group to work in the community this week. They graciously agreed. The girls came home from safari with dozens of pictures – one of a dung beetle pushing a “prize” that was 3 times his body size! Hopefully they weren’t bypassing the chance to see a lion for their efforts…
We went to the SOHO preschool in Mhlosheni today with Lorraine (SOHO nurse who now lives full-time in Swaziland). Joy, one of our Butler students, teaches preschool in Indianapolis and her class made friendship bracelets for the SOHO preschool kids. We handed out the bracelets and let the Swazi kids make some in return. They had a blast! Then Kaitlin (lead teacher at Art with a Heart) taught the SOHO preschool kids how to paint with water colors. They painted “Thank You” cards (now on sale 5 for $10).
Afterward, we traveled around in the village and met 5 different families in the surrounding rural area who are supported by SOHO. We saw an elderly Gogo (grandmother) who lives with her blind husband and together they are raising 5 infants under the age of 5 years old. Many of these kids aren’t even their relations! We met a HIV-positive young girl who is already developing visible skin lesions on her face. She has a small infant. What will happen to her young son? Is he HIV-positive as well? I saw a change today in my students as they saw the homesteads and met people living in true poverty - 70% of Swaziland lives on less than $1 per day!
When we returned home, the girls decided to reenact the safari for me in the front yard with blow-up animals we brought to give as gifts for the orphans. We got many stares from passerbys!! Sometimes if you can’t make yourself laugh, you will cry.
November 23:Woke up early to meet with Bheki and hold our first art outreach lesson at eLangeni Primary School! We told Bheki that we only had the capacity to work with 30 children because we were going to offer crayons, colored pencils, and a pack of paper to take home with them after they completed their paintings. Bheki kept sneaking children into the classroom until we had 45! Already I am doing the math in my head trying to figure out how we can reduce the number of art supplies every child is going to be able to take home. Then, I look out of the broken windows and see a hundred kids staring longingly at the “chosen ones” who are happily learning to paint (none had ever seen a paint brush or watercolors before!). I told Bheki that when the first group of kids was finished, he had to bring another group in – we simply can’t turn anyone away. So, at the end of the day due to the masses we served, each child only received a single crayon and one sheet of construction paper. You would have thought they were receiving an ipod by their ear-to-ear smiles and siyabongas (thank yous) of gratitude.
This afternoon we met with Dr. Mabuza, head of Community Health at University of Swaziland, and Dr. Ruth, Community Health Nurse, to ask questions about the HIV epidemic and other diseases prevalent among the Swazi people. They explained that poverty makes you vulnerable to illness: TB, childhood communicable diseases, diahhrea (poor sanitation), malnutrition/stunted growth, and HIV/AIDS. Recently Swaziland started formally promoting male circumcision as a means of reducing HIV and STIs; however, it is not culturally acceptable so it is still not widely practiced. Another large scale recent effort has been geared toward providing health education for traditional healers to reduce the gap in knowledge and practice between those practicing western medicine and traditional medicine.
This morning the students went to the Mantenga Cultural Village. It is really interesting to see how the Swazi people live and how far back their culture and traditions date. After the tour, they have a singing and dancing performance. The students had a great time.
Baylor has many pediatric HIV clinics in Africa - I worked as a visiting scholar in the Baylor Center for Childhood Excellence (CCE) in Mbabane a couple of years ago. We went to Baylor’s CCE this afternoon to meet with Stephanie, one of the American pediatric HIV physicians I worked with previously. She gave us a tour of the facility and then lectured on HIV and TB:
Multi-drug resistant (MDR) and extremely drug resistant (XDR) tuberculosis (TB) are very common in Swaziland. We learned that 84% of the people suffering from TB also have HIV. So, when they come to get TB tested, they usually find out the HIV-status. Almost a half of a million children in sub-Saharan Africa were infected in 2008 from mother to child transmission of HIV. Baylor CCE treats 1,000 of these children. Due to the difficulty of testing infants, drawing blood, and dosing antiretroviral treatments (ARVs) – they are one of the few facilities to offer infant and child HIV treatment. Treating children is vital because by age one, 50% of HIV-positive kids die. By age 2, 70%...age 6, 80% and age 10, 90%!! Because of HIV/AIDS – the life expectancy in Swaziland is only 32 years. Because of this, 30% of children in Swaziland aged 14-17 years old have lost at least one of their parents.
I met with the Chief’s brother and the school council this morning to learn about the advancements at eLangeni Secondary School. It is amazing to see the difference from just the last time I was here! Now they have an agricultural class where the children are each designated a small plot of land and are taught how to grow crops. They also learn how to raise hens. They added a workshop where kids learn how to make wooden furniture and goods. It was all very impressive.
I then took the group to the Msibi homestead. We helped them paint canvases for our April 1st Art, Full of Hope exhibition at the Athenaeum downtown Indianapolis (you’re invited!!). Nomfundo told me that last week she and her siblings had no food for 3 days. She said that when her mom was alive she taught them that the Lord is their Shepard, so they shall not want. She said that remembering this, she and her siblings sang songs to their dead mother and asked her for the strength to not want the food they were craving. Broke my heart.
Then, I met with a prophet (traditional healer) and learned about his healing practices. For 400 Rand (divide by 7 for USD), he said he can cure ANYTHING. He can even make an ex-boyfriend love you again by drinking one of his special concoctions. The recipes for these potions are told to him by God in a dream. He said that other traditional healers can cure AIDS and cancer with a tea made from tree bark. It’s sad that this man is squeezing the last dime from these poor sick people. If the people can muster 7 Rand, they can go to the government hospital and get real treatment – Baylor is even free!!
We then went to the Maziya homestead. This child-headed household is always the saddest for me. The oldest girl stole the family’s money and moved in with her boyfriend in the city. Then, when she got pregnant, the boyfriend kicked her out. She is still not living with her brothers and sisters in eLangeni, though. Despite all of this, her little sister (age 16) looks up to her and is searching for a boyfriend herself. Years ago when I asked if we could pay for her school fees, she turned us down. Her brother (19yr) explained that she is constantly looking for a boyfriend and typically finds the wrong guys who will come back to their homestead and steal what little they have left. Celimphilo is one of the children we sponsor though. She’s in 3rd grade and is a little old for her grade because before I found her 3 years ago, she had never received any formal schooling! She is doing well in school, had made a lot of friends, and now can speak English! Her little brother is 7 years old, HIV-positive, and fighting off a bad case of TB. He cannot attend school because he is in and out of the clinic for treatment. God bless the Msibis and the Maziyas…and then bless them some more, please.
We went to the handicraft market today. I bought $250 worth of fair trade goods for SOHO to resell. Check out our goods on facebook (Saving Orphans through Healthcare and Outreach) or you can come to our office (8240 Naab Rd Ste 320, Indy 46260). We have lots of beautiful things from paintings to masks!
In the afternoon we went to Selula Sandla orphanage where 80% of the 23 children are HIV-positive. I was happy to see that almost all of them survived since the last time I was in Swaziland! They actually have a new “pod” that will be able to house 12 more children. They are funded by a South African church and the children receive plenty of food, education, medication, and love. Super impressive – especially in a country that is typically opposed to western style orphanages.
In the evening, Alex, Sandile and Wandile took us to Portugalia dance club. The girls had fun showing off their moves to the old American tunes that played in the club… everything from old Snoop Dogg to YingYang Twins!
November 27:Goodbyes are always hard. I like “See you laters” better. Unfortunately I don’t know when that will be… We made our last trip to eLangeni today and said goodbye to our child-headed household orphans. I was praying that the kids would keep it together because I was definitely on the verge of tears. Saying goodbye to the Msibi’s is so hard!! They have such a great outlook on life in spite of their constant struggles – amazing kids. I always wonder how drastically different their lives would have been had they been born with things like food, health, and loving LIVING parents. What simple things that every child should have. Saying goodbye to the Maziya’s is equally hard because I don’t know if the little HIV-positive Maziya boy is going to live long enough for me to see him again. I always wonder if it is easier to never know your parents like him but never experience that kind of love – or remember your parent’s and their love like the Msibi’s but miss it every single minute of every day.Bheki added another child to our sponsorship list: Gcinile Mndzebele – grade 6. We visited her homestead today. She is being raised by her Gogo. Her would-be 8th grade sister already has a baby. I didn’t want to ask but I am assuming it was rape. We met with Neliswe, an HIV-positive Rural Health Motivator. These RHMs are “elected” by the community and are trusted individuals that will learn about the health of the community members and help them receive HIV testing and counseling. Neliswe told us that one of our children that refused to be sponsored for school a couple of years ago is now pregnant. I hope she does not have HIV as well. Seems as though that is the outcome for the girls who aren’t in school. I pray everyday that nothing happens to our 12 eLangeni orphans. They deserve a better life than childhood pregnancy, AIDS, and poverty.
Woke up early and drove to Johannesburg. Our plane didn’t leave until the evening, so we had time to tour Soweto. We drove up the most famous block where two Nobel Prize winners grew up: Nelson Mandela and Rev. Dr. Desmond Tutu. We saw the Hector Peterson memorial erected by Nelson Mandela to honor the 600 black children who were shot and killed by the white police officers during a peaceful protest during the apartheid movement. We drove past slum villages and we drove past mansions that cost over $10 million USD. It’s hard to believe that there is so much poverty next door to so much wealth. There are still clear discrepancies between what the whites have access to in contrast with the blacks. Hopefully one day things will be more equal…
When you make it home and return to things like clean water (instead of streams where water is shared with cow dung, chemicals, and intestinal parasites), toilets (instead of pit latrines), and an abundance of food (instead of empty stomachs and maize meal we feed our farm animals) - you take a nap only to wake up and think that the last two weeks were just a dream. Once you realize that - indeed - it was reality, you feel guilty for having such privileges. You hate the fact that children like the Msibis and the Maziyas don’t. And you feel like there is nothing you can do about it. Then you take a step back, dry your eyes, and realize that you ARE doing something about it! EVERYONE can do something about it!! I personally invite you to do something about it - Join GHFP’s efforts to increase the quality of life for orphans and vulnerable children in Swaziland. www.ifightpoverty.org
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world”
– Mahatma Gandhi