This morning we went to our kiddos houses bright and early – 7:30am. How these kids know what time it is blows my mind as without electricity or batteries there is no alarm clock… no clock at all for that matter. But at 7:30 our kombi (minibus) pulls up and all of our children and a couple neighbor kids (that ALWAYS happens!!) are ready. We pile in the van and head to the national stadium. When we get inside, the atmosphere is incredible. Every high school in Mbabane and the surrounding areas are all dressed up and ready to compete in the cheerleading, dance team, marching band, and traditional cultural dance competitions. The stadium was blocked off into sections and eLangeni high school’s section was standing room only. The headmaster gave us girls eLangeni high school t-shirts and we were ecstatic to represent our kids! This competition is quite serious with people gathering at 8am and the dancing not completed until late in the evening. Every time a team chose an American song to dance to, the crowd of observing kids would erupt with cheers and get out of their seats to show off their own moves. Even little Celimphilo who is typically so shy.
While we were at the dance competition today, I always wonder what the children do on days when they are not in school and therefore do not receive the free school lunch. I asked them if they were hungry – and of course – the answer is always yes. Danielle reached into her bookbag and had only a single package of peanut butter crackers. I had a jar of peanuts I stole from my parents pantry (THANKS DAD, SORRY!). As we passed it down the row of our kiddos and their neighbors, they each took a single cracker and a small handful of peanuts and passed it along. Mazwi, the tiniest of them all, dropped a flake of a peanut onto his pants and rushed to pick it up and eat it. It absolutely breaks my heart. Yet there is no money for food in grants or from companies as this “is not sustainable”. I am supposed to teach these small children – some as young as 6 or 8 – how to fish. How many of those grantors or company execs did not have a single thing to eat unless - after a full day of schooling, cleaning their uniform so they did not get beaten at school the next day, and taking care of smaller siblings – fished for their dinner?
Despite all of their overwhelming obstacles, my kids are incredible. I was so proud of Philo and her little brother Mazwi today. She handed me their report cards (which are typically given to parents during parent teacher conferences – except that they are double orphans and have been for many years) and Mazwi got all “Very Good” and passing marks! In the comments section it said that Mazwi is a very hard worker and the teachers were proud. When considering that this child has missed a lot of school due to his HIV and TB treatments, I can only imagine what kind of things this quiet, hardworking and polite kid could accomplish if he were healthy. As for Philo, her marks were not nearly as high and the teachers commented that she needs to try harder to bring her marks up. I could tell she was embarrassed and ashamed – but I was the opposite!! When I met Philo, she was 10 years old and had never received formal schooling. At the time, she and Mazwi (who was only 4 at the time) were being raised by their 16 year old brother Samkelo who had dropped out of school himself to pick up odd jobs (brick laying, working in fields, running errands) to provide food for his siblings. When my friend Anne & I asked her if she wanted to go to school and she said yes in 2008, she was in class the next day… with a bunch of children who were 5 years younger, and much MUCH smaller, than her. She didn’t care that the school uniform pants were capris on her long legs or that the children in class came up to only her shoulder – she hunkered down and got to work. Now, years later, it became even more awkward as she should be in 4th grade but is already almost 15 years old, very developed physically, and now towering over her 10 year old classmates. Because of this, the headmaster decided to have her skip a grade and move into the 5th grade class. She skipped an entire year, and although she is not 1st in her class, she is keeping up with the others. Not only that, but she is putting on her tiny uniform, still towering over her classmates, and loving every minute of it. She told us last night that her favorite class is “Religious Education” and I am happy to note that this class is also her highest grade – a 90%! Way to go Philo!! No matter what, I guarantee that all of the many family, friends, and donors who have supported her going on her 5th year of formal education, are extremely proud of the amazing young person she has become.