I’ve been wanting to write about the volunteering I’ve done, but haven’t felt up to the challenge. I’d better get to it, ready or not, because week after week the memories and impressions accumulate and I’ve got plenty to share with you.
Thursday mornings see me driving out past the sprawling industrial neighborhoods of Pietermaritzburg.
The view back to the city is lovely as the road climbs up and out to where the city meets the sugar cane fields.
From there it’s off the pavement and up a short gravel road and into the community.
What started as an “informal settlement” years ago has grown large enough in population, size, and identity to secure the attention of government leaders. This is thanks in part to the organization I’m working with which has given visibility to the urgent needs facing so many living here. Mama Ntombi’s Community Projects (MNCP) is involved in numerous ways throughout the community ensuring that those who are most vulnerable receive the health, social, and academic supports they need. Most often these are orphaned and neglected children and their caregivers.
Residents in this area are pleased about the changes that have arrived. Water was previously available from “Jojo tanks” which emptied out but now comes via several central taps. Electricity became available too during this last year.
People continue to wait though for important infrastructure and service improvements. The primary school, for example, has been under construction on and off for five years. What can be done but grumble about it? Health services are limited to the rare nurse visit by a mobile clinic. HIV, TB, as well as many manageable conditions like diabetes and hypertension are life-threatening problems for those with few resources for transport to clinics or medicine.
I start out at the primary school teaching a one hour remedial English class for about 15 Grade 4 students. (I’ll save telling more about this for another post).
After that, I head to a nearby home. It’s here where “Gogo,” grandma, offers her yard for a crèche (the term used in SA for preschool).
I join two other volunteers in providing learning opportunities once a week for whoever shows up. (Kudos to Katherine and Dorothy who have recently decided to offer a second morning!)
We started with eight children; several had been left at home while a caregiver worked, others were from child-headed households, and two were wandering alone in the street and joined in when we called out to them. At our last session, the numbers had swelled to 29 children ranging in age from three to eight. There are no formal preschool or early childhood learning opportunities in this community. Free play and unstructured time is the norm for these youngsters while activities that develop their language, social, and school-readiness skills are otherwise nonexistent.
It’s chaotic and spontaneous, but at least Dorothy, Katherine, and I excel when it comes to having a can-do attitude! Someone forgot the finger paint for the tree projects!? No problem, we’ll use leaves and wood shavings instead.
(These turned out great didn’t they? And I love the experience with texture that these impromptu materials provided!)
Water play is popular with preschoolers everywhere it seems. I was amazed to see how accurately they could pour. Perhaps a reflection of their chores or self-care responsibilities washing dishes or clothes?
A rice bin was endlessly fascinating for some. Another volunteer had dyed the rice beautiful colors. Thank goodness as we already had one who constantly tried to eat it. What if it looked like the real thing?
Coloring and cutting with scissors highlights the range of ages and stages we are working with; many youngsters needed a lot of support. Two children though, who are school aged, had excellent writing skills. “Why aren’t they in school?” is among the many puzzling questions I take away from these volunteer days.
Last time, Katherine brought her daughters along. They helped with ball play and bubbles. They had also baked cupcakes for the children and helped them decorate the tops. What a hit!
Sometimes we’ve had the extra support of social work students who helped communicate with the children in Zulu and Sesothu. These ladies will be wonderful in their future careers!
It was especially heartening to see the response to the loving attention of the male students who were able to make a connection with several children who had been withdrawn, fearful, and uncommunicative. Look at these two:
Preschoolers everywhere love songs and hand rhymes, and in fact, so do I! At the end of each session I lead a circle time which has grown more enthusiastic each session- a reflection perhaps on the routine we are developing for our time together. The anticipation is palpable as we begin “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes!”
When I arrived for a recent session the first thing one twinkly-eyed girl did to greet me was to mime the action of sawing. It took me a moment to realize she was reminding me of the hand rhyme we did the previous week, “The carpenter’s hammer goes rat-tat-tat, and his saw goes see-saw-see…” What a delight to be the recipient of this reaching out for connection that she offered me!
While the classroom teaching with the elementary kids feels purposeful and productive, I must admit I sometimes leave after the crèche with a heavy heart. Does two hours a week of early childhood activities make any difference? What lies ahead for these little ones who have already experienced so many challenges in their short lives? How can these children have been dealt such a rotten hand when others have abundant love and support? It’s not my place to have the answers to these I know but I’m grateful to have my mind opened to these questions. In many ways it has been a year of consuming – one incredible experience after another. Though this volunteering is a small contribution and one that really enriches me as much as it helps others, it does nonetheless feel good and right to give back something.