This morning all of us, kids included, headed into the township to visit Mama Catherine's place. Mama Catherine is an African woman who is maybe in her 40's. She is running a children's place of safety from a corner lot in Temba. Darin had been there earlier in the week and had been telling me about what the place looked like and what Mama Catherine is doing there, but I was totally unprepared for the reality.
On the lot, there are 3 block buildings the size of a medium sized bedroom, two tin shacks the size of small bedrooms, 2 shipping containers donated by the post office, and 2 outhouses in the corner. There is also a large tent that is used for an after school program. When we arrived, one block building was being used as a creche, a nursery school. There were more than a dozen little ones from about 2 years to 8 years in the room sitting at little plastic tables. This same building is also where the two older boys(in their 20's, who serve as security guards) sleep. One of the tin rooms is a kitchen, and the other one is Mama Catherine's office. There are a couple pieces of playground equipment, but they were the older, metal kind. There was a lot of dirt. At times I felt like I could hardly breathe from all the dust blowing around. There was also smoke in the air from the many garbage piles being burned right outside the fence. The laundry area consisted of a clothesline and 2 plastic tubs. We saw a man doing laundry by stepping in one of the tubs like he was squishing grapes. There were also 2 mesh greenhouses and a decent sized garden at the back of the property. Did I mention the dust? I am still coughing it out hours later.
Mama Catherine has been receiving some assistance from Mark and Chris Harding, who run Tshepo Ya Bana, but I am not sure how long they have been associated with her. I don't even remember hearing about her the other times we have been here. This time a connection was made. A guy from Innotec who was here a couple weeks before us had brought some of the Innotec blocks over to the property to build a shower area. This will not be an actual shower, but an enclosed area where people can either take a tub of water in to clean themselves, or perhaps run a hose into the building from the outside. There will not be a drain. This is a huge step up from the current bathing situation, which is mostly sponge baths in the cramped living quarters.
From talking to Mama Catherine, I know she has been running this place for at least 3 years. She and her husband, who is a policeman, have three children of their own at home, and they have 4 displaced children living with them at their house. She does not live at the location we visited today, which houses the kids we saw there today, and another dozen kids that are older and were at school. She also has an after school program that is attended by close to 150 children. I believe that these kids are given a small meal and just a safe place to go. This is not a big meal that they are receiving, but most likely a bowl of mealy pap. Pap is a staple around here, like potatoes or rice would be for people in other countries. It comes from corn. The garden that they are growing offers some variety to their diets, but not very much. They do not ever have meat or other forms of protein for that matter. Other than the help she receives from the Hardings, Mama Catherine does not have other means of support. Although the government places children with her, they do not give her any financial assistance. From what I understand, this is because either she is not yet a foster parent, or the kids that she is helping cannot be considered foster children because some of them have family in the area.
Mama Catherine gave us the background of some of the kids she houses. Two of them are young teenage girls who have both been raped multiple times. One of the girls was there at the time because she is either too sick to go to school, or the days she does go she causes problems from mental/emotional illness. She is HIV positive among other things. The other girl has not yet been tested, because she does not want to know. She has already tried to kill herself on several occasions. Both of her parents are dead. Mama Catherine also told about some of the younger children who had been abused by their grandmother and are still suffering from these abuses. Many of the kids in her care are sick, but she does not have the means to have them all tested for HIV or even for basic medical care. Her first aid kit consisted of a couple rolls of bandages and a few partially filled bottles of medicine.
Is it too much for you yet? I seriously was just overwhelmed by all the sights and hearing all of the stories. This is Africa. It is easy to forget that we are in a country that is severely impoverished and is suffering heavily from the AIDS crisis, because even though we are close in proximity to these problems, we are still so far removed. There is a part of me that does not even want to go back. Where do you even begin to help these children or this woman who is so overwhelmed caring for the children? I know we will go back. Darin has a shower to finish and I don't know what help I can give, but I will go too.
As I mentioned before, our kids went along too. I don't think I will be taking them back. It isn't for safety reasons, but I think they were both so overwhelmed by the kids and the lack of things to do other than play in hot, dusty conditions. Jori's hair, and mine, was constantly being touched. She'd go from being ok with all the kids pressing in to a kind of panic where she'd start crying. Tyson just didn't really know what to do with himself, but he also is still not in the best health. I had brought a couple small things for them to eat, but not near enough, and there was NO WAY I was going to take even a bowl of mealy pap when even getting that is a struggle. So next week they will be staying back with Mama Rebecca, who just started coming today to do a weekly day of cleaning and a half day of child care. I think it will be better for the kids to be here and better for me to not feel torn between the kids at Mama Catherine's and my own kids.