Singing "Waka Waka" with the Babies

Trip Start Sep 02, 2010
Trip End Jun 13, 2011

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Where I stayed
Khayelitsha Township

Flag of South Africa  , Western Cape,
Thursday, May 12, 2011

As I sit here in a little flat in Khayelitsha, I can hear a beautiful a capella choir singing down the street. Our windows are closed, but their powerful voices still manage to seep in through the cracks and fill all the neighborhood spaces.

It's Sunday afternoon, a week after Easter, and this church choir has been keeping us company throughout the past month. Dan and I have been volunteering at a children's home in Khayelitsha, and every few evenings, we've listened to the choir warm up and then sing late into the night. It's been a lovely comfort at times when we've been otherwise uncomfortable.

Khayelitsha township was founded in the late '80s when the government basically decided to finally give a name to a place that had already been an informal--illegal--squatter's settlement. As it's the largest township in Cape Town and the second largest in South Africa, it's considered its own little city. People have all kinds of notions about such a township--mostly about how you should never go here except with a trusted guide and certainly never ever after dark. Before we began working here, someone told me Khayelitsha is considered by many to be the most dangerous city in the world. Then as we drove into the township for the first time, I couldn't decide if I was more concerned by that supposed statistic or by the visuals outside our rolled-up car windows. Lining the streets are miles of tin-roofed shacks, those which are home to more than two million people.

When we learned we'd be working at the children's home, I imagined I might be tutoring kids in English or helping to prepare school lesson plans. I knew I'd be somewhat out of my comfort zone, but I expected to use some familiar skills that I've been fine-tuning over the years. What I was not prepared for was working in an entirely different capacity: in the "Baby House."

When we were given this assignment of spending five weeks working in the baby house, Dan and I looked at each other, gaping. And then I fainted. Just dropped right down on the kitchen floor like some dainty woman in a Victorian novel. (Perhaps fainting was my anxious subconscious response to the prospects of motherhood?! Hm....) For some reason, the thought of working with babies was pretty daunting. We were told we'd be helping to feed and bathe the fourteen kids (between the ages of six months and three years) and that we'd be responsible for teaching early-childhood educational lessons. But what did we know about early childhood? And since these kids have so little--they've been either orphaned or abandoned--we were afraid we weren't qualified to provide them with the quality care they deserve. We'd just have to summon our creativity and trust our intuition.

And here I am, four weeks later, totally enamored with these children. When Dan and I first walked through the baby house doors, we were surrounded--well, "climbed on and jumped on" is probably more accurate--by the kids as they clambered for our attention. We were a bit taken aback when they began calling us "Mama" and "Dadda," as they've been instructed to address all adults (for various reasons those names seemed slightly uncomfortable), but as they showered us with love, all our anxieties about working with them melted away. Dan and I sank to the floor--trying to balance various toddlers on our arms--and I noted how I'd rather be slowly collapsing than dramatically fainting. We could handle this!

We've learned a whole lot in that baby house. First, we learned how developed the kids' personalities are, even at their very young ages. We've got the pouter, the happy-go-lucky dude, the professorial type, and the girl who acts like a mischievous teenager who's too smart for her own good. Lipa is an amazing dancer, and Liya needs to be hugged. Nom seems smarter than she lets on, and Niki always needs to be right. Though we played with everyone every day, I wish we'd had more time to give kids individual attention. Dan took a little extra time for Lita, who's quite bright and was ready to practice his English while many of the other kids were non-verbal or only comfortable speaking Xhosa. I focused a bit more on Lithem, who seemed to be holding so much anger and sadness at his young age of two. The women who've worked with him since he arrived say that they've never seen such a sad child, and they wonder about how his sick mother is doing.

Each child has already faced some kind of significant challenge in life. Two of the children are HIV positive, and one of them is severely bow-legged. Another child was left on the railroad tracks, with his hands and feet tied, the day after he was born. And another child was left out in "the bush," as the South Africans put it. One of our youngest babies is the victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, and he was so neglected by his parents that when he arrived to the home, at six months, he weighed only six pounds. These kids are survivors.

Despite these enormous trials, all of these children greet us each day with smiles and laughter. They seem happiest when they're hugged--or when they can climb all over Dan (see those photos). In the past month, these kids have made us laugh and laugh. One of the youngest babies, Gift, looks like George Foreman and waddles around the room like Godzilla, crushing anything in his way and eating everything in his sight. On the subject of ridiculous eating behaviors, I'll note that Sam and Annie seem especially intrigued by anything that's inappropriate to consume. For example, there was the day when potty-trained Annie peed in her pants (she stood frozen, seemingly in shock, on the cement playground) and then Sam came up behind her and took a little cup to lap up some urine in the puddle that had begun to form below her sister. As we lurched toward her, she drank it and flashed us a mischievous smile. Later in the day, Sam coughed up a hard candy, which fell on the ground. Two seconds later, Annie scooped it up and ate it. Sometimes you just have to laugh.

When we're not watching in horror as the kids consume inappropriate foods, Dan and I do actually try to work with the children in productive ways. Dan has been such a creative teacher this month. He's crafted various posters and dreamed up all kinds of games to teach the kids colors, shapes, animals, and songs. My favorite game is our version of "pin the tail on the donkey," which requires the kids to match certain shapes in their hand with shapes on the wall. It gets pretty funny when we spin the kids around and when we blindfold them. I also love the various dancing games--freeze dance is a favorite--that we break out after bathtime when the kids have way too much expendable energy. The limbo was also a favorite! And Shakira's "Waka Waka" never gets old. I now know all the words, thanks to little three-year-old Lita, who recited them for me, straight-faced and at a fast-forwarded speed, when I asked him to teach me. (He is also teaching me Xhosa. I know how to say "Don't hit!" and "Sit down!")

Though I'd like to think that we've taught the kids a lot this month, the truth is that they're really good at teaching themselves. And I've loved observing how much they can learn and process in such a short time. I never realized it would be so much fun to observe the youngest babies learn how to use their hands. When baby Moe learned that he could clap his hands, he was in heaven for the rest of the week.

I was amazed at how self-sufficient the kids are at their very young ages. Most of them feed themselves, dress themselves, teach themselves, and even train themselves--or each other--to use the bathroom (even though, as I noted, that doesn't always work out as planned....). And considering they have few things, if anything at all, that belong to them, they are relatively good at sharing. Actually, I've noticed they're better at sharing toys than they are at sharing an adult's attention. I suppose that makes sense given their struggles with "family." But even though they have their little moments of frustration and competition (inevitable when they are constantly surrounded by others), they are remarkably well-behaved, and they show so much love for each other. Whenever a child would get fall down or bang an elbow, the other kids would rally around and provide hugs and kisses. Some would even model our behavior of gently rubbing a child's back and saying "You're okay; you're okay." They are such lovely kids. 

Dan and I wonder about how life will likely get harder for these kids as they age. The babies don't know much about how their situation differs from that of anyone else in the world, but the older kids know what life is like outside of Khayelitsha. They understand what they don't have.

Still, I've realized that these children are some of the lucky ones. I came here with all kinds of ideas and feelings about an "orphanage," and these notions have shifted in the past month. Though the home doesn't provide the kids with a traditional family, it does give them a safe and comfortable place to live, hearty meals, an education, and a group of friends. It also shows them love. Many of the other kids in Khayelitsha don't have these basic necessities for a good life. 

The best days are those when the older kids stop by the baby house to dance and sing. Their tunes blend with the ones that we hear outside our window. Maybe tomorrow we'll get to listen to all of their voices floating up from the small buildings and into the evening sky.
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barb on

your pictures are stunning; the children are beautiful and their stories compelling. Hoping they will get care throughout their time at the children's home that makes them smile as they do here... xoxo

dad on

the pix of the kids make me want to cry and smile. You are clearly loved and making a wonderful impression on them. But what happens to them after you there a way for you to send them these pictures a few weeks/months from now? When they will still remember you. Or for that matter, is there a way for you to keep track of their whereabouts and wellbeing a year from now....5 years from now? oxox.

Alain Sykes on

Ummm...did you seriously faint? Dude.

Kate on

They're such great kids! We spoke today with the home's founder and asked to be on the newsletter for general updates on the children. Child protection laws won't permit us to receive updates on individual kids--nor can we get in touch with specific kids. But we made each of them a photo album, which we passed on to the social worker. She'll make sure to give the albums to the kids when they move on.

Alain, I hit the floor like a ton of bricks! And that was after sleeping for three days straight. The doctor said that climbing Kili had seriously dehydrated me....

Becca on

Hi, i just came across your blog and i'm soooo glad i did! i worked at the orphanage from january to march, really lovely to hear the update on the kids, i hope they're all ok!! please give lethemba a big hug and a kiss from me i miss him so much!! your trip sounds amazing, hope you're having fun! xx

Sarah on

Hi! I was there with Becca from February to March and I loved reading this entry! I miss the babies so much especially Gift! Your description of him was dead on. I am glad you two had such a wonderful time...I know I will never forget it.

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