Singing "Waka Waka" with the Babies
Trip Start Sep 02, 2010
77Trip End Jun 13, 2011
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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
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
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
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
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
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.