HIV positive. One year old and dying. Neglected by her mother. Deprived of food. Two years later this child that has suffered so much is a beautiful 3 year old, full of life and happiness. This little girl was open to all the love that I was so quick to give her. The smile that appeared on her face with every embrace could warm the coldest heart. It is hard to imagine that anyone could treat such a precious baby so terribly. I am thankful that Mariann and Con Clote, who founded Botshabelo twenty years ago, rescued her from a life of deprivation and neglect. Like every child, that toddler was worth saving and I feel fortunate that I was able to hold her and share my love and compassion. Her smile is an image that will forever remain in my memory.
I could feel the excitement bubbling as our bus slowly approached Botshabelo, a South African children’s village and orphanage where all of the children are either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. I had been waiting for this day for months. Ever since watching Angles in the Dust, a documentary featuring the inspirational story of the village, I desperately hoped to visit. Even through the TV screen, the love and spirit of Botshabelo was profoundly moving. I longed to feel their energy first hand, experience their stirring passion, and learn from them the true essence of community.
When we finally arrived, it truly seemed surreal. The children greeted us with open arms, welcoming us into their home and their hearts. A nine year old girl named Michelle immediately took me under her wing, teaching me many useful “Cats Cradle” tricks with string…the ultimate bonding experience.
Clutching my hand as if she had known me forever, Michelle then lead me to the village cemetery to visit her 3 year old friend. She touched the grave with tenderness and told me of the love that they had shared. She couldn’t understand why I was crying. For these children, while death is a tragic part of their lives, they have gained the remarkable ability to treasure each precious moment.
Later, we returned to the main village to enjoy a dance performance by the teenagers of Botshabelo. Their smiles were heartwarming and their lively energy soon had the whole room moving and grooving. For the last song, we were all given the opportunity to get on our feet and dance together. Michelle immediately grabbed my hand and led me to the dance floor to show me her moves. My heart synchronized with the powerful beat of the music. The purity of her smile warmed my body. I do not remember the last time I have felt that happy.
While I could have stayed there forever, it finally came time for us to leave. The lump in my throat grew with each goodbye hug. It felt like we were saying goodbye to family. Right before getting on to the bus, I squeezed Michelle with all of my might, hoping to freeze time for just a few more moments. Never before I have a felt so connected to a child or to a place. The community at Botshabelo embodies the true meaning of Sawubona. Their love, passion, sincerity, and genuine appreciation for life created a safe environment in which I could find the courage to see and be seen.
Finding the right words to accurately describe our experience today at Botshabelo children’s village is almost impossible. The children there truly touched me in a way that I never expected.
When I think of family, I think of a mom, dad, and their kids. The people we met today have completely redefined that word for me. The loving babies, kids and teens have shown me that you don’t have to be related to be a true family. The care and support they have for each other is so powerful that you can feel it as soon as you pull through the gate.
When you see their genuine, warm smiles, you would never guess how much trauma each one of them has been unfortunate enough to experience. A majority of them are orphans, and all but six tested positive for HIV.
As we walked through the property that was covered with houses, shacks, classrooms and bunk rooms, I was overwhelmed by the number of babies there were to hold. Since I am a baby lover, I was overjoyed by how many cute, smiling children were eager to jump into my arms.
As we walked through a field of tall, thick grass, I got the opportunity to connect with one of the older girls. She told me that she was thirteen years old and had lived there since she was eight. When I asked about her life before she came to Botshabelo she explained that she ran away with her mother and sister to escape her abusive father. I was speechless, but somehow I managed to blurt out a sentence, “How much longer is this walk?” She laughed and responded, “Don’t worry its not much farther, I know Americans hate walking.”
What seemed to be a endless field finally ended and we found ourselves at a graveyard. The woman in charge told us that this was an illegal graveyard where most of the childrens’ parents and many of their siblings were buried. The girl took my hand and walked me to two graves. “This is my mom and sister.” I was shocked, the way she so blatantly said this made it clear that the topic of death had become normal for her. This hit me the hardest of anything we’ve experienced on this trip.
The ability these kids have to love and care for one another is truly amazing. Leaving them at the end of the day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. These children have experienced so much and still they had the strength to wipe away my tears. I love every single one of them. They have taught me more then they will ever understand.
Ever since we watched Angels in the Dust, our class has been working hard to raise funds and donations to give to the children at Botshabelo. We managed to raise $1,000 and gather enough goods to fill seventeen 50-pound bags with toys, clothes, stationary items, sanitary items, and laptop computers.
Our two-hour bus ride was filled with excited chatter about the babies we were about to meet. The girls in our class had already warned Nicole and me not to hog all the babies but we turned to each other and rolled our eyes, knowing that we would hold them and shower them with all the love we had.
As we got off the bus, children, puppies and kittens swarmed around us. The first image that came to my head was my memory of Sri Ram Ashram. There the kids run up to you yelling, “Didi! Didi!” At Botshabelo the kids embraced us and flashed us huge smiles that were bigger than their faces. As always, my instincts immediately pulled me toward a 6-month old baby that I kept with me for the next four and a half hours.
We began with a tour of the property and a walk to the cemetery. On our walk I cut my finger and was told to go back and clean up the wound and bandage it. A girl named Mikah walked back with me. During that walk I began to truly appreciate the importance of my family. I asked Mikah how long she had been at the orphanage and she told me that her grandmother brought her there and shortly after passed away. Her mother was also dead and her uncle had passed away the previous week. She said that her father was still alive but that he never visited her. I didn’t know what to say besides, “I’m really sorry.” She asked me about my family and at first I felt uncomfortable even talking about my family to someone who had lost everyone. But then I realized she wasn’t alone. She had so many people at Botshabelo who cared for her. I told her about my parents and brother and how love, time and difficulties have made our bonds stronger. Talking about them reminded me of how important they are to me. I think sometimes we take advantage of what we have and don’t see the treasures in front of us because we get used to the love and comfort. She listened to my stories intently and with so much joy. She found happiness in my happiness. This ability to be happy for others is a characteristic that I wish to take back with me and hopefully keep forever.
My heart pounded as we jumped off the bus and onto the property of Botshabelo Children’s Village. I had been waiting months for this day.
As we got off the bus we were greeted by dozens of smiling faces, from newborns to young adults in their twenties. Leigh Cohn, daughter of the founders, told us how grateful they were that we were there. I wanted to tell her that it was us that were grateful.
One of the six year olds, Gabby, promptly sat down on my lap. We soaked up each other’s love and I felt whole just looking into her eyes. I carried her on my back as we walked to the Botshabelo cemetery. One of the older girls showed me all the graves that she was connected to. She said, “This here is my mother. Here is my baby brother. That is my best friend.” I looked at each grave and felt overwhelmed with helplessness. The strength in her eyes turned my helplessness into the urgent need for action and I vowed that I would someday come back to the family of Botshabelo.
Throughout the night Gabby did not leave my side and we formed a special bond. However, I noticed that whenever another child would come up to me, she would shoo them away and hug me protectively. I wanted to tell her that I would not let her go, that nothing would make me love her less. I couldn’t imagine leaving her at the end of the night. When this time came, I could not hug her tightly enough and I couldn’t help but cry.
Visiting Botshabelo was a highlight of the trip for me. I felt a true sense of family there. I was both overwhelmed and ecstatic. I know that some day I will be back and hopefully I can see Gabby and feel her love once again.
Mankind has returned to the cradle where it began, a little worse for the wear. Long long ago, our species climbed out of the trees and learned to sleep in forty-five minute intervals so we could avoid the stalking lions. We evolved a sense of rashness at the age of fifteen so we could ignore the consequences, leave our tribe and find a mate. We journeyed north from the east side of South Africa and its green grassy hills, up the coast, fishing, leaving our mark. We crossed oceans, climbed mountains, survived volcanic eruptions…. Some of us developed white skin so we could absorb the weaker rays of sunshine in our new habitats.
Today we wanderers visited the Tswana, oldest population on earth as we know for sure by analyzing tiny, tiny, bits of everyone on the planet. On the way to see them we passed the site where the oldest Homo sapien bones have been found rotting away beneath the red earth. Yes, we are a little worse for the wear. We have lost our touch with the rhythm of the ground beneath our feet. We’re floating too far above it in two hundred dollar shoes, layer after layer of pipes and vents and insulation, ears full of catchy tunes about fast food restaurants. Our group came from a life lived behind closed doors, in private backyards, where you can live for ten years without knowing someone living on the same block.
Not in black South Africa. Yesterday we walked up and down the streets of Tembisa picking up people’s babies, seeing the flashes of a thousand smiles and heads thrown back in laughter as people with small, cozy houses sang the evening away washing laundry on their front porches. Where do the children play? Everywhere. With all their elders’ watchful eyes on them, meaning the entire neighborhood.
Wealth forces us to closet ourselves behind protective gates, and eventually, our spirits become closeted, self-conscious. We are in a strange world of tricking ourselves into believing we’re happy because we just bought something.
If the rivers in which flow the waters of lifes’ passion and immediacy generally dwell far, far beneath the surface for the privileged people of the world, today, the Africans drilled down inside us and opened up a taproot to our hearts.
Yes, we are back in the cradle, mankind, and the time has come to start over. Some of the Tswana we visited have also returned; some have been there forever. Some of them have faces with scars, some are burned, limbs are not quite right; babies are smaller than they should be. All of them have AIDS. Most are victims of sexual abuse; almost all of the young girls have been raped. Their parents are buried behind them on the hillside. Yet here, when they dance and sing on the earthen floor, something so beautiful and precious opens up in their faces; pure, true joy. Passion for life. Spirit. Everything Americans strive for in a thousand full-to-the-brim weekend retreats and to the tune of a multi-million-dollar self-help industry.
And we cut through the pretension easily, with a dull knife, that we are there to “help” them. As they take our hands and draw us onto the dance floor and we all throw our self-consciousness to the winds, we thank them a thousand times for the love they are giving us.