A Nourishing Meal for the Soul

Khayelitsha Township
Jahnakai Willis

The Philani Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition project is an organization that addresses maternal and child health. The program helps support pregnant mothers to improve their birth outcomes, educates women on how to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child, and teaches women about nutrition so that they can keep their children healthy. Today, our class visited the headquarters and starting point of this project in Cape Town.

I was very inspired after spending time at the center with the mentor mothers and the children. I believe that my peer Rowan summed up my experience when she said, “It’s so much more enjoyable doing work for others that you want to do, than doing work for yourself that you’re made to do.” I think that statement explained a lot about what the program’s mentor mothers (women who guide and support the local mothers to raise a healthy family) brought to their work. Near the end of our adventure, the mothers decided to sing for us and of course Maverick was the first one in our class to jump up and start moving to the rhythm. Inspired by this, our class threw ourselves into the whirlwind of sound. Every single person started dancing, singing, cheering, clapping or was in a combined state of smiling and crying. You could tell that every single mentor mother enjoyed their job and cared about the work that they did. They showed us how much love they bring to Philani and how that love empowers and helps other women and their families live a healthy and supported life. I think when people love their work and are 100% committed to it like these women are, it has ten times the impact it does on the people benefiting from their support and wisdom.

Another highlight from our time at Philani was being with the children at school. My favorite part of visiting the kids was during their snack. A small group from our class went into their classroom to hand out snacks and all the kids raised their hands up after they ate and started yelling, “Jojo! Jojo!” at us. Even though we didn’t know what it meant, our group said it back to them and this went on for what felt like ten minutes. We later found out that they were screaming a phrase from some burger advertisement that they had seen, but the part that was touching was that even with a language barrier, the children and we shared a connection because happiness and laughter are universal things. Being in state of love, appreciation, and sheer joy, it was easy to ignore the fact that our group and the kids didn’t speak the same language or couldn’t hold a conversation; the happiness was too important.

Every single kid had so much energy and interest in meeting new people that I found myself in awe and as happy as I could be. Being around these children made me remember how much innocence, joy, and curiosity goes into childhood. I was inspired by seeing these kids living their best lives, with such simplicity. Being with them truly made me realize how so many people think they need so much just to live but we really don’t need all that much. Overall, the Philani visit has been one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve ever been involved with. I believe that I’ll never forget my time there and what I learned just by being around wonderful and empowering people.

Noah Tervalon

Music, to the American is simply an activity; to the South African it is a way of engagement. While we were visiting Philani, a group of mentor mothers came out of their training session to sing to us. As soon as they came out, we could feel their energy. We looked around at each other and quickly realized that the songs we had prepared were going to be blown away by whatever it was they were about to perform for us. When they walked over to perform, there was no making sure they were in a specific line, no ensuring they had the right pitch, no warming up. They jumped right in and grabbed our attention with a grasp that we could not be pulled away from, even if we had tried.

The moment they opened their mouths a wave of raw emotion that was new to me flew out. When Americans sing, the music sounds wonderful and is a fantastic food for the ears, but the music that these women made was an entire nourishing meal for the soul. It was as if the women were singing to share a part of their story and their lives with us instead of singing so that we could hear their voices and appreciate the sound. For a good portion of the time they were singing they weren’t even singing to us, they were singing to each other. They used music to connect to each other on a deeper level and we were invited to join them, which was beautiful.

After their first couple of songs a fantastic moment happened. We had been watching them sing and dance from a short distance away, and then Maverick bridged the gap and joined them in dancing. Everyone in our class seemed to hold their breath, but the women went right on singing and dancing even accepting Maverick into their ranks with smiles and laughter. Soon, a few more people started dancing over to the women and before long our entire class had begun dancing, smiling, and laughing along with the mothers. This experience lasted around 5 minutes but it felt like hours. I remember having a massive smile glued to my face during the entire time.

This entire experience, with the mothers singing to us and us joining them in dance, really brought me into this trip. As soon as it was over I realized that I had just experienced such a deep sense of emotion conveyed through song that music would be changed forever for me. After having experienced this, I realized that music was not simply an activity for them as it is for us, it is a way of giving yourself to another so they can understand you by sharing with them your raw emotions.

Tessa Ortiz

After unloading and sorting the clothing donations that we brought, we were met with much excitement from the coordinators and mentor mothers. They told us that many children normally would only be wrapped in blankets. Now, they could go outside and play in the winter weather. After hearing from several of the women that worked at Philani, we were sorted into groups to work. My group went to start rolling balls of fabric that would be used on the loom. Once that job was mostly completed, we hung out with the kids from the preschool. I remember looking around the play structure and then I saw a little girl just looking at me with her arms raised, so I picked her up and we walked around as she played with my hair.

A highlight of the day was when I met a mentor mother and her daughters and niece. As we worked rolling the fabric string into balls, we talked about school. The eldest was in twelfth grade, her sister was in third grade, and the niece was in ninth grade. The eldest talked about studying psychology in college. We talked a lot about our relationships with our moms. As we kept untangling the string, we laughed and joked in the small amount of sunlight. It felt like we were all connected by that string. I couldn’t have felt any more peaceful. I have made a new friend and she wants me to come back, and I have plans to make it happen. Another highlight of the day was when one of the administrators said, after explaining how she made it to South Africa as a refugee, that she learned that we are here to bring light to people when it is very dark. Bringing a small amount of help can lead to great opportunities.

Fiona Burgess

It is safe to say that the two days we’ve spent in South Africa have surpassed any expectations I previously held. I thought I was prepared. I had read the blog posts of the class that came before us as well as watched the videos of their trip, but all my preconceived notions were quickly wiped away.

Upon arrival at Philani, I learned of the many inspiring women who work within its mentor mother program. These women are mothers from low income areas that have surpassed their circumstances and raised healthy children themselves. Recruited by Philani, these mentor mothers go out into communities and support other mothers with children ages zero to five in being confident mothers who raise healthy children. What really struck me is that not only are they providing these women with resources but working towards the continued progression of the communities.

After spending the day helping at Philani, as well as interacting with the children, we were surprised with a concert from the mentor mothers we had learned about earlier. As they sung, we all watched and I was unable to stop the smile from spreading across my face. By the middle of their performance our class had joined them, and we were all dancing around the courtyard. For me, it was extremely empowering to be surrounded by these women who inspired me with their hard work. By the end of our time there, I realized how completely present I was, the usual thoughts of self-consciousness I carried were nonexistent. I had spent the day completely focused and interested by my surroundings. Today has left me both inspired and excited for the rest of our time here in South Africa.

Haley Kerr

“Good morning,” the kids at Philani chimed as we stood in their happy presence. It didn’t matter that these young kids and I didn’t speak the same language because the love still flowed through each and every one of us. Small, simple communications were all we needed to have fun together. When the kids wanted to go across the monkey bars in the playground they would simply say, “Missy! Missy!” and then we would proceed to help them across. To communicate our love, and joy that we were together, we would smile, wave, and say, “Morning!” repeatedly.

Personally, I got the pleasure of spending time with one specific little girl named Mary. She was very shy at first, but when we started singing and dancing with the whole group, she held onto my hand and didn’t let go. The group spread out and went to do other things, so I turned to Mary and proceeded to try and communicate with hand motions and facial expressions. After only two minutes of simply smiling at each other, Mary wrapped her arms around my legs and gave me a big hug. I squatted down so that I was the same height as her and she adjusted so that her arms were wrapped around my neck. I hugged her back and we continued to hold each other fondly. In that moment, feeling Mary’s arms wrapped tightly around me, I looked around at all my classmates playing with the other kids and felt pure joy. The sun was shining, everyone was having fun, and in their faces, I could see the enormous amount of love that they felt. At that moment, my heart was full and I realized how immensely grateful I am for the opportunity to be here in South Africa with such warm-hearted people.

After we said our bittersweet goodbyes to the kids, a group of about 30 women, who were in training to become mentor mothers, came outside and sang for us. Seeing the joy in their faces as they performed increased the love in my heart even more. Not only are they great performers, but they are also changing the world. These mentor mothers save the lives of so many children in South Africa by checking on them and their mothers to make sure that they are well-nourished and developing correctly. These inspiring women are the reason why Philani is so successful and why the children that we met today were so joyful. I can confidently say that today was one of the best and most inspiring days of my life. I will never forget the beautiful smiles of those kids and the immense love I felt singing, dancing, and playing with them.

At Philani Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition Project