I will never forget

by Admin / 8. November 2008 10:48

I think about the events of that particular day often. The swell of emotions caused by witnessing the reality of the situation flooded my senses, leaving me speechless. My heart ached in disbelief, as if some desensitized old timer was trying to convince it, “that’s just the way it is, kid.” My stomach tied itself in knots, as if it wanted to retaliate against what was about to happen. As I looked at the four-year-old boy, clenched in his grandmother’s arms, I saw the look of confusion on his face. He grows teary eyed when he sees his mother get in the car; instincts and misunderstanding are telling him that the bond he shares with his mother is about to be severed. We slowly began to drive away from the home and my eyes began to mirror the boy’s. The difference, however, was that my eyes spoke words of uncertainty, not knowing when, or if, the boy would see his mother again. It would be a while until he will be able to fully comprehend what happened that day, that his mother is HIV positive and needed to leave home to get medical attention.

It was my first time picking up a new patient to be brought to the respite unit of the local Hillcrest AIDS Center, a place where those suffering from HIV/AIDS are provided with the medical, physical, and emotional support necessary to fight the virus and, hopefully, return to a normal life. The only thought that comforted me as I drove away from the grandmother and the son was in knowing that the woman was being taken to such a positive and uplifting environment, a place where skilled care-givers and nurses could assess her current condition, stabilize her, and get her on a life-sustaining course of treatment. It happens daily at the respite unit, and often with great success.

One such success story which I felt personally gifted to be apart of in a minute way was the recent release of another patient from the respite unit. Driving the patient home, up to the front door of her home, being greeted with the cheers and smiles of her sister and mother, I saw the power of family and the positive, healthy force that was being generated in the household and, on a bigger scale, in the community, with the return of this one woman. As I said my goodbyes and drove up the winding road out of the valley where she lived, I recalled the day only one week before, outside of a home only five minutes away, when a mother was separated from her infant son. When family bonds were crippled and the heartbeat of a close-knit community lost its steady rhythm by the destructive and malicious power of AIDS. I prayed that the son, aided by his grandmother, would sleep peacefully that night. I am hopeful of the mother’s return to her son; family bonds re-sewn, a community uplifted.

Michael Barry

South Africa 2008



Internationals 2008

Miss Ayo!

by Admin / 11. September 2008 10:49

Everyday, at 10 o’clock on the dot, the bell signaling the start of break sounds outside the main office. Children begin to pour out of classrooms; some run to buy chips and candy from the aunties, others form a line at the kitchen for beans and rice, some forgo lunch all together and make a beeline for the basketball court. I grab my lunch and maneuver through the frenzy of students going this way and that, and eventually make my way to the front stoop of the computer room. Perched on a chair outside is Ayanda, St. Leo’s resident assistant, receptionist, typist, substitute teacher and so on. As her many job titles suggest, Ayanda does a lot for St. Leo’s, and her presence there has become invaluable to me.

Ayanda lives just a short walk from school. She’s lived in Molweni her entire life, and even attended St. Leo’s as a child. She graduated from the local high school when she was just fifteen. Thanks to our daily lunch dates outside of the computer room, we’ve shared stories, opinions, worries, language lessons, and many, many laughs. We’ve become good friends.

One of my favorite things about Ayanda is her unabated curiosity. Our friendship was so quick in the making because she has always loved asking me questions, and vice versa. We’ve grown up on opposite sides of the globe, and have lived very different lives in completely different places. She is endlessly amused by my tales from America. In turn, Ayanda has given me a glimpse of what it’s like to be a young Zulu woman in South Africa.

We’ve asked each other just about everything. Her questions range every topic imaginable. What’s your Mom like? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you have kids? Do you want kids? What kind of man do you want to marry? Do you want to be a nun? What are you eating? Do you do your own washing? Are there poor people in America? Do you have AIDS in America? Why do you eat so much peanut butter? Do you like Jacob Zuma? How do you get your hair to do that?

We talk about university, friends, siblings, parents, work, food, politics, boys - just about everything. From all that I’ve learned about Ayanda, I know that she is a remarkable person. She is smart and hardworking. She is funny and caring. She is only twenty years old, but has dealt with her fair share of struggles, and as a young Zulu woman, will no doubt face many more.

She attends university on the weekends, and is working towards a degree in business. Out of all her friends, Ayanda is the only one who doesn’t yet have a baby. She is also the only one without a boyfriend, something her friends taunt her for regularly. Their teasing bothers her quite a bit, but after appearing troubled for a moment she quips, “It’s fine. School is my boyfriend right now.” This is typical Ayanda - light hearted, clever, unsure at times, and mature beyond her years.

Needless to say, Ayanda is an integral and irreplaceable part of my experience in South Africa thus far. She is a friend I never imagined I would make, and now I can’t imagine having never met her. I am so very grateful for all that she has taught me about the place and the people I serve, and I’m grateful for all the wonderful questions and conversations to come.

Alexa Levy

South Africa 2008



Internationals 2008

What is Your Reality?

by Admin / 20. August 2008 10:50

What is your reality? My reality is huge, it is enormous. I could fill a book with it! Let’s see - I am 24 years old and from the United States. I have travelled across the country, and even across the world. I have a college degree, and a history of impeccable health. The sky is the limit and the world is my playground!

But you know, during the past seven months I have spent in South Africa, I have met some amazing people. Amazing people with very different realities!

How about Gogo Gloria? What is her reality?

About 20 months ago, she was bit on her legs by a snake and had a failed skin graft surgery. Now she can’t get out of her house without facing a 200 yard hill with a torn-up dirt path leading to the paved street above. With open wounds on both her legs, she can’t make it up the hill. That hill is her reality. Her reality is that every Friday, the noble Zulu woman that she is has to swallow her pride to squat into a wheelbarrow that carries her up the hill so that she can get a ride to the hospital to have her bandages changed. She does not need pity- just a way to get up that hill.

How about young Nomphilo? What is her reality? 

She should be in the middle of her last year of elementary school, as a bright and beautiful teenage girl. She couldn’t make it to classes this year, though, because she was spending too much time in the hospital. Her reality is that she was born with AIDS. She did not contract AIDS through any fault of her own, she was simply born with it- it is the only reality she has known. For most students here, Holy Thursday was the first day of a three week holiday from school. For Nomphilo, she had an IV in her arm and spent the night in the lobby of a government (meaning: poor conditions) hospital. She’ll never get to celebrate her 15th birthday- she passed away in July.

And Manqoba? What is his reality? 

He is 14 years old and full of energy and life. He is also a student in Grade 5th for the second year in a row. His reality is the life of an orphan. He stays at St. Theresa’s Boys Home in a cottage with eleven other boys, all under the care and supervision of one “Auntie,” who struggles to divide her time and attention between them all, like a parent with twelve boys (except she already has her own children, too). Manqoba is generally well behaved in school, except on Tuesdays, when he goes to see the psychologist and it shakes him up inside.

As I think about my reality, I can’t help but reflect on the realities of Gogo, Nomphilo and Manqoba. These are people who have deeply touched my life in the past seven months. It’s come to the point that I can’t see my reality without seeing them in it. And that’s the point.

The point is: my reality is connected with each of theirs. My reality might fill a book with eloquent prose, but as long as it’s only about me, consider it a work of fiction. It must include the reality of Gogo Gloria and that hill outside her house. It must include the reality of Nomphilo and the disease that stole her life. And itmust include the reality of Manqoba and his unstable future.

In fact, they have a word for that here: “ubuntu,” which is short for the Zulu “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” Translation: “a person is a person through other people.” What a profound concept in such simple terms!

So it’s all about ubuntu. Our reality is shared: our relationships impact and change us in profound ways that forever connect our lives together. This concept has never been clearer to me than through my relationships here with people from all different walks of life. So forget about filling a book, a library couldn’t contain my shared reality! That’s ubuntu!

And that’s my reality. What’s yours? Or rather - what’s ours? 

Brian Strassburger

Bronx 2006-2007

South Africa 2008



Internationals 2008

Shwiba! Shwiba!

by Admin / 5. August 2008 10:52

“Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?”

This song lyric has played through my head at various points throughout my time in South Africa. I doubt that any volunteer can really know what their time has in store for them. This perhaps becomes even more true when volunteering abroad. Living overseas carries its own set of challenges and surprises, which at times can make your head spin. This is certainly the case for me since I had planned for quite some time to spend this time in Peru. However, I can’t even begin to imagine not having had this experience. The Augustinian community in South Africa and the learners and teachers at St. Leo’s have added such richness to my life that I can barely remember a time before they were in it. I will never be the same.

Five days a week I attempt to teach English to 300+ students at St. Leo’s Primary School. In addition to what takes place within the classroom, I regularly play hide and seek, pump up an assortment of sports balls, apply plasters (band-aids), hold hands, defeat 7th graders in Horse, tie shoes and shwiba.

Although much of my time here has been spent as the teacher, I am also very much the learner. The most important lesson I have learned so far came by way of a 5 year old. Sphe and I are great friends at school. I see him nearly every break and am always greeted with a big smile and usually a running hug. Sphe and I are still learning to communicate- mostly in the most rudimentary sentences or by pointing and using only verbs. The most common one I hear from him is “shwiba”. This means that he wants me to pick him up and spin him around wildly. I usually comply. For those of you who haven’t spun recently, it doesn’t take much to get dizzy. In doing this, Sphe has taught me an extremely important lesson: if you focus on the ecstatic face of the person who you are spinning, everything else melts away and you feel like you can spin forever and never get tired.

The problems here are many. As I write this, there is no school because there is a taxi stay-away and the majority of people in KZN can’t get to work. Many of our learners don’t have adequate food, shelter or clothing. They are 2 to 3 years older than they should be and still don’t read at grade level. Their families and community have been ravaged by HIV. The list goes on. However, when you focus on one learner, whether it is learning his or her name, helping them complete an assignment, or get access to medical care, the other things fade away for the moment, and you are able to wake up every day and look forward to the next time you shwiba.

Emma Stewart

South Africa 2008



Internationals 2008

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