Yesterday Thoko and I went out to the Nhlengetfwa family homestead. This is where Mthokozisi and his 3 sisters stay. I’ve written about this family many time over the last couple of years. These 4 children have basically been abandoned by their father and mother. Their mother left their father because he was abusive and he was trying to cut off her ear one night. The father, who is employed as a construction worker which is a pretty good job in Swaziland, generally lives in Manzini where his work is and rarely goes home. When he does go home he would take from the children rather than bring them simple little things like food or money to buy food. A year ago Thoko, Thini and I moved Mthokozisi and his sisters to their father’s parents’ homestead. Since the father was estranged from his parents we didn’t think it would be a problem and we figured it couldn’t be worse than where they were staying because at least they would have 4 sturdy walls and a roof over their head. All I can say about the year since the move is that at least they have a roof over their head. They are still 4 kids left to fend for themselves and now also for their aging gogo and various other relatives that come to live with them from time to time. One of the reasons for our surprise visit yesterday was to see who was staying there. Mthokozisi told Thoko one day last week that a very sick uncle had moved in with them and his aunts were asking what Mthokozisi could do for him. This infuriates Thoko and I – They are asking a kid what he can do to take care of a grown uncle.
As we drove near the homestead and as I was parking the truck we could see what looked like kids scampering around. It was clear they had seen us coming and were doing something – maybe they were picking things up. We walked down to the homestead and found the 4 kids plus another one standing outside their house. Gogo was up and around as well. Someone had burned off the grass in the yard, or a fire was accidently set. It was better than seeing all of the tall grass and some of the junk had burned off the ground as well. Gogo immediately came over and started talking to Thoko and I. There wasn’t any sign of the uncle and no mention of him either. Gogo told the kids to take us into their house so we could talk because it was rather cool yesterday. In reality, gogo wanted to talk and tell Thoko all the great things she had done for the kids – which in reality is zip, zero, nada. But we were polite to gogo. I was sitting on the mat they placed on the floor for us at a spot that I could see the outside. Little did I know how strategic that was.
Thoko and I also went to the homestead to see their end of second term school reports. Before we went into the house Mthokozisi said to Thoko and then to me that he failed the term, but that we shouldn’t be too worried because he would do better. So while we sat on the mat with the gogo talking away in Siswati, I looked at their school reports. Mthokozisi, who is in form 2 (9th grade) did fail miserably with an average score of probably around 30 – 40%. His sister, Nozipho who is in form 1 (8th grade) didn’t have her school report because she turned her library book into the wrong teacher. (Sound familiar?!!) She said she passed though. Tsembani who is in 5th grade did very well. She was in 5th in her class with about a 70 – 75% average. Tiphelele who is in 3rd grade passed but with scores around 50%. I just sat there looking at the reports and wondering how the kids are supposed to do better when there isn’t any one at home to help them or guide them and when lessons are presented at one level for everyone and most of the teaching is repeating things by rote or copying things off of the blackboard. And then I would shudder as I thought at how low even the best of the scores were. I kept trying to think of how I could help the kids do better in school, but realistically, I know there isn’t much I can do. So from my spot on the mat I would just keep looking out through the doorway pondering so many things and asking God what I am here for and why we can’t seem to make more of a difference in these kids lives. And as I was gazing outside I saw the beautiful little bird sitting on top of a pole. It’s body looked like a kingfisher which I’ve never seen in Swaziland. And the tips of its wing feathers were the most beautiful bright blue. So I escaped reality by watching the bird. I took a couple of pictures of it and at one point I motioned for Tiphelele to come near me. She did and I told her to look at the beautiful little bird. I don’t think she looked at it, she just giggled. The Swazis think I’m a bit crazy because I love pointing out beautiful flowers, trees and now birds.
At one point the gogo stopped talking and Thoko told me that the gogo was telling her that she has been telling the kids they need to go into the field and collect sisal (a cactus much like the yucca) leaves because the white fiber inside can be sold to make some money. At that point I lost it a bit. I know my response was a bit louder and more direct than it should have been when I said that the children needed to study more so they could do better in school and since they have no one to cook for them or wash their clothes and they need to start a garden so they will have some food to eat that they already have more than enough to do. The frustrating thing for me is I knew that if they did make money the gogo would take it. These kids would be expected to support their gogo instead of getting any help from the gogo. After my little outburst I knew it was time to focus on my little kingfisher again. It was such an incongruent scene: burnt grass, stumps of trees, a sheet of corrugated iron for roofing discarded in the middle of the yard, a dog that was so skinny and sickly I wanted to cry, cow patties everywhere, a falling down corral for the cows, random pieces of rubbish and then this beautiful bird sitting there above it all.
Thoko and I talked with Mthokozisi about what he needed to do if he didn’t understand what the teacher was talking about in class. We encouraged him to ask the teacher after class to explain what he didn’t understand. We suggest he correct the problems or questions he got wrong. Thoko in particular told them they needed to study much more. Of course they were out of candles and kerosene for their lamp and they don’t ask for more when they run out. But it might be that they don’t ask because they know someone will just take them and use them. I felt so helpless and discouraged.
Then we walked over to look at the area Mthokozisi had cleared for a garden; I had bought some fencing for them and told him when the fencing was up and the ground prepared to call me and I’d bring them some seedlings. I reminded the girls that all of them needed to help Mthokozisi in the garden because he shouldn’t have to do the work all by himself. They said yebo to everything Thoko and I said, but I don’t get the feeling that the girls will help Mthokozisi.
So we left. Both of us were feeling a bit down and frustrated. Here’s my dilemma: If a child isn’t doing well in school, do we keep paying their school fees? If they are failing year after year or doing so poor what we in the States would consider failing what is the point of them staying in school? Do we encourage them to do better or do we just accept whatever they achieve? How is a child going to be successful in the next grade or ultimately finish school if each year they are passed with 50% or less of the skills obtained? How are they going to succeed in school and in life if they aren’t taught to problem solve or how to ask questions when they don’t understand things? What if we don’t continue to pay these children’s school fees? The answer to this is they will probably sit home and do absolutely nothing and there will be no hope of getting any sort of a job other than sporadic manual labor jobs. In addition, many won’t have the one “meal” a day that they get in school. So do we keep them in school to keep them semi busy and so they will be fed once a day? So many questions, so little answers but I find myself asking myself these questions over and over and over. And then I pray for wisdom. Oops, there’s a problem. Instead of pondering the same thing over and over (worrying about it) I should just turn these questions over to God and trust that he will guide me to do the right thing. (ya think? Does Matthew 6: 25-27 ring a bell? He even feeds the little beautiful birds!) It helps that Thoko wrestles with some of these same questions and that we can openly talk about these issues, and as we talk our way through these dilemmas we help each other feel a bit better and always remind each other of God’s faithfulness.
Lord, I ask for your wisdom and guidance regarding what to do, say or how to help these kids. Please help me remember to turn these types of dilemmas that I am faced with over to you from the start because I know that only YOU have the answer and the answer is to call on Jesus Christ to guide us, comfort us and when needed, even carry us. Give me the strength, patience and grace not to judge or be discouraged but to be a positive, Christian force in these children’s lives and in the lives of so many others. Give me the words to encourage Thoko as well. And Lord…..thank you for bringing me the little bird as a beautiful reminder of your glorious creation and your unfailing love.