In the African brush, a baby baboon is carried on its mother’s back.
We tend to define “mother” as the person who gave birth to a child. We assume that she will be the one who takes responsibility for that child and benefits from the joy and laughter that her children brings her. It is not always so, no matter how much she loves her baby.
In a world where the family structure has been torn apart by poverty or war, natural disaster or immigration, Apartheid or a history of slavery, you can walk away feeling hopeless.
I just returned from South Africa, where I expected to be depressed by the high numbers of orphans and abandoned children. I was. I knew I would feel the weight of that many children living in poverty. I did. I was afraid of how I might react when I saw a starving child, or one who I knew to be abused, or one with HIV – or a hundred of each.
The surprise was that I also found myself impressed by the human instinct to step in where needed – so many women who fill the role of mother when a birth mother cannot.
Yes, a frightening number of children in the townships of South Africa are living in poverty. A shameful number are living without their parents due to everything for HIV to poverty to migrant farming to drug addiction. Many are not getting a decent education, though it is the law there.
Yet there is hope, given what I saw. When the family is torn apart, and parents cannot play their expected role, there are those who step in to fill the void as best they can, even when they too are suffering and sharing their bread means going to sleep hungry. They are not all mothers in the traditional sense, yet they have chosen to carry so many children on their backs.
The six grannies who built the Masazane Soup Kitchen run foster homes that house 150 children between them. Some are their own grandchildren. Some are children who found their way to the open arms of these kind-hearted ladies. Struggling to stretch their pensions to put food on the table for such a foster family and purchase the uniforms required for school, they built a soup kitchen for children. Every day after school, anywhere from 150 to 400 children line up for a free meal. Sometimes buses pull up. They say the hardest thing is when the food runs out and a last small group of children stands there with their arms crossed, eyes wide, waiting for a different answer. When you meet the grannies, you see the weariness in their limbs. At least one is in her seventies. But you also see an easy-going acceptance that they will not turn a child away, that they will find a way to keep these children nourished with both food and love.
An American woman moves between community organizations devoted to orphans and vulnerable children in the township. She assesses their needs, recruits volunteers to help, and works every day to build their capacity to survive and give hundreds of kids a chance to succeed. She is working so hard to develop the organizations that she rarely gives herself the opportunity to spend time with the children – which is why she came to South Africa in the first place. She is doing more to help them than they will ever know, yet she does not allow herself the benefit of a child’s attention and adoration that the volunteers she recruits experience. There is too much to do to make sure they have food and homework help and occupational therapy and medical care. There is too much to do to support the foster mothers so they can manage the finances and stress of bringing up children in poverty. And yet, all she wants is to hug these little girls and boys, read her favorite books to them, give them gifts that make them smile, and help them thrive beyond their circumstances or anyone else’s expectations – just like a mother. Her sacrifice is not leaving a comfortable existence in the U.S. to work on behalf of the children – although she did that. Her sacrifice is acting on her belief that she best serves these children by raising up the larger organizations working to sustain them, rather than choosing just one child to love.
At the Abaphumeleli Place of Safety, one woman feeds and watches over 30 children living in her very small home in the Khayelitsha township. Only six are her foster children, for whom she receives government grants to support. The others have been brought to her by the courts, community members and others when they have been abused or neglected. She says she cannot turn them away, though her house is full. There are not enough bunk beds, so some sleep on the floor. There is not enough food. She sends them to school. She welcomes volunteers to play with the little ones and help the older children with homework. Some of the children have HIV or other ailments, but she will not tell you who or how many. The children follow her through the house, holding her hand, coming to her to settle a disagreement. Some stay for as long as two years. Some bounce back and forth between Abaphemeleli and family, and call Aba home.
In South Africa, when you witness the broken state of the family and the inability of so many mothers to perform their role as loving, sustaining caregiver, you understand the continuing tragedy of Apartheid despite tremendous efforts by its people to put that era behind them. They have a long way to go. The country’s hopes are riding, in part, on heroic efforts by people like these women in the townships, quietly performing great feats of kindness, and carrying so many children on their backs.
To learn more about these women, go to http://www.tremendoushearts.org.