A Place of Safety
Rosie Brooks is a student at Liverpool University. Here she tells of her two years at a children's refuge in South Africa.
On 17th August 2002 I packed my rucksack full of crayons, rubber gloves and baby clothes. My destination: Bethany Place of Safety in South Africa, my motivation: to make a difference in any way I could. I left as an eager, fresh-faced, eighteen-year-old volunteer. I returned as a cook, cleaner, nurse and most importantly, a mum to sixty plus children. Bethany is located in Umtata, a run-down city in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. This is an area that is still desperately trying to free itself from the overwhelming poverty left from its homeland status during the Apartheid era - while dealing face on with the harsh effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that is running rampant over the African continent.
The home caters for fifty to seventy children, ranging in age from a couple of hours to about seven years. The reasons that they are at Bethany vary: many have been abandoned and left to die. Others have been removed from abusive and neglectful families, while some are true orphans. About 50% of the children that come through Bethany's doors are HIV positive.
I went out at eighteen with no life experience of any consequence - I was completely naïve about the pain and suffering that I was now dealing with on a daily basis. Having been there only three days I witnessed a child die in the hospital bed next to our little Lundi (admitted to hospital with pneumonia) - who joined him only weeks later. I had never been to a child's funeral; over the past two years I've been to too many. The ground is host to too much potential never realised. With an awareness that many of the children I looked after carried the inevitable death sentence of HIV/AIDS, it was hard to see it in the happy smiling faces that greeted me every day.
I learnt to look for the positives in life, to be thankful for the small things. The giggles and laughs from nappy hats (made from Terry's nappies, with knots at each corner) were cherished, the excitement about new shoes was amazing, the smiles that balloons produced were inspiring and the chance to witness children see the sea for the first time was a privilege. I looked at the differences we could make and appreciated them for what they were.
A two-year-old girl called Nikita had been abandoned under an old bridge. She came to us undernourished and weak. For the first two weeks she called out for her mummy and cried herself to sleep. Then there was a change: she was quiet and withdrawn, wouldn't play, interact, smile or even cry. It appeared she had given up; she knew that even if she cried no one was coming to get her. We spent hours holding, cuddling and talking to her. After about six weeks we had a breakthrough - she started to laugh, play and most importantly to smile. It was these breakthroughs that made everything seem worthwhile.
Having been used to having everything, it was an experience learning how to cope without. I learnt that pasta, when the power went off, can be cooked in a kettle, nappies can be changed in the pitch black and that candles are not a good idea with thirty plus toddlers around. When we had no running water I realised just how weak I am when trying to heave buckets of the stuff around, that washing sixty children is a nightmare and that disposable nappies may be expensive but they definitely have their uses.
These two years taught me how amazing the strength of the human spirit is. I witnessed grim determination from Afika as he tried to walk, hope from staff as they cared for the sickest babies, bravery from young doctors on the front line of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, forgiveness from Zibuyile as she acknowledged the aunt who had systematically abused her and made her stand in boiling water, happiness from Yolanda as she realised if she stamped her foot there was a light in her second hand trainers, and unquestioning love from Sister Mary Paule for every single child that comes through her doors.
At twenty I feel I have experienced more than many manage in a lifetime. I have learnt so much from the love, trust and understanding those children showed to me. They have certainly changed my life and I hope in some small way my being there bettered their lives as well.
If anyone would like to know anymore about the little people of Bethany Place of Safety or would like to make a donation I would love to hear from you - email@example.com. Any money raised is currently being spent on providing vital vitamins and antibiotics to the weakest of those we care for.Printer friendly page