As my mom bends down to tie my shoelaces I think to myself, “I'm glad it's not winter.” The walk to school is only 20 minutes but often it's raining and cold in winter. However with the harvest season over my parents have no work and so there's not much food. I set off with a skip in my step looking forward to the meal I will get at school.
It's an early start as Nicky and I slink out of the house while the children are still asleep. We are headed to help with an outreach effort run by the Kusasa charity at a local school. As usual we get lost as we try and find our way around the township outside Franschhoek. “Hi, sorry we are lost,” I say as I call Carryn who we're meant to meet at the school. We are stopped outside an area that is really poor with broken shacks everywhere. We try and explain where we are. “Sorry,” Carryn replies, “I don't really know the township very well. I just know how to get to the school and out again.” Now that's handy for us, but we are resolved to find our way. After asking various kids strolling the roads obviously headed to school we eventually locate the Dalubuhle school. It's situated at the top of the township and at the base of a beautiful mountain that rises above it.
“Wow,” I say as I look at the school, “this is impressive.” It is obvious that someone has put some money into this school, as a lot of attention has been paid to the buildings and common areas. The walls are filled with fun paintings and even the stairs have games the kids can play that teach maths as they climb them. Nicky and I head down to the reading room where Carryn is going to be teaching Grade 2s English.
Arriving in the room we find Carryn with a group of 16 children sitting quietly before her as she tells them, with animated enthusiasm, a story using some bright images to further engage them. “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Carryn asks a small girl as she teaches them counting. “One - two - three - four,” the girl starts counting with her fingers as she replies, “five - six.” She beams a huge, proud smile at Carryn. The children are all primarily Xhosa speaking, and so teaching them English is not easy. Some of the children seem to have a basic grasp of English, and it soon becomes apparent how important this is.
After a few minutes the children all break up into groups and seat themselves at tables where they have to complete a worksheet. This is where we come in...well Nicky, comes in. I'm the blogger, photographer, observer, assessor, person. I'm not that good at wiping snotty noses, patient enunciation, and general kid teaching. Thankfully Nicky has all these skills and is soon engaging the children entusiasitically in the lesson. Similar lessons are unfolding at the other tables. It's now that we realise how important it is that some of the kids speak English. They quickly translate the instructions to their siblings and its heartwarming to see the care and concern they have for each other. This is where ubuntu is born and demonstrated, where the success of all is more important than the achievement of just one.
“I drive in from Paarl” Carryn tells us as we chat to her afterwards about her work with the children. It turns out she volunteers to teach these children three days a week, for no other reason than that she cares. She drives 100km three times a week, and its making a huge difference in these kids lives. It's passion and dedication like this, the unsung, quiet heroes of our country who make both our journey so fulfilling and our country so beautiful.
As we leave we see a little girl skipping out of the large school hall. I can see a look of glee on her face. “We provide breakfast for the children everyday,” Sintu the community liaison officer for Kusasa, says as we see other children filing out the hall. “Many of their parents are seasonal workers on the winefarms, and so they often have very little at this time of year. Its the donations of many kind people that help us feed these children. It makes a real difference, one that many never see nor ever know.”
As we chew on a crispy chocolate twist and wash it down with Franschhoek's best flat white at The Hoek coffee shop, we marvel about South Africa's paradox. Just minutes from this up-market coffee shop are shacks with hungry kids. Just kilometers from the beauty of Franschhoek is the harshness of shacks. Yet in this paradox is a story of hope. It's a story that shows while our world will always have paradoxes, true beauty exists when the one touches the other, and when both learn and grow from one another. Just outside Franschhoek at the beautiful wine farm La Motte there is a statue of a woman holding an overflowing cup of water. Its the symbol of our experiences, for surely our “cup runneth over”.
I stroke her long soft hair through the box. It feels like silk and her dress is so beautiful. One day I will take her home. Never have I see someone so beautiful. Never have I ever dared dreamed that I might be mother to something so precious. One day. One day I will take her home and she will be mine. My own precious baby.
When I think of Sedgefield my heart is lifted up. It's not only by the memory of my first flight but by the memory of dreams given flight. "Sorry Joy, but we are lost," I say as we call Joy yet again from our cell in the car. "Just tell me where you are and I will come and find you," Joy says. "No, don't do that," I quickly reply, "just explain again how I get to where you are. I'm sure we will find it." A few minutes later we are winding our way through the poor township of Smutsville "Hello, waar is die skool?" I ask some school kids on the side of the road in my limited Afrikaans. Equipped with our final set of directions we soon find the school where FreshStart runs their Swop Shop.
A long line with several hundred children snakes its way from a colourful container set next to a school all the way out the school grounds and up the street. We are met at the gate by Joy. "Hello," she says, "I'm Joy," she beams her welcoming smile. We walk through the gate which is closed with some children lined up inside.
Soon Joy is showing us around this amazing gift of love. "The children start here," she says pointing at a smiling man operating a scale. "They weigh their bags here." A small child stands by staring expectantly at the scale as he hooks the bag of glass bottles on the hook. "Vier punt vyf," he calls to another person seated nearby under an umbrella. "Each bag is weighed," Joy explains and they get Moola points for plastic, glass, paper and tin." The small girl, now relieved of the huge bags she had somehow manage to get here, waits quietly while her points are recorded and a sticker is placed on her hand. Her eyes light up as she sees the number and moves to the lady seated at the entrance to the container.
Two ladies sit at desks hunched over boxes filled with cards before a brightly colored container with wide open doors revealing a treasure of dreams. "This is where the children's Moola points are recorded," Joy says. "We currently have over 700 children on our card system." I look on as the children give their names and their card is extracted from the box. "Hoeweel wil jy spaar?" the lady asks. All of the children have cards that records each visit. They can choose to spend or save some or all of the Moolas they have earned. "Most of them save some or all of their Moolas," Joy says as I watch the young girl hand her card to a smiling man sitting at the entrance to the container. There is a look of awe and excitement on her face as she is about to step into this vault of dreams.
"Ok copy me," Joy says to an expectant group of children watching her from the line where they are waiting to have their bags weighed. Soon the kids are laughing as they copy the fun dance and exercise moves Joy is doing. "The kids get bored waiting, so I like to keep then entertained," Joy had explained to us. She gushes enthusiasm and a genuine love and care for these children. She is Joy in name and attitude.
The little girl is now in the container and looking in excitement and awe at the shelves lined with items. "Do the children use their Moolas to get toys?" I ask. "No," Joy replies. "Many of them buy toiletries and other basic products that they can’t usually afford. Just the other day a young girl who had saved her points for a year came and cashed in. Did she buy herself a present? No, she bought clothing and toiletries for every member of her family."
FreshStart is more than just recycling it's about teaching children responsibility. Unlike other similar programs that use the Swop Shop concept, FreshStart is focused exclusively on children. The children are taught important lessons like recycling, earning money, saving, and responsibility. However the wonderful part is that the lessons are not confined to the children.
“Just the other day one of the children’s parents, who works as a maid, was asked by her employer why she was looking through the garbage. She replied, ‘It’s recycling. My daughter does it. Do you know about recycling?’” The impact of love, of joy, of hope cannot be contained.
The little girl walks out the other side of the container, she is clinging to a box with both her hands. She looks lovingly at it as she carefully carries it with her. She turns it to show me, as a smile breaks across here face. The day has come. She holds her dream, her own precious baby.
For more information visit www.freshstart.org.za
The pain is searing as it lances up my leg and explodes through my entire body like the blazing sun. I slow in an attempt to reduce it as the hill rises relentlessly before me. Yet immediately a sharp pain burns across my side as he brings down the thin stick. I have no energy. I feel weak. I want to stop. I remember a time when I lived in a warm place, where I was brushed every day. There was a time when I was fed sweet apples and would trot around a ring, where I would jump and people would cheer. A time when my hair was soft, as was the touch of those who cared for me. The whip strikes me again, this time curling around and cutting me beneath my stomach. The fiery burn sears. The pain of the whip is matched by the pain of my sore leg. Yet, if I continue, at least the pain of the whip will leave me. I move on, limping to try and stop the lancing pain. I know this route, this hill. It is only the first of many, and this journey will take several hours. The whip comes down again. I shudder but I move forward…
As a family of five traveling for a year through southern Africa we are blessed to see some of the most incredible sights possible. The beauty is beyond words – a huge walking grey giant, gently caring for its small calf with a tenderness that belies the power of the elephant – a waterfall that plunges into the ocean that is unknown to the modern world – a majestic hole in a huge mountain dropped in the middle of the sea. These and many other sights are the weave of wonder that forms the beauty of South Africa. Yet our journey is not just about relishing this beauty, it’s also about meeting the locals who live in these “wish you were here” spots, who are truly making a difference, and who in many ways are the true beauty of this land.
Too often as tourists we arrive, grab the glossy brochure, book on the organized event, enjoy the 10am scones and rest by the pool waiting for dinner. I will be the first to admit – I love the glossy brochure, as it gives us great ideas of what to do - I enjoy organized events, especially a seafood braai – and as for the 10am scones, we are not missing that!
Arriving at Hole in the Wall hotel after a long and bouncy ride along the 18km rutted dirt road – which is actually a paved freeway compared to the potholed road prior to it – we dive fully into tourist mode. The 10am teatime treat is a real winner; we even have to race back from an early morning hike to be there in time for this. The seafood braai is fantastic – there is nothing quite like eating mussels, prawns and fresh fish while watching the waves roll in across a tranquil sea.
The main reason, however, for being at Hole in the Wall is the stunning backdrop of the Hole in the Wall beach. Huge waves surge proudly towards a towering mountain that seems to have grown out of the sea, only to be dispatched with little regard for their foaming fury. A small section of the wave explodes through the hole and reforms into a perfect wave that rises and travels on towards the river that enters the sea at this picturesque point. The girls are surfing, as this is the spot made famous by the movie Blue Crush 2, and reenacting those surf scenes is a must on every young surfer girl’s agenda.
For me, I’m relishing one of the best braai spots in the world. Nothing beats braaing with this spectacular backdrop, a beer in hand, and the smell of wors mixing with the salty sea spray rising tantalizingly into the air. Days can easily be spent lazing on the beach, surfing, braaing, walking the stunning hills, or even negotiating the not-for-CLKs road to Coffee Bay. This is the ideal spot to just get away from it all.
“I love it here,” Mervin, one of the hotel guests says to us, as we meet him while loading our plate with fresh scones. "I have been here for nearly a week and I have not driven once in my car," he explains. That’s what Hole in the Wall is all about – arrive and enjoy until you leave. However if this is only what we do we are missing out on some of the most amazing wonders of the area. I am not referring to the Hole in the Wall, or the mini Hole in the Wall, or any of the other incredible view sights or hikes. I’m referring to a woman who is one of the most amazing natural wonders of the area – Marlene.
“Hi Marlene, I am not sure how we can help but I would love to bring our family to come and see you and your work,” reads the Facebook message I send Marlene. And so it is on Friday morning…just after morning tea (of course)…we jump into our Pajero and bounce the 1 kilometer route to Marlene’s home. We are greeted at the small white home, overlooking the aqua blue sea below, with an enthusiastic rendition of “who the hell are you” by her eager family of dogs.
“Dad, I hope you told her we don’t really know much about horses,” my children had said earlier that morning. And of course they are right – we really don’t know much about horses. However one of our goals on this trip is not just to travel but also to be touched by the lives of others, and to help touch their lives in whatever way we can. In order to do that we will have to go outside of what we “know” or what we are comfortable with. So it is with a little trepidation that we arrive at the Hole in the Wall horse project to meet Marlene.
“Hi Craig,” nice to meet you Marlene says after the enthusiastic cacophony has been stilled. Introductions are made and Marlene is quick to introduce us to her latest two patients, as she refers to the horses she cares for. The time for our lesson, our huge lesson on compassion, cruelty and kindness begins.
The sight is heart wrenching. I've never seen a horse in this condition. It's hair is thin and covered in an oily-like grime. Thousands of ticks, gorged on blood, cling to nearly every part of its emasciated body. It limps painfully on a damged rear leg, making it difficult for it to even move a few steps. It's ears droop. Yet it's none of these that strikes at my heart - it's the look in her eyes. I've never seen such sadness in an animal's eyes. I've never seen such resignation, such pain. I've never seen an animal cry - as a tear rolls down its cheek from its large plaintive eyes, and my daughter attempts to dab it away.
"They rode her here all the way from Coffee Bay?" Marlene informs us. There are tears in her eyes. Her compassion is so visceral, it’s almost as if she is one with the horse and its pain. The route from Coffee Bay to hole in the wall is an arduous 9km route on a rutted, uneven road. The road rises and falls hundreds of meters as it winds over hills and through valleys. "They rode her, in this condition, with her lame leg all that way. And they were planning on riding her back. I refused. I would not let them." She dabs her eyes with the back of her hand as she steps away.
"I'm shaking," Marlene says as she attempts to insert a needle into a vein in the horse's neck. Blood runs down its neck and across Marlene's hand. She pulls away and composes herself. Once more with shaking hands she inserts the needle. This time it's right and the pain medication flows into the horse as she empties the syringe.
"We will try and wash her," Marlene says, "I'm not sure how she will react as she has probably never been washed." Slowly and carefully we rub her oily, thin coat with a medicated soap wash. The horse does not react at all. She simply stands there, favoring her hurt leg and looking at us with sad eyes. We try to remove some of the thousands of ticks as we gently wash her. She just looks at us with those sad eyes.
“Where do all these horses come from?” I ask looking at several horses and mules roaming freely on the hills behind her home. “Do they belong to someone?” Without stopping her gentle, caressing washing she replies, “They all belong to someone. There are people who go and buy ex-race horses and show jumping horses, and then they come and sell them to the locals here for a profit. Some of these may well be those horses. However they do not know how to survive in these conditions. They can’t adapt to the grass as their sole form of nutrition. Quickly they get thin and sickly.” She pauses for a moment as if considering how it is possible that people could ever do this to their animal. “I wonder if those people know what has become of their horses? I wonder if they care?” she says as love and compassion flow from her hands. “How did you ever get like this?” she whispers quietly to the horse.
"Let's allow her to dry in the sun now," Marlene says after we've rinsed the horse. "What should we name her?" she asks. "How about Marmite," Nicky, my wife suggests. The name is perfect - her brown-black, sticky hair looks like marmite. Yet it's more than that. A name somehow imbues her with a little more worth, with a sense of belonging. While she still has those sad eyes she somehow stands a little straighter. She somehow seems to know that she is being loved, as she, for the first time since we have been here, stoops down to eat some grass.
"How long have you been doing this?" I ask. "For about three years. I was not trained for this," Marlene replies. "I just saw so many horses in such a terrible condition, I just couldn't ignore it. I had to do something, anything."
Nearby in Marlene's small garden another horse is grazing. It has a large, raw wound on its back caused by a saddle. It makes me feel slightly sick just to look at it. "I often start retching when I have to treat the horses,” Marlene says. “Time and again I have to walk away and compose myself. But I tell myself to stop being ridiculous, to pull it together, and I try again and again until I get it done. If I don't help them, who will?”
Outside her garden a horse comes to graze. It walks into a small enclosed paddock that has an open gate and drinks from the water. Several cows also graze contently just outside her fence. They feel it, they know it, this is a place of love. Something many of them, like most living things, are desperately in need of. This is a place were tears are shed, not just in sadness, but in joy, not just in pain but in thanks - for here exists some of the most beautiful wonders you can ever see – compassion, determination and love.
Marlene runs the Hole in the Wall Horse project. Please visit this link to find out more about her and this amazing project and how you can help her with this work. Even if all you do is share her story, you can help her make a difference to the lives of so many helpless animals. Click Share below to help share the word about Marlene and her work.
It surprised me. It was going to be a hot day, I was never in doubt of this. Yet that was not what surprised me. It is their arrival at our village. I have already moved under a tree even though it is still early and that sentinel of the heavens, that fiery ball of hot white is already burning down relentlessly. I look up from the moist grass I am eating as I hear the sound of cars coming up the rutted track towards our village. Two 4x4 vehicles are slowly negotiating their way towards us. Strange. Strange because the only cars that ever come along here are the taxis to drop our villagers. Strange because it's Christmas Day and no one moves around today.
Moments later the doors of both cars pop open, almost as though it were a synchronized Olympic event, and a whole lot of umlungus* emerge from the cars. Still chewing the soft juicy grass I look on with interest. Strange, strange indeed. Maybe they are lost.
The village is quiet as everyone is sheltering indoors away from the increasing heat of our African sun. The only sign of life, besides the few of us grazing on the hill, are a pair of mangy looking dogs eating some leftovers they've discovered in a discarded tyre. It's almost as if the village has been abandoned.
"Woza ingane**," one of umlungus shouts out in stilted Zulu. The village remains still. One of the dogs looks up with a cursory interest before returning to its frenzied feeding of the scraps it's enjoying. The buzz of lazy flies fills the air as they rise up in protest agaimst the swish my tail as I attempt to chase them off. "Woza ingane," he shouts again, and this time there is a response.
Gogo^ is the first to emerge. Even though she is bent with age and walks with the aid of a roughly hewn stick smoothed on the top with years of use, she is somehow lightening fast when called. Age has not dulled her mind nor her sharp wit and curiosity. Behind her, like a bride's sweeping wedding trail, are a swath of wide eyed children. They peer out curiously from the safety of Gogo's shadow at this strange arrival. Soon more children and adults appear, seemingly rising out of the dusty village floor. Within moments the village is a buzz of people chatting and looking curiously on at the unexpected arrival.
"Merry Christmas," one of the ingane umlungus shouts, holding out a wrapped gift towards a shy young girl clinging to her mother's leg. For a moment she looks on, still unsure what this all means, but within moments her curiosity wins out over her uncertainty and she ventures away from her safehaven to take the proffered gift.
"Siyabonga," she says, as a huge smile splits her face revealing her lovely white teeth. "God bless you." Soon all the children are running to receive their gifts, and bubbling chatter and laughter fills the village. Parents stand by and smile their appreciation as their children run back to them to tear open their gifts. Their reticence is forgotten replaced by the excitement of unexpected gifts.
In moments new soccer shirts are being donned, and dolls pulled from their packaging. The village has transformed. Excitement, laughter, kids playing and adults chatting in the shade outside their huts replaces the stillness that just minutes before lay heavily over the village. Even the sun, which seemed so oppressive just minutes ago, seems to have lost its intensity as a cool breeze ripples across the grass making the small yellow flowers dance as if they are alive.
Gogo, leaning lightly on her stick, extends her gnarled hands and grasps the hand of one of the umlungus. She beams a huge smile, replete with missing teeth. A smile that demands a response and cannot be ignored. She says something that he does not understand but her reply needs no words, her face says it all. The umlungus smile back, and in moments they too are laughing - not just a shallow laugh, but a laughter bubbling deep from within the heart, a laughter born of receiving a real gift, one so unexpected, one found in the joy of giving.
I return to my moist grass as the umlungus clamber back into their cars followed by a waving, laughing, bubbling river of children. They young umlungus lean out the windows and wave farewell and the village children shout after them "hamba kahle"^^. This is Africa. She is beautiful. Her people are beautiful. And when they come together to share, to meet each other, to touch for a few moments, her beauty is complete. Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika - God Bless Africa!
Meaning of Zulu words:
* white person
** come children
^^ go well