A Prayer for Africa

Ngaio Carlisle

© Copyright 2006 by Ngaio Carlisle


Africa gets under one’s skin and never lets go. It is a place of extremes; extreme beauty and danger. It draws me back constantly, like a child to the hot flame of a fire, and I desperately want to help the people who live under appalling conditions through no fault of their own.

REACH, the inspiration of Ashley Sigmon, a graduate of Charlotte Latin School, North Carolina, was started as a service project during her 10th grade year. It was Ashley’s hope to reach out to AIDS victims in Africa, and help them in any way possible. Through various means, she accumulated funds, which she planned to use for this project. However, her initial endeavors proved fruitless, as she was unable to make contact with churches/institutions in South Africa.

I don’t think anyone knows the devastation wrought by AIDS, in Africa, until they see for themselves. Four years ago, I returned to South Africa after a long leave of absence. For me, at that time, it was a journey back to the past, to heal my soul, mend my sorrows and come to grips with the death of a brother. But, it also turned out to be a journey of reckoning and soul searching.

During this visit, I spent several days with a school and university friend of mine, who lives in the small farming village of Viljoenskroon, in the Free State. Her husband has seven farms in the district, but due to safety issues they live in the village. On the outskirts of most South African cities are squatter camps and Viljoenskroon is no different. Several years previous to my visit, Hilary became involved with Hospice, then an institution caring mostly for cancer patients. Through her tireless endeavors, enough money was raised to buy a small house, employ a secretary and nurse. By the time I arrived in Viljoenskroon, Hilary’s involvement with Hospice was over. However, she was extremely proud of her accomplishments, and the developments occurring within the local Hospice, which now deals predominantly with AIDS, which is rife in the area. She took me around the corner, from where she lives, to the Hospice House, where she introduced me to the staff and gave me a guided tour.

Due to the increased number of AIDS victims, Hospice outgrew their available space, and was forced to look for added space. An unused garage provided that space, and was converted to a room for children, 7 to 11 years old. Brightly decorated walls, and table and chairs, turned a drab space into a place where the children gathered to eat, play, draw and paint. As we walked into the building, they were eating a mid-morning snack of sliced oranges. Shyly they advanced to where we stood and tentatively touched our clothes and skin, beaming; white teeth breaking dark faces. Several offered to share their orange slices. I smiled, touching them in return, noticing sadness in the faces of many of those underprivileged children. For the first time in my life, I was looking at death in the faces of the youth of a nation.

From the garage, we were led to a small rondavel, built to house those children with full blown AIDS. It was here that my heart was gripped with unbelievable pain. Several children under the age of four, held in the arms of a nurse, listlessly observed our entrance. Interested, they watched our every move, but made no move towards us. My eyes were drawn to a cot in the corner, where a small boy lay dying, and all they could do was keep him comfortable. My first reaction, to this situation, was anger. My anger directed at a government that would not and did not care for its people. But, compassion overrode that anger, and I knew in that instance I had to do something to help. I also suspected that all the children brought to the Hospice House were AIDS victims.  It became my hope that REACH would provide an outlet for the squatters in Viljoenskroon.

Together, Ashley and I worked on this project, she organizing the funding and collection of clothes, school supplies, books and toys, and I became the liaison with Viljoenskroon Hospice. But it took me four years to return to Viljoenskroon.

The statistics for this large squatter camp are staggering. There are more than fifty children, fourteen and under, who are heads of households, and the same number and more with full blown AIDS. There are many more small children and babies orphaned by this deadly disease who are cared for by Hospice, and if they are lucky some have relatives who care for them. This small village is but a drop in the ocean in the great scheme of things in South Africa. Witchdoctors tell grown men they will be cured if they have sex with a girl of three years or younger, which in my mind is criminal. These spiritual men have great influence over a largely ignorant and gullible population, which further exacerbates the problem.

I returned to South Africa four years later, but without all the supplies Ashley collected for the Hospice, because of the expense of shipping. However, with a generous gift made possible by the head of our Middle School, I was able to make up fifty-five care packs. In each, I placed, a wash cloth, small towel, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, socks, band aids and chapstick. It seemed reasonable that since I could take two suitcases of 50lbs each, I should take the care packs with me. I also packed school supplies, and bought several boxes of Crayola crayons, which I forced into an already overweight suitcase.

My second visit to Hospice was a momentous occasion. The gifts were greatly appreciated by the Hospice staff, and the CEO of the Hospice organization. The staff, of both women and men, who are specially trained to go out into the squatter camp, had grown tremendously since my previous visit to Viljoenskroon. They work with the healthy; teaching abstinence and contraception, and take out the sick and the dying. Their compassion is quite compelling. They brought the older children into the house, where I gave each child a box of crayons, and followed their ritual of a high five. Their serious gratitude for this small gift broke my heart, and made me realize that we in America take so much for granted.

These children have nothing; little or no clothing to keep them warm in one of the coldest winters in a long while, a few broken toys, an old bicycle, if they are lucky. All they have is what is given and donated to them, and several live under appalling conditions. We drove through the camp noticing shacks made from sheets of galvanized iron, with rocks on the roofs to hold them down. A few lucky ones, whose parents work on local farms, have brick homes.

I was not privy to who would receive the care packs. After I left, the Hospice personnel went into the camp and distributed the packs to those who needed them most. I came away feeling there was more to be done here, but at the same time was thrilled to have witnessed the gratitude they exhibited, and the song of thanks sung both in English and their tribal language.

At this present moment, we are feverishly trying to find a way to move 500lbs of cargo.

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