Sunday, 30 November 2014

World AIDS DAY - Bedbugs and Skittles

December 1, 2014

Today is World AIDS Day.  This morning I think about the millions of AIDS orphans and specifically, those I have come to love.  This is an excerpt from a journal I kept while in Lesotho in March of 2012.  I travelled with a group of 10 friends:

Bedbugs and Skittles

Ontario is 15,000 km from Lesotho.   The village of Tlhakuli nestled in the mountains outside of Butha Buthe seems like it is on a different planet altogether.   Many of the small sustenance farms that once thrived on these hills have been abandoned, the younger generation settling in more urban areas in search of an easier life, the older generation long since passed.  One hundred years ago these thatched roofed huts and sandstone structures were clustered together around small courtyards and open gardens.  Stone walkways lead to buildings occupying the next ridge above the others all secured beautifully by sculptured retaining walls.  These were villages and compounds that teamed with life and many generations of the same family.   Children played along worn paths and up steep embankments with donkeys, goats, chickens and herd dogs.  I would imagine that the sounds of people in constant relationship echoed everywhere.  HIV decimated these villages, the families and this beautiful way of life. 

Left behind, the AIDS orphan in numbers exceeding 18 million in sub Saharan Africa alone.

 Tlhakuli is the first Foster Home created by Pastor James and the Apostolic Faith Mission Social Development Division (AFMSDD).  The land and buildings were long abandoned when discovered by Pastor James and members of the church congregation who gathered together the supplies needed to renovate this compound.  Thatched roofs were rebuilt, stonewalls grouted, inner walls freshly painted and  floors covered with thin linoleum.  The foster mother who runs this home, had recently lost her daughter to AIDS and was about to leave Lesotho in search for work as a domestic in South Africa to support her daughter’s three children when she was asked to take over this remote piece of property and care for the foster children that would soon arrive.

One of the outbuildings has two large rooms with 8 mattresses on the floor.  It is here that visitors stay.   We had been preparing for this night for weeks.   We wanted to experience first hand what life was like for the AIDS orphan living in rural Lesotho with no electricity, no indoor heat or water, very meagre furnishings and very basic food.   We knew that previous visitors had been exposed to bed bugs and we had been extensively educated about how to avoid exposure to them and most of all, how to avoid carrying them away in our clothing a luggage.

We packed an extra set of clothing, water and minimal toiletries into large, sealed Zip Lock Bags.  The idea was to seal the clothing we wore to bed into the bag and leave them outside our bungalow the next day in order to avoid an infestation at home base.  Many of us were quite unsettled and two had decided not to stay overnight.

The trek into Tlhakuli was rugged and beautiful.  Small mountain villages dotted the road as we climbed.  The last leg of the journey was too steep and rough for the our vehicle.   We set out the rest of the way by foot.  It was very hot.  We must have been quite a sight, these middle-aged, Canadian women with their neatly packed plastic bags.  We tried to sing as we climbed but the altitude and exertion left us too winded for more that a few short verses.  We passed a small pond with a willow tree on the bank, it’s branches tipped to the water’s surface.  We passed old village huts some occupied and some left empty.  The last part of the climb was the steepest and took us to a decaying retaining wall and the narrow entrance of the foster home compound.  Four small, rectangular stone buildings and one rondavel faced a small inner courtyard.  A small space between two of the buildings lead to an awkward set of uneven steps that opened out to the most beautiful panoramic mountain view.

The smallest building of this inner courtyard was the kitchen.   The longest, a storage room with various broken chairs all pulled out into the sunlight for the comfort of the guests.  The rondavel served as the housemother’s bedroom, which she shared with the smallest foster child, all of the kitchen supplies and wash basins.  Her bed was tucked to one side, old, rough, disintegrating.   Two of the children shared the next stone building.  A set of rough, metal bunk beds filled most of the room, their mattresses thin and musty, the bed covers meager and threadbare.  An old plywood table served as a desk set to one corner with a misshapen shelf suspended from the ceiling, holding an array of broken and tattered school supplies.  The last building, also small and rectangular had a double bed.  The third child that shared this room had the misfortune of sleeping on a thin piece of foam settled over a metal folding table.  Lord only knows what these dark, damp rooms are like when the frigid temperatures settle in throughout July and August.

Mme Mamatseliso loves these children.  She has devoted her life to them.  Her name means ‘Mother of Comfort’.  Telang is 14, Maope and Kali, 13.  Mosela is 11.  Makhaute is 10 and Mahlohonolo is 9.  Three of these children are her biological grandchildren but no one can remember which are hers and which aren’t.  She loves each one with the same relentless maternal fervor.

We sat in a stupefied state in this surreal world in which we’d landed.  We listened to Pastor James tell us the story of these orphans and the loving home this grandmother had created for them.   He told us of how Maope had been playing with paraffin by an open fire when his clothes lit up in flames setting his body on fire.   Of how a call miraculously made it’s way to the Pastor and how he set out under a blanket of darkness to this mountaintop to take Maope to the hospital where he convalesced for a week, his burns now barely visible.

He talked of Mahlohonolo the youngest child orphaned by AIDS and now carrying the virus herself who recently spent two weeks in hospital after the HIV medications she was taking lowered her hemoglobin to less than 40, a life threatening level.

He described his vision for this home and many others across the country.  This, the first of nine foster homes now in operation supported by several AFM congregations and Bracelet of Hope and with our help, the first of many, many more.

And as we listened, Mme Mamatseliso silently served us canned drinks on a broken tray.

One by one, the family of orphans arrived home.  A one hour walk over rugged terrain in brightly colored school uniforms and tattered shoes.  Each entered the courtyard and each politely shook our hands and welcomed us.  Shy, respectful, demure, these are well cared for, well mannered kids.  As quickly as they arrived, they disappeared to various parts of the compound, school uniforms exchanged for afterschool clothing and then off to various chores.  This home is lucky.  Water flows from a large green cistern situated outside the kitchen.  One child washed dishes, another started washing clothes in one of several large basins, another started dinner preparations.

Karen Hand, one of our Bracelet of Hope Board Members had the brilliant idea of giving each child a digital camera to allow them to take pictures of their world.  The cameras were donated by her husband’s company, FlexITy. We tried to gather the children up to hand each a camera.  There was intense interest but we had some difficulty pulling them away from their chores.   

With some gentle encouragement and permission from Mme Mamatseliso, they were off and running.  It was akin to a haphazard scavenger hunt.  Pure joy, start to finish.  These kids took off in all directions, squeals of delight and peals of laughter.  It did not take long for most of the women of our group to join in.  The kids went to every corner of the compound and then down the mountain and back up with many other kids in tow.

As darkness settled in, our anxiety peaked.  We had already moved our gear into the guesthouse, which by now was completely dark.  Candles lit the dim interior:   cracked and chipped walls a bright turquoise blue, dirty, disintegrating curtains the same blue with stripes of bright yellow and red intermixed.  Cracked and crumbling window wells, holes in the suspended ceiling, brightly colored, cracked and patchy linoleum with cold cement floor exposed, an old stove circa 1920’s and couches that looked like the bedbugs lived here before moving onto the beds.  In the larger rooms, our mattresses were already laid out with clean linen, pillows, pillowcases, sheets and warm, clean blankets.  Those of us lucky enough to sleep on the mattresses closest to the walls were exposed to deep crevices in the cement, which of course, I imagined were teaming with all sorts of insect life.

We piled into the kitchen with it’s stove and couches.  Dinner was fried cabbage with Pape.  While we sat, the orphaned siblings of this home served us one by one.  Fed and content, the kids snuggled up on warm laps.  We sang to them.  They sang to us.  We prayed together.  The candles flickered and the fear of bedbugs diminished.  The sickest child fell asleep.  Our plates were cleared.

Humbled and honored by their love, their tenacity, their resilience and their hospitality.

On of us had smuggled in bags of skittles.  They were divided evenly among open and eager hands.

Nothing like a well fed child snuggling up on a warm adult lap with a handful of brightly colored skittles.  Warms the heart.  One child entered the room late after clearing the dishes. The others were asked to share.  Their generosity was immediate and over the top.

They sang one final hymn to say goodnight.  We started the slow and deliberate process of getting ready for sleep in this surreal place on this strange mountain in the dark.  We brushed our teeth outside and looked up to a brilliant display of stars and constellations serenaded by the bewitching sound of large African crickets.  Just doesn’t get any better than this.  We were all quite pensive, contemplative.  Skittles, generosity and hospitality had won the day.   The two who were most hesitant to stay, just couldn’t leave.  They came totally unprepared to sleep with just the clothes on their backs and a small purse.  Seeing children rise above such adversity inspired courage.  We slept tight, with the bedbugs, and no one worse off for the experience. 

No comments:

Post a Comment