Brittany Ballantyne, Cape Town, South Africa
They tug at your clothes, tie your hair in knots, mistake you for a jungle gym and they’ve stolen my heart. The children of an orphanage in Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, are now my favorite little people to see each week. These children and teenagers have it a lot “better off” than some in the township, as they have concrete (not tin scrap) walls, wooden floors instead of dirt floors and running water.
They’re so young and innocent that it breaks my heart to say some of them are ill. But if I told you that was their story and the story ended there, I’d be lying. One amazingly strong and patient woman and her family take care of the children. The family provides them with food, beds, toys and an after-school room. The food, however, does not provide the children an adequate diet. The four year olds look like one year olds, the ten year olds look seven. English is not their first language and a majority of the children can only say a few words to communicate with me. Xhosa, known as the click language, is what they speak and they’ve quickly taught me what they mean.
“Jonga sissy, jonga,” is heard nearly all day in the orphanage, meaning “look sister, look.” The young boys and girls always want your attention, but the word “jonga” has taken on a whole new meaning for me.
“Jonga” means look–look twice, look deeper and further. There is a lot more to these crazy children than meets the eye at first glance. Tires make for good hide-out spots and almost any objects they find can be turned into a toy. Singing songs and jumping around are their favorite pastimes.
Their artistic skills and sketches of me make me laugh, drawing one too many fingers on my stick-figure self and adding my “goofy smiles”, which they most likely have “to a T.”
Toys can create problems amongst the children, as there aren’t enough of the same to go around. Hitting and pushing are also sadly another part of their daily routine. When one has 30 plus babies, children and young adults to worry about, it’s impossible to keep your eye on each child at once. Crying and screaming happen a lot here, but I urge you to once again, look closer with me. A baby crawls to the steps and is suddenly doused in kisses. A toddler is crying for water and an older child fetches them a cup. The young adults separate the children when they fight, and one does not mess around with the teenagers. It’s a family here in this orphanage. There is chaos, there is comfort. There are tears and laughter. The way these children look out for those younger than them leaves me in awe. After being here in South Africa for a few months now, I can say I believe some children can take better care of babies than many people and friends I know at home. Not every child goes to school, but each one has an urge to learn how to write. A number of the children have asked me to help them spell my name.
I’m proud to say most of them know how to spell their own. Sometimes letters are spelt backwards, but nonetheless it’s still there for all to see on paper. English is the language learned in school here, so we do our best to teach them words and phrases. One little boy, in particular, picks up on vocabulary very fast.
He is four years old, and he now knows how to say “I love you,” “silly” and can sing part of Justin Bieber’s song “Baby.” Excluding the babies, each child and young adult has learned how to take photos on my camera. They squeal and laugh when I show them the photo they’ve just taken, and if I allowed them to, they wouldn’t let the camera ever make it back into my hands. Since they don’t normally see photos of themselves, I printed some out to give to them. They shouted in excitement and flipped through them, yelling each other’s names as their faces appeared.
We strive to teach them all that we can, which is very limited because of the language barrier. The people I volunteer with through Southern Ambition, a two-year-old company that promotes volunteering and adventures, might be as tireless as the children. Simple reminders like “don’t hit,” “share that” and “wipe your hands” seem to go a long way here in my second South African home.
It may not be the most luxurious of places, but it is undoubtedly my favorite spot to be. I miss the children when I’m not there. The school week can’t go by fast enough for me to run, dance and play with them. It is as if they follow me around when the smallest reminders of them make me laugh in public and tell people I’m with “you had to be there.”
Words don’t do justice to just how much these children have changed my life. It seems that just a few days ago, I volunteered for the first time and arrived to their waves and ear-to-ear smiles.
As cliché as it sounds, I mean it when I say they’ve opened my eyes to the world around me. No longer am I looking at life through a first-world lens. I’ve fallen in love with each and every one of these children. They’ve taught me more than I could have ever imagined, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to repay them for all they’ve unknowingly given me.