Yesterday afternoon was extremely busy – many interruptions – someone comes to make copies (find keys), someone was at the hospital gate (find keys), preschool tuition was paid by a student (collect money, write receipt, put money in filing cabinet, find keys), the cook needs rice, so this develops into a long conversation on what is on the menu for each day of the week, and whether we have enough ingredients to feed the preschool and aftercare kids through Friday, make copies of menu (find keys).
All the while I’m trying to research good activities to do with children on the stages of grief. Today’s topic: denial. At 3 p.m., Alec and I need to lead the older aftercare class with 23 children and discuss with them denial. In the Xhosa culture, people do not utter the name of a deceased person – the ultimate form of denial. I was afraid of approaching this subject with these children, most of them orphans, ranging in age from 8-16, because I didn’t want to get it wrong. I didn’t want to open a can of worms with these kids that I couldn’t catch and return. I spoke with Tumeka, who is 25:40’s counselor and is acutely in tune with all of the children’s emotional health, and she insisted that we must do this today. She said it would be fine.
And she was right. Alec and I make a really great team. He was the funny one, tickling the children, running around, making them laugh. This is what they need. These children come from such dire circumstances where they get no attention – or worse, negative attention.
Ndibalulekile — the Xhosa word for “I matter.” The children taught us how to say this in Xhosa … It’s long and it’s a tongue twister. But these children matter to us, to each other, to family, to God. We had them repeat this several times. Then we talked about the different stages of grief, which they knew. One older one kept saying “normal life” – as if he just wants to get there without first having to go through shock and denial, anger and blame, bargaining, sadness. Two girls were brave enough to share their stories of grief – of hearing for the first time about the death of her brother, the other her mother – and how they did not want to believe at first. Sharing, as it turns out, is the cure for denial. Sharing gives voice to the grief. Every one of these children has lost a close family member. Together, sharing empowers them, knits them together.
We closed by talking about how to cope with grief – who to turn to. I asked someone to read Psalm 23. One boy, Alongile, 13, volunteered to read. I will never forget him standing in the circle, wearing jeans, a long, tan sweater with holes in it, his feet bare on a windy, cloudy day. His voice still has not changed – so his soliloquy had the purity and sweetness of innocence. Yet I learned later his life at home is filled with anything but innocence – a psychopathic father who also drinks and is violent. Alongile read from my pocket Bible, the cover of which Sophie had recently decorated with denim, pink satin, bows and buttons. The snickers from his peers may have been because of the frilly book he was holding. His English was perfect. When he was unsure of a word – dwell, righteousness, surely – Tumeka gently prompted him from across the room. She is the perfect angel, acutely in tune with these children and knowing the next word without Bible in hand.
Last week we visited several homes of these orphans, talking to their caregivers. Every single one of them said the25:40 aftercare program has had a positive effect on the child in their care. Their homework is done, their test scores are higher, they are happier.
Phila, 25:40’s project manager for the orphan and vulnerable children project, commented that all these children in the aftercare are spoiled. She meant it in a good way. At school, they share a classroom with 50, 60 or 70 other peers. There is no individualized teaching. There is no such thing as “one child at a time.” They are just part of a crowd. And worse, in the community they are “the least of these” because they are orphans, poorer than the rest of the poor kids – some who don’t have school uniforms, others whose uniforms are in tatters. They are ignored or abused at home.
On Canzibe Mission, at 25:40’s aftercare, these children matter. They are important. They receive individual attention by the teachers, by the counselor, by the missionaries, by you and me. On the mission, we make sure they are not part of the crowd, that their voice is heard, that they are respected, that they matter and that they know it.