Botshabelo AIDS Orphanage and Home
My experience at Botshabelo was truly unforgettable. The children there were filled with so much hope and love. The moment our class arrived, cute little smiling faces greeted us. One of the girls came up to me and asked, “Will you be my friend?”. Her big, beautiful eyes lit up when I answered, “Yes, of course.” This eight-year-old girl ended up holding my hand throughout the day as if I was her best friend. The children’s openness and willingness to love freely was amazing to see.
As soon as I walked into Botshabelo, I forgot that some of the children there were infected with HIV or AIDs, and had lived through terrible circumstances. They were filled with so much positivity and compassion. Our conversation with Marion Cloete, one of the founders of Botshabelo, reminded me once again of their circumstances. She talked about humanity, and how in places such as Botshabelo there is a stronger sense and awareness of it. She explained how even in such dire circumstances she still saw the humanity in each child. They hardly have any food or any money, so they turn towards each other. What amazed me was even though they were already sharing insubstantial amounts of food, when a new child was brought to their community, they were happy to share their resources.
During the performance at Botshabelo, a few girls started to play around with my hair, creating twists and braids. My hair amazed them. Little things, such as playing with hair or getting carried around, seemed to make their day a hundred times better. Throughout the day I was surprised that with all that was going on in their lives, the children of Botshabelo did not seem sad. I became emotional many times during the day, however whenever I saw their hopeful faces I knew I was not here to feel bad for them; I was here to smile with them.
When I took my first step off of the bus, I was met by a huge group of children asking, “Can we be friends?”. Others reached for our hands so they could show us what it was like where they lived. Out of all of these children, there was one small boy that stood out. His name was Kylay, a 5-year-old with the kindest, most loving attitude a kid could ever have. From the moment I walked off the bus, until the very last second before I had to step back onto the bus, Kylay was either holding my hand or sitting on my shoulders.
After we brought all of our donation bags to the designated room, Kylay took my hand and insisted we go play soccer. Little did I know that I was about to play against seemingly professional soccer players. To make matters worse, I am awful at the sport. None-the-less, I joined Kylay, a few of my classmates, and a group of around thirty kids. It was the most intense game of soccer I have ever been a part of. I was struck by the fact that there were no put downs or harsh words during the match like we may have had at home. Even though I probably broke every single rule that ever existed in the sport, they never once criticized me, any of my classmates, or anyone from their community.
While our game of soccer was a highlight of my time at Botshabelo, the most striking part came later. Early in our visit Kylay introduced me to his mother. Afterwards, I asked him questions about his other family members. He told me that I had the same name as his brother, that we both enjoyed playing the same sports, for the most part, and that we both had other similar interests. Since he had not yet pointed his brother out to me, I figured I would not intrude by asking where he was. I began talking to him about other sorts of things, like what he liked to do for fun and who his best friend was. He responded that it was his brother.
After we had our lunch, we went to their stage and watched a number of singing and dance performances from their many talented community members. We also performed. After these were done we went on a “walkabout” on the property. On the way up to the graveyard Kylay discovered that I liked to run. He immediately shouted from atop my shoulders, “Run! Run!” So for the next ten minutes I ran up the slight incline with Kylay laughing on my shoulders, even though our destination was their graveyard.
When we arrived the kids were told that they could show us the grave of a family member or friend if they wanted to. Kylay snatched my hand and said with a smile on his face, “Come, I have something I want to show you.” We then walked up a small hill to a rectangle of rocks marking a gravesite. Kylay said, “Here is my brother.” He never lost his smile, yet it hit me so hard, and I didn’t know what to say. So instead of speaking I helped him clean off his brother’s grave, and then he rearranged the offerings that he had placed at some earlier point in time. During this whole experience, he never once lost his smile, and he kept his head high, even though he told me how much he missed his brother.
On our journey back down the hill I felt a connection with Kylay and I had no desire whatsoever to leave Botshabelo; this place that helps kids, teenagers, and even adults who may have terrible illnesses or abusive families. They don’t judge anything that has happened; they just accept them into their huge family, even though they can’t afford it. When we left, I was so connected with Kylay that I had no desire to let him go, so instead I just hugged him close and told him, “I promise you Kylay, that I will not forget you, and I will be back soon to see you, you can count on it.”
Setting him down and turning and getting on the bus, was one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. I felt connected to Kylay even though I had only met him earlier that day. I had grown so incredibly close to him that I only wished that I could stay and help, or he could come back with me. To my surprise, it was Kylay who supported me. Before I could step on the bus, he ran back and hugged my leg and told me that I didn’t have to worry because he believed me, and he knew that I would be back to see him very soon. This was the most meaningful experience I have had so far because usually in society, it is believed that advice and knowledge is passed on from an adult, who has supposedly already lived through everything. However, this knowledge and understanding came from a 5-year-old boy who I had just met earlier in the day; yet it felt like we had known each other our whole lives. I will never forget the experience that I had today.
Today I met a girl named Jessica. I will never see her again. She is four years old. She has full blown AIDs and her ARVs, which are inferior to the ones Americans inflicted with AIDs receive, are running out. She has one week of medicine left. After that, no one knows what will happen.
Jessica walked up to me as I got off the bus and I recognized a remarkable openness in her. It was the same openness that I miss most from my childhood. She took my hand and I walked with her a ways. I learned her name. She spoke in whispers. I had to lean close to hear. I went to play soccer with the boys there. They were talented and friendly. At teatime, I watched the children eat and spoke with some of the boys I had met on the soccer field about their schooling. As a boy named Nando told me that his favorite subject was mathematics, Jessica came and sat on my lap. I encouraged her to eat and continued speaking with Nando. The children went out to play and our group was invited to speak with Marion Cloete, the woman who started the Botshabelo orphanage. Jessica seemed to want to stay on my lap so I took her with me. While Marion spoke about her inspirations, her challenges, and her beliefs, Jessica slept in my lap. Eventually Marion began to speak about Jessica’s current situation. She has been through tremendous trauma in her life. Hearing about it made her remarkable openness became even more amazing. I held her. I wanted to protect her from the world. Protect her from what had already happened. I couldn’t. I thanked Marion for answering our questions and outlining a very interesting belief system.
We walked to the stage and watched the dancers and sang a couple of songs we had prepared. It was here that Jessica discovered that she could sit atop my shoulders. They are still sore as I write this. After the talent show, we walked to the graveyard. I carried her there. Alternating between my shoulders, a piggyback ride, and simply carrying her to subside the growing pains in my muscles. We spoke very little, but I felt a tremendous connection with her. A large dog named Horatio walked beside us. It felt like he was watching over us. Protecting us. At the graveyard I asked her if anyone she knew was there. She responded with a simple “No” and a head shake. Nando’s grandfather was buried there though, and he told me a little bit about him. We made the walk back. Again alternating in order to ease the pain in my back. Again we didn’t talk, but I felt close to her. The openness I had seen in her eyes had drawn me in. At one point in the walk, Nando told me “You have to let Jessica walk, because you are tired.” I told him I was okay and that she was very young and could not make the walk back. I now realize that I felt that if I let her down, the connection would be lost. These feelings of closeness would dissipate in the hot South African day. So I carried her.
When we got back, the children ate lunch while our group took a picture for the company that donated the solar panels to Botshabelo. As I sat in the back, petting three dogs at once, a wave of emotion hit me. The idea that she would die, that I would leave this place in an hour and never see her again, that she was doomed struck me, and I broke down. With the help of my classmates, I collected myself and returned to the lunchroom to spend the last bit of time that I had with Jessica. As I walked to the bus, Jessica in my arms, I sang her a song that my mother used to sing to me as I fell asleep. Tears came to my eyes. I hugged her. She traced the decal letters on the side of the bus. I said my last final goodbye. I walked onto the bus alone. I waved to her as we drove away.
I have not been raised with religion. I have prayed only a few times in my life, but I pray that Jessica lives happily for many years. I pray that I will make it back here, and I pray that she is here to greet me with the same openness and joy I saw today.
Everyday that I’ve written in my journal on this trip I’ve used the word “inspiring.” Today was the most inspiring day yet. We met a woman whose attitude towards humanity exemplifies all that is right with the world. Marion Cloete, along with her husband and daughters, runs the Botshabelo orphanage, near Johannesburg, South Africa. They gave up privilege, comfort, and security to establish a safe place for children who are infected or affected by HIV and AIDS. They are so willing to accept children that the property is teeming with kids; from the smallest infants to young men and women.
We sat down with Mrs. Cloete for a while and she told us the horrors that some of these children had been through. She told us that when new children come in, she no longer asks if they have been raped, she asks them when. She spoke in shocking detail about how AIDS was spread to some of the children in the room. Most surprisingly, she was very straightforward about the kids that she was caring for. She could talk about the terminal sickness of very young children without even faltering in tone. Marion Cloete strikes me as an amazing woman. She has the courage to give up her life for people in need and the charisma to serve as a caring and effective mother for over a hundred kids. She inspires me to serve others to my full capacity.
I’ve been determined for a while that I would use my life to help people. I am now absolutely sure there is no other option. The Cloete family showed me what it means to sacrifice for the greater good. Visiting Botshabelo and witnessing what the Cloetes can do without much help, and without many resources, puts everything in my life into perspective. All the things I concern myself with in my life mean next to nothing. The only things that matter are service and community. A word that has come up countless times on our trip is Ubuntu, which means, “I am who I am because of others.”
The kids at Botshabelo are not different from any other kids in the world. They play soccer and they can dance much better than I can. They are cute and they are demanding, “Pick me up and put me on your shoulders! Now run!” Mrs. Cloete says that some of these kids have already experienced things I will never experience in my entire life, but when I play soccer with them I don’t see any of that. I just see friendly competition and fun and I don’t think they use it as an escape. I think that by confronting pain and death realistically, in the way that Botshabelo teaches them, these kids have moved beyond coping to the point where there is nothing they need to escape from. I know some of them don’t have very long to live, but I can’t tell which ones because none of them wear their pain or disease on the outside. I don’t see suppression. I see kids to whom these things are inconsequential. Instead of worrying about the past or the future, the kids at Botshabelo are fully immersed in the present.