Walking into the classroom I was greeted with the purest, most instant love I have ever felt in my life. Every hand grabbed at me, some waving and giving me a thumbs up while they grinned uncontrollably. Hands grasped my hands, trying to pull me in all different directions as I tried to walk forward with kids clinging to my legs. I was in the 3-4-year-old classroom at the Philani Nutrition Project.
The Philani Nutrition Project is an organization that aims at helping pregnant mothers and mothers with children ages zero to five through their most vulnerable times. At their main campus, they have classrooms for 3-4 year olds, 4-5 year olds, and 5-6 year olds.
Each child I met was filled with love and laughter, and all wanted to be my best friend. We helped them do their arts and craft projects, sang songs, and played together. I sat on the ground and they clambered onto my lap and looked at me saying words I did not understand. I would ask them their names and they would respond with the few English words they knew which usually were colors or days of the week. Despite the language barrier, we had an instant connection. We communicated through our movements, laughs, and smiles.
I made friends with one boy who calmly grabbed my hand, took me to the playground, and climbed on my back as we walked around observing the other kids. We couldn’t talk to each other and didn’t even know each other’s names but every time I looked at him he had the biggest smile on his face. He would run up to me and leap in my arms as though I was his sister. As we left they all ran up to me and showered me in hugs and kisses on the cheeks. I will never forget their smiles, the way the accepted me without hesitation, and the unconditional love I felt even though we had just met. When we left, we didn’t feel like strangers anymore, we felt like family.
When I arrived at Philani I was excited to play with the kids. I stood in the classroom and looked around the room, there I saw a small child with a big smile looking straight at me; at that moment, I knew I had to hang out with him. We started building things with play dough. He told me to, “Make a boat. Make a car.” Make this, make that, and I would. We then went to recess, and he wanted to ride on my back. “Go, Cyrus!” “Run faster Cyrus!” he would say. When it came time to say goodbye I started to feel something that I have never felt before. I was struck with sadness, and I couldn’t keep myself together. Seeing him walk away, while looking back trying to find me, really hit me.
Before arriving at Philani, we drove through Khayelitsha, a shantytown of over a million, and I saw extreme signs of poverty, much worse than I have ever seen at home, in the United States. This is where the kids we played with at Philani live. I felt sad because no one should have to live in conditions like that. At the same time, it was surprising to me to see how happy they were and what strong spirits they had. I felt like I was looking at two different worlds. Although I know that the kids are happy and full of joy, that is not enough to make me feel relieved. Today, I observed something that I have never experienced before, and I will never forget it. I wish all of the best for every child there, and especially for my friend; Ayulla.
I have never been a fan of small kids. I used to only interact with children over the age of 10 because I either feared dropping them or doing something wrong. My entire mindset about children shifted today. When we arrived at Philani Child Nutrition Project we were immediately greeted with smiles from the workers who showed us around. We sat down and watched some informative videos about the organization and the amazing things they do for the township they are based in. After talking with some of the women that worked at Philani, we were told that we had three different choices for volunteering: filing papers in the administration office, making balls of cloth to be used for the looms, or playing with children ages 3-4, 4-5, or 5-6. Not surprisingly, I avoided hanging out with the children. Instead, I went to the yarn rolling station which happened to be very therapeutic. Trying to keep a ball of blue or black cloth from unraveling, and talking to people at the same time, became very easy; there was a sort of rhythm about it. We rolled up the balls of cloth for some time and then they gave us a tea/coffee break. After the break, they said that everyone who hadn’t hung out with the kids yet could. I was hesitant at first but eventually went to hang out with the 4-5-year-olds. 18 kids sat in a circle, singing like they didn’t have a care in the world. I sat down on the outside of the circle listening to what I assumed was a South African nursery rhyme. They were singing with so much confidence and at such a high volume, it was amazing. Their lack of fear in getting up to lead their class in a nursery rhyme, while dancing the whole time, struck me.
The teacher then said four words to us, “We’re going to play.” The playground was filled with small kids on the swing sets, running around, being held by my classmates, or climbing on a small play structure. I was experiencing what I had seen previous Mount Madonna classes enjoy so much. I went over to the swing set where a kid was sitting still on the swing, trying to push herself. I pushed her once, and the biggest grin came across her face as she turned her head upside down to look at me. I pushed her for a while, smiling the whole time. Eventually, one of her classmates took over my job. I stood there for a bit, waving at the kids on the multi-colored play structure and giving an occasional helping push. I felt a tapping on my leg and I looked down. A boy with a red striped t-shirt looked up at me and raised his arms wanting to be picked up. I was nervous but I wondered when I would have this experience again. I washed away my fears and picked him up. His legs locked around my torso and his arms around my neck. He looked at me, smiled, and nuzzled his head into my chest. I felt an overwhelming sense of love radiating from this kid who’s name I didn’t even know. I carried him around for a while, having him point where he wanted to go. I was his Sherpa. Finally, I got a bit tired and let him down. I didn’t have time to stand up before the kid ran around to my back and jumped on. I ran through a gauntlet of trees and bushes with him on my back. He was the human and I was his robotic suit. Eventually, when I put the kid with the red t-shirt down a group of kids ran up to me. I became a grey ubunye shirt wearing jungle gym, for up to four kids at a time. I toured them around their playground at speeds previously unreachable to them. Finally, the time came for the kids to line up and go back to their classes. I waved and said my goodbyes, high fiving as many as I could.
I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time.
Nervousness and awkwardness were the emotions I felt as I took my first steps into the Philani classroom of boys and girls ages 4-5. As I opened the classroom door, all eyes were on me. Looks of confusion and excitement sparkled through their eyes and in turn lit mine up. They sang, they danced, and they laughed while their teacher led them through their daily activities. The kids were anxious to come and see us and play, but they stay focused and did their activities. Then, in an instant the teacher left, leaving the three of us, Indigo, Aimee, and me, alone with about 20-25 kids. As soon as that door shut, and the teacher wasn’t in site, I was stormed by so many kids I couldn’t count. I lifted one little girl, bringing her to touch the ceiling, and soon I had to do the same to every other kid. From this moment on, I was under full attack. I found myself on the ground with kids climbing all over my body, laughing and aggressively wrestling. When our time in the classroom ran out we sadly left and waited outside with the big smiles on our faces. Luckily, soon recess was announced!!!
All the kids were let out to play. As I ran through the playground tickling kids, picking them up, pushing them on swings, helping them on the monkey bars, doing all the fun things you could think of, something caught my eye. One little boy was following me, grabbing onto my shirt. I turned and looked down at him, as soon as our eyes connected laughter burst out of his mouth and he jumped on me. I stood up, realizing that he had grabbed onto me. He managed to crawl all the way up my back, reached my shoulders and sat on them. From that moment on, I knew that this kid was going to be special to me. He took my hat and threw it on his head, even though it was ten sizes too big for him. He screamed with laughter, thinking that this was so funny. He yelled for me to run across the playground and then turn around and run back where we started. I spent the whole recess with him on my shoulders, running all over the place. I think I felt the happiest I have been in my whole life. We both smiled, laughed, and had so much fun together.
Soon our time together came to an end. We took pictures and I taught him how to do the one and only, “shaka” with his hands. As I took him off my back he looked at me and gave me the biggest and tightest hug I’ve ever received. Then he walked away and at the last second turned around made eye contact with me and threw me a “shaka.” He then smiled and walked to his classroom. I will forever remember this moment, and this boy. I hope he does too.
Today I knew that I wanted to play with children. Luckily, I was one of the first to enthusiastically raise my hand and was picked to go hang out with the kids. Indigo, Brigg, and I went to the 3-4-year-old classroom. As soon as I walked through the dark green door I knew it would be like no classroom I would find back home. 25 sets of small eyes turned our way while still happily singing along to a song their teacher was guiding them through. Some exuberantly waved, while others continued to stare shyly. We sat behind them trying not to interrupt their lesson on numbers and colors but that, as we found out very quickly, wasn’t going to happen. First it started with a few of them giving us thumbs up and high fives but soon more and more began doing the same. After lunch, their teacher gave us some free time to play with them. In a matter of seconds Brigg, Indigo, and I were swarmed by the most genuinely happy kids I have ever met. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. I never knew how happy it would make me to have two kids in my lap, three under my arms, two pulling at my hair, and one particularly excited little boy desperately trying to ram the other kids off my lap so that he could have all my attention to himself. I soon found out that taking a break if I got tired would be impossible. The whole time this was happening they spoke to me telling me new exciting things, or so I assume since I didn’t understand a word they said. This language barrier, though, wasn’t much of a hindrance at all. The smiles, waves, and gestures meant much more than any words ever could. You could really, and fully, feel the love and happiness radiating off them. They didn’t need to explain it with words; you just needed to be in their presence to feel it. I always thought that making them happy would be my biggest accomplishment of the visit but now I know that they are already happy. I didn’t give them happiness, they gave me happiness.