Wednesday, 16 January 2013

My trip to Guguletu...

A couple of years ago we were invited out to South Africa, it was the trip of a lifetime. While there, I met a very special lady called Laura.

Laura lives in the township Guguletu, she has lived there all her life. She works as a tour guide and takes tourists to all the beautiful sights that Cape Town has to offer, she will also take tourists to the township. I met Laura through a friend of hers. We were being hosted as guests of a large company based in Cape Town (where Laura's friend worked), as I said, it was the trip of a lifetime and we were shown an incredible time, including the use of their hospitality boxes at the World Cup. I was bowled over by the generosity so wanted to do something in return. On the lead up to the World Cup there was a lot of coverage in the UK media on the townships and the difficulties there. I wanted to to help. I was put in touch with Laura and I asked what I could bring to help.

Laura in her spare time, helps with a number of local projects and needy causes, a vegetable garden that grows food for a local TB clinic for example. The garden and kitchen is run almost solely by local women. Laura also invites up to 30 children every day into her home where she feeds them breakfast from leftovers donated by local restaurants, connections she has made. For some of these children, this is the only meal they will receive that day. In this time she reads and interacts with them, again, for some this is the only real interaction with an adult they will receive that day. She told me that the children needed shoes, so I told friends and family about Laura, they all wanted to contribute and I managed to gather quite a little pot of money.

Once in South Africa I arranged to meet Laura, we couldn't make our way into the township, we were told we would meet Laura outside. We met in a petrol station and from there we went to the local shopping centre. She had all the children's names on a piece of paper with their shoe size. We bought shoes, shoes and more shoes. After we had everyone accounted for, there was still some money left over, Laura told me there was a little boy that could really do with some clothes. He was poorly and had very little, a boy called China. We bought China a new outfit, underwear and a Ben 10 cap (his favourite). We left the shop laden with bags. I expected to hand them over to Laura. However, she insisted we come meet the children and give them their shoes.

I was not prepared for what I saw in Guguletu, despite seeing the programmes. On one side of a dual-carriageway were huge, expensive-looking houses with barbed wire, iron bars and security huts, the other side, a sea of corrugated iron as far as the eye could see. As we neared Laura's house, I could see a crowd of children , they'd been expecting us. They were so excited to see us, their little faces all lit up. We all went into Laura's house. We gave the shoes out and they were all so grateful and happy - we also had footballs and the promotional World Cup gifts we had been given which the children loved. Most raced off home to show off their new shoes, a couple of mums and grandmothers turned up a few minutes later to thank us and cuddle us for the shoes. It was weird, I felt good, awkward, embarrassed, sickened by my own lifestyle at home and angry all at the same time. I was angry that it was so little, why hadn't I done more? A few of the children had very angry looking impetigo, why didn't I bring cream?

We were sat in Laura's house talking and then a little boy wandered in, so very shy. It was China. China, I was told, had HIV and his mother diagnosed with Aids. He was 3 years old and so small. Laura presented him with his clothes and I will never forget his face, he just didn't know what to do. He could barely hold the little pile, he didn't believe they were for him. The other children know China is special and look after him, they all clapped for him and went about putting the Ben 10 cap on his head. His mother arrived shortly after looking very frail and poorly and thanked us, again I had that awful, awful feeling which even now makes me squirm, it wasn't enough.

It was an emotional goodbye with Laura, both of us overwhelmed. Neither of us could find the words, I actually don't think we said a single word, we just hugged and she kissed my hand. Nearly two years later, I am still in touch with Laura. She updates me on what's going on in the township. It has been a tough year, tougher then usual. China lost his mother at 4 years old and left in the care of his two adolescent brothers. He was his mothers shadow and was so lost when she went. However, since her passing Laura and he have struck up a beautiful friendship, she says he is now her shadow. He likes to see her everyday and follow her around.

Laura has also had her house broken in to, her brothers house burnt to the ground where he lived with his young family. For every child she tries to help, there is a mother deliberately getting pregnant and drinking heavily, in the hope of damaging her unborn child. The reason; you get more benefits for a disabled child. Most of the children Laura sees suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. It's not uncommon to see women in the shebeens with newborn babies, the mothers so intoxicated they can barely stand or speak. Rape is so common place, girls grow up to expect it. South Africa seems to have become a nation that is no longer shocked by it; just last month a young mentally-ill girl was gang-raped, the horrific ordeal recorded on a phone and uploaded. It trended on Twitter in South Africa, the video that is (until it was removed), but didn't make the national news.

I hear about these things every so often when Laura gets in touch, she lives with it every day and still manages to get up each day and help where she can, with a smile and such incredible warmth. She is the most amazing person I have ever met and she inspires me every day. Whenever I feel myself thinking about what a crap day I'm having or how rubbish things can be some days, I remind myself that actually I've got it pretty good.

It has been so frustrating not being able to help Laura more. We were trying to work out a way to send money on a monthly basis, the one route that looked likely was Paypal but we later found out they do not operate in South Africa. Posting packages/parcels into the township is not possible as most are stolen. Fortunately Dan had another business trip to Cape Town a couple of months ago so was able to take a parcel to Laura, I filled it with treats for her and some new clothes for China.

She wrote recently to tell me China is doing so well and is even off to school this year! Most township children do not get to go school because of the expense - he is very excited. China needs a school uniform and Laura asked if I could help, so I am off shopping this weekend for school wear. Laura has managed to get a guest house outside the township to agree to receive a parcel from me. I am so pleased for my little friend China, he's had such a hard start in life but thanks to Laura things are changing.

Wow, this was a longer post then I intended but it's something that is so close to my heart. It amazes Laura that someone this many miles away would be interested enough to care and the fact that I and others do I'm sure gives her the strength to keep going. She could move out of the township, but she worries about those she would leave behind. I update friends and family on Laura and China and they send messages which I pass on. At the moment there are limits to what we can do but the words are at least something and I know she really appreciates them.

and the next one always makes me smile, I love these faces.


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