Monday morning I woke up thirty minutes before my 7am alarm to the dark, freezing cold 2-person room that they had assigned me to. It was smaller than the two rooms on either side of it, but I was beyond happy to have it since the girls’ room had three bunk beds and six people in it. I had already done the whole living in the sorority house thing, and at twenty-six I wasn’t about to regress back. All of the girls had to share the bathroom at the end of the hall, while the boys had their own in their 4-person room…along with a full-length mirror, which makes 0 sense since those are both things that girls need.
My roommate was older as well (most of the girls were around 19-25), and actually works for IVHQ at their headquarters in New Zealand. She was sent to check out the accommodations and programs, likely due to the girl getting stabbed and then volunteers getting robbed by machete a few weeks ago. To be fair, they weren’t following the safety rules. I quietly picked out an outfit, which consisted of about three layers clothing, and crept down the silent hall to the stone cold bathroom. After showering, getting ready, and eating, I hung around in the kitchen talking to everyone else as they scrambled to get ready. Does this make me an adult?
“Karl’s here!” Someone yelled from the girls’ room. At once everyone started running around like the house was on fire, throwing dishes in the sink, grabbing bags, and running outside. Karl is the official driver for Dreams to Reality – the actual charity that we volunteer with through IVHQ. We piled in his van with some other volunteers he had already picked up from the other volunteer houses, and set off for the first school were our orientation was. I was a little shocked, but extremely happy about the raging music video mixes he had playing on a screen at the front of his van. They were like music videos for people with severe ADD, flashing literally one line/scene from each video.
He took us to orientation, which, like any orientation, isn’t worth even saying the word ‘orientation’ so I’ll just leave it at, it wasn’t that bad of an orientation. We got to hear where everyone was from and what they do. Demographics ranged from China to Wisconsin and from recent college grads to us old working folk’ who had to sneakily take off a few weeks “for a double wedding in Florida“.
Afterwards we were taken to what would be my favorite place to be for the remainder of the week – Christian David Moravian Primary School. There wasn’t much to it, just an old building with about five or six classrooms, a couple of detached portable rooms and a grungy-looking dirt play area.
I was enrolled in the teaching program, so I was taken to the tutoring room where the volunteers tutor students on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and a special needs person works with children the rest of the time. I’ll admit that I was a little nervous at first, wondering, what if the kids don’t like me? What if I’m bad at teaching? But all of my worries dissipated when the bell rang for interval (recess) the second we walked in, and my arms, hands, and waist were suddenly engulfed in little arms and hands, pulling and pushing me outside.
“What’s your name?” They would ask in their adorably tiny voices. “I’m Alyssa, what’s your name?” I would reply slowly, watching their wide eyes fill with wonder and excitement. “Ah-liss-Ah”, they would repeat, sounding out my name before resuming the hugging and handholding. There was so much love that I could hardly contain myself from smiling and laughing as they jumped, tugged, hugged and pulled. Many of them had American names like Susan, John, and Ashley, while others had to teach me how to say and spell their names so I could pronounce them correctly like Sinsile and Khotah.
They all spoke English as well as Africaans, and I could tell what grade they were in by how good their English was. They were like most elementary school kids with their curious questions, and the way they played and fought, except for one very big difference. They didn’t have most of the things that other kids do. There were no balls or toys for them to play with, and there was no playground, although they seemed perfectly content running around on the dusty dirt.
They all wear uniforms, which may make it seem like there is some money, but a closer look will show that if they weren’t required to wear the matching slacks, white button down shirt, and navy sweater every day, they wouldn’t have much else to wear. Many of their shoes were worn down or broken, and the zippers on most of their pants were broken as well. While all of the snotty noses could be written off as normal, the dozens of black teeth gave a glimpse into what their lives were really like outside of the sanctuary of the school.
‘Township‘ is a new word I learned that day. A township is what they call all of the areas I had seen where the town was made up of tin shacks. At first I thought it was just were all of the homeless people lived, but I learned that they are actual towns where families live and even work in tin-shack shops inside of it. Most people would look at it and see it the way I did, but those slums are where the kids at Christian David live with their families. And by families, I mean anywhere from four to seven people living in one little tin shack. Yes, it’s sad, yes, it’s heart wrenching, but what was so amazing is how happy these little kids still were. Especially when they had volunteers to play with during interval.
It seemed like all of their favorite things to do was love us and take pictures with our iPhones. Not joking, you take your phone out for a second and the next thing you know you’re in a full-on photo shoot with a fourth grade photographer and a constantly growing group shot.
Another thing that they loved was my hair. Before I knew it I was in the recess salon getting my hair braided by two little girls. That only lasted for two braids before the cutest little boy named Ethan stole me away by sneakily crawling onto my lap. I had noticed that only a few of the kids were eating lunch, and when they would, they would keep it partially concealed in their backpacks. Sometimes I noticed older kids trying to take it, so would wrap one of my arms around them protectively, although the younger kids were keen to yank it away from them anyway. But I also noticed that many of the kids didn’t have food at all. We’re making sandwiches in the morning. I thought to myself, after having to tell one of the little girls who didn’t have a lunch that I wasn’t allowed to give them food.
When the bell rang again all of the kids scattered to their classrooms, but not without taking my hands, legs, and waist first and pulling me along with them saying, “Come to class with us!” and “Can you bring me to class?” But we were stationed in the tutor room to teach the students whose teacher was out sick. We helped them with worksheets and math and spelling games, which I never would have imagined I’d be teaching to a second grader, or anyone for that matter, but seeing them not only pay attention but actually trying and then looking to me for help and approval was beyond incredible. I wanted to add and subtract little pictures of ships and bananas all day!
When the final bell rang to send all of the kids home, I was a little confused because the majority of them had to walk to the places that we weren’t even allowed to walk to in groups without a supervisor (who’s the child now?). I had overheard a conversation earlier in the tutoring room with two-second graders playfully arguing about the knives that they had in their backpacks (one was a little girl), and seriously hoped they were intended to protect them from rabid Wildabees and not people.
I should have been exhausted from playing with, carrying, and being swung from all day, but their surplus of energy transferred to me in the form of inspiration, making me eager to come back to school the next morning.