Written by Arianna Aerie
Children exchange ‘high fives' with Arianna. Wendy Jolley photo.
Arianna Aerie has invited us along on the trip of a lifetime. She is in Lesotho, Africa, volunteering through Global Ministries at Maseru Children's Village and recounting her daily adventures via her online journal, "The World Outside My Window: My Africa Diary," updated weekly at www.globalministries.org/diary/index.html. This is the first monthly summary to appear in United Church News.
I pry open bleary eyes on my first morning in Lesotho. As light streams through my new winow and the curtains wave in the breeze, I stretch tired limbs and think, "Ahhh ... I'm finally in Africa."
I could probably write a book about my first impressions of Lesotho and the capital city of Maseru. As we drove over the border from South Africa, my senses were just overwhelmed with the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Vendors of all kinds lined the street, dressed in colorful clothes and hats. Scores of Volkswagen vans, which are used as taxis here, waited at the curb. Some kiosks sold maize, which is roasted corn on the cob. Others had traditional Basotho hats, which are made of straw and have chimney-like loops on the top. Traffic here is crazy, and many of the streets are full of potholes and ditches, which makes driving down some roads quite an adventure!
I spent the first couple of days unpacking and getting used to the time zone. I'm staying with David and Roxie Owens, missionaries with Global Ministries. They serve the Lesotho Evangelical Church, our international partner church. On the third day, David Owen took me to Maseru Children's Village, where I'll be volunteering for Global Ministries over the next four and a half months. I met with Wendy Jolley, a former Peace Corps worker and manager.
Wendy took me to Queen Elizabeth II hospital where the children from the Village go for health care. The hospital is a large compound with flat-roofed, white buildings forming a square. The buildings all seem to be on their last legs, with peeling paint and leaking roofs and walls. The sewage runs in ditches alongside the walkways and the whole place smells of garbage, urine and vomit. Wendy says that about 40 percent of the children who stay at the hospital end up dying. However, this is the hospital the government gives the Village funding for, so Wendy just has to keep a very close eye while she's bringing kids there. We got in the car and passed scores of people on the ground in heaps, apparently waiting for medical service. Emaciated old men lay on gurneys in the corridors and as I walked past, I momentarily wondered if they were dead. The children's ward is right next to both the TB ward and the morgue, which is adjacent to the kitchen. These kinds of conditions are hard to fathom.
We drove to the school right across from the Children's Village to pick up Manotsi, one of the girls who lives in the Village. She needed to go back to the hospital for a routine checkup. As we drove into a playground (more like a muddy yard the size of a football field), hundreds of little children in blue uniforms came scurrying up to the car. As we got out, they formed a huge crowd behind us and followed us like a parade while we searched for Manotsi.
Two boys pose shyly on the back porch of their dorm. Arianna Aerie photo.
Wendy and I went looking for Manotsi's classroom, and the children all followed us, yelling "White person, white person!" in Sesotho. Some of the little girls came running behind me, touching my arms and clothes. They smiled and were friendly, but they clearly weren't used to seeing a tall blonde walking through their school grounds. We finally found Manotsi and got back to the car.
I was to wait in line with Manotsi to see the doctor, while Wendy went to pick up her son from school. "I'll be back in 20 minutes," she promised as Manotsi and I sat down on a hard bench. The lines stretch forever, and people arrive at the hospital daily at 5 a.m. to wait and may not be seen until late in the afternoon. I'll have to get used to the waiting that seems inevitable here. People here don't mind much, but it's a very different way of life than at home.
One thing I'm learning here in Lesotho is that nothing in the world can cheer youup like kids, and there's nothing more painful to see than a child who has been mistreated. It was refreshing that first afternoon at the Village to have children be so curious and unintimidated by the differences in our skin colors, and interested in learning about my culture (albeit through physical objects), and so excited to invite me into theirs. However, I have held babies barely a year-and-half old whose bodies are simply skin and bones, and I fear they will break in half when they double over with wracking coughs. Many of the children bear the evidence of physical abuse.
The main complex of the Maseru Children's Village, including one of the dorms, the preschool and housing for the housemothers and gardener. Arianna Aerie photo.
One small boy, whose name is Lehlohonolo, has scars and bumps covering his scalp and face. He has sad eyes, and a mouth which has rarely stretched itself into a smile. He is six years old but reminds me of an elderly man with emaciated arms hanging at his sides and knobby knees brushing against each other. At first, Lehlohonolo would not get close to me. He peered at me from a distance and resisted my hand whenever I offered it to him. It wasn't until my third day at the Village that he came and sat next to me on the porch at lunchtime. He didn't say a word, but as the other children swarmed around us, climbing onto my shoulders and into my lap (they have discovered that I make a great climbing toy), he reached over and tickled my arm. I turned and tickled him back, and an amazing thing happened; Lehlohonolo smiled. I went home that day feeling as if I had achieved something great.
There are days when I get home and collapse, worn out both physically and emotionally. And yet, I sit and often wonder how a person can abandon or abuse a small child. Is there any hope for this world? I think of the smiles I see every day at lunch time and am reassured; there is hope for these kids—if only in the strength of their spirit.
So far, this is the most interesting and enriching experience of my life, and I can only imagine what the next four months will bring!
You can follow Aerie's journey by visiting the Global Ministries website at www.globalministries.org/diary/index.html.