(Durban, South Africa)
At first glance, the Zulu children we met on the bus en route to Ithemba Lethu’s leadership camp were just like any other seventh graders we had ever met. They boarded the bus with tremendous enthusiasm. They were full of life and noise and a certain pre-teen angst. They were excited to be with their friends, armed with bits of junk food, slightly insecure and were chatting about celebrities and rappers. If one didn’t already know that the children were from one of Durban’s poorest townships, that most lived in tin shacks, or that many were being raised by siblings just a few years older than them, it wouldn’t have been immediately obvious that these kids differed from suburban American youth.
As the weekend progressed, we began learning more details about their lives. One child’s parents had just died. Her mother died of AIDS and her father was murdered by human hands. She was now living with an aunt who didn’t want her. Several of the children were being physically abused on a regular basis. School was not a safe place for the kids because teachers hit them with pipes.
As we sat down together for meals, I began to notice that the kids were consuming food in massive quantities. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were provided at the camp and to our American team, it was typical camp food. Palatable but, far from gourmet. I ate enough to sustain me but wasn’t interested in going back for seconds. As I pushed food around my plate, the kids were inhaling every morsel of food on their plates. They went back for seconds, thirds, and fourths. They had an astounding affinity for ketchup. A 65 pound boy sitting next to me consumed four hamburgers in a row.
We were keeping the kids incredibly busy with soccer games, jump rope, swimming, late nights, and obstacle courses. “They have really worked up an appetite,” I rationalized. “They are almost teenagers, after all.”
As the weekend continued so did the pace of the eating and I began to wonder how children could possibly consume so much food without becoming ill. I mentioned the spectacle of food consumption to one of the youth workers and she replied, “When they get home, they will only have pap and sweet water. They’re eating as much as they can here because there’s little food at home.”
Her words felt like a sucker punch to the gut. The food I was turning my nose up at was an incredible, luxurious, excessive feast for the children. They were eating like mad because they didn’t know when they would get to eat again.
I’m still not sure what to do with this or about it. It’s an injustice I feel overwhelmed by and powerless to correct. All I know is that God called me to this place at this time to interact with these children. So, I interacted and I encouraged. I prayed for them and tried to love them.
In the midst of their dire circumstances, thanks to the efforts of the Ithemba Lethu team, the kids are learning to become leaders, learning to make different choices than their parents. I cannot for one second label these children as victims. The term connotates powerlessness.
And these children are not powerless. They are survivors and heroes.
I can't wrap this post up in neat bow. I have no clue how to end a post like this. Sometimes we need to live in the tension....