Monday, May 31, 2010


One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned since I focused more on living abroad than traveling, is the simple reality that every life you become a part of is not always one that you can stay involved with. This is especially true with children in the foster or orphaned system – unless you are permanently setting up a home or joining as a staff member, you must resign yourself as a volunteer to reality that you are but a blip in the life of a child, trying to have faith that the time you spend with them will somehow be more important than the act of leaving, or the inability to keep track of them once one of you has moved. It is unfair, especially to them, and yet somehow you know that it is better to provide those solitary walks and talks while you can - rather than leave them undone in the first place.

When I was staying at Sizanani center in 2007 a 15 year old boy named Fanele had just arrived after having been removed from his mother’s home. I never got his story in full, no one really seemed to have all the pieces and yet here he was on our door step. He was one of the oldest of the kids at the center, and for most of the time I was there he wasn’t yet in school. This left us with a lot of time together and in general he was very helpful watching after the two toddlers and baby that stayed at the center each day as well. Still, it was clear that Fanele had discipline problems and while we bonded very early, he rubbed almost all other adults the wrong way. He quickly befriended one of the other older boys and between the two of them the little kids ended up in tears quite frequently from nasty jabs, taunts or simply exclusion. When I left I had the sense that Fanele’s days at the center were numbered, and I pleaded him to be more respectful and to do what he could to stay in school. He is a bright kid who has honed is smarts on the streets, and that tends to be a lethal combination in childrens' homes which try and protect the little kids who haven’t yet been hardened in such ways (having their own traumatic histories from which the home provides a respit).

It has been hard to get full updates from the home in the past three years – everyone there is so busy and overworked and I don't want to take away from their daily schedules. I did get word at some point that Fanele had ultimately left or been sent from the center, thought I never found out where he ended up.

After I left in 2007 another volunteer from Germany came within days of my departure. She has since returned three times and is currently on the 9th month of an 18 month stay. She also knew Fanele well and while in town a couple weeks ago heard someone calling her name. When she located the voice it was a dirty and hungry Fanele in dire need of help. She shepherded him back to her apartment, got him a shower and some dinner and started working on a place for him to stay. By the time I arrived in Nkandla last week he had been re-enrolled in school and was staying with one of the local priests. I was overjoyed to see him and receive a huge hug from someone I have often thought about and wondered of his path.

He is now 18 and I can see a certain hollowness in his eyes that reflects all the realities of life on the streets in an urban African center (he’s spent some time in Durban). But beyond that I saw the same soft-hearted boy whose story I won’t ever really know but who I continue to hope and pray will find a way to fight his demons and make use of the head and the heart that could do so much for himself and those around him.

We went for a short walk into town, I gave him my camera to take pictures and we chatted about what we could, striking up the same banter and camaraderie of three years prior. I didn’t get to seem him the following day when I left as he was in school, but as I said goodbye on Sunday I once again implored him to stay in school, to study hard and to be good.

These are empty words coming from someone who has only been there for him two months and one afternoon of his 18 years. All I can hope is that he heard in them what I could not figure out how to say and somehow he doesn’t understand yet from the world.

I love you Fanele and I’m sorry I can't be there for you. I believe in you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You will never know the weight of your words or what embracing him has done or will do in his life . . . what matters is that you did :)