In the townships there are many things happening that those from the outside do not see, or hear about. Not because it’s necessarily a secret, but simply because it’s not what you talk about. When people visit Little Angels they see the staff, the kids and the youth leaders. They might drop by when the Hangberg 50cc Feeding Scheme is there and so you talk about the feeding scheme, or about Little Angels. You don’t start digging into personal stories about each and every one of the kids, staff, or friends of theirs. Having worked there for a year and a half I’ve become friends with the teachers, the kids, grandparents…so I’ve started to hear the stories. Sometimes they horrify me, at other times they fill me with warmth. They are usually not easy stories because they contain pain, but sometimes they have happy endings.
Liezel gets to hear and is involved with more stories than anyone I know. Her door is always open (sometimes to her husband’s chagrin as there is little family time left, so he complains, whereupon Liezel has to close the door and be a wife and mummy for a while, but it usually doesn’t last too long – soon the next person comes baring in) and she is the number one agony aunt of the township. I sometimes envy her because I wish I had a home where people felt always welcome and the kettle was always on. On the other hand, I don’t know how she deals with all the stories and how people expect her to fix everything in their lives – from cheating husbands to HIV, from no food on the table to understanding puberty. And sometimes she can’t handle it and that’s where I come in – I listen, I give advice and Liezel feels better. Because now she has someone to lean on.
It’s funny, isn’t it? Sometimes all you need is ears to hear you out, a bit of love and maybe a hug. Problems ease off when someone else is there to share them. That’s why Liezel loves my ears and the whole township loves Liezel. Admittedly some don’t like when she sends child welfare, the rehab center, or the police after them, but then, that’s also why they respect her – she won’t stand for abuse in any way.
So the other day Liezel was telling me the story of her daughter, Camilla’s, best friend.
There was recently a funeral as three kids, of whom one is a youth leader at Little Angels, lost their mom. She liked her drink a bit too much, but there was nothing apparently wrong with her, yet the other week she didn’t wake up one morning. She simply died in her sleep and left three children behind.
During this recent funeral Liezel was reminded of a funeral about a year ago – one of her best friends died in a cab accident and her daughter was Camilla’s best friend. I remember this as well, because it happened due to a taxi accident in Hout Bay and they stopped my car the next morning when going into the township in an attempt to ensure all vehicles were licensed. I believe one of the cabs that were in the crash did not have a licensed driver. It happens that way. It’s Africa. It’s the townships. There are many rules, but they can’t enforce them – half of the cars in use are falling to pieces and if they enforced the law 90% of the poor would no longer be able to drive. They would probably also have to hire twice the police force. And the current police force is partly corrupt, so there’s that as well.
When her mom died the girl last year was devastated and Camilla kept telling Liezel she had to help her so that she wouldn’t drop out of school, or commit suicide. So Liezel talked to her and talked to her and hugged her and kissed her. Then the other day the girl came over with some chocolate to say “thank you for caring when no one else did, thank you for being a mummy when no one else was.”
It’s these stories that keep Liezel going even without a salary; even when living in poverty. She often gets weighed down by hearing about everyone’s problems as she doesn’t have the resources to help everyone and there are many tragic life stories around her all the time. Crime, poverty and prostitution is everyday life in Hangberg. There are many people leading “normal” lives whereby they work and abide by the law, treat their families nice and stay off the drugs and keep clean from HIV, but all of them have to go through seeing many of their friends and family succumb to difficult lives. Sometimes I find it difficult and I don’t even live there. I just work there. And more than anything I fear for the wellbeing of Liezel (she has asthma and a bad thyroid problem which affects her weight and health), the other teachers and the little ones at Little Angels. Especially in winter when it’s cold and we don’t have electricity. It feels weird living a life where I have one foot in the township and one foot out, on the other hand I realize I can’t give up my life on this side. We all help, in whatever way we can. And these stories, these beautiful stories and the hugs from the kids keep us all going. It’s what makes our hearts beat stronger.
Liezel at the monthly birthday bash at Little Angels – as many kids aren’t celebrated at home, by the end of each month we throw a party for all kids whose birthday it was that month and serve some cake.