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Tales from the Township – The Most Touching Moments of My Life

Sometimes something happens that touches you to the core – something so undeniably beautiful and maybe also painful that you can’t help but stop short in your tracks. It’s like a knife cutting through whatever layers of defense, numbness and protection you have put up. It cuts right through and pierces your heart so that you feel, truly feel the moment. And suddenly you see all the beauty, feel all the pain and love…the power of life is flowing through you and rushing to your head like a high, only it isn’t a high. It’s just life. It’s life when you are finally living.

It’s moments like these that make us feel more alive than we thought possible. Steinbeck spoke of them in East of Eden:

“Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite…. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then—the glory—so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories.”

Often these moments happen when we are in love, or we had that first cup of coffee of the day – it’s when hormones rush round our body shouting “See, see the beauty of this moment? Really feel it. Taste it. Make love to it. And realize you are alive for moments like these. Moments when you see life through the eyes of a lover; one in love with life.” Although I’m a strong proponent of coffee and falling in love (when I’m not heartbroken), I believe there are many other things you need to fall in love with in life to really, fully, live.

Yesterday was a big day for me. I have been mentoring/semi-fostering a few kids since moving to Cape Town two years ago and yesterday it was agreed that the twins, whom I’ve spent the most time with, will be living with me whilst I am here and with their family in the township when I travel. Yesterday I became a single mom of sorts. My almost life long dream of raising kids that need a family beside their own became a reality.

During the talk to the twins’ family Liezl, the owner of Little Angels, mentioned that other families have asked her if I can raise their children. It warmed my heart as much as it pained me – I wish I was richer, I wish I could do more, I wish Little Angels had more resources and a safe house, I wish… I am also deeply touched people feel that way about me. I know that kids at crèche sometimes want to pretend I am their mother, kids who come from broken homes filled with abuse and substance misuse, but I didn’t know these two sets of grandparents had asked Liezl if I could raise their grandchildren.

When we asked the twins to come inside after the meeting (we were at Little Angels having the meeting – i.e. we were inside one of the sheds that make up our make-do facilities) and asked them if they wanted to live with me the looks on their faces were indescribable – rarely have I seen such radiant joy.

Afterwards Little Miss T was showing her happiness by hugging me, holding onto me and generally wanting to climb all over me. She came with me to my car as I was getting some first aid tools to deal with a wound on Little Mr T’s foot. As we crossed the street a teenage girl started waving at us and then ran across to talk to us. She’s one of the youth in the Youth Program I lead at Little Angels. She was so excited – the day before we had done Poetry & Storytelling Class and it was her first class of the kind. We talked about Maya Angelou’s life – about her being raped and going mute, only to emerge as one of the world’s most famous poets. We discussed why stories are important – how they can help us see beyond out own life, connect us with others, inspire us and learn new paths to follow. We also read Still I Rise, Phenomenal Woman, Invictus and a speech by Marianne Williamson. We learnt to be ridiculous. To have fun. To laugh at ourselves. To make a fool out of ourselves. To go beyond our own fears. So the girl ran up to tell me she had written a poem about a video she had seen where Rihanna had written a poem.

To see kids, whose childhoods are filled with tales you wouldn’t believe if I told them to you, light up like that…to see them shine. To see them learn that’s it’s OK to be themselves. To express themselves. To be their own judge of what they think of themselves..it fills me with so much joy. I’m living my dream teaching youth and every smile they give me, every lesson they tell me they have learned about acting, poetry or life (we do many different classes, but we only kicked off recently) is the most beautiful thing. It makes my heart sing and it makes me stop and see life like an explosion of colors, feelings, emotions… It takes my breath away.

Myself and Little Miss T then reached the car, only to hear someone call us. A woman was coming down some steps, a woman Little Miss T knew. She said something along the lines of: “You are Maria, are you not? The Maria? And I know you love the kids here. You are so good with them. And I want to ask your help. Please help me. My husband was supposed to hand back my kids on Sunday, but he didn’t. He’s stolen my kids. I’m seeing the clerk tomorrow. What shall I do? Can you tell me what to do?”

It’s happened many times kids and youth I don’t know come up to me to say hello, or hug me – they know me by way of reputation. This was different though. This was desperation, plain and simple. This woman looked nice. She was not one who was worn down by drugs and alcohol. She seemed kind. She was sincere. And my heart broke in that moment and filled with humility and pride all at the same time. People here believe in me. They think I’m someone God sent to help them. I can’t always do anything to help though. I told her I don’t know laws here. I don’t know what to do, apart from go to the police. Then, of course, I did what any sane woman would do – I marched back to Little Angels, asked Liezl if the woman was a good mom and set her and her husband, Jacobus, on the case to help her.

The events yesterday reminded me of an evening in early fall here this year (that’s like March, which I still don’t understand because I’m an LA kind of girl as far as weather and seasons are concerned) when I drove down to pick up Liezl to have a meeting about the Youth Program. As I pulled up where she lived in the township this little five year old girl, one of the ones I kinda mentor/buy food for/take to the doctors from time to time, was dancing in the street. Queen Muzzaine as I call her, because she has the most demanding, yet hilarious, and sweet personality. She didn’t see me at first, just kept dancing in the headlights of my car. It’s one of the most beautiful moments of my life. This little girl in a township dancing wildly in the headlights of my car. At that moment she represented my dream come to life; my work in the township with children; my joy of dancing; my dance film in the making. She was my life come to life; the moment being an expression of who I really am; what my heart is.

Yesterday was another such day. It was a day when I learnt I truly matter. I hope everyone will get to learn that and see life through the eyes of someone who feels they matter, who feels they live, with every heartbeat of their life.

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By Maria MontgomeryMaria is a freelance writer, director and social entrepreneur. She’s also the spokesperson for The Little Angels Community Center. You can find her somewhere between Cape Town, London and L.A., where you will most likely find her in the hills, looking out over the city she loves. @OhMyMontgomery

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Do you see me now teacher? #charity #heartwarming

A little while back I was sitting in one of the classrooms/sheds with Muzzaine. Potentially one of the funniest kids I’ve ever met. She’s being raised by her grandma due to family problems and she doesn’t have much to eat at home, but she is the most opinionated and funny little kid. Her grandma is super cute as well and often helps out at Little Angels, which has made her a lot happier and more confident as she gets away from family problems and feels she’s making a difference. I’ve seen her truly blossom in the past year.

Anyway, myself and Muzzaine have always had a special relationship. Liezel calls her my “other daughter.” I started bringing her food last year when I knew she didn’t have any snacks in the afternoon. It wasn’t my idea – it was hers. Zennie thinks she rules the world and the people in it you see, so she decided I was going to bring her food, because she was hungry. She also decided she will one day get rich so she can buy Liezel and her grandma a big house and she’s coming to London to visit me. She also announced to other kids at Little Angels that since my foster kids are no longer at creche, but in school, I now belong entirely to her when I’m at Little Angels. Liezel had to explain to her that I belong to everyone. At four, she has all the signs of a world leader.

Just the other day she apparently decided that her clothes weren’t fit for going to Little Angels in. Her grandma didn’t have money to buy laundry liquid and Zennie refused getting dressed as she had to wear the same clothes two days in a row. That was just not appropriate. She found the clothes “dirty” and Liezel “would not accept her showing up in dirty clothes.” As a result she got a smack on the bum, as kids in South Africa do and she promptly told her grandma that Liezel would call the police and send her to prison. We educate the kids on abuse and Muzzaine is not one to be messed around with. Even if it was a light smack on the bum, she would not have it.

Another time when she was doing something outrageous her gran told her she would tell me and Zennie replied that it didn’t matter because I love her so much I would never be nasty to her ever. Liezel did say though that the other day when the kids weren’t listening to her she simply picked up her phone “to call teacher Maria and let her know who isn’t listening” and the whole classroom, including Muzzaine, went silent and lined up to try and get to speak to me on the phone. If I was there no one would listen to me though – it’s a standing joke that when I enter the classroom chaos erupts as everyone’s trying to get my attention, all in one go. Fights have broken out over who gets to be close to me. I can teach maximum six kids at a time, or there will be mayhem.

The time Zennie and I were sitting together in the classroom though she was building something using wooden blocks and she looked up to me and said “You will watch me build this, no?” and it just reminded me that most people’s strongest desire is to be seen. To be acknowledged. And to be loved for who they truly are.

Sometimes it’s easy to think that because we live in different countries, in different worlds, we are different. But we aren’t. Not really.

Talking on the phone to Liezel today we first went through problems, solutions, dreams… Then we got talking about men and laughed till we cried. It’s not all doom and gloom in the townships, we have quite a lot of fun too. We have to. The best way to honor life is not to get dissuaded with what it brings you, but to come to terms with it and make the most of it. And even if we struggle now, one day Zennie will buy us all houses and turn us into royalty by mere association with Queen Muzzaine herself. Pretty nice life, don’t you think?

Maria is a writer, social entrepreneur and foster mommy to a pair or twins from the township. You can reach her via LinkedIn, or Twitter: @OhMyMontgomery@LittleAngelsCT

One day in the beginning of the year I wasn’t feeling great as I had just been to the hospital for some tests for my hands, so I decided to go to Little Angels to perk up and, as you can see, hug Zennie. Liezel famously said: “The fact that you decide to come here when you are sad and you want our love and hugs, that makes me an important person. That makes me bigger than anything.”

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Tales from the township – you’re beautiful…

I was talking to Liezel, the principal at the Little Angels Community Center for underprivileged kids and youth in Hangberg, South Africa today. She was telling me her asthma is bad as it’s cold, they don’t have heating at home and at Little Angels it’s only the gas heaters as there is no electricity. Gas heaters aren’t great if you have asthma and there’s been rain and hail recently and the roof in one of the sheds (aka classrooms) started leaking again. So this week there was a man who stopped by and asked her how she could keep it up? He thought her problems were so immense he couldn’t understand she was still standing – she suffers from a thyroid problem and asthma, she sometimes don’t have enough money to put food on her own table and she gets troubled knowing she can’t give the kids at creche and the youth at the center all they need – food, clothes, doctors, lives free of abuse… Yet, she shows up every day. So what makes her keep going?

She told me today what she told him: “You know, I come here every day and I want to do so much I can’t do – I don’t have the money to do it. I see kids starving and freezing and I can’t do anything. But then the kids tell me I look beautiful. They tell me they love me. When I’m having a bad day, they will tell me I’m the most beautiful person. That’s it. And you know, I’ve done this for three years with no money. And we’ve gotten far. We can go much further.”

There is this idea in Hollywood that you have to look a certain way to be beautiful. You have to do certain things to be successful. Then you walk into Little Angels and because you help the kids simply by loving them, you are successful. Because they think you are beautiful, you feel beautiful.

Liezel swore when her sister died from cancer to do something, as her sister’s kids were on drugs. She then one day, when her kids found tik (crystal meth) in the playground, realized she wanted to keep kids off the streets and away from drugs and she was going to set up a center to do this. So she did. And suddenly she had more problems on her hands than she knew how to handle, as when you aim to create something, there’s suddenly obstacles. When you aren’t trying to feed hundreds of kids, there’s no problem. When you decide to feed them, you have to figure out a way to do so.

You can say Liezel has a lot of problems, both with Little Angels and her health. And you could, because of that, say that she’s unsuccessful and unhealthy, which to some means not beautiful. But no one would tell Liezel that. Liezel is one of the most successful, loved, adored and blessed people I know. Men want to steal her away from her husband, kids want to be her when they grow up. Liezel is a very, very beautiful and successful woman.

There are so many beautiful people in this world who have never had a chance to see that they are beautiful and successful, because no one has told them so. Yet, they have given to other people. They have smiled with happiness. They have laughed with joy. They have worked with kindness and dedication. They have listened to their hearts and followed their dreams. They are very beautiful. And I hope they one day get to see their own beauty mirrored in other people’s smiles and thankfulness. I hope they get to see their success mirrored in the happiness of the people they helped. I hope they one day get to see a real mirror.

– Maria

Maria is a writer, social entrepreneur and foster mommy to a pair or twins from the township. You can reach her via LinkedIn, or Twitter: @OhMyMontgomery@LittleAngelsCT

The Little Angels Website

Liezel in the middle with all the youth leaders, her husband and Jacqui the Vice Principal.