People often ask me what it is like to work in the townships. “Isn’t it hard?” they ask. They wonder if I don’t feel down by the end of the day as I see so much poverty and pain. Normally I reply it’s the polar opposite – I’m getting a chance to do something that has a positive impact and I’m surrounded by kids who adore me, look up to me, and want to be me (sometimes hard to live up to their expectations of who I truly am, but it motivates me!). Further to that, Liezel, the principal at Little Angels thinks I’m a godsend – she constantly have people in tears telling them how we met.
I originally came down to South Africa to work with a drug rehabilitation center, where I was to teach drama and put on a play about rehabilitation. During one of my first days at the center though I was shown Little Angels, where the people in rehab took their children during the day, so that they could be at the rehab center themselves. My dream was always to work with kids in Africa, in fact, when I was seventeen and thought I was dying, I swore that if I survived I’d go and set up a nursery for street children. So when I walked into Little Angels I was overwhelmed – working with kids and youth was my dream and there I was, in the middle of the dream!
I mainly came to take photos of the kids to do some social media for the rehab center, but within a few days Liezel declared (in a way only Liezel can declare) that she wanted me Wednesdays and Fridays. That was that – although I taught a few classes for the adults at the center, I ended up at Little Angels and the head at the rehab center would mainly sigh and say my heart belonged at Little Angels.
One of my first days at Little Angels – we were in a church whilst we were relocating the actual center.
Liezel later told me that when she saw me – this tiny little blonde girl that was all shy at first – she didn’t think I’d last a week. The other teachers thought I was “yet another white person, there to “help” them, by raising money and keeping it to myself.” There had been some horror stories in the past. I did wonder why everyone seemed so hostile around me.
Liezel soon decided to like me though, although the teachers told her she was silly to put her hopes in yet another white girl.
Today Liezel tells me this story saying I was the angel sent by God she had been praying for, for years and that she is my dream come true, providing me with the chance of working with underprivileged kids. We were in each other’s prayers and dreams before we knew one another, in other words. The teachers call me the “colored white girl” and all in all, we are like an extended family. (There are the Xhosa and Zulus, as well as the coloreds and whites in Cape Town and although they all mix more and more, there is still somehow racism happening between all groups. At Little Angels we, naturally, have everyone. Rainbow nation as Madiba said.)
I can’t explain in words what Liezel’s faith in me has meant to me – my childhood wasn’t all that easy and working with the kids healed me because I was so surrounded by love. The kids loved me. I loved the kids. I would just sit with them, be with them, and wait for their shells to crack and their hearts to shine. I knew what it was like being trapped in a shell and feeling your heart inside, so different from all your scars. Your heart alive, your outside jarred. Whether a shell of anger, fear, shyness, cockiness, comedy…whatever the shell. So I waited and I loved and I became loved.
Liezel and her niece’s son, Jessie, whom she is raising as her niece is on drugs. Liezel put three of the current teachers in rehab a few years ago – today they have all gone to college, are clean, and raising a generation of kids in the township whom they hope they can prevent from ever touching drugs.
There is something magical that happens when people believe in you. Suddenly you start seeing yourself through their eyes. You see a different side of yourself. Especially if you are doing something you are actually good at – I think most of us have tried a job, or a course, we, well, frankly, sucked at. When you do something you love and which you are good at and people believe in you, it feels like you are truly living. Like you’ve come home to your dreams.
Last year a new slogan was developed, I believe by Jacqui, the vice principal: “Do not fear, teacher Maria is near.” This slogan always makes me laugh, but it also reminds me of the difficult bit – of being the one everyone is dreaming will one day bring change to Little Angels. As much as I want that to happen and believe in it, sometimes I feel intense pressure.
In the townships there is either a minor or major crisis every day. Liezel is trying to sober up half the parents whose kids are at Little Angels, protect half from being abused by their husbands, and leading HIV and Aids support groups for another bunch. Yet others are dragged to child welfare as we fear abuse, or neglect and some parents we try to keep in jail, or out of jail. It’s a constant circus. And sometimes it does get to me. What gets to me the most though is if something happens directly to the teachers, or the kids.
My foster kids – Tyra and Tyreke.
One day my own foster kids, six year old twins, were acting out a rape scene. Another day Liezel was on oxygen for her asthma, which gets bad in winter when it’s cold and of course we don’t know where to get money for gas for our heaters, or praise the lord: a solar panel system to generate electricity. Then there was the day I found out one of the teachers, Stacy’s, husband has contracted lung cancer. He’s the sole provider for the family as no one at Little Angels is paid (we look after kids and youth who can’t pay regular fees) and now he can’t work. They also happen to live in a shack, which is cold, it’s winter (the seasons are backwards in South Africa for us Westerners) and they have no money for alternative therapies, healthy foods and so on. So crisis meeting with all the teachers trying to figure out how to help Stace and her husband. They have two small kids as well. There are also days when some kids show up crying at creche because they’ve had no food at home for days, or they have been abused, or the youth leaders show up to say their parents tried committing suicide. Then of course, there are days when someone from the outside decide that I’m “sent by the devil,” (I happened to mention that if I go to church, it is to Agape, where all religions are welcome and this woman who was Christian had a fit and told Liezel to get rid of me as I was sent directly from Satan) or someone “who wants to one day turn Little Angels into an eco-center” is off her head because how dare she think she could do something like that? And organic food? You have got to be kidding me!
Stacy’s kids, little Kita (Nikita) and Nickla with Tyreke. Kita is still at Little Angels (and certain she is a princess, who can wrap the whole world around her finger) whilst Nickla has started school together with my foster kids. Stacy told me today on the phone that Nickla (the world’s sweetest kid – seriously) doesn’t want to go to school anymore “because the teacher beats her on the head for no reason.” I told her to send Liezel down there – if there is one woman who can make someone put an end to bad behavior, it’s Liezel.
Often it’s small things though – yesterday when on the phone with Liezel (I’m currently in Los Angeles) she told me it’s father’s day in South Africa on Sunday and the teachers are trying to come up with a plan to afford a nice home cooked lunch. They don’t have the money for that you see. And it makes me angry and sad and upset and confused, because I go out for dinner sometimes. I travel the world. I am trying to raise millions for my own business. Yet, I don’t have money to spare. I can’t buy Liezel much. I give what I can, but it’s not much. And I know she wants me to travel the world – I’m the messenger. The storyteller. The one who can talk about Little Angels – but sometimes, it just feels so unfair. And I get really stressed. Especially in situations like the one with Stacy’s husband – unless we get help he will die.
Liezel’s big dream, beyond turning Little Angels into a proper eco-community center for kids and youth, rather than three sheds with no electricity, proper toilets or anything else much proper, is to meet Oprah Winfrey. Oprah has been her inspiration, just like Angelina Jolie has been mine. We dreamed our dreams long before we heard of these women, but as anyone else, we take comfort in people who walked the path before us. The irony is that Liezel already is “an Oprah” in her own right. Her work should earn her millions and a talk show on national TV – she’s the entire community’s agony aunt. If you have a problem you go to Liezel – the door is always open and you might get a roll of bread if you are starving. Liezel has so little, yet she manages to help everyone else around her. And as for me? Well, they already call me Angelina in the township. But my favorite thing is hearing a chorus of voices screaming my real name as I drive into the township. Or hearing through the grapevine that little Zennie said “Everything is going to be alright, because teacher Maria loves me.” Yes, I guess it puts a bit of pressure on me, but by the end of the day – I love what I do more so than anything I’ve ever done.
Myself and Zennie (Muzzaine) – to the left!
How do you become the Oprah Winfrey of your town? You get off your ass and do something. You follow your heart to live your own dreams and you help your neighbors. It really is that simple and that difficult. It’s scary shit sometimes – showing up for yourself and others, daring to follow your dreams in the face of all the obstacles reality brings and hoping for something you haven’t yet achieved – like turning Little Angels into a proper center. But where there is heart, there is hope. Where there is will, there is a way. And where there is community, there is strength.
This is what Liezel said after reading this: Aaawww, so touching. Love you more hun. And you know, don’t worry what other people say or think about you, you are the best most trustworthy friend I’ve ever met, you are a sister, a friend, my buddy, my strength, a shoulder and listener, and best of it all: I can trust you. You did not judge us or the kids once. Thank you my friend. xxxx
Little Angels, myself and Kita and Kita by our only tap. It was a glorious day and we were all playing with the water. I remember thinking I wanted life to always be like that – filled with love and laughter and splashing water. Even if there isn’t always money for food, there is happiness. There is community. When I spoke to Liezel this morning she put Zennie on the phone and the little one promptly declared she loved me. I also spoke with the youth leaders, whom I lead, with Stace and the twins. I felt so loved by the time I hung up I swear my grin went from here to South Africa – from the City of Angels to Little Angels. Where else do you get that? Where else are teachers allowed to love the kids as if they were their own? Where else is there community and family like that?