aB South Africa: ‘I write this post with tears falling down my face’

Nine members of the university community made FIU alternative Breaks history April 30, 2013, when they departed for South Africa to work with children and adults with HIV/AIDS. Theirs is the first aB group at FIU to travel to the African continent. FIU News will be following the team’s journey.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Today was by far the most emotionally exhausting day of all. Since our arrival, we’ve been working strictly at the center and visiting tourist attractions. At the center, we’re busy with our projects and don’t have the opportunity to really interact with locals and hear their stories. Up until today, we had stayed in somewhat of a bubble and hadn’t really been exposed to the community and the nitty-gritty issues facing Durban. Today, the tears and clenching hearts came out as we spent an entire day out on the streets performing service work.

The day started with every participant carrying huge, heavy bags of donations (we each brought from Miami) down, what seems like, 500 stairs from our cottage to the parking lot. We sorted out the donations at the clinic by women, men, girls, boys and toys. We immediately boarded our mini-van and squished a little tighter to accommodate four volunteers from Holland who joined us for the day. Our first stop was the local police station, which houses a crisis center for battered and abused women. Although small, the center can accommodate an abundance of women and being inside the police station offers an extra sense of security.

We once again boarded our van and headed to two different clinics, both owned by the municipality. You see, the Blue Roof Center, where we work, is privately owned and therefore has this very clean and beautifully painted demeanor. Both public clinics were bursting at the seams with packed waiting and consulting rooms. The lack of air conditioning allows the flu and infections to spread even quicker. There are only four nurses catering to an average of 300 patients a day. The nurses have the authority of writing and administering all medications since the doctors only visit once a week.

After the clinics, we headed to a Methodist church for a group counseling session with HIV patients from the Blue Roof Center. Before we sat down with the group we assisted with handing out soup and bread to a line of locals waiting for a hot meal. Everyone is so polite here and thanked us over and over again for being there to serve them today.

The counseling session was made up of about 30 men and women and some of them with their small children. We went around asking questions about how they cope with HIV and how it has affected them. The overall response was about their drive to promote awareness in schools and to shatter this state of denial that many people fall into when they find out they have HIV. Almost every woman who spoke said she found out she had HIV when she was pregnant and had to immediately start taking medication. All the women were successful in not passing it to their children except one woman who now has to treat her daughter for the virus. The woman sitting next to me was so joyful and positive. She kept chiming into the group about not letting this illness define her. Once the conversation was over, I approached her and told her how her happiness is magnetic. I find it ironic; I should be the one overly grateful for all I have and the one electrifying people with my smile, not the other way around.

Immediately following the group session we visited Bobbi Bear, a home serving children who have been raped. The manager explained how the home is in risk of losing its funding and they may have to close their doors in a month. They interact with about 4,500 children, of all ages and genders, a month. The manager walked us through their process when they receive a call that a child has been raped. The first 72 hours after a rape has occurred are the most crucial in that they have to treat the child for a potential risk of being infected with HIV. They immediately drive to the child and meet with them. They present them with a stuffed bear and begin the conversation about what exactly occurred, using the bear to indicate where they were abused. The bear she showed us was marked with an actual case number. There were bright red marker stains all along the bear’s private area and a dark outline of a blindfold on the eyes. The children indicated that they cried and had been beaten. The bear is used to build a case against the perpetrator. IMG_2031They then rush the child to a hospital to perform a four hour-long rape kit. They explained that many times the staff at the hospital are rude and insensitive because they see so many cases and are immune to it.

They walked us through the justice system and just how many months or even years it can take to put someone behind bars. In many cases, the child will be released back into the abusive home. Bobbi Bear only serves as emergency, temporary shelter for these children. The manager told us of a story of a two-week old baby who had been raped and died in her arms. We toured the home and walked into a room filled with cribs and mobiles for the babies. I write this post with tears falling down my face. The mere thought of these innocent children falling victim to such a horrible crime is earth shattering. I cannot fathom how this could go on and be a common issue for this country.

If that wasn’t enough, we visited the home of a woman who has adopted four young girls with HIV. The woman has dedicated her life to raising these children since childbirth, describing how when she found the girls they were near death. We left donations for the girls and had a quick tour of their humble bedroom. They want to be a doctor, police officer, priest and teacher when they grow up. Their mother offered to let me live with them for free as long as I help her take care of the children. It sounds like an offer I am finding very hard to refuse. We visited a shelter for the crippled, housing about 34 residents. They were very thankful for their adult size cloth donations.

We ended our day at Saint Monica’s House, an orphanage housing 86 children. They are divided into pods and each have a small “family” of about 12 children and one caretaker. We had the opportunity to pull away a small group of children from their homework and play with them. We played in a sand pit and watched as the little girls showed us their best cartwheel. I approached one little boy who was sitting off to the side very quiet. I asked him to smile and he said no. I asked him why he didn’t want to smile and if he was happy. He said no. Although many of the children are full of life and seem happier than ever with the little that they have, the reality of the situation is that it is unfortunate and as much as a child can think it is perfectly fine to grow up in those circumstances, it is not.

On our way back to our cottage, we passed the oil refinery. This refinery is built in the center of this town and fuels companies like Chevron. I can’t help but feel a sense of frustration and anger from seeing a multi-billion dollar industry submerged into such a broken society and system. Currently, I am in a state of confusion and deep sadness. I know our group is making a small difference in some lives, but it doesn’t feel like enough. We observed an overwhelming amount of different social issues today and took in so many stories and statistics that my brain and heart are literally hurting. Everyone in the group has been coming up with ways of fundraising for some of the organizations or even planning a cruise for the mother of the four girls (we would return to care for them while she is on vacation). I am still not sure how to cope with all this, but I definitely think that finding ways to come back to Durban and continue to impact these lives is a very good place to start.

Amanda Garcia

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