Thursday, 16 August 2012

Two Foster Mothers I Met

This blog entry is about two foster mothers Matt and I interviewed during our time working with Ikamva Labantu.  I hope to share their stories with you not only to give you more specific cases we deal with in our work, but also raise the question of "how should we better help these foster mothers".  The later inspires me to write my final report on the shortage of social workers worldwide.

Children playing in the yard
When we parked the car at the door of Mapapu's home, I had this feeling of visiting another one of the crèches we were visiting those days.  Six or seven boys around the same age were playing in the front yard and they could just have been students in a small-sized crèche; as we walked in her home, we saw more children.  This time they were of different ages.  One of the little ones was in the arm of a teenage girl and the other one was in the arm of a lady of my grandma's age.  She is Mapapu, our interviewee today, a foster mother in the Guguletu township in Cape Town, South Africa.
We were weighting the children and measuring their heights to learn about their growth status.  The lady in orange dress is Mapapu.
Although she is the head of the household, which was packed with more than twenty children, Mapapu was not running an educare center.  All these children, from the months old to grown-ups, were her foster children.  In another way of putting it, she was having twenty children except many of them were not her blood relatives.  It might be a blessing for the well-off people who love kids to have twenty of them around.  But for Mapapu who doesn't have a steady income or a lot of savings, having twenty children under the roof of her two-bedroom house means a lot of financial difficulties.  To be more specific about this, just note that in South Africa, the government gives 700 Rand to the foster mother for taking care of each foster child.  However, due to the complexities of getting this grant, Mapapu was raising more than twenty children with a grant of 2800 Rand every month.  "Social workers came and drop the babies at my door.  All I could do was pick it up and raise it as my own.  Nobody ever came back and took the child away.  So I just have more and more children."  When we asked about the legal custody of those children, Mapapu took out some legal documents that state the expiration date of her custody.  Even though some of those dates already passed, no social worker came and helped her to update these documents.  No legal custody means no grant, while the social workers were all busy delivering new babies to her home.  Mapapu had no choice but to spare the little food they've got for additional children in her house.
Two little ones wearing T-shirt in the winter.  I myself was wearing a puffy jacket.
Limited money at home might just suffice for food because the children were clearly out of winter clothes.  In the middle of the winter in South Africa, some of the children were wearing T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops. At some point during our visit, the pipe in the front yard broke and the boys tried to save the leaking water using basins, buckets and bottles.  After the pipe was fixed, their thin T-shirts were wet but no one went to change, probably because those were the only ones they had.
Pipe broke and the children were saving the water.
Monetary issues were not the only problem Mapapu was facing.  She started tearing when we started to talk about the future of these children.  She showed us a poster she made in 2011 that tries to solicit donations from the society.  In the poster, she cried for old clothes, shoes, food and adoptions.  "Nothing came back", her anxiety was all in her crying voices. 
The poster Mapapu made
Another foster mother, Vivian Joba, who was taking care of eight children, worried about the same thing: what the future of these children is like.  She was worrying about one of them especially.  This girl, who had been living with Joba since three months old, had a car accident six months ago and broke her neck.  She was disabled and no one, not even Joba, knew her future.  When I think about this tragedy further, I realize that this is a tangled matter rather than mere misfortune.  The accident happened when the girl was playing on the street unattended.  Because Joba was taking care of more children beyond her physical ability, the girl was not attended and thus gave chance for the accident to happen.  The accident also increased Joba's dependency on grant.  However, six months passed by and no social worker showed up to help her with the medical bill and special care grant.
Joba's disabled little girl
Ikamva Labantu is still recruiting social workers but the shortage of social workers countrywide has made it especially hard to recruit for NGOs who couldn't afford high pays due to limited funding.  I believe that I saw problems in the foster care system from talking to Mapapu and Joba.  But meanwhile, I am glad that I am for sure not the only one who saw those problems.  I talked to my supervisor at Ikamva and she told me that Ikamva was thinking of training community workers to do some of social workers' job.  I sincerely wish that by the time next year's group arrive at Ikamva Labantu, Mapapu and Joba will be no longer suffering from their problems.

Some Ideas on Poverty in South Africa

I realized it's more than a month after I originally wrote this blog about my personal experience in this public health program in Cape Town.  So what happened in the last month?  First of all, I had a fever right after finishing my final exam at UCT.  More precisely, the time was that Thursday afternoon when everyone was done with the class and went to the top of table mountain.  Most of the time there, I was having heat in the forehead and coldness in my arms and legs alternating torturing me.  But still, at the times when I could function a little bit, I walked slowly and tried to pose for nice pictures. :)
And then it was almost time for us to say goodbye to each other.  It was just too sad that I got fever again on the trip back.  Transferring at Doha when local temperature was over a hundred degrees at midnight while having a fever was no fun.  I was by myself to go back to China to stay with my families for the rest of the summer.  
So I got back home.  And the flu did not get better after two weeks.  I was shocked by the length myself and the explanation I came up with was that the air pollution was too bad that my immune system was weak due to the pollution.
But thank lord I'm okay now.  I'm in a chain cafe in Hong Kong right now.  I travelled with my laptop from home to use the unblocked Internet here.  Sorry to everyone who's been waiting for me to share my experience.  I hope it's not too late to share my memories and feelings this summer in South Africa.

In this blog entry, I am going to share with you some of my thoughts on poverty at the end of this program.  The ideas might not be deep and might sound cliche, but they all came from my own experience and every word I say comes from my sincere mind.  I really appreciate the chance to form my own ideas after experiencing South Africa for seven weeks.  Meanwhile, I hope these words are throwing stones into lakes.  May the waves they excite inspire you to one day learn more about South Africa and check all the happy, sad stories out.

I still remembered sitting at freshmen convocation dinner ten months ago, and our dean Katherine S. Newman said something that has the meaning of "You might not realize, but your time here at Hopkins will help you gradually understand how truly privileged you are, and you will share your privilege with people who are far less fortunate."  I had never better understood her until I came to South Africa, and this experience redefined my conception of poverty.With amazing shores, mountains, wild winters, bustling Long St., fashionable markets and prosperous business, Cape Town is a paradise for many.  Yet, if one digs deeper, he sees townships, jobless people wandering, children playing on the street unattended, shacks, and clothes hanging outside of homes, all of which only contradicts the paradisiacal picture of Cape Town.  Poverty, a word I use to summarize the later picture, turned out to mean a lot more than its literal meaning, as our program here comes to an end.Poverty means Ubuntu.  As a contrast to how people live in luxurious apartments and seldom talk to each other in China, people in townships are close.  People walk in and out of other's house; a whole community gathers to attend someone's funeral; people show up at dinnertime and join other families for dinner.  Not necessarily I would want to be part of this culture, but it's still nice to see how people here interacts.  (As a matter of fact, I feel more comfortable with my neighbors at a distant.)  What's more interesting is, in spite of the closeness, people seem to keep things to themselves at the same time.  For example, people seem to be reluctant to being spotted seeking help for HIV/AIDs. Poverty means boredom.  I thought I had bored times in my life until I spent some time in townships.  People do nothing and that is what they do everyday.  And I could honestly not imagine any one in the organized, always busy world I come from, to live a life like that.  As a respect for the culture, I should not say it is a bad thing.  But somehow I still feel some people here could have worked harder and they just laid back and waited for aid.  Isn't that boring?Poverty means wasting electricity every second.  The lights in townships are always on days and nights in Soweto, in Langa, in Guguletu, in Khayelitsha.  And nobody seems to care about this.Poverty means sad childhood.  Young parents abandon new-borns, siblings take care of each other, no storybooks and toys for them and nobody seems to care if they have fun.  It's heartbreaking to think about how different lives the children in different countries are having and think of my little brother who has a room of toys, robots, dinosaurs and Legos.  My parents' generation fought hard for the wellbeing of their children but what did parents here do?  Poverty didn't even give them the chance to have the courage of pursuing a brighter future.However, generalization is far from enough to tell the story of South Africa.  I see endless kind people doing great work at Ikamva Labantu.  I hear about people in other NGOs putting their efforts to change the situation.  Moreover, I engage in work that seeks to improve people's lives here.  I can spend a whole day talking about anecdotes and personal highlights, about what our research is and what we found out.  More importantly, I began to acknowledge how extraordinarily lucky I am, to have everything I've had in my life.  I appreciate every little things in my life and I feel so ready to share my privilege with the less fortunate in the future—I might not know yet how, but it is a must.