Mandindi is the embodiment of “Mama”: warm, open face; easy smile; patience. She is a trainer for the Loaves and Fishes Network, which means that she goes into the communities and trains the women who run the childcare centres in a rounded program designed to foster children from physical, emotional, and educational development perspectives. Today I am her guest as she does her job. We will drive into three communities and drop in on a total of seven centres.
In the van, Mandindi is telling that she’s been doing her job for 15 years (only recently with LAFN) and she loves it. “I always wanted to work with the children,” she says. “There was never anything else.” Her English is very good and she is surprised and encouraging when I try a little isiXhosa. “You can say that?” she laughs when I correctly pronounce a name on a passing road sign. I still have to pause mid-word on both sides of a click but I am beginning to read things properly and I like the way the language feels – like humming with a mouthful of poprocks.
The first place we stop is Vergenoeg, which means “Far Enough”, as in the place is far enough away (from the city). This centre is a small plot of land with two shacks on it plus a playground and two vegetable gardens. I realize that South Africa has begun to change my perspective; as I enter the tin and cardboard shack I think that it is very nice – and it is. It is warm and cozy and the children all turn to me with smiley faces and fingers covered in playdough and give me the thumbs up. “Hi, hi, hi,” they say, and I reply, “Hi!” They wave; I wave. They give me the thumbs up; I give them the thumbs up. The place feels good. By North American standards it would be a scandal, but it’s different here. People are working with almost nothing and there is a real beauty to what they’ve created.
Not every centre feels this way. In some, the children seem confused, disoriented – and this makes sense. Many of them have lost their families and have no idea who the people taking care of them are. At one centre the children form a flash mob and surround me, chanting “Mama! Mama!” and touching my hands and arms. I know that “Mama” is a term for woman, but I check with Mandindi. “Are they calling me Mama because I am a woman?” I ask. “Yes,” she says. “Mama is an older woman.” In mock offense I say, “Are they calling me old?!” and she laughs but explains that many of their mothers are no more than teenagers. She says she gets called grandmother.
After Vergenoeg we go even farther, to Scenery Park. It is here that I see the first of the LAFN structures. Mandindi calls it a hut but it is a solid wooden outbuilding, about 15 by 20 feet with a peaked roof, lighting, and insulation. An LAFN employee negotiated with the company that was selling the little houses to let them go at a reduced rate. “This is one of our extreme makeovers,” she explains. “We want to do the baby’s shack next.” I ask about the word painted on the wall: zinkwenkwezi. “It means ‘stars’. These kids are reaching for the stars.”
At the next centre the children run up to the gate yelling, “How are you! How are you!” I am used to not understanding; I don’t even hear them. Mandindi says “They’re speaking English, saying ‘How are you?’” and their words come into focus. “I am fine!” I say, then “Hi! H! Hi!” because it is the other thing we all know. Later, I ask Mandindi what I can say to them when they speak isiXhosa to me and I don’t understand. I hate just standing there, shrugging. “Say ‘I love you’,” she tells me. “They all know that.”
The final place we stop in is Khayelitsha, a cluster of RDPs at the top of a steep dirt road several miles away from Scenery Park. The dirt is dry and rocky; there are few trees. Like almost all RDPs, these are painted in candy colours: pink, sea foam, yellow, blue. It looks like a bag of allsorts has spilled over the mountainside and the implied playfulness is weird. I ask Mandindi about it and she says the government paints them these colours.
Khayelitsha is desolate. There is no grocery, post office, or gas station, just gaily-coloured RDPs and litter. “All these people are from Duncan Village,” Mandindi is saying. “They lived in the shacks but the government didn’t want them there so they moved them. But there is nothing here and it is too far from the city to walk in to find work. They have to pay for taxis. Sometimes they borrow, but what if they do not find work for that day? Then they are in debt and cannot get home.”
There is a single centre in Khayalitsha, so every child except 20 or so will not have any childcare. As we drive through Kayalitcha I see children and toddlers playing in the dirt among the litter and barbed-wire and sheet metal and rocks.
I am beginning to understand what Loaves and Fishes is doing. They place a lot of emphasis on the details of child development. Tiny playgrounds coerced out of the dusty ground are more stimulating when the fence is painted bright yellow. A bit of carpet in the baby shack means fewer scraped knees. A desk to sit at, a place to wash your hands.