6290_505309122620_330900025_142047_5766534_nHoly cow... saying goodbye totally sucks. Yesterday we were invited to a goodbye assembly at Velangaye. It was so sweet. We were all given little presents (mainly jewelry and a really cool beaded HIV pin) and then each asked to say a few words. Man, I love it when they ask me to speak at the last minute…but not really. So I did my best to shout over a crowd of 1600 students and tell them how much I love them and how proud I am of them, etc.

After the assembly, we had a little gathering with our 23 students that we’ve been working with for the last 5 weeks. We gave them each a certificate of achievement for the Point of Light Leadership Institute, and bags full of notebooks, pens, and of course their favorite treats. We then went around the room and had each of the students say what their favor part of the experience was. Over 50% of the kids said that playing with the kids at Sizanani was their favorite. I, of course, was thrilled to hear this. I then shared a couple of my favorite quotes with them:

“To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.” – Author?

“Be the Change you want to see in the world” - Gandhi

nkandla-sackracesToday (Saturday) was the best day because it was the activity that my group and I planned for the kids at the Sizanani Center. Magically, and I thank the Lord for it, the weather couldn’t have been better. We planned a huge fun/field day full of activities like 3-legged races, face painting, t-shirt making, cookie decorating, pin the tail on the elephant, etc. It was an absolute hit for both the kids and our Velangaye students. It was so awesome to see students bonding with the kids at the center. And I think the kids at the center really liked having older kids from their community to be pals with them for a couple hours.

Later the kids expressed a true desire to make consistent trips to the center to visit their new buddies. This, of course, made me light up. Like I’ve mentioned before, yes these children have each other, but what they really lack is a friend and mentor they can really look up to. Sure they get gushed over when I, and I’m sure other volunteers, visit, but in the end, we have to go home. Nothing in these childrens' lives is consistent. I, of course, explained this fact to my Velangaye students which I think made them want to visit the children even more. Gosh they are all such terrific kids.

nkandla-soccerBecause our time here is winding down, we’ve had to plan our service projects with the Velangaye kids for our last days in Nkandla. Today (Friday) we did our community soccer tournament, and it was utter chaos. It seemed like everything that could go wrong did go wrong. We grabbed high school students from two different high schools and younger kids from two different primary schools (a combination of elementary and middle school) and set up 8 teams with an elimination tournament schedule. We made certificates, bought trophies and medals and food to feed 200. The whole goal of our project was to have the high school kids and primary kids play on the same team. The High school kids could then have an opportunity to mentor the younger ones in a playful soccer setting.

The first things we learned…there is no such thing as playing soccer "just for fun" in South Africa. Unfortunately the kids (mostly the high school teams) didn’t get the idea of bonding with other members of the community -- they were 100% focussed on winning and getting that trophy. On top of that, despite having asked the primary schools to pick younger kids, not just 6th and 7th graders, we ended up with teams that were all pretty much the same age. The best was when we asked each school to include girls on their teams. They looked at us like we had completely lost it. “GIRLS and BOYS playing together?? No No No, that won’t work. We want to WIN,” they would say. Apparently it is completely unheard of for boys and girls to play soccer together. Thankfully, however, the schools somewhat came through and provided the teams with about 30% girls (which was better than nothing).

nkandla-richardsbayOver the weekend, we took 19 of the kids from the center out for a little adventure. Saturday morning we rented two 13 seater taxi's, piled the kids inside and took a road trip to Richard's Bay. For most, if not all, it was the first time they had ever seen the ocean. As we waited for all the volunteers to gather so that we could enter the water in a safe manner so we let the children play in the sand. Bless their hearts they were itchin to get in that water they kept saying, "Please, go in?" "Go in Jessica, please?" Finally when we were all together we let the children run towards the water. Each volunteer was assigned 3 children to keep track of. It sounds a lot easier than it was. It was chaos. Thankfully most of the kids stayed knee deep, however some of them were little daredevils and wanted to go deeper so Max (one of the volunteers) took little groups at a time to get pounded by the waves. I decided to stay closer to the shoreline and play lifeguard just in case. It was stressful to say the least... NONE of these kids know how to swim and the waves weren't anything to scoff at. I kept scanning back and forth to make sure any of the kids weren't being taken under. Thankfully no one got hurt.

After the kids were wiped out from playing at the beach we took them to a conveniently located skate park across the street. As you can imagine, some of these kids had ever even HEARD of a skate park, so we thought it might be fun for them just to watch. At first they just laughed at the all the kids that fell, but after we tried explaining how hard it really was, they took real interest in watching some of the skaters. After a little while, some of the skater kids even offered to show our kids how to skate! It was so cool watching these total strangers reach out to our little darlings. And of course our boys loved learning and thought it was the greatest thing ever.

nkandla-hivisrealI had to tell a young girl that she is HIV positive today. I can't even describe to you how unbearably heartbreaking it was.

There was a team of caregivers going to a high school to do peer education (teach about HIV/AIDS etc) and then offer VCT (Volunteer Counseling and Testing) so I tagged along. I knew I wouldn't be able to understand the speeches made by the caregivers, but I at least wanted to go to the assembly/panel and see how the students responded and offer my help in doing testing if they needed it.

The assembly was really great. The students interacted with the caregivers, asked pertinent questions and seemed genuinely interested in learning more about the transmission of HIV, testing for it, etc. Towards the end, I suppose the students were itchin to know who the blonde-haired blue-eyed girl on the stage was, and so asked the panel if I would get up and say something to them. Goodness, I was so caught off guard. Of course, I didn't have anything prepared and being that the entire panel was speaking in Zulu, I had no idea what the caregivers had already told them, so I didn't really know what to add. Despite this, one of the caregivers encouraged me to get up and say something, because he said they "just wanted to hear my voice."

nkandla-kittenI rescued a kitten today! Omigoodness she is absolutely precious and wonderful. She's actually cuddled up on my shoulder as I'm typing this. I was walking home from the center after working then playing with the kids and along the road I all the sudden noticed two baby kittens (no more than 3 weeks old) snuggling on the side of the road.

When I got closer, I noticed that one of them wasn't breathing....oh man it was so incredibly sad. This one little kitten was just snuggling up against her dead sibling. Of course I had to take her home. I knelt down to pick her up and she went limp in my hands and immediately started cuddling with me. I took her back to the convent, and she's basically been purring in my arms and on my shoulders ever since. Oh man I would take her home with me in a heart beat if customs would let me keep her. She is absolutely beautiful; all black with glowing blue-green eyes. Unfortunately, there are too many animals here at the convent for the sisters to take care of her, so we are going to take her to the highschool and either have the principal or one of the teachers look after her. Being out here has made me want animals so badly. I've always been crazy about animals, but now all I can think about is someday having a BIG yard with dogs, cats, goats, and pot-belly pigs!

lionsDay two of our safari was incredible. We didn’t have much time so we up early and headed out by 6 AM to see the animals. In front of our chalet just as the sun was rising with the golden light hitting the landscape just perfectly, we came across TWO lions sitting in the grass LITERALLY no more than ten feet from us. I was FREAKING OUT with joy. These animals were absolutely breathtaking. Both had big full manes and looked so incredibly regal. After a few moments they got up and started walking in the field along the road still no more than 10 feet away the entire time. We drove along side of these two lions for a couple minutes until one of them stopped to give us a little show and scratch his paws on a tree (just like a cat would scratch a post!). Oh wow it was so cool. Eventually our feline friend went to cross the road in front of us so he paused, then we paused, then he looked up at us as if to make sure we were going to let him pass and we crossed in front of us practically touching our car. We drove along side the two lions for a couple more minutes until they disappeared into the bush. Definitely the COOLEST experience of the entire trip.

Being that close to a lion in the wild is a once in a lifetime experience. For anyone. A few minutes later one of the cars that was also enjoying this experience with us came up to us with very worried faces. As you can imagine the whole time I was completely giddy and so of course I would occasionally hang out of the window to get a good shot of the lions. However, what I didn’t know, and what this other car came to tell us, was that there were actually THREE lions (the third we never saw) and that it was very dangerous for me to be hanging out of the window like that. So long story short…I almost died on an African Safari haha. The rest of day was pretty much like the day before; Giraffe, Rhino Zebra etc.

After the game reserve we drove to St. Lucia to check out the beach! Despite being extremely windy it was really nice. The ocean there is BEAUTIFUL. Long/wide sandy beaches. We tried eating lunch on the beach but because of the wind ended up supplementing our meal with a mouthful of sand. No big deal its minerals or something right? We headed back around 3 to try to make it back to Nkandla before it got dark. It was really weird driving through a first world part of South Africa after I’d been in such a rural third world part. I’ve come to really love Nkandla and the rural areas. They just seem more real and
sincere to me.

nkandla-chaletWe got up early early Saturday morning at about 4 AM and met up with some of the other volunteers: Susanna (a medical student from Holland here for an internship), Miriam (a recent university graduate from Germany here to help Sister Ellen with Sizanani and also teach English), and Dominic (A local to South Africa and old friend of Sister Ellen, now helping her with administrative duties). It only took us about and hour and a half to reach the game reserve. Here in Africa there are "the big five" animals that are the most sought after. Dominic explained that each is the most dominant in their "category". The big five are Lions, Leopards, African Buffalo, Rhinos, and Elephant.

The game reserve is enormous. Unfortunately I don't know how many square miles or anything (I will have to find out) but just know that it took pretty much the entire day to drive from one end to the other. Being that the reserve is so large, there were all sorts of different landscapes (hills, valleys, plains etc with one main river (and several branches of riverbeds) running through it. The roads are all dirt but fairly well leveled so that our little Volkswagen made it without much problem. Entering the game reserve I didn't know what to expect. I certainly didn't think that I would be seeing animals just chillin on the side of the road. If anything I thought we'd have to be detectives and have eagle eyes to spot anything. Within the first few minutes we saw a HUGE group of impala grazing in the field next to us! The males have long, sharp spiraling horns. They are beautiful animals, and they didn't seem to mind our presence at all. We ended up seeing the impala throughout the entire day. Next we spotted several groups of Wildebeest. They were just like in Lion King when they stampeded after Simba! Before we knew it we started seeing beautiful zebra too! Zebra are such interesting animals. They're so very similar to a horse or donkey but with these incredibly stunning stripes. As we continued driving we kept seeing these sizely animal droppings that could have only been made by a Rhino or Elephant, but we weren't seeing either. Getting impatient we started driving a little more quickly but when we turned a corner and all the sudden there was a MASSIVE Rhino right on the side of the road! Oh man it was jaw-dropping. Unfortunately our abrupt approach scared him and he walked off in a bit of a hurry.

nkandla-valengay-highschoolAll day today (Wednesday) was spent At Velangaye Highschool.  The school was hosting an "Open Day" where they invited families of future hopeful students from all over the region to come and see the school and to interview with teachers and student government etc. The principal also presented awards to some of the high achievers in each department and grade.

I also met with my group of students for the leadership/service workshop. We finally started to formulate our community service projects. We broke the group of 24 students into three groups. Each was assigned to plan a service project that we would all carry out together. My group and have begun to plan a "field day" with the kids at the Sizanani Outreach. I'm so excited because we're putting together activities like three-legged races, face painting, soccer games etc and I know the kids will love it. The students in my group are all so cute and so excited to reach out to the kids at the Center.

nkandla-hivisrealI went out with one of the teams on home visits for the first time yesterday (Monday). All the work I've done before for Sizanani Outreach has been strictly for AIDS patients. These home visits are different in that we follow up on people who were either referred by others in the community (usually children whose parents or guardians have died), or on those either too sick or too far away to visit the clinics.

At each of the homes we visited I was shocked to see just how many toddlers there were running around, all with dirty and/or improper clothing, and almost always malnourished. A lady who is HIV positivie with seven children was feeding her 9 month old porridge with a huge spoon. This baby was about the size of a 6 month old. We tried teaching her about the nutrition that the baby needs, but she didn't really listen. I thought that the area of Nkandla that I am in living in was poor...I had no idea how bad it could really get until Monday. Some of the homes we visited were only four wheel drive accessible and took over an hour to get to (by car) from town. Most of these people have hardly any food, no livestock, no gardens, and no water close by. I have no idea how they survive. For homes such as these, the Sizanani Outreach program gives food parcel packages, but of course it's only enough to sustain them for a short time. Like I mentioned before, almost all of these people rely on the government for Disability Grants to pay for food.

iStock_000001821815XSmallI'm at the orphanage right now.  It's the only place with wireless internet (the Sizanani Outreach offices are here too) and I'm literally surrounded by TEN kids haha. They're loving this laptop I am using... kinda making it hard to type. I put on Disney songs so they can enjoy. They are seriously so cute. I love them all and I want to take them allllll home with me.

I'm sitting next to a little 13 year old boy who is reading this email as I type it. haha. He wants me to tell you all that he says hello. All of the other kids say hello as well. Man I cannot describe to you how awesome they are, and so beautiful. One of my favorites is a little six year old who has AIDS and so is the size of a 4 year old. He is extremely smart and always goofing around. To be honest, all the kids are my favorite.

They all have such good little hearts and despite their circumstance, they are all fairly well behaved and happy. It's amazing what people can do with so little. Makes me really realize how incredibly spoiled I am.

6290_505309147570_330900025_142048_2899708_nToday (Thursday) I went out to a rural clinic. This was my first time in one of their "taxis," and I would not recommend it to those with a sensitive nose. I feel bad talking about it, because I really just need to get over it, but to get through it, I had to concentrate on taking quick and shallow breaths so as not to fill my nostrils too much. As one could imagine, people who live in tiny mud huts don't typically have showers or access to running water of any kind. If they do get a chance to bathe, it is often without soap. Then, they cram 15 people into a tiny van and OH MY GOSH!  (Am I sounding like a spoiled American here? Probably, but part of the reason I am writing this is to document a growing experience, and getting over or dealing with my sensitivity to smells is a big hurdle for me).

At the rural clinic, I visited a support group, another crowded room, over 20 people in a 10' x 10' room (another growing experience?). They were all speaking Zulu, so I obviously couldnt understand a word, but one of the counselors was nice enough to translate every now and then. They were all AIDS patients of the clinic and were meeting to discuss the death of two other patients in the last week. They discussed gathering money for the surviving families and other ways they could help. Every few minutes they would all break out into song.  I am told that the Zulu people pray through song -- it's really beautiful, actually.

nkandla-sisterellenThe last couple of days have been really cool! Yesterday I was able to go to one of the clinics with Sister Ellen and one of her assistants who is a health care worker. The clinic was packed with people seeking medical aid. The purpose for our visit was to meet with clients that are currently on antiretroviral therapy (ART). Our job was to check their adherence to the regimen and to follow up on their blood work and modify anything if needed. In South Africa, the CD4 count must be below 200/mm3 in order for the clients to qualify for ART. In other words, these people have to be VERY sick before they can get the medication they need.

While a third of the people here test positive for HIV, the number one killer is Tuberculosis. Luckily the Sizanani Outreach (who I'm working for) also does TB testing. The types of patients we saw yesterday ranged from a lady with AIDS that came in to apply for a Disability Grant (because over 90% of the people here are unemployed, the government has to subsidize most of their living), to a 13 year old boy with AIDS needing a refill on medication (he came alone to the clinic).

Sister Ellen is an incredibly hard worker. She was a doctor in Germany and has been living here for almost 30 years. I can't imagine the things she has seen and has had to do.

6290_505309267330_330900025_142053_2683150_nWe got into Nkandla on Saturday evening.  The drive from Jo'burg was about 7 hours. uuuugh. But is was really pretty, kept wanting to see lions running along side the car... Ya.. Didn't happen. Just cows and goats EVERYWHERE!!!

I love it! The town I am in is really rural and quite poor. Im staying at a catholic convent with 8 or so sister nuns that are all soooooo cute. Most of the food we eat is from their own gardens (mom you would love it). The days have been relatively warm but then nights are always freeezing. Luckily we have little space heaters and tons of blankets :) So far we've visited the Velangaye Highschool and met the students, principal etc. and gone to "the center" which is the orphanage. The natives are soooo friendly here.