Stories: The Start and a Field Trip

 I have always loved telling stories...

From the time I was barely old enough to talk, my mom and dad told me I could be found standing on a rock, trying to draw a crowd, telling stories out of the kids’ bible. As I grew older the stories I loved most were those of our family heroes; my aunts, uncles parents and grandparents. I lived for stories of old sports stars, gritty and tough in the face of insurmountable odds and triumphant in the most unlikely of circumstances. Today, though, I want to begin the process of telling a different story, one infinitely more consequential than anything I’ve ever come across.

As this story begins one thing must be noted: this is not the whole truth. The circumstances of the subjects of these stories are often impossibly dire. This fact being acknowledged, the dignity of the poor and marginalized who will have a small snippet of their lives described in our writings for the coming year will be paramount. To dive detail by detail into the challenges of the children and families we meet may constitute the complete truth, but it seems to me these folks have enough on their plate. We will also try to avoid trivializing the challenges of the poor by acting as if they do not exist. It will be a delicate tightrope and I’ll be far from perfect, but if you take the time to read this can rest assured these things will be at the forefront of our minds. A nun I have met and become very fond of described the difficulties of conveying the situations of those we meet this way: “The poverty here is impossible to describe. You can try to tell people at home, but it must be seen to be believed.” We then remarked on the immense resolve of the children we encounter and their unbridled joy at the little things in life.

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That joy is what we’ll try keep our focus on.

Laura and I had no idea what to expect. We had only been in South Africa a few days and were still trying to figure out what time to wake up in the morning. We hadn’t begun to appreciate all the work being done here as much as we had been trying to drag our jet lagged bodies wherever we were supposed to be when we were supposed to be there. Laura and I were ecstatic, nonetheless, when we were invited to help chaperone a field trip to the Johannesburg Zoo for the children of Lerato Educational Centre, a school run by Salesian sisters in the informal settlement of Jackson’s drift just outside the city.

e could not have envisioned what lay ahead. From the second we set foot on that bus bound for Joburg, we were treated to an all day festival of pure joy. The day began, and the whole trip to the zoo was filled, with song. It takes all of five minutes of being in Africa to figure out that everything in daily life is ordered around music. There were songs for the beautiful scenery, there were lively versions of Christmas carols, and there were even songs for passing another bus. (That was actually more like a scream “Passiet, Passiet” followed by indecipherable -at least to us- Zulu.)

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When the kids weren’t busy singing they were busy talking to us, begging us to take pictures and acting on their complete fascination with the hair on our arms and on our heads. The question that followed the rubbing of our arms caught us slightly off guard "Teacher, why did God make you like that?” We had plenty of laughs on that note. From the moment we arrived we received the honorary title “Teacher” and had new friends following our every move.

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As we moved through the zoo the kids soaked it all in. They ran from one exhibit to the next. They marveled at snakes, oohed and aahed at giraffes and tried to talk to monkeys. Through their excitement they somehow resisted the nearly irresistible urge to chase the free roaming peacocks.

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When lunchtime had come and gone, kids and a couple of chaperones wandered off to the neighboring exhibits for a few minutes before the call for ice cream went out and the floodgates opened for a track meet back to our meeting spot. The day ended with a new game for the children… Duck, duck goose. There again the joy was on full display. Life is good when all you want is to be the goose.

On the way home, surrounded by song, I pondered the day we had. I marveled at the kids we were around and wondered why their upbringing was laced with a title wave of challenges I never had. I wondered what they were going home to. I wondered how their parents got them looking so excellent without access to running water, not to mention indoor plumbing. Then I thought of a fact my nun friend had shared with me earlier that day. 40 households of the children who attend Lerato are headed by the children themselves. I wondered which of the children I sat next to were orphans. I thought about them getting their siblings ready for school the next morning, and how fast they would be forced to grow up. I thought about where those kids might be without the staff, sisters and benefactors at Lerato Educational Centre.

Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted. “Teacher”, asked one of my new friends, “will you be back to see us?” I grinned and gave a thumbs up. “Absolutely.”

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To read more about the good work happening at Lerato, click here.