The sun is almost always shining when I arrive at school. I have been working as a volunteer at the Morning Star School in Welkom, approximately three hours south of Johannesburg, South Africa, since 2010.
Today, we talk about what we are grateful for. One child says water to wash with, another that he woke up alive today, another that he can come to school
Our little school of just three classes is part of a daycare centre for 145 children infected with HIV/Aids. Of these children, 54 attend our school. We provide much more than schooling – we give all-round care for the children and their families.
The children tumble out of the minibuses that have collected them; their shining faces and beaming smiles never fail to bring me joy. After greeting them, I join the two older classes who, by now, are sitting on the carpet in our main classroom singing enthusiastically.
We start our day with a short Bible lesson and check for children who are sick or need assistance. Today, we talk about what we are grateful for. One child says water to wash with, another that he woke up alive today, another that he can come to school. We finish by giving each one a hug and telling them they are loved.
The nurse has arrived to administer their medicine. They get an antibiotic, vitamins, selenium and some TB treatment. We don’t give out the anti-retroviral drugs, as these are administered by their caregivers. Things have changed significantly since the drugs were made freely available 10 years ago. They keep the children alive and give them more energy and strength to learn and live active lives. However, some children experience bad side effects and, in extreme cases, organ failure.
Access to education
The children eat porridge for breakfast; one of two nutritionally balanced meals they get here each day. My learners help me water our small vegetable garden, where we are growing spinach, cabbage, beetroot and carrots.
The children are here for different reasons: some are too weak to attend their local school, while some have no birth certificates and, therefore, no access to education. We have a special class of children who have severe learning problems due to a combination of malnutrition and the HIV virus affecting the development of their brains as infants. They have an inability to retain information and have severe concentration problems.
After lunch comes the best part of the day: continuing our programme of arts and crafts and practical skills activities. This week, the children are making Basotho cone hats from their own culture. The hats need to be ready for Heritage Day, when they will dress in their traditional clothes.
At 2pm, our very enthusiastic cleaners evict us from the classroom and the children rush out to spend the remainder of their day playing. Soon clouds of dust envelope those who are playing football; the shouting creates a sound familiar in playgrounds all over the world.
I go back inside, passing the Wall of Remembrance, a stark reminder of the horrific toll HIV/Aids has taken here over the last seventeen years. 283 stars, each with a child’s name printed inside, cover the wall.
I collect some food, a warm hat and blanket and drive to the hospital. Two of our teenagers were admitted recently, one died on Saturday. An emerging problem is teenagers aborting their treatment deliberately, but my student looks better to me and is hopefully recovering.
I return in time to see the last few children climbing onto the minibuses and wave them off. I love being part of such a very special and unique organisation.
This piece first appeared in Tes magazine on 26 October 2016.