Watching my daughter Emily cuddle a nine-year-old orphaned African girl, teaching her to pout like a pop star, I smiled through my tears.
Emily, 14, developed an instant bond with the little girl called Alisha, one of around 80 children we were visiting in a remote South African community fittingly called Share, in a region called Bush Buck Ridge.
Our mission was to start to help some of the continent’s poorest children. These youngsters had lost one or both parents to HIV or Aids, or were devastated by a sudden death.
I sobbed with pride as I watched Emily interact so tenderly with Alisha, while Melissa, Emily’s twin sister, was deep in conversation with a boy of 15 about his love for Man Utd.
Later Melissa trekked for hours along a dirt path to deliver a bed to a girl of 11, who slept on the floor among rats. While Emily and I carried another bed to its new, less faraway but equally dilapidated home. We had built the beds together.
These children lived with their grandmothers, who were themselves often child-like through the effects of trauma, or a toxic combination of no education and deteriorating faculties.
As young brothers and sisters woke to the sight of their parents’ crudely etched graves in the heat and dust outside their bedroom window, facing hours of chores, there was little time for them to be a child.
Along with a small charity called Hands at Work, we were helping a dedicated team of local women offer the children hope – through food, education and basic healthcare.
The amazing women caring for these children – bringing them one simple meal a day and attempting to mend fragmented families – had very few material possessions. But driven by a deep faith, they brought love by the bucket load. Each day their voices filled the air with soulful songs of celebration, giving thanks for the community. They also offered the children rudimentary guidance and help in dealing with grief through an innovative programme called Walking With Wounded Children.
The tiny fledgling British charity that took us there is called The Link4Life Project. It’s inspired by an aim of forging long-standing, meaningful relationships, working together over a lifetime to bring real improvements.
They asked us to put together beds for 12 of the 50 children they are able to help at their centre and to help build a “long drop” toilet so the little girls and boys no longer had to crouch behind the centre’s walls.
We were part of a 14-strong team throwing ourselves into the tasks. Colleagues from Link4Life had already painted the centre, set up a fence and embedded colourful tyres as play equipment.
Our job was to cuddle the children, to play with them and show them love. We were not there to pity or point and say: “Oh how poor they are.” There was no international marketing fanfare to throw massive amounts of Western money at these children and impose our own solutions. We were there for them to tell us what they genuinely needed and each day we listened and got on with it.
But they were also helping to mend us. My tears came not only from pride but from waves of understanding and grief. My beautiful brave girls getting blisters carrying the beds and laughing with the children, understood their heartbreak. They had lost their dad, my gorgeous husband Neil, just over a year before we found ourselves in Share. He died of cancer aged just 44, last May.
My girls are also walking wounded and so am I. The care workers and our companions from our local village community of Cheslyn Hay in Staffordshire, told us they would be thinking and praying for us too, that we needed their love.
Having spent months attempting to come to terms with our grief and facing the future without Neil, to meet so many bereaved children and see the pain in their eyes was a cathartic and humbling experience, especially when their care workers recognised the same agony in us. Yet as we witnessed the difference we were making, since losing Neil, I had never felt so alive.
The reason behind our visit was uncomplicated – to meet the children, be at their side and help tell their stories. We were doing this in Neil’s memory. I hope that one day there will be an element of our involvement that I can put his name to, as a lasting reminder for all to see of his decency and compassion.
Now, as I reflect on our time in Africa, my tears have given way to a renewed commitment to help girls like Alisha. There has been guilt since we returned as we squabble over which pudding to buy in the supermarket or which reality TV shocker we are going to settle down in front of. We don’t know we are born.
Visiting the fractured communities of South Africa has helped me realise that my family doesn’t have a monopoly on pain and while we may no longer have Neil here with us, we are still blessed in so many ways. For me, it’s obvious that there are so many gaping differences between our world and that of Africa’s bereaved children, but we also have too much in common.
We have a link for life.
The Link4Life project continues, with volunteers regularly self-funding trips to visit their African friends, and help wherever they can. Students from across Staffordshire are also invited to fundraise and take this journey, with the support of their schools.
More overseas volunteering projects can be found through these providers:
International Volunteer HQ – https://www.volunteerhq.org/gb/
Projects Abroad – https://www.projects-abroad.co.uk/
Developing World Connections – https://developingworldconnections.org/