Finally after lots of internet problems – here’s a lot for all of you to read!
Like Karen Blixen’s movie was called Mitt Africa, My Africa in Norwegian, I wanted to share some of my thoughts after working 5 weeks at a children’s home in a township, to share My Africa. It’s quite an essay, but I just wanted to get all the thoughts I had out, so I wouldn’t forget them all when I look back in a couple of years.
There has been a lot to take in over the past 5 weeks I have spent at Fikelela. There have been a lot of different thoughts going through my head. I have experienced a completely different culture to the one I have been brought up in, it has been a culture that is very different from anything I have seen before, except my 2 weeks in Tanzania.
The way Fikelela works
The children I’ve worked with at Fikelela are usually children who have been taken away from their parents by, for example, social services. They then stay at Fikelela until the workers at Fikelela are able to find a foster home for them. So at Fikelela, the wish is for the children to stay there for as little time as possible, nevertheless, there are some who have been brought in as babies and are still there after 8 years.
What shapes you as a child
The childrens’ stay at Fikelela, no matter how short or long it is, does shape who they are as people. Even though we might not remember much from our childhood, such a big part of our lives and who we are, is shaped during our childhood. Personally, I went to a crèche, Bamsebo, which, I am now realizing, has layed out the base layer for who I am today. Some of the things I remember from the crèche that I believe could have played a larger role than I initially thought are that the older children were always the ones who would go get the milk for lunch, which would teach responsibility and leadership; all the small activities we did, such as making Christmas ornaments, using a needle and threading pictures; and when we would have ‘carpet time’ where we would sing and dance. Like any crèche one goes to, it makes sure to stimulate you, to get children engaged, to get them thinking, and this is just such a vital part of a child’s childhood.
Even just small things, such as collecting all the drawings you make when you’re a child. Having people take lots of pictures of you as a child and putting them in albums. Because when you’re slightly older and you look back at these things, I think it gives you a feeling of having a good childhood, because you remember enjoying making those pictures, or you find yourself very cute and adorable in the album of pictures.
My point is that, these things aren’t a given. It doesn’t just happen without effort that you do various activities at crèche, you don’t just one day have a photo album, or a collection of all your drawings as an older child. However, for me, this has always been a natural thing – of course everyone has this kind of childhood; but that’s not the case, as I’ve seen at Fikelela.
When children arrive at Fikelela, they usually arrive with a box with some things. Their medical books, the medication they’re currently on, some clothes and not much more. They haven’t had parents who have made sure they’ve collected the drawings their children have made, or have been active in taking pictures of their children.
The great thing is that when children arrive at Fikelela, they are given folders which they can put everything they do in. So when one of the boys left from Fikelela after being there for almost 8 years, he had a big folder with lots of drawings and he had a small photo album with a couple of pictures of himself. So the day he left, he was given all of these and got a chance to look back at the work he had done. And it seemed he was just so proud of everything. Seeing his joy and pride when he was showing off the picture of him as a baby with Santa Clause, really made me realize the importance of small things like this.
Even having this small ‘library’ can play such a large role for children
Every night, us volunteers are encouraged to read for the children before they go to bed. Even a small routine and activity as this, can be so important for the children and maybe is something they will continue when they are adults with their children. It even just helps them develop a love for books and for reading, which they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Children coming and going
One of the most special moments for me was when children came or left Fikelela. There were two children where this really touched me deep.
There was one day when I was allowed to sit with Dr. Jenny through the registration process of a child coming in to Fikelela. Like I explained before, the child didn’t have much with her, not even her immunization card. The girl had been taken away from her mom because her mom had not given her the required medication to treat her HIV/AIDS. She had been malnourished and had been at a hospital for a while. When she came to Fikelela, she was in a much better state. Since I had been in the room while the doctor had examined her, she quickly got very attached to me. So I was to take her outside and help her get to know some children. She was quite shy and scared at first, but I finally got her to play with some other girls. She started out by eating her dinner by herself, ending up at the back of the dinner queue, and she would cry a lot. But after 1 week at Fikelela, it was if she had lived there forever. It didn’t take long for her to integrate, but just thinking of her story, and how she ended up at Fikelela, really was touching.
Also, the boy I talked about above, who was leaving after 8 years, was very heartbreaking. Fikelela had been his permanent home for such a long period of time and now he was leaving ‘home’. But he wasn’t too sad about leaving, seeing as he had known the family he was going to for 4 years. So when he was leaving, he said he was going ‘home’.
The role of volunteers
All volunteers who decide to come somewhere to work for free have good intentions of wanting to help. But after my 5 weeks at Fikelela, I am starting to, not doubt, but just to question the help volunteers give. Rasmus, who is a psychology student who is doing some of his studies while being at Fikelela, told me about the importance for a child to have the same people surrounding him or her for the first 3 years of the child’s life. When a child is exposed to different people constantly, there are actually hormones in the brain that are affected. So you can imagine when volunteers like me come and go, come and go, the child really is exposed to such a variety of different people. I think it’s just an important thought to think about and that it’s not just a given that we are in fact helping. Of course, as a volunteer we are there to help stimulate the children with various activities, to show the carers who work there different approaches of how to “punish” a child, to give the children ideas of different games to play outside, and mainly to just give the children lots and lots of love. But I do just keep it in the back of my mind that these children constantly have to get attached to one volunteer and then have to see that volunteer go. And then they do this over and over again, and it might not always be for the better. Saying this, I do not think people should not go out and do volunteer work, I mean I will continue doing it for as long as I can, but I think it’s important to just give it a thought.
There’s a lot that shapes you as a child. I was sent a beautiful article by my dad which talked about a girl who had grown up in very rough conditions in Chile, but despite her tough childhood, she is now a lawyer in Norway. One of the things she said was, “Thousand times I’ve thought that I received much of my strength the first four years, from I was 1 to 5 years.” During this time she was taken care of by loving foster parents in Chile. “They overflowed with love and care, which somehow stuck with me”. I think this really shows how important those years can be for a child and hopefully the years a child spends at Fikelela can shape and form that child into a person filled with love and care. And I hope I have been able to contribute to the love and care the children have received.