19 Days – 163 Left

June, 2009

I’m not sure how long I’ve been sitting here staring at the blinking cursor waiting for words to come forth to describe what I’m experiencing here in Amanzimtoti, South Africa.  I have been here 19 days though feel I have aged 25 years.

I am moved to share my experiences and photography with more people, in a variety of ways.  I offer my writing in service to those I have met, in addition to those of you who are reclaiming your own voice amidst your journey.

The Realities
I am in one of the poorest areas of South Africa.  It also claims one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and rapes against women and children.  I volunteer in a rescue/crisis center for raped children.  Calls come in night and day asking for our help.  They come from hospitals, police stations, schools, and orphanages.  Sometimes these calls manifest on the front doorstep.  Women and children are looking to be rescued from rape and sodomy.  It is impossible to comprehend the nightmares endured in this country, yet I find myself here, tied to these truths that cannot be ignored.

The constructs of patriarchal society are deep-seeded here.  Men rule the households, businesses, streets and nighttime.  There is an ingrained current of belief toward men’s God-given right to have their sexual needs met, by whatever means necessary.  Often, their wives are lost to AIDS, at which time sex generally becomes the children’s responsibility.  There is no age limit; I have witnessed many cases of rape that involve babies.  The poverty in this area alone feels devastating, but it quickly becomes the background “noise” when I have seen what these children suffer at the hands of their fathers, uncles, friends, neighbors, and their country’s paradigms.  Additionally, I have been around many men who feel no remorse or who take no responsibility for these actions, and often brag about the numbers of women they have taken sex from.

How does one begin to unravel their rationale and this cultural dilemma?  I believe the answer is one by one. One by one, first support the children… one by one, enter into dialogue with men… and one by one, offer culturally appropriate resources to empower the women.  I believe the healing of this country will begin to take place with the women.  It might take a few generations but I pray they will begin to catch glimpses of what rising up looks like.  My wish for these women is that they can believe in a safer life, feel the realities of protecting their children from rape, and come to know what being respected and loved by their partner feels like.  I have a glimmer of hope.

The Crisis Center
The rescue/crisis center where I volunteer has several women on staff, 2 drivers, and a steady rotation Dutch volunteers who come in for a few weeks at a time.  In addition, there are 6 Zulu women at the center who have been trained extensively in supporting survivors of sexual abuse.  These women also offer interpretation, when required.  We are kept so busy that most of the women operate on little sleep.  Due to the high volume of crisis management at the center, most of the staff also develop very unhealthy lifestyles, including chain smoking to calm their stress as well as poor eating habits.  The normal meal standard is often a bag of chips from the gas station as we’re en route to the next call, meeting, courtroom, or hospital.  However, in the midst of this, I have felt incredible kindness and love from the staff, and I have witnessed this outpouring to the women and children that they support.  The staff here holds nothing back and I feel like one of their family members.

The first and most important policy of the center is to rescue a child from immediate danger. When sexual abuse is confirmed, the child is either transported to the hospital (I use that term loosely), or the police.  We have what is called a “rape bag,” filled with anything that might be needed after the investigation is complete: wet wipes, clean underwear, snacks, a drink, and surgical gloves, to name a few.  In addition, we take the child a cloth bear, a permanent marker, and band-aids.  The arms and legs on the bear move and this is how the child discloses what has happened to them.  They draw on the bear and it is an effective tool as it spares them the humiliation of showing the authorities what has occurred on and within their own bodies.  The bears are an arresting testament to the stories of their experiences.  If penetration has been determined, the child is given an Antiretroviral (ARV) drug.  The treatment is time sensitive, and must be administered within 72 hours of the rape.  It lowers the risk of contracting HIV by nearly 80%.  The trouble is, children are told to keep quiet and they are often fearful to say anything.  Most children don’t tell until someone finds signs of it or their injuries are so brutal, it’s undeniable.

Tree Clinic takes place every Wednesday; women and children walk for miles to gather at this tree, where the women worship, sing and pray, and the children play games with us.

We bring clean water, used clothing, and whatever donated food we can gather from local grocers.  Women and children come because they are hungry, sick, or have escaped an abusive situation and are seeking help.  They come for the fellowship and camaraderie.  Many grandmothers raise the children because far too often, both parents are lost to AIDS.  Since I have been here, 3 children walked to the tree and waited for 3 days until we arrived because their mother had died.  They had no other place to go. I’m told some women and children start walking at 4AM to be at Tree Clinic by 10AM.

I am in a high crime area but I am safe.  Bars are on every door and window, and there are panic buttons throughout this tiny home.  A concrete fence surrounds the property, where electric razor wire (rolled on top) is being installed this week.  Over time, once funds are raised, this property will become the site of the new crisis center.