If you ask Mama Charmaine how many children she has, she will quip "I have 413 mouths to feed!" Most people do a double take at that, but that is Charmaine's sense of humor. Children and adults light up when she is around. She just has that affect on people. Charmaine is passionate about this project, its short and long-term goals, and the people it serves. She steps in where angels fear to tread, and is not afraid to call out injustice, greed and manipulation. (I want to be just like her when I grow up.) When she walks or drives along the village roads, people wave and call out to Mama Charmaine. The term "Mama" is a sign of respect, and everyone calls her by that name.
Swa Vana, a project started by Charmaine and her family, has "drop in centers" in four tribal villages: Huntington, Lilydale, Justicia, and Mabarhule Bushbuckridge. They are called drop in centers because they are exactly that: the children "drop in" before and after school for daily meals, sports, arts and crafts, etc. This is a safe, supervised environment both before and after school -- something the majority of these children do not experience in their own homes.
Children in the Swa Vana program are fed twice a day. Each drop in center has four caregivers. The caregivers feed the children, supervise them, help them with homework and teach them crafts. It is interesting to watch (and participate) in meal preparation. Having eaten it, I can tell you the food is pretty awesome. It is like a finely tuned machine at work. Remember, this is not your stainless-steel, state of the art, no-holds-barred kitchen. The stove defies description, but it does have four burners. The knives are constantly going dull and wearing out from use. There are none of the fancy gadgets American infomercials like to convince us we can't live without.
All food prep and service begins and ends with washing dishes. Everything being used for cooking and serving is washed in a large basin of soapy water, transferred to a second basin of clean water, then transferred to a third container for drying. In Justicia, this is done outside. Once the dishes are cleaned and returned to the kitchen, the water is dumped (in the vegetable garden) and the container is rinsed, clean water is added, which is then used to clean vegetables.
The caregivers gather around a large table to cut and chop vegetables. (I had to go to South Africa to learn how to cut cabbage…) Once the vegetables are cleaned and chopped, they are placed in the most enormous pots I have ever laid eyes on. It has to be stirred fairly constantly so that it cooks evenly and does not burn. I'm sure they talk a lot more to each other when company isn't around, but from our point of view it was all very seamless and very coordinated without much conversation.
When the food is cooked, and the children are back from school, they line up and the food is dished out. A lot of the children do not have forks or spoons, so they eat with their hands. (Yes, they DO wash with soap and water first.) This is the main meal for these kids, so they have a very balanced plate: Meat, starch, and vegetable. Meat varies, and the starch rotates between pap (pronounced "pop") and rice. While we were there, the vegetables were different combinations of beets, beans, cabbage, carrots, pumpkin, onions, and tomato. When finished eating, the kids line up and wash the dishes. It is the same setup: one basin of soapy water, one of clean, one for drying. They all pitch in and cooperate, and not one word of complaint is ever uttered. They are grateful for everything they have.
Food is followed by games and homework. One of their favourite games is called "Follow the Leader". They stand in a huge circle, with one child in the middle acting as the "leader". The chant starts: "Follow, Follow, Follow the leader!" The leader then says (and does) an action. The children then do exactly the same thing. This is generally repeated twice, before the leader picks a replacement from the circle.
Swa Vana is a refuge -- a respite from a harsh reality where children are forced to make adult decisions at too young an age. This is a place where children get to be just children for a little while, a place where adults care about them, about their school reports, and about their emotional well-being. This is home away from home.
For more information, visit their website at: www.swavana.co.za
Up Next: Huntington Hospice and Swa Vana's long term goals