Fun times at Siyabonga
Dear Friends and Supporters of Thembanathi,
Many of you have been supporting Thembanathi since its inception and thus already know my story. But for those who don’t, I thought I would start this newsletter with a brief intro and recap. I was drawn into HIV peer education programs and activist circles at a young age, serving as a youth educator and HIV program leader throughout my teens and early twenties. This commitment led me to South Africa, the country with the largest number of people living with HIV in the world, when I was 20 years old. In the small local AIDS hospice where I came to stay in rural KwaZulu-Natal, every bed was occupied, though many patients didn’t survive long after their arrival, as there was little to offer them beside palliation. Faced with this overwhelming scene, I felt compelled (as many others have) to intervene directly, founding a small NGO to provide educational support for the many young people I met who had lost their parents to the epidemic.
Upon returning to the US, I started Thembanathi (meaning ‘Hope with Us’ in Zulu) to raise support for the nascent early childhood education program at the hospice where I had stayed. I continued to visit South Africa and to lead Thembanathi over the next decade, while pursuing my graduate education in Public Health and Anthropology. I lived in Mtubatuba, about three hours north of Durban, for a period of two years while I did the research for my doctorate. In 2011, I was approached by a few community members who asked me to help them start an early childhood program. I enthusiastically agreed to assist them and, with support from many of you, we were able to open a temporary facility the following January. Over the next two years we raised funds to build a new center and in January 2014, we opened Siyabonga Early Childhood Education and Development Centre. Since completing my doctorate, I have remained committed to ongoing work to address the effects of the HIV epidemic on young people and families in South Africa, but my focus has moved from non-profit work to critical research and university teaching. Due to my busy academic schedule, I had not had the time or opportunity to visit Siyabonga for a few years.
Last month, I was finally given the chance to spend some time at Siyabonga again, accompanied by a photographer, who spent two days capturing life at Siyabonga and in the surrounding community. We will be sharing pictures of the children and staff with upcoming updates. In addition to the candid shots of everyday activities at Siyabonga, we also thought it would be fun to take portraits of all the children. We plan to print them and share with the children’s families, as school photos are not something that most families in the area are able to afford.
It was great to have the opportunity to return and see Siyabonga with fresh eyes, and to witness how things had progressed in my absence. Visually, the buildings and grounds look better than ever. A local volunteer has taken on the task of landscaping and gardening, and the fence and building are painted bright, welcoming colors. Siyabonga has added an additional teaching position since I last visited, allowing them to offer more structured lessons for the 4-year-olds (the age at which the South African Department of Education recommends that children begin school preparedness activities). For instance, on one of the days that I visited, the children were engaged in a lesson about how plants grow, each inspecting a small seedling they had visited previously and discussing how water and light helped it to grow big and tall. They were also delighted to perform songs and recitations for myself and the visiting photographer.
It was also my first time meeting Siyabonga’s current Director, Khethiwe Khuzwayo. She has clearly done a lot to develop the programs at Siyabonga and to ensure the stability, sustainability, and professionalism of the Centre. I was pleased to hear about their plans to keep improving and expanding their services, especially their aim of starting a new parenting program for the community. I hope we can support them to achieve these goals and continue to offer these much-needed services.
I want to take this opportunity to personally thank you for all the support you have given to Thembanathi, Holy Cross, and Siyabonga over the years. I am confident that the hundreds of children who have attended Siyabonga since it began have benefitted greatly from the support, education, and nutrition they received while there.
With deep gratitude,
Teaching about trees
Understanding how plants grow
Teachers and kids reciting a rhyme