Toothless smiles from painted faces. Tiny thumbs-up from bounding bodies. Squeals of joy from the mouths of babes. Saturday.
Ice cream and jumpy houses. Slippery slides, soaked soapy sudskins. Water hoses, soccer balls, paintball guns. Mamelodi.
In the shadow of the shacks, on the edge-of-Pretoria-slash-edge-of-the-world, took place one of the happiest events I’ve ever witnessed. On the day Jenny and her family said goodbye to the last of a generation, I said hello to the promise of the next.
The event was a Family Fun Day sponsored by the Itsoseng Clinic, a mental health and counseling center affiliated with the University of Pretoria and housed on UP’s Mamelodi Campus. Itsoseng provides psychological services to the Mamelodi campus as well as people in the broader Mamelodi community.
I went as a volunteer. Our friend, Hannah, an American and fellow Fulbrighter from Kansas University, connected with Itsoseng as part of her amazing work in South Africa, and invited me to lend a hand. Though I was willing to do whatever was necessary, it turned out that they had use for a photographer. I have a camera. Volunteer match.
Though the event was scheduled to start at 9:00, the first group of children arrived shortly after 8:30. In Mamelodi, as in disadvantaged areas everywhere, a day like this offers access to food, entertainment and an opportunity to play that does not exist on a daily basis. They were ready for anything.
Over the next hour, a couple hundred kids ranging from 2 to 12 were unloaded from taxis or walked through the campus gates, and they were followed by an inflatable slide/jumpy house and several blow-up pools. I helped set up a mini soccer pitch with chairs for boundaries and traffic cones for goal posts. The older boys hit it like a magnet.
Also like a magnet: my camera. At first, I was just the oddity. A white guy with a weird accent and a whatchamacallit around his neck. Besides, it usually takes kids a while to warm up to me; they can sense that I am an only child. (Dogs love me, kids hate me.)
Soon, though, little ones would walk up to me, grab my hand and ask for the toilet. A start.
Then they would come up and shout, “Hello! Howareyoudoing?” Then run away before I could answer.
After a while it was, “Hey! Shoot me! Shoot us!” They figured out I had a digital camera and that they could see themselves on the screen after I took the photo. Great fun for all.
One boy, the one on the left in the photo below, wanted to take my picture. I put the camera in his tiny hands, showed him which button to press and stood back. His composition was “creative.” An artist for a day.
The boy in the yellow Bafana Bafana soccer jersey, pictured below, approached me at one point with a smaller friend, also clad in the same shirt. They wanted to say hi, to talk to the giant freak. “Hello! How are you? I am fine! Sharp, sharp.”
Following the other kids’ lead, these two removed their shoes, socks, jeans and shirts to fly down the inflatable slide, which was now covered with mild detergent and water, creating a super slick surface that shot the sprogs towards a sudsy stop.
Some time later, I saw the little dude sitting on the ground, with tear-stained cheeks and wells in his eyes. Had someone pushed him down? Unlikely, as these kids got on incredibly well, even when tackling each other on the soccer field or accidentally knocking each other over on the slip ‘n slide. No. The problem: his feet were too wet from playing in the water and he couldn’t squeeze them back into his tiny, double-knotted, generic Chuck Taylors. He was trying to go to the dance competition, but he couldn’t get his shoes on. Tragedy.
I bent down to help him, his tears and herky-jerky sobs slowing now. I untied each shoe, dried his little bare feet with my hands and put the shoes back on. First left, then right. I tied the laces, double knots, patted him on the back and said, “OK.” Without a word, he sprang up and ran off towards the dancers, pausing once to look back at me with thankful eyes. That said enough.
Tabula rasa, man. Tabula rasa. That kid, all these kids, most kids everywhere are blank slates. They are born into conditions, yes. Some into poverty, some into wealth. Some into peace, some into war. Some into stable nations, some into a young democracy facing yet another fight for its life. South Africa needs these kids to retain the same sense of joy, wonder and “Ubuntu” that they displayed on Saturday. And, South Africa needs to make that possible by filling them full of good and protecting them from evil.
Typically, I must say, an event like the Itsoseng Family Fun Day with hundreds of screaming kids and face painting and yada yada would have sent me in the other direction. But I’m so glad I went. Every once in a while, we need reminders like this that there is hope in the world, and there are few better reminders than the looks on these kids’ faces.