A KINGDOM WITHOUT PARENTS (CHILDREN REARING CHILDREN)
The year is 2003. In the Valley of Heaven in the Kingdom of Swaziland, a little boy is experiencing real-life hell. He lives outside, in the wilderness, competing with canines for food and water. He is neglected, abandoned and forgotten. Every day he fights for his survival; his only possession a blanket encrusted with his own faeces and dog excrement.
Blustering rain, blazing heat, earth-shattering thunder storms; there is no option of a cosy bed, a warm cup of milk, or the safety of a loving mother's arms. Nobody to embrace him, encourage him, support him; not a soul to caress his cheek, to stroke his hair, to wipe away the tears of fear, pain and confusion.
Some days he doesn't eat at all. His little tummy is bloated from malnutrition, his skin is dry and cracked from severe thirst. There is not much he can do; he is unable to move, crippled by his cerebral palsy and lack of medical care. He is five years old.
A couple of metres away, in the comfort of their home, his stepmother and grandmother get on with their days, life moving on without the little boy in the yard fighting for life.
This is the heart-breaking story of Mandla (15), who for 11 years was denied his basic human rights because of a disability from birth. When I first met him, I was completely unaware of his story. To me he was just a vivacious young man with a huge passion for life. A boy who likes to sing and dance, a boy who radiates so much happiness, that it's impossible not to feel uplifted in his company.
This wasn't my first time meeting a child from a torn background. A week spent in an orphanage for disabled and terminally ill children in Eastern Europe last summer had already opened up my eyes - first-hand - to the cruelties and injustices in this world. This was my first trip to Africa with Team Hope, I thought I would be mentally and emotionally prepared for the journey ahead, but the truth is that I felt completely distraught by the sad state of affairs in the Kingdom.
Despite painful beginnings, Mandla's story ends well. Taken into care by social services in 2009, the young man now resides in the Christian Ministries children's home in Hawane. Surrounded by wonderful carers and dozens of newly adopted brothers and sisters, each with their own tale to tell, Mandla's life has been transformed. With the support and encouragement of his new family, he has learned to walk and feed himself - taking essential baby steps towards a more independent life, where he is not defined by his cerebral palsy and abandonment.
Mandla's tale is a miraculous story, but not all children in Swaziland are so lucky. The situation here is difficult and life is extremely tough. You can see it all around you, from the moment you set foot on that terracotta soil. It's written on people's faces; in their prematurely ageing skin, their weathered hands, their bloated, malnourished tummies and their creased, furrowed brows.
My mission in Swaziland involved shoeboxes - 17,000 to be precise. I was there to witness first-hand the magic and joy such a little gift can bring into the life of a child in the developing world.
Like anyone else going to Africa for the first time, I had a vision in my head of what to expect, but the reality completely blew me over. Trekking dusty, rural roads in the dizzying heat of the African winter sun, I found myself in the heart of the Kingdom, witnessing everything I had ever read about in the media or seen documented on TV. The images before me were a difficult sight to take in, surreal at times and far too real at others.
It is in Engcamini I got my first taste of rural Swaziland and indeed, the magic inside a shoebox.
As our Jeep pulled into the local parish of this tiny rural community, I had my face plastered to the window - not wanting to miss a single moment of what I knew would be a once in a lifetime experience. I wasn't disappointed. Our arrival was greeted by the sight of hundreds of eager eyes and excited little faces. They knew what was coming; they had been anticipating this day for weeks.
It was like something out of a fairy tale, the kind that both warms the soul and tugs at the heartstrings. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement - I will never forget the sound of hundreds of toddlers simultaneously squealing with delight at the sight of their first ever Christmas present; those beautiful big, brown eyes full of disbelief at the splendid kaleidoscope of colour staring back at them from inside their very own shoebox. Everything intrigued them, from the pretty wrapping paper to the alien gifts inside.
It was a sight unlike anything I have ever experienced. Those gorgeous smiles, arms trembling with excitement - where to look first, what to play with next, the confusion over an item of clothing they have never seen before, the surprise of finding a little doll, toy car, a packet of sweets or maybe even a face cloth.
With some children I sat and observed as they dug through their cardboard treasure troves, watching their expression change from happy to happier with each new item they unearthed. With others I joined in on the fun, explaining what a skipping rope or a new toy was, or simply helping them put on their first ever pair of gloves and cosy woolly hats and scarves.
I marvelled as some of the older children discovered Christmas cards among their new possessions, some accompanied by a photograph of the sender which they examined intently. I giggled at the sight of a red and white Corcaigh jersey and the little boy who proudly paraded in it outside the grounds. Everywhere I turned there were small groups of children, shrieking with excitement as they showed off to each other their newly acquired goods.
Speaking to the local pastor, Vusii, I gained further insight into the lives of the darlings I had met. "For most of the children here, it's their first experience to receive such gifts. Year in, year out, they don't receive anything, even from their parents. You have made their year," he explains.
"It's an excitement for the whole community," he added. "Some of the kids have travelled over 10km today; running all the way here to get their gifts. You're really making a big impact. The standard of living is next to nothing here in Engcamini. The people here are so poverty stricken. The poverty line is about 50 cent a day."
"For me, today is a dream come true," Vusii said. "I've been wishing a long time to see happy faces. In this community the children have become like adults. They are doing duties that are supposed to be done by adults. When I look at them opening the boxes, I can see that somehow it is bringing back the childhood; the child is feeling like a child once again. It enlightens my heart when I see them opening up the boxes. It's been a great day. We are so blessed."
This is the kind of Christmas dream that Team Hope have been part of for the past 15 years, delivering 2.8m shoeboxes to over 21 countries in the developing world. From the most remote corners of Africa to the most struggling communities in Eastern Europe, their dedication to spreading hope and joy has made a huge difference to families all over the world.
While to you and me a shoebox stuffed with daily essentials might not seem like much, to a child in the developing world, such a simple gift is like a treasure chest of pure gold.
For forgotten children, like Mandla, the gift of a simple shoebox brings a new lease of life, showing them the power of a stranger's love. These children are victims of war, disease, poverty and abuse; facing daily challenges far greater than any you or I will ever encounter in our lifetime.
The reality is that three in five children under 16 in Swaziland are victims of sexual abuse. In a population of almost 1m citizens, around 250,000 children are double orphans, living without a mam or dad, struggling to support themselves and their siblings. Essentially, it is a nation of children raising children. To make matters worse, the country is riddled with HIV, the severe epidemic showing no signs of abating. The young are most affected, the latest statistics revealing that just over one-quarter of adults aged 15-49 are HIV positive. In a country where 52pc of the population are aged under 20 and the average life expectancy is 35, these figures are frightening.
Then there are the problems of hunger and malnutrition, a lack of access to good-quality food and water. Starvation is at its most severe in rural communities, where 78pc of the population live. Here, three in 10 people fall short of meeting their daily nutritional needs.
"They say there are around 250,000 orphans in Swaziland at the moment. That's a growing number because of HIV and Aids," Julius Steyn of Challenge Ministries, Team Hope's partner charity, explains.
"The biggest problem is that there are no parents anymore," Julius says. "If you have young girls that have to look after four, five, six, 10 siblings and someone comes and offers them anything to eat - porridge or a piece of fruit, or just a half a loaf of bread - the only thing that makes sense for these kids to pay them back with is with themselves. Not in a malicious way. It's just that they think, 'We need to give something back because this person has kept us from starving’.
"That's how it starts and then it becomes a cycle. Once it happens once, they can see it as a way out. And then it's just a very viscous and evil cycle that carries on with sexual abuse, prostitution, child trafficking. It's a snowball that grows bigger and bigger and bigger. If we don't get in there and stop it, it can spin out of control," he says. "Kids in Swaziland have to deal with a very tough way of living."
As time wore on and my exploration of Swaziland intensified, all these facts, figures and statistics that I had picked up along the way turned into living, breathing examples right before my eyes. It is in Lavumisa, deep in the Kingdom's countryside that I truly grasped how difficult life is for most of the Swazi population. Away from the buzzing atmosphere of a local parish crammed with eager, anticipating children, the harsh reality of daily life engulfed me.
Staying in a local parish, I had the comfort of basic conditions like electricity, a working toilet and a trickling shower. As I lay in bed waiting for sleep to arrive, just a stone's throw away, people on their death beds were praying to see the new dawn. It was a very difficult thing to accept and a most terrible feeling.
I felt guilty about the small luxuries surrounding me, knowing that just around the corner people were praying for basic human necessities such as food and water. That some were living in such dire conditions that leaves and insects were the only solution to filling the holes in their stomachs.
Although we were essentially cold-calling into people's homesteads, loaded with shoeboxes, the locals in Lavumisa greeted us with open arms, offering a place to sit on their straw mats in the comfort of the shade. Not once did they complain of their troubles, instead offering their warmest smiles and encouraging nods. Despite their happy expressions, their eyes told a different story.
Looking around me there wasn't much to these modest, rural homes. Mud and stick houses, expertly constructed to withstand Mother Nature's forces. Situated miles away from civilisation, not to mention the nearest neighbour, and hours from the nearest shop or hospital, I imagined how dark and lonely it must get upon sundown. Apart from our Jeep, I saw no other cars or mode of transportation, no passers-by, and certainly no tourists.
Most homes in Lavumisa consist of two or three huts: a bedroom to house the entire family - sometimes as many as eight to one room - a kitchen and a lounge. Furniture is at a bare minimum; most sleep on mats on the ground, cushioned by clothes or blankets. Those who are lucky have wells; those less fortunate, stacks of plastic bottles filled with water sourced from the nearest lake where locals bathe.
Sanitation and hygiene are extremely poor. There is no TV, no radio, and no internet. Some locals, do, however, possess mobile phones, something I found most intriguing and comforting. At least there was a way of calling for help in an emergency, even though it might not arrive for days.
From child to child, and home to home, the reactions to shoeboxes varied. So too, did the levels of poverty. I met a teenage girl with a broken leg, whose grandmother had carried her on her back for hours to seek help at the nearest hospital. I met a little girl who was so grubby that flies swarmed around her, making a nest in her ears, eyes and nostrils.
I encountered countless dishevelled toddlers, wearing nothing but holey vests and mismatched flip-flops, several sizes too big or too small. I met an elderly gentleman, bed-ridden with illness, a ghost of the man he once was. I also met Lindiwe, a young girl my companions had encountered three years previously on a similar distribution trip. Although unsure of her address - the streets here have no names - we tracked her down just as the sun began to set over the horizon.
The young girl invited us into her home where I found myself sitting in her bedroom - a simple, mud hut containing a bed, washing line and a few personal possessions. As I sat back and took in my surroundings, Lindiwe proudly produced a shocking pink woolly hat, plonking it on her head defiantly. It was a gift from her shoebox, one she holds very dear to her heart. She showed me a notebook and pen also, which she has treasured for the past three years.
I asked her to tell me about her life - she obliged. "My day begins at five o'clock when it's usually still dark. The first thing I do is cook my breakfast, which is always a thin porridge. I then go to collect water down at the river. It takes a long time to walk, especially on the way back home when the container is full and heavy.
"After that, I get my schoolbooks ready and walk to school. The journey takes about an hour. School begins at 8:30am. Classes finish at 3:40pm. I walk home for an hour again, eat my dinner and do my homework. Usually it takes an hour. After that, I say my prayers and go to sleep.”
Lindiwe speaks softly, her gentle manner reminding me of a little gazelle. Her limbs are long and strong, her figure athletic from the miles she clocks up on foot each week, fetching water, travelling to school and helping her grandparents with daily chores, looking out for her three younger siblings. Her ambitions stretch beyond her isolated rural surroundings. She hopes to become a teacher, educating "small children.”
"I love school," she beams. "My favourite subjects are Maths, English and SiSwati [the Bantu language of Swaziland]."
As our chat wrapped up, Lindiwe's grandmother appeared - a quiet elderly lady, curious about the commotion in her home. I realised that she was one of the few elderly people I had seen throughout my entire stay in Swaziland, a reminder of the frightening statistics of a dying nation.
Watching the sun rise the next morning, I thought about Lindiwe, Mandla and the hundreds of little faces I had met throughout my short stay. I made a wish for them; a wish for their dreams to be fulfilled, for their desires to be met.
I thought of the children back in Ireland sound asleep in their own, cosy beds. I thought of my brother, and my mam and dad, and felt so incredibly lucky to have a loving family, a home, and all the other little luxuries that we take for granted as spoiled Westerners.
I thought of how wonderful it is that despite their daily struggles, the children of Swaziland still find a place in their hearts to dream; that despite their surroundings they are still full of hope and joy. The shoeboxes help - they help more than you and I will ever know.
Swaziland is an example of just one of the many countries Team Hope supports. Why not pick up a shoebox yourself this holiday season and see where it ends up?
"It might be an orphan in rural Romania, a child-led household in Swaziland, a boy with cancer in a Ukraine hospital, a nine-year-old whose mum and dad have died of Aids in Lesotho, or a girl who was sold into prostitution in Moldova," Team Hope executive director Niall Barry says.
In the words of Julius, my wise Swazi pal: "These shoeboxes are changing lives. That little hint of love that comes from someone the children don't know; it means the world."