In partnership with the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA), a small group of divinity students travels for intensive 10-week internships every summer at South African churches and other ministries. Since 2004, almost 100 students, staff, faculty and friends have journeyed on South African "Pilgrimages of Pain and Hope" led by Peter Storey, Williams professor emeritus of the practice of Christian ministry, with the help of the Office of Black Church Studies. Divinity School faculty have also taught at John Wesley College, the Methodist seminary near Pretoria. Editor Elisabeth Stagg, who visited South Africa last August, reports on two internship sites: Ikageng Itireleng AIDS Ministry in Soweto, outside Johannesburg, and SHADE, founded near Cape Town by Methodist pastors who fled brutal warfare in Congo.
“Mothers lose their babies ... and babies lose their mothers. Death is with us everyday. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living. Or should I say our ways of living are our ways of dying?” — Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda
SOWETO — Carol Dyantji talks very fast, as fast as if she is a mother with so many children that she has no time to tell her own story. But that story is also the story of her children—all 1,700 of them.
In 2002, Dyantji had earned a diploma in HIV/AIDS counseling and was in her second year of nursing school. She had left a career in hotel management and felt called to help intervene in the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in her home community of Soweto, an acronym for SOuth WEstern TOwnships, where black South Africans were forcibly relocated during apartheid.
“A nursing colleague called one day and asked me to check on a family,” says Dyantji . “The father had recently died from AIDS and the children were trying to care for their mother, who also had AIDS. The oldest child was 13.”
When Dyantji arrived, she found the mother badly dehydrated. There was no electricity in the house, and no food. “I asked the children, ‘When did you last eat?’ The 13-year-old could not remember, except that it was when she had been given money for popcorn.”
Dyantji did what she could to make the children’s mother comfortable, and returned with food for them. Two days later, their mother died at home. There was no money for her burial.
“I realized that if I could get this story published in a paper, people would help,” says Dyantji . “And people did. They donated time and came to the mother’s funeral.”
Three days later, Dyantji began getting calls about other children. “The stories were so honest and real,” she says. “One girl who was too young to be taking care of herself told me that her mother had gone to the hospital July 18. It was then in September. ‘Please find her,’ the girl said.
“I found that the mother had died in the hospital the very next day: July 19. The children had to go to claim the body.”
Before long, Dyantji had, in her own words, “become a mother to 79 kids. They started calling me ‘Mother’ and had so much confidence in me. It was as if they were asking ‘Feed me, nurture me.’ They became kids of my heart. But all this was making me run like a chicken with the head off. Soon there were 102 children.”
A single mother of five, Dyantji decided to leave nursing school and find a job to help support a ministry for children in crisis. It was consistent with her determination to make a difference in the lives of those suffering with AIDS, if not as a licensed nurse.
‘We are like two hands that wash each other.’ — Ways of Dying
Today, Ikageng-Itireleng AIDS Ministry, which Dyantji founded, serves nearly 2,000 children in 293 households, some of them headed by children as young as 10. Ikageng-Itireleng literally means “build yourself, do it for yourself” in Tswana, one of the 11 official languages spoken in South Africa.
“I have seen God moving in the courage of children raising themselves and their siblings,” says Dyantji . With a paid staff of 18 and 24 volunteers, the ministry provides food parcels, after-school and weekend tutoring, training in life skills, and emotional support through counseling and mentoring. Twenty house mothers, who receive a small stipend and food parcels, care for children who are too young to head a household.
Dyantji knows and remember every child’s name. In the ministry office, she introduces an 18-year-old youth as head of his household and quickly names each of his seven younger siblings.
“Kids tell us, ‘Drugs understood me. Poverty has decided for me.’ We try to offer a circle of support that counters these perceptions. We organize school clubs and have kids come in on the weekend to try to help them catch up academically.”
Dyantji says she “lets each child know ‘you are special to me’ in such a way they feel me as a mother. They call me ‘Ma Carol.’”
But mothering a multitude is not easy. Thirty-two of her charges are unable to cope at school; some have attempted suicide; 102 children are known to be HIV-positive. One girl’s boyfriend, who had won the teen’s trust, convinced her unprotected sex was OK. She became pregnant.
“In many ways, these are like any other teens,” says Dyantji . “Their appearance is important to them. They are on a very interesting journey, living in their homes as orphans, taking care of siblings.”
The ministry’s support comes from the community and churches, including historically white congregations. But while great, the needs are not purely financial.
“People think it’s all about money, and they are not coming in to help,” says Dyantji . “In our tradition, ubuntu means ‘You are also my child.’ It means ‘You don’t have to be an orphan.’ It means ‘I’m hearing you.’ It’s about the relationships. People just forget that.”
Asked if men volunteer to help, Dyantji puts her hands over her face and shakes her head.
“Boys have asked us to get men to help, but to get men isn’t easy. And the boys just need someone to talk to them.”
Between last May and late August, 35 more parents with AIDS died. “The children often don’t understand when their mother has died,” says Dyantji . “They may tell me that she won’t eat or drink, but when I arrive, she is dead.”
At the funeral of his only parent, a young boy named Thomas “sobbed and cried like mad. I had worried about taking the other kids to the service—that it would be too much for them. But we decided to take them, and 50 kids formed themselves into a circle and put Thomas and his siblings in the middle, saying, ‘If I can make it, so can you.’ Then they all cried and helped one another.”
‘You are late, I am late’
After visiting during the 2006 South African Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope, divinity student Dionne Davies D’08 could not forget the image of all the children coming in from school and rushing to hug “Ma Carol.”
“I thought, ‘You can feel God’s spirit here,’” says Davies, who returned to South Africa to serve her summer 2007 field education placement. Her time was spent with the AIDS Ministry and Trinity Methodist Church in Linden, where Dyantji worships.
“The kids received me with open arms,” says Davies, who worked with small groups of girls ages 10-17. They discussed questions about gender, including what it means to be a woman and a leader.
Davies was approached one day by a teen, who with tears in her eyes, said, “My family is suffering. I’m a Christian. I pray every day. Why are we suffering?”
“I opened up the Book of Psalms and shared some of the psalms of lamentation,” says Davies. “I asked her to write a letter to God, and we did that together. And then we cried together. She was able to come to a place of remembering that God was with her, even as she suffered.”
It is important to move these children out of their pasts and “into the future,” says Dyantji . “That’s what Dionne helped them do.”
Not long before, when Dyantji took two children who had been abandoned by their grandmother to register for school, she was told that they were too late and would have to wait until the next term. But “Ma Carol” refused to accept that.
“You are late. I am late. Everyone is late,” Dyantji told the administrator. “The only ones who are not late are these two kids.”
The children registered for school.