A double orphan in Lesotho, Po Pe has lived in a children's home since she was about ten. Her father died when she was young, and her father's family did not want to take care of the widow and her children. Later her mother died, and that family, from South Africa, also refused to care for the children. Po Pe and her siblings were left to fend for themselves until the Department of Social Development stepped in and placed her and her siblings in care.
Her caregivers are very concerned for Po Pe. She seems very unhappy, gives one word answers, and is at times suicidal. She does not engage with the other children and says she is "too old to play". Carers for children like Po Pe are on the "front lines" of a battle for the hearts of these children. Will the children have a sense of hope and confidence as they emerge into adulthood--one that comes from a secure and loving attachment to a caregiver, or will they approach it with fear and hopelessness, their needs for security and belonging unaddressed?
In a training earlier in May, we addressed children's needs in Mahale's Hoek, Lesotho, in an area ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Children are the collateral damage, orphaned when their parents die, or abandoned when the father dies and the mother leaves for South Africa to find work, or abused, sexually and physically by adults, including family members.
Early on in the training, we discussed the metaphor of child development as a stream of water, flowing naturally because of a God-given push for growth in children, but often slowed or halted by huge rocks in that stream--rocks such as orphaning, abuse, violence in the community, displacement, war, and poverty. My translator, and a leader in the community, spoke--in tears--to say "we are often the rocks in the stream. We treat the children very harshly."
About thirty caregivers and I grappled with the issues of trauma and loss in children, how to care for their heart needs, as we became great friends, playful and serious, discussing and praying. We focused on Po Pe's needs--her early trauma, the loss of security and trust that she had experienced over and over, and the loss of hope she had for her own life. They also learned how to engage her through empathy and acceptance--and through loving care, not harsh scolding or detached caregiving. The week culminated in a last morning of play with 40 children from Trust for Africa, my host's organization. Then we parted with a long line of caregivers singing and dancing until they could each give me a hug, and tears ran down my face and many of theirs.
By the end of our time together, many of the caregivers present said "This has changed how I will care for children. Now I know what their heart needs are. Now I know how to help them, rather than making it worse for them." They also decided to meet regularly to discuss the children and apply the ideas learned.
I left Lesotho with Po Pe on my mind, and the hope of returning next year to train trainers who can carry on the work of training others to care for vulnerable children. And I left with much gratitude for the work God is doing in hearts and minds as we confront such challenging issues for children.
*To protect privacy, neither the name nor the photo are of Po Pe, though it is a Basotho name.