I am in an unpainted cinderblock RDP house in NU8, Mdantsane Village. This is the centre for a women’s group called Unakho, which means “God can”. I am the guest of Celia, and she is explaining to me that every meeting begins with a prayer. We bow our heads and close our eyes as Celia delivers a prayer in isiXhosa and English. She gives thanks that God has delivered His servant to them today, and I realize that she means me.
Celia has prepared a written explanation of the centre, which she reads from a hand-written page. The centre has been in operation for 12 years. Their mission is to provide youth and kids with balanced meals, to teach them Bible lessons and work/life skills, and to give them a place to play and have fun. As well, she is trying to raise money to pay for food, school uniforms and tuition for those who cannot afford these necessities. The last holiday club (programs that take place when school is out) ran for five days, served 180 kids, and cost 7000 rand. All of the money was out of the five organizers’ pockets. Although Unakho is a registered charity, it has not received any external funding.
There is a phrase here – to fall pregnant – and now I think I know why.
We have been meeting for about 40 minutes when a girl arrives at the door. She is crying; she has an infant in a carrier on her chest. The woman who runs the centre addresses the room: Now listen to this. And we turn and face this girl who cannot be more than 18 years old.
“When I was three months old my mother threw me away,” she begins. Her words tumble out urgently for 25 minutes. She had a child with a man she is not married to. He took many girlfriends. She tested positive for HIV and he began to beat and rape her. She fell pregnant again. He abused her. She petitioned for a protection order but withdrew the charges. “If he is in jail who will pay maintenance?” The boyfriend threw her and her children out of the house. She does not know if her baby is HIV positive. She has no home, no food, no diapers, no medications. “Tell me,” she says, looking directly into my eye, “What am I supposed to do?”
Sounds like falling to me.
“Ok,” Celia says when the girl is finished, and the women lean in over the low coffee table. After about 15 minutes everybody leans back in their chairs. Celia explains that they have prepared a plan. The girl will visit the hospital where there is a program that will give her access to food, medication, job training and housing – and she will keep her children.
I have a standoffish relationship to religion; God and I are not speaking. Being referred to as a “servant of God” makes me feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic. My life does not have room for an Almighty but I would be small-minded and foolish if I did not recognize that god is in this room.