This is the second of three articles I wrote for a British newspaper about my experience of working in South Africa for ten months in 2004-5. I thought it was particularly apt to re-publish this as the UK is gripped in wintry Christmas fever…
In the run-up to Christmas, Johannesburg almost entirely came to a halt as people fled to the coast in the warm weather. It was hard for me to find the Christmas spirit here when the usual Christmas Day celebration is a game of cricket on a beach, but I kept up one tradition by spending the day in our local squatter camp dressed as Santa Claus for the children.
Sadly over 15,000 children are severely burned each year in South Africa alone and Christmas is often the time when children are most at threat. Children of Fire, which aims to help the young survivors of burns injuries, has therefore been pushing its fire prevention programme in the squatter camp communities.
Through my work with Children of Fire I have come to know-several of the burn survivors well and have particularly grown to care for a three-year old boy called Sizwe who has been in the care of Children of Fire for the past nine months. Sizwe is alleged to have been doused in paraffin and set alight by his own mother at the age of three-months and suffered massive injuries as result. Children of Fire arranged for Sizwe to undergo a series of reconstructive operations to his hands and face and I am now responsible for overseeing the adoption process to place him with a new family. Sizwe is an adorable child and it is moving to know that he now has the brightest possible future ahead of him in a caring and loving home.
In Zulu ‘Sizwe’ means ‘nation’ and, following my comments in my previous article of South Africa being ‘the world in one country’, it is ironic that Sizwe could be considered ‘the nation in one boy’. He suffered terribly during his infancy and faced a bleak future but, just like South Africa as a nation, remained positive, never stopped smiling and now has much to look forward to.
Many children in South Africa are confronted by injustice whether through the burns received as a result of societal negligence or the tragedy of the AIDS pandemic taking away their family, or far too often their own lives. There are still many problems to be resolved in South Africa but there is overwhelming potential with so much to be admired. The children of this nation are still full of hope despite the obstacles in their path and they do have much to hope for. Sizwe is a clear example of how a child who has suffered massively during his early childhood can face a bright and promising future.
I now have just over one month left in South Africa before I begin work for the United Nations Development Programme in Poland. These experiences were made possible through the AIESEC Work Abroad Programme which aims to raise cultural awareness through placing graduates on international work placements.
Originally published 31 December 2004