January 28, 2008

MAZON Mission to South Africa, Day 7

By Sarah Steinberg

The MAZON mission started our day with a visit to the shanty-town of Alex (short for Alexandris). It was for many years called the ‘dark city’. Until 10 years ago there was no running water, sewage, electricity and was never accepted as part of the municipality of Johannesburg.  It is a very dense place with probably 2 million people residing there. This was the area that the apartheid government set up for migrant mine workers to toil in the extraction of gold, diamonds and platinum. Large ‘hostels’ were set up with just bunk beds and common toilets. This system of apartheid and labor exploration also led the way to the on-set of the current HIV/AIDS epidemic as families were often ripped apart and the traditional family structure dismantled.

Our hosts and grantee, The Southern African Union of Temple Sisterhoods took us to a shining beacon in the midst of the squalor. The MC Weiler Elementary School was founded in 1945 by one of the leading rabbi’s of the time who had a vision of lifting children out of poverty and hunger through education. The Union is the school’s partner and they have truly made this place a model for social change. We were entertained by the school’s girls’ ‘drill team’ and their school choir. Voices of angels lifted our spirits. All the kids came from “Alex” and yet all were aspiring to greater heights. We went into some classrooms and asked the kids what they aspire to be: pilots; attorneys; doctors; teachers … were they common answer. We helped at noontime to feed the 800 children a nourishing meal. The principal said it was the only hot meal many get all day. The school has a population of HIV positive children and tries to give them special meals to help with their medication and overall healthy state. It was difficult to leave the school grounds but we also know there is so much hope in the future of these children and in the new SA.

We had the opportunity to also visit the Chris Hani Baraganath Hospital in Soweto. It is the largest hospital in the world. We talked with the pediatric AIDS doctors and staff about the status of the HIV positive children. So many do not get the nourishing food needed to break down the medications. We met two nutritionists who advised parents about proper health and food diet. So much is needed here. The volumes are overloading the system. But again, the spirit of advancement, the spirit of eternal hope, is evident daily. The dedicated medical staff told us they never give up. Some day there will be a vaccine.

As we left the hospital, a thunderstorm and lighting was approaching. Perhaps a clear sign that the heavens are listening to African cries for help and attention. The time has come for each of us to step to the plate and do just something little to make a difference.

We will be leaving this magical country soon. Much processing and debriefing is going on. Many tears have been shed. Babies we held in our arms will be dead next time we get back. While reality sucks and busts our bubbles that we sometimes live in, the human spirit can never be beaten down… not by apartheid… not by epidemics… not by the cruelty of denying G-d’s resource of food to the masses. We take back a renewed commitment to fight hunger in the slums of Watts and in the slums of Soweto and Alex. Justice, justice ye shall purse …