Sunday, 21 July 2013

It Takes A Village To Raise A Child

Such a cliche, but it's true. And that's the kind of work that Hands is trying to do.

It's taken me awhile to figure out how Hands works - it's not as straightforward or as tangible as building schools or digging wells. When I see the people and the communities we're working in, my first thought is that they need food and shelter and medical attention. And I feel powerless because we're here just to hang out and play. It seems totally bizarre.

But slowly, over the last week - which has felt more like a month - I've come to see what Hands actually does. And it's amazing.

Hands at Work's mandate is to work with the poorest of the poor. This is the way it was explained to us:

You have some kind of conflict zone - let's say Goma in the DRC. The UN sends troops in to secure the area, and they set up a hub with running water, electricity and internet. And they're able to help the people in the immediate area by securing some kind of peace - uneasy though it may be. And when they're able, other NGOs come in - groups like the Red Cross, and Doctor's Without Borders, and the WHO - and because it's safer, and the infrastructure is already there, they set up camp right next to the UN. Which means they can all service the area within, say, a two-hour radius of the UN headquarters.

But what about the people who are within a three-hour radius? Or four, or five? The need is still great - perhaps even greater, because the other NGOs aren't able to access these areas. That's where Hands at Work goes.

Hands works in these remote areas, attempting to heal the fractured communities, and most importantly, make them self-sustainable in the long term. The issues are complex - malnutrition, poverty, rape, disease, lack of education, lack of jobs, broken families, absent fathers. AIDS has ravished these communities - killing off nearly an entire generation of people between the ages of 30 and 50. There is an eerie shortage of people my age.

Children are left without parents, young teens are raising large families with no source - or unfortunately, one source - of income, and Gogos (grannies) are tasked with raising second, and sometimes third, families when they don't have the energy or the resources to do so. Abuse and rape is so rampant, it feels like there isn't anyone in these communities who doesn't encounter it on a frequent basis.

So - the need is so very, very great. But Hands at Work doesn't just come in and hand out blankets and food, they work with the local churches and local community leaders to build community-based organizations, grassroots movements to help the people take care of their own.

Hands helps put the infrastructure in place for locals to provide care for their own communities. On a practical level, this is what it looks like:

Hands identifies a community that needs help. Hands workers walk through these communities and talk to the locals about who is already reaching out and going the extra mile - perhaps taking in orphans or sharing resources with their neighbours. There is always somebody in these communities who is a helper - what a testament to human generosity.

Hands then approaches these natural helpers and encourages them to bring in their friends to create a grassroots group of volunteers who will help feed children and give them a safe place to gather and play, and who will also visit the children at their homes to ensure they're being taken care of. These local volunteers are called care workers, in Hands parlance, and they give their own time and energy to work with the kids in their community. They set up care points, which serve as feeding centres, playgrounds and safe havens for the kids. The care workers are trained to become de facto social workers in these communities.

The volunteers - known as "mamas" - are supported by administrative service centres, which are manned by folks who work to find the resources for the care points. In some instances, these resources are financial, often international donors. But Hands believes strongly that money is only an easy answer - and in the long term, it's not the best answer (What happens when the money runs out? It always does.). So the service centre workers liaise with local governments, churches and leaders to try to do even more with what they already have.

The service centres are then supported by regional support teams, who work both in the communities and beyond, searching for resources and support. Much of the work is political, and it also involves appealing to international organizations and churches to provide short-term and long-term support, in the way of donations and volunteer man-power.

Hands started out in South Africa roughly 15 years ago, and in that time has spread to 61 communities in eight different countries across Africa.

What I really like about Hands is that they look for the need in these communities and they fill it, whatever it may be. They don't dictate what the need is - they work with the local people and empower them to solve the problems locally. As well, they work to remove barriers on the political and financial level as well. So much about the work that Hands does is about empowerment and healing - physical, yes, but perhaps even more importantly, emotional and spiritual.

The people we're working with have received so very little love in their lives. You can see it in the neediness of the children, and in the shuttered look in the eyes of the volunteers. The children need to receive love, encouragement and inspiration, and the care workers need to learn how to give it to them (in many instances, they've grown up without love themselves, so while they may want to give it to the children, they have no idea how).

So a big part of our job, as short-term Hands volunteers, is to model how to love children. We are here to play with the kids, to hug and cuddle them, to talk with the teens, to listen, to provide support and encouragement. And to lend a hand wherever they need it - in the garden, fetching water, cleaning dishes. Whatever is needed from us at any given time.

I admit I still have a hard time with the idea that we can't do something more tangible. It seems like such cold comfort to show up at a care point, play with some kids for a couple of hours, and then go home to our comfortable digs at the Hands hub. The day we spent gardening and painting tires for playground equipment was one of the more rewarding days, because we could directly see the impact of our work.

Hands work is slow, tentative, but incredibly powerful. The only correlation I have in my own life is adjudicating at music festivals - and I get the same kind of joy being with these kids as I do from working with North American kids on perfecting some element of drama or singing. It's connection on a deeply personal level, and that's what I want more than anything in my life. It is having a powerfully transformative affect on me.

As for what impact we're having on the kids and people here, I don't know. Two weeks seems too short a space of time. But perhaps we're doing more than we'll ever know.

For instance, one of our volunteers, Daphne (my roomie, in fact) was here 13 years ago. She wrote one of the young men she met that time a card, because he had touched her, and she wanted to give him some further encouragement. He was 19 at the time.

Now he is 32 and working full-time with Hands. And he proudly showed Daphne that he had kept her card all that time. Her small gesture had been profoundly meaningful in his life.

We never know what impact we have on other people. And that is the Hands way.

How can you help Hands? Check out their website for more info. Yes, they want money, and you can pay $20/month to help support a child. But they als
o want volunteers and advocates. Feel free to contact me if you want to know more.


  1. So glad to have the work that Hands is doing explained so clearly and so well. Thanks for that. If someone wanted to donate to the cause, how would they go about doing that? Keep up the good work.


    1. Hmmm. Google seems to be losing my comments.

      If you want to donate money, here is the link. $20 a month will feed a child for a month and goes to support the need in these communities.

      It's so little for us, and so much for them.

  2. Marliss, read your last 4 blogs and the most recent one was so interesting. We will have to have a chat about how my and your esperiences were. I was at a Chruch of England high school/compound for girls in Zimbabwe for a week and a bit. Glad to hear your daventure is to your liking Judy H

    1. Judy, I'd live that. We should definitely compare notes.

  3. The Chinese have a proverb that goes something like, “She who returns from a journey is not the same as she who left.”

    I have just read The Ginger Route in its entirety (to July 21) in one sitting tonight. I value the depth of your experience and the beautiful, sensitive recounting of that experience. Your adventurous and courageous immersion into village life reveals a journey into yourself that becomes a colorful chapter in your personal story.

    Marcel Proust says, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
    Thanks for sharing your “adventures of the open road”.
    Yvonne K.

  4. Yes indeed. Thank you, Yvonne. I feel like I have very new eyes - and this trip has been the best thing I've ever done, with the exception of marrying a pretty great man. It has been life-changing in so many ways.

  5. Marliss this is a perfect picture of Hands. I'm sharing this post with everyone!

    Love ya,