It is early on a Saturday morning, and under the bright blue Malealea sky, children are skipping in droves to the Community Hall. For many, this will be their first Children’s Day. They’ve heard about if from their friends and they are wriggly with excitement.
They won’t be watching Saturday morning cartoons. They won’t be playing videogames or eating sweets. These children, ranging from ages 7 to 12, will be engaging in discussion about sex, safety, and self-esteem. It happens once a month and the kids love it.
MDT fieldworker Tsotang Monyane is in charge of the day. He is passionate about children and passionate about Malealea. He loves this land, he loves these people, and he sees the rampant problems of HIV and teen pregnancy as tragedies he feels bound to help reduce. He believes educating the children of Malealea about health and respect will drastically help with prevention. The only issue is getting them to listen.
The children sit in their seats around the perimeter of the community hall, little legs swinging back in forth in anticipation. Tsotang stands in the middle of the room, teases them, coaxes out a few laughs, and then with a mere wave of his arms he sends the hoard charging outside, sprinting two gleeful laps around the soccer field. He explains that kids are little balls of energy. They love to run, to be active and free. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that they listen better when they are a little tired.
When they streak back into the hall, they are all smiles and hoarse coughs. The kids who finished first strut around with grins a little more refined and a little more triumphant than their slower counterparts. Tsotang claps his hands and motions for them to gather round. They clutch each other’s sweaty fingers as they form their circle.
Now it is time to stretch, to sing, to bounce around in a circle on one leg. Switch legs. Jump in the other direction. This is followed by more stretching. All the while Tsotang is cracking jokes. The children are bottomless fountains of giggles and mirth.
They play a few clapping games, followed by a game where everyone adopts a serious face while one child stands in the middle and picks out the first person from the circle who breaks and smiles. This game doesn’t last very long – they are all smiling.
It is then that Tsotang leads them all outside to begin the day’s discussion, a lesson he is calling the “Gender Stadium.” Under the bright, near mid-day sun, against a backdrop of Malealea’s glorious green mountains, Tsotang begins to question them about gender. What is the difference between sex and gender? What is expected of your gender? What if that doesn’t feel right to you?
The kids are shy to answer at first. The topic is strange, and they do not know exactly what to say. He coaxes a few of the older kids to share, and from there the discussion becomes more fluid. The conversation moves to equality, to self-esteem, to HIV. Even the youngest among them are familiar with HIV. A quarter of the adults in their lives are positive. What’s clear is that HIV colors every aspect of life here. What’s less clear is how to prevent it.
Tsotang maneuvers into these more sensitive waters. He emphasizes their age – that they are far too young. That they cannot make decisions regarding sex yet. That no one older than them should be asking them for anything, and that if someone does they should immediately tell their parents or guardians. They discuss how one should never feel rushed, how many years from now when they are ready they will need to take steps to protect themselves. Protection entails keeping a healthy body, valuing that body, making decisions that only you want to make, being careful about selecting partners, and using protection when the serious decision to have a partner has finally been made.
In a society where HIV prevalence is high and sexual assault rates are higher, it is never too early to begin having these discussions. In a youth culture where teenagers are dropping out of school in droves bound to a hapless marriage by accidental pregnancy, the future of Malealea depends on children understanding how that happens. By the time these kids get to high school, perhaps they will remember what Tsotang told them every fourth Saturday of every month, between the running and the games and the shrieks of laughter.
They wrap up the conversation around noon and break for a shared meal. After lunch, there are more activities. Usually they play soccer together – boys and girls together in a shared “Gender Stadium.” Occasionally the MDT coordinates special events for the kids: concerts, plays, or other games.
Every December the MDT holds a Christmas Party in place of the regularly scheduled Children’s Day. This Christmas Party is especially for the orphaned children of Malealea. The staff decorates the hall festively with a Christmas tree and lights. They play games, sing carols, and feast, and each orphaned child is given a present. This Christmas Party is about making these children feel special and individually seen and cared for. It is about helping them find joy in the holiday, even when they have experienced such loss.
Children’s Day and the Christmas Party are all about caring for each child. The children are the future of Malealea, and the MDT will never forget that.
- Any donations of funds can help us buy presents for the orphaned children at Christmas and bring some joy into their lives
- Children’s Day is a high-impact and relatively low-cost event for us to hold. Funds can help us cover the cost of providing a nutritious meal for these children each month