Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day

With all the children running around our village, over 1000 of them alone attending the two schools we work with, 160 of whom have been our wonderful 5th graders for the last term, there are certainly a number of fathers who need to be celebrated today in Seleka. Monday is Youth Day in South Africa, a public holiday, so families also have a long weekend to celebrate together. As I stretched my legs down our dirt road Friday morning and held a warm cup of coffee in my hands to abate the crisp winter air I ran into one of our grade 5 girls. We fell in step together (about three of hers for every one of mine) and started chatting. She is an adorable girl who loves to talk to us whenever we have free time. Very articulate and to the point, she is never afraid to speak her mind. That day is was just excitement that was pouring from her. I had asked about her plans for the long weekend and the up coming three week school holiday. 'Toropong!' she exclaimed, which means 'town' in Setswana. She went on to explain that for father's day weekend she, her father, mother and two siblings were heading into town for the day on Saturday to shop, eat lunch at her favorite restaurant, KFC, and 'ipshina fela' (just enjoy). To top it off, the following weekend they all planned to travel to a nearby city to visit her mother's family for the entire three week school break. Apparently it is an annual excursion. All this joy and happiness was let out in a matter of a few minutes that it took to get from the corner where we met up to the school gate where she promptly sprinted off to meet up with some of her friends hanging out against the side of the school building facing the sun, trying to warm up a bit before having to sit down in a chilly classroom for the morning.

I smiled as I walked up the path to our classroom to prepare for the day. This little girl was doing exactly what our family would do on Father's Day growing up. We would pile into the car and head up to the city for the day, go out to lunch, usually at one of our favorite restaurants as kids, not Dad's favorite restaurant (because we did not really have a taste for choice prime rib and a glass of wine in our middle school years) and just enjoy the day together. I decided to continue asking other students about their plans for the weekend and school break, quickly finding out that my companion for my morning walk was more of an exception than the norm. Most students that I spoke with talked about how their father works in the city, usually meaning Johannesburg, and that they usually only seem him a couple times each year. Others do not have a father figure in their lives. Many are never able to come home from the city because it is so expensive to travel. They send money home each month to the family and that is all they are able to do. Many have passed away at a young age from HIV/AIDS or other illnesses. Some children have neither father nor mother at home due to all of these reasons.

Each face that I looked at that morning I tried to see beyond the personality that comes into the classroom each day. Do they live in the few nice homes in the village or one of the many one room tin homes lining the dirt roads. Is it a family in the traditional sense at home, or just one mother, one father, one grandparent, an older sibling or is this young 5th grade child the head of the house? Unfortunately the latter options are the most prevalent here.

This is just one small village that suffers from the same concerns that hundreds of thousands of people in every corner of the world face. We have had the privilege of getting to know some of these children who may not get to celebrate this weekend with a father, or have someone celebrate them on Youth Day. We hope that in our short time here we can celebrate them each day for the fun kids they are. It is easy to get caught up in our work and see just students in the classroom from day to day. Friday I was reminded again that all these bright faces are not just students but kids in the midst of what for many is a difficult childhood, one that is too short when you are forced to grow up so fast.

So today, on Father's Day, Jess and I are thankful for the blessing of such wonderful fathers and families of our own. Ones that gave us the opportunities that allowed us to be here now. Fathers that taught use the importance of family, friends, and being together. I cannot be a father for every child that walks through the school gate each morning, but maybe I can be a positive male role model many of them want and need. We do not have to go on weekend trips to the city with them or out to lunch, but as long as we are in Seleka we can gather together and just enjoy.

Happy Father's Day.

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