LETTER HOME: Life in Africa: Learning Humility

By Angela Larkan ’05

Dear Friends,

I’m writing this on my tortoise-speed computer, eating a bag of cheese curls for dinner. But it’s okay, because I am in Africa and just by being here, I am influenced, enriched, confused, frustrated, and then humbled. Every day. I come home uncomfortable, moody, and with all emotions running through my veins. Richard Dowden writes, “It is the prize that Africa offers the rest of the world: humility.”

Last year was exhausting as we threw ourselves into starting the Thanda After-School project. We set up what was needed—a system of care for orphans of AIDS and vulnerable children. And this year, we have roots. We’re adding 100 more children and are empowering local staff to develop and run the program themselves; to own Thanda in their rural community.

And slowly, I am losing the emotional defenses that protect newcomers to this continent: humility, merciless, is a like a constant slap in my face and a wrench in my heart?

Nosipho, our netball coach, has been an orphan most of her life, living with and supporting her disabled grandmother and mentally ill uncle. Last month Nosipho threw a 21st birthday party for herself (becoming an adult is important in South Africa and it is always a big family affair).

So we are at the local community hall and a Thanda student asks, “Please, Ang, Nosipho would like you to speak on behalf of her mother, the speech about advice for life.”

Me? Advice? This girl has just survived 21 years as an orphan in extreme poverty. She taught herself English by reading novels! She started a netball team before we had a netball program. She talks to her Thanda girls about preventing pregnancy and counsels them as they take HIV tests and some find out that they are positive and she is there for them every day. I can offer her no advice!

But I go into the hall and see Nosipho, beautifully dressed with exquisite makeup, thanking everyone for coming to her party. Then the MC announces the father-daughter dance. I gasp as another Thanda student duly stands up, holds her, and begins dancing, in place of her father. I look around. Every person here is under 20 years old. Where are the adults? But I know the answer: AIDS and poverty have killed them, and these kids are left here alone, throwing their own 21st birthday parties, caring for siblings, and standing up for the father-daughter dance with each other. They are here in droves to support each other. Because who else will?

I lost it. My speech was a jumble of words as I cried. Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness… It is written in graffiti at the Durban skatepark and it describes Nosipho best.

I think humility comes with knowing that you could have been born into any situation on earth and that you don’t deserve your situation more than someone else. It is faith that you can and will survive—and that if you falter, others will help you.

So I go back to calculating that 0.027kg polony per sandwich means that we need 76kg polony to make 2,682 sandwiches per week—which means I need to make another trip to Bargain Wholesalers, where I make a fool of myself trying to pull 75 liters of juice concentrate on a single pulley. Because what else can I do?

These children need a meal each day and someone to help them with their homework; someone to play games with, prepare them for the future, and be a good role model. And we have to keep moving forward because the grade 4 Thanda students learned about Mandela this term and in their final presentation recited: “But I am a black child and now I can get education and I can vote to have a voice,” … and because we know we are on the right track when the high school principal says, “We want to work even closer with Thanda—we want to see all they can do at this school.” South Africa is dying; the society is broken. But there is a new generation emerging, with new hope. And they need support, so we need to find ways to keep going.

My cheese curls are finished, so I’ll close.

With all my love, Ang

Angela Larkan ’05, who is originally from South Africa, majored in the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan, where she began researching models of care for orphans of AIDS, with assistance from the Christopher Brodigan Fund and a Davenport grant. Winner of the Richard McLellan Prize as well, she co-founded the predecessor of Thanda in 2005. A nonprofit organization under Orphans Against AIDS, Thanda is dedicated to providing support to vulnerable children in the region of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (www.Thanda.org). Jon Leland ’05, Evan Berding ’05, Zeb Zankel ’05, and Will Gordon ’05 have been Thanda volunteers.