“Before I left for this trip, I knew about Swaziland. But I didn’t have an accurate perspective until I got there,” said Mandy Flanders, Administrative Assistant in Public Safety. Flanders spent two weeks in June on a mission trip to the impoverished nation.
Nokwanda and her siblings were just three of the 300 children who visit the care site manned by Flanders and other members of Warren Baptist Church. Members of the church collect money, toiletries, school supplies and uniforms, and volunteer on-site to care for the children, feed them, and provide affection that may be lacking in a country where 23 percent of the children are orphans, according to U.S. AID, an independent agency of the U.S. federal government agency that is overseen by the Secretary of State.
Swaziland – a monarchy the size of Massachusetts that lies east of South Africa and just below Mozambique – has been one of the countries hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Some estimates put the number of children acting as head of household as high as 150,000.
“There’s a real need,” said Robin Hall, owner of ATG Advanced Technology Group in Augusta, who coordinates the trips for volunteers like Flanders. “They have no running water, no electricity. They live in huts with dirt floors. We’re so blessed here that we don’t even realize it.”
Nokwanda and her siblings, for example, all showed signs of malnutrition. Their hair was very light in color, they were very thin and they lacked energy. Flanders raised several thousand dollars in donations in order to spend two weeks volunteering at the center. She took a 16-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, and a five-hour bus trip to the care center in Swaziland. Monkeys ran along the side of the road as they passed through the mountainous region. When they arrived, they delivered packages from the children’s sponsors at Warren Baptist Church, organized meals, did odd jobs and light construction, and took care of the children who arrived every day for Bible study and meals.
“The children were so humble and appreciative. When the team distributed chips, for example, many of them would pack the chips away for their families,” Flanders said. “The love in these children is just amazing.”
Hall said that even a simple meal in Swaziland inspires her. Children line up from youngest to oldest. After a child eats, he or she automatically washes out the bowls and hands it to the next child in line. There is no pushing or whining. That cooperation arises because each child knows full well what is at stake.
“These children are left to fend for themselves. It’s not unusual to have a 3-year-old walk up to the care station by themselves, sometimes from five miles away,” Hall said.
Over the three years that the volunteers have worked in the community, there has been a measurable improvement. The feeding station now has a permanent building with running water and cooking facilities, it is staffed year-round by native Swazilanders and a rotating roster of church volunteers, and they recently built a playground for the children.
And Nokwanda, the little girl with the big responsibility, is now a thriving 9-year-old who, along with her siblings, no longer shows signs of malnutrition.
“Their hair has darkened, they look healthy and their faces are bright and shiny,” Hall said.
Ten-year-old Ayanda captured Flanders’ heart while she was there. While Flanders only spoke English and Ayanda only spoke Swati, the desire to communicate surpassed the availability of the translators. Ayanda knew a few lines of pop singer Rihanna’s “What’s My Name,” and knew how to say “I love you.” Flanders hopes to sponsor her when Ayanda completes her evaluation period. And she will try to return in as soon as she can. It’s the kind of dedication the children need, Hall said.
“They are the most joyful children you’ve ever seen in your life. They just want to be loved. That’s what they respond to. It’s a wonderful feeling to go there.”