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Monday, February 16, 2009

The Mpemvana Boys

In our December update we told how we were able to take many of The Pines kids back to their old neighborhoods to visit friends and family. On our blog I shared a brief story of the three boys from Phomolong, a township about 30 minutes from Welkom.
When we arrived, the three boys were greeted warmly. The oldest, Tankiso, in particular seemed to be a favorite of the entire community. Everyone who saw him had to run over and pinch his cheek or give him a big hug. I’ve never met an 11 year old that seemed to have as big a fan base as this boy.
For anyone who knows him, it is easy see why he seems to be a favorite. While only 11, he is very mature and responsible, yet still able to have fun. The three boys have two olders sisters, ages 17 and 14, who still live in Phomolong as the social workers have deemed them able to fend for themselves.
Even though he is not the oldest, it is clear Tankiso has taken it on himself to care for the younger two. Anytime someone is doling out candy, toys, clothing, etc...Tankiso makes sure his brothers are not overlooked.
While my dad was here he noticed during Bible Study that when candy was given for correct answers, Tankiso would eat one piece, then save two. It seems he was making sure to keep enough to be able to share with the two younger boys.
On our way through the township to find the boys home, we found the oldest sister. She directed us to the auntie’s house because the mother is no longer living at the same place as when we received the boys a year ago. The three boys were removed because of neglect and poor living conditions, and it seems things have only gotten worse since then.
When we reached the auntie’s house, there was a big celebration, as this was the first time any of them had seen the youngest since the boys had been removed from the home. Two aunts made a point to thank and bless my mother, whom they thought was the one who had been taking care of Tumi. Over and over they kept saying how we had “saved his life”. Of course, since the boyscame to The Pines at the end of January last year, we weren’t the ones here, but there is little doubt that if they hadn’t received the care they did, Tumi would not be alive today.
Once things calmed down just a bit, someone thought to go find the boy’s mother. While they were removed for neglect and poor living conditions, apparently things had only gotten worse, and the mother no longer lived in the same house where the boys were from. After a few minutes, while everyone else was still enjoying the reunion, the mother arrived.
It was clear from everyone’s reaction that this was not a happy home. When they realized she was there, Tshidiso (5 years) instantly broke into tears and went to the oldest sister. Tankiso moved back behind one of the aunts, almost as if he was hoping she wouldn’t notice him. Tumi was oblivious and didn’t even seem to recognize her.
The mother took Tumi and held him, but for all anyone could tell, he thought she was a stranger. Eventually, the other two boys responded to prompting and hugged her, but the awkwardness was evident to all, and the hug didn’t last long.
Tankiso quickly excused himself and asked me if he could go down the street to visit some friends. I followed along just to make sure things would be ok. Again, I was amazed at the reception. Everyone knew this guy, and everyone seemed to love him.
Eventually, we had to declare our intention to leave. A crowd had gathered of probably 75 people, and it seemed that the festivities would have lasted all day if we hadn’t insisted it was time to go. We have learned that goodbyes are a process, so you have to plan ahead and get the process started early. This time was no exception. The crowd migrated from the auntie’s yard to the road, then surrounding our car, then to a neighbor’s house, then again back to our car.
Finally, we were able to get everyone loaded up. On the way to the township, my dad had purchased a Coke for the boys. I had noticed that Tankiso wouldn’t drink, only giving it to Tshidiso and Tumi. When it was time to go, I saw him pull out the half-full bottle and give it to his older sisters. Apparently he had been rationing it so there would be enough to give to them.
Perhaps because of the uncertainty of life goodbyes have grown into such an event. We didn’t know at the time, but it would be the last time the boys were able to see their mother. We received word in mid-January that she had passed away.
Funerals are also quite an event. While our family was out of town, Brian & Lois Niehoff made sure to be involved. We learned that in this culture, if you are a twin there are special funeral customs. First, the funeral must start early - as in 4:30 am. Brian was certain that since nothing happens on time, he could arrive at 5:00 and still make it. When he got there at 5:00, everything was over and they were already serving lunch.
Culturally, it is customary for the family of the deceased to provide a meal. Since the mother was a twin, we found out they only had half a meal - dumplings and vegetables only, no meat.
Another tradition is that the surviving twin will climb into the coffin first, then climb into the open grave. I guess that is supposed to extend the life of the survivor. When we expressed to the housemothers our surprise at some of these customs, they were also surprised until learning she was a twin. Once they knew that, they responded as if all this was as it should be.
The week leading up to the funeral, the family requested that the boys stay in Phomolong. They wanted to ensure that the boys would be there for the funeral. Since these children have been entrusted to our care, we were leary of leaving them. In an effort to accommodate the family, we allowed the boys to spend the afternoon and night before with the family as long as one of the housemothers stayed with them. When Brian and several other Pines children arrived the next morning, he found the boys were still sleeping. Apparently the family had decided that 4:30 am is too early for the boys to get up, so they were allowed to sleep through the whole thing.
One blessing we experienced is that the other Pines children took the opportunity to speak to many people about their eternal destination. The 14 year old sister in particular was very concerned. She told them that she wanted to be sure she would be in Heaven, but she didn’t know how. Several of the kids shared with her that the Bible says Heaven is a free gift.
They explained that you don’t have to do anything to merit eternal life. It is simply an issue of belief. You have to admit that you are a sinner and accept that Jesus paid the punishment for your sin. Once you do that, God accepts your debt of sin as paid. The sister said she would do that, and with the kids there, she prayed, asking God for eternal life for herself. While the life these children have led is difficult, what greater blessing than to know for certain you will be in Heaven.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for documenting these events so well. Yes, it is heart wrenching to read, but it is very much reality. Keep Gene in line!