#FootSoldiers: The biggest and happiest family In Limpopo

#FootSoldiers: The biggest and happiest family In LimpopoPHOTO: Thom Pierce/Spotlight
Matriarch Sally Duigan. Photo by Thom Pierce.

Sally Duigan is never alone, with every move she makes there is a posse of happy, smiling children clinging to her arms, grabbing whatever bit of her clothing is within their reach. Not because they are overly “needy” but because they know she will always give them a little time. Sally leans forward and pauses thoughtfully for each child that joins the train, greeting them by name and asking those who are ill if they feel better, and simply just asking others what they’re up too.

If anyone in this world can remember the names of 70 odd children without missing a beat, it is Australian nun Sister Sally Duigan. Sally left Australia in January 1989, 20 years ago, with the sole purpose to come to South Africa and play an active role in the response to HIV/AIDS. Upon arrival her first stop was at a Catholic-run school outside Tzaneen, Limpopo. Where she spent many years as a teacher and later as principal. Later Sally played an important role during the years of government HIV denialism when she offered care and support to those living with HIV in the northern areas of Limpopo.

In 2001, she found herself at the doors of Holy Family Care Centre (HFC), in Sekororo, Limpopo. Before becoming a fully-fledged home to orphaned children, HFC was a facility where HIV positive mothers and their children were discharged to when the health care system could do nothing else for them. At the time HFC was never supposed to be a long-term solution, but a space where the mother could grow stronger before going home. However, mothers started dying, leaving their orphaned children at HFC. At that moment, it evolved into a long-term solution for orphaned children.

Today HFC is a fully-fledged children’s home. The facility is on a large plot of land near the famous Kruger National Park border, with acres of green grass, tall fruit trees, bright colored jungle gyms, trampolines, a sandpit and even a race track. At the moment this is home to 70 children (Sally sheepishly admits that they never turn a child away, sometimes the facility cares for up to 80 children) eight of whom are babies. There is a large staff contingent who care for the children 24/7, bathing them, feeding them, clothing them, teaching them, helping them with homework, playing with them and showering them with heaps and heaps of love. It is absolutely clear that this is one big family.

During our visit a social worker arrives at the home with the family of one of the toddlers, staying at the home. Two of the care staff are standing anxiously in the nursery, quietly watching the proceedings through a doorway. They are torn understanding that today, may be the day the baby leaves.

“Don’t worry, she isn’t going anywhere, it’s just a visit,” Sally assures them and in an instant a wave of relief washes over the staff as they both let out a nervous giggle.

“It’s so easy to get attached to the children here, we’re not supposed to have favorites, but everybody has their somebody and it’s hard to watch them leave,” Sally admits.

Sally Duigan and members of the happy family. Photo by Sally Duigan.

Each child that comes through the gates of HFC is guaranteed two things, regardless of how they arrive or where they come from, they will be loved and well taken care of.

Over a third (38%) of the children at the center are HIV positive, and many others are battling other illnesses.  One of these children is *Adam Nala. Adam has a heavy seriousness about him. When we meet him, he is sitting alone in the dining room. He had not eaten earlier, but was now feeling hungry. One of the home mothers was preparing a meal for him.

Photographer Thom Pierce walks ahead of me, while I pause to speak to Adam. His tiny forearms are covered in mosquito bites and he is sitting up straight at the table, quietly waiting for a meal. I ask him if he is okay, he nods silently. I try another question to draw him out, eventually I ask him about the R1 coin he is playing with in his hand.

“Is that yours?”, I enquire. He opens his hand to show me “Yes,” he says. I pat Adam on the back and leave the dining hall.

“Sometimes we will give the kids some pocket money, but the trick is that we have to give them each a R5, so everyone has the same thing. Yesterday Adam did not get a coin and he screamed all the way to school, he was quite upset. So, when I saw him this morning I slipped him the R1 coin,” smiles Sally.

Some of the children that find themselves at the care center have been victims of abuse. “It breaks my heart to read some of these files, some of these kids have suffered from a young age and they’ve experienced so much trauma,” says Sally.

It is due to this knowledge that the staff takes extra care when it comes to attending to the children. “Each of these kids have their thing, so when they cry about something, we are very wary to not just look past that, but rather respond in a way that considers the past  experiences of the child,” Sally explains.

Not always keen to speak about herself, Sally speaks passionately and easily when she explains why she chose to be at HFC.  “Since I was a child I’ve always had a desire to help kids who didn’t have the same background as me.” It is this desire that pushes Sally to ensure that every child that comes through the centre has a fair chance, at starting afresh, at being part of a whole, and being loved. “The one thing they really need is love and care, and you can’t buy that,” says Sally.

Despite the challenges that the centre faces when it comes to placing undocumented children, or having to welcome extra children, Sally has high hopes for all these children. “I can’t even begin to talk about them, they are creative, resilient, tough, survivors in spite of everything they’ve been through,” she says.

However, the world may change, the children at the center all have a chance at a normal life. There is routine, there is school, there is homework time, there is TV time and above all, there is companionship for every single child.  Behind the gates of the center these children are loved, they are fussed over and they are made to feel part of a family. There are no days off in this kind of work.

“I hope the children will always remember this place as a kind place,” says Sally.

And just like that, she is off on the rounds again – she stops at a homework class to marvel at the kids in their new winter pajamas. The excited kids are all trying to sit up a little taller to show off their new pajamas to Sally. She takes a good look around the whole classroom, and gives a satisfied nod at the group, before she waves goodbye.

“No tears, everybody got a pair and they all fit, that went quite well,” she says grinning.

*Name changed to protect the identity of the child.

  • Foot soldiers of the health system: It’s election time which means men and women in party regalia take to the streets, podiums, loudhailers and stadiums. Invariably they tell people about all the good and wonderful things they have done or plan to do in the health system. SECTION27’s Nomatter Ndebele and photojournalist Thom Pierce travelled the roads of South Africa in search of the foot soldiers of the health system, the men and women who quietly get on with doing the job and saving lives, often without any acknowledgement.