A Canadian philanthropist's bold bid to give orphans a life
A once-deserted town in Swaziland bubbles with promise, thanks to a Canadian charity
By Rosie DiManno
July 17, 2010 / thestar.com
BULEMBU, SWAZILAND—This is a boom town. Its precious resource is not gold or oil or diamonds — it’s children, nuggets of hope.
A future is being mined here for hundreds of orphans in an AIDS-ravaged kingdom that is rapidly running out of parents, a third of the country’s youngsters left without mother or father.
But not alone, not abandoned and not forsaken, at least not in this place; a Noah’s Ark for boys and girls, babies to teenagers, and an audacious experiment in salvation driven by a publicity-shy Canadian philanthropist.
Amidst mountain folds lushly carpeted with timber, in a former company town that went bust a decade ago — houses deserted as nearly 10,000 residents bolted when their asbestos mining employer closed up shop — a faith-based charity has resurrected life by building an orphan-focused community out of the wreckage.
On a mist-swathed morning, the kids emerge from those houses — now gaily repainted by student volunteers — dressed neatly in navy uniforms, backpacks slung across their shoulders, chattering as they wind their way down to the refurbished school in the valley, and watched over by surrogate-mommies trained in child-rearing.
There may be no bonds of blood, except for sibling orphans, but these are families. The kids live not in an orphanage but in neat home clusters, usually eight per household headed by caregiver-cum-moms, some with children of their own: 275 youngsters in 40 orphan-care houses assured that all their needs will be met until they reach adulthood, even through the cost of a university education. The goal is 2,000 orphans by the year 2020 — a drop in the proverbial bucket but something real, with substance, and quite palpably achievable.
The kids are not being adopted out; they are staying in for the duration, with no further disruption to their lives.
“These are children who were abandoned, orphaned, destitute,” says director of operations James Woller, a Kansan-born American who lived in Vancouver for years before moving permanently to Bulembu. “We are providing them with the care and the opportunities they deserve. We’re committed to shaping the future leaders of Swaziland.”
Bulembu is leased in the very long term from King Mswati III, his approval for the project crucial for its third millennium transformation.
Bulembu is a private town born of public misery, a visionary response to the decimation wrought by the AIDS virus. Swaziland has the world’s highest levels of HIV and AIDS, with 40 per cent of the citizenry infected — 220,000 out of a population of 1.1 million, 57 per cent of them women. Even in small villages, it is not uncommon for five people to die from AIDS-related illnesses every week.
Life expectancy has plummeted to 36 years for men and 39 years for women. Sixty-five per cent of the population is under the age of 21 and at least 65,000 children have been orphaned. Households are headed by kids who’ve dropped out of school to look after younger siblings.
Grandparents are overwhelmed. Poverty runs so deep — Swaziland ranked 146 out of 177 countries on the UN Human Development Index, two-thirds of the populace living on $1 (U.S.) a day — the customary practice of extended families taking guardianship of orphaned children has been rent asunder. Volker Wagner became involved with Swaziland through his humanitarian assistance to a charity eye clinic. The German-born entrepreneur is CEO of British Columbia-based Teldon Media Group, a printing and marketing business with annual revenues of $60 million. In the early 80s, with his company in soft receivership, a distraught Wagner had what he’s wryly described as a “burning bush experience,” where he heard a message from God to do good. The business survived and thrived and Wagner became active in Christian social entrepreneurship.
In 2001, while visiting the Swazi eye clinic he was helping to fund through family money, Wagner heard of a remote ghost town abandoned by Havelock Mines, at its peak the fifth-largest chrysotile (asbestos) mine in the world. He bought it, establishing as proprietor the not-for-profit Bulembu Foundation that runs Bulembu Ministries, with a board of directors — including Swazis — which he chairs.
Here, Wagner believed, he could construct a mini paradise, a promised land founded on Christian principles, for children robbed of their mothers and fathers, stripped of parental love, care and support, youngsters who were reeling from the psychological blow of AIDS in a nation on the verge of annihilation because of the virus. Stephen Lewis, the ex-UN envoy for AIDS in Africa, had grimly predicted that, if something wasn’t done to stem the tide of AIDS in this country, Swazi people would become extinct by 2050.
So Wagner did something unprecedented. Imagining a sustainable commercial enterprise that could support quality education, health services and orphan care, he breathed life back into Bulembu, using his own money and donations obtained from Canadian corporations, large and small. An initial $1.5 million contribution from the Jim Pattison Foundation went toward establishing water, sewage and electricity infrastructure.
As part of the 3,500 square acre town’s conversion, 400 of 1,200 houses that had fallen into disrepair were renovated, bit by bit, over the past 21/2 years. New businesses were established as impetus for the town’s baseline economy: A timber mill (Bulembu’s main source of income), a water-bottling plant (the tale of Bulembu written on the inside of the label), Bulembu Dairy (30 cows to start), Bulembu Bakery, a 24-hour medical clinic (7,000 patient visits last year), a refurbished tourist lodge, and a honey-making facility established next to the disused wheelhouse of what was once the longest — 20 kilometre — cableway on the planet. Six hundred jobs have been created in the process.
They’ve done this all at an exceptionally minimal cost of $9 million, deliberately avoiding the involvement of other non-governmental organizations, and with minimal funding from donor countries — though CIDA has just provided a grant for the reconstruction of a dilapidated building into a vocational training and conference centre. Construction on this facility and several others is proceeding apace, the bustle of building non-stop, with ambitious plans quickly transformed into reality: more facilities, another school, a restaurant, maybe even reopening the old movie house.
“What we’re creating here is a community that is economically, environmentally and socially viable,” explains Woller. “The model is essential. We want to be unique, to be an organization where the community we’re helping can be sustainable and one day no longer need Western charitable assistance.
“I know of no other place in the world where this kind of project is being attempted.”
At its heart, though, Bulembu’s very reason for existence anew, is the children.
“Any child they bring us, we take in,” says Woller of the welfare agencies and police departments that deliver human strays to Bulembu. “We can only take children who have the proper paperwork, confirmation from the government that they are orphans with no family members who can take care of them.”
Swaziland has strict laws about adoption, with none allowed to child-seekers from outside the country. Angelina Jolie need not apply. Many of the youngsters have been turned over by village elders; some have been found by police and wardens abandoned as infants in the bush. Some are HIV-positive and receive their antiretrovirals from the clinic.
“The idea is long-term care,” says Vernon Puttkammer, director of orphan care for Bulembu. “The littlest ones are looked after in our crèche (daycare centre). The older ones are educated from elementary school straight up and on to university if they want.
“I hear from many people who would like to adopt the children but that is not allowed, except for a few who are adopted by Swazi parents. Legally, these children belong to the government.”
At the moment, Puttkammer is a bit distracted. He’s awaiting the imminent arrival of another child, found by police officers only a few kilometres away. “We don’t always know their background. If they’re not orphans, it’s usually that their mothers are no longer capable of looking after them. She might be sick from AIDS, she might be disabled, she might be too poor.”
After medical examination and some gentle information-gathering from the child — those old enough to speak of their family background — newcomers spend six months in close care at the intake facility, bunk beds and stuffed animals assigned, their integration monitored by social workers.
“Most have come from traumatized circumstances,” says Puttkammer. “They’ve already been tossed around families. They’re scared and unsure of what’s happening.”
At the end of six months, if no relative has come forward to claim them, they’re placed in one of the 40 orphan houses. “The move here is away from institutionalizing these children. We try to give them a home-setting, with a mother and six-to-eight other children living in the house. That may sound like a lot of kids, but it’s normal size for a Swazi family.”
The “mothers” have been carefully screened and hired from across the country, receiving instruction in child-care before being deployed to the orphan houses.
“Our biggest challenge is finding women who have the mother heart,” says Puttkammer. “There are so few jobs in this country and ladies are desperate for work but that’s not good enough. Our women are trained to high standards — including medical training and HIV/AIDS training and nutrition instruction — with an understanding of raising kids in God’s way, which may be quite different from the way they know. In their villages, because of hardship or their view of children, there may have been no culture of actually taking time to play with kids. Here, they must play with the children. They must make sure the children do their homework and go to church. The youngest ones must be walked to school and back.” There is no corporal punishment either.
The women, paid about $100 (U.S.) a month to start, work three-week shifts and take one week off, with rotating “aunties” taking over the households. Children, meanwhile, learn from the get-go about hygiene, keeping their clothes folded, their toys put away after use. For many, raised in squalor, they arrive with no idea about cleanliness, dirt-borne germs and polluted water sources the main cause of frequent cholera outbreaks in Swaziland.
Puttkammer recalls one occasion when he directed a group of kids to clean the mess they’d created around their house. When he returned an hour later, he found the children had pulled up the lawn. “In their villages, that’s what ‘cleaning up’ meant, removing grass and shrubs from the homestead so snakes couldn’t hide there.”
At the welcome centre, a new building opened in March, a young brother and sister are being coaxed out of their shyness and wary silence. Bella is 13 and Bekure is 10. They arrived only the night before.
“Our father died,” whispers Bella, putting an arm around her brother.
Rose Langa, the cook and general mother substitute at the centre, describes how the two recoiled when she served them plates of pasta. “They’d never seen spaghetti before. They wouldn’t eat it.”
Both children had been agog at hot and cold water coming out of the taps. There were no such amenities in their home village. Then Bekure ran away in terror when shown how to flush a toilet.
Yet only a day later, they are sitting on the floor, playing cards with a counsellor.
“At this age, they will never forget their past,” says the counsellor, Kuyisile Maseko, 24. “We don’t push them to talk about it. Most adjust to being here quite quickly. They like having their own beds and toys and other children to play with. They enjoy going to school. But sometimes, months later, they start to cry and mourn for their parents.”
Over at one of the orphan houses, a mother has just hung out the laundry and is preparing snacks for the children who will soon be home from school — another recently reconstructed facility with room for 400 students (another being built), only 10 kids to a class compared with a 60-students-per-teacher ratio at other Swazi public schools.
“I’m very happy here,” says Freda Kunene, a 52-year-old widow. “Not only because I love looking after the children but also because it’s such a good place for my own two youngest children. There’s so much more for them to do than in our own village. And all the children call me mother.”
Tacked to the kitchen wall is a list of house rules. They include: “We must love one another” and “we always report anyone who mistreats us to mother or auntie” and “we stand up to welcome visitors.”
At the house next door, Neobile Lolo, 23, explains that she once was an orphan herself. “I know how these children feel, their loneliness, how afraid they are when they come here. I try to make them feel safe again. Some of them have never known a life without fear.
“It is my mission also to teach them how to know God.”
Bulembu Ministries is, by definition, a Christian organization, though non-denominational. There are 10 churches in the small town and Christian values imbue every facet of life. While the children attend Bible classes and a Christian academy that otherwise follows the Cambridge curriculum, Woller insists there’s no proselytizing at odds with the indigenous Swazi culture. This is a country where 90 per cent of the population is Christian, if grafted upon traditional beliefs. But he makes no apology for a holistic faith-based approach in Bulembu’s revival.
“Faith is why we do what we do. It’s the core driving element and that’s reflected in what we’re trying to build — the teaching, the training, the personal development. But there’s no proselytizing. When the children get older, they can choose whether they want to be Christians. It’s not something we would ever force on anybody.”
About 40 people in Bulembu work directly for the Ministries. The businesses opened are secular — one needn’t be Christian or practicing any religion to open up a store.
Indeed, the only genuine operational creed in Bulembu is sustainability. The Ministry will reject funding of any proposal if the schematics look unlikely to cover costs in short order, with all profits going back into the community. They’re not dreamy-eyed about the ventures they undertake.
“Historically, Africa has been all about foreign powers extracting local resources, taking and giving nothing back,” says Woller. “This is as far away from that concept as it’s possible to get.
“The children we’re raising will have a chance to make positive contributions when they grow up, to give back to their country, which is Swaziland.”