She used to save a seat for me on the coach. Every day. She didn’t really speak very much, but every morning as I got on the coach, the big brown beautiful eyes would seek me out, and she would call me over, as she gently patted the seat for me to sit down. I had the window seat, and she sat on the aisle. A 13-year-old girl. An orphan. A child who had suffered things I couldn’t imagine, from a culture I couldn’t understand. Me – a London born middle class white adult of Irish heritage, volunteering in South Africa through The Winnie Mabaso Foundation. Her – a South African born black child whose heritage I didn’t know, except that she had been orphaned through AIDS, and she spoke a plethora of incredible languages that sang and were musical and expressive, but that I couldn’t interpret. A girl who had had her roots torn away, but had found them again thanks to the work of this most incredible charity*. A girl who had refound a home, and a family, but who carried things inside that no one would ever unlock.
She wouldn’t talk much on the coach journeys, she would laugh fondly at my attempts to learn some of her language, and my inability to remember the names of 23 girls I had just met. She would find me, my friend and our children with our different heights, weights, hair colours and eye colours impossible to differentiate, because we all ‘looked the same’. She would chat away to her sisters and her friends in Afrikaans and Xhosa, and laugh wickedly and heartily at in-jokes in the way that only young teenagers can. She would sing. She would sparkle and shine. And when things quietened down, and the hum of the bus unleashed its soporific magic, she would lean in…to me…to an adult she didn’t know, in a life where she had suffered loss, and experienced pain way beyond her years. I would tentatively put my arm around her and she would sleep. Sleep in a way that you only can when you feel safe. What a privilege it was.
By the end of the week, I had completely fallen in love with her, and all the other girls, but my coach partner held a special place in my heart. I wanted to convey that to her somehow, but we didn’t really chat very much. I wanted to show her, but a gift would have been inappropriate. As I watched my own children delight and fight over the 2p lollipops that they had brought with them from the UK, I thought that was it. Just a simple gesture – the gift of a lollipop. Something with no monetary value, but a little sugary delight, something to experience for herself whilst we had our last coach cuddle.
As with every other day, she eagerly called me over, patted the seat, and I snuck in. As the bus started moving and the others were distracted, I handed her the lolly, and just said ‘Thank you. For you’ and kissed her gently on the forehead. She beamed, and unwrapped it, and then made the most extraordinary effort to yank the entire lolly from the stick in one go. Slightly peculiar, I thought, but I tried not to obviously observe her actions. She wouldn’t suck it, or enjoy it, she was just determined to wrench it from its stick. She eventually managed with quite some tugging. The whole sugar ball bulging in her cheek, her eyes bright with accomplishment.
Next she manoeuvred the large sweet in her mouth, and crunched down hard. Whilst my own teeth were wincing at the spectacle, she spat out 2 perfect lollipop halves into her hand. She got up from her seat, walked up the bus until she found her sister, and gave her half. She then came back to me, popped half in her own mouth, and snuggled in to sleep.
The unquestionable first thing on her mind upon being given the smallest thing? – to share. There is a word in the Zulu language ‘ubuntu’ which translates as ‘I am because we are’. This philosophy transcends international and temporal boundaries with humanity at it’s core. As Charlotte Bronte put it, ‘happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste’.
I think this lollipop had the best taste in the world.
to the lollipop sisters for the inspiration. If you would like to find out more about the charity that supports these amazing girls, please visit www.winniemabaso.org