May 28, 2008

“Uzihambela wedwa!”

One thing I didn’t know a lot about before my arrival in Mthatha was child development and all those milestones infants and toddlers pass as they grow. But in Itipini, I am constantly surrounded by young children, ranging from newborns to almost ready for first grade and it’s been neat to watch these children grow up.

At first, I wasn’t even aware that I was watching them change. I was just sort of vaguely aware that a child who used to be easy to pick up now strained my back when I lifted her onto my shoulders or a child who used to sit on the floor in the clinic now spent his visits crawling wildly all over the place. Now that I am consciously aware of what’s going on, I’ve been watching for it. It’s fun to watch a child take some of its first tottering steps or see a young girl come to pre-school for the first time or marvel at how tall some children seem now.

And it goes without saying that if I share a moment like this with the child’s mother, it binds the relationship between me and the mother that much tighter. It is amazing how touched a mother will be when I notice that their baby is now walking all on his own. (That’s where the title for this post comes from - it’s Xhosa for “he’s walking by himself!”) About two months ago, I took a young woman (age 15) to the hospital after her water broke. Maybe by the time I ever get around to leaving Mthatha, that child will be walking.

(There’s the converse, too, namely that children who should be passing milestones are not and I’m trying to stay aware of those unchanging children too.)

On the list of things I hoped to learn when I came to South Africa, more about child development was not one of them. But now that I’m here, I’m grateful for it and it’s only because I’ve made a long-term commitment to this place.