Three members of a Columbia Falls family recently returned from a 10-day trip to South Africa that, while it included a fun-filled safari trip, also included delivering much-needed supplies to an orphanage surrounded by extreme poverty and hardship.
Liz Gedlaman and children Matthew, 14, and Hannah, 12, left for South Africa on Nov. 15 and spent Thanksgiving Day overseas. The trip revealed to them the beauty of the natural world and the depths of humanity.
The orphanage was located in Alexandra, one of the poorest black townships in South Africa. Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Alexandra’s 70,000 people are squeezed into one square mile with mostly no electricity or running water.
“It sits on a mud hill, and people live in tin-roofed huts where the walls don’t go down to the floor and rats run through the walls,” Liz said. “There’s no sanitation other than some Porta-Potties and a faucet on the street corner with running water.”
“As we were driving out of the township, there were both children and goats running down the side of the road, and the kids were all excited about seeing white people,” Hannah said.
Evidence of a huge income gap was evident — not far away in Johannesburg, Liz saw some of the finest automobiles she’d ever seen.
“The gap between the rich and poor could be the worst in the world,” she said.
Liz said she tried to explain things to Matthew and Hannah before they left Columbia Falls to prepare them for the extreme poverty and crime.
“It’s important that they know there’s more to the world than what’s here — they get all excited just to ride an escalator,” she said. “It made our Thanksgiving a whole lot different, to know all the things we have to be thankful for.”
Liz said it wasn’t unusual to see children raising other children. One 12-year-old boy was raising his siblings after both parents died of AIDS.
“There’s so many homeless kids,” she said. “They don’t have something like the ‘American dream.’ For many, there’s no way to go to school and get a better life. Many who go to school still never make enough to get ahead.”
About 120 orphans, from toddlers to teenagers, come to Portia Mongake’s modest home for breakfast and twice that number in the afternoon after school. They call her Mama Portia.
“Serving the kids at the orphanage opened my eyes to how much we really have,” Matthew said. “They’re so grateful for what we would turn up our noses at.”
“There were kids my age who didn’t go home to eat lunch. They took their bowls to Mama Portia’s,” Hannah said. “We had a camera, and they all wanted their picture taken.”
The trip left an impression on Hannah and Matthew.
“It’s different because when we’re complaining about going to school, they can’t go at all unless their parents can afford to buy a uniform,” Hannah said. “It may have taken a long time to get there, but it really was a great experience, and I’m glad we got to go.”
Local contributors of money, toothbrushes, washcloths, towels, combs and other supplies included Julie Plevel, Kitty Curtis, Andy and Mary Ellen Getts, Family Dental Center, Alpine Family Medicine, North Valley Hospital, Ruder Elementary School, Peg Wiebelhaus, Peggy Spencer, TD Zeiler, Trish and Olaf Ervin, Julie Mason, Grace Gedlaman, Skip and Kari Zeiler, and Carol and Norriss Webb.