Tall and lanky, Sister Dain Inglis seems unfazed by the dry spring heat which has pushed the thermometer to well above 30 deg C today. A warm wind blows across the bush, stirring up a thin curtain of dust.
High-pitched chatter from small, exuberant voices is the only sound that the breaks the silence. Minutes later, Inglis takes her seat among the sources of the chatter. Several toddlers, dressed in brightly coloured aprons, have gathered around plastic tables and chairs to enjoy a lunch of pap and chicken.
One of the little girls slides onto Inglis’ lap and the nun tickles her tummy. Both burst into exuberant laughter, the little one throwing her head back, her eyes and mouth wide open as she lets out a high-pitched shriek of delight.
Later Inglis settles into a chair in the convent’s living room. ‘We always knew about the difficult problem of HIV and AIDS and we wanted to do something, but we weren’t sure what,’ recalls Inglis.
A paediatrician at Letaba Hospital shared with the nuns her ‘dream’ of a place where she could discharge the very sick and orphaned children, knowing they would be cared for.
‘The doctor knew that often she was sending these children home to villages to die. She desperately wanted a place where they could be cared for, where someone could check their medication. Many of them were also shockingly malnourished,’ explains Inglis, her face framed by shoulder length blonde hair, with a sprinkling of grey.
Inglis knew about the Holy Family mission which had been lying underutilised for 12 years and she made enquiries. The church ‘very willingly’ allowed the nuns to use the building and in May 2002 Holy Family Centre was started with five children from Letaba Hospital.
In the early years, the centre also became a place of safety and rest for terminally ill mothers who had been rejected by their families.
In the first two years, 45 mother and many children died. Three years ago the church also introduced antiretrovirals and today the centre hosts weekly ARV clinics for those living in surrounding rural villages.
‘ARVs made an enormous difference and our children are no longer dying. We’ve had one death this year,’ Inglis grins. ‘Before this we would have between seven and eight in a year.’
Finding Holy Family would be impossible unless you travel with someone who knows their way around. A single dirt road sandwiched between massive mango groves leads to the isolated buildings in the shadows of the mountains.
From caring for five children (three died) the centre now cares for almost 80 children and would have more if they had the space.
Many of the children living at Holy Family arrived with their mothers who have since died. ‘We have no cut-off age when the children have to leave us. They go to the local primary school and the older children go to the boarding school. We try to offer them further training and assist them to acquire the skills whether they want to become policemen or nurses.’
Inglis also doesn’t believe in splitting families and the centre often ends up taking an entire family of orphans.
‘I do feel that things are getting worse and worse. The need is getting so much bigger and we now have many babies, one month, two month, three months old. It’s definitely changed the dynamic here. We can no longer put the children in a crÃ¨che or school. The babies need constant and special care. It’s a big commitment to take these tiny babies,’ says Inglis.
‘At the moment we are bursting at the seams. We have very little space left and I’ve just heard of a family of five orphans. But we will find a way somehow to assist them,’ she sighs.
‘For us it is very important that the children first try and remain within their (extended) family, but that’s not always an option. Holy Family can never replace a family, but it can replace a bad family.’
Asked what would be on her wish list to allow her to help more children, Inglis doesn’t miss a beat. ‘It’s easy. We need more sleeping accommodation, which of course would mean more personnel. But we really need to build more sleeping space which would include bathrooms.’
Did Inglis ever foresee this need? She shakes her head: ‘We probably thought we could cope with 35 children when we started. We can’t just take children, children, children. We need to be sure we can give them adequate personal care. We need to be sure we know each child individually.
‘They all have special needs. We have one child with cerebral palsy, three deaf children, a blind child and another with a withered arm. Many need psychological counseling. They have experienced terrible trauma and bereavement,’ says Inglis, before almost interrupting herself. ‘But they are incredibly, wonderful, resilient children.’
Does she at times feel depressed when she realises the huge need? ‘It is very difficult, but how can you find it depressing when you are surrounded by children who are so full of fun? Our project is about living and fun, not dying. I have never had a day of depression here, these children are so life-giving.’
* The day after the interview, Inglis, her fellow nuns, the priest and the children had to battle a massive bushfire which threatened to engulf their sanctuary. After fighting huge flames throughout the night, the wind died down in the early morning and the fire, which was metres away, was brought under control by the exhausted nuns, workers, the older children and nearby farmers.
* Anyone wishing to contact Holy Family can call Sister Sally or Sister Christine on 015-3074233.