Tuesday 11 October 2016
My first morning of volunteering at Operation Bobbi Bear was spent with centre founder Jackie Branfield who introduced me to organisation manager Eureka as well as a number of the staff including Queenie* – an inspirational woman who was helped by Jackie as a child and now works at the centre despite being the sole breadwinner among her siblings. Jackie also ran me through the Edu-Toy program she created in order to teach local children about how HIV/AIDs operates within the body, how it is spread and what can be done to treat and contain it. The interactive presentation also works to uncover children who may be already be living with the disease and those suffering sexual abuse at home. (For more on Edu-Toy, read: The devastating link between HIV/AIDs, child sexual abuse and women’s rights in South Africa). The afternoon was spent with child safety officer (CSO) Sarah* at a local police station where we cleaned the cabin used as a place of comfort and safety for the children who are taken there for interview. Sarah explained to me that once an incidence of abuse or rape is reported, the police will usually contact Bobbi Bear who help to interview the child using the Bobbi Bear teddy bear – asking children to describe what has happened to them by drawing and sticking plasters on the toy.
Wednesday 12 October 2016
On my second day of volunteering at Bobbi Bear I was introduced to my first case involving a young girl of 14 named Lindsey* who has been beaten by her mother and raped by her father for the past eight years. I and Bobbi Bear CSO’s Francis* and Theresa* accompanied Lindsey to a local hospital where we waited for her arm to be x-rayed and for her to be seen by a social worker. Despite her age Lindsey clung to us like a girl of eight or ten and was virtually silent throughout the visit. She was, however, clearly a bright and thoughtful child and was able to laugh at the little jokes we cracked in an effort to cheer her. After a lot of moving from one department to the next and waiting on less than comfortable chairs (not unlike those found in hospitals in the UK) we discovered, thankfully, that Lindsey’s arm was not broken. Unfortunately we had run out of time to see the social workers and so we planned to come back tomorrow.
Thursday 13 October 2016
I returned to the local hospital with Francis and Theresa to check Lindsey into the child protection unit where she would be seen by a social worker. Theresa, who Lindsey is currently staying with, explained to me that Lindsey is frightened and reluctant to open a case against her parents as she fears the consequences for herself and her siblings. Theresa explained that unless Lindsey does open a case, there was little either she or the authorities could do from this point. After being seen by the social worker we discovered that Lindsey has been known to the social worker for some time and was aware that Lindsey’s father had been raping her, or at least aware of the reports. However, as is apparently typical, if one of the two parents is considered to be supportive then the child is usually left in situ. Now that the mother has begun beating Lindsey though, Theresa explained that the social worker would have to open a case whether Lindsey wants to or not. We were sent to the gynaecology department for Lindsey to be examined and treated. Results were inconclusive and so she will be seen again tomorrow. In the evening I watched ‘Rough Aunties’, an incredibly powerful documentary about the founding mothers of Bobbi Bear. Made in 2008 by British filmmaker Kim Longinotto, it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009.
Friday 14 October 2016
The Bobbi Bear team kindly made provisions for two of my friends to visit the centre today and we headed first to the Illovo Tree Women’s Clinic. The tree is in many ways the foundation stone of Bobbi Bear; established in the early 1990’s by Bobbi Bear founder Jacquie Branfield it was designed as a meeting place for local women who were suffering the consequences of poverty and disease, in particular HIV/AIDs. According to Jackie, at that time HIV/AIDs was considered a women’s disease in Africa and many women who fell ill found themselves ostracised by their communities. From her experience with the women attending this clinic Jackie extended her work to include child protection. Poor weather meant the clinic was not very well attended, however the extra man power my friends provided was not wasted and we were put to work making sandwiches for the children’s tree clinic on Saturday. We also spent time playing with Joe*, a child of two currently being cared for by one of the Bobbi Bear aunties as his alcoholic parents are unable to do so. Once again, as both parents are alive and not beating or sexually abusing Joe, the state will not typically step in and so it is again left to these tenacious women to help this malnourished and neglected child struggling with fetal alcohol syndrome. I also learned that Lindsey had been placed in a safe house while a more permanent home is found.
Saturday 15 October 2016
This morning I headed to the weekly Saturday Children’s Tree Clinic with Jackie and Bobbi Bear Aunties Sweetie and Sdudla. After two weeks of poor behaviour from the children Jackie was keen to crack the whip and get them back in shape. Their good behaviour as well as the almost effortless flow of the first aid, playtime, lunchtime and toy giving underlined how important structure is to manage sometimes up to 200 children. For Jackie it is most important that the children be allowed to choose their toys themselves. “It’s a small thing but these kids don’t get to make choices in their lives,” she tells me. After the clinic Jackie and I returned to the centre where she de-briefed a new group of volunteers, one a trained nurse who was very gratefully received. They explained to me the challenges of getting the right medications for the mothers and children. Of particular use is Bactroban, an antibiotic ointment that prevents bacteria from growing on the skin. Sadly, however Jackie and Eureka explained that Bactroban is no longer available in South Africa. For the HIV positive mothers, they also explained that one of the biggest challenges is holding on to their antiretroviral (ARV) medication, particularly Stocrin. Apparently, women are often robbed as soon as they leave their clinics by junkies who use the ARVs to make a popular local drug known as ‘Woonga’; a heroin based concoction that is said to be mixed with ARVs.
*Real names and ages are concealed to protect children and staff.
For the opportunity to support Operation Bobbi Bear and volunteer with them in 2017