By Ericka Bennett
Squatter Camp – Manzini, Swaziland
It was less than a mile outside the city, but the moment I stepped into the squatter camp I felt a world away from anything civilized. The stench of human waste and rotting garbage was inescapable; I began to think wed arrived at the city dump. This could not be a place where people lived! A few steps farther and dilapidated structures surrounded me, made from mud and sticks, or remnants of tin, plastic, or cardboard they barely resembled what I would call a building. “The tool sheds back home are more stable!” I thought to myself as we continued through camp, searching for the “River of Life” school.
Where could a “River of Life be” in this place? As my group continued through camp, I couldnt help but wonder. “Life” was not a word that came to mind as I looked around at a place so devoid of beauty. I was overwhelmed at the poverty surrounding me. Approximately 46% of the people in Swaziland are infected with AIDS, and I was in the midst of the poorest and most desperate among them. “Death,” “hopelessness,” and “despair” these were the words I was contemplating…
And then I met her.
She was teaching the children with purpose and passion when we walked into the room. Instantly, I sensed they both loved and respected her. It wasnt long until I understood why.
Her name is Gugu, and she started the River of Life School. Full of childlike faith and infectious laughter, she easily captivates everyone around her. She loves to tell stories, especially about how God is at work in the children at school. Her eyes sparkle when she talks, but behind them lie wisdom that easily surpasses her age and schooling. Her passion is contagious; her attitude inspiring. Life surrounds her.
It was never Gugus intention to start a school, only a Bible Club, which she began in 1999. Then, in 2003, she made a horrific discovery. “When we began,” she said, “they were doing sexual abuse among them. Then I asked them, ‘Why?! How could we stop this?’ They said, ‘We are at home we are not at school so we even do it during the daytime.’ So I asked them, ‘If I start a school, will you stop this?’ And they said, ‘Yes,’ so I started a school.”
In a place of death, hopelessness, and despair, Gugu sought to give hope. She made it her mission to give the children around her a future, and she set to work. In a country with no government funding for education, schooling is impossible for children in poverty. School fees usually cost around $175 US dollars about 1,225 South African Rand. Gugus River of Life School, however, doesnt even require one Rand.
“There are no fees,” Gugu told me. “At first, I asked them for just 10 Rand. Only 10 Rand (approximately $1.30 US dollars)… but they couldnt even raise 10 Rand. Then I decided, ‘I’m not going to quit because of that, as long as the children are raised up in a way that tomorrow, they could be somebody.'”
And so, she didn’t quit. Starting with 103 students in one room, she began to teach. They didnt have desks at first, so the children used a door laid across some bricks. Because of their troubled home lives, she dealt with violence among the children in the beginning but since has taught them commitment and discipline. “This is a deal between me and the children,” said Gugu. “They want to come. I have no problems with them now. Before, they were like animals fighting and all those things but now, those things have stopped. They want to come. Even in the rain and the cold they will come. Now I know if I die, commitment has been taught into their lives.”
Commitment has definitely been taught into their lives, along with Life Skills, English, Math, SiSwati (the language of Swaziland), Social Science, and Religious Studies. Of the first 103 students, more than 20 have g one on to attend schools in the city because they learned their basics at River of Life. Of the 22 current students there, the older class (10 to 16 years old) stood and shared their testimony with us. We heard again and again, “When I came here, I couldnt read or even write my name. Now I can read books, and write, and learn. And now I can read my Bible… and now I am a Child of God.”
These were the words of the students we met at River of Life. These were the words that told us what theyd learned, but they were the same words that taught me something extraordinary. Gugus school doesnt stop at the basics. Its so much more than any curriculum; it is a place where these forgotten children learn respect, kindness, and compassion. It is a place where they find life, hope, and a future. It is a place where they see the love of God. In the midst of the death that surrounds them, it is their River of Life.
As we walked back through the refuse and out of the squatter camp, I took one last look around. I was still in a horrific place poverty-stricken and crumbling around the poor souls living there. In my las t glance, I still knew this was a place of much death, hopelessness, and despair.
But today, I had learned something astounding at Gugus school. Today, I learned that our God brings life where there is death, hope in the midst of hopelessness, joy in despair, and beauty in the most unexpected places.
“Our God is alive and able to do immeasurable things!”
If you liked this article, check out: Help! Half Our People Are Dying
Ericka Bennett, a graduate from Auburn University, is from Alabama and recently moved to Georgia to work with Adventures in Missions after the orphans in Africa broke her heart. If you want to learn more about how you can help Gugu’s school, contact Ericka via email – erickabennett(at)adventures.org.