Earlier this year, I journeyed to Swaziland, Africa with 15 men and women to spend a week with more than 200 children at a care point that provides kids a safe haven to play and the guarantee of at least one meal every day. Our goal was to ensure these children knew there were people who care about them and want them to thrive, especially as they come out of one of the worst droughts in a century.
Swaziland is one of the five poorest countries in the world and boasts one of the highest percentages of HIV/AIDS, with many cases going undiagnosed. Because of this, the mortality rate is much higher than most countries and children are often raised by grandparents, uncles, and aunts or neighbors when parents pass away.
Cibiso, 21, had been going to the care point since 2001 and was in his final year of high school. He always excelled in school but had to take a few years off, because his parents couldn’t afford to send him. He often gets discouraged because he is one of the oldest boys at the care point, as friends his age have either graduated high school or have written off the care point as a place for little kids.
The first day at the care point, a few of the men from my team and I sat down with the high school boys and talked a little bit about our journey to be men of character and some of the struggles we’ve faced along the way. After the discussion, Cibiso came up to me and asked some pointed questions about my journey.
I have never wondered where my next meal would come from, or whether I would be able to attend school. I have always had access to health care and never needed to walk more than a mile to get anywhere. Nevertheless, Cibiso asked me if I could write him a note about the hardships I’ve gone through, as he would be able to understand it easier and I obliged.
That evening, I wrote him about a page and a half about my struggles, especially after losing my dad about ten years ago. I didn’t put much thought into my note, besides an underlying message that life gets tough sometimes, but being able to see the beauty in where I’ve come from, and the hope of where I am going has helped me get through any situation.
The next day, Cibiso melted my heart. He unexpectedly wrote me a four-page note of his story. It made my page and a half seem insignificant. He told me his challenges growing up and how he was picked on because his family was so impoverished. Over the next few days, Cibiso and I continued our conversation, building upon our letters to one another. I watched in awe as Cibiso poured love into the younger boys and served as a shining example of what a man should be. He told me his desire was for “wisdom to understand and eyes to see so that [he] could function effectively in the ages to come.”
Later that week, I showed the letter to one of the team leaders in Swaziland. She told me that, in her dozen or so years in the country, she had never seen a boy be as thoughtful as Cibiso was to write a letter. She assured me that she would keep an eye on him. She would also try and get him a place in an academy for high school graduates with whom they were a partner. So that Cibiso can continue to develop as a leader and continue to have a place to pour into youth to inspire them to be men of character.
As I said my goodbyes at the care point, saying farewell to Cibiso was the hardest. I don’t think he realized the impact he had. I wanted to demonstrate what it meant to be a man of character, yet he showed me how to love deeper than what I’m used to. I can only pray that I was able to give him at least hope for a bright tomorrow. As I pulled him in for a hug, I thanked him for sharing his story with me and told him he is loved.
I don’t know if I’ll see Cibiso again, but in one week he taught me how to love deeply and unconditionally. He taught me that money couldn’t buy love. He taught me that sometimes being a teacher means becoming the student.