At the beginning of every year, people arrive at the bishop's office asking when the bishop would be helping with school fees. Last year, I remember, due to the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC) meeting, we had to wait until the end of January to do it. People spent the night outside my office to make sure they'd be among those who would be supported.
This year was no exception. The difference, though, was in the way we did it. I decided to ask "Caritas Swaziland" to help me. Already in October we met and spoke about how we could make sure we would be helping those who need it most. Many people are in need as two thirds of the population is considered to be poor. We cannot help them all so it was important for us to discern "who first".
Unfortunately it would also mean that people would have to come twice: first to be interviewed by the "Caritas Swaziland" team and then again to receive some financial support.
|Caritas Swaziland interviewing people requesting financial support|
It was very demanding. We received 250 requests for help. We knew we would not be able to help them all. Caritas met and worked on the criteria to select some of them: double orphans, single orphans, people from rural areas, students from physically disabled parents and those who are chronically ill. Selection was not based on religion, gender, culture or race.
The final list included 150 children requesting a total of half a million Emalangeni (around US$ 45.000). All of them in High School.
We had around one third of that amount. The money comes from our own Lenten Appeal (a special contribution done by Catholics during Lent) and from other benefactors. In other words, we prepare this day during the whole year hoping to be able to support children in need to continue their studies. It is a huge effort for a Church that is only 5% of the population of the country.
Caritas Swaziland prepared a full report for me: name of the student, area, social situation, school, fees... I would decide how much would be given to each one.
The "tradition" is that fees are then given by the bishop himself. In other words, the bishop meets one by one. Being these days a bit tight with time and schools expecting to receive the fees as soon as possible, I took one day to see them all... one by one. From just after 8 in the morning until 7 in the evening. No break.
At the end of the day some things seemed to be clear (aside of the fact that I was tired!):
- all the requests were towards the payment of High School fees;
- High School fees are quite a challenge for families with many children,
- the financial situation is very challenges: no income or little income, high unemployment and the risk of losing their jobs,
- many of the children are single or double orphans in the care of relatives and guardians (who themselves have no or little income)
Though I was under pressure because I wanted to see them all and not make them come... for the third time!, I tried to take a minute to see the results they got last year. Every time I saw someone with an "A" in Mathematics and/or Science I encouraged him / her to keep it up as both Swaziland and South Africa struggls to find well prepared children in these fields.
One of the last ones had a report with many "A" and some "B". Nothing less than that. I was deeply grateful to God and to all those who made it possible for us to help her. Her mother died, her father is unemployed, they are many at home... but she has never given up. On the contrary she is giving the best of herself and is building a brighter future for her and her family.