Helping Our Children Starts With Listening To Them

I am the proud biological mother of five children. But over the past 10 years, I have been additionally blessed to become 'mother' to hundreds of children in need in Soweto, South Africa.

Anyone who is a mother, or a child for that matter, knows motherhood is a 24-hour job.

As I type this note from New York City, where I'm currently on a human rights fellowship, dozens of my 850 children back home are texting me on WhatsApp, around the clock. In fact, my children don't just type me messages. They say, "I want to hear your voice, Mum. Send me an audio, please." They want to hear my voice because they know it's a voice that will always say, "I'm here for you." They know my voice is one that says, "I miss you, but I've come to the U.S. for you. I am here to speak for you."

I'm a mother, and I'm here to say that our leaders need to listen to the voices of children. Policies need to be changed to address their needs. Specifically, in South Africa, these needs often emerge from the consequences of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has struck our country. Latest UNAIDS estimates suggest that 5.6 million South Africans are living with HIV, including 460,000 children under 15 years old. HIV/AIDS is so much more than a medical issue, although death and illness will cripple families and orphan children. Additionally, the disease inflicts emotional and psycho-social consequences that continue to complicate the lives of children long after their parents have passed away.

But let me tell you, as much as motherhood is a blessing, motherhood also hurts. I am raising children who I never knew in their infanthood, and I now need to stoop low and listen to them. Many have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS, and they pose questions to me that I cannot answer like, "Where was God?" "Where is God now?" Many come to me having no hope, and some of them will tell me, "Don't believe in me, because I've always disappointed everyone." But, in fact, we must believe in them, and we must keep telling them that over and over again until the child believes in himself or herself. They ask me, "Why do you love me? No one has ever cared about me." When they say that, I use myself as an example. I say there were times when I didn't believe in myself. Times when I thought I was not going to make it. After being an abused woman in both of my marriages, I thought I couldn't make it, but it took someone to stoop down and meet me at my level and pull me up -- that's why I'm here today, because someone believed in me. And that's what I'm here to do today -- to believe in these children.

Motherhood can also be hard because the children that you look after think that your world is perfect, that you don't have any challenges. But the thing is, my life is full of struggles. And you deal with these things privately, because you don't want everyone to know just how far you are going for them. Many people will say "Leave them, they don't appreciate you." But I stay with them. In their darkest hour, I do what any mother would do. I stick by them.

As a mother, your work isn't always about successes and celebrating them. You have to love people even when you see the dark side of their lives, and, in fact, that's when you can really love them, when you love their dark side.

And sometimes children force you to confront your darkest moments in ways that truly challenge. In July of 2010, one of my three biological sons committed suicide. There are no words to express my devastation. All the children I support knew about this tragedy and the darkness it cast on my life. Yet just six months after my own son committed suicide, one of my Ikangeng children tried to take his life. And, to be honest, I actually felt angry with him at first, because he knew how much pain I went through with my own son. How selfish of him, I thought, to inflict more pain on me.

But then I remembered, every child is their own person, with their own complications, and the job of a mother is a very impossible but very sacred one. It is my job, and I would like to suggest the job of each of us, to love them, to create a better world for them, no matter what. In fact, I believe I have no option but to do it. This is my calling. It is what my grandmother and my great grandmother would have done had they been confronted with such an issue. I don't think that, as Africans, as global citizens, we can fold our hands and wait for a miracle to happen. You and I must rise up to the occasion and be that miracle.

It's difficult being a mom, even for your own kids, one child or two. But it gets even more difficult when there's a whole village to look after -- kids who need our support. We may not always feel up to the challenge, we may come with our own complications, but we must be as prepared to learn from them as much as we hope they are prepared to learn from us. Raising children is like a two way street where no one street is the correct one. You just have to be embracing of their issues, of their challenges. There are mothers across Africa, across the world, who have the passion and the heart to do this, but not the resources. I am fighting to secure those resources for our children.