- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

With her skirt flowing way past her knees, wearing open sandals and thick-rimmed glasses, Cobi de Bonte looks a bit out of place in South Africa. But that is a mirage.

“I feel a hundred percent at home here. Cape Town has become home, and these children have become my children,” she says. “Of course I miss my own children in Holland. But they are growing up, very healthy and doing well. Yes, my strong sense of belonging is here.”

A farmer’s daughter and nurse from the Netherlands, Ms. de Bonte left her country after her husband died in 2001. She says she felt an irresistible urge to help South African children left orphaned by AIDS.

At first, she worked with other aid groups, helping poor people, mainly women, to organize and survive domestic violence. She spent time with alcoholics, transporting the sick and dying to hospitals. And she started a school where children would receive a daily meal.

In 2007, her Ubuntu Foundation (www.stichtingubuntu. com/en.html) became eligible for official assistance.

Ms. de Bonte lives in a small one-bedroom house a few miles away from Barcelona, which is part of Guguleto, a shantytown where 400,000 people live under dire circumstances.

She drives into Barcelona every morning in her dilapidated truck, turning off the main road into the heart of the town, where about 6,000 families live. Along the dirt roads are small shops and stores, people doing laundry and children playing in mud puddles.

Up to 120 children a day get breakfast and go to school inside two large shipping containers. Ms. de Bonte pays for the meals, teacher’s salary, school and activity supplies, and transportation with donations and from her own money. Keeping things going is becoming increasingly difficult as she runs low on funds.

Always optimistic, however, she has started a theater class for the older children. They write and produce their own plays, telling audiences what life is like growing up in this part of the world: parents who have died, never enough to eat, the angst of growing up and becoming an adult in an increasingly difficult, hostile and problematic world. Somehow, hope exists in their writings and plays.

Ms. de Bonte holds classes for the younger students, providing them with pencils, brushes, paper and paint so they can draw whatever comes to their minds. It seems to heal and soothe the pain.

Nineteen boys at the schoolplay soccer, naming their team Barcelona — after their neighborhood, not the Spanish soccer giants. The boys do not always win, but they have fun, even without the proper uniforms or shoes.

Ms. de Bonte has applied for help from the South African government, which reserves a slim 79 percent of the country’s GDP for development aid. She has had no luck.

“The problems in this country are enormous, starting with the attitude of the men, and sometimes I wonder if and how long I can do what I do. For the time being we manage, but it is increasingly difficult,” she says, adding that she approached a few South African intellectuals and businessmen, who complain about the global financial crisis.

“I have no idea if the crisis affects my work or not,” she says, “Here at the bottom, we are not really aware of what is going on socially in other echelons of society. People here help whenever they can and with whatever means they have.”

At the last performance of the theater group a few weeks ago, people from other parts of town were in the audience, paying what they could afford for a ticket. People from around Barcelona sometimes paid with food, which the group used for the next morning’s breakfast.

Thirty percent of the people in Guguleto have HIV, and the unemployment rate is more than 60 percent. There is no running water, and taxis never come to take people to the hospital. Yet Ms. de Bonte says sheis overwhelmed with the kindness of the people she works with in spite of the problems different cultures bring.

She says she can’t provide a ready-made answer to the problem of AIDS orphans. The only way she knows she can make a difference by is doing what she thinks is best: helping her youngsters, giving them food, love and laughter.

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