Come to help

Sebastian Puschner

Germans don’t know how to barbecue a sausage. Mpho Sengane is convinced of that. At home in South Africa they cut a drum lengthways in half, make a fire inside and lay a metal grate across the top. Then a Boerewors is barbecued; it is a beef and pork sausage, three centimetres in diameter, turned into a spiral and seasoned with thyme and nutmeg. “When my host family barbecued with me I could not believe how small the barbecue and the sausages were,” says Mpho.

Instead of Boerewors, Mpho now has green salad in front of him which he dishes into small bowls. Rather than at the children’s home near Johannesburg, where he grew up, Mpho now prepares meals for the pupils in the day care centre of the Karlsruhe Waldorf school. Previously he was the child who was looked after by German young people who went to South Africa as volunteers. “Why should it not work the other way round?” he asked himself when he finished school. It worked.

The Incoming Programme of the Friends of Waldorf Education makes it possible for a hundred people from abroad to come to Germany each year to do voluntary service. For the last six months Mpho has been one of them, helps the caretaker in the morning with cutting the hedges and at lunchtime sits down at table with twenty primary school pupils, takes the curly-haired girl on his left and the boy with freckles on his right by the hand: “Blessings on the meal” everyone says together. There are noodles with mushroom sauce and salad – everything vegetarian.

When Mpho was fifteen, his breaktime snack mostly consisted of a jam sandwich. He went to a private school, sponsors paid the fees. His fellow pupils had ham, tomatoes and salad leaves on their sandwiches, wore expensive clothes and possessed the latest mobile phones. In Mpho’s children’s home two hundred children needed looking after, there was not much left for any single one. That is why Mpho and his pals ran away every so often, only for a few days, to beg in the city centre.

“It’s simple. You stand at the traffic lights and the younger you are the more money they give you.” The nights were spent under bridges, glue helped against the cold. “You breathe in the fumes from a small plastic bag and stop feeling anything.” Including fear. Fear of “matanyola”. That is what they call it on the streets of South Africa when older boys force younger ones to have sex. Mpho was spared that. “I saw how friends had to do it,” he says.

There came a point when Mpho no longer wanted to sleep under bridges. He was good at school, had social workers who encouraged him. At seventeen he became the spokesman of the children in the home, at eighteen he became involved in a project which looked after HIV-positive orphans.

At twenty he applied for the Incoming Programme. When his acceptance came, he had to go to see his mother for the first time in six years. Birth certificate, passport – Mpho had never seen anything like that. His mother was supposed to confirm to the authorities that he existed. She refused. Finally the police forced her to come along.

When he held his passport in his hands he told his mother: “Do what you want, I have been going my own way for a long time.”

“Snap” in Karlsruhe

After homework the cards come out in the Waldorf day care centre: Mpho Sengane plays “Snap” with the children. The older pupils palaver in the smokers’ corner. Before the day care centre opens, he helps the caretaker each morning.

The Karlsruhe day care centre pays his health insurance and 150 euros pocket money. The day care centre also organised the host family where Mpho lives. It’s ten minutes by bike to their house. Three storeys, annex built of wood, red shutters. A Tibetan prayer flag hangs in the garden and two tin watering cans lie between vegetable beds. Mpho’s host mother is a childcare worker in the day care centre, the father is on the school board. Mpho meets his nine-year-old host brother and his seventeen-year-old host sister in the school playground. The oldest daughter is currently doing voluntary work in Argentina. “Why should we not enable Mpho to do what our daughter is doing in South America?” says the father.

When he googled Mpho’ name shortly before his arrival he could not find anything about his parents. “And then he stood before us and the first thing he asked was: what are the rules of the house?” The family was stumped for an answer. Suddenly Mpho was able to go out in the evenings, for as long as he wanted. He had a house key and his own room. “Before I slept with fifty others in a room,” he says. After a few weeks some “rules of the house” do emerge: asking before taking a bottle of wine to a neighbour’s party. And the thing with peeing. “We debated for a long time about who should tell Mpho that we do that here sitting down,” the father, on whom the choice finally fell, says laughing. That was something Mpho had to get used to just as much as the German barbecue sausages.

But he settled in so well that he decided to stay on in Germany for the time being. After his time in Karlsruhe he went to Welzheim to undertake further voluntary service in the Christopherus Life and Work Community. He has meanwhile started training as a care worker.

About the author: Sebastian Puschner wrote this text during his training at the German School of Journalism in Munich for the dummy of a youth magazine – minz* – thought up by students. Today he works as a business journalist with the weekly paper der Freitag.