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In South African slums, lives lifted by a chance to play

The nation's 140 toy libraries are also a key development tool for children.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 20, 2007

Alexandra, South Africa

There are no Barbie dolls here. No plastic fire engines. No LEGO sets. In this township racked by AIDS deaths and crushing poverty, buying your kid a toy is not a priority – not even at Christmas.

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In shack after musty, dark shack, one finds almost nothing – a jar of peanut butter here, a chipped crockery set there. Kids sit around listlessly watching music videos.

But 8-year-old Lesand Lengwati now has a haven. On the second floor of the Alexandra community center, squashed between the food pantry and the HIV testing clinic, is a small room lined with shelves of mostly secondhand toys.

Lesand's mother died of AIDS. Her father was shot by the police. But one day, her grandmother, who works as a maid, took Lesand to the center for bread. And that's when the child discovered a place that would change her life: The toy library.

There are toy libraries in cities around the world, set up to serve the poor. In South Africa, there are 140 and counting. The government partially funds them, and sees toys as critical to the development of children, indeed, the health of its society.

"Many children in our country ... have never enjoyed childhood; instead, they have taken on the responsibilities of adults and ... they are often left vulnerable, becoming early victims to crime and drugs. Toy libraries can serve as an antidote to many of these social problems and play can help in the healing process," said Ngw Botha, deputy minister of arts And culture, in an October speech.

In Alexandra, the five-year-old toy library is not just transforming lives of its 149 members, but also the librarians who work here.

Like Lesand, Precious Mathe serendipitously stumbled upon the toy library. Two years ago, while taking her daughter Mpho to visit an aunt in Alexandra, Ms. Mathe came to the local clinic to take an HIV test.

The week before she first saw the library, Mathe's church pastor had preached: "If there is something you want in life, you must go out and find it.' She remembers those words well, because it was what made her walk in that day and inquire about volunteering. "[As a child,] I had no toys at home. We were poor and my father stayed with another woman and had other children," she says.

"I used to pray that someone would take me to McDonald's and I could get one of those little plastic rhinos that came with the food. I think," adds Mathe in a whisper, "that my life would have been different if I had had toys."

She is a shy woman, and whispers a lot. When she was younger, Mathe dreamed of becoming a social worker or a nurse. She didn't know anyone who did those sorts of things, but she would see the girls in white and blue dresses from the ancillary healthcare course at the mall, where she worked as a cashier at a fast-food fried-chicken stall. "One day I had to confront [my fears] and ask them about the course because I was so interested," she says. She took a second job folding laundry, so she could enroll in a caregivers course. She never got her certificate because she could only afford the first semester. Instead, she got a new job cleaning convention centers. But she still dreamed of doing something, as she says, "more special."

How to Help

Cash donations:

Active Learning Libraries

First National Bank, Parktown (Branch Code 250-455)

Account number 62049098024

Parktown, South Africa

Toys donations:

ALL-SA, Postnet Suite 217, Private Bag x30500, Houghton, 2041 South Africa