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.

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.

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."

These days, Mathe and Lesand meet almost daily at the library, Mathe is now the librarian. Lesand is, quite possibly, the township's most enthusiastic card-carrying toy-library member.

"Today, I would like to borrow ..." The little girl clasps her hands behind her tattered red wool sweater, squints as she assesses her choices and leans in, conspiratorial-like, toward Mathe, "a puzzle!" An excellent choice, replies the librarian.

"Kids need stimulation. But many kids are so disadvantaged that they have nothing before setting foot in grade school. The vast majority don't go to preschool. The playgrounds are abysmal," says Cynthia Morrison, president of South Africa's toy library association, noting that problems such as poor language and social skills start with a paucity of early stimulation.

Most toy libraries here are government-private partnerships. In the case of the Alexandra library, the British construction company Turner & Townsend and a local nonprofit group help buy new toys and coordinate secondhand donations. Ms. Morrison serves as a mentor to many of the new librarians and helps, organizing toy library conferences and seminars, and helping to secure funding for new projects. "I have been hijacked by toy libraries," she jokes, "because I have seen what they can do."

Lesand and Mathe choose a puzzle of two children on a unicycle. They count out the 100 pastel-colored pieces together, to make sure they are all there. In fact, there are only 96 original pieces, but Mathe has made four duplicate pieces from cardboard – a regular procedure here.

What started as a volunteer job is now a full-time job for Mathe as the chief toy librarian. Her work involves everything from patching up dolls' eyes to disinfecting building blocks to tracking down overdue xylophones. Her $233-a-month salary goes toward her bus fare, her daughter's school fees, and food. Mathe also gives money to her mother and her jailed brother's family – and, if she can, puts a few coins away for a rainy day. She was diagnosed as HIV positive.

"Now I am even more grateful I found this work," she says. "Otherwise, I might have died cleaning convention centers."

Borrowers pay yearly membership fees of 16 cents, and are each allowed two toys for two weeks. Lesand's second choice today is a children's book. Her grandfather at home can't read to her as he is illiterate, but, a top English student herself, she can slowly make out the words. And she likes the pictures. The book is "Sarah and the Circus," and, according to the inscription on the first page, it was custom made, once upon a time, for a little girl named Sarah, in Chicago, on her fifth birthday.

Who knows how, exactly, it made its way to the shelves here. Maybe it was given to a charity. Maybe it was left behind on a family safari to Africa. Lesand doesn't mind or care. For these two weeks, it's hers. She meticulously signs her name on the library card, clasps her puzzle, gives a pleased Mathe a hug, and skips out to play.

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

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