Posted by: howvoicebegan | 21/10/2011

Celebrating Koketso: Part 1

On July 4, 2010, I met her– a quiet addition to my life in the orphanage.

It was the day I moved to South Africa, and when my brother and I arrived at the orphanage, I could hear the children chanting inside: “Leslie! Leslie! Leslie!” Suddenly the door burst open and the faces of several children I knew and loved greeted me. I noticed another girl joining the crowd who likely had no idea who I was but still followed along with the cheer. That was her sister.

The girl in the background, watching the entrance scene, was Koketso.

I asked her name and age, which was all I could muster. I’m a shy person, even to children, so it was as far as I could carry small talk. I knew nothing about her, but I knew that in due time some sort of relationship would develop, as always happens with the children.

Koketso and I never exchanged much conversation. Being that we are both naturally introverted and have attention demands from the younger children, I never knew much of what to say to her. But, every time I smiled at her, she would chuckle a little. She would often be asked why she was laughing at me, but I knew it wasn’t a laugh at me– it was something special shared between two shy people.

Koketso's beaded bracelet

Two months after my move, my brother handed me a gift from her that she was, understandably to me, too shy to give me herself. It was a handmade beaded bracelet that she had done herself. Koketso had become an avid beader when the doctors said she could not attend school. She beaded away with her only working hand, as her right side was paralyzed.

She also gave me her jeans that I had to wear one time due to a torrential rain I was caught in. They were much too big for me, but she felt I could more use out of the too-big pants than she could. Though I’ll never fit into them, I still keep them.

Most of my moments with her reside in the hours spent at my house. I took the kids swimming and on outings in a variety of groupings. When she went, she was the silent addition in the room; she was always watching our interactions, rarely participating, but I understood. That’s how I am, too. There were the girls’ sleepovers and pillow fights (she can hit hard!). There was chocolate eating and cooking pap. When she tried to clean the pot of pap, she broke off the handle. Every time I use that pot I think of her surprised face when the handle popped right off.

After many, many months of in-between-moments of exchanges, we bonded over a shared secret. For months we talked of it; it was like its sole purpose was to help us bond for the fate ahead. In August 2011 we found out her tumor was growing and beyond doctoral intervention. The girl who came running to greet me was now in a wheelchair. But she could still chuckle when I smiled at her.

The children picked up on it and began telling her story, in pieces, to me. Some of them knew her from a previous children’s home. They told me about her excellence in swimming. They told me that many boys liked her, yet she was always pure. One of them said she was their best friend. The stories they told me were like she was some other person, someone they were fond of but existed only in their memories. To them, her present state is even more difficult to deal with, for they knew her before any affliction.

Just before I visited the States in June this year, Refilwe thanked me in front of everyone for visiting her in the hospital when her arm was broken.  Hilda and I showed up faithfully every day to comfort her. I knew that one day I would be visiting another sick child in the hospital, but I envisioned temporary visits.

Now once again, Hilda and I find ourselves in daily hospital visits. But this time we aren’t watching a child who is recovering to health. We aren’t waiting for the doctor’s approval to take the child home. We are preparing ourselves for life without Koketso, and we are preparing her for her new Home. A year of knowing her has become the past as we look on to celebrate her life.

These days, Koketso cannot swallow or cough. She has lost all mobility. Her head is swelling as the tumor and the now defunct shunt close of fluid drainage in her brain. She does not request food or water. She cannot make clear communication.

But she still chuckles when I smile at her.

Koketso and Me, October 18, 2011



  1. So fascinating that both of us interacted with her in such different ways . . . she was anything but quiet with me from the first day I met her in August 2010. Hearing today of her death was difficult — while I am celebrating that she will no longer feel the pain of the tumor, it is as if I’ve lost a child. Koketso was very special to me in many ways. My students know about her. Her pictures are in my classroom and home. My family talks of her with me as if they actually met her, too. And I miss her. Bless you, Leslie, for caring for her and being there for her. We’ve prayed as much for you and her caretakers in the past couple of months as we have for Koketso. And we will continue to pray for you.

    • Thank you, Laura, for all of your support. It has been very helpful to the grieving process to know that others are alongside us and are praying for us. We will remember you, too, as we grieve and pray.

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