“Malume, uzoza nge-Christmas (Uncle, will you come on Christmas)?” These are the words that greet Sicelo Mbonani, 28, every time he visits the various orphanages with which he works. It is the children’s look of joy and excitement about Christmas that pushes him to organise an unforgettable Christmas event every year.
The boisterous noise of children talking and laughing welcomes us to Thoko Nhlapo’s home in Tsakane in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng. It is a three-bedroom house that became an orphanage in 2008. Today, the home bears the name Lord is My Provider.
“I wanted to give differently. I grew up in a poor family, so I have been at the receiving end all the time,” Mbonani says; a steady drizzle patters on the corrugated iron roof.
He runs a campaign called Dress an Orphan this Christmas, where a number of orphans living in Gauteng’s East Rand receive new clothes from sponsors. He also brings the orphans together at a central venue for a Christmas Day celebration.
Mbonani lost his mother when he was 18, and as a result he went to stay with his grandmother. He says his mother’s friend, Yvonne Modise, promised to help him out with school-related needs.
“She called me and followed up with me. She started taking care of me after [my mother’s funeral].”
Mbonani says Modise’s generous gesture propelled him to help other orphans. “When I started this work, I remembered the experience, and I wanted to create more mom Yvonnes for all the orphans we can locate in South Africa.”
Today he is the founder of The Orphan Organisation Trust. In 2014 when he started the campaign of giving out new clothes to orphans, he did not have sufficient resources. “In that year I remember I didn’t have money to donate to even one kid. I created a poster, told my friends and we started with this orphanage [Lord is my Provider]. We only had one orphanage at that time.”
On that Christmas 37 orphans received new outfits. The project later expanded to dressing 67 in 2015, and 157 in 2018.
Mbonani says he asked for new clothes because of what he had experienced when people were donating to him. He says he will be given things that were no longer in use because he was needy. “I knew that when I wanted to give I wanted to give in a dignified manner, so that the person who is receiving gets more encouragement to be something tomorrow, and ultimately be someone who can be liberated.”
Sponsors receive forms with detailed information about a given child. It includes the age, size and gender. The clothes are later wrapped in gift bags and given to the children a few days before Christmas.
Although receiving brand new clothes changed the children’s experience of the festive season, Mbonani realised that there was something missing.
“Three years ago, I visited them on Christmas just to see how they lived. But at one time I got to one of the orphanages, I found them cooking soup in a big pot. Even if they were dressing nice, they still did not have the full experience of Christmas.”
People traditionally spend Christmas with their families and Mbonani says that that tradition has left orphanages sad and lonely. It pushed him to throw a Christmas party for the orphans. “I started giving my own money to the Christmas party. We bring them together on a central venue. They play games, have food and drinks.”
“We found out that it makes them happier, most of them don’t even go out. On that day they play with other kids and integrate,” he says.
It brings change
“I love Christmas! It brings families together,” says Sizwe Skhosana, 18, who lives at Lord is my Provider. He says that he received “nice clothes” from the organisation.
Affectionately called “Malume [uncle] Sicelo” by the orphans benefitting from his Christmas campaign, Mbonani says the project has effectively changed the lives of orphans. He says it gives them a sense of hope and the idea that they are loved and cared for. “Since the campaign has started, they will call me and say ‘I want this and that’,” he says. “This shows that this has inspired them to be something and long for more new things in their hands.”
He adds that each year they look forward to Christmas.“[When they ask me if I am coming for Christmas] that to me tells me a lot about how this has been engraved in their minds that somebody out there will make sure that they have a Christmas. So it has sort of become a huge responsibility.”
It is not only the children who have been affected. The sponsors have also expressed how giving has changed them, explains Mbonani. “They always go back home saying ‘Sicelo that is life-changing, and very impactful.’”
Makhosonke Mabena, 31, started sponsoring the campaign four years ago.“I like giving back especially to kids. When orphans feel left out, that kills their confidence. For me it was about being there for them,” he says.
Mabena adds that he compiles short videos and photographs, and shares them with others as an indication of what kind of change they can bring if they donate.
“The confidence when they’re wearing new clothes on Christmas day is so amazing,” Mabena adds.
This year, the Christmas party will be held at a recreational park, in Springs, Gauteng.