16 Days: A brother to some, a father to many

2007-12-12 00:00

I would like to write about our friend Philippe Denis, who lives down the street. Often on a Sunday afternoon, his five-year-old grandaughter Nomfundo will come over to play with my son Tinashe, who is about the same age. Denis is the father and legal guardian of seven children and two grandchildren — a family bonded together by choice, in love.

As a Dominican religious brother who had occasion to come to South Africa from Belgium almost 20 years ago, Denis’s intention was to stay for two months. At that time, South Africa was in a state of emergency, violence was tearing people’s lives apart in KwaZulu-Natal, and Denis’s plans evolved and changed as he, like so many others, responded to the crises around him.

While teaching at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, he was approached by Renate Cochrane and a loose group of individuals who were concerned with children who had been abandoned at Edendale hospital during the violence (the group became Thandanani). Would he organise students from St Joseph’s to visit the children? His response was “I’m interested — what can I do?”. He organised, raised funds, and soon became chairperson and de facto director for Thandanani for 10 years.

Many abandoned children were adopted through Thandanani, but some were not. One such little boy was very sick, perhaps was going to die, and Denis thought “let me spend more time with him”. The child survived and Denis later found a placement for him in an SOS children’s village in Pietermaritzburg, and visited often. At nine or 10, this little boy said, “I want to be adopted. Can you adopt me?” Denis wanted to. In his heart, he was the father, but being a religious brother made it difficult to reconcile the two roles. After much internal struggle, he decided he would take the steps to see if this could be done. He asked permission from the Dominicans, the Social Welfare Department and village father of SOS. It was agreed that he could raise children while remaining a member of the Dominican Order. A house and furniture were bought. A trust was created to manage the property and funds. Denis is a professor of Religious History at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and his income is apportioned to both the Order and the trust for the support of the children.

Denis comes from a family where children are valued — as a child, there was always that awareness of being valued. He has one sister and four brothers — some of whom have established careers working with children, and two have adopted children. In his family, and in the religious community he comes from in Belgium — which was a wonderful environment that included families, women and children — he was always very close to children, a sort of “super-uncle”, telling stories, taking them out and going on holiday. And from a young age, he was exposed to suffering children, those who were neglected, orphaned, or abused. Without training or the kinds of psychological and social information that has been researched and known today, Denis worked with these children in crisis. It affected his whole life.

As part of his love and understanding of children and their suffering in South Africa, Denis began to develop an idea to help vulnerable children to make “memory boxes”; special boxes in which photos, letters and other items are collected and placed, so that children whose parents are dying or have died, can know and remember their families, where they come from, and that they belong. This has become the Memory Box Programme, housed within the School of Religion and Theology at UKZN, and is a model taught all over the world to help children deal with grief and loss.

Denis describes himself “… as one of those people who cannot exist, cannot be, if there are no children”. He sees children as being like the water drawn from a well in the middle of a desert. They give life. They are a treasure, and a window into life. “For adults to be involved with children, it enriches you, it is an adventure. To listen to a child and their world is like a journey.”

Campaign: How many good men are out there?Contrary to the many articles we read in newspapers that tell of all the horrors of gender-based violence in this province and this country, there are in fact many men who are not abusers. Far from it.

This year, during the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, we want to hear some positive stories for a change. To make this happen, a partnership of organisations put together a competition inviting stories fitting this theme. The Witness is running the best 16 stories submitted — one for each of the 16 days of the campaign, which ran from November 25 to December 10. Of these finalists, two will each win a special prize — a weekend away with their partner. The prize-giving ceremony will take place today at 9 am in Ixopo. The organisers thank Fern Hill Hotel and Pricewaterhouse Coopers for sponsoring weekends away for the two winning stories.

• Issued by a partnership of ecumenical organisations working on gender issues in KwaZulu-Natal: the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness; the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, Pietermaritzburg; the KwaZulu Regional Christian Council, Eshowe; and the Thukela Amajuba Mzinyathi Christian Council, Ladysmith.

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