Melanie Verwoerd: Things are tough for all of us this Christmas but I can never forget the heartbreak of children in South Africa

Melanie Verwoerd

WALKING through Dublin in December I always enjoy seeing all the excitement and hope in children's faces. Whether they are queuing to see Santa or they have their hands and noses pressed against a Christmas shop window, their eyes glow with festive expectation. I think we all agree that Christmas should be a wonderful time to be a child.


But as I walk around, wrapped up warmly against the cold, it's impossible for me not to think of how different this time of year is for so many children who need our help, not only here in Ireland, but also abroad.

I will always remember something I saw a few years ago in South Africa. A charity started to put Christmas trees in shopping malls, so that children from the townships could put their Christmas wishes under the tree. Looking through the various wishes broke my heart because there were preciously few wishes where the child wanted something for themselves. It was always for someone else: 'Please make my daddy healthy again -- he is very sick' or 'Please give some food for our family for Christmas day'.

I will be spending the week before Christmas in Swaziland working with children who have very little. Swaziland has one of the highest rates of orphans due to HIV deaths in the world, and let me assure you that nothing can ever prepare you for seeing a toddler waddling on his own over the fields of Africa as I did last year.

This little three-year-old boy, called Sisekelo, was one of the growing number of Aids orphans in Africa. Both his parents had died and he and his two siblings were now taken care of by the nine-year-old brother.

He was so cold, that as I cuddled him, he shivered. Behind me was a tree where about 30 little toddlers were all waiting patiently and quietly. They were all orphans, but they knew that if they could get to that tree every day there would be some hot food for them. That would often be the only meal they would get for the day.


So, every day these little ones make their way to this specific tree to get something to eat and if there is time, and enough hands, they might get a hug as well.

And these little ones are why I think it is so important to keep on giving even in difficult times. Because, in Swaziland, and all over Africa, there are hundreds of trees like these.

Worldwide, there are tens of thousands of children who will not get a Christmas gift and will have nothing to eat or someone to give them a little hug.

Of course things are very difficult for many people here in Ireland. But perhaps this year more people can consider buying gifts or cards that can also help children like Sisekelo. For example, for €15 you can give someone an Inspired Gift through and in the process donate 1,000 pencils to a school. Or €56 can buy therapeutic food for 50 starving children. A great result and to be honest I am sure that many people would appreciate that more than yet another pair of socks or a silly jumper.

And for the little ones like Sisekelo, it might just give a little more meaning to the words "Merry Christmas".

Melanie Verwoerd is UNICEF Ireland Executive Director. Shop, donate or get involved at