Thursday, December 3, 2015

South Africa (2005)

Ten years ago, in 2005, I began work as a volunteer in the small rural village of Pharare in the northern Limpopo Province of South Africa.

I was initially tasked with setting up a hospice care unit in an old disused and dilapidated farmstead. When I arrived though, it turned out to be even worse than I had been expecting. The farm was overgrown with trees and thorn bushes, and infested with the most deadly of snakes imaginable - black mambas and spitting cobras to name but a few. As an example, on the first day there while meeting and greeting with some local volunteers, a snake squirmed out of a gap in the ceiling of the farmhouse and fell to the floor at our feet! It was quickly dispatched, but I'm sure my reaction must have caused great amusement to the locals, who are undoubtedly well used to seeing such things.

I was delighted with the challenge facing me, and within days of arriving, we had begun drawing up plans for our project.

On the advice of the Health Ministry and the South African Hospice Association (HPCA) though, we agreed to alter our initial plan of an in-patient Hospice Unit and to establish a Palliative Care training centre on the site, where local volunteers and medical professionals would receive expert training in pain management and the care of terminally ill patients, similar to the model in Hospice Uganda, where I had worked with Dr Anne Merriman as a volunteer many years before.

In the meantime, our team of volunteers introduced me to the local healthcare facility and orphanage, run by a fantastic team of Sisters from South Africa and Australia and we offered to assist them in any way we could.

We began preparing the farm for planting, and our first crops of spinach, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and peppers all flourished in the rich soil and were donated to the Orphanage and Clinic.

We were asked if we would be willing to transport HIV sufferers from all the outlying areas into the Clinic twice a week for their treatment, and then home again. I was delighted with the opportunity to help, and the work gave me a wonderful insight into the lives of the people in the region - for the most part, farming country people, many of whom lived in isolation, high up in the Drakensberg Mountains. They were all such beautiful people though, and despite the language barrier, we had some great times as we drove across unmarked grasslands and down eroded dirt tracks and dry river beds, me trying to keep the vehicle on track, while they chattered and laughed - at my expense no doubt, oblivious to my inexperience at driving in such terrain.

As an example of the cases we met, one of our ‘clients’, Jonathan, was suffering from a serious skin condition, and was covered from the top of his head to the soles of his feet with weeping festering sores. Jonathan had been virtually spurned by his family and neighbours who feared that they too might catch the infection. He was a pitiful sight, and since he was unable to properly wash himself, the smell from his lonely cabin was overpowering. However, we knew we would have to get him to the Clinic for treatment somehow if he was to have any sort of quality of life
On our first day to visit Jonathan, I had brought some cigarettes for him, and we sat for a while chatting as he savoured his fag, before dressing him and preparing him for the journey. Because even the soles of his feet were covered in sores, I had to physically carry him to the car for the long journey down from the mountain. Jonathan, a man in his late thirties, was so overjoyed with the company - and the fags - that he sobbed all the way to the Clinic that first morning. Within the space of a few weeks his sores had begun to heal and he could walk to the car unaided and you can just imagine the joy this brought to us as care-givers. He was well educated and highly knowledgeable on the affairs of his country, and we soon became very good friends.

Another lady, Miriam (you can see her photos attached) had been living in an isolated patch of land with her three orphaned grandchildren. They were attacked one night by a gang of robbers, and left for dead, so Miriam decided it would be safer to move closer to the village, where she erected a small shelter of plastic sheeting for her family.
Our volunteers brought me to meet Miriam, and with the support of nursing students and lecturers in Dundalk Institute of Technology, we agreed to try to provide Miriam with a more secure home. The local Village Chief gave us a small plot of land, and we drew up the plans for a small house. With the skills of my two friends and fellow volunteers, Sam and Munyai, we began digging the foundations and mixing the cement to manufacture the bricks for the house. Miriam and her eldest granddaughter, now in her teens, worked alongside us, digging and mixing as good as any qualified builder. One of the nursing students, Michael Rooney, who had been a plasterer in a previous life, travelled especially from Ireland to assist in the work, and before long the house was ready for the family to move in.
That evening, the whole village turned out to welcome Miriam and her family with a huge shindig that went on into the early hours, with traditional costumes and dancing, and music and story-telling.

In the meantime, our plans for the Hospice Training Centre were moving along nicely, and the HPCA sent staff and volunteers from Johannesburg ( a round journey of over 600km) to address a meeting of our volunteers at the farm on the importance of palliative care, and to provide early training for the community.

The meeting was a huge success, but while all our local volunteers were enthusiastic and highly motivated, all was not as it seemed!

For some unknown reason, the committee in Dundalk who oversaw the project, instead of taking the advice of the experts in HPCA and the Health Ministry - and the wisdom of local volunteers - decided that they wanted to do it their way or not at all. In other words, they wanted to set up an in-patient Hospice Care Unit, and rejected our proposal for a training unit for palliative care-givers.
Rather than compromise, they eventually pulled funding altogether, and although I was a volunteer I was sacked. Disillusioned but not disheartened, I had to return to Ireland.

Before I left to return home, parties were held for me in all the local villages, with children and adults performing traditional dance and music - the South Africans are as good as the Irish at partying, although to my disappointment there was no alcohol to be seen.

I’ve maintained my contact with the Clinic and with some of the volunteers over the years, and in 2006 I raised money for the construction of a drop-in centre for the disabled in Pharare village, which is still running to this day.

Sadly, too many overseas agencies and individuals come up with their own plans on how to ‘Save’ Africa. With their plans already made, they start throwing money at a problem that possibly doesn’t even exist, without first and foremost seeking the advice of the local community as to what their needs are.

Below are some of the photographs I took during my stay in South Africa. I’ve tried to group them, in no particular order, under various categories as follows:
*         *       Birds (I’ve tried to identify each bird species as best I could. But since I am no expert, I trust you will forgive any mistakes or errors I've made.

·       *   Wildlife (in Black& White and Colour)

·        *    Snakes and reptiles.

·        *    The development of The Farm, and our attempts to establish a Palliative Care training facility there.

·         *   My friends in Pharare village. Many of the children will have grown into adults by now and have their own young families.

·         *   The construction of a home for an elderly lady caring for her three orphaned teenage grandchildren.

·         *   The children, staff and volunteers at Holy Family Orphanage and Clinic.

·         *   The families of my special friends, Sam and Munyai (you’ll notice the beautiful small baby in some of the photos who has now grown into a young teenager).

·        *    Climbing in the Drakensberg Mountains.

*  Students and teaching staff from the School of Nursing at Dundalk Institute of Technology.