Friday, July 13, 2012

Paul Simon & Memories Of Africa.

Last evening I went to a concert with John.  I think I can say it was the best concert I have ever been to. It was Paul Simon's Graceland tour.  I didn't realise before the show that Ladyship Black Mambaso would be joining him.  When he announced them I have never before seen such a spontaneous and prolonged standing ovation.  Over the next hour or so I was transported back to the heady days of the late 1980s and early 90s and the dying days of apartheid, African unrest and suffering, Cry Freedom, Something Inside So Strong, and  my own first hand eye-witness experience of human injustice and cruelty.  And in the midst of all that, the greatness of the human spirit, kindness, empathy and a giving of self for the sake of the other. 

Yet again I shed a few tears as I was flooded with memories of one incredible summer I spent in Africa so very long ago.


I took part in a medical/social work-camp in Africa as part of a Catholic youth initiative with a group of University students and young professionals having spent the previous year preparing and fundraising for the trip.  We were joined by a similar group of African girls and who had also been preparing. I am not going to mention which African country it was, this incident is still raw there even though over two decades have passed.

The photographs and (most of) the words I'll use are directly from my scrapbook of that summer.  Sadly most of my photographs depicting the work we did with children and mothers there were on slides and have been lost as a result of being loaned to a friend of a friend of a friend.  Maybe some day they'll be located.


After a very long delay en route via London, we arrived in Africa in the middle of the night, exhausted, to an all but deserted airport, and an equally deserted luggage carousel...not one piece of our luggage had arrived!!
Leaving some of our African hosts to sort out that pickle, we exited the air-conditioned terminal we each of us were struck with a surge of panic as we walked into the wall of intense heat and 100% humidity!

A night's sleep in the University Residence which was to be our home for the trip.

It wasn't until next morning we got our first glimpse of Africa.

And the clinic we were going to be helping out in...where curiosity gathered momentum...

...and led to a crowd, and a sing-song.

The clinic was the only maternity-care, infant health facility in the shanty-town with a population of 700,000-1,000,000 people.  It was owned and run by a lady who had been a nurse and had seen too many young women die for want of basic maternity care.  She had been from a wealthy family and used her means to build the clinic and moved to live there among the people she served. An African Mother Teresa of sorts.  She trained girls as nurses, including her daughter and the rest of her family were also involved in the clinic. She was joined most summers by international groups such as ours who helped improve conditions for those mothers and their precious babies.

Mrs M's pride and joy, though, was her nursery school, funded by American 'business wives', the early key to escaping poverty. She served a hot meal each day to her little wards.

What we thought was to be the first of many visits...
Here the children are singing a song to Jesus to the tune of  N'Kosi Sikeleli.

We soon became accustomed to the unusual pace (and cheerfulness) of African life:

And the multiple waits while Vita fixed the car again...and again...and again...

But things didn't all go as planned.  What was initially believed to be a rumour turned out to be true.  The shanty town which had now practically extended to the wealthy part of the city and an uncomfortable eyesore for the residents there was to be 'evacuated' (read evicted) and bulldozed by the then military governor.  And we had THREE DAYS to get out!!!

This was in spite of the fact that Mrs M had legal ownership of her clinic, her home and her nursery school.

This was exactly same date as today...13th July. Total co-incidence I've been reminded of it today.

We did our best to help salvage whatever was removable of the newly extended clinic, with it's new water pump, recently installed by our Canadian counterparts. But time was short, and young mothers were still due to deliver...

Here is the last patient...

...and her sweet baby boy...made homeless the day he was born...

Aged 10 minutes.

Meanwhile the villagers remove roofs, furniture and scanty belongings and stand and watch as their homes are flattened by government bulldozers, over seen by armed military. Amazingly, some members of the military...past pupils of her little nursery school...came to assist Mrs M in her evacuation.  The residents who had legal right to their land lodged a court appeal to stall the process, it was assigned to a judge whose next sitting would be a week later...far too late.

The devastation was complete...

Up to one million people made homeless in one foul swoop.

Here is the 'alternative accommodation'...unfinished, miles outside the city where most of the people worled as maids, groundsmen and so on, and enough for only 200 small families...

The weekend that followed the eviction we stayed in the city helping Mrs M move into a new premises, loaned to her by a friend who was living away from the country.  It had been lying disused and was in need of a total scrubbing and disinfectant.

Patients weren't long in arriving...the first baby born in a makeshift labour ward...a bathroom..

A new hope.

Mrs M wasn't to be defeated.  Plans immediately got under way to build a new clinic on the land she was given in 'compensation' for her loss.  I actually accompanied her while she negotiated the location and size of the plot...I hope I have her steadfastness some day.

We went to the garden centre to buy mango and banana plants to mark out the plot.  Then more plant them and name each tree after one of  us.

Next Stop: The Rainforest.

Left jobless in the city, we moved north to a village in the bush to join a project already under way.

Where we gave classes in basic hygiene, nutrition, and even a demonstration of cooking with highly nutricious soya-beans which grow very well in that climate. 

We were given a challenging build a one room house in one of the satellite villages which could be used as a medical/educational base.  Time week!!!


Some village life...


On the last day the village children said goodbye to us in the Conference Centre with traditional 
dance and song..

And we dwelt on the happy times...

As we said goodbye to Africa...

This is only the tiniest snippet and just a few of the amazing pictures of that trip. I hadn't looked at these photos in years.  It was an incredible experience. It opened my eyes to the world, it even gave me malaria, but most of all it touched my heart.  We met incredible people, who smiled through everything.  It struck me then just how little complaining I heard that summer compared to the first world problems we whine about all the time.
Those African people ROCK!!

Get up, brush down, laugh, and see what we can do next.  It's making me think again today as I've scanned these photos, and heard some expletives from myself as the internet connection went down a few times, my first world problem.  Tomorrow, I'm going to try to at least complain less.


  1. I too have been to Africa in the late 80's, though not as a father was working there at the time.....I was in Accra the capital city of Ghana.....we were treated like royalty and had no wants or needs. But my eyes were opened to what little the people had and how they smiled....ALL THE TIME. The children were only adorable and my Dad was one of the first white people they had ever seen and at mass one day a little boy aged about 3 came over and touched Dad's arm rubbing it to see what his skin felt like. Dad was so touched. He had a profound experience there and so did we....we were even at an African Tribal Chief's daughter's wedding...full Ashanti Tribal clothing and hierarchy were to be seen.....Africa is simply an amazing and incredible place to colourful and cheerful..

  2. Amazing. The experience, the pictures, the hope in spite of the cruel realities of the world. Thanks fo sharing!

    1. The human spirit never ceases to amaze me!!

  3. Thank you so much for this beautiful post!


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