It all started with a small advert in a travel magazine, and it seemed in no time at all I was heading for Missionvale, Port Elizabeth, South Africa
The journey to SA got off to a bad start, my flight from Manchester was delayed by almost 3 hours and I arrived at Gatwick with 15 minutes to check in before the gate closed! My baggage was over the baggage allowance and I had to do some serious grovelling! I checked into the hotel in Port Elizabeth and started top unpack, intent on having a good rest before dinner, when the music started – there was obviously a party going on in the building under my window! Needless to say, the ‘rest’ never happened.
The following morning I was picked up at 7.30am by Nelson from Calabash Tours (the local coordinators for people and places who organise the arrangements for volunteers). It was quite a shock to the system as I hadn’t recovered from the flight, however we were going on a city tour and then to Missionvale Care Centre. This was the start of the most amazing adventure. Nelson was informative, funny and helpful; his ‘piece de resistance’ was his loud chant in praises of Nelson Mandela, often with no hands on the steering wheel! I knew immediately that I must relax into the African way or go home – I stayed!
Missionvale – a damning indictment and legacy of the apartheid era – is a sprawling location of shacks. The people waiting for the promised new houses with electricity, running water and a sewage system, are struggling to survive the poverty and disease. Sr Muriel, the sister in charge of the community nurse/carers programme is dedicated, skilled and has a wicked sense of humour. Many of the inhabitants have a profound faith which I found both humbling and sometimes incomprehensible.
One poor lady who we visited had no food or water for at least 24 hours, she had a mid-thigh amputation, was a diabetic, and had been sent home without crutches, wheelchair or Zimmer frame! She lived by herself and her toilet was a bucket. This would surely test anyone’s faith, but she could only thank her God for sending the carers that day. She is now receiving the care she needs.
Each day was different- I soon realised how important it was to be flexible. My remit as a retired Health Visitor was to work in the community, but some days I was doing admin or sorting out the office and cupboards; some days teaching or writing training programmes; another time helping the secretary cover old files with smart green paper for the general office – anything that will help make life a little easier for someone.
When out visiting, I was always with 1 or 2 carers who knew the area, languages and people well. It soon became clear that the days of hopping into my car to do home visiting were long gone – the method of transport was by foot, or by foot! I have to say that on a couple of occasions when we had been walking for 4 hours, tramping in mud and puddles (yes, it does rain in P.E.) we flagged down a local taxi and fro R4 (approx 35 pence) got a ride back! Missionvale is unforgiving – when it’s hot there is no shade; when it rains there is no shelter; when the wind blows you hang on for dear life … and there are no loos!! Thank goodness for a Gin and Tonic and a hot bath! (in that order!) – it does wonders for screaming muscles!
The clients are varied – some old, some children, some young adults – but they all have something in common. They are poor, sick, hungry and living without electricity or easy access to water. Their suffering is palpable – more than 60% of the population of Missionvale are HIV positive, and most of these people also have TB. Sometimes by the time the client has been identified as at risk, it is too late – several young women aged between 28 and 32 died whilst I was there. Once the centre hears of someone in need, they respond quickly and efficiently. Systems are now in place to identify these people earlier – they can be offered help with applying for grants, counselling, food and where possible medication or alternative therapies.
Life in Missionvale is hard – but it has its lighter moments; the day we visited a very sick lady but then couldn’t get out of her shack because of 2 big dogs! The dogs were on chains, but the chains were long enough to allow them to guard the door! We called for help from a neighbour, but then we couldn’t get out of the yard for a herd of cows!
One little girl we visited lived with Ouma (Grandma) – she was 2½ years old, HIV positive and profoundly deaf. Her parents had left her and gone to Johannesburg. What a credit she was to Ouma – she was spotless, well fed and was on ARV drugs for her HIV status – it was a delight to see.
During a counselling session with HIV sufferers I spoke with one young woman at length – she was in tears; her back hurt; she was sad and didn’t want to die. Who would look after her child? Would she feel pain? Would dying hurt? Who would look after herself? Who would hold her hand? ARV drugs are not available to the poor until they are so ill that it is doubtful whether they will make a good recovery.
There are approximately 120,000 households in South Africa headed by a child of 14 or younger. Missionvale recognises the need and does what it can. It is a charitable centre reliant solely on donations and it struggles to make ends meet. Sr Ethel, who started the centre in 1987, is the driving force behind a team of loyal and selfless people. She was devastated to find that she herself had her home broken into and was inexplicably robbed of the money she had saved for Christmas presents for the children.
The lines for food get longer each day. The OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) come to the centre each afternoon and are given lunch consisting of a nutritious sandwich, perhaps a hard-boiled egg, a piece of fruit and a drink. There are often between 200-400 children – they just need someone to love and care for them. The centre also provides food (½ loaf of bread and a plastic carton of dried fortified soup) for people who have no income, for TB patients, for the HIV support group, and a weekly food parcel for hundreds of vulnerable families.
I seemed to attract the bovine species! Whilst walking towards a shack (with 2 carers), I was confronted by 3 cows chased by a bull heading towards us. From behind the shack on the other side came more cows. I was petrified and froze on the spot. The cares shouted for me to run … run? … nothing was further from my mind as I watched them bearing down towards me! The carers grabbed me and pushed me into the shack – they thought it was a huge joke, and so did all the children who gazed in amazement at this ashen faced, shaking woman, by now hysterical with laughter.
A guided tour to Sr Ethel’s tree, from where she founded the centre, proved hilarious as we ran out of petrol in the middle of the location! I think one of the most memorable moments was when the people in the HIV support group spontaneously sang – it was unbelievably beautiful and I felt privileged to be there.
Support for the volunteers from Paul at Calabash Tours is excellent – weekly visits to discuss concerns, ideas, the way forward. Nothing is too much trouble – even picking me up at 7.10am so that I could go to Dora Nginza Hospital (a huge ghostly place with an appalling reputation) with the social worker and a desperately ill patient … but this is another story about the inhumanities of man!
Crime is rife; alcohol abuse and its subsequent social problems affect most households; incidents of violence and sexual abuse are common; the rape of children is increasing due to the mistaken belief that having sex with a virgin protects against HIV. Ambulance drivers often refuse to go into the shack areas and patients are taken by wheelbarrow to a meeting point, and yet despite this, in the midst of this field of despair where the burden of pain is so great, lies compassion, understanding, warmth, humour and forgiveness.
Missionvale Care Centre is an oasis in the middle of a barren land. I went to offer what help I could. They gave me so much more in return.
I could go on! Will I go back? Most definitely, YES …