In Septemeber 2008, I traveled 6000 miles to Haiti's Kenscoff mountains. My mission: to care for some of the orphaned and abandoned, the sick, malnourished and premature infants of this beautiful but beleagured Caribbean nation.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

We are the Easter People!

It is too easy to feel overwhelmed by the depth and scale of the world's problems, to give in to despair, and then, to turn our backs. That is fatal because what follows is inaction and worse, indifference.

Christians though, are witness to real hope: a word made flesh in Jesus:

"Do not abandon yourselves to despair…. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song."
— Pope John Paul II.

As I prepare myself to go to Haiti, my mind is very focused on the problems of one Caribbean nation. Sometimes, I lose sleep over things I have read about the situation there, things I have not shared yet, but will. I take courage from knowing thay while I can't "fix" Haiti, God has given us all "gifts". Knowing, and embracing the call to share those gifts I have been given is no burden at all. What a blessing to be able to go out into God's world, what a blessing to have something to share, and what a joy to travel with an allelujah in my heart!

Friday, 28 March 2008

Why Haiti?

Why indeed. Haiti is not the obvious choice. There are no tangible links between the UK and Haiti and I don't know anyone who has been there. So, for me, going there is a step into the unknown. I am going anyway.

I always said I would not serve in a war zone and that I would weigh any health risks carefully.Yet, the UK foreign office is currently advising against all but essential travel to Haiti because of the threats to personal safety, security and health, and I am still going.

"There have been random shootings of civilians in incidents of street robbery. Foreigners have also occasionally been caught in the crossfire of gang violence.... There has been an increase in the number of kidnappings since November 2007... There have been attacks on the vehicles of aid agencies and diplomatic staff.... The political situation in Haiti is continuing to improve tentatively, but remains fragile and supported by UN forces."

"There have been several hurricanes in recent decades causing loss of life, major damage and severe flooding...Emergency services are ill equipped to cope with a major disaster. Should a hurricane strike Haiti, basic services - transport and communications - could be severely disrupted."

"Medical facilities are very limited and offer a poor standard of care. There have been outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever in Port au Prince and the Cotes des Arcadins area... In 2007 there has been an increase in the number of reported cases of dengue. Parasitic infections, other intestinal problems and hepatitis are also common." (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, March, 2008).

And in the context of all of this, there are no diplomatic relations between the UK and Haiti. No Haitian embassy or consulate in London, and no representatives of the British government in Port-au-Prince.

I have considered the Foreign office's advice carefully. I am no thrill seeker; the bright eyes of danger hold no attraction at all. I do though, feel called to go, as a pilgrim and a stranger. I am not overly anxious about the risks. I will manage them as well as I can, and trust the rest to God. Come sickness or health, the rainbow, the storm, a rise or a cross, I give myself body and soul to God, for his purpose. For me, the question is not why Haiti? But, why Not?

Haiti: a road less travelled

Monday, 24 March 2008

Then, Haiti got in the way.

Iwas naive. I left to begin my nursing studies, and soon learned that time and distance changes both people and places. It was a harsh lesson for a young woman who belonged to two continents. But the world is like that, ever moving. I was unsettled to feel evidence of the fault lines in my life; the shifting parts. I returned to South Africa many times, not ready to let go of my plans for a future there. After all, overtime, oceans open and close. Need a departure be forever?

I retain a great deal of respect for the work God's Golden Acre does at the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic but I eventually had to admit that the project and I no longer fit. I could wait for new suture lines to form, I thought, but then, to return to the metaphor of plate tectonics, transport by of the earth's crustal blocks across the sea can take millennia. I had procrastinated too long already. The long and short of it is, after much sole searching, I decided to look elsewhere for a place to serve, and to be active in the search.

Still, all this talk about Africa, only to bypass the continent and, more specifically, the children of the continent. Well, the search for a new project was certainly focused on Africa, but somehow, Haiti got in the way. This will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me because you can't know me without knowing my heart for Africa, and for the children I worked with there.

"Don't cry because it's because it happened"

This photograph was sent by a friend who worked with me at God's Golden Acre, shortly after we learnt that our beloved baby, Snethemba, had succumbed to the AIDS virus.

This shot of her haunts me. Letting go is hard to do.

Friday, 21 March 2008

In the beginning

Eight years ago, I was so certain that I had found my place in the world. I remember the first time I met the children at God's Golden Acre, a then small orphanage in South Africa's KwaZulu- Natal midland region, an area decimated by AIDS. Bare-feet. Dressed in worn, torn, ill-fitting clothes. Snot-nosed. Dusty. The toddlers stared at me curiously, all wide eyes, their little bodies pressed against the fence of the yard.

All afternoon, as I was escorted on a tour of the farm property, I heard their cries above the boisterous noises of the older orphans at play. When I entered the nursery the toddlers clamoured to greet me. Five or six little ones at a time, hanging from my neck, perched on my lap, holding onto each hand. A few few more wriggling in to get closer. So many little voices vying for my attention. 'Look ma'am...' 'A story for you ma'am...' 'Me, I want to sit with you!....''You see me, what I'm doing...' ' Me ma'am, me!' And so many little hands reaching out to touch me. My hair. My clothes, My face. Tugging at me. Throwing me off balance. Overwhelming me.

If the children were not orphaned they were abandoned. Many had been abused. Some were sick. They were all in need, no matter the history etched on their lives and veiled in their eyes. They needed guidance. They needed affection. For the most part, they needed someone there for them. Someone to brush them off after they fell on the playground. To greet them with a smile in the morning. Sing a song with them. Even if it was sung out of key. It didn't matter.

They were thirsty for love, that was plain to see. Another thing: I could be that person, who gave it through very ordinary acts of care. Nothing exceptional about it, except maybe a willingness, no, a gladness to be there and give it. This was a giving that left me feeling whole. Oh, I thought to myself. So this is what's been missing.

I wrote prolifically about my time in Africa. Maybe I will publish some of these journals here, I am undecided. I documented soaring joy, terrible crushing sorrow, the daily rhythm of life, the struggles of the local people. They were members of the Zulu tribe, living in an area with the highest HIV rates in the world. Poor, but fiercely proud of their heritage. I developed a respect and understanding of their culture. A sence of grief for all that AIDS and poverty and apartheid had taken from them. And a growing conviction that I had been hand picked for the job of serving in that corner of the world, on a piece of the earth I so loved I made it sacred.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Re-entry anxiety?

No-one told me before I left Scotland that first time, that when I returned, I would be changed. Forever.

I don't think that knowing this would have or could have softened the grief I experienced when I re-entered the land of my birth and realised that I was so different, and everything around me was just the same as I had left it. Everything grated on me. The supermarket shelves were piled high. So much choice and so much waste, while half the world starved.

Few people could grasp my new perspective and I was unable to affect theirs. But then, my feet had tread across a land theirs had not. My eyes had watched the sun relentlessly pierce the land. Seen the crops droop, sag, then become dry. Then brittle. My eyes had looked upon crumbling hovels and bare-footed, pot-bellied, listless children. Poverty and hunger were statistics to the western world. To me, they had faces. They were moving, breathing, living, loving, weeping entities.

It had taken me just 18 years to find my life’s purpose; in 2000, I spent 12 months at a South African orphanage. Within days of setting foot on the God's Golden Acre's ramshackle farm property, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Then, I returned to a world where bored teenagers binge drank themselves into a stupor every weekend. One night, in Africa, I had lifted a bottle of cider. If the alarmed countenances of my African children were not enough to stop me from drinking it there and then, their disclosures were. In their culture, two sets of people drank: men and loose women. The children knew I did not fall into one of those categories. They hoped I didn't fall into the other.

A 6 year old girl told me how her drunk mother had once vomited over her infant son while he suckled at her breast. Another time, her mother threatened to kill both children. The girl, then aged 4, scooped up the crying infant and ran with him out of the door of their mud hut. With the inebriated mother in pursuit, the little girl ran until her lungs burned and unshod feet bled and her legs turned to jelly. She and the baby spent that night in a field of sugar cane.

There had been no-one to bathe or dress the cuts made by the razor sharp sugar cane leaves that night. Perhaps that was why the little girl had decided, within days of my arrival at the orphanage's farm property, that she would be a nurse. Why it meant so much to her that I had come with my little green First Aid bag to patch the children's bumps and scrapes. A dozen pairs of dark eyes were resting on me with hope, fear, expectation as she recounted her story. I set the cider bottle down and vowed never to drink again.

I was a misfit in Scotland. While other teenagers partied, I had my nose in nursing journals. There was so much work to be done. I had to prepare myself to do do so much more in the the developing world.

Many European kids dreamed of owning designer clothes, luxury homes and fast cars. Their dreams were empty to me. While other girls coiffed their hair and touched up their make-up, I scrapped my hair off my face and prepared to live out a dream that to must have seemed like a night-mare to most.

I was going back to a stricken continent. To live (at best) in a cinder block house that might be served with running water, sometimes. I was going there to nurse babies with AIDS. I would love and hug children whose bodies were riddled by tuberculosis, ring-worm and fungating, oozing sores. I would have very little and I would be so glad. I would appreciate the roof over my head; it would shield me from the winter winds and the torrential rains in summer. I would rejoice every time the rains sprinkled down in time to bring the maize seeds out of hibernation, and turn the hills and valleys and the veldt a riotous and defiant green. I would pray they did not come too soon, and rot the tender shoots. Or too late and dent the earth's fragile crust, flooding the land.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

A new season at last!

So why did it take such a long time to turn?

My last 3 month volunteer trip to Africa, rewarding though it was, drained me. When my flight disembarked in Scotland I was spent. Physically, mentally, emotionally, financially. I still nursed a desire to hug and heal motherless children, but I needed time and space to rest and, I was sure, to ponder my future direction. That took longer than I planned.

I returned as a weary traveller. I needed an oasis. Didn't find it. Took that as a sign; I was not supposed to rest and I was not supposed to be comfortable. I never did take my eye off the goal (which was to go back to Africa), but soon I became lost on the way.

I was glad to be back: I lamented my disconnection with western culture and so, even as I prayed that God would light a path for me to follow, I rhymed off countless pseudo-logical reasons for not setting off on the journey (yet).

I don't want to stay but maybe I need to roll with it. I can't afford to go just now.... Surely, after all, I would be more useful if I went long-term and that will cost... I wish I could go but I don't want to be a burden in Africa.....

... so doesn't it make more sense to develop my nursing skills first... and build up my bank balance?

In the midst off all my confused prayers and meditations, a voice spoke deep within me. Some people would say the voice came from my sub-conscious. I know it originated from God.

Just go! Nothings stopping you! If you don't want to go for two years, go for two weeks. You are more than qualified to hug and hold my babies. I'll make sure you have everything you need to do that. All I ask is that you hold my people in your heart, and give to them just as freely as I have given to you.

But where was I supposed to go? Was that God calling me or was I hearing what I wanted to hear? After all, I was not comfortable where I was, but I wasn't a quitter either. Did I have to prove that to God? To myself? I'm not sure.

I had a job that, for the most part, I loved. My family were in Scotland. My friends. Life here was rich and good. Every time I decided I would certainly stay, something turned sour: every time I made up my mind to go, I became uncertain.

And so I continued. I assigned myself a great deal of work that bound me to Scotland and to difficult circumstances, so didn't get the restoration I needed. I reflected a lot and didn't get the clarity I sought. Eventually, it occurred to me I was procrastinating, and God couldn't guide me unless I took the first steps. It some ways, even I was surprised when I finally said it. 'I am going.'

More about where I am going and why in posts to follow...