Friday, 1 February 2019

Back where we started...

For the first Friday of February I was back at the Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust (HACT), the very first project we visited on this trip some two weeks ago.  On that first day Sarah and I were given a tour of the facility at HACT and we were told of some of their current and future initiatives.  You can find out about all they do by following this link: HACT

One of their newest initiatives is the Grassroots Soccer programme that they are rolling out from April to replace the existing LifeSkills Programme they run in Primary Schools.  This change was one of the decisions that came out of their annual monitoring and evaluation exercise at the end of last year.  The intention is that the Grassroots Soccer engages the Primary school pupils in an activity they enjoy and enables them to build a mutually supportive cohort to whom the facilitors can then deliver the AIDS Awareness curriculum.  This will later be extended to cover Gender Based Violence, all in an age appropriate manner.  They will also continue their Peer Education Model for High School, this is a programme where 10 to 15 students are selected from Grade 10 (15 to 16 year olds) and these students are supported by a school based facilitator and mentors from HACT.  They are taken through the AIDS Awareness programme and then these peer educators are responsible for delivering the programme and any other associated Life Skills, in a manner of their choosing.  Sometimes it will be assembly based presentations, perhaps inviting a guest speaker or another form of peer interaction.  They are encouraged to be as creative in their delivery as they wish and as ambitious as they dare!  At the end of the year, the peer educators from the 6 high schools all join together to attend a three-day leadership camp, which enables them to reflect upon their experience and allows HACT to learn from that cohort's experiences and make any necessary changes to the following year's scheme.

Increasingly HACT are seeing the impact of the national crises in Oncology provision in South Africa, which is more marked in the region of KwaZulu Natal.  There is a severe shortage of cancer diagnostic and treatment equipment in SA and a corresponding shortage in competent and qualified practitioners.  Terminally ill patients are increasingly co-infected with HIV AIDS and Cancer, consequently HACT are experiencing an increased stay duration in their respite unit.  The consequence of this is that the total number of patients who can be offered care in the unit has dropped from 240 in 2017 to 200 in 2018.  The need for this facility does not diminish and HACT cares for people from all walks of life and all ages, young women with HIV AIDS and Cervical Cancer to Gogo's (Grandmother's) with HIV AIDS.  The issue of cervical cancer is increasingly alarming as even if women do have access to Pap Testing, they often are not given the results and even if they are, they have a typical nine month wait for the next stage of treatment, by which time they may already be at Stage 4.  This is particularly galling for a cancer that has a good chance of treatment if it is diagnosed and treated at an early stage.

The beautiful blankets and quilts that were kindly donated by our wonderful knitters, crocheters and seamstresses were very gratefully received and will be an additional comfort for individuals in palliative care.

Much of this information was explained to me as we went on two trips from the centre in Hillcrest.  For the first, our driver was a charming man called Mr Mshengu who works tirelessly for HACT.  At 9 am, he had already taken two of the Respite Unit patients to two different hospitals in Durban, about a 70km round trip, in Friday morning rush hour traffic.  He was due to return to collect them, after their treatment about 10 hours later!  In the meantime, there was no time for him to rest, he commenced his home visits, one of which we joined.  We went to meet V, a gentleman who has had a number of stays in the respite unit and is now living independently again for a spell.  He lives in a rural community deep in the 1000 Hills Valley. 

When he first came to the attention of the HACT his accommodation was a rather tumbledown mud brick hut with no toilet facilities.  He was so unwell and had been bedridden, so that he needed to be taught how to walk again.  Thanks to a generous donor, funds were made available to build a solid brick house on his land, with a ramp for access and also a separate toilet hut. 

This meant that he could return home after his period of convalescence at HACT.  As we drove down the track and then off-track into the bush, V came into sight, sitting in his walker/seat in his yard.  His wide smile was all the evidence one could need of the esteem and love he felt for the team at HACT and for Mr Mshengu, who looks in on him from time to time.  He manages quite well alone, as a friend will pick up his disability grant and buy food for him and his 21 year old son also stays from time to time.  HACT keep a close eye on him, to ensure he maintains his medication and he eats sufficiently well.  He is hoping to have electricity installed before the winter and he has started to grow a few veggies (tomatoes and butternut) which he has to keep a close eye on to ward off goats and monkeys!

After saying farewell we headed back to Hillcrest and then set out again with  the Assistant Manager for the Gogo Support Programme.  This is a fabulous and much admired programme that aims to educate, empower and uplift grandmothers who are caring for orphaned grandchildren in the Valley of 1000 Hills region of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, leading to better life outcomes for both the grandmothers and their grandchildren.  The success of this program is such that P now has the Gogo Toolkit, which helps other communities to set up and run their own Gogo support activities.

The Soccer coach puts me through my leg press routine
One Gogo tackles the shoulder press
This has been running for 10 years in the 1000 Hills region and one of the wonderful events is the Gogo Olympics in April every year.  Gogo's from various communities in the region join together to compete in a Soccer tournament which is the culmination of that year's fitness activities.  In the Kwanisa area there is an additional fitness facility, an outside gym.  My money is definitely on this community's Gogo's to win the gold at the 2019 Gogo Olympics!

Sindi (centre) has lost 7kg since starting to use the gym in December!

The local facilitators participate too!


 The great thing about this gym, is that it is not only great for agility and fitness, it is also very sociable.  It is adjacent to the local Primary school and the football pitch where the Gogo's practice, often to the enthusiastic support from the school children on their break.  It is also a great community facility, today there were lots of school age children there, as the local school was closed for a teacher's awards day. 

Returning to HACT I reflected on the proactive and empowering activities that they operate, it's is most definitely a "hand up not a hand out" mentality.  Another example is the clothing scheme, women are selected to participate and each Friday morning they purchase a bin bag full of mixed clothing that has been donated to the centre, sorted by volunteers the previous Tuesday or Wednesday.  The bag costs R15 (just under £1) and the women then go back to their communities where they sell the clothes on to make an income for themselves.  This is primarily a short term intervention to allow women to get back onto their feet, but some women have made quite a business out of it.

This blog cannot do justice to the extent of the initiatives and support HACT undertakes; as with all my monitoring visits I am overwhelmed by the dedication of the staff, the selflessness of the skilled volunteers and the proactivity of the recipients of the care and support.  Their enthusiasm is infectious.

Once I got back to the lodge, I was delighted to receive two photos from 1000 Hill Community Helpers in my email in box.  These were photo's of the young girls who each received one of the lovely school dresses that were kindly donated to us and some of the children who received a lovingly handknitted jumper from our wonderful knitters!  These will be most welcome on the chilly valley mornings.

Smiles all round today!  For me, it's the last day visiting the projects for this trip.  I'm popping to a local farmers and craft market tomorrow to see if I can acquire any more lovely items for our beadwork and craft stall.  After that, it's off the Durban to catch my flight back home.

Thank you for having me South Africa, I look forward to coming back soon. To KwaZulu Natal I say    "ukuvalelisa, ngizobuya" (I bid you  farewell, I will come back)

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Last Day of School (for me, for this trip, that is!)

It's been another warm day in KwaZulu Natal and I was early to school this morning as I had lots of deliveries to make.  Thanks to the wonderful support you give us, we have been able to add a few little extras to First Step Right this visit.  I went to "Build It" early to collect some bags of compost for the school veggie garden, they have plans to grow onions, beetroot, spinach, courgettes and butternut squash!  I played a game with Grade R this afternoon, giving each child one of these five words in turn and then asked them to stand when their veggie was called out to see how well they grew!! They thought this was quite good fun (sadly spinach didn't do so well as most of the children who were "spinach" forgot about it)

GAGA supporters also provided 150 new cups and bowls for the children, as well as pencils and erasers, some wall charts for the early years classes and some items for hygiene too, like buckets and toilet brushes.  Thank you all so much for your regular donations as these help us to plan for this type of replacement items.

As it was my last day with the school for this visit, I also brought some fruit for the children and the teachers.  Some of it supplemented the lunch today and the rest was an afternoon break snack.  Here are some of the Grade R children enjoying their bananas! There are two Grade R classes, these are their teachers, and we had a lovely time this afternoon singing songs in the shade of one of the trees in the playground.  The children joined in enthusiastically with "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" and "The Wheels on the Bus" amongst other songs.

Today was a little different from a standard Thursday, as there was a parent's meeting from 10 am in the school.  This first meeting of the year was very well attended and, as every person who has Primary School children with recall, the parents all gathered in the school and perched on the little chairs! The meeting started with a wonderfully melodic song of blessing and a brief prayer.  The meeting covered all of the administrative items that are common in schools the world over, a reminder to put names in school uniform, a request to support their child with their homework...but not to do it for them!  There was also a discussion about learning to read and some hints for the parents of smaller children to point out words on packaging around the house and signs on the streets and a request that the older children practice reading for at least 15 minutes a night. 

All of these items were well received, first Gael spoke in English and then Khanyisile repeated it all in isiZulu.  I took a small time to say hello from GAGA and to express how much our supporters enjoy hearing lovely stories from First Step Right and how we are delighted to work in partnership with the school team, themselves as parents and their lovely children.  I didn't say too much as it was getting really warm and stuffy in the classroom and the parent's had been in the meeting for a while!  Then followed a question and answer session, and the ubiquitous request for member of the Parents' Committee.... as in schools all over, initial nominations were slow to come but eventually all of the posts were filled!

The children were outside during the Parents Meeting and some of the teachers were singing and dancing with them under the shade of a tree.  They had all run around in the sun for a long time and it was a welcome relief for them to be in the shade for a while.  As the parents left the meeting the children ran to see their Mum or Dad or Gogo.  As expected some of the smaller children wanted to leave at the same time as their carers, not really understanding that there was some of the school day left to complete!


"It makes you realise that people are the same wherever you go."  Nicholas Lea

Thank you to the staff and children of First Step Right for making me so welcome in their school!  I can't wait to come back and see how they are all progressing and how the veggie garden is growing!

 Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. - Nelson Mandela


Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Meals on Wheels

What a fabulous day I have had today, following the 1000 Hills Community Helpers Meals on Wheels initiative as they made one of their visits to the Sithumba area.  The meal of minced beef and veg, rice and beetroot is made in the kitchens at 1000 Hills Community Helpers and it is loaded onto the trailer.  The team join Patrick the driver in the pick up and I followed along behind in the backie with Modise who was to be my guide for the day!

 We headed out along Layby Road and continued as far as the hammerhead that is the full extent of the tarmac road and therefore the full extent of the available taxi routes.  Luckily we have good vehicles and so continued on the dirt track until we arrived at the Primary School.  No sooner did we draw up outside the gates than the children could be heard, their excited chatter as they caught the delicious aroma of the meat sauce on the air!  The team set up the servery and in no time there was a long line of children excitedly queueing up holding out their plates.  The meal was rice with beef mince and vegetables, a side of diced beetroot and a cup of squash. The children clearly enjoyed the novelty of being served from the trailer and they enthusiastically ate their lunches.  There is a kitchen at this school but this service supplements the school's food budget, as they do not need to cook on the day that the Meals on Wheels arrive.  Whilst the team were busy serving the long line of children, Modise, Elsie and I headed off on foot into the valley to visit some housebound patients and take them food and healthcare supplies (dressings, nappies and incontinence pads).
In total we visited six homes, of varying condition and facilities.  Our first stop was to a 74 year old lady "T" who had suffered a stroke which left her unable to move her left side.  She is being cared for by her daughter and her pension is the only household income.
The lady in the orange top has two children and is a single Mum, her youngest was at school when we visited but her daughter, who is 17 was asleep in the bed.  She was a healthy child until she was two years old but then she began to show symptoms that were thought to be related to epilepsy.  "N" is now completely bedridden and without a wheelchair her Mum is unable to get her out and about.  Next we met "S" an eleven year old girl who was born with her disabilities, her Mum passed away when she was a baby and she is now cared for by her Gogo. The love the Gogo has for her granddaughter is evident in this lovely photo, and her other granddaughter who attends the nearby secondary school (which is next to the Primary where we were running the lunch service) popped in to see her sister and Gogo in her lunch break.

 We headed back up the track and could see that the children had all now been fed and so we gathered up the remaining food parcels and healthcare supplies and Modise, Elsie and I got back in the backie and moved across to the other side of the district.

Here we met "O", he is a 98 year old man who has a large open sore on his right shin.  He lives with his family in a small settlement on the valley side and is cared for by his energetic, ebullient 65 year old wife.  She has learned how to clean and dress his wounds and her ministrations are paying off, as his wound is closing up and healing well, albeit slowly.  Her neighbour was visiting, which was fortunate as she was due to be our 5th "house call".  This lady is 55 years old and has gastric ulcers, she also has limited mobility due to swollen legs and she currently uses a branch as a stick, if she can get a walking stick she will have improved comfort and may be able to be more mobile.  The availability of medical equipment like walking frames, walking sticks and wheelchairs is limited but having these items could dramatically improve the quality of life for the frail members of this community.  Modise takes notes about every visit and photographs to help with the assessment of needs back at 1000 Hills Community Helpers.  He has a wonderful way with his patients and their families.  He listens to their needs and asks searching questions to ensure he fully understands the situation.  He is patient, empathetic and thorough.  Our final stop was with this 77 year old lady.  She has balance difficulties and slow reactions so if she looses balance and falls she is likely to go down face first as she cannot react quickly enough to put out her hands to break her fall.  She is cared for in the day by her daughter and another family member, who works in the day, stays with her at night.

After all the house calls were completed we headed back to the 1000 Hills Community Helpers where I chatted for a while with Dawn, the Founder. She was able to give me very useful advice in respect of some of the challenges and strategies for charitable organisations and NPO's operating in South Africa.  Talking to the people who do this day in day out is invaluable for developing a deep understanding of the situation and for gaining advice and ideas of ways of working that will be most effective for the long term. 

I was sorry to say goodbye to Dawn and the team at 1000 Hills Community Helpers for this trip.  They have shown me immense kindness, patience with my questions and given of willingly of their time and experience.  I look forward to seeing them all again on my next visit.

A couple of amusing aspects to the day - firstly the football team made up entirely of cows....

 and secondly, my relief that I am not the only one with an inexplicable phobia of small creatures (those of you who know me, know it's frogs for me) when Elsie, the Community Care Giver whose round we shared today, stopped stock still on the path and would not pass this little fella...

Can you spot him????

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Yay! The Sun is Shining Again!

Image result for vervet monkeyAfter so many days of drizzle, torrential rain and fog it was a delight to see that the sun had got his hat on this morning!  As I made my coffee, I noticed a small vervet monkey sitting on the roof of a nearby property warming up his tummy in the early morning sun!  Not this guy - my camera isn't that good - but I thought you'd like to see a cute monkey picture nonetheless!
I had two visits planned today, firstly a stop at the 1000 Hills Community Helpers, you may remember that Tuesday is baby clinic day and I called in to drop off the wonderful donations of knitted items and baby vests and sleepsuits that have been given to us. 
This robust baby boy is doing so well and his Mum also works at 1000 Hills Community Helpers

Here is Nurse Teddy with another smashing baby boy!

This young Mum is doing a fantastic job with her little girl, she was delighted to receive one of the beautiful crocheted blankets we were given by one of our supporters. 

This Gogo (Grandma) is helping her daughter to cope with her new baby, we were delighted to offer her some additional babygrows today!

This young Mum is also the happy recipient of a lovely new blanket for her gorgeous baby, she is currently studying Business Administration and balancing the needs of her newborn and her older son.

Dawn and her team at 1000 Hills Community Helpers were delighted with the donations, they are always in need of good quality clothing items and the knitted items (whilst not needed today in 31 degrees) will be very welcome as the winter approaches.  The lovely school dresses we have been given will be distributed amongst the pupils of 1000 Hills Community Helpers own pre-school and the larger sizes will be put aside for children in need who may come alone or with their parents to seek support from this wonderful organisation.  I joined Sister Faith in the baby clinic where I was privileged to sit in on the consultations with the Mum's and Gogo's who are looking after babies from newborn to four months.
Sister Faith monitors the weight of the babies, gives advice on feeding (whether this is supporting the mother who chooses to breastfeed, advising on the correct make up of formula or assess whether the baby is receiving solids) and also assess the general health and well being of the baby. In the short time I was in clinic this morning there was a baby with scabies, one with thrush in the mouth and two baby boys with undescended testicles. These, amongst other common ailments, are critical to have diagnosed and treated early on.  Women are encouraged to attend the clinic regularly to ensure that their babies have the best possible chance to thrive.

After an hour or so observing the clinic I took a browse in the craft shop and I have bought some lovely protea print items to trial for our merchandising.  I'm back at 1000 Hills Community Helpers tomorrow for the Meals on Wheels ….

My backie was blocked in as I went to leave and the guys who keep the mini buses and meals on wheels vans spick and span were insistent that they should give the backie a good wash before I could leave!  Lucky me, I got to enjoy the scenery and beautifully kept gardens!

Next stop was back to First Step Right, when I arrived the pupils were lining up to return to class after first break.  I did a swift circuit of the school, saying hello to everyone and then sat in with Grade R for storytime.  I was so pleased to find the book of Bear's Blue Boat which I remember reading to my own sons.  We read it through three times with the children joining in on the colours and the rhyming of the last page. 

Then I took Gael, who runs the school, to PMB to do some shopping for the school, we purchased some wall charts (days of the week, seasons and months of the year etc) as well as basic stationery supplies (pencils, erasers etc) and also some more cups and bowls for the kitchen.  We had some fun rolling the heavy trolley down the ramp and we were chatting so much on the return journey that we forgot to buy the compost for the veggie patch!  That has to be a job for tomorrow now!

When I returned to PheZulu, I was desperate for a cooling shower and something to eat!  When I went to the kitchen to prepare an omelette, Magda, the manager told me that earlier a cheeky monkey had slipped under the door leading to the kitchen and snatched two eggs from the tray on top of the microwave!  So today's blog starts and ends with some "Monkey Business"

Have you ever noticed.. there are no positive song titles with Monday in them...

I don't like Monday's
Manic Monday
Monday, Monday, Can't trust that day

Well, I wish there was a positive Monday song, cos I would've been singing it this Monday!  Apart from the small matter of misbehaving internet at the accommodation which meant I couldn't write my blog!

I spent Monday at First Step Right which is the Pre and Primary school we support near Cato Ridge in KwaZulu Natal.  There are 187 pupils on the role and they range from the pre-schoolers to a small class at Grade 5.  The school is located on the property and buildings of the neighbouring Frey's Food Brands, supplying meat products to the foodservice industry.
 The continued support of this company is essential to the life of the school and on Monday I was pleased to meet with the CEO and HR Manager to discuss the ongoing partnership between Frey's and First Step Right.  As a funder of First Step Right we at GAGA are committed to ensuring that the pupils at the school receive the best possible education and pastoral care, this is one of the main reasons we endeavour to make regular monitoring visits to the projects we support. 

The children of FSR are delightful and I spent much of Monday, one on one working with one of the Grade 5 pupils on his literacy exercises.  His determination and concentration was admirable and I really enjoyed spending time with him (and reminding myself about the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!). 

A school like this faces many challenges, not just funding, although that is an important factor.  FSR is fortunate to have a corporation like Frey's supporting it, and there are other supporters too; a company called City Logistics has recently confirmed that they will provide some much needed sports equipment.  Our own GAGA supporters have also contributed tremendously to this school, both with the ongoing funding which helps to pay salaries and provide learning materials and equipment but also with practical help, like the redevelopment of the kitchen worksurfaces and cupboards and the creation of a learning vegetable garden. 

We feel that there is immense potential to continue to support FSR and see it develop and thrive - watch our Face Book and Web Site for further plans as they materialise.

After school I went into Hillcrest to meet with Debbie who helps us "on the ground" in South Africa.  Debbie met us at the airport last Friday but I hadn't seen her since, before the appointed meeting time, I popped into Pick & Pay to top up my SA phone airtime and there was a lady in the queue ahead of me.  As I spoke to request the required airtime she turned around and said "Hello, we are meeting up in a minute" ha ha - I hadn't recognised her at all!  Luckily, I was wearing my GAGA t-shirt so she recognised me immediately (nothing to do with the blight accent I'm sure!).
Debbie has been working with GAGA since we started and she is an invaluable advisor and "ear to the ground" when we are back in the UK fundraising and raising awareness.  Debbie is also a vital "go-between" for our Sangobeg scholars and she helps us to understand their needs and ensures they have what they need to be successful in their studies.

Debbie gave me a great insight into life in South Africa and she also suggested a super farmers market which I will go to on Saturday to see if I can acquire some interesting items to add to our merchandising range.  We are hoping to be allocated a stall at the Stratford River Festival in July and, in addition to our popular bead necklaces and animals, I am keen to see if there are any other items that may be popular for the stall.  Here's a selection of what we have purchased so far.... don't you just love those chickens???  And of course, elephants are always so popular!
A quick drive back to the accommodation at PheZulu and some admin for the day and I was done! Oh, and I have just remembered.. The Happy Mondays.... I'm not the only one who had a good Monday!