A piece of Africa no tourist ever sees

I always believed that I had already seen a lot in my life, for being in receipt of audio-visual media we have the opportunity to get an impression about what other places in the world are like. However, there is a difference between seeing things and making yourself deeply conscious of them. After all we are exposed daily to a real flood of information, and in our memory, news gets mixed up with soap operas, horror or violent movies and game shows. Thus at first, in spite of my "TV - education" the circumstances in this part of South Africa have strongly confused me. Of course I already "knew" that in this country wealth and poverty lie right next to each other, or better are strongly combined with each other, but I had no idea about how life is actually to be seen under those circumstances. Here in the Mandini area I have already experienced so many contrasts in such a short period of time, that I was really speechless. After my arrival, on the way out of the huge city Durban, I was amazed by the impression I got when I saw luxurious Villas right next to tiny dilapidated metal huts. We drove on a brand-new well and fully developed freeway passing Townships and Slums of most shocking types, where the roads rather resemble a well trodden track. In such areas some people live in the most tiny and primitive huts, which they build of metal, wood, old sacks, pieces of car wreck and cardboard. In many of these settlements there are no facilities, not even running water, but only ponds, which are also used as toilets by little children while playing, as well as by cattle as a drinking trough or "bath tub"; and people often have to walk long distances to lug the stale water to their homes and use it for drinking (without sterilising it!), washing, cooking and cleaning. Electricity is a totally unknown thing for many, while the more wealthy people, as in America or Europe etc., can hardly even imagine living without it anymore. The average salary of a black worker is between R75 and R300 per week, although the cost of living is much the same as in Europe. In fact, outside Mandini itself is to be found an enormous Industrial area, which offers approximately 23,000 jobs. However, this is the exact reason for high unemployment, because many more people immigrated here than were finally able to be employed. Logically, this has the effect of the poverty described before, with hardly any education and a terrifyingly high criminal rate occurring. As you may realise, my first impressions here were, if not frustrating, then at least exceedingly "unusual", but I understood quickly that I had to drop my European thinking and to get involved with the facts. As soon as I could handle this, I had an experience that surprised me in a pleasant way: the term that THE Whites were suppressing and fighting against THE Blacks intentionally and cruelly, seem to be overcome totally. Instead of it, they all try together (!) to find solutions for the complex problem with great enthusiasm. Anybody can join the BROTHERHOOD OF BLESSED GÉRARD actively AND spiritually. It is wonderful to see how selfless people contribute personally and have already achieved several of their aims in just a short period of time (only one year has passed since the Brotherhood was founded). Last but not least, this was, of course, only possible with the donations and membership fees. To give you a better impression of what I have observed and experienced, I will now describe the projects in detail.


The centre of self-help is well established. Since opening it in June 1993, all day sewing courses take place there, led by a young, fully skilled Zulu woman, Miss Lindiwe Mazibuko. First there is a six week course, wherein the participants are taught the basic rules and the right usage of the tools by producing easy things such as sheets, pillowcases, etc., followed by another six week course and later on a four week course. Within those courses the degree of difficulty is constantly increased. While visiting I was impressed by the high quality, for those clothes could surely compete with those of boutiques. Apart from the joy the women feel for their new task or challenge, sewing properly also gives them an additional opportunity to gain independence. Many women are left to cope on their own while taking care of their extended family, for their husbands either are unemployed or have gone away from them and the children. By their new gained knowledge they may be able to manufacture their own clothes - or at least most of them - and thereby save expensive shopping, or they may even sell their products. Thus their self-confidence may be strengthened for them to earn their own money. The BROTHERHOOD'S main problem though is that most of the women, especially those who need it the most, cannot afford the fees, despite that these are very low (First course: R300 including material, 2nd course: R200 + material, 3rd course: R300 + material). Therefore it is desirable to further decrease the fees. But the running costs of the courses are already subsidised by the Brotherhood, for the material has to be bought and the teacher must be paid. Therefore the Brotherhood is still dependent on donations when trying to help the really needy to help themselves. This charity organisation is lacking the funds for further planned projects such as basic health courses, training in prevention of diseases and gardening.


When I visited Dr. Thabethe's practice I was particularly shocked by the sight of the undernourished children. Numerous young and old mothers were sitting on the benches along the wall accompanied by their children whose age was very difficult to assess. When I looked at those skinny creatures with their protruding big wide eyes and their state of health, I believed that most of them were not older than six to eight months. But in fact some were already far more than one year of age! I was deeply appalled at learning that these development disturbances are caused by malnutrition, which is still prevalent among parts of the population. On the Brotherhood's initiative, Mrs. Nokuthula Thabethe - who is a registered nurse herself - performs examinations regularly every two weeks. The persons affected often have to travel very long distances by foot from the slum areas or the bush to participate. Besides the bodily examination, the children are weighed and their improvement registered, which they may show since they started fighting malnutrition. If necessary, they are treated by Dr. Thabethe. Afterwards the mothers are supplied with milk and protein enriched baby food - donated by the Brotherhood - enough for the following two weeks. But to gain control of malnutrition is a long term project. The mothers are given advice conscientiously and individually about feeding and hygiene (which is the basis of constant health). It is the aim of this project to get the children to a fit and healthy state. I admired Mrs. Thabethe for encouraging the women so much, that they in fact left the practice relieved and lightened. The psychological effect is just as important, because the reason for malnutrition is often ignorance and lack of experience - no wonder: the youngest "mother" is only just 13 years old herself! The examinations help the mothers out of their isolation and take away the fear. We realised for example, that the child of one of the younger mothers had already suffered brain damage because of malnutrition. By this discovery, the lump in my throat, which tormented me anyway seeing all this misery, grew even worse; but for this young mother this is a problem with such serious consequences, that she sooner or later would not be able to handle them. Thus Mrs. Thabethe is doing everything in her power to find a long-lasting solution for them. The complex problem of AIDS is also mentioned repeatedly, but I will go into that in more detail in connection with another project. What slightly relieved my dismay at the cruelty of such poverty was the pleasant fact that most of the register cards already showed successful effects in this short period of time since the needy were helped in this way. I am happy that this organisation has started to fight a basic problem, which should not be a problem in this day and age!


The domestic school also deals with basic and therefore important things. As I mentioned before, only very few blacks are used to electricity, therefore they do not know how to handle it's dangers and the appliances properly and safely. They have great difficulties with using the telephone too, because of a lack of knowledge and their inability to speak the English language - especially the older or poorer women who only speak a few words. These problems may seem rather simple, but the result of this is that for those, who are willing and able to work in a house and thereby earn money, it would be impossible to find a job. I also would not feel safe with a housekeeper, who repeatedly leaves the oven switched on or who scorched my clothes while ironing. However, just because these barriers are that simple, one can easily take remedial action, which is exactly the intention of the Brotherhood's domestic school. One course lasts for three weeks with lessons in English (adapted to housework, of course), dangers and usage of electrical appliances, preparation of easy and quick meals, mending, darning and ironing. They also deal with hygiene and cleanliness as well as anything else which one may consider as important in the household. Even though these courses are simple, this does not make them less important, which is apparent by the lively interest shown by the Zulu women. Thus right from the beginning, monthly courses have been held with three to five participants. I have explained several times before, that I was astonished or surprised. This time the reason is the keen thirst for knowledge and thus resulting precision that the "students" apply to their training. By this a momentum is gathered, through which the courses constantly improve as the women often introduce new ideas. The "teachers", i.e. the voluntary helpers Mrs. Yvonne Renaud, principal, Mrs. Joyce Buss, Mrs. Madge Mc Dermid, Mrs. Margaret Hawthorn and Mrs Wendy Richardson spend their spare time on these lessons. One of them explained to me laughingly, that she sometimes was asked so many "Whys", she almost felt like being in a cross-examination. After a nervous beginning their enthusiasm soon builds with a good relationship developing on both sides. I found another remark confirmed, which says that "teachers" and "students" separate rather as friends after each course is complete. The Zulu women gain better self-confidence and courage to find their own way in applying themselves to a new task, by which they are able to gain additional income and independence. The initiator Mrs. Clare Kalkwarf felt the best success in the spontaneous decision one of the participants took, which was to train the young women and girls of her village in the new achieved skill. Is this not the "avalanche" one wants to start rolling by using the term "Help for self-help"?!


The Care Centre is, because of the political situation, still in preparation. The organisation has reached the stage where strong contacts to similar institutions have been established to obtain stimulation and helpful hints. When all the investigations are complete and the time is right, the Brotherhood can get down to work immediately on setting up this project. Then the Care Centre will forge links between the hopelessly crowded hospitals and the ignorant families of the sick. The situation necessitates that the existing hospitals release their patients far too early, i.e. before they have fully regained their health. Through this one expects too much from the relatives, for they do not know enough about nursing. This fact often leads to inconceivable and scandalous causes over here for man's death compared to European standards. For example the Brotherhood facilitated the transfer of an approximately 40 year old woman to a mission hospital to be treated; she had already been given up in the kwaZulu hospital and was convinced she would die, because she suffered huge wounds caused by terrible bedsores... These things are - as you will find yourself - absolutely unnecessary. So the Brotherhood decided to inform the public on basic home nursing and additionally to train their own assistant helpers.

In an African country AIDS is a particularly complicated subject. Many men are separated from their families by travelling to work, which has the consequence of extramarital relationships. Urbanisation led to alienation of traditional moral concepts. Unfortunately, it is a widely spread conviction that the origin of all misery, which means also of a disease like AIDS, is to be seen in the wrath of ancestral spirits or in evil magic spells. Further more many of the Blacks believe that AIDS is a fiction of the Whites to decimate the black population by demands for abstinence. These and other reasons, of course, make it considerably difficult to inform the Zulu about prevention of AIDS, above all when it is introduced by white "unbelievers". To free this problem from its taboos, the Brotherhood plans to approach public institutions such as schools, churches and hospitals etc. through an information campaign introduced by the Brotherhood's black members. In this way the inhibition to speak openly can be taken away from people and they can be helped, if necessary, or help each other as well as possible. Up to now, advice has been given within individual frameworks or just spontaneously, sometimes in the form of short information lectures held by Dr. Thabethe (initiator of the Sundumbili Health Promotion Group), for example after church or other meetings; Or in cases where HIV infection is discovered, e.g. in the special examinations for malnourished children as mentioned. Spiritual pastor for the people in need is always Father Gérard. He takes care of them individually in single or family conversations.


For a society's development and standard depends on the average knowledge of the population, the Bursary Fund is a particularly important project. The state has neither the resources for education to grant freedom to teach what one sees fit nor free provision of schoolbooks and equipment, which we enjoy in Germany. This means that schools, colleges and universities partly demand extremely high fees, which the biggest part of the population can, of course, not afford. (Compare the average monthly salary with the costs for one year of studying at university, which is approximately R14,000 - for the typical African extended family, a fortune they can only dream of.) For this reason the Brotherhood set up a special Bursary Fund under the direction of Mr. Geoff Kalkwarf to make further training possible for gifted people and those who are willing to learn, moreover to take over the costs for ordinary schools, boarding schools and books etc. Those who are thus helped out get the chance to progress to higher positions as soon as they have learned to accept responsibility and to understand their contribution to their own society's development as a challenge. Besides they are put into a situation, which enables them to pay for their own children's training, which may raise the society's entire level in the long term. This leads to an alignment of the social classes and - as an ideal result - to a decrease in the criminal rate. If the scholarship holders are indeed successful, they may, as soon as they can, repay all or some of the money to make it easier for the Brotherhood to provide more scholarships. Usually the youngsters or their parents approach the Brotherhood, and after thorough checking a panel decides which of the applicants are the most needy. Afterwards the money is sent direct to the relevant school or university so that it will not be misused. So far the way was smoothed for 18 scholarship holders.


This project is slightly different, although it is not at all less worthy. The problem of loneliness among older people is well known everywhere in the world, and the volunteers' personal commitment has again already been rewarded by the gratefulness of the persons affected. It was and is the intention to free the elderly people of this community from isolation so that they can also actively continue to take part in social life. These meetings, organised by the three Brotherhood members Yvonne Renaud, Wendy Richardson and Margaret Hawthorn, take place regularly once a month, and men and women interchange daily experiences, youth reminisces, joys and sorrows as well as they make friends with each other or renew old friendships. These meetings are always differently arranged: sometimes they play games as Rummy, Bingo or Scrabble, sometimes they just have a nice chat while enjoying tea, coffee and cake. Occasionally there are guests invited who talk about things which may be of interest to the Club members. Among others, for example, a doctor came to report about particular side effects of getting older and to give recommendations on conduct. Additionally he showed body exercises, which were easy to copy for the seniors. As I could see for myself, the participants really enjoyed the mornings and often came up with their own ideas for the program to keep THEIR Twilight Club alive. The decision has been taken to meet bimonthly in the new year. Those who do not possess any car or are not able to drive anymore are picked up by volunteers and later on brought back home again. In the near future it is planned (among other things) to go on outings to the sights of this area in order to provide even better entertainment. Moreover a link shall be forged constantly between Young and Old meanwhile integrating the catechism children into the Twilight Club meetings more and more. This year, for example, the children performed a nativity play for the Seniors' Christmas party. In Mangete the integration is already carried out: the meetings are principally arranged by the Parish Youth Club under the guidance of Marj and Gerald Clark and their son Hayne.

Wherever there are people in need, the Brotherhood tries to help where possible. One day I visited an old man with Father Gérard, who suffered a terrible skin disease, which caused permanent itching. Although he was successfully treated in hospital several times, it was extremely difficult for him to follow the medical instructions, which were: thoroughly washing his body four times per day, as well as cleaning his clothes and bed linen. Regarding the circumstances in which people find themselves living in the Bush, as I described in the beginning, you will know why it was almost impossible, because the nearest water hole is placed more or less 10 km away. Therefore he always got infected again and again. As a result the Brotherhood built a water tank right next to his house with money that came from donations, and now he can scoop water from it as often as he needs to. And just by taking this relatively "trivial" measure, his condition improved rapidly.

I hope that all these descriptions give you an impression of what is going on here. In my eyes the BROTHERHOOD OF BLESSED GÉRARD has understood the root of all misery and begun work precisely on this basis. The only chance to help out the poor people of this country is by supporting them in gaining the freedom, ability and independence which strengthens them to be able to contribute on their part to their humane, economical, cultural and ethical development. This aid must be given, in cash or in kind, by anyone who is able to assist, for we have an essential responsibility which we must simply not escape from. Of course, there is much further need for patience, eagerness, perseverance and strong will, because the many various problems are closely related. However, you will agree with me that they have achieved a lot since the foundation of the Brotherhood, more than one may have dared to hope, and my wholehearted wish to this "extended family" is that they may continue to be as successful as possible and never become complacent!!

Diane von Wrede

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This page was last updated on Tuesday, 15 January 2013 12:50:11