The annual newsletter of the British Association of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta


Three weeks of care in Mandini:

another kind of pilgrimage

Piers Birtwistle joined Lillian Molloy in a deeply affecting experience

THE ORDER’S AIDS HOSPICE and Children’s Home in Mandini, South Africa, run by the Brotherhood of the Blessed Gerard, is regularly visited by members of the British Association and volunteers. Lillian Molloy, who goes every year, went in June to teach First Aid Courses to the Zulu volunteers in the Care Centre; Piers Birtwistle went to work as a volunteer in the Hospice and Children’s Home. 88% of the local population are HIV positive and there is a long waiting list for the new anti retroviral programme.

After an induction day, Piers began three weeks of tasks, varied and often emotional. He started with the 27 children in the care of the Order, some orphaned, some abandoned, some physically disabled, but most emotionally traumatised, aged from a few months to 10 years.

Extracts from his diary describe some of his experiences: On the children, who soon had Piers entertaining them with stories, singing and games: ‘Much to my amazement, when I asked them what songs they knew, I had 24 Zulu children singing We All Live in a Yellow Submarine...’

On Zulu music: ‘At Sunday Mass, the Zulu helpers sang glorious Zulu songs and Christian hymns, all in different descants and perfect pitch. The sound made one’s skin tingle.’

On the surrounding countryside: ‘We drove through the heart of Zululand. Kraals (the Zulus’ homes) dotted the hills as far as the eye could see... children running around outside their huts or tending their cattle, mothers with little ones coming back up the hills with enormous buckets of water perched on their heads to bring home for cooking, washing and drinking. It is a struggle to educate the Zulus on the importance of boiling water before they drink it.’

On the care environment: ‘During the day I am torn between crying with emotion, laughing at the absurdity of my situation and being overwhelmed, almost suffocated with this avalanche of love, purity, honesty, decency and selflessness that everyone has here... Simple things are so impressive - such as a tea party today, not just tea and cakes, but the arrival of all the Zulu volunteers, who came in and sang. Each one picked up a child and danced with them, either on their shoulders or in their arms.’

On the end of each day: ‘Before I went off duty I had a last look around the wards. Saying goodnight to the patients, I was overwhelmed by the love that is in this hospice. It sends shivers down my spine...’

On befriending a very small dying patient: ‘…my little friend Menzie, aged 3. Over the last two weeks I had become so fond of him and spent much time with him. He had an AIDS-related illness where he shed one entire layer of skin every 24 hours. I spent half an hour in the morning and then half an hour in the evening peeling off all the loose skin which was irritating him. He was so brave, and never complained. His entire scalp was peeling which then got caught up in the little black curls on his head. I set about covering him in baby oil until he glistened. He loved massages. He would lie there smiling, very quietly, free from scratching, temporarily – a brief respite from a miserable three year life.’

On recognising your help: ‘I thank you all, as I am sure would all the people I have helped looked after, if they could. You have helped make their final days comfortable and dignified.’

On the work of the Hospice: ‘Every day the Hospice ambulance goes out into the bush to bring in terminally ill patients from the most squalid surroundings; often they have terrible, untreated bedsores. Most are young people coming to the Hospice to have a dignified, clean and loved end to their lives…’

As a professional photographer Piers took over 600 photographs for Fr Gerard to use for fundraising. The Hospice needs support. Please contact Fr Gerard on

The Hospitaller · 2006 · page 3

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