Jane’s experience in Africa

12th Sep


Jane’s experience in Africa

My name is Jane. I am a third year medical student. I have dreamed of travelling to Africa to partake in missionary work since I was a young child. This summer I have managed to fulfil this dream thanks to the Salesian sisters.

The Salesian sisters live in my parish. I have always admired the work they undertake in the local community. I contacted Sr. Dympna with the desire to spend a month in Africa. I attended the VIDES meetings and learned both of the objectives for our sojourn in Africa and of the Salesian ethos. It was decided that I would travel to Fine-Town which is situated adjacent to Johannesburg. Suffice to say that I was both excited and apprehensive about my trip.

I travelled to Johannesburg with a lady from my parish. I did not know her prior to our excursion. We were both united in our desire to aid with the works of Bosco’s disciples and in our lust for new adventures.

I prepared myself mentally for the desolate sight of abject poverty. I expected to see scenes like the ones in the ad campaigns where the children are literally starving to death. But I did not see emaciated children before me. Instead, I saw nourished and relatively salubrious children before me. I did not detect a single child dressed in rags. I figured that these children mustn’t be the ‘poorest of the poor.’ I engaged in discourse with the sisters about this. They informed me that the children were severely mal-nourished when the sisters first arrived fourteen years ago. However, progressively over time, the children became more healthy. To me, these healthy and spritely children are a true validation of the Don Bosco Mission.

One thing that really surprised me was how cold it was over there. Since it is located in the Southern Hemisphere it was winter over there in July. While we were graced with celestial blue skies, it remained quite chilly. We endowed ourselves with our woolly jumpers and coats. It was about 20C each day. But the higher altitudes meant that we were cold. The nights were bitterly cold. It reached the minus temperatures. I sorely missed our central heating on those nights.

I think the key to making the most of one’s experience is to be flexible with what one is willing to work on. I went to Africa thinking that I would be just teaching drama. I did indeed manage to fulfil this. But my day was also filled with lots of administrative work. This entailed interviewing the children and seeking certain information from the child. Then I would correlate this information and to create a file for each child. My main objective was to be as useful as I could to the sisters.

We had a lot of contact with the teachers. I grew particularly close with one of the teachers- Portia. She was incredible warm, welcoming, genuine and most importantly a sincere friend to me. We spent two Saturdays hanging out together. We indulged in our shared passion: shopping. Portia and I hail from drastically different backgrounds. She lives in a shack, has yet to attend third-level, is from a different culture and is a different colour to me. And yet, these differences completely dissolved as we spent time together.

We worked with fellow volunteers from all parts of Europe. There were Italians, Slovakians, Belgians and people from the Czech Republic. It was fascinating to speak with them and to learn of their different cultures. We all stood united in the spirit of Don Bosco.

We had plenty of free time to ourselves. This enabled us to discover what Johannesburg had to offer us. In the evenings, we generally lounged about. On the weekends we seized the opportunity to see as much of the place as possible. We soon familiarised ourselves with the local transport. We saw many interesting things: the apartheid museum , the African Craft Fair, the African museum, the shopping malls and Witts University.

I learned a lot about the Salesian ethos. They do not merely help poor Catholic children. They aid children of all creeds. They do not segregate on the basis of religion. They select the children that are truly needy- ‘the poorest of the poor.’ I was relieved also to learn that it is not merely a case of exchanging food for faith. They do not try to pressure the children into joining Catholicism. They are very respectful of the child’s own faith. They endeavour to maintain the dignity of the individual at all times.

I think that my most important lesson for me in Africa was that poverty is not the sole problem. There are abundant social issues gripping the third world. The sisters are not merely distributing cash and hence solving the problem. They are faced with unthinkable horrors. They work tirelessly to preserve the sanctity of childhood amongst their pupils. They are the true heroes among us!

My trip was very beneficial for my faith. I felt as though I was renewed spiritually amongst the poverty. God was very evident over there. I saw him in the efforts of the sisters, the joy of the children, the general ambiance of the school. I strongly believe that all the people responsible for the organisation of this school are inspired by our Lord. They use faith as their compass and what a wonderful job they are doing!

People are extremely grateful for our contribution to the project. The sisters always lavished us with plenty of praise. I felt as though we were a big family. Furthermore, the sisters instilled within the children the importance of appreciation. The children were always thankful for what they received. At the end of our trip the teachers, students and children organised a Thank-you spectacle. It was filled with songs, dances and speeches. They thanked us individually throughout. I felt my heart soar with pride.

I had the possibility of venturing to many far-flung locations this summer. And yet, I would not have changed my month in South Africa for anything. I learned copious lessons about myself and about the world. I met plenty of interesting people. I was allowed to completely assimilate into an alien culture. And most of all I felt as though I was doing something actually worthwhile with my time. This feeling is absolutely priceless!

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