Archived News Item

A week’s experience of mercy in South Africa

When Sister Theresa Foley (Goulburn) reached retirement age, she made a request to her congregation to work with victims of AIDS in South Africa. In 2007 that request was granted and Theresa began work in the Dwars River Region of the Limpopo Province in South Africa. Recently, Sister Marie Duffy (Congregation Leader, Goulburn) visited Theresa. Here she reflects on the experience.

Pictured: Sister Marie Duffy (centre) with a HIV-AIDS patient and her two children.

Last month I had the opportunity to spend a week with one of our sisters, Theresa Foley, in the Dwars River Region of the Limpopo Province of South Africa. This is the poorest province in the north of the country, with very few resources available to its desperate people. It is a rural area, and the people live in villages that are isolated, without electricity or water. The nearest town to Dwars River is Bandelierkop.

It would seem, at the time South Africa was beginning to recover from the anti-apartheid regime that the HIV-AIDS epidemic took over the population. According to the South African Department of Health Statistics, there was an estimated 5.4 million people living with HIV in 2006, including 257,000 children. It is predicted the number will exceed 6 million by 2015, by which time around 5.4 million South Africans will have died of AIDS. There is a stigma attached to AIDS and it is very difficult to encourage the people to seek help from the HIV-AIDS clinics.

When she reached retirement age in 2007, Theresa made her request to the congregation to go to South Africa in 2007 to work with the victims of AIDS. She now works as a volunteer with the OLSH Sisters. Her accommodation is in volunteer quarters, located on the same site as St Brendan’s Boarding School, an orphanage (Bakhita Village), the OLSH Convent, De La Salle Monastery, Presbytery and Teachers’ Residence. The site is located three kilometres, (along a dirt track), from the nearest village. Most of the roads are unsealed with large rocks along the way. (Theresa has become very experienced in changing car tyres!)

Upon my arrival at Polokwane Airport on Friday June 6, Theresa received a distressed phone call from one of the workers at the Drop-In Centre, informing her that the owner of the water which is pumped into the Drop-In Centre, had cut off the water supply as the account was in arrears. After making a one hours’ trip to the Drop-In Centre, we discovered the water supply had not in fact been cut off, but the owner was threatening to cut it off! As there were 70 orphans and children at risk expected for lunch, it was necessary for Theresa to quickly resolve the issue. It appeared there had been a communication break-down between the owner and his wife (who had received the money) and there was no interruption to the water supply.

From the Drop-In Centre, we called in to visit the Education for Life Program Manager, Matjale Machaka (who the congregation is sponsoring to come to Australia for WYD08). Matjele’s three year old nephew had died some days before as the result of a fall from a bed. His grandmother, who was caring for him whilst his mother was at work in Praetoria, had taken him to a local doctor, who sent him home, with his foot bandaged! The child commenced fitting later that afternoon and died. His funeral was to be held the following day (Saturday). Within five hours of arriving in Dwars River, I had already met four people who were burying their loved ones the following day.

All funerals in the village are held on Saturdays to enable relatives and friends to attend. Most funeral services are conducted in a large tent erected in the relatives’ back yard as there are far too many funerals for the priests to be able to handle! Funeral plans are compulsory for all residents of South Africa and are for sale in all public places –including supermarkets and post offices!

To assist Matjele in catering for the wake following the funeral, we gave him a 50 kilogram bag of Mealie (maize) meal. (It was no easy task carrying the heavy sack out to the car!) As transport is very limited, we took Matjele shopping in preparation for the wake. We then visited the mother and grandmother of the deceased child. The first (and lasting) vision I had on our arrival was that of a carcass of some description cooking in the ground – covered in flies!

Pictured: Sister Theresa Foley with a carer and her child,
and Ruth, the Home Based Care Program Manager.

I enjoyed Saturday catching up on some sleep and relaxing. Theresa was up early and left home before 6.30am to collect Matjele for the 7am funeral. We went to Mass that evening in the Sacred Heart Chapel which was organised by Years 11 and 12 – the liturgy was very alive.

On Sunday we went for a picturesque drive to Tzaneen via Bourke’s Luck Potholes. These are natural rock formations, on the Blyde River, moulded over centuries by the grinding action of sand and pebbles.

We spent the night in Tzaneen prior to meeting with Sisters Sally (OLSH) and Anita (SJOG). Whilst in Tzaneen, we collected several large bottles of drinking water to take with us to Dwars River.

Each morning we attended 6.30am Mass in the Chapel which was well attended by the De La Salle Brothers, OLSH Sisters, teachers and students from St Brendan’s.

On Tuesday we left our residence at 8am to attend a staff meeting at the Drop-In Centre. During the meeting, reports were given by the Program Managers of the Education for Life Program, Drop-In Centre and Home Based Care. It was at this meeting we discovered the home based carers were on “strike” for a pay increase. Their present wage equates to 500 Rand a month (approximately $A73). These carers are paid by the Government.

Following the meeting, we visited some young women who are HIV-AIDS positive. The first lady had been discovered by Theresa and the Home Based Care Program Manager (Ruth), two weeks earlier. At that stage she was extremely weak and unable to walk. Theresa and Ruth carried her out to the car and drove her to the HIV-AIDS clinic where she was assessed by the doctor and commenced on Anti Retroviral Treatment. Her response to the treatment was dramatic.

We then visited another young woman, who was distressed with pain. Her mother is her carer (as well as the carer for her daughter, and her uncle who suffers from the long term effects of alcoholism).

On Wednesday we visited one of the local Primary Schools to see the Education for Life Program in action. The Education for Life (EFL) Program was introduced to Tzaneen by Bishop Hugh Slattery MSC, in 1995. This followed the success of the program which was introduced to Uganda in 1988 by Sister Kay Lawlor, a Medical Missionary of Mary. Education for Life – A Behaviour Change Process is theological in its foundation. It is a journey about bringing people to wholeness and has a spiritual as well as a physical dimension. Our congregation sponsors the program in the Dwar River region by paying for the transport of the EFL workers to the schools.

We commenced the day with the School Principal who was grateful for the input being given by the EFL workers as, he explained, most teachers feel uncomfortable in discussing sexual matters with the students.

Theresa and I then spent time with the Grade 5 students who discussed the values which were important to them. These included water, self-esteem self-confidence, friendship, Christian life, singing, praying, dancing and good health. Blocks to behaviour change were also discussed e.g. habit, rewards, etc.

We spent the evening at Bakhita Village, an “orphanage” for 27 girls aged between 5 and 15 years of age, who have become orphaned due to the devastating AIDS pandemic. The girls leave the village each morning at 7am to catch the bus to the local school. They usually return at about 2.30pm when they have time for recreation before study time at 4.30pm. There is considerable community, school and Government department support for the program.

My final day, Thursday, was possibly one of the more difficult days as we drove around the village visiting the grandmothers of the children from Bakhita Village, collecting money for the childrens’ support and pocket money (one rand per week = $A.014). The grandmothers receive foster care allowance for the children but many did not want to part with it as they were supporting many other family members. We were accompanied by two of the workers from Bakhita Village who acted as interpreters for us. A couple of the grandmothers were lying on mattresses on the floor as they were not able to walk – one was missing two legs and part of both arms but was nursing a baby. Theresa also organised the childrens’ transport home for the school holidays. That night we shared an enjoyable evening with the De La Salle Brothers (Irish) who had invited us for tea.

I spent Friday morning preparing to leave, whilst Theresa drove Matjele and his partner to attend a pre-marriage program. As there was to be a youth camp in the parish on Saturday and Sunday (Youth Day – June 16), two of the youth workers accompanied us on the trip to Polokwane to do some food shopping for the camp. Once again, Theresa was heavily involved – assisting with items of food and transporting mattresses to the church in her very small car!

I left Theresa with a deep sense of gratitude and pride for her contribution to these deprived people in the name of Mercy.

From: Sister Marie Duffy RSM (Congregation Leader, Goulburn)