For 2011, HP employees chose the Alan Kerins Project as their Charity of the Year. In November, I had the unique opportunity to visit Zambia to see how the funds raised by HP employees were being applied. Alan himself led a travelling group of 10, all of whom had provided support to the charity.
Being honest, I was apprehensive about the visit. I had volunteered with enthusiasm but as the departure date approached I became anxious about what I would find in Zambia and how I would deal with it. Apart from Alan, I knew none of the travelling party, and wondered how we would all get on for 10 days under possibly stressful conditions.
All I can say is that my anxieties quickly evaporated and I would consider the visit to be one of the most telling experiences of my life. In many respects, travelling with a group that was unknown to me was a positive - it allowed me to completely detach from normal life. And, inevitably, the experience helped to form new friendships that I know will endure.
Over 10 days, we travelled across Zambia to visit the communities where AKP is active. Most of our time was spent in Western Province , the poorest region of Zambia. At Kaoma, AKP’s work is focused on an orphanage and at Mongu on a centre for disabled children. However, in both cases, AKP’s support extends out into the wider community.. Not surprisingly, Irish religious orders are at the core of both institutions – Sr Molly at Kaoma and Sr Cathy at Mongu, both Presentation sisters. We also met with Fr Paddy Barry SMA (All-Ireland medallist with Cork in 1976 ) who works in the poorest slums in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. AKP has provided funding for some of Fr Paddy’s projects, which include a maternity hospital.
One had to be impressed by the energy and dynamism of these remarkable people. However it was their simple humanity that struck me above all else. Their primary instinct is to connect with people, to understand them and to help them in a way that respects their individual dignity and their culture.
Era of heroic missionaries coming to an end
As Fr Paddy pointed out to us on our final night, the era of these heroic missionaries is coming to an end. The good news is that their work will be carried on by a new generation of volunteers coming from Ireland. AKP is funding two of these volunteers in Kaoma, Michelle Hennessy, a community development worker from Lismore, and Joe McLean, an engineer from Ballina. Both show the same instinct to connect with the local community and to approach their work with sensitivity and consideration.
AKP’s model is very much “hand-up” rather than “handout”. Perhaps “hand in hand” is the most appropriate term. The centres at Kaoma and Mongu are supported by revenue generating projects which AKP has helped kick-start. For example, the orphanage’s food needs are largely met by their own 200 hectare farm, directed by Sr Molly (who comes from a farming background ). The clearance of the farm and the purchase of farm machinery was funded by AKP. Sr Molly has a creative approach to labour for the farm - when necessary she contracts in inmates from the local prison.
Access to water is fundamental to all other projects. Apart from the most obvious benefits eg. enabling agriculture, it has other positive effects. For example, easy access to water allows families to send their children to school – when the nearest well is many kilometres away, children are needed for the daily ferrying of water. It also enables other revenue generating projects such as block-making. AKP has funded water projects in Mongu that have had a large positive impact, and, under Joe McLean’s direction, a well- drilling project is now underway to provide reliable and easy access to water in Kaoma.
Extended family and the wider community are fundamental to the lives of the people of Mongu and Kaoma. They are not just life-enhancing, they are essential to survival. Helping communities to develop and thrive is at the core of AKP’s work. One of the highlights of our visit was the opening of a soccer pitch at Kaoma, the first phase of the Kaoma Youth and Development Centre. A large and enthusiastic crowd turned up for the opening. It was clear that they place great value on this centre as a way to build their community. Later in the week, the “macuyos” (ie, us ) played a soccer match against the boys from the orphanage. (The result was a diplomatic 5-5 draw ).
Older boys live a carefree outdoor life like Ireland of many years ago
The older boys at the orphanage live at Boystown, which includes dormitories, a school and a small farm (all funded by AKP ). They live a carefree, outdoor life which is not dissimilar to what children in rural Ireland would have enjoyed a generation ago. They treated us to a spectacular gymnastics display, their equipment comprising no more than three carefully arranged concrete blocks. Seeing how they live made us realise how careful any attempts to “improve” their lives need to be.
We saw many, many things on our visit that were positive and uplifting. Far from imposing our ideas and values on the people of Western Zambia, we saw many opportunities to learn from them – or perhaps to relearn values that we have lost in Ireland over the last generation. However, the challenges that these people face day to day cannot be ignored. Life expectancy in Zambia is just 37 years. AIDS has ravaged and continues to ravage the population. People live at a level of poverty which makes them mortally vulnerable to minor financial shock, illness or extreme weather. They desperately need that “hand-up” from the developed world.
There are many deserving charities that request our support, including those that are on our own doorstep. On what basis do you choose to help one rather than another? The only answer I can offer is that once you have connected with people who need help, however that happens, it is difficult to look the other way. Alan Kerins made that connection during a three-month term as a physiotherapist in Mongu six years ago, and since then he has been responsible to helping many others, including our travelling group, to make a similar connection.
This article was written in appreciation of the remarkable experience I had in Zambia. I offer my sincere thanks to the AKP staff home and abroad, to Sr Cathy, Sr Molly, Fr Paddy and their staffs, and, especially, to the people of Zambia.