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They won’t believe you’re coming until they see you

The Belvedere Challenge 2006 with Friends in Ireland Gerrry Clarke looks back on an extraordinary fortnight at the Makoba Mission, South Africa, with a group from Belvedere and from Friends in Ireland. Their mission: to build the walls of a wash-house for children suffering from AIDS.


Our mission was to raise the walls of a wash house for the children orphaned by AIDS at the Makoba Mission near Kokstad in South Africa. It was a long journey by plane, ‘combie’ (a small van), and ‘bakkie’ (a pick-up truck) that brought us to the remotest communities of the Drakensberg foothills. Under the shadow of those snow-capped mountains and in an icy-wind, our 19-strong group of Belvedere school-leavers laboured hard to complete the tasks.

Probably the best thing we brought was hope: hope that someone was starting to care for them. But our medical clinics and construction work will be a very real help to many children who face hardship and early death. Sister Natalia described how last year, with the arrival of the first volunteer group, the forest of white crosses was halted in its advance across the field given to her for the burial of AIDS-infected infants. A native of the region, her commitment, and that of the whole diocese of Kokstad, is bringing aid to this forgotten corner of the “Rainbow Nation”.

I’ll never forget the Mass at the Franciscan Mission in Hardenberg. The sound of South African harmonies still echoes in my ears. It was one long celebration with song and movement and spontaneous prayer. Truly these people understand what it is to be in community together, and I suspect that it is their very poverty that makes faith so natural and so real. There was also their palpable joy at having ‘visitors’ – people to share their life for a couple of weeks and experience perhaps their grieving for relatives lost through AIDS, or their joy at victory for the local football team on the hilltop pitch.

“Singamaphuthi ahlathi linye” is a Xhosa proverb meaning “We are blue-bucks of one forest” and it is the equivalent of our expression “We’re in the one boat”. I think this is what they felt as we walked with them up to the hilltop or jumped into the back of a pick-up truck, or ‘bakkie’. It had taken a lot of persuasion for them to believe that we would arrive at all because the authorities have promised so much and delivered so little. Another promise of help is so easily made, and it is so disappointing when it is not honoured. “They won’t believe you’re coming until they see you,” we were told, and perhaps that is why we were so over-awed by the ululations and song and dance that welcomed us during the first liturgy.

The hope is that this will be the first of many volunteer efforts in this region formerly known as the Transkei. Enormous work remains to be done on the three fronts of medical care, educational assistance, and child-care focussed on orphans. With the Friends in Ireland, a charity set up by Marian Finucane and her husband John Clarke, perhaps alumni from our Jesuit schools can bring that help. But they won’t believe we’re coming until they see us.