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I left my heart in Africa

There’s no denying it – the statistics are grim.  It is estimated that 24.8% of Botswana’s population (aged 15 to 49) are afflicted with HIV/Aids, and the average life expectancy is less than 40 years. That’s a lot of parents who are unwillingly leaving their children and babies orphaned or in a vulnerable situation – and what is happening to them?

Last month I travelled to Thamaga, Botswana as part of the Botswana Orphan Project, along with 22 other volunteers from Australia and New Zealand. Our mission? Firstly, to build and furnish three classrooms and a playground in 3 weeks, and secondly, to saturate the community of Thamaga with a message of love and hope – to let them know that they hadn’t been forgotten.  Our team was made up of Occupational Therapists, Lawyers, Teachers, Managers, Engineers…and one Builder! Luckily he was overwhelmingly patient, as he taught the rest of us how to make bricks, lay bricks, keep the walls straight, put a roof on, gib the ceiling, tile the floors, use power tools, among many, many other tasks. I had gone from spending my days sitting at a desk, staring at a computer (most of my movement was sneaking out to get coffee) to at least 8 hours of physical work a day. It was tough at first, and my body screamed at me, but after a few days of hauling bricks my arms and I adjusted to the work.

The whole team stayed together on-site in the Orphanage that had been built the previous year. We had a full immersion into African culture, dancing and food – we were even all given African names. Local ladies from the village came to cook for us – they cooked outside on an open fire, and created food masterpieces with only a pot. It certainly put all my kitchen gadgets to shame! New foods were entered into our repertoire – goat was no longer a cute animal, it was now stew.

While construction was going on, we also ran a Kids Club twice a week. Local kids came to play games, sing songs, paint faces, draw pictures and play football. I completely fell in love with the kids, their big smiles, their belly laughs, and their kind hearts. During the building process we had been slowly erecting a playground. The kids had longingly been watching the progress, but had not been able to touch it for safety (and paint!) reasons. On the last day of Kids Club, the playground was finished and ready for action! We left it till the end, and then explained that they were allowed to play on it on the count of 3….. 1, 2, 3 – and all that could be heard was an almighty roar of screams and laughter as 50 kids descended on the playground (the only playground in the town). The entire team stopped whatever they were doing to watch – it was a really special moment for us all, as we realised that our seemingly hard work had already been rewarded by the smiles and joy we saw.

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On the weekends we had the opportunity to travel to other orphanages and settlements, to distribute donated clothing, toys and food. Here I experienced first-hand the effect of HIV/AIDs – the beautiful children who are left behind. Apart from giving out the goods we had, we also stayed and sang songs, played games and had lots of cuddles. Personally I felt that these things were more important than the material things – as much as those were desperately needed, the orphans are also needy for love, smiles, and hugs. The words of Mother Teresa came to mind “There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love.”

After a few late working nights, we managed to finish the classrooms and playground by our deadline date. We left the running of the Orphanage and Orphan Centre in the hands of the Botswana Union Mission, our local partner. They will be responsible for the day to day running of the centre, and care of the orphans. The Orphanage and Orphan Centre are currently waiting for power to be connected (it is extremely expensive and we are trying to get the local government to assist), and we hope to have kids running around the playground, being tucked up into the bunk beds and learning in the classrooms in the next few months.

As much as phrases like “life-changing” get bandied about, this trip truly did change my life. I left Africa with friends for life, new skills, respect for a new culture, slightly larger muscles, overwhelming gratitude for the life I am blessed with, and the desire to do more to help. But more than that, I also left a piece of my heart in Africa – and I will be back to retrieve it soon.

For more information on the Botswana Orphan Project please visit: www.botswanaorphanproject.com

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