By Cormac McCarthy-Hann
Vernam Timbini is a 38-year-old man, married with two young daughters, from Zimbabwe who joined SERVE in 2008 and has been working for the organisation in Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe ever since. Trying to give Vernam a job title is no easy task. He is everything from a construction site manager to a translator, a mentor to a counsellor. A once off encounter with Vernam is enough to leave an indelible impression on anyone, imagine then how attached one becomes after four weeks with this incredible man. I find myself racking my brains for an appropriate word to describe him but to no avail. The man defies description, he may only be written about in superlatives. He is the jolliest, the most optimistic, the friendliest, kindest, funniest and most insightful man I know, but his uniqueness lies in his ability to combine all of these and roll them in to one Zimbabwean pastor with perfect teeth.
‘Ok guys’… That was all it took. Two simple, seemingly insignificant words suddenly turned the pathetic departures lounge of Beira airport into the backdrop for one of the most emotional goodbyes of our young lives. He hugged the person next to me and as he did, she burst into sobs. ‘I will miss you’ he said, sombre and monotone. As he offered these words of comfort, I could feel my eyes swell and sting with tears. My chin quivered and my brow furrowed as I tried to restrain the emotion of the moment. He ended his embrace and slowly turned towards me. I could not meet his eyes, but I knew he looked into mine, red and bloodshot with sadness. He wrapped his arms around me and hugged me as though we were brothers. ‘I will miss you. I love you’ he said. As he uttered those words, I heard the slightest hint of a crack in his normally solid and jovial voice. I surprised myself as I mustered a reply, barely able to squeeze the words past the lump in my throat. ‘I will miss you Baba’ I said. He let me go and moved on to the next. I tried to look at the faces of those opposite me, careful to make sure our teary eyes didn’t meet. Their faces were a perfect mirror of my own, puffed up and red with the tears of an unwanted goodbye. I traced his movements as he embraced one and then the next, leaving emotional wrecks in his wake. Finally, he turned to us all. Two tears erupted from the corner of each of his eyes and raced to his jaw. He raised his arms and wiped them both with his shirt cuffs. Waving his hands above his head he said ‘goodbye, thank you, I love you’.
He turned and walked towards the automatic doors. A walk that lasted an eternity. The doors slid open and he left. Silence hung heavy over the group as we stared into space or at the ground, trying our best to remain composed. A packet of tissues was passed around as we gathered our suitcases and began our homeward journey.
A wish that we all share; one day we will see Mr Vernam Timbini in Ireland.
By Fiachra Brennan
Disability Awareness for School Children (DASC) is a pioneering initiative by the Association of People with Disability (APD) in Bangalore, India. The project aims to tackle stigma and discrimination towards people with disability (PWD). It strives to do this by engaging school children in sensitisation training, an experiential learning experience that allows the participants to get a glimpse into the challenges and obstacles faced by those living with a disability. Students participate in a 90-minute session, taking part in activities such as using a wheelchair, walking whilst blindfolded, and learning basic sign-language. They get to learn directly from people living with a variety of disabilities, many of whom work for APD.
At the end of the day participant feedback is gathered to assess the impact of the training on the participants and gauge how their knowledge, attitudes, and practices (KAP) have been altered as a result. The project has been active since October 2018. 2,226 students and 213 teachers have taken part so far, with overwhelmingly positive feedback.
This project is co-funded by SERVE (through Redemptorist International Solidarity), with the support of Misean Cara. Fiachra Brennan, SERVE Volunteer and Fundraising Coordinator, recently completed a monitoring visit to India and had the opportunity to visit the project, observe the progress achieved, and engage in planning for the next stage of the initiative. According to Fiachra,
‘This project is a ground-breaking initiative. It makes students aware of the difficulties faced for people with disabilities in a very interactive way. It is completely different from reading about it in a book. More so than that, this project is designed to inspire change. Students return to school armed with additional knowledge and a fresh perspective, ready to do their little bit to make the world a more inclusive place’
‘The programme hopes to positively influence and impact the attitudes and behaviour of the youngsters towards the differently-abled. They are after all the next generation of decision-makers – employers, service providers, business owners, advocates, policymakers – teachers, colleagues, neighbours and friends’
SERVE and APD began working together in 2007. Since then SERVE have successfully placed over 35 volunteers and secured several rounds of institutional funding to support a range of APD initiatives including an educational outreach programme for out-of-school children with disabilities, the renovation of key training facilities, and the provision of specialist equipment.
By John Reilly
As part of our volunteering programme in Vietnam, we are heavily involved in the education in the local school. This will last for the period we are here and we aim to be as active as possible. Teaching in these classes can offer a variety of different experiences as the ages range from 6/7 year olds to 16 year olds students. Whilst the majority of this involvement is teaching English to 12 classes of roughly 30 students a day, every day, we also offer an extra curricular option after school everyday of music, art, dance and sports. This option proved very popular amongst the students as during their normal school time, they don’t get to do such activities. They go to school from 7:00-11:00, go home and spend the rest of the day helping their family and studying alone at home. Having hobbies was not really an option for most of the children. It was then decided that we would offer these students an opportunity to enjoy a day entirely devoted to sports for them, so that they could enjoy some time free from work and school to let the kids, be kids.
On Saturday the 13th of July, we offered our students a unique experience of being able to have a sports day amongst the pupils. A 6:00 start for the volunteers was needed as the day had to be finished by 12, before the 40* degree heat of the Vietnamese sun beat down on the children. We spent the first hour or so of the morning setting up the school to be ready for the kids and fully kitted out for all the sports. An idea so basic at home was almost unheard of here and by the time we started at 8:00, we had 120 students ready and eager to play, compete and have fun.
We offered them the chance to play such stalemates of Irish sports days such as football, races, skipping, tug of war, dancing, obstacles courses, volleyball, balloon bang and sticks. Our volunteers divided the school courtyard up so that every activity had its own area each. In order to make the day run as smoothly as possible, we had each group split up by face paints into separate teams that were paired together for the whole day. This kept them competitive as they were playing against each other all the time. It also held them in the same games so there was less of a chance of chaos when they moved games.
Throughout the day, seeing the kids enjoying themselves and experiencing these new games was a joyful feeling because of how rare this would be for them. These kids got to have a chance to enjoy themselves that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. We came away from our day fulfilled that even by such a little act, we had made such a difference in these kids days.
By Kyle O’Sullivan
My recent trip to the Philippines, even though it was tough was a great experience to have. The only time I ever really heard about the Philippines was from being in school with people from the Philippines, being neighbours with Filipino’s who are living in Ireland, or even Manny Pacquiao as both a boxer and as a senator for the Philippines. I didn’t know what to expect and even seeing the videos at the training days and getting a heads up from a work colleague ….I still didn’t know what to expect even though I was told first-hand what to expect but I just had to see it first hand, regardless of who knew better than me. When the plane landed ,the first thing I saw was a magnificent airport and my immediate thoughts were “Thought they said the economy was struggling!”.
From driving from Cebu Airport to Holy Family Retreat Centre looking out the van window I soon realised that I wasn’t in Mahon anymore. The traffic and the number of cars on the road showed the population was massive compared to Ireland. When we arrived at where we were staying the only thing I really wanted to see after all the travelling was a bed!
The next morning going out on the Jeepneys was great fun! But it was at Fooda when I realised that both their security guard and the one back at Holy Family were both armed. This really showed that the culture is very different. The first few days were a break into what was going to happen before we started our 3 days of retreats with Redemptorist Youth Ministry (RYM) Cebu and Tacloban. We were able to meet the SERVE Volunteer Programme Group and see what they had done with the Badjao. We also met the teachers from Nano Nagle which was a great insight into what was ahead. The retreat days turned out to be better than what I had expected. These days allowed us to build friendships with both the young people of both RYM Cebu and Tacloban. When these days were finished, we went out to Nano Nagle to work with the amazing teachers there. These teachers are paid less than teachers in other schools even though they do their job better and with less resources. My first two classes in the Nano Nagle Centre were in the Montessori and to be honest It was here that I felt out of place at first. I was not used to being around this many small children and being in the room at the start made me uncomfortable. As the day progressed, I became more involved, especially when Edwina and I started to discuss the community garden that they are thinking of.
While we were in the Nano Nagle centre, even though I got on very well with all the teachers Edwina and I had a very good bond, that I will cherish forever. While we were in the Centre, we visited Site A, which was an eye opener. The extreme conditions that the people who live there go through everyday really puts into reality how well off we live compared to them. They must walk across planks of wood to get to and from school every day and to go shopping. While out in Site A, I paused for a moment and the adrenaline went from me and when I looked down, I realised, with a fear of heights and water how bad these people live but are happy where they live. The water below us was covered in a sheet of rubbish. We also got to see the inside of one of the houses in the Badjao and see how their houses are built. This house belonged to Venerva, one of the teachers in the school. While we were here, she explained about the Badjao traditions like a dowry being offered for a bride’s hand in marriage, to how they built their houses and how much time her husband is away for work. This much detail on the difference in the lives’s we live and if that was Ireland, we would complain but in the Badjao they don’t complain about it. Leaving Venerva’s house was like walking around as celebrities as everyone was saying hello to us and waving goodbye to us.
We completed workshops with the Badjao young people on items like what would they like to see changed in the Badjao, bullying workshops and playing Ice breakers, of which I co-lead one with Martin. Every day lunch is prepared by the team and I helped out one day to help with the lunch. While the teachers had lunch with us it felt like one big massive family. We stayed with the Nano Nagle team until the day before we left to return to Ireland. On our last day with the teachers they played a video of what we had done with the group and had pictures of each of us that were taken on the day (By me! Hahah). The teachers waited until the group had left and told us how happy they were to have us and each member of the group thanked us and they went around and gave us all cards with each card having a personal message in the card. Leaving the school was hard personally for me as I had made a close bond with the teachers – especially Edwina, and walking up from the school to the entrance to the badjao for the last time, it was hard trying to hold back tears of sadness. The teachers had a massive affect on all of us – mainly me. These teachers took us into their workplace, their homes and their heart and leaving them was like leaving family. The teachers at Nano Nagle will always have a place in my heart. While on the plane home It was hard to hold back tears and when landing in Dublin as I would have preferred to have stayed on the plane and go back to the Philippines!
By Cormac McCarthy-Hann
Mozambicans don’t do hopelessness. A conversation with a Mozambican of any age, gender or socio-economic background will make it abundantly clear that hope is at the heart of everything they do. To be hopeless in Mozambique is to be an anomaly. In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, which devastated the vitally important port city of Beira, one would expect the already destitute people of Mozambique to be terminally melancholy. This is a country which in 2017 was ranked 3rd in the world for deaths due to HIV/AIDS, placed 11th in the world in 2018 for infant mortality rate and was 218th globally for average life expectancy at birth. Combine these statistics and the conditions necessary for their attribution with a major weather event more destructive than any previously experienced in the South-West Indian Ocean Basin. What you get when the two are mixed is a not a place of despair and self-pity as would be natural to assume, but a country with a young and ambitious population eager to make the best of any opportunity that comes their way.
The campuses of Young Africa Beira and Dondo are brimming with hopeful and highly aspirational youths and my daily conversations with them are the reason and basis for this blog. They are the embodiment of hope in a place where very little should exist. The students I spoke to aged between 15 and 29 and they all had the same goal; graduate from their course, find a job that pays enough for them to support their family, and ultimately ensure their children’s standard of living is better than their own. One such example was a 16-year-old boy called Omega. I met Omega at an English class which we were invited to by an eccentric teacher named August. To begin the class, Omega was asked by his teacher to explain the use of personal pronouns and without hesitation he rose from his chair, took up the chalk and started scribbling and speaking with remarkable fluency. He confidently gave examples and pointed out common mistakes to his fellow students, some of whom were several years older than he was. When his lesson was over, he was given a well-deserved round of applause as he retook his seat. After Omega’s short lecture, August asked us to form pairs with the students next to us and speak a few short sentences about where we were from, what our pastimes were and so on. A fellow volunteer was paired with Omega and with the minimum of encouragement Omega began to tell his partner all about himself. He began by saying that he lived near the Young Africa campus and that he walked there every day for English lessons. His nieces were dependant on him to make their meals and bring them to and from school. He had been studying English since he was 13 and he spent most of his spare time teaching himself (it was plain to see he was much brighter than most others in his class and of his age). His dream was to move to Maputo and study dentistry in the university there and to get a job that pays enough for him to be able to support his struggling family. His concluded his inspiring story as the class ended and as we left the room, we wished him the best of fortunes in all his endeavours.
Omega is no outlier. A young man named Manuel worked with us for the entirety of our trip and his story is strikingly similar to Omega’s. Manuel was studying construction and hoped to graduate in July of next year. He stood out from the start as energetic and outgoing, taking to every task with zeal and verve. He stayed behind after work several times to teach us how to dance to his favourite artist, Michael Jackson. Speaking to him before the graduation ceremony for this year’s crop of students, I asked him about his family. He said that his mother, father and one of his three sisters were all dead. He and one other student now share a living space separate to their family homes. I did not ask how they died. As with Omega, Manuel’s story is not unique. The other boys and girls we worked with had similar stories and their own aspirations which, because of Young Africa, were genuinely reachable.
It is obvious to see that Young Africa’s centre in Beira is not a true representation of the wider Beria area. Most Mozambicans will not attend school for longer than 10 years. Plainly, this is a great injustice and a waste of untapped potential. Those who so study and graduate from Young Africa provide opportunity for the less fortunate. They set up auto mechanic shops, become successful electricians, start bicycle repair shops, work as chefs in kitchens and follow many more noble pursuits in their communities. All of this generates wealth for the locality and indirectly raises the living standard for those who have not been so lucky to attend and complete such courses. Graduates from Young Africa not only bring hope to their families, but also to their neighbours.
As I sit at my desk writing this blog, thinking about the past month, I can’t help but be excited for the future of Mozambique. A small cohort of bright-eyed and hard-working young men and women are beginning a journey that will bring small improvements in each of their towns and villages and although the improvements are small and the progress is piecemeal, little by little they carve a path for the next group of enterprising youths with unshakable hopes and soaring dreams. As for me, I take a leaf from the book of Omega, Manuel, Salifa, Joel and so many more when I say that I hope Young Africa continues its work for as long as possible because the appetite for education and progress is one that I cannot see being sated for a long time.
By Ciaran O’Donnell
On the approach into Beira International Airport it was observed that the city of Beira, with its 500,000 occupants, is precariously situated on a delta like estuary of the Pungwe and Savannah river. This coupled with its closes proximity to the Indian Ocean makes the city of Beira extremely vulnerable to extreme weather events.
One such extreme weather event occurred on the 14th of March 2019. When Cyclone Idai made landfall on the eastern coast of Mozambique, strong winds and torrential rain caused extensive flooding, killing 501 people and affecting 1.85 million others. On closer inspection from the air, the damage caused is evident with a vast number of buildings showing extensive damage to the streets and roofs.
I was pleasantly surprised when I met some of the residents of Beira, who are clearly shaken from the events of March. However they are far from broken. As they share their individual survival stories, it is clear that the Mozambicans are a resilient and resourceful people who have, on more than one case, spoken jokingly about Cyclone Idai.
Almost four months after Cyclone Idai, most buildings in Beira still have concrete blocks or old car tyres anchoring the damaged roofs on. Besides this, the people are well on their way to recovery.
When I arrived in Mozambique three weeks ago I had no idea what to expect from this trip. This morning when I woke up, I still had no idea what to expect from the day. Beira is unlike anywhere I’ve been before and continues to surprise me day in, day out, whether that be due to a frog jumping out of the toilet at me, the genuine connections that you forge with the locals despite speaking different languages or the medical and counselling centre that is being constructed on the YA Dondo campus as I type. This is a place where I am excited to wake up every day and where I’ve learnt to never expect the expected.
If you’ve heard about Beira, Mozambique recently it may be due to Cyclone Idai and the devastating effects it had on the city. You may envision a place of misery and poverty which is to some degree accurate. Beira is still recovering, homes were destroyed, families are grieving and if you look around you can see this, however this is not what defines Beira. While staying at Young Africa I’ve met some of the most genuine, welcoming and all around amazing people. From the moment we started work here we’ve been welcomed with a smile and friendly “Hola”, we’ve been invited into English classes and been taught Portuguese, we’ve shared stories and jokes with the students through their broken English and our broken Portuguese and I’ve even been taught to dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
The people here are never without a smile in their face,despite having so much to worry about they don’t allow themselves to get caught up in their problems and the trivial day to day stresses which so often occupy our life’s at home.What has to happen will happen even if it’s a bit delayed,for example when the basketball hoops were only being assembled at 10:30am on sports day despite the fact that the first match was due to take place at 10am. The competition still went ahead,winners were crowned and all the rest but unlike at home where panic stations would have been at level 100 here they simply went about their work in their usual nonchalant manner.
I think Beira and Young Africa would surprise many and it certainly opened my eyes to the fact that poverty does not mean that these people live a life of complete misery or that they are far behind the times. Most of the students here own a smart phone of some sort, despite the fact that some of them may not have a proper home to go to in the evenings. Out in Dondo a medical and counselling centre is being constructed on the Young África campus and counselling facilities are available here at the Beira campus already something which certainly came as a shock to me considering that in Ireland we are still working to reduce the stigma around mental health.
I’ve learnt so much since arriving here and it’s an experience that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.