By John Mannion
Freedom! What is freedom, I ask myself? This place which we have arrived at is called Freedom Park; Will I find freedom here? This is the place I’ve heard about, read about from SERVE volunteers and now I’ve finally arrived. It’s what one from a western culture would describe as a shanty town or squatter camp roughly 2 hours from Johannesburg, close to a mining area called Rustenburg in South Africa. I try not to rush to judgement when I see all the galvanised houses and huts packed into what looks like a very large field close to a mine. I find the name ironic as surely Freedom Park is the wrong name for this place. I stop my thought process immediately and tell myself not to rush to judgements.
We enter a project in Freedom Park which is supported by SERVE, working in partnership with Tapologo, a local organisation. One of the first things I notice are people sitting outside what looks like a clinic. I’m told that previous SERVE volunteers helped to develop this clinic and the shaded seating area outside. I also learn that all the people waiting outside the clinic are HIV positive. Currently there are 54 different strains of HIV in South Africa and over 6 million people are HIV positive. This information alone is mind blowing for someone coming from a small country like Ireland. I’m immediately at a loss to know how to behave when I see these people sitting on the seats outside the clinic, the words from Yeats poem come immediately to my mind, “tread softly for you tread on my dreams”.
I’m made aware of the work that SERVE and their partners are doing to help people in Freedom Park who are HIV positive. We meet some of the local people who are working in the clinics. They are warm and friendly with so much openness to a stranger. I began to feel that all the fundraising was worthwhile, people here are our fellow human beings living in squatter camps with no clean running water and no electricity and many of them infected with the HIV virus. The question arises again for me, how can this be called Freedom Park?
In the same project we moved onto an OVC (Orphaned and Vulnerable Children) feeding programme. Here again we meet beautiful local people who are involved in running the programme in partnership with SERVE. They greet us warmly and explain to us the day to day running of the project. We see the work that previous SERVE volunteers did in the past to help develop the programme which gives orphaned children a nutritious meal every day. This year our goal is to rebuild the kitchen. We will be stripping out the existing kitchen and rebuilding it to enable the local ladies who are feeding the children to work in a cleaner, safer and more spacious environment. Our fundraising money from the good people of Ireland will help us in achieving this goal which is one of many while volunteering with SERVE in South Africa. Thank you to all the people to helped and donated to my fundraising campaign.
I begin to think of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which are currently in place until the end of 2015. Back in Dublin at SERVE training days I was introduced to them and thought “is this another document from people in a boardroom, who talk the talk and talk and look like they are doing something?” It frustrated me at the time. However, in this project I saw the first Millennium Development Goal being acted upon and alive – Eradicating Poverty and Hunger – and now I am going to be a small part of that, with my pick and shovel working to improve their situation. The Millennium Development Goal was being acted out and is not just another document to give the impression the world is trying to help.
I saw the garden at Tapologo which previous SERVE volunteers had helped create, and I was amazed to see cabbages, scallions and carrots being grown on red African soil! It just wasn’t an image I had ever seen from Africa before.
As we leave Freedom Park after our first visit I see smiling happy faces, little children running barefoot, people surviving as best we can and I ask myself again what is Freedom? Perhaps, I just glimpsed a snapshot of Freedom in the SERVE project, freedom to come as you are, freedom to tell your story, freedom to have a meal and play in the playground, freedom to smile, freedom to laugh, freedom to cry, and perhaps Freedom Park isn’t such an ironic name after all.