A group of teenage boys from St Mary’s CBS Portlaoise have returned from a life changing visit to Zambia, where they volunteered as teachers and carers.
The two week trip to the poverty stricken African ountry, rife with AIDS and political corruption, left its mark on the TY and 5th year boys.
Student Paddy Critchley described the people they met in the Lubasi orphanage in Lusaka, where they stayed.
“A lot of kids are there not because they don’t have parents, but because they were rejected by their families, perhaps for having a disability, or just for being a girl,” he said.
There are 47 children living in the orphanage, from age 17 down to Obi, a little boy aged two that the students took to their hearts.
Donations from Ireland support the orphans through their education, but there were few toys.
“One lad used to throw a stone into a circle drawn on the ground for a game, another was pushing a milk carton cut in half with stones inside like a toy truck. It’s sad. They have no shoes, they run around on the stony ground, but they got so much enjoyment out of little things, and were always singing,” Paddy said.
The 16 students taught up to 60 children each. They helped out in orphanages, hospices and health clinics.
Their experiences in the three schools varied.
Conor Finnnegan volunteered in Linda community school, where the dedicated principal makes breakfast for the children.
“She has even taken two orphans home to live with her,” he said.
Cathal O’Sullivan and Barry Langton had a very different experience.
“A young teacher was volunteering there for three years, she had a small allowance but every day she went to the shop to buy lunch for the kids. She told me with tears in her eyes that she will never have enough money to pay for her own studies, she is not paid because the principal is so corrupt,” Cathal said.
Children must pass exams to get into the following year, and have to pay for school.
“I saw a little girl turned away, because her mother didn’t have the 50 kwacha, about €7. It makes you think. We don’t even like wearing school uniforms, but they are so proud, they wore them to Mass,” said Jack Reddin.
Darragh Hewitt said the award stickers they handed out were hugely appreciated.
“If they did their maths they got a sticker, they wanted them so much they did their work twice. They have a syllabus but it doesn’t seem to be taught, it went from overly complicated to the most basic. Seven year olds were being taught about metamorphic rocks, with no pictures, then how to use full stops,” he said.
TY co-ordinator Caroline Brennan said the boys were shocked to see corporal punishment.
“One witnessed a teacher beating a child on the head with a plastic bottle. The teacher told him ‘they are like the elderly, they don’t understand’,” she said.
One day the teachers didn’t turn up at all, taking advantage of the Irish volunteers.
“The boys were left to run the schools on their own,” Ms Brennan said.
Each morning a pair of boys helped at a mobile health clinic, held outside in 40 different zones around Livingstone. The clinics were set up by Irish Franciscan nun Sr Mary Courtney.
“They go to all the poor areas, they never get a day off. We were in a shanty town, in a yard, all the people were lying on the dirt, it was surreal,” said Sean Masterson, a rugby player who missed his first Irish cap to go on the trip.
Patients asked him how old people were treated in Ireland.
“They couldn’t believe the government cares. Their life expectancy is 39 years. One in four is HIV positive. They asked us did we have a cure for cancer, nearly begging us for a cure, they thought we knew,” he said.
They coped with their experience by writing journals each evening, and have bonded as friends.
“We went down to the Zambezi river to watch the sunset and say the serenity prayer,” said Ms Brennan.
The culture shock was even greater for the Zambians.
“Every day people pointed and shouted ‘muzunga’, which means white person. They would pull at the hair on our arms and legs because they have no hair,” said Gavin.
“We think we are struggling, and some people are, but when you put it in context, most of our issues can be solved. There is no way out for them. What can you do when both your parents are dead and you have HIV, only hope it doesn’t turn into AIDS. They were still so cheerful, every time you asked how they were, the answer was always ‘I am fine’, we were so humbled,” Gavin said.
“Most of us would get on a plane and go back. Those 15 days changed us, we all want to do more volunteer work,” said Cathal.
Since 2002, the school have organised a trip to Zambia every two to three years, in a tradition begun by Edmund Rice Development in 1964.
Fundraisers began last September, which raised €16,000, paying for fares and donations made directly to trusted volunteers in Zambia.
The group also brought out clothes, toys and books, all donated from Laois.
Ruairi who teaches in Portlaoise Comhaltas, brought out forty tin whistles donated by the group, to a women’s prison, who previously had got donations of banjos and violins.
The boys also brought camogie jerseys from Scoil Mhuire Portlaoise.
Ms Brennan is proud of the group.
“I am proud of the work they put in before they left and while they were there, it was an absolute pleasure to travel and work with them. It’s not only us who are proud, but their parents, families, the people of Portlaoise, and Laois who support the Zambian projects,” she said.