Monday, 24 July 2017

Roger Lever - Revisiting past experiences

I came face-to-face with Maasai warriors on a fundraising charity trek through the African wilderness.

The ancient tribe were our guides as myself and 26 other trekkers hiked through the Rift Valley in Tanzania, raising more than £50,000 in total to help fight poverty in the developing world.

Over 5 days we trekked approximately 90km (or 101,003 steps, according to our pedometer), camped near the tribe’s villages and visited an Action Aid project that works with people living with HIV and Aids.

My diary (Part One)

I gazed with a sinking feeling in my stomach at the growing pile of things I had to take. My eyes then moved down from the bed, on which my kit was strewn, to the smallish looking rucksack waiting to be packed. My son, conveniently dismissing the fact that his old man was about to undertake an unforgettable trek into the African bush, had nabbed the bigger rucksack the week before.

The kit didn’t fit. My wife, and packing expert, Judy had earlier sneaked off to bed, leaving me alone to deal with my packing dilemma. I tried again. And again. By ten past midnight I finally fastened the straps and fell into bed with my alarm set for 5.30 am.

When the clock rang it felt like I had only been asleep for about 5 minutes. It was time to leave the comforts of our old home in Dumfries and Galloway and head first to London and then on to Africa.

By 2pm I had arrived at Heathrow airport. Clad in a mandatory bright red ActionAid T-shirt and feeling somewhat conspicuous, I sat myself down in a little corner of one of the airport cafeterias and started tucking into a burger, chips and pint of Heineken.

I thought of Africa where I know so many people are struggling to find the most basic food. The big burger, such an easily identified symbol of our fast track consumer society, suddenly didn’t taste so good. I met my fellow trekkers at Terminal 4. It was like a bunch of primary children. Twenty-six of us gathered together, some a little nervous, some a little shy but very quickly we were all chatting away.

All of us, hailing from the length and breadth of this easy land, had spent the last year fundraising for ActionAid in exchange for sharing in the privilege of following in 'The Footsteps of the Maasai'.

The eight-hour flight passed quickly as we ate slept and chatted to our fellow passengers. I was lucky enough to get a lesson in Swahili. As we approached JK airport Nairobi it was not yet daylight and the horizon started to change colour through yellow, orange and crimson.

We barely had time to settle in our hotel before we were bused to the Kenwa (Kenya Network of Women with Aids) offices in Pangani, and then on to Kiandutu slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.

We arrived in the dusty village still weary and still registering a certain disbelief that we were actually here – all the months of preparation, fundraising and packing were over.

But a colourful all singing, all dancing throng of locals waiting to welcome us instantly knocked us out of our restful weariness.

Everyone who could be there was there. There were women, little children and youth groups and before we knew it we found ourselves in the thick of it all. Our little group of kaki clad backsides, doing our best to keep up with our African hosts and shake off the inhibitions of our western culture.

Their warmth and brightness was incredible. It was an unforgettable experience.

We were then led slowly through the village, which consisted of an array of makeshift homes built from anything that was available such as sacking material or corrugated iron.

Tiny brown hands found ours and held them tightly as they trotted along by our sides. Now and again they would look up and smile trustingly, eager to show us around.

These endearing children were mostly orphans whose parents had died from Aids and many were themselves HIV positive. But just like kids anywhere, they were bright-eyed, bubbly, full of mischief and very excited by this strange old bunch of red t-shirt people.

Some pushed themselves forward to be photographed. Others however stood back and watched us from a distance often holding a smaller child close to them. Their dark un-laughing eyes conveyed a deep unknown sorrow or pain. Holding their gaze, for what must only have been seconds, left me with a sense of heaviness, which will never leave me.

In the village we were able to see for ourselves the work of the ActionAid-funded drop-in centre which included facilities for washing, disinfection, weaving, food supply and pain relief for those living with HIV and Aids.

The very sick were cared for within the community. Often they had to share a makeshift bunk bed. Too weak to move they would lie there, uncomplaining as they awaited their untimely death. A few of us were allowed the privilege of meeting these quietly courageous people. With no language between us they just smiled with us and offered their hand in trust and friendship.

Taking photographs in this situation I felt would not be appropriate so I preserve the feelings and images I experienced at that time in my heart and brain. One young woman lay with her baby safely cradled in her arms. We left quietly, allowing their care to continue unobserved.

Before we left the village, our ActionAid rep, Helen, handed over our gift of a food parcel consisting of sacks of rice, maize flour, sugar, lentils and cooking fat. A small contribution that was received with gentle gratitude.

Our visit over, we piled into our bus feeling overwhelmed by the mix of brightness and fun and the deep sadness, which had drawn all these people together. We were driven back to our hotel, back to our world of comfort and plenty.

Part 2 to follow in 6 weeks.

Roger Lever

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