/Melanie Verwoerd | Saving thousands of lives: the good foreigners can do

Melanie Verwoerd | Saving thousands of lives: the good foreigners can do

2020-01-08 05:00

Every now and then people visit South Africa, only to find that their hearts are touched in a way that ties them forever to the men, women and children of our beautiful land, writes Melanie Verwoerd

Happy New Year!

My year did not start very well.

A day after New Year at around 1am, I got a call from an Irish journalist who told me that a friend of mine in Ireland had died.

Marian Finucane was a very famous journalist, radio broadcaster and activist.

I met Marian in 2001. It was my first radio interview as South Africa’s Ambassador to Ireland.

During the interview she asked me about the 1994 elections in South Africa.

I talked about how emotional it was – the long queues, old people being pushed in wheel barrows and people waiting for days to vote.

Marian looked at me intensely and suddenly she welled up. Seeing her tears I was momentarily thrown off balance.

I had told the story numerous times before to journalists, all whom would absent-mindedly nod and look at their papers for the next question. But not Marian.

She was listening; listening and feeling.

It was clear that she had a phenomenal intellect, but she also had a really big heart and had no problem showing it.

When she mentioned during the show that she had never been to South Africa, I arranged for her and her husband John to visit.

Yet, again, she was different.

Yes, she would be happy to see the touristy sites, but she wanted more. Could she please stay in a township for a night (this was not done at the time) and could she visit an AIDS orphanage?

I arranged it.

A few weeks after their return, Marian asked to have lunch with me.

“So I have the money,” she said casually.

It turned out that the AIDS orphanage needed money to build a hospice in Khayelitsha in Cape Town as well as a day-care facility next door so that the children could stay close to their dying mums. It required a lot of money, but Marian had sorted it.

A few months later, in a wonky marquee tent the little orphans sang “Molly Malone” as a thank you to Marian and John as we celebrated the opening of both facilities.

For most people that would have been enough.

For John and Marian it was only the beginning. They went on to build foster homes, child care facilities and schools.

They started feeding schemes for orphans and child-headed households and they got anti-retroviral drugs to mums and babies. Remarkably, after the initial work in Cape Town, they went to some of the most remote places in the Eastern Cape and KZN. For almost two decades they worked where few dared to go.

At times they had to negotiate tricky cultural situations. One day I got a call from Marian. “Melanie, the chief wants us to donate a fecken’ cow! What do we do?” she asked in typical Irish fashion.

I couldn’t help giggling at the exasperation in the familiar raspy voice. More than once they and their small staff faced physical danger. At the end of their frequent trips to the projects they would be ashen with exhaustion, but never gave up.

They worked sensitively and carefully. Unlike many others, they wanted to stay out of the limelight, never asking for personal recognition or reward.

In our country foreigners are so often treated with suspicion and even disgust. Those from abroad who want to make a difference to poverty and suffering are frequently accused of being colonialist and patronising. Undoubtedly many are, as I found during my years as an aid worker.

However, every now and then people visit South Africa, only to find that their hearts are touched in a way that ties them forever to the men, women and children of our beautiful land. This is what happened to John and Marian.

Today there are thousands of children and young adults who are alive because of their work. This is a legacy very few people leave behind.

Having thought about this a lot over the past week, I hope that we will all be a little more kind and tolerant this year and that we will stretch out our hands to those who need our help.

Hamba kahle, Marian.

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