For some, the trip is a welcome return and a chance to visit the children they met as babies who have returned to their village homes and now attend school.
For others, this has been their first chance to see for themselves the Infant Home, Feeding Stations and Granny Houses that Johnson & Johnson has built over the last ten years.
This year the groups have raised funds for a minibus to replace the Toyota Venture that has faithfully ferried children for 17 years, but they didn’t want to miss the opportunity also to lend a hand at the secondary school where we are building a girls’ hostel.
On a first visit there is so much to take in, and after a warm welcome at the Infant Home, singing and dancing with the ladies, the group toured the facility and met the children who are at the heart of what we do. At the Feeding Station, we were impressed when a full class of children, aged 3 – 6, recited the alphabet and calendar with gusto. Colouring pages and pencils were handed out, and the visitors were surprised that colouring in is a new concept for most children here, as forming letters and learning to draw is often prioritised. Two older children picked it up right away, and the teachers came up with a plan to use the pages in their next lesson.
There is always a crowd of children outside, eager to observe the activities. It was shocking for some of our visitors to see that they had no shoes and minimal clothes, but on the bright side they had the biggest smiles and sense of fun, and they were excited to receive the pencils and sweets shared by the group. We stopped to pose for a picture with some of them - they struck fantastic karate poses, so our visitors joined in too!
Another memorable moment was visiting a Grandmother caring for five orphans, who had received a House from last year’s JnJ groups. It is humbling to see that such a basic home is a massive step towards security and improved quality of life, as the Grandmother no longer has to do an annual trek to collect grass and repair a leaking roof, or worry about collapsing mud walls when it rains.
At Pemphero Secondary School, where the girls’ hostel is under construction, Headmaster Joseph told us how the school developed to address the lack of available education in the area. One of the group, Rebecca, offered to give English tutoring if required, and was quickly enrolled to lead a class! Alison joined her, and they were soon seated in the Headmaster’s office and carefully instructed how to teach a lesson.
Although it was a Public Holiday, the Form 4 students had come in for revision to prepare for the all-important final exams next month, and they were curious about their new teachers. Alison led by reading a comprehension text while Rebecca wrote vocabulary on the blackboard that the students were not familiar with. Once the students adjusted to the Scottish accent and asked for a slower pace, the lesson was in full swing and an interesting discussion followed with questions exchanged. By the end, everyone had learned something, and the students expressed their thanks for this unique experience.
One of the highlights at Pemphero School was hearing a song written by the girls which said thank you for giving them a safe place to sleep at the new hostel, which means they’ll no longer have to travel long distances to school each day. One girl gave a poignant speech, explaining how domestic chores often take priority over studies when they are at home, and how boys threaten them when they reject their advances on the journey to and from school. Joseph later brought the point home when he told of a promising girl named Priscilla, who had to drop out of school when she became pregnant.
In the evening we walked through the village, taking in the incredible scenery dominated by ancient Baobab trees, and kicking a football with boys playing on the way. We passed girls carrying colourful plastic buckets filled with water while others rested by their bundles of firewood on their way home.
Everywhere children waved and shouted greetings, and when we stopped to chat an older woman asked us who we were. After learning of the connection with Open Arms, she said ‘You people are doing a good job’, and it felt very good to agree.
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