When I first told people that I was taking 6 weeks off work and volunteering in Swaziland, the first response I got was, where is Swaziland and why are you doing that. It would not be people’s first port of call and it’s not a country that people know a whole lot about.
My name is Martin Healy and I first thought of volunteering many years ago, way back in my teens In other words it was always something that I wanted to do in life and Africa has been a place that has fascinated me for years. I’m 32 years of age and I work, at times in a quite stressful environment, as a Senior Medical Device Engineer with a large American Multinational in Ireland. I travel a lot, always on the go so it is a far cry from the lifestyle of an African country.
I grew up in a small country village called Toomore outside Foxford in the North of Mayo. I am the second youngest of 7 children, typical Irish family, 3 girls and 4 boys. That explains why I eat so fast! The family farm is a big part of my life as was the Catholic Church of which I served mass in the local church each and every Saturday evening for 5 years.
My first contact with the Salesians was through my relation Fr. Gerry O Shaughnessy. Fr Gerry is based in the UK and put me in contact with Fr Dan in Celbridge. After some very informative meetings with Dan Carroll and training with Jane Mellett I went on my merry way to Swaziland. I have to add the weeks up to my travel date, the amount of good wishes and offers of money from friends was staggering to me, especially considering how the economy is at the moment. Irish people do love to give.
I don’t know can you really prepare yourself for Africa. For someone from the western world, or developed world or whatever the term is, it was a big shock to the system, big culture shock. I touched down in Manzini and was met by larger than life Fr. John Thompson. My first thought driving from the Airport was, what the hell I am doing in this place. The townships, the huts and just the different smells really hit me. However the scenery was breath-taking.
Fr John introduced me around to everyone at Manzini Youth Care (MYC), I could not pronounce names nor names of places, still can’t, but he was very helpful and I finally hit based in the now infamous “Palace” home to the MYC volunteers. I had my own room and was sharing the house with 8 other volunteers. 3 Germans, 2 Flemish,1 American, 1 Czech & 1 English girl. To my surprise there was a shower and toilet and general amenities required for a comfortable stay.
Every one of the volunteers were extremely welcoming and kind while I was there, although my two German friends were a little concerned initially as they were told a middle aged business man from Ireland was coming to stay for 6 weeks. That concern was quickly dispelled after a long evening on the balcony telling stories and explaining Irish sayings!
My first task was to work with Eswatini Kitchen Honey. They are a small business setup by MYC to provide jobs and income for MYC, local workers and local farmers.
It was great to be involved with and the people were fantastic. I got to meet the shop owners and farmers. In some ways the rural areas reminded me a little of my home in Ireland albeit minus the excessive temperatures and the lack of running drinking water. Locals were fascinated with my pale Irish complexion” Umlungu (white man)” and the local kids loved to wave and say hello.
I also helped out a lot with the local boys in the “Enjabulweni” home. They were so funny. Typical young boys, up to mischief always up to something. But their lives were so hard and it is an incredible achievement to see some of these boys getting through school after all the ups and downs in their lives. Most of them really enjoyed school life and what it meant. The conditions that they lived in were ok but small things would make a huge difference. I also helped out my good friend Marius, with the renovation of the Music school. The boys contributed so much and used their natural love of vibrant colours to really lift the whole place. They loved to sing and dance while they worked as well which was very entertaining.
The reminder of my time was spent just talking with the kids, playing football with them, spending time with them and helping Micha in the sports hall. There is defiantly some very good soccer players out there, and I know if I could instill in them a loved of Gaelic football they would excel at that also!!
I could write a book about my stay in Africa, it was only 6 weeks, but it was something that will stay with me for my life. I don’t want to draw too many conclusions to it as it was only a snapshot of a country and culture but I will try and summarise in the following lines.
The people are friendly and polite. They have a natural tendency to accept a lot of things as its “just the way it has been”. The family unit, while being extremely important does break down. Sickness poverty and other priorities have hit it hard and led to this. The leadership of the country is only concerned about themselves and cares very little about its people. I would not class it as leadership. It’s incredible to think that the leadership has so much wealth yet the people are in such poverty. But the biggest losers in all this are the young. What the Salesians have offered through their caring and consideration of the young, is a stable, constant home and family that these children really need.
For myself, I was very humbled by the experience. I have so much admiration for the young volunteers I met, brilliant people. I am now going to think twice before I give money to an aid organisation. For me EDUCATION is key, educate children and they will understand that their country is more than a few so call leaders feeding off the top, educate the children and they will understand that they can produce food to feed their families, educate the children to understand the dangers of disease and they will win the fight against aids, educate the children and they will understand that they do not have to accept “the way things are” and it will deliver a fairer and more balanced society. If they have this education then they still can have the tradition and culture that is so unique to this part of the world. They are getting this education through MYC.
People ask me will I go back and definitely I will venture to an African country again. I would whole heartily recommend people to travel there, to help and also to grow as individuals. People from countries like Ireland have so much to offer and in turn you will get so much back.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” “Nelson Mandela”