Many colours of hope

2009-02-16 00:00

Buddhist chants, Christian prayers, the songs and dances of traditional healers. All these seemingly disparate elements played a role in the launch of the Khuphuka Project in uMqatsheni, an area in the southern Drakensberg, last Saturday.

“What is exciting today is seeing people of different colours having the same idea and goal,” said Mdu Banda, mayor of the Kwa Sani Municipality. “We must grasp such projects so our community can be uplifted.”

People sharing the same idea had come from the United States, Ireland, England and Scotland. They had come to the 7 000-strong community of uMqatsheni in the Loteni area of the Drakensberg, dirt roads winding up from green valleys around homesteads perched on steep hill sides.

The mayor was speaking in the local community hall, at first sight, a forlorn building, with windows long gone and many of the red plastic chairs provided for seating broken. But a programme of prayers, speeches and gospel singing offset the shortcomings of the venue with vibrant hope for a project which has the buy-in not just of the authorities but of the indunas, community leaders, traditional healers and the people themselves.

The Khuphuka (“rise up”) Project, which will facilitate HIV/Aids home-based care and paralegal advice, is an outreach project of Dharmagiri, a Buddhist hermitage near Underberg run by Kittisaro and Thanissara, who were also instrumental in creating the Woza Moya Project, directed by Sue Hedden, which is supported by both Dharmagiri and the Buddhist Retreat Centre near Ixopo.

“Woza Moya has been running for eight years and is very successful and is helping thousands of people,” says Kittisaro. “We wanted to set up something similar in this area.”

Enter Sister Abigail Ntleko, now one of the three co-directors of the Khuphuka Project. This 75-year-old former nursing sister, known to everyone as “Sister Abi”, runs the Clouds of Hope Children’s Care Centre in Underberg, where several cottages provide homes for children and caregivers. Ntleko herself has an adopted and fostered family of 19 children. Ntleko won the social welfare category of the Shoprite-Checkers Woman of the Year competition in 2006 and more recently the Unsung Hero Award from the U.S. organisation, Wise Giving. She will be flying to San Francisco in April to receive her award from the Dalai Lama.

“I’ve wanted to do something for this area for years, but nothing materialised,” she says. “When I was working in Underberg for the Department of Health, people would come from here. But it was a long way and many could not afford the taxi fare. I would come here and people would be brought up the hill sides on stretchers.”

Ntleko also forged links with local traditional healers. “We both learnt from each other,” she says. “Now we can have an on-site centre, as well as support groups for the grannies and the youth.”

When Kittisaro and Thanissara told Ntleko of their desire to set up an outreach project based around HIV/Aids she brought them to uMqatsheni. “During our meeting with the chair of the tribal council and the indunas of the area, we were told that they had had no input from non-governmental organisations [NGOs],” recalls Kittisaro. “They agreed to start something with us and then generously granted us this land.

“We secured the land last September and at that point San Francisco Insight Meditation Community agreed to support the project,” says Kittisaro. “London Insight Meditation agreed to help shortly afterwards. And then Vanessa Nias, a donor from Edinburgh, came on board.”

Nias and Paul Cons from London Insight were present at the launch on Saturday. “Insight adopted Khuphuka as its project this year and to fund it we will be having events in London,” says Cons. “I will also be funding it with events at my nightclub, South, in Manchester.”

The Khuphuka Project will serve people in the seven tribal wards within uMqatsheni, as well as the two nearby areas of Kwatitela and Kwathunzi that fall within the Kwa Sani Municipality.

By April it is planned to have a home-based care service, a paralegal service and a youth work programme set up, says project co-director Matt York. “Our first task is to identify nine community care workers — one from each of the nine tribal wards in this area. They will be trained in home-based care and referrals.”

York, a trained psychiatric nurse from Plymouth, has worked with homeless and unemployed people in the UK, and is also involved with the Mandala Trust, a children’s charity running projects in India, Cambodia and South Africa. “We will also be training another person for youth work and we will be developing other services over time,” he says.

The paralegal or advocacy service will be set up by the other project co-director, Irish-born Jacqueline Healy, who has a background in human rights work with the Migrants Rights Centre in Dublin. She will train two people as paralegal workers to support those experiencing difficulties claiming grants and pensions. “We will be helping people who need someone to provide information or possibly negotiate on their behalf. The paralegal workers will be the bridge between the authorities and the people needing their services.”

Also attending the launch were Eugene Cash and Pamela Weiss from SF Insight, the major donor for the creation of Woza Moya and now Khuphuka. “When Kittisaro and Thanissara visited the San Francisco sangha [Buddhist community] and told their story of what they are doing here in South Africa, an American nurse — Gayle Markow — asked if we couldn’t have a sister sanga in South Africa,” recalls Cash. “We all thought ‘Why not?’ So we built the Woza Moya centre and at a fund-raising event in January raised an initial $12 000 for Khuphuka.”

Cash says such involvement works two ways. “It’s a blessing both ways. That’s one of the unseen truths about giving. In San Francisco, we coalesced as a community working at supporting the community here.”

Judging from the enthusiasm expressed on Saturday, the Khuphuka Project could see the uMqatsheni community come together as never before. “We are so blessed today to have this project,” said Genke Ndlovu, secretary of the community development committee. “We had hope, but we didn’t know when we would get help. People would promise to start something, but then nothing would materialise and we would eventually forget about it. Our community had lost hope of being helped.”

His words echoed those of Perry Mhlope, duty chair of the tribal council. “I always wanted to do something, but would cry not knowing what to do,” said Mhlope. “This community has been crying to heaven for years. Then these friends come from Dharmagiri and from overseas and now we must thank God because he has heard us.”

And so people gathered on the grassy slope bordered by eucalyptus plantations where the Khuphuka centre will be built. Sheltering from the midday sun under colourful umbrellas, they looked on as the land was blessed with Buddhist chants and Christian exhortations. Traditional healers danced and sang, and the sacred segued into celebration with traditional Zulu dancing.

“It opened the door so beautifully for what’s going to happen,” said Kittisaro.

• Stephen Coan can be contacted at feature1@witness.co.za

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