December 2017

A mother and daughter from Liteta. Photos © Trevor Claringbold

Operation Sunshine

BBC RADIO PRESENTER, TREVOR CLARINGBOLD, RECENTLY TRAVELLED TO CENTRAL AFRICA WITH THE CHARITY OPERATION SUNSHINE. IT WAS AN AMAZING, LIFE CHANGING JOURNEY, AS HE NOW EXPLAINS…

Ever since Bob Geldof and Midge Ure penned the classic ‘Do They Know Its Christmas’, African aid charities have taken on an almost trendy persona. But as with most good things, the critics are quick to seek fault.

Does the aid get through to the people its intended for? How much of what gets donated goes on ‘administration’? And are we sending what is really needed, or just what we think they want? To answer these questions, myself, and media undergraduate Melody Montana, have been following the work of UK based charity, Operation Sunshine. They have been sending aid containers to Africa for over 20 years, in their Christian mission to ‘Feed The Hungry, and Clothe The Naked.’

All types of articles are donated, and a walk around their warehouses will see neatly stacked bags of clothes, shoes, and bedding. Shelves are lined with rice, sugar, powdered baby food, soap, and candles… all essentials for the needy of Africa. Other areas have sewing machines, cycles, toys, books, medical equipment, tools, and all manner of other items. The volunteers – and everyone is a volunteer, nobody gets paid – firstly sort out what should be sent, and what will go to the regular sales to raise funds. It costs around £8000 to send each container, so it’s always a difficult balance deciding what to send, and what to sell.

They aim to send one container per month, which can go to countries as diverse as Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Sudan. The shipment we were to follow was bound for Zambia, and we joined the volunteers on a sunny August morning, who were intent on cramming us much into it as they possibly could. It was a strange feeling as the doors were closed and sealed, and we realised the next time we would see it would be in the heart of Africa.

We had arranged to meet Kathy Harding, who originally founded Operation Sunshine, and now lives in Zambia. She is one of the most remarkable women either of us had ever met; a kind of one-woman crusade to save Zambia, combined with all the love and compassion of your favourite auntie. Indeed, over the next two weeks, as we toured many of the projects she cares for, almost everyone we spoke to referred to her as ‘Auntie Kathy’.

Zambia is a typical central African country. Hot, dusty, and basic at best. Outside the city there is little quality infrastructure, and everything has a ‘make-do’ feel about it. But the people are enterprising and fiercely proud. They are welcoming of strangers, and wear their smiles constantly, even in the harshest environments.

Our first surprise was that the container arrived, not at some village in rural Zambia, but in a secure yard in the capital, Lusaka. We had a romantic image of it being opened with lots of villagers around it, clamouring for the contents, but that’s not the case… and for very good reasons. The aid inside is destined for many different projects, and used in a hundred different ways. Kathy and her team take great care to ensure every item ends up where it will be of the most benefit. If the containers were opened in a rural village, not only would it be difficult to then take much of it away to other communities, but it would also be a problem keeping the items secure until they are needed.

Some items have been requested for a very specific reason, and it is important that they get to the right place. Other items, such as clothes and food, are given out in stages, and in many different places, but still with the same care to ensure they help the right people.

Our first trip out to the rural areas began early on the day after we arrived. Liteta is a small town, about 40 miles north of Lusaka. It has a row of ramshackle shops and traders along the main road, which heads north to the Copperbelt and the Congo. It has a police office and a small clinic, and behind the main village is a compound for the lepers and their families. Kathy has looked after this community for ten years with great love and devotion, often in extremely emotional and trying circumstances.

The small school has a proud and enthusiastic group of children. The single schoolroom is very basic, and has little space for the many pupils. There are few teaching aids, and even pens and books are looked upon as luxuries. The school children gave us a fabulous welcome, with songs and dances in the English that they are learning. Once a week, when Kathy visits, they have a half a roll, milk, and an egg, donated by a local farm. The families each receive 1kg of either rice of pasta, from the Operation Sunshine containers. This is often their only proper protein in a week.

On the day we visited, one crippled man had walked 16 miles on his old broken crutches, to receive a new set specifically requested from Operation Sunshine. Bandages and dressings from the container are used by Kathy to dress the wounds of the lepers, providing some small relief from the pain. Words cannot express the feeling of helplessness, when we were welcomed into the meagre one-room homes of these people, many close to death, and all suffering terribly.

Liteta also benefits from clothes sent by the charity, and has a sewing project, which teaches children and adults how to use the machines sent in the containers. They can then make things to sell, thus moving them a little closer to the self-sufficiency that is one of the major aims of all the African charities.

The following day we went further into the bush, to visit a remote school at Nalufwi. Again we were given a warm, friendly welcome, with all the school pupils and teachers gathering outside to sing the national anthem for us. The school has around 400 pupils from the surrounding villages. They have just three trained teachers and 4 classrooms. Three years ago the well, which supplied the only fresh water, dried up, meaning the nearest water is now over a mile away. Resources are minimal, and the few reference books they have are all from Operation Sunshine. The headmaster told us he would have been so grateful for an atlas, so that he could show the children where we had come from.

This whole region is very isolated, with just a few dirt tracks. Our old 4 x 4 was the only vehicle we saw until we returned to Lusaka several days later. The communities have to be self-sufficient, so the tools and seeds sent by Operation Sunshine are particularly necessary. Families live in small huts, and farm what land they can around them. The soil is poor, and that limits what can be grown. Water and other essentials are also scarce. In many cases, just one well serves a whole village. The plastic tubs that are sent with rice, pasta, and other items, are always kept and used for storage afterwards. Nothing is ever wasted.

New Jerusalem is Kathy Harding’s flagship project. A whole new village, on land donated by the local chief, for the children of the lepers and AIDS victims. The initial group of small brick built houses were nearing completion while we spent a few nights camping in the bush nearby. Each house will have an acre of land behind it, which the occupants will farm, with fruit trees planted before they move in to increase their food production. Once again, the aim is self-sufficiency. The workers are from surrounding villages, and are paid not in cash, but in clothes, boots, and food from Operation Sunshine. It’s a beacon of hope in a land of desperation and death.

As we sat in the strangely welcoming dark of the bush that evening, eating our meal by candlelight, we began to realise that this trip really would change our lives. Never again would the needy of this Dark Continent be just faces on a television. It was all too real now, although quite where that insight took us we were yet to discover.

Back in Lusaka, St Stephens is a small church in one of the townships on the city outskirts. During the week, the church is used as a makeshift school, and Kathy visits each Monday to help with food. When we visited, there was just one volunteer teacher to look after the three classes, whilst outside, lunch is prepared in a 40-gallon oil drum. There would be a public outcry if such a situation were to exist in England, yet these children are considered fortunate amongst dust and suffering of the township.

A few miles outside the city is Zambia’s only mental institution. This is a frightening, depressing place. Conditions are terrible, more akin to a prison, and words such as ‘hope’ and compassion’ seem banished to the outside world. Operation Sunshine provides some relief, with clothes and blankets, although our impression was that the staff would have preferred the patients not to receive anything. Indeed, when we enquired of the Head Nurse what items were most desperately needed, she highlighted a desire for new curtains for her office. Maybe it was to shut out the heartbreaking sight of patients lying in rags on bare concrete, as there were no proper beds. A craft room, which aims to rehabilitate people, was more impressive. Sewing machines, materials, tools, etc, all come from the containers.

Aids is a huge problem in Zambia, and Africa as a whole. It is estimated that around 29 million people have either HIV or Aids throughout the continent, and anything up to 30% of Zambians. The John Laing Community is a village for aids victims and their families. The small central building houses a schoolroom, clinic, and sewing project. Once again we had an amazing welcome, from the staff and school pupils, with singing and dancing. The one thing that is not lacking in Zambia is spirit! We helped with the distribution of clothes from Operation Sunshine, to the children in the schoolroom. It was wonderful to see the smiles and heartfelt gratitude when they received what we would consider just a basic item… maybe a t-shirt, or skirt.

Afterwards, we visited the home of a young woman near to death from AIDS. Her husband and family were close by, but death in Zambia is so common, it was almost as though they just took it in their stride. Despite the sadness of their situation, the people of the community – and the woman herself – were cheerful and welcoming. The school, not surprisingly, has a particular emphasis on education in health matters.

Independence is a community of 400 people, who were displaced from their homes in Lusaka when the owner wanted his land back. The government gave them a new area of land, but the promised financial help to build new homes never materialised. There is no electricity, and the nearest well is three miles away across a valley. The people live in makeshift tents, while the try and get enough materials from whatever sources to build new homes. The tiny school is dark and dusty. It has no windows, or facilities of any kind. The children have no chairs or desks; they sit on two planks of wood, rested across bricks.

Despite the awful conditions, we once were again greeted with singing and dancing, and taken to the centre point of the community – a partially finished building that acts as an informal community centre. We saw a distribution of both adults and children’s clothes. It was amazing to see how the village as a whole welcomes these events. There are not enough clothes for everyone, and yet there is no jealousy or animosity over who gets what. It is just seen as a special day for the community as a whole… a day of celebration. Before we left, we saw one 80-year-old who lady looks after her six grandchildren, after her daughter and son-in-law died of AIDS. They all live in a makeshift shelter, so small we couldn’t even get six people in it standing. It was heartbreaking.

Other projects followed the same pattern, each with its own needs, and ways of helping. At Chienda the existing small school can take only a limited number of pupils, and these are looked after with a daily meal provided by the World Food Programme. But it is sad to see the many other children outside, who have nothing. We took some sweet lollies for the children. For many it was the first they had ever had, and several did not know what the lolly was… and initially shook it thinking it was a rattle!

The variety and scope of the projects, which are helped by the charity here, is astounding. We were left in no doubt that not only does the aid get to where it’s intended, but it is done in a well organised and efficient way. It benefits a huge number of people, both directly and indirectly. Without Operation Sunshine, and other organisations like it, the consequences would be unthinkable.

But to the people of Zambia, and of Africa generally, the arrival of another container means so much more than just a material gain. It means that someone cares. It means that somebody understands their suffering, and is trying to do something about it. And that, in the most basic terms, gives them hope, and a reason to go on living.

Trevor Claringbold

February 5, 2010 by admin · 188 Comments 

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