Africa–the name conjures up for me stories of intrepid explorers, visions of lions, elephants, antelopes and Cape buffalo; mountains, thick bush and beautiful sunrises. Each time we visit South Africa, we see many of those things that, together with a number of good friends, keep drawing us back. During April of 2013, we made our third South African safari.
In early 2012 when we began planning this safari, we contacted our outfitter in South Africa asking for assistance in identifying underprivileged schools near where I would hunt. Alice and I agreed we would work through the Safari Club International Blue Bag program to provide help and take supplies to schools. Our outfitter, Somerby Safaris, identified two schools in the Free State province in the central part of South Africa. The Soba Farm School and the Solferino Farm School near the town of Kestel were chosen. Soba has 60 to 100 learners and Solferino has 25 to 30. Both are called farm schools because they are located on land provided by a local farmer and the students are children of the farm workers and other children from the surrounding area. Soba Farm School has two rooms, which combined are approximately 20 feet wide and 40 feet long. When we visited, there were 88 learners along with teachers and some administrators who were there for the day. Solferino has one room approximately 15 by 25 feet and about 30 learners.
Our major projects were to provide a carpet, propane stove and shelving for each school. The carpet helps keep the classrooms a bit warmer on winter mornings when temperatures often fall into the upper 20s to low 30s. The schools are not heated and the floors are bare, so a carpet is a huge advantage, especially to children who do not have good quality cold weather clothing. The schools provide a lunch of beans and rice cooked on a propane stove much like one would take on a camping trip. Feeding 25 to100 children with one small stove is a real challenge. Neither school had any shelving, so books, stationery and other supplies were stored in piles on the floor. Not only was it a challenge to find the right pile, but they occupied valuable floor space.
Many people from our town of Lapeer, our church, friends and folks from surrounding towns and churches contributed money and supplies. Local dentists provided toothbrushes and toothpaste. Office Depot provided some school supplies and backpacks. Several people contributed Beanie Babies stuffed toys.
Ansa, who works for Somerby Safaris, located suppliers for the stoves, had the carpet installed and the shelves built and delivered. Without her tremendous effort, this project simply would not have been possible. We are sincerely thankful for her hard work and perseverance arranging it all.
It is often said, “God works in mysterious ways.” The shelving cost became a factor. Metal shelving was very expensive and the number of units needed was not available. The folks at Somerby knew a man who had contracted polio as a young boy. He was told that he would not live to see his teens and he would never walk. He proved everyone wrong, is now in his 40s and has a family. Despite his great attitude and his intense will, walking with leg braces is still difficult. Because of that limitation, he works odd jobs and money is always tight. He agreed to build the shelves and his wife and children stained and varnished them. The schools got the shelves and he and his family earned much needed money. We covered the cost with the available funding.
We wanted to visit each school to see the final results, meet those who were helped and those who helped make it possible. Visiting the schools, we wanted to take something for each child. The donations from many organizations and individuals made it possible for each child to receive a toothbrush, toothpaste, pens, pencils, a yo-yo and a Beanie Baby stuffed toy. Supplies–pencil sharpeners and crayons, soccer balls and Frisbees–were given to each school. Alice made fabric maps showing the world on one side and the United States on the other. Maps are in short supply so many of the teachers and learners were not certain where we were from or where the United States is located in relation to where they live.
On the day of the school visits, I suspect the excitement was running high for the learners and teachers. It was certainly high for Alice, Ansa and me. The schools knew we were coming, but they thought we were just there to see the stoves, carpets and shelves and did not know we were bringing additional items. It was like an unexpected Christmas Day for them. Smiles were everywhere and the delight was palpable. It is recorded in the Bible, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” That statement was never truer than in seeing the looks of gratitude on the childrens’ faces.
The early autumn day was cool and overcast. Children and teachers were dressed in coats, sweatshirts or whatever they had to keep them warm. The children sang songs in their native language (Sotho pronounced Sutu) and performed native dances. What a great thrill. Children made hand decorated paper cards, wrote personal notes in English and presented them to us. These cards are now prized possessions. English is a third language for these teachers and students. Their primary languages are Sotho and Afrikaans. They expressed thanks to every person who donated or helped. A teacher at the Soba Farm School wrote a poem that was recited for us by a sixth grade student. Solferino Farm School students wrote a poignant note expressing their gratitude. They, and we, understand it was the donors and helpers who made it possible. Alice and I, together with the people at Somerby, were simply the tools to make it happen.
For this trip, the Flint Regional Chapter of Safari Club International provided us with a Blue Bag to take supplies. Through this program hunters are encouraged to take to needy folks a duffel of supplies in the areas where they hunt. The bag SCI provided was pre-filled with not only school supplies but also bandages, reading glasses, blood glucose meters, latex gloves and many other items that didn’t seem appropriate for elementary schools. Somerby assured us that we would find good use for them. The staff at a Kestel nursing home, with approximately 30 elderly residents, was excited to receive these items. They get limited funding and these supplies are in extremely short supply. Diabetic patients were treated by estimating blood sugar levels. Several people had given up reading because they had no glasses. Despite the risk of infection, latex gloves are almost non-existent. Yes, God does work in mysterious ways.
The thanks we received from the children, teachers and staff at the schools along with the realization that some of the supplies would benefit seniors was overwhelming and wonderful. Like our 2011 Blue Bag trip, we clearly saw that through helping people who are in dire need, we came away with far more than we gave. Without doubt, it truly is more blessed to give than to receive.–C.J. Merriman