They came. They saw. And they conquered the hearts of the people of Hlabisa. They were a group of 18 Homeplan members, who spent the week of 26 March to 1 April in remote villages around Hlabisa, staying in huts with local families, and assisting in building houses for orphan-headed households, which they are sponsoring.
Based in the Dutch city of Breda, Homeplan is an association of professional people, mostly in the construction and engineering sectors, who sponsor houses for the poorest of the poor in developing countries. A partnership between Homeplan and SACBC AIDS Office was formed in 2010. In the initial pilot project, caregivers identified households with orphans most in need. Local builders were used to construct two-room houses. Ten were built around Ndumo, and another 10 around Kosi Bay (both in the Vicariate of Ingwavuma, Northern KwaZulu/Natal). The pilot was so successful that the program has been expanded – in the current phase, 30 houses have been earmarked for Hlabisa, 20 for Ndumo and 20 for Swaziland.
Homeplan arranges a “building trip” several times each year – sponsors of houses visit the communities where houses are being built, live with local people, share in their daily life and assist in building houses. In the past these trips were always made to Latin America. This was the first trip to Africa.
They arrived in Hlabisa on 26 March – a group of 18 men and women, between 40 and 60 years old. During the welcoming Mass, Bishop Jose Luis Ponce de Leon pointed out that the choice of dates was significant – it happened to be the Feast of the Annunciation – “and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. The motto of the Vicariate is also “the Word was made flesh”. And this was exactly what the Dutch were doing – incarnating the Kingdom of God’s values of compassion, solidarity and service.
The following day they were taken to their hosts. Two-by-two they were dropped off at the homes of their hosts, and immediately started building the houses for the orphans. The reality of the poverty and destitution they encountered was harrowing. One couple built a house for a blind, 99 year old grandmother, who was living in a hovel built of sticks with her 6 grandchildren. Another couple built a house for 9 orphans who were living together in a 3 meter X 3 meter shack. Inadequate as the supervision of grandparents is, it is better than nothing. In many cases the primary caregiver is already suffering from TB and AIDS – what will happen to the small orphans when this person passes away?
After a hard day’s work, participants ate with their host families (all care givers), washed in the open air, and slept in the huts prepared for them. One participant had lived his whole life in Europe, and had never seen stars before, due to the “light pollution” in Europe’s skies. He was stunned to see the Milky Way, for the first time in his life. Another group had an adrenaline-filled moment when they killed a cobra on the way home.
Things slowed down on the second day when building material couldn’t be delivered in time – Hlabisa had run out of petrol. It has only one garage. The delivery truck broke down in Mtubatuba, and was awaiting a mechanic to come from Durban to fix it. The visitors now appreciated the enormous logistical problems faced in remote rural areas – and began to understand the reasons why progress was so slow.
The organizers limited the number of days that participants were to stay with their host families, because they thought the Dutch would find the living conditions difficult to deal with. They need not have worried. The visitors and their hosts bonded so well, that they all wanted to stay an extra night. One host, Mrs Mpanza, chased the organizers away when they came to fetch the two Dutch visitors on Thursday. “These are now my sons”, she said. “I will bring them to the Mission tomorrow myself”.
On the first night, one of the organizers told the visitors that they should discard their “Calvinistic work ethic”. Things in Zululand happen slowly. Just go with the flow. This advice fell on deaf ears. The Dutch worked. In one location there was just a foundation on Tuesday. By Wednesday the house was window height.
Friday was a day of thanksgiving and celebration. The Dutch visitors, their host families, the orphans they were building for and the builders they were building with all attended Mass – some 200 people in total. After that there was a braai, with singing and traditional Zulu dances. Tears flowed when it was time to leave. Just before exiting the Umfolozi Game Reserve (on the road from Hlabisa to Mtubatuba), a herd of 65 elephants (including many newly born calves) crossed the road meters in front of the visitors’ vehicles. Nature’s way of saluting the departing visitors?
The last day was spent in the Bonamanzi Game Reserve near Hluhluwe. That evening, the Dutch de-briefed. The feeling of the group was unanimous. Nothing could possibly have prepared them for the extreme poverty, deprivation and tragedy faced daily by their new friends. Simultaneously, they were astounded by the dignity, positivity and unfailing humor of the Zulu people. The hospitality and sense of community were overwhelming. In a later email, Chantal, one of the group, says that “I cannot stop thinking of the awesome Zulu people, and their great wealth in other aspects – things that we as Westerners are always looking for”.