- How did a young student of journalism come to the idea to go to Mozambique?
- There is an organization "The Community of Sant'Egidio", founded 45 years ago in Italy. Now it claims 50,000 members in more than 70 countries. In Kyiv, it is has been operating for 20 years, and I learned about it at my first grade in the university. Within the frame of its activity in our country, we give sandwiches and snacks to the homeless, and once a week we supply them with clothes.
The idea of this organization is not only material help, but also personal and friendly contact. It's an attempt to become friends with the homeless. Such friendship has become a very valuable experience for me. Contact with such people changes you and your life. The community eventually spread throughout the world with a mission of helping those in need, setting up refuges for the old, hospices for AIDS patients, centers for children. There were people in Italy who had friends in Mozambique. Europeans started to send humanitarian help there. However, in the late 1980s, the Community came to the realization that their humanitarian efforts in Mozambique, then torn by the Mozambican Civil War, could not succeed without peace. As a result, the organization acted as a mediator in signing peace agreement 20 years ago, and people from this community have been working in Africa ever since. Listening to these stories, I set my sights on Africa. I was preparing my parents to this for two years. When you speak about going, when you show photos of the country, the reality no longer seems scary.
- How did you start your charity activity?
- People always seek human values. Usually, we want to do some good. My friend read an announcement about collecting clothes for the homeless and invited me. I cannot tell I was eager but I went anyway. And acquaintance with such people has changed me. One of my homeless friends used to be an ornithologist, worker of the Academy of science. When I first met him and asked his name and his former occupation, he said it was not relevant and then asked me if I had read Voltaire. And here the realizations comes that everybody can land on the street level. These people are very interesting and you learn to be friends with them.
And what is interesting, these people do not speak about material things much and do not complain much. These people and my travel to Africa have showed me that my problems are ridiculous comparing to the things happening in the world.
- Did you go to Africa at your own expenses?
- Yes, we do everything at our own expenses. Of course, we search for people who could help financially, but we never use collected means for our needs. We buy food and clothes for those, who need it, otherwise people may start accusing us of misusing funds. On one website, I wrote about my African experience and later in comments I read something like 'you must help Ukrainians, not Africans.' This is so strange for me. I don't accuse you of going to the sea on vacation, so why do you? Moreover, nobody says we should help Ukrainians, and we do help. Tell me how I can help more and I will. I hate people saying you must do this and you must help that, but they themselves do not move a finger. We do help Ukrainian children. Don't live with provincial attitude, as the world is not limited to Kyiv only.
- What impressions have you brought from Africa?
- For the first few days I was shocked, especially with total poverty. You know, when you come to Ukraine from Europe, the country gives you a shock. When I came back from Africa, I was shocked as well, but this shock was different. I realized we have asphalt roads, people have furniture and food... In Africa, they do not have anything, even rich district with nice hotels and restaurants are surrounded by slums. We are used to believe that Ukraine is a poor country with poor people, but you cannot even compare Ukraine with Africa. We have some poor settlements of gypsies somewhere in Western Ukraine, but these are single cases, while Africa is all like this. They have the same prices as in Ukraine, but 80% of the population lives for two dollars per day. More than 35% of the population does not eat enough. Moreover, 40% of the population is children. Every family has five or six children, and these children do not have childhood. Five-year-olds are already independent and have to take care about younger brother and sisters. They solve their problems alone: where to eat, what to wear, how to spend a day.
I worked in the Center for children, where we had 600-650 children daily. They study there at school and then come to us to eat. For many children it is the only food for the day - a portion of rice. There is also a kindergarten, affiliated with the Center, for children under six. Some of them do not know to speak, and when a worker takes attendance, these children simply hit the table to show they are present. The first thing you notice is that these children lack attention. We did not have to invent anything for them to play or stay busy, it was enough just to be there. A four-year-old and a 14-year-old eat equal portions of rice and equally fast. We even had a video, on which a small boy expressed his affection to a girl giving her a spoon of his rice. Then he accidently overturned his rice on the clothes and immediately started to lick it. Shockingly, it is a normal thing for them.
When I was there, it was winter. We lived in an apartment, but those kids live in matted huts without windows and furniture. They sleep on the floor covering with a piece of fabrics they make clothes of. They do not have shoes as well. One time a girl came to us in one flip-flop, and then she found a shoe, three sizes bigger. She was so happy to have a full set. Parents work constantly there and they do not have time for kids. For them it is normal that children are independent from early age. However, there are different examples. A family with the father getting treatment against AIDS adopted six children, literally saving them from death. It's nice to see that simple actions can save lives and change the history of the country. Our group also distantly adopted a boy from Madagascar. This is a popular system. We send him 300 hrynias monthly. It costs us 20-30 hryvnias per person monthly, and this boy had a possibility to live in a family-type home, to get food and clothes regularly.
- HIV and AIDS are widely spread in Africa. Weren't you afraid to go?
- Our organization opened a treatment Center in Mozambique years ago, and millions of people have undergone diagnostics and treatment there. Indeed, there are many people sick with AIDS there, and such diagnosis for them is like a death sentence. Many doctors do not even inform their patience about the disease, as there are no medicines for them anyway. If not for the Center, thousands of people would have been dead already. We know many people sick with this disease and we are friends with them. AIDS does not spread like this, so no, we were not afraid. Actually, I'd love to come back to see how those children have grown up.
- What about infectious diseases? Did you make vaccinations before going?
- Yes, we made vaccination against yellow fever and were taking pills against malaria. We were buying food and water in supermarket only, and were cooking by ourselves. One must be careful there: wash hands and follow hygiene rules. However, infectious diseases are not so scary as depicted. You cannot take it while walking down the street.
- Is the level of criminality high in Africa, or is it just another myth?
- Well, it's not recommended to go out in the evening. The locals see that you white, and if you are white it means you are from Europe, and if you are from Europe it means you are rich. However, richness is a relative term. They see you talking on mobile and think they can take it to feed the family, while you can buy another one. They believe that if you have money to come there, you have money to buy a new phone. Thus, if you are told not to go out in the evening, do not.
Apart from complaints, everyone's "to do" list must include the ability to see the world around and people in it. Helping others, we forget about our problems or realize their insignificance. And we can do both in Africa and Ukraine. There is a chance that humanity still exists thanks to people who care about others and are always ready to help, be it a sandwich or warm clothes, but given without judgment and with sincere concern "how are you?". It is so easy, if you think about it.
Tetyana Hryhorieva, photos provided by Olha Makar
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