Posted by Patrick Marmion on 06 Apr 09
Every day we are presented with choices, many of which have little or no effect on our lives, however every now and again you will choose to do something that sweeps you away into a world you never expected and effects you in ways impossible to explain.
Six months ago I choose to help an Irish based charity to set up a volunteer recruitment drive in the UK, little did I know the consequences of this choice. It has taken me on a rollercoaster journey that has affected my mind, heart and soul. I’ve have laughed hard enough to hurt my ribs, I have laboured till I was fit to drop and I have cried alongside the toughest of men.
On Thursday the 19th March 2009 I boarded a plain in Manchester for the first leg of my journey to Cape Town, South Africa. I was travelling alone on the short hop to London Heathrow, it would be the last time I felt alone for the next seven days. I was aware that 500 of my fellow country men and women were departing Dublin to airports all over Europe for the 6,000 mile connection to Cape Town, many were also transferring at Heathrow and could be identified by their colour hotel tags issued by the trust prior departure. It did not take long to find some of my fellow volunteers, we instantly connected, three very different people, one had travelled from the west coast of Ireland, the other from Brussels and I from Manchester, but we had things in common, mainly the fact that we were giving up a week of our lives to travel to the other side of the world to build houses for some of the most deprived people of South Africa. Slowly more volunteers started to arrive and before long we were boarding our 11 hour flight full of excitement and trepidation.
The flight felt like it was taking forever, all I wanted to do was to get to Cape Town and get to work. 500 of us had accepted the challenge to raise 5,000 Euro to spend 7 days building 75 houses for families who had never experienced the security of living in a house or the dignity of owning their own home. I was aware the task was going to be challenging and considering I have never been on a building site in my life I was unsure of what I could contribute. I was anxious, would the appointed foremen (also volunteers) tolerate my inexperience or would I be sent for a “long stand” not to be seen again for the rest of the week. Would I end up becoming one of those statistics that hurt themselves on these journeys or would I end up making a fool of myself. It was all too late now, the plain was landing and I was already caught in the tidal current of the choice taken six month prior.
It was around 10am (South African time), I had found my bag, met lots more of my fellow volunteers (all wearing nametags, an extremely good idea by the organisers) and was heading for passport control. Niall Mellon (founder of the charity, which also bears his name The Niall Mellon Township Trust) was there to greet us. In a sign of respect the South African Government and its official have for Niall and his charitable efforts, certain members of the trusts staff including Niall had been given special access to Boarder Control to afford Niall the opportunity to greet each volunteer individually, a task that would take nearly two days (that’s a lot of smiling and handshaking). Once past customs we were whisked onto buses and off to our hotels.
On the bus the sound of people meeting each other for the first time filled the air with a sense of excitement and a willingness to make new friends. After a short distance silence descended, the whole bus came to a collective jaw dropping quiet. We had just started to pass the township of Mbekweni a massive expanse of corrugated iron and various other materials cobbled together in an attempted by the local population to provide a shelter for their families. The magnitude of the task ahead was starting to dawn on us. We had all travelled out with preconceptions of what to expect, Mbekweni had just shattered these in a matter of seconds.