Free State visit was such a humbling experience

Mosamaria AIDS Ministry in South Africa, photo taken by Gloria Birdsall
Mosamaria AIDS Ministry in South Africa, photo taken by Gloria Birdsall
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People scavenging on rubbish dumps, living in make-shift shacks which could be bulldozed at any time, and women and children being tested for HIV.

Just some of the sights Blackpool resident Gloria Birdsall saw when she made a recent visit to the Free State province, in South Africa.

Gloria, a licensed reader at St Thomas Parish Church, on Caunce Street, Blackpool, spent just over four weeks in the country, helping with the Bloemfontein Cathedral mission and Mosamaria AIDS Ministry.

The area has been linked to the Blackburn Diocese for more than 50 years and Gloria is chairman of the Mosamaria Trust Fund.

Working with Fr Lazarus at the cathedral, she read scripture and carried out preaching, as well as visiting people in hospitals, their homes, care homes and the Free State Psychiatric Complex, to help administer Holy Communion and meet people.

She was able to observe work being done by the Mosamaria AIDS Ministry – including testing families for HIV, the orphan and vulnerable children project, gardening and poultry projects, treatment literacy programme and TB programme.

Gloria, who runs the Stepping Stones bereavement support group at St Thomas Church, said: “The whole experience was mind-blowing.

“It really did open my eyes and was such a humbling experience. My visit really put things into perspective – all the little things we worry about or moan about in this country, they’re nothing compared to the way some people live.

“People sometimes talk about Blackpool having deprived areas and it does. But over there, the deprivation is on a different scale.

“One day, we went to a refuse dump, the stench was unbelievable. There were people there, who went straight over to the refuse when it was dumped, searching through it to see what they could find, what they could use or sell.

“And I saw the shacks some of the people live in, it’s like another world.”

The informal settlements of shacks could be bulldozed at any moment – as they do not have legal status.

The people who live there have to walk miles to a stand-pipe for water. And their toilet may be a tin shack somewhere near the house with a bucket, but some do not have even these.

Gloria said: “I was able to see first-hand the trials and tribulations that people went through on a daily basis in Bloemfontein and Botshabelo, which made my love for South Africa and its people become even stronger.

“It was a privilege to see up-close the procedures carried out by the Mosamaria AIDS Ministry on a daily basis and the professionalism it was done with.

“The staff and the work they do are amazing. During times when things have been tough, and there hasn’t been enough money to pay them, they have been faithful and carried on with the work.

“I shadowed the team going out knocking on doors, to carry out HIV testing.

“There was one house, where a mum and her children were tested – it takes about 30 minutes to get the result, I was so relieved when the test came back negative for them.

“The woman said she would not tell her husband she had been tested – as he would assume he too was negative and would then not get tested himself.

“There is also an orphan and vulnerable children’s project for those children with HIV/Aids or have lost their parents and families to the illness.

“I was able to see the poultry project, where by people can set up keeping chickens and sell the eggs, and the gardens project where they can grown their own fruit and vegetables which they can sell.

“The Mosamaria Trust runs sessions about HIV medication and the importance of taking it, what happens if they stop taking it, and about nutrition.

“I was able to take over items donated by the CLC Christian Book Shop, things we would take for granted – like pencils, books, rubbers and balloons, for the children.

“One of the best memories I have is of visiting the physiatric complex, when the Christian Bikers, Impact Riders, took along teddy bears and cupcakes they had made for the ladies living there. Some have lived there for many years.

“The smiles and welcome we received from the ladies were amazing, no words can describe them. It meant so much to them.

“I also helped out a soup kitchen for the homeless, which was wonderful.

“I would go back in a heartbeat.”

Gloria is now making it her mission to raise awareness of and funds for Mosamaria.

She has organised an evening at Tiffany’s Hotel, on the Promenade, Blackpool, taking place on Friday, November 27.

The event, which starts at 7pm, will include a charity auction, hot pot supper and entertainment and tickets cost £10. Contact Gloria on (01253) 399932.