In 2008, Brooklyn residents Andy O’Neill and Alex Richards spent an entire year volunteering at one of ASAP’s community care centres deep in the rural heartlands of the Eastern Cape. Alex wrote very movingly of her experiences on our website, especially about the way Nokulunga Mzobotshe, the Garden and Nutrition Manager at Hlomelikusasa, who has since passed away, had touched both their lives.
This year they returned to the field with their two year old daughter Trixie. Here’s what they had to say about their adventures this time round, beginning with why they they had chosen to return.
Alex: When we came back to the United States we joined the US board of ASAP, and we wanted to stay involved in the organisation and know what’s happening.
Andy: It’s hard to stay connected to that mind-set, and to what’s happening on the ground
Alex: And we’d made a lot of friends while we were living there and we wanted to get to see them. A good friend that we had made had died already, so we wanted to try and get out and see some of the people that we knew.
How cool was it to have your two-year-old daughter, Trixie with you this time?
Andy: [laughing] It was a trip.
Alex: It was amazing. We were doing a lot of preparation, just telling her that we’re going to be around all these people, they’re going to be excited to see you, they might try and pick you up. She can be shy. We were very worried that she was just going to freak out, and she just loved it, everywhere we went kids started following her around, and wanted to throw a ball with her, and she loved it.
So, what were the biggest changes that you saw since you here last?
Andy: We were there for some of the very early discussions about community care centres around Matatiele, so going there and seeing the buildings and this sort of flourishing Centre and community there, was.. I mean they were in a kind of shack with broken windows before, and they were feeding the kids outside. One of those photos of those buildings took my breath away, but to go and see them in person!
Alex: And the drop-in Centre has beautiful gardens with lots of fruit trees and vegetables.
Andy: Oh, the trees is one of the biggest things! Because that’s one of the big fund raising things we were involved with in the States.
Alex: We saw pictures of the village health workers planting teeny tiny nubs of trees, and now the trees are twice as high as they were.
Andy: At Itekeng they have a real kind of orchard going, where there’s loads of shade and the chickens live underneath the trees in the shade. And if they wanted to the kids can go in there and sit down.
Alex: Just seeing some of those village health workers that we spent so much time with back then. I did a lot of art projects when I was here before so I would spend a lot of time with some of the kids. It was just great to go back. People started singing songs and there was just this excited joy, it was really lovely. And just driving around, you know, we don’t have these kind of landscapes in Brooklyn. It’s just amazing. Yeah, I think just driving out in the rural areas, and just feeling, I don’t know, just part of something else.
Back in 2008 you both had a particularly powerful connection to one of the gardeners and carers, Nokulunga Mzobotshe, who has since died. Could you still feel a sense of her on this visit?
Andy: Every time you are in a garden, that was Nokulunga’s patch, and she was making that happen. All the gardens around Mount Frere, you knew that she must have visited tens of times and touched the plants and talked about how to shape the garden to make things grow better.
Alex: Yeah, it was really difficult I think being there, it was just strange. A lot has changed in the specific CBO’s (Community Based Organisations) that we were working with, so it was very sad being there and just feeling like there was something missing, there was definitely something missing.
Andy: There was just a hole where Nokulunga should have been.
And would you say that Nokulunga’s gardens were her biggest legacy?
Andy: Absolutely, she was garden and nutrition manager for Hlomelikusasa. We spent the most time with her. We would go out to the field to the community care centres, and she would come with us for the garden visit, and she taught us all the different plants that they grow for medicinal purposes.
Alex: We did a cooking workshop together right at the end of our 2008 visit. Which was also kind of sad because this time I walked into this room where Nokulunga had done her cooking workshop and it was just this empty room. She taught me a lot about gardening. We planted a small garden in our yard when we got home to Brooklyn. It’s all in the condition that she shared with us over the year that we were living in South Africa.
ASAP is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. What would be your best birthday wish for the organisation?
Alex: I guess I would say more recognition, more presence, more visibility, for more people around the world to know what ASAP is doing and accomplishing.
Andy: I think it’s time for ASAP to grow. What you see in Matatiele, which is really the first generation of ASAP model community care centres, kind of clustered around a central field office, is just something that’s ready to grow in many different places in South Africa. And I would hope that over the next few years that that is something we are here to see.
So what’s next for the three of you?
Andy: The US board tends to be focused on the fundraising and publicity, and we’re going to try and move that forward, especially online, try and up our online donations. There’s also the School to School programme which is a small programme in the US, and now with Trixie starting pre-school and stuff, we’re going to see how we can bring that ASAP fundraising even to her generation.
Alex: We had a Gogo’s (grandmother’s) luncheon with my mother and all of her friends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, last summer, and now it’s cool, generally a few people interested, and maybe we could try and do it with Andy’s mum. We did a fundraiser last year, we did some filming when we were living here, and we did a kind of screening fundraiser. There are different ways large and small to keep fundraising and to keep getting people involved.
If you had to pick an African animal that best captures the spirit of ASAP, what would it be and why?
Alex: [laughs] Oh boy!
Andy: We went to an elephant park in the Eastern Cape, we just took Trixie, so I guess that the spirit of the elephant is that the elephant never forgets. And that’s something that is good for ASAP because we’ve always been focused on the children, and helping the women help the children.. Like in everything, it’s easy to be part of ASAP because even when you are in the field or when you are at home you have a simple mission which is that these kids need more care, and that the women can give the care
Alex: I would say elephant too. I mean, not racing to be flashy, but just really caring.
Any last comments?
Alex: I just feel really lucky to have come upon this organisation when we were looking for somewhere to volunteer, and my mum’s best friend’s sister is a funder in the UK. And it’s just crazy how it kind of all happened, and now it’s just such a huge part of our lives.
Andy: So we’ve been involved for six years. When we first met Priscilla[ASAP’S Director] there was already like a need for the extra help. We already knew that we wouldn’t be just spinning our wheels or anything, like the organisation’s small enough that if you are a part of it, you are already making a difference.
Alex: We thought that we’d volunteer for a year and then that would be it. Priscilla cares about the OBC’s, she cares about everybody that she works with, and she’s got that drive that really, you know, it would be difficult to extricate ourselves. You know, we want to be a part of it and she wants you to be a part of it. It’s forever, as opposed to, “Okay, we’ve volunteered. Now let’s just..”
So, ASAP’s for life?
Alex: [laughs] That’s right.
Andy: It’s really great to see like, like, you know, last summer when we were here, when we first arrived it was Linet and Priscilla in Priscilla’s house. And to see the office and everyone, because there is so much work being done, and to see the Matatiele office. It’s a big change in the organisation for the better. It just indicates growth and success. It’s thriving just now.