Monday 27 January 2020

Mud, sweat and tears of models in land of the forgotten orphans

Swapping catwalk glitz for backbreaking spadework in Africa has left an indelible mark on Siobhan O'Connor and three fellow stars

Project: Siobhan and Madeline Mulqueen at Sables Nua
Project: Siobhan and Madeline Mulqueen at Sables Nua
Siobhan O'Connor at Sables Nua, Zambia, where she helped build basketball and netball courts
Teodora, Madeline, Siobhan and Irma

Siobhan O'Connor

We left Dublin sleep deprived, up all night trying to ram donated items into our bags. We were en route to Kabwe, Zambia to volunteer for some of the most impoverished kids in the world. From basketballs to baby clothes, football jerseys and medicines, we were full to the brim - the generosity of the Irish is simply unfathomable.

Model Irma Mali was the last to arrive at the Emirates check-in desk, shouting: "Sorry, the bag burst". Model Teodora Sutra had been first at the airport. Madeline Mulqueen was there too, barely able to speak; the model and fitness blogger had made the trip quite literally by the skin of her teeth. While over in Budapest visiting fiance Jack Reynor on the set of his latest Hollywood movie, she suffered an agonising tooth ache only to discover she needed emergency surgery. She had to remain in Hungary to get her teeth sorted and so almost didn't make the trip.

Straywave producer John Norton was there to document our journey. He had previously produced Catwalk to Kilimanjaro and this was to be the follow up documentary, Catwalk to Kabwe.

Zamda, founded by former primary school principal Pat Fanning, is dedicated to providing direct and effective aid to a number of projects in and around the city of Kabwe in Zambia, with their main priority supporting Sables Nua, a centre for street kids. The centre offers food, clothing, medical care, emergency overnight accommodation, counselling and education for orphaned and vulnerable children.

Twenty-four hours later we landed at Lusaka airport. It felt like a throwback to the 1970s, untouched since then. Outside Mr Pat (all adults names are prefaced by a Mr or Madame) was waiting patiently amid a sea of cute African kids waving Irish flags. Many of the children were wearing Italia 90 jerseys. "What's the story, Pat?" I asked. "You must have them obsessed with Jack's Army?" Laughing, he explained: "They're the only T-shirts and jerseys they have.

"We've hired a big luxury coach with air conditioning and Wi-Fi for our Muzunga visitors," Pat declared. Muzangas is the term locals use for the white man, meaning a person who has no tribe.

The Zambian version of an air-conditioned coach is a bockety, rusty van with a few permanently opened windows. We crammed in with the kids sitting on our knees and holding our hands. The children were all over us - a hug is worth so much to a child who has been abondoned emotionally and physically.

Sables started off as a small shelter and is now recognised as an official Zambian school for over 130 children. The local Rotary club funded the building of the school.

Makalulu is the second biggest compound, or slum, in Sub-Saharan Africa and as we dropped 12-year-old Laura home, Pat revealed the most disgusting tragedy to befall the innocent girl. She walks two hours to school every day from her shack so she can receive an education. One day, while en route, she was raped by a man and she contracted HIV. Many Zambian men who have the virus are led to believe by the ever-prevalent and antiquated witch doctors that the only way they will be cured is if they have sex with a virgin.

Our home for 10 days was to be the VK lodge with a trickle of cold water for a shower and a motorised fan for air conditioning. Madeline, Teo and Irma were forced to move rooms as the first offering was infested with mosquitos, but they did not complain.

At 6am on day two we were at the gates of Sables Nua. Before we even set foot in the grounds, the kids were running up to our van banging at the windows to let them in. Each orphan's tale, of which there are many, is heartbreaking to the core. Pat rescued three brothers, Timmy (5), John (8) and David (11) from the slums. HIV had robbed them of their father, and their mother had abandoned them and checked herself into a hospice to die after she too had contracted the virus.

The shelter boys brought us to their dorm, their bunkbeds immaculate, they tell us rule number one in Sables: they must wash daily and make sure they are clean and tidy. Luke read the rules of the shelter aloud from a list on the wall. I became weepy - these boys are such a unit, they may not have much, but they have each other and they are so proud of their shelter. Beside each bed lay a special box with each of the boys' names on them. The boys wore the keys around their necks. Each box contained all of their worldly possessions, from photos of their forgotten families to the shirts off their backs - their whole lives in one small box.

The children enjoyed simple games like Mancala, a bit like marbles using stones. The girls would grab our hair at every opportunity and braid away while singing: "Happy/ I should be happy forever more/ Singing together/ Praising forever."

We knew we needed an expert to help with our plan to build something for Sables Nua, but we had no idea how much help we would actually need. Thank God for builder Gareth Nihill from Nspace, who volunteered his time to come with us.

You become accustomed to the phrase "TIA" - "This is Africa". Nothing gets done efficiently. Pat sat us down on day one and told us that he desperately needed facilities for the kids to play; if we could build a basketball court it would be mega - give the kids sport and it sets them off on the right footing.

However, he had warned us before we came to Africa how backward some things can be. This anecdote he mailed me sums it all up: "On Wednesday last I contracted a guy to do a job on a roof here, to start Monday. The lads arrived at 8am but couldn't start work because they, the roofers, didn't have a ladder. So off they went to the market and bought timber to make a ladder, but then they had no nails and no saw. So I gave them a saw and they are now working on the ladder! Four hours after starting, nothing has happened on the roof! Get used to it."

We had fundraised before the trip, holding a fashion show in 37 Dawson Street, busking on the street with Keywest, plus a shindig in Harry Byrne's. After six days of blood, sweat and lots of fun, we built a basketball and a netball court. It was gruelling in the 31-degree heat and there was no such thing as health and safety - all of the shelter boys got stuck in, shovelling cement.

We dug out 4.5 tonnes of earth for the foundation. We put in 25 tonnes of hardcore (which is the material we had to put under the concrete) and compacted everything by hand. Wheelbarrowing the 20 tonnes of sand, rock and gravel to make the concrete was tedious. Overall we moved and mixed 134.5 tonnes of material.

Who said Irish models are lazy? I have never witnessed such hard work, grit and determination from the girls. After almost breaking our backs - but not our spirit - on day two, Gareth conceded the ground was too hard and we bought a Kango hammer to help with digging the foundations. Africa teaches you to be industrious. Gareth built handmade wooden compactors for us to compact the cement which Teo fondly dubbed "tampering devices".

Each court took a day and half to compact with all hands on deck - a job which would take a labourer at home an hour with the right machinery. The last part of the job was to float each court, which meant giving them a nice smooth finish. We were down on our hands and knees, with tears rolling from our cheeks from physical and mental exhaustion, polishing the courts by hand.

It felt like we were transported into the world of Mr Miyagi in the Karate Kid: wax on, wax off. Who needs mascara when you can have your eyelashes caked in concrete, we joked. For weeks afterwards I was blowing concrete out of my nose.

Many of the children who find themselves on the streets of Kabwe have left their families in Makalulu in the hope of a better life. Seduced by money, they hear tales of how liberating street life can be compared to their home life in the slums.

One evening, Pat asked the crew if we wanted to help him hit the streets of Kabwe in search of MoMo, a 12-year-old who had disappeareded from the shelter. Some of the boys are so obsessed by the allure of money that the streets win over shelter and education. Others find themselves back there to feed their addiction to glue.

I assumed the street kids would be hard to find, but we found a gang of five within minutes. Pat gave them a description of MoMo. They said they had seen him but not in the last few days. I could barely hold it together speaking to the baby of the group, who told me he was seven years old. It was hard to witness - the little boy's eyes were glazed over as he talked drowsy gibberish. He showed us his bed, a cardboard box. It made my stomach churn.

There was a row of boxes and a tyre where the head of the glue gang slept. The older teen who was hanging around the boys refused to acknowledge that he was in charge, leading us to believe that he was trying to help the boys to get clean. Pat had seen the charade a thousand times before. The way the system works is the leader of the pack recruits the younger ones, offering them protection and food. The boys hit the streets all day and beg for money, giving their earnings to their master who then feeds them and keeps them high on glue.

We never found 12-year-old MoMo that night but he had heard Pat was looking for him and turned up at the school gates a few days later full of remorse. Your heart would bleed for the poor fella. Some years back, while living on the street, older boys poured petrol on this head and set it alight, burning his scalp.

As an antidote to the boys' money obsession, Pat introduced "Sables Kwatcha" into the school. The kids earn this plastic currency for good behaviour. They can use it to buy treats at the Sables shop, thus giving them a sense of independence.

As the week went on it was one emotional rollercoaster after another. Irma had brought over a brand new pair of Nike runners that her daughter had donated. She had given them to a little boy named Charlie (11), who had no shoes. Roaming around shoeless is the norm in Kabwe, footwear a luxury. The joy the child felt brought tears to our eyes. He was running around the grounds showing off his new present as if he had won the Lotto. Irma was in bits crying, telling me her daughter had so many pairs at home and how the kids in Ireland had no idea how lucky they were. Two days later, Charlie flung his clothes over the wall adjacent to the shelter, stole the other boys' clothes too, and ran away to the streets once more to sell the clothes to feed his glue habit.

He had only returned to Sables a week previously and thought he had overcome his glue addiction - but such was the power of his dependence, he found himself without abode once more. Pat was deeply upset by this but he never dwells on the negative. "He'll be back, but he'll be punished," he said. "It's heartbreaking but I'm not running a prison here. The boys have to want to be helped."

Creativity in all forms is encouraged at Sables Nua, from dressmaking to dancing, singing to writing poetry. One of the girls read us a poem she had penned. "My mother died, my father died, my grandmother told me to dig them out of the grave."

Elderly grandparents often end up minding young children, such is the norm when the middle generation are lost to the Aids virus. Often resentment is the resulting emotion.

Home visits are a key part of volunteering here and in between shovelling concrete, Pat had set up visits for each of us so that we had a better understanding of where the kids came from. Makalulu is miles and miles of mud huts. We were to visit Edward's mother. Edward came with us in the car as he showed us the way to his home. We brought a bag of mielie meal, the staple diet of Zambia. The bag will feed a family for a month.

Edward's mother welcomed us into the hut, which had just two pieces of worn furniture.

Madeline and I had brought some handmade dresses for the kids. It wasn't long before the tears were rolling. The social worker who had accompanied us, Rosie, asked the woman to tell us her story.

As she breastfed her new-born, she told us she has eight children, four from her first marriage, but her husband died from HIV and so she remarried. Her second husband doesn't feel his stepchildren are his responsibility so he won't provide food for them, only enough for his biological children. Mr Pat was a saviour, she told us, as his school provided Edward with an education. Before this, Edward had run away from home to try to make money on the streets collecting plastic bottles to sell for his mother. She was horrified that he had felt he needed to do this and it saddened her. She said she had not reared her children to end up on the street.

Our short time at Sables left an indelible impression on us. In a sense, these dispossessed children are free-spirited and full of hope. I learnt that we need very little in this life to be happy. When you lose everything, you have nothing to cling on to anymore. Life is simpler when you live for today - tomorrow may never come.

We were emotional as the kids lined up in the courtyard and said their goodbyes. Pat made a speech thanking us. As he told the kids to go back to class, we heard the howling from the classrooms. "Ah, go away out of that." he said. "They're just professional criers. They'll be grand."

We will never forget the land of the forgotten orphans. Pat's philosophy is: "You won't change Africa, but Africa will change you."

The names of the orphaned children in this article have been changed to protect their identity. For more information, and if you'd like to donate, see

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