Project Compassion

Photo: Jay Cronan

Yesterday I was honoured to be invited to speak at St Clares College in Canberra at the launch of Project Compassion, Caritas Australia’s annual Lenten fundraising and awareness-raising appeal.   Over the next couple of weeks I will be represeting Caritas throughout ACT and NSW as an Ambassador for Project Compassion so it was a great way to kick off the campaign.

Caritas is part of one of the largest humanitarian networks in the world.  Last year alone it helped more than 2 million people directly through its long term humanitarian programs, in over 29 countries.  Last year while I was walking across Africa I was lucky enough to see first hand some of the fantastic work that Caritas has done it lifting people out of poverty.  Children are now attending schools, have access to clean water, better food security and also access to better medical facilities.

The world bank estimates that 90 million people live in extreme poverty in Australias neighboring countries and a further 300 million are vulnerable to falling back into poverty due to natural disasters, climate change and economic shocks. So this year Caritas is going with the theme help they neighbor and sharing stories from people in Philippines, Timor Leste, Indigenous Australia, Vietnam, and Fiji.

Listening to the stories of the people being helped by Caritas reminded me of a lady I met last year in Mozambique.  She was living in a tin shed not much bigger than 2 meters long and 2 meters wide. She had four children; the first had passed away from a preventable illness, her second child had HIV/Aids, her third child and only son had a mental illness and had to sleep under a tarpaulin next to her tin shed and her fourth child was the victim of a hit and run and was parlayised from the waist down. She received about $7 a month as support from the government to help provide for her children, and that was only when the government could afford to pay.

So next time you whinge about some of our first world problems here in Australia, I want you to think of her.

Attending the launch also gave me the opportunity to talk to students at St Clare’s College and attend Ash Wednesday Mass with them.  The bible is littered with examples of how we should be helping the poorest in the world and as Catholics we need to be setting an example for the rest of the world to follow so it was great to have the opportunity to be involved.

I believe it doesn’t matter where we are born or what color our skin is or what religion we follow that we should all have access to the four basics in life – water, food, education and basic healthcare. While people in the world are going without these four basics, none of us can truly rest.

We have come along way in eradicating extreme poverty, infact we have halved the amount of people living in extreme poverty since 1990 and that number continues to decrease. So I encourage you to support Project Compassion in a big way in 2017 as it is helping empower some of the worlds poorest to build a brighter future not only for themselves but also their communities.

Also consider taking the pledge to help alleviate poverty in the next generation by committing to donate a certain percent of your income to Caritas so they can continue to make the world a fairer place for all. My wife and I do it and since we started doing it have never been happier.

 

Time to Change Australia Day

Aboriginal photo

In Australia we are just about to “celebrate” Australia day and growing up it was an important day on my calendar. There was always cricket on the television and I still remember as a 10 year old being in Sydney and watching bicentennial celebrations as a replica of the first fleet sailed into Sydney heads. I was thinking this was a united country celebrating 200 years of existence. It wasn’t until I got a little older and started learn a little bit about our history at school that I started to question whether we should really be celebrating our national day on the day the first fleet arrived.

The more research I did on the history of white man’s settlement here in Australia, the more I started to draw the conclusion that this probably should be the last day we should celebrate it. I hate to use this word but there is no doubt there were acts of Genocide against the Aboriginal people. It distresses me to think this happens anywhere in the world let alone my own country. How can we expect to be a united country when we are asking the first Australians, the aboriginal people, to celebrate Australia day on the day that white man arrived and tried to wipe their race off the face of the Earth. Just stop and put yourself in their shoes for a minute.

The hurt and pain we have caused them since 1788 can never be repaid. Yes we do have to move on from the past but being a white Australian I don’t think we have done enough to right the wrongs of previous generations. (If you want to hear a powerful depiction of these wrongs then watch Stan Grant’s video). The first step is to recognise the Aboriginals in the constitution as the first inhabitants of the country – something they have been lobbying the government to do for many years. We also need to change sections 25 & 51 that still permit race discrimination. Do we really need a referendum for this, costing millions of dollars; surely common sense can prevail here. The millions saved could be better used in Aboriginal health care programs. It is hard to believe that Australia is the only developed country that still has Trachoma, a debilitating eye disease that causes people to be needlessly blind and can be fixed by a simple operation – never heard of it? Well that is probably because it only affects our Indigenous population so doesn’t get mainstream attention!

Not being an Aboriginal myself I am not fully aware of the racism that they face, but I am fully aware it is out there. Several years ago, I was a volunteer at a local Australian football club here in Canberra and was also on the board for awhile. At that time the club had two aboriginal players in the seniors team including one who was an ex AFL Player. They both handled themselves very well and were great ambassadors for their people and the sport, in fact they were great human beings. There was quite a large aboriginal population in the town that this Football Club represented so one evening when I was chatting to the General Manager I suggested that we should go to all the schools in the area to promote the club and make sure that all Aboriginal youth were given equal opportunities to play the sport. My thinking was that many Aboriginals are exceptional athletes, in fact some of the greatest footballers ever to play the game have been Aboriginal, so they could be a great asset to the club and also it would help with youth inclusion in the area. Also I wanted to make sure we as a community football club were doing everything possible to ensure that everyone was given the opportunity to play AFL Football. To my surprise the General Manager said “you don’t want aboriginals at this football club they are more trouble than they are worth”. He put this down to an incident he had with an Aboriginal player several years earlier. I was shocked and furious as he had also had several fallings out with non-Aboriginal players over the years, but was still happy for them to represent the club. It is this exact attitude as to why we are a still along way off from being a united country. Yes there are bad eggs in every race but we need to start to look beyond the colour of someone’s skin or else we will never move forward.

To have anything to celebrate as a country we MUST recognise the FIRST Australians in the Constitution and I would love to see THAT day become the new Australia day. We would then truly be able to celebrate being the lucky country and all that is great about this wonderful country… TOGETHER AS ONE.

The Haves and the Have-nots

The stark difference between a child growing up here in Australia and a child growing up in a third world country in Africa is extravagant.

In my job I get to go to many houses and today was no different. One of the houses I went to is a house that I visit regularly where the client has 2 children. The sporting equipment that was there in the front and back yards would dwarf the sporting equipment available in whole towns in developing countries. After my walk across Africa earlier this year it really hit home the difference between children living here and Southern Africa.

Starting in the front garden, this home has Totem Tennis on the front lawn and soccer goals with a few soccer balls scattered around. From there you walk down the driveway and to the right you are greeted with an artificial turf cricket pitch which is enclosed by a net and also accompanied by a bowling machine. Following that you look to the left and there is a table soccer table, bikes and scooters. From there you head to the backyard and are greeted with a massive trampoline, basketball ring, boxing speed ball, swings, cubby house and wait for it a huge patch of artificial lawn with about 5 holes in it for putt putt golf.

Now I am aware this is not the norm in every house in Australia but it is a stark reminder of how well we have things here in Australia. I remember many times whilst walking across Africa I was greeted with children playing soccer in the street and on makeshift soccer pitches without a blade of grass to be seen anywhere. Their balls were made out of several plastic bags tightly wrapped together with string around the bags to hold them together. These children had never seen or kicked a proper soccer ball but good luck trying to wipe the smiles off their faces.

But the thing that struck me the most at the home I visited today was the “Santa Please Stop Here” sign located at the top of the driveway. Like really what more could Santa possibly bring to this household. It is not the children’s fault and probably not the parents fault either but society as a whole has a lot to answer for. We are so fixated in a world of consumerism and the need to have more and more so it begs the question when is enough enough?

I went to the baseball here in Canberra the other night and was in the merchandise tent where they were selling basic snap back hats for $55. To my amazement in the few minutes I was in there 2 people came in and purchased them without any concern for the price. I can’t even think of the last time I spent $55 on an article of clothing let alone just a hat.

Whilst in Mozambique earlier this year I went on a field visit with Oxfam, an organisation that I am honored to be an ambassador for. I met one lady in particular whose story still keeps me up at night. She was a widow who had 4 children. She lived in a basic corrugated iron shed which would be no bigger than an average bedroom here in Australia.  Sadly her eldest child had passed away, her next eldest had HIV/AIDS, and her only son suffered from a mental disability that meant he had to sleep under a tarpaulin next to her tin shed which would flood every time they received any decent rainfall. That left the youngest daughter who was the victim of a tragic hit and run and was paralyzed from the waist down. The mother was getting minimal help from the government because the country is so poor so would only receive around AUD$9 a month. With that money she is supposed to feed herself and her three remaining children and pay for other living expenses. You don’t have to be Einstein to work out that one hat purchased at the baseball was the equivalent for this lady to live off and feed her children for 6 months.

So this Christmas don’t be a sheep and follow the rest and get sucked into the world that is drunk on consumerism. Consider donating to a charity and really change someone’s life for the better.

Living under the poverty line

I am now 50 days into the walk and we have certainly had our ups and downs but the hardest thing without a doubt has been living under the poverty line.

I set myself the challenge of completing the entire trip spending just US$1.50 per day on food to simulate what it is like for the billions who live below the poverty line every day. So my eating on this trip has been very basic to say the least. Here is an insight into what it has been like.

  • For breakfast it is either porridge or cornflakes with a cup of tea
  • Lunch is usually just dry 2 minute noodles or a sandwich
  • Afternoon tea is a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts
  • Dinner is rice or pasta with a sauce made from onion, tomato, carrot and tomato puree with a bit of seasoning, plus a couple of cups of tea
  • I keep hydrated with water or cheap cordial

breakfast lunch snack dinner

You might think that doesn’t sound too bad other than the obvious lack of variety. Well the portion sizes are quiet small to stay under the US$1.50 and there is no going back for seconds. Shopping is also less enjoyable now, walking past all the nice looking food that I know we can’t afford and working out how to make ends meet on so little is somewhat depressing.

We have however learnt to be smart in a few ways to cut down on costs and sometimes cook our own bread in the fire and if we can get cheap potatoes we also roast them in the fire and that helps to keep the carbohydrates up. I also reuse my tea bag 3 times to save on costs there!

To date I have lost just on 15 kilos and 8 of them where in the first 11 days of the walk. It has taken my body a fair bit of time to get used to living like this and to be honest I don’t think it has adjusted fully. Many times the hunger pains are so bad I feel like I am going to faint, my stomach is eating away at itself in ways it never has before. My judgement on things isn’t the same as what it normally is which I put down to my brain crying out for more nutrients. I even start questioning myself on even the most simple of things.

Whilst we have survived it is no way to live a life, going to bed at night hungry is awful and having to walk 17 or 18kms before having something to eat has been extremely tough. I know it has given me a greater appreciation of how the poor in the world live and for them to get up each day not knowing where their next meal is coming from shows great courage.

This experiment has proven a couple of things to me; that no one should ever have to live like this and we need to do more to help the world’s poor.

~Matt

Reflections on Botswana

I was sad to leave Namibia as it is a beautiful country with extremely friendly people and we had such a great time during that part of the walk. However, Botswana has been just as fantastic but also more challenging.

Official welcoming party at the border

A day before we arrived in Botswana we received a phone call wanting to know what time we were to arrive as they wanted to welcome us at the border. Well, welcome us they did!! We all filed into the immigration office and started getting our passports processed but when I handed mine over, the lady said “Ah, Matt Napier, I have been waiting for you!” and then rushed off out the back office. We were then greeted by a number of government officials, some having driven 800km from the capital, Gaborone, just to welcome us.

The first night we camped about 7km inside Botswana at a place called Charleshill, setting up camp just behind the service station. The next morning I woke at about 5.30am to the sound of someone speaking in the local language on a loud speaker. Not knowing what they were saying all I could think was “shut up, some of us are trying to sleep”. This went on every half hour and it wasn’t until I huddled around the campfire with the team that someone said to listen closely. So I did and although I could only pick out two words – “Australia” and “Napier” – it was pretty clear that the person was informing the whole town that I had arrived and calling them to attend the official welcome later that morning.

Official welcome at Community Court (Khotja) in Charleshill

The Government Officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Youth & Sport returned later that morning and escorted us to the local meeting place called a Kjotla or Customary Court. We were welcomed by about 500 people performing their customary dance and singing. It was an amazing way to be greeted into the country and the community loved the soccer balls that I handed over to the Chief to hand out to local schools and community groups.

From there we headed on our way to what we would later call the “Danger zone”!! Many people at the border had questioned my route and said to be extremely careful of the lions. We were all a little taken aback by that as we weren’t walking through any game parks and had been advised that the wildlife was mostly north of us. The area in question was about 100km up the road and lasted for about 200km. We were unsure what to do but were lucky enough to have police guards through most of the problem area and even had two people from the Office of the President come along with us for the 5 nights we were in the “danger-zone”, they even camped with us over night.

Day 27 - Saying goodbye to our Govt escorts after 3 great days

Good campsites were hard to find so sometimes we would have to double back to camp and then drive forward to where we had finished the night before. Most mornings I had a police escort until at least breakfast. On the first morning, just as I was about to get out of the car at 6.30am to start walking a pack of antelope (I think they are called Orricks) came out of the bushes and nearly ran in front of the car. I asked the driver what they were doing here and he said that the lions had probably chased them out. Knowing I was about to get out of the car and start walking with the car following me, it was safe to say that I was scared out of my wits. Ten of the quickest hail mary’s were said and the prayers were answered as not a single lion was spotted that morning or at all in our time in the “danger-zone”.

Several villages along the way also welcomed us with hundreds of people turning out. It meant a lot to us to be so welcomed into the villages and the country as a whole. We gave out dozens of soccerballs, enjoyed a range of traditional entertainment and met a huge range of people. A truly amazing experience.

Traditional dance at official welcome to Charleshill

Unfortunately we had to say goodbye to two of our support crew for reasons I won’t go into now but we were left with no choice and after surviving the “danger-zone” this added another level of uncertainty to the trip that we could have done without. Morgan, our cameraman, stayed with us for another couple of days but then it was time for him to say goodbye as he had only planned to join us for first 5 weeks and was heading off to Europe. It was great having him around and we enjoyed the company as he would often walk with me.  So now, as we head into South Africa it is just me and Wendy – not ideal but I’m sure we will manage.

The parts of Botswana we saw are very similar to the Nullarbor Plain in Australia, long open roads with lots of trucks and often days between towns or truck stops. While it is sad to say goodbye to Botswana, It is now time for South Africa and the 730 odd kilometres before we hit the Mozambique border. We are expecting the weather to get a little colder but we are well rugged up at night so we should be fine and the days are usually warm and sunny.

Chief of Charleshill community with donated balls

Given that we have had such a big couple of weeks and still managing to walk 45-55km per day, crossing Botswana in just over 2 weeks, we have decided to keep going at this pace and bring the end date forward a couple of weeks. I now plan to reach the final destination of Maputo in Mozambique on 3 August instead of 20 August.

Thanks for following and I will do another blog in a few weeks when we hope to be well over halfway across South Africa.

~Matt