In many ways the annual East African Immersion is the heartbeat of Zimele, in that it establishes a close personal link between the supporters of Zimele and the African ministries and
communities they support each year.
The first immersion was in 2009 and there has been an immersion each year since then. The group visit ministries in Nairobi and Eldoret in Kenya, and in Arusha, Tanzania.
An average group of about 16 participants includes Tom Purcell and John Mount as leaders, staff and parents from St Kevin’s and other participating colleges and year 13 students. Participants attend two sessions before the immersions which prepare them for what is a most rewarding but also a confronting experience.
The immersion is an opportunity to let our African brothers and sisters know that we care for them, that we respect their wishes and their expectations and that we are happy to walk with them on their journey to improve their living standards and their general sense of well-being.
The whole idea is to help them help themselves, to avoid merely giving out money and hand-outs. The Christian Brothers are doing this through education in Nairobi, and in Arusha, and are focusing on helping the beneficiaries help themselves through a variety of projects including micro-financing. This is Zimele’s mission, to walk in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Africa.
Zimele immersion particpant Xavier Vale reflects on a day at the Education for Life Centre in Eldoret on the 2013 Zimele immersion.
We were ten days into the immersion, and had just arrived at the Education for Life centre in Eldoret, in Kenya’s far west. But our arrival was not the most conventional, for even before we had gotten off the bus, there were Kenyan women pulling us into a blur of rhythm, energy and life.
This is how the Kenyans welcome visitors, though Tom Purcell confided in us later that it had surpassed all previous welcomes.
Within seconds, all fifteen of us Zimele Crusaders were funnelled into a tightly packed explosion of dancing and energy: a reaffirmation of life.
The Education for Life centre was founded by the archdiocese of Eldoret and is supported by the Christian Brothers; it was established to help those directly or indirectly affected by HIV/AIDS.
They have also set up a lending scheme, where in groups of 20, each member contributes $3-5 a week.
It is seen as a place to save money securely, and then take out loans when necessary.
In the few short hours that we spent walking with these sufferers, we all heard enough inspirational stories to last us a lifetime.
Like Walter, who was tall, and dangerously thin. In the heat, he looked like a praying mantis keeping watch. Being one of the few males in the centre with HIV/AIDS, Walter was a minority, but he was committed to reversing the stigma surrounding male sufferers of AIDS in Kenya.
And then there was Rita, whose sister had succumbed to AIDS, leaving five children motherless. Rita, who already had five children of her own, decided to take on five more.
And then Victoria, an impressionable young woman who had just finished her schooling. Her mother had died from AIDS a year earlier, yet she passed with flying colours.
I talked to Victoria after their speeches, when sweetened tea was being served alongside local nuts. Firstly, she said that she admired all of us for coming to Kenya.
To me, I argued, coming to Africa in the hands of Tom Purcell and John Mount for three weeks is nothing, nothing compared to the pain and suffering she, and the majority of these women, had gone through.
“No”, she said, correcting me, “ I’m just here waiting to go to university.The women here are living their lives. You are all doing something important.”
That made me think.
Then, the conversation drifted here and there, always optimistic, and we chatted about Kenya, Australia and our cultures. As her smile widened, her eyes gleamed, and her laugh was infectious. The Kenyans can really lift spirits. Just as their masses are three-dimensional celebrations of life, their conversations are always hopeful.
After a while, we were being called to dance again. Wanting to end on a high, I asked:
“And Victoria, how do you women dance so well?” I laughed, and so did she.
“I don’t know!” came the reply, “we just move our bodies, I guess!”
At first, it was so easy to assume the moral and material high ground, to think that we Australians are better because we have the security of a democracy, money, and opportunities. But if that first week in Kenya taught me anything, it was that seeing the poor as poor, the AIDS sufferers as AIDS sufferers and the Christian Brothers as brothers only served to widen the gap between us.
We are all equal, no matter what colour our skin, no matter what vocation we are serving and no matter what disease we are suffering from.So putting condescension and segregation aside after a thoughtful silence, and bidding goodbye to Victoria, I once again joined the dancing mass of faith-filled Kenyan women.
Put simply, the people of Eldoret are marvels to an inspiration-deprived society. While Victoria, and Walter, and all those other women envy our comfortable lives, we all should envy them. For their torches are flaming, their lights burning, and they are standing on their own two feet.
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