Thousands of people in the UK sponsor a child in the Third World – but few get a chance to actually visit them.
For Sheena Hird, a Scottish Borders Council social work officer from Newtown St Boswells, it was the furthest thing from her mind, until about five years ago, when Ferdy, the Ethiopian lad she had been sponsoring for eight years through Plan International, posted her a photograph of himself wearing a Scotland football top that Sheena had sent him.
“And that,” said Sheena, “was what planted the seed of thought that maybe one day I would visit him.”
That seed took root, but as is the way of those things, it was not until September last year that the first shoots of opportunity sprouted and Sheena contacted Plan International – one of the largest children’s development organisations in the world – to see what could be arranged. And by November, she had booked her flight.
Friend Derek Buchan, from Galashiels, asked if he could join her on the trip, so at the end of April, the pair took off on their titanic journey, involving four flights between Edinburgh and Lalabella, which took the best part of a day.
Then came a hour’s drive by Landcruiser and what was supposed to be an hour and a half walk to the village.
Sheena said: “The landscape was stunning – very mountainous – it was obvious that our ‘walk’ was to be a mountain hike. It was also very hot and, although we had water, I have never been that parched in my life.”
But two hours later, the duo reached Ferdy’s house.
Sheena said: “It was amazing to finally meet Ferdy, his mum and dad and his brother. His maternal grandmother was also there. The family welcomed us into their home, which was also inhabited by a couple of donkeys, and his mum had prepared a light meal for us.
“We spent over three hours there, talking (through interpreters), laughing, crying, hugging, handing out presents and taking lots of photos.
“Tears, laughter and hugs break all language barriers.”
But it became clear from their conversation that this was not a good time for the family. Ferdy’s dad, who is a farmer, had recently lost one of his two oxen which he uses for ploughing, and he was not likely to be able to replace it.
So the pair decided on the spot to buy him one at the local market.
Sheena said: “We were told not to come into the market because if white people were present it would put the prices up. I will never forget the look on Ferdy’s dad’s face when he appeared with the bull, bought for £260. It was a very special and humbling moment, knowing the difference it will make to the family. It was £130 each – that’s the cost of an Asda shop.”
It was clear to see the poverty in which the family lived – they had no running water or electricity – but Sheena said that the simplicity of their life was strangely attractive.
She said that one of the most amazing sights of her visit was when the villagers all climbed the mountain for prayers, dressed in white robes.
She said: “It was beautiful, it looked like something out of the Bible. They did not mind in the slightest that we were there to see this spectacle.”
The charitable pair were shown round Ferdy’s village, and were able to see what Sheena’s £17 per month was helping to do. For a start, it now boasts a school and health centre – something that was lacking before. Some of the schoolchildren greeted their guests by singing some local songs.
Back at the house, Sheena asked Ferdy’s mum what would make her life easier, and was astounded by her answer.
Sheena told us: “She told me she would most like to have a solar panel for the house. So Derek and I are going to look into it and depending on the cost, we might also be able to purchase panels for some of their neighbours.”
Sheena and Derek are planning to make another visit in three years’ time, when Ferdy turns 18.
However, it’s not completely unlikely that they will be back before then.
As Sheena said: “Thursday 25th April 2013 is a day I will never forget. It was so special, I can’t identify a highlight.
“When I first started sponsoring Ferdy, I never thought that one day I would actually travel to Ethiopia to meet him, she said.
“Reports received from Plan International made me aware that my money was being used to enhance life for Ferdy and his community.
“However, it was only by visiting Ethiopia, that I saw for myself the excellent work being done there by Plan International. Education and health care are so important, it’s just that we take these things for granted,” she added.
Should anyone wish to find out more about sponsoring a child and/or are interested in supporting Sheena and Derek in their quest to purchase solar panels for the village, feel free to email her – Sheenahird@aol.com
For more information on Plan International and the work it does, visit plan-international.org
For more pictures visit thesouthernreporter.co.uk