digging

I was way out of my comfort zone in Johannesburg earlier this year.  Instead of my usual routine – daycare drop off, morning coffee, overflowing inbox – I found myself digging foundations, making bricks and painting, with more than 160 of my Norton Rose Fulbright colleagues.

Why?  To take part in building a children’s home and creating sustainable food gardens at  two South African primary schools, in conjunction with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Food & Trees for Africa.

Forty percent of South Africa’s population is under the age of eighteen, and a quarter of those children do not live with either of their parents. Tragically, over 1.5 million children are double orphans.

Against this backdrop, the focal point of our trip was the building of the (new) Menzi Children’s home for physically challenged, mentally challenged and abandoned children in Tsakane township, approximately 70 kilometres from Johannesburg.  Once complete, the Home will have 15 bedrooms for children, plus facilities for staff, providing each child access to shelter and running water.

Digging trenches with the hot sun beating down on me was incredibly hard work, and very different to my everyday life as an insurance lawyer.  By the end of the trip, my hands were covered with blisters, and my legs and back ached.  And yet, I felt very satisfied seeing how much we’d achieved:  our group made hundreds of bricks from scratch and we could see where the foundations for the Home would be poured.

Building the Menzi home is part of Norton Rose Fulbright’s corporate and social responsibility program.  As a firm, NRF is donating USD250,000 which will go directly towards the build.  Each member of the Norton Rose Fulbright team self-funded their travel and accommodation, and also raised money towards the build (thank you to all who donated so generously).

During the trip, we were lucky enough to meet the inspirational Matshidiso Mokwape, who founded the home when she was just 20 years old.  I found myself contrasting this to what I was doing at a similar age:  at university, living with my parents and generally wrapped up in my own existence.  Matshidiso is now 31 and, remarkably, she has run the existing home (which houses 17 children) for the past eleven years from a two bedroom house.

We also met some of the residents of the children’s home, including Siyanda, a child who had been badly burnt and suffered from cerebral palsy, and Thandine, a two year old blind girl whose mother passed away during her birth.

This was confronting and rewarding at the same time: seeing how difficult some people’s circumstances are, while knowing that our efforts were contributing to improving their lives, even in a small way.

Three months on

Three months have now passed, and I am still on a high from the trip.  It was incredibly rewarding to see how our collective efforts had a direct impact on a small community, in a way that simply donating funds alone could not.  By having “boots on the ground” I could feel the collective momentum of the team pulling the project through to its ultimate completion.

It was also very motivating to meet passionate Norton Rose Fulbright colleagues from around the world.  The trip made me appreciate the global reach of the firm, and our shared culture of improving the lives of others.  I made lifelong friends from around Australia and the world and will be forever richer for the experience.

I am proud to have been part of a team and organisation which is so committed to helping make Matshidiso’s vision a reality.  Her words still echo in my ears:  “every child deserves love, and to be loved.”

To see a video showing the existing home and some words from Matshidiso click on the link below.

Video: http://nortonrosefulbright.kulu.net/view/NdwhDJdvwZo

Keep an eye on Norton Rose Fulbright’s new Instagram account, @actions.speak.louder, as well as Twitter and Facebook to follow progress.

If you have any questions or would like to help with fundraising, please email me.