Our visit to the Waterberg

Mary Stephenson, is a hugely impressive woman: a key part of the ‘core team’ working with me from 1994 to rejuvenate St Stephen’s, a closed church in Bayswater. In about 2000, after a short visit, she said she believed God was calling her to work in South Africa, with victims of AIDS. What did I think?

She moved out to Vaalwater, a small town in the Waterberg, 3 hours north of Jo’burg. 2 local women, well aware of the devastation of the AIDS virus there, had set up a charity, the Waterberg Welfare Society www.waterbergwelfaresociety.org.za. Mary joined them to develop the work. When the chance arose for Joanna and me to go to South Africa, we knew at last we could visit her and see for ourselves all she was doing.

We arrived in the middle of a freak rain storm. People who had been using the day care hospice were going home. We met some on the ‘Boys 2 Men’ programme – their football team were doing well in a regional football tournament (they were beaten finalists.) We saw the truck which takes a roadshow into the townships and villages, we saw the nursery school, and we were allowed into the radio station.

WWS has become a lifeline for many. It’s helped bring life with HIV out into the open, although for many the stigma is still a real issue so the emotional support is just as necessary as the medical. It’s provided education about prevention and awareness. It’s brought treatment to many. It’s empowered local people. The work is now growing to include drawing alongside local youth, mentoring and accompanying them on their journey into adulthood.

We saw a real community of hope where life had been marked by despair. The cost to Mary in many ways has been a very high one, but it’s given her a wonderful and large new family. We wish we’d been able to stay longer. When are you coming back, she asked?

Tom Gillum