Thursday, 23 September 2021

School cook transformed lives in African township

A FILM documenting the charity work carried out by two women from Watlington will be screened on March 21.

A FILM documenting the charity work carried out by two women from Watlington will be screened on March 21.

Dorothy Ackerman, 86, and Pauline Verbe, 66, have helped transform the lives of people in a South African township during the last six years by establishing allotments and an irrigation system.

Filmmaker Michael Demetriou accompanied the women on their most recent trip to Mothibistad last year during the installation of a wind-powered irrigation system, which had become the women’s goal since soon after they became involved with the Mothibistad Valley of Hope team.

The women helped create four pilot-scheme gardens to encourage villagers to grow their own food but watering crops was difficult as it had to be hand-pumped from the ground.

They hope their new windmill in Logaganeng garden, made possible due to the support of Kumba Iron Ore Mine, part of the Anglo American mining corporation, will make the process easier and make their dream of extending the project a reality.

Mrs Ackerman, of Church Road, said: “I cried when I saw the water. We really felt that we had done what we had set out to do. Now they have got their first windmill we can sit back and say, ‘We have done it’. I hope to go again and see everyone. I am sure there is lots we can still do.”

Mrs Verbe, a freelance secretary of Sycamore Close, said: “It was the most wonderful achievement. We started the garden project and knew there needed to be some kind of irrigation system because with the hand pump it took something like five or six hours a day just to water the gardens.”

Mrs Ackerman, who was born in Nettlebed and has lived in the area all her life, said: “Pauline suggested we should encourage them to cultivate gardens but not everybody believed it could be done and there were quite a few smiles from the older people who said we’d never get food growing.”

The ladies asked friends and family members to sponsor the fruit trees, including apricots and peaches, as well as grapevines, lemon trees and seasonal vegetables. Not all survived, but Mrs Ackerman says she is pleased a tree named after her great-grandson, Ben, is bearing fruit.

Mrs Ackerman, who has been a member of Swyncombe Church for more than 40 years and married her late husband, Cyril, there in 1947, first became involved with the people of Mothibistad when she hosted a vicar and his wife from the small village in 2005. The visit was part of an ongoing exchange programme between clergymen.

A year later, Mrs Verbe, then a newcomer to Watlington, organised a trip of her own to see how she could become involved. Mrs Ackerman was invited to join the trip and jumped at the opportunity — despite reservations from her family and friends, including her sons, Roger and Brian.

“I think they were surprised that it has been so successful and I have done it for so many years,” she said.

Mrs Verbe, who also cares for her husband, Raymond, who has multiple sclerosis, said: “We came back and we discovered we had both come to exactly the same conclusion — that we would like to help the people to help themselves. We didn’t feel that just giving money was the answer. We needed to encourage the people to start building their lives again.”

Since then, the pair have visited South Africa nine times — including twice to celebrate Mrs Ackerman’s 83rd birthday. They have overseen the distribution of monthly food parcels through the Valley of Hope charity, the donation of football and netball kits and bought a sewing machine.

Mrs Ackerman, a former dinner lady at Nettlebed School, said: “It’s a completely different way of life. I was a school cook for 35 years and I had never been anywhere because you couldn’t take time off in the term time. I lived a life where I only went within a few miles — I have lived within a five-mile radius for the last 86 years.

“I have had some wonderful experiences and we have met some wonderful people. It has been the most marvellous experience and, at my age, I think I am extremely lucky.”

The women say they have seen lots of changes in the area since they first became involved and believe their friendship has enabled them to achieve so much.

Mrs Ackerman said: “Pauline’s a very kind, thoughtful person and although I am older she’s never ever made me feel my age.”

Mrs Verbe said: “It’s an enormous achievement for someone Dorothy’s age to accomplish so much. She’s very courageous.”

The screening takes place at Watlington Memorial Club on March 21 at 8pm. Doors open at 7.30pm.

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