‘I found my spiritual home’

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Ambrose Kelly, 64, is originally from Australia but now teaches mathematics at Frankfurt International School in Germany. He draws on his experience of living in remote South Africa as director of the Kalahari Experience Service Project.

I have been here since 1989 but I first left Australia in 1978. I left as a brother of the Catholic Society of Mary (Marists) and I was given the opportunity to study and travel the world. The reason that came up was I was involved with children with severe asthma. I created a camp in Australia so that kids who need mobile inhalators to stay alive can move around, throw mud on each other and have a great time. I spent the rest of that year travelling the world and being involved with other asthma organisations. This led to working worldwide with adults who suffered from cystic fibrosis.

The next experience was to work in Pakistan to help run a school in Rawalpindi. I went there in 1983 as deputy principal, then as principal. Using this school as a base enabled us to help start to get street schools organised for poorer kids in the city.

When I came home, in 1985, I was asked if I would go to India to set up a street orphanage. I went briefly to set up but then I was sent back to Australia because of visa problems.

Then, in November 1986, the telephone rang and someone said: ‘Would you like to work in South Africa, in Kuruman. We need you here in about 10 days.’ So I found myself in a very poor community on the edge of the Kalahari desert in what was then the homeland of Bophutatswana but is now a part of the Northern Cape province of South Africa.

I found myself in my spiritual home. All my intellectual and physical powers came together. It is a wonderful feeling. All your energies line up together in some sort of serendipity. You can really operate, think in many different directions.

That began my time in the desert. These were displaced, very poor people living 120km north of Kuruman. Unfortunately they are still there, 20 years on. They were moved from the south of Kuruman 200km north into the desert, where the land does not sustain town development. But the government set up this village of 6,000 people as if the land could sustain them. They set up roads and everybody got one block of land, 50 yards by 50 yards, with a tin home.

I went first as a teacher and social worker. In my first year the highest school was a middle school. I was deputy principal. In my second year I became principal. My other work was to support people who were trying to keep the students alive – provide clinics, basic amenities where possible and do something about education. One of the things we did in those two years was start a senior school.

I was asked to move to Soweto by the Marists. They needed a male teacher there and the students needed to learn about non-violent leadership. The thing about South Africa in 1989 was it was becoming obvious the government would change and that the new people who would run the new government would have been mainly trained abroad as soldiers. I was supposed to be a teacher and a leader in Soweto. It became obvious by the end of the year that any type of organising in the black community was not popular with the (white) government so I was told to leave the country immediately.

What to do next? I had contact in the desert with a medical group, Cap Anamur, the German version of Médecins du Monde. In 1988 its second team consisted of a physician, a paediatrician and a midwife. That paediatrician later became my wife. So I went to Germany. We decided to make a life together.

Here I was in Germany, teaching in a very rich private school but the spiritual home thing never left me. In 1991 a group of 12th graders [17 to 18-year-olds] asked: “Why don’t we go out there?” I said: “Yeah, that’s possible.”

We’ve gone every year since, except a one-year gap in the middle. We’ve helped build classrooms, we’ve renovated schools that were falling down, we’ve helped build pre-schools and made meals so kids could eat.

Last year we toyed with the idea of the students teaching because of the desperate situation in the high school. That worked. The high school had a pass rate of zero and this year it was 33 per cent.

This experience is vital for kids from the international school. Through no fault of their own, they are not exposed to the enigmas of the world of poverty and lack of education. Going to the Kalahari sensitises a whole generation of young people. Over the years, what has come back is a commitment that sticks in various ways.

A girl who went to the Kalahari in 2004 is about to go back as a volunteer for Unicef. A young architect left here in 2000. She had never been to the Kalahari with us but her younger brother had. All the sudden she sent me an e-mail saying: “We are two young architects in the UK. Is there anything we can do?” They are in South Africa now, designing a hospice we’re building for kids.

This summer we will have 80 participants, mostly students, from all over the world. They will be teaching, renovating, helping to construct a hospice for 100 HIV-positive young people and training administrators. One big hope is to connect this isolated area to the world by satellite.

In 2004 I was awarded the equivalent of a knighthood from the Australian government for my services to youth worldwide. Of course I never use the title “Sir”. For me, what’s important is knowing that you’ve done more good than bad in your life.

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