So what happened in Africa?

It has been a long time since I have blogged here. There just haven't been enough hours in the day. But I have been itching to share what we got up to in Africa, how it went, the difference it has made to our family and to say another massive thank you to everyone who helped us get there with their kind donations.

In short, since losing Neil, I have never felt so alive as the time we spent with our fellow volunteers and the youngsters we met. Here's our story:

Watching my daughter Melissa set off to walk four miles carrying a bed for a nine-year-old orphaned African girl who slept among rats on the floor, I cried big fat tears of pride.

We were doing this in Neil's memory. I hope that one day there will be an element of our involvement that I can put his name to as a lasting reminder for all to see of his decency and compassion.
I find it amazing that such an unassuming, modest group of people should make such a difference and honoured to be allowed to walk alongside them. It's hard for me to imagine that mothers have so little that their newborns are sent away from hospital wrapped in newspaper but mind-blowing to consider women in my village are easing this burden.

Melissa trekked for hours along a dirt path to deliver the bed we had built together, while me and her sister Emily carried another to its new, less faraway but equally dilapidated home.

We were in a remote South African community fittingly called Share, in a region called Bush Buck Ridge.

Our mission was to start to help some of the continent’s poorest children. These youngsters had lost one or both parents to HIV and Aids or were devastated by a more sudden death.

Now they lived with their grandmothers, themselves often child-like through the effects of trauma, or a toxic combination of no education and deteriorating faculties.

As young brothers and sisters woke to the sight of their parents’ crudely etched graves in the heat and dust outside their bedroom window, facing hours of chores, there was little time to be a child.

We were helping a dedicated team of local women offer the children hope, through food, education and healthcare, with a small charity called Hands atWork.

The amazing women caring for these children – bringing them one simple meal a day -- and attempting to mend fragmented families had very few material possessions. But driven by a deep faith, they brought love by the bucket load. Each day their voices filled the air with soulful songs of celebration, giving thanks for the community.

The tiny British charity taking us there is called Link4Life – inspired by an aim of forging long-standing meaningful, relationships, working together over a lifetime to bring real improvements.

They asked us to put together beds for 12 children of the 50 they are able to help from their centre, and to help build a ‘long drop’ toilet so little girls and boys no longer had to crouch behind the centre’s walls.

We were part of a 14-strong team throwing ourselves into the tasks with aplomb. Colleagues from Link4Life had already painted the centre, set up a fence and embedded colourful tyres as play equipment.

In these still bleak surroundings, I was upset by the scale of deprivation. Yet my wise fellow team members could see how things were improving and thankful for the steps taken so far.

Our job was to cuddle the children, to play with them and show them love. We were not there to pity or point and say: “Oh how poor they are.”

There was no international marketing fanfare to throw Western money at these children  and impose our own solutions, we were there to listen to what they genuinely needed. Each day we listened and got on with it.

But they were also helping mend us.

My tears came not only from pride but from waves of understanding and grief. My beautiful brave girls getting blisters carrying the beds and laughing with the children in the playground, understood their heartbreak. They had lost their dad, my gorgeous husband Neil, just over a year before we found ourselves in Share.

The care workers and our companions from our local village community of Cheslyn Hay in Staffordshire told us they would be thinking and praying for us too, that we needed their love.

Having spent months attempting to come to terms with our grief and facing the future without Neil, to meet so many bereaved children and see the pain in their eyes was a cathartic and humbling experience, especially when their care workers recognised the same agony in us. Yet as we witnessed the difference we were making, since losing Neil, I had never felt so alive.

The reason behind our visit was uncomplicated -- to meet the children, be at their side and help tell their stories.

As the three of us made a hash of sweeping a grandmother’s yard during a home visit, he would have laughed fondly as she tutted and told us to do it again.

We also had the opportunity to visit a hospital in Durban, where babies are now sent home clothed, rather than in newspaper, thanks to a group of knitters, some of whom are just streets from where we live. This is the Baby Bear project.

As I helped hand over freshly knitted clothes to women in the last stages or of pregnancy or hours after they gave birth, I sat and chatted with a young mum of newborn twins. Rosie, 25, from a nearby village, who told me she would name one of her daughters after me.

Again, the tears flowed. This time I was crying with joy.

At a banana plantation where an international team of nurses ran a basic health clinic, I held a young girl’s hand while she underwent traumatic treatment to Impetigo on her head.

The festering lesions on Virginia’s scalp remained agonising as her aunt had refused to give her the medication needed. Now the sores were so serious, they were being cut out with a blade. There was little pain relief. As I sat and held her fingers in mine, urging her to squeeze my hand to take the pain away, she was so unused to anyone showing her such basic care, she didn’t know what to do and her wrists remained limp, her hands dangling as she screamed in pain. I will never forget Virginia, I ran to our van to get her some boiled sweets so she could somehow benefit from a sugar rush and take her mind off the stinging blade.

I’m not a religious person but could not fail to be moved by the dedication of those who used their beliefs as a reason to roll up their sleeves to see their hands at work among such need. Nobody was preaching,just getting on and helping in desperate circumstances. Perhaps the most moving part of our visit was spending a Sunday morning at a church built from sticks, with fabric oddments adorning the makeshift walls as underfed children in their best dresses sang hymns beautifully. Outside they played with toys fashioned from bits of old wire. It was heartbreaking but uplifting at the same time – you couldn’t help but be in awe of these children’s spirit.

My colleagues from the UK church said they felt God was there that morning. I couldn’t disagree, but Neil was there too I told them. Now, as I reflect on our time in Africa, my tears have given way to renewed commitment to help girls like Virginia.  There has been guilt since we returned as we squabble over which pudding to buy in the supermarket or which reality TV shocker we are going to settle down in front of. We don’t know we are born.

Still, my tears have given way to smiles as I think of the children we helped, including my own and a new little girl called Linda. 

We have a link for life.

How you can help

The Baby Bear project is looking for more knitters. Please leave a comment here if you can spare the time to get involved and possibly help clothe newborn babies or email me on linaitchison(at)

A direct debit of £15 a month feeds one child at Share. Please visit for more information. 

I've also included a Donate button in the top right hand corner of this blog to help me send money in a monthly direct debit. 


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