‘Broadening Horizons’ is an English and abridged version of the original Welsh publication, Ehangu Gorwelion, by the Revd Wynn Vittle, in which the history of Christian Aid in Wales is told through personal impressions and reminiscences. Cambria Nostra will publish the version in instalments.
By Wynn Vittle
Chapter 7: Overseas Travels
The West Indies
The chapter opens with the reasons for making overseas visits, emphasising the importance for Christian Aid Area Secretaries who address meetings and speak to children and students in schools and colleges on living conditions in the Third World, to be able to speak from experience.
My first overseas visit was in 1976 when I accompanied three colleagues for four weeks in seven Caribbean countries. The first was Jamaica, staying in the capital, Kingston. Several agricultural projects which were based some ten miles from the city centre were viewed and it was encouraging to see the enthusiasm of the young people involved, who hoped to be employed locally on completion of their courses.
The short stay in Kingston was followed by a four day visit to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the northern hemisphere. I shall never forget some of the scenes of the squalor areas of the country’s capital city, Port au Prince. Yet alongside the rubbish dump, where children and animals searched for scrapings of food, the churches had a clinic and welfare centre – a most encouraging sign of practising the Christian faith.
On one occasion we travelled 50 miles to a remote village, where over thirty mothers had come to the one roomed clinic to meet the nurse, who herself had travelled on horseback for 12 miles – one only of a number of such visits she makes during the course of her work in this rural district. It was most gratifying to see this success story and to realise that the financial support given by Christian Aid was well used in this community.
Having spent four days and meeting several prominent social and health workers in Haiti, it was time for us to take a flight to the country next door, the Dominican Republic. We touched down in its historic capital, Santo Domingo. It was here in 1492 that Christopher Columbus arrived and it was in this city that the first Europeans settled, becoming the first capital city in the Spanish New World. Prominence is given to Columbus’s visit and the city’s ancient buildings are well maintained as it proudly boasts its past.
Entering the Council of Churches office my attention was drawn to the inscription above the entrance door, the Spanish words, “Dios No Ha Muerto” – “God is not dead”. Having seen the work carried out by the local churches among the deprived poor people of Santo Domingo it was obvious that they practised their Christianity with vigour and were sustained in their labours by the spirit of the living God.
We would have liked to have spent more time not only visiting projects in the city, but also to have had opportunities to meet people involved with agricultural programmes in the rural areas. Unfortunately our schedule was tight as it had been arranged for us to travel to Antigua.
The highlight of our visit was meeting the country’s Prime Minister, Mr. V. S. Bird, as his government and Christian Aid were joint-funding one of the island’s agricultural development programmes and it was appropriate that we discussed the current project. During our short stay we also attended a number of meetings, mainly with the Antigua’s Council of Churches.
The next country visited was Barbados, where we discussed development programmes and the country’s needs with Church leaders. Following these meetings we travelled to Trinidad and here also met officers from a number of different denominations, who were involved in development programmes and for many years had worked closely with Christian Aid. Such meetings served to strengthen the partnership between the organisations that was essential for the success of the various programmes which were supported, and the recipients were most appreciative of the strong bond between them. A short visit was also made to neighbouring Tobago.
Having left the Caribbean islands, the last country visited was on the mainland, Guyana, staying in Georgetown for three days and travelling to the countryside on one occasion. There we viewed an agricultural project only recently begun, which had received a grant from Christian Aid.
Our concluding meeting was in Georgetown with the Council of Churches officers. Here again, as at similar meetings during our tour, we were warmly welcomed as each in turn expressed gratitude for Christian Aid’s generosity and the cordial manner through which its officers had given advice in support of the Caribbean Council of Churches as it began to assist those in dire need in many of their countries.
Seven years later I was invited to visit South Africa. Having taken part in a number of protests against the country’s apartheid system, I hesitated for some time before agreeing to make the journey, but eventually decided, with my colleague from Scotland, to go. I accepted mainly because it was the wish of the South African Council of Churches that Christian Aid sent members of staff to visit the country in order to see the living conditions of the black people and to meet Church leaders, in order to convey to the British public the atrocities of the apartheid system under the nation’s government.
During our visit we encountered many difficulties and they started in Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg. We were told that we could not enter but the officers eventually relented when we showed them our intended itinerary whilst in the country. Obviously the officers had taken a photo-copy of the itinerary as twice during our four week stay we were contacted by the Security Police.
Some of the scenes we saw and the discussions we had with a number of people convinced me that my decision to visit the country was the correct one, as I shall never forget the places and people I met during my visit.
Four days were spent at the South African Council of Churches Conference, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the General Secretary. His presence, and his speeches were never to be forgotten experiences. Words cannot convey the atmosphere at that Conference and the experience of listening to the numerous discussions formally and at meal times will always remain with me.
Among the many persons I had the privilege of meeting was:- The Revd. Dr. Beyers Naude (who, at the time, was under house arrest for protesting against the government’s apartheid policy), an eminent scholar, who left his denomination, the Dutch Reformed Church because of its pro-apartheid policy and later was appointed General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches; The Revd Frank Chikane a theologian who, along with others, founded the Institute of Contextual Theology in 1981, and also became, for a period, General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches; Ellen Kuzwayo, Consultant to the Zamani Sisters in Soweto and Chairperson of the Maggie Magaba Trust, a women’s organisation training and supporting women in Soweto.
Seeing and hearing how the black people of South Africa and their families suffered under apartheid rule was beyond words. The plight of thousands of migrant workers and the forced re-location of people in many areas, together with the strict laws strictly limiting the rights of the black and coloured inhabitants of the country could scarcely be believed.
Mention is also made of the practical support given by the South African Council of Churches, with scores of church members of all ages suffering all manner of persecution for the cause of justice and freedom for the majority of the country’s population. Most of my account of overseas visits concentrates on my tour of South Africa as I was greatly influenced by such traumatic experiences.
The Gambia and Sierra Leone
My third trip abroad was in 1987, when I spent four weeks in The Gambia and Sierra Leone in West Africa. My companion on this occasion was the National Secretary for Ireland and so, on two of my three overseas tours, I had the company of a Celtic colleague.
Each of the countries visited was suffering much hardship and poverty due partly to its history and due partly to government policies. Yet as referred to in the chapter, it was most encouraging to see that the churches in both countries played a prominent role in supporting the needy and co-operating with others of different faiths; this was seen especially in The Gambia, as the Christians and Muslims jointly supported several development projects, with the Church leaders emphasising the call to co-operate on certain educational programmes especially in health and welfare.
As in The Gambia, the churches of Sierra Leone identified themselves with those who were suffering, especially in the squatter areas of the towns and in a number of rural communities.
One of the most obvious signs of the Sierra Leone’s financial resources was that the government restricted the use of electricity to only a few hours a day in the capital, Freetown, whilst most rural areas throughout the country had been totally deprived of electricity for over two years. But whilst spending the night in the town of Bo, to the thrill of the family where we stayed, the electricity returned!
During our visit to Sierra Leone we spent four days in Lunsar, a village in the rural community, and visited its two hospitals. One was run by the Roman Catholic Church and the other specialised in ‘eye problems’ under the auspices of the Baptist denomination.
The majority of development programmes in the country were organised by the Sierra Leone United Christian Council, supporting projects in both urban and rural areas, with much emphasis on health and education, especially the training of young people to become self-reliant by giving them opportunities to learn skills which would eventually earn them a living.
The three overseas visits were, for me, valuable experiences as they equipped us as Christian Aid staff with a message to share with others of the plight and poverty of people in many countries and enabled us to inform supporters and the general public of the enthusiastic hope of the impoverished, taking encouragement from the National Council of Churches in the developing countries. It was truly amazing and much appreciated to realise how Christian Aid and its partners succeeded in building such a close relationships as they co-operated to give hope to thousands deprived of the benefits which we take for granted.
Wynn is a Welsh speaking ”Pembrokeshire boy” but adopted by Carmarthenshire having lived most of his working life in different parts of the county as a Baptist minister, apart from an eighteen year period in Cardiff when he was Christian Aid’s National Secretary for Wales. Sadly, his wife, Nia, passed away in 2008, but he is fortunate in having a daughter and a son and their families, and a variety of projects to keep him occupied.
Ehangu Gorwelion (copies of original Welsh publication available).
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Swyddfa Cymorth Cristnogol/ Christian Aid Office
75 Heol Dŵr, Caerfyrddin/Carmarthen.SA31 1PZ
Rhif ffôn/Telephone no: 01267 237257