Beatrice Gardner is one of the co-ordinators of The Ababa Project, whose connections with the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady are long established and fruitful. The example of these lay missionaries from St Teresa’s in Dumfries and its environs is inspiring and, as a result, Missio Scotland this year is using these established channels to support a project in Ethiopia that will positively affect children’s lives.
Give us a little insight into your background please Beatrice?
I have always been a Doonhamer and I have always been in St Teresa’s Parish. Well I was Baptised in St Andrew’s, but all the other Sacraments I received through or within St Teresa’s. I consider myself a St Teresa’s Girl through and through. My parents were both Catholic—my mum is a cradle Catholic, while my dad converted in order to marry the wee red-head from County Mayo! They both worked full time, my dad as a painter and decorator and my mum was a psychiatric nurse, both at Crichton Royal Infirmary. I had two siblings—Mary and Michael—and I am the baby of the family.
I started school at St Andrew’s Primary, but moved to St Teresa’s when the new school was opened in 1963. I have only happy memories of school and the teachers there. We were very involved in everything that went on. My brother was always in the football team. I was in the Brownies and then Guides, I sang in the choir, performed in the concerts, visited and entertained at the hospitals and nursing homes. We went to Lourdes too.
Maxwelltown Benedictine Convent School was my secondary school. My parents were delighted and happily bought all the garb I was to wear over the next six years. I really enjoyed my days there, we had a lovely group of sisters caring for us.
After sixth year, I didn’t have enough O and H grades to go to university and I had no idea what to do with myself so I went ‘home’ to Ireland for a while and then to Spain for a year. The nuns at school got me a job teaching English to the children of an Army Captain in Huelva, Andalucia. I lived in the barracks with the family. They were so good to me, and my Spanish family are still a very big part of my life and we visit each other often.
On my return to Dumfries, I was asked to teach in the Junior School at the Benedictine Convent while a Mrs Taylor was recuperating from an operation. I then had a ‘temporary’ stint working for a friend who moved up here to open a betting shop… I was still there 18 years later. I took a second job to save money for a trip to San Francisco, where all my mum’s family live and that’s where I met my husband, John. He lived in the village where the hotel was—Torthorwald—halfway between Dumfries and Lochmaben.
My sister married and had five kids, then she lost her husband Tom at the age of 40 to Motor Neurone Disease. So, as I didn’t have any kids we shared them, I used to tell folk we had five children between us! Tom and my dad died within a year of each other—1993 and 1994. I left work to help my sister and my mum. Thankfully, John supported me in this, so I went to college to do Accounts and then worked for him in his garage in Lochmaben. John has since retired and I work from home.
Within the parish, I was asked by the late Canon John Walls RIP to be a Eucharistic Minister, I felt really privileged and it somehow brought me in to lots of other wee jobs in the church. I remember threatening not to go back into the Sacristy because every time I did I seemed to come out with another job! I visit some parishioners at home and I have also been helping with the Sycamore Course, faith sharing programme.
I began taking part in online zoom courses with a group of people from near Bath in England. We have done lots of different things, all related to the Catholic Faith and the Bible. It’s very worthwhile, even more so when I started and couldn’t get in contact with my Church family due to Covid-19. It helped me enormously. I love working with groups. It’s been a great help to me in my faith life. I would go on pilgrimage every year to somewhere if I could. I really enjoy being around and among other Catholics.
What was life like before The Ababa Project?
I hardly remember it! I was never terribly involved with The Ababa Project when it was first founded circa 1985, at least no more than the next parishioner. I went to the fundraisers, worked at sales and so on, but I wasn’t involved so much then as now.
Tell me a bit about your first involvement with the project and how that has grown and developed?
I became more involved when the ‘team’ were thinking of travelling to visit Ethiopia in 2012. The year leading up to the visit was a bit hectic with functions and fundraising. Everyone paid their own way and the fathers and daughters—to include the youth of the parish—led the way and were great ambassadors for the parish. The visit was a resounding success and they began planning the TEACh ([St] Teresa Educating A Child) programme as soon as they returned.
That was when I started to help out more with the cash, records and so on. Kellie—one of the young doctors who by this time was married to the other young doctor—was pregnant and asked me to take on the financial work. I did and haven’t stopped. The lady who was the initial coordinator, Eileen, gave up her job just after that so Fr Jim Hayes asked Derek and I to do her work then. In 2013, Derek, his daughter, Rebecca, and I travelled to Ethiopia together. It was their second trip and my first.
What has the support been like from the various parish priests, and also the neighbouring parishes?
Our previous parish priests have all been very supportive of the project. They were always keen to have Sr Colette from the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady over to talk and fundraise. There was always a basket/collection box in church for the project too.
When Fr Jim came to us in 2010, he was very pleased that we had a mission project and was a bit surprised that no-one had been on a visit. He was really pro-active. He changed from having a monthly basket at the back of the church to having the members come round and ask for any spare change to be donated to the project. I think the amount quadrupled almost at once. Fr Jim has been to Ethiopia twice now too.
Who are some of the key people both in Scotland and Ethiopia with regards to the Ababa Project and what makes them important?
Nega Sorsu, the Project Facilitator, in Ethiopia is such a Godsend. He is a very caring and personable fellow. He is able to speak to the sisters very respectfully and guides them in many things. He smooths the way for them to meet with officials, escorts them and generally looks out for them. He is the contact between the sisters and the very poor. When he visits the poor he doesn’t go in a smart car, but takes a bajaj (motor-taxi). He is very humble. He has a team of contacts in the very poor areas—his eyes and ears. If there is someone in great need, he will often just turn up and make a discreet donation or help in some way, maybe by offering work or buying something from them. We have been on his rounds with him in various places, in shacks with dirt floors, no seats. It is very moving and humbling. I am often surprised by the things he notices. Everything is about education with Nega. We met some children in a national park who were herding goats. I offered them water, while he wanted to know if they went to school, what class they were in how their studies were going and so on.
Here in Dumfries, there are some amazing people who support the project too, not only financially, but who give up their time to work in the charity shop with us or knit for us to sell. Even the local reporter in the Dumfries and Galloway Standard seems to give us extra space and big spreads.
I must say the biggest difference to the Project was having Fr Jim sent to us. He is so enthusiastic in his approach. He never misses an opportunity to promote the project or raise money.
Derek too, and his whole family—they eat sleep and breathe The Ababa Project.
What have been some of the major successes of the project in your opinion?
The home for the retired and elderly sisters is a particular favourite of mine. They had nowhere to go until this new place was built. Originally the sisters were mostly Irish or from the UK and France with a few Ethiopian women. When they retired, they would go ‘home’ and be cared for there. Now they are all Ethiopians so they had to find a place to let them grow old with care and dignity. The building is a great example of what they can manage, I’m sure they are magicians, because of how they can stretch a pound?
Tell us about your travels to Ethiopia, to see the projects and meet the people?
I have been to visit twice now. The first time I went, I was a little apprehensive, but not the second. We were made so very welcome and comfortable. With the little they had they tried to spoil us. I loved the food and the way it was served. I tried everything I was offered and helped Rebecca clear her plate many times—and Chelsea on the second trip. I love their spicy flavours and eating goat is not so different from mutton. Traditionally the meat is served like a stew on top of a flatbread called an injera, as you eat it you pull a bit of the soft spongy bread and pick up the meat using the injera—no cutlery required. Injera is a staple of the Ethiopian diet, like pasta in Italy or rice in China. It is grown from teff flour, the plant looks like just a really scrawny grass and the seed is minuscule.
Everywhere we visited they put on a ‘Coffee Ceremony.’ It’s a traditional welcome, and very beautifully done. They roast the coffee beans on an open flame then grind them and one must inhale the smoke as they roast. The floor is strewn with fresh flowers and popcorn is always served along with the coffee. I never saw so much corn in my life! Then after the popcorn you’d get a corn on the cob for a wee treat!
What are some of your standout memories about Ethiopia?
Derek, Rebecca and I were out walking in Adama one day with Sr Amsale and Aleyech, an employee at the clinic where we were staying. A lady who was on her way to the clinic for a check-up had stopped her bajaj. She just got out and had the baby on the street. There was such a commotion. All the women removed their veils and shielded her from passers-by. Aleyech just went in and tied the cord for her! Later in the afternoon, I went in to see the baby in the clinic. I asked which one it was that had been born in the street. The poor wee mother was in shock, I’m sure. Her baby was big and healthy looking though—a girl. August 14 is her birthday. I always think of her on that day and say a prayer for the ‘Bajaj Baby.’
How has Covid-19 affected your efforts and the efforts of those in Ethiopia. Have you had much feedback in that regard?
Our fundraising efforts have been seriously curtailed. We aren’t able to do much in the way we normally would. We ought to have had another charity shop organised by now but it has been too difficult. Thank God for the need for masks, because we have sold so many and raised more than £5500. We were without any other fundraising for so long there seemed to be nothing, but then, like the buses, three came along at once. Steph from St Teresa’s grew her hair and the parishioners sponsored her. She donated her hair to The Prince’s Trust. Monica from Holy Trinity did a virtual walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats and our primary school did a sponsored 10km walk. Fr Jim did the walk separately and they raised more than £2000. So, we managed to send some extra help to the sisters. The children on the TEACh Programme were all given food as well as their education. It was really difficult for them to get food and the prices have soared. Between that and the troubles they have been really struggling in the poor areas.
What are some of the main issues facing people living in Ethiopia?
There is often a shortage of rain and crop failures. There is also a civil war going on leading to soaring prices too. It is a very bad mix. The poorest are always the ones who suffer most it seems. I read the news about Ethiopia on the internet, but, at times, I find it very distressing.
Nega doesn’t ask for any help over and above what he knows is coming every two months. He has his budget and handles it well. Last year, we somehow managed to forget to make one of our bi-monthly payments. He never said a word. He just presumed that because of Covid-19 we couldn’t afford to send the money. God love them. When we realised what happened we were stunned! Of course, we sent a double amount the next time. More often than not, they suffer without complaining. This year, though, he has asked for help though, so things must be really difficult.
What are some of the future plans for the Ababa Project?
We would like to continue to help improve the lives of these very poor children and help them to reach and maintain a good standard of health and education. We can already see some differences and improvements. The treatment that the clinics provide in the outlying areas is wonderful. The sisters who provide some medical treatments are saving lives.
What are your thoughts on Missio Scotland supporting some of the people you work with in Ethiopia?
I am very thankful that Missio Scotland will help to ease the struggle for some of the poor in Ethiopia and also that they are assisting the sisters as they work to spread the Faith and Love of God to these poor people.
Why not like us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/missioscotland, and follow us on Twitter: @Missio_Scotland and Instagram: MissioScotland
To donate to Missio Scotland, visit: https://www.missioscotland.com/donate call us on: 01236 449774 or send donations to: Missio Scotland, St. Andrews, 4 Laird Street, Coatbridge ML5 3LJ
You can also now donate to us via text. Text MISSIOSCOT to 70085 to donate £3 or MISSIOSCOT with any number between 1-20 after it to donate your desired amount (For example MISSIOSCOT10 will donate £10). Thank You.