Friday, February 23 , 2018, 7:04 pm | Fair 53º


Train of Hope Carries Health Care to South Africans

Two Santa Barbara students prepare to document work of the Phelophepha Health Train this summer as it traverses the continent

The sun slowly rises over the vast plains of South Africa, bathing the land in a warm golden glow. But for a warm breeze rustling the tall grass growing high on the rolling hills and valleys, all is quiet. Not an electric pole is in site, not a semblance of urbanized civilization for miles. Small villages dot the picturesque setting, hiding from the merciless sun, which will soon bake the inhabitants’ faces in heat.

Children emerge from small huts, many lacking roofs or floors; fresh running water is a rarity here. Things we take for granted are lost on the indigenous people of South Africa; shoes, hairbrushes, soap and toothbrushes are all unheard of in these rural and impoverished providences. There is virtually no medical care and people stumble around, their vision blurry or their backs sore with no chance of a cure in site. The only reassuring sound in these poor communities as people start to stir is the far off sound of a train in the distance, its whistling and chugging a beacon of hope arriving once a year.

This beacon of hope, this light in the darkness, is called the Phelophepa Health Train. Phelophepa is pronounced “pe-lo-pe-pa,” meaning “good, clean health” in the Sotho and Twsana languages. Founded in 1993 by Transnet South African Railways as a mobile eye clinic and later upgraded to a mobile health care clinic, the Phelophepa train was inspired by a similar health train in India called the Indian Lifeline Express.

The train is one of South Africa’s biggest assets in improving the health care of its native people, and the reason that I, Arabella Watters, and my best friend, Arabella Weston-Smith, are traveling down to South Africa this very summer. Two Arabellas; how curious.

At 16 years old, we both attend Laguna Blanca School, and are eagerly preparing to make the journey down to the lowest extremities of Africa to get a close-up look at the miracle, which is the Phelophepa Health Train.

Although we both are very grateful for the privileged lives we lead, there is no denying that both Arabella and I have grown up in an comfortable community, one that knows nearly nothing about true suffering. Though photos and videos paint an accurate portrayal of life in a third world country, it is unimaginable what people around the world struggle with every day. There is no way we would ever be able to fathom what it would be like to live without a roof over our heads, or without the resources to see a doctor when something as trivial as a cold threatens our immune system. It is not that we are ignorant, it is merely that we have no real point of comparison. That is the beauty of our journey to South Africa: for the first time in our short lives we will be able to look at our lives with real perspective for how people around the world are living. Not only will the experience be truly eye-opening to us both, but it will enable us to give back something to people less privileged then ourselves.

Sponsored by Virgin Atlantic Airlines, Seagate and Canon Cameras, Arabella and I are going to document the train and its generosity on film, learning the real story behind the people volunteering their time to save the lives of the impoverished. Forever will we be preserving the Phelophepa behind the glass lens so we will have the ability to share its stories across America and around the world. The exposure that the train will be given as a result will not only allow Arabella and I the opportunity to give back, but it will also benefit the people of South Africa by giving the train the exposure it deserves. 

Traveling through South Africa for 36 weeks of the year, the train stops for one week in each destination, where members of the surrounding community walk up to 18 miles to visit the train and wait eagerly for their treatment. If members of the community are unable to make the trek to the train station, the Phelophepa sends teams of specialists to the villages where vision and hearing tests, oral screenings, cancer tests and counseling workshops take place to help educate the inhabitants. This kind of medical examination and treatment is so far beyond what the rural people would normally receive, it is immeasurable.

Dr. Lillian Cingo, manager of the Phelophepa since 1995, speaks passionately about the train. “I thought, I must have this train. All my life and all my training was meant just for the Phelophepa.”  The train, consisting of 16 cars, carries 14 doctors, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, psychologists and nurses, and up to 45 medical students at a time, offering optimal medical care for patients in each of the communities. Not only does the train help ailing people, but in every location, 25 members of the community chosen by the villages are trained as health educators, and thus are able to continue with hygienic and medical advisory after the train leaves the village.

Altogether, 6,700 volunteers have been trained by the Phelophepa Edu-clinics in the years since the train was established.  It would be obvious to say that the train is one of the most generous and philanthropic movements to go through Africa in decades. The help it provides people is unforgettable and life altering; it gives people a second chance of life through modern medicine, the kind we take for granted every day.

Though the train boasts an outstanding record of medical assistance, it also has thousands of stories embedded in its tracks. Imagine, a 50-year-old woman so thankful for her diagnosis and treatment of diabetes that she traveled several hundred miles to catch up with the train just to say, “thank you for saving my life.’‘

Think of another woman, living her entire life without the ability to see clearly, who now has an entire new perspective on the world with something as simple as a pair of glasses. The help, no matter how big or how small, can be life changing to the people of South Africa, who are used to living with virtually nothing.

As we prepare for our monumental 24-hour flight to Johannesburg, we find ourselves both anxious and elated. While Africa seems a world away, I am so happy because we will finally be able to do something to empower both ourselves and the people associated with the Phelophepa Health Train by raising both our own awareness and awareness around the world.

Though I do not know what will meet me in Africa, I do know that I have been living for 16 years in the dark, and as the summer and my meeting with the Phelophepa approaches, I will finally be able to see a little bit of the world in the proper light.

Some facts about Phelophepa train:

The Phelophepa train provides quality basic health care to communities where health services and medical infrastructure are otherwise unavailable. The three-car clinic has grown into a 16-car train equipped with multiple clinics (optometry, pharmacy, dental, primary care), staff accommodations, dining room, kitchen, laundry, power and storage.

Each year, the train operates for 37 weeks and treats an estimated 45,000 individuals onboard. It also serves more than a million through its outreach programs into schools, villages and communities. The train provides training to volunteers in basic health care and students from tertiary institutions in dental, optometry, pharmacy, hospitality and psychology.

Rain or shine, the train covers more than 9,500 miles of railroad a year, serving 250 meals a day and issuing 21,000 prescriptions.

These clinics provided the following services to members of communities visited by the Phelophepa train in 2008:

» Health clinic: Saw 18,600 patients, and provided health education, screening for diabetes and cancer, gave 24,000 prescriptions and medical supplies numbering 82,000.

» Eye clinic: Saw 19,860 patients, and provided vision and ocular screening, refraction and pathology diagnosis, provision of eyeglasses and minor ocular therapeutics and referred cases of major ocular pathology to local hospitals.

» Dental clinic: Saw 9,600 patients, and offered oral health education, restorative procedures and extractions.

» Psychology clinic: Offered counseling for both registered and unregistered patients.

— Arabella Watters, 16, is a student at Laguna Blanca School in Santa Barbara.

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