“This Train is Bound for Glory”

“Phelophepa”  If you know what that means, then you know more than I did as recently as yesterday.  In this crazy, cloud cuckooland we South Africans call home, it is sometimes difficult to keep a positive outlook and the last few months have been particularly challenging for any number of reasons. So it was quite revelationary to walk out of a meeting of the Highveld Forum yesterday feeling re-inspired and even ‘Proudly South African’ for a change.

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“Phelophepa” (pronounced ‘pellopeppa’ and doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?) is the Tswana and Sotho word for ‘good, clean health’ and the Phelophepa Trains (there are now two of them) are highly specialized trains that travel to the remotest, rural railway sidings in this country, to deliver health care to isolated and usually impoverished communities.  And very few of the couple of hundred people in yesterday’s audience had even heard of them before.  The trains, the people who staff them and particularly Shamona Kandia who addressed us yesterday, are without a doubt, unsung heroes amongst us.

It was way back in 1994 when the ‘Eye Train’ made its first journey with three carriages. Over the years, the train has grown to its current length of 19 coaches, the maximum length possible to fit into rural sidings without blocking the main lines.  In 2012 a second Phelophepa train came into operation and between the two trains, up to 70 communities are visited annually.

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The trains travel from the 1st of January to the end of September, stopping for up to 2 weeks at a time at 40 stations countrywide.  Staffed by 40 permanent employees and numerous volunteers, Phelophepa aims at providing primary health care.  Different carriages are devoted to different specialities, including dental, optical, pharmacists, counseling and psychology.

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One of the first concerns voiced by any South African audience is security.  Shamona explained how some communities visited by Phelophepa take responsibility themselves for the security of the trains and their staff while they are visiting, ensuring that the rails themselves are safe and providing ‘guards’ alongside the stationary trains.

It was encouraging too to learn that the trains do not operate in isolation.  Teams visit areas a few weeks before a train is due to arrive at a particular station. This  allows patients to make plans for what can still be a long and arduous journey to the siding.  Shamona mentioned that some patients take days to walk from their homes while others arrive on donkey carts and tractors.  A few members of each community are handpicked and trained in basic health care allowing them to oversee patients in their villages once the train has moved on.  Sometimes the importance of this continuity is overlooked by NGO’s.

The statistics of the number of people helped over the years, the schools visited, the prescriptions issued and a list of other benefits are mind-boggling and too numerous to list here.  But next time you find yourself feeling discouraged by the State of our complicated Nation, do yourself a favor and google Phelophepa.  You’ll be amazed and inspired by what you learn.  These trains have no government funding whatsoever. Perhaps that also means they are able to operate without much ‘interference’?  But, they  are South African from top to bottom; built here and staffed – with the exception of medical interns volunteering from overseas institutions – by South Africans.  And they are  globally unique – the only trains of their kind in the world.

Yesterday morning’s lecture left us all feeling that while there are people like Shamona Kandia in this country and initiatives like Phelopepa going quietly about their business, there is still some light shining somewhere down the tracks.

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