Faith, hope and charity

29th May 2009 at 01:00
Scottish family has embarked on an incredible journey to help rebuild young lives in Central Africa

An aberdeenshire couple took their children to the poorest country in the world to let them see how the other half really does live.

Mother-of-four Valerie Carr and her husband Charles sold their house last year and took their three youngest sons to Burundi in Central East Africa, a country where thousands of children have been orphaned during years of conflict.

While the boys are at school, their parents are running a project to build six orphanages. And back home at Crombie Primary, on the outskirts of Aberdeen, where the boys were pupils, everyone has been fundraising and learning about life in Burundi from the boys' blogs.

"We felt almost guilty about how much we had, compared to how little so many people in the world have and we wanted our children to have a true perspective on how 70 per cent of the world lives," explains Valerie. She is a member of a Bible study group and her reading prompted the family's journey.

"It wasn't any great act of sainthood, it was just trying to get a real perspective on the world situation and you can't get that sometimes when you're living in an affluent community," says Valerie, at the new family home in Bujumbura on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

The couple work on behalf of Dundee-based charity Mission International and are funding their year-long stay with some of the proceeds of their house sale. Valerie is an interior designer and her husband Charles a builder, so their practical professional skills made them ideal candidates to project-manage the venture.

Their sons John, 9, Matthew, 12, and Samuel, 14, attend an English speaking school and have settled well into their new environment. Their older brother Joshua, 19, had already begun an apprenticeship and stayed in Scotland to continue his training.

Valerie says the six houses the couple have designed at the Hope Centre, near the Congo border, will provide new homes for more than 40 orphans. "Where they live now, if you visited any dog kennel in the UK it would be much better quality - it's just concrete bunkers with mats on the floor," she says.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office currently advises against all but essential travel to Burundi, despite an official ceasefire agreement reached last summer. But Valerie and her husband visited Burundi and thought long and hard before reaching their decision to return with the boys. "We were pleasantly surprised that, on the ground, we didn't feel threatened in any way," she says.

Children in Burundi sit regular exams and are diligent about daily homework. Her older son was at the top of his class in some subjects back home at Westhill Academy, but not here. "Education is the way out here for everybody. They know there's only one way they're going to get a better life - a better job," says Valerie, who helps out in the boys' school two days a week.

Back at Crombie Primary, progress at the Hope Centre is documented on special bulletin boards with photographs of smiling orphans and their moving stories.

Headteacher Kate Hopkins says the family's experience has brought valulable educational and cultural benefits to the school in areas such as global citizenship. A range of enterprising fundraising at the school has contributed more than Pounds 1,000 to equip the orphanages and thousands more has come from the family's church in Westhill.

When the Carrs were home at Christmas, they went straight to the school from the airport to share their experiences: "I'm amazed by their commitment - selling the house, going to Africa, taking their children with them, having them educated in Burundi," says Mrs Hopkins. "The standard of education the boys is getting is terrific, I am really impressed by it. They get a lot of homework, which they were complaining about.

"Other than directly curricular education, they're learning the value of money, of work and of taking skills over there. They are learning all the culture and traditions of that country - what could be better? And they're building buildings, they're making a difference - wouldn't that be a lovely feeling - that you have made a difference?"

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