Smiles and a shared journey as Zulu and Highland girls unite
When the Zulu Warrior Choir performed at Alness Academy, an extraordinary friendship was forged between two communities thousands of miles apart.
It all started when one of the locals came looking for a concert venue for the visiting choir. When the school offered its hall, more than 600 people came to watch the young Zulu Warriors dance and sing, telling their story of the HIVAids pandemic in South Africa.
Local families had welcomed them into their homes and the young visitors wanted to return the hospitality.
"Talk about getting under your skin, it's really hard to put into words the effect it has had on all of us," says Brian Ross, the school's head janitor, who spent three weeks living among the Zulu community with a school group this summer.
Mr Ross is a former pupil of the school and joined the staff as a janitor 27 years ago, when he was 19. He is a keen photographer and traveller and with his towering height and powerful build, he has been a good man to have around on school trips overseas, especially when the rest of the party is all-female and they are travelling in a part of the world where violence could flare.
Their destination was God's Golden Acre, an orphanage run by a charity at Cato Ridge, Kwazulu Natal, in South Africa. The concert had been staged to raise funds for the orphanage, a home for children of all ages, many orphaned by Aids and others by crime.
Wilma Kelt, the active schools co-ordinator for the Alness cluster, played a key role organising the trip, supported by the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council and energetic fund-raising by pupils and parents.
It was agreed that the trip would focus on young women's issues, in line with the sportscotland initiative Fit for Girls. "We came up with a framework of the areas we wanted to research out there, so we could compare and contrast girls' lifestyles here with what it's like for young people there," says Mrs Kelt, one of the project leaders.
Nine girls, including one from Dingwall Academy, made the journey to God's Golden Acre, accompanied by four adults. For three weeks they lived within the orphanage community, working and playing with the children and travelling into the surrounding valleys distributing food aid.
"We had looked at pictures before we went, but nothing could prepare you for it," says Megan Brown, 16. "Just little kids and old people, that's what I found most hard-hitting."
The girls held regular discussion groups with the young Zulu women, comparing Scotland and South Africa and focusing on topics like education, housing, health, relationships, work and lifestyle.
Three months later, back at school, the Alness pupils are putting the final touches to a presentation they will give to the community about their experiences. They are an impressive group - confident, reflective and articulate. It's clear their lives have been changed irrevocably by their journey.
The youngest girl is 15-year-old Roni Simpson, who says the trip changed her view of life. "Just the way I think about things - that everything has a reason and consequences. I'm also more appreciative of safety and of feeling safe."
But it was the children's smiles that made the biggest impression: "It made me feel so guilty, because obviously I have so much and they have so little," says 17-year-old Eilish Fraser. "But at the same time they were happy, so it was comforting to know they were happy."
Just three weeks in South Africa has changed these Highland schoolgirls' lives forever and given them a determination to return.
Mairi Livesley, 17, describes delivering aid to families in valleys near the orphanage. "We did a food drop and it seemed all the families were just kids," says Mairi, who hopes to take a gap year and return to work in the orphanage.
"They were carrying the food we had given them on their heads for miles. They didn't have parents; they had been totally wiped out. It was to do with violence, but it was mostly because of Aids."
The photographs taken by their school janitor show how the laughing orphans from God's Golden Acre have won their hearts.
"They are very soulful. They like to dance and sing," says 15-year-old Roni Simpson. "They live in mud huts and eat differently from us - beans and samp and rice and mealie meal."
Jenna Burgess, 17, says: "The children's parents had died from HIVAids, so they have nobody to look after them. And some of the kids actually have HIVAids. But they were amazing - they had such big personalities."
Her friend, Nicole Murphy, 17, has returned with a sense of direction for her future: "It made me realise that I want to be a teacher. When you see the shortage over there, you realise how important education is for them."
The girls say they appreciate their own families more since living among the orphans. "Although they were young, they were happy, and they were so welcoming," says 17-year-old Eilish Fraser. "By the end of it, they were really just like our families."