Digging deep to save lives

A charity better known for its work in Middle-Eastern war zones, has recently gone to the rescue of Afrikaner farmers and their workers in the remote, drought-stricken town of Sutherland.

Gift of the Givers bringing supplies

It’s nine o’clock on a wintry Tuesday in June and Billy Joel’s Piano Man is playing loudly as I jump into the Gift of the Givers’ four-by-four driven by Badrealam “Badr” Kazi, the relief organisation’s government and corporate relations manager. I’m joining him on a mission to deliver emergency supplies from Cape Town to drought-stricken Sutherland in the Karoo.

Following us will be two huge trucks loaded with water tanks, food and blankets for the farmers and farm workers of the Northern Cape town – better-known for the deep-space observatory sited in this remote location because of its clear, dark night skies and relative absence of human activity.

It is Ramadan, and although Kazi is fasting, he offers me water and points to a big bag of figs and dates, my padkos for the trip. We stop briefly to see that all is on track at the NGO’s storage facility in Maitland where the trucks are being loaded. Gift of the Givers stores packs of bottled water, water tanks and other emergency supplies here – enough to literally pave fields. This site, formerly the Maitland abattoir, is now owned by the Department of Public Works.

Digging for water

A news update in June issued by Gift of the Givers – also known as Waqful Waqifin Foundation – warned that Sutherland was in serious trouble. It reads:

“Man, animal and the environment are in tremendous difficulty. The area is experiencing its worst drought in 100 years. All 200 boreholes that served the region have dried out. As the water table has dropped substantially, the total sheep count has dropped to 25%, [either] from urgent sell-off or death of the animals. Grazing is non-existent, pregnant sheep will lose their new babies and more deaths will follow unless there is an urgent intervention with fodder. In the past year, 11 farmers have lost everything, another 56 are about to suffer the same fate. The knock-on effect is the loss of jobs of virtually the entire farm labourer population and the resultant economic effect on their families. The local schools are also in crisis.

“Gift of the Givers is intervening urgently to try and save Sutherland. Generous Free State farmers have donated the first 500 bales of fodder. Our trucks will start distributing these in the next 48 hours. Our hydrology team will be on site soon to drill deeper boreholes.

“Food parcels, blankets, warm clothing, hygiene packs, special supplements for fodder, and school items are all urgent requirements… Saving Sutherland is going to be a mammoth task.”

The organisation’s founder, director and chairman Dr Imtiaz Sooliman (see profile in nose188) founded Gift of the Givers in 1992 after a Turkish Sufi master instructed him to set up a humanitarian organisation. Since then it has grown to become Africa’s largest disaster relief group which has helped people in distress around the world, including in Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia and Pakistan and it has set up hospitals in Yemen, Syria and Gaza.

The group helped after flooding in Zimbabwe, with the outbreak of xenophobia in South Africa, the efforts to rescue Stephen McGown when he was held hostage in Mali, and it has negotiated in other hostage situations including that of South Africans Pierre and Yolande Korkie in Yemen. But more than 90% of their work is in South Africa.

Gift of the Givers delivered five truckloads of fodder to Sutherland last week, another three trucks arrived yesterday and five more consignments will be delivered tomorrow from farmers in Fouriesburg and Cradock. The food and blankets on their way will help farmers and farm-workers alike.

Says Kazi: “We were rolling out the Free State drought programme last year when we were contacted by farmers who said Sutherland has no water and no feed. We started with soft humanitarian aid – fodder, water, clothing and food. For months now the community and other small Karoo towns have relied on aid from us.”

The area, traditionally part of the lucrative third-generation Karoo lamb and mohair region, has not had good rains since 2013 and boreholes have dried up, making it increasingly difficult to keep sheep in the region alive.

It’s not only Gift of the Givers who have stepped in to help. Heartwarming stories abound of farmers from around South Africa, coordinated by Somerset West resident Elizabeth Visagie, who have sent truckloads of donated fodder and other goods.

Coordinator Visagie’s own story is worth recounting: after voluntarily sourcing fodder for farmer-victims of the 2017 Knysna fire, she was approached by Gift of the Givers to help with drought logistics in the Eastern Cape. Ever since she has been a full-time official volunteer for the organisation. It was in fact Visagie who sounded the alarm that Sutherland needed urgent assistance drilling for water. For nearly nine months she has been involved in drought and humanitarian aid there and, with Givers, has arranged nearly 40 truckloads and two trainloads of fodder to the beleaguered town.

As we drive along the N1, our Gift of the Givers-branded vehicle elicits many supportive hoots from fellow road users. Kazi points to a site in De Doorns where the Givers recently drilled a borehole to provide water for 20,000 people in the area. “They were running dry so the Western Cape government asked us to help – then someone stole the pipes! I drove back there, stormed straight to the community leaders and demanded we find out who took them. If you show you’re weak, you’re dead. I am not a Mother Theresa,” says Kazi. The thief was found and the pipes were returned.

Further along the lonely road, a farmer turning out of his gate waves down Kazi. “Please stop for coffee on your way back,” he says. “Things are very bad in Sutherland. Thank you for what you do.”

 Dr Imtiaz Sooliman might be the better-known face of the Givers, but it’s quite clear that the no-nonsense Kazi, although more of a behind-the-scenes manager, is an old hand when it comes to organising assistance for the full range of disaster situations. In between directing trucks, making payments telephonically and fielding a continual stream of phone calls, Kazi tells me what his job entails and what drew him to Gift of the Givers.

In essence, he liaises with governments and corporations when there is a disaster, to enable Gift of the Givers to do its work. “Because of all our experience, we are able to give a very accurate assessment of the situation and know how to roll out accordingly… We can then liaise with the different departments, like social development, health, etc.

“We know that some of South Africa’s municipalities are under-resourced, so we help. With corporates, they need people to manage their contributions and put them to good use. For foreign rescue missions, we deal with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. Our relations with government are excellent. There’s a lot of appreciation for what we do. We do the work that others don’t want to do.”

For the mission to Sutherland, Givers has also dispatched a hydrology team, led by Dr Gideon Groenewald, to drill deeper boreholes. The drilling team arrived in advance of us with two rigs. In addition, 40,000 litres of diesel had been delivered – fuel required to establish 200 new boreholes.

Kazi tells me that a large portion of the money donated to Gift of the Givers is from South African Muslims who “see it as a priority to contribute to charities, and though they will help a hospital in Syria, they will not fund a war there”. Kazi, who, like Sooliman, is also a Sufi, joined the Givers full-time after volunteering for more than a decade – “the most rewarding decision of my life”.

“Some people think because we are Muslim, we support Isis or are part of the Illuminati – you name it,” he jokes. “I just tell people that if there were a humanitarian crisis in Israel, we wouldn’t hesitate to go and help. Human issues should be exempt from politics. What attracted me to Givers in the first place was that it is all-embracing. You’re South African and you need to help. Our immediate aim is to help South Africans. We first help our own and then others.”

The organisation’s volunteer base comprises medics, dentists, fire-fighters and others who drop everything in an emergency.

“Dr Sooliman and Dr Achmat Bhab who is based at North West University and heads up Emergency Response, put together the teams. We then work on a roster system. We have Africans, Muslims and Jewish doctors and paramedics, fire, search and rescue teams. We make up a rainbow nation of helpers. It is a real bonding experience of people who might not normally connect.

“During the Haiti earthquake, our doctors were known as the Dream Team. The UK and US doctors were in awe of them. Whenever a difficult amputation or another complex operation was needed, they would say, “send it to the Dream Team”. Our team are also always there to simply hug the victims of a disaster. Time after time they show these qualities – in Haiti, Yemen and Knysna…”

Driving along the gravel road to Sutherland, the tell-tale signs of the drought are evident. “For these farmers,” says Kazi, “it is very humiliating to receive aid. They do not like to accept aid on a platter. There’s a lot of Afrikaans pride there. But, when we come, you can see the gratitude on their faces.”

Hydrologist Dr Groenewald is a legend. He is also a geologist and a palaeontologist with 35 years’ experience. Sooliman says his water-finding ability is uncanny. The two met in 2016 when Gift of the Givers responded to the Free State drought. “It was an instant spiritual connection. He understood my spirituality. I understood his. Ever since, it has been a magnificent relationship of mutual respect and professional competency.”

Andre 'Smurfy' Cilliers with his drilling team

At a padstal near Sutherland we bump into the Givers’ driller Andre Cilliers, nicknamed Smurfy, who has driven from Bethlehem. He leaps out of his vehicle with the good news that the team has already struck water at 54 metres on Willie de Lange’s farm Verlatenkloof on the road to Klein Roggeveld.

“I gather it’s producing more-or-less 10,000 litres an hour. And it’s drinkable. It was at 2pm yesterday, there were tears in the farmer’s eyes. I’ve seen true gratitude,” says Smurfy.

On our arrival we are welcomed by Hester Obermeyer, liaison officer for the Sutherland district’s drought committee. She says that among the population of 2,500 there are 141 farming families and 293 farm-worker families affected by the drought.

“We had 400,000 sheep in the area and are down to 130,000. Some died, others had to be sold. The veld was too drought-stricken to sustain them. Farmers are battling to pay their accounts. This drought has had a big knock-on effect on business in Sutherland,” she tells us. Obermeyer and her team will coordinate the offloading and allocation of fodder and other goods to farmers and farm workers in the next few days.

As the cold evening settles in and Kazi prepares to drive back to Cape Town, he says goodbye to the people of Sutherland, gathered at the storage point at the local sports club. Women line up to hug Kazi. He shakes hands with the farm workers and other appreciative locals.

On Tuesday – the same day we are in Sutherland – Groenewald’s team and a drilling company owned by Martyn Landmann drills for water on Hennie Visagie’s farm, Jakkalsfontein. On Wednesday it is on Andreas Muller’s farm Gunsfontein, as well as Annes Paulsen’s at Vinkekuil. The next day there’s a water strike at Kraairiver, then on Saturday it’s Klipdrif’s turn.

The whole process is expected to cost the Givers around R15 million. Says chief driller Groenewald: “The total project area is 1.4m hectares, involving the drilling of at least 200 successful boreholes. If unsuccessful we will not leave the farmer dry; we will keep trying until God shows us the spot where he will provide for the farmer.”

One of Gifts of the Givers’ many projects helps support a rhino sanctuary which  nursed four-week-old orphan calf Arthur, who had his horn hacked off and was severely wounded in May  by machete-wielding poachers in the Kruger National Park.

After ten days, they have had a 95% success rate for boreholes drilled. The water will be tested for sustainability and quality and the Givers assist with applications for licensing of water-use as well as water treatment and distribution of water where farmers are not able to do so. The six-year-long drought is expected to last another three-and-a-half years.

A few days after my visit, Dr Groenewald sends me this note: “It is not possible to say what the final project will include. All I can say is that in my 40 years in the Karoo, I do not know of any disaster intervention of this magnitude ever attempted in the history of South African farming. I lift my hat to Dr Sooliman and his unbelievable trust in our almighty God to convince us that this intervention will be achieving its goal with distinction. He would never embark on such a mission without meditation and exceptional planning for the unexpected. Greetings. Oom Gideon.”

Dr Sooliman gets this message from a local farmer: “Dear Dr Sooliman, I hereby want to thank you and your organisation, Gift of the Givers, from the bottom of my heart for your very much needed help for the community of Sutherland and more specifically for me personally.

“The borehole produces a very good flow of water and will be used for my house water, for the workers’ houses, my wife’s guest house, for sheep water and the vegetable garden for the workers.

“You gave us hope in a hopeless situation. Thank you very much and may God bless you and your organisation. Andreas Muller, Gunsfontein.”

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Submitted by : MLH on 2018-08-05 15:31:04
Gift of the Givers deserves as much media attention as is possible in this generally Godforsaken world. I know of no other such organisation which works as efficiently and cohesively to do good.
Submitted by : AFL on 2018-08-01 11:20:22
The best story of the year from Noseweek=
Gives me new hope for this country and the world


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