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In June of 2009, just before coming to Oxford, three friends, my mother, and I journeyed to South Africa to make a film about a train that travels around the rural areas providing health care. As a sixteen-year-old girl living in sunny southern California, I had never experienced something that had truly changed my life, until now. The Phelophepa Health Train is a train that runs nine months of the year and stops for a week at selected towns all over South Africa while bringing quality basic healthcare to communities where health services and medical infrastructure are unavailable.
The train first caught my intrigue with its variety of departments that it has to treat people in need. With sixteen cars and 9,500 miles of traveling, the train serves over 45,000 people a year onboard with primary health care and check ups, optometry, dentistry, psychology, and pharmaceutical care. The train reaches even further to serve more than a million people through its outreach programs in schools, villages, and communities. The idea of a train that travels around solely to give back to the people of the world excited me, so my mother (who is in the film business), friends, and I formed a group of five and decided to make a movie to create awareness about the extraordinary humanitarian work that this magic train is doing.
Sponsored by Canon Cameras, Virgin Atlantic, and Seagate Hard-drives, we all set off to the small town of Underberg, South Africa, located in the chilly Drachensberg Mountains. On our first morning, two doctors, Colin and Siya, and the Phelophepa manager, Maggie, happily greeted us with coffees and a long list of departments to get started on. Capturing, firsthand, the amount of people that came to the train was unbelievable. Swarms of hundreds of people talking animatedly amongst each other huddled for warmth while waiting patiently to be checked in. People sat in pain, in poverty, waiting for their turn, however long it may be throughout the day, to see a doctor; but they never failed to flash a smile, or even a hearty laugh, should we turn the camera to them. I couldn’t help but be awed by the resilience from not only the people, but also the doctors and student nurses working on the train.Everyone who works on the train puts their heart and more into it. I was completely absorbed by the amount of dedication and hard work that worked around us throughout the day. Health check ups, cancer and diabetes tests, STD screenings, vision screening, provision of eye-glasses and ocular therapeutics, dental extractions and restorative procedures, psychological counseling, and school outreach programs are just some of the numerous things that the train provides people with throughout the day. The doctors wanted no one turned away for arriving too late, or just not being helped past the closing time of the train. Everyday doctors would work over time and not actually finish treating people until about six or seven in the evening, and then we would all be right back to work again at six the next morning.
One of the most amazing and memorable days that we spent was traveling to the Zulu villages to capture the doctors providing healthcare and education to the students of the local schools. The doctor, Colin, and about five nurses, brought cars full of cough medicine, antibiotics for ear infections, and other necessary pharmaceutical medicines to treat the children with. They also gave each child a toothbrush and some soap, and for most of them, that was the only one for their whole family to share. The Psychology students put on a puppet show to explain what inappropriate touching and violence is in a way that kids can actually understand, and afterwards they let the children play with the puppets and show them what they’ve learned. I watched a five-year-old girl take the puppets and act out how she had been raped, just recently, by her father and brothers. Helping the kids explain, in a way that they find fun, what has happened to them physically or emotionally helps the doctors to treat them more easily.
I am a sixteen-year-old girl living in a wealthy and beautiful town, eating full and delicious meals every day, attending a prestigious school everyday, and I have just received a shocking reality check. The people who I have recently spent time with are in pain, live on about thirty dollars a month, and most of them have a family of six or seven with four of them having HIV and AIDS. Still, they smile and wave, and I remember the little ones screaming with laughter when I flipped my camera’s screen around to show them their own smiling and bright faces. The people that I encountered know happiness: it’s not your mom finally buying you that pair of shoes that you’ve been lusting after for months, and it’s not receiving the newest iPod to add to your growing collection; it’s so much more than that. Happiness is a doctor giving your first pair of glasses and seeing the world for the first time, being told that the pain your daughter has endured as a result of rape can be treated so that, even if she can’t prevent future rapes, she’ll have the medicine to numb the pain afterward, or it is being told that your sick baby is going to live.
Capturing the lives of people on that train, even if only for a week, thoroughly changed who I am and how I think. It made me value life to the fullest, appreciate what a blessed life I live, and it made me want to help to make a difference; that is the greatest gift I think I could ever receive. I want my movie to help the train. I want them to raise more money than ever before. I want them to have multiple trains so they can reach more people. But most importantly, I want the next little girl to have someone to talk to after she gets raped, and I want her to know she’ll be helped with the pain afterwards. I want her to know that she’ll be kept safe, even if only for the one short week a year that this magic Phelophepa train is able to touch people’s lives.