Why would a vegetarian work on the grounds of an abattoir? That was the question Libby Weir asked herself when she was approached to establish a preschool for disadvantaged children next to a huge slaughterhouse in South Africa.
The smell outside was so unbearable that Ms. Weir, a volunteer worker from Australia, had to hold a handkerchief to her nose. “My first thoughts were, ‘Oh, no, I could never do that,’ ” she recalls.
However, the beautiful children who clambered onto her knee as Weir sat thinking and praying for guidance in an abandoned farmhouse on the property changed her mind.
“I just could not turn my back on their need,” she explains in an interview.
Ten years later, the preschool she started at Cato Ridge in the KwaZulu-Natal area continues to operate there, although she is no longer directly involved with it. It serves 78 pupils in four classrooms.
Weir, who trained as a special needs teacher, visits this hilly area of KwaZulu-Natal (one of South Africa’s nine provinces) for about three months every year. Over the past decade she has, among other things, adopted a local family and built them a new home, established vegetable gardens, created a school library, run school vacation activities, and sponsored educational programs for adults.
Weir has always had a “real passion” for Africa, she says, though she has no family links here. Her fascination started when, as a child, her parents told her “animal stories,” she says. Then, in 2004, she wrote e-mails from her home in New South Wales (where she still works as a teacher) to volunteer her services to a variety of African charities.
She accepted a short-term assignment to teach at an orphanage near Cato Ridge.
“People often fail to understand the depth of the poverty and need out here,” she says. “These lovely children are often malnourished. They have no toys, and just the bare necessities of clothing. Shoes are a luxury. I decided to sponsor a little 4-year-old Zulu boy, Thabiso, who had touched my heart.”
The sponsorship required Weir first to visit Thabiso’s family (his parents and six sisters) in a heavily populated valley.