FERMANAGH woman Florence Creighton has seen much in her 65 years.
And that includes a lot of hardship and poverty. Yet the sprightly pensioner, who has been to Africa no less than 19 times, says that she has never been happier or more content than when she has been in some of the most impoverished parts of this country.
“In Africa they have a really strong faith,” says Florence, who lives in Lisnaskea but is originally from Newtownbutler. “I would have been at my happiest in Africa, living in the slums with the people, because there is so much love for your neighbours there and so much community spirit. It brought me back to the days when I was living with my grandmother, as life then would have been about sharing, good neighbourliness, and caring. In Africa there is so much sharing and caring for each other in communities.”
Florence became a Christian when she was young, and whilst a member of her local church in Newtownbutler, got involved with their Youth Fellowship, and enjoyed doing the catering for the Summer Madness initiatives. She got her first taste of missionary work abroad in 1988, following the Enniskillen bombing.
“I travelled with six teenagers who volunteered to live and work for six weeks in India. We stayed in the Methodist Hostel,” she recalls. “We were working in Bombay, and the things I longed for most were a glass of fresh water and a breath of fresh air, because we were working in the slums. The streets were very dirty and unhygienic and the poverty was unbelievable.”
Florence recounts the shocking and sickening realisation that the money people were giving to beggars on the streets was being used to fund something very distasteful and terrifying.
“We realised they were pimps,” she says. “The other thing was that mothers actually deformed their children so that they would get more money for them. I know it sounds bad but I suppose you have to look at it from their point of view; these poor women had no income or way of looking after the other children, so they depended on this deformed child begging to feed the others.”
Adds Florence: “I was so overwhelmed by the poverty there that I made a commitment to give one month of my time every year to help those less fortunate than myself.”
The Northern Ireland woman began going to a variety of countries on different missions. She headed to Romania and spent time with a poor family, spent four weeks in a kibbutz in Israel which she says “really made the Bible come to life”, and went to Singapore with the rector and seven members of the Youth Fellowship from her former church in Newtownbutler. On two occasions she accompanied Methodist ministers with groups from all over Ireland to Trinsvillerhagen in former East Germany. In 1994, she travelled on her first mission to Africa. “I went with Bishop Brian Hannon (retired Church of Ireland clergyman), his wife and 10 other volunteers,” she recalls.
Florence remembers feeling a sense of frustration at lack of progress waiting on money to come through to fund the centre, and how she was taken aside by the local rector, who tried to impress on her the key differences between the African psyche and that of the western world.
“He said, ‘Florence, you’ve got to realise that these people are from a relationship orientated society, and you’re from a work orientated society. The fact that you have come over to sit and talk to them and left all your luxuries at home to be with them is more important that doing things.’”
Florence also travelled to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda working on CMS Ireland projects. She did a case study on a Seeds of Peace project in Rwanda for which she obtained a Masters Degree in Rural Development from Queens University Belfast. As well as all this, Florence also embarked on a number of expeditions to raise funds for worthy causes.
“My treks for charity took me to deserts in the Sahara and Nambia, the Wall of China, New Zealand, the Inca Trail in Peru, the jungle in Brazil, Iceland, Mexico, Nepal, and Ben Nevis,” she says. After the trek in Nepal she stayed on for ten days working with children who had learning disabilities in a centre supported by CMSIreland. Whilst on the return journey from Nepal via Sri Lanka, where she was a guest of Bishop Dunleep De Chickera of Colombo, she took videos of the aftermath of the tsunami and taught adults and children how to do patchwork and make beads from paper.
“I raised over £20,000 for Mencap, over £2000 for Action Medical Research, and several thousand pounds for cancer as I did the New Year Charity Swim every year at Galloon Island, Newtownbutler.
“My philosophy was that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man how to fish you feed him for life, which is what I achieved with the bead making project and tailoring lessons.
“Africans said that in Ireland we have the watch but no time, whereas they have the time but no watch!”
Indeed, Florence says that her many and varied missions have made her realise just how well off people in Northern Ireland really are.
“They are complaining about the National Health Service here, but over there the Mothers’ Union is really the social services - it’s such a big worldwide organisation. They will meet three times a week - one day to pray, one day to sing and one day to clean the church.”
She adds: “We have God and things; they only have God. I thank God for giving me the opportunity to do what I have done throughout the world.”