African arts, culture + politics

Changemakers: Botswana


(ARISE magazine, issue 18) Best known for its diamonds, safaris and peaceable record, Botswana is widely viewed as one of Africa’s most economically and politically stable countries. Once a British protectorate, Botswana (or Bechuanaland as it was then) became independent in 1966 under the leadership of national hero and Botswana’s first president Seretse Khama. Following presidential terms under Quett Masire and Festus Mogae, Khama’s son Seretse Khama Ian Khama took the mantle in 2008 and today presides over a country of 2million people with a GDP of US$17.63billion.

Botswana attracted attention in 2002 when indigenous bushmen, or San people, of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve took the government to court for forcibly evicting them from their ancestral lands. After a four-year legal battle the community won its fight and, with it, the right to live and hunt on the reserve.

The country is also known for its high HIV rate, with one in four adults in Botswana infected with the disease, according to 2009 figures. Though this has lowered from the 2003 rate of 37.3 per cent it’s still the second highest in the world (behind Swaziland). The government has responded by rolling out an extensive programme of free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment and launching the Zero New Infections By 2016 campaign.

Most recently Botswana hit the headlines for granting women the right to inherit (after a dogged campaign by a group of sisters, all aged over 65) and winning its first Olympic medal; 18-year-old Nigel Amos scooped silver in the 800-metre final at London 2012. The country is known as “the place to go if you want to see The Big Five in the wild” (CNN Traveller). And tourism is on the increase, with 2.1million people visiting in 2010 – in part due to Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling series The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Set in and around the capital, Gaborone, the novels inspired the hit BBC/HBO adaptation starring Jill Scott.

Here we meet five local heroes making a difference in the southern African country.

The lawyer: Uyapo Ndadi
Lawyer Uyapo Ndadi has worked with the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/Aids (BONELA) since 2007 – first as legal officer and now executive director. Alongside implementing BONELA’s aim to advance an “ethical, legal and human rights approach” to how the country responds to its HIV/Aids epidemic, Ndadi blogs for online paper Mmegi and was invited to meet President Obama in 2010, after been named one of JCI’s 10 Outstanding Young Persons Of The World.

“BONELA is something that is close to my heart because I see the organisation bringing dignity to people’s doorsteps. People come saying ‘I’ve been fired from work because of my HIV status’ and you fight for their rights to be restored by taking the matter to court and getting a reinstatement or getting good compensation for the client.

“I think what I’m most proud of is changing the law. There are laws now that say no one should be fired from work because of their sexual orientation or their HIV status. I’m also proud of changing mindsets. It used to be a taboo to talk about issues of sexual orientation, issues of sex workers or gay rights but these days the nation is talking. Recently there was a huge outcry after I brought it to the fore that the government had problems with ARV shortages and didn’t tell the nation. The minister of health refused to talk to me on the radio but it got the nation talking anyway. People called to say ‘No, this is unacceptable. We need to know what happened and we need promises that it will not occur again’. They’re still dealing with the backlog but at least ARVs are available and people can get a full month’s supply.

“We have about 80 organisations signed up to be part of BONELA, to infuse human rights into their work. Human rights in Botswana are like a foreign thing. People don’t believe much in human rights or see the need to talk about them. We’re trying to change that mindset.”

The drugs advisor: Lebo Mothibatsela
Lebo Mothibatsela is acting executive director of Botswana Substance Abuse Support Network (BOSASNet), the only organisation dedicated to providing specialised outpatient rehabilitation, support and relapse prevention services in Botswana. Alcohol is a thorny issue in the country since President Khama imposed a 70 per cent levy, or ‘sin tax’, on alcohol (later reduced to 30 per cent) and a midnight curfew on bars.

“When I joined BOSASNet I saw it as an opportunity to contribute to the mitigation of substance abuse and dependency. I’ve seen and dealt with the challenges and consequences of dependency, [so] being involved with rehabilitation and relapse prevention services has been wonderful.

“There is a lot of stigma, discrimination and lack of understanding of substance abuse and dependency in Botswana. And because of this we, as a nation, will continue to have ineffective interventions and programmes. Many people are not prepared to accept or identify problems or talk about the problems that they or their family members are going through. We need factual more than moral education and we need to ensure that we have the necessary services available.

“Like HIV/Aids, substance abuse affects all ages and backgrounds, religions or races. Our clients range in age from 15 to over 60. And the substances we have dealt with to date are alcohol, mandrax, cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal meth, nicotine, heroine and sleeping pills. We have also provided a counsellor to Sbrana Psychiatric Hospital in Lobatse since May 2011 but due to lack of donors and insufficient funding we will be ceasing clinical services in December.

“Sin tax and restrictions on the sale of alcohol can be effective to mitigate alcohol consumption, when implemented alongside complementary interventions and services. But the effectiveness of these measures
on actual alcohol and substance abuse or dependency still requires conclusive evidence. BOSASNet has been a recipient of a grant from the Alcohol Levy Fund for just under 3million pula [US$379m] from June 2010 to November 2012. Unfortunately the funds from the alcohol levy have not been sufficiently dedicated to rehabilitation and relapse-prevention services since its inception. We hope that the ministry of health will provide such services nationwide in the future.”

The poet mentor: TJ Dema

TJ Dema is a champion for poetry in Botswana, representing the country internationally and supporting up-and-coming artists through her arts administration company Sauti Arts And Performance Management. A former Chair of the Botswana Writing Society, she co-founded poetry collective Exoduslivepoetry! in 2003 and has recorded a multilingual CD of 12 Botswana poets entitled Dreaming Is A Gift For Me. In October she helped put on the first Botswana-based edition of Poetry Africa.

“Poets have a special place in our history. Weddings feel incomplete without a poet and they have always been unofficial advisors to leaders. The poet is the person that can chastise the chief. You don’t necessarily make any money from it but kids stop you on the street – they tell you that they want to be like you, they want to write like you. And their parents stop you to tell you you’re a really good role model.

“I had poets come to me saying, ‘Oh, I’ve seen you performing in South Africa, how did you do that?’ So for two to four years I would just give people advice: ‘talk to so and so’ or email them a draft of my contract. My roles ranged from mentor to editor to performance and stage management. Even today, having set up Sauti Arts, it’s more of a partnership with me and each artist than me fully managing them, because I don’t have the resources. I managed myself and struggled for 10 years; negotiating contracts, looking at fees. And I always wished somebody else were doing it.

“There are at least three platforms for spoken word in Botswana. We are used to performing as collectives. You don’t get the ‘Adele: performing for one night only’ type of shows. But it keeps you inexperienced; you only ever do 10 minutes so that’s all you ever rehearse, that’s all you build your muscles for. [At Sauti] we push our artists to do 15-minute to one-hour showcases, and the ones who put in the work see the benefits.

“In the future I’d like to build a team to translate poetry from Setswana to English. I would make it a two-step process: linguists from the University of Botswana with a focus in Setswana would first do a literal translation and then I would be in a position to make it a poetic translation. I could reference the Setswana and say ‘No, no, no, we’ve completely lost track of what we’re saying here’.

“The Botswanan is such a beautiful and developed language. Our similes, idioms and proverbs are built around what is most important to the people. So, for example, telling a woman she resembled a cow would
be the highest form of praise – poets often refer to cows as ‘wet-nose gods’ ”.

The landrights activist: Jumanda Gakelebone

Jumanda Gakelebone is the spokesperson of the First People Of The Kalahari (FPK), a non-governmental organisation fighting for the rights of the San people. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, the San people were evicted from their ancestral lands by the Botswana government from 1997 – before a 2006 high-court ruling re-established their land rights. But the verdict did not put an end to the struggles of the San, and the FPK continues to raise awareness of fresh obstacles, such as the 2010 decision to block reserve residents from using the Kalahari borehole or drilling a new one (a move that was overturned in 2011).

“At the time FPK was founded in 1993 I was still in school and got interested in the issues they raised. My community on the Central Kalahari Reserve was having a problem with land rights and I thought ‘this is a good organisation. I have to go there to do something’. Even at school I could feel the pressure – the way they would humiliate us – so that was on my mind. So when I came across the late John Hardbattle [co-founder
of FPK alongside Roy Sesana] we had a talk and found we shared the same ideas.

“Today the organisation is still running, it’s still living but we have funding problems and depend on outside donors. The people I was going to school with are now the governors of the country – so this [matter] is generation to generation. It’s going to be very difficult for the issue to be solved. But some things have changed since the 1996 ruling. I would say about 10 per cent of the population have understood and said that ‘this is [the San people’s] right and we need to respect them’. And the man who was the head of the struggle – Sesana – is now residing there [in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve] with his family.

“But whenever decisions are made [by the government] we are not there… there are no ministers or MPs from the San communities, so our voice is less there. The government still encourages the San to move into settlements instead of staying on the reserve. I would not say it’s because of wildlife, I would call it racial discrimination – them not really respecting us. They don’t recognise us as part of the population of the country. Gem Diamonds
did help to build wells after the 2011 ruling but I will not call that [real] help – whatever they’re doing is to show the outside world they care. If it wasn’t for the ruling they would not have paid for them.”

The eco champion: Keneilwe Moseki  

Keneilwe Moseki is executive director of Somarelang Tikologo (Environment Watch Botswana), a pioneering NGO situated in its own eco-park in Gaborone. Since it was set up in 1991, following Africa’s first sustainability summit, ST has been a local leader in recycling. The organisation has represented Botswana at international platforms such as COP17 in Durban. It’s also lobbied government, resulting in Moseki winning a place on JCI’s 10 Outstanding Young Persons Of The World list for 2012.

“Setting up this park has been one of our major achievements. We used to go to schools to give presentations, to get people to understand conservation, but we said, ‘Some people are getting it and some are missing the point. What do we do?’ So we found this space, cleared away the rubble and built an orchard, an area for kids made of recyclable items, an eco café, a drop-off recyclable park and community hall, which people can hire for a small fee. There’s also our innovative green shop, which sells crafts made out of waste metal, paper and plastic by women from rural areas, students and unemployed young people.

“We do public tours to tell people which trees and plants to buy, how to plant them and how to start an organic garden at home. We also do awareness activities, such as trying to promote solar use and energy, and have worked in the corporate community.

“Working for a development office you need regular sponsors. If they become irregular there’s potential for your programmes to suffer. You find a lot of sponsors that come on board but don’t want to finance operational costs. But without those things there is no project. So we realised we had to have parallel programmes and fundraising projects that could support our activities. And we have had the support of Barclays, FNB, E.ON – and Shell Oil. I know that one is controversial to mention with environmental conservation but in Botswana they are behaving very well. They have been supporting us and are the ones who started the organic garden with us.”

African arts, culture + politics

Social science


(ARISE magazine, issue 16) In Uganda, pop out for coffee and you may learn something that could save your life. Science Café Uganda is a popular format in which ordinary people gather in a café, church or school to learn about science in a simple, accessible way.

“We found that when you discuss abstract ideas, people aren’t so interested,” says Christine Munduru, responsible for communications at the company. Instead, experts talk on a topic of the community’s choice – diabetes, domestic violence or living with HIV. Afterwards the floor is opened for a Q&A session. The Science Café Uganda team are uploading videos of debates to YouTube.

African arts, culture + politics

One to watch


(ARISE magazine, issue 14) Exactly one week after the announcement that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize would go to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, three other inspiring women sat in the picturesque town of Deauville in France nervously waiting to hear if they, too, would be winners. The trio were the Sub-Saharan Africa finalists of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an annual competition giving much-deserved recognition to socially responsible women entrepreneurs from six world regions – including this year, for the first time, the Middle East and North Africa.

The 2011 winner of the Sub-Saharan Africa category was Lorna Rutto from Kenya, who left her banking job to tackle the mounting problem of plastic waste in Nairobi (“They call the plastic bags our national flowers!”) by turning the discarded material into plastic fence posts. Rutto’s company, EcoPost, now employs 15 permanent staff, while also drawing on the  services of some 300 other workers – including marginalised local women, who buy plastic from street ‘scavengers’ to sell to EcoPost. As well as removing unsightly plastic waste from the landscape – so far, more than 600 metric tonnes – the posts reduce deforestation.  “For every 25 posts we make, we save a fully matured cedar tree,” says Rutto. The economic benefits of buying EcoPost’s new product have not gone unnoticed, either. “Customers love them because they don’t rot,” Rutto explains. “They are resistant to termites; easy to work with, just like timber; and environmentally friendly.”

As one of this year’s six Women’s Initiative Awards winners or ‘Laureates’, Rutto will receive vital publicity, $US20,000 in funding and ongoing business coaching from Cartier and its partners INSEAD and McKinsey & Company. Already, she has been able to refine her business plan, which could see the scheme rolled out across Kenya.

Bikes, Bananas And Business Plans

One of the two runners-up in the Sub-Saharan Africa award category, Lauren Thomas also hails from a banking background – Wall Street to be exact. After moving to Mozambique from the US four years ago, Thomas (together with Rui Mesquita) founded Mozambikes, which sells high-quality, affordable bikes to low-income communities and NGOs in rural Mozambique.

Key to the bikes’ price tag is advertising. By branding the bicycles advertisers can reach low-income consumers in rural communities, while also allowing Mozambikes to sell the bikes at up to six times less than the market value. “The opportunities [the bicycles provide] for income generation and for minimising issues such as absenteeism in schools are huge,” says Thomas.

The Chinese-made bikes, carefully selected to suit Mozambique’s terrain and their intended use, are assembled and customised by Thomas’s experienced staff of six – which includes a member of the Mozambican national cycling team. There are also plans to partner up with a local basket-weaving organisation to make bicycle baskets, and an enterprising Mozambican has approached Thomas with a prototype for a bicycle trailer.

Healthcare boost

The Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards is a joint project with the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, an annual conference attracting women from business, media, finance and beyond. Many of its key speeches and debates are filmed, giving those unable to attend an opportunity to discover new information and ideas.

This method of sharing knowledge via web-based videos is vital to the second runner-up, Zimbabwean Linda Ravenhill, a former intensive care nurse based in South Africa who founded the ground-breaking VideoLive. The company provides free web-based videos and information to healthcare professionals across sub-Saharan Africa.
Uniquely, its technology can be used on very low bandwidth, with videos designed to play for 20 to 30 minutes without buffering. Web TV and mobile applications are also offered. Besides filming medical conferences, speeches and the latest surgical techniques, VideoLive provides basic healthcare information. “This
is a very rewarding business to be in,” says Ravenhill. “It’s not just about the technology, it’s what you do with it.”

African arts, culture + politics

Wonder women


(, October 2011) Pictured Winner of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award for sub-Saharan Africa, Lorna Rutto, with Jury member Nigest Haile, founder and executive director of the Center for African Women Economic Empowerment

Words Carinya Sharples

Gatherings of influential women are increasingly common in Rwanda, the only country in the world where women hold the majority of parliamentary seats. But for participants of the 2011 Women’s Forum, the occasion was an all-to-rare treat.

The Women’s Forum is an annual assembly of inspiring, influential and innovative women from around the world. Over three days, 1,250 delegates from 80 countries participated in workshops, debates and discussions on everything from tweeting to social entrepreneurship.

ARISE went to the event in Deauville, France, to meet the nominees for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. This was the fifth year Cartier has held the prestigious awards, which recognise and support “audacious and promising women entrepreneurs from all over the world”.

The winner of the Cartier Women’s Intiative Award 2011 for Sub-Saharan Africa was Lorna Rutto from EcoPost in Kenya. EcoPost tackles waste and deforestation by collecting the plastic waste that litters the Kenyan landscape and recycling it to make durable, affordable fence posts.

Receiving her award from a tearful Wendy Luhabe, the South African author and winner of 50 Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World, an equally tearful Rutto called the recognitition “a great opportunity for men and hundreds of women in Kenya”, referring to the women she hires the services of to collect the plastic.

The two runners-up from sub-Saharan African were Linda Ravenhill, founder of VideoLive – a low bandwidth online education tool, which gives healthcare workers across Africa up-to-date information, training and news – and Lauren Thomas, whose company Mozambikes sells affordable, quality, branded bicycles in Mozambique.

Outside of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, the programme was no less inspiring. Highlights of the Women’s Forum, for example, included the debate Will the Arab uprisings truly become Arab springs? The knowledgeable panel included human rights activist and former Minister of State for Family and Population of Egypt Moushira Mahmoud Khattab, the executive editor of the International Herald Tribute Alison Smale and Tunisian cyberactivist Amira Yahyaoui. Watch the full debate, including the remarkable call to arms speech by human rights lawyer and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, below:

As well as keynote speeches and debates, the Women’s Forum programme included smaller discussions and workshops, which took place in the more informal Discovery Hall. Here delegates networked over coffee and champagne and took advantage of sessions such as Becoming a 21st Century Leader and What if we all stood up for African mothers?

In one eye-opening debate on violence against women, Vice-President of the Italian Senate Emma Bonino declared “women’s rights have no borders”, and while many at the Women’s Forum recognised the different needs and battles of women in every country, there was a  united sense throughout that women’s rights can and must be universal.

For more information, videos and inspiration visit and

Look out for ARISE’s full report on the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards and the Women’s Forum, including interviews with the three nominees from sub-Saharan Africa, in the next issue of ARISE magazine – out later this year.


A fresh approach


(The Pavement, 1 October 2009) You might have walked past an Emmaus shop and wondered what lay behind the pale green sign with the emblem of a dove holding a flower. It may look and sound like a religious organisation, but Emmaus is a secular charity with a simple aim: to “give homeless people a bed… and a reason to get out of it”.

While most homeless charities focus on one need – be it providing jobs, housing or food – Emmaus offers all three. Its members (known as ‘companions’) live, work and eat together in small, self-sufficient communities. There are 19 groups in the UK, everywhere from Glasgow to Brighton, plus branches in 36 countries around the world.

The pioneering charity was founded 60 years ago in Paris by Father Henri-Antoine Groues, better known as Abb?© Pierre – a Catholic priest, MP and former member of the French Resistance. One night, he was introduced to a homeless man named Georges who had tried to commit suicide in the river Seine after being released from prison after 20 years, only to find his family could not cope with his return. Abbé Pierre asked Georges to help him, and together they set about building temporary homes, initially in é Pierre’s own garden, for people living on the streets of Paris. Later, Georges said: “Whatever else he might have given me – money, home, somewhere to work – I’d still have tried to kill myself again. What I was missing, and what he offered, was something to live for”.

As more companions joined, they decided to raise money by becoming “rag pickers”, collecting and selling things people no longer wanted. The same principle is used today, with Emmaus shops selling second-hand items donated by the local community. As well as providing a constant source of funds, this has gained new significance as the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra gathers pace.

In the last issue of The Pavement, we published a letter from the new general manager of Emmaus South Lambeth (ESL), James Hayes, in which he told readers about the spaces up for grabs at ESL. Despite some high-profile supporters (Terry Waite is the Emmaus UK president, and ESL alone has been visited by celebrity chef Antonio Carluccio, Joanna Lumley, Jerry Hall and MOBO award-winner YolanDa Brown), Emmaus is still relatively unknown. This means that although it has 25 en-suite rooms, ESL currently has (at time of going to press) just 18 companions – 15 men and three women, with an age range of 23 to 63. However, it’s unlikely the rooms will stay empty for long – and just as well, since ESL will need plenty of help when its new furniture and electrical superstore opens this month.

Construction of the Beadman Street store, part funded by the Emmaus UK Federation Office with a small donation from Lambeth Council, has cost £753,000. It is a sizeable chunk of money, but it is hoped that the new addition will bring fresh opportunities for the companions.

The electrical shop currently squeezes in a selection of giant TVs, small electrical appliances and – somewhat bizarrely – a motorised scooter. The new store will allow space for larger white goods, such as washing machines and dishwashers. One level of the two-storey development has been earmarked for use as a workshop, where companions will be able to do furniture restoration and PAT Testing on electricals.

Like many workplaces, a typical day at ESL begins with a staff meeting. Ideas are shared, grievances aired and jobs allocated, before everyone heads off to their respective posts. As a new arrival to ESL, James was impressed with the enthusiasm of the companions: “they’ve got strong points of view; they really care and have so much passion.”

As well as frontline work in the furniture superstore and bric-a-brac and electrical shops, the companions have plenty of behind-the-scenes work to do. Furniture donations have to be collected and purchases delivered, while all new stock must be sorted, cleaned and priced. Electrical items are also safety checked by one of the four companions trained in PAT testing.

Over in the kitchen, the chefs prepare three square meals each day for their fellow companions, using ingredients grown on ESL’s own allotment when they can. And at 5pm, after a hard day’s work, the group gather at the large wooden tables for dinner before spending the evening as they please, whether that’s at the local gym, watching TV in their room or relaxing in the comfortable communal room, with its separate TV, board game and computer areas.

The few house rules include no drugs or alcohol, no pets and no smoking in common areas. Although companions do not sign on while working with Emmaus, they continue to collect housing benefit, which goes towards funding the shops. As well as full board, companions receive a weekly allowance of £33 and a one-week holiday every three months, plus £100 and £50 for travel. An additional £5 per week is saved on behalf of each companion so that by the time they decide to move on, they have a tidy sum saved up.

There’s no time limit on how long companions can stay. “Some see it as a temporary measure to keep their CV up to date,” says James. “Others see Emmaus as their way of life and might stay five, 10 even 20 years”. The companions gain confidence, experience and skills on the job. In addition, they can attend workshops and courses in everything from food hygiene to computing and carpentry at Lambeth College. Many also bring skills from previous employment or life experience, which – combined with the help of ESL’s dedicated volunteers – makes for a rich talent pool.

Personal support is provided by a counsellor who comes once a week and a monthly support plan gives companions a chance to raise any issues, get advice and plan their next step. Additional support and guidance is provided by the two deputy community leaders, plus the four ESL companions have taken on extra responsibilities as ‚Äòcompanion assistants’.

And the inspiring principles of Abb?© Pierre remain at the heart of everything Emmaus does: acceptance, sharing, working for others in greater need and self-respect. Like Georges, companions today recognise that a reason to live is the best thing anyone can give you. ESL is holding a benefit gig at the Windmill in Brixton on 17th October, entry ¬£5.


A strong alliance


(The Pavement, 23 May 2009) There is a new motto for London-based Veterans Aid and Edinburgh- based Scottish Veterans’ Residences (SVR), which together have formed a unique alliance: two heads are better than one.

Both charities offer assistance to ex-service men and women who are homeless, at risk of becoming homeless or in need. Yet while SVR concentrates on providing independent living accommodation, Veterans Aid offers more immediate relief to street homeless. “We’re the A&E unit for the veteran community,” Veterans Aid chief executive, Dr Milroy, concludes.

The new partnership will involve sharing expertise and resources and breaking down “territorial boundaries” to provide a more efficient, linked-up service. “What we both agree on is that we don’t need to build new warehouses for human beings,” says Dr Milroy. “What we do need to do is use what we’re doing better.” SVR chief executive Lt Col Ian Ballantyne adds: “Forming [such] alliances‚Ķ can only increase the accessibility to and provision of help that our ex-service men and women need and so richly deserve”.

The veteran community in the UK is said to number around 10 million, so it is perhaps inevitable that a percentage will face homelessness at some point in their lives. However, there are many charities and organisations dedicated to helping those who have served their country. Dr Milroy is optimistic about the volume of care dedicated to this section of society. “If you’re homeless and a veteran, you’re in a much stronger position than you’d be in if you weren’t,” he says.

While only just formalised, the alliance between the two groups has long proved beneficial. One veteran helped along the way is Jock, 43, who served in the Black Watch for four-and-a-half years. Following a car accident, Jock suffered a nervous breakdown, his previously successful business failed and his relationship ended. He was then evicted and forced to sleep rough in London for six months. Finally, severely depressed and suicidal, he contacted the charity Borderline, which helps homeless Scots in London, who put him on to Veterans Aid. As he was keen to leave London, Jock accepted Veterans Aid’s offer of a place at SVR’s Whitefoord House in Edinburgh and within 10 days had moved in. Nine months on, Jock was back on his feet, a change he attributes to Whitefoord’s staff and residents. “They helped me to get back my self-esteem just by being able to talk to people who understood,” he says. “Arriving at SVR was like going back to a family”.

Veterans Aid has been offering advice, support and facilities to ex-servicemen and women since 1932. Previously known as The Ex-Service Fellowship Centre, the charity changed its name to Veterans Aid in 2007 (see The Pavement Issue 26). While the profile of the charity nationally and internationally has soared in recent times and the services have expanded to deal with homelessness prevention as well as emergency assistance, the ethos of immediate response and non-judgemental assistance is as strong as ever. “It’s veteran helping veteran,” says Dr Milroy. “That’s really important because it sets them apart and says you’re part of the military family, and we’ll try to do something for you.”

The importance Veterans Aid puts on dignity and self-esteem is another key part of their service – whether it is the way all veterans are referred to as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ or by their service rank, the high-quality hostel or the brand-new clothes that are handed out – including, at the moment, some snazzylooking jackets from Renault’s Formula One Racing Team.

In the past year, Veterans Aid has provided more than 20,000 nights of accommodation in its own hostel, New Belvedere House, plus many more in hostels, B&Bs, hotels and elsewhere across London and the UK. The charity also rents out 18 low-cost independent retirement flats at Whitworth House in Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex. “There’s no appointments system here,” Dr Milroy says proudly, “We don’t say ‘oh, come back three weeks on Wednesday’.”

As well as accommodation, the charity provides food vouchers, travel warrants, money, and access to training, employment and housing. Veterans stay at the hostel for an average of eight to 10 months, and when they do move on, they are helped to settle in to their new home with furniture and other essentials. As well as clothing donations, Veterans Aid receives calls from people offering the veterans work. The charity provides employment too, for example, hiring Bob Gordon, a former Royal Ordnance Corps physical training officer and ex-New Belvedere resident, to join the Veterans Aid team. Having come through homelessness, alcoholism and more, today Mr Gordon can be found bustling about the Veterans Aid office, booking hostels spaces, updating the database and joking with his colleagues about having an Equity card for all his media appearances. He is even set to receive a new look after a makeover programme got in touch with Dr Milroy offering to work their magic on three lucky veterans.

The charity is funded by donations and grants from a huge variety of social care and military groups, from Seafarers UK and the RAF Benevolent Fund (RAFBF) to Supporting People and Royal Hospital Chelsea. In terms of local government, Dr Milroy has nothing but praise for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and the help they provide.

Despite being a tiny charity, Veterans Aid has what Dr Milroy calls a “powerhouse” of expertise, including a barrister, military psychiatrist, social and outreach workers and a professional alcohol counsellor. Dr Milroy himself is a military welfare specialist, as well as a former wing commander and the current chair of the Ex-Service Action Group. Combined with excellent contacts and ability to, for example, purchase a place at a detox centre instantly, this makes for a very smooth service. When The Pavement visited the headquarters in Victoria, a veteran turned up at the door and was instantly whisked into a room, identified as having been there before from Veterans’ Aid’s private database, and a room was organised for him at New Belvedere House – all within the space of about five minutes. In the past, two veterans were so astonished to be offered a detox place instantly, they ran out on Philip Rogers, Veterans Aid’s specialist on support and counselling.

With its services in demand, Veterans Aid is always thinking to the future, with plans for a new drop-in centre on a more accessible ground floor, a halfway house and improved detox facilities. They also expect to start welcoming more women as an increasing number serve in the armed forces. “We’re hugely ambitious,” says Dr Milroy. “I am the Napolean Dynamite of my world!”

Scottish Veterans’ Residences has been going even longer than Veterans Aid and is Scotland’s oldest ex-service charity. Founded in 1910, SVR provides residential accommodation to ex-servicemen and women and their spouses. Over the years it has helped some 60,000 veterans, from both world wars through to more recent conflicts in Korea, the Falklands and the Gulf. Like at Veterans Aid’s hostel, all veterans staying in SVR accommodation at Whitefoord House or Rosendael in Dundee have their own room. In addition to 81 en-suite rooms, Whitefoord House has 11 self-contained flats available for rent, while Rosendael has accommodation for 45 veterans. Owned and managed by Scottish Veterans’ Housing Association, the two full-board residences provide veterans with security, privacy and areas to socialise such as bowling greens, gardens and sitting rooms. The sense of community is reinforced with regular commemorative, social and fundraising events, while a team of managers, many of whom are ex-service men and women, provides assistance. The work of SVR is funded in the main by the basic, individually assessed accommodation charge paid by residents. This is supported by statutory funding support, such as housing benefit, income support and supporting people allowance.

The Combined Homeless and Information Network (Chain) estimates that around six per cent of all homeless people are veterans. Other people, including London’s mayor Boris Johnson, put it even higher, at 25 per cent. Not someone to be obsessed by figures, Dr Milroy disagrees with the ‘one in four’ estimate. “That’s absolute tripe, always has been,” he says. “One wonders why people want to promote huge figures. I don’t need huge figures for people to feel that we should be doing something for veterans… One’s enough.”

Dr Milroy is equally indignant about people who say it is the fault of the forces that some veterans end up homeless. “These people are homeless for the same reasons as everyone else: poverty, housing, alcohol or substance misuse, relationship breakdown… It’s absolutely vital to understand that it’s not about military service, it’s not about institutionalisation – if it was, it would all be happening the day after.” SVR, however, is less opposed to the idea of institutionalisation, its website saying “many exmilitary personnel find adapting to civilian life extremely difficult.” While Veterans Aid does receive calls from serving soldiers, most of those who get in touch are veterans from conflicts some 10-12 years before, with some coming through Veterans Aid’s sister organisation Combat Stress. SVR covers much the same range, helping those who have recently left the armed forces as well as veterans who have been isolated or homeless for many years.

With such a caring support network, it is no wonder some people try and pass themselves off as veterans to Veterans Aid and other military charities. Dr Milroy has even been introduced to someone pretending to be someone he knows, but he takes it lightly. “We direct them onto other projects, we don’t abandon them‚Ķ It doesn’t matter”.

London culture

Lewisham Life: Selection of articles

Articles on local cultural happenings, courses and training opportunities for Lewisham Life, the magazine for Lewisham Council.

Work Experience: Are you experienced? (PDF)


Christmas Around The World (PDF)


Best In The Business


Film in Lewisham: Screen Secrets


VoxPop: Do you make use of your library?


Get ahead in business


Caring for the carers


Sisters doing it for themselves


If the cup fits…


Building for the future


Dance Fever


VoxPops: Will the extension of the East London line benefit you?


Forward-thinking Retreat

LewishamLife_Eden_retreat_July2005 copy

Anti-tag team


Art in Lewisham


Balancing the books


Turning junk into treasure


Getting back to work


We are the champions


Care and committment




A Safe Haven


Who do you love?