It was less than two weeks after the new $2.3 billion Royal Adelaide Hospital opened that the man in charge – Health Minister Jack Snelling – dropped the bombshell news he was quitting Cabinet.
By the following year, Snelling had left behind 20 years in state politics to switch gear in the family’s garden in the Adelaide Hills town of Aldgate.
“I spent the first six months digging out a lot of ivy that had grown everywhere, it didn’t require much thought but it was physically incredibly taxing,” Snelling says with a laugh.
“I was just detoxing, politics is a bit of a drug of addiction. It was just good to have time and I really needed time to reconnect with my family, and it was nice to spend a bit of time connecting with my faith.”
Fast forward a few years and that building of connections between the practising Catholic and his wife and six children saw Snelling climb aboard a plane in June last year with his youngest child, 12-year-old Thomas.
The two travelled to Uganda and Kenya to visit two projects supported by the Adelaide charity Bright Futures Child Aid and Development Fund that he was asked to lead as chief executive officer.
Snelling is back in Kenya today, calling InDaily via WhatsApp as there is no data roaming available to support mobile phone services.
This time he is joining the official opening of the new Empowerment Centre the organisation has helped fund in a Nairobi slum.
There is genuine excitement in Snelling’s voice as he acknowledges it is a far smaller project – at about $160,000 – than the Royal Adelaide Hospital or other multi-million-dollar builds he oversaw as Treasurer and Health Minister in the Weatherill Labor government.
But to Snelling, it is just as important.
Today, he is meeting locals at a colourful building in an unsealed street on the outskirts of Nairobi, where goats and chickens roam and rubbish is dumped in a nearby empty block.
He tells the story of a woman living near the new centre where the Nawiri Mama program operates – its name translating to Flourishing Mothers – to support those impacted by the cultural stigma around children with a disability.
“One woman who had a severely disabled son, she had been ostracised by her family, she had been accused of witchcraft all because she had given birth to a son with a severe disability,” Snelling says.
“She told me how she was so isolated the only way she could work was by tying up her son so she could go to a workplace, otherwise he would hurt himself.”
Once she discovered the program operated by the Christian-based Dorcas Creation Kenya the woman was given support, her son now receives therapy and she is training to become a hairdresser.
“What struck me was that with little money, the money we send over is tiny compared to the money I dealt with in Treasury and the Department of Health, but this money has completely transformed the life of this woman to a position of having no help to one where she has hope,” Snelling says.
He is among an array of local politicians, community leaders and members of the Australian High Commission gathering for the centre’s official opening.
Each will learn more about the increasing demand for the program that provides not only physiotherapy for children with disabilities, but also training for women in hairdressing, beauty services, pastry making, tailoring and food production.
It also provides micro-loans for small business start-ups.
The centre’s relationship with its Adelaide supporters started many years ago when the founders of Bright Futures first met Jane Thuo, who started Dorcas Creation Kenya in 2006, when she was visiting South Australia.
Funds raised by Bright Futures are now leading to its growth, and Snelling is uplifted by the results.
“Most of the homes aren’t plumbed here so the wastewater flows down the street and people need to fetch fresh water for their homes,” he says.
“Despite this, the locals who live here are joyful and welcoming. They are so grateful for this wonderful new facility in their neighbourhood.”
There are other programs around the world that Bright Futures supports, the organisation expanding from a volunteer-run organisation to having Snelling appointed as its first chief executive officer about 18 months ago.
In Uganda, there is a health clinic established in the village of Lukodi, the site of a devastating massacre during the country’s bloody civil war in 2004.
As villagers began trickling back to their home after fleeing Lukodi’s violence about two decades ago, a great need emerged for a health centre to address issues with malaria and high infant mortality and maternal death rates.
Bright Futures partnered with the Bishop Onono-Onweng Foundation to open the health centre in 2016 and now also supports educating children from those refugee families.
Snelling says his son Thomas returned from visiting the two African projects with him in June last year with a deeper understanding of the world.
“I think it gave him insight into how much the rest of the world live and how blessed he is, the things we take for granted, a lot of the rest of the world doesn’t have what we have. There are homes where people often have dirt floors, a mattress rolled into the corner,” he says.
One of his older daughters experienced a similar epiphany after travelling with him to see the organisation’s project supporting a school for more than a dozen quarry villages and city slums in Bangalore, India.
“A lot of politics, particularly in those portfolios I covered, you are swinging, dealing with one bushfire after another, whereas with this work I find there is a lot more opportunity to be a bit more proactive and I think you are a lot more connected,” Snelling says.
“It’s not a complete change, it’s different but also there are similarities. In politics, it’s really about connecting with people, spending time with people, hearing people’s concerns and trying to solve problems.”
For Snelling, it is about using skills accumulated over 20 years in state politics, but on a different plane.
“It’s been an amazing journey, it’s not something I expected, I did not think when I left politics that in five years’ time, I would be speaking to you via WhatsApp from Nairobi,” he says.
“Hearing some of these women’s stories, I feel incredibly touched and proud and really honoured to be a part of that.”
Local News Matters
Media diversity is under threat in Australia – nowhere more so than in South Australia. The state needs more than one voice to guide it forward and you can help with a donation of any size to InDaily. Your contribution goes directly to helping our journalists uncover the facts. Please click below to help InDaily continue to uncover the facts.