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Omagh priest returning to Africa for housing project

Omagh priest Fr James O’Kane with some of the African children whose lives he has changed through his tireless charity work.

OMAGH priest Fr James O’Kane is embarking on a new charity mission in Africa where he has already changed the lives of thousands.

Fr Jim, as he is affectionately known, will leave Tyrone on October 9 to spend a month in Zambia.

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There he will lay the foundations for a house building project that will benefit some of the country’s most impoverished people.

James O’Kane has spent much of his adult life on the African continent helping the poor in Ghana, Nigeria and since 2005, Zambia.

Along with Tyrone charity The Paul McGirr Foundation, the 78-year-old was instrumental in establishing St Theresa’s Church and Community Centre in the Zambian district of Chainda. It was officially opened in 2014 and remains a focal point for the area’s beleaguered population.

It is in Chainda that Fr Jim hopes to begin building houses to replace the mud huts that so many people call home.

Chainda sits on the outskirts of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, and has one of the lowest mortality rates in the country. That is largely down to the Chaindan compound, a 20 square mile slum that houses over 25,000 people.

Despite the best efforts of several different charities, diseases such as AIDS remain a serious problem and account for the average life span being just 37 years of age.

Of the 25,000 who live in the Chaindan compound, it is estimated that as many as 1,800 of them are orphaned children.

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Due to the tireless work he has already done to help those living in Chainda, Fr James O’Kane is already held in the highest respect. And over the next four weeks he will spend time in the area putting down the blueprints for a project that will undoubtedly change lives.

“Many people live in these mud huts and they are really poor. So what I want to do is put proper roofs on them and just make them so they are suitable for living in.

“If the walls are solid, it might just be a case of staking them up with some timber to support them and then putting on a roof. It won’t be like building a house in the sense that we would here, it will be more about making sure the walls are concreted and making sure there is a proper roof.”

Fr Jim has already helped a number of families secure accommodation in Chainda. He says he wants to do that on a wider scale, particularly now that the nearby St Theresa’s Church and community project has been completed.

It was built using money donated almost solely from County Tyrone and is now an invaluable asset to the Zambian people.

“I want to help the poor,” Fr Jim said. “The big church is completed and now I want to help the people directly.”

In preparing for the housing scheme, Fr O’Kane will assemble a committee of Zambians to oversee the building work and manage the financial side of the project. This will enable construction to continue in Fr Jim’s absence.

The Omagh man will be back in Tyrone in time for Christmas but plans to return to Africa intermittently throughout 2018 to see how his latest charity venture is progressing.

Fr James O’Kane is not the only one off on his travels either, with his brother, Fr Brian O’Kane also returning to Zambia.

He has been a missionary in both Nigeria and Zambia since his ordination in 1965 and was responsible for the establishment of the Divine Mercy parish in Zambia’s Ndola region.

He too will arrive on the African continent before the end of the year after being offered a number of positions in Zambia.

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