Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

27 February 2007

Bush plus Batista

Filed under: Cuba Libre — annedegraaf @ 6:07 pm

12 February 2007

Africa, My Heart

Filed under: Aids survival,Words by Others — annedegraaf @ 9:12 am

666463_abstract_light.jpg(To read the beginning of this travel story, click on Aids survival, under Categories at the bottom of the Blogroll to the right, then scroll down to the bottom, click Next Page, scroll to the bottom again, click Next Page again, and start reading Sex with a Virgin.)
Zimbabwe-Johannesburg, South Africa 9 November 2006
(Please keep in mind that I have changed names and deliberately left out the names of organizations and places in this Zimbabwe section of the Aids survival blog, in order to protect the people there.)

My last day. I will spend half of it in Zimbabwe, then fly back to Jo’berg, where I will wait until nearly midnight to fly home to Amsterdam. I am up early, and ask the woman at the front desk if I can have the room until later in the afternoon. No problem.

Here in The Netherlands as I type this, I’ve decided not to go into any detail about what happened that last morning. At the organization office I meet with Peter and another pastor, and we spend all morning talking about politics and the hope of Zimbabwe and the practical nature of the underground resistance in that country. I don’t want to endanger them, so if any of you want to know the names of organizations that are staging non-violent protest marches, or where you can donate money for orphan-care projects, or how the Zimbabwean Diaspora is being mobilized in order to support Zimbabweans in that country who oppose the government, then please contact me directly. There are people who can speak much more eloquently than me, who would be happy to visit Western churches or other forums and tell their stories.

I do want to reiterate that Mugabe is guilty of gross human rights violations. He has run his country into the ground. He bulldozed the homes of the poor earlier in 2006 and now when churches offer shelter to these people, some of the pastors are arrested and tortured. Foreign journalists and aid organizations are banned from Zimbabwe. Some reporters have been arrested and tortured. Emails are censored, and phones tapped. There is no petrol, and no drugs, especially the life-extending ARVs for aids patients. Fear reigns as children are asked by the police to turn in their parents and teachers who might have spoken against the government. The oppression is so terrible. People are dying unnecessarily of hunger and aids. Zimbabwe used to be the bread basket of Africa. Spy agents are everywhere.

I do not understand how regimes of lesser terror are targeted, and Zimbabwe’s is allowed to stand. Perhaps because the country lacks the curse of diamonds or oil, the rest of the world can turn a blind eye. But the true treasure there, as anywhere, are the children’s voices. Listen to their dreams of school and a future with hope. As I wrote about Liberia last year, if the future of a country can be built on the dreams of its youth, then there is hope for Zimbabwe.

Some of you will want me to come up with an answer of what you can do. There are projects you can support and organizations that spend their donations effectively. Tear and Woord en Daad and ZOA Refugee Care are three aid organizations I’ve worked with for this series of books for teens, about teens. I can also recommend Unicef and World Vision from past encounters. But I think what I would most like to recommend when asked that question, is simply that you allow yourself to engage in the issues. Read the articles. Google the subjects. Realize the desperation and lack of hope these 16 million aids orphans must face like a dragon to be slain every day. The fear. The loss. Know their despair. Then look into your own heart and do the next thing.

On that last day in Zimbabwe, I heard that the international perception of the country is that the people must be happy because they are not protesting. This is not true. Protests are happening, where the police are ordered to hit people. They break arms, shoot into crowds, arrest, and torture. As a result, people are afraid to speak out, but they still try. Everyone I spoke to asked me, “Tell people to pray for us, please. And pray for breakthroughs among other countries so people will rise up and cause their own governments to oppose the Zimbabwean government.” The prayer in Zimbabwe is for peaceful social transformation. In this police-state people are beaten before tried. Children are kidnapped and brainwashed at police camps and taught to betray their own parents. Letters are opened. Those who speak out, disappear.

On that last day, I say my goodbyes. I hug them all: Katherine, Peter, Leonard, Susan, and the rest. I slip Katherine an envelope with a thank-you letter and some rand. In the note I’ve asked her to spend the money on a bicycle for Jasmine, if possible, and whatever she feels is the greatest need. One of the several teenage boys who seem to follow Katherine around like a pack of guard dogs, offers to drive me to some places in town where I can buy gifts. I end up buying two paintings by young, local artists. I’m looking at them now, in my writing room. An echo of wildebeests, and a slum community with corrugated iron walls and double rainbow with the golden light of Africa. Afterwards he drops me off at my hotel. I pack and have an extra hour, so go outside to sit by the pool I’ve been watching from my balcony all week. I lie in the African sun and sweat, absorbing the heat in every pore. Then I return to my room, shower and dress for the flight. My driving young man picks me up and takes me to the airport. He waits with me while I check in. The baggage tags are hand-written. I see him scribble AMS and think it will be a miracle if my luggage makes it through Jo-berg and onto my Amsterdam flight. No computer, no bar code, just three letters. I say my last goodbye to the young man who has watched over me, and give him a gift. Such courage in the eyes of this new generation in Africa.

Once our plane takes off, I feel . . . joy. And relief. Once we land, a bus takes the passengers from our plane to the terminal. I sit on the back seat beside a big, blonde Afrikaner wearing ridiculously small shorts. He’s sitting beside a tiny English rose of a woman. I hear him mutter, “Godzijdank,” under his breath. Without looking at him, I nod and mutter what is the same word in Dutch. Thank God. Then he looks at me and asks where I live in South Africa. I tell him, no I’m from Holland, but I feel like South Africa is home after my time in Zimbabwe. He says, “Ach, the people ask for it themselves by not fighting that Mugabe.” I look at him and cannot find the strength to argue. “No,” I do manage to say. “They are fighting, we just don’t see it.” He grunts and nods, then wants to know if I need a lift anywhere.

At the Jo’burg airport, the culture shock is acute: marble floors, airco, a shopping mall with flight gates. I have 5 hours until my flight and download 526 emails onto my Blackberry, 2/3 of it spam, but I cannot bring myself to even start answering the rest. Erik calls. I call my kids. “I’m back in the land of the living,” I tell them all. Oh, South Africa, I love your infrastructure, your brave hope to prove the rest of the world wrong in terms of peace and reconciliation, the black middle class, the way you grapple with hard questions and even harder answers to race and poverty, disease and corruption. I love the freedom, not having to watch what I say on the phone or keep my voice down or look over my shoulder. Now that I’m out of Zimbabwe, I realize that every day there was a man at my side, assigned by Katherine, except in the hotel I was never alone, never even in danger of being in danger. And I am grateful for that protection.

In the airport I read the newspapers and write a travel report, but it comes out all wrong—too rushed, like I’m looking at the sun and must hurry to look away or I will be blinded.

I remember one of the Zimbabwean pastors seeing English pounds and saying, “Now that is real money.” Zimbabwe has an estimated 1200 percent inflation. I dream of Dutch kids making Trees of Life.

Africa, my heart.
The children’s voices.

When I return home it will take me weeks to unblock enough from the images of death and rape and suffering to begin writing this blog. In the months while I wrote this, I’ve picked up the tossed and broken puzzle that lay at my feet after this trip disrupted my map of how the world should be. I pick up each piece, dust it off, find a place for it, and describe it here. Then I move on to the next piece. My puzzle’s not complete, but I can already see it will be an even more beautiful pattern than what I used to know.

There won’t be any more blog entries until 25 February when Erik and I return from Cuba. We’re off to see if we can help out the boys at Gitmo.

I am writing the teen novel about aids survival. When I come home I’ll write some more.

To conclude this travel story, I’ll leave you with more Words from Others:

I saw Eternity the other night
like a great ring of pure and endless light all calm, as it was bright.
And round beneath it, Time, hours,
days, years, driven by the spheres
Like a vast shadow, in which the world
and all her train were hurled.

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness:
as men here say it is late and dusky
because they see not all clear.
O for that night,
when I in Him,
might live invisible and dim!–
Henry Vaughn

11 February 2007

Walking 30 K for A-Levels

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 8:51 am

568527_acacia.jpgZimbabwe 8 November 2006 (continued)
I have a friend in Holland who likes to say that God saves the best for last. On this last full day in Zimbabwe I have returned to what I consider to be true Africa—the heart of Africa—and that is the bush. In an outlying area far from slums and townships, I can see people living as they always have in Africa—from the bush. Here there are fruit trees and vegetable gardens and goats and chickens, so people eat better than in the towns where the potatoes are deep-fried and so much of the diet is starch. I have learned on this trip in search of aids survival that nutrition is key in battling HIV/aids. Here in the bush, people stand a better chance of eating in healthy ways, thanks to the goat’s milk and fresh fruit and vegetables. Starvation is still a very real threat in this part of drought-scorched Zimbabwe, and it is still a great blessing to have one meal a day, but somehow I sense that when Africa is true to itself, as in these rural communities, there is less danger.

My interpreter M is waiting with me for a woman we’ve driven five hours to see. When she comes out of nowhere and appears from between two trees and the thorn bush, she is all smiles and sweat. She was tending her garden, which is really probably a small farm, and had no idea we would be visiting today. She offers her hand and welcomes me. Her welcome for M is warm and familiar. Her name is Jasmine. She excuses herself and says she’ll be right back.

I see her disappear into the house, then walk out the back way toward one of the outbuildings. There is, of course, absolutely no electricity or plumbing out here. I guess where she is headed is the outhouse. Or maybe where water is stored, because she emerges 15 minutes later with wet hair, wearing a clean, ironed, black t-shirt with something written on it and aids, showing the red ribbon of aids support. She wears tennis shoes on her feet and her skirt is covered with a colorful cloth that makes a second skirt.

Jasmine is so happy to see us and show us around. She is a volunteer, one of those people who said, “I want to help the orphans,” then was trained at Katherine’s organization and now helps keep child-headed households alive. But out here in the bush the term takes on a whole new meaning, as I soon find out. We climb back into the truck, this time Jasmine sits between M and me. I can smell something like flowers, is it a jasmine scent, or lavender water? I wonder what I must smell like to her. It is long past noon and I offer her and M some of my water. They decline. Then I reach into my trusty small black backpack and pull out a bag of almonds I brought with me from Holland. I pass this around and they are both very interested. Turns out they’ve never eaten almonds before. We crunch away as M drives deeper into the bush.

In the meantime, and probably to M’s relief, I direct my questions to Jasmine. Her English is good enough that M doesn’t need to translate, and I figure we’re sitting so close together our arms and legs are sweating in unison, and there is no escaping me, so now is as good a time as any to pick her brains. It’s a rare opportunity, actually, to interview someone like Jasmine, who lives in the bush and fights on the frontline of the aids survival war in Africa.

I ask about the goat programme. The churches select beneficiaries and supervise distribution. Katherine’s organization only does supportive visits, like this one M is making today with me. Jasmine says she already has a follow-up report for the chicken project they began less than a month ago. M is eager to hear the news. All the chickens hatched their eggs, so every one of the child-headed households who received chickens now have chicks, as well. It turns out the chicken project is slightly more successful than the goat project because sometimes a goat gets lost in the bush. She says more than 80 percent of the goats are doing well.

There has been very little rainfall in the area for years. The goats are turned out into the bush every morning. The orphans go to school. In the evenings, they must round up the goats from the bush and put them into one of the pens made of thorn-bush branches. This can take a lot of time and energy, so it is the only downside to having the goats. Otherwise, the animals are very low maintenance because they find their own food. “What are they being protected from?” I ask. Jackals. The kids are kept in a small shelter in the pen. At sunset the goats tend to come closer to their pen anyway, but sometimes they are lost and must be searched for. When the kids are kept enclosed, the mothers don’t wander far. So there is good progress because of the goat and chicken projects. Every now and then when the goats disappear one of the orphans must spend all night looking for it. You don’t have that problem with the chickens.

It turns out Jasmine is not just a volunteer, but she is a coordinator of volunteers. Ten volunteers out here report to her. She is caring for 50 families. She tells me that “many” of her people are HIV+, “but out here it is difficult to get ARVs. So many of the children are born with HIV and are abused.” Each of her volunteers has five child-headed families under her, for whom she helps to raise school fees and supply food, when possible. They all grow gardens that supply food for the orphans. Jasmine says, “You have to have a passion for orphans.” Whenever I ask her a question to which she answers yes, she prefaces her words with a long sigh-like moan, “Ehhhh.”

We drive in and out of deep ruts, as M navigates his way between the trees and thorn bush, weaving in and out, but seeming to know exactly where he’s going. We’ve been in the car for over an hour. Every now and then Jasmine points to the right or left, but I cannot see what they use for landmarks or signs. At some point we pass under a tree filled with noisy birds, chattering away. M and Jasmine say something and laugh. I ask about the joke and they look like schoolchildren caught red-handed. When I press them, M admits that they call this sort of bird “English” birds, because of the loud noises they make. I laugh with them and listen more closely. The racket does sound like the noise in our (Anglican) church hall (back in The Hague) during coffee after the service.

I ask some more questions about the orphans’ reactions to the goats. This is a fairly new project for this area. She says the orphans are “very happy about the goats. The goats could give birth this year, but they are already very happy because they can pay their school fees now.”

School out here is from 7.30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Primary-school aged children must walk 5-7 km (3-4 miles), that is 2 hours, to reach school. So that means they leave home at 5.30 a.m. Teenagers must walk 10 km (6.2 miles) to reach the nearest secondary school. “Isn’t that hard on the children?” I ask. Jasmine explains, “The children are happy they are going to school.”

And then I hear why to be a volunteer coordinator in the bush is so much different than in town: Jasmine walks an average of 45 km (28 miles) for her visits. That is how spread out everything is out here. Indeed, we’ve been weaving in and out of gullies, and have seen no one. I ask Jasmine how she manages. “I get up very early, when it is still dark.”

I ask about the aids information campaign in schools. She says, “Yes, everyone hears about it, but they think it’s a story. They think aids is not real.” How does she see the future for the orphans under her care? “They have a bright future. It’s possible, God willing, if they stay in school, but the price of books and school fees has gone up.” It costs 20,000 Zim$ (€10) for a full year—3 terms—of secondary school, and 8600 Zim$ (€4) for a full year—3 terms—of primary school.

I ask her what the orphans she knows want to be when they grow up: Teachers, policemen, drivers and doctors. One boy has told Jasmine, “When I grow up, I want to look after orphans.” I ask for more children’s voices, what has she heard the orphans say? “Some cry about how much they miss their parents. They are not happy because they did not see the burial of their parents. It is our tradition to not let children there.”

Jasmine says since 2001 there are so many more orphans. The community understands that more food must be distributed and is looking after them better by treating them like their own children. I compliment her on her English. “Thank you. I learned it in Wales.” I laugh, you’re kidding? “No, I attended Theological College in Wales.” I tell her my church in The Hague has an Assistant Chaplain from Wales, a woman, “like you,” I say, “a wise woman who cares.” Turns out Jasmine has one child herself, and she is a gogo, but her daughter lives in town.

We finally start to see signs of civilization: A few people walking; they wave at us and we stop while M and Jasmine chat with everyone. We pass a small shop with no other buildings anywhere around it. There are round huts scattered on the hillside rising before us. We pull into a yard with one of these huts and another square house. Curtains blow in the glassless windows. The architecture is the same as Jasmine’s house and I imagine what it must have been like for homesteaders coming from the UK to Rhodesia in the middle of the last century and trying to raise a family in this place. It is a place of rare beauty—the light, the colors—but also of rare hardship and solitude.

We all climb out of the truck. I see an outhouse and tell M I’m going into it. He looks doubtful, but what can he say? A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. Inside, it is immaculate. No smell. Clean cement. I push aside the scrap metal covering the pit opening with my foot. This is the cleanest outhouse I’ve ever seen. Hardly any smell at all. Relieved, in more ways than one, I emerge and nod that I survived. We head for the house. M and Jasmine call out, but no one answers. There is a wooden bench in the area surrounded by the fence, behind the house. We sit down. Chickens and goats wander around us. I take a few photos.

Then a 19-year-old girl comes out of the house. She is looking down at the ground. “Where are the others?” asks Jasmine. “At school,” the girl answers. This is one of the child-headed households under Jasmine’s care. The distance we just drove with difficulty, Jasmine must walk, to check up on this houseful of orphans. I can see the girl is quite sick. Her skin tone is clay-colored, a sort of gray overlaying the brown. The way she holds herself, hanging, one arm around her belly, tells me she is in pain. I ask how she is feeling and the girl says not well. “It’s malaria,” she says. I am surprised to hear this because I know there is no malaria in this part of Zimbabwe, but for once, I don’t say anything. M has brought some food—a sack of maize—and leaves that behind for the children. I watch the rooster and chickens. In the distant bush I hear donkeys braying. The girl says she has five people with her. Translation—five younger children she must care for. She says, “I am not feeling well.” She turns her face as we stand to say goodbye, and now I see the aids lesions.

A warm wind stirs up the dust at my feet. I look out beyond the fence and see barren sand and salt flats. The dirt at my feet is laced with white.

We climb back into the truck and are silent. The quiet desperation of this teenager dying in such a lonely place, when five younger children depend on her because they have no one else, has stilled me. We drive on and on over the flats, and hit thorn-bush area again. (I’ve since learned that another word for thorn bush is acacia.)

Up ahead we can see three teenage boys walking. There is no road here, and they seem to be going in a different direction than us. They wait for us to catch up to them and stop. Jasmine knows them and talks with them for a few moments. M says a few words. They introduce me and I shake the young men’s hands through the window. “What are you doing out here?” I ask. They laugh. “We are taking exams.” I look around at the bush and wild, empty hills and ask where? More laughter. “Madam, you see that hill, and the one behind it? That is where we take our exams.” But how far is that? “Thirty ks.” (30 km= 18.5 miles) “We walk today, then Thursday we rest and on Friday we take our A-levels. We are very tired when we arrive.” When we drive on, they wave, tall and strong, hopeful looks on their young faces.

After another hour we see a few scattered round huts. An elderly woman comes out to speak with us. She is not happy. M and Jasmine listen and nod. When we drive away, they tell me this gogo and her orphans are part of the chicken project. After getting nine hens, all the eggs have hatched and now the gogo says she can’t look after so many chickens. So she is ready to give back some of the hens into the programme and will not wait two-and-a-half years. “The project is too successful,” M says with a smile on his face.

At some point Jasmine must climb out of the truck to walk ahead and scout out a route for the truck. The bush is thicker here. I can see a thorn-bush fence surrounding a yard and two round huts up ahead. I say, “Why don’t we park the truck and walk the rest of the way?” M looks relieved. As I weave between the thorn bush I notice buds of leaves just starting to emerge. I remember, here it is early spring. A gogo comes out of one of the huts to greet us. All the orphans under her care are at school, so she is alone. She is happy with the goats and chickens. Yes, all the orphans are attending school, so that is good.

I look around the yard, dry dust blowing in a warm wind. I see rake marks and notice now how tidy everything is. I ask why there are two huts, and the gogo says the other one is for cooking. This larger round hut, which looks newly plastered, is for sleeping.

“Anne, she has something special she wants to show you,” M says. We walk out of the yard and there is a gigantic sow with five little piglets hanging off her. This is a small fortune in this world of rural poor where a few chickens, and goats can make the difference between life and death. The pig follows the gogo around like a little dog while the left-behind piglets squeal like they are being attacked by jackals. What a fuss! We all laugh. This is a good home to see, I realize as I take one more look around. Clean, tidy, healthy, and there is hope.

We make the long drive back to Jasmine’s home. I thank her for spending so much time with us. What is your greatest need, I ask? I’m thinking courage, and she says, “A bicycle.” Of course, with the distances she must cover on foot. I hug Jasmine goodbye.

When I came home to The Netherlands from this trip, I had a great deal of difficulty writing about it. For the first few weeks, I could only jot down a couple images that would not let me go. I wrote these onto colored Post-its and put them on the glass framing my Georges Braque print “Lòiseau et son ombre” (Bird and its soul), an in-flight image on a wall in my writing room, to the right of my desk. Braque painted this the year I was born. Anyway, one of the ten Post-its says, Jasmine walking in hope. This image has looked over my shoulder, so to speak, and guarded me these long three months since the trip.

On that day in the bush, as we drive away, I watch Jasmine walking in hope, tall, straight, confident, radiating joy and assurance that she is, in this bush community, exactly where she should be, doing exactly what she does best.

The fluorescent purple jacaranda and bright-orange Flamboyant trees salute us in our search for the paved road. It takes another few hours, but once we return to the tarmac, M pulls over. Before we left town this morning he bought a roast chicken and some fries from a shop. I decline the chicken, but take some of the chips and pour salt all over them. My body is longing for salt in this dry heat. We eat off of the hood of the truck and stand beside the vehicle. I hear a deep thumping in the distance. I think, drums!, but M calls it a giant hammer at a gold-processing plant nearby. Here also, people pan for gold in the nearby river and bring it to the plant.

M looks at me. “This is not easy for you, is it?” he asks. The tenderness in his question catches me by surprise. I bite back the tears. It’s the first time that anyone has ever really asked how I am. Why would it be important when we have children around us dying of starvation and aids? But it strikes a chord within me. I smile bravely and say, “No, I’m fine.” He shakes his head. “You’re not. Look at your shoulder, the sun has burned it. My skin doesn’t do that. It looks like it must hurt. And what you hear from everyone, these stories must weigh heavy on your heart.” I can’t believe he’s seen right through me. I thought I was putting up a brave front. But I nod and cough and look at my left shoulder that’s been beside the open window all day. It is bright red. M sucks on a chicken bone and we both smile at each other. Back in the truck, I sleep for most of the way back to town.

On my last night in Zimbabwe I notice I have stopped counting the hours until I will leave the following day. I have dinner with Katherine, just as I did my first night, in the hotel restaurant where I can order Mexican enchiladas. I tell her my stories and the feedback of my interviews and how exciting the goat programme is and is it me? but people seem to have more of a chance in the bush than in town. She agrees. Her courage and honesty and the respect shown her by so many pastors will be with me always.

In my notebook that night I write: A picnic to the drumming of the gold hammer and crickets after driving through endless almost blooming thorn bush and yellow trees. Sweet Jasmine’s hips pressed beside mine as we wove between cracked salt flats.

10 February 2007

A Goat Called Progress

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 11:29 am

258142_peek_a_boo.jpgZimbabwe 8 November 2006
I wake up today and think, The last full day! I’m ashamed that I cannot take in the sights and smells and emotions here without longing for the freedom and safety of South Africa. Ha! Fifteen years ago those last six words would never have found a home beside each other. My last full day! thought is what gets me out of bed. It gets me into the shower. Both of my two skirts smell of smoke. I have one clean top left. Sunshine pours through the balcony, spilling across the hotel room carpet like liquid gold. I go stand in it and turn my face upward, my eyes closed. You can do this, Anne. Just do the next thing. And listen. Eyes that see, ears that hear, a heart that understands.

I have been assuming that since the visits to urban and suburban poor homes were so gruesome, today’s visits to the rural poor will be even worse. So I’m bracing myself. I keep remembering what Geoff and Cynthia said in South Africa, that the rural poor can only be reached after a half day of driving. Where are we going? I wonder.

Today my driver/interpreter of words and ways/mentor/kind person is called “M.” I don’t think his name has anything to do with James Bond, but I’m not sure. You never know about names in Africa. M is the programme director for Katherine and Peter’s organization. He is on leave, but has kindly agreed to return to work and spend the day with me. We get an early start and sure enough, he says we have a good four hours of driving ahead of us. We are on a tarmac road and the first few hours are easy. I settle back and actually fall asleep in the sun. When I wake up the terrain has changed to scrub and trees and high granite cliffs with gigantic boulders balancing on the edges of huge outcroppings. It looks like something a child might build with toy blocks, but giant-sized. M says this is part of a game park. It’s probably where Katherine wanted to take me on my first day here, but couldn’t because of the lightning storm.

On the way, M and I talk about a project he is particularly excited about. He doesn’t get the chance to visit these rural communities often and he says he is thankful to me for giving him the chance to follow up like this. Within a few sentences, I am excited as well. I sit up straighter, the fatigue and depression fall away and for the first time, I can see the hint of a story thread I might be able to use for the teen novel on aids survival.

This project is elegant in its simplicity. Goats and chickens are bought by local churches and given to orphans identified by local pastors. Each church organizes a mini-auction for the goats, then gives them to the child-headed households. Unusually, the orphans give these animals names. Two-and-a-half years later, each household gives back three kids. This is easy enough, since the does are already pregnant when the orphans receive them, and chances are, they will give birth at least twice during that period.

M tells me that often the orphans are shunned by their extensive family. “No one wants to look after orphans,” he says. When I ask why, he says in these rural areas there is a fear that the children of those who died of aids are contagious. He’s discovered though, that once the orphans receive their goats, these relatives suddenly start visiting them, instead of thinking, “Here they come, asking for more help. In Africa, if you don’t have domesticated animals, you have no worth as a human being. Personal worth is how many chickens, goats, cattle you have. With the goats, now the orphans are worth something.”

I’m thinking great things. I see a story about a boy, a goat and a gogo. I ask what kind of names the children give to their goats. M says goats hardly ever have names, but the orphans say these goats are special, so they call them names like they would a brother or sister. Or the names are based on a color or area, or to celebrate a certain day. I press him for examples and he says some of the goats are called, “Patience, Goodness, and Progress.”

The key here is that the goats multiply and supply milk which can provide much-needed protein, and the sale of one goat or 3-5 chickens will pay the school fees for one child. “Well, now that Mugabe has doubled the school fees, it will take two goats.” We are both silent for a little while. I think we are imagining just how devastating this doubling of school fees is for an entire generation, in terms of never being able to attend school.

Suddenly the highway ends! The pavement stops and signs point us to the side of the road. Now we start shaking up and down, in and out of moon-crater potholes, while a smooth gravel road runs parallel to us, down the middle of the stretch. But we’re not allowed to drive there because the sign says the road is being constructed. We drive on and on, but don’t see a soul working on the road. When I ask what happened, M says just before the last election the work on this road resumed, then after the election it stopped. “In Zimbabwe we look forward to elections because it means the roads go a little farther.”

When M turns away from this main track and an hour later turns off this dirt trail onto an even more obscure path, it suddenly dawns on me: Rural poor equals bush. We’re headed into the bush. As always, I don’t have a clue what to expect, but I’m thinking that if the suburban poor live in huts, then what do people in the bush live in?

The truck bounces up and down. M is clearly enjoying the trip. He even tells me he is happiest “out here.” I have to admit, I like where we are, too. This is the Africa I visited with Erik and the kids so often over the last 12 years, the Africa of wild animals and wild beauty, wild skylines, and wild wonder. Baboons cross in front of us, frowning like something was our fault. My rolled-down window lets in the sound of crickets. We pass through a savannah area with “kopjes,” or outcroppings of rocks that remind me of what we saw while game driving in the Serengeti. I ask M if he’s ever been there. He’s never left Zimbabwe, he says.

We pass donkeys grazing freely. There are no fences out here. Despite there being no road, a wagon drawn by a six-span of donkeys passes us going the other direction.

I ask about the chicken program. It is similar to the one for goats: A church gives an orphan family nine hens and one rooster. In two-and-a-half years they have to return five hens to the program, which are then, in turn, given to another family of orphans. They can use the chickens for eggs or meat and also sell them for school fees.

Since we’re spending so much time in the car and I’m feeling awake and bored, I ask all sorts of questions. How many chickens are worth a goat? Three to five. And ten goats equal one cow. Now for the super question: how much is a bride worth? M laughs, “You know about this?” It’s called lobola. An average price for a bride is six cattle. But I want to know even more: How is the price of a bride determined? That’s simple. “You look at the level of her education and her job to determine her worth.” I love it! No mention of her outward beauty or supposed virginity. The true worth of a woman is in her earning power. I think the Dutch and the Zimbabweans might have more in common than we all suspected.

But then I ask what happens if an orphan girl wants to get married. “Ah,” M says, “then the distant relatives suddenly become interested because the bride price, or lobola, goes to them.” I ask how he and his wife met? At Theological College. This confirms what I thought, that M is yet another pastor. But the story of him and his wife is unusual. She was herself an orphan. When his wife was seven, her stepfather killed her mother and the little girl was taken into a Children’s home, where Katherine used to work as a nurse. Katherine watched her grow up and helped arrange a scholarship for her. Now M and his wife have four children: three sons 1, 2, and 5, and a daughter who is 8. The daughter is called Cleansed One, and the eldest son is called Blessed One.

I ask M what he used to do. He was a logistician and before that, a health worker.

All this while we weave back and forth, and bounce up and down on what has long become nothing but a path between the thorn bush. Then I see a clearing, and in the clearing is a house, a stone house with a veranda. A house like you might see in Europe or North America. A square house with windows and a door and a roof, made of bricks that have been plastered over. Around it runs a fence. Inside the fence are two additional outbuildings, and a pen made of thorn-bush branches like I saw yesterday. We pull up to the fence and shut off the motor. It feels like we’ve been driving for five hours.

We get out and walk up to the house. Chickens with chicks and two roosters enjoy the shade of the veranda. The sun beats down on us, hot and strong. M calls out, but no one is home. “Did they know we were coming?” I ask. He says, “No. There’s no way of reaching people out here.” I ask about the house, so out of place in the middle of the bush. He says it’s part of the old Zimbabwe. I think about this for a moment, and realize what he means is white-ran Rhodesia. So this is a house built by a white homesteader. I try out my theory. When was it built? “In the fifties.” Bingo.

A woman emerges from the bush beyond the fence. She greets M and they talk for a while as I watch the chickens. When he returns, he says that the woman we are to meet has gone to tend her garden. Someone has been sent to fetch her. I don’t see someone fetching her. In fact, I don’t see anyone at all out here, except this one woman who’s gone indoors and emerges with two chairs for us. I do notice there’s no glass in the windows and no lock on the doors. That’s a big difference to the town homes I’ve been in with their gates and security systems. The veranda belongs to the chickens, so M places these chairs in the half-shade beside the veranda, and when that gets too hot, we move beneath a tree full of birds near the fence.

I’ve been careful to drink water during the drive, and to my relief the weather is so dry, my body has absorbed all the water. It’s one thing to ask your husband to pull over so you can pee behind the jeep, but I was dreading asking this pastor the same question. It isn’t even necessary.

So we sit. And wait. I have no more questions. Instead, I write in my notebook: So peaceful. Crickets. Heart of my heart. My Africa. Wood fire smoke carried on soft breeze. Tinkle of goat’s bell. Chickens. Chicks. Birds singing. Cluck. Cluck. People’s voices. A cock crows. Scribbling in the sand. I wonder why.
Came to this windswept place and sat beneath a leafy tree on brown padded metal chairs to wait for an hour as goats and chickens passed us by in this story of hope in Aids World.

9 February 2007

The Reliable Way

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 6:49 pm

597979___water__.jpgZimbabwe 7 November 2006 (continued)
I have spent the day visiting a village a few hours from the nearest town, child-headed households, homes where aids orphans care for other aids orphans. Tonight Katherine will pick me up to go eat dinner with the family of an old friend of hers, Pastor Philip. At 5.30 p.m., when I step outside the hotel, I feel the unexpected touch of warm air. I look at the sky. The mysterious cold which has held the day in an icy grip, has lifted. Warm and dry, the African sunshine has returned as suddenly as it disappeared.

All day I’ve been thinking of Erik’s admonishment during our phone call the previous night, to stop letting “them” show me only misery and tell them I want to see some projects which showed hope. He would not have been happy about what I saw today, but when I arrive at Philip’s home, I think, Yes, Erik would like this.

A gigantic vegetable garden, actually it’s a small farm, spreads out on one side of the 2-story house with many rooms. Philip is there to welcome us with a wide grin as we enter the gate and park in the driveway. He is gray-haired just above his ears, broad-backed, and well-muscled. I guess he’s in his fifties or sixties. I can’t decide if he’s most proud of his children or his garden. We start with the garden. He takes us on a tour of the well-kept field. I note fruit trees along the edge. He shows us a storage room and says he grew 8 tonnes of maize that was given to orphans the previous season.

My eyes grow wide at the number of full sacks piled on top of each other, and my heart breathes easier. Here is something hopeful, pressed down and overflowing. Philip is a little embarrassed about the size of his house. “You must understand, Anne, we used to live in two rooms—all of us.” I ask how many “all of us” means. He says, “My wife and I and 18 orphans, we used to live in 2 rooms. The boys slept in the garage.”

He tells me these things as we walk along the edge of the weedless garden, then by a few of his daughters and his wife, busily stirring pots over three open fires. He introduces us. I thank her for having us over. She apologizes because the electricity has been going off and on all day. “Last night and this morning there was no electricity. Zimbabwe owes money to South Africa and Zambia, so we have frequent power cuts. And now we cook in the reliable way!” Over fire. When I say, it must be so annoying, she nods. “The worst part is now we can’t charge our cell phones.”

The house is immaculate. I climb steps onto a broad veranda, then enter a living room with nine armchairs and couches, all backed up against the bare walls, with a huge empty space in the middle. I guess with 18 kids, you need a lot of seating room. Carpets cover the floor.

Philip explains that he made a trip to America and raised money at churches in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Reno, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and then in Sweden. The money went toward orphan care. This home and the farm are just part of it. There are other farms, other food projects for orphans. I can’t keep track of all the projects Philip tells me about. And rather than homes for orphans, this is a home with orphans. Two parents. Like in South African Gail’s home with aids toddlers.

They ask me and Katherine to sit in the living room and I write this in my notebook: I realize I can relax here.

Philip talks about his link with David Cunningham in the U.S. and how Cunningham’s churches have helped build a conference center here, and how over 200 pastors in Zimbabwe have received support from them for their orphan-care programs. Philip was gone from home for three months. “I was so homesick. One family in the U.S. gave $7000.”

We talk about HIV and Philip says how devastating it was when soldiers returned from Congo and slept with girls.

Slowly, the teenagers have started to appear from deep inside the house. I hear phrases like, “Yes dear.” “It was Mama.” “Poor wifey.” Beyond the living room is the dining room and behind that is the kitchen. I assume all the bedrooms are upstairs and at the back of the house. Philip tells me he has two sons in South Africa, a son and daughter living elsewhere, another son he adopted as an adult who no longer attends school and is 25, another son in town attending business school, the list goes on. At the moment ten children are living with Philip and his wife.

He says South Africa is the only place young people can go to find work. “There is no future here.” We talk about how both South Africa and Botswana prefer Zimbabwean workers because they’re better educated (the adult generation) than Botswanan and South African blacks. But Botswana still regularly deports Zimbabweans because they’re willing to work for too little money. There are an estimated 4 million Zimbabweans in the Diaspora, that is one-quarter of the population.

Zimbabwe has an estimated 1.6 million orphans. There it is. The statistic I’ve been looking for, but no one wanted to actually admit.

I ask Philip about his work; what exactly does he do? He pastors and helps seventeen churches. He says that in the beginning, when he and his wife started taking in children, it was a “skinny dream.” I know enough not to ask how many of the 18 are his biological children. In this culture, there is no differentiation between the adopted and the blood-born. I do ask him why they have taken in so many orphans. What was his motivation? “I have a burden on my heart for the cast out, children with no parents. The least I can do is look after school fees and supplies. Katherine’s organization joins me in supplying maize and beans and cooking oil to the child-headed households we know of, so they can survive.”

There have been four years of drought, and the rural population is starving. “The first priority is food. Food first. Then clothing.” Philip’s farming projects in his 17 churches help feed thousands of orphans who would die of starvation otherwise. He doesn’t say that, but I can do the math. He also teaches. His churches also have gardening and poultry projects to feed the orphans.

When he went to the U.S. and Sweden, he talked about these child-headed households and the pandemic and how it causes havoc in the lives of families.

He says, “My dream is to give people one meal a day and educate and train people so they can help themselves and others. I teach them to work with their hands, to be proud, and to engage in productivity.” It is what excites me most about this visit to Zimbabwe: Africans helping Africans.

Philip’s wife says dinner is ready. It turns out only the adults are sitting at the table. I can catch glimpses of the ten teenagers through a hole in the wall for passing plates back and forth between the dining room and kitchen. Young girls and boys, eating with their hands, standing up, talking and laughing. In the adults’ living room the four of us sit around a wooden dining room table, covered by a tablecloth with intricate hand embroidery. I turn over part of it and admire the stitches.

Philip’s wife has made us a feast. Katherine told them I was vegetarian and I think every vegetable in Africa is on the table: yams, green beans, peas. . . . Katherine and I eat and eat and eat. I am embarrassed by how much there is and keep looking at Katherine who whispers that we should try something from all the dishes, otherwise it’s rude. So I do. And it really is so delicious, lots of spices and so fresh. When I ask how much of it comes from Philip’s garden, I know I’ve asked the right question.

After dinner the whole family gathers in the living room. I finally get a good look at all these teenagers. Their family is a youth group in its own right. I walk around the room greeting them, shaking the hands of the boys and laughing with the girls. Incredible—this family, so bursting with youth and hope and dreams-come-true.

I’m crying here in The Netherlands as I type this. That family was an oasis, just as Peter and Susan’s family were. At some point, one of the girls bursts into song and the others join in. Katherine knows the words and I hum along. It’s a praise song. We clap hands, move our hips, close our eyes. I feel like these girls are safe. I am safe. These young people have a future.

When it’s time to drive back to town, Philip tells Katherine to be careful. Several times. The roads are practically empty. It’s my first time out at dark and it occurs to me that it might not be safe. I ask Katherine if it’s safe, and at that moment we turn a corner and see a group of men around a parked car. They look up at us, like deer caught in a headlight. Katherine turns the opposite direction. Her answer: “It can be.”

Back in the hotel room I am a melting pot of emotions. Can the hope and positive action I witnessed at Philip’s outweigh the misery of the rest of the day? Tonight there is no phone call from Erik. Despite the Whitney Houston voice of Philip’s daughter still ringing in my ears and heart, I am feeling desperate and trapped. Opening my heart to the children I met earlier, the ones with no parents and no food and no school, means I now fear what they fear. How many of them are going to sleep tonight, afraid of what will happen to them in the dark, who will visit, which neighbor will come and take payment for the food his wife brought by last week? I am starting to realize that I will not easily get past this fact of sexual abuse among the aids orphans. I have no place to put this. Will I have to create somewhere? Is it even possible to put away such a fact? The children’s voices cry out for help. Who will listen?

8 February 2007

Panning for Gold

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 3:08 pm

664377_river_water.jpgZimbabwe 7 November 2006 (continued)
I am visiting villages outside of town, child-headed homes, orphans caring for orphans in a place where you must walk 6 km. for firewood and where people live in round huts without electricity or running water, and sit barefoot in a cold front which has taken us all by surprise.

This particular hut has a blind grandmother. She’s been blind for eight years, she tells me. “I regret I can’t see the orphans properly.” It turns out she used to live with eight orphans, but other relatives took some of the children, leaving these four. I count the folded blankets piled in the corner; there are only three.

I turn to the eldest, who is 12. She explains that both their parents are dead. When I ask about school, she looks down, ashamed, and admits she no longer attends. “I have problems at school. We sold everything of our parents to send me to school, but it was not enough.” What this really means is that despite selling off the few mementoes these children had of their parents, they cannot afford to pay the €3 in school fees for even one child.

The grandfather died of TB. There is no income, no way for any of them to bring in any money. In town I met a grandmother who worked as a maid. Here in the village, this blind gogo can do nothing. What can the children do here to earn an income?

The grandmother wants to say something to me. Salvation translates, “I have a problem, but really thank God that the children have lived this long.” This tells me that these children are either dying of starvation or dying of aids. I look more closely at their faces, but can see no lesions. It doesn’t mean they’re not HIV+, born to HIV+ parents.

The grandmother picks up the story where the 12-year-old left off. The children are cousins. “My first daughter passed away and had beds and kitchen units which we could sell off to pay school fees and buy food. There are no relatives here, one neighbor helps. My daughter had finished school. I see her in my grand-daughter’s eyes.”

At that moment a large white rooster strolls into the hut and crows. I say, “He’s a little late.” When Salvation translates, there are giggles. What is this place in time where laughter still can be heard among such pain and despair?

The blind grandmother says her prayer is that “God may allow me to live until the stage where these children can work themselves, that God may keep me alive. I thank God so much. One of these children is always sick. This child has the problem.”

I look at Salvation. So few people ever actually bring the words “HIV” or “aids” into their mouths, as if the words themselves would curse those who say them. Instead, they call it TB, or malaria, or like this woman, say, “The problem.”

The gogo continues, “We have no medicine or help from a hospital for this pandemic.” I think, So she knows enough to call it a pandemic. The Problem Pandemic.

My eyes have adjusted to the smoky darkness. The only light pours through the same door the rooster keeps wandering in and out of. I have taken the toddler onto my lap. From close up I can now make out the aids lesions on her face. The sweater she wears unravels at the sleeve. I rub her icy feet with my hands, massaging the circulation into action. When I ask how old the children are, the gogo recites the ages faster than the children: 10 months, 9 years, 10, and 12. Everyone laughs at how the gogo’s mind is sharper than the children’s.

I ask the children about what they want to be when they grow up. It is getting harder and harder to ask this question, but it seems to open a door to hope and dreams, so I keep asking. One girl wants to become a nurse.

We stand to leave, and the grandmother asks us to pray for them. Salvation looks at me and I pray for their protection from evil and from harm. I pray for their healing. I pray that the God of all comfort would wrap His arms around them. Salvation leaves a sack of corn behind on the floor. The grandmother says, “I had eight children. I am so surprised by how when one died, the others followed.”

We get back into the truck and drive until the dirt track disappears. We can see more round huts in the distance and Salvation heads toward them, cutting across the hardened earth. We have picked up two more teenage girls to join our original 19-year old. They are just coming along for the ride and will stay in the truck during our visits. They act like it’s a picnic and sit in the back of the truck, all talking at once and bursting out in laughter with every pothole Salvation doesn’t manage to miss. I can’t help but smile with them. When Julia and I were in the back of the jeep Erik drove during our last trip to Botswana, we used to wish for sport bras, as we called out, “Milkshake!”

This is what it was like, the contrast of despair and then these people would get me laughing and singing and even dancing with them.

The next round hut I enter is standing beside a half-built one, so I can see it is made of bricks and wood. In this hut there is the tiniest of fires, one flame only. During our visit, one of the five girls feeds the flame a single twig at a time. The girls sitting on the ground and leaning against the curved walls tell me their mother died two weeks earlier. I lean over from my small wooden stool and take their hands, offering my condolences. It is a Dutch thing to do, I realize, as I see the surprise in their faces to be touched in this way. Or maybe it’s just that I’m white.

There are nine of them living together, six from the same mother and three from her sister. Of the nine children, there is only one boy. He is at school. I ask how they pay the school fees and one of the teenagers says they pan for gold. I look at Salvation to see if I’ve understood correctly. He nods. It’s a two-hour walk to the river where they sometimes find enough gold dust to pay the school fees for their brother.

I ask for their ages. The five cousins are aged 4, 4, 18, 18, and 21. I ask about their prayers and needs. “That God may bless us when panning. That we would find the grace to manage this home.”

I ask if they receive help from anyone, and they say the church helps them buy beans and “mealie.” The church also assists with school fees. “Most of all, they pray for us.”

The wind is blowing the wrong way and the hut is full of smoke. My eyes water and I can’t help but cough. Two of the teenagers spring to their feet and start fanning the smoke away from my face. You see? So attentive.

We walk from their home a short ways to where a hut is being built by three men. I take photos of the bent wood and grass and wet clay filling in the walls. The girls with us don’t even look at the men. I’m watching for some sort of interaction, looks, something, but there is nothing. We have had to leave the truck a good distance away because the terrain was just too rough. Now as we walk back, I look up at the hills in the distance. There is such a still beauty to this place on this day with the heavy sky all around us. I see a woman with a child, walking away from us toward three high trees, the only trees for miles around. Both the woman and her little girl are carrying containers of water on their heads.

The drive and the three visits have taken most of the day. Salvation asks if I want to make more visits. I say no. I feel so relieved that the visits are over, again, I’m ashamed. In the car on the way back to home, I ask Salvation what can you possibly say to encourage such people? He says he uses the Word of God and tells them, “You are not alone. God says, ‘I am always with you.’ In hard times God is there to give you hope.” He says this to the caregivers, and they say it to the families in their charge.

I’m thinking if the caregivers are as poor as the orphans they visit, what exactly can the caregivers do? Salvation says they can pray with the family. If they ever do have anything, a little food or soap, they bring these things with them. Once a month in town there is a meeting of all the caregivers and they talk about their visits and encourage each other.

I ask Salvation about his own personal circumstances, and he describes his two-room house. “At the moment my church is not able to support me and my wife. I can’t demand more than people can afford to give.” So he works in a brick factory. “I thank God for my wife. She loves God and is so encouraging. She’s really a blessing.”

I listen to these words as we drive by a shack with a bright sign out front: Glengarry Bottle Store. It looks more like something I would see in Ireland. Salvation talks about his own dream of building a home, but cement is too expensive. I ask about his views on local politics. “The mayor is a good man. People are starving. People keep voting him in, despite the twisting of votes. If only Jesus could be our mayor.”

Back in the hotel, I have a few hours before Katherine will pick me up to go to Pastor Philip’s home for dinner. On November 7 I wrote: Just woke up from a 2-hour nap, the smell of wood smoke still in my “jersey” and my hair. I spoke this morning on Galatians 5:1, about not losing our courage to walk in freedom and not succumbing to fear. I felt and feel like I am the one who must be taught.
A terrible cold grips the land from the night until now.
I catch myself dreading what is left of my trip, instead of straining to listen, as I did in the beginning. I count off the remaining visits to rural homes (2-3), days (1), and hours (less than 24) until I can relax. I so look forward to returning to South Africa, where I can email and speak freely.
This all seems so cruelly unfair—to have the aids pandemic the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa suffers under and also suffer the injustice of a wretched government policy that increases school fees and breaks down homes and gives the false hope of life-saving medications that never show up on the shelves.

7 February 2007


Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 11:47 am

200445856-001.jpgZimbabwe 7 November 2006
I have two full days left in Zimbabwe. A dread is growing inside me and I start counting down the hours when I can leave the country. I will fly to Jo’burg on the 9th at 15.20. I can feel myself pulling back, and that’s not what I want! I’m supposed to lean in and hear the children’s voices, not take distance because I’m too spoiled to look the evil in its eye. What if I miss the hope? I force myself to pay attention, to take in details, to listen well and watch people’s body language. But inside, I’m longing for South Africa—which by now feels like home—my heart ticking off time like a bomb about to go off.

When I open my balcony door a cold wind sweeps into the room—really cold—as in Dutch cold. It must have dropped at least 15 degrees (C.) overnight. I grab the only sweater I brought to Africa and my light rain jacket as I close the room door behind me. Outside the hotel, Katherine is already waiting for me in the truck. She is bundled up in at least three layers of wool. “What happened to the weather?” I ask. She says, “It’s winter!” and laughs. She has brought an extra “jersey” for me in case I didn’t have any warm clothes. Only two days ago we were sweating in 40-degree (C.=104 degrees F.) weather. She says, “This happens sometimes in November.” My head is full of the images of the previous afternoon as I wonder about all the families sleeping outside on such a cold night. I ask, how cold is it? Katherine says, 8 degrees (C.=46 degrees F.)

We pull up to the office and a group of three boys wave at Katherine from across the street. They are wearing school uniforms: shorts and thin V-neck sweaters. They shiver in the wind, but smile big as Katherine and I wave back. “Who are they?” I ask. She says, “Some of our orphans.”

I am leading the devotions that morning. I tell Katherine, Leonard, Susan, Peter and the other staff about the women in Liberia who have prayed every morning in the Monrovia football stadium. They met at 10 a.m.—all women—Muslim and Christian—to pray for peace—and the 14-year-long war ended. And then to pray for a good president—and a woman president was elected fairly. And now to pray for healing. I tell them about the members of the persecuted church I’ve met in the Middle East, and about Open Doors and Brother Andrew. And we talk about Galatians 5:1. We pray for pastors throughout Zimbabwe, and for a proposal Katherine must finish for a sponsoring NGO (non-governmental organization) in The Netherlands.

After devotions Katherine says she sees part of her ministry is to prepare the younger generation of Zimbabwe for a persecuted Church future. She talks about how the government media confuses Christians in Zimbabwe. “Everyone is slightly exhausted, so it’s easy to sacrifice clarity and unity for other agendas. Church leaders mustn’t compromise. We can’t expect to work with the government and not have the message diluted.”

One of the staff workers leaves for the registry office and everyone gathers around her to wish her success. In this country where the banks don’t work, the emails are censored, phones tapped, petrol tanks of cars are empty and pharmacies without drugs, I learn it is also near impossible to obtain a birth certificate for a baby. And without a birth certificate, a child can’t be registered for school. And now that the government has doubled school fees, the majority of children who did manage to attend school, will no longer be able to afford it. “An uneducated generation is less likely to rebel,” Katherine tells me when I ask her about this.

When I ask about the banks, she says the banks purposely cause delays in money transfers so they can make more money. Funds often simply disappear in these “overnight profits” for the banks. When I ask about receipts, she says, “Receipts are so foreign to this culture.”

I ask Peter about the little boy who showed up at their home over the weekend. He says he’s been talking to the father and they haven’t decided yet what would be best. “It’s such a burden for a small child to think where will I sleep? The father says, ‘I can’t care for you. Full stop.’ He’s only 9 years old.”

Today the man who will drive me around is himself also a pastor. And his name means Salvation. In the car I ask about his personal background, and he tells me how he became a Christian when he was 10, went to school, served as a youth minister, worked as a carpenter and has been in fulltime ministry since 2002. “I’m happy and at peace,” he says. He has two girls—8 and 3, and twin boys who are 5. His wife is a tailor. They met at college. She heads the women’s ministry at their church.

Salvation says in his church there are 85 families with orphans—that means child-headed households or homes with gogos raising their grandchildren. He estimates that more than half of his congregation is HIV+. I flash to my own church and picture everyone I know, then imagine that half of them are HIV+. My heart sinks.

Katherine has set up a diverse schedule for me. Yesterday I visited city slums. Today we leave the city and visit villages outside the city. Tomorrow I will visit rural areas. I remember Cynthia and Geoff in South Africa warning me that “rural” means a half day of driving. Well, that’s tomorrow. Today I concentrate on what I call “suburban poor,” as opposed to yesterday’s “urban poor.”

On the main road between here and there we pass donkeys and must slow down for longhorn cattle as they amble alongside us. When we turn off the paved road and onto an orange-dirt track, it is gutted with potholes. We pass a field full of white egrets and it reminds me of the storks in Poland during an autumn harvest. We pass a little girl bouncing on a skippy ball—no adults in sight.

We arrive in the village and Salvation parks the truck beside a fence made of thorn-bush branches leaning together. The heating has been on in the truck and as I open the door, the cold grabs at my bare legs under the long skirt. The woman who comes out to meet us is bundled in a winter coat with turtle-neck sweater underneath and what looks like several more layers. It is so cold it makes me think she must be wearing every piece of clothing she owns.

I’m trying to remember how I felt when I got out of the car that day. I know I felt dread and despair. I still had to get through that day’s village visits, plus the next day’s rural visits, before I could go home. Well, it wasn’t going home so much, as leaving Zimbabwe, that obsessed me. I remember thinking, Kind Salvation has sacrificed a day to spend with me. Everyone I meet is so busy, but so gracious. The least I can do is get my act together and be alert. I remember my trip to Srebrenica in Bosnia, and how my story was waiting for me on that particular day when a particular woman returned home for the first time in seven years and just happened to arrive at her brother’s house, where I just happened to have stopped and asked for lunch. Maybe this village would hold a similar story. So I follow Salvation and this woman into a sort-of courtyard with round huts like you might find in a picture from a children’s book about Africa

Huts. Round huts with a pointed roof. Smooth walls on the outside. I duck low to enter the doorway. A fire in the middle of the one room. I look up at a charred black ceiling with no chimney. Instead pieces of branches and bush hang above us, covered in soot. Smoke fills the home from the fire with a grill covering it, and a pot on top of that. Salvation has brought some food with him, a sack of corn, it looks like. Three women sit on the ground. One holds a baby. A hand-crank sewing machine holds the place of honor. I sit on a low, wooden stool. Even out here, where Salvation tells me people are lucky to have one meal a day, the women offer me food. There is no electricity. No running water. No bathroom. Just one round room with stripes and flowers painted on the inside in orange-brown. A set of shelves stands opposite me, holding mugs and bowls and pans.

I don’t know what to ask. My eyes water from the smoke. I am tired of seeing hungry, hurting people. And now today, they are also cold. My hand strokes the sewing machine. I’ve never seen a hand-crank like this one before. Foot-pedal yes. It gleams black. The largest woman smiles at me. My hand seems to have found her pride and joy, despite my reluctance to engage with these women. I smile at the baby and the young woman holding him warms his bare, chubby feet in her hand. I say, “It looks like they’re expecting to have a party,” pointing at all the mugs on the wall. Salvation translates and everyone laughs. I look up again and against the backdrop of charred hay in the ceiling, I see corn hanging in clumps.

It turns out the woman of traditional build squatting beside the sewing machine is a caregiver. She wears a bright purple cotton track suit top, red, yellow, blue, purple swirl-patterned skirt and a red-and-white knitted cap on her head. Everyone is barefoot. I count the flowers painted on the wall. To be a caregiver means she has taken the volunteer training given by Katherine’s organization. She’s one of the people with nothing who said she wanted to do something, and now has 5 aids orphan families she looks in on near the village. The young mother with the baby is 19. All three women are concerned about school fees, but finding food for their children is their greatest challenge. I remember Katherine saying she had to start giving food at the workshops because you can’t train people who are starving.

I ask Salvation about the cost of attending school in this area. Primary school costs 1800 Zim$ (less than €1), and secondary school costs 6000Zim$ (€3). Even this is a huge burden. When you have nothing, anything is too much.

There is much laughter during our conversation about sewing and food and firewood. The 19-year old is breastfeeding. All three women are covered in several layers of clothes. When I ask about the sewing machine, the caregiver says it is hard to get fabric and thread. I think, this is her own little business. I see a precious tape measure and stash of thread in a corner. I ask the 19-year old how she helps her mother: watering the garden, fetching firewood. The water is close, she says, but she walks 6 km every day for firewood. I remember seeing few trees as we approached the village—it stands in a barren plateau.

Salvation and I take the 19-year old with us when we return to the truck. She climbs into the back, which is covered, and waves at everyone we pass. Actually, we stop and Salvation says something to everyone we pass, too. I’m pretty interesting. He knows these people from his visits. He knows the homes and the child-headed households, and the problems, and where people would be most willing to talk with me. So he’s done my footwork for me.

We bounce around on dirt tracks. The sky is heavy with this cold front that has filled the horizon with dark, high clouds, sealing the cold below. I look out at a barren landscape, thorn bush, a few high trees, hard, drought-cracked earth, the dirt road before us winding out of sight. All that breaks the harsh surroundings are these round huts, dotting open space here and there. Sometimes beside them stand animal pens made of thorn-bush branches interwoven into a fence. And sometimes surrounding the round huts and pen and outhouse is a broken fence made of tree branches. We pass a woman walking with a jerry can of water on her head, children in shorts holding pencils in their hands and using them like toothbrushes. No one for a while, and then another hut with a fence, and Salvation pulls in here.

At this child-headed household, which means all the children are orphans and there is no adult to care for them, the granny is blind. This means the eldest, who is 12, has a doubly heavy burden. She must care not only for her younger siblings, but also for their gogo. Find food, raise school fees, fetch firewood and water. Of all the concerns, food is the highest priority. In town it was school fees. Out here it is food. I duck my head and enter the dark hut. The eyes of four children look at me from out of the smoky darkness. They are burning the precious firewood—the barren landscape stripped of trees all around us testifies how far they must walk to find fuel—to keep warm. The children and the grandmother sit on the freezing ground, all barefoot, huddled in clothes with brand names, sports teams and school logos from all over the world emblazoned on their fronts.

I remember what Leonard told me the previous day, as if the fact needed 24 hours before it could register: 80 percent of the aids orphans are being abused. I look at the girls, aged 9-12. I have heard stories of 18-month-old babies being raped. I think about little girls and men. Out here, there is no one to protect the children. Actually, in the cities and towns it is probably even worse. My mind will not let go of what it must be like to sleep in this hut at night and hear someone approaching in the dark. I catch myself wondering, which of these girls has not been raped?

6 February 2007

Phone Bill

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 9:43 am

200452590-001.jpgZimbabwe 6 November 2006 (continued)
Leonard is taking me around the slum on the outskirts of town. In this area piles of bricks echo the destruction of Mugabe’s own offensive against the poor of Zimbabwe. Some think he tore down their homes because of underground resistance efforts among the poor. In this Zimbabwe of email censorship, no phone network, phone tapping of the mobile phone networks where you hear a ticking sound in background, newspapers with lies, clinics with no drugs and banks that don’t work, I am stepping into yet another home where I must breathe through my mouth. It’s getting harder and harder to look people in the eye and open myself to their emotions, harder and harder to search for what is not being said during an interview, harder and harder to even start imagining how people endure in such poverty with a government ran by a madman and an aids outbreak of pandemic proportions.

I have asked Leonard how much the school fees are for a 19-year-old and he says 60,000 Zim$ (€30). But with inflation estimated at 1200 percent, this is an impossible sum for most.

The home we enter has electricity. A small black and white TV stands in the corner. Five children sit on the floor, eating boiled maize with their hands. I sit on a chair with broken upholstery. The children are aged 14, 10, 8, 5, and 3. The eldest’s name is Romeo.

We start talking to the gogo. She says paying the children’s school fees is her greatest challenge. She works half days as a maid. Initially when her adult children died from aids, she had no one, but now there is a crèche she can take the 3-year old to. “It’s not easy, so difficult. I just do it because I have to.”

A new question occurs to me as I realize the trauma these gogos must be living under. It was this woman’s mention of her job as a maid which brought it to my mind. What is it like to save and plan for the following generation—all over again? She says her sons didn’t count because they were never any help. But she had a daughter who was a pillar to her and helped with her dead sisters’ and brothers’ orphans. But that daughter died eight months ago. “I almost lose my mind because of the strain.” Then she says what I have just caught a glimpse of. For thirty years she worked two or three maid jobs a day to pay for her children’s school fees. She dreamed and disciplined and helped with homework and made hard choices to get them through school, in the hope that they would live better lives than her. Now they are all dead and she is starting over with their children—the hopes and dreams and saving, making a home. “I do not have the strength or the years left to do this again.”

When I ask about what she got out of the granny workshop, she also mentions drawing her Tree of Life, and putting down experience as one of her fruits. She says to me, “It is so fresh in my mind, the loss of my daughter. The pain is still there, but it feels better in time. I pray daily and every night, asking for God to give me strength.” She repeats that her greatest need is school fees. School and uniforms are more expensive than when her own children went. Her greatest wish? That her grandchildren would go to school, finish school, and progress in life.

As we talk, she is washing plates, bathing the little one, and wiping noses. I turn to the children and ask them questions. Cristina is 10 and her favorite subject is English; she wants to be a nurse when she grows up. Romeo, 14, likes studying English and maths. He wants to be a policeman. I think of the police camps Mugabe has set up for indoctrinating children and ask Romeo why he wants this. He says he wants to arrest lawbreakers. I ask him how he helps his gogo, and he says he washes the clothes and cleans for her. The baby, who is 3, is HIV+, but “he is growing strong,” his grandmother tells me.

As Leonard drives me back to my hotel, we talk about the grandmothers’ traumas. I ask how he protects his own heart, thinking how mine feels now, sore and heavy. Leonard says, “Living day by day pushes you. It’s why I am alive. You can’t spend time with Katherine and not change.” He has one baby. He and his wife are both church elders. He thinks in terms of each day as a gift. His wife assists the ladies in their church’s orphan care. We talk about prayer and he says, “Your highest phone bill should be the one you have with God.”

Once inside my hotel room, I pace from the balcony to the bathroom. I feel like a bomb is about to go off inside me. I quiet myself enough to sit on the bed and meditate for 20 minutes, and it feels like a pressure cooker that’s found a thin escape for steam. That evening I eat in my room. Erik calls and asks how am I? Fine. Really? Really. I ask how he is and he tells me about our kids, work and church. He is in the car on the way to a meeting with our pastor, Michael. Near the end of the conversation I say, “Give my love to Mi. . . .” But I can’t get Michael’s name out of my mouth. I try his wife’s name, “Mic . . . Lesley and. . . .” I swallow. Erik asks what’s the matter? I laugh to cover up the emotion choking me. He says, “Anne, you’re not telling me everything. What’s going on there?” And then the tears start. Finally. They are the first real tears to flow. I can’t stop them. They pour down my cheeks and onto the phone. I can hardly answer him, “It’s just all so hopeless here.” He gets angry that “they” are showing me so much misery, and says, “Tell them to show you the good projects, you went there to find hope.” I say, it’s not so easy. He calms down a bit for me, and we say goodbye.

I sit on the side of my bed, wondering why Michael’s name should trigger such a tsunami of emotion. Was it the thought of my friends, my church, my home, my husband, picturing Erik in Michael and Lesley’s living room, hearing his voice, feeling the distance, aching at the contrast of our two worlds? That night the tears will not stop. I weep while I brush my teeth. I weep one pillow wet and start on a second, wondering all the while, where am I supposed to go, to find this hope I was supposed to see?

5 February 2007

More Blessing

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 1:38 pm

437922_a_heap_of_stones.jpgZimbabwe 6 November 2006 (continued)
Monday afternoon and Leonard is taking me to the poor part of town. I don’t know what to call these places: ghetto, shanty town, township, community, urban poor, slums. What I’m talking about is row after row of cement cell dwellings—one or two bedrooms—with a corrugated iron roof. Often there is no indoor plumbing, and sometimes not even electricity, so an outhouse stands in the barren, hard-dirt yard. These homes can cover a hillside, connected only by the dirt roads pocked with potholes. Chickens, goats and sometimes even cattle wander between the structures. Children play football in the roads lined with gutters that carry the waste. Thousands of people will live in such communities.

As you probably already know, Mugabe plowed under these slums all over Zimbabwe earlier in 2006. Most of these urban-poor homes had extra shacks and lean-tos built onto the cement structures, where more people lived and slept—often extended family. Leonard tells me the entire country is shaking its head about the president’s action. What could he possibly have hoped to gain? Maybe he thought since his greatest opposition comes from among the poor, then if he made their daily life even more difficult, they would not have the energy or resources to organize government resistance and protests. The result now is that thousands of people sleep outside on the streets, and where one room used to hold a sleeping family of six or seven, now ten or twenty share a room, which means even more sexual abuse of children.

Inside, I cringe. The faces of my South African children have followed me here, and as I question Leonard further, I realize I was naive to hope that the rampant raping of young girls and boys might be limited to what? A township? A province? A nation? More like a continent.

Leonard has already told me that during the Kids’ Clubs and child-oriented workshops, the subject of sexual abuse often comes up. When the children speak of being “harassed,” they mean beaten, or worse. He estimates that 80% of the aids orphans he knows are being abused. “Since Mugabe bulldozed what little shelter many of these people had, destroying bedrooms, there are more incidents of child molestation, incest and child abuse. Having no privacy has just made it even wore.”

What amazes me is that Mugabe’s “clean-up” occurred in every town in Zimbabwe. I had read somewhere about Harare losing its outskirt communities, but I didn’t know his soldiers had destroyed such homes everywhere. The president gave no explanation. Leonard says, during the winter, it is a particular hardship.

We drive past piles of rubble, all that is left of everything but the concrete one- or two-bedroom cells, which are all that stand between the lines of broken brick and wood and corrugated iron. Leonard parks in front of house number 55. “This family used to have nine children. Four of them have died. There are seven grandchildren. I want you to meet one of them. He’s very clever.”

I duck to enter the dark home. An old man sits on a chair. The grandmother, or gogo, greets Leonard with a wide, nearly toothless smile. We sit down on wooden benches. There is an open fire that she has been cooking over. Children sit on the floor eating cornmeal out of a bowl with their hands. I ask the gogo about her grandchildren and Leonard translates. She replies, “They are blessings seven times over.”

As my eyes adjust to the dark, I see the grandfather appears partially blind. I speak to him and take his hand, thanking him for having me in his home. Both he and his wife smile now, so I start asking them questions since the boy Leonard wants me to meet is off playing football somewhere and is being fetched. I am breathing through my mouth, the smells are so strong. The two-room home is clean, but every corner is piled high with blankets or boxes or clothing. I’m looking in my heart, searching for what to ask, realizing I don’t like being here. This brave elderly couple, raising nine children when they are too old and disabled to work in a society where they get nothing but terror from the government. I don’t like coming face to face with this level of poverty and deprivation. And I’m disgusted with myself. I blurt out the first question that I can think of, and regret it immediately. Yet, when I glance at Leonard, I see his eyes recognizing and even embracing the elderly couple. He touches their arms and shoulders often, hoists one of the toddlers onto his lap, and smiles. His actions put me at ease.

My question? I have asked the grandparents what gives them hope. The gogo says, “I don’t know how it happens. Things come to an end. I say prayers to God. I am granted strength from God daily.”

Then I ask what her prayers are for her grandchildren? “I pray they could grow to be responsible adults and could live on their own.” I ask what about her grandchildren makes her proud? “When they come home from church, relating what they heard in church and stories. I am happy others are teaching them.”

I look around at the peeling paint, remember Leonard talking about asbestos bricks. As my eyes have adjusted, I can make out the wooden furniture. I sit on the edge of a very hard sofa. “Tell me their names.” Lillian. Melusi, which means “shepherd.” More Blessing, who is very smart. Nasha, which means, “grace.” And there are more.

Leonard has told me that this gogo attended the granny workshop Katherine’s organization sponsored, so I ask her what stays with her from that? She tells me she remembers now that every person must be treated as a person, regardless of their age. “Don’t harass or force them because this makes a child lose esteem.” She shoots her toothless smile in my direction and says, “After learning this I know now that even if I’m old, I don’t have a right to shout at a child. This messes up the child.” Then she tells me the story of Moses being found in a small basket in a river. She tells it as if expecting me never to have heard it before. I listen to her ancient, survivor, scratchy voice. “They didn’t realize what that baby would turn out to be. We must not look down on small children.”

She has been married since 1955—that’s 51 years. She and her husband met at school. They went to the same school together. He smiles when I ask him that question, how they met. A freezer in the corner groans and the light flickers. The grandparents say their greatest challenge is food and school fees. She asks me, “Do you have anyone who can help with school fees?” She also asks for soap for washing. These are the ages of the grandchildren they are raising because the children of this elderly couple are dead from aids: 13, 9, 6, 4 months, 17, 19, 18. An orange kitten wanders into our midst and leaves again, ignored. The grandfather used to work as a messenger boy. When I ask him how they managed to stay married so long, he says, “You must not treat each other badly. Treat each other as friends, as parents treat children, correct one another as if the other is your child.”

The boy we’ve all been waiting for, More Blessing, finally shows up with his cousin Sasha. More Blessing is 9. We talk football, of course. More Blessing says he is a midfielder and his team always wins. I have a photo of this boy and me, taken by Leonard. You can see the aids lesions on his cheeks as he smiles. I, as always, look very white. More Blessing says English is his favorite subject and indeed, we are able to exchange a few words, but Leonard still translates most of the conversation. It turns out that Leonard and his wife have had More Blessing over to their house for weekends, so the boy has a special bond with Leonard.

I ask More Blessing what he wants to become when he grows up.

Only now as I type this in The Netherlands, do I realize that a boy like that, suffering from aids, probably won’t get to grow up. Why was I so bent on getting everyone to focus on the future with that question? Maybe because the present was so unbearable. I saw a movie last night where two aids-infected prostitutes in Liberia say, “Why worry about something that can kill you in 10 years when there are so many other things that can kill you today?”

More Blessing knows exactly what he wants to become: a commander in the army. He wants to be president, and he wants to be a police man. As I speak to him, Leonard puts an arm around the boy’s shoulder in a protective gesture that makes me swallow to keep the tears at bay. Sometimes he gets to sleep at the hospital, More Blessing says. I ask him about his parents, dead from aids, but I don’t say the disease’s name.

More Blessings says, “I feel lots of pain when I think of my father. Especially when I go to sleep. Then I also think about respecting my grandparents.”

As he tells me how he writes his feelings down, a fly lands on my face. I remember an argument I once had with a publisher about giving a face to the children the rest of the world sees as blacks with flies on their faces. Now that’s me. Sort-of.

I go back to More Blessing’s desire to become a soldier. I ask him who he wants to fight against. “Everyone who hurts my family.” When Leonard takes our photo, More Blessing tucks in his shirt and puts back his shoulders like the fighter he is.

I ask him about the children’s workshop he attended, sponsored by Katherine’s organization. That’s where Leonard met him. More Blessing says he remembers drawing his Tree of life, and he liked writing things about his family.

Leonard has told More Blessing that I am writing a book about a boy like him for children in The Netherlands. So I ask him what he wants to say. More Blessing says, “Write about the hardship one faces because of death.” I stare at his old-man’s face as he adds, “Tell them death is not good.”

So he knows, I think. Of course he knows. He knows that every afternoon he plays football with his friends that there may not be many afternoons like that one.

As I leave, I thank the gogo and her husband. She says she is grateful for the church teaching the children.

In the car, I dig out my water bottle from my bag. It is the same black backpack my Julia used to carry her books in on her way to high school when she took the train to Schiedam from our home. Thoughts zip through my mind like, isn’t being a child all about learning and growing for a future? Take away a child’s future and what does he become?

Leonard starts talking, anticipating my questions. I take in the information, grateful for something more to scribble so I won’t have to figure out what I’m feeling. More Blessing is on ARVs, when Katherine’s organization can get a hold of the drugs. The grandfather is blind. The father died of aids and was a psychiatric patient with TB. The mother was also HIV+, which is how More Blessing came down with aids, contracting it when he was born. He’s gaining weight at the moment, and is very good about making sure he takes the pills on time.

As we drive past piles of bricks and rubble, all that is left over from the homes Mugabe’s men bulldozed under, I try counting the bricks to keep myself from crying. I hear Leonard’s voice from far away say, “I’m scared he’ll get too attached to me.” More Blessing visits Leonard sometimes for a weekend. Then he plays with Leonard’s baby. I blurt out, isn’t it cruel to show him Leonard’s home where he sees a family with two parents and a middle-class home with food, then send him back to the abject poverty of his grandparents’ shack? Well, I don’t say it that way, but that’s what I mean and Leonard understands. He chooses not to hear the condemnation in my voice and says, here More Blessing must play outside because there is nowhere else. He must sleep in the corridor because there is no bedroom. He gets one meal a day, when he’s lucky. The bathroom is outside. Children have no privacy. Twenty people sleep in one bedroom. More Blessing’s best moment in his life, as described to Leonard, was when his father brought him home a T-shirt.

Then Leonard looks at me and says, “It’s worth it to give him something that makes him really happy. With kids you have to be very honest. I tell him we cannot adopt him, but I want to give him what I can in the time he has left.”

4 February 2007

The Children’s Voices

Filed under: Aids survival,The Children's Voices,Thin and Thick Places — annedegraaf @ 12:59 pm

691693_many_hands.jpgZimbabwe 6 November 2006 (continued)
I am in Zimbabwe, on a search for hope so I can return to The Netherlands and write a book for teens about aids survival. I have been listening to Leonard, a mental-health nurse who works now as Monitoring and Evaluation Officer at this organization. His firsthand experience with aids orphans has granted me rare insights into the personal nightmare of aids survival among orphans. I think of the statistic of nearly 16 million aids orphans in the world. What does that number mean? I can’t get my mind around it, let alone my heart. But in talking with Leonard and hearing about this organization’s Kids’ Clubs, where children are asked what they think and feel, and then listened to, I realize I, too, am an orphan. And I may not be able to see all 16 million, but I can hear one or two, or maybe six members of this, my family.

What is this power of the children’s voices? I have hunted them down in refugee camps in Tanzania, children’s psychiatric wards in Bosnia, Sunday schools in Iraq. Am I an addict for conflict, like the journalists I meet in war zones? I think maybe instead I have had a taste of something powerful, and now I long for more. It is also a hope I carry around like a small and shameful secret, that the children’s voices will show the rest of us a way out of where we now endure.

In Zimbabwe that afternoon, at some point, I ask Leonard if I could just copy directly from his notes. I am thrilled to have found someone who shares my conviction in the power of the children’s voices. And he has not only listened to aids orphans, he has written their words down. I am so grateful for his attention to detail. His notebook contains the vein of gold I’ve come so far to mine. So here they are, stories of aids survival in the children’s own words, as recorded at the Child-centered workshop on 12-14 April, with names like Derrick, Isabel and Talent. Read this as a report, or read it as a prophecy.

The introductory notes state, . . .the children demonstrated so much emotion, spoke about very sensitive things, and developed a high degree of trust. . . . It was important for the adults at the workshop to help the children acquire skills in solving their problems. The children’s expectations, as stated before the workshop were—to be taught about aids, and particularly, how to care for those who are ill—since the children are the ones who nurse the dying. . . .There were 26 children at the workshop, about half of them had difficulty in sharing, most cried. Some said later they were touched by the other children’s stories of loss. All were crying when presenting their Trees of Life. . . .(See blog entry under Aids survival of the same title.) During the workshop the children, who began as strangers, often gave each other hugs and said things like, “I understand.” After the workshop the children said this was what they had learned about themselves:
• All children have ups and downs as shown by the different direction of the branches on the Trees of Life
• All the children present have lost one or both parents
• Many children have many bugs (problems) in their Trees of Life

What follows are individual case studies.

Sylvia lives with her grandmother. Both parents are dead. “I started seeing my father, who was ill, deteriorating. I thought he was going to recover, but he eventually died. It was only three months after my father’s death that my mother died also. I wish for good things in my life. What I loved the most, which of course now is not there, were my parents.”

Mthabisi is 17. He is still in school. His father died when he was seven. He was born asthmatic and may be mentally disabled, but may also just be severely traumatized. His father hanged himself after discovering his mother had had an affair. “Children know about this.”

Isabel is 16. “My parents had a very good relationship with each other. Losing my father caused great grief and pain. What I used to do when my father was alive I don’t do anymore, as my mother cannot afford to take good care of us. My father died when I was 13. I never used to walk barefooted, but now I walk barefooted. The bad things I do not want in my life include being infected with ‘this’ disease that has killed many. My problems are with school fees. I am an obedient child and my mother has managed to take care of me.”

Mthabisi is 14. “My father died—life became difficult indeed because I stayed home for a month without going to school. Since my father died, I am not well settled inside my heart—I feel extreme pain because my father loved me so much—he used to meet all my needs. But now I am always sent away from school because of nonpayment of school fees. My father’s wish was for me to pass my exams (O and A-level) so I can become a doctor. I wish to be loved by my extended family.”

Isabel. “My mother died when I was 9 and my father continued to teach me until secondary school level, when he then also passed away. My granny continued paying my school fees. Four years ago my father started coughing like my mother and after a year my father followed my mother. It was 2001 by then. I have got a problem of thinking of my mother, even at school, sometimes I do not even put much concentration into when I am learning.”

Musawenkosi is the firstborn in a family of five children. “I lost my father. I have such a hard and difficult kind of life. One difficulty I met was that during the time when my father was alive—my mother used to harass me so much—I really did not know what to do. She used to give me such a hard time—beating me up.”

Talent is 16. “My father died when I was 12. When I do something wrong my mother always shouts at me, telling or reminding me about my dad. This thing really hurts me. She also does not want me to visit my relatives.”

Abigail is 15. “My father stays in town. We now stay with my stepmother. My mother passed away when I was 10. When she died she was already in separation with my father. My mother used to work in Botswana. The day I will never forget is 5 May 2000, when I turned 10, five years ago, when for the first time in my life, a birthday party was held for me.”

Linda. “The day I faced a challenge in my life was when my mother got ill, complaining of a headache (at that time we were just small kids—there was no other adult at home). I was the eldest at home—I sent her to hospital and they gave her tablets then she recovered. I then went to call my father who was in town (at work) to come and see my mother. He came, left us some money, then went back—but as soon as he left my mother got ill again. This time she died. My father also got ill and died while we were staying with our grandmother. This troubled me so much. We got support from my grandmother and uncle.”

Sihingile is 16. Her father died when she was 10. “I did my grade 7 (13 years old) and passed very well, but I failed to get a single person to congratulate me with a present. I don’t have enough clothes and money for school fees. This causes me to lose sleep—and I am bothered by staying with someone who is not my parent. If only my father was alive, I was not going to have all these bad experiences.”

Xolani’s father died in 1986. “I had an operation after an injury. This was painful, but I managed to overcome the problem. The other pain I felt was when my father and younger brother passed away. I felt like killing myself. My dream for the future is I wish to study at the University of Zimbabwe and be a pilot.”

Thando. “I have a problem because both my parents have died—I never knew my mother. My father died three years ago, so I was raised by a surrogate mother and I was harassed for a long time by this mother.”

Isabel. “My father was a nurse at the hospital—so there was one woman who was suffering from TB who infected my father with TB which made him to be ill and eventually died to his death when I was 9.”

Buhlebenkosi’s father is alive, but her mother is dead. “I normally suffer from many physical ailments.”

Mkhokheli. Both parents dead. Left school at some point due to serious illness.

Viola. Mother died when she was 11. Currently staying with grandmother. Both parents dead.

Anonymous. Both parents died, stays with grandmother. “If I start to hear about my father whom I never knew, tears well up in my eyes—I only knew my mother. What causes me to hurt are children who normally say my mother was bad and had many sins when she died. I am constantly ill.”

Even now, in The Netherlands, 11 weeks later, as I type these words by orphans, tears fill my eyes. My pastor’s wife says there is nothing wrong with this wellspring of weeping I’ve brought home with me. She says it’s the rest of the world; there’s something wrong with the rest of us because we don’t cry, as we should, for these children.

Next Page »

Blog at