Sunday, April 22, 2012

That was Zim....now on to Zam!

...and so ends our time in Zimbabwe. We've experienced so much in the past weeks...the noise, bustle and congestion of the city of Mutare and particularly the area of Sukubva where we walked with care workers. Not since our Oshoek trip have I felt such warm friendship right away as I did in Sukubva. I will really miss the care workers there...they are honestly so fun and beautiful and friendly. I felt at home right away. It was a great start to our time here. I'm thankful that Priscilla and a few of the care workers will be travelling with us to Zambia for celebrations, otherwise it would be incredibly hard to leave tomorrow. We also experienced the Honde Valley in all its beauty - dark nights filled with the sounds of forest and jungle and rivers, days of hot sunshine and trekking through the mountainside trails to sit in rondawels and feel like we've gone back in time. The care workers here too are beautiful feet on the mountains and made us feel so welcome. Our last few days here in Mutare, we've all been hit hard by some stomach issue...that keeps coming at us, day and night. Hopefully we've seen the last of it as we've tried to sanitize anything we drink or eat from, to the best of our ability. We spend a day in the Bvumba Mountains yesterday, driving through some of the most amazing views imaginable - from aging thatched roof cottages, to multimillion dollar golf courses, to abandoned botanical gardens and graveyards turned sales displays of the gorgeous stone carvings indigenous to this region. We bought what we could carry - thwarted by the fact we must fly home. A gorgeous stone carving by a roadside artist that would cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars at home, stand dust covered and languishing on roadside turnouts on what used to be busy tourist routes. We have loved our time here. We love the family we have been sharing a home with and we'll miss the girls...Rumbizai, Precious and Shamah. Mildred and Farai and Farai Jr. are also travelling with us to Zambia so we don't have to say all our goodbyes yet. Zambia awaits. It feels like a homecoming to me. I crave time in Mulenga. I can't wait to see the care workers there that I love so much, or the children I miss daily since I left. I can't wait to introduce the boys to Kennedy and Jackson, or to hold Eva or have nshima with Elizabeth and Nkosi. I'm excited that my friend, Cathy, from Saskatoon will be there when we arrive along with lots of friends from S. Africa and DRC and Malawi that are also making their way there. I'm not sure what our next weeks will look like but know this - this is the stuff that dreams are made of. A dream that started a few years ago when I woke up in a shanty in Mulenga and knew there was no way I could explain it all to my boys...and then I began to dream of them coming with me. Some people dream far more glamorous dreams but for me, this is one dream I can't wait watch become reality. So, thank you Zimbabwe for welcoming us and keeping us so well. We <3 you.

Friday, April 20, 2012

When Words Fail...

Independent Living

It’s Independence Day in Zimbabwe. We are in the Honde Valley, remote and rural, removed from the chaotic bustle of the city of Mutare. It’s quiet in the village of Pimaii where there is seemingly no town centre, just hillside after hillside dotted with rural homesteads and fields of maize, bananas and tea. Thirty two years of Independence have left Zimbabwe in a state of perpetual decay from the days of colonialism. It’s as if time stopped at Independence and the deterioration of infrastructure and buildings started. It’s not entirely true, there are some new structures and buildings being constructed but they are being built using old methods – hand moulded bricks, thatched roofing, and rock embedded dirt roads. On this day, we meet a beautiful gogo named Esther. She lives just down the road from the care centre in Pimaii and we pass by her house every day. Today, we stop in with her care worker and as we approach, she raises herself from her seat on the ground, smiling, and greets Easton and I as old friends, with a hug. She is very happy to have us visit her and she ushers us into her rondawel, as she asks if Easton will stay and live with her, promising to take very good care of him. She is 87 and shrinking in her body, hobbling on feet that have carried her to the fields probably every day from the time she could balance on them. She cares for three grandchildren here – two boys who are 17 and 19 and are looking for work on their own and one granddaughter, Farsai, who sits with her today. Farsai is maybe 14 and is able to go to school because of the intervention of her care worker. The care workers in Pimaii helped provide roofing material to a new primary school building in exchange for 73 of their children’s school fees. So, Farsai is one of the 73 children who are able to attend the local primary school as a result. We ask Esther how she is doing and she tells us that she has spent Independence Day eating traditional relish (fried tomatoes and onions) and sadza (mealy meal) prepared without oil as she has run out. She finds it ironic that today of all days, she runs out of oil when she should be preparing a celebratory meal. She laughs it off though with a wave of her hand and says it doesn’t matter, that her life is improving because of the care workers. She tells us that her life depends on the community based organization and the care workers who visit her. The clothing that her family wears comes from donations through the care workers. Her granddaughter is able to attend school because of the care workers provisions. She tells us that the rondawel that we are seated in was built by the care workers just a few years before. She speaks of George Snyman as her best friend and how he has assured her that on his next visit, he will stay with her in her home. She is proud and comforted by the friendships she has with her care workers and also with the Hands volunteers she has been visited by. She tells us that when she passes away, she has left instructions not to be buried until Farai can be there to attend her funeral. She is insistent on that. We spend some time with her and there is much laughter and joy in her home, despite the fact that she is 87 and still raising children, carving out a living in fields and carrying loads far too heavy for a woman half her age and twice her stature. I’m completely taken in by this woman. Her eyes are large and luminous, filled with wisdom and love to be shared, never diminished by the inclusion of yet another person in her circle of friends, only multiplied. I ask her if I can take a few photos and she is happy to oblige me. It’s one of the frustrations of photography, I want to capture her in her candour, the very natural way she moves and sits and speaks. I’m limited by my ability to capture her spirit – but fittingly so, for a spirit as large and lovely as her should remain free. So, this is simply one dimension of Esther. There is so much more to her. I’m so thankful for the chance to have glimpsed it and experienced it.

How Wide and Deep is Love?

Rural rondawels dot the hillsides of the Honde Valley. Homesteads are difficult to reach and widespread but the care workers traverse these hillsides daily, walking kms to reach and visit the widows, vulnerable children and patients in Pimaii.
Two of the care workers lead us up a roadway to visit the children and gogos.
A thousand dollar note lies discarded in the grass. The Zimbabwean dollar completely collapsed in 2008. It's worthless. Remote villages like Pimaii had no way to keep up with the changes in currency so bags of worthless money became fire starters in communities like these.
Pimaii is home to several tea plantations, including the Kitayo tea plantation, where we stayed.
This past week, we travelled into rural Zimbabwe and fell back in time. We drove up the Christmas Pass out of Mutare and into the hills of the highlands turning towards Mozambique on the Honde Valley road, some 60 km out of Mutare. We drove through large forestry plots of gum trees and pole trees used for building. Most of the wood is exported to South Africa or Mozambique so the roads are mostly used by large trucks hauling huge loads of logs. Our small van pulls off the side of the narrow roads when one approaches and even so, I find myself leaning to the side to avoid the seemingly inevitable side swipe that looms. As we drive through the forested plots, we catch glimpses of the valleys, seemingly falling away through the hillsides. As we come to the winding roads that take us out over the valley, the view is breathtaking. I don't want to turn this into a vacation monologue of how beautiful the area is, I can't do it justice. What I can say, is that by looking at Zimbabwe on a map, you assume it is a small area. Indeed, in terms of African countries, it is small, just a tiny patch on the quilt of the continent. When the Honde Valley spreads out before us, I realize I have underestimated how wide and deep and vast the land is. It is mountains fading into shades of greens and blues and greys the farther they are from us. It is banana fields and tea plantations and maize growing in impossibly vertical ground. It is a visual morse code of dots and dashes - thatch roofed rondawels are the dots amongst the dashes of red dirt paths that we glimpse between the vegetations. Paths that lead up and down and across the hillsides at such incredible angles it seems only a mountain goat could traverse them safely, not the gogos and children laden with baskets of maize and the heavy, rustic tools they carry to and from the fields each day. We descend into the valley by twist and turn. The road narrows incrementally until we are brushing the vegetation on the side of the hills on our descent. People walking home from the fields flatten themselves against the hillside or stand knee deep in the grassy side of the road to avoid being hit. Vehicles careen around corners towards us and more than a few times, I'm uttering prayers and trying to stifle sharp intakes of breath. It's exhilarating and terrifying all at once. We drive through a few clusters of shops or market type areas where women and children are selling tomatoes, bananas and oranges in baskets. After an hour or so, we arrive into an area of land that leads into Pimaii, the community we are striving for before dark. We stop at the local police and guard station to report our presence. The next day is Independence Day in Zimbabwe and there will be a large military and police presence in the communities. Our presence, if not reported now, will be reported by village residents with stories to match. Mzungus in the village are rare and our very presence, coinciding with Independence Day, is reason enough for speculative stories that passed around can become wildfire. Farai is cautious with us and reports our presence and reasons for being there to the headman of the village and the chief of police so that they are not caught unaware and suspect us of usurping their authority. After a small delay, we are met in the parking lot by the men. I was expecting someone more "chief-y"...so I was surprised by the large man wearing red sweatpants and a short sleeved dressed shirt open to his belly. He was very friendly and welcoming and we were at ease with him. The Police Chief, though hardly dressed more officially, at least went through the motions of taking our passport numbers and information as well as the dates we would be in the village. He was polite but clearly official in his greeting of us. A few minutes of small talk and we were on our way into Pimaii. It was now dark and we let out Jane and Florence who had travelled with us, at their homes, and then carried on up the mountain to our lodge. It was pitch black and yet there were many people still walking the narrow road that led us 30 km into the mountainside. Our headlights lit up cattle and people on the roadside and while the road became as narrow as a path at points, we could at least see the lights of oncoming traffic, though minimal, and avoid colliding. Bridges over the rivers were one lane and without guard rails. Farai, however, drove confidently, honking his trademark horn at anything and everything. He grew up in the valley and in the morning, we will see the home of his birth. We arrive in the pitch black to a power outage throughout the mountains. Thankfully, the security guard is expecting us and when we arrive, he opens the gate and we arrive to an empty lodge. We are the only guests. Unfortunately, the woman with the keys is across the road at her home and we have to drive up to get the keys. We all pile back in the van, hot and tired, with the security guard as well. We arrive at the gate of the key keeper and honk our arrival. Two torch lights totter down the hillside towards us. We watch them bounce and disappear, reappear and grow closer as two men come out to greet us. One is the manager of the tea plantation on which the lodge stands. He tells us that Jane, the key keeper, is at her grandmother's...down the road about 10 km back. He and his son pile in, the security guard gets out and we are once again travelling at great speed up the road to get the keys. Ah, Africa. We get to the grandmother's house and we are sitting in the van. The two men disembark but we stay in the hot van with windows only cracked as the risk of malaria is high here and we're all wearing short sleeves and shorts or skirts. We hear a gunshot which only makes me giggle with nervousness. I tell Farai that we are doing all the things that travel advisories tell you not to do. We are in a van with two strange men on a road in the bush at night hearing gunshots. Brilliant. We also have no idea which direction is which so we are completely at the mercy of Farai and his knowledge of the area at night. Aidan and I get a case of the giggles as we make up headlines to explain our demise. After about 15 mins., Jane joins us with the keys, the two men and Jane get in the van with us and we head back to the Lodge to our rooms. The rooms are clean and comfortable by African standards. There is a shower in our room which makes all of us giddy with anticipation. By candlelight, we sort out our bag and hang a mosquito net and then head to the dining hall for dinner. All references to the Bates Motel have now run through my brain as we are the only occupants of the lodge and it is seemingly trapped in perpetual disrepair from its heydays in the 1940's. It's dark and what we can't see but can hear only adds to the beauty and mystery of the place. We sleep very well and rise early, to find that the van battery is dead. Andrew sets out on foot to find the impossible, another vehicle, with jumper cables, willing to come out and jump our van battery. We eat breakfast while he is gone. A steady diet of white bread, cookies and Coke have been sustaining us in Zimbabwe. My teeth feel stripped of enamel and my stomach constantly full from the carb overload but a fat, full belly is a thing of beauty here and so we eat while there is food in front of us, not knowing what will be next. Andrew returns with a man in a bakkie who graciously jumps our van and gets us on our way. We spend the day walking with care workers through paths and trails all over the mountainsides. Easton spends the day with Farai, taking one of the Headman of the village who is suffering from malaria to a clinic for medication. We've entrusted Easton to find a soccer ball in any of the shops for playing with the kids tomorrow. He returns without one, explaining that they had purchased one, only to have it go flat within minutes of inflating it. So, without the ball, we come up with some games to play with the kids. Our homes visits are incredible. The people, as friendly and open as their city counterparts, are warm and receptive to us. At one home, we are given a huge avocado and Jason is handed the youngest baby in the family to hold, a precious boy in a family of all girls. He thanks the family for having us in their home and for giving us an avocado and a baby to keep. The family thinks he's hilarious, all but the mother, who still looks a little worried even while laughing. We feel as if each family we spend time with has become friends of our family. We know that the children are timid around us because they don't see white skin very often. Once child, named Tino, upon learning we were coming, called all his buddies to come and hang out at his house in case we tried to take him or something, he wanted back up. He is shy throughout the visit and even the foolproof trick of taking his picture can barely urge eye contact. His friends hang back as if watching their friends' demise. Finally, it seems they are assured we are only there to meet them and they come a bit closer and chatter about us. The needs of this community are as wide and vast as the valley itself. School fees for children are a seemingly common hurdle. $14 per year, per child is unattainable in a valley where the only source of income is selling avocados, bananas and maize in the cities. Gogos work hard in the years when they should be resting on a pension, raising their children's children and still working in fields as if they were in their early twenties. The resiliency of these women is unbelievable. Each rondawel we enter and sit in is clean and tidy. Small pots and pans, if owned, hang on the walls neatly. The fire pit in the center is raked and ashes piled if not burning. Rondawels are used for cooking and for sitting with family and friends. Most families will build a small square cornered building for sleeping in if they have the money, if not, the rondawel becomes both kitchen and bedroom. Gogos teach young children to cook over the open fire and there is no electricity in any of the homes we visit. Water comes to the homesteads in pipes that consistently break, forcing children and old women to traverse up to a km or more with large buckets of water daily. Children are consistently hungry, and with a drought year upon them, the forecast doesn't look much brighter this year. The clothing the children wear comes from donations through churches and the care workers we're walking with. Many of the children's clothes are tattered and ill fitting, each seam re-stitched with string to increase its usefulness. There are many stories that we'll share out of the Honde Valley. We loved our time there, though it was too short. We walked many miles but only a fraction of what the care workers there do on a daily basis. Care workers who started meeting under a mango tree on borrowed property, and in two years have moulded over 25,000 mud bricks by hand and are building their own care center on land bought by pooling resources. It is fenced, the structures have been built and roofed. Doors and windows come next but it is already becoming a place where fifty of the most vulnerable kids in Pimaii receive a meal every day. The care workers here are exceptional in their ability to organize and motivate themselves. They divided themselves, 18 of them, to feed 50 kids daily, each taking turns to cook and prepare the food. They visit 178 kids over the course of a week, often daily walking distances of kilometres up and down the hillsides and valleys, into remote homesteads that don't normally see anyone other than their own families. Children greet the care workers as aunties and uncles and it's apparent that there are deep relationships being forged here. The stories that gogos and children tell us of life before the care workers came and life since are testimony of the beautiful, life giving difference that these care workers are making in the lives of those they visit. As always, we are completely humbled and honoured to be invited to walk amongst them.

Monday, April 16, 2012

While It Lasts...

This is our blended Zimbabwean family...Farai and his wife, Mildred, are hosting us in their home and they really have just made us part of the family. They have three girls, Rumbizai who is 13, Precious who is 9 and Shamah who is 5, and one super cute little fat baby boy named Farai Jr. Our boys have nicknamed Farai as "Uncle Chips" as in "Fries" and Farai Jr. as "Small Fry". They love the nicknames and laugh everytime.
As you can tell, Easton and Farai clearly enjoy each others' company. Whenever Farai goes somewhere, whether to the shops or to the passport office, he takes Easton along. It's pretty funny, I'm not sure who enjoys the attention more, Easton from Farai or Farai from everyone in town wanting to know who this mzungu boy is that he's walking with.
We've had a long but great first week here. It involved our first real bouts of stomach problems that left Easton using a communal "toilet" and me throwing up publicly in a busy market parking lot. There's not a lot of "blending in" around here as a mzungu...I've seen maybe three or four other white people in the city...most of them older white South African men in their knee socks and short shorts, driving Land Rovers or equivalent big 4x4 trucks. I did meet a nice Mormon boy at the market last week, he was beside me in line so I asked where he was from. He said, "Utah." So, I replied, "Of course you are" in my best Jay from Modern Family impression. He thought that was hilarious. I'm funny in Zimbabwe. To other mzungus. Which means, I'm not really that funny. We've been quoting a lot of Scott Pilgrim too. Mostly at breakfast. "Bread makes you fat?!" as we each eat bread and butter for breakfast every morning. At most, on hungry days, we each eat two slices - which puts us far behind even our smallest Zimbabwean counterparts who easily put back 4 slices per person. The thinking is that you eat "while it lasts". When there's a meal in front of you...you eat. A lot. You don't know when you will eat again. So, fill up. It's a hard mindset to get into. Often, we get to about 4 pm and have to go searching for something to eat at a street market stall or something to get us to supper. 4 pm has become what our hosts call "Mzungu lunch". We can't seem to eat enough breakfast to make it till 6 or 7 pm. Add to that the fact that we're trailing two growing boys? Eesh. It seems someone is always saying they're hungry. And we don't even know what hungry is. Just wanted to leave you with some photos while the internet is up. Doing my best to use it "while it lasts"...here's some pics from our past week. Just to show that we're all well and healthy...we're putting on some serious lbs in a land with little food...but apparently, just as bread makes you fat, so does sadsa (pap, shima, mealie-meal...). Call it what you want, it's just filler. No real food value but it fills you up.
Sorry if this is disjointed, trying to make sensible sentences with the internet cutting in and out...not my strong suit. We're off to the Honde Valley tomorrow for three nights in a community there called Pimaii. Very rural and quite remote, we're looking forward to yet another change of scenery, it's all been so good, so far. We'll catch up with you in the next few days as we prepare for a long road trip to Zambia with 14 care workers for the gathering there on April 25-27th. Looking forward to seeing our Carly's and Mel again as well...and having our friend, Cathy Johnson, from Saskatoon joining us in Zambia!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Zimbabwe - "The Bread Basket of Africa"

I'm struck by the irony of a harvest moon in a country struck by drought. There won't be much coming in from the fields this harvest season, the stalks are brown and withering in a season where it should be green and lush. It's hard to be optimistic knowing the hunger that awaits every face I look into here. If only dust were nutritious, this would be a land of plenty again.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Few Words

So much to say, so little internet access! We're safely in Zimbabwe and in the amazing care of our new friends, Farai and Mildred, and their family. In fact, I'd say, we're already family. We're living with them, sharing their home and it feels very comfortable. Water is plentiful and clean in Zimbabwe although it may not always come when you want it. Running water can mean an hour in the morning, an hour in the middle of the night or maybe not at all for a few days. Electricity is on the same schedule. It doesn't matter. You bath when you can. Cook on the fire if the stove is not working. Last night we made pancakes for the entire family (10 of us) on the fire outside. Maple "flavoured" syrup from S. Africa was the closest we could manage to a Canadian meal but it was well received...we thought. Then we walked into the kitchen to find the little girls scarfing down sadsa (nshima, pap) as fast as they could behind the closed door, pancakes discarded in the corner! So funny. They looked like they were busted for a crime when I came in but I laughed and then they did too! If they only knew how many granola bars I've had discreetly while funneling fish or sadsa off my plate onto some small child's nearby. Zimbabwe is warm and welcoming. Mountainous and lush. Water is clean, containers? Maybe not so. Easton and I learned the hard way but thankfully other than some embarassing moments vomiting in a supermarket parking lot behind a bush (not so discreet as the only mzungu!) or Easton having to use a "toilet" hole in the ground while naked men showered and small children watched him...we've survived. No stomach pains...just some gross moments as our bodies react to some weird little bug in our system. We're fine now and even on the days we weren't well, we did a lot of walking and home visits etc without any interruptions so that was really good. The care workers here are inspiring to say the least. I hope to share many, many of their stories as we are able. Each one could be a book in its own right and an example of love lived out. The community of Sekubva has 18 care workers that love the children that are abandoned, orphaned and vulnerable. They love the grannies and the aunties that are struggling to put food on the table. It's going to be a hungry year. It's a drought year and with that comes so much hunger and angst. Water, while plentiful, doesn't fill bellies. Living conditions are crowded and urban and difficult and yet the people we've met? Open. Friendly. Polite. Welcoming. Loving. Worried? Yes. Hungry? Almost always. The Zimbabwean dollar has totally collapsed as the economy here bottomed out. Denominations of 50,000,000 Zimbabwean dollars aren't worth the paper they are printed on. One granny told us that she doesn't ever even hope to hold a U.S. Dollar. More will come as we are able to share but let me just ask you this. If you pray, pray for Zimbabwe. Pray for the grannies and the aunties, the children and the communities. There is so much hurt and hunger here. If you "send good thoughts", send them this way. Just south of Zambia, ten miles to the west of the Mozambique border, through the Honde Valley and around the Bvumba mountains. This is just a corner of Zimbabwe.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Off to Zim, then on to Zam!

...and we're off! We're heading to Zimbabwe tomorrow. We've fully packed the teeny tiny little car we rented (with just four bags). We're having dinner tonight with our friend, Emily and her niece and nephew...they are from Zim so we're excited to hear all about our next leg of this adventure. It's encouraging that everyone here is telling us how jealous they are of our time with Farai and of being in Zimbabwe for a few weeks. That's always good to hear...even if they're making it up. I don't doubt it's going to be great...we'll let you know all about it when we can. Until then - Zimbabwe then Zambia. I'm jealous of myself.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Border Between Them

Oshoek is a community just kilometres from the Swaziland border of South Africa. Some of the people living in Oshoek have come across the border into South Africa looking for a better life for themselves and their children. Some cross legally, some just walk across without papers or identification. Last week, our family of four met a family that had done just that. We were on our second day of home visits with the care workers from Oshoek’s Home Based Care. One of the homes we went to was that of a woman with whom care workers were well acquainted. Nomsa* had been living in Oshoek for the past three years, having crossed the border illegally with her three children. Her eldest son was 10 at the time, her younger children just 6 and 3. She came after her husband and most of his relatives passed away, leaving them with little family support and very little hope for an education or a future for the children. An acquaintance in Swaziland had a house to rent out in Oshoek, so this mother and her children made their way across the border and began a new life in South Africa. Unfortunately, the new life did not prove much easier than what they had left behind them. The mother, though employed, earned barely enough to feed the children regularly. The children, enrolled in school, were getting an education but without identification papers there would be no official records of their efforts. The house they had come to was hardly a shelter, with two small rooms, barely big enough to turn around in. The one room, used as a kitchen, contained a small shelf with water pails below it, and a small wood stove. Once the door was opened, the wood stove was blocked. It was dark and the windows were small and cracked. There was no electricity in the home. The second room contained everything the small family owned: clothing, bedding, etc. The family seemed to use it as a storage room and not for sleeping. I could understand why, the door to the outside of the house hung loosely on its hinges and would give way with very little force. The mother explained that often people came by the house in the night, banging on the door and yelling. She told us that she and the children sleep in what was probably meant to be a garage at one point, the only space with four solid cement walls, a roof, and most importantly a door that could be chained shut and padlocked once they were inside. While we chatted, we sat out in the yard on a collection of wooden benches and stumps to accommodate us. The house was not set back far from the main road leading to the border of Swaziland and it was often too loud to speak with large logging trucks and other big vehicles flying by. Though life for the first few years had been difficult, Nomsa clung to the hope that this move was providing her children with an education and a chance to improve their lives. Several times in those first few years, care workers would visit and find her so sick and unresponsive that they would believe her to be taking her last breaths. They watched as her children took care of themselves and her, as best they could. When she was sick, they didn’t have food to eat. The care workers would do what they could to keep the family afloat while she recovered. Last September, things went from difficult to unthinkable. Nomsa’s son, Tanda, was playing near the border when he was apprehended by the border patrol. While it’s unclear whether he was asked for proof of identification or he just confessed to having crossed illegally, Tanda was deported immediately and put in jail for two days. He was thirteen. For two days, his mother did not know what had happened to him. She didn’t dare call the authorities for she knew that she was in the country illegally. She had no resources to call around for help or to drive around looking for him. After two days, she finally received word that Tanda had been in jail and that he had been set free but was now stuck on the Swaziland side of the border, while she and her younger children were unable to cross from the South African side. After limited communications and the aid of care workers and relatives, Tanda and his mother found a relative on the Swaziland side that would take him in. From there, over the next few months, Tanda found a job working for a cattleman herding. He was being paid almost R300 a month, under $40, and given a meal a day. Occasionally, Tanda will cross the border illegally, risking imprisonment at the age of 14, to visit his mother and siblings. Nomsa begs him to come home but he is unwilling, telling her that he is making money and being fed daily, which is more than South Africa can offer him. Now, Nomsa is in a position where she needs to make a decision. She must choose whether to stay in South Africa without her eldest son or to move back to Swaziland where she will surely be unable to find work and pay for her children to go to school. As she speaks about it, I am very aware of the presence of my own children, sitting beside me. Aidan, at 13, is the same age as Tanda when he went missing. I can hardly look at him without tears coming to my eyes at the thought of being separated from him. I feel guilty hearing Nomsa’s story and having the company of my son while she wrestles with the separation from hers. Her choices are unimaginable. Neither brings much hope or relief. For now, the choice is hers to make. Unfortunately, they may be out of her hands soon enough. The acquaintance who owned the house recently passed away. She’s heard rumours that his family want to tear down the house and build their own, leaving her homeless. The care workers sit with her and listen to her fears and challenges. Watching their faces, I can see that they too are torn for her to have to make decisions such as these. They do their best to encourage her and give her support, praying with her and just being available to her and her children. There are no easy answers to the questions of this family’s life and wellbeing. The next morning, we drive past Nomsa’s home on our way out of Oshoek. I see her shaking out a mat in the half hinged doorway and her two youngest children, setting out for school. I turn my head to watch them as the car picks up speed on the way out of town, and I glimpse Aidan in the seat behind me and I think of Tanda, walking behind a herd of cattle, forced to be a man on the other side of the border that separates him from his family.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Easton's Edition

This week in the Hands Village, it's been really quiet. Slowly, people are making their way towards Zambia in preparation for a huge gathering called "Celebrations" that takes place in just a few weeks. One by one, the rooms around here have emptied out and I'm not going to lie, it's getting a little quiet. A few days ago, a nice family (again, one girl...two boys....seriously, what is going on!) has come to visit some friends who live here. They went to Africa School of Missions (just across the road) some years ago and have come to spend some time off here catching up with friends. I was talking to the boys about this family and we were talking about how nice their kids are. I asked my boys if they had asked the kids where they were living and why. The boys knew that although they are South African, they have come from Mozambique but didn't know why they lived there or what their parents did there. So, I explained that they are missionaries there. Easton got very quiet and his eyes just got bigger and bigger as I went on to explain that they worked as translators for a tribe far in the bush in Mozambique. They've been living there for five years, learning the language which, to this point, has only been verbal, and writing it down phonetically. Easton's fork was halfway to his mouth and not moving. I was amazed at how interested he was...but told him that the parents have now completed writing out the whole New Testament for this tribe, in their own language. At this point, Aidan is looking at Easton as well. He's completely spellbound. I asked him if he was ok. Suddenly, he shook his head and said, "What did you say they did?" I repeated, "They're missionaries in Mozambique?" and he dropped his fork in relief and said, "OOOOOH! I thought you said they were MERCENARIES! I thought this wasn't going to end well!!"

Snakes aside, who wouldn't want to be me?

It's gorgeous weather, just warm enough for t shirts and shorts, a cool wind coming through the windows keeping things clear. Joanne is making a huge chocolate cake and it smells amazing. The boys are close by, playing together, no small feat. Their laughter brings me such contentment. Right now, right here, I don't want to be anywhere else in the world in this moment. Love this space I'm in...sitting here, writing, listening to Agnes and Zoewa laughing and chatting in Siswati as they iron sheets. Every once in a while, they tell me why they are laughing so I can join in. Seriously. I'm pretty lucky to be me right now.

Dark Circles Save Lives

Last night, Easton went to bed with a mild stomach ache...around 11 pm, he woke up in pain. He was doubled over and writhing and obviously not feeling so hot. I gave him some Pepto Bismal and sat with him and talked him through some breathing so that he could focus on that rather than trying to plead with God to kill him. (He's dramatic, like his father...) He would fall back to sleep for short stints but then the pains would start and we'd go through the whole routine again. At one point, after one in the morning, we went out to the toilet building and I sat in a plastic chair, in the dark, while he was in the bathroom. Poor guy. Poor Mom. Nothing like being away from home when you're not feeling well. Thankfully, we are still here in S. Africa where he is fairly comfortable with the surroundings and it didn't phase him too badly. I, however, walked up from a morning meeting to find Joanne, Agnes and Zoewa with various bricks and brooms in hand watching Aidan and Herman looking into a pipe. Apparently, Easton had come out to use the facilities and there, where I had sat the night before, was what he thought was a large lizard. He looked closer at it and it turned its face to him and it turned out to be a small snake. A Mozambiquan spitting cobra at that. Not one you want to be leaning into for a closer look as they are attracted by the shining eyes of its victims and spit venom at them. Thankfully, it did not spit at Easton! Apparently his sleep deprivation saved him as his eyes are not so shiny nor bright this morning! The snake retreated into a water pipe under the walkway and it was there that Herman used a series of brooms and sticks to coax it out where Joanne was waiting with a brick to bash its head. We all started laughing at Joanne as she delicately "bashed" the head of this small little snake in. It seemed harmless in size but really, they can be very dangerous. Even in death, the venom can cause you to become very sick. So, of course, Aidan picked it up and I seized the opportunity for a few pics, because of course, Jason missed all of this domestic bliss as he is in Swaziland.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

These Boys' Lives

Around here, there's a lot to do if you're a boy. Well, there's a lot to do for girls too but such as it is, there aren't a lot of girls around here. The Waspe Family has three boys, Marley, Sonney, and Micah. Herman and Charisse have two boys, Michael and David. Divine lives here with his aunty, Emily. Girls? Well, since Tawonga left...there's just N'ala the village dog. Well, she's actually David and Michael's dog but we've all pretty much adopted her. She has a regularly scheduled dinner date at our place immediately following dinner up at her house...but don't tell David or Michael that. The only girls that have visited here have been Heidi, outnumbered by her two brothers, and Kasia, outnumbered by two brothers, and Zoey, also outnumbered by two brothers. There's a pattern here...
The days go by so quickly here and we've definitely turned a corner weather wise. From our first days here in 40+ degree heat? We've cooled significantly - the days are sunny and warm and the nights and mornings are very cool. It's great for sleeping and for just being around. It feels like fall in some ways although the leaves aren't turning colours and the most bundled up I've been is putting on a cardigan in the morning, only because I can, not necessarily out of need. Jason is in Swaziland this week, visiting one of the community based organizations there. While he's away, the boys and I have stayed around the village. I've been working in the offices and generally being Dan's fetch-it girl when he exerts himself to command me to go do something for him. Yesterday, he had Wegner and I go up to the farm with him under pretense of "taking inventory of mattresses" that are going to be donated to kids that are sleeping on the ground in their communities. We counted a stack of mattresses in about 4 mins flat and then coincidentally helped Dan haul out some furniture and a freshly dug pepper bush complete with red chilis all over it. It wasn't a small plant, it filled half of the back of the bakkie, in which Wegner and I had rode up to the farm in, while Dan sat in the coveted shot gun position in the cab. Gentleman or not, on the way back, we had to ride on top of his newly acquired dirty furniture and hold fast to his large pepper bush complete with dirt clumped roots for the ride home down 9 km of dusty red African road. Imagine my enormous respect for this guy just soaring. He's lucky he married well or I'd have chucked his chili bush off the bakkie followed by a select piece of furniture every few kilometres and then denied any knowledge of it when we arrived in an empty bakkie back at the village. But, Jen...she's worth it. So, I took the high road...literally. Meanwhile, the boys have been enjoying their days around the village. Although they claim to be accomplishing homework and fulfilling their duties, I wonder at the truth of it all. There is a lot of hammering on forts, collecting worms for bait, chasing and capturing lizards, and running barefoot going on. All I know is that Easton is in a state of perpetual dirtiness that has me resigned to calling him "Pigpen" as he kicks up clouds of red dust as he travels around the village. Aidan has grown an inch every week we've been here it seems and he's now passed me in height. Something in the African air agrees with these guys. Add to that the constant companionship of like minded boys young and old, and there's a pack mentality that I as a mother have no chance of standing in the way of...not that I'd dream of it. This is the type of childhood I dreamt of for my boys and regardless of how late it is in coming, they are enjoying it to the fullest. It's been amazing to watch. Living in community with others has in many ways been easier for the boys than any of us...they are social by nature and having been raised in the company of high school kids and college aged adults, they are right at home here with the boys around them or the volunteers of all ages. Aidan jumped in a truck the other day with Stephen to go to the "tip" with a truck full and the two of them returned as good buddies, stifling the part of the story where they stopped for ice cream just before their dinner time return. I don't know who was more worried about getting an earful, Aidan from me or Stephen from his beautiful new bride, Busie. Easton entertains many of us just with his antics of jogging through the village or practising his stealth ninja skills running up the paths and around the corners of buildings. He wasn't so stealth yesterday as he eased his way along the wall of the offices after hours and set off the alarm. I barely looked up from the computer to ask Jason, "Was that Easton?" and he, looking down from the deck in time to see Easton fleeing the scene of the crime, affirming indeed that it was our boy. Thankfully, Herman came down and reset it without so much as an inkling of blame directed at Easton. Fall weather or not, our season here at Hands at Work is also changing. We're leaving the comfortable cocoon of village life here on Sunday. We'll drive to Johannesburg early Sunday morning and catch a noon flight to Zimbabwe where we'll begin a new adventure. I'm not sure what internet access will look like for the next few weeks. I do know that once we travel up to Zambia around the 22nd of April, with Farai, we will be able at least to get access at internet shops around the Kitwe and Luyansha area. So, stay tuned. Until then, I'll leave you with a few snapshots of what the boys' lives look like around here.
A Blue Headed Lizard that the boys captured and showed around the village
Finally, a bug I recognize! This one had me singing "She's a Lady" for days. How do I know? She was on the door of the Ladies' Washroom, of course.
Easton working on the tree fort up at Michael and David's house
Easton and our friend, Sibusiso, from Swaziland. We share life with Sibu here and it's been fun to watch Easton and Sibu's friendship develop. They have the funniest conversations about anything and everything, learning from one another...from currency, to school work, to skin colour, to Kei$ha...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Next Steps

Some days are just good. We've had some great ones around the Hands village and as we start thinking ahead to the week after next, we know we're going to miss a lot of things about life here. Living in community is so rewarding in many ways. Of course, there are challenges when you bring together people of different cultures and share work and life with them. Mostly, we (and particularly the boys) have loved life here. The Hands village is a pretty great stepping stone from which to move into the next phase of our trip. We've done some short community stays - the longest just four nights - and we've really enjoyed them. I never could have imagined myself in a place where we would just be dropped off with a child headed household in the middle of Bushbuckridge and think of it as a great experience...but it was. We stayed with a family of kids that have now become "our" family of kids. We've seen the challenges that they experience as part of daily life, and know that there are far more than we saw. There are emotional and physical and sociological needs that are not being met in this young family of kids and yet, they are doing so well with what they are dealing with. I know that our lives will always include Dumisile, Cleverness, Tshepiso, Clifford and Errenes, Zayanda and Bo. We know that their lives will always include us. Such a responsibility on our part to remain connected and grow these relationships - even when distance separates us. Days around the village have been great too. It's a comfortable place to return to at the end of a day in a community, after the challenges of days with vulnerable children and walking with care workers who themselves have stories that are incredibly difficult in their own right. The boys have found a balance between community days and days here with the help of Michael and David, two Afrikaans boys who live here on the property with their parents, Hermann and Charisse. They've pulled apart the boys' tree fort and have been rebuilding it. It's quite the undertaking and Michael is a great foreman, putting the boys to work on several projects at once.
Our time here in the Village is winding down. This week, Jason is heading to Swaziland with a group of guys to assess the building of a care centre for the care workers there. He'll be gone until Thursday. We head into Easter weekend with preparations under way for the next stage of our trip. We're heading to Zimbabwe on Easter Monday or the next day. We will be going to Mutare, a small city where Hands is working in several communities. We will be staying for two weeks with Farai, who leads the service centre there, supporting the communities' care workers. Farai is a bit of a legend for his humour and laughter and his enthusiasm for the work that he is doing. We haven't met him yet but by all reports, to know him is to love him. We're excited. We'll be spending two weeks with Farai and Mildred and their family of four girls and one small boy, Farai Jr. We'll be staying in their home with them and travelling the communities with Farai, learning from him and encouraging him in the work that he is doing. One of the difficulties that these leaders have in their countries is a sense of isolation from others doing the same work. We've heard that Farai has been praying for visitors to come and walk with him and apparently he is very excited that a family is coming. We'll spend a week in the communities surrounding Mutare, fairly urban and concentrated communities with all the challenges that go with that type of work. Then, we'll head out about 2 1/2 hours to the Honde Valley, a region that is known for it's amazing beauty but also for the challenges of rural poverty. This is the valley in which Farai was raised so it will be a great opportunity to spend time there with someone who knows it so intimately. After our two weeks in Zim, we'll head north to Zambia, travelling with Farai and some of the care workers to Luyansha in the Copperbelt region. This is where my heart has been all along. Last night, speaking on the phone with my friend, Sukai, from Luyansha, I just have this excitement to return to my friends there. I can hardly wait. I don't want to wish away our time here or in Zimbabwe, I know it all just goes by so quickly. I don't even know how it is April already! Didn't we just arrive? So, yeah, that's where we're at...that's where we're heading. Of course, all that being said with the disclaimer that this is Africa and anything can happen or change at any given moment. TIA. This is Africa!