Saturday, June 30, 2012

Brick by Brick

 While in Zimbabwe, we spent time in the gorgeous Honde Valley region. We went to meet and walk alongside the care workers at Pimai Caring Trust, the community based organization supported by Hands at Work. When we arrived at the care centre the first morning, we were impressed to see the work that had already begun on the newly acquired land. As the story unfolded on how these care workers came to be doing what they are doing, impressed is understating it. We learned that a few years ago, a few people in the valley were challenged to take on the mandate of caring for the sick, the widowed and the orphaned of Honde Valley. These few people have changed the landscape of the valley in an extraordinary way. They started meeting at our friend Farai’s land, under a mango tree. It is a humble beginning for what has evolved. For some time, they met and set out to do home visits from that mango tree. After a few months, they began to feel that they needed to find a central location in the valley, not only to meet and set out from, but also to begin feeding children from. The care workers had identified nearly 180 children in the area that were the poorest and most vulnerable. They assessed the children and began to feed 50 of those children daily, Monday to Friday, sometimes providing the only meal that these children would receive. As they found land and secured it through the local chief and headmen of the area, they began to dream. The dream involved bricks. Lots and lots of bricks. In fact, approximately 25,000 of them. Where does one find bricks in the Honde Valley? Right below your feet. One by one, the care workers dug out the red clay dirt of the land, moulded them by hand into bricks and fired them to become the building blocks of the structure we walked up to when we arrived. Bricks have become two buildings, one a small office for the care workers to work from, attached to a small classroom for gathering for training or for leading classes with children. The other building is the kitchen and dining area for the feeding program, although it’s much more than that. It’s the safe place where children come to get a meal, play with other children, get a break from the daily work and survival of life in the valley, and it’s a place where they are shown love and respect by the care workers who serve them, talk with them and offer them parental guidance and help with school work or the day’s issues. In many ways, it’s the home that these children don’t experience when they go to bed each night. The dreaming continues in the Honde Valley. There are plans underway for a piggery – four pigs – and chickens to provide an income to support the work that is happening in Pimai Caring Trust. There is also a plan for a community garden to teach kids gardening skills as well as to provide supplemental food for the feeding program. The care workers here cover many kilometres up and down the mountainsides of the Honde Valley, visiting the children and those who are sick or dying. They must use those kilometres to plan and dream because every step is bringing them closer to the reality.
25,000 + bricks were made by hand to provide a care point for the kids of Pimaii

Bricks drying in the sun...each made by the hands that serve the widowed and the orphaned of Honde Valley.

Volunteer Care Workers divided their time between home visits, cooking for the kids of Pimaii, and building bricks for the care centre. 

Some of the children of Pimaii look on while the care workers build a place for them.

Hauling water by hand, digging with simple tools, and filling molds by hand - these volunteers can honestly say that love built this care centre. There's no other reason that would compel them to give so much of themselves.

The care workers spent themselves on building the care centre so that the children of Pimaii could have a place to come, get a meal, get help with homework, play and be cared for by a loving adult.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Waking Up to Normal

 Angeline and Dillon in Zimbabwe - I love the way that Angeline has reorganized her life around Dillon's needs. I know that many parents have children with special needs but in places where food and income are scarce, it can be such an incredible challenge. Angeline is one of the most beautiful examples of motherly love I've ever encountered. She gave up a teaching position and is a volunteer care worker in her community so that she can spend the time with Dillon that he needs to get physical and mental stimulation. She's pouring out her very life so that he will grow up knowing he is loved and wanted. I loved the time I was able to spend with these two, particularly with my boys around as well. It meant a lot to me and Angeline's friendship is one I'll be sure to make a priority for the rest of my life.
 Sukai is my African best friend. I just love being around her, working alongside her, listening to her sing and pray and speak. She's a mother not just to the 7 children in her own household, but to many, many children in the surrounding areas. She is literally one of the people I admire most in the world. I'm so proud to call her my friend.
 Oh, Sis do I love thee? She is absolutely fabulous! She travels throughout the communities under her care in South Africa in style. She has become my style guru. This girl rocks leather boots, tights and a fur trimmed collar on the warmest of African days without breaking a sweat. Here she's decked out in traditional S. African beadwork for celebrations in Zambia. The times I laughed the hardest and longest in S. Africa were times spent driving with Fortunate and her hilarious stories and contagious laugh. I miss her every single day. I can't not smile thinking about her.
 In Amulo, we spent time with some beautiful care workers. One of the men I genuinely enjoy working alongside is Godfried. His smile is so beautiful and warm. He walks through his community and greets his neighbours and strangers with the same concern and caring. He made up a song to welcome newcomers to his community and he sang it for our family when we arrived. He's at his best with a child in his arms and that is often the case. Here, we're sat with Phostina and Christina at the school that they've started in their community, a school that when I went to Amulo in 2010 was still just a dream and an empty building that they'd had their eyes on.

These are a few images of people and places that are on my mind and in my heart when I wake up each day. When I wake up in the morning and the first few moments of the day bring the realization that I'm back in my comfortable bed with a large, brown dog laying on my feet, I'm never sure which way my mind will go. Many days I feel incredibly happy and safe and comfortable to wake up to such a thing, other days, I mourn the idea that this comfort means I'm so far from where I long to be.

We've been back in Canada for three weeks and it hasn't all gone smoothly. I'll be honest, it's been ugly for me at times. I can't seem to find that fit again, which I thought was something I was prepared for, but it's just as uncomfortable and disconcerting as it has ever been. I've wandered the bookstores and hit up the old favourite coffee shops in an attempt to find that place that brings me comfort but none of them feel the way I want them to.  I only feel that way walking into Mulenga or sitting in the presence of care workers tending to one of their patients or visiting with children. It's a rare thing to feel like you're in the exact right place at the exact right time. I am happy to experience that when I am in different communities. It doesn't have to be in Africa, but lately, that's where it has been for me.

Today, my third week back at work, I realized I have been on a slippery slope mentally. I can't believe I just typed that out...that's totally going to be used against me some day! It's true though, I've been playing games with myself trying to balance the life I have here, particularly my work life which revolves around consumerism and needless acquisitions of glittery, glamorous and good smelling things. I'm not going to lie, I love where I work. It's pretty. It smells good. And that's just the girls I work with! Today though, after searching for some time for a long sold out candle holder for a high maintenance customer, I reached the tipping point of the balancing game. Upon discovering that she would not be able to acquire a second $40 candleholder, she told me that it was "heartbreaking". I waited until she walked a few steps away and then I looked at my boss and said, "Heartbreaking? Children dying of starvation in Africa is heartbreaking, not being unable to buy another candle holder." Thankfully, my boss is a good person. She knows the root of my sarcasm and laughed and walked away, warning my coworkers that I might be about to snap. Thankfully, my customer was happy enough with her purchases she could make to get her out of the store without further heartbreak.

I realize though that I am seeing things through a different filter once again. Every time I go to Africa or hear stories coming out of Africa, the filter diffuses life here a little more and more. I am just beginning to wonder when life here will look so ridiculous that it will be unbearable or if it will become more and more palatable as time goes on. I don't know which is worse. Well, I do know...which is worse for me. I don't want to find it acceptable to mindlessly consume and spend without bettering anyone's life in the process. I don't want to be okay with acquiring and stuffing the empty spaces of our lives with stuff in an effort to drown out the voice within us all that says, "Something's wrong! Look around!"  It would be easier if I could come to terms with that but I'm not thinking that's going to happen anytime soon.

So, bear with me. I'm honestly trying not to be judgmental about how I look at the culture around us. I'm just trying to be discerning. If I tip the balance again, feel free to call me on it. Until then, I am going to hold on in this awkward position between worlds for a while.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Something to Celebrate

Yesterday, Jason and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary. When I say celebrate, I mean we had grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup around the island in our kitchen with the boys. A few months ago, we sold our dining table and a few barstools and some other pieces of furniture to help fund our travels to Africa. So, last night, as we were sat around the island, with me on a small ottoman with my chin even with the dishes, I realized how amazingly happy our choices have made me these days.

This is one of only about 3 or 4 wedding photos we have of ourselves. Several moves in our marriage had me packing our wedding photos into a small suitcase that finally didn't make the cull, and I sent it to a thrift store with photos included. Of course, I didn't discover that until several months later when I went to finally put together an album of our wedding...circa 2003. I knew exactly where I'd stored them and I even knew the thrift shop that they'd ended up in and sure enough, I called the thrift store and they confirmed that they had had wedding photos but that after a few months, they threw them out, thinking it was another marriage ended badly. Who can blame them? They held on to them longer than some people hold on to marriage.

When I look at myself in this photo, I love the girl that I was in so many ways. Young, energetic, and naively optimistic. I wish I could tell her that the man she is standing with will love her for at least 19 more years so she can stop looking over her shoulder or worrying if she's enough. I wish I could tell her that when they argue, he gets quiet and it's not will save a lot of sleepless nights. I'd tell her too that she'll need to store up on that sleep because when the boys come along, there will be a period of 7 years of sleeplessness that she will not remember how to sleep through the night. I want to tell her that her enthusiasm will mature into action, her naive optimism will change to hope in the midst of reality, and that her youth will be traded for wisdom.  I miss that girl a lot but I don't necessarily want to go back to being her. I see half the woman I am today...and not just physically! : )

Thinking back to our wedding, made me appreciate so many who were there with us as we said our vows. Particularly, those who have been mentors and examples, moving ahead of us in life and showing us things we incorporated into our own lives.  Parents and relatives that provided the blueprints of long marriages - both our parents celebrated their 25th anniversaries the year that we married. Men like Stewart Green and Mark Galbraith, who taught me so much just by being around them and developing a work ethic and outlook on life to accompany it that has stood me well over the years. Women like my Grandma Bowman, who recognized the mischievousness of the man I was marrying and loved him all the more for it, having raised three naughty boys of her own.  The beautiful girls alongside me for the day as bridesmaids are still a valuable part of my life, although we all live so far apart. I am who I am because of all the input that each of these have had in my life.

In a time where so many are looking for community and strong relationships, whether they realize it or not, it's been a gift to think that if we were to get married again today, we'd have so many of the same people on the guest list...and so many, many more. I think that is the anniversary gift that I am giving myself this remember and acknowledge and enjoy the guest list. We're all on the guest list of each others' lives...for celebrations and for sorrows but also for the mundane, the day to day monotony, the small interruptions, the gaps of distances and the major derailments of life.  It's not always a party but you definitely have a standing invitation to join us.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Then and Now

Sharon and Memory and I (excuse the hippie like hair!) in 2009.

 In 2009, when I was in Mulenga for the first time, my sister-in-law, Kim, and I were asked to host a young moms' workshop for some of the girls in the community who were either expecting a baby or had just had a baby. It was one of the highlights of my trip, first of all, working with my sister-in-law is just plain fun at any time but throw in conversations about sex, labour and babies and a language barrier and it gets really hysterical, very quickly. We held our little workshop in the home of one of the care workers and two of the care workers were there to interpret between Bemba and English, as well as to build relationships with these young women. We wanted these girls to have someone local to be able to come to and ask questions and express concerns, so that they would feel empowered to care for these little ones. One of the girls we invited was a young woman we had met several times as we passed her home. Her name is Memory and at the time, she had a very new little baby girl named Sharon. Memory was only a teenager when she found out that she was pregnant and she still lived in her parents' home. The father of the baby was gone and not likely to return. In 2010, I tried to find Memory but when I went to her parents' home, I learned that she had moved to another community in an effort to find work. I missed seeing her and Sharon but was hopeful for them that their lives were improving. A few weeks ago, returning to Mulenga for the first time on this trip, our family was walking with Blessings and Towela, when I recognized Memory in the road. She stared at me as we approached and as soon as I said her name, she was so surprised that I remembered her. I asked how Sharon was and she took me by the hand through a nearby gate and picked up a toddler-sized Sharon. She looks great and as Memory and I chatted, she just stared and stared. After a few minutes, we told Memory that we would be around Mulenga for the next few weeks so we made plans to catch up again. I snapped a quick photo of her and Memory together at their gate. I'm thankful for the chance to return to Mulenga, particularly when I can catch up with those that remain so firmly in my heart. It's encouraging to see Memory and her little girl doing well and making a life for themselves. I'm hopeful for them. And so grateful for our time together.

Sharon and Memory in 2012

Friday, June 8, 2012

Back to Work

It's always amazing to come home after having been away for a while only to find that everything has changed and nothing has changed. Some people see us and say, "Oh, you're back already?" and it reminds us that time moves quickly and slowly simultaneously. When we ask friends what's new, the first response is usually, "Nothing much" but as conversation allows, slowly we find out that babies are expected, houses have been purchased, internships secured, moves underway and life, as always, just keeps rolling along at the same pace. I went back to work this week and there have been a lot of changes and yet, so much the same. Many of the same sweet faces met me in the office this week and it was great to catch up. I know some staff have left and there are also some new faces but it was nice to be welcomed back just the same. Most people who come into my work tell me that they would love to work there too. It's shiny and pretty and full of all sorts of interesting and beautiful things...and, of course, it smells really, really good. But the absolute best thing about where I work is not a thing at all. I know that I've said it before but I really like the people I work with. I mean, REALLY like them. This is just one tiny example of why. Four months away, I come back and this little treasure awaits me...because while I was gone, it was Roll Up The Rim time at Tim Horton's. For those of you who aren't Canadian, this may not translate but it's akin to missing an annual ritual for committed coffee lovers. It's the time when coffee drinking is supposed to reward the faithful by showering them with free donuts and coffee and maybe even a bicycle if you're really lucky. To be honest, for me, it's just an excuse not to skip my morning coffee because it may be that one cup that leads to eternal financial freedom (or a free chocolate dip which is equally exciting!) This is what makes my workplace one of the places to really come home to..and why even if I did roll up the rim to eternal financial freedom, I'd probably still show up for work every day anyway.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In Between Home and Home

This is one of the last African sunsets we'll see for a while...taken just last week. How can it be that last week we were in Africa? I'm back with the same four walls around me that have been our home for the past five years and yet it feels so unfamiliar and strange. I told Jason this morning that I feel like we have to move back into our house in a different way. The furniture feels all wrong in its same old spot. I feel like everything should have shifted the way that our lives have. The boys went back to school yesterday and while they were excited and happy to see all their friends, when we asked them about their day, they both said that they felt like no one really asked too much about their trip. Easton and I went to Indigo just to wander around in one of our old haunts and as we did, he commented that one of the things I'd said about coming back was true, that everyone just wants a quick answer about how the trip was. We talked a bit about how we'd experienced so much in the four months but that for those who have been here, time has just gone by the way it normally does. I told him that as time goes on over the next days and weeks, he will have chances to tell his stories and share bits and pieces. It's a story that took four months to experience and will probably take months to share fully. I know I may have mentioned it before but I think my kids are pretty cool. I love the new confidence and happiness that Easton has found in learning about others and himself. I love how Aidan just nonchalantly walks back into a classroom and the lives of his friends, heading over to Joel's after school to hang out with Joel and Jan, as if no time has passed between them. Today, I'm thankful for the fact that we didn't sell the house. While it's strange to be back in the four walls, at least we have four walls. Weeding the yard, walking the dog and unpacking boxes has given my hands something to do while my mind races all over the place, between Sekubva and Stepney Cr. and everywhere in between. I can't slow my mind down, I have to let it run its course. In the meantime, I try to write down the things that need to be done so that I can find my way back into life here. There's nothing here that is so far removed from Africa that it doesn't bring moments and people back in the time it takes my mind to connect the dots. Checking the oil in our Ford brings me to a middle of the night journey to Zambia, waking Nede from where she slept on the engine compartment of an overcrowded van full of Zimbabweans, to add oil as the engine light flashed red on the dashboard. Pulling weeds puts me in a community garden in Mulenga alongside care workers that I love. Turning on the windshield wipers instead of the signal lights puts me back on the roads anywhere in Africa, driving on the left and passing on whichever side affords the best route. A small Nigerian boy waving to me from his shopping cart seat in Superstore brings me to tears and as I chat with him and his mom, he holds my finger and I'm right back in any community with small black fingers curled around mine. I linger in the imported food aisle staring at bags of corn meal and rice that would provide a care point food for kids for months and I think of Elizabeth stirring, stirring, always for a hundred kids in Mulenga over the fire outside her home, with Nkosi on the arm of whichever child is closest to guide him sightlessly around. I know that time and work and life are going to calm my racing mind and soothe my aching heart but for now, I'll let them race and ache and long and remember. I'm going to poke around my memories to keep that ache fresh and not let it heal seamlessly. I am praying for a scar or a limp that will set me apart for those we've seen and served and walked alongside, one that people will see and ask, "What happened to you?" so that I can speak of how I've been broken and what it has meant in my life.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


We left Africa on Tuesday and arrived Wednesday in Winnipeg to our beloved Honeybunn at the airport. Carly was part of our orientation and it was so good to spend a bit of time with her and her dad...who seriously resembles Tom Hanks! Our time together was short but I know that having spent time with Carly in Africa means that our lives are going to be intertwined for a long, long time. We spent a night with Jason's sister, Kim, and family in MacGregor. After the shock of seeing our dog's significant weight gain, we just couldn't drive! Just kidding...she is a little chunkier but I have to think that there is a comparison to African dogs in our minds as well that may be contributing to the image of our svelte Lab turning into a barrel bellied girl. Kim tried to convince us that Charlie is an emotional eater and that that is the reason for her gain. We also had to wait in MacGregor for our luggage to catch up to us. We'd last seen it in Washington, D.C., so we knew that it had hit North America but all bets were off as to when it would find its way to Winnipeg. While I was on the phone Thursday morning with United Airlines, being told that the luggage was in the airport in Winnipeg ready for us to come get it, the luggage apparently miraculously appeared at the local hardware store in small town MacGregor by bus. So, the owner of the hardware store, Herb, called his wife at home to get my sister in law's home number so he could let us know. Thanks for saving us the hour and a bit drive to the airport, Herb, only to find that it was already in MacGregor. So, we packed up and headed to the lake where Jason's parents live. We had a couple relaxing, beautiful days by the lake. Charlie swam, I waded, we ran, we walked, we huffed and puffed up and down the fields together. I loved having my sidekick back, particularly in a place where I can run through fields with no fear of spitting snakes, baboon spiders or crocodiles in the marshes. The most fearful animal I ran into was a muskrat and he made his way stealthily around us. We went to the Killarney bull riding rodeo with Monique and family and experienced the best of small town rodeo culture complete with rodeo clown and ringside seats, close enough to get snotted on by flailing bulls. We drove home this morning with our Charlie and a few new to us pieces of goalie equipment from my nephew, Mitch. Nothing like a dog and some smelly hockey gear to get you back in touch with your Canadian roots. Throw in a Tim Horton's in Moosimin and I was ready to sing the national anthem the rest of the way home. We're now watching the Stanley Cup finals, eating pizza and feeling like maybe we never really left. There's much to unpack, not the least of which are the boxes of stuff we packed in anticipation of selling our home for the adventure. There will be many stories to come. For now, picture us here, trying to get our heads around the amount of clothing in our closets, food in our pantry and water coming from the tap. We're revelling in the riches that we've taken so for granted. A roof over our head, rooms to sleep in, a door that locks and no real reason to lock it.