Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Little More Now and Then

Little did I know that the children that I met in 2009 would become such an important part of my daily life years later.  The numbers we hear about statistically have become "our" kids and our life includes their lives. Removed as we are, an ocean and a continent away, it's not always easy to keep these friends and loved ones in the forefront of our day to day lives and yet, that is exactly where they belong.

In the past few years, friends, family and acquaintances in Saskatoon have supported the care workers in Mulenga by funding 80 children to receive the three essential services that Hands at Work trains care workers to provide. Together, we have built a school which now provides free schooling to 120 students that would not have access to an education. We have also bought a hammer mill which grinds maize into the mealie meal that provides a daily meal for the children and also generates a small income for the care workers and their organization. The hammer mill sits on a piece of land owned by one of the care workers. It will not only bring some sustainable income to the community based organization, but also provide a valuable service to an area of Mulenga that found young children and old women carrying heavy bags of maize a long way to have it ground into useful mealie meal, and then carrying the heavy bags back again. 

This year, it's our goal as Hands at Work here in Saskatoon, to provide the funding for 120 children to receive the three essential services. It costs $20 a month to provide one child with access to education through the community school, home visits in which they receive caring visits, parental guidance and medical support when needed, and a meal a day at the care point, where they are able to eat, play and get homework and other support from their care workers. If you want to get involved, just send a cheque to the Hands at Work Canada or USA addressed on the sidebar and write "Mulenga, Zambia" in your memo line and they will send you more info on direct deposits, etc.

Here are a few pics of some of the children that we are currently supporting...from 2009 until 2012. We're watching them grow and develop and flourish...and that is something I literally can't put a price on. I love these kids. I wish each of you would be able to come with me and walk with these kids, see where they live, what they endure and how they thrive with  love and education and food.

I met Natasha in 2009 when I first arrived in Mulenga. She was friendly and cheerful - wearing a dirty green dress and playing in the clay with her friends. At the end of one of our first days, she and her friends showed off their dollies that they had fashioned out of the clay they sat in. Bits of yarn and sticks, small fragments of fabric formed the babies that they carried around proudly, sometimes even tying them to their backs with a small piece of fabric, shitenga style, just like the mothers of Mulenga. 

I found out on this trip that my friend, Natasha, is actually the eldest sister of my dear little friend, Eva. Why I had never seen the resemblance, I have no idea! They are very alike physically. On this last trip, Natasha took me to see Eva in her new school setting. As we walked, we talked a little about how quiet Eva is and she said that Eva is the quietest in their household. Natasha said that little Josh is the noisiest and even the new baby, Calibo, was noisy at home, but Eva, she rarely said anything. I asked Natasha if she remembered me taking this first photo (below) and she laughed and said somewhat shyly, "Yes".
I told her that I would send her a copy of both of these photos so she could see how she's grown. What she may not see is how I see her, changed from a small laughing girl playing in the clay, to a young almost-woman walking with the poise and stride of a woman twice her age. She's beautiful and vulnerable which is both encouraging and frightening. The care worker I walked with alongside Natasha told me later that they are building strong relationships with Natasha and her mother in an effort to protect Natasha from having to leave school and work around the home, circumstances that would increase her vulnerability in the coming years as she grows into womanhood. The care workers know that educating the girls and teaching them basic health about their changing bodies, will give them a chance to bypass the incredible odds that challenge young women in communities like Mulenga.

Natasha and her friends show us their clay dolls in 2009
Natasha in 2010
When I first met Emmanuel in 2009, we were crouched on a small, low bench in a dark shanty. Emmanuel was tall and quiet, with his knees nearly touching his chin as he sat with us on the bench inside the doorway of the small home he shared with his aunty, her husband and their children. He sat next to me by chance and I could see him surreptitiously glancing at me from the corner of his eye. He would look away if I caught his eye but again and again, I could see him sizing us up. We spoke for a while with his aunty, just young herself, as she told us the story of how she had convinced her husband to take in Emmanuel when his mother, her sister, passed away. Her husband agreed but he did not provide much for Emmanuel other than leftover food and a place to sleep on the floor. Emmanuel's aunty wept as she spoke with us, unable to provide for Emmanuel to go to school because she could not afford to buy him shoes which were necessary for attendance at the government school. She wept with gratitude that he was able to attend the new community school because, on her own, she felt that she was not providing Emmanuel with the life she felt he deserved. She was also grieving the recent loss of her own six month old baby just weeks before.  She was grateful for the chance to talk about it with the care workers who came to visit the family. The home was physically dark but it was also really an emotionally heavy place - grief lived in the walls and permeated the silence in between the limited conversations. When the care workers visit, there is conversation and even smiles, however timid.  I asked Emmanuel what he liked to do everyday, he said he liked being with his friends. When I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he told me he wanted very much to be a doctor. Something in me believes that he will be, regardless of his circumstances.  I snapped this first photo of Emmanuel and his buddy, Christopher, at the community school in Mulenga, where they now attend school.   On our most recent visit to Mulenga, Emmanuel saw us and came to greet us right away as we arrived at the care point. He is a head taller than he was just a year ago and he smiles readily. I watch him on our numerous visits to the community and I see a young man who has confidence and cares for those around him. He is a quiet leader with a warm smile, that the little guys in this community look to for guidance. I watch him wrangle small boys into a quivering line waiting for their meal at the care point. I watch as he leads Nkosi, the eldest care worker who is blind, around the care point and through the streets of Mulenga. I watch him eating his meal and chatting with the group of friends around him, the same boys that have been sharing meals and living life together for the three years that I've known him. I'm not sure Emmanuel realizes that it's now me being sneaky and watching him closely. I'm not sizing him up as he was me...every glance confirms to me the power of love and attention and education in the lives of these kids. I see a boy growing into a gracious man - a beautiful thing in a country that has lost a generation of men. When I look at Emmanuel, I see hope for a future. 

Emmanuel and Christopher - in 2009
David and Emmanuel in 2011

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Summertime...and the living is easy

We're fully into summer here in Canada. Sunny skies, summer storms and long hours of sunlight. It's amazing. 3 out of 4 people surveyed in our house say they are incredibly happy to be home. As usual, I'm outnumbered in my longing to be in Africa, particularly somewhere between Zimbabwe and Zambia, most days.

I can't say I'm not happy to be back, I am. I'm enjoying my dog, my neighbours, my job, my ability to have a Timmie's on a whim, flush toilets and showers. I am grateful for all of these things almost hourly, and that is what brings me happiness on days that the longing for Africa brings me such aching longing.

I know that life in Canada is an extreme contrast to life in Africa but it doesn't mean that things here don't remind me of our time there.  Coffee here brings me to the morning hunt for coffee or figuring out the best way to make it with limited resources and utensils! Driving is a joy after four months of not having our own vehicle. I know how spoiled I am to be able to pick up and go for a drive whenever I want, even if it's just en route to work. Even at work, the place that is the most polar opposite to our African experience, I am reminded. It comes in the questions of coworkers, comments from customers, even in the plethora of items from all over the world, I find myself drawn to the globes we sell and tracing the distance between here and there with my finger.

I came home from work the other evening to find the boys playing soccer in the front yard. Nothing unusual, the same gang of street punks that run in and out of our house were in attendance. As I pulled into the garage, I realized what was different. They were playing the game that Arthur and Owesi and Nathan Tembo taught them in Luyansha, Zambia. I'm glad I'm not the only one with reminders of our time and friends and family in Zambia.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Toy Story

Obviously in communities where there is little food, scarce water and even scarcer families intact, not a lot of children have even seen toys, never mind owned one of their own. So, creativity abounds even in desolate places and we are constantly amazed at the beautiful toys that the kids create from the very dirt and litter around them.

This little guy has a truck fashioned out of a discarded "Shake Shake" carton. When I first came to Zambia, I was amazed at the amount of milk that Zambians drank. They hung empty cartons on trees and near bars and in small roadside stands to advertise milk. Finally, after a few weeks, I figured out that these blue, red and white cartons don't contain milk but a yeasty brewed alcohol! So much for calcium! The brew has earned the nickname "Shake Shake" for the colourful instructions across the top of the carton. With flower buds and sticks for wheels and a piece of unwound mesh from a maize sack, the "Shake Shake" truck becomes a source of hours of entertainment for this shy little friend.

In Zambia Compound, Zambia, Esnaut's grandsons play outside the home/school that their grandmother houses and teaches at. Here they have fashioned couches and beds and even a television (with a colour picture in it) out of the clay that covers their yard.  The television below shows a picture of Obama in it and also a little bed fashioned out of clay. The pictures in the tv's are small scraps of paper moulded into the clay. So cute!

 And while many photos show young African children rolling bicycle wheels down the road with sticks, our friend, Luckson, was more a big rig kind of guy. He had a full sized tire and took it everywhere with him! He could really get that thing going and everywhere we went that down, throughout the village, we were accompanied by Luckson and his tire, jogging out in front.

It's quite unusual in most of these villages to find store bought toys. Imagine my surprise when we saw a small boy carrying around a muzungu baby! He shared it with me and we were all surprised by the eery resemblance! Cathy couldn't resist this shot! 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Goodbye Annie

The kids being kids...Annie is pictured here in the blue shirt.

Evalyn and her beautiful family in 2009

This week we learned that our friend, Evalyn, has lost her third eldest daughter. When we were in Mulenga just over a month ago, the first home we went to visit was Evalyn's. We had heard that Annie was very sick and when we arrived, we were met by two of her sisters who, although very happy to see us, were definitely looking very strained and saddened. When we went in to their home to see Annie, we knew why.  While Evalyn was at work during the day, Memory and Prescovia were care givers to their dying sister. There wasn't a lot they could do to make Annie comfortable or pain free so they just spent their time with her, praying for her and watching over her.
Home visits are difficult at the best of times but when you know the patient before she was sick, to walk into a room and see her in such a weakened state, it took my breath away. I was acutely aware that the boys were with me and experiencing it alongside me. I sat and held Annie's hand for a long time. I can remember how her hand felt in mine even now. When I left the room I didn't know if I would even see her the next time I was in Mulenga, just a few days later. We were able to see her once more and thankfully, she was even a little more responsive the second time. Again, I just knelt by her and held her hand. When I said goodbye the last day we were in Mulenga,  it was difficult. I knew it was our final goodbye. I knelt beside her and kissed her head and rubbed her back and told her how much we loved her. How Kim loved her. How we missed her when we were apart.  She squeezed my hand and whispered her words back to me and we left her there,  knowing it was the last time we'd see her in Mulenga.  Looking back, I'm thankful that we were able to spend time with Annie when she was well.  I can remember her laughing.  I remember her goofing around with Ashley and Prescovia.  My sister in law had stayed with this family while we were in Mulenga the first time. It's a friendship that still means so much to all of them. In fact, when we arrived, someone ran to fetch Ashley, the son of the family, and he came running home thinking Kim had arrived! He was only mildly disappointed to see us...and happy to meet Kim's brother! (Jason)
My heart physically hurts today thinking about this beautiful family with such a gap in their midst.
Many of us don't even realize what we've lost in the death of such a girl as Annie.
What we lose every day throughout Africa.
We lose a lot of "if only's" and "could have been's" and "should have been's"...not the ones born of regret out of not doing something you could have or should have...the ones born out of never having had the chance to.
I can't ask you to mourn what you didn't know you lost.
I can ask that you remember Annie today and maybe just a few days going forward, and when you do, do the things that you can do and should do. There's enough of those lost in the world without us adding to them.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

First Fourth In Six

Yesterday, our American friends celebrated the Fourth of July. Independence Day. Over the past few years, the Fourth of July was a painful reminder of the day we finished packing up our first house into a UHaul and drove out of Nevada. The fourth of July for the past five years have been days with tears and sadness mixed with longing for our "hometown" of Sparks and all our friends and kids there.

Yesterday, marked six years since I cried all the way from Nevada to Oregon and on into Washington.  It's the first day in six years that I haven't spent the day longing and looking back tearfully. Do I still miss Sparks? Yes. I miss our friends there and distance is hard, it takes its toll on even the closest of friendships. The difference this year is that I am nothing but appreciative of my friends south of the border. The friendships that have spanned the roughest few years of my life, despite the distance, those are the kinds of friendships you just don't come across everyday.  The fact that more than a few of those types of friendships came out of our time in Nevada is amazing. I don't take it for granted.

Happy Independence Day, my friends. For me, it's a different kind of freedom I'm celebrating today.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Feverish Dancing

Easton, Simba and friends race in the field of the care centre.

This morning, I woke with Zimbabwe on my mind. Sometimes when I dream I'm back in Africa, I wake up disappointed by my comfortable bed. I try not to be but I do spend a lot of waking moments thinking about our friends and loved ones across the ocean.  In particular, this morning, I woke thinking of Sukubva. I loved our time in Zimbabwe and perhaps most of all, our time in Sukubva simply because I wasn't expecting to love it so much. I knew I would love Honde Valley and the rural landscapes and mountains. The idea of an urban area and its unbelievable density didn't seem like my scene. I could not have been more wrong.

First of all, as I may have mentioned a thousand times or more, there are no more welcoming and friendly people in the world than Zimbabweans. So, times that by the few hundred we met in the streets of Sukubva and it was an incredibly overwhelming sense of being long awaited and welcomed home.
I set out today to put together an album of our time in Zimbabwe to remind us of our time there. I wondered how Easton would perceive the album because to be honest, most of the time we were in Zimbabwe, we all got pretty sick, Easton worst of all. He was at the mercy of some sort of stomach bug that pretty much wrenched his whole body into submission. Obviously, looking back at our time in Zimbabwe,  it's not pleasant to think about being sick. I think of the nights in which Easton would just shiver and sweat beside me, writhing in pain and crying.  It hurt my heart to watch him suffer and knowing I could do nothing to ease it for him, he just had to get through it. Unfortunately, it took a few days to get out of his system but it was enough to make him afraid to eat or drink anything and so his body just didn't recover as quickly as the rest of us did.

Today, I was amazed by the photos I found of Easton in Sukubva. I cried looking at them because I remember the day that many of these were taken. Easton was a little on the crabby side of things and couldn't really muster a whole lot of polite conversation. The care workers were concerned about him and his lack of energy and kept at us to make sure he was drinking and eating enough when all he really wanted to do was lay on the seat of the car and rest. He walked the community with us which was a lot to ask and even at one point, had to give in to his body and use the "facilities" which was a life altering experience for him in itself.

Later in the day, we gathered at the care centre and ate with the care workers and Easton joined in and sat with his friend, Dillon, and did his best to be part of what we were doing although I know that he was aching just to go back to the home we were staying in and rest.

The next day, still not himself, we went back to the care centre where all the kids that the care workers visit and care for, were invited to join us for games and just time to play and be together in a large group. They came and because their homes are spread throughout the area, they were a little shy at the start. Having visited many of them in the days leading up to the gathering, many of them recognized our family and their care workers and looked to us for company. It was a good opportunity to bring the children together and give them time to be kids away from their day to day lives. In the morning, Easton wasn't sure how he was feeling and was reluctant to go along. We didn't have an option for him so along he came. The photos are proof of how amazing he was that day in Sukuvba. I look at them and it honestly brings tears to my eyes. I only remembered how sick he was and how many times he came to seek shade and rest in the centre. I remembered him being crabby and quiet, ornery and obstinate, but when I look at the photos, I am embarrassed at the way I remembered the day.  I see a kid that literally ran races in the heat, held children, danced and engaged. The photos of him dancing and playing games are witness to how he forgot himself and his own discomfort and just fully engaged in what was going on around him. There are literally dozens of photos like faced, sweating,  dancing, playing, running and just being part of the whole thing.  I know he was still feverish and shivering at points during the day and I remembered him through the lens of my own worry and frustration at his sickness and grumpiness. I'm so grateful I captured the reality of the day through the lens of the camera. Sometimes being behind the camera gave me the option to get my emotions in see things objectively. Thankfully, the photos that came out of this day in Sukubva allow my emotions to catch up with the very real image of my son. All that he gave of himself to the children of Zimbabwe that day pales in comparison to the amazing gift he's given me to be his mom and to see him for who he truly is, from the comfort of my living room in Canada. Am I glad I brought my kids half way across the world, far from this comfort? Unbelievably so. Looking back at some of our worst, most uncomfortable days? Here they are. See for yourself. Unbelievable? Absolutely.

Dancing with the care workers and children in Sukubva...this photo makes
me tear up every single time I see it - such a beautiful day we had.

Easton finally worked up the courage to hold his friend, Dillon. Dillon responded to Easton's
voice and would smile and look for him when he heard it.

Taking a little break in the shade of the
care centre shelter. Still smiling.

Easton racing with his friends at Sukubva, Zimbabwe.

Easton and Priscilla, the amazing coordinator of the community based organization
in Sukubva, Zimbabwe. 

Easton expressing his amazement at the meal
that Aidan prepared for us.

Jason and Easton in the shade of sugar cane.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

     Sylvie and I met just over a year ago. She had just given birth to the cutest little twins, Isaac and Isaiah. We spent a few days a week together for several months and it has turned into a beautiful friendship for us. Sylvie and her husband, Bass, spent months apart while the Canadian government worked out the permanent resident status for her then 1.5 year old son, David.  Bass and David were in Rwanda while Sylvie and the twins were here. When Bass and David were finally able to join them, they ended up needing a place to stay for three weeks. Jason and the boys were in Ohio, so I moved into Aidan's room and the whole family moved in here. It was a great few weeks for me that went by far too quickly. Waking up each day with little guys in the house was a novelty and though I was at work most of the time, I came home to  play cars again with David and hold and feed babies and eat African food!

During the time that Sylvie was here on her own, a network of women went into action and supported her. Imagine grocery runs or doctor's appointments with brand new twins, in a Saskatchewan winter, no vehicle and very little idea of your new surroundings. The women around her made sure she had help with the babies, with rides and meals, and most of all...just having someone to call if she needed something. None of these women are bored or have little to do, they just exemplify the characteristics that make me proud to be Canadian. Welcoming. Open. Friendly. Helpful.  They jumped in when Sylvie arrived in Canada and made her welcome. They helped pack up her things as she moved back to Rwanda for Bass to finish out a work contract and they welcomed her back last week on their return.

Yesterday, we celebrated Canada Day with a backyard bbq at our house with Sylvie and the boys. We celebrated the fact that all of them have their permanent resident status now. We so thankful to live in a country where people from so many different countries are welcomed. As I look around our neighbourhood and our boys' school, I see so many countries represented and it's a beautiful picture of the type of country I'm so proud of.

Today, Canada Day, I'm off to work with a Timmie's double double and a maple dip in hand and a genuine happiness for the friends all over the world that just being Canadian has given me the opportunities to build.  Happy Canada Day everyone!