When I open my balcony door a cold wind sweeps into the room—really cold—as in Dutch cold. It must have dropped at least 15 degrees (C.) overnight. I grab the only sweater I brought to Africa and my light rain jacket as I close the room door behind me. Outside the hotel, Katherine is already waiting for me in the truck. She is bundled up in at least three layers of wool. “What happened to the weather?” I ask. She says, “It’s winter!” and laughs. She has brought an extra “jersey” for me in case I didn’t have any warm clothes. Only two days ago we were sweating in 40-degree (C.=104 degrees F.) weather. She says, “This happens sometimes in November.” My head is full of the images of the previous afternoon as I wonder about all the families sleeping outside on such a cold night. I ask, how cold is it? Katherine says, 8 degrees (C.=46 degrees F.)
We pull up to the office and a group of three boys wave at Katherine from across the street. They are wearing school uniforms: shorts and thin V-neck sweaters. They shiver in the wind, but smile big as Katherine and I wave back. “Who are they?” I ask. She says, “Some of our orphans.”
I am leading the devotions that morning. I tell Katherine, Leonard, Susan, Peter and the other staff about the women in Liberia who have prayed every morning in the Monrovia football stadium. They met at 10 a.m.—all women—Muslim and Christian—to pray for peace—and the 14-year-long war ended. And then to pray for a good president—and a woman president was elected fairly. And now to pray for healing. I tell them about the members of the persecuted church I’ve met in the Middle East, and about Open Doors and Brother Andrew. And we talk about Galatians 5:1. We pray for pastors throughout Zimbabwe, and for a proposal Katherine must finish for a sponsoring NGO (non-governmental organization) in The Netherlands.
After devotions Katherine says she sees part of her ministry is to prepare the younger generation of Zimbabwe for a persecuted Church future. She talks about how the government media confuses Christians in Zimbabwe. “Everyone is slightly exhausted, so it’s easy to sacrifice clarity and unity for other agendas. Church leaders mustn’t compromise. We can’t expect to work with the government and not have the message diluted.”
One of the staff workers leaves for the registry office and everyone gathers around her to wish her success. In this country where the banks don’t work, the emails are censored, phones tapped, petrol tanks of cars are empty and pharmacies without drugs, I learn it is also near impossible to obtain a birth certificate for a baby. And without a birth certificate, a child can’t be registered for school. And now that the government has doubled school fees, the majority of children who did manage to attend school, will no longer be able to afford it. “An uneducated generation is less likely to rebel,” Katherine tells me when I ask her about this.
When I ask about the banks, she says the banks purposely cause delays in money transfers so they can make more money. Funds often simply disappear in these “overnight profits” for the banks. When I ask about receipts, she says, “Receipts are so foreign to this culture.”
I ask Peter about the little boy who showed up at their home over the weekend. He says he’s been talking to the father and they haven’t decided yet what would be best. “It’s such a burden for a small child to think where will I sleep? The father says, ‘I can’t care for you. Full stop.’ He’s only 9 years old.”
Today the man who will drive me around is himself also a pastor. And his name means Salvation. In the car I ask about his personal background, and he tells me how he became a Christian when he was 10, went to school, served as a youth minister, worked as a carpenter and has been in fulltime ministry since 2002. “I’m happy and at peace,” he says. He has two girls—8 and 3, and twin boys who are 5. His wife is a tailor. They met at college. She heads the women’s ministry at their church.
Salvation says in his church there are 85 families with orphans—that means child-headed households or homes with gogos raising their grandchildren. He estimates that more than half of his congregation is HIV+. I flash to my own church and picture everyone I know, then imagine that half of them are HIV+. My heart sinks.
Katherine has set up a diverse schedule for me. Yesterday I visited city slums. Today we leave the city and visit villages outside the city. Tomorrow I will visit rural areas. I remember Cynthia and Geoff in South Africa warning me that “rural” means a half day of driving. Well, that’s tomorrow. Today I concentrate on what I call “suburban poor,” as opposed to yesterday’s “urban poor.”
On the main road between here and there we pass donkeys and must slow down for longhorn cattle as they amble alongside us. When we turn off the paved road and onto an orange-dirt track, it is gutted with potholes. We pass a field full of white egrets and it reminds me of the storks in Poland during an autumn harvest. We pass a little girl bouncing on a skippy ball—no adults in sight.
We arrive in the village and Salvation parks the truck beside a fence made of thorn-bush branches leaning together. The heating has been on in the truck and as I open the door, the cold grabs at my bare legs under the long skirt. The woman who comes out to meet us is bundled in a winter coat with turtle-neck sweater underneath and what looks like several more layers. It is so cold it makes me think she must be wearing every piece of clothing she owns.
I’m trying to remember how I felt when I got out of the car that day. I know I felt dread and despair. I still had to get through that day’s village visits, plus the next day’s rural visits, before I could go home. Well, it wasn’t going home so much, as leaving Zimbabwe, that obsessed me. I remember thinking, Kind Salvation has sacrificed a day to spend with me. Everyone I meet is so busy, but so gracious. The least I can do is get my act together and be alert. I remember my trip to Srebrenica in Bosnia, and how my story was waiting for me on that particular day when a particular woman returned home for the first time in seven years and just happened to arrive at her brother’s house, where I just happened to have stopped and asked for lunch. Maybe this village would hold a similar story. So I follow Salvation and this woman into a sort-of courtyard with round huts like you might find in a picture from a children’s book about Africa
Huts. Round huts with a pointed roof. Smooth walls on the outside. I duck low to enter the doorway. A fire in the middle of the one room. I look up at a charred black ceiling with no chimney. Instead pieces of branches and bush hang above us, covered in soot. Smoke fills the home from the fire with a grill covering it, and a pot on top of that. Salvation has brought some food with him, a sack of corn, it looks like. Three women sit on the ground. One holds a baby. A hand-crank sewing machine holds the place of honor. I sit on a low, wooden stool. Even out here, where Salvation tells me people are lucky to have one meal a day, the women offer me food. There is no electricity. No running water. No bathroom. Just one round room with stripes and flowers painted on the inside in orange-brown. A set of shelves stands opposite me, holding mugs and bowls and pans.
I don’t know what to ask. My eyes water from the smoke. I am tired of seeing hungry, hurting people. And now today, they are also cold. My hand strokes the sewing machine. I’ve never seen a hand-crank like this one before. Foot-pedal yes. It gleams black. The largest woman smiles at me. My hand seems to have found her pride and joy, despite my reluctance to engage with these women. I smile at the baby and the young woman holding him warms his bare, chubby feet in her hand. I say, “It looks like they’re expecting to have a party,” pointing at all the mugs on the wall. Salvation translates and everyone laughs. I look up again and against the backdrop of charred hay in the ceiling, I see corn hanging in clumps.
It turns out the woman of traditional build squatting beside the sewing machine is a caregiver. She wears a bright purple cotton track suit top, red, yellow, blue, purple swirl-patterned skirt and a red-and-white knitted cap on her head. Everyone is barefoot. I count the flowers painted on the wall. To be a caregiver means she has taken the volunteer training given by Katherine’s organization. She’s one of the people with nothing who said she wanted to do something, and now has 5 aids orphan families she looks in on near the village. The young mother with the baby is 19. All three women are concerned about school fees, but finding food for their children is their greatest challenge. I remember Katherine saying she had to start giving food at the workshops because you can’t train people who are starving.
I ask Salvation about the cost of attending school in this area. Primary school costs 1800 Zim$ (less than €1), and secondary school costs 6000Zim$ (€3). Even this is a huge burden. When you have nothing, anything is too much.
There is much laughter during our conversation about sewing and food and firewood. The 19-year old is breastfeeding. All three women are covered in several layers of clothes. When I ask about the sewing machine, the caregiver says it is hard to get fabric and thread. I think, this is her own little business. I see a precious tape measure and stash of thread in a corner. I ask the 19-year old how she helps her mother: watering the garden, fetching firewood. The water is close, she says, but she walks 6 km every day for firewood. I remember seeing few trees as we approached the village—it stands in a barren plateau.
Salvation and I take the 19-year old with us when we return to the truck. She climbs into the back, which is covered, and waves at everyone we pass. Actually, we stop and Salvation says something to everyone we pass, too. I’m pretty interesting. He knows these people from his visits. He knows the homes and the child-headed households, and the problems, and where people would be most willing to talk with me. So he’s done my footwork for me.
We bounce around on dirt tracks. The sky is heavy with this cold front that has filled the horizon with dark, high clouds, sealing the cold below. I look out at a barren landscape, thorn bush, a few high trees, hard, drought-cracked earth, the dirt road before us winding out of sight. All that breaks the harsh surroundings are these round huts, dotting open space here and there. Sometimes beside them stand animal pens made of thorn-bush branches interwoven into a fence. And sometimes surrounding the round huts and pen and outhouse is a broken fence made of tree branches. We pass a woman walking with a jerry can of water on her head, children in shorts holding pencils in their hands and using them like toothbrushes. No one for a while, and then another hut with a fence, and Salvation pulls in here.
At this child-headed household, which means all the children are orphans and there is no adult to care for them, the granny is blind. This means the eldest, who is 12, has a doubly heavy burden. She must care not only for her younger siblings, but also for their gogo. Find food, raise school fees, fetch firewood and water. Of all the concerns, food is the highest priority. In town it was school fees. Out here it is food. I duck my head and enter the dark hut. The eyes of four children look at me from out of the smoky darkness. They are burning the precious firewood—the barren landscape stripped of trees all around us testifies how far they must walk to find fuel—to keep warm. The children and the grandmother sit on the freezing ground, all barefoot, huddled in clothes with brand names, sports teams and school logos from all over the world emblazoned on their fronts.
I remember what Leonard told me the previous day, as if the fact needed 24 hours before it could register: 80 percent of the aids orphans are being abused. I look at the girls, aged 9-12. I have heard stories of 18-month-old babies being raped. I think about little girls and men. Out here, there is no one to protect the children. Actually, in the cities and towns it is probably even worse. My mind will not let go of what it must be like to sleep in this hut at night and hear someone approaching in the dark. I catch myself wondering, which of these girls has not been raped?