I have been assuming that since the visits to urban and suburban poor homes were so gruesome, today’s visits to the rural poor will be even worse. So I’m bracing myself. I keep remembering what Geoff and Cynthia said in South Africa, that the rural poor can only be reached after a half day of driving. Where are we going? I wonder.
Today my driver/interpreter of words and ways/mentor/kind person is called “M.” I don’t think his name has anything to do with James Bond, but I’m not sure. You never know about names in Africa. M is the programme director for Katherine and Peter’s organization. He is on leave, but has kindly agreed to return to work and spend the day with me. We get an early start and sure enough, he says we have a good four hours of driving ahead of us. We are on a tarmac road and the first few hours are easy. I settle back and actually fall asleep in the sun. When I wake up the terrain has changed to scrub and trees and high granite cliffs with gigantic boulders balancing on the edges of huge outcroppings. It looks like something a child might build with toy blocks, but giant-sized. M says this is part of a game park. It’s probably where Katherine wanted to take me on my first day here, but couldn’t because of the lightning storm.
On the way, M and I talk about a project he is particularly excited about. He doesn’t get the chance to visit these rural communities often and he says he is thankful to me for giving him the chance to follow up like this. Within a few sentences, I am excited as well. I sit up straighter, the fatigue and depression fall away and for the first time, I can see the hint of a story thread I might be able to use for the teen novel on aids survival.
This project is elegant in its simplicity. Goats and chickens are bought by local churches and given to orphans identified by local pastors. Each church organizes a mini-auction for the goats, then gives them to the child-headed households. Unusually, the orphans give these animals names. Two-and-a-half years later, each household gives back three kids. This is easy enough, since the does are already pregnant when the orphans receive them, and chances are, they will give birth at least twice during that period.
M tells me that often the orphans are shunned by their extensive family. “No one wants to look after orphans,” he says. When I ask why, he says in these rural areas there is a fear that the children of those who died of aids are contagious. He’s discovered though, that once the orphans receive their goats, these relatives suddenly start visiting them, instead of thinking, “Here they come, asking for more help. In Africa, if you don’t have domesticated animals, you have no worth as a human being. Personal worth is how many chickens, goats, cattle you have. With the goats, now the orphans are worth something.”
I’m thinking great things. I see a story about a boy, a goat and a gogo. I ask what kind of names the children give to their goats. M says goats hardly ever have names, but the orphans say these goats are special, so they call them names like they would a brother or sister. Or the names are based on a color or area, or to celebrate a certain day. I press him for examples and he says some of the goats are called, “Patience, Goodness, and Progress.”
The key here is that the goats multiply and supply milk which can provide much-needed protein, and the sale of one goat or 3-5 chickens will pay the school fees for one child. “Well, now that Mugabe has doubled the school fees, it will take two goats.” We are both silent for a little while. I think we are imagining just how devastating this doubling of school fees is for an entire generation, in terms of never being able to attend school.
Suddenly the highway ends! The pavement stops and signs point us to the side of the road. Now we start shaking up and down, in and out of moon-crater potholes, while a smooth gravel road runs parallel to us, down the middle of the stretch. But we’re not allowed to drive there because the sign says the road is being constructed. We drive on and on, but don’t see a soul working on the road. When I ask what happened, M says just before the last election the work on this road resumed, then after the election it stopped. “In Zimbabwe we look forward to elections because it means the roads go a little farther.”
When M turns away from this main track and an hour later turns off this dirt trail onto an even more obscure path, it suddenly dawns on me: Rural poor equals bush. We’re headed into the bush. As always, I don’t have a clue what to expect, but I’m thinking that if the suburban poor live in huts, then what do people in the bush live in?
The truck bounces up and down. M is clearly enjoying the trip. He even tells me he is happiest “out here.” I have to admit, I like where we are, too. This is the Africa I visited with Erik and the kids so often over the last 12 years, the Africa of wild animals and wild beauty, wild skylines, and wild wonder. Baboons cross in front of us, frowning like something was our fault. My rolled-down window lets in the sound of crickets. We pass through a savannah area with “kopjes,” or outcroppings of rocks that remind me of what we saw while game driving in the Serengeti. I ask M if he’s ever been there. He’s never left Zimbabwe, he says.
We pass donkeys grazing freely. There are no fences out here. Despite there being no road, a wagon drawn by a six-span of donkeys passes us going the other direction.
I ask about the chicken program. It is similar to the one for goats: A church gives an orphan family nine hens and one rooster. In two-and-a-half years they have to return five hens to the program, which are then, in turn, given to another family of orphans. They can use the chickens for eggs or meat and also sell them for school fees.
Since we’re spending so much time in the car and I’m feeling awake and bored, I ask all sorts of questions. How many chickens are worth a goat? Three to five. And ten goats equal one cow. Now for the super question: how much is a bride worth? M laughs, “You know about this?” It’s called lobola. An average price for a bride is six cattle. But I want to know even more: How is the price of a bride determined? That’s simple. “You look at the level of her education and her job to determine her worth.” I love it! No mention of her outward beauty or supposed virginity. The true worth of a woman is in her earning power. I think the Dutch and the Zimbabweans might have more in common than we all suspected.
But then I ask what happens if an orphan girl wants to get married. “Ah,” M says, “then the distant relatives suddenly become interested because the bride price, or lobola, goes to them.” I ask how he and his wife met? At Theological College. This confirms what I thought, that M is yet another pastor. But the story of him and his wife is unusual. She was herself an orphan. When his wife was seven, her stepfather killed her mother and the little girl was taken into a Children’s home, where Katherine used to work as a nurse. Katherine watched her grow up and helped arrange a scholarship for her. Now M and his wife have four children: three sons 1, 2, and 5, and a daughter who is 8. The daughter is called Cleansed One, and the eldest son is called Blessed One.
I ask M what he used to do. He was a logistician and before that, a health worker.
All this while we weave back and forth, and bounce up and down on what has long become nothing but a path between the thorn bush. Then I see a clearing, and in the clearing is a house, a stone house with a veranda. A house like you might see in Europe or North America. A square house with windows and a door and a roof, made of bricks that have been plastered over. Around it runs a fence. Inside the fence are two additional outbuildings, and a pen made of thorn-bush branches like I saw yesterday. We pull up to the fence and shut off the motor. It feels like we’ve been driving for five hours.
We get out and walk up to the house. Chickens with chicks and two roosters enjoy the shade of the veranda. The sun beats down on us, hot and strong. M calls out, but no one is home. “Did they know we were coming?” I ask. He says, “No. There’s no way of reaching people out here.” I ask about the house, so out of place in the middle of the bush. He says it’s part of the old Zimbabwe. I think about this for a moment, and realize what he means is white-ran Rhodesia. So this is a house built by a white homesteader. I try out my theory. When was it built? “In the fifties.” Bingo.
A woman emerges from the bush beyond the fence. She greets M and they talk for a while as I watch the chickens. When he returns, he says that the woman we are to meet has gone to tend her garden. Someone has been sent to fetch her. I don’t see someone fetching her. In fact, I don’t see anyone at all out here, except this one woman who’s gone indoors and emerges with two chairs for us. I do notice there’s no glass in the windows and no lock on the doors. That’s a big difference to the town homes I’ve been in with their gates and security systems. The veranda belongs to the chickens, so M places these chairs in the half-shade beside the veranda, and when that gets too hot, we move beneath a tree full of birds near the fence.
I’ve been careful to drink water during the drive, and to my relief the weather is so dry, my body has absorbed all the water. It’s one thing to ask your husband to pull over so you can pee behind the jeep, but I was dreading asking this pastor the same question. It isn’t even necessary.
So we sit. And wait. I have no more questions. Instead, I write in my notebook: So peaceful. Crickets. Heart of my heart. My Africa. Wood fire smoke carried on soft breeze. Tinkle of goat’s bell. Chickens. Chicks. Birds singing. Cluck. Cluck. People’s voices. A cock crows. Scribbling in the sand. I wonder why. Came to this windswept place and sat beneath a leafy tree on brown padded metal chairs to wait for an hour as goats and chickens passed us by in this story of hope in Aids World.