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Africa, My Heart

(To read the beginning of this travel story, click on Aids survival, under Categories at the bottom of the Blogroll to the right, then scroll down to the bottom, click Next Page, scroll to the bottom again, click Next Page again, and start reading Sex with a Virgin.) Zimbabwe-Johannesburg, South Africa 9 November 2006 (Please keep in mind that I have changed names and deliberately left out the names of organizations and places in this Zimbabwe section of the Aids survival blog, in order to protect the people there.)

My last day. I will spend half of it in Zimbabwe, then fly back to Jo’berg, where I will wait until nearly midnight to fly home to Amsterdam. I am up early, and ask the woman at the front desk if I can have the room until later in the afternoon. No problem.

Here in The Netherlands as I type this, I’ve decided not to go into any detail about what happened that last morning. At the organization office I meet with Peter and another pastor, and we spend all morning talking about politics and the hope of Zimbabwe and the practical nature of the underground resistance in that country. I don’t want to endanger them, so if any of you want to know the names of organizations that are staging non-violent protest marches, or where you can donate money for orphan-care projects, or how the Zimbabwean Diaspora is being mobilized in order to support Zimbabweans in that country who oppose the government, then please contact me directly. There are people who can speak much more eloquently than me, who would be happy to visit Western churches or other forums and tell their stories.

I do want to reiterate that Mugabe is guilty of gross human rights violations. He has run his country into the ground. He bulldozed the homes of the poor earlier in 2006 and now when churches offer shelter to these people, some of the pastors are arrested and tortured. Foreign journalists and aid organizations are banned from Zimbabwe. Some reporters have been arrested and tortured. Emails are censored, and phones tapped. There is no petrol, and no drugs, especially the life-extending ARVs for aids patients. Fear reigns as children are asked by the police to turn in their parents and teachers who might have spoken against the government. The oppression is so terrible. People are dying unnecessarily of hunger and aids. Zimbabwe used to be the bread basket of Africa. Spy agents are everywhere.

I do not understand how regimes of lesser terror are targeted, and Zimbabwe’s is allowed to stand. Perhaps because the country lacks the curse of diamonds or oil, the rest of the world can turn a blind eye. But the true treasure there, as anywhere, are the children’s voices. Listen to their dreams of school and a future with hope. As I wrote about Liberia last year, if the future of a country can be built on the dreams of its youth, then there is hope for Zimbabwe.

Some of you will want me to come up with an answer of what you can do. There are projects you can support and organizations that spend their donations effectively. Tear and Woord en Daad and ZOA Refugee Care are three aid organizations I’ve worked with for this series of books for teens, about teens. I can also recommend Unicef and World Vision from past encounters. But I think what I would most like to recommend when asked that question, is simply that you allow yourself to engage in the issues. Read the articles. Google the subjects. Realize the desperation and lack of hope these 16 million aids orphans must face like a dragon to be slain every day. The fear. The loss. Know their despair. Then look into your own heart and do the next thing.

On that last day in Zimbabwe, I heard that the international perception of the country is that the people must be happy because they are not protesting. This is not true. Protests are happening, where the police are ordered to hit people. They break arms, shoot into crowds, arrest, and torture. As a result, people are afraid to speak out, but they still try. Everyone I spoke to asked me, “Tell people to pray for us, please. And pray for breakthroughs among other countries so people will rise up and cause their own governments to oppose the Zimbabwean government.” The prayer in Zimbabwe is for peaceful social transformation. In this police-state people are beaten before tried. Children are kidnapped and brainwashed at police camps and taught to betray their own parents. Letters are opened. Those who speak out, disappear.

On that last day, I say my goodbyes. I hug them all: Katherine, Peter, Leonard, Susan, and the rest. I slip Katherine an envelope with a thank-you letter and some rand. In the note I’ve asked her to spend the money on a bicycle for Jasmine, if possible, and whatever she feels is the greatest need. One of the several teenage boys who seem to follow Katherine around like a pack of guard dogs, offers to drive me to some places in town where I can buy gifts. I end up buying two paintings by young, local artists. I’m looking at them now, in my writing room. An echo of wildebeests, and a slum community with corrugated iron walls and double rainbow with the golden light of Africa. Afterwards he drops me off at my hotel. I pack and have an extra hour, so go outside to sit by the pool I’ve been watching from my balcony all week. I lie in the African sun and sweat, absorbing the heat in every pore. Then I return to my room, shower and dress for the flight. My driving young man picks me up and takes me to the airport. He waits with me while I check in. The baggage tags are hand-written. I see him scribble AMS and think it will be a miracle if my luggage makes it through Jo-berg and onto my Amsterdam flight. No computer, no bar code, just three letters. I say my last goodbye to the young man who has watched over me, and give him a gift. Such courage in the eyes of this new generation in Africa.

Once our plane takes off, I feel . . . joy. And relief. Once we land, a bus takes the passengers from our plane to the terminal. I sit on the back seat beside a big, blonde Afrikaner wearing ridiculously small shorts. He’s sitting beside a tiny English rose of a woman. I hear him mutter, “Godzijdank,” under his breath. Without looking at him, I nod and mutter what is the same word in Dutch. Thank God. Then he looks at me and asks where I live in South Africa. I tell him, no I’m from Holland, but I feel like South Africa is home after my time in Zimbabwe. He says, “Ach, the people ask for it themselves by not fighting that Mugabe.” I look at him and cannot find the strength to argue. “No,” I do manage to say. “They are fighting, we just don’t see it.” He grunts and nods, then wants to know if I need a lift anywhere.

At the Jo’burg airport, the culture shock is acute: marble floors, airco, a shopping mall with flight gates. I have 5 hours until my flight and download 526 emails onto my Blackberry, 2/3 of it spam, but I cannot bring myself to even start answering the rest. Erik calls. I call my kids. “I’m back in the land of the living,” I tell them all. Oh, South Africa, I love your infrastructure, your brave hope to prove the rest of the world wrong in terms of peace and reconciliation, the black middle class, the way you grapple with hard questions and even harder answers to race and poverty, disease and corruption. I love the freedom, not having to watch what I say on the phone or keep my voice down or look over my shoulder. Now that I’m out of Zimbabwe, I realize that every day there was a man at my side, assigned by Katherine, except in the hotel I was never alone, never even in danger of being in danger. And I am grateful for that protection.

In the airport I read the newspapers and write a travel report, but it comes out all wrong—too rushed, like I’m looking at the sun and must hurry to look away or I will be blinded.

I remember one of the Zimbabwean pastors seeing English pounds and saying, “Now that is real money.” Zimbabwe has an estimated 1200 percent inflation. I dream of Dutch kids making Trees of Life.

Africa, my heart. The children’s voices.

When I return home it will take me weeks to unblock enough from the images of death and rape and suffering to begin writing this blog. In the months while I wrote this, I’ve picked up the tossed and broken puzzle that lay at my feet after this trip disrupted my map of how the world should be. I pick up each piece, dust it off, find a place for it, and describe it here. Then I move on to the next piece. My puzzle’s not complete, but I can already see it will be an even more beautiful pattern than what I used to know.

There won’t be any more blog entries until 25 February when Erik and I return from Cuba. We’re off to see if we can help out the boys at Gitmo.

I am writing the teen novel about aids survival. When I come home I’ll write some more.

To conclude this travel story, I’ll leave you with more Words from Others:

I saw Eternity the other night like a great ring of pure and endless light all calm, as it was bright. And round beneath it, Time, hours, days, years, driven by the spheres Like a vast shadow, in which the world and all her train were hurled.

There is in God, some say, A deep but dazzling darkness: as men here say it is late and dusky because they see not all clear. O for that night, when I in Him, might live invisible and dim!– Henry Vaughn

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