I am with Katherine in Zimbabwe, driving to her home after church on Sunday. I ask about her co-director, Peter, and wonder how she pronounces his last name with one of the clicking sounds. Katherine says you make the sound “as if you’re sucking on a sweet.” That is one of those clicking sounds I was trying to learn in Zulu. She’s already referred to the grannies taking care of orphans as gogos, so I ask, “Do they speak Zulu here? I thought it was Shona.” My friend in The Hague is from Harare and she has taught me a handful of Shona words. Katherine says, “No. Ndebele, but it is very similar to Zulu.” Well, I think, that will do me a lot of good.
Katherine explains the orphan training they give to churches. “There are forty Scriptures for the fatherless and orphaned. God’s heart is for the orphans. In James 1:27 the Bible states this is pure religion.” Pure church is caring for communities. “We brainstorm with people, what are the needs of the orphans: food, shelter, school fees. Too often we think that only when we have money, can we get something done. God asks us, what do you have? We tell people, God made your heart. In Jesus we have His heart. Dare to look into the orphans’ eyes and you will see abuse. Really look at their hair and you will see their level of health.
“Our volunteers visit no more than five families each. Because this is so grass roots, they can pick up signs of hunger in an area earlier than the WFP (World Food Programme). We train them to have ears to listen, especially to the elderly. We teach them not to speak too quickly, but to sit and listen to the orphans and ask, ‘What can we do?’ Often such a simple question leads a child to pour his heart out and all you need to do is just listen.”
I think of Gugu’s comment about just listening. Katherine and Gugu couldn’t look more different, but their message is the same.
Katherine says, “When we do follow-up we hear story after story from volunteers who tell that family by family—and these are often child-headed families—there is a new roof, some clothing, school fees. We teach churches to meet the individual needs of orphans one by one. It starts in your own church. It starts in your own heart.”
I write in my notebook: Look for child-headed households. Totally grassroots. Church by church. Message for West—people with nothing do something.
Katherine tells me stories of churches where people barely have enough to eat. There is an “orphan box” at the back of the church for clothing and other contributions, and there is a jam jar for a few cents per person. I remember Jonathan telling me about a church in his township where the pastor asked every member to contribute 1 rand (11 €cents), and that way they were able to feed and pay the school fees for a few of the orphans.
I ask Katherine about her own funding sources. Where does she get the money for the medicine and training materials and salaries of her staff? She says, “HIV Alliance and Tear Fund found us. I never thought to ask for money. Jeff Foster at Tear fund UK told me, ‘I think they’re waiting for you to write.’ We have such a high caliber of people working on the team. Peter told me he didn’t want a salary, but I insisted. I believe God gives gifts so you can give to others. When he went to the UK for training, he was so homesick and missed his family, but he understood he would need to take a salary.”
We talk about the South African term Ubuntu, a sub-Saharan African attitude of heart. The term has been used and abused in terms of global village mentality, and the promotion of the common good at the cost of individual enhancement. I’ve looked up Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s definition, stated in 1999: “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” The people Katherine knows use it in terms of visitation of the sick, orphaned and widowed. Maturity is a combination of insights and wisdom, Katherine says.
I ask her about my friend’s church in Harare, St. Mary’s Anglican. She tells me the women’s groups there do such a brilliant job of taking care of the poor and orphaned in their part of Harare, other groups don’t even have to provide additional care. “They have the orphans covered so well. This is pure religion—visiting orphans and widows.”
When I ask her what most of the orphans she has met want to be later, she says doctors, nurses, teachers, and pastors.
Katherine lives in a small bungalow in the outskirts of the city. It is a home filled with light. As she puts lunch together in the kitchen, I sink into an armchair and look at the books and photos in her living room. There are several photos of two children at different ages. I ask her about them. “Those are my twins,” Katherine says. Michael was born HIV negative to an HIV+ mother who attempted an abortion with them. They were born two months early. They were 48 hours old when they were found in the bush, suffering from frostbite. They weighed 1 kilo each when they were born, but 2 kg a month later.”
I ask Katherine about her own background. She was only supposed to be in Zimbabwe on a temporary basis. She came here as a nurse and worked for 4 years with aids victims and in a home for abandoned babies. That’s how she came to know and adopt Michael and his sister Mary. Katherine explains to me how the birth process passes HIV onto the babies. There are several theories, but it seems that C-section babies have less of a chance of contracting the virus. It has something to do with exchange of blood and fluids in the birth canal. For example, her Mary, who was born first, contracted HIV, whereas Michael, the second twin, did not. Another way children become HIV+ is through breast milk—again, an exchange of body fluids. But this is even more controversial, since the number-one rule with aids is to protect the immune system, and nothing builds up a baby’s resistance to disease like breast milk. Either a baby should receive only formula or only breast milk, but the combination of the two is proving deadly when the mother is HIV+.
I tell her about Gail’s children’s home for toddlers with HIV. “When I was nursing,” Katherine says, “I realized that holding babies and making beds is a lot. When I retire, Michael and Mary will come live with me.” She tells me stories about other aids orphans she has loved in her life, little Frankie and his gang, how he used to call her, “Mommy, Mommy.” Little Joseph with HIV and sickle-cell anemia.
I ask some more about Michael and Mary. “I don’t know if Mary will make it to 11 years. She’s been on the ARVs since she was 9. Mary didn’t walk until she was two. She just didn’t have the muscle tone.” From the stories Katherine tells me, it sounds like little Mary is just like her mother, with a caring heart. She already is a little nurse, pretending to bind the arms of other children in the home with bandages, using cotton wool. “Mikey” is a natural-born worship leader. He teaches his Jesus songs to other children. The twins are 10 now and Michael is singing with a worship group at church.
Katherine is a strong advocate of developing ARVs for children, a patient groups more or less ignored by the pharmaceutical companies at the moment. Most HIV+ patients get TB treatments. There are not enough drugs that help children.
We talk about the young men and women I met at her church, the youth-group generation in their teens and twenties, who have learned the harshest of lessons by losing their own parents to aids. These young people want to do it differently and have pledged celibacy until marriage, and to care for orphans they meet.
After lunch, Katherine has planned to go with me, Peter and his wife, to a nearby game park. But the sky clouds over and it starts to rain as thunder rumbles in the distance. “God is saying, ‘It’s all right—I’m still with you.’” Katherine calls it her ministry of clouds. She seems to have a knack for bringing the rain on.
As the drizzle becomes a downpour and we drive through streets with people running to take cover, Katherine explains the vision behind her organization. “God’s vision for the rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem was to use the families. In Zimbabwe there are orphans everywhere, and we are using the families to help them. Through the churches people come forward to say, ‘I can take one more child. I can take two.’”
Our Isuzu gets pelted with raindrops that sound more like pebbles; the sky throws them down with such force. We arrive at Peter’s house and make a dash for it, getting soaked in the few meters between the car and front door. I notice elderly people taking cover in the carport and Katherine says these are people who lost their homes when Mugabe plowed under the shacks in cities all over the country a few months earlier. They are staying in Peter’s yard now. Peter’s daughter ushers us into the living room, which opens up onto a porch. The house is surrounded with trees. The windows are open because of the heat, so we hear rain and birds and trees moving in the wind. Metalwork covers the windows. I remember how we had to shout into an intercom in order to ask for the gate to be opened when we entered the property. It feels safe, but you can see that security measures have been taken for a reason. Interesting that the people living under the tarpaulin in the yard are also protected by the gate, stone walls covered with twisted barbed wire, and alarm system.
I meet Peter’s children: teenagers all shapes and ages. Their parents haven’t come home from church yet. Peter is a pastor and Katherine jokes with his daughter about how long he can preach sometimes. “One time he preached three hours in a rural community.” This daughter is charming, staying in the living room and answering my questions. She is 18, doing her A-levels, and wants to be a lawyer. She is a worship leader at their church. Her favorite subject is geography. She goes into the kitchen and makes tea and ends up laughing with us until her mother gets home.
When Peter’s wife Susan blows in, shaking her “brellie,” the house comes alive. Susan is another woman of traditional build. One son offered to meet her at the gate with an umbrella. Everyone is in the kitchen but me. I look at the couches, listen to the crickets, a canary somewhere outside, and a whip-o-will. The trees drop, drop drop the rain onto the flat roof. The bamboo growing outside the window rustles. I look inward. I note there is nothing hanging on the walls, a TV stands guard over the room, the wooden floor is immaculate
The storm gets even worse and lightning strikes somewhere close by. I see sparks come out of the wall where the phone is plugged in. I shout. Another son comes running. The power goes off. Susan calls to everyone, “Did you plug out?” I think, Zimbabwean English strikes again. I suggest to one of the teenagers that he unplug the computer. It’s already been done.
Susan comes into the living room, takes off her hairpiece, and collapses into one of the chairs, unfazed by the loss of power. Katherine has told me Susan is their organization’s Projects Manager for Micro-Enterprise. The name is familiar; I heard her mentioned when I was at ACAT because she attended a workshop there. Cynthia told me it took several days for the Zimbabwean participants at ACAT to relax enough from the fear they carried out of Zimbabwe with them, and actually focus on the material.
I tell Susan how delightful her children are. I’m almost afraid to ask how many she has, but she says, “I have four children plus two children that are ours now. Yesterday another child was brought to us.” Katherine and I exchange looks. We’ve just been talking about this open-heart policy among people who are willing. “What is one more?” Susan smiles.
It occurs to me here in Holland that I am writing about orphans like they are oranges. Orphans this, orphans that, orphans this and that. It is what this trip is all about, learning enough about orphans to write a short novel from an orphan’s point-of-view. But as I see the photos again and read the handwriting made on that day, as I think back to my own reactions and emotions, it strikes me how devastating it is for there to be even one orphan, let alone 16 million. Is it any wonder instructions about caring for them in the Bible are so specific? Orphans—that would have been my own Julia and Daniel if Erik and I had gone down in that plane when we were hit by lightning 12 years ago. An orphan—that is a child who has no one to protect her. To be an orphan means I am a child, but food and shelter and safety and schooling are all things I have to work for, steal for, hope for, hustle for myself. And if there are other orphans, my little brothers and sisters, then I have that heavy burden—my own—plus the burden of taking care of their food and shelter and safety and schooling. Just a child, alone in the world. Just one child. Alone.