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The Reliable Way

Zimbabwe 7 November 2006 (continued) I have spent the day visiting a village a few hours from the nearest town, child-headed households, homes where aids orphans care for other aids orphans. Tonight Katherine will pick me up to go eat dinner with the family of an old friend of hers, Pastor Philip. At 5.30 p.m., when I step outside the hotel, I feel the unexpected touch of warm air. I look at the sky. The mysterious cold which has held the day in an icy grip, has lifted. Warm and dry, the African sunshine has returned as suddenly as it disappeared.

All day I’ve been thinking of Erik’s admonishment during our phone call the previous night, to stop letting “them” show me only misery and tell them I want to see some projects which showed hope. He would not have been happy about what I saw today, but when I arrive at Philip’s home, I think, Yes, Erik would like this.

A gigantic vegetable garden, actually it’s a small farm, spreads out on one side of the 2-story house with many rooms. Philip is there to welcome us with a wide grin as we enter the gate and park in the driveway. He is gray-haired just above his ears, broad-backed, and well-muscled. I guess he’s in his fifties or sixties. I can’t decide if he’s most proud of his children or his garden. We start with the garden. He takes us on a tour of the well-kept field. I note fruit trees along the edge. He shows us a storage room and says he grew 8 tonnes of maize that was given to orphans the previous season.

My eyes grow wide at the number of full sacks piled on top of each other, and my heart breathes easier. Here is something hopeful, pressed down and overflowing. Philip is a little embarrassed about the size of his house. “You must understand, Anne, we used to live in two rooms—all of us.” I ask how many “all of us” means. He says, “My wife and I and 18 orphans, we used to live in 2 rooms. The boys slept in the garage.”

He tells me these things as we walk along the edge of the weedless garden, then by a few of his daughters and his wife, busily stirring pots over three open fires. He introduces us. I thank her for having us over. She apologizes because the electricity has been going off and on all day. “Last night and this morning there was no electricity. Zimbabwe owes money to South Africa and Zambia, so we have frequent power cuts. And now we cook in the reliable way!” Over fire. When I say, it must be so annoying, she nods. “The worst part is now we can’t charge our cell phones.”

The house is immaculate. I climb steps onto a broad veranda, then enter a living room with nine armchairs and couches, all backed up against the bare walls, with a huge empty space in the middle. I guess with 18 kids, you need a lot of seating room. Carpets cover the floor.

Philip explains that he made a trip to America and raised money at churches in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Reno, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and then in Sweden. The money went toward orphan care. This home and the farm are just part of it. There are other farms, other food projects for orphans. I can’t keep track of all the projects Philip tells me about. And rather than homes for orphans, this is a home with orphans. Two parents. Like in South African Gail’s home with aids toddlers.

They ask me and Katherine to sit in the living room and I write this in my notebook: I realize I can relax here.

Philip talks about his link with David Cunningham in the U.S. and how Cunningham’s churches have helped build a conference center here, and how over 200 pastors in Zimbabwe have received support from them for their orphan-care programs. Philip was gone from home for three months. “I was so homesick. One family in the U.S. gave $7000.”

We talk about HIV and Philip says how devastating it was when soldiers returned from Congo and slept with girls.

Slowly, the teenagers have started to appear from deep inside the house. I hear phrases like, “Yes dear.” “It was Mama.” “Poor wifey.” Beyond the living room is the dining room and behind that is the kitchen. I assume all the bedrooms are upstairs and at the back of the house. Philip tells me he has two sons in South Africa, a son and daughter living elsewhere, another son he adopted as an adult who no longer attends school and is 25, another son in town attending business school, the list goes on. At the moment ten children are living with Philip and his wife.

He says South Africa is the only place young people can go to find work. “There is no future here.” We talk about how both South Africa and Botswana prefer Zimbabwean workers because they’re better educated (the adult generation) than Botswanan and South African blacks. But Botswana still regularly deports Zimbabweans because they’re willing to work for too little money. There are an estimated 4 million Zimbabweans in the Diaspora, that is one-quarter of the population.

Zimbabwe has an estimated 1.6 million orphans. There it is. The statistic I’ve been looking for, but no one wanted to actually admit.

I ask Philip about his work; what exactly does he do? He pastors and helps seventeen churches. He says that in the beginning, when he and his wife started taking in children, it was a “skinny dream.” I know enough not to ask how many of the 18 are his biological children. In this culture, there is no differentiation between the adopted and the blood-born. I do ask him why they have taken in so many orphans. What was his motivation? “I have a burden on my heart for the cast out, children with no parents. The least I can do is look after school fees and supplies. Katherine’s organization joins me in supplying maize and beans and cooking oil to the child-headed households we know of, so they can survive.”

There have been four years of drought, and the rural population is starving. “The first priority is food. Food first. Then clothing.” Philip’s farming projects in his 17 churches help feed thousands of orphans who would die of starvation otherwise. He doesn’t say that, but I can do the math. He also teaches. His churches also have gardening and poultry projects to feed the orphans.

When he went to the U.S. and Sweden, he talked about these child-headed households and the pandemic and how it causes havoc in the lives of families.

He says, “My dream is to give people one meal a day and educate and train people so they can help themselves and others. I teach them to work with their hands, to be proud, and to engage in productivity.” It is what excites me most about this visit to Zimbabwe: Africans helping Africans.

Philip’s wife says dinner is ready. It turns out only the adults are sitting at the table. I can catch glimpses of the ten teenagers through a hole in the wall for passing plates back and forth between the dining room and kitchen. Young girls and boys, eating with their hands, standing up, talking and laughing. In the adults’ living room the four of us sit around a wooden dining room table, covered by a tablecloth with intricate hand embroidery. I turn over part of it and admire the stitches.

Philip’s wife has made us a feast. Katherine told them I was vegetarian and I think every vegetable in Africa is on the table: yams, green beans, peas. . . . Katherine and I eat and eat and eat. I am embarrassed by how much there is and keep looking at Katherine who whispers that we should try something from all the dishes, otherwise it’s rude. So I do. And it really is so delicious, lots of spices and so fresh. When I ask how much of it comes from Philip’s garden, I know I’ve asked the right question.

After dinner the whole family gathers in the living room. I finally get a good look at all these teenagers. Their family is a youth group in its own right. I walk around the room greeting them, shaking the hands of the boys and laughing with the girls. Incredible—this family, so bursting with youth and hope and dreams-come-true.

I’m crying here in The Netherlands as I type this. That family was an oasis, just as Peter and Susan’s family were. At some point, one of the girls bursts into song and the others join in. Katherine knows the words and I hum along. It’s a praise song. We clap hands, move our hips, close our eyes. I feel like these girls are safe. I am safe. These young people have a future.

When it’s time to drive back to town, Philip tells Katherine to be careful. Several times. The roads are practically empty. It’s my first time out at dark and it occurs to me that it might not be safe. I ask Katherine if it’s safe, and at that moment we turn a corner and see a group of men around a parked car. They look up at us, like deer caught in a headlight. Katherine turns the opposite direction. Her answer: “It can be.”

Back in the hotel room I am a melting pot of emotions. Can the hope and positive action I witnessed at Philip’s outweigh the misery of the rest of the day? Tonight there is no phone call from Erik. Despite the Whitney Houston voice of Philip’s daughter still ringing in my ears and heart, I am feeling desperate and trapped. Opening my heart to the children I met earlier, the ones with no parents and no food and no school, means I now fear what they fear. How many of them are going to sleep tonight, afraid of what will happen to them in the dark, who will visit, which neighbor will come and take payment for the food his wife brought by last week? I am starting to realize that I will not easily get past this fact of sexual abuse among the aids orphans. I have no place to put this. Will I have to create somewhere? Is it even possible to put away such a fact? The children’s voices cry out for help. Who will listen?

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