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Tree of Life

Zimbabwe 5 November 2006 (continued) I am in the home of Peter and Susan in Zimbabwe, sitting out an earth-shaking thunderstorm. We have lost power and sit around the living room as if nothing is happening outside. Because of the rain we’ve decided to skip the game park, imagining what might happen if the roads we would travel on flooded or if we got stuck in the sand. Katherine has been looking forward to this outing and admits, “My weakness is tenacity and stubbornness.”

As suddenly as it started, the rain stops. I hear children singing outside on the street and frogs croaking. “Is this normal?” I ask. Not really summer rains in November. Turns out October is suicide month because it rains so much. From October to February it often rains after 4 p.m. I ask which crops people grow here, white maize instead of sorghum and millet because it’s more drought-resistant. Ah, I remember my Joyce in The Hague making her sadza from maize flour.

Susan tells us the story of the latest boy who may be joining her family of teenagers. “This child just turned up here last night. He buzzed the intercom at the gate and said he heard there were people living here who would care.” I ask, “Isn’t that strange?” Susan says, “Not really. People know my husband is a pastor, and word has gotten around about the kind of orphan-care work the organization is involved in. The boy must be 9 years old. He asked us, ‘Please can I stay? My father can’t care for me. Home doesn’t want me.’ So he slept here and this morning we took him to his father. He told us the boy has been in trouble, on the street, stealing, and that he’s been abused by bigger boys. We’ll see what happens next.”

Peter buzzes the gate intercom and his sons go out to meet him with the brellie and to park the car. When he comes into the living room, I take a good look at this man Katherine has been telling me so much about. Zimbabwean, a pastor, husband to Susan, father to all these children, a visionary and prophet to have known how to set up the orphan care organization theirs has become. He is of medium height and build, has soft eyes, and right now, he looks very tired. I realize he has just finished a 3-hour service and spent the three hours after that tending to everyone else’s needs. Before that he was up half the night with the boy who visited, and this morning he was up who-knows-how early to take the boy home. It is easy to see that this boy still weighs heavy on Peter’s heart, as he is eager to tell his version of the boy’s visit. “Someone knocked on the gate. A little boy. Where you coming from? I asked him. ‘I visited friends,’ he says. Where’s your home, your parents? ‘My father is 20 ks away.’”

Peter leans towards me as if I might provide some answers. “Anne, he doesn’t know us at all, I think he might have played with our children. I have to ask, ‘Lord, are You saying something us here?’ His mother, Grandma, and younger sister have all died from aids. The boy told us, ‘Father says he can’t raise me—he doesn’t have any money.’ We gave him food and the boy just ate away and ate away.”

We talk some more about the boy, then I compliment Peter on his children. It turns out he, Susan and I are all the same age. I tell him how in Holland to marry at 22 like I did is unusually young. He says, “Here we get married young to have time for six children.” It turns out he has been in Holland. When I ask him what he thought of it, he says, “so green and flat.” I press harder. What did he really think of the West? Without sounding at all judgmental, Peter says, “I found it very materialistic. I visited a home for children in the UK with only 16 children, but they had 11 staff and a budget of 250,000 pounds. We have 1.5 million aids orphans in Zimbabwe.” He doesn’t say what we’re all thinking—how far that money would go here.

I ask where the most help comes from. He says the grandmothers. The organization has just held a Gogo Day, when grandmothers raising their aids-orphaned grandchildren got together. Peter says, “They were so eager to share their experience in raising children. They were just dying to share. Many broke down and cried when they told how hard they worked to save for the education and college of their own children, but now those children are dead, and they have to start all over again for their grandchildren. They said, ‘I won’t live long enough to raise them.’ Imagine living with this truth in your heart. I know one gogo who is 70 years old. She is raising 14 grandchildren.”

At the Grandmother-centered workshops they use up a lot of tissues. The elderly women cry so much. They say things like, “I remember it like yesterday, when I was 8 and I was wronged.” In this way Katherine and Peter’s organization tries to promote a greater understanding between the gogos and their grandchildren. We talk about the double-generation gap between the gogos and their grandchildren. The gogos read Scriptures about the value of children in Jesus’ Kingdom, and what the Bible says about caring for orphans. Many of the gogos were beaten themselves as children, then beaten again by their husbands. After the workshop they say they don’t want to hit their grandchildren anymore. “They are precious in God’s eyes. He has a plan and a purpose for them.” Many of the gogos are quite fit, Peter says, because they have to walk to fetch water and firewood, and are used to carrying 20 liters of water a long distance. They work their fields, this is part of their daily living.

In addition to Gogo workshops, the organization also hosts Child-centered workshops for the orphans themselves. These are more psycho-social centered. This interests me no end. I ask what else the orphans say or do at a workshop like that. Remember, I’m after the children’s voices here.

I am particularly interested in the Tree of Life exercise. This is because of a private discovery I’ve made in recent years about the power of this image. Last summer I wrote a short story in which I described my belief that the Tree of Life’s “leaves for the healing of the nations,” as described in Revelation, are our stories. Now Peter tells me that in the orphans’ trees of life, the children’s roots are their beginning, who was there when they were born. Ground level is where they are at now, and their needs. The trunk is their growth, whether bad or good. (One Tree of Life had written all up and down the trunk: death, death, death.) The branches are the direction their life is going—up or down. The leaves are the people who are closest to them. The fruit is all the good things in their life that they do to others. The bugs that eat trees are HIV or abuse. These are also the winds that blow the tree and shake it.

Peter says that at these workshops the children do a lot of singing and play games. They talk about the strengths you need to handle the bugs. They help the children think of situations when they solved problems. They paint their strengths. Then the children ask, “Who am I?”

I ask Peter for stories. • One orphan told about an uncle who wanted to take the house from the boy and his siblings. • A girl said, “I wear whatever my gogo says and because I have nothing I have to say thank you. But I wish my mother were alive, then I’d say to my mother that I’d like to wear something trendy. But I say nothing because I must be thankful.” • Seven-year old Melissa said she has a “big pain in her heart where her mother died.” When she was asked, “How can we help?” she said, “Maybe we can pray.”

I ask Peter about the vulnerability of the orphans. He says of the children who have admitted to being raped, 80% were raped by people they knew.

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